September 29, 2008

Civil War Battlefield Exhibits - Final Comments

Kevin Levin and Eric Wittenberg have followed up my earlier post with their own takes on the interpretive changes underway at our ACW battlefields. Having read the many responses over the past several days, I’ll make this final observation.

Kevin makes the case that Gettysburg has become a symbol for so much more than just a large-scale Civil War battle. That Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the “tide-turning” historiography of Gettysburg and its sheer size make it a most unique place compared to any other Civil War battlefield. Therefore, I concede his point that Gettysburg can, and perhaps should be an excellent choice to feature a broad narrative of the entire war and its causes. In a response to Eric’s post, Kevin also points out that interpretive debate has been going on for decades at these parks and therefore, this latest round should be viewed as no big deal. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this latest round was the first time that Congress legislated that a certain perspective be presented! Further, it appears that the controversial Congressional mandates and Jesse Jackson Jr. speeches from the past decade dictated that such a broad-based view not be limited to our premier ACW battlefield, but should extend to all NPS sites. The fact that all sites must now broaden the scope of their interpretation and its apparent depth is the crux of my issue, which I think Kevin agrees with.

What seems to be oh-so-carefully-worded is the real “why” of those mandates, though I have a hunch that it’s a sister racial elephant sitting in the other corner of this room. Kevin writes how “one is hard pressed to find black Americans at Gettysburg today, although it seems to me that they have as much of a reason to do so as any citizen” and that “Gettysburg belongs to all Americans.” Jackson’s speech entitled “A More Perfect Union, which got the legislative ball rolling, says basically the same thing. No argument here to any of that. In fact, I’d say it’s self-evident, or, at least should be. The essence of the “problem” however, as vocalized by Jackson and Gettysburg Superintendent John Latschar, is a perceived lack of African-American interest in these Civil War sites, i.e., the absence of black faces at Gettysburg that Kevin mentions. This lack of interest was driven, in Jackson’s opinion, by an inability (unwillingness?) of African-Americans to “relate” to the traditional battlefield interpretations with their, as he saw it, narrow military focus which apparently translates into a primarily “white” focus. Latschar acknowledged this as well by saying in 2003 that, "Generally speaking, Civil War parks have failed to appeal to the black population of America." Further, any interpretation based solely on military matters put the NPS in the position of subtly endorsing a Southern point of view, a characterization that retired NPS Chief Historian Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley felt was well taken. According to Latschar, "For the past 100 years, we've been presenting this battlefield as the high watermark of the Confederacy and focusing on the personal valor of the soldiers who fought here." According to three visiting historians in 1998, Gettysburg's interpretive programs had a "pervasive southern sympathy." This is illustrated by what has become famously known as "Pickett's Charge" rather than, say, "Meade's Defense." The “cure” then, per Jackson and Congress, was to readjust the interpretive lens so that Civil War battlefields would be more “accessible.” As Jackson himself acknowledged, “Race, I must tell you, is the lens through which I, as an African American, view American history.”

Gee, and so many of us thought that the fundamental reason for the NPS’ interpretive sea-change was all in the name of superior scholarship and delivering a more advanced understanding of the war. While no one suggests that the purported African-American disinterest in the study of Civil War battlefields is a “good” thing, I’m still sincerely struggling to understand why so many view it as a “bad” thing. Again, to quote Latschar: "Park visitors are predominantly adult white males. Males far outnumber females and white visitors far, far outnumber black visitors and all other minorities. If the park is going to survive as a public institution supported by taxpayer funds, I suggested that it might want to appeal to a broader cross-section of the American taxpaying population." Is this a deftly-worded political statement or a simple economic one? Remember, there are historical topics ad infinitum that people could have an interest in, but simply don’t. My mother-in-law has a keen interest in 19th-century quilts and the related shows and events that go with it. The entire scene is female-dominated. Should they somehow change things to make it more palatable to males?

The black contribution to the northern war effort was immense and should be celebrated. It is quite possible the Union might not have been saved had it not been for the contribution of the 100,000+ USCT’s. Today, I believe there are a good number of African-American men who interpret these soldiers through various reenactment groups. I’ve also seen many African-American women at so-called “sutler’s camps.” The level of African-American scholarship within the Civil War is self-evident. My hope is that anyone of any ethnicity or color who wishes to learn about the Civil War will be welcomed into the public dialogue with open arms. This, of course, holds true for participatory activities as well.

On the other hand, it’s OK by me if someone has no interest, either. Let’s just not tap-dance around why we’re making these fundamental interpretive changes at our national military parks. From what’s been written and discussed, I’ve inferred that the core reason is a belief that we want to attract more African-American visitors to Civil War battlefields and in order to do so, we’re altering the narrative to include discussions that the powers that be believe will be of greater interest to them. Thus, another example of Gallagher’s Reconciliation Cause giving way to the currently vogue Emancipation Cause. Publicly proclaiming that we’re broadening the narrative to give visitors a more well-rounded, historically accurate contextual picture is a straw man argument that dodges the real issue, in my humble opinion. And there’s nothing wrong at all with that core reason – let’s just be honest about it!

Latschar has previously said that Lost Cause mythology was, in its day, the ultimate in “politically correct” thinking. He makes a very good point; let’s just admit that this current trend in revising the interpretation at Civil War battlefields is likewise primarily driven by contemporary racial politics. And hey, that’s OK! If so many of us say that we need an “open dialogue” about race, and I believe we do, then let’s start by admitting that we’re going to talk about race.


September 23, 2008

Pass the Maalox, Please...

Yeah, I know this one is way off-topic, but hey, it's still book related! Nevertheless, I've got to get this off my chest --- It's not even freakin' October yet and I'm ready to mail in my interest in the NFL season.

You see, I am a life-long, bleeding brown and orange, dog-barking Cleveland Browns fan. Is there any more long-suffering group of masochists? I'm convinced that much of my gray hair was caused by years of watching this team on autumn Sundays. For decades, I've been amazed at the way the Brownies could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The list is legendary - "The Drive," "The Fumble," "Red Right 88," etc, etc." It's gotten to the point that many are convinced there is a curse on Brownstown.

But this year was supposed to be different! The playoffs were in sight! It all was supposed to come together this year, what with a 10-6 season last year, five Pro Bowlers on offense and big money spent in the offseason for a revamped defensive line. The NFL, in turn, rewarded the Brownies with FIVE prime-time, national TV evening games!

Yeah right.... Can there be a more overrated team right now in the NFL, when you consider preseason expectations and the current 0 - 3 results? Which includes two divisional losses to the despised Ravens and the even more despised mouth-breathers from western Pa.! The vaunted offense has scored a grand total of 26 points thru three games and both sides of the ball are just riddled with injuries. The head coach looks lost as does the starting QB.

So, once again, it's back to the past for Browns fans and talk of "next year." At least we can take solace with the new book pictured above, cuz there sure aint nuthin' happening with the Browns this year, again....


September 21, 2008

On the Nature of Exhibits at ACW Battlefields

As anyone who surfs the Civil War blogosphere will know, the new Gettysburg Battlefield Visitors Center has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy ever since its opening months back. It seems everything, including the quantity of artifacts, admission fees, and the quality or lack thereof of the bookstore/gift shop has come under fire. One issue that has also generated debate is the nature of the exhibits, which seem to have shifted from a purely military interpretation to one that now draws focus toward slavery, race and their roles as the cause of the war and their bitter legacy once the war ended.

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory has done excellent work in chronicling these issues and their relativity to how we in the 21st century have chosen to remember the Civil War. He writes in a response to one comment as to how the new Gettysburg VC provides a "sophisticated narrative that deals with some very difficult issues such as the cause of the war." Let's be frank. The issues of slavery, race and the uneasiness that such topics still present to us as a society 150 years later is the elephant in the corner of the room that many are dancing around as part of this debate. Heck, anyone who is closely following the current presidential election has read editorials ad nauseum that describe this elephant. As to the ACW, a core question is in what type of venue, how, and to what extent should the central cause of the war be explained to a 21st-century public who wants to learn more about the Civil War.

All clear thinkers will acknowledge that slavery was the fundamental reason for the war, and that it left a bitter legacy for decades to follow. But should those facts be front, center, and rear at every turn? From what I've experienced from visits to major battlefield visitor centers and traveling museum exhibitions over the past ten years or so, it seems that race and gender (Gallagher’s Emancipation Cause) have taken leading positions in the "new" enlightened narrative which the NPS has obviously embraced. It appears that the traditional battlefield narratives of tactics, “glory,” gallantry, etc. have now been given a back seat, whereas the "why" of the war and its lasting social impact are paramount. In other words, and in my humble opinion, the racial "historical context" that we all agree is important has become preeminent and, dare I say, perhaps even somewhat "in your face." Let me stress, I am not arguing that slavery’s primacy should not be discussed at a battlefield dedicated to interpreting a specific Civil War engagement, but only questioning to what degree relative to the battlefield’s raison d'ĂȘtre. This applies to museum exhibits as well. To illustrate my point, I clearly recall how at a major museum exhibition in Orlando, Florida titled “The Civil War in Florida,” there was more space (which included interactive exhibits) given to the legacy of slavery and its impact on the 1960’s civil rights movement than there was to presenting the 1864 Florida Campaign and its climactic battle of Olustee.

It's just my non-scientific opinion, but I believe that most people who visit a Civil War battlefield like Gettysburg do so to learn about that particular 19th-century battle or campaign. They have their maps in hand and try to envision the gray or blue lines sweeping over the fields they’re standing on. Perhaps they’ll briefly close their eyes and try to smell the smoke and hear the roar of battle within their mind’s eye. Having seen the lay of the land, they now understand how a unique piece of geography may have affected a particular outcome. Everyone agrees that some background context is important but from what I’ve personally seen and read, it feels like there’s been a tidal-shift in the other direction – whether we, the Civil War consumer, need it, like it, or not.

The importance of slavery and its racial legacy should not be marginalized. These issues need to be presented to the public. But I do not believe they need to be front and center at every NPS or state battlefield. For those who want a more in-depth education about this sad chapter, there's the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is in downtown Cincinnati. Here in southeast Michigan, there's the wonderful Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. I'm sure there are more – and visitors to these excellent museums should not expect nor receive lectures on the battle of Gettysburg.

September 20, 2008

Major-General Hiram G. Berry

My local library called today with the good news that their inter-library loan department was able to obtain a copy of Major-General Hiram G. Berry by Edward K. Gould for me. I was pleasantly surprised for, despite my library's wonderful efficiency in such matters, this is a truly rare, 100-year-old book that has never been reprinted. Most libraries are not prone to lending out such volumes, nevertheless the Worcester (Mass.) Free Public Library stepped up and delivered the goods. More than just a biography, it also contains a good amount of Berry's Civil War correspondence, which I certainly wanted to look at as part of my O. M. Poe research.

Berry started the war as colonel of the 4th Maine volunteers. He was promoted to brigadier general and then led a brigade in Kearny's division, Heintzelman's Corp during the Peninsula Campaign. Illness sent him home for much of the summer and fall 1862 but returned to his command in time for Fredericksburg. He was promoted to major general, taking over Joseph Hooker's division after Fighting Joe was promoted to AOP command. Berry was killed at the head of his command during the battle of Chancellorsville.

I don't ever recall seeing a copy of this book at any book fair or on a bookstore's shelves for that matter. Currently, there is only one copy offered for sale at ABE and it has an asking price of $225. Truly a desirable book for any Civil War library.

September 17, 2008

146th Anniversary of Antietam

Today is the 146th anniversary of the battle of Antietam,or Sharpsburg, if you live below the Mason-Dixon line. I recall posting about a neat item last year at this time that pertained to the battle, so for those who may not have seen it, here 'tis.

Other posts pertaining to books about Antietam can be found here and here.

Poll Results

Though far from scientific or even possessing a large enough sample, the results of my recent poll do say something about books vs. digital downloads, at least as far as visitors to this site are concerned. Overwhelmingly, these visitors are bibliophiles over the age of 40 who clearly prefer books to digital downloads. Of course, given the focus of this blog, that's hardly a revelation.

September 13, 2008

Some Useful Book Collecting Videos

Bookseller Erik Bosee has posted a series of videos at Expert Village that discuss the basics of first edition book collecting. Good stuff for those getting underway with building a first edition library. The videos are also posted at YouTube, of course.

Expert Village describes itself as "the largest choice of informative videos from trusted sources to provide answers to your everyday questions. All Expert Village videos are part of a longer series, so if you find a video you like, visit www.expertvillage.com to view more in that series."

September 11, 2008

Anti-Rebel

This is one of those classic examples of bibliographic sleuthing that makes book collecting so enjoyable and highlights the sometimes wacky world of book pricing.

In 1992, the University of Kansas Press published Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865. Wisk had enlisted in the 2nd Vermont Infantry and though a common foot soldier, he also served as an “in the field” correspondent for Montpelier’s Green Mountain Freeman. Over the course of the next four years, Fisk sent over 100 letters back to the paper, all written and published under the pseudonym of “Anti-Rebel.” Fisk was certainly no professional journalist and as such, he had no access to generals and headquarters. He was simply one of the boys and wrote proficiently of battlefields, camp life, and the trials and tribulations of being a simple soldier.

The book was well received and is in print to this day in paperback format. It seems to be a staple of eastern theater primary sources and is included in David Eicher’s The Civil War in Books: An Analytical Bibliography (#474). Civil War historian Herman Hattaway referred to Fisk’s epistolary efforts as “literary gems” while Library Journal described the book as “the best overall picture of Union Army life in epistolary form, this unique volume, quite different from other compendia of Civil War letters, should be purchased by all public and academic libraries with Civil War collections.” First printings seem readily available with asking prices all the way up to $60.

There’s just one thing. This edition as published by the University Press of Kansas is basically a reprint, though it does contain a new foreword by Reid Mitchell. None can be considered a first edition, because the book’s true first edition appeared nine years earlier in 1982 under the title of Anti-Rebel: The Civil War Letters of Wilbur Fisk. If you own a copy of Hard Marching and look at the copyright page, you’ll see the small print mention of this fact. The very small hardcover printing of Anti-Rebel was basically self-published by the editor, Emil Rosenblatt, at Croton-On-Hudson, New York. If you’re a first edition book collector, the earlier edition is certainly the one you’ll want on your bookshelf and as you can see here, far fewer copies are offered for sale.

September 9, 2008

Digital Downloads vs. Books as Objects

Ted Savas has recently asked readers at his blog about the viability or interest in his company producing digital downloads of various Savas titles. I was one of the seven who responded "no" and for me at least, the whole issue has to do with books being something more than just a medium for delivering information or data.

My sense is that for all or at least many who answered yes or maybe, that may not be the case; that for them, the delivery medium is perhaps irrelevant. I may be way off base, but I suspect most of these readers are relatively young. For other old-school types like me, a book is a physical object that has an intrinsic worth or value that transcends mere words on a page. There is something about its heft, feel, visual design or even smell that creates sensory enjoyment that goes beyond simply reading and absorbing information. So with that in mind, I've created another poll at left that's a combination of yes/no answers and age. I'd like to know if there's any correlation between age and viewing books as desirable objects or just as transmittors of data.


September 3, 2008

"Blue and Gray Weekly"

Today's mail brought a fat catalog for an upcoming Bloomsbury Auction. It is presented as The Bibliophile Sale and will he held in New York on September 17 - 18. There are 803 lots across all categories with the highlight being the Fred M. Meyer Collection of L. Frank Baum and Related Oziana. If The Wizard of Oz is your thing, you won't want to miss this one. There are also 32 lots of Civil War material, mostly signed documents, autographs and photography.

One lot in particular that caugt my eye is a 32-issue run of Blue and Gray Weekly (pre-sale estimate of $1000-$1500). These issues of this children's periodical appeared from August 12, 1904 through March 17, 1905 with titles from "Off to the War" to "Forced to Surrender."

Having recently read Gary Gallagher's Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten, it is obvious that the illustration of the pictured item falls in neatly with the Reconciliation Cause described in Gallagher's book, which was the predominant theme from that era.

September 1, 2008

The Battle of Chantilly: September 1, 1862

Today is the 146th anniversary of the battle of Chantilly, which was referred to by the Confederates as the battle of Ox Hill. It was a short but intense fight that came on the heels of Second Bull Run and featured a number of unique characteristics. It was one the few Civil War battles that was fought partially in the dark. It also occurred in some of the worst weather conditions imaginable, including a torrential downpour, thunder and lightning that dazzled the senses, and unseasonably chilly weather. On a more gruesome note, Chantilly was one of the relatively few engagements where the bayonet was employed liberally.

I first learned the details of this battle when I moved to northern Virginia’s Fairfax County in the late 90’s due to a work transfer. The 5-acre Ox Hill Battlefield Park was only a few miles from where I lived and worked, so it became a popular spot for peaceful lunches and visits. Also piquing my interest at the time was the realization that no book-length work had ever been published on the battle. I soon set about my research and writing however by the time my book appeared in 2003, it had been relegated to third in line on books about this battle. All three books appeared within a 14 or 15-month timeframe in 2002-03 by authors who all lived in the immediate vicinity of Ox Hill. The first to appear was David Welker’s Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly, published by the Da Capo Press in 2002. It features an excellent narrative of the battle as well as lengthy bios of Union generals Philip Kearny and Isaac Stevens, both of whom were killed during the brief encounter. Next up was Charles Mauro’s A Monumental Storm: The Battle of Chantilly, published by the Fairfax County Historical Society. This work is an oblong-shaped paperback that offers a general overview and description of the battle, but also features Mauro’s superb modern photographs of the extant battlefield and related sites. Your humble correspondent’s book appeared soon after and features numerous period illustrations, participant photos and primary sources not found in the other works.

The aforementioned 5-acre park has been recently renovated with the rededication ceremonies set for today. The rededication marks the completion of a $700,000 project to construct new trails, historic interpretive kiosks and signage, as well as landscape restoration and parking improvements. Sadly, the rest of the battlefield is gone, the victim of northern Virginia’s volcanic growth that continues to this day. In fact, even the modern view on page 73 of my book now no longer exists. The woods in that picture, a place where the 21st Massachusetts lost over 100 men in a single volley, have been cut down within the past couple of years. An apartment building / office complex now sits atop the hill. I wonder if anyone knew….