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Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

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The New York Times’ Disunion series continues to be absolutely fantastic, even if it doesn’t get the publicity it did when the series started. And I’ve been reading Kevin Levin’s wonderful blog Civil War Memory for years. So it makes perfect sense that Levin would write a post in the series, on taking his high school students to a battlefield. Tell you the truth, I wish I had a guide like him when I visited battlefields:

I hope my students – their generation, as much as my own – will come to see themselves as part of a larger narrative, a larger community that continues to be shaped and defined by those who came before us. It is my responsibility as a teacher, and our responsibility as citizens, to understand the achievements and failures of the Civil War generation. In large part, white Americans rebuilt their lives. Through reunion ceremonies and monument dedications, former enemies put much of the hatred behind them. In doing so they helped forge a new nation.

But I also expect my students to deal with questions that, unfortunately, too few of us are willing to confront. While sitting in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery I have them consider what the war meant for African-Americans. Why did the local African-American community in Fredericksburg stop celebrating Memorial Day a few short years after Appomattox? What did the battle of Fredericksburg mean, for example, to Joseph Walker, who was born in Spotsylvania County, witnessed the bloody battle in May 1864 and went on to found the Fredericksburg Normal and Industrial Institute in 1905, at the height of Jim Crow? What stories did he share with his students about the war, stories that were lost in the broader movement of national reunion? Would Walker, White and other African-Americans have been welcomed to the battlefield reunions of their white former comrades and enemies? What meaning would they have found on those days if they had been?

Such questions aren’t easy, nor should they be. Battlefields are not simply places to visit for fun, retracing the movements of soldiers from point A to point B. We ought to feel uncomfortable when confronted with so much bloodshed and sacrifice. We can honor that sacrifice and ensure that “these dead shall not have died in vain” by acknowledging the legacy of emancipation and freedom that they helped to bring about — and, in doing so, continue their work of more fully embracing the founding ideals that we as Americans so dearly treasure.

I’ve always found the battlefields leave me a bit cold. I think that’s because of the emphasis in traditional Civil War studies on troop movements, which I profoundly do not care about. It’s not that spaces of violence don’t touch me at all. I find sites of white massacres of Native Americans tremendously moving and disturbing. My interaction with battlefield sites has particular relevance this morning as I am off to visit the Saratoga battlefield, site of the nation’s most important victory during the American Revolution.

All this said, I can understand why Civil War battlefields are places of tremendous power. I laud Levin both for his teaching and his public outreach on these matters. He’s one of the great historical prophets on the internet and his blog is consistently excellent.

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  • Hi Erik,

    Thank you very much for the kind words. I am looking forward to the opportunity to get back into the classroom in my new home of Boston and the chance to share this rich history.

  • rea

    The Gettysburg battlefield on a hot July day was one of the most spooky places I’ve ever been.

    Of course, I had a high fever at the time and didn’t realize it . . .

  • Murc

    2012 should be a big year for the Disunion blog. Lot of crazy shit happened in 1862.

  • Katya

    I find many Civil War battlefields to be extremely helpful in understanding what war was actually like. Go to Fredericksburg and stand behind the low wall at Marye’s Heights and look out over the slope that the Union troops had to cross and you understand why they lost. The site of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg has the same effect. Go to the Wilderness and stand ten people in a row in the woods and try to march forward in a straight line, and you can see why battles so quickly devolved into confusion. For me, actually being at the site makes the troop movements more concrete and human, and creates sympathy for the ordinary men on both sides who fought and died. These were not people abstractly debating principles of freedom — this is freedom being wrested out of blood. It also makes you listen to discussions of “states’ rights” today with a little more disgust for the way that politicians who have no idea what their words involve toss around the ideas that caused the whole bloody mess in the first place.

  • Eric, I’ve visited Gettysburg and Concord, and would like to offer my observations.

    At G-burg, things can be very quiet and very reverent. I think most people understand the great tear in the fabric that the Civil War was and why the Rebel flag is not only a symbol of racism, but also of people who are willing to see their brethren die for money.

    At Concord, it’s a very different mien. The field is much smaller, for one thing, and people are much more likely to be conversant and to be happy. Here’s a field where our nation was birthed, where our lives were irrevocably improved by freedom and liberty, where brave patriots died not for a buck (altho there was an economic aspect to it) but for the concept that a man should have a say in how he’s governed. It’s not a happy place, to be sure, but the mood is much lighter.

    • rea

      Heck of a lot fewer people killed at Concord, which makes a difference, too.

    • Ronnie P

      Concord was more of a skirmish than a battle.

  • Eric, for us longtime readers, I don’t think you need to remind us you don’t like military history.

    • Long-time readers should become acquainted with K.

      • dangermouse

        You spell Keric’s name RIGHT, darn you

    • I do need to remind you that I am going to write about whatever the fuck I feel like writing about.

  • c u n d gulag

    I’ve been to several Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites, and while I appreciate seeing the physical places where the battles took place – it gives me a better understanding of what everyone from the Generals on down were looking at, it’s the cemeteries nearby which speak louder to me.

    Especially the graves where the names, dates, and any epitaph’s that were written, have worn off over time.

    That now anonymous grave holds what’s left of a person who loved, and was loved – and died in battle. And now, no one knows, or remembers, who that poor person was.

    • Stag Party Palin

      In the long run, we’re all dead. In the longer run, we’re all forgotten.

      • c u n d gulag

        I know.
        But there’s something about a washed-out tombstone that really brings that home.

        I realize that there are monuments at Cheops for the Pharaoh’s – and none for the workers/slaves.
        But it’s all sad just the same.

        There are few of us that affect the future.
        So, I suppose I cry for us – the ones who won’t be remembered.
        My own 86 year-old father is dying. He’s the smartest man I ever met (and I taught at a college), with a great sense of humor. I honor his life.
        But after I’m gone, and my sister and her children/his grandchilren, and their children (if they have any) who will remember him?

        Or me – who’s NOT one of the smartest people I’ve ever met – or worthy of remembering.

        Dying pretty much anonymously – it’s all a part of life.
        And no one can remember all of the living, let alone the dead.
        But that doesn’t make it any less sad…

  • ajay

    the emphasis in traditional Civil War studies on troop movements, which I profoundly do not care about.

    Kind of an embarrassing admission for a historian, no? Or is this like being proud of not being able to understand calculus?

    • Dave

      Erik’s a funny guy, he thinks it’s worth commemorating, nay celebrating, the pathetic failures of the US labor movement, when the lesson most sensible people would take from such episodes is “don’t waste your time”.

    • witless chum

      Why? Unless he’s a specifically military historian, there’s no need for him to understand how the Battle of Gettysburg developed. He should probably know what was important about it to do any work dealing with that period, but nobody needs to know the details of Little Round top and such.

      Also,
      I’ve been meaning to head down to Tippecanoe, which seems to have a decent-sounding historical site. Has anyone else been.

      • Witless Chum is right. Why would I need to love military history? I would argue that it is far more embarrassing, if that should be the right word, for a professional historian to be uninterested in race, gender, class, or sexuality than military history. Moreover, I would guess a fairly sizable majority of professional historians would also express a disdain for military history in its traditional form. Even many of the Civil War historians I know teach that stuff begrudgingly.

        Moreover, I am perfect willing to argue that the development of the potato is far more important for world history than military matters. Not surprisingly then, I am far more interested in reading about the historical techniques of cultivating tubers than battlefield tactics.

        • steelpenny

          Have you read Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato? It’s a classic, though it’s a little dated.

          • No, I haven’t. The potato reference was somewhat hypothetical, though I do know of a good book on the cultivation of potatoes and landscape change in Idaho. Sounds like an interesting book to take a look at.

          • Josh G.

            Charles Mann’s 1493 also devotes a surprising amount of time and attention to the potato, and how this Andean invention profoundly transformed Europe. I found it a very interesting and informative book, and easy to read.

    • Murc

      I don’t think he means he doesn’t care about troop movements in the sense that he’s unaware and ignorant of things like the differences reliable railroads made with regards to previous wars or massive battle-altering things like Pickett’s Charge or Lee shipping Longstreet and his corps south in time for Chickamauga.

      I’m pretty sure he means troop movements of the “the 5th Ohio then ordered its 2nd and 4th Companies to advance 20 yards to the west and northwest, respectively (as indicated on map, Figs. 10-A and 10-B) which they accomplished in good order” type.

      And unless he’s specifically a military historian with an emphasis on tactical movement during the American civil war, I’m bang alongside him in not giving a fuck about reading pages and pages and PAGES of that. You can have a valuable opinion about, say, Shiloh, without needing to have memorized what every single regiment and company was doing during it.

  • Jim Lynch

    “..In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls..”.

    Joshua Chamberlain
    20th Maine
    From a speech made at Little Round Top 1888

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