Friday, June 19, 2015

How I came to Like the Civil War and What Influences My Viewpoints


saw this question as linked above on the Emerging Civil War blog a few days ago and left a reply there, but realized I had much more to say about it and I thought it might make a good topic here. I might go beyond the scope of the original query and this could be might quite long. I'm typing as I think and not doing any research or much proofreading or editing afterwards. Go with the flow, baby!

When I was in grade school, I learned that Abraham Lincoln was, like me, a Kentuckian, and that sparked my interest in the war. It was state pride. I was happy to hear of someone famous also from my state and it was not possible to learn about him without learning about the war at the same time, so that was how I first knew of and became interested in the war.

I never thought I got any kind of pro-southern or pro-northern education as a youth though my middle school was called "South Campbell County" and was nicknamed the Confederates. We even had a large Confederate battle flag  (made of some sort of rubber) welcome mat and teachers sold buttons that said "the South will rise again" with a picture of the Confederate battle flag on them. Our yearbooks featured a student's drawing of a Rebel soldier on the cover, at least the one I remember. At the time, it was just a school for me and the name had no special meaning. I was not aware of any possible issues that others might have with it - I was just a normal middle schooler. As I type this, I find it curious that this apparently had no influence on me. Maybe I was too young and would have been more influenced had it been a high school instead of middle school, or maybe it really was just a name and what the teachers taught was more important than a school name. "Confederates" did not become a major cultural part of my youth other than standing for my school.

 A year after I left 8th grade, the school changed its name to John W. Reiley Middle School (it has since become an elementary school - I must be getting old.) The reason given publicly was to honor a long-time county schools superintendent. They also changed the nickname to "RedHawks." I have often wondered if getting away from the Confederate imagery had anything to do with it, but I have never seen anything supporting that thought. The school is in a rural area that does not have much, if any, diversity and certainly didn't 25-30 years ago, so I cannot imagine anybody being offended by it or complaining, but that is just a guess. Its in northern Kentucky, which was divided territory during the war, but with more Union support from what I can tell, so the "Confederate" name does not seem to have been due to any local tradition. It was in the southern part of the county, so "Confederates" may have seemed like a natural name to go with "South." Maybe the county historical society has some records on the name change I can review some day. That might be a research project sometime.

In high school, I wrote a mid-term English research paper on Gettysburg, trying to claim it was not the turning point of the war, and that research added to my interest. In hindsight, I missed a great opportunity when my high school band took a trip to Washington D.C. one spring. I remember seeing the usual tourist sites, but no special Civil War visits. The main thing I recall from that trip was that the van my parents rented to enjoy as they also took the trip was broken into while parked alongside a side street. The TV in it (fancy van for the time) was stolen as was my trombone, some luggage and our bag of dirty laundry (enjoy that, thieves!) I have never been back to Washington since then and I am not totally sure if I want to, though that might not be fair. It was not a good first impression.

I went to college at the University of Kentucky, and during those years my interest in the war increased, as I majored in history. In 1992, I joined a campus group called Society of the Civil War Era and visited Perryville for the first time with the other group members to volunteer at the re-enactment. (It was either the 1992 or 1993 re-enactment, I don't remember for sure, though I think I stil have my Kentucky State Parks volunteer button somewhere.) That was really fun, setting up ropes for attendees to stay behind and riding in a golf cart to take stuff to people around the park while using Walkie-talkies to communicate. We even as slept in the park manager's office overnight instead of traveling back to Lexington. 

Lexington does have a famous statue of Confederate General John Hunt Mirgan, as well as the Hunt Morgan house. The general is buried in Lexington Cemetery. The city also is the location of the Mary Todd Lincoln house. Kentucky, and Lexington specifically, has a southern reputation, but I did not feel any cultural ties to either the Confederacy or Union. Maybe I did not get out enough. Confederate battle flags or other symbols were not common, from what I recall.

One thing I've often wondered about is does the trafitional singing/playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" at UK and other sporting events (we played it in high school, it is played at the Kentucky Derby) have anything to do with leftover states' rights sentiments? I once did ask a retired college professor about that and he said no, but I'm still curious about it and may have to think or even write about it sometime.Maybe the meaning of the song's longing for the so-called "good ole days" is a better approach to take with that song. Do people really want to go back in time or is it "just a song?"

In the summer of 1993, my mother, grandmother and I travelled east and visited Gettysburg and Antietam. I really enjoyed those few days, even the scenery along the roadways between the two parks. I think it was Maryland that had the beautiful hills or mountains but even the Pennsylvania Turnpike was a good experience. The guided tour at Gettysburg was great. I could not believe I was actually seeing the site of Pickett's Charge and all the monuments and souvenir stores. The driving tour, with cassette (modern technology!) playing, at Antietam was fun too. That trip certainly added to my interest and remains the only time I have visited a Civil War battlefield besides Perryville (shame on me.) Perhaps I will look for my pictures from that week and see if any are worth sharing. They are in a shoe box somewhere in my house, with years of other photographs.

I know I purchased 4 minie balls at Gettysburg and still have them on one of my shelves. They were the first Civil War "collectibles" of any type that I ever owned. I also bought a couple of bumper stickers with Confederate battle flags on them for some reason. I think one of them said something like: "Independence - if it works for Lithuania, it works for Dixie." (Remember - this was in the early 1990s, not long after the break-up of the Soviet Union.) I don't know what happened to those stickers over the years and still am not sure why I even bought them. I guess they seemed neat to me at the time for some reason I can't recall.

During school, I read both Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Killer Angels and enjoyed both of those works. I just re-read Stowe's work two years ago last  and maybe reading Shaara's book again might be interesting. I know Stowe's work is not a "Civil War" book, but it certainly discussed issues from the same era. (Interestingly enough, I did not finish Battle Cry of Freedom, even though it was assigned, until well after I was out of school. It is a fine book, but did not really have a great influence on me.)

After college, the first two things that added to my obsession were receiving Shelby Foote's 3 volume Civil War set for Christmas and then reading them. I was surprised to read and finish such long books, but enjoyed them quite a bit. They are still among my favorite books. Also, joining the History Book Club and getting new books for what I thought were good prices certainly increased the size of my book shelf. A Robert E. Lee biography by Emory Thomas and a Shiloh book by Larry Daniel are the first two books I remember buying. I think Bud Robertson's biography on Stonewall Jackson may have come with them, or very soon thereafter. Reading about the war has since been one of my passions. Finding used books for low prices on eBay also added to my library. Drawn With the Sword, a collection of essays edited by James McPherson was one of the first books I won at auction.

Since then, access to the Internet and various Civil War sites, especially blogs, and several trips to Perryville have continued to fuel my passion for the subject. I have also been happy to be a member of the Civil War Trust. Volunteering at the James A. Ramage Civil War Museum, being able to hold or touch actual Civil War artifacts, helping run events and meeting more Civil War enthusiasts through museum activities has been good for me also and starting this blog has given me chances to think about my beliefs and how to express them, as well as led me to find other blogs and sources of war material, sources send viewpoints.

As I look over this entry, it seems like a (long) resume of my Civil War interest and I'm not sure if I answered the original question, but this has been a fun one to write, bringing up good (well, mostly) memories. I hope I didn't forget anything, but, if so, I can always post on this topic again. Maybe I can even focus more on what my points of view are and how they influence what I study, research or believe. I will say that I do still maintain a high interest in Lincoln and his life, so that initial spark of interest in the Civil War still influences me, but I think I need to do more thinking, and perhaps writing, on this question.

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