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.

Some Civil War Historians Are Freaking Out About Black Confederates

It’s one thing to examine the evidence and the intellectual framework behind a piece of historical scholarship. It’s quite another to follow the course of an argument that raises a lot of questions about the practice of Civil War scholarship. The response to John Stauffer’s essay on black Confederates is a case in point.

As one might assume, I was not the only historian who objected rather quickly to Stauffer’s article. So did Kevin Levin in a pair of posts, the second of which ignited more controversy. For it was there that Levin decided to make reference to another ongoing discussion about the place of military history within Civil War studies, one that aggrieved some people’s sensibilities and aroused objections. Most of that discussion involved an article by Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Meier that appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, although Earl Hess in the December 2014 issue of Civil War History offered some different observations about the place of military history in Civil War studies. Levin simply observed that Stauffer’s essay could have benefitted from a better understanding of military history, a point Gallagher and Meier made in their essay.

The eruption that followed was as loud as it was unexpected. Continue reading

John Stauffer and Black Confederates Redux

They say if you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Apparently John Stauffer thinks so, because today on The Root he offered a slightly different (and somewhat better developed) essay sharing his perspective on Black Confederates.

Among those things that haven’t changed from the last time we went on this merry-go-round based in Cambridge is his misrepresentation of my position in general and this post in particular.

I have responded.

Stauffer’s strained effort to construct a strawman of scholarly controversy in order to frame his contribution would be understandable if it came from someone of lesser talent, but I think we are entitled to expect more from him. Continue reading

Cries for Attention

The open nature of the internet has led to a crisis of authority among professional historians. Simply put, professional historians who once thought they controlled the flow of information and interpretation and who thus claimed the prerogative to dispense it find that they can no longer enforce that claim. I’m not sure that they ever could have done so. Many people claim to be historians regardless of their training or expertise or knowledge. Indeed, the amateur as historian has always been present in the writing of American Civil War history, from businessmen (James Ford Rhodes) to newspapermen (Bruce Catton) to novelists (Shelby Foote) to television pundits (Bill O’Reilly). People without training or a certain skill set claim to be historians in ways that no one would imagine claiming to be a chemist, brain surgeon, aircraft pilot, or professional hockey player. Reading one book, watching one show on the History Channel (hello, Pawn Stars!), or donning a uniform seems to transform some people into historians magically, at least in their minds.

Mind you, it is not the possession of a professional degree that makes one a historian. I know plenty of people who do not possess that training but who turn out wonderful books, largely because they have the same skill set and intellectual tool box needed to succeed. Nor does possession of an advanced degree in itself make one a skilled historian, judging from some of the careers I’ve seen (although it helps in the making of a college professor). So this is not an effort to revive the academic/non-academic debate about history that so many seem so fond of having, largely so that they can be snide and snarky. But what is true is that some historians attract more attention than do others, and those others may not like it. Two examples from this week stand out this week as illustrating that trend.

In the current issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era Kevin Levin offers a glimpse at the significance of the continuing controversy over what some people call “black Confederates.” Kevin is himself a product of the transformative nature of the internet on historical authority: a few decades ago people holding MA degrees who taught in small private secondary schools would have found it challenging to get past the self-appointed gatekeepers of the profession to contribute to such a discussion. That this article appeared at all also suggests that those professional historians who decried the very existence of a discussion of this issue have found themselves thwarted by one of their own professional journals.

It was thus left to Edward H. Sebesta once more to seek the attention he so dearly desires (and which this post will give him … well, he may not desire this sort of attention). Sebesta’s quest for attention included declaring that he did not want a book he co-assembled to be considered for a prize (his co-author, James Loewen, generally remained silent about Sebesta’s outburst); Sebesta’s also taken on Barack Obama over the laying of a wreath at the monument to Confederate soldiers at Arlington, a memorial that has received all sorts of attention over the past decade for foolish reasons. Sebesta has an obsession with Kevin, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out why he’s so jealous.

Sebesta declares that “in general the article really fails and a person has to wonder what the editors of The Journal of the Civil War Era were thinking.” In other words, “why didn’t they ask me, Ed Sebesta, to offer informed commentary?”

Why did the article “fail”?

There are three problems with the essay. The first is his enabling of the neo-Confederate movement. The second is his lack of critical thinking regarding history. The third is a failing to connect it to either the use of token African Americans by neo-Confederates and the neo-Confederates use of identity.

You read that right. Kevin Levin is being attacked for enabling the “neo-Confederate movement.” By the same reasoning, Ed Sebesta is enabling Kevin Levin, and I’m enabling Ed Sebesta. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.

People know that I find that the term “neo-Confederate” lacks definitional and analytical clarity, and so long ago I decided to set it aside as useless. It’s right up there with “politically correct.” None of this deters Mr. Sebesta, who is the Connie Chastain of his own “movement.” Not that he is totally wrong. I think people should not use “southern heritage” and “Confederate heritage” interchangeably. Southern heritage is so much more than Confederate heritage, and Confederate heritage is but a small part of southern heritage and should not be taken as representative of the whole South. But we’ve had that discussion before, even if Sebesta’s failed to follow it (precisely because he isn’t in it).

It would have been illuminating if Levin pointed out the irony of these two groups [the SCV and the UDC] promoting the myth of the Black Confederate while at the same time promoting a white supremacist view of history. However, Levin, like many Civil War historians and enthusiasts, wishes all the controversy would just go away and they could get back to the toy soldier gaming of the Civil War. (Maybe a special issue devoted to it.) Levin has stated that he doesn’t like the word “neo-Confederate.” He likely fears that it will lead to loud voices at Civil War Round Tables and disquieting questions about some of the members of the Civil War history profession.

I guess Sebesta doesn’t read Kevin’s blog, just like most people don’t read Sebesta’s blog, which is a collection of self-serving rants. Hope he enjoys the attention he’ll get now.

Levin thinking in the essay goes like this:

1. Historians with their training and expertise and knowledge have in their possession true history.

2. Unfortunately with the Internet, those without this training and expertise and are wrong headed are making false historical assertions.

3. This problem would be solved by informing people to only listen to properly credentialed historical experts and authoritative institutions.

Really? REALLY? Oh, the irony here is rich indeed. Kevin Levin, whose professional identity is defined not by his degree and training but by his blog and his work, is being chided for his defense of the castle known as the world of professional historical scholarship.

Sebesta would get a failing grade in my undergraduate course if he handed in this tripe as an essay.

After offering some commonplace observations with which Kevin would agree as evidence that Kevin is wrong, Sebesta presents this concluding observation:

The article is a simplistic, cartoonish, idea that a gullible public is being led astray by persons lacking proper historical training and credentials. It is an article that would be written by an elitist unconscious of the larger issues or critical theory.

That the editors of the journal accepted this article raises concerns about Civil War scholarship in general.

And who will fix that? Why, Ed Sebesta!

Meanwhile on Twitter, people saw a sign of the very arrogance in the historical profession that Sebesta decries. See, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked me a simple question about Grant and corruption. I happened to be at work when he asked, and by the time I came home and clicked on Twitter there were all sorts of replies and observations, many of which I found interesting as indicating what people represent as the current understanding of Grant. Then I came across a response from the Twitter account of History News Network, and that led to the following exchange:

HNN one HNN two What, you may ask, is History News Network, anyway? Well, it’s lots of things, and it’s not particularly good at many of them. After all, if it wants to parade as the source of all historical knowledge, it might have a simple “Ask a Historian” page that one could readily identify. If you’re a historian who wants to offer a historian’s two cents on an issue, well, HNN provides a forum for your op-ed. If you are an author who wants to pump up your own tires, well, contribute something to HNN as part of the publicity campaign for your publication. Want to gossip about your colleagues or highlight instances of perceived professional wrongdoing? Well, HNN will give you that forum, and give it uncritically.

But the remarkable arrogance of HNN’s Twitter feed (which HNN wisely chose not to feature in its own collection of its Twitter activity) in saying that HNN is the source of knowledge and information and interpretation (all the while failing to name a single expert in the field at HNN) and that people simply need to go there (and stop talking to real scholars on Twitter and the openness of social media) … well, doesn’t that just about top all? I’ll overlook their ignorance about my own professional identity, because, really, given what I saw, could you expect anything else? In short, HNN wants you to believe it is the ultimate source of information and it’s where scholars are to be found while remaining entirely clueless about the people engaged in a conversation. Yup, that’s where I would go to find out more about less and less about more, and in either case I’d be lucky to learn very much.

One of the consequences of social media is that historians who want to reach out and engage a more general public need not go through a portal such as HNN. It seems that HNN resents this … because the openness of social media means that fewer and fewer people will go to HNN, and not that many ever went in the first place, especially if they had a question to ask.

I don’t suffer fools gladly. Add the HNN Twitter feed to that list.

HNN isn’t where scholars publish. It’s where some scholars contribute views. Indeed, as you’ll see from this link, it isn’t really all that discriminating when it comes to the “experts” who publish there … people like (wait for it …) Ed Sebesta.

And that’s the way it is, Thursday, December 18, 2014. :)

Fame Comes In Many Forms

A friend of mine recently passed on to me a still from this season’s House of Cards (I don’t view the seasons via Netflix or Amazon; I wait for the DVDs/BluRays to come out). I understand that there’s a story line about Civil War reenactments at Spotsylvania involving the central character, but I didn’t quite expect this image:

House of CardsThat’s right: Vice President Francis Underwood is reading Gordon Rhea’s book on the battle of the Wilderness. One can also see works by Andy Trudeau, William Matter, and a volume edited by Gary Gallagher on the Wilderness Campaign that contains essays by Gary, John Hennessy, yours truly, and others.

I wonder how this will look on my annual Faculty Activity Report … under public outreach, I guess.

A Dust-Up Over Lincoln and Colonization

For some time most Lincoln scholars have taken for granted the notion that the sixteenth president abandoned his notions about colonization with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. One Lincoln scholar, Mark Neely, took great pains to dismiss an account by Benjamin F. Butler that detailed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization as late as April 1865.

Philip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page have asserted that Lincoln continued to press for colonization after he issued the proclamation. Magness went so far as to challenge Neely’s treatment of Butler’s account, leaving the door open to the possibility that Lincoln did meet with Butler in a conversation where the subject of colonization might have come up. Magness also pursued the issue of James Mitchell’s role in Lincoln’s post-proclamation activities.

I found Magness’s work to be provocative, and I invited him to speak at the 2013 Benjamin P. Thomas Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Association. At about the same time, Allen Guelzo offered a review of Magness and Page’s book to which Magness has taken exception. Basically, Guelzo dismisses a good deal of the book’s argument, while Magness suggests that certain documents whose existence are questioned by Guelzo do indeed exist.

As Magness has charged Guelzo with “professional misconduct” in offering a “willfully mendacious portrayal” of Magness and Page’s findings, this disagreement does not promise to fade away quickly. One hopes that those fireworks do not distract from the more important implication of Magness and Page’s work: that while Lincoln may have gone silent in public about colonization, he remained committed to it as an option (if no longer the only one) behind the scenes.

Are Academics Their Own Worst Enemies?

On Sunday the New York Times published Nicholas Kristof’s plea for academics to become more involved in public discourse. As one might suspect, within hours academics who participate in public discourse and outreach protested the message, pointing to themselves and fellow professionals (including people who have written for the Times) as providing examples that challenged Kristof’s plea (it might be pointed out that one of the reasons academics jumped all over this argument is because they are linked to each other by social media).

I’m not going to engage those responses (many of which are predictable). Rather, let’s return to some of Kristof’s observations and assess them.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

This is absolutely true. Kristoff quotes a source that confirms my personal experience:

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Again, that rings true in my experience, although during my time at Barrett, The Honors College, my colleagues grasp far more readily what I do and appreciate it (that Barrett emphasizing teaching makes this ironic, but then my colleagues are rather impressive in their command of a broad range of interests). However, I was chided last year by my home unit’s evaluation committee for not producing more monographs and scholarly articles (this rested in part upon a rather bad misreading of my materials, but also reflected a willingness to disregard what I actually did and to dismiss the audience I reached). Given my productivity over the past several decades, I dismissed this assessment, just as I used to counter complaints from members of my home unit that I was able to publish so much because I had a ready audience (as if that were a crime!) by observing that such an assessment failed to grapple with the quality of what I was writing (no one among my colleagues has ever risen to take on that challenge).

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

This may go too far, for the university presses with which I’ve worked in history show an interest in reaching a larger public. More to the point, however, is both what’s valued and what’s dismissed. The tenure process in history rewards candidates who publish a focused monograph and a series of articles in various scholarly journals, although my experience suggests that few of one’s colleagues at one’s own institution actually read what others write (and thus they all too often rest their evaluation upon assessments provided by external reviewers or look to other ways to measure the quality of scholarship while evading an opportunity to engage the content of that scholarship). So, for example, a journal’s acceptance rate is sometimes cited as a sign of whether an article that’s published constitutes worthwhile scholarship.

However, many of the responses to Kristof’s commentary missed the point. Did he actually mischaracterize how the academic world functions? Did he not cite history as one discipline that had exceptions that test the rule?

As someone who engages with the public all the time, in real places and virtual spaces, using a number of media, I don’t feel slighted or forgotten by Kristof’s observations. In some ways, I feel vindicated.

History as Identity and Ideology

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin commented on a report filed by Al Jazeera on the commemoration of the firing upon Fort Sumter, in part because it featured Walter and James Kennedy, commonly known as the Kennedy brothers and authors of a series of books that have become, er, controversial.

I always find interesting what the Kennedy brothers have to say.  Indeed, at times you can simply play all four of these interviews simultaneously, and they make about as much sense (and it’s an interesting experience to hear the same themes pop out from each section of the interview).  Try it.

However, Kevin made an allusion to something one hears a great deal, and one reads it a great deal on the internet, including the comments sections of several blogs.  The argument, simply put, is Continue reading