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As a followup to this letter, Jason Kottke and others did some research on Jourdan Anderson’s further life. It looks like it was a good one:

At the time, Anderson and his wife Mandy were in their 70s and had been married for 52 years. Mandy had borne 11 children, six of whom were still living (Anderson’s letter, written in 1865, references five children, two of whom were “brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters”…not sure if they had died or not). The three children living with them in 1900 were all in their 20s, born several years after the letter was written.

Obviously, it could have been a life of family turmoil, but I prefer (in the absence of evidence to the contrary) to envision one of domestic happiness and calm. I also have this tiny little fantasy that every Christmas, Mr. Anderson sent a Christmas card to his former enslaver. “Still free.”


A letter from a freedman named Jourdon Anderson to the southerner who kept him in slavery, August 7, 1865:

We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

So many parts to love in this, but my favorite is where Mr. Anderson carefully totals the back wages owed for his years as a slave, and gives an address to send the money.

(hat-tip Corey Robin)

(as usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates is ahead of us all)

Part I here.

Now, onto more specific evaluations. (Deep breath) I’m going to eliminate Washington. He is the greatest American statesman, for what he did as a general and leader in the Revolution and what he did as a Founding Father and first President.* As to being the greatest general, he made a number of spectacularly correct decisions during the Revolution, but he was nearly zero for his career in terms of battlefield victories. That’s just too much to overcome.

800px Winfield Scott in National Portrait Gallery IMG 4528

Next, Winfield Scott. Scott has a remarkably strong case for being the greatest American general. In fact, I’m not sure he wasn’t. In double fact, I think I would say he was the greatest American general in career terms. He started spectacularly well in the War of 1812 (“Those are regulars, by God!“), continued impressively in the Mexican-American War (his capture of Mexico City made both the Mexicans and Zachary Taylor look like blithering amateurs) and finished strong in the early stages of the Civil when, obese and suffering from gout, “Old Fuss and Feathers” nonetheless proposed the strategic plan that, with some modifications, strangled the Confederacy. That’s three wars (in three different eras) in which Scott faced an enemy comparable to the United States, was the most important general in two out of three, and critically important in the third. That’s a career.

And yet. Read the rest of this entry »

General Gates   General Horatio Gates   Revolutionary War   Rare  4x4    150

So the comments on this post got me thinking. Who was the best general in American History? It’s been several centuries, the US has fought lots of wars, and we have lots of famous generals.

So, who is it? Well, first, a disclaimer. As a historian I hate “who is the best…” or ranking lists of all kinds. History isn’t a sport, and it’s not organized like one. Generals don’t often get to fight against one another and certainly generals from the same countries rarely do. They fight in different eras with different resources and different enemies. Generals fight the wars in front of them, not the wars they want and certainly not a standardized war that would allow us to dial out personal differences. That makes rankings unfair, no matter how they are organized.

Nonetheless, it’s the end of the year when rankings flourish like kudzu, and I’m going to do it. Or, at least, I’m going to lay out a case and make a choice based on that case. It won’t be the only possible case. It might not even be the best case. It’ll be my case, though.

So, onward.

My first requirement is that the general had to be fighting for the United States. Uncontroversial, seemingly, but there go Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

My second requirement is that the general had to be fighting an enemy that was equal or superior to the United States in military and economic power and the general had to be fighting the main body of the enemy in that war. Everyone looks great beating up the Cleveland Cavaliers (sorry, sports metaphor). They’re out.

That takes out the Indian Wars of the 19th century, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War (ahh, booo!), the Boxer Rebellion (double boo!), the Moro War, the interventions in Latin America, World War II (Japan was nowhere near equal to the US in economic size and the larger part of their army was in Manchuria during the war; Germany always had the bulk of its army in the East) and everything post-1945.


Eliminated are such contenders as Arthur MacArthur, Teddy Roosevelt (okay, he was never a general, but still…), Adna Chaffee, George Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Matthew Ridgway, Creighton Abrams, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus.* If I’m leaving anyone out, remind me in the comments.

The wars left are the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and World War I. Read the rest of this entry »

Ole Miss senior Levi West on his school’s unofficial mascot:

“There’s no more of a noble cause than continuing the tradition of Colonel Reb,” said Mr. West, standing in the baking Mississippi heat in a giant stuffed mask and foam shoes. “Everyone loves the guy.”

It’s only Monday but Mr West has set the bar high.

Lots of discussion of these images of South Carolina Senate President Glenn McConnell dressed as a Confederate Navy officer posing with black people dressed “in antebellum attire.” Apparently the black man and woman are “members of a Gullah-Geechee cultural group, which travels around bringing to life the Lowcountry African-American experience during the mid-1800s, including their dress, music and singing.” They were paid for their appearance.

It’s a weird picture. Since there are no actual historians here, and certainly none with an interest in the Civil War or the politics of memory, I’ll muse as follows:

(i) watching members of a Gullah preservation group would probably be pretty interesting;
(ii) it wouldn’t make the gathering less creepy if they were absent;
(iii) this makes me think that whatever badness there is here is present in a powerful white guy dressing up like a Confederate officer, rather than in the addition of Frank and Sharon Murray, the Gullah representatives;
(iv) but it’s more salient or more easily noticed when the addition of actual black people reminds us of what the Confederate Navy was for;
(v) not knowing much about Glenn McConnell except for his obsession with things Confederate, I can imagine– imagine! not endorse as true!– that he kind of lost track of all of these nuances a while back and just decided it would be neat to have some Gullah culture at the event.

As always, it’s important to remember that Ari is the real racist.

I had a vaguely negative impression (mainly received rather than first-hand) of Herman Melville’s abilities as a poet; but “Shiloh” is pretty strong.

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
    The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
    The forest-field of Shiloh —
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
    Around the church of Shiloh —
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
        And natural prayer
    Of dying foemen mingled there —
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve —
    Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
    But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
    And all is hushed at Shiloh.

A military sentimentality I can get behind. The density of rhyme is certainly artificial, and the specific rhymes could be criticized as “easy”; but they’re effective nonetheless. For example, in lone/one/groan, the weak word is “one”, but since it’s weak both semantically and phonetically, there’s a harmony to the choice; the result is almost as if the line division had fallen four syllables earlier. And I always appreciate a layered temporal perspective: the foreground, so to speak, is the present, with swallows in clouded days, and the background is the famous battle, but the focus of the poem is on a middle ground, the night after the battle, in which the foemen painfully died.

(I have no special occasion to post this — I happened on an old bookmark.)

UPDATE: Restored thanks to Eric’s quick warning and Google’s all-seeing cache.

Students Frequently Ask this Question: when did the major US parties switch places, and why? Which is to say, when and why did the Democrats, who had been the party of limited federal government, begin to favor expanding Washington’s power? When and why did the Republicans, who had favored so strong a central government in Washington that they would accept a civil war rather than see its power curbed, become the party rhetorically committed to curbing its power?

When is easier to answer than why, though there’s no single date. (It would be nicer, though, if in one presidential election, say, the two candidates had done a partial do-si-do and ended up in each other’s places.) But we can pretty easily bracket the era of change.

At the beginning, we can put the Civil War. During the 1860s, the Republicans favored an expansion of federal power and passed over Democratic opposition a set of laws sometimes called the Second American System, providing federal aid for the transcontinental railroad, for the state university system, for the settlement of the West by homesteaders; for a national currency and a protective tariff.

Taken together, this was a highly ambitious program for expanding federal power. It was mercantilist, but it also aimed to get small-time farmers and ordinary citizens to buy into it with the Homestead Act and the state universities. And, broadly speaking, Democrats opposed it.

The postwar era of Reconstruction saw this division grow clearer, as the Republicans supported an expansion of federal power to provide civil right for African Americans in the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Fourteenth Amendment and the creation of the Department of Justice—an expansion that, again, Democrats opposed.

So through the early 1870s, then, the lines are pretty clearly drawn. Let’s leave that era for a moment and flash forward to our closing bracket, which we might as well make the 1936 election. Here we have the Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt winning reelection for the successes and promise of the New Deal, which expanded federal power to provide … well, an awfully long list of benefits including banking, securities, and currency regulation; relief for the unemployed and pensions for the elderly; wilderness conservation; improvements to roads and electric infrastructure; support for unionization; and much else. And he was opposed in this election by Republicans staunchly against this expansion of state power.

So the switch takes place sometime between, let’s say, 1872 and 1936. That may not sound very narrow, but it’s a start.

Now, we can go further by finding some landmark dates in there. One of them has to be the 1896 election, when the Democratic Party fused with the People’s Party, and the incumbent Grover Cleveland, a rather conservative Democrat, was displaced by the young and fiery William Jennings Bryan, whose rhetoric emphasized the importance of social justice in the priorities of the federal government. The next time the Democrats had a Congressional majority, with the start of Wilson’s presidency in 1913, they passed a raft of Bryanish legislation, including the income tax and the Federal Reserve Act. And the next Democratic president after that was FDR. So from Bryan onward, the Democratic Party looks much more like the modern Democratic Party than it does like the party of the 1870s.

Oddly though, during the first part of this period, i.e., the time of Bryan, the Republican Party does not immediately, in reaction, become the party of smaller government; there’s no do-si-do. Instead, for a couple of decades, both parties are promising an augmented federal government devoted in various ways to the cause of social justice. It’s not until the 1920s, and the era of Coolidge especially, that the Republican Party begins to sound like the modern Republican Party, rhetorically devoted to smaller government.1 And that rhetorical tendency doesn’t really set in firmly until the early 1930s and the era of Republican opposition to the New Deal.

So now we have a better idea of when this happens; we need now at least the beginning of an explanation why. And the short answer to that is, the West. Which is to say, had the US not expanded westward and taken in a swath of new states in the post-Civil War era, it’s plausible that the parties would have remained as they were, with the Democrats the party of the South and states’ rights and segregation, and the Republicans seeking electoral advantage by trying to enforce civil rights legislation. But the admission of new western states changed the political calculus. In the West were voters disillusioned with the Republican Party’s Second American System, which turned out awfully favorable to banks, railroads, and manufacturing interests, and less favorable to small-time farmers such as those who had gone West and gone bust.

Those western voters were up for grabs—Bryan got them in 1896, Roosevelt helped McKinley get them in 1900, and got them for himself in 1904—and the only way to get them was to promise that some of the federal largesse that had hitherto benefited the northeast. Which is why you have the period of both parties promising some augmentation of federal power in the decades around the turn of the century.

Now, what happens next is that the Republicans prove able to regain western electoral votes from 1920 without having to promise anything much like Bryanite policies. Why this happens is, to my mind, a bit murky. Possibly it’s because a lot of Bryanite policies have already been passed, and western voters are less rebellious. Possibly it’s because of reaction against the Democrats and the war. Possibly it’s to do with the reaction against immigration. Or all of the above plus something else.

Anyway, that’s the when plus a little of the why the parties switched places. Now, one can get cleverer and point out that although the rhetoric and to a degree the policies of the parties do switch places, their core supporters don’t—which is to say, the Republicans remain, throughout, the party of bigger businesses; it’s just that in the earlier era bigger businesses want bigger government and in the later era they don’t. But this post is already long enough.

1That is to say, rhetorically devoted to smaller government even while increasing government’s size and power to regulate behavior with, e.g. Prohibition—but that’s another wrinkle to this story.

As a followup to this post, I randomly encountered a Google Ad from the Appomattox Court House tourist board:


Too perfect.

On this day in history, April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, Ulysses Grant wrote the following:

General R. E. LEE:

GENERAL: In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th instant, I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate, one copy to be given to an officer to be designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged; and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery, and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officers appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to his home, not to be disturbed by U. S. authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.


It is one of the great myths of American history, and thus a suitable answer to Eric’s question, that Appomattox ended the Civil War. It certainly surrendered the Confederacy’s most notable army and commander, but even after April 9th, Confederate armies remained in the field, fighting the Union. President Andrew Johnson’s announcement of the end of the Civil War would not come until August 20, 1865, and even then, the Confederate commerce raider Shenandoah held out until early November. But Lee’s surrender has become the de facto end of the Civil War, as it plays powerfully into the personality cult surrounding the Confederate General, and serves usefully as the founding tragedy of Lost Cause mythology.

Ari’s previous two posts inspire me to ask of our learned readership a question for each.1

1) Does the “which side are you on” rhetoric in response to industrial tragedy get the American public’s attention? Almost a hundred years ago Charles Beard, perhaps somewhat bitterly, said no:

Realizing the fact that a mere high mortality due to congestion will not seriously disturb a nation that complacently slaughters more people on its railways and in its factories and mines than any other country in the world, mathematically minded reformers are trying to reach the heart of the public through its purse by pointing out that there is a great economic loss in the death of persons of working age.

Which really works better to grab Americans’ attention? Rhetorical appeals to justice, or social scientific appeals to your wallet?

2) Let’s stipulate there is no greater historiographical swindle than the hornswoggling pretense that the Civil War derived principally from any cause other than slavery and there has never been a lower species of bamboozle than the neoconfederate heritage racket. What else goes on the list of great historiographical frauds? (Yes, New Deal denialism does. Others?)

1That’s for each post, not for each reader, wisenheimer.

I think kb’s right: it’s worth putting Coates’s demolition of the Virginia GOP (and the Republican Party more broadly) on the front page. Responding to Governor Bob McDonnell’s decision to revive Confederate History Month, Coates writes:

This is who they are–the proud and ignorant. If you believe that if we still had segregation we wouldn’t “have had all these problems,” this is the movement for you. If you believe that your president is a Muslim sleeper agent, this is the movement for you. If you honor a flag raised explicitly to destroy this country then this is the movement for you. If you flirt with secession, even now, then this movement is for you. If you are a “Real American” with no demonstrable interest in “Real America” then, by God, this movement of alchemists and creationists, of anti-science and hair tonic, is for you.

Or, if you prefer a more scholarly approach to the issue, kevin, who sometimes comments here, suggests via e-mail that you might want to take note of Jim McPherson’s equally damning reply to Gov. McDonnell’s hate-mongering:

I find it obnoxious, but it’s extremely typical. The people that emphasize Confederate heritage and the legacy, and the importance of understanding Confederate history, want to deny that Confederate history was ultimately bound up with slavery. But that was the principal reason for secession — that an anti-slavery party was elected to the White House. . . . And without secession, there wouldn’t have been a war.

Of course we’ve covered all of this ground before. Some myths die hard.

Update: Gov. McDonnell, to his credit, acknowledges that he blew it.

Does this (here and here) happen often? Does the Times often review the same book twice? I can’t think of another instance like this, I have to admit, but I don’t pay much attention to the Sunday Book Review anymore, so I can’t say for certain.

Regardless, in this case, if you don’t feel like clicking on links, the book in question is Sir John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History. Which book, I should say, I haven’t read and won’t be reading. And not just because the second review linked above, authored by the normally genial James McPherson, savages Keegan’s efforts as terribly sloppy, but also because, coincidentally, just last week Eric and I taught Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler in our graduate seminar.

Read the rest of this entry »

I like Mary Beard’s TLS blog. But this time I fear she has Gone Too Far. Or, perhaps more likely, she’s pulling our collective leg — though I don’t remember her pulling it in quite this manner before. Even out here at the veriest Edge, the cityscape is clotted with victors’ memories of the War of Eastern Aggression. Just yesterday I was out picknicking with fellow parents of future yuppies at the Black Point Battery; and of course the map is full of streets named for Vicksburg, Grant, Lincoln and the Union. (Not to speak of the Confederate general from Big Sur.)

Need we quote Faulkner again?

Image by Flickr user maduarte used under a Creative Commons license.

This chart, gratuitously stolen from Steve Benen at The Washington Monthly, suggests strongly that political discourse in the United States is going to get worse rather than better:


We have the perfect storm: an African-American President and an opposition party whose concerns, language, and obsessions is driven largely by the concerns, language, and obsessions of the American South. Those ideas–racial, cultural, martial–are what is going to drive the GOP until they escape their regional status. Jimmy Carter well knows this, and it is no coincidence that the current poster child for Republican obstructionism is South Carolina. We may date the finish of the Civil War to 1865, but the conflict has never really ended.

On this day in 1857, the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company (OLITC) failed, an event often (dis)credited with starting the Panic of 1857. But of course the Panic didn’t really begin there; as with all major financial catastrophes the story is more complicated than it initially appears.

Read the rest of this entry »

Given that I haven’t had a chance to read the book in question, I don’t know what to make of the ongoing, and increasingly nasty, fight over John Stauffer’s and Sally Jenkins’s new history of the Free State of Jones. But it seems like the struggle over the book is pretty interesting, as it raises all kinds of questions about the intersection of historical narratives and big-time entertainment. I also think there’s probably something to be said here about the nature of scholarship. But again, without having read the book, I’m not the one to say it. At least not yet.

Anyway, the fight started here and here and here, I guess, when Victoria Bynum, who’s written her own history of Jones County during the Civil War, posted a scathing review of The State of Jones. Take a look. See what you think.

Update: Stepping back a bit, it seems to me that there are other interesting questions raised by this case. For instance, as Kevin points out in his post (linked above), how does the advent of blogging change the way that “scholarly”* books are reviewed? How do “historians”** change their writing, particularly what*** they choose to write, given the audience they want for their books? And is it okay to find motivation for scholarship in the pursuit of a big payday?

* Yep, those are scare quotes. Deal with it.

** And again. Feel free to fill out a comment card, if you’d like.

*** As opposed to how they write. Content rather than style, in other words.

As Abraham Lincoln would say. And it’s with Lincoln, on the highly honorable cover, that you’ll find Ari in this week’s TLS.

Even after winning the presidency, Barack Obama continues to channel Abraham Lincoln. Obama arrived in Washington via the same train route that Lincoln did in 1861. He swore the oath of office on Lincoln’s bible. He chose the same lunch that Lincoln ate on his inauguration day. And with the nation mired in a dizzying array of crises, Obama says that he looks to Lincoln for inspiration. Ron Paul, meanwhile, did not secure the Republican nomination, despite the passion of his supporters. Nevertheless, he, too, continues to use Lincoln for political purposes. On April 15, Paul and hundreds of thousands of limited-government activists took to the streets to rail about the long reach of federal authority. In addition to claiming that income tax is unconstitutional, leaders of these so-called Tea Parties raised the spectre of secession. Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, warned that if pushed, the Lone Star state might decide to leave the Union. And when political commentators heaped scorn on Perry, Paul defended him, noting that, “it is very American to talk about secession”. Perhaps, but Lincoln deserves a more generous 200th birthday present.

We will say nothing here of the 32nd president.

[Following up on this post.]

The valor that garners a Medal of Honor has changed since the Civil War, when the award was first created. In fact, many of the ways that the Medal was previously given no longer hold. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that it is now extremely difficult–if not impossible–to get a Medal of Honor while surviving the acts of bravery. The military denies that this is an official requirement, though there is skepticism:

The U.S. military appears to have toughened its standards for bestowing the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in battle, to exclude troops who survive their heroic acts, a California lawmaker charged Thursday.
Either troops are “not as brave as they used to be, which I don’t believe is true,” or the criteria for the award have been amended “so that you have to die” to receive it, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., told the Army’s top civilian and uniformed leaders.
Hunter’s assertion during a House Armed Services Committee hearing drew a rebuke from Gen. George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq who now serves as Army chief of staff. “There has been absolutely no effort” to limit the award to troops who’ve perished, Casey said.
Five Americans, all killed in action, have been awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. The total is far lower than that of past wars; 244 troops received the Medal of Honor for heroism in the Vietnam War, for example.

The last seven Medals of Honor have been given posthumously. Read the rest of this entry »

The latest evidence? He’s doing some sleuthing over at the Times about a Civil-War-era photograph. The first of what will be a five-part series is linked above.

Here’s the hook:

The soldier’s body was found near the center of Gettysburg with no identification — no regimental numbers on his cap, no corps badge on his jacket, no letters, no diary. Nothing save for an ambrotype (an early type of photograph popular in the late 1850s and 1860s) of three small children clutched in his hand. Within a few days the ambrotype came into the possession of Benjamin Schriver, a tavern keeper in the small town of Graeffenburg, about 13 miles west of Gettysburg. The details of how Schriver came into possession of the ambrotype have been lost to history. But the rest of the story survives, a story in which this photograph of three small children was used for both good and wicked purposes. First, the good.

It goes on from there. Though so far only to Part Two, which can be found here.

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