Tag Archives: Gettysburg

Military history and the art of setting up an argument

I’m revising a draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, and one of the things I need to work on is clearly and concisely articulating from the outset what I’m trying to do in that chapter and how.  It’s a matter of putting into practice the old adage that you have to tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em before you actually do it.  In my first chapter draft I didn’t do this nearly as effectively as I should have.

Since the goal of any work of historical scholarship is to make an original contribution to what we know—or an intervention into a conversation about what we think we know—writers of history have to state what it is they’re bringing to the table.  In grant applications and paper proposals it’s the difference between life and death, but it’s important when sitting down to complete the actual project, too.  Ironically, some of the best models I’ve found of setting up a book-length historical argument come from a genre that a lot of academic historians dismiss: military history that focuses on campaigns, battles, strategy, tactics, and leadership.

Take, for example, Scott Bowden and Bill Ward’s Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign.  It’s a hefty book, more than 600 pages and very closely argued.  But it only takes about four of those pages for Bowden and Ward to explain what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why.  Let me note that I’m not necessarily saying I agree with the authors’ conclusions regarding Lee’s generalship in the invasion of Pennsylvania.  I’m just saying that the way they set up their book’s purpose, organization, and methodology is as clear and concise as you’re likely to find in a work of historical scholarship.

Another example is Joseph L. Harsh’s Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  In ten pages, Harsh explains how attention to Antietam has waxed and waned over the years, why the campaign matters, the approaches earlier writers have taken, and how his own approach corrects some important interpretive problems.

Maybe Antietam and Gettysburg have been the subject of so much writing over the years that these authors had to be especially conscientious about explaining what they were doing and why.  Or maybe this genre just lends itself especially well to explicit argumentation because it involves questions of contingency and individual responsibility.  Whatever the reason, those of us looking for examples for our own projects could do a lot worse.

By Captain James Hope (d.1892) (Hope Paintings at nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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A few Civil War updates

A few items relating to the Civil War and the ways we remember it caught my attention lately.

First up, when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, he’ll be speaking behind the same podium Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  Right now it’s at the city’s Union League for safekeeping.

By the way, the Union League is worth a visit if you’re ever in Philly.  As Dimitri Rotov noted recently, it’s got a fine collection of Civil War art and memorabilia.  I got to spend some time there a few years ago on a business trip (one of the perks of working for a Civil War museum is traveling to neat places for work), and it’s a fantastic building to wander around in if you’re a history buff.

Second item: an opera based on Cold Mountain just premiered in Santa Fe.  Seems like a suitably operatic subject, but I doubt they’ve found a way to pull off the Battle of the Crater inside an auditorium.

Third, it looks like Jefferson Davis will be staying in the Kentucky Capitol for the foreseeable future.  The state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to keep the Davis statue while adding some “educational context.”  As I’ve said before, I think leaving historic monuments intact while providing some interpretation to put them in their context is the best course of action in these situations.

One thing that really surprised me about the Davis issue was the reaction among black Kentuckians.  In one poll, they were pretty evenly split between support for keeping the statue (42%) and support for removing it (43%).  The percentage of black Kentuckians in favor of keeping the statue was much lower than that for whites (75%), but still a lot higher than I would’ve expected.

Reflecting Kentucky’s Civil War divisions, the Davis statue shares the Capitol with a likeness of the state’s other wartime president, Abraham Lincoln.

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Tidbits

Sorry for the absence, folks.  I’ve been pretty busy with classes, so we’ve got some catching up to do.  Here are a few items to amuse and inform:

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

Lincoln and the Founders’ “new nation”

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

I didn’t really start taking the Gettysburg Address seriously until one day when I was in grad school, trying to figure out how to finish a paper while eating a roast beef sandwich.  I was enrolled in a seminar on the early national period, and my professor had told us to write an essay answering the following question: Who was more prescient, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson?  Of these two men who had very different visions of what America should be, which one saw the country’s future direction more clearly?

My instinct was to go with Hamilton.  In terms of policy, he was probably the most forward-looking of all the Founders, envisioning a United States with a vigorous, centralized government and a modern, diversified economy.  The overall course of American history has been in this direction, especially since the late nineteenth century.

At the same time, in terms of ideology and values—what Americans have believed about themselves and their country, and what they have wanted to believe about their role in the world—Jefferson casts a long shadow.  If the overall trend of the operation of government and economics has been Hamiltonian, Jefferson’s ideals have been the ones espoused most frequently.  In fact, it’s in terms of equality that Hamilton and the other Federalists look most antiquated, committed as they were to older ideas about elitism and deference.  ”America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” according to G.K. Chesterton.  ”That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence….It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”

A rare photograph of Lincoln at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863. (Wikimedia Commons)

I knew that I’d probably end up hedging a little, noting that while Hamilton was more prescient in terms of the way America has operated, Jefferson was more influential in terms of Americans’ self-definition.  But that answer seemed a little wishy-washy.  I wanted to come up with some sort of definitive answer.

So I was sitting at an Arby’s restaurant, trying to knock out an outline for the paper while getting a bite to eat, when I figured out how to give both Hamilton and Jefferson their due.  Neither man was totally correct.  It was Abraham Lincoln who understood America most clearly, because at Gettysburg he reconciled these two different visions of the nation so that each one supported the other.  Lincoln oversaw a Hamiltonian war—a war of national consolidation, and a war that would result in a more commercial nation with a more vigorous central government—but he did it to achieve Jeffersonian ends.  Indeed, he did it while invoking Jefferson, chapter and verse.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied the birth of America to the promise of liberty and Jefferson’s 1776 “proposition” that all men are created equal.  ”The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” he had claimed shortly before his presidency.  Lincoln praised Jefferson because his Declaration of Independence did not merely justify the Revolution.  Jefferson had used that document to set down “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

In 1863, the American experiment to work out this “abstract truth”—an experiment only “four score and seven years” old—would either survive and vindicate government of the people, or it would collapse and call the whole enterprise of popular government into question.  If a minority could dissolve the Union due to the outcome of an election, democracy by majority rule was unworkable.  To Lincoln, secession was therefore an existential threat to democratic government itself.  The stakes in the Civil War were breathtakingly high.  The survival of popular government was what the men buried at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion” to defend.

Lincoln thus believed that the Hamiltonian tools of a consolidated Union and an active national government were necessary to secure the Jeffersonian principles of liberty and equality.  These tools would also be the means to extend these Jeffersonian ideals to the enslaved.  The war would not only secure what the Founders had gained, but finish what they had left undone by resolving the great American contradiction of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Rather than merely dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln explained the meaning of America, defined the purpose of the war, paid tribute to the dead, exhorted his audience to continue their struggle on behalf of freedom, and reconciled the two seemingly contradictory American impulses of Union and liberty.  And he did it in less than three hundred words.

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s original Medal of Honor identified

An anonymous donor found it in a book that belonged to Chamberlain’s granddaughter and turned it over to the Pejepscot Historical Society in Maine.  Its authenticity has been confirmed.  The Chamberlain medal held by Bowdoin College is an updated version issued later; I’d always assumed it was the original one.

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The two Gettysburgs

Check out Jesse Smith’s piece on the two faces of Gettysburg (hat tip: John Fea).  One is the solemn and scholarly face of the park, the museums, and historic sites; the second is the kitschy face of the tourist attractions and amenities that have sprung up around the battlefield.

Like Smith, I’ve got to admit that I like some of the hokey tourism-driven aspects of Gettysburg, even though I’m in favor of returning things to their circa-1863 appearance to as practical an extent as is possible.  Hokey tourist traps have become an indelible part of the Gettysburg experience, just as the hokey roadside attractions devoted to gunfighters and lawmen are an indelible part of my memories of visiting the West with my parents.  (I draw the line at ghost tours, however.  I’m not sure why, but the very notion of ghost tours near a battlefield rubs me the wrong way.)

Of course, I’m not old enough to remember a time before all the tourist traps and gift shops, so they’ve always been a part of the only Gettysburg I know.  My affinity for .  If new ones started popping up near some relatively undeveloped historic site, I’d probably be up in arms.  I guess what I’m saying is that when we’re considering the maximum level of tolerable kitschification at historic places, our opinions will partly depend on subjective and personal factors and on our own personal memories of the places in question.

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High-water mark of the Sesquicentennial

I followed Robert Moore’s suggestion and watched the commemorative Pickett’s Charge march via the Codori Barn webcam this afternoon.  USA Today says about 1,000 people participated.  At most, that’s only around one-twelfth the number of men who made the attack, but it was still pretty neat to watch such a large crowd moving across that ground.  The webcam has a mic, too, so there were plenty of Rebel yells to accompany the visuals.

If you didn’t get to watch it live, you can still see an archived replay and some still shots at the Codori webcam site.

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