This coming November, Simon & Schuster will publish Elizabeth Varon’s biography of James Longstreet. I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time and luckily I was able to get hold of an advance copy for review. I am about 100 pages in and thoroughly enjoying it thus far.
You know I struggle with this every day! In contemporary public conversations, Confederates are "problematic." For the vast majority of the public who are NOT habitual Civil War consumers, this, I believe, is a threshold barrier. (At the same time, I think that subjects that foreground stories of emancipation, etc., can be a strong enough enticement to new audiences--maybe you have noticed this on your end.) So I'm extremely hesitant to do anything Confederate-forward without it being heavily and obviously mediated through this problematic lens. So, yeah, I'm not going to talk about Confederates unless we address the obvious things first.
Some folks here like to lean into talking about the sacrifices, losses, and other homefront hardships as a way to promote historical empathy/create a sense of humanity about these people. That may work, I don't know, but I share the same sensibility that I believe a larger audience shares: it happened because they wanted to protect slavery so who cares?
That points out a critical thing--we don't really know, via audience research, what motivates different audience segments to do Civil War things, and what repels people from that.
I do think that spending time with these people is important. It's necessary, as you say, in order to engage in critical analysis. One problem with that is that audiences and the public aren't really going to chose to do something Civil War related because they need to take a history methodologies course. How can we engage them by satisfying the emotional, social, creative, etc., needs that they come to us with?
Anyhow, I justify it in two ways. First, the Confederate experience isn't a one-off fluke of exceptional weirdness in American history that we can ignore. Instead, it is a very obvious example of conservative political, social, racial, etc., trends that have coursed through American history from the beginning until now. Connecting it all together should make the necessity of looking at Confederates pretty obvious because it will satisfy a need to understand our world today (not to simply revel in Rebels for the love of it).
Second, in these conversations today about how our history shapes our present--we have to understand the protagonists in the story and not simply write them off as evil. When these conversations come up around here, especially ones that desire to foreground the excavation of Black histories and emancipationist narratives, I like to joke that I can be the token white guy working to explain that bad-guy perspective that shaped those stories.
But yeah, I don't really go around announcing that I study these people.
I don’t doubt your statement about Lee and Longstreet. I just think it odd that two professional soldiers would not question the wisdom of their army relying on a logistical base staffed by slaves
Your reference to this author presenting Longstreet as viewing slave labor as important tot he Army of Norther Virginia is interesting. I am not questioning the reference as an accurate one about Longstreet. But I have wondered what the professional soldiers like Lee and Longstreet and others thought about this topic and this book appears to suggest and answer. I don't think there is much question that these guys were in the proslavery camp and probably white supremicists so maybe they did not really see the enslaved people as a threat. But they were professional soldiers, I am sure they saw the man power situations in combat units as a critical factor in sustaining sustaining their army's combat power and the use of enslaved people as teamsters and sappers, and cooks and hospital stewards, etc. freed up white men to fight. These were the first "modern" field armies so there was some lack of experience at leading them. But the Confederate professionals had to grasp how vulnerable using people not necessarily loyal to their political cause in these service and support roles made their armies.
Much looking forward to this book. Longstreet interests me because he was Grant's best man (a striking example of how well many Civil War generals knew each other) and because his experiences changed his views, when defeat caused many Confederates to cling harder to their previous views.
Really looking forward to this ..hopefully be in my Christmas stocking
Looking forward to this. I totally agree with your notion that CS figures should still be studied despite their connection with slavery---your own work on Mahone justifies that.
Wow. I’m jealous. This is on my buy list. Cannot wait to see your full review.