Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shelby Foote's Legacy

In the February 2013 issue of Civil War Times, Gray Gallagher critiques the late Sheby Foote.  Foote is famous for his The Civil War: A Narrative.

Shelby Foote
Gallagher's comments will draw the ire of fans especially those in his native Mississippi.  Gallagher begins his examination by saying that he "was not overly impressed" when he "first encountered The Civil War in the mid-1960s."   Gallagher writes that, "The three volumes [Foote's The Civil War] reveal  what a gifted stylist can do with even well-known episodes."  The first "left-handed compliment" offered by Gallagher who illustrates Foote's prose with several quotes. 

In Gallagher's eyes, one of Foote's sins is that the author "relied almost entirely on published primary materials - especially memoirs and the 128 thick volumes of the Official Records - and on secondary works, many of which would be described as quite dated."  I fail to see how using the Official Records diminishes an author's scholarship.  They are edited first hand accounts of officers who were at the battle.  They include errors and self-satisfying comments that must be evaluated, but they remain an excellent research tool.   

Following on this appraisal, Gallagher says Foote's "research did not approach what most contemporary scholars who spend a great deal of time combing through unpublished manuscripts, consider an acceptable standard."  What makes these "unpublished" writings more valid than other resources?   Secondary sources should not be so quickly dismissed.  Does that mean that if I am doing research I should ignore Gallagher's books [The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference, The Confederate War, The Fredericksburg Campaign, and others]?  Using secondary sources says that the student values the  research done by the author.

Gary Gallagher
Not all of Gallagher's column is negative.  He praises Foote for creating a more balanced picture of the war's eastern and western theaters.  "He succeeded very well indeed in this effort, and untold readers have been the beneficiaries."  However, Gallagher rescinds this compliment when he writes that "academic historians did not go down this interpretive path because of Foote's work." Then as a sort of academic coup de gras, Gallagher concludes, "I believe his trilogy has had almost no impact in terms of shaping scholarship - just as Bruce Catton's has not."  

Gallagher also blasts Foote for a narrative that "fits too comfortably within the Lost Cause tradition."  Gallagher also condemns Foote for saying that the north won because of the North's overwhelming numbers and material.  This inequality in industrial might and manpower is widely accepted as the reason the South lost.  Foote looked at the numbers and simply stated the obvious. 

Foote is also criticized for his Southern bias.  I should hope that a Mississippian would have respect for the bravery shown by his ancestors.  Gallagher also quotes Foote's comment, "I yield to no one in my admiration for heroism and ability, no matter which side of the line a man was born or fought on."

My regard for Shelby Foote remains undiminished after Gallagher's attack.  His persona and storytelling remains inspirational.  He remains the perfect Southern gentleman with a grace and style that lives on in the Ken Burn's documentary.  If I may paraphrase Shelby, I yield to no one in my admiration for him.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is an excellent movie that all Americans should see!

The story is as fitting for today as it was nearly 150 years ago.  The film-making is suburb with great direction by Spielberg and Academy-award worthy performances from Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens.  The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

The movie concerns efforts made by the Lincoln Administration to gather enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the resolution on the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The resolution has already been approved by the Senate, but must be approved by the House before it can be presented to the States for ratification.  The back-room campaign to gain votes from the Northern War Democrat minority becomes the focus of this political thriller. 

The story begins with Lincoln explaining the problem of ending slavery as the war ground to its inevitably conclusion.  The  Emancipation Proclamation, which  "freed" slaves in those parts of Confederate states not under control by the Union was passed as a military measure based on Lincoln's war powers.  When the war ended, the legality of slavery would return to the states.  Lincoln faced a one month window to put in place a permanent solution.  His time constraint was based on end of the war and more immediately the end of the lame-duck period for Democratic representatives.

13th Amendment resolution
with Lincoln's Signature
With the stage set, we see Lincoln weave his way through a political minefield of different agendas to the dramatic vote in the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865.  Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) hires three shady, political con-men  (played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader) to lure Democrats defeated in the November 1864 election to vote for the amendment. They promise the politicians patronage jobs once they leave the Congress.  Their efforts to cajole these men meets with some success. Seward doesn't want Lincoln to be involved.  However, as the ballot approaches, the administration is still short of votes.  Lincoln enlists the help of Thaddeus Stevens for some arm-twisting and enters the process himself in the last hours to try to convince a few reluctant Democrats.

The movie, like other political dramas, takes us into the dark behind the scenes street fights of government where lies and half-truths are weapons of choice.  The Machiavellian process clearly demonstrates that sometimes the end does justify the means.

Lincoln is the center of the drama and Daniel-Day Lewis is more than up to the task.  He becomes Lincoln.  The image Lewis skillfully crafts is filled with stories from Lincoln's career as a simple backwoods lawyer and a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes to illustrate the points he is trying to make.  Lincoln is both a clever politician and a skillful teacher presenting the simple morality of the issues confronting him personally and publicly.

The movie does have some issues.  The idea that ending slavery is the reason that the war was fought has been debated by scholars. Most white northern soldiers fought to maintain the Union not to free the slaves.  Southerners opposed the economic, jurisdictional, and military invasion of their homeland.  The story touches briefly on Lincoln's changing attitudes about slavery, race relations, and the ability to "know each other."   The movie would also have benefited from subtitles indicating the cast of characters as used in Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.

The story would have no honor without passage of the amendment.   The amendment is described in a tender moment between Stevens and his black housekeeper/mistress in bed.  The bald Stevens recites the sections:   

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The Amendment was adopted on December 6, 1865.  On February 9, 1865, two months before Lee's surrender, Virginia became first former Confederate State to ratify the amendment.  Finally, on March 16, 1995, Mississippi became the last state to approve it  after having rejected it on December 5, 1865.

Spielberg's history lesson reveals that Lincoln, celebrated for freeing the slaves via the Emancipation Proclamation, should really be honored for the nobility of orchestrating the end of slavery with the 13th Amendment.

I wish that a mandatory screening could be presented to the inhabitants of the Capitol to show them how they could work together to solve the nation's problems.   

We rate this film,


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Historical Perspectives for 2012 Election

President Barrack Obama's victory over Republican challenger Mitt Romney reminds us of the importance of studying and learning from history.  Over the last few months I have commented on the issues in this election and have presented comparisons between attitudes before and during the Civil War and the current political environment.  This election illustrated more than many the relevance of understanding our nation's history.

For Republicans, no matter how disappointed you are about the Presidential and Senate results, remember that the nation survived a civil war and will continue to be a world leader.  Our system of government provides a wonderful set of checks and balances.  Issues will be debated and compromises will be reached.

For Democrats, your enthusiasm has to be tempered by the challenges facing the country and staunch opposition from the Republican House of Representatives.  Much has been said about the divisiveness in the country in the aftermath of President Obama's election.  This same disunity would have faced Mr. Romney had he been victorious.  The issues that confront President Obama would have confronted a President Romney. 

The election was not a mandate on President Obama's first term.  It was a vote on which candidate the American public wanted to lead the nation through the current crisis.  This is similar to the 1864 election between George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln.  While northerners wanted to end the war, the Union electorate chose Lincoln to lead them through the crisis.  President Obama took a lesson from the history books by not running on his record, but focusing on his opponent.  This same strategy helped Republican George W. Bush win election.

One of the issues that confounded the Romney campaign was the voluntary deportation of illegal aliens.  I discussed this position in a post Lincoln and Romney on Self-Deportation.  My conclusion was that it was a flawed policy during the Lincoln Administration and it was a flawed policy today.  Unfortunately, Mr. Romney campaign strategists did not read the post and this policy was a major factor in his defeat.  Seventy-one percent of Hispanics voted for President Obama.  Whether future Republican presidential candidates can reach out to minorities and not offend their base of support remains a major problem facing the party especially in terms of the growth of minorities.  Romney's support came Whites (59%), Americans over 65 years old (56%), families making more than $100,000 per year (54%), and Protestants (57%).   This electoral base seems to be in opposition to a minority base of lower wage earners, non-Protestants, and Hispanics.  On this same demographic theme, young people seemed to embrace Obama's message more than Romney's with 60% of 18-29 year olds and 52% of 30-44 year olds voting for Obama.

The Civil War theme of states' rights was very prominent in this election.  The conflict between Federal and state jurisdiction is as old as the Constitution and will always be an issue in our country.  What may surprise some readers is that the conflict also occurred in the Confederacy especially in regard to raising a national military.  Again student's of history would realize that this issue is not a new theme.  There is no resolution of this conflict.  State control of various issues will be influenced by economic-based decisions made by the electorate in choice of residence.  Education, taxation, immigration, and other issues will impact the state's economic future.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and recruiting of black soldiers helped turn the tide of victory.  Another similar factor was the Republican administration's enlistment of immigrants.  These two ethnic/demographic groups helped propel the Union to victory.  Today's Republican party has failed to attract support from blacks (93% for Obama) and the new Hispanic wave of immigrants (71%).

Another issue that the Democrats used more effectively was communication technology.  Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail communications were used in the Obama campaign allowing them to reach a wider and younger audience.  Adapting strategies to changing technology was an important lesson learned in the Civil War. Rifled muskets and artillery changed tactics and fortifications.  Some generals adapted and embraced the new technology while others refused to understand and utilize the new technology. Post-election analysis has criticized the Republicans and praised the Democrats for how they used the latest media.

The challenges remain for both parties.  For the Democrats, it means fulfilling the promises made to their constituents and reaching out to white voters.  For Republicans, it means appealing to Lincoln's base of support while not alienating their base of white, male voters.