Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Few More Thoughts on Civil Discourse

As you may have seen, Kevin Levin has responded to my previous post and I thank him for taking the time to clarify a few things.

He and I are certainly on the same page when it comes to keeping the discussion all “about the history.” I was further relieved by Levin’s admission that, “I agree with Jimmy that many of the comments that followed the post are troubling for the reasons he cites.

After these preliminaries, Levin rehashed his objections to the video in question, stating that “the views of the three individuals in this video ought to be taken on their own merit and I find them lacking in certain ways.

Fair enough.

As I made abundantly clear, I also found the video lacking and based my objections on the tone of the post and its commenters.

Predictably, some of those commenters chimed in with some unfortunate remarks that make me question if they even bothered to read my original post or if they just responded to Levin’s summation.

One person stated: “Mr. Price implies that a non-Chrsitian, or anti-Christian consensus dominates the discussion of Civil War history, as though this field has become the particular province of who? Jews, atheists, and Wiccans?”

Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question because I implied no such thing in the first place.

Another commenter proclaimed that “some Christians are beginning to adopt the SCV’s ‘looking for victimhood’ mode of operation. Just as it is wrong for any group to be pilloried based on vague generalizations, it is equally wrong for any group to interpret any criticism as an unfair attack on their beliefs.

If this person was referring specifically to me, I defy them to find one scintilla of this victim mentality in any of my published work.

I won’t hold my breath.

Conversely, an anonymous commenter here at Freedom by the Sword said that they “tried to respond the one of Harrigan’s comments at Levin’s blog, but was censored.” If true, this is troubling.

In sum, my objections from the start were purely in regards to the hostile tone and some of the alarming insularity on display in Levin's original post. Any speculation beyond that misses the point entirely. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Civil Discourse: A Memory?

In our increasingly polarized society there seems to have been a shift from a “live and let live” mentality to a vigorous prosecution of “thought crime” – no longer can we agree to disagree, but anyone who strays from what is considered the cultural mainstream is called out and proverbially tarred and feathered for not keeping in lockstep with the rest of us.

This creeps into the Civil War history community from time to time, usually in fairly innocuous ways. While I’m used to the usual back and forth about the merits of the newest ACW titles or the constant drumroll of snarky comments related to the latest gaffes of the “heritage” movement, I was more than a little troubled by the tone of a recent post over at Civil War Memory that features members of the history department of Liberty University.

The video explores the “enduring legacies” of the American Civil War and was put on Vimeo by an L.U. film student who apparently asked different members of the faculty to describe what they imagine to be the war’s major legacies.

The result can be seen here.

Levin states that the video is “just all around really bad,” and if he is referring to the overall watchability and quality of the film, I’m with him (but keep in mind this is the result of an undergrad film project, for crying out loud). But the vitriol aimed by Levin and the dozens of folks who took the time to leave their own acerbic musings is aimed at what the professors interviewed in the film said about how the war still affects the country to this day.

It would be one thing if these professors were wearing Dixie Outfitters shirts and talking about how tariffs were the real cause of the war and that slavery had nothing to do with it. But the views espoused by the faculty were not terribly out of the mainstream. Certainly not ideal or complete, but we aren’t even privy to everything these people said to the film student during the interviews.

For this reason I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but not so with Levin and his cohorts. For instance, Prof. Robert Ritchie is scorned for reducing “the war down to sectional differences.” Not exactly League of the South type stuff here.

Or consider Prof. Chris Jones, who said that slavery was the main cause of the war but goes on to say that modern Americans are being “enslaved” by the Federal government. He also cites a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that states that the idea of secession is still popular in today’s modern political climate. That might not be your particular outlook on life, but it’s not a harebrained conspiracy theory.

All of this leads to a dubious claim that these professors make the causes and impact of the Civil War “impossible to understand.”

And the comments? Wow.

Rather than attack what these professors actually said about the war, the commenters (not Levin himself) launch into a diatribe about the credibility of Liberty University itself. James Harrigan, who teaches at UVA, says Liberty is “not an actual university” while commenters on the blog and the blog’s Facebook page chime in with comments calling L.U. a “fake school” and suggesting that the professors quoted got their PhDs from the University of Phoenix. See the original post for more of this lowbrow fare.

I can personally attest that these representations are not accurate because I actually spent two years at Liberty University from 1998 – 2000 and during that time I took two Civil War courses. One was a survey course which had as its main text McPherson’s Ordeal by Fire and also included Thomas’s Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. Nothing by Clyde Wilson, sad to say.

The other course was a Civil War literature class taught by Kenneth Rowlette (who also runs the university’s well-regarded National Civil War Chaplains Museum) with readings that included Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane and more recent books such as Cold Mountain and Jacob's Ladder.

Can you just smell the vast Christian Right conspiracy? Somebody call the mayor of Houston!

I digress.

The point is that in no time during my two years at L.U. did I encounter the crude caricatures envisaged in these comments.

It is unfortunate that Christians are increasingly lampooned as science-hating mindless sycophants who have no place in a discussion about history. I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what passes as civil discourse nowadays.

I can think of several Christians, such as Steven E. Woodworth (who also happens to be part of Liberty University’s distinguished adjunct faculty) and Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, who maintains the excellent Faith & History blog, who have made stellar contributions to Civil War history.

To quote another Christian historian, John Fea, “We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues.”

It is especially difficult for this dialogue to take place when you’re pre-judged by your religious views.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Battle of First Deep Bottom: In Stores Today!

I am happy to announce that my second book, The Battle of First Deep Bottom has hit shelves nationwide today!


This work is a much different animal from my first book on New Market Heights, in that it chronicles events on the north side of the James River from late June of 1864 thought the end of July.

I was fortunate enough to team up with Steve Stanley again for the maps and Hampton Newsome penned an excellent forward.

And if you’re interested in learning more about all of the fighting that took place north of the James in 1864, be sure to check out my article in the latest Hallowed Ground that covers it all!




Upcoming Appearances:

October 9thBull Run Civil War Round Table: New Market Heights Lecture

October 26th – Costco, 1401 Mall Dr. Richmond, VA 23235: Battle of First Deep Bottom book signing

November 9thHenrico Theater: Screening of “Glory”

Friday, September 26, 2014

New Market Heights-A-Palooza: It Begins!

Well hello there, sorry for falling off the face of the planet (again)! I do have a decent excuse, though – over the past three months I’ve been putting the finishing touches on my second book.

So even though this post is primarily about New Market Heights, take a quick minute and order a copy of The Battle of First Deep Bottom (don’t worry, the Federals attack the New Market Line in this one too…they just lose.)

Now that I’ve got those preliminaries out of the way, a quick look at the calendar will tell you that this Monday is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of New Market Heights. As you may have heard, Henrico County is holding a re-enactment of New Market Heights and other actions that took place north of the James this weekend! I’ll be there tomorrow and Sunday selling and signing books, and the county was even kind enough to give me a whopping 30 minutes to speak about the battle tomorrow afternoon at 2:15 p.m.

Then, once the weekend is over, I’ll be helping lead real-time tours of the core battlefield on Monday morning September 29th. These 2-hour tours will begin at 6:00 a.m. and 10:45 a.m.

Needless to say, I’m ecstatic that New Market Heights is receiving this amount of attention and I’m cautiously optimistic that these events will help raise attention about the heroes on both sides who fought there and maybe even generate some public outcry about the current plans to turn the battlefield into a community college.

I hope you’ll take the time to come on out to a unique Civil War battle re-enactment and a very rare opportunity to walk on the hallowed ground where 14 African American Union soldiers won the Medal of Honor.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Campaign Before Richmond Symposium: June 20th, 6-9PM

This Friday, June 20th, I will be speaking at the “Campaign Before Richmond Symposium” at Deep Bottom Park. The event will be held in a large tent near the historic site of the Deep Bottom bridgehead on the 150th anniversary of when it was established, so this is a unique opportunity to learn more about Grant’s famous “double-enders” on the site from which they were launched.

I have the honor to speak alongside Doug Crenshaw, Robert E.L. Krick, and Hampton Newsome on a panel moderated by Jack Mountcastle, former Commander of the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

The event will last from 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. 

Topics include:

James S. Price- First Deep Bottom
Doug Crenshaw – Chaffin’s Farm
Robert E.L. Krick- Key Confederate Personalities during the Campaign
Hampton Newsome- Richmond Must Fall: October Actions

Talks will be followed by a full panel Q&A led by Gen. Mountcastle.

I hope to see you there!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Some Sesquicentennial Food for Thought

Well, tonight at the site of the Harris Farm the commemoration of the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House will come to an end. While I wish I had been able to attend more of the commemorative events, those I did have the pleasure of going to or helping to lead seemed appropriately somber and very well done.

I tend to fall into the camp of folks who believe that battlefields are no more or less hallowed on the anniversaries of when the battle took place versus any other given day. And, being blessed to live so near these fields of honor and horror, I have the privilege of communing with these sites whenever I wish.

Thus, I will leave the analysis of which tours were the best and which events were the most moving to those whose participation exceeded my own.

However...

As some of you know, my other main area of study other than the American Civil War is the First World War, and I recently came across a quote from a book on that tragic topic that resonated with my inner reactions to the photographs that kept showing up on my Facebook page of hundreds of people crossing fields and forests that were once drenched with blood.

I leave this quote not as a criticism of others, but as a caution to myself:

“I fear I’d fallen victim to the exuberant nihilism of the battlefield enthusiast, and that soon I would be whooping with joy at coming across a trench in the forest, or a skeleton behind a barn. There is a sort of macho romance to the futility of war, an attraction to seeing things fall apart, born of the same impulse that makes setting fires or watching the wrecker’s ball such a fun pastime for so many men.” – Stephen O’Shea, Back to the Front:An Accidental Historian Walks the Trenches of World War I

Saturday, May 10, 2014

May 9 & 10, 1864: The War Returns to Beaver Dam Station

In the predawn darkness of May 9, 1864 Sheridan’s entire corps mounted and set out on their mission to take out J.E.B. Stuart and the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Little Phil was taking his entire force with him, leaving no horse soldiers behind to help Grant at Spotsylvania Court House.

The corps created quite the spectacle, with a column that stretched 13 miles and took 4 hours to pass. One trooper recalled how “The clouds of dust, sent up by the thousands of hoofbeats, fill eyes, nose, and air passages, give external surfaces a uniform, dirty gray color, and form such an impenetrable veil, that, for many minutes together, you cannot see even your hand before you.”

The early part of the march was also the most dangerous, as the Yankee horsemen had to pass around Lee’s army before heading south. Four small rivers – the Ni, Po, Ta, and Mat – stood in their way, and the thought of being caught in the middle of crossing one of these streams gnawed away at Sheridan. When the last trooper rode his horse across the Mat, Sheridan found that “all anxiety as to our passing around Lee’s army was removed.”

While the corps crossed these streams unmolested, it did not go unnoticed, and Confederate scouts reported on Sheridan’s movements, with word reaching Robert E. Lee by 8:00 a.m. Since Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee were still entangled with the Federal infantry, it fell to Williams C. Wickham to keep an eye on the Yankees and tentatively pursue. Wickham’s cavaliers tangled with Sheridan’s rear guard at Jerrell’s Mill and Mitchell’s Shop, but the blue juggernaut kept moving at a steady pace.

When Sheridan’s column reached Chilesburg, the main body of Union cavalry camped on the north bank of the North Anna River, while George Armstrong Custer took his brigade and elements of Devin’s troopers over the river and on towards Beaver Dam Station on the Virginia Central Railroad.

Beaver Dam Station as it appeared in the early 20th Century.
The station was rebuilt in 1866.
Beaver Dam Station was named for the plantation of Col. Edmund Fontaine, once a president of the Virginia Central. The plantation itself was named for the creek which bisected it, and it just so happened that Flora Cooke Stuart – J.E.B. Stuart’s wife – was staying there at the time.

As darkness fell on May 9th, a thunder storm moved into the area. Custer’s men moved up to the station and encountered a large number of prisoners who had been captured at the Wilderness and Laurel Hill.

Custer’s men quickly neutralized the guards and liberated 278 prisoners. In addition to the prisoners, the Yankees captured 200,000 pounds of bacon, 1.5 million rations, and nearly all of the medical supplies for the Army of Northern Virginia.

After taking everything they could carry, they set fire to the buildings, derailed the trains, and tore up track for 10 miles in each direction. While this orgy of destruction was taking place, 150 troopers of the Confederate 1st Maryland Battalion charged in and rode around, shooting the place up before withdrawing.
While Stuart's men swept past Beaver Dam in pursuit of Sheridan,
Stuart was able to have a quick visit with his wife.
So quick, in fact, that he didn't even get off his horse.
In the morning, Sheridan’s men began to move again. From Beaver Dam, the route of march ran down to the settlement of Negro Foot and then on to Mountain Road, which crossed the South Anna and continued to Telegraph Road 6 miles above Richmond.

Sheridan later touted the importance of taking Beaver Dam Station: “The possession of Beaver Dam gave us an important point, as it opened a way toward Richmond on the Negro-foot road. It also enabled us to obtain forage for our well-nigh famished animals, and to prepare for fighting the enemy, who, I felt sure, would endeavor to interpose between my column and Richmond.”

Late in the morning of the 10th, Sheridan assembled the corps near Beaver Dam. As the Federals pulled out, some of Wickham’s men rode in and rounded up some prisoners – including someunfortunates who had just been liberated by Custer on May 9th.

By this point, Stuart united Wickham, Lomax, and the mounted James B. Gordon's Tarheels below Beaver Dam. Desperate to stop Sheridan before he reached Richmond, Stuart formulated a plan – he would try to ambush the Federals near Richmond, where Confederate infantry could theoretically come to his support. Thus, he divided his force: Gordon was tasked with following Sheridan and harassing his rear guard while Fitz Lee , with Wickham and Lomax, would hurry east to Hanover Junction and then descend Telegraph Road to intercept the main Federal body at the Mountain Road junction.

Fitz Lee later described the situation: “Discovering Richmond to be the object of the enemy, and knowing the entire absence of troops in the works guarding the western side, General Stuart determined to move upon the chord of the arc the enemy were advancing upon, and by outmarching them interpose our little force in the enemy’s front at some point contiguous to the city.”

Time was quickly slipping away for the Confederates…