Interesting thoughts about Civil War manuscript collections

To my readers, I want to apologize for neglecting this blog for so long and not posting anything for almost a year. I have not left blogging and am not done with this site, but life’s been quite busy with teaching and trying to finish a dissertation, so my free writing time has been limited. That said, I want to thank you all for sticking it out with this site and hope you will come back, as I hope to get back into it a bit more in the near future. I am always willing to consider new topics to write about, so let me know.

That said, I want to tip my hat to Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory for sharing this interesting article from the Gettysburg Compiler via Facebook. Written by Kevin Lavery, an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College, while part of their Civil War Institute, this article on manuscripts and the right to be forgotten from history really made me think.

As someone who has worked in a special collections department for over two years now, I deal with manuscripts of all types on a regular basis, including diaries and letters. These sources, as Mr. Lavery points out, are quite important to researchers, but the ethical dilemma he raises does hold some weight. Some of what he raises about historians’ responsibilities in dealing with unpublished sources is important, as we are dealing with another human being’s private conversation and while that individual may be dead, the intimacy of the words on the page do not lessen because of death. This means that such words must be treated with respect.

Does this mean that we should not use them to understand the past? Certainly not, but it does mean that we must strive to avoid what is termed presentism, or applying the standards of our time to those of the past. My mentor from my undergraduate days always used the example of one of your descendants picks up a letter you wrote describing eating a juicy steak and recoils in horror. Though a little tongue in cheek, his point was that we do not want to be judged based upon the standards and values of a time we are not familiar with, so we should not judge those who came before us by our standards because their time held different values than ours in some cases.

As I read such sources, I always try to see what such writings tell me about the past, but I am uncomfortable with the pseudo-psychological role that some scholars take when evaluating sources, as we can never fully understand what another human being felt during a given event, especially when recalling it in a later writing. One of the best examples would be the field of military history. In writing about warfare, a scholar, who happens to be a combat veteran may understand, to an extent, the gripping accounts of battle written by a soldier long ago, as they share the same broad experience of being in combat. Yet, the differences would be in the nature of that combat, the personality of the soldier involved that wrote the letter, diary, or memoir, as well as the societal norms of that period. Sherman’s generalization that “war is hell” is as accurate today as 150 years ago, but the nature of war has changed in many ways since then.

In the end, it seems that Mr. Lavery’s analysis would argue that we should let the authors of Civil War manuscripts speak for themselves and perhaps respect their privacy a bit by not delving into nuances regarding such writings. These men, and women, were writing to loved ones about an important event that was shaping their very lives, no more, no less. For them, it was a matter of staying in touch with home during a time when mail was slow and death could be quick. When faced with one’s mortality, even as a younger person, and with the technological limitations placed on your ability to communicate over great distances, the very soul of a man may be poured out on a piece of paper, in an effort to not leave something unsaid to those back home.

I welcome your thoughts on this interesting subject.

IC Time Capsule-a blog from my alma mater

Though a bit outside the focus of this blog’s chronology, I want to share with you all about a blog that one of the newer faculty at my alma mater, Illinois College, is working on. Dr. Jenny Barker-Devine, who joined the History Department after I graduated is doing some cool things with students on the Hilltop.

Recently, several students under her guidance began working with the Iver F. Yeager Special Collections and College Archives, including creating an awesome exhibit on how World War II affected the campus and students. These projects are near and dear to my heart, as they are what I am doing with work in the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, including processing the collection on the 164th Infantry Regiment and creation of an exhibit on that unit with items from the collection (other stories are here and here).

So, if you have a few moments, go and check out IC Time Capsule and see what the students and faculty of Illinois College are doing.

Battlefields of the Civil War-An awesome interactive map tool

Hat tip to my good friend Dr. Laura Munski, who shared this interesting site, created by ESRI, who produces the software ArcGIS, which is used for GIS, cartography, and many other uses. They also have a series of sites, called Story Maps, which all look interesting (yes, I am into geography as well as history).

The Story Map on the Civil War is quite interesting, as it highlights battles, in chronological order, offers the user the chance to narrow the range, and, it animates the battle sites on the base map. One great feature is the linking to the battle sites through the Civil War Trust, who links to this site. Civil War Trust is a pretty cool site for learning about the war, and battlefield preservation. It also has a page for smartphone apps (if you are able to enjoy that technology).

If you have some time, check out this great resource, especially if you are a teacher, as I can see the value of this in the classroom.

Click here for Battlefields of the Civil War.

Society for Military History Annual Meeting

Originally posted to Civil Warriors.

The program for the 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, which is being held on 14-16 March 2013, in New Orleans, LA, and sponsored by the Center for the Study of War and Society at The University of Southern Mississippi, with the National World War II Museum and Southeastern Louisiana University, has recently been posted.

Not much this year, unfortunately, to interest the Civil War enthusiast. I saw only one session dedicated to the subject, which is definitely odd considering this is the 150th anniversary of not a few events of note in the military history of the Civil War. No doubt this is in large part due to a program on the 150th at Gettysburg College that is running the same weekend. Still, there will once again be a decent contingent of Civil War historians in attendance, including George Rable, Susannah Ural, and Carol Reardon. As for me, I will be chairing a panel on “Alcohol and Drugs in Three Wars: The Great War, Korea , and Vietnam”.

Further information about the meeting, including the program and logistics, can be found here.

If you are in New Orleans in mid-March, definitely consider attending, as the program looks interesting.

Portraits of Wounded Bodies: Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866

If you are in the vicinity of Yale University, consider checking this exhibit out. I do want to warn that some of these images are quite graphic and show the horrors of war. To view the online images, click here.

Portraits of Wounded Bodies:  Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866

January 16th-April 1st, 2013

Tours open to all on Wed. Jan. 23rd, 4 p.m., and Friday Jan. 25th at noon!

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War raged throughout the United States, creating thousands of casualties.  On view now, the Medical Historical Library explores Civil War medicine through the haunting photographs of wounded soldiers.  Curated by Heidi Knoblauch, a doctoral student in Yale’s Section of the History of Medicine, and Melissa Grafe, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, selections from a set of 93 photographic portraits from Harewood Hospital, Washington D.C. are on display in the Rotunda of the Medical Library.  These images, some quite graphic, depict soldiers recovering from a variety of wounds, including gunshot wounds.  The soldiers’ case histories and stories, analyzed by Heidi Knoblauch, are part of a larger examination of medical photography and Civil War memory as America commemorates the 150th anniversary of the war.  In the foyer of Sterling Hall, the exhibit expands to include a larger discussion of Civil War medicine and surgery, including hospitals and nurses, using images and materials from the Medical Historical Library.  An online version of the Harewood Hospital photographs is available in the Digital Library of the Medical Historical Library.

This exhibit is on display at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, 333 Cedar Street. For more information, contact Melissa Grafe, Ph.D, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, at melissa.grafe@yale.edu.

The Slaves’ Gamble a look at African Americans in the War of 1812

Cross-posted to Frontier Battles

While a little outside the chronological range covered by this blog, I thought I would share exciting news about a new book that seeks to alter our impression of antebellum slavery through the lens of the War of 1812.

9780230342088

Smith, Gene Allen. The Slaves’ Gamble:  Choosing Sides in the War of 1812.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  272pp. $27.00.

Gene Allen Smith, historian at Texas Christian University, has written an interesting examination of how slaves viewed and used the conflict for their own opportunities.  He showed that the war saw all sides using African Americans to aid their causes, while blacks saw the war as their chance to assert themselves, whether for seeking equality, in the case of free blacks, or freedom for slaves.  Further, the war was a turning point in American race relations, as Smith noted that slavery was in a tenuous situation on war’s eve.

He noted that the war drastically altered this path of decline and that it further halted any potential progress towards freedom or equality, as blacks who joined British forces, seeking to better their lot in life, returned with invading forces, leading enemy troops into American communities. The consequence of this was a greater distrust among whites of arming slaves and enrolling blacks in militia units to augment white manpower, which continued into the Civil War, where African Americans served in segregated regiments with white officers. One of the other major problems resulting from the war was the expansion of available land for plantation agriculture, and plantation-based slavery.(3-4)

Smith begins his study by examining the story of black participation in North American wars. What is great about this chapter is the examination of the cross-cultural interactions, echoing Richard White’s remarkable work The Middle Ground. He concluded that the contributions of blacks to military conflicts during the colonial and revolutionary periods redefined the relationships between blacks and whites in North America.(31)

As he examined the role of blacks during the War of 1812, he weaved in the stories of black participants across the various theaters, providing a new and exciting understanding of the war that is as important to the larger field of study on the war as Donald Hickey. Smith concluded that blacks found became aware that their contributions to the war were minimized in post-war America. Further, white Americans began to react fearfully to black insurrection possibilities and worked to prevent the arming of blacks. Also, northern states began enacting laws outlawing blacks residing in them. Slavery became more entrenched in the South, as new areas were available for cotton production. Thus the war served as the last opportunity for blacks to attempt to fight for their place in society until the Civil War.(210-214)

The book is well researched, relying on sources from such scholars as Richard White, Gary Nash, Ian Steele, Stagg, and Don Hickey. In addition to strong secondary sources, Smith utilized several great primary sources that considered black participation, as well as interactions with Native Americans.

A good monograph that examines the difficult situation faced by blacks as they attempted to choose a side in the War of 1812 to further their position, Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble is a great book for scholars interested in African American history, military history, the War of 1812, and is a good book for those interested in the Civil War, as it illustrates quite well how the forces that led to that great struggle came into being by America’s “second war for independence”.

Lose the Lost Cause by David Patten

I was contacted by Mr. Patten, who asked me to post his essay considering the topic of the “Lost Cause” and its level of influence on our understanding of the war since its conclusion. I know that this may spark some vigorous discussion and debate, as this is a subject that historians have argued over for well over one hundred years. I hope you will all give Mr. Patten’s essay consideration and thought.

LOSE THE LOST CAUSE

BY

DAVID PATTEN

As we journey through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and with the release of the movie Lincoln, and particularly with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation upon us, Americans have been well motivated to deeply assess every aspect of the time period that tore our nation apart. While we ponder those times and analyze why our nation plunged into such strife, we will, as always, be exposed to the continuing drumbeats of the “Lost Cause”. Southerners, and many Northerners alike, will regale us with the noble reasons that actually motivated eleven states to secede. We will be told that they were fighting for their liberties and for their proud heritage. The Southern states, in fact, stood up to an overreaching, draconian national government bent on crushing individual freedoms and destroying states’ rights.

Have I missed any of the other lies the “Lost Cause” might tell? The lies actually never seem to end. They started just after the smoke cleared from the battlefields that revealed Southern defeat and they continue to this very day. Only now, they are magnified by the moment.

One issue dominated the politics of the Civil War time period and everything else spun off of that issue. The issue of racially specific slavery caused the Civil War and the “Lost Cause” revisionists, from 1865 to the present, cannot change or sanitize the true reason for Southern secession. Can any of us today honestly imagine our nation splitting apart in 1861 had there been no slavery? What other issue or issues so captivated the imaginations of the people back then that could have caused the Union’s destruction? Only one issue had that kind of power and anything else anyone could cite would be a mere corollary. Even a cursory reading of the thoughts of the Southern leadership exposes their obsession with the issue of slavery. Dig deeper and their obsession over that singular horror becomes pathological.

Jefferson Davis lauded slavery as a great institution through which “a superior race” changed “brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers…worth thousands of millions of dollars.” He proclaimed that “the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable” and he bridled at any attempt to interfere with that system or limit its extension.

Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s Vice President, declared that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” In addition, he unequivocally stated that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

State after Confederate state declared in their “secession resolutions” that slavery was the primary cause of their departure. Mississippi summed it up best, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union…”

The Confederate Constitution enshrined slavery and forbade its states and territories from banning it or interfering with its spread. In addition, Section 9 of the document extended the same prohibitions to the national government, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in Negro slaves shall be passed.” As a result, there was no avoiding slavery in the C.S.A., not even through secession, for curiously, no such right was provided. In effect, the Southern leaders created exactly what they wanted; a slaveholding nation well insulated against those who would seek to alter or abolish the peculiar institution.

Northerners of the time period were hardly confused as to the origin of the conflict. Lincoln unlocked the deep non-mystery in his Second Inaugural Address, “All knew that this interest (slavery) was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war…”

In his memoirs, Grant came right to the point, “The cause of the great War of the Rebellion against the United States will have to be attributed to slavery.”

The Confederate dream of an exclusive slaveholding nation crashed in 1865. But, out of the ashes of Confederate defeat emerged a victory of sorts; it was the “Lost Cause”. History is supposedly written by the winners, but not this time. Rebel writers such as Edward Pollard, Alexander Stephens, Jefferson Davis, and so many others seized control of the narrative and transformed the ugliness of the slaveholding cause into a fight for liberty and rights. Both the Confederate journalist Edward Pollard and the former Vice President Alexander Stephens began their assault on history directly after the war was over. Slavery ceased to be an issue. Rather, valiant struggles for freedom by gallant Southern cavaliers facing overwhelming odds became the norm. Davis waited a few years, but then in 1881, he joined the club with his memoirs, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. In volume one, he wrote, “The truth remains intact and incontrovertible, that the existence of African servitude was in no wise the cause of the conflict, but only an incident.” Views such as these found enormous audiences and sparked a tidal wave of historical distortion that tragically gained acceptance.

One Southerner wasn’t fooled by any of it. Colonel John S. Mosby, arguably the finest partisan raider the Confederacy produced stated, “The South went to war on account of slavery.” He found the “Lost Cause” sentiment repulsive and wrote, “I never heard of any other cause of quarrel than slavery.” But then he added something very interesting, “After the fight is over they invent some fanciful theory on which they imagine that they fought.”

Now we see the “Lost Cause” fully exposed. With slavery abolished upon the ruin of the South and labeled as the filth that it was, how then do the losers cope? Looking at the reality of the war, the South endured destruction on a scale few could ever have imagined, and for what? They shed blood and lost all defending a system of horror and disgust, thus myth became their only refuge. Given their situation, the so glorious, so holy “Lost Cause” could have turned out so no other way.

We now have the perfect opportunity to set things straight and see the conflict as it truly was. Only time will now tell if we can finally put the “Lost Cause” myth away and face the brutal truth of our past while celebrating the new birth of freedom that gave meaning to all the destruction.