The Arizona Shooting and Civil War History

With the recent tragic shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the controversy surrounding the role political speech played in motivating the shooter (I believe he was crazy and prone to commit the crime regardless of the nature of political rhetoric in our country), my historical thoughts went to another attack against an elected official during a period of great turmoil in our nation over an issue more divisive than health care or immigration:  slavery.

Consider the beating of Sen. Charles Sumner (MA) by Rep. Preston Brooks (SC) in 1856. Sumner, an eventual Radical Republican, delivered a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the aftermath of Bleeding Kansas, specifically excoriating Senators Stephen Douglas (IL) and Andrew Butler (SC). Brooks, a nephew of Butler, took offense at the slight to his uncle’s honor and planned to challenge Sumner to a duel. Instead, Brooks approached Sumner on May 22, 1856 as he sat at his desk in the Senate chamber, which was nearly empty. After briefly addressing him about the speech, Brooks began savagely beating Sumner with a cane. As Sumner collapsed after briefly escaping the attack, Brooks continued to beat the unconscious Senator. Others attempted to aid, but were prevented by Brooks’ accomplice, fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, who wielded a pistol. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three more years, while he recovered from his attack. The attack illustrated the deep divide in the country over slavery. Massachusetts attempted to prove a point by re-electing Sumner, using his empty seat as a symbol of both free speech.

The attack then, just as with the tragic shooting of Giffords, sent shock waves through the nation. However, the beating of Sumner has several distinct differences from the Arizona tragedy. First, the attack against Sumner involved another elected official resorting to violence over a disagreement over slavery. Second, there is no sign that Giffords made any inflammatory speeches that would drive someone to attack her like Sumner was beaten. Ultimately, the beating of Sumner was one event in a chain that led to war simply because we failed to compromise, while the shooting in Arizona was the act of a lone gunman with more problems than disagreements over politics.

In contrast to 1856, while we are divided politically today, I doubt we will see legislators come to violence over the issues that divide us. However, in today’s culture of 24/7 media, we are bombarded by the political discord, which influences all, including those unstable people, like the shooter in Arizona. The lessons we must learn from this tragedy is to make every effort to work out our differences over the issues today. Further, we must not resort to restricting speech in light of such events, as that serves no purpose but to prevent further dialogue.

In closing, my thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords and all the victims of this shooting.

Considering the top Civil War books written

Hats off to fellow scholar and blogger Bill Caraher for letting me know about this article from By the way, if you are even remotely interested in the ancient world and/or archaeology, check out his blog and follow him on Twitter.

The Salon article deals with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and encourages buffs of the conflict to read a book a month for the next year and offers a list of the top 12 books on the war. I found the selections rather telling, as many were works of popular history. However, three stood out as strong works that have great influence on the historiography of the war. Among them are David Blight’s Race and Reunion, Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, and James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, all are hard-hitting monographs. The interesting observation, which Bill posed to me in a question, was that Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox landed at number one on the list. Some may wonder, why Catton?

I believe that this is an interesting placement, and am surprised that Shelby Foote did not make the list. Catton produced some great works on the war and are deserving of high placement on must read lists. He wrote around the time of the centennial of the war and still resonates within the literature. While I generally agree with the list, I am left wondering how professional historians would alter this list. So, I leave fellow scholars with a challenge that I will also dwell upon and post. What twelve books should folks interested in the war read each month over the next year?

I hope you have all had a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday season and I wish you all a Happy New Year. Until next time, keep researching and writing.

Review of today’s webcast on Civil War soldiers

Well, I sat through the webcast, or webinar if you prefer, this morning and it was an interesting experience. The presenters, Dr. Barry Shollenberger and Dana B. Shoaf did an excellent job of presenting the subject of Civil War soldiers to an audience of varying backgrounds. While I was hoping for a discussion on the scholarship on soldiers and where it is heading, since it was sponsored by American Military University, it did convey the basic knowledge that everyone should know to understand the importance of Civil War soldiers. There was also a time for questions at the end. Overall, I found this a unique experience and hope to learn more about its usefulness in other settings.

A little about the presenters:

Dr. Barry Shollenberger is Provost Emeritus at Virginia College in Birmingham, Alabama and is also retired from The University of Alabama where he served as Associate Director of Distance Education and president of the State of Alabama Distance Learning Association. Dr. Shollenberger has taught American History for twenty years, is a member and contributor to the Society for Civil War Historians, and has taught continuously at AMU since 1997.

Dana B. Shoaf is the editor of Civil War Times, the oldest Civil War magazine in publication. Shoaf taught American history at colleges in Maryland and Northern Virginia before working for Time-Life as a writer and researcher. He has published dozens of articles dealing with the Civil War and often speaks at conferences. A committed preservationist, Shoaf is a former board member of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation.

This was the first in a series of three webcasts on the war. The next two will be on Gettysburg and Shiloh. Here is information on those presentations:

The Battle of Shiloh – Thursday, May 6, 2010  11:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. ET

The Battle of Gettysburg – Tuesday, May 18, 2010  11:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. ET

I hope you will all take these in.

Obama’s history making day and the Civil War

What a night in history! With Sen. Barack Obama being the Democratic nominee for President, one can not help but take in the history surrounding this occasion, whether Republican or Democrat. Obama is the first African-American to receive the nomination of a major political party in American history. This is a testament to the sacrifice of the nation in the Civil War that a black man may become our next president. In full disclosure, while I personally disagree with his politics, I can not help but appreciate the history that I am witnessing through his nomination. If elected, Obama will preside over our nation’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. How this will effect our remembrance of the war will be interesting to witness. I feel that many in the North would see an Obama presidency as the Civil War coming full circle, as a man who may very well have been in bondage prior to the war is leading the nation that fought its bloodiest war so that all men would be free. I also see that some in the South would use an Obama presidency to advance the Lost Cause, arguing that had the South not lost the war, Obama would never be able to become the nominee of a major party, let alone president. The only remaining question regarding the Obama nomination and possible presidency is what would Lincoln think about it?

My First H-Net Book Review

Normally, I would post the text of my book reviews, but since the review is online already, I felt that I should just post the link. I reviewed a couple months ago a book for H-CivWar, the Civil War group under H-Net, which is a consortium of discussion boards/listservs that cater to historians. I reviewed Donald Gilmore’s The Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border for the group and it has now been posted onto the group’s site and will likely be sent out to the listserv.

Click here to read my review of the book.

This is my first review for them, but I hope that it will not be my last.