Sunday, December 28, 2008

This Just In: McPherson disrespects "Exclusive Civil War Jewelry"

Back in June of 2007, I posted a note about American Heritage magazine's decision
to do away with a print edition and publish all of their content on-line. Apparently the magazine is back on the newsstands again, following a traditional advertising revenue model, but not without controversy.

An issue devoted to Lincoln includes a full, back page ad by the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, calling upon we readers to “Walk the same halls and streets that led him to the White House.”
Well that seems harmless enough. What's the controversy? Oh, right. On the opposite page of the Illinois tourism ad is one for some unholy jewelry—a gaudy ring sporting the Confederate battleflag—I haven't seen this issue, but I found the item online easily enough.

James McPherson cried foul. According to a brief notice in the New York Times, "Mr. McPherson, a history professor at Princeton and author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, said that many saw the Confederate flag as an incendiary symbol of slavery and that he would have protested the ad had he been aware of it before publication." Is this the first time McPherson contributed something to a magazine that also sold schlocky goods celebrating the short-lived Confederacy? That hardly seems possible, given the kinds of ads that make up the bulk of advertising in Civil War glossies. Maybe he just doesn't like jewelry.

I admire McPherson's work—Battle Cry of Freedom remains, to my mind, the most important single volume on the subject of the Civil War published in my lifetime. And I'm pretty sure that, if given the opportunity, I would likewise recycle my work far beyond the point that pride or good manners made it uncomfortable. But shouldn't anyone who contributes to glossy history magazines expect—going in—that their work will eventually share pages with ads for any number of products that somehow glorify or memorialize the Lost Cause?

Certainly contributing authors have no idea what ads will appear in a given issue, or about the placement of those ads, but when was the last time our most celebrated Civil War historians denounced nostalgic, Confederate-themed advertising in the pages of
North & South, or Civil War Times, Illustrated, or America's Civil War? Or is it just the flag itself that crosses the line? Isn't hagiographic artwork featuring Lee, Jackson, and others—paintings, commemorative plates, belt buckles, figurines—part and parcel of our popular periodic literature? Is any of that substantively different—less symbolic or meaningful—than a ring with the CSA battleflag? These are interesting questions.

It occurred to me that this is the third time I can personally recall McPherson expressing after-the-fact regrets about a publication he contributed to or endorsed with an introduction. As mentioned, he can't be held accountable for the advertising in
American Heritage. In another instance, he withdrew an enthusiastic endorsement after receiving convincing evidence of copyright violation. But the one that left me stumped was a Civil War atlas for which he wrote the introduction, and which, after publication, was discovered to contain maps riddled with errors.

It happens. Who among us hasn't, at some point, trusted someone who turned out to be untrustworthy? I'm sure that on the next atlas introduction project, Dr. McPherson will insist on scrutinizing the maps first.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Time Travel? or feverish hallucination. . . THE NADIR OF LINCOLN STATUARY

Excerpt: Brian Lamb talks with Andrew Ferguson, author of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America (2007). Read the full May 20, 2007 transcript here.

LAMB: What did you see in Gettysburg itself?
FERGUSON: Gettysburg is a very odd place, you know and I figured that it’s got a kind ofsort of a wasted feel to it. It doesn’t, you know, you’d think that they would have done all kinds of things to capitalizethey have two million visitors a year or more andbut there are no sort of like yuppie restaurants, no high-end gift shops … 
LAMB: Put that into perspective that’s twice as many as visitors as the Supreme Court has a year.
FERGUSON: Yes, sure. Yes. Of course, they don’t have any yuppie restaurants at the Supreme Court either but that’sthey’ll get it sooner or later. But you know and Iit comes from the odd nature of the place. This is a place where several hundred thousand men got together for three days trying to kill each other and 11,000 of them succeeded and to try and turn a place like this into a vacation spot, you’re going to get a kind of a cognitive dissonance there.

LAMB: What’s the Perry Como statue?
FERGUSON: Right underneath the window of the house where Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address or touched up the Gettysburg address, the night before he delivered it, on the Gettysburg Square, is a statue of Lincoln with Perry Como or so it said. Actually, what it is, is it’s Lincoln life-size next to sort of every man tourist.

LAMB: By the way, for those who might not remember who it was.
FERGUSON: People have forgotten Perry Como, this is awful to say the least. He was a crooner, a sort of a Frank Sinatra without the overtones of danger and sexuality but anyway, so he just looks like every man, which was Perry Como’s appeal and he’s in a cable neck sweater and Lincoln is talking to him. One of the things I do, in the book and I’ve tried to, as a theme to weave in, is everywhere I went I found a new Lincoln statue. Lincoln statuary is a fascinating subject in and of itself. It reflects thisour own changing view of Lincoln. The opening chapter’s about the statue that was put in at Richmond, which is a very small, life-size statue. The last chapter is about Lincoln Memorial, which of course, is a huge Lincoln statue and there’s a lot to learn about how we’ve seen Lincoln and what we think of him now by the kind of statues we put up and the one in Gettysburg is incredibly banal and sort of cartoonish and silly and it’s considered by most Lincoln buffs to be the low point of Lincoln iconography.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Slavery and Public History

Apparently, and amazingly, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the National Park Service interpretation of Civil War sites included mention of the principal circumstances which led up to secession, and war. Even today in some Civil War circles there is debate about how much a Park Service visitor center museum should devote to the issue of slavery. I’ve never really understood how putting a battle in the context of the long, sectional rift between North and South would detract from a visitor’s appreciation of the military events that unfolded in a particular place. From the ratification of the constitution to the Kansas Nebraska Act, the issue of slavery literally shaped the nation into free and slave soil sections neatly delineated on the map.

I do know that some people feel very strongly about keeping causes and battlefield interpretation separate. The late Jerry Russell of Civil War Round Table Associates was adamant about that – he was a veritable crusader on the subject.

What’s behind such passion? Why is it soooo important to some people to make sure slavery is treated as incidental to the gathering of these great armies? I think we have to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that those who are bothered by mention of “causes” in the visitor’s center don’t really believe slavery was the principal sticking point between the sections (or may be loathe to admit it), or else they don’t want their reverence for the (Southern) fighting man to be tainted by the stain of slavery in such a holy place. Personal valor is tarnished when overshadowed by the big picture and overriding national objectives. The battlefield itself may be the last refuge for the Confederate soldier – the last place in the study of that era where his motives remain pure.

Personally, I don’t get the controversy. It’s just history. The men who fought and died so bravely don’t need us to protect them from the politics of their day – they were unapologetic about it. And if not them, whom do we think we’re protecting? Confederate re-enactors?

I stumbled upon an interesting interview with the former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, who succeeded Ed Bearss in that position. I took this snippet from the National Parks Traveler website, but the full interview can be read at Thunderbear, “the oldest alternative newsletter in the federal government.” P.J. Ryan, a former ranger, conducted the interview in issue #277.

It’s especially interesting to read about how he responded to the outraged letters, and the strategies he employed with audiences of the “sons of the Confederacy” objecting to the new initiative to treat the causes of the war in NPS battlefield exhibits. Four words: purple heart lapel pin.

… until nearly the turn of the 21st Century the NPS had pussy-footed about the main cause of the Civil War -- slavery. Would you comment on the 1998 Nashville Conference that changed all this?

When the NPS inherited the Civil War battlefields from the War Department in 1933, the interpretive programs for the parks focused on the battles themselves and contained nothing on the reasons why the battle occurred. The NPS purposefully continued this practice until the 1990s when John Tucker installed a small exhibit at Fort Sumter that linked slavery with secession. By the late 1990s, the Civil War battlefield superintendents decided that with the approach of the 150th anniversary of the war, the NPS was obligated to include in its interpretation something about the causes of the war. The Nashville meeting resulted in a unanimous decision on the part of the managers to include the causes of the war, and specifically the core cause of slavery, in new exhibits and brochures. It was, of course, the right decision.

Certain historians managed to turn the old bromide, "History is written by the victors," on its head portraying the Confederacy as misunderstood, heroic underdogs fighting for their "states rights" against brutal invaders. Did you find this a challenge?

The Lost Cause interpretation of the war which was developed in the decades following Appomattox using the histories of the war written by Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens and other former Confederates, held that protection of states' rights not property rights (slavery) was the principal cause of secession and war. The teaching of Southern history over the years anchored this interpretation of causality not only in the South, but in many places in the North as well. And while this interpretation still carries great weight in the public discussion of the war, scholars for the past 40 years or so have focused on debates over the future of slavery as the central cause of secession. Having said that, I must quickly say that it is equally incorrect to argue that the war was prompted because Northern voters wanted to rid the country of the institution because of moral objections to it. So it gets complicated, and therein was the challenge the NPS faced in inserting information about the coming of the war into its interpretative programs.

The Southern leaders and their soldiery were actually more colorful, romantic, and militarily more creative and competent than their Northern counterparts, so any interpretation based on straight military "facts" put the NPS in the position of subtly endorsing the Southern point of view. Do you agree?

Whether southern leaders were more colorful, romantic, and creative than their northern counterparts is a question you will need to ask Ed Bearss. You would be hard pressed, however, to find a more colorful figure than Dan Sickles before, during, and certainly after the war. But the point is well taken that by focusing strictly on military action one avoids the larger issues at play during the war. Superintendent John Latschar at Gettysburg has written about how the names of various parts of that battle emphasized the southern, more than the northern, point of view. After all, we do call it "Pickett's Charge," rather than "Meade's Defense."

The Sons of the Confederacy, various Civil War round tables, numerous private individuals and members of Congress generated more than 2,500 letters stating that the NPS was hijacking American history by stating that slavery was the main cause of the war and must be so addressed by
each park. These letters ended up on your desk. How did you respond?

Diplomatically, I hope. The letters actually contained two arguments. One was that battlefields were not the place to talk about causality; that introducing the reasons for the war diminished the importance of the combatants. This was an argument I never understood, believing that a complete understanding of any battle must be based on why the war started in the first place. The second was that slavery was not the cause (or at least not a significant cause) of secession and war and the NPS was simply being "politically correct" in suggesting that it was. Even before the letters started pouring in, I did a great deal of homework by speaking and corresponding with the leading Civil War scholars in the country. Once the letters started arriving, I knew two things. First, that every letter must be answered because, as taxpayers, every writer had the right to hear what the NPS was planning and why. Second, I knew that my response had to be historically correct and based on the best of current scholarship. So, we responded with a two and a half page letter explaining the intentions of the NPS. In several cases, we received follow-up letters which we also answered. These were especially interesting as I and the correspondent were able to delve more deeply into the reasons of causality. I wrote about this at length in my chapter in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American History (2006).

Did your military background and purple heart prove useful?

One of the striking aspects about a large percentage of the letters was that the writer would begin with a paragraph on his military experience and/or the military traditions of his family. The intention, I believe, was to establish the notion that veterans knew how to interpret battlefields and bureaucrats in Washington did not. After a while, I started including a bit about my experience in the Marine Corps and Vietnam to help balance the playing field. I also started wearing my Purple Heart lapel pin when addressing Civil War gatherings. At the end of the day, I don't know how much my military background helped; I am certain it didn't hurt.

What was your most useful tool in the discussion?

Well, I began these conversations quoting the best Civil War historians in the country, historians like Jim McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Eric Foner, Ed Ayers, and others, but they were dismissed as either "Yankee" historians or "Scalawag" historians. So I started using primary sources which are readily available. Charles Dew's book on the secession commissioners was helpful. I also used quotes from the four declarations of secession from South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, as well as quotes on the problems facing the country from leading elected officials including James Buchanan, Alexander Stephens, and John J. Crittenden.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Saving a Civil War Legacy In Va.'s Shenandoah Valley

from the Washington Post. . .

Deal Protects Land On Which a Decisive Battle Was Fought
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008; B01

In 1762, the Huntsberry family settled the land along Redbud Run, outside Winchester, with a deed from Lord Fairfax. Eight generations later, Bob Huntsberry spent his summers there as a child, finding rusted Minie balls that had been fired from the muskets of Civil War soldiers. He grew up steeped in elders' stories of the day, late in the summer of 1864, when Union Gen. Philip Sheridan and 39,000 troops came marching in.
Now, Huntsberry, 80, has reached a $3.35 million deal with Civil War preservation groups to protect the land and with it, the little-known legacy of a decisive event in the war.
The sale will preserve 209 acres of woods and hayfields on one of Northern Virginia's most significant battle sites, where Yankee and Rebel forces waged brutal hand-to-hand combat for control of the Shenandoah Valley. Preservation groups will add the land to their holdings to create a 575-acre park with trails, interpretive signs and free public access.
Read the full article and see maps and additional photos here. What exciting news. Thank you, Mr. Huntsberry, for preserving the historical integrity of that plot of ground.
I'm back in the saddle now after the considerable distraction of an infinitely important election, and other things. America is redeemed, and I personally feel revitalized. Sitemeter tells me there are still people visiting this site on a regular basis, and I'm grateful for that. I'll try to translate that feeling of revitalization into some worthwhile content here. Change has come to America, and it has come to this blog.
The Shenandoah Valley, and Winchester in particular, have been much on my mind lately as preparations go forward for the 13th Annual Civil War Forum Battlefield Conference. We'll be covering the 1864 Valley Campaign next March in great detail with guide Scott Patchan, author of Shenandoah Summer: the 1864 Valley Campaign. There's still room on the bus. More on that this weekend.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Rare West Coast Civil War Structures Saved

Approximately 2766 miles west of the spot where General John Reynolds was KIA on July 1, 1863, the Civil War installation named Camp Reynolds in his honor nearly burned to the ground last week. A wildfire on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay came within 100 yards of the Civil War buildings, but firefighters were able to save Camp Reynolds and all 120 historic structures on the island.

Angel Island, inhabited for 1,000s of years, has a recorded history back to the visit of the first Spanish warship, the San Carlos, in August of 1775. It was fortified during the Civil War to guard against Confederate raiders, was a processing point for soldiers in both World Wars, served as the "Ellis Island of the West" for 60 years, and hosted a Nike missile base in the Cold War era.

For the past 46 years it has been a bucolic state park, accessible by ferry from nearby Tiburon. Thanks to the expert work of firefighters, the entire Civil War era installation was preserved intact. From an article in the San Francisco Chronicle,

"The grass will grow back, but the Civil War barracks? They won't grow back," said Todd Lando, spokesman for the Marin County Fire Department, which led the fire response.
"It was just a very good thing that we managed to save them. It's where we focused most of our attention Sunday night."
Half of the oaks, pines, manzanita and brush that until Sunday covered most of the island like a green cloak are gone—400 of the area's 740 acres are burned flat, Lando said. Most noticeably, Mount Livermore—the island's highest point at 788 feet—has been stripped of its leafy crown and stands bald and ashy."
The (Frederic Larson) photo at top shows the fire as seen from Marin County. The map, and the (Brant Ward) photo below show the extent of the fire, and how close it came to the Civil War buildings at Camp Reynolds. Close one!

While we're on the subject of islands on San Francisco Bay, I couldn't resist sharing this stunning (Michael Macor) photo from the recent Fleet Week 2008 festivities, showing the Blue Angels against an Alcatraz backdrop (part of Angel Island is visible the background). The Civil War defenses on Alcatraz island, first discussed in this blog entry would not have fared well against today's naval assets.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

More Secesh Talk from the disgruntled citizens of Bigfoot country

"We have nothing in common with you people down south. Nothing," said Randy Bashaw, manager of the Jefferson State Forest Products lumber mill in the Trinity County hamlet of Hayfork. "The sooner we're done with all you people, the better."

A movement for the upper tier of counties in California, along with the southernmost part of Oregon, to secede and form the State of Jefferson, first gained steam in 1941 but was pushed out of the news by the attack on Pearl Harbor. It's not an idea that has entirely gone away, however, as the articles at this web site attest.

The people of this sparsely populated region feel ignored by Sacramento and Salem, though surprisingly the people of Yreka (pronounced Why-reeka), the "cradle of secession" in this part of the country, live closer to the state capital of California than do 2/3rds of the rest of the state's citizenry. And this even though Yreka is close to the border of Oregon. Many people do not appreciate the sheer length of the Golden State. At it's most distant points, it is 770 miles long (with 840 miles of coastline). That's farther than the distance from Chicago to Atlanta. Even though San Francisco is 400 miles north of Los Angeles, there is still over 300 miles of country above San Francisco before one hits the Oregon line.

I'm sure the secessionists are right to feel forgotten in the halls of power, but democratic power is (in theory) determined by votes, and the votes are in the population centers. San Diego is 500 miles from Sacramento, but it's also one of the largest cities in America.

Secessionists in the antebellum era could see the writing on the wall. The same principle was at work. For most of the life of the Union up to the Civil War, the political power of the slave states kept pace, even dominated the three branches of the federal government. But the shift was steady and inevitable. In 1860, only one of the nation's ten largest cities, New Orleans (168,675), was in a slave state, and its population was just a fraction of that of New York (813,669) and Philadelphia (565,529). In 1859, on the eve of the war, there were 237 seats in Congress (following the admission of Oregon). If I've done my math right, counting the border states of MO, KY, DE, and MD., slave states were able to muster 90 Congressmen before the admission of Kansas, versus 147 Congressmen from free soil states. With the vast territories of the West lining up for statehood, and northern population expanding exponentiallyand spilling out into the Westit's not hard to understand why southern states with a common overriding interest, slavery, decided to start the game over with a new Congress all their own.

Alas, the good people of the State of Jefferson don't have much in the way of armories, mints, or shipyards to seize, nor do they have a Robert E. Lee. So they're going to have to do this the hard way, through legislation. And that brings us back to the problem of votes, something else they don't have enough of.

[at top: the flag of the State of Jefferson. One source says the two X's signify the double-crossing by the state capitals of Oregon and California. Purchase all your stylish State of Jefferson gear here.]

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The best Antietam hike you've never taken

(unless you were with Tom Clemens two weeks ago)

Brian Downey over at Behind AotW has put together one of the most interesting campaign-related blog entries I've ever read.

On the Trail of the Corn Exchange Regiment
146 years to the day after the historical events, a lucky group of us tracked the unlucky 118th Pennsylvania Volunteers to the places and views of the Battle of Shepherdstown Ford (20 September 1862). Under the capable guidance of Dr Tom Clemens and members of the Shepherdstown Battlefield Preservation Association (SBPA), we waded the Potomac, scaled the heights, and walked the field.

Most interesting are descriptions of the river bottom (rocky, not muddy, with stretches of smooth, wagon-friendly slabs of stone). Twelve years ago, the Civil War Forum folks at CompuServe held their inaugural annual gathering at Antietam, with Tom Clemens as our guide. He's as good as they get. If Tom can be imposed upon to reprise this river crossing, I'll be on board for that one. In your visit to Behind AotW, be sure to visit the SBPA site (linked to in the paragraph above).

Monday, September 22, 2008

Virtual Hike to the Roulette Farm

Ranger Mannie at Antietam continues to maintain one of the most interesting blogs around—My Year of Living Rangerously—a perfect marriage of unfettered passion, zero politics, rich & unjaded humor, exceptional skill with a camera, and the sensibility to highlight glimpses of beauty and wonder in the ordinary landscapes of our everyday world. All the better that his everyday world is the battlefield at Antietam.

This post is another keeper.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Odds and Sods — recent items that caught my eye

The Fort Morgan Mystery Ship
The last time this mystery ship was visible was after Hurricane Ivan hit the Alabama Gulf Coast on September 16, 2004. At that time a much smaller portion of the ship was visible above the sand. Soon after Ivan revealed this historic treasure, the shifting sand covered the relic again. [many photos]

Lehman Brothers: Cotton Speculators, Confederate Sympathizers
Lehman Brothers, the storied investment firm that filed for bankruptcy protection yesterday, was no stranger to crisis. Early in its 158-year life, the firm was nearly crippled by the Civil War. But back then there was some cotton to cushion the fall. [photo]

Casualties of Valverde?
“We know 27 Confederate soldiers died in the old hospital in 1863 following the Battle of Valverde, and all the evidence as to where they were buried points to the old graveyard where Peralta Drive is now,” he said in 2004. “These human remains and the decayed wood bring us one step closer to identifying who is buried under the street and in the adjacent lot.”

Confessions of a Teenage Civil War Reenactor
I hid my family’s secret hobby from my schoolmates like we were Russian child-bride smugglers.

Battle of Shepherdstown
A preservation group has filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court over a state ruling allowing a housing development on the site of the 1862 Civil War Battle of Shepherdstown.

Kansas Before Massachusetts
About 30 volunteer members of a Kansas regiment were patrolling the land about five miles southwest of Butler, in western Missouri's Bates County that October day in 1863 when they were ambushed by about 130 rebel horsemen near Island Mound, a low hill near the Marais-des-Cynges River. The Kansas soldiers drove off their attackers in a brief skirmish.The significance is that this was the First Kansas COLORED Infantry. This fight was the first time that black soldiers went into combat on behalf of the Union during the Civil War.

Idiot Removes Tag
On September 1, Stover's Auctions reported the theft of a tag that was affixed to an important Civil War lot with multiple items from a captain in the battle of New Bern, N.C. A sword was included, which had an old cloth tag attached to it from the same captain. The tag would add roughly $2,000–$3,000 to the lot. [photo]

The Other Burns? That would be Ric
"The night before 'The Civil War,' we thought it was going to be a failure," confessed Ric Burns, who co-produced and co-wrote the colossal documentary series for his brother, Ken. "Who would watch a program stitched together from old photographs?"

Badges and Courage
Tobruk is loosely based on Stephen Crane’s classic American Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, and anyone familiar with Crane’s book will appreciate Marhoul’s homage. If there is a flaw to this film it’s that, unlike with Crane’s central character, Henry, audiences can’t always be certain whose story Marhoul wants us to follow.

Good Morning Vicksburg
"Good Morning America" will report from the historic, Civil War riverfront city of Vicksburg on Sept. 26.

The Buffaloes of North Carolina
The Civil War in that part of North Carolina was not the war of waving the Confederate Stars and Bars or the Union Stars and Stripes, of masses of men in butternut or blue charging up slopes toward some “little clump of trees,” or standing toe-to-toe in bloody musket volley fire.
It was more like a backwoods bushwhacking or a shootout in a snake-infested swamp along the Chowan River. It was a nighttime raid on a hog farm to drive off critters meant to supply bacon for the Army of Northern Virginia, or to burn a creekside warehouse where cured bacon was already stored.

Interview with David Williams of Valdosta State University
When they couldn’t feed their families, Southern women started food riots. There was a big one in Richmond. Were there any in Georgia?
A: Every major city in Georgia had food riots. We’ve documented more than 20. In Atlanta, a woman walked into a store on Whitehall Street and drew a revolver and told the rest of the women to take what they wanted. They moved from store to store.

Really cool 35-star flag discovered
At 21-feet-long and 15-feet-wide, the flag surely wasn’t missed when it flew 70 feet above the Civil War monument at Rocky Point in West Boxford. [photo]
From the Diaries of My Father
June 19, 1862: To-day I shot 654 passenger pigeons. That axe I bought from that lousy trapper has a rotten handle. I think the dog has typhoid. I like living in a sod house. Is civil war imminent?
May 11, 1866: D—n! I just found out about the Civil War! That's what you get when you print a news-paper hundreds of miles from civilization, I suppose. To-day I shot 1,297 passenger pigeons.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On this day, August 18, 1862

At Redwood Ferry, Minnesota, nineteen soldiers of forty-six survived a Sioux ambush. Around Ft. Ridgely houses were in flames, victims were mutilated, and the settlers fled to the fort. (The Civil War Day, by Day, E. B. and Barbara Long).

Those Minnesota soldiers were members of Company B, 5th MN Infantry. They still had a lot of war left in them, rejoining the rest of the regiment in Oxford, Mississippi by the end of the year. More on that in the next entry.

Yes, I'm back in the blogging saddle after a brief hiatus. I'd like to say I was relaxing and recreating, taking August off, like the French, but no. I could post a long paragraph right about now explaining why my posts have been infrequent lately, but I am enough of a blog reader to know that no one cares why someone stopped blogging.
Sitemeter tells me at least some people continue to visit this site (thanks!), and that's good enough. Fresh, original content to follow.

Map at top appears in The Sioux Uprising of 1862, by Kenneth Carley (St. Paul, 1961).

Below: Redwood Ferry crossing on the Minnesota River (Minnesota Historical Society).

Friday, July 18, 2008

John Y. Simon, R.I.P.

The Grant project consumed him. . . . He worked on it every day, his wife said. “It was daily, it was weekends and it was most holidays,” she said. “Some holidays not all day.”

So said Mrs. Simon about Mr. Simon, as quoted in his New York Times obituary.

I never met John Simon in person, but I did correspond with him, and spoke with him on the phone once. He wrote the foreword to Civil War High Commands, the publication of which was one highlight of my time at Stanford University Press.
In the realm of true Civil War scholars, John Simon was one of the great ones. And not just for his work, which will be an enduring legacy, but he scores especially high to me because he was unpretentiousthe antithesis of pompous. Not that I knew him well, but the pompous ones can’t hide it. They are, in fact, unconscious of it, or else they wouldn’t be pompous.

No one knew more about Ulysses S. Grant. None of us can even appreciate the debt we owe to John Simon for the work he did, and most of us will never directly perceive how even the scholars among us will make use of the hours he logged. He made a serious contribution. “Some holidays not all day.” That says it all. [Of course the children of parents who work all the time, even on holidays, will naturally have a different take on the matter.]

Continuing my lazy (but exclusive and previously unpublished!) blogging of late, here are parts of a Q&A session Dr. Simon granted to the Civil War Forum on September 29, 2000.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
Dr. Simon, you've been editing The Papers since 1962. Are you getting tired of Grant yet, or still finding new information, or new sides to the man?

A. (John Simon):
I've never thought that I understood the man fully, and for that reason I've never become tired of him. People don't ask you questions like that about your wife, and I've been married to her for a long time. Grant's a very real person, and one with many dimensions to him. There's still more to learn and I'm eager to do it. We're into the presidential years now, but I'm still fascinated by the Civil War period. And there are documents that we haven't found yet, but those that are coming to light, almost daily, cast new perspectives on Grant.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
What do you think, based on your readings of his correspondence, may be the biggest misconceptions about Grant? Was there anything that you were surprised to learn, or which slowly changed your perception of him?

A. (John Simon):
Well I've been increasingly impressed by what a good writer he is. He has the capacity to express what he's thinking in the clearest possible form. He's a maker of memorable phrases. One of our interesting discoveries many years ago was when he wrote the famous line about fighting it out on this line if it takes all summer, he originally wrote, "If it takes me all summer." Then he went back and crossed out the word "me." He's conscious of just who's doing that fighting, and knows that that word "me" is inappropriate. Normally, the words just flow out as they did in the celebrated letter that he wrote at Appomattox, but when necessary he revised what he was writing.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
Do Grant's writings give some clue as to why he seemed so centered and sure of himself in wartime but somewhat vulnerable and a fish out of water in civilian life?

A. (John Simon):
I would say that they really don't. That, in fact, Grant is a far more assured figure in the White House than most people have recognized. He does have a centered presence in political life, as well as in military life. I don't believe that he understood politics well enough to be the great president that people anticipated, but he's a man who is always in touch with himself, and conscious of what he wanted to do. He's like other presidents who have had the misfortune of serving two terms. Like Bill Clinton, he turned 50 between his 1st and 2nd terms, and it's tantalizing to think what might have happened to Clinton had he not served a 2nd term.
In Grant's case, the unanticipated Depression of 1873 put him at something of a loss, especially since he had lost the flexibility with which he entered the White House.
He settled into the job of serving as president, and quite possibly he would have done better to leave the White House after the achievements of the first term. Nonetheless, I don't think his position as president has ever received the appraisal it should have. In years gone by he was criticized for his upholding of the Reconstruction policyhe was later condemned for not having enforced it more fully. He's had it from both sides. From some presidents much is expected; from some it's considered a miracle that they haven't fallen on their faces. Grant entered the White House with such keen expectations that he'd govern the country with the same skill with which he'd won the war, that his low reputation as president has more to do with high expectations than with weak performance.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
Have you gotten a sense from his Presidential writings as to what kind of South he wanted to see emerge from Reconstruction (and as for not being tough enough on enforcement of Reconstruction, one shudders at the thought of what would have happened if Seymour and Blair had won)?

A. (John Simon):
That's a good point, especially about Grant's Democratic opponents. The problem that Grant faced with regard to Reconstruction was the same problem that Gunnar Myrdal called "an American dilemma," and it remains one. What's different about Grant, perhaps, is the sense of the military commander who had won the war with the aid of a significant number of black troopsperhaps more than 10 percent of his military force
when the war ended. Like other generals, he had a responsibility to his veterans after the war, one that he never forgot. He was perhaps lagging a bit in understanding the full capacities of black Americans, but when their rights were trampled on and abused, he knew what he wanted to do, and was determined to do it. When he left the White House, the Ku Klux Klan had been crushed. Perhaps the kind of Reconstruction that in retrospect seems preferable was beyond his imagination, but the retreat from Reconstruction was something that he abhorred. Blacks voted more freely in 1872 than they would for another 100 years.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
Did Grant want to run for a third term? Did he use his world trip to "prepare" for it?

A. (John Simon):
In 1876, if he had chosen to be receptive, he could have been renominated. He wrote a letter in 1875 stating clearly that he did not want a third term, mailed it, then later told his wife, who was disappointed. The Grant's had never lived anywhere as long as they'd lived in the White House. I don't think that Grant planned the tour around the world with the thought of returning to the presidency. If he had, he would have stayed away longer and his triumphant return would have been better timed. His supporters pushed him for a third term. He gave them relatively little encouragement, but as the matter went to the convention, there was no doubt that it was somewhat painful to Grant to lose anything, including that nomination.

It should be remembered that Grant had never wanted to be president in the first place, that he went through 2 terms in the White House complaining about the job, calling it "uncongenial," and reminding people when he was spoken of for a third term that he hadn't even wanted the first. I think he ought to be taken at his word. He preferred to be commander of the army in peacetime, a job with a steady income. Even in the 1870s he reminded the father of the young man who was going to marry his daughter that while he did have a good job with a good salary, it was a temporary position. As someone who had really experienced poverty as a grown man, lifetime employment had a special meaning for him, and the ironic twist on the Grant story is his encounter with a Wall Street crook who left him impoverished in his old age.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
What was Grant's private opinion of Abraham Lincoln and how did Grant take the news of Lincoln's murder (especially since the Grants had begged off going to the theater that night with the Lincolns)?

A. (John Simon):
An excellent question. The private opinion is very difficult to recover, because Grant is conscious of Lincoln as Commander in Chief. At the same time, Mary Lincoln's behavior had become steadily more irrational, and she made it clear that she resented and disliked Mrs. Grant. They begged off going to the theater on the grounds that they wanted to visit their children. It made sense, but I don't think they relished the idea of spending an evening with Mary Lincoln. Later on, Grant would speak of Lincoln in glowing terms, and I think he was deeply distressed by the assassination. He stood in the Rotunda where the body lay in state and he was weepinghe came to a realization of what Lincoln had done to win the war, and to sustain Grant in the process. His thoughts about Lincoln were no doubt colored by his intense dislike of Andrew Johnson. In retrospect, Lincoln looked even greater than he had to Grant on the eve of the assassination.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
I've always liked the anecdote relating how Grant got involved in the war: leaning in the doorway of his shop in Galena, criticizing the local militia, and they tell him to put his money where his mouth his. Is it true? And more importantly, was his involvement in the war inevitable, or did he just get caught up by chance?

A. (John Simon):
That's a good question. Grant has a firm sense of responsibility. This is the factor that kept him in the U.S. Army after he graduated from the military academy, and really didn't want to be a soldier, preferring a career as a teacher. But he'd been educated at government expense, and thought he had an obligation and was drawn into the Mexican War. In 1861, even though he'd been out of the army since 1854, he knew that he had a responsibility to use his military training and his 15 years of military experience for his country. There really was no issue therehe knew he had to go. Beyond that, he hated that leather store in Galena passionately. He liked being out of the army and with his family, but those obligations were much stronger than what might be considered his comfort. As for Grant taking a passive attitude at first when the war broke out, there's really no evidence for that. He'd been caught up in the political turmoil that preceded the war, and as a northern man who had an anti-slavery father, but who'd been treated better by his wife's familyMissouri slaveholdershe was conscious of the issues involved.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
I'm interested in the relationship between Grant and his wife Julia. Some have accused Grant of being henpecked by her; to me, it looks like they had a pretty good relationship. What is the reality, in your opinion?

A. (John Simon):
The story of Grant's marriage is apparently a love story from beginning to end. Part of the attraction that Julia had for Grant was her spirited nature. She thought for herself. She expressed her opinions. And Grant found her charming, from their first meeting to the end of his life. He loved to tease her. And in that respect, sometimes pretended that she was a pushy woman, but any impression that gives that he was indeed henpecked is misleading. There's no doubt who was the head of that household. No doubt in Grant's mind, none in Julia's either. But above all, they were a couple, devoted to each other.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
I assume you are familiar with W.E. Woodward's 1928 work, "Meet General Grant." If so, how well do you think he interpreted Grant's personality?

A. (John Simon):
The Woodward book marks a low point in Grant's reputation. Woodward was a southerner, and also a celebrated debunker, and he used his literary skills on Grant at a time when racism was rampant in American life. And it was possible to convince people that somehow the Civil War was a gigantic mistake growing out of misunderstandings between North and South, that it accomplished nothing, and that any good results from the perspective of the 1920s would have come about inevitably through peaceful means. This is a point of view that has long been discredited.
I think beyond that, that Woodward never understood Grant, saw him as a kind of wooden figure moving on the stage of American history, not having any motive force of his own.
And the modern version of Woodward, but written from a completely different political perspective, is the 1981 McFeely biography of Grant. I think that these are writers who achieved considerable success with Grant biographies, but in both cases their interpretations are outdated.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
Grant always seemed to have the edge on his opponentsfinding their weaknesses and exploiting them weather it be in the military or political arena. He took the initiative and seized the moment. Is that a fair characterization?

A. (John Simon):
I think that's a good question. Basically, Grant had excelled at West Point in mathematics, and he had a sense of approaching problems logically in both the military and the political field. Especially in wartime, the emotional component is likely to take over in many commanders, but rarely in the case of Grant. The problems he faced in command were to him logical problems of applying the requisite force at the necessary point. Another factor is his unpredictabilitythe campaign against Vicksburg, which was hailed as a military masterpiece, did not become a template for future campaigns. . . And when Lee had been so successful in outguessing and outfoxing his opponents, he simply could not apply that to Grant.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
Speaking of Vicksburg, do you think that Grant made the right decision in attempting to assault Vicksburg on May 22, 1863? For what it's worth, after the Forum's trip to Vicksburg last March, I think that he would have been negligent not to do so, given the Confederate morale break at the Big Black.

A. (John Simon): In later years, Grant expressed some regret about the 2nd assault on Vicksburg, the May 22 assault. It's true that he wanted to probe the Confederate defenses again, and he was lured into committing more troops on the basis of a report from General McClernand, which was probably the beginning of the end for McClernand. On the other hand, Grant is, as his wife pointed out, "an obstinate man." And I think that assault was unfortunate. Grant thought it was unfortunate, and I can't believe that he had a reasonable chance at that point of breaking through the Confederate lines.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
What should me make of Sylvanus Cadwallader's account of Grant's celebrated two-day bender? Catton was skeptical of Cadwallader's allegations, mostly because he found no contemporary documentary evidence for it. Do you think Cadwallader was embellishing the incident or not?

A. (John Simon):
Cadwallader has always been a problem
he wrote his account long after the events that he purported to describe, and he put himself in the middle of the action. He was a fervent admirer of Grant's staff officer John Rawlins, and named his son Rawlins Cadwallader. Rawlins had made a practice during the Civil War of dramatizing his role in keeping Grant from drinking. Rawlins was, in fact, an ardent teetotaler, and always acted as if his presence at headquarters kept Grant from drinking. There's no evidence that Grant drank when Rawlins wasn't there. As for the Cadwallader account, there is reason to believe that he was not even on that boat which took Grant to Satartia. Ever since the publication of Cadwallader's account in 1955, people have found that story too good to resist, and I understand that it furnishes the centerpiece of novels published in the year 2000. It's not taken seriously in the Grant field.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
Publicly, Grant was usually complimentary of George Meade. Does Grant's private correspondence reveal a different opinion? Did Grant find their relationship (having his Headquarters with the Army of the Potomac) awkward?

A. (John Simon):
That's an excellent question. It's a terrible relationship. Grant tried to do something which simply could not be done
that is, he intended to accompany the Army of the Potomac during the spring campaign of 1864,leaving Meade in command of the AoP, and justifying his own presence on the basis of attaching the 9th Corps under Burnside, who technically ranked Meade. For that matter, Ben Butler claimed to rank Meade, but Grant ranked everybody, and he saw his role primarily as one of coordinator. But he knew what he wanted Meade's army to do, and somehow Meade disappointed him during the campaign. Although there was a great deal of expressed admiration for Meade, Grant was gradually taking control.
By the summer of 1864, Meade requested an assignment to command elsewhere, and by the end of the war, Grant had really seized the reins and in that final campaign, beginning at the end of March, and carrying through to Appomattox, Meade was virtually ignored.
Grant knew no other way to end the war except to drive those armies as hard only he could drive them, and he used Sheridan, who had quarreled bitterly with Meade early in the Overland Campaign, as effectively as possible. By the end of the war, Meade is a fairly pathetic figure. He'd been neglected by the newspaper correspondentsbecause of his treatment of a reporter, there was a universal desire on the part of other correspondents to minimize his role in the final operations of the warand Meade left the war a disappointed and bitter man, a bitterness that overwhelmed him especially when Sheridan was promoted over him. In some respects, Meade may have died of a broken heart and could be counted as one of the casualties of the Civil War.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
You referred to Meade's treatment of a reporter as having put him in a negative spot with the rest of the Civil War correspondents. I'm unfamiliar with this story. Would you please elaborate? Thanks.

A. (John Simon): Well, the reporter in question had written a story suggesting that after the Battle of the Wilderness Meade had wanted to withdraw to Washington, which was not only untrue, but it touched Meade on a sore point. That is, he'd already been accused of being reluctant at Gettysburg, and he explodedhe treated the reporter, whose name was Crapsey by the way, sometimes given as Cropsey, because people couldn't believe that anyone would have such an ugly name, cruelly by having him paraded through camp wearing a sign declaring him a libeler, and then expelled from the Union lines. As it turned out, Crapsey was related to one of Grant's oldest and dearest friends, but it was essentially Meade's overreaction to a newspaper story that led to his punishment by the Press.

Q. (Civil War Forum):
We appreciated your participation in the American Presidents series on CSPAN. That was an excellent show.

A. (John Simon):
Thank you. There are no sweeter words in the English language than "I saw you on television."

Friday, July 04, 2008

Civil War Sacrilege

One of the most controversial Civil War books of the past 15 years is a thoughtful 1991 treatise on Robert E. Lee by the Indianapolis attorney, Alan Nolan. Controversial in that it caused many of the best historians of our time to choose sides on its merits. There did not seem to be much middle ground in the discussions, which ranged from the notion that it was about time someone built upon the iconoclasm of Connelly’s Marble Man, to furious denunciations of Nolan for perpetrating a hit job.

Me? I thought it was pretty fascinating. Back on February 13, 1997, I invited the then 74-year-old Nolan to field questions about his book in CompuServe’s Civil War Forum. Here are some of the questions and answers from that day regarding The University of North Carolina Press’s, Lee Considered: Robert E. Lee and Civil War History.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Few titles have generated as much discussion and controversy in Civil War circles as your Lee Considered -- Civil War enthusiasts of every stripe are still critiquing your work, and prominent historians have weighed in on both sides of the matter. All of this confirms one reviewer’s conclusion that it is a book which "cannot be ignored." How has the response to the book been from your perspective, from reviews, and from engaging the public at speaking events?

A. (Alan Nolan): The response has been extremely gratifying. I frankly did not start out to write a book to shock or provoke, but it turned out that it did shock or provoke. It had extremely good sales, it was a main selection of the History Book Clubwhich is of course is advantageous to a bookand the review treatment of it was very interesting to me. It certainly had mixed reviews. There were some reviewers who, by God, did not like it. But it got a good many favorable reviews in the useful media, such as the New York Times, New Republic, American Heritage, and a number of academic publications, and one of the things that interested me was that there were many favorable reviews in the South. There were some unfavorable reviews in the South by old-line neo-Confederate writersthe Freeman schoolbut a lot of the young Southern historians liked it. And I thought the review treatment of the book, all in all, was extremely favorable. 

If you add it up and weigh it all based on reviews, it was favorably received. And I could tell from Round Table invitations that there was a lot of interest on the grass roots level, among Civil War buffs. It's just gone into paperback, and there's also a 3rd printing in hard back. The press doing the paperback is hopeful that it will be adopted by college professors teaching Civil War history, and I know Gary Gallagher at Penn State has included it on his reading lists for Civil War classes.

All in all it's been a good experience. If I've hurt anybody's feelings, I'm sorry, and I know I have . . . but I also think it's historic, and the people whose feelings are hurt are romantic. I belong to the non-romantic school about the Civil War. I think of it as sort of the American holocaust, and the idea that it was somehow glorious, or that leaders like Lee were somehow glorious, seems to me to be mythological.

Q. (Civil War Forum): I think you neatly dispel some commonly-held conceptions about Lee, such as the idea that he was offered command of all Union armies by Winfield Scott. Perhaps the most provocative section of Lee Considered, however, endeavors to show that Lee continued fighting the war long after he knew it was pointless. Could you summarize that argument for us here, and what you based it upon?

A. (Alan Nolan): Yes, I can summarize that. Leeand I quote this in the bookin a letter to Jefferson Davis on June 10th, 1863 (it's in the Official Records) expresses deep pessimism about the future of the war. That's before Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and surely he must have realized the significance of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. He had said a number of times that if his army was ever besieged, it was only a matter of time before they'd have to surrender, and he found himself besieged at Petersburg in June of 64. His official letters during the early weeks and months of the siege of Petersburg were extremely pessimistic, almost desperate, so I think that he knew at least 10 months before Appomattox that there was no way that his army was going to survivehe was going to have to surrender it.

And then of course in September of 1864 he wrote a letter that said he thought it was going to be impossible to keep Grant out of Richmond. And in November 1864 is Lincoln's reelection, and I think that everyone knew in November, 5 months before Appomattox, that the ball game was over. There wasn't even a miracle left. And he kept on going, had huge casualties in those monthsthe killed and wounded in the Appomattox campaign itself were 6200 people, in addition, of course, to thousands of captured. That book [Lee Considered] as a whole is a response to the deification mythology about Lee, and one of the things he has been glorified about is his dogged pursuit of the war. 

My point, based on the analysis I've given here, is that that is not glorious. I'm more concerned with the common soldier in his army, and the union army, who were killed after he knew it was over. If you believe that Lee did the right thing when he surrendered at Appomattox, for the reasons he stated, which was to avoid the useless slaughter of his men, then inevitably you have to ask if there was an earlier time when slaughter became useless, and I think the answer is yes. So he deserves to be criticized for that. I think he clearly had the authority to surrender his army at any time that he thought that it was hopeless. He thought that at Appomattox, but he also thought that at least five months earlier than that.

Q. (Civil War Forum): As you did your research, what surprised you the most about Lee, in comparison to the mental image you had of him before you began?

A. (Alan Nolan): I think that I hadn't realized how sort of Rholier than thouS he was. It seemed to me that he was enormously self-serving, always giving himself credit for what he termed his "honor." I didn't realized he was such a psalm- singer about himself. I also didn't realize how strong a believer, or advocate of slavery he was.

Q. (Civil War Forum): You speak of unfavorable reviews from neo-Confederate Southerners, but objection to your book as an attack on Lee comes from others too. How do you account for the power of the Lee mythology among people who do not have a historical or genealogical tie to the Confederacy, and whose political opinions are reasonably mainstream today?

A. (Alan Nolan): Well I think we've been bathed throughout my life, and I'm 74, with the sainthood of General Lee. It's something you're taught in school as a kid, and a lot of people have accepted that. That's why I named my book Lee Considered, instead of Reconsidered, because I don't think most people had considered the truth of such stories about his opposition to slavery, his seceding was an honorable thing, that he was such a magnanimous man. I think the people who accepted the myth of Lee are the ones who have the greatest admiration for him. And I respect those people, but I think they're mistaken. I disagree with them.

Q. (Civil War Forum): With regard to the point you raised about Lee's failure to surrender earlier, do you think Lee felt he had the authority to take such a momentous decision, given that the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia would have effectively finished the Confederacy? Could we not equally say his perseverance was a tribute to a belief in the supremacy of his political masters in such decisions?

A. (Alan Nolan): That is one of the defenses, and I addressed that specifically. Lee definitely did believe in civilian political supremacy. On the other hand, when he did surrender, he did so without authority. He simply advised Davis after the fact. There's an appendix in my book discussing his authority. As a matter of military law, he had the right to surrender his army without express authority of his government, and in point of fact, that's exactly what he did.

Q. (Civil War Forum): We've been studying Antietam here, and debating Lee as a tactician. Do you have any opinions on his overall qualities as a field commander, whether any of his genius was luck or the decision of others or whether the myth is operating in this area too?

A. (Alan Nolan): I think Lee was a very successful tactician, a very successful combat general, Antietam being one of his finest hours in that respect. I fault Lee as a soldier because I don't think he understood the grand strategy of the war.

Q. (Civil War Forum): You mention both Thomas Connelly's The Marble Man and William Garrett Piston's Ph.D. thesis and the book that came from it, Lee's Tarnished Lieutenant, in your book. What impact did these "heretical" works have on you in evaluating the Lee hagiography?

A. (Alan Nolan): Well, they made me feel that in reacting against the hagiography, that I wasn't alone in the world, or entirely crazy. As I mention in the introduction, Connelly wrote a book critical of Lee, and lived, and that was reassuring to me. But in terms of their ideas, they weren't necessarily the same as mine.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Given the limitations you've identified in Lee's character, how do you account for his enduring popularity with all ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia? Was this based solely on his ability to deliver victory, or is it another misconception?

A. (Alan Nolan): I think Lee, after the war, was sort of canonized by the South in the South's effort to come out of the war with something. Lee was built up by Jubal Early systematically, and by the public at large not systematically. And when you create a hero, amongst the whole lost cause myth, I think that the soldiers who had fought for that man are themselves dignified the more dignity he is accorded, so they go along with it. Napoleon is still a military hero in France, even though he was ultimately defeated, and his casualties, like Lee's, were horrendous. But he has been glorified in French history.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Was post-war Lee the apolitical figure, preaching reconciliation and forgiveness, that he is usually portrayed?

A. (Alan Nolan): My answer to that is no. He certainly on occasion could be very conciliatory, but his ordinary position was that of a defeated Southerner. He was very resentful of the North. He was very resentful of black people. He felt that the South should be readmitted to the Union with no conditions, and no delayhe wanted the U.S. to act as if the war had not taken place, 600,000 dead people were neither here nor there. He was a classic southern partisan after the war.

Q. (Civil War Forum): Jim McPherson in Drawn with the Sword refers to Civil War buffs as being relatively uninterested in history and more interested in the war almost as a grand sporting event or game. I know you're on the spot, but what do you think of buffs, Round Tables, reenactors, forum members, etc.?

A. (Alan Nolan): Well, I'm interested in Civil War history in all ways, and I take seriously anybody who shares that interest, even if their particular activity may or may not be one I personally engage in. I do think that most Civil War buffs are unusually interested in the blood and guts, battles and leaders, more interested in that side of it than the many other facets of itthe political and social history of the war is not as interesting to the typical buff as is the warfare.