15 May 2011

The intersection of culture and history

Before I leave the topic of Stonewall Jackson for a bit, there is one other fascinating bit of related popular culture that really should be mentioned.  The folk duo Storyhill, a singer/songwriting duo out of Montana, recently released their newest album, an artful collection titled Shade of the Trees.  The title, admittedly a reference to Jackson's last words, is featured on the album in the form of the refrain to the hauntingly beautiful piece Better Angels.  This song, itself another reference to famous phrases from the American Civil War, attempts to capture the sadness and futility felt by fighters for the Southern cause.

Folk singer/songwriter duo Storyhill
That Storyhill would choose this theme as a song topic is at first curious when considering the pair's existing body of work: no other pieces by the group exhibit any relation to the war or its effects.  Yet when viewed in the larger context of folk culture the song's inclusion suddenly makes perfect sense.  Anyone who has read late nineteenth-early twentieth century Southern literature cannot help but see the profound impact the war left on the Southern mind.  From Harris to Johnston, from Faulkner to Mitchell, the war is shown to have been an inescapable part of the past to Southerners who left their indelible mark on the culture of the time.

Just as event builds upon event in the great narrative of history, so does culture build upon culture in the narrative of the national story.  So-called folk culture exists today as a throwback to days and stories of old, emulating both the style and the message of those storytellers who came before.  Storyhill already fits into this archetype by conforming to a simple musical style reminiscent of Appalachian and mountain culture, and has now expanded its role as a modern torch-bearer for the old ways by bending their musical talents toward what is - for lack of a better phrase - Southern Lost Cause mythology.

For example, the phrase "They outnumber, but we're at our best/and willing we stumble into their bullets blessed" evokes images of a gallant and superior Confederate force facing an unfortunately irresistible tide of blue-clad troops (Lost Cause rhetoric hinges largely on the belief that the Confederacy was defeated largely due to the Union's numerical and industrial superiority).  The very next line, "Hold the line, stay close to me/Cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees" is obviously a reference to battle and the death that follows it for some.

Jackson's last words take on a shifting meaning throughout the piece as well.  In the first verse, they are used to symbolize a respite before a coming fury; in the second they symbolize a literal rest on the march; in the end they represent, as we have seen, the end of life.  Thus it is that Storyhill does not conform itself entirely to Southern or Lost Cause mythology, but rather to the general theme of the war and its after-effects.  That the group would choose this topic is, as we have seen, indicative of its strong presence in today's folk and mountain culture.  That such a song would rise to popularity (it is among the band's most-uploaded songs on YouTube) shows the power that the war has on our culture today.

History is relevant - it is with us every day in ways both subtle and overt.  The resurgence of folk culture in music is likely to remind us more and more of the power of particular aspects of that history including, in this case, the American Civil War.  At least, as a bright side, one of the effects of this undeniable influence in popular memory is one more beautiful song.

Song lyrics and a link to a performance of Better Angels is included below.

Image Source: www.theellentheater.com

Lyrics (transcribed by myself):

Better angels of our nature
Stay awake now, you’re in danger
The coming night is dark indeed
Cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees

Keep going forward one hundred abreast
The horses are thirsty, they will protest
Tonight we’ll water them in the Tennessee
Cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees

They outnumber, but we’re at our best
And willing we stumble into their bullets blessed
Hold the line, stay close to me
Cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees

Better angels of our nature
Stay awake now, you’re in danger

13 May 2011

The Cult of Jackson

One of my former professors at GSU, Clifford Kuhn, brilliantly administered my undergraduate capstone course this past spring.  Our topic of study, commemoration, is one that I initially dove into without fully grasping the depth of the theme.  I since have learned that one of the most, if not the most, important facet found within the study of the field  is the change that the progress of time exerts on a particular commemoration.  As historians we study not only a person, place, or thing that is commemorated, but also the temporal and spatial (and, as we will see, personal) context that said commemoration takes place within.

Which leads me to today's post, a brief review of Wallace Hettle's just-released Inventing Stonewall Jackson: A Civil War Hero in History and Memory.  I first heard about this book over on Rea Andrew Redd 's fantastic blog and, as a fan of Jackson's, decided to immediately order a copy from Barnes & Noble.  It's a quick read, only 148 pages (plus endnotes), and goes to great lengths to explain how today's legend of Stonewall Jackson exists due to the influence of his early biographers.  Written as a series of somewhat (though by no means distractingly) unconnected essays, Hettle uses a thorough grasp of the literature to illustrate how the ideals held by both the biographer in question and the public at the time of publication shaped the story that became the Jackson legend.  For example, John Esten Cooke, a novelist taken with the "great man" theory of history and a firm believer in the romantic ideals that were popular at the time, wrote his Jackson narrative in a way that would serve those ends; because of this, the now incredibly-popular myths of Jackson's eccentricities in the field have become fodder for Civil War Roundtables across the globe.  Not to discount the stories of Jackson's odd habits as untrue, but rather Hettle makes a solid case that the emphasis placed on such oddities is more reflective of the time of publication rather than any historical fact.

Inventing Stonewall Jackson also describes in detail (though not of the overwhelming variety) the basis behind Robert Dabney's focus on Jackson's religiosity, Anna Jackson's defense of her husband's domestic character, the effect that military memoirs and soldiers' stories have on the Jackson legend, Mary Johnston (yes, of those Johnstons) and her anti-Jackson theme in her novel The Long Roll, Alan Tate's hero-worship (and eventual denial) of Jackson, and more recently Ron Maxwell's portrayal of Stonewall in 2003's Gods and Generals.  Through it all Hettle does not lose sight of the prevailing theme which illustrates how the year of each successive publication and the personal views of the biographers had as much to do with each books' contents as did any source material.  It is truly a revealing study, in both Jackson the man and the art of bibliographical commemoration in general, and I highly recommend it to any who are interested in the topic.

Stephen Lang as Jackson in 2003's Gods and Generals
On a personal note, this reading has also convinced me to reexamine my own personal feelings towards Jackson.  I admit, I've always felt a bit of ambivalence regarding the man: I have a framed photograph of him on my wall, but were this the 1860s you could call me a staunch Unionist.  His battlefield exploits are indeed a bit of tactical genius, though I've often been asked by others in the living history community what would happened had Jackson ever been pitted against a Grant or a Sherman rather than a McClellan, a Howard, or a Banks.  I honestly cannot such an inquiry.  I have admired his story for the "regular man" qualities found within, though now I must ask if those are simply John Cooke's ideas thrust into my consciousness.  I have admired the upward mobility shown in the story of a farm boy going on to become Lee's right hand, though I must now ask the ghost of Robert Dabney if he is in my head.  I have, as many students of military history, found genius in Jackson's campaigns...or is that simply GFR Henderson exerting his influence on this twenty-first century blogger?  These are all questions that I cannot help but ponder, and are questions that would not have coalesced firmly into their present form were it not for Hettle's enlightening study.  Books such as this are too few and far between, I feel, and both we in the historical community as well as the layman would be better off if more works so unpretentiously forced us to challenge our own prejudices and motivations for believing what we do.

Inventing Stonewall Jackson is published by Louisiana State University Press in Baton Rouge, 2011.

Image sources: www.barnesandnoble.com, www.gnews.com

11 May 2011

Teaching myself a lesson

The deserted fields of Chickamauga
Perhaps one of the most unsettling aspects of my recent sojourn at Chickamauga was the inconsistent quantity and quality of visitor to the park.  Having spent my youth and adolescence less than five miles from the rural Pickett's Mill State Park, I'm no stranger to the phenomenon of being the only soul in sight as I walk among the trenches; having grown up virtually in the shadow of Kennesaw Mountain, I am unfortunately well-acquainted with the concept of hallowed ground being primarily used as a dog park.

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park is the nation's first park that was devoted to the memory of the bloody deeds that are committed on a battlefield.  As the day progressed, however, it became apparent that even this field was to suffer the ignominious fate that its southern brethren know so well.  Not only was the park seemingly deserted from my arrival (9:00 AM) until 3:00 PM, when I reached the Wilder Brigade Tower, what visitors I did eventually come across apparently could not have cared less that they were standing on consecrated ground.  The trio of teenage girls at the top of the Wilder tower were discussing prom; the two Latino children below were swinging from the artillery surrounding the monument as through it were a jungle gym.  After 5:00 PM rolled around, when those with desk jobs started making it home, the park became did finally become alive -  with joggers, cyclists, and, yes, dog walkers.

The Wilder Brigade Tower at Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

I'm not going to take it for granted that the park did eventually find itself a hive of activity.  I think its fantastic that its on the radar screens of both locals and visitors alike (one of the prom-obsessed girls was apparently visiting from Alabama).  But simply going to a place of that magnitude without reason, without understanding, strikes me as insulting to the memories of those who fought and died there.  Lytle's Hill is not just an obstacle for you to overcome as you practice for your track meet.

But then, of course, I find myself reassessing my vehemence and pulling up short.  In his masterful work Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life, David Glassberg writes that memory sites do not exist as unchanging monoliths in a static world.  Rather, they change and shift based on the subjective perspective of the person doing the viewing.  Perhaps the girls at the Wilder monument do not share the same reverence that I feel when I consider the cultural importance that the battlefield possesses.  Perhaps instead, the tower is the site of childhood dreams and family outings.  Maybe the joggers don't mind blithely passing by the markers to men and deeds a century and a half past.  Or maybe they're locals who spend as much time standing awestruck on the field during the weekends that I spend during the weekdays, and have found a way to both get their exercise and stand on hallowed ground at the same time.  I don't know, can never know, and cannot take it for granted that my reverence is somehow superior to that of others.  It's a trap that I've fallen into time and time again, and I must learn to suppress the instinct.  The personal peace I find on a battle site is just that: personal.  I cannot expect it to be a universal constant.

Maybe those girls only care that they can see for miles from the top of the monument.  Maybe they don't.  It's not my place, or anyone else's, to judge their reason for being at Chickamauga.  It only matters that they were there, and in doing so contributed their own bit of memory to the collective identity that the park now reflects.  An active park that has found itself transformed into a family and community center beats an empty park any day of the week.  And besides, the men who fought at Chickamauga did so for the right to do as one pleases.  If today's citizens choose to use that freedom to spend a day at a lovely park, historical awareness aside, then perhaps their presence there is only fitting.

Image Sources: http://www.waymarking.com, http://www.examiner.com

10 May 2011

Visiting the River of Death

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to find myself with a day off from work. Therefore, I did what anybody who knows me can naturally assume I would do: drive north 90 miles to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

This was not my first visit to the nation's first battlefield park, though it was by far my most extensive tour of the field. Usually a trip to Fort Oglethorpe (the sleepy town that the battlefield calls home) entails a day spent whisking from site to site in the car, stopping only at particular points of interest that call for a feet-on-the-ground survey. I decided that yesterday would be different. And it was, thanks largely to this wonderful title:

This book, part of a (so far) three-title series takes the battle's actions and breaks them down chronologically and by specific section of the battlefield. Each turn of the page brings a detailed synopsis of the events in question on the left side, while the entire right page is a beautifully detailed close-up map of the described phase of the battle.

Also, in an easy-to-overlook detail, each map is of the same scale and orientation of its brethren, making it easier than ever to follow a battle. This is a simple detail, but one that - even by itself - makes this series stand out from the rest.

Armed with this book, I set out on what would be a fourteen-mile hike: From the visitor center to Alexander's Bridge Road; thence to one of the park's trails that eventually brought me down to the Brotherton Road; following that, I moved to the Brotherton Farm and south to a park trail in the vicinity of the Viniard Field action; recrossing the Lafayette Road, I moved into the brush to scout Confederate positions on the afternoon of 19 September before returning to the Lafayette Road via the Viniard-Alexander Road; moving then through the Brock Field to the Wilder monument, I then moved north over Lytle Hill and South Dyer Field before finally crossing the Vittetoe Farm and finding myself atop Horseshoe Ridge and Snodgrass Hill; from there it was an easy hike back to the Lafayette Road and thence south to Poe Field; finally I turned north one last time to follow Battleline Road around Kelly Field and back to the visitor center. The above is a combination of the park's "Historical" trail and it's "Confederate Line" trail, and was customized by myself in order to gain a thorough grasp of the battle's progression.

Without Powell's atlas, I would never have been able to stand in Winfrey Field and see Cleburne's night attack. I would not have been able to stand at the Heg monument and watch Hood's troops go into the ditch beyond and be flanked by Lilly's battery and Wilder's brigade. I can claim that with authority since yesterday marked what is probably my tenth visit to the field, and such understanding has always eluded me. The yesterday's battlefield romp has demystified what has always been a confused and chaotic affair, and I cannot recommended this indispensable title enough to any student of the battle.

More to come.

Image sources: personal collection, http://www.amazon.com

08 May 2011

Well, its been a while

...two years later.

I'd honestly forgotten that I had this blog. Well, mostly forgotten, anyhow.

Where to begin, what to say? At long last I have completed my B.A. from Georgia State. I guess I'm officially allowed to talk about history now. That's a load off my back, for I was very concerned.

The current economic climate has forced me to scale back me participation in reenactments and living histories to a nearly nonexistent level. When employers consistently express their right to fire you (and willingness to do so with the current tsunami of job-seekers), one doesn't ask for time off to spend a weekend burning powder like its 1864. I am hot on the trail of a potential spot at the Atlanta History Center however, so stay posted regarding that.

My undergraduate history thesis at GSU was a study in non-traditional commemoration in the state of Delaware; it seems that a monument to thousands of previously unrecognized Delaware Confederates has been erected by a local branch of the SCV. After traveling to the state, I spent 5 days conducting oral history interviews with the major players in the monument movement, as well as various town officials and members of the historical society. It was a truly fascinating project and one that I hope to expand upon over time. I'm sure that I will divulge more of that study's findings here in the near future.

Tomorrow will find me 100 miles north of here, just south of the town of Fort Oglethorpe, GA. I'll be spending the morning and most of the afternoon tramping around Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park: there is a fourteen-mile trail route that I've mapped out (combining the park's "Historical" and "Confederate Line" trails). Also making its debut tomorrow is David Powell's The Maps of Chickamauga. This marvelous-looking series published by Savas Beatie also includes The Maps of Gettysburg and The Maps of First Bull Run. I'll admit to having not yet had much field use yet for the 1st Manassas title, but the Gettysburg edition has served me at that field splendidly before. I'm looking forward to increasing the series' reputation in my mind with tomorrow's sojourn. I'll let you know how it goes.

Finally, this summer (likely the only summer between now and the beginning of next spring's grad school programs at GSU) will see me diving into new books like I haven't been able to in years. Look for wish lists, book reviews, and maybe a little writing of my own. Currently on my nightstand: Wallace Hettle's Inventing Stonewall Jackson. I'm about halfway through right now, and this remarkably easy read has so far done a great job of showing how Jackson's early biographers created the apocryphal legends that we so cavalierly take today as fact. It makes me feel rather silly, actually, for being one of the masses to have left a lemon at Jackson's grave, but at the same time it at least reminds me that in following the legend, I have left my mark on an historical phenomenon in and of itself. The cult of Stonewall is alive and well here in the South.

Hopefully, the same can be said of this blog. I'll be writing again soon. Take care, friends.

01 May 2009

Gettysburg: The Program That Changed the Battle

I finally got around to watching the Military Channel's special "Gettysburg: The Battle that Changed America".

Needless to say, the two weeks of anticipation I felt leading up to this were sorely mispent. I've seen inaccurate history documentaries; in this day and age, receiving a truly accurate lesson in history is a rare thing. But this is one of the more blatant episodes of historical revisionism I've ever seen. Not only were facts misrepresented, but the makers of this show saw fit to simply create events that never happened.

I could rant for paragraphs on end, but in my internet quest to find those of like mind, I stumbled upon a thoroughly incensed writer who seems to agree with me point for point. Thus, I'll save myself the time, effort, and negative energy, and simply post that here.


"Gettysburg - The Battle That Changed America"

Just got done watching it. "The Program That Changed the Battle" might
have been a better title.

This was one of those shows you watch not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
If I had to come up with a short description, the words "horrifyingly
awful" come to mind. Or may, just plain sad. Not to mention, all too

I counted at least one howler every three to five minutes. There were
probably more, but I started to loose count. Just as a sample of some of
the ones I can remember::

1. The battle starts when Union infantry comes running around a bend in
the road and start shooting up Confederate troops sitting by the roadside,
writing letters to Mother and talking about how they need those shoes in

2. News of the battle is delivered to Meade by a Brigadier General (didn't
say which one), who immediately asks him "Do you want to fall back toward

3. Lee learns of the battle while he's eight miles away. First thing he
does is pull out his binoculars and start looking that way.

4. The second day consisted of the Confederate attack on Culp's Hill,
followed by the Confederate attack on Little Round Top.

5. By the end of the fighting on the second day, there were 25,000 dead.

6. The next day, Meade pointed to the Copse of Trees, and said that's
where the attack would be.

7. Stuart's mission on the third day was to ride into the rear of the
Union line on Cemetery Ridge, at the same time Pickett's Charge hit it
from the front. The two big arrows on the diagram showing how this was
supposed to take place meet perfectly, right by the Copse of Trees.

8. Custer and a small band of Michigan cavalry (or words to that effect)
are patrolling off the Union flank, and spot Stuart's column riding down
the road toward the Union rear.

9. Custer shouts "Come on, you Wolverines!", and they go charging into
the front of Stuart's column, which gets backed up along the road like a
train (or words to that effect), after which Stuart retreats. Computer
graphics show exactly how it happened. Them poor rebels never stood a
change, all stacked up on the road like that.

(This nonsense in numbers 7, 8, and 9, BTW, is straight from the Tom
Carhart playbook, not surprising since Tom Carhart himself is there to
explain it all in person.)

10. Lee personally orders the cannonade to start, while, in fact, the
fighting at Culp's Hill is still going strong.

11. Wesley Culp is killed on Culp's hill.

12. The Union troops on Cemetery Ridge all flee in a panic when Pickett's
men break through.

13. The Confederates are forced to retreat when Stuart doesn't show up,
like the diagram referred to in # 7 says he was supposed to. Thanks again
Tom. Also for pointing out that Meade was scared during the entire

14. Despite 25,000 men being dead by the end of the second day, by the
end of the third day the death toll is down to 10,000. Maybe the other
15,000 got better.

The program itself was built around what might for lack of a better term
be called "reenactor based dramatization", which I've become convinced is
a very mixed blessing. Good, in that people show up in realistic looking
uniforms, with proper weapons and equipment. Bad, in that too many of
them are middle aged, overweight, and have gray hair. But I suppose they
work cheap. This is supplemented by computer annimation, of such things
as Cuters's patrolling band waylaying Stuart's maurauding column along
that road to the Union rear - it's just shocking how old Jeb let himself
be surprised out in the open like that - and Picket's troops breaking
through and driving off the panic stricken Yankees.

There was one special effect that was worth the price of admission all by
itself, though. Some poor Reb is standing there on Culp's Hill on the
morning of July 3, chatting with the soon to be dearly departed Wesley
while they get ready to storm the hill again. Which shouldn't have been
too much of a chore, since as I recall from Carhart's book (it got left
out of the program somehow, maybe he didn't have time to explain that part
of the plan), part of Stuart's job was to drop off some men to help
capture the hill while he was on the way to help Pickett. Since they
would have had "Enfield rifles with sword bayonets", it would have bene
practically a done deal. But anyway, they're just standing there BS'ing
with each other, just minding there own business, when the Union artillery
opens up and blows poor Wesley's friend away. And I mean, literally! Damm
shell comes flying in looking like one of those special effects meteors
from "Deep Impact" or "Armageddon" that take out the Chrysler Building,
or half of Paris, catches the guy right about in
the belt buckle, and he's just [i]gone[/i]. Looked like he was standing
in front of an 18" shell from the Yamato or something. All they needed to
really do it up right was to have just his shoes sitting there, with some
wisps of smoke coming out of them.

Frank Haskell was featured in the program, with a number of "quotations"
from his account of the battle. I say "quotations", because the program
writers alter and embellish what he wrote, when and where needed, to fit
the plot.

All in all, about as poor, and unfortunately, about as typical, as
anything I've seen lately.

The frightening part is, this sort of thing makes you wonder how much
mis-information and nonsense you're being fed, without even realizing it,
when the program is about a battle or event you may not have as much
personal knowledge of.

~Jim Cameron


Well said, Jim. As for you, Military Channel...for shame.

ps - Did I mention that despite the abundance of reenactors and living historians featured in the show, President Lincoln was represented by CGI. Awful CGI at that. Why, oh why?

08 April 2009

Back In The Saddle Again

It's been a month now since my last post. Sorry about that, folks. Louisiana came and went, and nearly took my life while I was at it: if you ever hear that hypothermia wasn't a killer in the war, you can call the offender out on their ignorance.

But I've recovered nicely and am prepping for my next authentic foray, off to participate in the
Race to Knoxville in two weeks. After holding off Longstreet in East Tennessee the campaign season will start up in earnest, beginning with the national-sized Battle of Resaca a few weeks after that. This summer looks to be a good one for the hobby here in Georgia, as it's the 145th aniversary of the Atlanta Campaign. This will culminate with Bummers this November, as we trek across Georgia on the March to the Sea. That, combined with an authentic living history Marvin Greer and I are planning on hosting in Jonesboro, makes this a very promising year.

As far as battlefield studies, I've pre-ordered J. David Petruzzi's very exciting new
Complete Gettysburg Guide (Savas Beatie, 2009), and also have Ezra Carmen's edited and compiled works on the Battle of Antietam on the way. Every review I've read on this work speaks of an indispensible volume for anyone studying that pivotal engagement, and since I plan on making Sharpsburg, MD a destination at least once this year, something tells me that this will be an invaluable asset.

Finally, the Military Channel is airing
two specials on Gettysburg, this Friday, April 10: The Battle That Saved America and The Speech That Saved America, at 9:00 and 10:00 pm EST, respectively. This happens concurrantly with Patton 360, the History Channel's much-anticipated follow up to last year's Battle 360. 9:00 pm on Friday looks to be a busy evening for those of you with Tivos or DVRs. As for me...I'll be catching re-runs next week, as an old friend is coming into town for that evening, and I would be remiss in my manners were I to blow that off for (albeit fascinating) television specials.

I hope this finds you in as good spirits as this day has found me. All the best, friends.