Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Just Finished Reading

When I travel I seem to read even more than normal. What better way to pass the time while waiting in the airport or in the air? O.K., sure, there a plenty more things to do to whittle the hours away, but reading works for me. 

A recent trip helped me complete a few books, so I thought I'd do a three for one post, covering those titles.

Over the past 12 years or so memory studies have probably dominated Civil War genres as much as anything. David Blight's trailblazing Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) has spawned a whole library of followers. I have read many of these latter-day studies, but many have left me unimpressed. Not so with Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, (2004) by William Blair. 

In Cities of the Dead, Blair compares and contrasts white Southerners' Confederate Decoration Day ceremonies to black Southerners' Emancipation Day celebrations. As one might imagine these conflicting memories of the Civil War and its ultimate effects led to many contentious confrontations.

Blair contends that both groups used their own individual commemorations to promote their political goals: whites for redemption of their state governments from black and Federal military rule, and blacks for increased civil, political, and economic rights. 

I would have appreciated a more full study, as this rather this slim volume (207 pages of text) covers largely commemorations in Virginia and leaves much of the rest of the South silent. So much so that the author's subtitle is somewhat misleading. But, with that minor gripe aside this is a fine book that everyone observing the Civil War's Sesquicentennial should read. On a scale from one to five, I give Cities of the Dead a 4.75.    

If you read my posts often, you have probably figured out that I am a huge social history fan. Topics that many of us do not think about as being open to historical studies at first look, often turn out to be some of the best. For example, the recently published Routes of War, by Yael Sternhell, examines the role of movement in the Civil War South. Of course movement was important during the Civil War, but until someone thought to examine it, it remained in the dark. Similarly, Mark M. Smith's, Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery and Freedom in the American South (1997) sheds light on a topic of great significance, but previously unexplored.

In Mastered by the Clock, Smith shows that although the antebellum Southern states are often thought of as premodern societies ruled by seasonal and diurnal conceptions of time, they actually developed into clock-ruled regions, much like neighbors to the north. 

Smith incorporates an impressive amount of primary source research to show that Southern masters came to accept clock-based time to instill a great efficiently with their slave labor in planting, cultivating, and harvesting their crops. And, while slave were not often allowed to own timepieces, plantations incorporated modes of time telling such as bells and horns to regulate slave time. 

Much of white Southerners' acceptance of clock time and rejection of sun or seasonal time came from increased exposure and use of period services and inventions, including the postal/express service, steamboat, telegraph, and railroad - all of which ran on timed schedules. 

Smith, too, explains that not all white Southerners thought clock-timed life was a good thing. Some believed that greater reliance on the timepiece had the potential to instill Yankee ideals and subvert their distinctive easy and leisurely Southern way of life. 

Mastered by the Clock is a fascinating read and a thought-provoking look at a too little examined facet of antebellum Southern life. I highly recommend it those interested in understanding the changes the South experienced in the nineteenth century. On a scale of one to five, I give it a 4.75.

I have enjoyed all of the books I have ready by Stanley Harrold. His, Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War is a book that shouldn't be missed, and, The Abolitionists and the South, 1831-1861, is an important work too. Harrold continues his strong batting average with The Rise of Aggressive Abolitionism: Addresses to the Slaves (2004).

In this work, Harrold looks at the significance of three speeches in the 1840s by abolitionists Gerrit Smith, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry Highland Garnet. These speeches - for the first time - sought the assistance of those held as slaves to help end the institution.

Harrold explains that contemporary events such as the Amistad and Creole ship insurrections, as well as greater numbers of successful escapes, led abolitionists to the conclusion that the enslaved were the great untapped reserve to immediately end slavery.

While the three speeches were toned so as to avoid violence on the part of the slaves, their intent is certainly to do something for themselves to help end their bondage. Previously abolitionists had largely thought of slaves as being only  the benefactors of the antislavery societies work, but the three addresses showed a distinctive shift in the belief in the power of moral suasion to a greater reliance on slave empowerment. This movement would eventually lead to individuals like John Brown and taking the abolitionist fight to enemy territory.

I appreciated that Harrold not only includes his insightful analysis of the three addresses, but also has them in full text in the book's appendix, along with a couple of other related documents.

The Rise of Aggressive Abolitionism is an important study for better understanding the many facets of the antislavery cause. On a scale of one to five, I give it a 4.5.

No comments:

Post a Comment