Tag Archives: Civil War

Some assembly required

In case you were wondering what might have befallen us if the Confederacy had gotten its hands on the Super-Soldier Serum, here it is.  I’m guessing the next installment will have Horace Hunley as Tony Stark and Belle Boyd as Black Widow.

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PBS features story of Loreta Velazquez, a reinvented Rebel

If even half of her controversial autobiography is true, then Loreta Janeta Velázquez led one of the most fascinating lives of the nineteenth century.  She’s the subject of Rebel, a new documentary airing Friday, May 24 to open this season of Voces on PBS.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez, in and out of disguise

According to her 1876 book The Woman in Battle, Loreta was born in Cuba in 1842 to  a prominent Spanish official.  Sent to New Orleans as a young girl, she displayed a rebellious personality from a young age, dressing in boys’ clothes and eloping with an army officer at the age of fourteen.  Deciding to see something of combat, she was one of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.  Calling herself Harry T. Buford, she experienced some of the war’s most famous battles, including 1st Bull Run, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh.  After her exploits as a soldier, she took up spying, enjoying a remarkable career as a double agent.

That, at least, is the story she told in her memoir.  How much of it is true has been a subject of debate ever since its publication.  Jubal Early, who met her in Virginia after the book’s publication, denounced her as a fraud.  Some historians have likewise found her claims hard to swallow, although researchers have found enough documentation to verify a few parts of her story.

Rebel doesn’t spend much time separating fact from fiction.  Instead, it focuses on the outline of her story as she told it herself, using it to examine the role of Hispanics in Civil War America, gender in the nineteenth century, and contested historical memories.  The concern here isn’t really whether her account is true, but why its accuracy was a matter of such concern to her contemporaries.  The program suggests that her autobiography offered a challenge to the society in which she lived, not only because she stretched the truth but also because of who she was—a Hispanic woman involved in the business of war and espionage who was determined to go public with her exploits.  It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed watching it.

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Your very own Civil War tourist attraction

If you’ve got $1,695,000 to spare, you could be the next proprietor of the American Civil War Wax Museum in Gettysburg.  It’s officially on the market.

The exhibits depict such critical turning points as the fateful evening of May 2, 1863, when ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons and Mark Twain tended to a wounded Grigori Rasputin…

…and Lincoln’s 1860 conference with Lt. Commander Worf of the USS Enterprise.

Pics are from tripadvisor.com.

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We could all use some tactical back-and-forth

Check out this article on the history of Civil War battlefield preservation at The Washington Post:

Despite admirable efforts to connect battlefields to the larger history of the Civil War, the one thing that battlefields can teach very well is the history of what happened in a particular place. If the goal is simply to inspire thoughts about the larger social history of the Civil War, one battlefield is pretty much the same as the next — and it becomes difficult to explain why we need to preserve so many of them, and with so much land taken off the tax rolls. If the goal is to make people passionate about battlefields and their preservation, visitors need to engage with the actual place to understand its strategic importance and the tactical back-and-forth.

I would argue that visitors need to get the strategic importance and tactical back-and-forth because they have intrinsic importance, not just because they inspire respect for preservation.

I seem to run across more discussions about how to effectively integrate non-military subjects into battlefield interpretation than about how to effectively interpret the battlefield itself. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad that battlefield interpretation is more well-rounded and contextualized than it used to be. We rightly emphasize the fact that the battles didn’t happen in a vacuum, but that insight cuts both ways.

Just as the war’s larger issues determined the conflict, the “tactical back-and-forth” determined the resolution of those larger issues. Emancipation, Union, and all the rest of it ultimately hinged on the stuff of old-fashioned military history: maneuver, terrain, firepower, etc. We preserve these places not only because people suffered and died there, but also because what happened there mattered. It mattered that such-and-such a colonel held a particular position, that such-and-such a general flanked an enemy. Determining the outcome of larger questions, after all, is why battles tend to be fought.

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Lincoln, law, and necessity

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

I asked the students in my introductory Lincoln course to write an essay on Lincoln’s use of presidential power. I told them to decide whether Lincoln abused his authority and overstepped the Constitution, whether he was too timid, or whether he used his power judiciously, and to defend their answer in a short paper.

Although I assured the class that there was no “right” answer to the question, and that they were free to excoriate Lincoln as harshly as they wanted, the results came back overwhelmingly in his favor. Of some two dozen students, only three found his use of power excessive. The rest of the class generally agreed that Lincoln acted properly, given the circumstances he faced.

Interestingly, though, the two groups defended their positions quite differently. The students who argued that Lincoln assumed too much presidential power cited specific passages of the Constitution to make their case. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, in particular, came in for criticism. As these students noted, the Constitution permits such an act “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it,” but this passage is found in the article dealing with powers of Congress. The legality of a presidential suspension of habeas corpus while the legislature was out of session was therefore a matter of controversy during the Civil War, and it remains so today.

Adalbert Volck depicted Lincoln as Don Quixote with his foot on the Constitution in this 1861 etching. Image from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The students who defended Lincoln, by and large, did not try to cite law and precedent to demonstrate that his actions were legal. Instead, they argued from necessity. Rebellion on the scale of the Civil War was something no other president had faced, and most students felt he had no choice but to act as he did in order to preserve the Union.

A few of the students who defended Lincoln did find him a bit too hesitant in one respect; they wished he had issued his emancipation decree sooner. But they also noted that their preferences in timing weren’t necessarily practical, and agreed that Lincoln had good reasons for waiting as long as he did.

I found it interesting that the two groups of students differed in their approaches, because Lincoln himself used both law and necessity in defending his more controversial policies. Referring to his suspension of habeas corpus in a message to Congress in 1861, he noted that “the attention of the country has been called to the proposition that one who is sworn to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ should not himself violate them.” At the same time, however, he observed that all the Constitution’s provisions were essentially going unenforced “in nearly one-third of the States.” Was it acceptable for “all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken, if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law, would tend to preserve it?”

In any case, Lincoln continued, his suspension of habeas corpus was not a case of “disregarding the law.” He believed he had acted within the limits established by the Constitution. After all, that document permits habeas corpus to be suspended in a case of rebellion, and while it does not explicitly permit the executive branch to exercise this power, neither does it explicitly forbid it. Besides, since “the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it cannot be believed the framers of the instrument intended, that in every case, the danger should run its course, until Congress could be called together; the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.”

Lincoln thus hedged his rhetorical bets in his message to Congress. He made a case for the constitutionality of his actions, and if that failed to convince his critics, he asked whether they preferred to see one law stretched and the Constitution saved or watch the whole Constitution tossed aside by the rebellion while the Union’s hands remained tied.

If my students’ essays are any indication, many modern Americans will support leaders who use extraordinary means so long as they believe the ends are worthwhile.

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Blagojevich finds new vocation teaching Civil War history

Here’s an exciting opportunity for all you loyal readers at the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in Littleton, CO.

Your fellow inmate Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois, is now teaching Civil War history.  If you’ve got some time on your hands—and I’d imagine you do—why not celebrate the sesquicentennial by learning a thing or two?

You might recall that, during his time in office, Blagojevich slashed funding for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and gave the state’s historic sites the cold shoulder.  I love a good redemption story.

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The Lincoln screed checklist

This guy’s got all his ducks in a row.

Reference to the USSR?  Check.  Use of the felicitously vague label “progressive”?  Check.  War attributed to tariffs?  Check.  The Greeley letter quoted in blissful ignorance of the chronology surrounding the decision for emancipation? Check.  Quote from the Charleston debate?  Check.  Lerone Bennett citation?  Check.

Bonus points for conflating the slavery debate as the cause of the war with abolition as a Union war aim from the get-go…”Moreover, if, according to the progressive version of history, abolition of slavery was the cause of the Civil War, why didn’t Lincoln free the slaves right off the bat?”

…and for overlooking the wee matter of the Battle of Antietam: “Why did he wait for many months — and do it only when the war took a bad turn for the Union, and, more important, when the superpowers of the day, Great Britain and France, were about to recognize the Confederacy and come to its aid?”

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Support a Civil War film project

I just got this message from a filmmaker named Alexander Fofonoff:

I am in my last year at NYU Tisch for film, and about to embark on my thesis film. It is a 19th century post civil war period piece that deals with how returning soldiers dealt with not only the transition from war to peace, but a national transition, how to accept half the country that’s been considered an enemy for the last four years, and what price is paid for that acceptance.

I recently launched an indiegogo campaign, in an attempt to have my project crowd-funded (small donations from a lot of people).

You can get more information at the film’s WordPress site, and make a contribution toward the production at Indiegogo.

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Ladies and gentlemen, meet your newest national historic landmarks

Thirteen new sites just made the list, including Camp Nelson in Kentucky, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Connecticut, Honey Springs Battlefield in Oklahoma, and an eighteenth-century frame house in Virginia.

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Interested in Appalachia’s Civil War?

Then come to the third War in the Mountains Symposium this April at LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

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