Monday, October 28, 2013

Strolling down memory lane: South Bay Civil War Roundtable

DW, left, and TPS, August 24, 2013
Way back in 1988, my wife and I flew from San Francisco to San Diego where I was excited to attend the Annual West Coast Civil War Conference, then organized by Jerry Russell of Civil War Round Table Associates. I had just finished reading McPherson’s, Battle Cry of Freedom, and relished the prospects of listening to some authors hold forth on a variety of subjects. The featured historian was William C. “Jack” Davis, a tremendously knowledgeable and entertaining speaker. He told a story that had the audience laughing so hard, I remember it to this day (maybe some of you have heard it at other events – it involved him traipsing around his house with a Civil War saber, looking for a possible intruder). Bob Younger of Morningside Books was also there, and so I dropped a lot of cash on new reading material.

That conference was also where I met Ted Savas, who was then living in San Jose. He and his wife Carol, and Anne and I, gravitated together -- some of the only people in attendance who were still in their 20’s -- and the only four who had come down from Northern California (or so it seems to me now). We soon learned we had other things in common, such as Ted and I both hailing from Iowa (my mother grew up in his home town, and my father grew up nearby).

Not long after returning to the Bay Area, we got together at the Winchester Brewpub – just down the street from the legendary Winchester Mystery House – and started planning the creation of the South Bay Civil War Roundtable (at that time, there were roundtables in San Francisco, and on the Peninsula, one in the East Bay, but nothing in the area of San Jose, the most populous city in the area).

Our first meeting was held at Ted’s house with about 14 people in attendance. Ted became the first president, and I took up duties as the newsletter editor (and eventually became the 2nd president). At the first meeting, Zoyd Luce spoke on Benjamin “The Beast” Butler. Ted spoke the following month on Longstreet’s Suffolk Campaign, and I spoke at the third meeting on John Hunt Morgan’s Indiana/Ohio Raid. And just like that, we were off to the races, eventually finding a regular meeting place and steadily increasing the membership.

Within the next couple years, our group hosted the West Coast Conference after it had devolved into a moribund affair, and Jerry Russell was imploring the round tables themselves to take turns organizing it. The year after San Diego it was held in a dingy motel in Burbank, with very low attendance. It was in its death throes, and Russell was ready to give up. The following year we hosted the event near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, got the word out far and wide, and saw a great crowd turn out to hear a roster of speakers topped by Robert K. Krick, whose compensation included two tickets to the next 49ers game. That San Francisco conference was also where Ted and I debuted volume 1, number 1 of Civil War Regiments journal, which, along with a number of stand-alone campaign studies, would consume so much of our lives for years to come. After San Francisco, the Long Beach CWRT held a large, well-attended conference with James McPherson, and the meeting has been a rollicking success ever since.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the South Bay CWRT revived and re-energized the West Coast Conference, which today routinely sees 100+ in attendance, in nice venues, and with top-flight historians and authors (Richard Hatcher and Craig Symonds will be on hand next month).

At some point, I don’t remember when exactly, I stopped attending meetings of the South Bay CWRT in favor of the CompuServe forum I have administered for nearly 20 years, effectively an online CWRT whose members discuss the Civil War era all year long, and meet in person every spring to tour a battlefield. I eventually moved on to work at Stanford University Press, and Savas Woodbury Publishers became Savas Publishing, then Savas Beatie, and anyone who loves books on the Civil War knows what a strong presence Savas has been in that arena all these years later.

I’m pleased to say the South Bay CWRT is still going strong as well, compiling over the years a long record of generous donations to Civil War preservation organizations. When I saw that they were celebrating their 25th anniversary (which I calculate to be March of 2014), and that Ted was the guest speaker at the annual summer picnic, I decided to surprise him. We had not seen each other in over 10 years. I wish I could describe the look on his face when he glanced my way for the first time after arriving.

It was a lot of fun, and many memories were refreshed. Ted gave a masterful, no-notes talk on “The Battle of Payne’s Farm, November 27, 1863: Command & Competency During the Mine Run Campaign.” That, in itself, caused many more memories to surface, as I was with Ted at Payne’s Farm when he first began researching that fight, and when, using metal detectors, he established an artillery position by finding canister balls in the woods right where he surmised they would be found. He found the remnants of canister. My metal detector was so poor it literally could not detect a quarter sitting on the surface. I know because I tried. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Indians and Braves, but no 7th Cavalry

from the Times-Georgian. . .
. . . the Heard County High School football team is hoping to rebound from a frustrating opener this week when it travels to Chattanooga for a powwow with the Indians at 7:30 on Friday night at Little Big Horn Stadium in Summerville.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Smithsonian Civil War

Smithsonian Civil War, Inside the National Collection, edited by Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop (Smithsonian Books, 2013).

Establishment of the Smithsonian predates the Civil War by 15 years. The iconic "Castle" on Washington's National Mall was completed in 1855, and became home to the institution's first secretary, Joseph Henry, and his family, who witnessed some of the opening scenes of the war. Young Mary Henry, Joseph's daughter, recorded in her diary on July 16, 1861, "We went up into the high tower to see the troops pass over into Virginia." Today, the Smithsonian has grown to nineteen museums and nine research facilities, which together preserve tens of thousands of objects related to the American Civil War, including Mary Henry's diary. 

Smithsonian Civil War is the only book of its kind, that I know of, to present together in a single volume some of the most important and representative Civil War artifacts from 13 separate Smithsonian entities (the press release mentions 12 museums and research centers). According to the introduction, curators, archivists, historians, interns, and volunteers (more than 100 staff members) "spent hours in locked vaults, storage rooms, and cabinets, researching and evaluating items" for inclusion, after which the Civil War 150 Editorial Committee debated which items held the "greatest historical value or the most compelling stories attached to them." The results of that exhaustive selection process are positively spectacular. 

This lavishly illustrated, brilliantly assembled coffee table book couldn’t have come at a better time, presenting an "exhibit between hard covers" at a time when the dysfunctional government of the United States has shuttered its doors. 

Commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial, Smithsonian Civil War offers 150 thematic essays written by a large number of Smithsonian contributors. Though organized chronologically, the entries amount to stand-alone articles covering a broad spectrum of topics—pre-war through Reconstruction.

The 550 full-color photographs constitute the volume's real strength—highlighting, with high production values, some of the most rare and fascinating objects in the Smithsonian holdings. A number of items will be familiar, such as Lincoln's top hat or the bullet-riddled tree stump from Spotsylvania, but many other objects pictured here have never been on public exhibit. 

Of particular interest are the instances where related objects from different repositories are brought together for the first time. For instance, a portrait of J.E.B. Stuart from the National Portrait Gallery, sits opposite an image of a pistol from the National Museum of American History, a present to Stuart from Major Heros von Borke. Likewise, from the same museums, a portrait of John Brown is featured together with images of weapons Brown and his followers carried in Kansas, and Virginia, including one of the hundreds of pikes Brown stockpiled at Harpers Ferry.

The collections at the NPG and NMAH are most represented, but this eclectic assemblage also features contributions from the Air and Space Museum (Civil War-era aircraft designs), the Postal Museum (printing plate for Confederate stamps), the Museum of Natural History (ornithological specimens), the Museum of African American History and Culture (slave tags), and others.

As impressive as this work is, some of the narrative will raise eyebrows among critical readers. A few examples: the entry on Harriet Beecher Stowe perpetuates the legend that when Lincoln met Stowe, "he reportedly said to her, 'So you're the little woman who wrote the book [Uncle Tom's Cabin] that started this great war!'" While the author did at least use the qualifier "reportedly," it's surprising to see the anecdote given passing credence in a Smithsonian publication. The story is entirely apocryphal, a product of Stowe family lore, and did not appear in print until 34 years after the fact by a Stowe biographer.

In the essay, "Sherman Moves South," we read that after capturing Atlanta, "Sherman ordered Atlanta evacuated and then burned everything he considered of military significance. Nearly one-third of the city went up in flames. Enraged, Hood wrote that his actions surpassed 'in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.'" Students of the Atlanta Campaign, however, will note that the correspondence in question dates to September 7, about the order to evacuate civilians. The burning of Atlanta did not occur until mid-November, when Sherman left on his March to the Sea.

More surprising, perhaps, is the entry entitled, "Searching for Shoes at Gettysburg," which begins with, "A search for shoes has often been cited as the spark that ignited a blistering three-day battle in the bucolic fields around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1863." General A.P. Hill is pictured in the article, across from a full-page photo of brogans, with the caption explaining that Hill unwittingly launched the battle by "sending in Henry Heth's division to 'get those shoes. . .'" This essay goes so far as to quote Heth's 1877 letter to the Southern Historical Society, in which he fleshes out the shoe story. Heth's after-action report, written two months after the battle, makes one mention of shoes (among other supplies he was seeking), but the consensus among historians is that the shoe story was concocted by Heth to excuse the fact that he brought on a general engagement despite explicit orders not to do so. I'm fairly certain that the National Park Service considers the shoe story as officially debunked. 

These examples are not terribly significant flaws since, as mentioned, the great power of this work are the photographs, and the 150 articles are generally succinct and spot-on, chock-full of useful information on a rich constellation of subjects. The barcode lists this book at $40, but I see it can be purchased in any number of places online for around $24 -- a good price for such a pretty book.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Gettysburg Magazine acquired by University of Nebraska Press

The University of Nebraska Press will take over publication of Gettysburg Magazine in 2014. They're looking for a new editor

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Review: Decided on the Battlefield, Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the Election of 1864

Decided on the Battlefield: Grant, Sherman, Lincoln and the Election of 1864, by David Alan Johnson (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Judged solely by its cover, this Prometheus release promised to be an interesting and insightful examination of the critical 1864 presidential election – how it came to unfold the way it did, and the possible ramifications to the nation had Abraham Lincoln lost his bid for re-election. Unfortunately, there is very little new introduced that could not have been gleaned from a general history of the war, and the author’s almost complete reliance on secondary sources (Bruce Catton is cited 43 times, Carl Sandburg 21, and so on), makes for a shallow treatment of a deep subject. Both the seasoned student and the well-read buff are likely to be dissatisfied with what, in the end, amounts to a simple affirmation of what many have long understood to be a Civil War truism—that the ascendancy of Grant and Sherman, and their slow-but-steady battlefield successes, particularly the capture of Atlanta in the run-up to the election—assured the reelection of Lincoln, and ended any hope of an independent Confederacy.

Decided on the Battlefield is not without merit. It is an easy read with a serviceable account of military events. Informed as it is by the popular histories of Catton, Shelby Foote, Doris Kearns Goodwin, et. al., the story is held together by an efficient, quick-moving narrative adorned with some of the literature’s most familiar anecdotes. Most interesting, to me, was the author’s discussion of the main party’s respective national conventions, and for those topics—at least—official proceedings were liberally consulted.  

Whatever the book’s shortcomings in the main text, it goes completely off the rails in the Epilogue. To ram home his point about the over-arching importance of Lincoln’s victory, the author devotes 18 pages to a bizarre and thoroughly pointless reverie about how things would have been different had Lincoln gone down to defeat. He doesn’t merely speculate about the Balkanization of North America, but paints an elaborate alternate history up through the Cold War and into the 1980s, even imagining, by name, the presidents of five separate American countries (the U.S., the C.S.A., Texas, Utah, and California, the last governed by President Ronald Reagan). In this fantasy, the C.S.A. (eventually the Confederate Commonwealth after annexing Cuba) did not send troops overseas in WWI, but since Tennessee seceded from the C.S.A. and rejoined the U.S. in 1866, U.S. troops in the First World War do include men from the Volunteer State. Thus, we’re told, Lincoln’s election loss in 1864 would have had no bearing on Tennessean Alvin York winning the Medal of Honor for actions in the Argonne Forest. I’m pretty sure the author didn’t get that last part from Bruce Catton.