News and Notes: April 29, 2012

Hi.  I’m Brooks Simpson, and you’re not.

  • From the fellow who says that he likes to joust with professors so that the crowd learns something … here’s what he has to say about the 1863 New York City draft riots: “Not to mention that the 2nd bloodiest battle of the war took place in New York City! Our friend, John Chodes, a native New Yorker, now a proud South Carolinan, wrote an excellent paper on it. The Yankees called it the “Draft Riots” when it was actually the new York State Militia the veteran Union troops, frsh from Gettysburg, were fighting. I’ll try to find it and post it.”  We can’t wait … especially the part that will describe what a fellow traveler tells us is true: “That’s right, New York was on the verge of declaring neutrality and ordering all New York troops home.  The United States navy shelled New York City during the fighting.”  I think we’ve found two of our three stooges.
  • Speaking of heritage … for all you folks who hail from planters, here’s an organization just for you.  However, this can get tricky, since some of the enslaved workforce had planter parents, so the meetings may be a little more diverse than originally anticipated.  Members of the Hemings family, step forward! H/T to Kevin Levin.
  • Not everyone in Tennessee forgets David G. Farragut.  Hey, I even recall Farragut High School from my days in Knoxville.
  • Want to know more about Ferdinand Ward, the fellow who swindled the Grant family and others?  Here you go.

The Peggy Curse

If you are a fan of NFL football and/or video game sports, you’ve doubtless heard of “the Madden Curse.”  According to the story, the player whose image graces the cover of the best-selling football video game (in part because EA Sports snagged an exclusive deal with the NFL) suffers mightily in the year to come.  This has been borne out enough times to lend to the story some tangible truth.

But it is time for NHL hockey fans to recognize another curse … the Peggy Curse.  Peggy, for those of you not in the know, is at the center of Discover Card’s advertising campaign about its customer service (I can testify that the service is indeed excellent, Discover, so where’s my ad?).  Currently several long-running ads feature NHL players (and my close personal friend, the Stanley Cup) calling customer service about a problem at the point of sale with their non-Discover cards (USA Prime Credit Card, for those who need to avoid a fictional company).  Here, for example, is Boston’s Tim Thomas:

Let’s examine this for a moment.  Tim Thomas plays for the Boston Bruins … but he’s telling us that Boston cabbies are bad news.  Trashing the home fans, Timmy?  Wonder what he thinks of cabbies in Vancouver … or Washington, DC.  There’s also an undertone of seething sexual obsession in the city that invented the tea party back in 1773.  Perhaps Thomas is sinking in the back seat like a crate of bad tea because he gave up the OT winner to Washington in the first round.  After all, once a long-suffering team finally wins something, things are never quite the same again … because with success comes expectations to repeat, and of course the Bruins came up short this spring (never underestimate how hard it is to repeat as champion … especially when you repeat three straight times).

And then there is the ad featuring the pretty boy of the Chicago Blackhawks, Patrick Kane:

Note that this commercial does not take place in a cab in, say, Buffalo.

Again, Kane was key in bringing the Stanley Cup to Chicago in 2010, which had not hoisted the silver chalice since the first spring of the Kennedy administration.  Since then, however, the Hawks have been ousted twice in the first round of the playoffs.  Why is that important, you ask?  Well, here’s the third commercial, featuring my good friend, the Stanley Cup, and one of its handlers, Phil Pritchard:

… wait, what’s that you say?  The video is “private”?  Hey, Discover!  You don’t run an ad campaign by keeping your ads private!

Perhaps that’s because Discover has learned that I’ve caught on the the Peggy Curse … because in the commercial, Pritchard’s trying to buy a plane ticket to take the Stanley Cup to Chicago.  He won’t need to do that this year.

And that’s the key to the Peggy Curse.  Once you are on the commercial, there’s no Stanley Cup in your future.  Even if there was one in your immediate past (no, Islanders fans, 1980-1983 does not count as the immediate past).

Note the wisdom of Discover in deciding that there was no need to feature players from Canadian teams.  None of them are going to win the Stanley Cup, anyway.  I’ve spent more time with the Stanley Cup since the spring of 1993 than has a single player from a Canadian-based team.  Just sayin’.

Now, given the labeling on this video, Discover has some branding issues to address:

Even Rangers fans know the difference between Discover and MasterCard.

So, folks, beware: once one of the guys from your favorite hockey team is featured on this commercial, it’s over.  You’ll all feel like fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Your team may tease you, but at best it will be one-and-done for years to come.

It could be worse.

Additional Readings on the Continuing Debate over the Continuing Debate …

I think one reason that I sounds a bit frustrated about responding to yesterday’s topic is that I’ve already responded to observations similar to those made by Gary Gallagher and Peter Carmichael.  Ironically, that, too reminds me of the pattern of some of the debates over the Black Confederate Myth (BCM … we still struggle over an appropriately descriptive label).

Here are those posts:

1.   This post, appearing on June 18, 2011, outlined the debate and the criticism leveled by one professional historian who thought that to respond to the issue was to give it credibility.

2.  This post, appearing on June 20, 2011, looked at the obligations of professional historians and suggested how to address the BCM.

3.  This post, also appearing on June 20, 2011, addressed several comments, including one made by a fellow professional.

Now that we’ve gone around the cycle again, it will be interesting to see whether there’s a third time.

The Continuing Debate About the Continuing Debate About Black Confederate Soldiers

This is my first post in 2012 concerning the debate over black Confederate soldiers.  Only it isn’t.  It is, instead, an observation about recent comments made by two good friends, Gary Gallagher and Peter Carmichael, about the debate over black Confederates, a debate they just can’t let die.

That’s right.  While bloggers continue to explore a number of issues, the commentary offered by Gary and Peter (and then well publicized by Kevin Levin) focuses on the great crime of bloggers in exciting and keeping alive the issue of black Confederate military service … by paying attention to a marginalized fringe of extremists whose minds will never be changed on that issue and who use it as an entering wedge to claim that the war somehow wasn’t about slavery and that the Confederate experience stressed racial harmony and brotherhood.  It’s reasonable to conclude that these are much more exercises in heritage than history, and we’ve already had several visible Confederate heritage advocates admit that they pick and chose from the historical record to fashion a vision of Confederate heritage to serve their present-day political, social, and cultural perspectives.

But Gary and Peter seem unable to let go of the issue of blogging and black Confederates.  True, in Peter’s case case it’s just a couple of sentences, and of course it’s those sentences that have gotten the most attention … which has the ironic effect of overshadowing the rest of the message, which I’m sure will receive attention in due time … maybe.  I’ve linked above to a transcript of Peter’s comments as offered by John Rudy through Kevin Levin’s blog.  Peter says:

So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.

Several months ago Gary devoted an entire op-ed to his feelings about blogging, and parts of that commentary received a lot of attention in certain places (although not here).  Here’s what was excerpted about his views on blogging and black Confederates:

Attention on numerous blogs can make an unworthy topic appear to be serious. The “debate” over black Confederate soldiers is a perfect example. This non-issue is kept alive, so far as I can tell, almost solely on blogs. The best bloggers have made clear from the outset, with unimpeachable evidence to back them up, that there were not thousands of black Confederate soldiers. They argued what any scholar familiar with wartime sources knows; namely, that substantial numbers of slaves accompanied Confederate armies and worked in myriad noncombatant roles, and that these men were not soldiers “serving” in the Confederate army. Like slaves who labored on fortifications or harvested crops or worked at Tredegar Iron Works, they contributed to the Confederate war effort as part of a system of forced labor that allowed the incipient slaveholding republic to mobilize a very high percentage of its white military-age population. The nearly obsessive attention lavished on Andrew and Silas Chandler strikes me as worse than unproductive because it helps keeps alive the hallucination that large numbers of black men shouldered arms in support of the southern rebellion.

Of course, to highlight such comments can make an unworthy topic appear to be serious.  Either blogging is an insignificant activity (in which case, why worry?) or it is not (in which case it says much about how some professional historians are concerned about losing control of the discourse and the privilege of agenda-setting).  To my mind, bloggers correctly grasp how students and the general public come to engage in historical inquiry in cyberspace: that includes the rather facile use of the search engine and various websites and discussion groups.  Books, magazines, and talks no longer enjoy the monopoly they once did: we now have television and the internet (note that is how we came to learn so quickly about what Peter had said).  We also have various outlets where many people, regardless of training or qualification, discuss and dispense historical interpretations and hold forth on evidence.  It’s a far richer, more diverse, more democratic, and more confusing world out there when it comes to historical “knowledge,” information, and interpretation.

For professional historians to ignore that is simply foolish.  After all, we’ve had a cottage industry grow up in Civil War studies in the past several decades: the field of memory studies.  That endeavor seeks to show how people in the past have reshaped and even distorted the historical narrative to serve various ends.  The debate over black Confederate soldiers is simply a continuation of that exercise.  Are we really to believe that professional historians think we should read what they say about this process in the past while heeding their admonition to refrain from entering that fray in the present?   Is calling attention to a flawed interpretation to be decried because it draws more attention to it?

Let me put it this way: if that’s the case, a lot of professional historians are going to be out of work.  For example, if that’s true, I never want to hear a single word about Jubal Early.  And I certainly don’t know why anyone would edit or contribute to a book like this one.  Go to the table of contents and you’ll find essays by Gary, Peter, and me, all picking on various versions of Civil War memory that are at variance with the record and detailing how that came to be.

Bloggers are simply following along the same path as memory studies, only they are commenting upon and contesting versions of memory as they emerge rather than for waiting for those versions to become entrenched in public understandings.  They have chosen to be part of the process as engaged participants rather than holding forth from the safety of their studies (which, of course, is where I sit as I type this).  They do other things as well and have chosen additional ways to engage a public in a forum that can be free-wheeling, fast-paced, and sometimes very rough.  After all, they also do the usual things: they write, they teach, they speak.

In short, this is a non-issue that has been kept alive by some caustic commentary that makes for ideal blog fodder as well as a few smug snickers from a select group of professional historians (some of whom would not know a wider audience if it slapped them in the face).  Both Gary and Peter have established themselves as major interpreters of Civil War history, and Peter himself recognizes the importance of blogging, because he’s arranged for a session of bloggers at this summer’s session of the Civil War Institute.  And, as Gary says, bloggers do good work: “The best bloggers have made clear from the outset, with unimpeachable evidence to back them up, that there were not thousands of black Confederate soldiers.”  I’d argue that this helps to explain why that debate has subsided.

Both Gary and Peter are good guys, which is why I’m a bit puzzled by all this (Peter’s even commented on Kevin Levin’s blog).  But I think Gary’s absolutely wrong when he declares that “The nearly obsessive attention lavished on Andrew and Silas Chandler strikes me as worse than unproductive because it helps keeps alive the hallucination that large numbers of black men shouldered arms in support of the southern rebellion.”  It strikes me as quite the opposite, just as the attention given to that image of the 1st Louisiana Native Guards that demonstrated that it was a fraudulent image did good work. The efforts of several people to discredit the popular tale of the Chandler Boys has effectively disabled it as Exhibit A for advocates who claim that African Americans served in large numbers as soldiers in the Confederate army and that they did so out of a common identification with their white comrades as to what the Confederacy was all about.  To my mind that’s no different than questioning LaSalle Pickett’s letters or the writings of a Jubal Early.  They are all exercises in investigating, deconstructing, and interpreting Civil War memory.

So we’ve got to move ahead.  One thing that some professional historians who do not blog have a hard time understanding is that the battle over public understandings of history as represented on and transmitted through the internet is not won, even if the interpretive battle over black Confederate soldiers has already been won by bloggers.  Certainly there remain pockets of professional historians out there who seem uncomfortable with blogging (unless they want to do it through the Washington Post‘s failing effort in that direction), but perhaps we as bloggers are bringing undue attention to those pockets of resistance.  Surely it’s just a handful of historians who find fault with the whole enterprise and who unwittingly bring us back, again and again, to the issue of black Confederate military service even as they claim that it is settled by doing what some historians do best: discussing the debate about the issue and crafting broad generalizations and assertions with no empirical support for what people think, say, and feel.  That’s not an issue among bloggers; that’s not an issue with most professional historians; but it really is an issue with a small but vocal minority.

It shouldn’t be.

So, in the words of Ulysses S. Grant, who was born this day 190 years ago … let us have peace.  Otherwise, I’ll fight it out on this line if it takes all summer … starting with the 2012 Civil War Institute.

Race on Ice (and in the Stands)

Last night the Washington Capitals defeated the Boston Bruins 2-1 in overtime to win their first round Stanley Cup series.  Joel Ward scored the overtime winner, banging in a rebound past Tim Thomas.

I thought that the goal might prove controversial given the contact between Washington forward Mike Knuble and Thomas: it seemed to me that the collision between the two left Thomas unable to do much to stop Ward’s shot.  A few people agreed, but there was nothing said about that on the broadcast.  Nor was there anything said about the fact that Joel Ward is of African descent.

At least, not on the air.  In cyberspace, where everyone becomes brave behind a keyboard, not everyone let Ward’s race go unnoticed.  Several Bruins fans were so upset that they went ballistic … and raciston Twitter.  That’s right … Twitter.

(Anyone who thinks that I overlook racism in the North will have to revise that claim.)

The owner of the Capitals denounced the taunts; so did Bruins management in a blunt if brief statement.  Ward dismissed the comments: “We won, and we are moving on. People are going to say what they want to say.”

Of course, in the response to the racist outburst by some Bruins fans (and, one speculates, some non-Bruins fans), some other people began to lash back at Bruins fans, period.  There was some justice in this, as a good number of Bruins fans (joined by other fans) had derided Vancouver Canucks hockey fans at the conclusion of last year’s Stanley Cup finals, when some Canucks fans (joined, one suspects, by people who couldn’t care less about hockey) rioted and looted through their home city in the aftermath of their Game Seven defeat in the Finals (a riot that was something to follow on Twitter as well).  So turnabout seemed to be fair play if nothing else.  It took some time for folks to understand that a few bad apples don’t necessarily spoil the whole bunch, although they sure don’t help sell the product.  One Yahoo Sports columnist made that point rather well in a column.  Others seemed torn between the temptation to retaliate and the realization that it may be best to ignore such bigotry.  Another commentator made more complex and to my mind problematic points.

We see the same thing all the time when discussing southern “heritage” advocates.   I’ve anticipated the point made by the Yahoo columnist, Harrison Mooney, and do what I can to make sure that when I’m writing about some Confederate heritage activists, I’m focusing on certain individuals, not everyone who is seeking ways to recognize what they define as Confederate heritage (enough with conflating this with southern heritage).  Those people I criticize would like you to believe otherwise in an effort to play the victim and gain sympathy in some quarters–thus all this tripe about Dixie-bashing and evilizing the South and similar garbage that reflects their own attitude formed by fear, bitterness, and hatred (along with a strong dose of ignorance and stupidity).  But SCV members chat with me all the time, and they know better.  That said, it also behooves those very people who deplore the association of Confederate heritage with such people to make public their disgust with such folks when their language smacks of racism, bigotry, and/or violent threats.

Me?  I admit I thought along racial lines when Ward scored against Thomas (although that came later, when I was reflecting on what had happened: to me it was first and foremost a hockey play, period, and these thoughts did not come until I was becoming bored by Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick jabbering away on a postgame show).  After all, Thomas had snubbed President Barack Obama by not accompanying his team to the White House earlier this year in the traditional US Stanley Cup championship team meets president ceremony (a tradition started by the New York Islanders during the Reagan administration).  His grounds were explicitly political.  Washington fans had not forgotten.  So I wondered whether people would note that a black man representing Washington achieved a form of payback by beating Thomas … especially one wearing #42.  That would be even more ironic given that it was the Bruins who were the first team to have a player of African descent play for them when Willie O’Ree joined the club back in 1958.  Nah, I thought, that’s just the overactive mind of a historian who happens to be a hockey fan (or a hockey fan who happens to be a historian) … no one else would see it this way (it’s been a long term complaint that the president has not appeared at a Capitals game).  Apparently some did (at least partially, although I don’t think I’ve seen mention of Ward’s jersey number).  As for the rest, no, I didn’t anticipate it.  Sometimes my desire to think better of people obscures a sadder reality about some of them.  Maybe that’s why skeptics are never disappointed, only surprised.

Surrender at Bennett Place

People observe the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, all the time.  It’s not unusual to hear people say that Lee’s surrender to Grant ended the Civil War … although, of course, it didn’t.  Neither did the negotiations that ended with the formal surrender of the Confederate forces under Joseph E. Johnston’s command to William T. Sherman on April 26, 1865, at what is now called Bennett Place in North Carolina, just outside of Durham.

The document signed on April 26th was actually the second document signed by Sherman and Johnston.  The first, signed April 18th, sparked a great deal of controversy.  In it William T. Sherman, the man who supposedly abhorred politics, went far beyond his authority to frame a document which read more like a peace settlement.  He did so following a discussion with Johnston; the Union general also reportedly offended Confederate Secretary of War (and major general) John C. Breckenridge by refusing to offer him a nip from his bottle (note that it was Sherman, not Grant, who was partaking on the day of a surrender negotiation).   Moreover, apparently we should call Bennett Place Bennitt Place, since the family name appears to have been Bennitt.

Sherman’s original terms were approved by Jefferson Davis … but not by the president Sherman needed to impress, Andrew Johnson.  News of the terms arrived in Washington the very day that the funeral train bearing the body of Abraham Lincoln departed the nation’s capital for Springfield.  It was left to Ulysses S. Grant to steer a middle course between rejection and an effort to defame Sherman as a lunatic or a traitor led by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.  Grant made his way to North Carolina, and one sees in the text of the second and final terms a document that closely resembles the one Grant prepared for Lee weeks earlier.  It is noteworthy that Johnston defied the wishes of his president in agreeing to the revised document.

The negotiations between Sherman and Johnston reveal just how complicated issues of war and peace might get.  For months politicians had failed to reach a final settlement, leaving it to the commanders in the field to work things out.  Grant had a far better political ear than did Sherman, whose contempt for professional politicians, the press, and public opinion often landed him in hot water, and never more so than in the spring of 1865.  Aware that he was not “fully empowered” to frame his initial agreement, Sherman nevertheless plunged ahead, and it is worthwhile to read the actual document in order to understand how far he had gone beyond the proper scope of military authority.

And yet, when one looks carefully at the agreement … would its implementation have been all that different from how white southerners implemented Andrew Johnson’s policy in 1865?  Oh, sure, there are differences in the details … but would there have been all that much difference in the result?