Even More Ranting …

Several readers of this blog have drawn my attention to yet another rant about me from an unhappy fellow blogger.

Brooks Simpson is a paragon for an underlying fault among many academic historians identified by Harvard’s Gordon Wood that might explain why Simpson thinks publishers have been “duped” into issuing my books and articles:

… many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.


First … although Gordon S. Wood received his PhD from Harvard, he taught at Brown University until his retirement. Gordon and I met way back in 1986 during a convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, and ate at a Pizza Hut. As I was but a graduate student at the time, I doubt he remembers the meal: I did because the first book I read as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia was his The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969). Those of you familiar with the book will recognize why I would remember that assignment.

Second, I said that the blogger in question “is a very funny person posing as a student of the American Civil War. He’s duped other people and publishers into believing the same thing.” You would think that someone pretending to be a qualified historian would render a quote and its meaning correctly, but then in this case that’s much too much to ask.

Having established the level of competence of my critic, let’s now look at the major charge: that I’m “obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history.”

Ah, yes. A biographer of famous and powerful dead white men in presidential, political, and military history is obsessed with inequality and white privilege. We await the citing of actual examples from my work … oh, that’s right … only a real scholar would support an accusation with evidence, and, once again, that might be too much to expect in this particular case.

I have also been accused with being obsessed with race, class, and gender. Clearly an interest in those subjects, in the eyes of my critic, would simply mark me as engaging in “incestuous conversations.”

Now, you’ll point out that Gordon Wood used those words, and I concur. What we’ve seen in recent years is that certain bloggers, including those who whine and yammer about political correctness, evil Yankees, and so on, have taken to citing Wood’s essays bemoaning the course of American historical writing, which in turn are reactions to his later work (see this essay for a useful overview). Apparently merely quoting Wood serves as sufficient analysis in their challenged minds.

I need not repeat what I’ve already written about these themes: you are directed to what I thought would be my comments delivered at the March 2013 conference on “The Future of Civil War History” hosted by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. If anyone wants to debate or discuss those comments, they can do so here … or from their own blogs (instead of issuing foolish challenges to “debate” a subject of the blogger’s own choosing … the whole idea of blogs is that one can have these discussions and debates right here, available to everyone, even if some people don’t get that). Essentially, I believe that you can’t offer more than a rather narrow understanding of the American Civil War if you don’t incorporate the themes of race, class, and gender into your work as part of historical understanding. That’s not a sign of “political correctness,” a claim which in this context smacks of intellectual triteness. If your interest is in narrowly-focused battle and campaign studies that simply drop officers and men onto a battlefield and narrate the resulting fight as if it’s an online version of a HALO firefight, why, you are welcome to it.

Real historians know that the story of war is more than that. Let’s move this conversation into a different venue, that of professional sports. Now, I’m sure you could write a wonderfully detailed description of the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and the Yankees featuring a home run by Bucky Bleepin’ Dent, but a far better book (or a book on the 2003/2004 ALCS clashes) would talk about the impact of money on the construction of each team’s rosters, the stories of how the Red Sox were jinxed, how teams represented in some fashion the fanbase that supported them, the increasing impact of media, notions of ownership, and so on. In other words, a truly rich and memorable account of those contests would take readers to many places, not simply Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, and would touch on many subjects.

The same can indeed be said about writing a study of the Gettysburg campaign. You would get a lot more out of it if you wrote about how race, class, and gender (as well as politics, ethnicity, and so on) were woven into that campaign. These perspectives would come naturally to a gifted writer who had thought long and hard about these matters.

But not everyone feels this way … including, it appears, my critic:

Before 1998 official information provided by the Civil War National Park Battlefields like Gettysburg were specific to the historical events on the battlefields and the military campaigns connected with them. The Park Service avoided statements about the causes of the war for two reasons. First, they were unnecessary to the study of the military events. Second, they were subject to conflicting interpretations, best left to visitors to decide for themselves….   The Park Service was wise to originally focus on the historical military events at the National Battlefield Parks. It should have declined to add editorials about the causes of the war, which are inevitably subject to “interpretive spin.” 

Let’s begin by suggesting the remarkable ignorance that this statement displays about Getteysburg National Military Park, especially its mission statement, which speaks about interpreting the battle and the Gettysburg Address “within the context of American history.” It’s rather difficult to make any sense of the Gettysburg Address without understanding something about the causes of the war, including the debate over slavery, and what had happened to that point of the war, especially in regards to slavery. But, contrary to the narrative offered by my critic, who seems wonderfully ignorant about the evolution of the park and its mission, it was in 1990 that Congress defined the mission of the park as follows:

. . . In administering the park, the Secretary [of the Interior] shall take such action as is necessary and appropriate to interpret, for the benefit of visitors to the park and the general public, the Battle of Gettysburg in the larger context of the Civil War and American history, including the causes and consequences of the Civil War and including the eflects of the war on all the American People.

That 1990 came eight years before 1998 escapes the fine mind of my critic, who wants to blame a single person, Dwight T. Pitcaithley (whose name my critic spells in multiple ways), for what has happened at GNMP.

In short, the twisted rendering of historical fact and interpretation by my critic results in utter nonsense masquerading as informed narrative, although I suspect that in saying this I’ll be accused of “political correctness” in following some unstated agenda … at least, that’s what some people will say.

Now that we’ve established that my critic’s familiarity with the basic rules of evidence and chronology suggest a fundamental lack of competence, we can move on to discuss whether we might obtain a better understanding of what happened on various Civil War battlefields if we integrate race, class, gender, ethnicity, and overarching political aims in our interpretation of those battles and battlefields. I would think this to be painfully obvious, but then some people (including, one ventures, serveral recent critics) seem blind to the painfully obvious. Let’s just mention a few items in passing …

Isn’t it better to visit Harpers Ferry if you have some idea of why it became important in 1859?

We talk about the Irish Brigade and the German immigrants in the XIth Corps. Might an understanding of ethnicity help us there?

Robert E. Lee noted the need to offer the home front some relief in 1863 by invading the North, an idea that might well have been reinforced by the Richmond Bread Riots. Might we need to know more about the home front and how women experienced the war as a way to understand military decisions better? What about Lee’s orders on how to treat civilians? What about the role of women when it came to desertion?

How can you explain why Abraham Brian was not at his rented farm on Cemetery Ridge in July 1863 if you don’t know about the activities of the Army of Northern Virginia in capturing blacks?

What do you make of conscription and the notion that it had become a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight? Class, anyone?

Gee, folks, why was Antietam important, period?

Why did generals continue to choose to command from the front, even though that exposed them to deadly enemy fire? Might it have had something to do with morale, inspiring the men, and responding to expectations of manly masculine behavior that defined courage in certain ways?

Yes, I know, I’ve left out many possible questions. It’s a few items, remember?

Some people must not even think of asking these questions if they think that to raise them demonstrates an interest in race, gender, class, ethnicity, and overriding political aims (to name but a few concerns), marking them as “politically correct” or too interested in “inequality and white privilege.” Talk about fear and insecurity. I believe differently. One gains a far richer, more thoughtful, more insightful, and fuller understanding of what generals and soldiers did–and why–if they just open up their minds and imagination to the complexities involved in being historically accurate.

And if you don’t believe that, I feel sorry for you.

(Mind you, the blogger in question also declares that “the attack on Confederate heritage is often an attempt at cultural genocide.” Really.)


Reconstruction at the CWI–June 18, 2016

Over the first 24 hours of the conference attendees have been treated to discussions about white southern concepts of honor during Reconstruction, especially among former Confederates; several perspectives on black emancipation and the efforts of the formerly enslaved to reconstruct their lives; how white northerners viewed Reconstruction; the experience of military reconstruction for the occupying forces; and, this evening, a series of talks about Union and Confederate veterans, culminating in a presentation exploring how one rather prominent Union veteran–namely Ulysses S. Grant–sought to define and defend in peace what seemingly had been secured in war.

For those of you who are interested in that last topic, I’d make sure to fire up C-SPAN3 at 7:15PM ET. You may recognize the speaker.

Reconstruction at the 2016 Civil War Institute

cwi 16 bannerhead

Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, directed by Peter Carmichael, will have as this year’s theme “Reconstruction and the Legacy of the Civil War.” The conference has already sold out, an interesting reflection on claims that no one really wants to remember or reflect upon Reconstruction.

C-SPAN (in this case, C-SPAN 3, I believe) will be present, broadcasting live on the afternoon and evening of June 18 while recording other sessions for future broadcast. Yours truly will speak at 7:15 PM Eastern Time on “Ulysses S. Grant and the Continuing Civil War,” where I’ll give people an overview of some of the themes that will be part of the second and concluding volume of my Grant biography, entitled Ulysses S. Grant: The Fruits of Victory, 1865-1885. You may follow the proceedings and commentary on Twitter at  . Note that my talk will be the last one of the evening: clearly Peter is depending on me to finish the day (reprising my role as scholarship’s answer to Mariano Rivera). Given who’s talking before, I hope I have enough time to cover my topic and answer questions. If not, I’m prepared to burn one of his scarves.

In preparation for the conference, I answered a few questions about my topic.



The Memphis Massacre of 1866: A Conference Blog

Readers of this blog will recall that not long ago I mentioned the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (also known as the Memphis Riot of 1866, although the reasons for the renaming are of interest) in examining a rather badly-flawed attempt to discuss the event and its implications.

It seems only right and proper to direct you now to a blog bringing together and reporting on the results of a recent conference on the event. Click here to go there. I guarantee you’ll learn something.

I think this is a wonderful way to share the scholarship presented at a conference by people who know what they are talking about, and I believe more conferences should follow suit.

Gary Gallagher and the Continuing Civil War

Nearly a month ago the Twitterverse tweeted with commentary on a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia by Gary Gallagher. Apparently Gary was determined to take on current understandings of the American Civil War, namely the emphasis paid to emancipation and the debate over when the Civil War ended. Gary took several authors to task concerning the first point, which received most of his attention, before turning to the second point at the 40:45 mark of the video below:

As I understand it, Gary’s argument is that present concerns shape our inquiry of the past, framing the questions and suggesting the answers we seek. There’s nothing exceptional about that observation: it’s often at the core of many a historiographical essay, the sort of discovery usually reserved for first year graduate seminars and for the occasionally perceptive undergraduate.

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Walter Williams on Ignorance

Professor Walter Williams is an economist who teaches at George Mason University. He has frequently written on the subject of black Confederates, and he took the opportunity recently to do so yet again.

walter Williams
Dr. Walter Williams

Dr. Williams is quite fond of the notion that large numbers of enslaved African Americans voluntarily and willingly served as soldiers in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. He is also quite fond of recycling the same material time and time again in support of that claim.

Click here to read a short piece from 2000. Then click here to read a piece from earlier this year. That piece just appeared again here.

You may notice that Dr. Williams claims that the death of Anthony Hervey, an African American who shared Dr. Williams’s views on black Confederate soldiers, “was in no small part caused by the gross level of ignorance, organized deceit and anger about the War of 1861. Much of the ignorance stems from the fact that most Americans believe the war was initiated to free slaves, when in truth, freeing slaves was little more than an afterthought. I want to lay out a few quotations and ask what you make of them.”

Well, since Dr. Williams thinks this is a matter of life or death, I think it fair to respond to his request that I say what I make of his quotations.

First, Dr. Williams quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 statement: “There are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels.”

Well, I believe several people have already said a great deal about that quote. Surely Andy Hall did, here and here.  So have I. So what do I make of this quote? Not much. Douglass picked up on various rumors in the press to make the case that since blacks were in the Confederate army, the Union army ought to follow suit. The press reports and the research done on them suggest that reports of a significant presence of black Confederate soldiers on the battlefield was, to put it kindly, highly exaggerated.

Dr. Williams then quotes New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley to the same effect in 1862. Of course, Greeley said a lot of things, and some of them were true. But I don’t know what we are to make of an assertion without any supporting evidence. What Ta-Nehisi Coates said seems to me to be sufficient.

Dr Williams then cites Dr. Lewis Steiner’s comment about 3,000 blacks among the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia as it marched through Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862. We’ve discussed that document here.

Then we have a short report about blacks in Petersburg volunteering to help out. We’ve seen that recycled as well. What do we make of it? Good question. What happened to these men?

Finally, Dr. Williams reminds us that “Dr. Leonard Haynes, a black professor at Southern University, stated, ‘When you eliminate the black Confederate soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.’” Unfortunately, we don’t know where he got that quote, or whether the professor said it at all.

At least the professor has dropped one of his claims. He once told us that “General Ulysses Grant’s slaves had to await for the Thirteenth Amendment for freedom. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, General Grant said, ‘Good help is so hard to come by these days.'” I wonder why he no longer cites this. Perhaps this is because the evidence against this is rather overwhelming?

Nevertheless, all this is rather important to Dr. Williams. As he declares, “Black civil rights activists, their white liberal supporters and historically ignorant Americans who attack the Confederate flag have committed a deep, despicable dishonor to our patriotic Southern black ancestors who marched, fought and died not to protect slavery but to protect their homeland from Northern aggression.”

Now, I understand that Dr. Williams is an economist, which may help explain why he finds evidence so challenging. That’s because he makes claims that are not supported by the very evidence he cites, and because he fails to take a critical look at the evidence he cites. But this does not deter him from repeating himself, as if that alone makes for a persuasive argument. Then again, he isn’t alone. Professor John Stauffer of Harvard University falls prey to the same shortcoming, and he claims to be a historian. You’ll recall that Stauffer and a colleague performed a scholarly hit-and-run last year, making claims and pointing fingers, only to slink away silently when challenged.

Perhaps Dr. Williams is different. Let’s see whether that’s the case. He freely shares his e-mail address at the end of his pieces. Here it is: wwilliam@gmu.edu. Write him. Share this post with him. Ask him what he makes of it. Let’s see what he says. After all, he wanted to lay out a few questions and ask what readers made of them.

Remember, Dr. Williams says that someone lost his life in large part because of ignorance. We can’t have that, can we? Enlighten him.

Two Cheers for the Abolitionists

In the New York Times’s Disunion blog, Jon Grinspan offers the argument that the end of slavery should not be equated with the success of the abolitionists. Sure, he points out, the abolitionists were all about destroying slavery, but it was the war, not the abolitionists, that achieved that end.

Yes … and no.

Grinspan’s on target to suggest that when people nowadays associate their cause with that of abolitionism in an effort to say that they are for the right and that the right prevails that they overlook the extent to which abolitionism as a movement was overtaken by the debate over the expansion of slavery in the 1850s, followed by an escalating feud over the place of slavery in America’s present and future. Moral suasion did not triumph: force did.

But one cannot overlook the role played by abolitionists in the 1830s and 1840s in getting the ball rolling. Although they were a clear minority in northern society (and often a despised one), abolitionists through their tactics if not their strategy pricked proslavery defensiveness over discussing the prospects of the peculiar institution. Gag rules, intercepting the mails, and so on provided points of overreaction that in turn ruffled northern whites’ sensibilities about how the protection of slavery required compromising the rights of whites as well as blacks. Defenses of slavery as a positive good increased in intensity and volume, but found little sympathy in the minds and hearts of an increasing number of white northerners who balanced their racist inclinations against the notion that even inferior human beings were nevertheless human beings, and, as such, should not be subjected to the violent repression that arguments about slavery’s legality, morality, and superiority could ill conceal. Nor can one overlook that in the ranks of abolitionists one would find men such as Frederick Douglass, whose very existence challenged assertions of white superiority on a daily basis.

No, Americans did not go to war in 1861 because they thought slavery wrong, although some Americans did go to war because they thought slavery was right, that it was proper and profitable, and that it must be protected, regardless of the cost. To say otherwise is contradicted by the historical record: only apologists who seek absolution for their ancestors, actual or imaginary, are blind to the stark facts. But that proslavery southerners had to articulate such a defense and were prepared to do whatever they could to protect their peculiar institution–whether it meant supporting a war of conquest and expansion, creating new federal bureaucracies and congressional practices that compromised civil rights, endangering the legitimacy of elections, legislation, or the Supreme Court itself before embarking on that ill-fated journey called secession–was due in the beginning to the abolitionists’ ability to provoke such an overreaction. Much like taking a sledgehammer to squash a housefly, proslavery advocates succeeded in shattering their own future in a series of devastating blows that brought an abrupt end to the cornerstone of their experiment in independence. No one can doubt that the abolitionists played a role in that process.

So, two cheers to the abolitionists, who in any case were pleased enough with the result not to worry overmuch about who got the credit … unless, of course, you are talking about Charles Sumner.

A Response to Gary Gallagher

Having raised questions about other people’s scholarship in The Union War and about the place of military history in Civil War history, Gary Gallagher (in the April 2015 edition of Civil War Times) now turns his inquiring mind to asking why anyone (read: me [and a few other folks]) would pay any attention to the Virginia Flaggers.

He asserts that the Flaggers’ absurd “claims have provoked reactions from scholars and others who, in my view, bring a good deal of unwarranted attention to something that otherwise would be consigned to the irrelevant fringe of Civil War interests.” He does this, of course, by writing an article that will bring what he believes is “unwarranted attention” to the very people he would like me (among others) to ignore, although apparently he can’t quite ignore them.

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The Sounds of Silence

It’s been nine days since Harvard historian John Stauffer raised a ruckus with his commentary about black Confederate soldiers on The Root, and six days since Jim Downs used his platform on Huffington Post to add his two cents (adjusted for inflation). Other than Downs, the only people who have commended Stauffer’s article are select Confederate heritage advocates, which proves that sometimes poor scholarship makes for strange bedfellows. Neither historian has chosen to respond to the specific criticism leveled at their contributions to the discussion … and I no longer expect that either one will. This suggests that neither historian was interested in engaging in serious discussion, but perhaps just wanted to offer something sensationalistic to make a splash. In this they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Whether their arguments left a favorable impression on readers outside a small circle of friends (none of whom have countered criticism of these pieces) remains to be seen, but at present count a number of people have called into question their arguments and use of evidence (where evidence is used, which is not always the case).

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Historians Freak Out About Freaking Out … Really …

Oh my goodness. But you knew it had to happen.

Discussions about “black Confederates” follow a pattern of assertion, response, and then commentary, and this time has proven to be no exception. Over at Civil War Emancipation, Donald Shaffer expresses his irritation with the most recent discussion. Kevin Levin objected to the objection.

I hope Don expresses his displeasure directly to John Stauffer and Jim Downs. It seems to me a bit bizarre to criticize people who were the targets of these essays, especially Kevin Levin, especially when the real target should be the poor example of historical scholarship offered by Stauffer. Downs’s piece is also worth engaging, and that would do a lot more to foster an informed debate than a call to put an end to it. After all, I don’t tell other people what to research, and nowadays I simply dismiss out of hand attempts to tell me what to do.

More useful is Matt Gallman’s response in Don’s blog. I think that is a topic worth pursuing. And I think Don’s correct in saying that there are other ways to explore this issue, but I’d prefer to hear what we can and should do rather than what we shouldn’t do.

This is all part of blogging. Posts beget posts. I’m sure that’s far from over. I find irritating such expressions of irritation, but, while I’d wish they would stop, I don’t tell people to stop it. After a while, however, I will just ignore them. I have hopes that Don’s post may provoke more thought than that.