Time for me to say so long

22 06 2008

I doubt this is the blog post those of you who have visited my site regularly expected. Believe me, I wish I wasn’t doing this.

But I really have no choice. Or at least, this is the least objectionable choice.

When I first started this blog in February, I did so with the idea that if I couldn’t give it the effort it deserved I would pull the plug. I didn’t want this to become a “what I had for breakfast” exercise in egotism. I wanted it to have gravitas. I wanted to make a contribution.

To quit in the middle of a series might seem (as it does to me) a form of laziness. But in the end it is the symptom of a greater illness. To do the life of anyone justice, it requires at a bare minimum that one familiarize themselves with the work that person has done. When I wrote a small snippet on the life of James G. Randall, I had read most of Randall’s work (some of it over 20 years ago) to the point that I felt comfortable with it.

With the work of Bell Irvin Wiley, I was going to have to read things I’ve never read, and the truth of the matter is I just don’t have the time. To admit that while ending a week of vacation is doubly painful. Now I know what people who have retired mean when they say they don’t have enough time to relax. When you have all the time in the world, you have none of the time in the world, especially if you have a long list of things to accomplish.

What I’ve got to say in this blog isn’t that important that it will be missed. While I appreciate the kind comments I’ve received, something continues to gnaw at me.

That something is a voice telling me that since I started this, I haven’t worked on my biography of Everton J. Conger in any serious way. I’ve got a pile of library books at the left side of my desk that need to be gone through, with notes taken from them, so others can have access to them. I have a ton of material that I’ve accumulated that needs to be gone through to see if anything of value can be found.

In short, I’ve got to place my priority where it needs to be. I’ve got to make writing Conger’s life story my main mission. Nothing else matters. Especially this.

I plan to keep the blog active, and I’m not saying I’ll never post again. But as Robert Ferrell once told me to sell my television if I wanted to be a historian, I need to jettison every other thing that could stand in the way of what I have to do. If stopping work on this blog is the price to pay for that, it is a small price indeed.

To those of you who have visited this site (2,111 as of today), I appreciate your willingness to do so. I hope there’s something left here that might be of value, although I doubt the pre-teen girls who typed into Google “how to impress a boy” expected to find a blog talking about an obscure Civil War soldier. Maybe it helped them, especially if that boy they were trying to impress is a Civil War nut.

Hopefully, when I finish working on Conger’s life story, those of you who have been impressed with my work will want to spend a few bucks to find out what happened. At that point, the 13 years (and counting) I’ve spent with Conger will have made some sense.


A scholar’s realization that learning never stops

10 06 2008

The year was 1933. Bell Irvin Wiley was a newly-minted Ph.D. from Yale University. Like many people living in the midst of the Great Depression, Wiley had a common problem.

He couldn’t find a job.

With no prospects for employment, Wiley got along with what he termed a “subsistence fellowship” of $700 which he used not only for living expenses, but as a grubstake for the research he would need to turn his doctoral dissertation into a publishable book.

While some might have become bitter at this turn of events, Wiley thrived.

“…[I]t was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Wiley recalled, although he admitted to some consternation that with a Yale degree, doors weren’t opening up as quickly as he would have liked. He put the time he was spending out of work on what would become his first book, Southern Negroes, 1861-1865. In its own way, it was a profitable venture, both financially and, maybe more importantly, psychologically.

“Writing is something of a disease,” Wiley recalled in an oral history interview he granted to the Mississippi Oral History Program at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1976 (and which appears in The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader). “The greatest thrill I’ve had in my life, outside of marrying Mary Frances and fondling my two boys shortly after they arrived, was caressing the first book.”

Wiley argued in that first book that slaves were not as loyal to their masters during the war years as had been previously believed, especially in areas where Union troops invaded. The black man’s status in Federal hands, however, was, Wiley argued, often no better than he had faced on the plantation, arguing that “those who entered military pursuits were dealt with in a manner more becoming to slaves than to freedman. In the light of all these unhappy experiences, it must have been apparent to Southern Negroes when the triumph of the North in 1865 assured the final end of slavery that that fight for real freedom had just begun.”

While reviewers generally praised Wiley’s work as sorely needed, the book was looked upon only as an introductory effort, and nowhere near the “final word” on the subject.

One area which reviewers blasted was Wiley’s use of the terms “darkey” and other racial epithets commonly used at that time.

Carter G. Woodson, in the Journal of Negro History, pointed to Wiley’s Southern background as the culprit. “Readers may find it distasteful that the author indulged in the use of such expressions…which reflect his background. But all things considered, the book must take rank as being far in advance of historical literature from that same source intended not to present the truth but to support preconceived ideas and maintain long established traditions.”

In the American Historical Review, Charles H. Wesley also castigated Wiley’s use of racial slurs. Wesley also found it disturbing that Wiley didn’t use quotation marks around the words, while he did use them around the word “Yankee”. Finally, Wiley didn’t use terms detrimental to Southerners. “The author’s purpose was probably to make use of familiar, homely phrases which belong to the vernacular with which he is familiar,” Wesley said.

In his lifetime, Wiley acknowledged that as a young man he was much more a creature of his surroundings than he liked. In his oral history interview, Wiley admitted that when he entered the Army during World War II he held the opinion that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, although he argued that his opinion was slowly evolving into a more liberal point of view.

After attending Yale, where “for the first time in my life I met and talked with educated blacks, then from reading I was becoming what I might call emancipated racially” Wiley realized it was possible to overcome that belief of his youth, and that it was an important step to do so. After watching the performance of black soldiers during World War II, Wiley realized that segregation in the Army was a mistake, and he equated segregation in civilian life as just as wrong.

Later in his life, Wiley was recognized as a strong supporter of civil rights although he did fight efforts to lower standards to allow black students to enter colleges and universities.

Next: Meeting Johnny Reb

Bell Irvin Wiley, 1906-1980

3 06 2008

This is the first in a series of posts on the Civil War historian Bell Irvin Wiley. Many of the quotes and biographical materials are taken from The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader (BIWR), a wonderful assemblage of everything Wiley.

One of the biggest trends in current historiography is to present history from the perspective of the everyday. Instead of taking a “top down” approach to the study of the past, those who experienced events from the “bottom up” have been featured. While very few would disagree that this presents a better-rounded picture of the past, like most trends it isn’t that new.

In 1943, a Tennessee native gave the world one of the first pictures of what life was like for the common soldier of the Civil War. Today—some 65 years after it first appeared—The Life of Johnny Reb, and its counterpart published in 1952, The Life of Billy Yank, remain in print. Their author, Bell Irvin Wiley, is a name generally known only to those to whom study of the war is an everyday passion.

While it would have been easy to stereotype Wiley (a native of Tennessee writing about the quotidian experiences of an everyday Rebel soldier), he transcended attempts to pigeon-hole him. Wiley was a liberal southerner who was a strong supporter of civil rights. He never was more comfortable as he was while talking to the everyday people outside the academy. He once said “I do not stay in my ivory tower at Emory. I go about the country making talks to civic clubs, to historical societies, to Civil War Round Tables, and to college assemblies.”

The Civil War was never far from Wiley’s mind. His maternal grandfather served with the Army of Tennessee, fighting against William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces. While he barely knew the man, he did grow up with his widow, who often enthralled the boy with tales from her experiences. Often, during Sunday dinner, Wiley’s family would play host to both an ex-Rebel and ex-Yankee, who after eating would give the young man a first-hand account as to what they faced when each had tried to kill the other.

Bell Irvin Wiley was born January 5, 1906 in the western Tennessee town of Halls. While exposed to first-hand accounts of Civil War history, Wiley was also exposed at an early age to the twin virtues of hard work and education. One of 13 children (11 of whom lived to maturity), Wiley picked cotton on the family farm.

“My father believed that work was good for one,” Wiley recalled in an interview with the Mississippi Oral History Program at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1976, “and we rose early and worked until dark or thereabouts. We went to school regularly, but he always insisted that we be home immediately after dismissal of school, and if we didn’t arrive promptly, he wanted to know why.” (BIWR, pg. 196).

Wiley accepted that he would get a college education, and was helped along by his siblings, several of whom had already attended college before he did. However, he knew he would have to work for it. He recalled in the oral history having to plow with two mules and wryly observed “There is no less inspiring sight in the world that I know of than the north end of southbound mules.” (BIWR, pg. 199).

He graduated from Kentucky’s Asbury College in 1928 and in 1929 was awarded a master’s degree in English from the University of Kentucky. Wiley headed east to study for his doctorate at Yale University where his advisor was Ulrich B. Phillips, then the best known historian studying slavery. Wiley met Phillips at a meeting of the American Historical Society, and both men found much in common, mostly that they were both Southerners. After sending Phillips a copy of his master’s thesis, Wiley soon realized he would be going to Yale.

“For the first time in my life, I came into competition with people who seemed to know everything,” Wiley recalled. He later added that these experiences caused a crisis in confidence. “I had been a pretty big fish in a little pond at Asbury, so making the adjustments…caused me literally to walk the streets at night in anguish. There were many times when I thought I could not make it in the academic mill, because of the intenseness of the competition and because there were so many gaps in my education.” (BIWR, ppgs. 212-13).

After receiving his doctorate in 1933, Wiley began teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi. During the summers of 1935 through 1939, Wiley taught at Peabody College, where he met his soon-to-be wife, Mary. Like many historians, not only was Mary the love of Wiley’s life, she served as his main research assistant and confidant. He wrote in the preface to The Life of Johnny Reb that she had “contributed so vitally to the research and writing as to deserve a co-author’s rating, and it is only her firm refusal that prevents this recognition.”

From the beginning, it was clear that Wiley would focus his scholarship on the common soldier, and later, on the common civilian during the war years. Coming from the hardscrabble fields of Tennessee, Wiley knew what it was like to be hungry and to be tired and to get up the next day and do it again, just like both the Union and Confederate soldiers he wrote about. Wiley summed up much of his feelings toward those men in a commencement address he delivered around 1960 in North Carolina.

“The greatest people I know in American history are the plain soldiers who wore the blue and the gray during the Civil War. These lowly people and their folk at home suffered more than any other class. They endured their hardship with less complaint. They supported their leaders with more loyalty, and, in general, they acquitted themselves more admirably than their more privileged fellows.”

Next: Early scholarship

I was the kid who never got his homework done

28 05 2008

I had fully intended to begin a series of posts on Bell Irvin Wiley this week, but circumstance (and an open wallet) kept that from happening.

I usually write these posts on Monday, but given that last Monday was Memorial Day and I had made plans to spend far too much money at Home Depot (the official home improvement store/man’s playground of One Man’s Rebellion Record), it didn’t get written.
Since Monday was devoted to helping the economy, Tuesday was spent visiting with those who have joined the choir invisible and leaving them some beautiful, if not real, flowers. (Note: NEVER try to find flowers the day AFTER Memorial Day).

Since I now have to work the rest of the week, I’ve given up any thoughts of starting until next week.
However, as proof positive that I can turn any sow’s ear into a somewhat reasonable facsimile of a silk purse, there is a lesson to be learned on this that relates, at least in my world, to the war.
I’ve never been good at balancing my time. My mentor in college always chided me (gently, I should add) that if I didn’t get better at making use of the time I had, I wouldn’t get anything done. Looking back on it now, I wonder if I ever did get anything done?

Working full time and trying to write a book that has to be researched, and suffering from the aforementioned time affliction, has made for a somewhat disjointed effort so far. Add to that the extremely silly notion that my wife now expects me to make use of the paint, outdoor furniture and various other toys I picked up on Monday, and you can expect a conflict bigger than Gettysburg (and twice as loud, I might add).

I finally have accepted that no matter how hard I try, I just can’t do it all. So, I have seriously curtailed the amount of time I spend on Civil War discussion boards. My blog posts have to be written on Monday or they won’t appear that week. Reading for pleasure is limited to a short time after going to bed.
Every other bit of free time is dedicated to one thing–the research and writing of my book. After all, I’d like to try to get it finished while I still young enough to enjoy it.

Next week: Bell Irvin Wiley (I hope).

Nothing new this week

21 05 2008

I’ve got nothing new this week, because I’ve been trying to work on the alleged book I’m supposedly writing. However, beginning next week I will start another series of posts on Civil War historians.

This time I will study the work and life of Bell Irvin Wiley.

One book on Lincoln’s assassination you should avoid

13 05 2008

OK, I’m not in a snarky mood, but since I wrote last week about the five books on Lincoln’s assassination that you should have, today I’ve decided to write on one you should avoid.

I’m fully aware there is more than one that should be avoided, but the one I’m writing about today outclasses them all. Be prepared, because at 3,248 words, this is the longest post I’ve ever written.

Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good money. In terms of Lincoln’s assassination, it means that the bad books often drives out or obscures the good (a point made by William Hanchett in the Lincoln Murder Conspiracies).

James Swanson’s Manhunt fits that category to a “T”. When the book first came out, I had a friend who couldn’t understand why I was so angry about it. I wrote a review so he could find out. Here, in a somewhat altered form, is why you should avoid this book.

James Swanson is a talented writer, although his prose sometimes borders (and many times completely somersaults into) the purple. Manhunt has sold several hundred thousand copies and has appeared on several bestseller lists. Whether it belonged there is open to doubt.

Vocational and avocational historians have waged war for years as to who is the most qualified to write history. When Herbert Baxter Adams introduced the seminar at Johns Hopkins University at the end of the 1870s, professional historians sought to displace such popularizers as Edward Gibbons and Francis Parkman in the public mind. Adams and those university-trained historians who followed have consistently railed against popular histories which flout the rules of rigorous scholarship.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with popular history–indeed its creation should be cultivated and nourished–academics are correct to point out that popular history which mocks the rules of scholarship always results in bad history. The story is told based on the available evidence, of which the greater part must be primary and not secondary. Where direct primary evidence is unavailable, generalizations can be made with ancillary material, but it is done with caution, not recklessness. Nothing is invented! Scenes are not contrived, and, to rework an old newspaper saw, the facts do get in the way of a good story. Finally, and most critically, all sources are cited in notes which gives readers the opportunity to read those sources for themselves.

When Swanson sticks to what’s known, even if the details can be debated, his writing style breathes life into those findings in a way other writers can only envy. Unfortunately, when his eye for the dramatic gets the best of him, as it often does in Manhunt, Swanson provides academic critics with more ammunition.

While Swanson’s book is the first to focus solely on the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators, he breaks no new ground here. Most of his sources have been deeply mined by previous scholars who focused on the broad picture of Lincoln’s assassination, many of whom Swanson relies heavily on (and gives credit to). While Swanson uses Thomas Jones’ account of Booth’s escape effectively, his obvious admiration for the Confederate courier and “river ghost” is misplaced. Not wanting to go to the point of making Booth the anti-hero that any riveting drama needs, Jones serves Swanson well as Booth’s stand-in. While Jones’ account of how he helped Booth does indeed raise the dramatic level evident throughout the book, Swanson ignores that but for Jones, Booth could have been captured before he crossed the Potomac. In Swanson’s hands, Jones is a dashing and dramatic rogue, but in the real world Jones was first and foremost a criminal who should have been executed with Lewis Paine, Mary Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt. Read the rest of this entry »

Five books on Lincoln’s assassination you should have

6 05 2008

What I originally believed to be a head cold has turned into a serious case of allergies, which is weird because in 44 years, I can’t remember a time when I suffered like I am now. I took some medicine about an hour ago and it’s starting to kick in, so I guess technically I’m writing under the influence (although I doubt it will make either the allergies or my writing any better).

Be that as it may, I wanted to write this week about five books you should have concerning Lincoln’s assassination. These five represent what I believe to be the best currently available. Someday, when I’m in a snarky mood, I’ll tell you which ones to avoid.

These are in alphabetical order.

American Brutus by Michael Kauffman — Mike Kauffman has taken a lifetime of interest in Lincoln’s assassination and an uncanny ability to ferret out the smallest detail and turned it into one of the best books ever written about the crime. No detail is too small to escape Mike’s attention. This man even once burned down a tobacco barn to see how long it would have taken for the type that John Wilkes Booth was cornered in to be destroyed. The most controversial part of Mike’s work concerns his theory that Booth consciously attempted to draw people into his web of conspiracy so that if they ever had to implicate him, they would be implicating themselves. American Brutus will stand for a long time as the go-to book on Lincoln’s murder.

Beware the People Weeping by Thomas Reed Turner — Based on his doctoral dissertation, Beware the People Weeping was written by Turner in 1982 and was one of the first books on Lincoln’s assassination to be written from a scholarly perspective. In this tour de force, Turner studies reaction throughout various sectors of society concerning Lincoln’s assassination, including the south, from the pulpit and the controversies surrounding the trial of the conspirators. This work is far better than Turner’s later attempt to write a small, single-volume history on Lincoln’s assassination.

Blood on the Moon by Edward J. Steers Jr. — Was Dr. Samuel Mudd just an innocent country doctor who was simply following his Hippocratic oath when a stranger knocked on his door after suffering a broken leg? Or did he know the man who came to his house after shooting the 16th president? Steers argues in this magnificent work that Mudd not only knew who Booth was, but that they had met at least twice before Lincoln’s murder. Steers, whose background is in molecular genetics, is a careful and serious researcher and historian. If I had room for just two books on my shelf, they would be Kauffman’s and Steer’s.

The Great American Myth by George S. Bryan — Although written in 1940 (on the flyleaf of my copy, it shows the price at $3.75), this book was one of the first to attempt to counter the type of history written by Otto Eisenschiml, who had published Why Was Lincoln Murdered three years earlier. The books was based on newspaper and primary manuscript sources as well as numerous secondary source materials. It was updated and reissued in 1990 with an introduction by William Hanchett.

The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies by William Hanchett — This was also one of the first books written by a university professor, first published in 1983. Hanchett destroys some cherished myths concerning Lincoln’s assassination but much of his venom is directed toward Eisenschiml, who is mercilessly raked over the literary coals by Hanchett. I’ve often said that anyone who wants to read Eisenschiml should be sure they have Hanchett’s book next to them.

While there are several other books out there, none, in my opinion, match the quality you will find in these works. They are readily available and should find a place in your library as soon as possible.