Sometimes It’s The Questions You Ask (And Don’t) That Matter (Or Don’t)

I must admit that when I came across the following poll question from Harry Smeltzer’s blog that I did not understand its function or purpose.

From whom do you think most people will learn about the American Civil War period?

The choices were: Others without an advanced degree in history (through their speaking and/or research and writing online or in print); Public Historians (through their work at museums and sites/speaking and/or research and writing online or in print); and Academic Historians (through teaching/speaking and/or research and writing online or in print).

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Reading, Speaking, Writing, and Thinking Carefully

We are now five days removed from the end of five days of horror in Boston. An event such as what happened on April 15 at the Boston Marathon and continued for the next four days (and in various ways still continues) affects someone like me in a number of different ways. You react as a person, horrified at the event and worried about people in the area. You react as an American who ponders what happened and why. And, in my case, you also respond as a historian (and a teacher), processing events and accounts (both correct and incorrect) as you look to understand what’s happening in a broader context, including a historical one.

important if true headlineIt was gripping and fascinating to follow the course of events during the manhunt for the accused perpetrators on Thursday and Friday. What happened (as well as what happened the entire week) reminded me of that time-honored Civil War newspaper headline, seen to the left. I found the most useful sources of information to be local news coverage and Twitter. Indeed, I could ask my own questions about events on Twitter and gain useful information in response. Some people on Twitter proved to be a little careless and thoughtless, of course, relaying information captured from police scanners: I was reminded of how William T. Sherman tried a reporter for relaying information in his newspaper reports that could be of good use to the enemy (both sides used the press of the opposing side to good effect most of the time). One had to sort through the incoming information, make sure not to rush to any conclusions, and discern the reliability and prudence of various Twitter contributors. I found the result more satisfying and informative than what was coming across on national television feeds.

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Survey Says …

Over at Bull Runnings, Harry Smeltzer’s operating a survey, and it offers an interesting opportunity to learn something about readership and expectations. You see, Harry’s concerned about the future of Civil War history, too.  Indeed, not long ago he spoke on the topic “The Future of Civil War History From a Slightly Different Point of View” to an audience in North Carolina. Here’s his picture of that audience:


Now he’s offering two polls (perhaps with more to come … I’ll keep you updated) to survey the opinion of his blog’s readers.

Poll question number one: “How do you think most people will learn about the American Civil War period?”

Poll question number two: “From whom do you think most people will learn about the American Civil War period?”

You might want to visit Harry’s blog to cast your vote. In the interest of gathering even more information, I’ve decided to offer the same polls here (perhaps our audiences are different, even if there is overlap).

I admit I might have cast these polls differently, but that’s a different discussion, and besides there is merit in simply presenting the same poll in two different places.

Grant and Dominican Annexation

Between 1869 and 1871 Ulysses S. Grant openly advocated the annexation of the Dominican Republic by the United States. He did not share all of his reasons with the American people. Yes, Grant believed in several traditional reasons for American imperialism, including access to raw materials and the presence of a possible US naval base and coaling station in Samana Bay. However, he kept to private conversation another reason for his interest in acquiring the Caribbean republic: that of offering African Americans economic leverage as they fended off the efforts of white southerners to deny them equal rights. Those efforts included terrorism, but there were other ways in which a good number of white southerners resisted black freedom (this is not to say that there wasn’t racism among northern whites, too, but that matter did not figure into this particular discussion).

Grant’s reasoning went as follows: many southern whites continued to resist black freedom and black equality, but realized that the South’s properity rested upon the utilization of black labor.  The failure of confiscation and redistribution to take hold during the Johnson administration (in large part because of Johnson’s active opposition) meant that blacks encountered significant obstacles in finding opportunities to seek land ownership and a significant degree of economic independence. Lacking economic leverage, blacks found it more difficult to counter white resistance to their quest for equal rights and political participation.

By acquiring the Dominican Republic, Grant reasoned, the United States could offer blacks a different sort of economic leverage. They could move to the Dominican Republic while remaining United States citizens (this is a critical distinction between Lincoln’s colonization plans and Grant’s desire for annexation). This way they could escape white repression and violence. Should southern whites understand that their hostile actions against blacks might well deprive the South of a labor force, Grant reasoned, they might change their behavior and make other concessions in an effort to persuade blacks to remain.

As we all know, annexation failed, although the debate over it revealed fissures in Republican ranks; the ensuing intraparty feud helps explain the rise of the Liberal Republican movement and sparked Grant to develop some political skill in mobilizing congressional support for administration initiatives (this was especially evident in the Senate). For the moment, however, let’s set that aside and ask some simple questions. Was this idea feasible? Was it wise? Had annexation happened, how would thinks turned out differently during Reconstruction, if at all? What does the proposal as well as its failure (which had much to do with race and racial attitudes) tell us about Reconstruction America?

Here We Go Again … Courtesy of C-SPAN 3

For those of you who can’t get enough of me, C-SPAN 3 will be televising the banquet address I gave at the Abraham Lincoln Association’s February 12, 2013 banquet, in which I stood in for Stephen Carter, who found his efforts to come to Springfield thwarted by poor weather and its legacy.  The program will air at 8:30 AM and 7:30 PM Eastern time on Sunday, April 21. I’ll provide a link once it is available for those of you who don’t have access, although you can always catch C-SPAN 3 live here.

C-SPAN 3 cobbled together a title for its own purposes, but the address concerns Lincoln’s use of public letters to discuss the issues of conscription, dissent, emancipation, and the enlistment of blacks in the armies of the United States in 1863. For the two letters in question, see his letter to Erastus Corning and his letter to James Conkling.

Note: Al Mackey does not appear in this video. Neither does Peter Carmichael’s scarf. I apologize in advance.

UPDATE: Link here.

News and Notes, April 19, 2013

It’s Friday …

  • For those of you wanting an update on the case of arrested Virginia Flagger Tripp Lewis, look here.
  • For those of you who want to look at who did (and did not) contribute to Lewis’s defense fund, look here. Apparently some people decided not to put their money where their mouths are. Actions speak louder than words …
  • But here’s another case where people have an opportunity to put their money where there mouth is: support H. K. Edgerton and Kirk Lyons as they plan to sue the United States government. A tip of the hat to Andy Hall.
  • Now why would you suspect folks who talk of “the ‘Jungle Campaign’ here in Zimbabwe on de Alabamy” and “Guess ole Sherrette is smarter than the average monkey!” of being racist? Look at what they say here about that. Personally, I always enjoy Confederate heritage advocates to cite the Fourteenth Amendment. Guess they didn’t read all of it or understand why it’s there.
  • For those of you in Texas interested in having a pretty licence plate, look here. Sorry about that.
  • Oh, just enjoy.

The Black Confederate Myth: The Case of Norris White, Jr., and Primus Kelly

Andy Hall’s at it again.

Today he offers something most advocates of the black Confederate myth fail to present — research — to offer evidence that yet another in a long series of fanciful tales might not be what its proponents say it is.

The case involves the claims of Norris White, Jr., a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin University, who has made some very interesting assertions about the Confederate military service of blacks from Texas, including the statement that some 50,000 blacks from that state participated in the Confederate military effort, a number that outstrips the actual number of enslaved males in Texas between 15 and 50 years of age. I’m waiting for claims of enslaved women from Texas who served with the CSA (note we haven’t heard that theme advanced yet).

Mr. White has done a good deal to establish himself as an authority on this matter, drawing plaudits from some; elsewhere, however, his assertions have come under scrutiny. Andy Hall’s post today adds to that scrutiny, and I direct you to it. Most notable is the tired old tale of how a slave accompanied his master’s son (or, in this case, three “sweet southern boys”) to war as some sort of de facto brother and playmate. Hall’s research suggests that such an inference may not be warranted in the case of Primus Kelly; his post also illustrates how certain people embellish certain stories to advance their own agenda.

Readers of this blog know the drill by now. One could have bet and won easy money on the proposition that “Border Ruffian” would make an appearance in Andy’s comment’s section, where he would offer yet more unsubstantiated claims (and Andy reminds him that he’s still waiting for evidence to support another one of BR’s claims); I will hear from several indignant academics (including those who claim that they don’t read or talk about this blog) who will be furious that I gave such people as Mr. White the time of day, and thus it’s my fault that anyone is discussing black Confederates (which ignores the untidy fact that Mr. White is in training to become a professional historian); reasonable people will be impressed with Andy’s research; we’ll hear nothing from a certain Harvard professor who claims to be quite interested in this subject, although I’ve never seen any actual research from him; and the Confederate “heritage” crowd will go to ranting and raving on their Facebook groups, hit blogs, and so on, because to them it’s heritage, not history.

To all I say … carry on.