“Evilizing” and Other Ironies

I must admit to being bemused and amused at the repeated chanting I hear from cyberspace Confederate heritage advocates that a group of Civil War bloggers are out to “evilize” the South, (white) southerners, and the Confederacy. The advocates of this position assert it so many times that I have no choice but to believe that they think it is true. That they do so seems bizarre and more than a little pathetic. It also seems more than a little ironic, since a reading of their discussion groups and websites suggest that they are the ones interested in making moral judgments and “evilizing” “the North,” northerners (all of them), the NAACP, and anyone else who disagrees with them, including fellow white southerners. This pathological projection of their own emotional state onto others is amazing to behold and astonishing in its extent.

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Academic Historians, Civil War History, and Blogging

One of the characteristics of blogging that I view with ambivalence is the practice of blogging about blogging. I know that some bloggers like to discuss this issue every once in a while, and some have offered powerful cases for the importance of social media as a way for historians to communicate. I’m not so sure I want to join that chorus, although I agree that historians ignore social media and the internet at their peril given how people interested in history go about gathering information and opinions.

I admit that I feel a bit ill at ease about being on a panel on blogging at next month’s Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College …. not because of the company (Kevin Levin and Keith Harris) but because it’s not clear what I have to say. I try not to tell other historians what they should and should not be doing, and in the case of blogging, I’ve already heard complaints about this session from non-academic bloggers who feel excluded. I’m surprised I haven’t heard anyone complain that it’s Charlottesville-centric (or that Gettysburg College and the University of Virginia share the same school colors). My purposes in blogging are mine, and others may have different ones. However, the impact of blogging (on bloggers as well as on the audience and the discussion) is interesting, and I must confess that after years of engaging with carious forms of social media, blogging is my preferred venue of communication (although I remain fond of the well-moderated discussion group).

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Stephen Vincent Benet on the Army of the Potomac

I thought readers might like to look at this excerpt from Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, a rather impressive work, in which he discusses the Army of the Potomac, looking forward from the spring of 1862 …

Army of the Potomac, advancing army,
Alloy of a dozen disparate, alien States,
City-boy, farm-hand, bounty-man, first volunteer,
Old regular, drafted recruit, paid substitute,
Men who fought through the war from First Bull Run,
And other men, nowise different in look or purpose,
Whom the first men greeted at first with a ribald cry
“Here they come! Two hundred dollars and a ka-ow!”
Rocks from New England and hickory-chunks from the West,
Bowery boy and clogging Irish adventurer,
Germans who learnt their English under the shells
Or didn’t have time to learn it before they died.
Confused, huge weapon, forged from such different metals,
Misused by unlucky swordsmen till you were blunt
And then reforged with anguish and bloody sweat
To be blunted again by one more unlucky captain
Against the millstone of Lee.

Good stallion,
Ridden and ridden against a hurdle of thorns
By uncertain rider after uncertain rider.
The rider fails and you shiver and catch your breath,
They plaster your wounds and patch up your broken knees,
And then, just as you know the grip of your rider’s hands
And begin to feel at home with his horseman’s tricks,
Another rider comes with a different seat,
And lunges you at the bitter hurdle again,
And it beats you again–and it all begins from the first,
The patching of wounds, the freezing in winter camps,
The vain mud-marches, the diarrhea, the wastage,
The grand reviews, the talk in the newspapers,
The sour knowledge that you were wasted again,
Not as Napoleons waste for a victory
But blindly, unluckily–
until at last
After long years, at fish-hook Gettysburg,
The blade and the millstone meet and the blade holds fast.

And, after that, the chunky man from the West,
Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved
As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,
Takes you and uses you as you could be used,
Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.
You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,
But at the last you can trust him. He slaughters you
But he sees that you are fed. After sullen Cold Harbor
They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,
But you have had other butchers who did not win
And this man wins in the end.

You see him standing,
Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.
You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer
But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.
Ulysses is all right. He can finish the job.”
And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review
And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever.

Give George B. McClellan a Break

At present we are observing the 150th anniversary of George B. McClellan’s attempt to take Richmond in 1862.  I haven’t seen much written about it.  I expect we’ll see something soon, starting with the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s taking charge of the Army of Northern Virginia.  At that point McClellan will become the target of criticism and the subject of a good number of jokes.

It’s easy to make jokes about McClellan.  I should know.  Earlier this month, in delivering a paper about how Grant won his third star, I observed that several speakers cast aspersions on McClellan, and even I raised some questions about him.  Someone in the audience had the audacity to ask about why, if McClellan was such a poor general, did he have such an impressive equestrian statue on Connecticut Avenue (a statue recently restored to its original toy soldier green … not sure I like it).  I pointed out that while many of McClellan’s soldiers may have admired him, the soldier vote went overwhelmingly for Lincoln in 1864 (I would venture that the officer vote, at least in the Army of the Potomac, was much more even) and mentioned the old saw about the two roads going northward from the rear of the statue to allow McClellan to commence a change of base.  Someone else added that the monument’s placement was much further away from the downtown area than were the monuments to other Civil War heroes, although I wonder whether that could be explained in part by time of death (John A. Rawlins has a statue quite near the White House, if you know where to look, but I don’t think that location indicates his importance to anyone but Grant).  Later on, feeling that I’d been unfair to Little Mac, I recounted Grant’s rather even-handed, even generous assessment of him.  However, I fear, the damage had been done.

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My Trip to Appomattox (part two)

(For part one, see here)

Following lunch in Appomattox, we headed to the brand new Museum of the Confederacy’s Appomattox facility.  It’s only appropriate to note that I visited it with Jeff Davis (really) and his wife, Janet (not Varina).  The museum is west of the Appomattox Court House NHS, on the northeast corner of the junction of Virginia State Route 24 and US 460.

The building largely stands alone … the vegetation has not really taken, and one hopes that down the road the building will be framed by more trees.


As you walk to the entrance you see fifteen flags …. fourteen state flags (representing the states that contributed soldiers to the Confederacy) as well as the current United States national colors.  Along the brick roadway you see several paved stone rectangles … each commemorating an event, a state, or a person (and each offering a donor opportunity).  Here’s one example:

I looked westward in vain to see some people who have taken a great interest in the museum.  Perhaps one day they’ll contribute a marker outlining their stand.  For now, however, the hillside they occupied is bare.

The real action is inside the building.  As you enter the museum, you encounter the sword Robert E. Lee wore when he surrendered his army to Grant.  Elsewhere there are various uniforms (including the uniform coat Lee wore that fateful Palm Sunday) as well as a good number of Confederate flags.  Clearly the Museum of the Confederacy has taken advantage of the opportunity to display its holdings.  Nearly half of the walking area addresses the retreat from Richmond and the pursuit to Appomattox, the surrender, and the postwar period, including a very interesting display about Appomattox itself, featuring a discussion of whether to construct a rather large monument near the McLean House in the 1930s (thankfully, this was not done).

The museum walks a fine line throughout its displays.  The MOC does not shy away from discussing slavery, secession, and the Confederacy, including the last-gasp effort to enroll slaves in Confederate ranks as combat soldiers.  It addresses the home front as well as the experience of the common soldier, balancing that with the artifacts of far more prominent Confederates.  Yet, for those who like uniforms, weapons, and flags, there’s much to see as well.  The number (and condition) of the various Confederate flags on display (including several that are stored in a flag cabinet, where one has to pull out a drawer to see the flag up close) is impressive.  Touch-screen displays allow one to design one’s own Confederate national flag (with examples from the period) and to look at images of the flags surrendered at Appomattox.  Currently the museum has a special exhibit on how the Confederate flag has been used throughout the last 150 years that has its moments of humor (and I’d argue that RuPaul would feel right at home in that exhibit, although perhaps a life-size image was a tad too much).

If you are interested in an introduction to the history of the Confederacy, this is one place to start.  It manages to address the concerns of various audiences.  Yes, there are an abundance of artifacts; yes, the role of slavery is given due attention; yes, we learn something about the last days of the Army of Northern Virginia, its surrender, and a brief look at events in the last 150 years that does not shy away from areas of controversy.  Over time, I’m sure the museum will develop its displays as it discovers different ways to tell the stories it wants to tell and to allow visitors to wrestle with several key questions without overpowering them with a particular point of view.



My Trip to Appomattox (part one)

Recently I had occasion to travel to Appomattox to visit the site where Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant.  I’ve been to the NPS site before (several times), but there’s a new attraction in town that I’d thought I’d stop by and visit as well.  More on that later.

Appomattox Court House NHS is a partially reconstructed version of the little hamlet that became famous one spring day in 1865.  The two most famous buildings there are reconstructed: the court house itself (which is now park headquarters and a museum) and Wilmer McLean’s home, which had once been dissembled to take on tour.  You can visit the essential park in a few hours; however, there’s more to see if you plan for a somewhat longer visit.  In this case, I planned a brief (for me) visit … I did not even walk out to Surrender Triangle or the site where Grant and Lee met on April 10, although I’ve done that before.  Nor did I visit several other locations along the road that now bypasses the site (for example, the location of the famous apple tree where Lee received a note from Grant).  I suggest that if you have not visited the area that you set aside some time to visit these areas as well.

Here I am on the porch of the McLean house.  Yes, that’s a Yankees cap.

Inside the house you can see where Grant sat …

. . .and where Lee sat:

However, the pieces of furniture are reproductions … the real deal is elsewhere (see comments).

It is not a particularly big room, by the way, and it must have felt crowded with Grant’s staff officers and several generals present.  Lee was accompanied by a single aide, Charles Marshall, his other aide (Walter H. Taylor) having bowed out.

Then there is the famed court house …

Behind the court house one can look off into the distance and see Surrender Triangle to the east:

West of the small town one comes across two very interesting sites.  The first is this marker, which engages in a bit of distortion:

The number of Confederates who surrendered at Appomattox was over triple what is declared here.  Many were not armed, as soldiers had cast away their weapons, a sign of just how beleaguered Lee’s men had become.

Near this marker is a small cemetery.  It is called a Confederate cemetery, and indeed all but one of its occupants were Confederates.  Howver, there is one Yankee interred there:

Something to think about.

More soon

The Essential Antietam Tour

Next month Mark Grimsley and I will lead a tour of the Antietam battlefield for Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute.  The tour is designed to give participants an overview of the battle.  As those of you who have visited the battlefield know, a traditional tour follows a north-to-south pattern, echoing the course of the battle; I find that connecting the action in the West Woods, the Dunker Church, and the Bloody Lane to be the biggest challenge for people to visualize at first encounter.

What would you do to help introduce visitors to the Antietam battlefield?  I’ll share some of the answers Mark and I have agreed upon, but first I’d like to hear from you.

Mt. McGregor (part two of two)

Here are two more videos about visits to Mt. McGregor:

This second video commences with a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York … which we also visited last June.  Lots of Yankees to be seen there, as well as a portrait of Abner Doubleday.

And, as an added bonus, one might want to explore this website to learn more about a forthcoming book on Ulysses S. Grant.