Over at our Civil War blog, Stephen Cushman, author of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War highlights a Civil War anniversary likely to be overlooked in this year’s sesquicentennial observances.
Americans have a high regard for free speech, but should we have the same concern for the protection of silence? Should saying nothing or doing nothing open one to military arrest? What if a president has gone on record as advocating such a policy? This may sound like a ridiculous proposition, given our system of rights embedded in the Constitution. But it is not a hypothetical statement: this scenario faced northerners, border state loyalists, and especially Confederates in occupied zones during the U.S. Civil War. Saying nothing and doing nothing did bring the U.S. Army to one’s door.
The idea that the South is (or can be, or should be) of interest solely to southerners is, I believe, a deeply problematic notion, one that perpetuates reductive and harmful ideas about the region.
In his guest blog post at UNCPressCivilWar150, Blair writes about one of the ways secessionists were punished for treason: disfranchisement. He looks at how states crafted various laws and policies whose intended effects were to prevent former Confederates from voting.
When it was published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin quickly became the most inflammatory, explosive, and politically significant literary text of the antebellum period. Adapted to the stage shortly thereafter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s moral fervor, emotional power, and iconic characters soon made it a theatrical institution.
Reconstruction remains one of the most widely misunderstood eras in United States history. Though historians have largely discredited the white supremacist interpretations of William A. Dunning and his students, the Dunning School lives on in the public at large. Otherwise informed and well-meaning individuals unthinkingly parrot early-twentieth-century critiques of Reconstruction, casually dismissing it as an era of federal overreach, northern cruelty, and cynical corruption. My own experience bears out this observation: a friend who claims that Reconstruction failed because it was “too harsh,” or a student who labels the period a “tragedy” without being able to provide a single reason for this characterization. I expect other scholars of the period have had similar experiences. It seems that on an instinctive, knee-jerk level, many Americans respond negatively to Reconstruction, though most could not explain why. The 150th anniversary of Reconstruction offers a perfect opportunity to set the record straight, or at least to give the public a fair accounting of the period’s challenges, its successes, and its failures.
From the summer of 1861 to the spring of 1862, each Confederate or Union soldier was sick an average of three times. It was also the norm for soldiers to shun official army medical care, as they found the medicines loathsome and dreaded being separated from their regiments, often familiar faces from back home. Though contemporary physicians were still caught up in such theories of disease causation as the four humors (the conception that illness occurred when the four main bodily fluids were in need of recalibration), laypeople preferred environmental explanations for sickness that could be confirmed by observation and personal experience.
Civil War music is now a cottage industry.
Eager to discuss African American participation in the Civil War, we are nonetheless troubled by the aura of Confederate nostalgia surrounding the ceremony, as well as the news coverage that (at least in the Charlotte-area press) seemed intent on calling the ten men Confederate soldiers or veterans.
Everything you have heard about the film 12 Years a Slave is true; it is exceptionally well acted, gorgeously filmed, and brutally honest about antebellum slavery. There are moments that are extremely difficult to watch and this is as it should be, leaving audiences stunned into numbness. Film critics and historians alike have praised it as a watershed in the depiction of slavery in American cinema, and this is certainly true. Nevertheless, the film demonstrates that Hollywood has not yet fully caught up with current interpretations of slave life in the antebellum South.
Soldiers on both sides pegged environmental circumstances as some of the most serious stressors of the war. Privates through non-commissioned officers, common soldiers rarely had traveled far from home before deploying. That meant the vast majority of them were transported to foreign environments that appeared extremely threatening based on popular notions of disease causation. Lacking conceptions of germ theory or insect-borne illness (theories developed in the 1870s and 80s respectively), mid-century Americans widely believed that a sudden change of location or weather and the air, water, and terrain of certain locales (particularly those of the South) caused life-threatening diseases, such as dysentery, malaria, and typhoid. It was clear to soldiers that disease claimed far more mortalities than combat; indeed, two-thirds of soldier deaths by war’s end would be from sickness rather than wounds. Nature appeared to be the soldiers’ fiercest enemy.
The elections in Virginia and New Jersey have been touted as indicators of where the Republican Party, and indeed the entire country, will head in 2014 and beyond. The North Carolina governor’s race in 1864 served a similar role. Though often overshadowed in discussions of Civil War politics by the U.S. presidential election of 1864, the North Carolina race, which pitted incumbent Zebulon Baird Vance against newspaper editor William W. Holden, tells an equally important story about shifting political winds.
As an immigrant, something I’m familiar with myself, one’s sense of identity is heightened by the immigration experience. In your new country, even when your language is the same as the natives, you suddenly you have an “accent,” your religion and culture are different, and you must adapt to new social and political realities. Immigrants then give us valuable insights, not only into their own changing identity, but also that of the host country. Irish immigrants in the South had to become Americans and Confederates. They had to negotiate the cultural traits they brought from Ireland with the demands of loyalty to their new home. And, it was this Irish cultural baggage which played the key role in binding them to the United States and the Confederacy
Rather than becoming southern “under fire,” they became southern by misremembering, reimagining, and reinterpreting the real experience of being under fire.
When rumors of “development” encroach upon areas with rich historical backgrounds, they most likely will find a wall of resistance waiting. This is the current situation in the Virginia Peninsula, where the site of the Battle of Williamsburg is now vulnerable to such an unfortunate fate.