Poll: Sources of Civil War Information

23 04 2013

From whom do you think most interested folks will be getting their information regarding the Civil War era? Since Polldaddy doesn’t let you rank your answers, I have to ask for just one.

Poll: Civil War Information Delivery Systems

21 04 2013

So, what do you think will be the most infuential method of delivering information regarding the Civil War era to the great unwashed, that is, to the majority of folks who are – or may become – interested? Since Polldaddy doesn’t let you rank your answers, I have to ask for just one.

What’s Up With That Cane?

26 07 2011

My current read, At the Precipice: American’s North and South During the Secession Crisis, by Shearer Davis Bowman, hepped me to a bit of information of which I was previously unaware, and prompted a trivia question for you, dear readers.

We all know that on May 22, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally attacked in the Senate chamber with a gutta-percha walking stick in the hands of cowardly Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Any idea why Brooks carried the cane? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t for show, and it wasn’t strictly for beating defenseless Yankees.

Preview: Orlando Figes, “The Crimean War”

15 05 2011

The folks at Henry Holt and Company sent me a copy of a new book by Orlando Figes, The Crimean War: A History. It’s a big one – 493 pages of text and about 40 more of notes. Earlier this year I finished reading my first comprehensive study of the conflict, Trevor Royle’s Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856. I knew virtually nothing about the Crimean War prior to that, other than Into the Valley of Death rode the 600. But it became obvious to me that anyone studying the Civil War owes it to themselves to at least get a handle on what happened in the Crimea in order to put our American war in some kind of context. It quickly became apparent that many of the “firsts” we attribute to the later war were at best seconds.

Royle’s book was published in 2000, so the first question is what sets Figes’s book apart? It claims to have drawn on “untapped” Russian, Ottoman, and European sources. If you compare the bibliographies of the two books, it’s obvious that Figes lists a lot more book titles in languages I can’t understand (OK, I remember enough high school German to decipher parts of a few) than does Royle. On the other hand, Figes’s select bibliography does not include the archival unpublished collections that are in Royles. But that’s the thing about select bibliographies – what was the selection process?

The real issue for me is whether Figes can do a better job than Royles at keeping all the military and political figures involved straight in the reader’s head. The diplomatic aspects of the Crimean War are labyrinthine, to say the least, and I think Royle took the readers’ familiarity with such things for granted at times. As for pacing, the Light Brigade’s Waterloo is reached at about the midpoint in each book.

Royles’s book concludes with the historical impact of the war and its aftermath, which was far-reaching and resonates to this day. While Figes doesn’t ignore this, he chose to wrap things up with The Crimean War in Myth and Memory, which should be interesting to Civil War readers who have been inundated with similar topics over the past 15 years. (I realize that there is much, much more to the literature than these two books, but I’m limited in my exposure.)

I’m not sure when I’ll get to this one, but if anyone has read it or has a better idea of how it fits into the extensive historiography of the Crimean War, please let us know in the comments section!

What Is Truth?

10 01 2010

I’ve finished Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.  I’ll give some thoughts on the book at some point in the near future.  But it and Larry Tagg’s The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln got me to thinking: what do we really know of “public opinion” as of a point in time?  I mean, it’s hard even today, with polls out the wazoo, to tell what public opinion is on any given topic.  The most typical resource relied upon for public opinion has been newspapers, including reporting and editorializing.  But let’s keep in mind that newspapers never have been objective, and during the middle period of the 19th century in this country they were unabashedly partisan.  That’s why they had names like “The Democrat”, “The Whig” and “The Republican”.  They reflected the viewpoints of their owners and editors (again, no different from today).  If we admit the lack of objectivity, then we don’t take editorials at face value – we also delve into letters to the editor.  Of course those were selected for publication by the editor as well.  So perhaps we should look in the records of the newspapers themselves: files of letters to the editor that never made it into print.  If they exist, we have to rely on the objectivity of the newspaper in saving the letters.  And even that pool is tainted because it will consist of correspondence from readers of that particular newspaper.  As consumers, we have to deal with another filter, that of the historian who selects (evaluates) what’s pertinent, what’s worthwhile.  Anyway, all this thinking just makes me look more suspiciously at generalizations about what people in the north or south “thought” or “felt”, and about how “pressure from the public” or even the press, influenced decision makers.

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A Question for Pointy Heads

3 12 2009

OK, excuse the title of this post – I wanted to get your attention.  I’m not one of those outsiders who holds academe in disdain; I even have a few friends and acquaintances on the inside whom I like and admire.  That clarification made, I have a question for them and any others of their ilk who’d like to contribute: has good old-fashioned American self-loathing affected how the history of the middle period – those years surrounding and including the Civil War – has been interpreted and taught on campus?  If so, how?

Man, there are some great self-loathing cartoons out there, and even a fake magazine, but I didn’t have any time to get permission to use them.

Opinion as Historical Fact

30 01 2009

The problem with the elliptical trainer is that over the course of 50-60 minutes my mind starts to wander. Yesterday I had my iPod on and was watching CNN’s close-captioned coverage of the Illinois governor’s closing statement at his impeachment hearing – no, you can’t comment on the proceedings here, I’ll delete it. Afterwards, two CNN talking heads were discussing what was going on, when one said to the other that the reason the Governor chose to boycott all but this portion of the trial was that he could not be challenged in his closing statement. The other head said yes, that was exactly the reason.  Now, it might very well be the reason, but unless someone can point me to some statement by the Governor that such was his reasoning, this was nothing more than a guess.  This kind of stuff happens all the time in Civil War literature. Take for instance the opinion, long stated as fact, that McDowell’s advance on Manassas was slow due to a fear of masked batteries. Or that Oliver Otis Howard deliberately tried to sabotage the reputation of Abner Doubleday at Gettysburg (I wrote about it on Dmitri’s blog here and here). An article by a “big shot”  perpetuating that old saw compelled me to write a very long letter to the editor of a magazine criticizing the author-in-question’s practice of presenting opinion – in the case of Howard, completely unsupported opinion – as fact.  And also in that case, citing as support another of his own works in which he presented the same unsupported opinion as fact.

Damn that elliptical machine.


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