Review of Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

Product DetailsSmithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2013. 308 pp. $40.00.

This book reflects the efforts of the Smithsonian Institute to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war by showcasing the many unique and special items housed in their collections related to the war.

While it is not a scholarly monograph, this book is a wonderful piece that belongs on the shelf of those interested in the Civil War for both scholarly and general interest pursuits.

It provides hundreds of beautifully detailed photographs of objects housed in the collections, including uniforms, equipment, photographs, and documents. In addition, informative captions describe and discuss the objects. This is coupled with thematic and chronologically-focused stories to provide context to the substantial amount of images.

The book covers many themes related to the war, including the home front, slavery, freedom, music, government, soldiers, material culture, and photography. Readers will find something for almost every possible topic related to the conflict within this book.

What stood out for me on this book was the beauty of it and its construction, as a fairly sturdy hardback book. The paper quality is excellent, with glossy paper that allows the images to pop off the page. Related to the great construction and printing, is the price, which is quite reasonable for a large hardback book, making it affordable for many interested in the war.

Through rich photography of items, coupled with informative and gripping stories and captions, this book will hopefully build interest in learning more about the Civil War well beyond the recent 150th anniversary commemorations. Younger readers will be able to access the book via the rich imagery, while adults can discuss with them the stories behind the photos, fostering learning.

The Smithsonian did an outstanding job with this book and I recommend it for all folks interested in the Civil War as one that should be on your wish list and eventually your shelf. Smithsonian Civil War is a glowing testimony to the expertise and quality of the Smithsonian’s commitment to preserving our nation’s history, including the Civil War. If you don’t have a chance to visit the physical museums in Washington, consider getting this book to allow you to take a virtual tour.

ACCLAIMED HISTORIANS AND AUTHORS TO SPEAK AT 2015 TENNESSEE CIVIL WAR SESQUICENTENNIAL SIGNATURE EVENT

I received the following press release from the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development about an upcoming event, so if you are in Tennessee, check it out:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The 2015 Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Event will welcome acclaimed historians and authors to present “Reconstruction Tennessee” to audiences in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area is the co-sponsor of the speaker events.

This year’s keynote speaker, Dr. Caroline E. Janney, history professor at Purdue University, is the author of “Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation,” an examination of how men and women protected memories of the Civil War. Janney will present her keynote address “Remembering the Civil War” 7 p.m. April 30 at The Bijou Theatre. The world-renown Fisk Jubilee Singers will open the evening with a special musical performance.

The “Reconstruction Tennessee” Speaker Symposium will take place 1-2:30 p.m. May 1 at the Knoxville Convention Center. Speakers Todd Groce, Luke Harlow, Bobby L. Lovett, and Tracy McKenzie will conduct a discussion on Reconstruction Tennessee. A book signing with authors will follow the event.

Todd Groce is the president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society. With 25 years of experience, Groce is one of the leading public history executives in the nation. He has led initiatives that have raised $50 million for educational programming, capital projects, and endowment.

Luke Harlow is a historian of slavery, race, abolition, and religion during the 19th century in the U.S. His first book, “Religion, Race and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1830-1880” was published in 2014 by Cambridge University Press. Harlow was co-editor with Mark Noll of “Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present” which was published in 2007 by Oxford University Press.

Bobby L. Lovett is professor emeritus, an award-winning author, speaker, historian and retired professor of Afro-American history. His book, “The Civil Rights Movement in Tennessee: A Narrative History” won the Tennessee History Book Award from the Tennessee Library Association and Tennessee Historical Commission.

Tracy McKenzie is a history professor at Wheaton College. He has written three books including “One South or Many? Plantation Belt and Upcountry in Civil War-Era Tennessee”; “Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the American Civil War,” which received the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award; and “The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History.”

The state’s 2015 Sesquicentennial Signature Event, “Reconstruction Tennessee,” will be held April 30May 1 in Knoxville and surrounding historic sites. The Tennessee Sesquicentennial Commission sponsors a series of free signature events including the keynote speaker Dr. Caroline E. Janney and educational events for teachers and students.

For more information on Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial, visit www.tncivilwar150.com or download the free, Addy award-winning Tennessee Civil War 150 iPhone app, available at www.itunes.apple.com/us/app/tennessee-civil-war-150.

Grant earns his third star

Today marks the 151st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln nominating Ulysses S. Grant for promotion to lieutenant general, which he would earn on March 3, 1864, and appointing him to command of all Union armies, replacing Henry Halleck, who caused Grant problems earlier in the war, while his (Grant’s) commander in the West.

This promotion was significant in two key ways. First, Grant’s promotion made him the first person to be commissioned lieutenant general in the Army since George Washington, though Winfield Scott held the rank under a brevet commission. Up to this point, no one had equaled Washington in seniority in the Army in terms of rank.

Second, this represented the pinnacle for Grant’s military career. While he later went on to earn a fourth star, serving as General of the Army under Andrew Johnson from 1866-68, Grant, at the end of the war, commanded an army of around 600,000 soldiers, equivalent to Napoleon’s Grande Armee. The army he led was arguably the best equipped and trained fighting force in the world at that point. The meteoric rise of Grant’s career from colonel of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry to General-in-Chief is a testament to his perseverance, having been regarded by superiors and critics early in the war as a drunk (Grant had a drinking problem due to loneliness in the pre-war frontier army and had resigned in 1854) and later war critics as an uncaring butcher.

Though his presidency is not regarded too highly, Grant remains one of our nation’s greatest generals. While Washington is first in my heart among our nation’s military leaders as the first commanding general of the U.S. Army, Grant is one of my favorites because of his tenacity and his connections to Illinois. Lincoln trusted Grant and that trust was earned through several key victories, while other generals of Union armies were losing. Grant understood the harsh realities of the war and prosecuted it to the best of his abilities and to a successful conclusion for the Union.

All in all, well done, General Grant, well done.

Brady portrait of Grant at Cold Harbor.

Brady portrait of Grant at Cold Harbor.

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.

Four score and seventy years ago: Two important minutes

Today marks the 150th anniversary of an event, where roughly two minutes of “a few appropriate remarks” by President Lincoln became American history and myth. Though memorized by several generations of schoolchildren, the Gettysburg Address was just part of a larger commemoration of the final resting place of soldiers killed fighting to preserve the Union. The event was a dedication to the national cemetery that still remains as a solemn tribute to sacrifice for a nation and its ideals, with one of the nation’s premiere orators, Edward Everett, delivering a two-hour speech.

The inclusion of Lincoln placed him in a minor roll within the larger ceremony, compared to Everett. Though his speech was secondary to the main oration, Lincoln was able to encapsulate the whole of American history and the momentous occasion of the Civil War and its importance in preserving the Union, while dealing with the big issue of equality, ultimately allowing the nation to live up to the principles of the Founders and the Declaration of Independence that he referenced. In 272 words, the President stressed the importance of the sacrifice of the soldiers buried there to the larger aim of securing the Union, while also referencing the new aim of the war, the ending of slavery. He also used the Address to show how the nation was changing and the hope that the idea first put forth by the founders in 1776 would endure forever.

The remarkable thing about Lincoln’s speech was that while it was viewed in sharp contrasts by the media and nation, falling largely along partisan lines (sound familiar) between Democratic-leaning and Republican-leaning papers (media bias is nothing new), who either viewed the speech as “silly” or a momentous oration that was quite fitting for the occasion, that the Gettysburg Address has become one of the best examples of oration in American history. Lincoln’s short remarks represent one of the finest uses of the English language around, as he was succinct in his remarks and made every word command power.

Though 150 years later, the Gettysburg Address is still worth remembering and commemorating. It is hoped that we still live up to the ideals of Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks.” With that, I leave you with some cool sites related to the Address.

Library of Congress online exhibit

Learn the Address (a Ken Burns project)

PBS site for Ken Burns’ The Address (coming in 2014)

Chamberlain medal to be returned to Brunswick

From The Times Record (Brunswick, ME)

After being discovered in the back of a book in Duxbury, Mass., the original Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Col. Joshua Chamberlain has taken a long and circuitous route back to Brunswick.

In July, shortly before the town’s annual Chamberlain Days celebration, the Pejepscot Historical Society received a small package from a donor who said he wished to remain anonymous. Inside the envelope was the medal, with the donor’s wish that it be returned to Brunswick and authenticated “in honor of all veterans.”

Historical society director Jennifer Blanchard was skeptical.

After all, she knew that Chamberlain’s Medal of Honor — redesigned in 1904 and re-issued to Chamberlain in 1907 — was safely displayed just up the hill in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives at Bowdoin College.

Continue reading Chamberlain medal to be returned to Brunswick.

This Week in the Civil War: Sep 9-15, 1863

Wednesday, September 9.  General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland entered Chattanooga this morning. Rosecrans wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “Chattanooga is ours without a struggle and East Tennessee is free.” The Federals had conducted another brilliant campaign of maneuver with little loss of life.

General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had reluctantly abandoned the prized city. Hoping to destroy Bragg’s army, Rosecrans immediately ordered a pursuit despite being deep in hostile territory. The Federals were also dangerously split into three columns, while Bragg much closer than expected.

President Jefferson Davis decided to send General James Longstreet’s Second Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce Bragg. Because the Federals now occupied Cumberland Gap, Longstreet’s troops had to travel through the Carolinas and Georgia via Atlanta to get to Bragg.

In Charleston Harbor, a Federal flotilla attempting to land at Fort Sumter was repulsed with heavy losses. Sumter’s walls were crumbling from continued Federal artillery, but the defenders refused to surrender. Skirmishing occurred in the Indian Territory.

Thursday, September 10.  As Federal forces captured Fort Smith on Arkansas’s western border, the Federals threatened eastern Arkansas. Outnumbered, Confederate General Sterling Price evacuated the state capital of Little Rock and withdrew to Rockport and Arkadelphia. The Federals entered the capital unopposed and seized control of the Arkansas River. This threatened General Edmund Kirby Smith’s entire Confederate Trans-Mississippi District.

William Rosecrans’s Federals probed Confederate positions in Georgia below Chattanooga. James Longstreet’s Confederates began moving out of Virginia to reinforce Braxton Bragg. The Federal shelling of Fort Sumter temporarily ceased.

In North Carolina, Confederate soldiers destroyed the offices of the Raleigh Standard, a newspaper owned by pro-Union politician William W. Holden. Skirmishing occurred in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

Friday, September 11.  Reconnaissance and skirmishing continued between Rosecrans’s Federals and Bragg’s Confederates in northern Georgia. The Federals continued advancing on Confederate positions without knowing exactly where they were.

President Abraham Lincoln instructed Governor Andrew Johnson to organize a pro-Union government in Tennessee. Lincoln also met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to discuss the Charleston campaign. A Federal expedition began from La Grange, Tennessee to Corinth, Mississippi. Skirmishing occurred in West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Saturday, September 12.  Federal probing of Confederate positions continued in northern Georgia. Skirmishing occurred in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Sunday, September 13.  When James Longstreet’s corps was pulled from General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army and sent to reinforce Braxton Bragg, Lee was compelled to withdraw to the Rapidan River in northern Virginia. As a result, General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac moved from the Rappahannock River and occupied Culpeper Court House. Clashes took place at Brandy Station, Muddy Run, Stevenson, and other points.

General Ulysses S. Grant was ordered to send all available troops to aid William Rosecrans at Chattanooga. In Georgia, Braxton Bragg ordered a Confederate attack on Federal scouts, but the order was not carried out.

In South Carolina, Federal telegraphers were captured near Lowndes’ Mill on the Combahee River. In Mississippi, 20 Federal crewmen from U.S.S. Rattler were captured by Confederate cavalry while attending church services at Rodney. Skirmishing occurred in Missouri.

Monday, September 14.  Skirmishing continued between George G. Meade’s Federals and Robert E. Lee’s Confederates in northern Virginia. Other skirmishing occurred in West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Tuesday, September 15.  Citing the existing “state of rebellion,” President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus throughout the North in cases where the Federal military or civil authorities held citizens in custody for suspected disloyalty. Lincoln also wrote to General-in-Chief Halleck that George G. Meade should attack Robert E. Lee immediately. Meade chose not to attack.

Federal expeditions began from Virginia, Missouri, and the New Mexico Territory. William Rosecrans and Braxton Bragg began concentrating their forces as various skirmishes took place in northern Georgia. Skirmishing also occurred in Virginia and Missouri.

Primary source: The Civil War Day by Day by E.B. Long and Barbara Long (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)