Monthly Archives: May 2011

Gettysburg goes Black Hawk Down

I see I’m not the only one who was less than impressed with The History Channel’s Gettysburg documentary.  Check out the reactions from Eric Wittenberg and Kevin Levin, and then read the comments at Brooks Simpson’s blog.

I wasn’t really sure what the producers were trying to accomplish here.  The promotional material seemed to indicate that the program would give us some type of insight into the common soldier’s experience of the battle in order to demonstrate that Civil War combat wasn’t a romantic or glorious affair.  That’s not a bad idea for a documentary, and indeed the program did zero in on a few individuals and followed them through the course of some of the action.  But those individuals included high-ranking officers like William Barksdale and Dan Sickles, which effectively turned these sequences into conventional battle narrative.  At the same time, many important aspects of the battle just got skipped over entirely.  The program was therefore neither fish nor fowl—not comprehensive enough to be a good overview of the general flow of the battle as a whole, but not focused enough to provide a good discussion of what was going on among the rank and file.

As a stylistic matter, the gritty, modern war approach to filming the reenacted sequences just didn’t work for me.  With all the handheld shots, dramatic slow-motion, and running through the streets and over terrain hither and yon, I felt like I was watching Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan.  The combination of nineteenth-century gear and modern-day combat camera work was a little too jarring.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem that the high-speed zooming along the pathways of bullets and through the CG maps really added anything to the explanation of what was happening.

As a final note, while I’m no expert in the kind of minute details that make up a good reenacting impression, it appeared to me that an unhealthy amount of farbiness managed to make it in onto the screen.  What was with all the long-haired Confederates?

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Romancing the Swamp Fox

J. L. Bell has dug up a wonderful item, which he shares at Boston 1775.  It’s a letter from Peter Horry to that notorious disseminator of spurious anecdotes, Mason Weems, regarding the liberties Weems took with material Horry supplied for a biography of Francis Marion.

Thank God Horry didn’t live long enough to see The Patriot.

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Who really disrespects the architects of secession?

Is it those who try to impose tortuous and convoluted rationalizations onto their behavior, thereby implying that they were either too stupid or too deceitful to explain why they were doing what they were doing?  Or is it those who take them at their word?

I’m with Andy Hall on this one.  Let’s at least give the secessionist leaders the courtesy of acknowledging that they were intelligent enough to know what they were about.  To do otherwise is to suggest that they were liars, fools, or both.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

License to dabble

Summer vacation is officially underway, which means it’s already time to start getting ready for next semester.  I’m teaching the first half of the introduction to world history again in the fall, so I’ll be spending part of the next few months brushing up.  Teaching a course for the third or fourth time is sort of like doing another draft of a piece of writing; you can go back over the material and tinker with the parts that need work.

These survey courses can be difficult, because you’re inevitably going to be stepping outside your immediate area of expertise.  The difference between doing, say, nineteenth-century American history and ancient Mesopotamian history is quite profound—like the difference between ornithology and bacteriology.  Since introductory history surveys cover the whole span of the human past, those of us who teach them have to exercise academic muscles that we wouldn’t normally use otherwise.

It can be challenging, but it’s also a neat opportunity.  You essentially get permission to become a temporary archeologist, Egyptologist, or medievalist and hold forth on topics you’d never normally discuss.  I’ll never be able to write a scholarly book on Alexander the Great or excavate a Roman villa, but I’ve got a license to dabble in this stuff anyway.  It’s sort of like professional escapism, and it’s one of the great pleasures that teaching affords.

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Old times there are forgotten more often than you’d think

Glenn LaFantasie is taking on the SCV’s effort to create Kentucky license plates bearing a picture of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate battle flag.  His editorial condemns those who would try to divorce the flag from its historical contexts—both its nineteenth-century context as a symbol of a slaveholders’ republic and its twentieth-century context as a symbol of segregation.  He argues that the desire to return to some mythical “Old South” is misplaced.  So far so good; I’m with him on these points.

But there is one matter in LaFantasie’s piece with which I would take issue, and it’s something that tends to pop up quite frequently in discussions of the “ongoing Civil War” type.  It’s the notion that all the attitudes we generally associate with Lost Cause-ism are somehow shared by white southerners as a whole, and that the idea of the Old South is a universal touchstone for modern southerners:

The same can be said of the South and the SCV, which is hell-bent on making sure that the Confederate flag, which it claims is a symbol of “heritage, not hate,” is always visible, if not on flag staffs, then at the very least on license plates. Of course, the national debate over the Confederate battle flag is nothing new, but white Southerners — who prefer their “history” to adhere to the melancholic tenets of the Lost Cause (on the insidious nature of the “Lost Cause,” see the recent Salon essay by historian Joan Waugh) — seem determined to argue falsely that the flag only honors the courage of the Southern soldiers who fought for the Confederacy; in the South, most whites still erroneously believe, no matter what historians say, that the Cause stood for states’ rights alone and not slavery.

I simply don’t think this kind of over-generalization is warranted.  The mindset of the SCV or various fringe neo-Confederate groups simply isn’t that of most white southerners.  For one thing, I think it’s safe to say that most of my fellow white southerners nowadays are pretty well aware of the connection between slavery and the war.  But even more important than what we do or don’t think about the war Down Here is the fact that most of us don’t really think about it at all.

In fact, I think LaFantasie has actually let the SCV and similar groups get the better of him.  These groups claim to speak for the South and her heritage, and he seems to have taken them at their word.  But their claiming to speak for all of us doesn’t make it so.

This is one of the problems I had with Confederates in the Attic.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a piece of travel reportage, and it’s one of those volumes that I find myself dipping into often to re-visit certain passages.  It’s a wonderful quick fix when I’d like to be on the road hitting historic sites myself, since Horwitz has a remarkable gift for setting a scene and evoking the feeling of a place.  But like many travel writers, Horwitz went looking for the distinctive, the odd, and the notable—and he found it in spades.  Confederates in the Attic is a fine read, but it doesn’t reflect the totality of the southern mind.

Most white southerners just don’t cling longingly to the memories of what was or mourn for what might have been.  We’re too busy worrying about the same things northerners, westerners, and easterners worry about—going to the office, the price of gas, the kids’ soccer practice, the light bill, Brad and Angelina.  The concerns of the average working- or middle-class American are, by and large, also the concerns of the average southerner in the same socioeconomic position.

All this is even more true of young southerners.  I look at my students, the overwhelming majority of whom are from rural southern areas, and I don’t see much to distinguish them from their peers in other parts of the country.  They wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same movies, use the same slang, and buy the same gadgets as the college-aged people from New York and L.A. that you see on TV.  If it weren’t for their accents, you wouldn’t have any indication that they were from a particular place.  (And even those accents aren’t as distinguishable as they used to be; it’s amazing how diluted they’ve become in only a generation or two.)  Global, Americanized, modern pop culture is as ubiquitous here in Dixie as it is everywhere else.  The symbol that towers over the landscape isn’t the crossed bars of the rebel flag; it’s the golden arches.

LaFantasie indicates that many of his neighbors don’t share his political proclivities. Perhaps they don’t.  There are indeed such things as regional voting and religious patterns, but I think President Obama’s unpopularity in Kentucky is due to other factors besides a war that ended almost 150 years ago.  (His vocal opposition to the coal industry, for example.)

I used to teach week-long courses on the Civil War for a college program aimed at retired adults. A lady in one of these classes asked me if I’d read Confederates in the Attic.  When I told her that I had, she asked me, a little hesitantly, whether “people down here are really like that.”  I assured her that many of the characters in the book would seem as outlandish to other southerners (and history buffs) as they did to her, and she seemed almost physically relieved to hear it.

She needn’t have worried.  Those dedicated Confederates who live in the South are visible and vocal, but they’re a decided minority.  The notion of the “war that’s still going on” is no more true for most of us than it is for those living north of the Mason-Dixon line.  You guys should really get down here more often.


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

You know what your problem is?

It’s that your kids aren’t learning squat about American history.  And the reason they aren’t is because their teachers are boring, incompetent ideologues who hate this country and all it stands for.

Luckily for you, Mike Huckabee is here to help.  He and the folks at his new Save Our History initiative have it all figured out:

When our company’s co-founders, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Brad Saft, first got together, they had a mutual goal: to make learning history fun for kids.  As they discussed the challenges of getting kids interested in history, they discovered the problem is not the stories themselves (in fact, the stories are incredibly fascinating!)  Instead, the founders determined that the problem exists in how kids learn history.

It’s widely accepted that kids learn best through experience.  But, unfortunately, the only way kids are experiencing history today is by having it force-fed to them through dry text books, monotonous lectures and boring lessons.

See?  They’re not only thinking about history, but thinking about how kids learn.  If only professional educators had thought to do this, then we wouldn’t be in this fix.

On top of that, our children’s classes and learning materials are often filled with misrepresentations, including historical inaccuracies, personal biases and political correctness.

And if you didn’t know this already, then you clearly haven’t been spending enough time on the Internet.

With this knowledge, we set out to create the most experiential history product ever – one that would make it easy and fun for kids to understand American history, while remaining true to the facts and free from distorted messages that dilute the significance of our nation’s most important stories.

I know you’re probably sitting on the edge of your seat, grasping your computer’s keyboard with white knuckled-intensity as you wait for me to reveal what the “most experiential history product ever” entails.  Well, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.  They’re going to send your kids cartoons to watch.

Educational cartoons designed specifically for kids!  Is that not revolutionary? What could be more experiential than sitting on your keister while watching a video?  I mean, if there’s one thing kids don’t get an opportunity to do enough these days, it’s sit around watching cartoons.

I was so awestruck at this revolutionary notion of taking the time to examine how kids learned and then applying the results that I decided to share it immediately. My mom actually trains teachers in a university’s education department, so I grabbed the phone and gave her a call.

“Mom,” I said, “you’d better brace yourself, because I’m about to blow your mind right the @#$% up.”

She told me to watch my language and explained that education programs actually require prospective teachers to take courses in pedagogy, learning styles, child development, and so on.  Then she asked me if I had any idea what time it was, and hung up.


Filed under History and Memory, Teaching History

History apps

After much prodding from family and friends, I finally threw up my hands and got an iPhone a couple of days ago.  Given my proclivities, I started looking for apps that might come in handy for historians and history enthusiasts.  Here’s a list of some of them.  They’re a mixed bag; some of them are really useful and creative, while others seem a little superfluous.

  • Revolutionary War Site Locator.  I’m really fond of this one.  It’s a map program that tags Am Rev parks, museums, monuments, and cemeteries, allowing you to find historic sites near your current location and instantly access background information, photos, links, directions, etc. One of the things I liked about using a TomTom when doing heritage tourism is that you could pull up the names and locations of nearby museums and parks, but this app is far more comprehensive, with many more sites included (down to the burial places of individual historic figures or small museums with just a few Rev War items) and much more information per site.  If you’re in Kansas City, MO and you need a Rev War fix, just bring up the map and you’ll find that there’s an equestrian statue of Washington in town, and you’ll also get information about when it was constructed, who made it, who raised the money, and so on.  (This is an actual example, believe it or not.) This app is also constantly updated with additional material from other users, and you can add your own photos and sites for the benefit of others..  At only $1.99, it’s a must have for AWI aficionados.
  • American Civil War Locator.  Identical to the Rev War app, except the locations are broken down into “Major Civil War Battles,” “Civil War Sites,” and “Civil War Events,” which gives you the dates of upcoming reenactments or symposia and contact information for the hosting venue.  It’s $1.99 and well worth the price.
  • Museum Locator.  Includes hours, admission, contact information, and instant access to maps and official websites.  This app is free, so it wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and download it for those occasions when you’re on vacation or a business trip with some extra time to kill.
  • Freedom Trail Walking Tour.  This is the sort of thing that you could only do with handheld digital technology.  This app gives you access to information about sites along Boston’s Freedom Trail—maps, videos, admission, hours, links, etc.  It’s like having your own personal tour guide for Revolutionary Boston, and it’s free.
  • CamScanner.  There are quite a few document scanning apps, but this one seems to be the most popular one available in a free version.  You just take a photo of the document with your iPhone and crop the picture, and you get a high-contrast PDF or fax-type electronic version that you can visually enhance, share, upload to a computer or the Internet, tag for easier searching, etc.  It’s mostly intended for simple, black-and-white documents like articles, bills, receipts, and so on, but it might come in handy in archival situations when dealing with printed or typed material.  I haven’t had chance to try it on older manuscripts yet; it might not work without the heavy contrast that you get with modern documents.  Still, it’s a handy thing to have on hand, especially since most archives restrict the use of conventional document scanners.  This device never comes into contact with the document surface itself, since it’s basically using the phone’s camera function and then enhancing the image.  As long as you disable the flash, you might be able to use this for quick, easy image acquisition in many repositories while doing research.  Of course, it goes without saying that you need to check with the institution beforehand to see what guidelines they have in place.
  • WorldCat Mobile.  A handheld version of the library database.  You can search for materials, see which repository with the item you need is closest to you, instantly call for information, and then get a map to find out how to get there.  This app is free.
  • Constitution and Declaration of Independence.  These apps include the text of the documents along with additional notes containing information about the dates of ratification and so on.  Handy for quick reference purposes.  They’re both free.
  • Abraham Lincoln Quotes and Abraham Lincoln Quote App.  These are more gimmicks than anything else.  The first costs $1.99 and generates a random Lincoln quote every time you tap the screen; the second is pretty much the same thing, but also plays an audio version of the Gettysburg Address and costs $0.99.  I’m not sure what you’d need this sort of thing for.
  • The Civil War: A Narrative.  Unabridged audio recordings of Shelby Foote’s massive trilogy  for $19.99 per volume, with automatic bookmarks to pick up where you left off, navigational capabilities, and more.
  • Today in History.  One of several similar trivia apps.  A free version is available.

It seems to me that the most inventive stuff is being turned out for historical tourism, giving people instant access to information about places they can visit and helping them make sense of it when they get there.


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A hearty thank-you to Adam

…over at Miniature History of the American Revolution, for his very kind words about this blog.  It’s much appreciated.

I always look forward to seeing new posts at MHAR.  Ever since I got interested in military history, I’ve wished that I had the artistic talent to undertake substantial miniature projects.  There’s something really captivating about reconstructing a moment in time in three dimensions.

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The History Channel and the Scott brothers are taking on Gettysburg

Somebody associated with The History Channel has asked me to inform you of an upcoming program which premieres at the end of this month.  Since it’s a show about honest-to-goodness history, I think it deserves your attention:

Gettysburg is a 2-hour HISTORY special that kicks off a week of History programming commemorating the 150’th anniversary of the Civil War.

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, this special strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War. It presents the pivotal battle of Gettysburg in a new light: as a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men with everything on the line. Compelling CGI  and powerful action footage place viewers in the midst of the fighting, delivering both an emotional cinematic experience and an information packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little known facts surrounding the greatest engagement ever fought on American soil.

The special begins in the high stakes summer of 1863, as the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crosses into Pennsylvania. Trailed by the Union’s Army of the Potomac, Lee’s 75,000 strong army heads towards Harrisburg, converging instead near a quiet farm town, Gettysburg.  Known then only as a crossroads where ten roads running in all directions converge like a wagon wheel, this small town would become site of an epic battle between North and South.  For three days, each side fought there for their vision of what America should be.

In collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, HISTORY combed through hundreds of individual accounts of the battle to find the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation.

The Scott brothers are both exceptional filmmakers, and this looks like it’s going to be a high-end production.  Have a peek.

Gettysburg premieres May 30 at 9:00 EST.  It should be well worth watching, so check it out.

They also offered me some t-shirts, notebooks, and messenger bags to either keep or pass along to you guys as reader giveaways, but I did the virtuous thing and said no.  Given all the snark-ridden vitriol I’ve written here about The History Channel, it just didn’t seem right to take their stuff.  I do have some scruples.

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Filed under Civil War

Time to fort up, folks!

If you’re fond of the eighteenth-century frontier, Native Americans, the Revolution, palisaded forts, and living history, then this is going to be a good month for you.  (And in truth, you should be fond of all these things.)

This weekend is the Raid at Martin’s Station, hosted by Wilderness Road State Park near Ewing, VA.  It’s become one of the finest living history events in the region.  The recreated fort onsite is one of the most authentic structures of its kind anywhere, the setting is gorgeous, and the interpretation is top-notch.  Plus, they’re going to let me help shoot a cannon again.

Next weekend is yet another Indian assault on yet another recreated fort at yet another fine state park—the Siege of Ft. Watauga, hosted by Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, TN.  Sycamore Shoals is a must-visit for anyone interested in early Tennessee history; I’ve only been to the site once, and I’m hoping to visit again this month for the event.

Let’s have a HUZZAH!

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites, Reenacting, Tennessee History