2 01 2009

acw309The new (March 2009) issue of America’s Civil War magazine is out.  The cover is graced by the image of that warm and fuzzy Confederate Lieutenant General Braxton Bragg.  The January issue featured the always polarizing Nathan Bedford Forrest on the cover, which resulted in some angry letters to the editor in the March issue.  I think editor Dana Shoaf (or his staff) did a fine job in responding to those,  and doubtless left at least one of the letter-writers feeling ignorant, stupid, racist - maybe even all three.  Good going, editors!

Also in this issue, on pages 68 & 69, is my new column, Smeltzer’s Six-Picks.  I’m not sure if that’s what it will be called in the next issue.  And that’s my picture in the upper left hand corner of page 68.  You can see my Penn State cap, but my Nittany Lion football jersey got cropped out.  So now you all know what I look like, and also why I don’t post photos of myself here.  In the column I provided brief, informational reviews on four new releases, and also hipped readers to a couple older titles that are related to two of the new books.  That’s the general format I’ll be following for as long as the magazine thinks it’s a good idea.  Let me know what you think.

Sausage Making

5 11 2008

sausage-makingRecently I was asked by a publisher to contribute to one of his projects by reviewing the manuscript of a book to be published in 2009.  I consider it an honor to be asked, and I’m finding the experience fascinating.  While I’ve reviewed friends’ manuscripts before, as the publisher describes it, I am now learning “how sausage is made”, the book publishing process from the inside.  The manuscript pages are sent to me as Word documents and I’m supposed to “mark them up”.  Nowadays that means using a word processing feature that allows the reader to quickly identify the changes.  But I’m old fashioned: I actually print out the pages and use something called a “red pen” to make corrections or suggestions or ask questions.  My intention is to compose another Word document with my suggested changes in a clear narrative.  I feel uncomfortable actually changing someone else’s text, as I think it imposes my voice over the author’s and I don’t want to do that.  One of the challenges is to make my suggestions in such a way that the author won’t feel defensive about his work.  Not because I’m worried about offending him, but because I want him to take my suggestions!  In the meantime, the author, publisher and I have been exchanging emails and clearing some things up as we go.  Unfortunately, I’ve been busy with work and teaching and my son’s flag football, so while I’ve finished my initial pass on the part of the manuscript I’ve been sent, I haven’t had time to organize my thoughts on paper.

This is fun!

McPherson’s “New” Book on Lincoln

31 10 2008

Check out this review of the new James McPherson book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James Durney on TOCWOC.  Astute and valid criticism, I think.  McPherson is a fine writer, a synthesizer by reputation, but his choices of what to synthesize seem somewhat pedestrian.  While on that subject, here are some thoughts on synthesis from an earlier Robert Bateman article I linked to in this post:

At the outset, a historian examines the available evidence about a historical event or period. He or she looks at the primary sources, be they eyewitness accounts or relevant contemporary documents, and from these develops an understanding of the basic outlines. But what follows next is at the core of the difference between journalism and history. The historian is then expected to interpret these sources to create a framework for a new understanding of the events, which goes beyond a recitation of who, what, when, where and why. This first interpretation, therefore, is the first thesis.

Let us assume for a moment that the historian was the first to address a given topic, and therefore his thesis is widely accepted as it is also the only one available. Time passes. We circle the sun. Children are born, raised, go to high school and learn the thesis (albeit usually in a synopsized version) as a part of their general education. Eventually one of them is masochistic enough to go to graduate school with the intent of pursuing a degree in history.

For the youngster, there are only two real routes available when selecting a dissertation topic. The budding historian might attempt to find a brand new area of study that has never been written about (fat chance there, but sometimes it happens), or he or she can read deeply of the already extant body of historical literature on a topic or period, re-examine the foundational materials underpinning the dominant thesis, perhaps uncover some additional material not noticed before. Then the new graduate student will proceed to offer a new interpretation, different and disagreeing with the original thesis in large ways and small, thus creating the anti-thesis. Obviously, if the author of the original thesis is still around, this might not go over swimmingly. Presuming the young historian has done a good job, his becomes the new “accepted version,” and the pendulum swings.

Skip forward a few more years, and the third phase comes into effect. This time, however, it is usually an older, more experienced and already established historian who completes the cycle. Age and experience have given the older historian some ability to read across multiple interpretations as well as the wisdom to craft his ideas carefully. The senior scholar, recognizing that there are some positive elements in both competing ideas, also brings to bear a much broader understanding of the field overall, and he has time on his side. (He is not living the life of penury, eating macaroni and cheese meals, that young grad student had been.) To this person is left the task of melding thesis and antithesis into a new and greater whole, the synthesis. This, then, becomes the new narrative, necessarily upsetting both the adherents of the thesis and the anti-thesis, but accepted by the larger field as superior to both.

Thus does one cycle of history end. It may have taken five years, or perhaps as many as 50, but at every step there was dispute and criticism flowing from one historian against another. (It’s a dynamic not usually seen within journalism except in the case of egregious acts of ethical violation such as Jayson Blair’s.) The arguing among historians, you see, is very much a part of what makes history.

What is it called when the senior scholar only considers the thesis in his synthesis?

Please take time to read Lt. Col. Bateman’s article.  I’ve pointed people to it before, but they can’t seem to get past the historian vs. journalist part of the piece.  Particularly at this time of year, what he has to say about historians’ personal biases affecting their analysis of current events is well worth considering.

News on the Writing Front

16 10 2008

I got some good news the other day:  my Reviews in Brief for America’s Civil War magazine are going to be rolled into a column with a new name and a slight format change.  Right now I review (in brief, mind you) four new releases for each column.  Beginning with the March 2009 issue, I’ll review up to four new releases in brief as before, but will add at least two additional books from my own shelves.  The key will be to choose books that compliment all, some or even just one of the four new books.  And that will be up to me.

This should be fun.  I’m looking forward to it.  Maybe not real writing, but closer to it.

Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story

8 03 2008


acw_may_08.jpg still-standing.jpg

As discussed here, the version of my review of Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story that appears in the May 2008 issue of America’s Civil War - on newsstands now – was edited about 35% for length.  To perhaps (though probably not) nip in the bud any questions regarding my opinion of the film, I’m posting the original text of the review below.  But don’t let this stop you from sending letters to the magazine.

Let me preface this by saying that I was predisposed to dislike the film prior to viewing, based on some things I had heard about it.  This to me was problematic, so before viewing it I posted a question to the Civil War Discussion Group (CWDG), a Yahoo email group to which I’ve belonged since its inception about seven years ago.  After discussing my problem with a few posters there, I determined that the proper course was to review the film on its own merits: what was the message it was trying to convey, and how well did it argue its case.  The review is not a simple reflection of my thoughts on the message, and has nothing to do with liking or disliking, but is rather an analysis of the presentation.  Note that each paragraph ends with an unexplored paradox.

Irony and paradox: those are the words used to characterize the life of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in the documentary “Still Standing – The Stonewall Jackson Story”.   They are used specifically to describe the story of Jackson as one of a very ordinary man, arising from ordinary, even humble circumstances to accomplish extraordinary things. Beautifully filmed, the DVD has a pleasant musical score and relies more on live action video of sites from the general’s life than on the Ken Burns trademark still photograph panning that has become S.O.P. for historical documentaries.  All in all, this is an attractive package.  But it is perhaps more rife with irony and paradox than the producers intended – paradoxes and ironies ultimately left unexplored or unconvincingly explained.

Focusing on Jackson’s spiritual life, and based on the book “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend” by Richard Williams, the program features a number of “talking heads”, first and foremost Jackson biographer James I. Robertson.  Jackson’s story is broken down into chronological phases of his life, beginning with his traumatic separation from his mother at  age seven to be sent to live with his uncle Cummins at Jackson’s Mill in what is now West Virginia.    Robertson describes Jackson’s boyhood as one of solitude and loneliness, and tells us that he never got over the separation from his mother, that his uncle was an uncaring, selfish man and that, while he later said his uncle loved him, Jackson “did not know what love was.”  At the same time, his boyhood is also described as shaped by his close friendship with future Union general Joseph Lightburn who, along with Cummins’s slaves, influenced Jackson to accept the gospel.

Jackson’s time at West Point is covered briefly, described as spent engrossed in study, and discussion of his Mexican War service is limited to his three brevet promotions, his dalliance with Catholicism, and the influence on his religious development of his superior officer Francis Taylor.  As for his post-war career, we learn of his baptism while stationed at Ft. Hamilton and of his leaving the army to take a teaching job at VMI, but nothing of why he left or any role his ambition – later described by Dr. Hunter McGuire as “far beyond what ordinary men possess” – may have played in his decision.  At VMI, while Jackson continued his personal voyage of faith, he distinguished himself as possibly the worst teacher in the history of the school.  Despite that, evidence suggests that his students saw something special in “Tom Fool”.

While Jackson’s role at First Manassas and in the Valley Campaign is explored, there is really little analysis of his Civil War record.   In fact, the film jumps from the Valley Campaign straight to Chancellorsville and his mortal wounding, avoiding entirely the paradox of Jackson’s spotty performance during the Seven Days.

At the center of the documentary is Jackson as husband, father, and benefactor of a Sunday school for slaves and free blacks in Lexington, Va.  While establishing himself in the town, he joined the Presbyterian Church and married Eleanor Junkin.  Fourteen months later, his wife and new son were dead, and Jackson’s faith is said to be all that pulled him through a difficult time.  He toured Europe, and on his return quickly courted and married Mary Anna Morrison.  By all accounts Jackson, earlier described as not knowing what love was, deeply, even romantically, loved his wife.

Jackson, who believed that every human being was a child of God, helped to fund a Sunday school to teach slaves and free blacks to read, in order for them to more closely follow the teachings of the bible.  While in violation of Virginia law, he felt that God’s law trumped the law of man.  Committed to the project, he sent his monthly stipend for the school from the battlefield of Manassas.  This scenario presents perhaps the most significant paradox of Jackson’s life.  While Robertson asserts that Jackson did not, in fact could not, fight for slavery, the fact remains that his actions helped sustain a government dedicated to the preservation of that institution; that while the beneficiaries of Stonewall’s bible school would become the freedmen of post-war Lexington, his actions helped delay their attainment of that status; that while Jackson was traumatized by his separation as a child from his beloved mother, his actions helped to perpetuate a system that methodically separated mother from child.

Perhaps a case can be made that for his time and community Jackson was in fact progressive in his views on and treatment of slaves and free blacks.  However, “Still Standing” does not attempt to view Jackson in the context of his circumstances, instead boldly proclaiming him a “champion of enslaved men and women”.  The glaring paradox is that he was at the same time on the battlefield a champion of slavery.   That’s a paradox worth exploring.

Thanks to Senior Editor Tobin Beck for his kind permission to post this.

(UPDATE:  Blogger Richard Williams, on whose book Still Standing is based, has “not commented” on this review here.  He suggests that I can find explorations of all the paradoxes in the film in his book.  As I said, I reviewed the film on its own merits.  Sweet cross-marketing pitch though!  I’m not sure what you found “curious” about my comments but no, I didn’t consider the review a “dreadful undertaking”, just a challenging one.  As for my comments speaking for themselves, I sure hope they do - that’s what I was going for!)

The Bloody Shirt

29 02 2008

bloody-shirt-2.jpgOne of the very few perks of writing this blog is that every once in a while a publisher sees fit to send me a copy of a book for review.  This most recent, The Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky (Viking Press, $27.95) was a really good read, and I highly recommend it – with a caveat.  If you are enamored of the “character” of individuals like Wade Hampton or Matthew Butler, or if you despise traditional Reconstruction “villains” or at best “failures” like Bull Run Medal of Honor recipient Adelbert Ames, be prepared to have your preconceptions challenged.

Rage – that’s what this book elicits; if that’s too strong, it’s at least similar to that queasy, pit-of-the-stomach feeling you get while watching a movie in which the hero is “set up” for a crime he didn’t commit, and has to fight a system stacked against him.  Budiansky argues that the Reconstruction Yankees and African-Americans, at least those he profiles, were good men with a good cause.  Men like Ames, 7th Cavalry Major Lewis Merrill, former slave and soldier Prince Rivers, and Albert T. Morgan fought the good fight, but the odds were decidedly not in their favor.  In addition, they seem to have received little support from the federal government.  (I really wish Budiansky had explored this aspect further; while Andrew Johnson traditionally takes the heat for the failure of Reconstruction, Ulysses S. Grant was president during most of the period covered in this book, yet is a non-entity in it.  Perhaps the author felt no comment was comment enough.  I’d really like to hear what someone with knowledge of Grant and Reconstruction has to say about this – maybe someone like Brooks Simpson?)

Few and far between were prominent southerners, like James Longstreet, who had any interest in reconciling with the rest of the country under the terms suggested by the ruling party – namely, the establishment of black suffrage.  Influential white southerners were most interested in returning to the status quo that existed prior to the war, despite the fact that the war was fought to maintain that status quo, and the South lost that test of arms.  Part of this effort was the formation of the Ku Klux Clan, White Leagues, and various gun clubs.  Ultimately, they were successful.  Through intimidation, violence, and fraud Democrats began to win back the southern states.  The north was described by the Federal government as “tired” of the violence, and Reconstruction was abandoned after 1876.  With that, many claim, the Confederacy essentially won the Civil War.

I was struck by the extensive passages from southern newspapers, which boldly and blatantly declared their positions.  They did not mince words – they knew what the Ku Kluxers and White Leaguers were about, and they wholeheartedly, even glibly supported them and their tactics.

The book climaxes with the murders that took place at predominantly African-American Hamburg, SC under the direction of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and Matthew C.Butler, and serves to depict in microcosm the Passion Play that was the life and death of Reconstruction.  This incident mirrors that which occurred in Colfax, LA, covered in Nicholas Lemann’s 2006 offering Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.  (I haven’t read it yet, but plan to do so in the near future.)

The successful attempt of Southerners to shape public perception of Reconstruction, similar and integral to the creation of the Lost Cause myth, is also briefly covered.  The pretzel logic of this PR campaign, which laid the blame for the violence of Reconstruction at the feet of the Reconstructionists and African Americans, is described by Budiansky in his introduction.  He explores and exposes the myth of the Bloody Shirt (waving the bloody shirt was and still is a tactic used by politicians in which the blood of heroes or martyrs is used to gain support or deflect criticism).  He argues:

The bloody shirt perfectly captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction the nation would hold for generations after.  The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency; the way it suggested that the real story was not the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of those atrocities.  The merest hint that a partisan motive lay behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.

If it was incomprehensible to many Northerners, it made perfect sense to those same white Southerners who, on more than one occasion, blamed the “cowardly negroes” for their unmanliness in having permitted themselves to be massacred by bands of armed white men: it only showed, they argued in complete earnest, that black men lacked the Anglo-Saxon virtues indispensable to free men who would exercise the lofty privilege of self-government.  Any people who allowed their vote to be taken from them at gunpoint didn’t deserve to keep it.

To quote Yossarian: That’s some catch, that Catch-22.




Reviews Out the Wazoo

25 01 2008


I finished up my three book reviews in brief for the May issue of America’s Civil War earlier this week.  I’ll also write a full review of a Civil War DVD for the same issue this weekend.  And yesterday I received a book for review on this blog.

bloody-shirt-2.jpgThe Bloody Shirt: Terror after Appomattox, by Stephen Budiansky, was sent to me by Lindsay Prevette, a publicist at Viking/Penguin, who contacted me through the comments section of one of my posts.  I’m very upfront with folks who ask if I’ll review their book for the blog (keeping in mind this is only the third time this has happened).  I can’t guarantee how soon I’ll get to it, nor can I guarantee my review will be a positive one.  I think so far all the book reviews I’ve written here (solicited or otherwise) have been balanced.

The Bloody Shirt is another entry in the flavor of the month among academic Civil War historians – reconstruction – though its author is a journalist.  I’ll write a little review in brief next week, and will hopefully be able to blow through the book pretty quickly once I’ve finished the incredibly, unbelievably long biography of Sullivan Ballou I’m reading now.  Then I’ll write a full review.

I was pleasantly surprised when I opened Budiansky’s book to the illustrations (the first thing I do when I pick up a new book, even before the bibliography) and saw a nice portrait of Adelbert Ames, member of the USMA class of 1861 and winner of the Medal of Honor for his actions at First Bull Run.  Ames was a reconstruction mucky-muck and Republican governor of Mississippi, in addition to being the great-grandfather of George Plimpton.  There is also a portrait of James Longstreet, brigade commander at Bull Run who played a prominent and, to some, unpopular role in putting down post-war violence in New Orleans.

To top it all off yesterday I was presented with a great opportunity to combine book reviews with battlefield stomping.  I’m pretty stoked about this one.

Now all I need is for the big guy to add about 12 hours to each day.

America’s Civil War March 2008

9 01 2008


acw-march-08.jpgThe March issue of America’s Civil War has hit the stands, and I picked up my copy yesterday.  There’s an interesting piece by Rob Hodge on his life after Confederates in the Attic (Rob is the “bloater” featured on the cover of Tony Horwitz’s book), as well as some cool wet-plate photos of reenactors on the cover and inside.

Also in this issue are my first book reviews – you will find them at the end of the reviews section under In Brief.  I found writing these reviews, which are based on a cursory exam of the books in question, challenging.  I eventually read in full Ed Steers, Jr.’s Lincoln Legends and liked it a lot.  There was a fourth book I was assigned to review, but it was really not up to snuff (in my opinion) – it got some Bull Run stuff flat out wrong – so I took mom’s advice and said nothing at all.  I don’t think that’s a cop out at all for a review in brief.  If I had been asked to do a full review, well that’s a different story.  I won’t name the book here, but it did receive a positive review in February’s Civil War Times.  To each his own.

Anyway, the editor I deal with at ACW, Tobin Beck (who also co-authored, with Lance Herdegen, an article on the Underground Railroad in this issue), must have been satisfied since I’ve received three more books (and a DVD) to review for the May issue.

cwt-feb-08.jpgOn a related note, I want to echo Kevin Levin’s thoughts on the latest issue of Civil War Times (no longer Illustrated).  Friend Dana Shoaf has made a real impact since taking over, adding some features and ratcheting up the quality of the articles (read Dana’s interview with the author of this issue’s cover story, head Harvard honcho Drew Gilpin Faust, here).  But my favorite change is the ditching of the colorized photos on the cover.  For some reason I’ve always found them irritating.

Check out both of these increasingly fine magazines.  If you haven’t looked at them in awhile, I think you’ll be impressed.


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