On Secession … the first in a series …

This winter marks the 150th anniversary of the secession of seven states and the formation of the Confederate States of America.  At a time when people like to discuss issues of patriotism, loyalty, and citizenship, it behooves us to look back at the great secession winter of 1860-61 and explore what happened and why.  One can’t restrict that exploration to a single post, and so, over the next eight weeks, all the way up to the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Confederacy, I propose to explore various aspects of that process in an effort to understand what happened and why.

In this initial post, I want to set forth some parameters and assumptions that will guide this exploration.  First, the reasons people supported secession may not be the same as the reasons they went to war.   Second, it’s more important to read what the participants said in explaining what they were doing and why than to rely on interpretations offered long after the fact, even when those explanations are offered by participants.  Both Jefferson Davis and Alexander H. Stephens changed their justification for secession and the formation of the Confederacy after the war, when it was no longer popular to stress the role that slavery played in the origins of the conflict.  Third, for purposes of this discussion I’m going to focus on the original seven states that seceded.  I may turn to looking later on at what happened to the Upper South, but for the moment I’m looking at the Deep South.

Continue reading

So, if you identify as a Confederate … some questions

UPDATE: Of course I should not have overlooked the League of the South.  See this and this.

Every once in a while I run across folks who like to style themselves as hailing from the Confederacy.  I’ve seen people identify themselves as saying they are from (for example) “Virginia, CSA,” folks who fashion e-mail addresses as from the domain “csa.gov,” and so on.  I’ve even come across a website claiming to be “the Confederate States of America Government Website,” which always seems to be under construction (or reconstruction).  Lest you think I’m kidding, that site has a form whereby for $50 you can apply to be a Confederate citizen (by the way, it isn’t clear whether the $50 is in Confederate currency; perhaps the organizers secretly crave receiving engraved portraits of Ulysses S. Grant or ten portraits of Abraham Lincoln).

So I’ve got some questions to ask of these people who claim they are Confederates.  Do they pay federal (or Federal) taxes? (You would think they would celebrate April 15 for another reason.)  Do they file as foreign nationals?  Do they have a US passport (how could they, if they really mean what they say)?  Do they vote in US elections (talk about illegal aliens voting)?  Do they have green cards?  Or are these people who simply blow off steam but in fact do not have the courage of their convictions and are not willing to stand up for what they believe?  Nor can they claim to be loyal citizens of the United States of America or think themselves entitled to any of the rights and privileges of such citizenship.  They would be liars if they pledge allegiance to a flag they repudiate.

Continue reading

It’s Not About You … Or, Taking History Personally

One of the most interesting things about sharing one’s work on the American Civil War is what I learn about how people view history and historians.  One thing that startles me (okay, it used to startle me) is the degree to which some white southerners take the findings of scholarship personally.  There’s a notion out there among some folks that a primary goal of historical scholarship about the Civil War era (at least as practiced by supposedly left liberal politically correct academic elitists who clearly do not hail from the South) is to make white southerners feel guilty or ashamed about their ancestors or their region.  Apparently this is especially true when it comes to anything related to slavery or violence against blacks during Reconstruction.

Take Trace Adkins, who recently declared:  “Over the generations it has seemed to me that Southern children, because of that terrible slavery issue, have been made to feel apologetic — if not guilty or ashamed — of their heritage.”  Mr. Adkins adds, “And I for one hope my children don’t feel that way, because everybody knows or should know that the majority of soldiers that fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. I know that my grandfather didn’t, and had no aspirations of owning slaves. It wasn’t part of his makeup.”  Let’s set aside the fact that Mr. Adkins’s grandfather must have been very, very old to make that decision, since slavery was abolished in 1865.  And let’s overlook the fact that whether or not the majority of Confederate soldiers owned slaves has no bearing on the issue of why secession happened or why the Confederacy was formed.  Let’s agree that the purpose of teaching history is not to make people feel bad about their ancestors.  What, exactly, would Mr. Adkins have southern children taught?  I assume he knows that public schools are desegregated, so not all those children are white, and there may be more than a few who claim slaves as ancestors.  Indeed, his query gets to the heart of the matter: why teach history?  Is it to instill civic pride?  Is the reason to make children proud of their ancestors?  Or might one teach history to help students learn about the past?  Oh, I guess it can’t be that simple.

Continue reading

My Final Four: Historians Whose Writing Influenced Me

At the end of the year people like to offer lists.  Some of these lists involve ranking “the best” books of the year.  Others take the opportunity to list “the best” books for a certain field.  I’m not inclined to follow suit, for a very simple reason: too many people confuse “the best” with “my favorite.”  Now, there.s nothing wrong with listing what books you really liked, and telling us why.  But labeling those books “the best” can get a bit problematic.  In at least one ‘the best” list I saw a book that was simply terrible.  What’s a blogger supposed to do?  Explain why the book is terrible and imply something about the list maker’s judgment or intelligence?  I’d rather not go there.

However, I have no problem listing four historians whose work has influenced me in my evolution into a historian.  Not all of these authors are Civil War historians.  I never met any of these people except through their work.  Nor can I say that I always embrace their interpretations.  Nevertheless, They’ve been influential in ways worth mentioning.

Continue reading

The Reconstruction Sesquicentennial

A few weeks ago Dr. Lonnie Bunch visited the Valley of the Sun and ASU.  My colleague Matt Whitaker and I had the opportunity to sit down with him for a few hours.  As many of you may know, Dr. Bunch is the founding director  of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which plans to open its doors in 2015 … which happens to be the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.  This was no coincidence, as Dr. Bunch assured me.  During our conversation, I noted that I had read his response in the new Washington Post Civil War blog when asked about the best new book on the Civil War.  He answered by pointing to a new book on Reconstruction, Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox.  After all, Dr. Bunch reasoned, the war didn’t end in 1865, and what the war achieved, even for the generation that fought it, was not defined for another dozen years.

Now, Mr, Budiansky’s book is not the first one to point this out, and if I’d say anything about the recent outpouring of books on violence and violent incidents during Reconstruction, it is how in many cases the authors of these works did not pause to read what was already in print before they plunged into their research.  Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died is to my mind the best of these books, although one might also find useful LeeAnna Keith’s study of the Colfax massacre; I am not as enamored of Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption, a popular study of the overthrow of the Republican regime in Mississippi in 1875, because its analysis of national politics is simply uninformed (it simply rehashes William McFeely’s interpretation offered in his 1981 biography of Grant), and reviewer Sean Wilentz’s essay offered a perceptive corrective.  Moreover, I suspect this renewal of interest in the violence of Reconstruction and of the triumph of white terrorism owes more than a little to current affairs.

Continue reading


I have two reasons to celebrate this December 20th.  First, it’s the day I first became a father 19 years ago.  Nothing quite like the delivery room to remind you what’s real.  So happy birthday to Becca.

The other reason is that after pulling an all-nighter, I have sent off the pre-copy-edited text of my next book on the Civil War in the Eastern theater.  We’ve not finalized the title (the title presented on Amazon was a stand-in).  Writing can be a lot of fun, but the wrapping up of a manuscript can get tedious.  The experience was somewhat new in that I spent more time than I ever have looking at the Confederate as well as Union high command.  I’ve worked on the Yankee side of things for some time, so I was struck in reading Lee’s correspondence that we still don’t have a solid one volume biography of the Confederate general that’s grounded in a study of Lee as commander.  Yes, there’s Elizabeth Pyror’s wonderful book and Emory Thomas’s provocative biography, as well as a concise study by Brian Holden Reid, but not the kind of book that ties together Lee as a general and sets that in a broader context.

One reason I like Pryor’s book, much as I liked Joseph Ellis’s biography of Thomas Jefferson and Jane Leavy’s recent look at the life of Mickey Mantle, is that in each case the author’s attempting to look at someone through a biographical prism without taking the usual birth-to-death trek.  That said, there’s still room for that kind of book in Lee’s case.

I’m also intrigued that we really don’t have for any Union army (or, one might argue, any other Civil War army) the kind of book that reads like Douglas S. Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants, a set I prefer to his biography of Lee.  I also came across some books, some old, some new, that I might want to discuss in future entries.  But enough for now.  Tomorrow I have to return to finishing up another manuscript.  I am looking forward to a good night’s sleep, however.  How the heck did I ever pull these all-nighters before (and I’m actually feeling pretty good right now)?

War Planning in 1861: A Talk

On May 7, 2010, I spoke before the United States Capitol Historical Society.  The title of that talk was “War Planning in 1861.”  C-SPAN was there to record it, and here it is.

The fact that the USCHS was fortunate enough to have C-SPAN cover the conference suggests that perhaps it would be a good idea if more conferences began concentrating on making sure that their proceeding were taped for subsequent broadcast.  Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting links to various talks and programs where I have participated (eventually I’ll make those links into a separate page in the blog).

Recently Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory posted some video of several historians who had gathered in Charleston: the video was little more than the historians answering a few questions.  Several people wondered why the same faces were showing up again and again, and others were hinting that perhaps other people should be given a chance.  Kevin’s response was that these folks could make their own chance given current technology (and that’s what I’d take away from that exchange).  If the objective here is to have more voices offer more opinions and insight, well, that can be done, and, as I’ll suggest, there are ways to do that.

A Noun is the Name of a Thing

Writing about his early education, Ulysses S. Grant remarked on how his classroom instruction proceeded by rote and repetition until he had heard that “a noun was the name of a thing” so many times as to believe it.  Words are important, and which words we use to describe things are important.

I have been most forcibly reminded of this recently due to the flurry of activity associated with efforts by various groups to celebrate secession and offer explanations of the coming of the Civil War which minimize the role of slavery and the debate over that institution in precipitating conflict.  I expect this to continue in years to come with stories of outnumbered Confederates (presumably white as well as black … how dare some people neglect the contributions of white Confederates in their politically-correct rush to embrace black Confederates) fighting with skill and bravery for state rights and independence (and certainly not slavery) before being forced to submit to overwhelming numbers … you know the story … it’s the one we’ve heard ever since General Robert E. Lee issued General Orders No. 9 at Appomattox Court House.  For folks who cling to this tale as the only story worth telling, the war had next to nothing to do with slavery, and to say otherwise is dismissed as an exercise in political correctness.  For years people have floated different terms to express one aspect or another of this tale, from “the myth of the Lost Cause” to “neo-Confederates,” a term which I believe both means something else and something distinct from “Lost Cause.”  At Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s questioned the descriptive utility of “neo-Confederate,” a word I’ve used somewhat imprecisely myself.  As Kevin’s pointed out, there are people who brag about being neo-Confederates, which I now take to be some present manifestation of endorsing the principles of the Confederacy, identifying with the Confederacy, and expressing a vague hankering to try secession again, even if that rarely gets past some sort of boisterous verbal defiance. Y’all know who you are.

Continue reading

Gettysburg College’s New Journal: A Personal Note

Gettysburg College has long been known as a center of Civil War scholarship, and not just because of the faculty who teach there.  The college’s Civil War Institute sponsors an annual summer seminar, and undergraduates can come to Gettysburg to be a part of the Gettysburg Semester.  Now the college has gone a step further in promotion undergraduate research in the field of Civil War studies.  The first issue of The Gettysburg College Journal of Civil War Studies has just appeared: you can download it here.

I confess to being particularly interested in this inaugural issue because of the lead article, “The Visual Documentation of Antietam,” by Kristilyn Baldwin.  That’s because Ms. Baldwin happens to be my student, and this article was one product of her work under my supervision.  Congratulations to her!


Lee’s Choice at Appomattox Revisited

Sometimes it pays to read the original sources.

It is a common assumption that on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee made a choice which has rebounded to his great credit.  On that day, so we are told, the Confederate general, upon comprehending his situation, decided to meet Ulysses S. Grant to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia.  In so doing, so the story goes, he declined to continue hostilities by waging guerrilla war, and shared his reasoning about that decision with an artillerist, Edward Porter Alexander, who had proposed the guerrilla warfare option.

Not quite.

Continue reading