Monthly Archives: January 2010

Gettysburg casino supporters

From Wikimedia Commons

…are employing the old “throw everything against a wall and see what sticks” tactic.  Check out their latest salvo on Eric Wittenberg’s blog, along with a level-headed response from the preservationists and Eric’s own assessment.

The casino supporters pound the usual emotional buttons.  Outsiders!  Lobbyists!  Jobs!  Economic impact!  All this is predictable, especially given the current financial climate. 

What isn’t predictable, and what’s actually pretty hilarious, is the pro-casino crowd’s allegation that preservationists are after nothing more than “to raise money for their own greed.”  I think the technical term for that is “psychological projection.”

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Filed under Historic Preservation

An interesting tidbit

…from the Boston Globe‘s obit on Howard Zinn: “On his last day at BU, Dr. Zinn ended class 30 minutes early so he could join a picket line and urged the 500 students attending his lecture to come along.” 

If you ask me, this sums up the man about as well as anything could.  I don’t doubt that he’s left quite a footprint on the American conscience, but the historian gig was somewhat incidental.  It was the activism that informed his history, not the other way around.

Here’s a little exercise for those who disagree with me.  Zinn wrote some twenty books in addition to A People’s History.  Name one.

When I was in grad school at UT, Zinn came to deliver a speech on “The Uses of History.”  What we got instead was a jeremiad against the Iraq War with a brief, passing, and largely irrelevant reference to the Continental Army.

Nobody seemed to mind the misleading advertising except for me.  That’s what I deserved for assuming that one of America’s most prominent historians might actually say something of substance about history.

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Development is the gift that keeps on giving

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., that fount of prosperity for local economies besieged by nefarious preservationists, is cutting about a tenth of its Sam’s Club staff by firing member recruiters and outsourcing its in-store product demonstrations. 

On the bright side, the folks getting laid off “are invited to apply” for the outsourced jobs, and “the company will help them find opportunities” at its other locations.  

Those would include locations outside of the community looking forward to having those jobs when the store opened, I suppose.

That’s the thing about chain retail jobs.  They’re liable to just up and take a hike.  We’ll add this to the bulging file of reasons why trading historic ground for retail development might not be such a hot idea, just in case anybody responsible for making those decisions ever asks to see it.


Filed under Historic Preservation

Some Sgt. York news

…from the Museum of Appalachia near Norris, TN.  They’ve had a small Sgt. York exhibit for some time now, but it’s nice to hear that it’s getting an update.

If you can’t make the special event on Sunday, try to budget some time to visit the museum when you’re passing through East Tennessee.  It’s got a fine collection of original buildings and artifacts.

While I’m making recommendations, let me encourage anybody interested in Alvin York and the movie based on his exploits to read Michael Birdwell’s Celluloid Soldiers.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Philbrick is tackling Bunker Hill

According to an item brought to our attention by J. L. Bell at Boston 1775, Nathaniel Philbrick is working on a book entitled Bunker Hill, a look at Boston from 1768 to 1775.

This sounds reminiscent of Philbrick’s Mayflower.  Rather than an examination of the Pilgrims’ actual voyage, it was a fairly straightforward narrative that began with the founding of Plymouth and ended with King Philip’s War.

Richard Ketchum wrote an accessible account of the battle and its background called Decisive Day, but I’m not aware of any full-dress, detailed tactical treatments.  Of course, as I’ve noted before, there are a lot of gaping holes in the historiography of the Revolution, but this one in particular is a little surprising.  Bunker Hill is one of the war’s better-known battles, and one that squares pretty well with some near-and-dear myths about the prowess of citizen soldiers.


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Got any plans for April 15-17?

If not, then let me suggest the 2010 Lincoln Symposium at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, TN.  Here’s a list of the scheduled presenters:

I heartily recommend this event to any Lincoln or Civil War aficionados in the southeast.  The ALLM hosts symposia every few years, and they’re always well worth attending.  Last time, I was one of the folks scrambling around behind the scenes, and I still had fun.  This year I’ll just sit back and enjoy the presentations.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Museums and Historic Sites

Things new and old

There’s an interesting new post over at Civil War Memory in which Kevin Levin distinguishes between two different types of Civil War unit histories.  The first deals mainly with the engagements in which the unit participated, while the second deals with the social/political/economic backgrounds of the men who fought, and how these factors influenced their service.

Levin’s discussion of the role of context in unit histories has a context of its own—the “new military history.”  It’s one of the most inappropriately-named disciplines out there, since this “new military history” has been around for several decades.  It’s also a field that’s difficult to define.  It’s easier to say what it’s not; it doesn’t deal with leaders, campaigns or battles.  Its focus is on the wider social context within which battles take place.  Levin’s second group of unit history is thus a fine example of the new military history.

Being the Rev War nut that I am, when I read Levin’s post I started thinking about how these issues relate to America’s armed struggle for independence. 

I’ve long maintained that the historiography of the Revolutionary War is quite distinct from that of the Civil War, partly because the latter is so much more extensive.  The scholarly literature on the war—the actual fighting, I mean, as opposed to the Revolution in its broader sense as a political, economic, social, and military event—is not nearly so extensive as many people would probably believe.

If Rev War scholarship isn’t that extensive, though, in the sense of the questions being asked it’s very vibrant.  Scholars of the struggle between Britain and America have actively engaged social and other contextual questions.  Take, for example, Charles Neimeyer’s America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army, which contrasts the myth of the citizen soldier with the backgrounds of the men who filled the ranks.  Or take Wayne E. Lee’s excellent Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War, which explores the factors that both restrained and exacerbated armed violence during the Revolutionary era.  I might also mention a classic of the “new military history” which deals with an earlier conflict, Fred Anderson’s A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War, which uses the techniques of the new social history to draw a portrait of eighteenth-century New England militiamen.

American Revolutionary soldiers, as depicted by a French officer. From Brown University via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly enough, though, I’m having a hard time coming up with Rev War unit histories.  There are plenty of regional studies of the war in specific areas, and of course there is a classic book by Hugh Rankin on North Carolina troops in the war.  But monographs on particular regiments or other specific units of organization are harder to come by.  I think the reason is simply that the Rev War hasn’t been investigated as extensively as other wars. 

In fact, as I’ve said before, there is a dearth of “traditional,” meat-and-potatoes military historiography when it comes to the Rev War.  Major battles and campaigns haven’t been investigated thoroughly, and significant figures lack modern biographies.

The good news is that those modern historians who have tackled battles and campaigns have brought the insights of the new military history to bear on them.  Lawrence Babits and Joshua Howard have incorporated quantitative methodology and a sensitivity to social history into their investigations of Cowpens and Guilford.  David Hackett Fischer’s book on Trenton and Princeton employs the insights of cultural history to distinguish between American, British, and Hessian conduct in the field.

The Rev War historiography that’s out there is of a high order, partly because scholars are using it to answer old questions about what happens in line of battle.  All the books mentioned above are stellar examples of the possibilities the new military history offers.  Today’s best Rev War scholars are like the householder described in the first gospel, “which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”


Filed under American Revolution, Historiography