Civil War, slavery, professors, and what the Army’s been teaching cadets since the 1970s

During the last week, a video from the Prager University (not really a “university” in the sense of a place to get a degree… but I digress) became the “hot topic” within some Civil War discussions:

As the video states, the presenter is Colonel Ty Seidule, a professor at West Point.  This presentation has received no end of flattering commentary.  To the point one wonders if the keyboards from which the comments flow must be toweled.  The attention the video received has me smiling, if not openly snickering.

I’ve never met Colonel Ty Seidule in person.  I do know of him by way of mutual acquaintances.  And those acquaintances speak highly of Colonel Seidule’s ability – both as a soldier and historian.  He speaks well on this topic and deserves to be heard.

So why would I snicker?  Well not at the message, or the messenger…  but the reaction.  If you do a search on “Ty Seidule” and “video” you net dozens of links to opinion pages which laud this presentation, as it is clearly not from “some revisionist academic,” and then go on at lengths to avoid saying what they assume to be true – that anyone wearing a military uniform must be a staunch conservative… and thus this Army officer’s opinion demonstrates some new thaw in the thinking on the right… (A point further strengthened by the host – Prager University – and their right-wing opinions).   As if the Army and the ranks of conservatives have this long held belief that “states’ rights” caused the Civil War.

What have the Army’s professors been teaching cadets about the Civil War?  As in, what has been the Army’s official stance (from their history department) on  the cause of the Civil War?  Well the official Army textbook says this:

During the administration of President James Buchanan, 1857-1861, tensions over the issue of extending slavery into the western territories mounted alarmingly and the nation ran its seemingly inexorable course towards disunion.  Along with slavery, the shifting social, economic, political, and constitutional problems of the fast-growing country fragmented its citizenry….

And after discussing particulars of the John Brown raid, the text continues:

Abraham Lincoln’s election to the Presidency on November 6, 1860, triggered the long-simmering political crisis.  Lincoln’s party was opposed to the expansion of slavery into the new western territories.  This threatened both the economic and political interests of the South, since the Southern states depended on slavery to maintain their way of life and their power in Congress….

Yes, pretty much what Colonel Seidule said in the video.

The text I quote here is from the 2009 version of the textbook. Specifically Volume 1 of American Military History.  When I was a cadet, we only had one volume of American Military History (so much history had yet to be written??? Or perhaps expounded upon?).  But the gist of the text was the same.  And the teaching was the same (I can refer you to my ROTC instructors if you wish to press that point).  The same in the sense that teaching pinned the “cause” of the war as slavery, not states’ rights.  In fact, if you were to look back at the 1973 and even the 1969 editions of the same textbook, the only reference made to “states’ rights” is where such political doctrine worked against the Confederate war effort (i.e. where Governor Brown’s pets were not made available to General J.E. Johnson).

Clearly Colonel Seidule’s remarks are not the result of some change in thinking at West Point, the Center of Military History, or in the Army in general.  It is the teachings of the organization (the Army) dating back almost fifty years.   In my experience, when the Confederacy was mentioned it was in the context of being “the enemy” or “an insurgency” or, with respect to individual leaders or soldiers, a foe who’s experience is to be studied and learned from.  And as a southerner, I found nothing objectionable about that approach.  It was the right, proper way to approach the subject.

And I must take pause to ensure the reader understands the approach to teaching military history as part of military science, in context with other course offered to the cadet (student).  Some will complain that Colonel Seidule’s and the Army’s textbook are lacking in some details about slavery, secession, abolition, and some other political aspects of the war.  That might be valid criticism if the cadet’s only exposure to American history is the Military History course.  Such is not the case.  Under the normal curriculum, the cadet is first given the standard American History 101 and 102 courses, to impart the full understanding of the social, political, and economic factors, before exposure to the military history course.  Such ensures proper footing before the deep dive into the history of military science.  In other words, not much different than any other field of study – going from general to particular.

All this said, I can see where this “gushing and flattering” about an Army opinion about the war will go.  The voices which embrace the video as an educational tool will soon question the messenger… oh wait… it’s already happening….

Legacy of the Confederacy on military service: Do “Confederates in blue” have influence?

Robert Moore has, as he often does, posted a thought provoking piece today.   Some of the present debates about the Confederate legacy in play in our present day brought Robert to think about how that intersects with notions of military service:

I know how people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson touched something within me, and inspired a sense of dutyhonor… and, frankly, I knew from an early age that I was going to serve my country. It wasn’t debatable (I can’t help but hearing, right now, some of my old shipmates calling me a “dig’it”. Lol.).

So, when we see the current trend of removing the Confederate flag, discussion of moving/removing monuments, vandalizing monuments, etc. – all because it “inspires hatred”, and therefore, must be removed to eliminate, at least that much “inspiration” (because, certainly, there’s more out there that serves as “inspiration”), I wonder just how many out there find another kind of “inspiration” in Confederate iconography… the positive kind… especially U.S. military veterans. I’m really curious as to how many have been inspired, in some way, by the legacy of Confederate leaders such as these? I’ve mentioned it before… some key people in WW1, like Lejeune; and in WW2, like Patton, Puller, Buckner.. and many others, are just a few examples.

An interesting observation and a point to ponder.

As I mentioned with respect to the Confederate memorials, it is important to consider the subject of those public fixtures.  The surface intent of those memorials was to force the audience to recall the service and sacrifice of individuals who answered the call to war.  Now that war was for, we must agree, a terrible cause.  But it was a call placed by society, none-the-less.  We certainly should discuss that cause.  However, it is important to caveat that discussion with the separation of “causes” and “motivations” in respect to the soldier’s service.  We might enter the same logical start point with respect to the Vietnam War (or maybe the wars in Iraq?).  This changes the foundation of the discussion somewhat.

And thinking to Robert’s observation, can we find inspiration… or at least some redeeming quality … from the service of Confederate veterans?

Robert has a poll on his site that addresses that question.  Please click over there and offer your take.

However, let me take Robert’s point and step to another…. Consider if you will our oral history, and to a degree the ‘pop’ history, with respect to the Confederate veterans.  As Robert and others say, there is a legacy of reconciliation and … in general… “coming to terms.”  Indeed the vast majority of former Confederates reverted to U.S. citizenship, and for all measure there was little to question that loyalty.  (And lets remember… there are a lot of loyal Americans who disagree with Presidents, Congress, or particular laws.  That disagreement is well below the measure of disloyalty.)

Some of this plays out in our collective memory of those post-war years.  Again, the oral and pop history give us plenty of examples to lean on, if we are searching for inspiration of the kind Robert alludes to.  One stereotypical figure is the “Confederate in blue.”  Not talking specifically of the “Galvanized Yankees” who were more so a wartime convention, being recruited from the prisoner camps.  More so the former Confederates who after the war served in the US Army.  As the stereotype works, that was linked to the frontier.  We see that stereotype personified in the westerns of the 20th century.  An ample example is “Trooper John Smith” from that classic “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”


Here’s a clip of that movie in which “John Smith’s” Confederate service receives notice, at about the 1:40 mark:

Later, as Captain Nathan Brittles lays Smith to rest, he offers this eulogy:

I also commend to your keeping, Sir, the soul of Rome Clay, late Brigadier General, Confederate States Army. Known to his comrades here, Sir, as Trooper John Smith, United States Cavalry… a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.

Another dialog occurs in the movie “Fort Apache” as Captain Yorke (John Wayne again) discusses a detail with Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday, with some situational humor laced in:

 Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: I’m for it, Captain. How many men will you need?

Captain Yorke: One, sir. Sergeant Beaufort.

RSM Michael O’Rourke: PRIVATE Beaufort, sir!

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Why him?

Captain Yorke: He speaks Spanish – so does Cochise. My Apache has its limits.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Shouldn’t you take another officer instead?

Captain Yorke: Well, Sergeant Beaufort was…

RSM Michael O’Rourke: PRIVATE Beaufort, sir!

Captain Yorke: Private Beaufort was a major in the Confederate army… an aide to Jeb Stuart.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Hmm. I remember “Kaydet” Stuart. He was…

Captain Collingwood: Quite.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Were you saying something, Captain?

Captain Collingwood: I said, “Quite,” sir.

Some will wash this off as just the “reconciliationist” attitudes still persistent in 1949.  Like much of our history, there is more here than a simple explanation.

How many former Confederates went west to serve in the US Army?  I don’t think anyone has ever quantified that.  There were without doubt some “Trooper John Smiths” and “Sergeant Beauforts” were out there.  Though I don’t think it was a significant portion of the force.

Hollywood… or specifically, John Ford… looked to bring some positive and inspirational qualities out from the story of individual Confederate veterans. Yes we need to put it in context of an overall “we are Americans and reconciled” theme.  But we also need to consider why the writers and directors chose to pinpoint these particular details.  Is it not to show that individuals are… well… individuals?  And there is something to everyone’s story that is worth consideration?

I dare say that trend, with respect to Confederate veterans, continues in Hollywood today:

I think the study of such characters – Trooper John Smith, Sergeant … er.. Private Beaufort, and Cullen Bohannon – serves a valuable purpose.  These were individuals.  And individuals can be measured both “inside of” and “aside from” what ever causes they might have served.

What do you say?

“Historically Illiterate” – McCullough on teaching history

Earlier this week, 60-Minutes aired the second part of a profile of historian David McCullough.  I suspect most readers are familiar with his work, although it is perhaps scoped more to the general audience as opposed to the “hard core” Civil War readers out there.  Adding more to his “pop historian” status, he has narrated dozens of documentaries.  As the joke says, Americans would sit and listen to McCullough narrate a documentary on a root canal.

At any rate, he offered a scathing review of the American educational system during that profile:

David McCullough: We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate.

Morley Safer: The teaching of history has become your hobbyhorse, correct?

David McCullough: Yes.

Morley Safer: You, you, calling us historically illiterate.

David McCullough: Yes. I feel that very much so. I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.

Morley Safer: But are the teachers themselves semi-illiterate in history?

David McCullough: Well we need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers. I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

There’s a lot to chew on there.

Where I used my NPS annual pass this year

Around this time every year I purchase a new “Interagency Annual Pass.”  The pass costs $80 and covers entrance fees at sites run by the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, and the National Park Service.

Of course I end up using my pass mostly at national parks, and usually refer to the pass as such (“NPS pass” sounds “kewl” while “Interagency Annual Pass” sounds like some badge used to gain access to the office cafeteria).  Officially the program is “America the Beautiful – the National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass.”

Here’s a tally of places where my entrance fee was covered this year (from August 2010 to August 2011):

  • Wilson’s Creek – $10.
  • Pea Ridge – $10.
  • Shenandoah / Blue Ridge Parkway – four visits at $10 each.
  • Colonial National Historic Park (Yorktown) – $10.
  • Manassas – eight visits at $3 each.
  • Harpers Ferry – six visits at $6 each.
  • Antietam – two visits at $6 each.
  • Fort Pulaski – $5
  • Castillo de San Marcos – $18 (three adult passes).

I may have missed a few visits in the list.  But at a minimum the pass covered $165 worth of entrance fees.  Can’t beat a 200% return on an investment these days.  But as my wife is quick to point out, I end up blowing that “savings” in the park bookstore every single time!

Of course many (if not most) of the national parks have no entrance fee.  For those that do collect, 80% of the fees go to maintenance projects in the park where the fees were collected.  The other 20% goes to a larger fund for parks where fees are not collected.  It is my understanding that the money collected from the annual passes (such as the one I purchase) goes into that fund distributed to parks without entrance fees.

I figure with the sesquicentennial continuing over the next few years, the park pass will continue to pay for itself.  And that’s why I recommend these passes to others.  Nothing says “I’m a history geek who likes the great outdoors” better than an annual park pass!

Pick it up at a newsstand near you…

The August 2011 issue of Civil War Times went out last week to subscribers, and is appearing on the newsstands. This issue is a bit special for me, and I get to toot my own horn some (not that bloggers get enough of that anyway!). I have both an article and a letter to the editor posted in the issue.

In the Mail Call section I did a follow up to David Schneider’s “Lee’s Armored Car” article in the February issue.  The photographs accompanying the article allow for detailed analysis of the cannon in question.

My main contribution to the issue is an article titled “Yankee Super Gun” about the 4.5-inch Siege Rifles used during the Civil War.  Aside from introducing some of the technical details of the weapon, the piece emphasizes the role two batteries of Connecticut artillery played while using those guns in support of the Army of the Potomac.

The lead in question asks if the guns, which were left behind on the march to Gettysburg, might have made a difference in the battle.  While I’m inclined to say “yes” there are simply too many “if statements” for anyone to make conclusions.  The big 4.5’s may have caused great disruptions among the Confederate batteries, but the space needed to form those two Connecticut batteries would have supplanted other Federal guns that were there.  So I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what might have been.

Dana Shoaf, Chris Howland, and Sarah Mock, along with the others on the staff of Civil War Times, are a pleasure to work with.  I thank them for the chance to write and look forward to similar future opportunities.

On Being a Veteran

Preface:  Let me say this post has been stuck in my head for some time.  Perhaps years.  Maybe too glum for most, and certainly not in tone with most of my usual writings.  Still I felt the need to put my feelings into words.  If for nothing else to achieve some clarity of mind on a subject that I wrestle with often.

I assume most reading this blog know the history behind the Veterans Day holiday.  If not, the short version is that in 1954, Congress changed Armistice Day, recalling the end of World War I, to honor U.S. Veterans of all wars.  Armistice Day is somewhat “international,” with nearly every western nation using the historic date to recognize the service of military veterans or wartime sacrifices.

Here in the U.S., I think Veterans Day gets short shrift.  Memorial Day at the end of May, with most of the country looking into the summer, overshadows the November holiday.   Sure, news programs and editorial pages will bring out stories to consider.  Banks will close.  The mail won’t run.  And restaurants around the country will offer special deals to veterans (as I shall be partaking later today).  But scant fewer parades than decades past.  And very few people taking the day off work.   Perhaps the lack of attention is due to the linkage to an almost forgotten war.   Or perhaps because the date is set on November 11 and not conveniently moved to a Monday or Friday to facilitate a three day weekend.  Or perhaps, as some have lamented, the appreciation of service has diminished since 1918 (although I will cite ample evidence to the contrary).

Personally I make it a point to take the day off from work.   In my younger days, especially while I was in the Army, I viewed this as “our” holiday.  With the inclusive pronoun indicating myself and fellow veterans.   Not in a self-centered sort of way, mind you.  Rather, from the stance that “we” needed to relate to the country what our experiences were.   And that date on the calendar was a platform for expressing such.

And what makes the veterans’ perspective differ, requiring this day?  A few years back a young man, in his twenties, pointed out to me there were many different ways to serve the country aside from military service (he was pointing to work in the government sector).  However, I responded, the duty which the soldier is called to perform is far different, in its nature, than your average government worker is apt to perform.

I’ll be blunt for brevity.  A solider, sailor, airman, or marine is trained to perform, and unfortunately many times called upon to perform, actions which are actually contrary to society’s ethical rules – killing or maiming other human beings.  And unlike law enforcement professions, the soldier is not performing those acts in the name of justice in response to wrong-doings by the targeted individual.  Rather, those acts are done on behalf of, in the name of, and with the direction of the society and are directed towards another society or nationality as a whole.

It is certainly a very fine line to draw.  When a soldier kills on the battlefield, his actions are condoned by society.  And if that same soldier returns from the battlefield and continues those actions, he is condemned by society.   In military schools, we are taught that the mark of a professional army is the sense of discipline which a soldier carries even beyond the service.  I would guess that applies here, indicating the difference between those honored on November 11 and those who are not.

Writers far more skilled than I have weighed in on the moral dilemma faced by a soldier in war.  And many a screenwriter has worked it onto film.  My personal favorite is still Sergeant York.   In the movie, starring Gary Cooper, York voices his concerns about killing when first entering the service.  Later he is asked why his stance would change.  The dialog is somewhat cumbersome compared to more recent movies.  And York’s response is awash with religious themes.  But the point is fairly addressed, regardless if you chose to discount its validity.

But the veterans story is often also awash with a double dose of “glory.”  Consider this vintage trailer from the movie in question:

“In the glorious annals of America’s most distinguished heroes….”

Almost as if we need glory to flavor the “war” in order to make it palatable.   Movie-makers, writers, and even historians will often use glorification in order to step around the ghastly aspects of the experiences.  Kevin Levin recently pointed this aspect out with respect to the Richard Kirkland “Angel of Marye’s Heights” story.  Yes, indeed, we often limit our view of war to exclude the horrors – and I for one would argue to society’s detriment in the long run.

However, there is another perspective in all this story telling.  Consider the Kirkland story, along with the Sergeant York story, and countless others told from the veterans’ perspective.   Would a person who has seen the horrors, and inflicted horrors upon his fellow man, chose to consciously disregard and downplay them?  Is this itself a silent expression of guilt or remorse?  Does a veteran have something to feel ashamed of?

On the other hand, to use the familiar story of Richard Kirkland as an example, is this not an attempt by the veteran to reconnect with his human side?  In short, to convince the listener, that in spite of the barbarities that the veteran remains human (and to be clear in the Kirkland case, a “witness” to the event and not Kirkland himself).  Proof that in spite of the grim, dark environment, which would try the morality of even the strongest individual, the veteran remained, at the core, true to the values which society has set.  Again, being blunt for brevity – that a soldier can kill his fellow man, yet not be turned into some hideous animal by that action.

Yes, in a perfect world, there would simply be no need for soldiering, and therefore no veterans.  In a perfect world we would not have wars or conflicts or contention.  In reality, until humankind develops a more peaceful way to resolve contention for resources (be those natural, economic, terrestrial or … spiritual), there will be wars, and therefore a need for soldiers, who will hopefully survive to become veterans.

I’ll leave discussion of the “glorification of war” in the movies and novels for another day, and away from this blog.  But when I hear or read a veteran speak on the war, and put a bit of “glory” in the story without the “gore”, I can see where he or she is standing.  From my personal experience I know they are seeking, as I do often, some redemption and acknowledgment from a society that sent me to war.  They are seeking to know the fires which touched them, to reference Oliver Wendell Holmes well known speech, did not change their humanity.   Even while writing this post, I have a “cleansing” sense in my soul.

That is why, I believe, we as a society need those war generation monuments on the Civil War battlefields*, the doughboy statues on the courthouse squares, the war memorials on the national mall, and… well … a Veterans Day.

* Please note I make a distinction here between monuments placed by the veterans organizations and those placed by non-veteran organizations in subsequent generations.