The 2014 Arkansas Historical Association Meeting

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Historic Washington State Park. This is the courthouse built in 1874.

Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. This year, the meeting was at Historic Washington state Park, which is not too far from Hope, the birthplace of Bill Clinton. I went to the AHA meeting last year, too, in Helena. In 2015, the meeting will be in West Memphis.

What I like about the AHA meeting is that it’s a mix of academics, amateur historians, and the general public. It’s not nearly as formal as a conference like the Southern Historical association meeting of the Society of Civil War historians. Those types of meeting tend to be held in big cities. You give your paper in a hotel conference or ball room. In contrast, I’ve been to two AHA meetings, and both times I gave a talk in a historic church.

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Methodist Church. Historic Washington State Park.

Last year, I spoke about Johnny Cash, Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform in Arkansas. This year, I chose a very different topic. I did my twenty minutes on Charline Person, a planter from Miller County, who became one of the most prominent citizens in Miller County, which is in the southwest corner of the state.

I had a pretty good turn-out for my talk. The crowd at the AHA tends to be older than at conferences geared toward professors and graduate students. But any crowd is a good crowd, and the people at the AHA meetings are an attentive bunch. I enjoyed the talk.

I was also impressed by Historic Washington, which is much bigger than I thought it would be. The site was the capital for Arkansas once Little Rock fell in 1863. The 1836 Hempstead Courthouse is where the legislature met for the latter part of the war. The buildings at Washington have been painstakingly restored. Friday, the day I gave my paper, was a beautiful springs day in Arkansas. And it as nice to walk around, look at buildings, and take pictures.

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Hempstead County Courthouse, built in 1836. Site of where the the Confederate legislature met after the fall of Little Rock in September 1863.

I also visited the Bill Clinton house, which is run by the National Park Service. Downtown Hope, unfortunately, has gone the way of many communities in Arkansas. Much like Helena, downtown Hope is a shell of its former glory, where thriving business are the exception rather than the rule. Amtrak still has a line that runs through Hope. But when I was there, things were pretty quiet.

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Hope, Arkansas.

I can now say that I’ve been to all four corners of Arkansas. For me, that means Fayetteville, Hope, Osceola, and Lakeport. I’m not sure what I might present on next year, but it will likely have to do with Johnny Cash. After all, the 2015 meeting will be as close to Memphis as you can get while still being in Arkansas.

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In Defense of Otey

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So, no likes Otey. The haters surely are correct. The Natural State deserves better. The Travelers should be ashamed of themselves. They should instead follow the example of Fayetteville and name mascots after more enlightened and respectable creatures: like the pig. I don’t know how to put possum-speak on a bumper sticker. But it could never have the gravitas of “woo-pig-sooie.”

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Will Arkansas ever recover from the great Otey debacle? Only Bill could say.

I’ve only been to one Travelers game. Back in 2012. I had a good time. But I was a bit surprised by the large number of military-grade weapons that were being displayed inside the front gates. Was it some kind of gun show? Were Arkansans just being vigilant, given the possibility that an unwanted possum might show up? I’m not sure. I also saw a truck that was essentially a Confederate flag with wheels.

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A possum mascot has no right to bring down the rebellion-fueled buzz of whomever drives this van.

High-powered rifles and Rebel flags, of course, deserve a central, even ubiquitous place at our baseball games (and in our society in general). But a cartoon possum? Not so much. The barefoot Otey, with a bat slung over his shoulder, one button undone on his overalls—and wearing what I can only guess is an ironically displayed bowler hat—clearly perpetuates an Arkansas stereotype. Since Arkansas has eliminated all remnants of racism, poverty, political buffoonery, and religious extremism from its society, it’s time to focus our anger on the important things: the politics of minor league mascots.

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At a Travelers game, you can get a beer, a dog, and a high-powered rifle.

I lived for five years in Richmond, Va., where the minor league baseball team was called the Flying Squirrels. Before they were the Squirrels, the Richmond team was the Braves, whose fans are known to do the “Tomahawk Chop” at games. In Richmond, I was also two hours away from the nations’ capital, whose professional football team is the Washington Redskins. Clearly, Otey is a far more absurd and offensive creature, who is keeping Arkansas at the bottom of educational rankings, per capita income, and crime.
Otey needs to go. Or maybe Little Rock should change the name of the Travelers to the Awesome Possums. Think about it. Anyone can be a Traveler. But not everyone can be awesome.

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The Drive-By Truckers’ Albums: A List

Music fans love lists. Don’t believe me, watch High Fidelity. And in honor of that tradition, I’m listing my favorite Drive-By Truckers albums.

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Drive-By Truckers in Little Rock, May 2013.

The Truckers hail from northern Alabama. The band’s founding members, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been playing together for decades. The two are around 50 years old now, but they show no sings of slowing down. The band has always made southern culture a centerpiece of their song-writing. And many of their songs explicitly address the South’s troubled past, no more so than on their double album Southern Rock Opera, which covers everything from George Wallace to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Bear Bryant. The Truckers could be called post-modern, I guess, but Cooley and Patterson at times also seem like something out of the nineteenth century. They have old souls, and that’s one reason why I like them.

Anyway, here’s my list of my favorite Truckers albums.

1. Brighter than Creation is Dark (2008). Not only is this my favorite Truckers album, I also think it’s their best. It was the first album the band put out after the departure of guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jason Isbell. Brighter is something like the Truckers’ “White Album,” a double album’s worth of material that spans various styles, from hard rock to country. It shows all the players at the top of their game. Perhaps more than any other Truckers album, I like the Cooley-Hood songs about equally. I’d give the edge to Cooley, but that’s because even though I love Patterson, Cooley is the man.

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The album opens with the beautiful and haunting “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife.” On its own terms, the song is perhaps the prettiest Hood has ever written. But, it being a Truckers song, there’s a dark undercurrent. The song was written after the brutal home invasion killing of the Harvey family from Richmond, Va., a town that has treated the Truckers well. The song talks about heaven, but doesn’t explicitly talk about the crime. That’s interesting, because the Truckers catalog is full of murder ballads. But apparently when it came to a real murder, Hood approached the material indirectly.

Brighter’s next track is a classic example of counterpoint. Hood’s “Two Daughters’” is acoustic and gentle. Cooley’s “Two Dimes Down” begins with a filthy, Stones-like blast of electric guitar. The first two songs on the album set the tone for the entire record–a mix of light and dark, acoustic and electric, sad and funny. In addition to Cooley and Hood, Shonna Tucker, then the bands’ bassist, adds a few good songs. It must have been hard for Shonna to be in band with so much testosterone. Now, she is on tour with her band Eye Candy.

Patterson Hood adds what I think is his bet songs about the middle class struggle in America, “The Righteous Path,” which speaks of having “a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas, I got a house in a neighborhood that’s fading fast/Got a dog and cat that don’t fight too much, I got a few hundred channels to keep me in touch.” It’s an uptempo salute to those who have a too much debt, a whole lot of fear, and a boat that ain’t seen the water in years.

Mike Cooley’s “Bob” is the goofiest song on the album, but in many ways the most touching, too, as it talks about a small town lone wolf, who is more content to drinks beers and play with his dog than find a mate. The lyrics are in the third person, but in a strange way, it might be the most autobiographical tune that the enigmatic, taciturn Cooley has ever written.

2. The Dirty South (2004). Last I checked, this was the Truckers’ best-selling album. It was the second album with Jason Isbell, who was much younger than the other members of the band, but could hold his own as a drinker, songwriter, and guitar player. After getting sober, he has become a successful solo artist. At the time of Dirty South, he and the rest of the band could do no wrong.

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Patterson Hood contributes one of his most moving songs, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” about his uncle, who, it turns out, was more of a father to Patterson than his real father was. The rest of Patterson’s songs are not at all sentimental. “Putting People on the Moon” is one of the bleakest songs I’ve ever heard. The lyrics speak of unemployment, drug-dealing, cancer, and bankruptcy, themes made all the more unsettling because of the song’s pounding tempo and raw, grungy arrangement.

The songs by Patterson and Isbell are good. But the songs Cooley wrote for this album are, quite simply, astounding. The lightest of them is “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about the heyday of Sun Records in Memphis. The album, however, opens with the terrific and badass “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” about an Alabama bootlegger during the Great Depression. Cooley’s other songs are equally good. “Cottonseed” is a companion piece to “Devil” in that it also talks about a criminal, a man who boats he has “put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cotton seed.” Cooley wisely chose to record the song with just him and his acoustic guitar. The song is roughly six minutes long, but the lyrics are so good you don’t want it to end.

The last of Cooley’s songs on the album is “Daddy’s Cup,” about a race car driver and the relationship with his father. It’s one of those songs I wish the Truckers would do live. The song is not as stripped down as “Cottonseed,” but it mostly consists of Cooley and his guitar. But this time, the song is fast-paced, like racing. I always have thought that someone could make a great animated film from this song. The lyrics evoke strong images.

Dirty South doesn’t tackle southern history the way Southern Rock Opera does, but it contains an interesting take on the legend of Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff, who was the inspiration for the movie Walking Tall. Hood talks about Pusser from the viewpoint of the criminals, saying the Pusser was just another crooked lawman shutting down the operations of hardworking businessmen. Maybe someone could make a movie about what Patterson calls the “other side of the story.”

3. Southern Rock Opera (2001). Few bands are as cool as Drive-By Truckers. But their breakthrough album was one of those things that are the bane of the punk generation: a rock opera. SRO, however, was the album on which the Truckers gelled. It was the first one to feature fiery, demented Wes Freed artwork, which complimented the band’s aesthetic quite well. The album has strong elements of punk and grunge. And so it’s more a concept album in the way the Who might have done it rather than say, the Moody Blues.D2CD01

Even in the band’s catalog, SRO remains unusual. It’s the only one that spans two discs. The only one that contains no acoustic guitar. It was an album that took on many topics: The South, history, racism, the battle between Neil Young and Skynyrd. It’s an angry, raw statement. Patterson has said that he thought Cooley wrote the two best songs on the album, though I’m not sure which. Patterson has admitted that it was an album on which he could geek-out some. He read up on his Alabama history for songs about George Wallace and Bear Bryant. “The Three Alabama Icons” contains so much verbiage that it was recorded as a spoken-word song. SRO concluded with “Angels and Fuselage” about the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zandt and other members of his band. I saw thew band do  “angels and Fuselage” in Richmond a closer to the band’s 2010 Halloween weekend show. One-by-one, the band members left the stage as the drummer kept the beat–symbolic of those who disappeared during the plane crash. It was a dramatic end to a terrific show.

4. The Big To-Do (2010). I’ve always found this to be the band’s most underrated record. It contains perhaps Cooley’s best rocker, “Birthday Boy,” one of the greatest songs ever written about a strip club. The Truckers played down the southern history angle on this record. And it doesn’t have the best songs the band ever recorded. But it is one of the band’s best achievements in sound and production. The songs explode. Cooley’s guitar is on fire. Truckers fans might not talk much about tunes like “Santa Fe,” but it’s the type of perfect throwaway songs that bands make when they are at their peak.

5. English Oceans (2014). The band went back to basics here. This is the first album to feature only songs by Cooley and Hood. There’s not much southern history here, and not much country twang. But there’s much more energy than the band’s previous effort, Go-Go Boots. Apparently, Cooley emerged from a long period of writer’s block before writing the songs on this record. Most of them are good. But Patterson’s songs are better. His memorial to Craig Lieske on “Grand Canyon” is the closest thing the Truckers have ever come to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmire.”

6. Gangstabilly (1998). This was the first Truckers album, and it’s surprisingly good, given what the band would do later. The album blends elements of hard rock and country acoustic. The barnburner is “Buttholeville,” which apparently got the band in trouble in the early days, as it was seen as a swipe at club owners. It’s filthy and funny, like a good southern rock song should be. But the funniest song is “Steve McQueen,” about one of Patterson’s movie heroes. Cooley was still finding his way as writer, but he was capable of his typical smartassery on “Panties in Your Purse.”

7. Decoration Day (2003). This is usually considered one of the Truckers’ best albums, but I’ve never connected with the way other fans have. Jason Isbell contributes the best son on it, “Outfit,” which tells of a father warning his son to not ever sing with a fake English accent, call home on your sister’s birthday, and remember that southern men tell better jokes. My favorite song, though, is “Sinkhole,” one of the band’s many murder ballads. When I saw the band in early 2013, they did a lot of songs from this album.

8. Pizza Deliverance (1999). An album very similar in style to Gangstabilly. Again, it blends rock and country. It’s funny, too. But the band clearly needed to make a big leap to go from being good to great–a leap that Southern Rock Opera provided.

9. Go-Go Boots. Looking back on this album after a few years, one can see that it was a transition record. Shonna Tucker was on the way out as the band’s bass player and third songwriter. Diehard Truckers fans don’t usually give her much credit, but I always liked her way of balancing the albums with a much-needed female perspective. The energy of the band’s other albums is lacking. As a songwriter, Cooley was out of gas, and the music wasn’t inspired.

10. A Blessing and a Curse (2006). Watch the documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending and you’ll see Jason Isbell strumming a guitar listlessly during the Blessing sessions. As the record was being put in the can. Isbell’s marriage to Shonna Tucker was dissolving. And Isbell would soon be gone from the band. His two songs on the album are the worst he did with the Truckers. But no one else in the band was doing well either.

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Guest Columnist: 12 Years a Slave

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Charles Harrison Fitzhugh in 2009.

Today we’re featuring a first on Southern Historian. This post is by Charles Harrison Fitzhugh, who works at the Life and Liberty and Institute, a conservative think tank in Roanoke, Virginia. He is also the author of Abraham Lincoln: War Criminal, John Birch: Sage Patriot, and Why Obama is the Anti-Christ and other Tales for Right-Thinking Children. He recently watched 12 Years a Slave. Here is his review.

(I was asked to watch this “film” by Mr. Historian, who I think no better than a communist and pedant. Nevertheless, I did sit in my chair for more than two whole hours, hoping that I could deflect some of the arrows this movie shoots at my beloved heritage. Actually, I was reassured by this movie, which I viewed on my Samsung UHD S9 during commercial breaks during the Patriots/Broncos game. Here are my thoughts.)

12 Years a Slave is set in the golden age of free market capitalism. The plot centers around hardworking job creators–essentially large-scale farmers–who were the progenitors of regional economic dynamism. At one point, a free black musician by the name of Solomon Northup gets drunk and finds himself in a waiting room of a firm’s corporate offices in Washington, D.C. There, after reconsidering his professional future, he awaits transfer to the Deep South. After regaining consciousness after his night of ill-advised debauchery playing fiddle (the devil’s music), he meets some men further up the corporate ladder. These men advise Solomon that he should accept the conditions of his transfer rather than negotiate for better terms of employment. These men apparently are at the middle management stage of their careers. They are effective motivators, who expedite Solomon’s relocation, which is all-expenses-paid.

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Slaves developed a marketable skill set.

On the boat down to New Orleans, Solomon meets disgruntled black workers, one of whom was Omar on The Wire. One of conspirators wants to mutiny in order to gain his “freedom.” However, Solomon, who no doubt knew–despite being subjected to the falsehoods of abolitionist fanatics–that “slavery” was far, far better than working in a northern factory. Solomon thereby chooses not to take part in an illegal revolt on the ship. Wise decision. One of the conspirators is killed and thrown overboard. Solomon’s work reassignment is allowed to continue unimpeded.

Once in Louisiana, Solomon is taken in by a kindhearted master, named Ford, played by Sherlock Holmes. Before being sent to work, we are shown the interview process whereby servants found new employers. It is in essence a cramped Human Resources office, run by a colorful, hilariously overworked, and well spoken Mr. Freeman, played by Paul Giamatti.

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Mr. Freeman (played by Paul Giamatti), what a rascal!

This grizzled, fast-talking salesman is like an Old South Archie Bunker. He shuns paperwork and bureaucracy and makes precious observations about people of color. What I found even better is that in this scene, the market speaks. There is minimal complaining on all sides concerning the natural workings of supply and demand.

Solomon finds himself working as a carpenter on a south Louisiana plantation. The place is like something from a tourism brochure, with dripping Spanish moss and verdant scenery. But Solomon, who is used to crass northern ways, criticizes his supervisor, a carpenter named Tibeats, who looks a bit like a young Pete Townshend. Solomon and his supervisor quarrel over how best to build a structure, and Solomon is justly reprimanded for speaking out of turn.

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Solomon and Mr. Ford. With scenery like this, it’s no wonder few slaves ever ran away.

Solomon’s master decides it would be better to (again!) transfer the troublesome Solomon, who clearly has no respect for the costs involved in corporate management. Rather than continue to suffer a decline in productivity at the plantation, Ford sends Solomon to a new employer.

Louisiana is a Right to Work state, and the movie documents the history of how crushing the souls of workers has benefited the South, which consistently ranks at the top of per capita income, educational achievement, low crime, and quality of life. 12 Years a Slave shows the wisdom of settling disputes quickly by individuals rather than enduring arbitration and other tiresome practices found in organized labor.

The Freedom and Liberty Institute has advocated for the abolition of the minimum wage,  a federal balanced budget amendment, the repeal of constitutional amendments 1 and 3-27, reinstatement of the gold standard, privatization of Social Security, liquidation of the Federal Reserve, reestablishment of debtor prisons, and other fiscally responsible measures. 12 Years a Slave shows what employers can do when freed from OSHA, Obamacare, child labor laws, and other drags on the free market. Supply-side economics clearly works. The workers depicted in this movie want for nothing, as they are given free housing, clothing, and provided with organic, fresh foods. The meat is even free range! When you think about it, the plantations were like the first Whole Foods stores.

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Mr. Epps motivates Solomon.

Unfortunately, the film presents a distorted picture of “slavery.” One problem I had was that the movie depicted southerners as slaveholders. As everyone knows, only 5% of southerners in the antebellum era ever owned a slave. True. Look it up. Read your history, ignoramus. The other  95% of southerners of course had no interest or stake in slavery whatsoever. If you examine newspapers from say, October 1859, southerners were not talking about slavery or abolitionism at all. They were instead concerned with things like the tariff, which put an unfair burden on southern capitalists. The movie would’ve been far more historically accurate had it not dealt with slavery at all.

Nor does the movie deal with the cherished legal tradition of English property rights. As Mr. Epps states so insightfully in the movie, his slaves are his property, and he can do with them as he pleases. No one would condemn a man’s right to own a chicken, would he? Same with slavery. Maybe if you hate slavery, you should become a vegan. Property, too, like cows and chickens, must be kept in line through ruthless shows of force.

Slave revolts were awful things for masters. I mean, what if my Samsung UHD S9 all of a sudden sprouted legs and ran out my door in a mad dash to the Ohio River? Would you really object to me stopping it from doing so? Obviously, Mr. Epps’ claim to ironclad property rights–inherited from Locke, who wrote of one’s right to life, liberty, and property– has the better argument over the weak “humanitarian” critique of human bondage and chattel slavery.

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Slavery: one big party.

On the whole, the movie shows how the free market incentivizes its workers. Solomon eventually is transferred back to the North, where he thinks he can find better economic opportunities. Solomon’s employers instilled in him a valuable work ethic, and gave him marketable skills like cutting sugar cane and picking cotton. But if you ask me, Solomon was nothing but an ungrateful trouble maker.

Sadly, this film shows how abolitionist propaganda still permeates the minds of the liberal Hollywood establishment. Naturally, the film’s backer, Mr. Bradley Pitt, is made to look the hero. Tough talk coming from a man who has made his fortune playing vampires and con men! And his wife is known for playing a lesbian drug-addict in Gia (I know, because I’ve seen that movie, many, many times). This movie presents a hopelessly biased look at antebellum southern life. Of course it’s easy to make slavery look bad in some ways. If you crammed all the bad things that have happened to you in the last 12 years, it would look something like this movie.

12 Years a Slave? More like 12 Years of Vacation.

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Paul Fussell’s “Doing Battle”

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I recently finished reading Paul Fussell’s memoir, Doing Battle, about his experiences growing up in Pasadena, California, as an officer in Europe during World War II, and as a teacher and scholar at Rutgers and Princeton. Fussell received his doctorate in English from Harvard, and he is best known for two books that combine history and literature–The Great War in Modern Memory and Wartime, the latter of which is about WWII. The Great War won him a National Book Award. Yet, I liked Wartime more. And perhaps Fussell’s most accessible and humorous book is Class, about the class structure in the United States. Fussell was very funny, and I laughed more at Doing Battle than I probably should have.

Fussell is one of those people who you hoped would live forever. He didn’t of course, but his books have a timeless quality. I heard about Fussell in grad school via word of mouth from an English major friend of mine. I thought The Great War was a solid piece of scholarship, but I there was often too many trees and not enough forest. Wartime is funnier, and Fussell draws on his own experiences during the Battle of the Bulge to write about the wastefulness of what was the bloodiest conflict of all time.

Doing Battle suggests that life itself is a battle, but Fussell’s early days were idyllic. He grew up in Pasadena, a symbol of the golden promises of middle class America. He was raised during the Depression, but his father was a lawyer, and the Fussell family was free from want. His childhood was pretty puritanical. No drugs or sex. PF (as he called himself) attended Pomona College, founded by New Englanders and one of the best small liberal arts schools in the country. Rules were strict at Pomona back then, and Fussell went to war a virgin. After finishing school, he joined the army, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant.

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The war forever changed Fussell. His experiences in the bitterly cold slaughterhouse in northern Europe destroyed his typically American sense of optimism. Fussell always had a bent toward the irreverent, but his experiences in combat would give him a new sense of the absurd. Fussell had no illusions about the war. He was dedicated and conscientious, but he resented the fact that Germany kept fighting, despite the fact that the war was decidedly lost for them by late 1944. Nevertheless, in December of that year, Hitler unleashed the massive offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was the bloodiest battle Americans have ever fought, and it lasted for a month. Fussell survived the Bulge unhurt, but he was wounded in March 1945. By then, the war had less than two months to go in Europe.

Fussell’s account of the war is utterly without romance. For him, battle involved the cold hard work of the infantryman. No gallant charges or epic landscapes. Just death and fox holes and constant fear. At one point, he describes the unpleasant experience of having shit himself due to a bout of diarrhea. Other men suffered the same fate, and it was those kinds of experiences that brought men together. Fussell was an officer, but he writes that the role of a lieutenant was minimal. Lieutenants were mostly there for encouragement, not brilliant tactical decisions.

Fussell was no proponent of the “Good War” thesis concerning World War II. For him, there were only bad wars and worse wars. Any ideological meaning behind what the U.S. was doing wasn’t really considered by him or his men. Fussell did not see the U.S. as being in the war for humanitarian reasons. For him, the war was simply something the U.S., had to do. Despite the good that came from stopping Nazism, Fussell saw the war as inherently brutalizing, random, and stupid.

Fussell’s time in the hospital recovering from his artillery wound was for him one of his worst experiences of the war. He had to bunk next to a man who had had a colostomy. For Fussell, the man’s stench and complaining were unbearable. Fussell had been luckier with his wound, which did not permanently impair his life. However, Fussell’s rage at the man was symptomatic of the anger he would carry with him for years after the war.

When returned to the States, he attended Harvard as a grad student in English. He was a dedicated, even monastic student, but not gifted in foreign languages, which were part of the grad school curriculum. Nevertheless, he passed his qualifying exams and finished his dissertation. He went on to become an accomplished scholar.

Fussell’s book contains one of the better accounts of the bipolar nature of teaching. He groans about the constant preparing, grading, and stressing involved in teaching undergraduate writing. But he also calls his years at Rutgers happy ones. In one poignant passage, he talks about how empty a college classroom feels without students in it. Fussell also writes memorably of his experiences at the Imperial War Museum in London, where he did the research for The Great War, using materials that had hardly been touched since the war. The pages he devotes to the research are one of the best endorsements of the joys of the archives you’ll ever read.

The monastic stance Fussell took in graduate school stemmed in part from his puritanical upbringing. But it was a necessary part of the creative process. Fussell notes at one point how isolation was vital to his writing, as it is for any real thinker. Isolation clearly worked for Fussell, who is one of the rare writers who appeals to various disciplines in the humanities. He was a great historian, writer, and critic. It’s a cliché that academics don’t know how to write for a general audience. Fussell didn’t write “pop” books. But anyone with a junior high school education could enjoy Doing Battle.

Fussell was one of the talking heads on Ken Burns’s documentary about WWII, called simply The War. Fussell did not spout platitudes about the “Greatest Generation.” He will be missed.

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“A Great and a Terrible Day”: The Battle of Antietam

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Back in September, I started reading Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red about the battle of Antietam, still the bloodiest day in American history. In the movie Glory, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, an abolitionist, called it a “great and a terrible day.” The carnage in Maryland was appalling, but it was a victory, and it spurred Lincoln to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Landscape Turned Red is a classic, and I guess I started reading it as a way to celebrate the 151st anniversary of the battle.

Sears takes him time getting to the bloodshed. At one point, I was 150 pages in, and the fighting at Sharpsburg hadn’t happened yet. There’s a lot of background information leading up to the events of 17 September 1862. We learn much about McClellan (Sears is his best biographer; see his work The Young Napoleon) and the feud “Little Mac” had with Lincoln over supplies and timetables. McClellan, Lincoln complained, suffered from the “slows.” And it was very difficult for Lincoln to get McClellan moving. The story of the Army of the Potomac from late-1861 to late-1862 is the story of an internal battle between the “Young Napoleon” and the Lincoln Administration.

McClellan was a gifted commander, but he was no Napoleon. He was at his best when he was training and equipping his soldiers. He was good on the defensive. But he lacked one of the most crucial elements of a great commander: aggressiveness. As we learn in Sears’s pages, an aggressive commander would have crushed Lee’s army at Antietam. McClellan, convinced he was outnumbered, attacked Lee’s forces piecemeal, and he kept thousands of men in reserve that could have overwhelmed the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee got lucky to have fought the North to a draw in Maryland. However, despite being outnumbered 2:1, Lee held a psychological advantage over McClellan that allowed him to fight a better battle tactically. McClellan always thought Lee had more men, and it was this delusion that gave Lee confidence that he could carry the day. Federal troops’ morale was high and they fought well, but they were mismanaged. McClellan did not visit the front lines. Lee had good coordination among his officers, and he directed the battle firsthand. His men were torn apart at the cornfield and the sunken road, but they held on.

Lee was aggressive, and he drove his men hard. He had taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia in early June, and by the end of 1862, his army had fought four major campaigns (at the Seven Days, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg). Lee was the best chance the Confederacy had for achieving victory. And he knew every month was critical.

Reading Sears’s book got me thinking: one of the misconceptions people have about the past is that it was somehow slow, simple, or leisurely. Yet, people didn’t live as long as they do now, and so they didn’t waste their time to such a great degree. Laziness was a much more serious thing. Crops needed tending, animals needed feeding. You worked a lot to make a meal or build a house or get to the store. Yes, there were no cars or planes, but people still traveled, and it’s amazing how far they managed to get on foot. If you think the past was slow or boring, read about the Antietam campaign.

In late June 1862, Robert E. Lee took command of what would become the Army of Northern Virginia. The situation was dire for the South. The North’s Army of the Potomac was five miles from the Confederate capital. At the battle of the Seven Days, Lee’s men fought back the Yankees, who retreated from Richmond to the Atlantic coast. A month later, Lee’s men, now in northern Virginia, fought another huge battle at Manassas. By September, Lee’s men were in western Maryland–Union territory. By the time the battle of Antietam was over on 17 September, Lee’s men had marched hundreds of miles, fought 3 battles, taken a large Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, and had lost 50,000 men. What did you do last summer?

No, the past was not a succession of long, slow, boring days. Or at least, no more so than they are today. Farming is no less boring than an office job. Lack of instant information and technological gadgets did not mean people didn’t have anything to do, or that their lives were slow. Women had children, lots of them. A family of ten does not make for boredom. People went to church. They sang songs and wrote music. They joined the military. They sailed up rivers and rode in wagons across continents. Huge battles were fought in a day or two. In contrast, in the 21st century, the U.S. has been in Afghanistan for twelve years. Has much changed?

Star Wars came out more than thirty years ago, and I still see guys wearing Boba Fett t-shirts. Music hasn’t changed much in the past decade. There’s not much difference between the music of 2003 and 2010. But look at how different the Beatles were in 1969 from how they were in 1962.

Yes, things could change very quickly in the “slow” eighteenth and nineteenth century. And men crammed a lot of living in their shorter lives. Mozart died at 35. Poe at 40. Achievement is a matter of will, not technology.

Sears does not scrimp on the detail in Landscape Turned Red. The violence is worse than what we see in the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Antietam was a battle of unimaginable slaughter. The North suffered 13,000 casualties that day. The South suffered 10,000. Lee lost a quarter of his men.

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Dead soldier at Antietam. The battle was the first during the Civil War in which photos of casualties were widely viewed by the public.

The Civil War, as Shelby Foote noted, was a war in which weapons were “way ahead of the tactics.” There were no machine guns at Antietam, but men killed one another easily enough. In the Civil War, armies developed ways of sustaining overlapping fields of fire. Despite the fact that each man could only fire 2-3 shots per minute, a few hundred men could hold back thousands–as was the case at the fighting at “Burnside’s Bridge” at Antietam. At the bridge, the Confederates held back a much larger force because they had good cover on high ground and a thick target to shoot at.

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Burnside’s Bridge

If it’s one thing I took away from Sears’s book it was how badly McClellan fought it. Despite finding a copy of Lee’s battle orders, which allowed him to know that Lee’s army was divided, McClellan hesitated to act quickly to crush Lee’s forces in turn. The day of the battle he used his men sluggishly. Burnside’s famous attack was botched enough as it was, but McClellan also undermined it by having Burnside attack late in the day. Not only did McClellan lack the killer instinct, he failed to keep cavalry on his left flank, which would’ve keep reinforcements (most famously, A. P. Hills’s division) from reaching Lee’s lines at a critical moment. Lee expected another fight on September 18, but McClellan refused to attack. Ulysses S. Grant would have fought at least one more day. With his back to the Potomac, Lee was vulnerable, but McClellan allowed him to escape back to Virginia.

After Lee’s retreat, McClellan could claim a victory. For Lincoln, it was an empty one. Lee fought for two and half more years. The time McClellan wasted allowed Lee to build up his forces significantly. McClellan’s lack of aggressiveness was very important in his failure. But he might have stayed in the army (though not necessarily as the head of the Army of the Potomac) had he understood the political implications of his actions. He made the mistake of thinking he, not Lincoln, was the boss. And his arrogance and his ineptitude in handling the political aspects of his work got him fired. Whether you are a winner or loser, stay on your boss’s good side.

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Eric Foner, Rebel Flags, and Nubile Young Co-Eds: My First Visit to Ole Miss

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Rowan Oak. Home of William Faulkner.

Back in graduate school, I once jotted down a list of the most southern states in the Union. At number one was Mississippi (with, if memory serves, Alabama second, South Carolina third, followed by Virginia and then Georgia.) Well, I hadn’t spent much time at all in Mississippi until October, when I made my first trip to Oxford, Mississippi, for a Civil War conference.

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The conference, “This Terrible War,” was good, and I did some site-seeing. Now, I can say I’ve spent a good img653amount of time in Mississippi that didn’t involve me just driving through it length-wise in order to get to New Orleans. And being there only confirmed my view that Mississippi is the most southern place on earth.

Even more to the point, were someone to ask where to get a stereotypical southern experience, I would say Oxford. It’s home to perhaps the most famous southern writer, William Faulkner. You don’t have to search long in Oxford to see a Rebel battle flag (not the official flag of the Confederacy, mind you, but the battle flag). There’s a Confederate soldiers monument in the middle of the campus as well as an old Confederate burial ground behind a coliseum. october 2013 242

Streets like Rebel Road and Confederate Avenue are how you get to where you’re going. Oddly, though, I didn’t see anything named after William Faulkner, whose house is a five minute drive from the middle of campus. Faulkner even attended Ole Miss for a little while after the First World War, despite the fact that he hadn’t graduated from high school (nor did Faulkner get injured in the war, despite the fact that he hobbled around using a cane–but that’s another post). Billy F, of course, was born to late to have fought for the Confederacy. He did write about the War of Northern Aggression, though, in the not-so-great book The Unvanquished, and elsewhere. You can’t buy a history book about Gettysburg, for example, without reading Faulkner’s quotation from Intruder in the Dust for the millionth time (thanks, Shelby Foote).

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Is Ole Miss conservative? There’s a Rebel monument right in the middle of dish-dash, gosh-darn, hornswogglin’ campus, for cripe’s sake!

Ole Miss is, like anyplace I guess, full of contradictions, where Old South meets New South (Confederate ghosts buy sodas from digital Coke machines), democracy (a state school with a large enrollment) meets gentility (southern tradition and a beautiful campus) and elitism (the palpably strong Greek system). Ole Miss has a reputation for being one of the strongest purveyors of the Good Ole Boy mentality, and yet, it is also the site of one of the most important events of the civil rights era: the enrollment of James Meredith as a student at what was then an all-white campus.

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James Meredith statue at Ole Miss.

Yes, contradictions abound at Ole Miss. The school mascot is the “Rebel,” but you might wonder what a frat boy driving a $30,000 truck with a Rebel flag license plate is rebelling against exactly. That’s the problem with symbols, especially well-worn ones: they are open to interpretation. As for southern rebels, I’ll take Johnny Cash over a Confederate soldier any day.

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Real Rebels drive big trucks.

At the conference, I filled my head with talk of the women of Atlanta, the U.S. cavalry bureau, the Civil War death toll (now estimated at 750,000), war bonds, married troops, yeomen, the freedmen, and Danish-U.S. relations, among other topics. I also met Eric Foner, a large man with a New York accent who has written more books than most people have read. I didn’t arrive in time to hear his keynote address. But I saw him alone after one of the talks, and I introduced myself. I talked only briefly, both to save his time and to avoid embarrassing myself. If you are a second semester graduate student and don’t know who Eric Foner is, there is something wrong with the program you’re in. His last book won the Pulitzer Prize, and he probably should have won the Pulitzer for his 1988 book Reconstruction, which reconfigured the history of the post-Civil War era.

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Downtown Oxford, MS.

At the conference, I filled my head. And at meal times, I had the chance to fill my stomach at one of the many restaurants in the area. Big Bad Breakfast was the best place I went to. It had the best grits I’ve ever eaten. Ajax, which was very busy at lunchtime, was so-so. The place was very crowded and the service wasn’t very friendly or helpful.

Oxford Square is very charming, with book stores and pizza places aplenty. In its residential neighborhoods, pretty much every block looked like a page torn from Southern Living. The town square was always cramped, but we were surprisingly lucky in finding free parking spots.

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An antique store about a stone’s throw from Big Bad Breakfast. I bought something about Abraham Lincoln there, just to piss off the Gods of Oxford.

Thankfully, there was no football game the weekend I was there. However, it was Rush Weekend. And no, Geddy Lee-fans-with-dreams-of-Neal-Peart-doing-a-20-minute-drum- solo-under-southern-stars, that Canadian prog rock band was not there. Rush means the brothers of frats and the sisters of sororities were bouncing around. Nubile women in three inch heels and cocktail dresses. Men with shaggy hair who would make their first million as corporate attorneys. The usual stuff. An Alabama colleague of mine at LSU once talked with annoyance to me about “typical” southern womanhood. “I’ve never met a debutante,” he snarled. Well, I think Rush Weekend at Ole Miss is probably as close as you’ll ever get.

As far as historians go, the most famous of them ever to teach at Ole Miss might be Winthrop Jordan, who died in 2007. He was from Worcester, Massachusetts. So goes the “duality of the southern thing.” Wave those flags, Rebs. And good luck against LSU next time they play you on the gridiron.

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