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

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.

Do we really need another Civil War?

11 03 2008

While I voted in Civil War Interactive’s recent poll as to the top 50 Civil War books of all time, I really didn’t pay much attention to the results, other than to see what my fellow voters liked. To think this poll, or any other, truly represents the penultimate in Civil War publishing is like thinking the Miss America pageant represents the penultimate in feminine beauty. It is such a subjective thing that one should take the results with a grain of salt.

Kevin Levin was upset that very few books that approached the war from a social perspective were mentioned. That brought a response from Eric Wittenberg, whose history of Jeb Stuart’s ride at Gettysburg was voted number 50, that those who voted just weren’t interested in social aspects of the war, preferring to read, I assume, only military histories. After Ethan Rafuse commented on the list, Brooks Simpson asked his blog readers to vote on the top five books they felt advanced the study of Civil War history in the past 20 years, since the issuance of Battle Cry of Freedom.

This proves to me that we are in the midst of another Civil War, i.e., the historiographical battle between the militarists and the socio-political crowd. Sadly enough it isn’t new and, like most wars, is unnecessary. The study of history is not a zero-sum game.

Tactical historians like Eric and J.D. Petruzzi, among others, serve an important role in the study of the war. Only someone who is interested in such a detailed study of Stuart’s ride, however, will buy the book. It won’t sell to the general reader interested in the broader topics of the war. I think both men certainly understand that.

To be fair, even a book as widely circulated as Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering will only appeal to a select, though certainly larger, share of the population. I would argue, however, that the reason more people will buy Faust’s book than Eric and J.D’s has nothing to do with the quality of work but that Faust’s topic, death and how soldiers and society handled it, will interest far more people than a specialized tactical study of the retreat from Gettysburg which both men, along with Mike Nugent, will bring out this year. While I look forward to their book, Faust’s will interest more because not only does it cover fighting, it provides an analysis of what could (and did) happen as a result.

But if I was reading a book purporting to be a synthesis of the war, I would expect that the author consulted both before putting pen to paper.

While I don’t like taking sides, it has been my personal experience that most people who are interested in the socio-political aspects of the war will also read books on military matters. However, the opposite rarely seems true. In doing so, I think militarists are only getting (and those who write are only giving) part of the story. A reader can argue that it doesn’t interest them. That’s fine. But an author has a different standard he or she should be held to. An author who wants me to believe their work strives to be comprehensive not only has to tell me what the soldiers did, but give me a deeper understanding of why they did it.

In the biography I’m writing on Everton Conger, the capture of John Wilkes Booth represents obviously the major part of the story. But I plan to give equal time to his life before and after that event. In fact, the reader won’t even meet Conger until the second chapter. The first chapter will deal with his father, Enoch, who I’m finding was one of the major influences on not only Everton but his other siblings as well.

Some might question why I would spend so much time on someone not central to the only reason Conger merits a biography. I would argue that, based on the research I’ve done so far, even though Enoch was not physically near his son on April 26, 1865, he indeed rode with him because of the influence he had on his son as he was growing up. To understand that influence it is necessary to understand what influenced him.

Those expecting only a few pages on Everton’s early life with the expectation that the bulk of the work will talk about capturing Booth will be disappointed. It may even cause some not to be interested in buying the book (assuming, of course, that it finds a publisher). However, I’d rather be true to the story I’m trying to tell rather than fashion the story to fit someone else’s preconceived notion.

Every aspect of Conger’s life will be covered, just as every aspect of the war should be studied.

By everyone.