Gettysburg … with Tanks!

Visitors to Gettysburg may learn that the United States Army established a camp for tank training on the battlefield, known as Camp Colt, in 1918; indeed, this is what first brought Dwight D. Eisenhower to Gettysburg as a young officer.  The camp lasted less than two years; nevertheless, one can still find traces of the camp on the battlefield, the town, and Gettysburg College.

Moreover, on various staff rides over the years, visitors (including military officers) have speculated on how one might have used more modern weapons to attack or defend at Gettysburg.  Even some of the tools available at the time would have been helpful, as in the case of the observation balloon.

But now … you can explore such questions for yourself …

… wait, there’s more …

… and there you have it.

Digging Up Dirt

The Washington Post recently carried a column by Mark Feldstein concerning the issue of biographers whose mission, far from hagiography, is “pathography” — that is, a dedication to digging up dirt, as the term’s originator, Joyce Carol Oates, suggested.

I think the story here is the publication of salacious charges based upon a rather thin foundation of evidence.  If a biographer’s mission is to explain someone and what made them who they were, everything’s fair game, so long as it’s being addressed fairly, with the additional obligation to answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions.  But you may feel differently.

Battlin’ Bloggers: Honoring Lincoln in Virginia

Sometimes blogging’s a reactive activity, because other bloggers believe you should be interested in the same things they are interested in.  In some cases they presume to know what you think.  In both instances, they might be wrong.

Such is the case with a bill in the Virginia legislature to declare February 12 Abraham Lincoln Day in the commonwealth.

Kevin Levin devoted a series of posts to the subject, which you can see here, here, here, and here.  I confess that as soon as I saw the subject line, I wasn’t very interested in the issue.  Yes, Lincoln had family roots in Virginia, and state legislators offer all sorts of resolutions, but I can’t say that it stirred my interest in a week where I was busy doing other things (like my job) and where I’d rather invest my time looking at replays of various Giants-Patriots games on the NFL Network.  Frankly, the story barely passed the shrug test … and that’s about all it was worth to me.

Indeed, had I not come across a familiar name from various blogging exchanges, I would not have engaged this issue at all.  But when Kevin mentioned that Richard Williams had also discussed the issue over at his blog, I decided to pay Mr. Williams’s blog a look … something I had not done in quite some time.  Oh, I was aware that once upon a time Kevin and Mr. Williams had enjoyed exchanging viewpoints, and once Mr. Williams and I had a few exchanges of our own, but that was some time ago.

So I read what Mr. Williams had to say.

Mr. Williams says:

“And, knowing the obvious answer, why aren’t the same academics and history bloggers criticizing the Lincoln proclamation the way they criticized the CHM proclamation? I think we all know the answer.”

Pray tell.

As Mr. Williams remarks in the comments:

“But it is the issue I’m raising here about professional historians and CW bloggers. They were all in a tizzy over the CHM for leaving out some of these aspects of history but seem to have no trouble looking the other way when it comes to Lincoln.”

I guess Mr. Williams doesn’t read my blog.

That said …

Well, first, I’m unaware that there is a Lincoln proclamation in Virginia.  I understand there’s been a bill introduced calling for the establishment of a day to honor Abraham Lincoln … which is not the same thing as an actual proclamation.

Mr. Williams then asks:

“And where’s all the condemnation of ‘celebratory history?’ Seems those same academics have backslidden on their own religion of objectivity and attitudes toward heroes. Help me, I’m confused.”

Let me help straighten out the confusion, at least so far as it concerns me.  As I wasn’t interested in the bill, I had not read it.  I really didn’t care.  Now, had the governor of Virginia actually issued a proclamation, I might have paid more attention.  But a bill does not rise to the level of a proclamation.   Had Kevin not mentioned it, I would still be oblivious to it.

That said, Mr. Williams argues that the bill’s wording overlooks several aspects of the Lincoln legacy.  Let’s look at his list a bit more closely:

  • Lincoln’s fondness for black minstrel shows, his frequent use of the “N” word, and his repeating racial jokes

I think this is a bit overstated (how frequently did Lincoln use the term in question?  The word appears fourteen times in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln).  But this is a matter of degree.

  • His support of pre-Civil War “Black laws” which denied basic rights to blacks in Lincoln’s native Illinois

I would not argue with this, although Lincoln repeatedly made clear his support for equality before the law for blacks in prewar speeches.  The question concerns what he did to attack discrimination against blacks in Illinois.  I think it would be more accurate to say that he did nothing to repeal these laws.

  • His support for fugitive slave laws (returning runaways to their masters)

As the Constitution provided for the return of fugitives to their masters, Lincoln was simply supporting the Constitution.  Although he objected to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, he was willing to support a revision of that law to incorporate notions of due process and the rights of the accused.

  • His support of colonization (shipping all those of African descent to either Africa or South America)

Lincoln certainly supported colonization.  This is well known.   The debate has been over why (I think his support was sincere) and what happened to it during the war.

  • His Emancipation Proclamation Act – which actually allowed slavery to continue in states where he could have ended it, but really did nothing in states where he lacked the power to end it

Well, first of all, it’s the Emancipation Proclamation … not the Emancipation Proclamation Act.  Given Lincoln’s use of the concepts of presidential war powers and military necessity as supporting the proclamation, he argued that he could not end slavery constitutionally by proclamation in areas under the control of United States forces.  Thus Mr. Williams is chiding Lincoln for not violating the Constitution (just as he chides him for honoring the Constitution’s provision about the return of fugitive slaves). Perhaps that’s his nod in the direction of political correctness.

Mr. Williams overlooks the ways in which Lincoln worked to destroy slavery in areas under US control … namely his support for compensated emancipation; the abolition of slavery in the territories and the District of Columbia; his efforts to end slavery by state action in Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, and in the states where he established loyal governments under his policy of Reconstruction (Louisiana stands out here); and, of course, his work to secure the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1864-65.

  • His desire to keep slavery from spreading to other states and territories was motivated by his desire to protect jobs for whites

Not quite.  Most people agreed that unless slavery expanded territorially, it would be set upon the road to ultimate extinction.  Yes, there was a racial component to prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the territories, but it would be wrong to say that this was Lincoln’s primary motivation.   As for expanding slavery into free states, I think Mr. Williams is off base.  Is he saying that the states did not have the right to prohibit slavery?  Can he point to a single instance in which Lincoln opposed a measure proposed in a free state to make that state a slave state?  Indeed, can he point to measures in free states to make those states slave states?

  • His support for the Corwin amendment (expressed in March of 1861), which would have specifically codified the unfettered legality of slavery in the U.S. Constitution forever

Again, not quite.  Yes, Lincoln expressed no disagreement with the Corwin Amendment, precisely because it embodied his own understanding of the limits upon the power of the federal government concerning slavery (once more, is Mr. Williams chiding Lincoln for observing the Constitution?).  However, if you read the Corwin Amendment, you’ll see that it would have achieved far less than Mr. Williams asserts it would have.  I’ve gone over this before.

I suspect Mr. Williams’s target is somewhat different.  As he says,

“Having one set of rules for some figures and another for others simply reveals what many Americans already suspect know – that many academic historians aren’t really as objective and non-partisan as they want us all to believe. Their ‘professionalism’ has it’s limits.”

Everyone’s a cheerleader, I guess.  Anyone who offers that charge would have to apply it to their own views and their own work, which, taken to its logical extent, means that people will believe what they want to believe … or need to believe, making everyone’s sense of history nothing more than an exercise in justifying one’s own views and prejudices.

So be it.

It could have been worse (or better, depending on one’s point of view).  Mr. Williams seems obsessed by race (some people would claim that this is a sign of “political correctness”).  After all, one can say much more that is critical about Lincoln … his suppression of dissent, his handling of some of his generals, his treatment of Native Americans, and various other topics come to mind.  Yet he omitted these critical issues in his obsession with Lincoln’s racial attitudes toward blacks.

Coverup?  🙂

So much for objectivity, indeed. 🙂

UPDATE:  Robert Moore has an interesting entry detailing some of Lincoln’s Virginia connections here and more commentary on the issue here.

Assignment: Antietam Tour

Next June Mark Grimsley and I will be leading a tour of the Antietam battlefield for people who want a basic introduction to the battle.  I estimate that we have between 9:30 AM and 3:30 PM to do most if not all of what we have to do at the battlefield, with a break for lunch. We have also been asked to provide a book or two for participants to read.  There may be two buses.  That’s all the information we have.

So …

Where would you go?  What would you do at that stop?  Where might you walk?  Where/when do you break for lunch?  What readings would you assign?


Death and Remembrance

The passing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno this past weekend presented many people with a problem.  Yes, Paterno was a towering figure in college football and in Pennsylvania, and former players, broadcasters, and coaches testified to the good he did.  Yet there was also no escaping the fact that in the last ten weeks of his life he had to confront a major mistake he made in the past, that of not doing more to protect young boys from the alleged misconduct of a former assistant coach who remained a presence on campus.  No, the Sandusky saga is not over yet, but even Paterno reflected in his last days that he regretted he did not do more to stop Sandusky.  One has to keep in mind that when we hear how much Paterno did to turn college boys into men that he also did not intervene to protect younger boys who will have to deal with a different sort of legacy.  Indeed, in some corners the intensity of the outcry might lead one to believe that it was Paterno, not Sandusky, who committed these alleged acts.

So what do we make of Joe Paterno?  How do we come to terms with the entire man and assess his impact on the people around him?  Biographers face this challenge all the time.  Good ones understand that their job is not to appease hero-worshippers or wild critics, but to put everything together and let the chips fall where they may.

If there’s one thing that should be evident, it is that it is impossible to assess most people in a dispassionate way at the time of their death.  In most cases folks naturally want to pay tribute to the deceased; while some outspoken critics will voice their views, often the result sounds a bit insensitive and inappropriate, even when the criticisms have merit.  True, when someone viewed as evil by many people dies, the outpouring of jubilation and at times satisfaction is also evident (recall the reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death), but that, too, is not the best time for an overall assessment that displays an understanding of the course of his life.

I’ve been confronted by some of these very challenges when I’ve been contacted to comment on a death of a prominent political figure such as Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, two of the most polarizing figures of my lifetime as well as two of the most important presidents of the second half of the twentieth century.  One must keep in mind that one is being asked not to cast one last posthumous vote for the departed, but to step away and try, usually in a few words, to make a more insightful comment that recognizes someone’s impact and importance.  In the case of Paterno, you can see many people try to wrestle with how to react appropriately.  As time passes, people will try to make sense of what the events of the last ten weeks mean to a career that spanned decades … and they will recall that many people were calling for Paterno to step down from his coaching position for years for various reasons.  Paterno’s biographer faces quite a challenge.