Guelzo vs. Foner

Whatever you think of the politics on display here, I appreciate the lack of collegiality. We desperately need less collegiality in the Lincoln field.

Cutting and pasting some prize money

McPherson's laughable Tried by War has won half of the $50,000 Lincoln Prize put up by Regis and Kelly. Or Gilder and Lehrman. Or somebody with more money than sense.

At least that splitting up is in keeping with the cutting and pasting Tried by War represents.

The money men behind the award may not have noted McPherson's "borrowings" but they certainly bought into the absurd premise of the book. Behold their statement:

Lincoln was not only the first modern commander-in-chief, he moreover grasped strategy and tactics with an intuitive understanding that even his trained officers sometimes lacked.
I'm working on a book about Lincoln's overarching greatness as an intuitive rose grower, composer, brewer, doll collector, boxer, chemist, and inventor.

Whoops, inventor has already been taken. Look for it in next year's prize list.


Kindle: anti-author?

The writers' union attacks Kindle as an audiobook in disguise and therefore a threat to authors' incomes.


McPherson's "Abraham Lincoln" (part 1 of 2)

I read James McPherson's Abraham Lincoln this weekend over lunch between the first and fifth bites of a sandwich. The narrative runs 65 pages and the pages are five inches wide by eight tall (with plenty of ledding and white space to bulk it up to 6/10th-of-an-inch thickness).

Notice how few reviews this has gotten. The biggest plug so far has been a line or two in an omnibus roundup from William Safire, a Lincoln buff, in the NYT. The second biggest review - also a few lines in an omnibus - appeared in the Minneapolis Strib written in that tone we have come to expect:
McPherson, our greatest living Civil War historian, has written a clear-headed narrative ... brilliant assessments ... A superb bibliography ... lucid and balanced...
The next level down we find the Grand Forks daily paper after which the trail fades.

You could argue that reviewers have finally caught on to McPherson's instabooks issued on anniversaries (he cut and pasted his way up to Antietam, Gettysburg, and now Lincoln commemorations). This would be just but is not likely the cause of the quiet. Reviewers are too lazy to look into matters that "deeply."

At issue is that reviewers don't know what to do with a 65-page hardcover narrative printed on tiny pages. I think this is the crux together with something I noticed in the reviews for his last book, that McPherson reviewers now represent an assortment of casual labor hacks assigned by their book editors - people not informed enough to give McPherson more praise than what already appears on his press releases.

The result, this paucity of reviews, if it is caused by the brevity of Abraham Lincoln, is a missed opportunity. Not understanding exactly who he is or what he is, people mistake McPherson if they think Abraham Lincoln is a lapse of some sort.

Abraham Lincoln is intended as a powerful display of McPherson at the peak of his powers of synthesis. Whatever quick buck the author envisioned earning in the timing of this release, this is a demonstration of technique: 65 pages of Lincoln and done. I'm outta here. High five me.

The people generally impressed by McPherson ("greatest living historian," "scholar") have little idea that he is a synthesizer of other people's scholarship. To see him acting out this way - acting out his own conception of himself on a monumental (and yet micro) scale - is very confusing for people who imagine that McPherson is a hardy researcher developing original insights and putting them into clear English.

Abraham Lincoln tells us that McPherson knows who he is, what he does, and that bears no connection to his fans' conception of him.

The book also tells us just what kind of a synthesizer McPherson is, which we will develop into the next part of this series.

Photo: USA Today

Bicentennials are for stunts

How better to celebrate the Lincoln Bicentennial than with stunts performed for the Guiness Book of World Records?

And speaking of stunts, the commisars in Illinois have been revising their state history to eliminate any mention of Stalin, er, Blago:
State agencies have removed Blagojevich’s name and photograph from all state government stationery, walls, signs and any other visible reminder.
One media politruk says this does not go far enough:
Considering Illinois’ new determination to rid itself of its nationwide image for corruption in state government, it is time to ask once more: Why does George Ryan’s name remain etched into the wall of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library?
Obliterating Illinois state history could become a major economic stimulus project.


Interesting new books

WWI/WWII revisionist John Mosier has turned his hand to the Civil War and Grant but looks to be utterly conventional in his treatment. Publishers Weekly actually trashed the book ("sketchy," "unbalanced").

Meanwhile, Michael Pierson has us wondering if a CSA mutiny lost New Orleans to the federal forces.

In the "I have to laugh" department of the Bicentennial idiocies bureau, a new 240-page book offers people a "comprehensive collection of Lincoln's writings." It also patiently shows us that "Lincoln believed that he must speak plainly so that every American regardless of their level of education or literacy would understand the complicated issues affecting the country during his presidency." You see, they had not been paying attention in the run-up to the Civil War...

Lincoln was special, dammit!

Braced as I am for Lincolnian excess, I was still not prepared for a new book that argues that we as a society have to start treating Lincoln as a hero not as a run-of-the-mill politician.

A major new Lincoln scholar emerges

James "Concentration in Time" McPherson, having expropriated Clausewitz, Jones, et al to his own name, now turns his attention to recapitulating the insights of Lincoln scholars in his modestly titled new book Abraham Lincoln. I call it a book but it runs just 96 pages, including bibliographic essay.

Daniel Sauerwien says, with inadvertant humor, "The reputation of James McPherson as a scholar lends great weight to the legitimacy of this biography." Put that on the jacket! BTW, Daniel's may be the biggest review this tome has gotten, or am I looking in the wrong places? (See here and here.)

Lincoln authors, having given Goodwin a free pass, now owe us a serious critical review of McPherson's book, i.e., a bibliographic essay of their own. Of course, I'm not holding my breath.


Grant papers find new home

Moving the Grant papers to Mississippi State University attracted stories.

Was it the first offer? Best offer? Or is this the Marszalek connection, JM being retired from the school. "This spring, the board of the Ulysses S. Grant Association will hold its annual meeting at Mississippi State—its first ever south of the Mason-Dixon Line." Hmmm. Sounds like a one-man band at work. "Marszalek, who will assemble a new support staff..."

In an interview on NPR, Marszalek artfully dodges the direct questions of why and how this particular school now houses the collection. The same element is missing from the AP and other print stories.

Let's see: a Sherman specialist steps in with a strong hand to complete the publication of the Grant papers and to organize a new staff and archives in a new center where he (only he) has connections and leverage.

Obviously this will work as long as he is competent and active in his retirement, but after that? Does it not disempower the association and any rivals for leadership?

Is this a bad thing?

The future of the ALPLM

I've been waiting for the announcement of an Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) leadership search, one that was lined up to start in mid-February, but in re-reading last month's press have concluded that the target time for starting the search was casual, perhaps spurious. There will be no search starting anytime soon. State historian Thomas Schwartz played coy in the waning days of Hot Rod and I think took himself out of the running thereby.

The larger question is what does the state expect of the ALPLM director? (The position is separated from any fund raising duty, so that's not a consideration.)

With infotainment celeb Richard Norton Smith I think the selectors expected publicity, that his usual public appearance rounds would result in museum plugs.

With mysterion Rick Beard, an unpublished and unknown Atlanta museum honcho, I think they looked at his record there and expected community programs and similar outreach.

Schwartz may already be cutting ribbons at Bicentennial events. He's probably standing in for Beard in the anemic Bicentennial schedule arranged before Beard's departure. This may be all the state wants or needs just now.

The Schwartz leadership trial balloons floated by Harold Holzer and search committee chief (and Blago confidante) Judy Cellini indicate a desire to resume "business as ususal" - to continue under the radar with the extremely low expectations set by Rick Beard continuing in force. The messages coming out of Gov. Pat Quinn's office point to economies; Schwartz continuing to fill-in is an economy measure.

Prediction: there will be no repositioning of the ALPLM, no rededication, no star power, no rethinking of the top role. There will be muddling along with acting and interim leadership.

Heritage tourism delerium is recession-proof

The seamy Civil War "heritage tourism" dynamic generated among chambers of commerce, local government, and "public historians" recently surfaced again in this story in Helena's (AR) Daily World newspaper.

A couple, making their living as public history consultants in Arkansas, met with the Helena Rotarians to pitch tourism attraction ideas. It immediately generated the hysterical newspaper headline, "Helena’s Civil War story could mean some major tourist dollars."

Sick stuff. If you have any doubt whether this is P.T. Barnum country, read on.
Brent said that people, who aren’t from the Delta, would find the story of Phillips County “fascinating.” Brent showed a brief taste of the design for Helena, which includes 27 locations for waysides, Kiosks, enhanced walkways, camps, buildings, audio displays, public art and murals. The green space on Biscoe that used to house dilapidated homes and was torn down through the efforts of the Delta Bridge Project and the city of Helena-West Helena, will be Freedom Park and detail the African American troops that fought during the Civil War. Estevan Hall, which has been bought by Southern Bancorp and the American Trust, will house a welcome center, if all goes according to the plans. Brent said that 900,000 people visit Vicksburg and the Civil War sites there. “You’re well situated to attract the tourists and you have the story. The story is compelling and they’ll (tourists) go tell their friends.”
The Brents are selling what desperate governments are buying: hope in a magical economic solution. What the accumulated disappointments will do to history, public and otherwise, is not good.


Naive then and naive now

The Fourth International is fed up with Lincoln/Obama comparisons in the mass media:
Attempts to portray Obama as the heir of Lincoln's legacy involve a grotesque historical and political falsification. Lincoln will forever be associated with one of the great progressive causes in history—the emancipation of the slaves and the destruction of the Southern slave-owning oligarchy in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Obama, on the other hand, bears only a negative and reactionary relationship to the great political questions of his day.
Regardless of how one evaluates Obama, the interesting thing about the communist position, historiographically, is that it here marries in one evaluation package magnitude and specificity in outcomes. We can differ over what to measure, but these Trotskyites are measuring.

When you look at the new C-Span survey of celebrity infotainers, you see what might be a rational metric operating only at the very tip top and rock bottom of the list (Lincoln/Buchanan); everywhere else, personal affinity seems to drive selections. This subjectivity is what you would now expect, for as Civil War historian James Robertson, Jr., tells his students, history is all about emotions.

In trying to transcend the miasma of C-Span and Robertson, the Fourth International remains true to Marx's Civil War standard of "scientific socialism" which he and Engels developed in opposition to what they called the "naive socialism" of Union Generals Willich, Siegel, Schurz and so many others. (Naive socialism remains as intensely personal, idiosyncratic, and emotional now as then. When Newsweek therefore proposes in its recent cover "We're all socialists now," it does not suggest we're all Marxists now, but rather "We're all naive socialists now" -- we've become politically contemporary with Schurz, Willich, Siegel and the other 48ers.)

This is not to suggest C-Span's prizewinning infotainers are all naive socialists but that they appear naive whatever. The constant resort to baby talk in public and on the written page reinforces the the appearance of naivete and incapacity. The participation in list-making and rankings is also infantile.

At this point in the ongoing orgy of "public history" I'm desperate for some intellectual standard in historical evaluation. I'll even take it from the communists.


Lincoln's Bicentennial birthday

They made pretty good historiographers out of us kids.

In the classrooms where portraits of Washington and Lincoln were hung we knew one big thing about Lincoln by the time we reached sixth grade: Lincoln freed the slaves.

"They" understood that to be all you needed to know about Lincoln, the sign and seal of his greatness, his place.

He didn't need to be a bigtime boxer, an excellent general, a managerial genius, a champion rose grower, or a political philosopher for the ages. Lincoln freed the slaves.

The genius in this is that it doesn't compel you to vilify his political enemies, to slander his generals, to spin out rationalizations to cover his monumental errors and bad judgement. No, because you're done. You laid down ace of trump in the statesman game. You can go home now.

For the pygmies tormenting us with endless sixth grade civics lessons this year, learn something about Lincoln: he freed the slaves.

The digital literacy of MSNBC

MSNBC is out with a big story on a new Civil War records trove available on Ancestry.com without giving the archival link or indicating if registration is required:

World's largest Civil War collection now online

I went to Ancestry.com and found nothing.


Uses of history

Andrew Ferguson explained how easy it is to become a "recognized Lincoln expert." We are now, in this Bicentennial, reaping one whirlwind sown by the painfully low standards of Lincoln discourse.

Additionally, due to the pervasiveness of the Obama-as-Lincoln media meme, advanced Lincoln readers face an irruption into their realm of political junkies with primitive analytic capabilities and little historic sensibility.

In other words, the onslought of naive readers threatens to set back Lincoln publishing as decisively as Civil War publishing was retarded by the the perfect storm of Killer Angels, Ken Burns, and James McPherson. Indifferent readers flood the market buying craptastic books for all the wrong reasons thus completely reprogramming the minds of acquisition editors and their publishers - for a generation.

There comes a point in historical generalizing when you start aggregating generalizations (Burns, McPherson) beyond any point of sense or even approximate truth; to the careful reader you come across as stark raving mad. Mix in a strong dose of political lesson-mongering and your material will look amazing to anyone remotely familiar with your topic.

Case in point.

Can we get the Bicentennial on a solid footing? I think it is too late.

(Hat tip to Russell Bonds for the link.)


Paid holidays and Confederates

Bill would require paid Confederate holiday in SC.

Confederate Memorial Day cannot be a state holiday in any state where there is no legal or historical continuity with the Confederate state governments. I don't know of any state with legal or historical continuity of that sort. It can be a holiday for the memory of war dead by families affected - in other words a private holiday - but not a state holiday.

Can a state have a memorial day paid holiday for local Loyalists killed in the Revolution? Can it furlough the civil service to celebrate the national holidays of France, Spain, Russia, Mexico (in Louisiana, Florida, Alaska, the Southwest)? Can New York, Philadelphia and Boston celebrate the British occupation of those cities?

We live in a "whatever" culture where distinctions are all blah blah blah.

(Which by the way is why ACW nonfiction is so bad.)


Heritage tourism: travel up, spending down

A new tourism study focused on the Rt. 15 "Hallowed Ground" area has revealed some optimistic information. (The Hallowed Ground website does not seem to link to the study and I am depending on just one news story for summary information.)

The nub:
A new Michigan State study shows people seeking out the past spent more than $247 million at 10 national parks within the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area, a 175-mile stretch from Gettysburg to Charlottsville.
The conclusion you are invited to draw:
It's estimated that every tax dollar spent on those parks generates $4 in visitor spending within a 50-mile radius of the community.
The heritage tourism folks are apparently still applying old metrics to new data. Beware such modeling, my friends.

In summer, we noticed a funny thing happening at Gettysburg: attendance was up and private spending was down. In other words, people travelled to the park, rented their hotel, and spent parkside not townside. The underlying story is still online. Consider,
So far in 2008 [end of July], hotel occupancy rates are up 13 percent in Gettysburg over 2007 figures, according to the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Officials also estimate more than a half million people have visited the new Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center since its opening April 14. Summer events have attracted an additional 86,000 visitors to the area this year.
"Everybody I talk to, they say their business is down," said Crist, president of the Steinwehr Avenue Business Alliance.
(BTW, this reminds of the day I revisited Harper's Ferry and discovered the National Park Service had set up a new bookstore in town to compete with the existing private bookstore. The business of government rolls on.)

Obviously, the tourism industry needs to recalibrate its rules of thumb. More interesting is the issue, what happens to the preservation movement once the Chamber of Commerce loses interest?

Historian: Obama is reshaping Lincoln memories

A professor specializing in Civil War memory studies says that "... many may not realize that today’s president is shaping the way we remember the 16th president. Memory is always crafted by its contemporary context."

Many of us are old enough to remember how FDR's supporters appropriated Lincoln inadvertently launching a Lincoln publishing surge that eventually led to the still-running ACW boom. Both bonanzas had dire historiographic side effects, however...

The horse as Civil War hero

Many times wounded, Old Sam retuned to Chicago after the war and was later buried in a (human) cemetery.


"Resurrection" issues

"Resurrection" is an industrial term used in Hollywood that has implications for historical novelists. Francis Hamit this weekend posted some thoughts on the ACW literary side of the subject at Amazon:

From a legal standpoint, the dead have no privacy and cannot sue, nor can their relatives sue on their behalf. It's simply not going to happen.

From the standpoint of storytelling, I'm working in a particularly tough area, the American Civil War, which has a huge audience for non-fiction that despises most of the fiction created about the era. And justifiably so, because a lot of those authors are lazy about their research. My novel, The Shenandoah Spy is researched to the level of a non fiction book, but written as a novel. I made some creative choices that displeased a lot of people, including some fairly hot sex scenes with my protagonist, Belle Boyd.

This was not gratuitous but driven by character and the storyline. Belle seduced, or was seduced by a Union Army captain, Daniel Keily, who gave her the opportunity to listen in on the staff meeting where plans to capture and destroy Stonewall Jackson's army were discussed. Belle, by her own account, rode 15 miles in the middle of the night to find and give this intelligence to Turner Ashby.

Belle was accused not only of spying, but of being "an accomplished prostitute" by William Clark, a reporter for the New York Herald. Now Clark was an odious creep and propagandist for the Union cause, but he was not a bad reporter. He didn't make things up. He had to get that someplace. (You can read his reporting online). Belle was, at the very least, an outrageous flirt. These are all established facts. Well documented. Belle's passion for for the South was a reflection of her passionate nature, and it is easy to see how she might have gotten caught up in the moment and given up her virtue to Keily. She later gave Keily medical treatment when he was wounded (she was one of the first women in the South to take up nursing, which also damaged her reputation --it was the Victorian era and mores.) So, I stand by these creative choices. They are generated by the story line, not any cheap thrill and if you read the book, you will see that it works. Sex and spying do go together as the two oldest professions.

I find that the Civil War community has an excessive reverence for historical figures. These people were not plaster saints. They had flaws and made mistakes and even fooled around. Jill Lapore, a history professor at Harvard who writes in the New Yorker, had an essay about historical fiction (March 24, 2008)which said that it often gets closer to the truth of an era than a recitation of known facts. To this I add my own observation on those "factual" sources. Much of what survives is heavily slanted.

When I was a speaker at the West Coast Civil War Round Table conference in Clover, California last November, there was another speaker who cast doubt on the Southern Historical Society papers, which were controlled and edited by a former Confederate General intent on rewriting history and creating the myth of "The Lost Cause". It was very interesting because I've found a lot of signs of disinformation in my own research (I wrote the short article on that topic for the Encylopaedia Britannica). Let me put in another way; autobiographies, especially those written decades after events, seldom do harm to their subjects. Letters are written with a filter. The journalism of the period always had a political slant. And some of those sources are obvious fiction.

Another instance is the episode at the Battle of Front Royal, where Bell ran across the battlefield under fire to give a situation report to Jackson. This was dismissed by many as fanciful and a complete invention on her part because it seems so unlikely (and unladylike) but there are two independent eyewitness accounts in the literature and a historical marker on the spot where she gave her report. A good researcher puts aside preconceptions and digs for evidence.

Belle Boyd seems to have been generally truthful. Don C. Wood, Executive Director of Belle Boyd House in Martinsburg, WV, told me as much. Sometimes known facts are overlooked and ignored. An example is Sam Hardinge, Belle's first husband, who is usually described as having died in London in 1865. Except that Belle was planning to divorce him then, and there is a article in the New York Times from 1865 to that effect. And she did. Don C. Wood told me that he has a copy of the divorce papers. She had cause. The part of her book where their relationship is so romantically described, was, of course, propaganda. Ghost-written by George Augusta Sala, a English Confederate sympathizer and published with the help of Henry Hotze, the Confederate "Commercial Agent" in London (Secret Service Chief, actually). Don said that Hardinge had taken up with an English actress while Belle was pregnant with his child, and if that were not cause enough for a divorce, the Daily of Benjamin Moran, the Union consular clerk, reveals that in November 1864, just months after their marriage, he came to the American embassy and offered to spy for them -- and was refused! Why have these facts been overlooked by Civil War academics? It may have something to do with the fact that Don Wood doesn't have a Ph.D (At least he doesn't advertise one). He's one of those troublesome people who has spent a lifetime researching this area, but that's not as important to most as having been to the right schools.

When you are working with such compromised sources, you really have to pick and choose carefully. (All of the above will be in a later novel in the series.). How does the myth of Hardinge's death persist? Out of laziness, because professional historians find it easier to quote other historians than do the hard work of examining primary sources and analyzing them. I am sure there is a fair amount of academic politics and not a little prejudice against Belle, because she was so shocking for her time. When it comes to Civil War sources, my own view is that it is all fiction to a degree.


Civil War Pipe Tobaccos

It may be too much to look for historical meaning in pipe blends, but here goes anyway. These are modern blends not pretending to be historical. Courtesy of the Old Virginia Tobacco Company:
Antietam Pipe Tobaccos
Description: American Civil War
Blend of flue cured Virginia & Kentucky Burley seasoned w/ribbon cut black Cavendish. The enticing aroma is from apricot brandy. Slightly sweet & rich, yet mellow. A general's favorite.

Gettysburg Pipe Tobaccos
Description: A soldier's favorite from the American Civil War. Virginia tobaccos and smooth black Cavendish are set with Colombian coffee beans and dark chocolate. The real thing for genuine coffee lovers.
I see wisps of meaning here. The Gettysburg blend alludes to "bummers" off in the weeds brewing coffee when they should be in the firing line. (Civil War soldiers probably drank Mexican, Brazilian, or Javanese coffee so the Columbian reference may be anachronistic.) Col. Wainwright in his diary noted thousands of these slackers in and around Gettysburg while his artillery was en route to battle. Case closed.

Antietam is more difficult. Who is this mysterious general? McClellan smoked cigars. Did Lee smoke? I think not. The Antietam blend must be about Burnisde. Wainwright comments on how maginificently Burnside's HQ was stocked with every kind of alcohol: lager, porter, port wine, madeira, the works. A pleasure to visit the hospitable Burnside, Wainwright said. That was in 1864 but a tiger doesn't change his stripes. Apricot brandy - expect to find it at Burn's place. Kentucky burley - a reference to Burnside's nearby Cincinnati stay? Sweet and mellow. That's how Wainwright characterized his dealings with Burnside. I think we've solved another one.

Got a better reads? Send 'em in.