Monthly Archives: March 2009

Making sense of Guilford Courthouse

I’ve mentioned before how thrilled I was to learn about a new book called Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, by Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard.  We’ve long needed a full-scale treatment of this battle, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to co-write it than Babits, whose earlier book on the Battle of Cowpens was a remarkable piece of research.

I eagerly awaited the arrival of my copy of Long, Obstinate, and Bloody, and when it finally came I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.  I absolutely devoured it, and it’s as fine a piece of military history as I expected it to be.  Guilford was a confused and messy affair, but Babits and Howard have done an outstanding job of making sense of it all.  There’s some intensive primary research collected in these pages, and it shows.

The battle’s anniversary is, of course, this weekend.  Check out the schedule of events.  Babits and Howard are speaking at Guilford Courthouse National Park tonight and signing books tomorrow; there’s also a reenactment at the adjacent Country Park and a number of other presentations at both the NP and nearby Tannenbaum Historic Park. 

My plans to attend fell through at the last minute, much to my disappointment.  I’ll have to postpone my pilgrimage until next week, so here’s your homework assignment.  If you’re within driving distance of Greensboro, head on over and then report back.  If not, then order yourself a copy of Long, Obstinate, and Bloody and enjoy.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Museums and Historic Sites

Facing historical figures

I think my favorite living historian is David Hackett Fischer.  His books are wide-ranging, exhaustively researched, intelligently argued, and beautifully written.  He’s a tremendous inspiration to me, and his work has provided me with many instructive lessons on the craft of history.

One of those lessons involves how to approach historical figures.  The temptation, of course, is to do so with either blind admiration or fashionable contempt. 

Fischer offers what I think is a sensible approach in his book on the events leading up to Lexington and Concord.  His two main actors are the American patriot Paul Revere and the British officer Thomas Gage.  One of his purposes, he writes, is “to study both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect.”¹

Neither worship nor condemnation, but “sympathy and respect,” a simple appreciation of their basic humanity and a willingness to put oneself in their shoes.  Not bad advice for scholars who find themselves passing judgment on men and women in extraordinary circumstances.

¹ David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), xviii.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory

Let me recommend American History Now

I logged on tonight to find a very kind comment from Jim Cullen, a teacher and author who blogs at American History Now.  I wasn’t familiar with his site, but I’m going to follow it eagerly from now on.  It’s got that mix of scholarly insight and distinctive personality that makes historical blogging so interesting.

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Filed under History on the Web

Slavery, golf, swimming–something for everybody!

The United States National Slavery Museum has been in the works for years, and until recently I’d totally forgotten about it.  I knew it was the brainchild of L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia’s former governor.  And I knew that the planners considered building it in Richmond or Jamestown before settling on Fredericksburg.  Other than that, I didn’t hear anything about it for a long, long time.

The other day I was idly crusing around Wikimapia, checking out a few historically-significant spots.  When I looked at Fredericksburg, I saw a huge parcel of land designated “Celebrate Virginia,” part of which was marked as the USNSM’s future home.  I had no idea that the museum had been absorbed into some larger entity, and I’d never heard of Celebrate Virginia.  I assumed it was some kind of statewide preservation initiative, until I looked at the official website.

It’s…well, it’s a little hard to explain what it is.  It’s basically a shopping and entertainment development, but with a few twists.  Head over to the site and click on “Attractions,” and you’ll see what I mean.  You’ve got your Africa-themed water park, your golf course, your “Eco Adventure”—nothing like a massive land development to help you immerse yourself in some natural tranquility—and your slavery museum, for which the development company set aside a chunk of turf.

I’ve often found myself hurtling down a water slide while thinking, “If I could towel off, spend a few hours learning about man’s inhumanity to man, grab some Olive Garden, and then do a little shopping, this would be the perfect day.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m glad we’ve got a developer who’s interested in a worthy cause.  But the association of a major educational and research institution (especially one devoted to slavery) with a shopping-dining-entertainment complex is more than a little bizarre.

Anyway, it might be a moot point.  From what I could find out by cruising around online, I don’t think the National Slavery Museum will open anytime soon.  And after reading this news story, I can see why.  Gov. Wilder’s approach to PR leaves a lot to be desired.  When a reporter contacted him last year to find out how things were coming along, he replied, “If you want to help raise some money, then help.  Other than that, quit worrying us.”  I can hear those checkbooks being whipped out already.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites