Sunday, October 28, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Ring Shout, Wheel About

This past week Megyn Kelly was in the headlines about comments she made regarding blackface as possible choice for a Halloween costume. She ultimately lost her job for those comments, and later apologized, apparently after she was informed/educated on what historically blackface/minstrel comedy entailed. Perhaps if she had read Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery by Katrina Dyonne Thompson she could have saved herself a multitude of grief.

This excellent study on how Africans during the Middle Passage, and African Americans during U.S. slavery and the rise in the popularity of minstrel shows, were commodified through the performing arts of music and dance is a true eye opener. Thorough research and persuasive writing by the author allows the reader to better understand the white and black perspectives of music and dance.

To many whites during slavery's lifetime, who viewed the enslaved as contented, submissive, and lazy, saw them through the lens of music and dance. Blacks, often being in a powerless position were forced to sing and dance for whites' entertainment enjoyment. This created a white idea that contentedness was the primary emotional state of blacks, instead of realizing that people of African descent, like all humans, have a multitude of dispositions. African Americans on the other hand viewed music and dance as two of only a few areas in their lives where they were allowed moments of self expression.

Thompson shows how whites justified enslaving Africans, defended the internal slave trade, maintained a race-based social order, and hid the brutal reality of the "peculiar institution" by focusing on blacks' artistic expression in these art forms. On the other hand, music and dance were ways for African Americans to retain some of their ancestral traditions and develop new community bonds.

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is that on minstrelsy. Thompson's discussion on minstrelsy shows clearly how blackface performances set most whites' (especially northerners with limited exposure to blacks), perceptions of blackness. Minstrelsy literally took individuality away from blacks and encouraged a stereotypical image of lazy, submissive, and hedonistic personalities.

This book should be read by every U.S. citizen. I think doing so would help people to see how we have developed our images of race in America, starting with our earliest history. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Just Finished Reading - No Freedom Shrieker

No Freedom Shrieker: The Civil War Letters of Union Soldier Charles Biddlecom, edited by Katherine M. Aldridge is an amazing collection of letters. In fact, they are among the best common soldier letters that I've ever read. Found in a box in a New York state barn by the editor they provide a perspective we do not often get.

Charles Biddlecom was a early enlistee, signing up in the 28th New York in the spring of 1861. Poor health, particularly rheumatism, helped Charles receive a discharge in the fall of 1861. However, he was drafted into the 147th New York in the summer in 1863. As a conscript, his views of the army and his situation was probably not unique. While he certainly felt a responsibility to maintain his honor and fulfill his obligation, he was hoping for another medical discharge. And, he absolutely refused to consider deserting although others were doing so.

Suffering from the hardships of army life in the post-Gettysburg Army of the Potomac, Biddlecom rode the ebbs and flows of soldering during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. Like all of us, he had good days and bad days, steady-even days and frustratingly-odd days. What makes Biddlecom's letters so intriguing is that he shares pretty much anything and everything with his wife Ester, or Es as he often calls her. It is as if he feels an obligation to fill up each and every sheet of paper with news of his life as that is his only means of communication with his wife and their children. Biddlecom does not give the reader the impression that he had real tight comrade relationships; perhaps another reason he shares so much in his writing. These situations are to the benefit of the modern student, as he includes so much about his soldier experience for us to learn from.

Despite ultimately voting for Lincoln in the 1864 election, largely because he cannot stand the peace Democrat "Copperheads" backing McClellan, Biddlecom is not a fan of "Old Abe." He thinks that Lincoln does not prosecute the war at an aggressive enough rate in the fall of 1863 and hopes for a Fremont Republican ticket in the fall of 1864. When that is not realized he goes with Lincoln.

Biddlecom's brigade and the 147th (5th Corps) have a conspicuous role in the Battle of Weldon Railroad, of which he is particularly proud, but he is at his best in writing out his thoughts when he has time in camp between battles. In one of my favorite passages he ponders the symbolism of his old uniform coat. "I drew a new blouse today and I wish I could send my old coat home, for I think a great deal of it as I have worn it throughout the campaign. I should like to save it as a souvenir of the hard fought battles of the Wilderness, Laurel Hill, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Petersburg. I should like to keep it with all its dust, samples of soil from Culpeper to this place. 'Tis not much of a coat now, the skirts torn and ragged, and it is sadly ripped under the arms. Still, as I look at it as it hangs on the butt of my musket, I think more of it than I ever did of any article of dress I ever owned in my life before. Sadly, like everything else I suppose, it will, as Mother says sometimes, 'go the wayof all earthly things.' That is to dust and faith. The old coat's journey will not be a long one, for the sun and dust have already turned it dark blue to a dingy kind of nondescript mud color. Isn't this lots to say just about an old coat?" Now, isn't that amazing insight into a soldiers world of thoughts? Yes, indeed!

This book is a must read for students of the common Civil War soldier. Rarely do we get such insight into what a conscripted soldier thinks and feels in the last year and a half of the war. I can't recommend it enough.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Just Finished Reading - A Fierce Glory

For decades the Battle of Gettysburg, the so-called "highwater mark of the Confederacy" was viewed by many historians as "the" turning point in the Civil War. However, over the last twenty-five years or so the Battle of Antietam has largely replaced Gettysburg as "the main" turning point in the conflict, if one has to chose one specific event.

Antietam, or the Battle of Sharpsburg, as it is often referred to by those with Southern leanings, has received its fair share of historical scholarship. Some of the subject's best researchers and writers have taken on Antietam - James McPherson, Stephen Sears, and Gary Gallagher, among others, have produced either books or collections of essays on the battle or parts of it.

A Fierce Glory: Antietam-The Desparate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery by Justin Martin is a welcome addition to the works that have preceded it. Martin, no stranger to the Civil War-era, tells the story of Antietam, from the slug fest in Cornfield to the battles for Burnside's Bridge and the Bloody Lane, to A.P. Hill's timely arrival from Harpers Ferry, in a see-saw manner and with such descriptive detail that it almost places the reader among the terrifying action. In fact, the primary strength of A Fierce Glory is how this story is told. For example, on pages 49 and 50, Martin writes: "The Hagerstown Pike ran along one side of the cornfield. It was just an ordinary country road. On this morning, it became a ferociously contested demarcation, both sides struggling to keep the other from crossing. Never mind that hoary whites of their eyes; pupils dilated in terror must have been nearly visible as the soldiers fired across the road, sometimes trading bullets over a space of less than 100 feet." Martin's ability to paint word pictures is second to none.

Another strong point of the book is how Martin contextualizes the battle by telling its associative stories. President Lincoln's mourning of son Willie, Clara Barton's courage and Jonathan Letterman's medical advancements, Alexander Gardner capturing images for Matthew Brady, and of course, the Emancipation Proclamation as a product of the fight, and other people, places, and events figure prominently into and benefit the narrative.

While Martin could have explored some of the less familiar soldiers' stories by diving deeper into available primary sources instead of relying so heavily on secondary sources, the highly descriptive way he tells many of the stories breaths new life into them.

Calling a book a "page turner" has become rather cliche, but in this case it sincerely fits. I recommend A Fierce Glory, particularly to new students of the Civil War, as its literary pull is sure to make it an influential book for years to come.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Just Finished Reading - Lincoln's Loyalists

Although Southern Unionism is a relatively new niche interest for me, I'm finding that some scholars have been exploring the topic for quite a while. Published in 1992, Lincoln's Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy by Richard Nelson Current is one of those early studies.

Most Civil War students are aware that Tennessee (particularly East Tennessee) produced thousands of soldiers for the Union army. Similarly, Western Virginia (eventually to become West Virginia) was also a stronghold of Unionism. Examination of each of these two states serve as Current's first two chapters. 

Current's third chapter looks at Unionism in North Carolina (mainly in the western Mountains and in coastal areas under early Union occupation), and in Arkansas. The book's fourth chapter explores the units raised in other seceded states. Current finds that every Confederate state, except South Carolina, raised at least a battalion of white troops that served in the Union army. In total an estimated 100,000 white men from seceded states served in the Union army. That figure was an enormous double negative for the Confederacy. Not only were they taking away manpower from the South, they were adding strength to the Union army. 

Current's other four chapters focus on those men who initially fought for the Confederacy but ended up fighting for the Union. Often referred to as "galvanized Yankees," most often these men were sent to areas where they were not expected to fight against their former comrades. "What Manner of Men," the sixth chapter, is a look at traits of Southern Unionism, and the seventh chapter examines the fighting effectiveness of Southern Unionist regiments. The final chapter, "Unknown Soldiers," shows possibly why Southern Unionists contributions have been previously overlooked, and also makes a strong case for telling the important place they should have in future Civil War scholarship. 

I highly recommend this book to those seeking to gain a stronger understanding on this particular subject.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Tell Your Senators That You Support Battlefield Preservation

I received an email from the American Battlefield Trust (formerly Civil War Trust) with an opportunity to let your elected representatives know that you support battlefield preservation.

The ABT makes it easy to participate with a form letter sent electronically. Once you've sent it, share the opportunity with others on your social media outlets.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

My book purchasing has slowed somewhat this past month as my "to be read" shelf is groaning under the weight of other books. Regardless, I've managed to pick up three books that promise to be good reads.

I came across The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War while reading a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine. I've always been fascinated by the Brooks-Sumner affair in 1856, and I'm sure this book will include a plethora of others to show how violent clashes could be in Congress in the first half of the 19th century.

Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy is a book that has been getting quite a bit of buzz on several social media outlets. It focuses on Charleston, South Carolina and looks into how slavery has been remembered in the city. The horrific church shooting there in 2012 reminds us that the legacy of slavery and thus race still resonates strongly, not just in Charleston, but across the United States.

I recently received an email from the publisher offering a copy of Justin Martin's A Fierce Glory: Antietam - The Desperate Battle that Saved Lincoln and Doomed Slavery in exchange for writing a book review for it on this forum. Never one to pass up a free book, especially one that covers such a seemingly intriguing angle on the most costly single day of fighting in United States history, I accepted. Be on the lookout for the review. It should be posted in two or three weeks.