Category Archives: Civil War

March 4, 2014, 1:22 am

The Leading Edge: Charles McKinney on the Rhodes College Civil Rights Conference

This is a slightly different kind of Leading Edge. Charles McKinney, a fellow Duke alum, helped organize and run a conference on civil rights at Rhodes College in Memphis. During the conference, he posted regular Facebook updates on the speakers. I thought a retrospective gathering of them would be a wonderful stream of consciousness account of the conference, and Chuck agreed. Headings are my words, the rest are Chuck’s.

From Civil War to Civil Rights: Race, Region and the Making of Public Memory

The conference schedule is here.

Rhodes Jazz Ensemble kicking off the conference! Copyright Charles McKinney 2014
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First up is Professor Kate Masur’s plenary lecture:

Masur: “Birth of a Nation” and “Lincoln” have the same narrative line regarding the caricature of Black/Republican politics. BOOM.

Masur: We should confront the tenuous nature of black life in the South. Have NEVER…

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October 13, 2013, 7:57 pm

Just As A Reminder: The Civil War Was About Slavery

From the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, 1860:

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our…

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July 1, 2013, 6:32 pm

Still Not Yet Two O’Clock

George Will is making his usual hash of American history, this time in the service of honoring the Battle of Gettysburg. He wants to argue that Gettysburg is the most important battle in American history, a fair enough point, but the way he eliminates other candidates sometimes borders on the farcical. Saratoga, which brought the French in on the American side during the Revolution? Less important than it might seem because:

But the Revolution would have succeeded without French assistance: No distant island could govern this continent.

This completely elides the critical difference the French actually made, which was to neutralize the overwhelming British naval superiority (something that made Yorktown possible) and also to threaten the British Isles themselves. The British could survive losing naval control of the Chesapeake Bay. The English Channel? Not so much. But it also…

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January 5, 2013, 1:06 am

Tarantino vs. Spielberg: Two Films About Slavery

(It’s the month for guest posts! I haven’t seen either movie, so Patrick Rael, Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin College, weighs in about Django Unchained and Lincoln).

Nat Turner
Nat turner 1

It’s hard to imagine two films set around the Civil War that differ more than Steven Spielberg’s historical biopic Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation western Django Unchained. In the broadest sense, of course, both concern the fight against the institution of American slavery. Django Unchained personalizes the struggle through a revenge-soaked bloodfest, in which an evil slaveowner receives his just comeuppance at the hands of an exceptional former slave seeking to reunite with his bound wife. In Lincoln, resistance to slavery occurs at the highest levels of government, as a great president struggles to secure slavery’s final end before his inevitable martyrdom.

There the…

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June 11, 2012, 8:08 pm

In which I say some things about railroads, and digital history, and other matters.

The TLS teases the article here.

May 22, 2012, 3:32 pm

Now, That’s An Obituary

From Robert E. Lee’s obituary, the New York Times October 13, 1870:

In [Lee's] farewell letter to Gen. SCOTT, he spoke of the struggle which this step had cost him, and his wife declared that he “wept tears of blood over this terrible war.” There are probably few who doubt the sincerity of his protestation, but thousands have regretted, and his best friends will ever have to regret,the error of judgment, the false conception of the allegiance due to his Government and his country, which led one so rarely gifted to cast his lot with traitors, and devote his splendid talents to the execution of a wicked plot to tear asunder and ruin the Republic in whose service his life had hitherto been spent.

Lee’s application for amnesty and reinstatement as an American was lost for more than a century. Rediscovered in the 1970s, it led to Gerald Ford signing legislation that pardoned Lee and made…

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February 3, 2012, 12:01 pm

Former Slave Makes Good

As a followup to this letter, Jason Kottke and others did some research on Jourdan Anderson’s further life. It looks like it was a good one:

At the time, Anderson and his wife Mandy were in their 70s and had been married for 52 years. Mandy had borne 11 children, six of whom were still living (Anderson’s letter, written in 1865, references five children, two of whom were “brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters”…not sure if they had died or not). The three children living with them in 1900 were all in their 20s, born several years after the letter was written.

Obviously, it could have been a life of family turmoil, but I prefer (in the absence of evidence to the contrary) to envision one of domestic happiness and calm. I also have this tiny little fantasy that every Christmas, Mr. Anderson sent a Christmas card to his former enslaver. “Still free.”

January 31, 2012, 8:53 am

The Folks Call Her Mrs. Anderson

A letter from a freedman named Jourdon Anderson to the southerner who kept him in slavery, August 7, 1865:

We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

So many parts to love in this, but my favorite is where Mr. Anderson carefully totals the back wages owed for his years as a slave, and gives an address to send the money.

(hat-tip Corey Robin)

(as usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates is ahead of us all)

December 22, 2011, 1:15 pm

The Greatest General in American History, Part II

Part I here.

Now, onto more specific evaluations. (Deep breath) I’m going to eliminate Washington. He is the greatest American statesman, for what he did as a general and leader in the Revolution and what he did as a Founding Father and first President.* As to being the greatest general, he made a number of spectacularly correct decisions during the Revolution, but he was nearly zero for his career in terms of battlefield victories. That’s just too much to overcome.

800px Winfield Scott in National Portrait Gallery IMG 4528

Next, Winfield Scott. Scott has a remarkably strong case for being the greatest American general. In fact, I’m not sure he wasn’t. In double fact, I think I would say he was the greatest American general in career terms. He started spectacularly well in the War of 1812 (“Those are regulars, by God!“), continued impressively in the Mexican-American War (his capture of Mexico City made both the Mexicans and…

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December 21, 2011, 8:29 pm

The Greatest General In American History, Part I

General Gates   General Horatio Gates   Revolutionary War   Rare  4x4    150

So the comments on this post got me thinking. Who was the best general in American History? It’s been several centuries, the US has fought lots of wars, and we have lots of famous generals.

So, who is it? Well, first, a disclaimer. As a historian I hate “who is the best…” or ranking lists of all kinds. History isn’t a sport, and it’s not organized like one. Generals don’t often get to fight against one another and certainly generals from the same countries rarely do. They fight in different eras with different resources and different enemies. Generals fight the wars in front of them, not the wars they want and certainly not a standardized war that would allow us to dial out personal differences. That makes rankings unfair, no matter how they are organized.

Nonetheless, it’s the end of the year when rankings flourish like kudzu, and I’m going to do it. Or, at least, I’m …

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September 20, 2010, 5:19 am

Worst undergraduate utterance of the week?

Ole Miss senior Levi West on his school’s unofficial mascot:

“There’s no more of a noble cause than continuing the tradition of Colonel Reb,” said Mr. West, standing in the baking Mississippi heat in a giant stuffed mask and foam shoes. “Everyone loves the guy.”

It’s only Monday but Mr West has set the bar high.

September 16, 2010, 8:55 am

McConnell: let's play a round of "find the racism"

Lots of discussion of these images of South Carolina Senate President Glenn McConnell dressed as a Confederate Navy officer posing with black people dressed “in antebellum attire.” Apparently the black man and woman are “members of a Gullah-Geechee cultural group, which travels around bringing to life the Lowcountry African-American experience during the mid-1800s, including their dress, music and singing.” They were paid for their appearance.

It’s a weird picture. Since there are no actual historians here, and certainly none with an interest in the Civil War or the politics of memory, I’ll muse as follows:

(i) watching members of a Gullah preservation group would probably be pretty interesting;
(ii) it wouldn’t make the gathering less creepy if they were absent;
(iii) this makes me think that whatever badness there is here is present in a powerful white guy dressing up like a…

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June 23, 2010, 8:45 pm

natural prayer

I had a vaguely negative impression (mainly received rather than first-hand) of Herman Melville’s abilities as a poet; but “Shiloh” is pretty strong.

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
    The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
    The forest-field of Shiloh —
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
    Around the church of Shiloh —
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
        And natural prayer
    Of dying foemen mingled there —
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve —
    Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
    But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
    And all is hushed at Shiloh.

A military sentimentality I can get behind. The density of rhyme is certainly artificial, and the…

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May 20, 2010, 8:39 pm

When and (to an extent) why did the parties switch places?

Students Frequently Ask this Question: when did the major US parties switch places, and why? Which is to say, when and why did the Democrats, who had been the party of limited federal government, begin to favor expanding Washington’s power? When and why did the Republicans, who had favored so strong a central government in Washington that they would accept a civil war rather than see its power curbed, become the party rhetorically committed to curbing its power?

When is easier to answer than why, though there’s no single date. (It would be nicer, though, if in one presidential election, say, the two candidates had done a partial do-si-do and ended up in each other’s places.) But we can pretty easily bracket the era of change.

At the beginning, we can put the Civil War. During the 1860s, the Republicans favored an expansion of federal power and passed over Democratic opposition a set…

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April 10, 2010, 5:46 am

"Where Our Nation Reunited"

As a followup to this post, I randomly encountered a Google Ad from the Appomattox Court House tourist board:


Too perfect.