Just Do It: Academic Historians and the General Public

There has been some chatter recently on academic historians’ blogs about how Americans view history and historians as well as the academic historian’s role as public intellectual and educator.  I’d love to share with you one of the online essays that started this all, but (how delightfully ironic) it is behind a paywall, limiting its exposure to dues-paying members of the American Historical Association.  Several responses are more readily available: I direct you here and here (which follows here, so you can get some idea of the content of the original remarks).

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It’s Quiz Time!

Kevin Levin posted today about Virginia’s Standards of Learning Test, offering a sample of one question on the exam for fourth graders that raised far more questions than it was designed to answer.

Perhaps he should not have stopped here.  Here are some learning aids for one Virginia county’s “alternative learning center.”

Here’s a Concentration-style matching test.  Or try this matching test.  You can find more here.

As for Virginia’s history standards across the state, click here.  There’s a lot to examine, if one is so inclined.

Research Project: Dr. Lewis H. Steiner’s Account

In the continuing discussion over black Confederates, one piece of evidence that receives much attention is Dr. Lewis H. Steiner’s account of events in Frederick, Maryland in September 1862.  An inspector for the US Sanitary Commission, Steiner witnessed the passage of Confederate forces through the town, and left us with a description of their appearance and composition.

His entry of September 10, 1862, has received especial attention, because of his report that some 3,000 blacks were part of the Confederate force that day.  Steiner estimated that the Confederate force he saw that day numbered at most 64,000 men (including the 3,000 blacks); most discussions overlook the fact that the next day Steiner claimed to see another division of some 8,000 pass through the streets (he does not specify if the Hill in question is Daniel Harvey Hill or Ambrose P. Hill).  So that’s a Confederate force of 72,000 men, which seems to be a lot more than the size of the force that fought at Antietam on September 17.

It occurred to me that not many people have read the entire document, and they have not weighed its value as historical testimony.  The link offered above offers a gateway to a PDF of Steiner’s account.  Here’s your chance to be a historian.  Tell us in the comments what you find.

Another Research Exercise: Confederates on Black Slaves as Confederate Combat Troops

And now it’s time for another research exercise …

There’s been a rather lively discussion over the past several years over the presence of enslaved blacks in the ranks of the Confederate army, what role they played, whether they were combat troops, and so on.  Let’s set aside for the moment the question of the significance of all this.  All I’m interested in now is a simple thing:

Can anyone offer evidence of a Confederate soldier writing about enslaved blacks serving as Confederate combat troops?

I know I’m not the only person to rise this point, and it’s not the first time I’ve raised it.  In fact, it’s been raised with increasing frequency.  But there’s no harm in asking, right?

Please share your findings in the comments section.  Thanks.


What Lincoln Said at Charleston … in Context (part one)

People anxious to portray Abraham Lincoln as a racist quote with gusto a portion of his remarks during the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858, where he said:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

There it is, plain as day. Lincoln asserts that “there is a physical difference” between whites and blacks that he believes “will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality,” and, given that fact, he is “in favor” of assigning “the superior position … to the white race.”  (By the way, Harold Holzer’s edition of the debates notes no difference between the accounts of these remarks offered by the Democratic Chicago Times or the Republican Chicago Tribune.)

Now, if we left it there–as so many people do–one would easily conclude that Lincoln harbored racial prejudices and believed in white supremacy, although the last sentence is a fairly roundabout way of saying that.

And that would not be very good history, although it would be an incomplete history and at best a partial understanding.

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Reflections on an Interview

In 2000 the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed me about neo-Confederate distortions of Civil War history.  The interview came the year before David Blight’s Race and Reunion appeared, and years before blogs became an established part of the scholarly landscape.  I recall that many of the people who seemed to pay the most attention to the piece were folks who espoused the arguments I was challenging.  If you read the piece, you’ll see that several of the themes people argue about today are far from new, and they’ve been contested for some time.

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Recapping a Controversy

At the beginning of this week, I had laid out plans for a few simple posts on matters related to the Civil War.  Little did I know what I would encounter moments after I turned on my iPad Monday morning.  As I’ve said elsewhere, This Was the Week That Was.  And it’s only Thursday.

We are left with a few questions.  We’ve had a confession and a recantation which contained allegations.  That seems unresolved.  We’ve had a press release breaking a story that simply led to more questions.  Those questions have not been answered.  We’ve had a lot of discussion about accountability and speculation about who knew what when or who should have known what when.  Finally, when all of this was about to recede, we had a discussion over who should be ashamed, prolonging all of this another day.

Maybe by tomorrow the discussion will recede, at least until several unanswered questions are answered.  We’ll see.  I believe that all that could be said has been said absent new information.  But I could be wrong.

I’ve created a new category for the posts addressing these matters.  It took me some time to come up with a phrase that would not in itself add to the controversy.  I’ve chosen “Lincoln Pardon Controversy” as the best way to do that for now.  We’ll see.

Thanks for reading and contributing.

Harold Holzer’s Excellent Diversion

In the scandal that keeps on giving, I now present for your inspection Harold Holzer’s recent entry commenting on the charges against Dr. Thomas P. Lowry on the New York Times Civil War blog, Disunion.

Holzer offers two arguments.  First, historians should be “ashamed” of themselves in this affair.  Not Lincoln scholars, not academics, not Civil War historians, but “the entire historical profession.”  Second, the impact of Dr. Lowry’s reported deception in doctoring a date on a Lincoln endorsement was to contribute to a myth of a kinder, gentler Lincoln, instead of the determined Commander-in-Chief he was in real life … a man who supported many measures to make warfare more violent and more lethal.

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Some Good News: The Wilderness Battlefield and Walmart

It’s a pleasure to convey this morning’s news that Walmart has reconsidered its plans to build upon land adjacent to the Wilderness battlefield.  The Civil War Trust issued a statement on the matter: newspaper reports shed some light on the reasons for Walmart’s decision.

Another battlefield preservation controversy seems to have reached an important point.  Note that I did not say that it was over.  Walmart will build in the area, along State Route 3.

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Asking Questions of the National Archives

Yesterday in Bull Runnings Harry Smeltzer shared some of his thoughts about the evolution of the Lowry affair and its implications.  Reminding readers that he had once been a corporate internal auditor, he added that he conceived of his job as “one who wants to find out how an act can in the first place be committed and in the second go undetected” (I’m sure there’s a word or two missing here that Harry would put in upon revision, but I’m quoting, and I understand his message).  He then described how he had contacted various friends who were (or had been) associated with the National Archives (NARA) in one way or another over the years.  How did someone sneak a pen into the Archives?  Was it because the Lowrys had gained people’s trust, and so they were not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as would someone just coming in the Archives for the first time?  And why did the Archives announce the “find” in 1998 with a press release, and then highlight the document in years to come, only now to ask questions about it?

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