Even More Ranting …

Several readers of this blog have drawn my attention to yet another rant about me from an unhappy fellow blogger.

Brooks Simpson is a paragon for an underlying fault among many academic historians identified by Harvard’s Gordon Wood that might explain why Simpson thinks publishers have been “duped” into issuing my books and articles:

… many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.


First … although Gordon S. Wood received his PhD from Harvard, he taught at Brown University until his retirement. Gordon and I met way back in 1986 during a convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, and ate at a Pizza Hut. As I was but a graduate student at the time, I doubt he remembers the meal: I did because the first book I read as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia was his The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969). Those of you familiar with the book will recognize why I would remember that assignment.

Second, I said that the blogger in question “is a very funny person posing as a student of the American Civil War. He’s duped other people and publishers into believing the same thing.” You would think that someone pretending to be a qualified historian would render a quote and its meaning correctly, but then in this case that’s much too much to ask.

Having established the level of competence of my critic, let’s now look at the major charge: that I’m “obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history.”

Ah, yes. A biographer of famous and powerful dead white men in presidential, political, and military history is obsessed with inequality and white privilege. We await the citing of actual examples from my work … oh, that’s right … only a real scholar would support an accusation with evidence, and, once again, that might be too much to expect in this particular case.

I have also been accused with being obsessed with race, class, and gender. Clearly an interest in those subjects, in the eyes of my critic, would simply mark me as engaging in “incestuous conversations.”

Now, you’ll point out that Gordon Wood used those words, and I concur. What we’ve seen in recent years is that certain bloggers, including those who whine and yammer about political correctness, evil Yankees, and so on, have taken to citing Wood’s essays bemoaning the course of American historical writing, which in turn are reactions to his later work (see this essay for a useful overview). Apparently merely quoting Wood serves as sufficient analysis in their challenged minds.

I need not repeat what I’ve already written about these themes: you are directed to what I thought would be my comments delivered at the March 2013 conference on “The Future of Civil War History” hosted by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. If anyone wants to debate or discuss those comments, they can do so here … or from their own blogs (instead of issuing foolish challenges to “debate” a subject of the blogger’s own choosing … the whole idea of blogs is that one can have these discussions and debates right here, available to everyone, even if some people don’t get that). Essentially, I believe that you can’t offer more than a rather narrow understanding of the American Civil War if you don’t incorporate the themes of race, class, and gender into your work as part of historical understanding. That’s not a sign of “political correctness,” a claim which in this context smacks of intellectual triteness. If your interest is in narrowly-focused battle and campaign studies that simply drop officers and men onto a battlefield and narrate the resulting fight as if it’s an online version of a HALO firefight, why, you are welcome to it.

Real historians know that the story of war is more than that. Let’s move this conversation into a different venue, that of professional sports. Now, I’m sure you could write a wonderfully detailed description of the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and the Yankees featuring a home run by Bucky Bleepin’ Dent, but a far better book (or a book on the 2003/2004 ALCS clashes) would talk about the impact of money on the construction of each team’s rosters, the stories of how the Red Sox were jinxed, how teams represented in some fashion the fanbase that supported them, the increasing impact of media, notions of ownership, and so on. In other words, a truly rich and memorable account of those contests would take readers to many places, not simply Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, and would touch on many subjects.

The same can indeed be said about writing a study of the Gettysburg campaign. You would get a lot more out of it if you wrote about how race, class, and gender (as well as politics, ethnicity, and so on) were woven into that campaign. These perspectives would come naturally to a gifted writer who had thought long and hard about these matters.

But not everyone feels this way … including, it appears, my critic:

Before 1998 official information provided by the Civil War National Park Battlefields like Gettysburg were specific to the historical events on the battlefields and the military campaigns connected with them. The Park Service avoided statements about the causes of the war for two reasons. First, they were unnecessary to the study of the military events. Second, they were subject to conflicting interpretations, best left to visitors to decide for themselves….   The Park Service was wise to originally focus on the historical military events at the National Battlefield Parks. It should have declined to add editorials about the causes of the war, which are inevitably subject to “interpretive spin.” 

Let’s begin by suggesting the remarkable ignorance that this statement displays about Getteysburg National Military Park, especially its mission statement, which speaks about interpreting the battle and the Gettysburg Address “within the context of American history.” It’s rather difficult to make any sense of the Gettysburg Address without understanding something about the causes of the war, including the debate over slavery, and what had happened to that point of the war, especially in regards to slavery. But, contrary to the narrative offered by my critic, who seems wonderfully ignorant about the evolution of the park and its mission, it was in 1990 that Congress defined the mission of the park as follows:

. . . In administering the park, the Secretary [of the Interior] shall take such action as is necessary and appropriate to interpret, for the benefit of visitors to the park and the general public, the Battle of Gettysburg in the larger context of the Civil War and American history, including the causes and consequences of the Civil War and including the eflects of the war on all the American People.

That 1990 came eight years before 1998 escapes the fine mind of my critic, who wants to blame a single person, Dwight T. Pitcaithley (whose name my critic spells in multiple ways), for what has happened at GNMP.

In short, the twisted rendering of historical fact and interpretation by my critic results in utter nonsense masquerading as informed narrative, although I suspect that in saying this I’ll be accused of “political correctness” in following some unstated agenda … at least, that’s what some people will say.

Now that we’ve established that my critic’s familiarity with the basic rules of evidence and chronology suggest a fundamental lack of competence, we can move on to discuss whether we might obtain a better understanding of what happened on various Civil War battlefields if we integrate race, class, gender, ethnicity, and overarching political aims in our interpretation of those battles and battlefields. I would think this to be painfully obvious, but then some people (including, one ventures, serveral recent critics) seem blind to the painfully obvious. Let’s just mention a few items in passing …

Isn’t it better to visit Harpers Ferry if you have some idea of why it became important in 1859?

We talk about the Irish Brigade and the German immigrants in the XIth Corps. Might an understanding of ethnicity help us there?

Robert E. Lee noted the need to offer the home front some relief in 1863 by invading the North, an idea that might well have been reinforced by the Richmond Bread Riots. Might we need to know more about the home front and how women experienced the war as a way to understand military decisions better? What about Lee’s orders on how to treat civilians? What about the role of women when it came to desertion?

How can you explain why Abraham Brian was not at his rented farm on Cemetery Ridge in July 1863 if you don’t know about the activities of the Army of Northern Virginia in capturing blacks?

What do you make of conscription and the notion that it had become a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight? Class, anyone?

Gee, folks, why was Antietam important, period?

Why did generals continue to choose to command from the front, even though that exposed them to deadly enemy fire? Might it have had something to do with morale, inspiring the men, and responding to expectations of manly masculine behavior that defined courage in certain ways?

Yes, I know, I’ve left out many possible questions. It’s a few items, remember?

Some people must not even think of asking these questions if they think that to raise them demonstrates an interest in race, gender, class, ethnicity, and overriding political aims (to name but a few concerns), marking them as “politically correct” or too interested in “inequality and white privilege.” Talk about fear and insecurity. I believe differently. One gains a far richer, more thoughtful, more insightful, and fuller understanding of what generals and soldiers did–and why–if they just open up their minds and imagination to the complexities involved in being historically accurate.

And if you don’t believe that, I feel sorry for you.

(Mind you, the blogger in question also declares that “the attack on Confederate heritage is often an attempt at cultural genocide.” Really.)


Research Exercises: Winslow Homer’s Watching the Shot

homer watching the shot

Poking around the internet at the convergence of two of my research interests … Winslow Homer and the 5th New York Infantry … along with a Facebook post from Diane Monroe Smith, brought me to a rather interesting website which explores one of Homer’s lesser-known works, “Watching the Shot.”

I have reason to doubt that this painting combines all the elements claimed by the researcher. The mention of Antietam seems a distraction, for bridges at Antietam look far different. Nor would one easily recall an action where Francis C. Barlow and the 5th New York were in close proximity. Indeed, let’s set Antietam aside: the 5th New York was in reserve at Antietam behind Middle Bridge, still recovering from the devastating losses it suffered at Second Manassas. Nor do I think this piece portrays High Bridge in Virginia: that’s a much higher bridge than offered here, and of course the 5th New York was not present at a battle that took place some 23 months after the regiment went home. But maybe someone here has a different opinion or a better one. In any case, enjoy.

The Character of The Virginia Flaggers

While most Americans have been preoccupied with far more serious issues involving the future of this country, Connie Chastain has returned to blogging in yet another attempt to portray the Virginia Flaggers as victims. This time, it’s “character assassination,” although Chastain favors the wording “to character assassinate” for some odd reason.

There’s no doubt that the Virginia Flaggers are an amusing cast of characters in a reality show with more than enough guest appearances by white nationalists, white supremacists, racists, bigots, accused kidnappers, fans of child pornography, and the like. But it is hard to see them as people of character, given their associations. Why, for example, would people of character rent land from two avowed racists for planting flagpoles? Why would they engage in attempts to discredit their opponents through “anonymous” postings and campaigns that fizzle out once one hints that their sources is to be discovered within Flagger membership? Would people of character openly violate the very boycott they demand of a town’s businesses to make a point? Why would they obstruct an effort by officials to see whether a child was safe? And would people of character employ a shrill ugly bigot and racist as their webmaster and occasional spokesperson?

And that’s just for starters. People of character would denounce white nationalists and white supremacists, not embrace them, march alongside them, and defend their bigotry. People of character would distance themselves from disgusting individuals and sympathize with victims instead of trying to portray themselves as victims. People of character admit mistakes and renounce associations. Even now we hear how the Flaggers are going after a Confederate heritage advocate who thought it best to renounce any association with someone arrested on charges of trafficking in child pornography, as if to do so was a bad thing.

People of character wouldn’t do that.

The Virginia Flaggers, from their leader Susan Frise Hathaway through their webmaster Connie Chastain to their membership, find it impossible to be people of character. They are simply characters, and characters who bring shame, embarrassment, and humilitation upon their supposed cause of Confederate heritage, when in truth it’s all about self-promotion, selling things, getting in the media, and travelling on the rubber Confederate chicken circuit.

The notion of “character assassination” presumes that someone possesses character that is being targeted. Telling the truth about them and revealing them as frauds, liars, racists, bigots, hypocrites–you name it–is not character assassination. Nor is revealing when they have made fools of themselves.

Reading Connie Chastain rant about character is funny. That the Flaggers embrace her to do their “heavy hitting” (and lying) reminds us that not only are the Virginia Flaggers devoid of character, but that they also are a disgrace to the memory of the soldiers they pretend to honor. They are a lasting black mark on the face of Confederate heritage, which they mock with their antics and whining. So much for southern “honor.”

But as characters, they sure are funny.

Susan Hathaway Explains

In a break from tradition that nevertheless sounds traditional themes, Susan Hathaway of the Virginia Flaggers took to Facebook to share her reaction to the revelation that a Confederate heritage activist she had once praised for his action to protect children had been arrested on fifty counts of charges concerning child pornography transactions.

hathaway 070616 1

You can see I’ve gotten someone’s attention.:)

Susan Hathaway sure knows a lot about blogs she claims she hasn’t read in a year or so. Of course, she’s also made that claim in past years. But she also claims to know why people do what they do. Just like Connie Chastain does.

By the way, my speaking schedule remains as crowded as ever. My, my, but she can’t get anything straight.

But I do like that she’s finally admitted that she’s the head of the Flaggers. She’s not like Connie Chastain, who can’t make up her mind as to whether she’s a Flagger or knows what they say or do. Call that situational membership.

Susan continues:

hathaway 070616 2

Note the lack of concern about the victims of child pornography. But then the Flaggers were not concerned about a child who was kidnapped by a Flagger, or when a Flagger got himself arrested in front of his children (as they were videotaping him). So, nothing new here.

Of course, Hathaway did not just know Jason Sulser. She praised him:

Sulser and Hathaway (2)

Susan’s deepest respect? Must not be worth much. “You are the reason none of our women or children were seriously injured.” How ironic.

Susan concludes:

hathaway 070616 3

Yes, Susan, your words, deeds, and actions speak for themselves. Mind reminding us why you no longer appear at the War Memorial Chapel at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts? And let’s not forget the need to invoke God … that same God that brought you Rob Walker.

Next you’ll claim that none of you ever knew anything about Matthew Heimbach. Or that you had no idea that this was happening. And on, and on, and on …

We’ve seen this movie before, folks. No doubt we’ll see it again.

Once question remains for sincere advocates of Confederate heritage: Are you mad enough yet?



Trouble in Flaggerland

Readers of this blog will recall that Confederate heritage advocates, led by Connie Chastain (the webmaster and sometimes spokesperson for the Virginia Flaggers … especially when spokesperson Susan Hathaway falls silent, as she is wont to do in situations like the one we’re about to discuss), were overjoyed to find out that among the commenters on this blog were two people who had been charged with sexual offenses. That one was in fact a frequent commenter on one of Chastain’s old social media sites and that it was rather broadly known that I despised the person in question made no difference; that it soon became known that another Confederate heritage advocate whom Chastain had embraced as a friend apparently had prior knowledge of that person’s child pornography habit but remained quiet was hurriedly concealed. And, of course, there was the case of the Confederate heritage advocate who doubled as a fandom writer who liked to write about cartoon character minors having sex … the Confederate heritage gang quickly made excuses for that as “art.”

Somehow, to attack this blog because of the criminal activities of two people who once commented on it (I blocked both of them) seemed a stretch, especially in light of the white supremacists whom the Virginia Flaggers embraced as allies, friends, and business associates. After all, I did not know either of these people, and they were not my associates: I thought one was a jerk. That the fandom writer was particularly exercised about my decision to ban these commenters stuck me as rather curious but fairly predictable given what passes for logic and integrity among the Flaggers and their friends. Nevertheless, child pornography is a horrible and disgusting crime, and sexual assault is inexcusable. I would hope we can all agree on that.

Well, now we’ll see exactly how outraged Hathaway, Chastain, and their ilk in the heritage community are at the news that one of their own, Jason Sulser, has been charged with 50 counts concerning the distribution of child pornography. Sulser’s a highly-visible Confederate heritage advocate, having once started a petition calling for the removal of John Hennessy as the NPS historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP.

This blog has long been aware that Hathaway once praised a registered sex offender as a gift from the Almighty, but declined to pursue that story. In this case, however, other sources broke the tale even as it made its way through Confederate heritage groups.

We can now expect Hathaway and company to pretend they never knew the person in question. And we should know better. Recall that Flagger favorite Tripp Lewis declared that white supremacist Matthew Heimbach was “a great guy.” Well, let’s see what Hathaway said about Sulser last year after that ill-fated rally in Washington:

Sulser and Hathaway (2)

So, Mr. Sulser, how do you reconcile these child pornography charges with your pledge to “run towards trouble to protect every woman and child in a dangerous situation”? Seems to me that you were rather fond of some of those “dangerous situations,” if these charges have merit.

Methinks Hathaway will have to reconsider that claim that “none of our women and children were seriously injured” given that child pornography injures and exploits children. But who knows? Let’s just hope she doesn’t invite him to the Flagger picnic this year, as she did last year (reminding us that the Hathaway-Sulser link was not a one-time-only affair).

Now, in years past, Chastain would start blaring and braying and baying and flailing away at her blog, but Backsass is basically Sadsass nowadays. Nevertheless, I’m sure she’ll comment, and her comment will contain false and misleading information … but she’ll do it because poor old Susan Hathaway will be too skeered to say anything. Just watch.

It will be interesting to see how Hathaway, her Flagger friends, and other Confederate heritage advocates spin this one.

Will the Ku Klux Klan Rise Again?

Basically, that’s the question offered in this article from the Associated Press (a video will eventually play to augment the article).

I was particularly struck by the following claim in the article:

Formed just months after the end of the Civil War by six former Confederate officers, the Klan originally seemed more like a college fraternity with ceremonial robes and odd titles for its officers. But soon, freed blacks were being terrorized, and the Klan was blamed. Hundreds of people were assaulted or killed as whites tried to regain control of the defeated Confederacy. Congress effectively outlawed the Klan in 1871, and the group died.

The curious construction of the second sentence, complete with the double use of the passive voice, is remarkable. Might the Reconstruction KKK have had something to do with conducting a war of terror against freed blacks (and their white allies)?

Maybe. Just maybe.

As for the rest of the muddled narrative, let’s assume that the author has at best a partial understanding of the Ku Klux Act of 1871, how President Grant used the powers it authorized him to use, and the degree to which Grant’s actions destroyed the KKK.

The various reincarnations of the KKK in the 20th century, while inspired by the Reconstruction KKK (or, to be more precise, by the portrayal of that group in the movie Birth of A Nation), are distinct from that organization, even if they have many things in common, including an identification with the Confederacy and the preservation of white (Christian/Protestant) supremacy through terror, intimidation, and violence. But to say that they are the same is to overlook a great deal.

It is also unfortunate that many people identify white supremacist terrorist violence during Reconstruction with the KKK alone. That would be incorrect. Violence and suppression against freed blacks started during the summer and fall of 1865: we can see institutional evidence of state-sponsored white supremacy in the passing of the Black Codes and in the shaping of the southern legal sysyem by the state governments founded during presidential Reconstruction (especially during the Johnson presidency). Neither the Memphis nor New Orleans massacres of 1866 were KKK operations. Moreover, the tendency to identify the KKK with Nathan Bedford Forrest tends to obscure the fact that many Confederate veterans, including prominent ones such as John B. Gordon, donned Klan robes and did all they could to counter the emergence of black equality and political power. The KKK was far more pwerful in 1867 and especially 1868, when it battled the advent of black political power and the Republican party, and the organization in various forms persisted into the early 1870s, proving especially important in the Carolinas.

But the so-called destruction of the KKK in the aftermath of the passage of the Ku Klux Act and Grant’s application of the act in South Carolina in September 1871 did not spell the end of white supremacist terrorist violence. Far from it. Such violence took new forms under new names and emplyed new tactics and strategies (see the Mississippi Plan of 1875) as it did much to accomplish what the original KKK failed to achieve. Occasionally even biographers of Grant ignore or stumble over this inconvenient truth, most notably in Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 study, which was virtually silent about Reconstruction in Grant’s second term. By paying far too much attention to the KKK as the expression of such violence, Perret blinded himself to what else was going on … or perhaps he simply didn’t know about it. We must not be so ignorant.

But wait … there’s more.

Like several Confederate heritage groups, the KKK makes for good video, especially with the Confederate flag waving in the background or in places like Stone Mountain, a place favored by, among others, the Virginia Flaggers. Indeed, it’s not hard to draw connections between the KKK, other white supremacists, and Confederate heritage groups, as this news item this past week demonstrates. Note that the KKK leaders portrayed in this report endorse Trump and pledge death to their enemies (although they then claim that they don’t mean what they say–we’ve heard that excuse before from Confederate heritage apologists when white supremacists have advocated violence). And, of course, many of you will recall Mr. Heimbach’s association with a certain Virginia-based Confederate heritage group, one the group’s leadership has never disavowed (recall Virginia Flagger Tripp Lewis’s declaration that Mr. Heimbach was “a good guy”). A review of the social media offerings of several Virginia Flaggers reveals that, like the KKK and their buddy Heimbach, they, too, support Donald J. Trump for president.

Then again, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was prominent in KKK circles during Reconstruction, did much to play down that association when he appeared before a congressional investigating committee in 1871. The Virginia Flaggers would like to do the same with their association with Heimbach and other white supremacists, including two people who rented them land upon which to fly their flags near Virginia interstates. But how can we forget that the spokesperson of the Virginia Flaggers, Susan Frise Hathaway, openly idolizes Forrest and Wade Hampton, whose Red Shirts used white supremacist terrorist tactics to regain control of South Carolina’s state government? The woman in the red dress loves that man and his Red Shirts.

As Mark Twain once reminded us, although history may not repeat itself, sometime it rhymes.

Reconstruction at the CWI–June 18, 2016

Over the first 24 hours of the conference attendees have been treated to discussions about white southern concepts of honor during Reconstruction, especially among former Confederates; several perspectives on black emancipation and the efforts of the formerly enslaved to reconstruct their lives; how white northerners viewed Reconstruction; the experience of military reconstruction for the occupying forces; and, this evening, a series of talks about Union and Confederate veterans, culminating in a presentation exploring how one rather prominent Union veteran–namely Ulysses S. Grant–sought to define and defend in peace what seemingly had been secured in war.

For those of you who are interested in that last topic, I’d make sure to fire up C-SPAN3 at 7:15PM ET. You may recognize the speaker.