Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Issue of Civil War Historian Presents Editorial and Scholarship

Since my mission is to provide commentary on all Civil War related topics for my readers (all three of you) that I come across, in this post I will give my thoughts on the latest issue of Civil War Historian magazine that arrived in my mail box last week. The summer 2009 issue (Volume 5, Issue 2) features a stunning cover image of two living historians representing the military and civilian aspects of the hobby. I am pleased every time that Civil War Historian features a civilian on the cover, because it was my email to the editor four years ago that pointed out that in the first year and half that the magazine was in production the editors had not included a civilian on the cover—despite the magazine’s stated mission to represents both sides. After my email, which was published, Civil War Historian has been regularly having civilians grace the covers. Okay enough off my horn tooting, but Civil War Historian does feature some of the best representations of modern photography using the nineteenth century process, and this cover of Herb and Kira Coats is no exception.
This issue of Civil War Historian starts off with a great summary article covering the 8th annual Midwest Civil War Civilian Conference. Nothing will ever compare to actually being there, but for those who have not gotten the pleasure (which includes your humble reviewer) the summary is insightful. Author Amber L. Clark narrowed down the best presenters at the conference and included such helpful tips “as the three essential questions to study when interpreting any historical figure” as presented by Abraham Lincoln living historian Fritz Klein (pg. 8-9). The stunning color photograph on page seven showcases Civil War living history at its finest; the women in their gorgeous dresses looked like they stepped straight out of the pages of Godey’s Ladies Magazine, the hallmark for all living historians.
One of the best features of Civil War Historian is the Preservation section detailing sites and properties that are in danger of being lost or in the process of being restored. This installment detailed the restoration efforts of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt’s home in Breckinridge County, Kentucky. Holt is a significant figure in the Civil War in his role as an outspoken Unionist in Kentucky and his controversial role as presiding judge at the trial of the Lincoln conspirators and Henry Wirz commandant of Andersonville Prison (pg. 15). Holt’s role in these trials and the verdicts Holt and his tribunal reached are still debated today by legal scholars and historians. For his role in American history and the architectural beauty of Holt’s Italianate inspired mansion the county of Breckinridge have started the process of restoring this gem back to its nineteenth century glory with authentic furnishings. I hope that Civil War Historian will follow the restoration of the mansion and will from time to time include an update on the restoration.
For the first time the magazine published an editorial by former Civil War living historian Greg M. Romaneck questioning if it is appropriate to re-enact the war during a time that the United States is currently engaged in the War Against Terror (pgs. 20-22). “Re-enacting at a Time of Real War” raised some good points and also missed the mark. The issues that Romaneck addressed that I agreed with as a Civil War living historian myself is that when we are at an event as “re-enactors” we need to leave our twenty-first century political beliefs in the car or RV. We are at the events to portray the past, not the present and accordingly we need to embrace a nineteenth century worldview for the weekend, or at least as long as we are “on” and the general public is still roaming through. If you absolutely, positively have to have a political discussion please wait until the evening when you are surrounded around the campfire with your respective friends. Another important issue that Romaneck addressed that I feel strongly about is that living historians have to be aware and sensitive that we are portraying a real time period where over six hundred thousand Americans died, hundreds of thousands were maimed and wounded for life, and four million black slaves gained their freedom. For the people who lived through the Civil War it was no laughing matter, sure as a living historian I have seen plenty of funny stuff from the time the string in my hoop skirt broke and the hoop came popping out or the time I saw a “dead” Union soldier get the hiccups at the wrong time. But despite all the funny and silly things that can happen at an event at the core, especially during the battles we as living historians should and must treat it with utmost respect. Civil War living historians get a bad rap as “illiterate red-necks playing solider,” we need to prove the naysayers wrong through our respectful actions. But I disagree with Romaneck assertion that living historians should censor their school talks because there is a chance that one of the students has a loved one in the military and might become upset by the graphic content. When delivering a presentation one should always know the audience and present the information on their level. When presenting history to children a presenter should not sugar coat the facts, but present the information on a level appropriate to the age of the school group. The sugar coating of history is what turns children away from history and makes them apathetic.
The other noteworthy article in Civil War Historian is “Arbor and Impetuosity: White and Black Relations in the Union Army” by Matthew P. Cassady (pg. 46-53). This is a fine example of research conducted by a living historian using his background in historical administration. For those who accuse living historians of being “dumb red-necks” they need to read this article. This article is worth the price of the magazine. The summer issue of Civil War Historian is one of the best issues in recent memory; my only complaint is Dr. Philip Hatfield’s long and rambling article “Treading on Sacred Ground Part One: The Fourth North Carolina Infantry at the Battle of Chancellorsville” (pg. 34-45). Hatfield’s article served no purpose and did not introduce new information, anyone with a basic interest in the Civil War knows that the battle of Chancellorsville was a confused mess and reading Hatfield’s study of the Fourth North Carolina left me confused. This type of article unfortunately is common in Civil War Historian and I wish that the editor would wield a heftier pen in editing and reifying this article and the tagline at the end promising the conclusion of the article in the fall issue left me with little to look forward to.
Now a note to my readers (yes…You), I am very grateful to all who have taken the time to read my little experiment of a blog. I would really appreciate comments, questions, rants, and ravings of your own (okay, maybe not the last two), but I want to know what you think… please.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Soldier's Pen Adds New Insight on the Common Soldier

In recent years a new interest in soldier’s correspondence from all of America’s wars to those on the home front has emerged corresponding with the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The current correspondence between deployed servicemen and women comprises primarily through email, which has left historians to ponder how future scholars will be able to use emails as primary sources and the fear that in a hundred years the bulk of email correspondence will be lost. The Civil War is a treasure trove of soldier correspondence as shown in Robert E. Bonner’s study The Soldier’s Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2006). Using the wartime correspondence of sixteen soldiers, five for the Confederacy and eleven for the Union, Bonner uses the untapped Gilder Lehrman collection for his study.
One of the highlights of this book is that these writings of the sixteen soldiers had never before appeared in print, and these selections are only the tip of the iceberg of the Gilder Lehrman collection which houses more than sixty thousands documents dealing with all aspects of American history. For this book Bonner skillfully selected sixteen fascinating individuals to illustrate the common experiences of soldiers from both sides. The reader is introduced to Henry Berckhoff a German speaking New Yorker, who felt more comfortable representing his unit’s history in pictures instead of words; an anonymous Massachusetts soldier who filled his notebook with cartoons that showcased the lighter side of military service; and William Woodlin a free black who fought with the Eighth Regiment of the United States Colored Troops and kept a diary, a rarity for members of the USCT. These are just a few that are covered in Bonner’s book. Readers will notice a Union bias; the majority of the soldiers selected for this volume are fighting for the Union Army. Bonner does not address this in the introduction and it is unclear if the unequal representation is from the author’s own interest or from the holdings of the Gilder Lehrman collection.
Robert E. Bonner lets the soldier’s speak through their words and drawings with little intrusion. What the reader gets is a warts and all portrait of what these people were like, we read the painful letter of William Brunt to a friend detailing his divorce from his wife who “let passion instead of virtue rule her & became inconstant to me” while the couple was at a contraband camp that Brunt was the commanding officer (pg. 220). It is true that when reading a practically powerful primary source time fades away and it feels like the person is talking to you, and is evidenced with the soldier’s covered in this book. We become privy of their hopes and dreams of returning home to be with their families. We read Hillory Shifflet’s closing to his wife where he maintains that she is his “Dear wife untell Death,” tragically Shifflet would be killed at the Battle of Missionary three days later (pgs. 19, xix). Interspaced between the letters and diary entries Bonner provides an introduction that places the sources into the wider context of the war. This book is not a chronological travel through the Civil War, rather each chapter deals with a particular theme such as combat experiences and the political climate of the Union and Bonner uses the letters and diaries to illustrate his point. Bonner includes a brief biography of the soldier writers and artists at the beginning of the book that is indispensable and I returned to it many times while reading the book.
The Soldier’s Pen belongs on the shelf of all Civil War history buffs; Bonner has added an insightful work to the growing works on the experiences of the common soldier on both sides of the conflict. Of particular note for Civil War living historians, Bonner lets the writers speak for themselves with misspelled words and examples of nineteenth century grammar and dialect left intact. I liked that Bonner did not correct the writers or try to make it easier to understand some of the more rambling entries. Some of the letters will have to be read a couple of times to grasp what the author are intending to get across to his reader. Bonner only interjects his editorial pen when the soldier makes a reference to common slag that has since lost its meaning, but that is only done sparingly. My favorite soldier was the anonymous Massachusetts cartoonist who seems to be channeling Edvard Munch’s The Scream in his drawings of his possible alter ego “George” cutting his foot and wondering if “they miss me at home?” while on picket duty (pgs. 40, 54). And if you don’t laugh at “George” getting eaten by an alligator something is wrong with you (pg. 41)!
For those who have not visited the Gilder Lehrman Collection website it is an invaluable tool where visitors can search the vast collection online. I hope that The Soldier’s Pen is only the beginning of works that use the Gilder Lehrman Collection as its main source for scholars. If interested please visit:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Abridged Lincoln Assassination Leaves Readers Confused

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson is a book that I really wanted to like, but unfortunately the more I read the more problems I had with this book. Swanson the author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer produced Chasing Lincoln’s Killer as the abridged, child friendly version of his previous book with its release timed to correspond with the blitz of Abraham Lincoln literature for the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. When I heard about this book I was thrilled, history books for pre-teens is one genre in children’s literature that is lacking. Too old for the American Girl series and at the cusp of tackling more mature (and dense historical tomes), pre-teens have been left out in in the history book department. I was hoping that this book would have helped to fill that vacuum. While artistically pleasing with a catchy book jacket and a stunning gold embossing of John Wilkes Booth’s derringer pistol on the hard cover the book stood out to me from the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Further examination of the interior images left me with a positive reaction, Swanson included some of the best photographs and illustrations relating to the assassination which were clearly reproduced on sturdy paper. Clearly Scholastic Press was willing to spare as much money as possible on this book.

But that is where my praise ends, this is a nice book to have sitting on your shelf—just don’t read it. I have to admit that I have never completed Manhunt, though I have read approximately the first hundred pages. The reason that I have not been able to finish Manhunt is because I cannot stand Swanson’s histrionic prose. Instead of just stating the historical events as they happened, which were dramatic in its own right, Swanson had to milk it. I did not need to read for a page in a half how Abraham Lincoln could have successfully fought John Wilkes Booth if Booth’s shot had miss fired. (Come on, reading about Lincoln’s death is bad enough don’t toy with me with “what if” moments, just get on with it already!) I was hoping that in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer that its slim length, only 198 pages would have limited the Swanson melodrama. Unfortunately I was deeply disappointed in what I found. Swanson starts the book by detailing how his grandmother sparked his interest in Lincoln with a unique birthday present and by stating that everything in “this story is true” (Introduction). Instead what the reader gets is a historical novel sprinkled with a few historical quotes. The main problem with this book is that Swanson neglected to provide source notes or a bibliography so there is no way for the reader to trace where Swanson got the quote from or to provide other sources for the readers who are inspired and want to read more about Lincoln or Booth. If I turned in a research paper to my professor’s without a source notes or a works cited page I would get a big, fat F.

Besides the lack of a resource page, Swanson presents an incomplete picture of John Wilkes Booth and the assassination. Booth emerges as a watered down racist, his speech censored so as not to offend sensitive parents and teachers. This strips the full effect of Booth’s reasons; he was a white supremacist who blamed Lincoln for the down fall of the slaveholding south through the “invasion” of the south and the emancipation of the south’s four million black slaves. Booth started his conspiracy to abduct President Lincoln and spirit him away to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia where Lincoln would be used as a bargaining chip for the independence of the Confederate States of America. But with the evacuation of Richmond and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, Booth’s adduction plan went up in smoke. The plan to assassinate the president came after Booth and two of his fellow conspirators David Herold and Lewis Powell heard Lincoln’s April 11, 1865 speech laying out his reconstruction plan for the south which included suffrage for black troops which sent Booth into a fury. “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through” Booth declared (Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus pg. 210). In Swanson’s sanitized version the “n” word is left out, this is meddling with the source and presents a sugar coated version of history. It is ironic that Swanson would censor the racist language of Booth and the conspirators but will go into graphic detail describing how the bullet traveled through Lincoln’s head writing “the wet brain matter slowed the ball’s speed, absorbing enough of its energy to prevent it from exiting the other side of the skull through the president’s face” (pg. 41).

In the end Swanson’s version of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and the conspirators reads more like a Spark Notes edition than history. The kidnapping plot is placed out of order and is added as more of a footnote than key to the assassination. Swanson leaves out facts and events that would help the reader place the events in its proper place. Missing from Swanson’s book is Dr. Samuel Mudd’s wife turning over Booth boot with his initial in it to Federal officials, a key piece of evidence against the doctor. Also left out is the reason that the Garrett’s had a lock on the tobacco barn that was used to lock Booth and Herold up for the night which lead to their capture, the Garret’s were storing their neighbors furniture in the barn. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is an unsatisfying read and left me deeply disappointed, this is historiography at its worst and it is distressing that this book is aimed for pre-teens, our next generation of potential historians.