Johnny Cash in Pine Bluff, October 1968

Johnny Cash chats with Arkansas’s Winthrop Rockefeller in Pine Bluff in October 1968. Cash was playing shows for Rockefeller, who was up for reelection as governor that year. You can read more in this Arkansas Times article. http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/when-johnny-cash-campaigned-for-winthrop-rockefeller/Content?oid=3489017

To Cash’s left in the picture is his drummer, W. S. Holland. To his right is his guitarist Carl Perkins.

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The photo is from the Winthrop Rockefeller Collection at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture in Little Rock.

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Richmond Tobacco Field

This one of my favorite photographs of my former home, Richmond, Virginia: tobacco growing on Monument Avenue in the early 19o0s. Courtesy: Valentine Richmond History Center.

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The W. S. Holland Band: Little Rock Show, Friday October 10

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The W. S. Holland band.

On Friday night, the W. S. Holland Band will be playing at the Ron Robinson Theatre in the River Market district of downtown Little Rock.  The show is sponsored by the Artspree concert series and the UALR Department of Music.

W. S. “Fluke” Holland performed with Johnny Cash for decades before Cash’s retirement from touring in 1997. Holland was a fixture at Sun Records in the early days of rock and roll. Holland’s band will play classic Johnny Cash songs as well as other tunes from the Sun period.

The warm-up act on Friday night will be the Little Rock band Jeff Coleman and the Feeders, which will also perform songs by Johnny Cash.

The event is free and open to the public. The music is scheduled to start at 6:45. Those interested are encouraged to arrive early, as seating is limited.

The music on Friday night serves as an opening to the UALR exhibit, Johnny Cash: Arkansas Icon, which includes rare photographs and memorabilia concerning Johnny Cash’s days in his home state.

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Erskine College: 175 Years

Erskine College in South Carolina is celebrating its sesquicentennial. The college used one of my pictures I took of Gaines’ Mill battlefield (that I had posted on the Virginia Historical Society blog a few years ago) for a film they’ve made about their history. Here is the trailer.

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St. Francisville, Louisiana: More Southern than the South

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St. Francisville Inn. St. Francisville, Louisiana.

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of returning to St. Francisville, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence. The town (which I will abbreviate as SF) is about 30 minutes north of Baton Rouge. And it is as charming as Baton Rouge is not. St. Francisville the epitome of the quaint southern community. When I had been there before, it was only for a few hours at  time. Never for three days. Having seen it again, it’s better than I remember it.

Waiting for Its Closeup

St. Francisville is something out of a movie. Maybe a story about a hardworking southern lawyer, a la To Kill a Mocking Bird. Someone could also film a great vampire movie there. The Grace Episcopal Church sits on breathtaking grounds, surrounded by a Gothic cemetery that is worthy of Faulkner. I’m surprised a great southern writer hasn’t claimed St. Francisville as his own. Should the town take bids for a writer in residence, I would gladly accept the post. The place needs a chronicler.

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Grace Episcopal Church.

The town is as dripping with history as it is Spanish Moss. The Mississippi River is not far from the center of town. And the Mississippi probably has had as much as anything to do with how its history developed. The town is also not far from Port Hudson, the last major stronghold the Confederates held on the Mississippi. The Confederates at Port Hudson surrendered a few days after the Rebellion lost Vicksburg. The loss of the Mississippi for the Confederacy sent the war into a second stage that would end at Appomattox Court House.

The Republic of West Florida

Like so many parts of our country, the town has a colonial heritage. SF was the capital of the short-lived Republic of West Florida that broke away from its Spanish rulers. This independent country–consisting of none of the territory that is now the state of Florida–lasted for little more than two months in 1810, not long before Louisiana became a state. The republic’s flag was blue with a white star. Some people still fly the flag in front of their homes.

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Antebellum Wealth

SF was one of the wealthiest towns in the South before the Civil War. Cotton flowed up and down the river in the antebellum period, and St. Francisville became one of the pistons in the economic engine that was American slavery.The place is not as well-known as Natchez, Mississippi, which had a large number of antebellum millionaires and had the distinction of being the wealthiest place, per capita, in the prewar era. SF wasn’t shabby either. Planters grew cotton and sugar and got filthy rich. Unlike Natchez, though, SF has not seen the kind of sprawl or racial problems that characterize much of the New South. If you’re interested in reading about modern day Natchez, I would point you to Tony Horowitz’s classic work of journalism-history Confederates in the Attic. SF wasn’t mentioned in his tour of the South. But someone could write a very interesting book about.

Grace Episcopal Church

St. Francisville is quiet. There’s not a lot “to do”–at least in contrast to a place like New Orleans, which is about two hours to the south. SF a place you could take a grandparent or history nerd looking for a good time. It’s also a geographic marker, serving as the place where northern Louisiana becomes southern Louisiana. North Louisiana is a Protestant and evangelical and non-denominational stronghold. The southern part of the state belongs to the Catholics–or at least in theory. SF is of course named after St. Francis of Assisi, who supposedly spoke to birds.  There’s a Catholic Church on a hill as you head toward Bayou Sara. But Grace Episcopal feels more like a Catholic church.

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Southern Louisiana not only has a different religious demographic from the northern part, it looks different. You won’t see many live oaks until you hit SF along highway 61. Live oaks are really what define the landscape of the Deep South. And not all live oaks have Spanish Moss hanging from them. SF does, and ambling through the town is like walking through some great southern novel.

Plantations

The town has plenty of plantation homes to visit. I was able to see one last week, Rosedown, which was once owned by the Turnbull family, which lived in the house until the latter half of the 20th century. The Turnbulls were wealthy before the Civil War. Immensely so. The family owned 450 slaves, and the master of the house had four plantations. He was such a good businessman that he ran four plantations in addition to the ones he owned. Unfortunately, a hard rain storm kept me from seeing the gardens surrounding the house. Maybe next time.

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Rosedown plantation.

The war destroyed the master class, but not the plantations. The Turnbulls endured after the war, but the house was saved not by cotton but petroleum. The Turnbulls married into Texas oil money around the time of the First World War. And they were able to put gobs of money into restoring the house after WWII. Eight million dollars, if memory serves. Our tour guide at Rosedown said 90% of the furniture in the house was original. In contrast, Lakeport plantation in Arkansas has no original furniture (it’s resplendent all the same, though).

Sweat Management

I will never forget the heat or humidity of southern Louisiana. But I guess I had forgotten just how wet it could feel even on cooler days. For one of the days in SF, it rained for eight hours straight. It made the Spanish Moss drip even more.  The air conditioner had trouble keeping our room cool and dry. You begin to mold. Welcome to the subtropics. Drinking helps.

A Ghost to Most

But, you don’t go to southern Louisiana for comfort. You go there for atmosphere. You go there because you can feel like you’re in a different country, where things feel naked and wild. Barely civilized. In late summer, everything is green and wet. The vines and kudzu want to strangle trees and houses. Things are verdant, pregnant, oversized.

In south Louisiana, things feel heightened–the sun, the rain storms. The night feels darker somehow, too. I couldn’t help feel a little scared as I walked through the center of town late at night. Many houses had no lights on at all. By the Episcopal cemetery, I could hardly see the sidewalk as I stepped under the low-hanging oaks.

Were I a ghost, I’d live in St. Francisville. For sure.

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Abandoned home in Bayou Sara.

St. Francisville vs. Baton Rouge

While I was in Louisiana, I also managed to drive down to Baton Rouge. I lived there for eight years, but I was glad to leave. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling stressed out again. Every living thing drives everywhere in Baton Rouge, with the possible exception of a few misanthropic graduate students who can’t afford cars. The interstate is used as a crosstown thoroughfare. And the area around LSU is even more congested than I remember. Good food there, though.  I gorged myself on Cane’s chicken. Twice in two days.

It was good to get back to St. Francisville. It is as beautiful as Baton Rouge is ugly. It’s more southern than the South, which too often wants to be Atlanta or Houston rather than Charleston or Savannah. SF makes you want to live on a diet of pecan pie and Tennessee whiskey and write stories about a mentally ill Confederate colonel who sleeps with the bones of his long dead wives. Or something.

Southern Charm

Some southerners–when they wrap themselves in the Confederate flag or embrace the politics of obstructionism–are too tied to what has made their region infamous.  They seem to have forgotten that such a thing as charm still exists. I feel like St. Francisville, as charming as it is, deserves more visitors than it gets. But maybe its residents want it that way.

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Sampling Soldiers: Historians and the Numbers Game

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In 1954, Darrell Huff wrote a book called How to Lie with Statistics. I need to read it. And I think some Civil War scholars need to read it, too.

This post is in response to a review by Kenneth Noe at Civil War Monitor. Let me first say that I read Dr. Noe’s book Reluctant Rebels and enjoyed it. It was a solid work of scholarship. Noe is a well respected historian. However, we apparently have different views on the efficacy of using statistical analysis in a work on the Confederate/Civil War soldier.

First, my book is not without statistics. I mention the commonly known statistic that only about 5% of southerners owned slaves in 1860. I also note that this percentage does not include white families in the statistics. Roughly 25% of white families were in the slaveholding class. That percentage rises further when you are discussing families in the Confederate States (for a good breakdown of this, I would consult Richard Bonner’s excellent book, Mastering America).

Dr. Noe, however, is interested mostly in slaveholding as it pertains to Confederate troops. He found it frustrating that I used such vague qualifiers as “some” or “many or most.” More specifically, he didn’t understand why I did not employ a “sample” of soldiers upon which to make conclusions about various topics.

Some Civil War historians (I’m not sure what percentage of the whole) have taken great pride in playing the numbers game. The use of quantitative methods has been a bedrock of the New Social History, which emerged in U.S. scholarship in the 1970s. The use of a “sample” has been the rage in Civil War soldier studies since around the time of James McPherson’s book, For Cause and Comrades, published in 1997. McPherson said things such as “20 percent of soldiers avowed explicit proslavery purposes in their letters and diaries” (110) and that “two-thirds of both Confederate and Union soldiers . . . expressed generalized patriotic motives for fighting.” (114) Now, it seems, every time a scholar writes a book about Civil War soldiers, he/she is expected to say exactly how many he/she obtained data on.

Noe’s frustration over the paucity of statistics in my book is valid, especially given the recent trend in historiography. But is it worth playing this numbers game?

I wrestled with this issue of drawing on a “sample size” for Marching Masters. Previous scholars of the Civil War have made much of having done so, and some of them I discussed in the introduction to Marching Masters. I suppose I could have said that I looked at 500 Confederate soldiers or 1,000 or 750. However, I was never sure how to count them, since any information I drew was not equal in quantity or quality. Does a memoir by one soldier count as much as a single letter by another? Whatever the number I could have looked at–or anyone could have looked at–it is dwarfed by the number I did not, and could not ever possibly have looked at.

Total numbers are sketchy at best, but the CSA army may have included as many as a million troops. They say a statistical sample should be about 10 percent. To obtain a statistical sample of Confederates would mean looking at at least 75,000 and as many as 100,000 troops. No historian has even come close to that. I doubt a historian has even read 100,000 letters (nevermind those of 100,000 soldiers) in order to write a book, which would mean reading 55 letters per day for 5 years.

But soldiers don’t just write letters. They also write diaries, reports, and memoirs. What exactly does it mean to say that you “looked at” a Confederate soldier, anyway? Read a book of his letters, read all the letters in a set of papers in an archive, read his diary? Read every single piece of paper he ever wrote? Sometimes an archival collection may contain only a single item from a soldier. Does looking at such a collection adequately reflect the wartime service of this soldier? No way. So, should then I assume I’ve done all I can do, add one more soldier to my sample size, and then move on?

Historians are constantly making choices about what to leave in, what to take out. But inevitably, the officers get over-represented in Civil War books. Every archive is weighed toward men and women with better educations, financial resources, and writing ability. Conducting historical research is an elitist game in which the thoughts and feelings and rantings of officers, upper-echelon politicians, and newspaper editors far outnumber those of the poorer classes. When it comes to the Civil War, the research pool is not even. Some soldiers wrote a lot, others wrote little. Some got killed in 1861, others lived until 1922. If a soldier had one slave and talked about him, does that make him more important when discussing slavery than one who owned 20 and is silent? How does one quantify that as proslavery feeling?

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Some people take comfort in numbers. They seem authoritative. But what are they really telling us? Take Noe’s book Reluctant Rebels. Noe uses numbers to discount certain ideas about Rebel troops. He says that only 29 of his soldiers (9.1 percent) mentioned the word “independence.” (34) The lack of this word he apparently takes as a comment on soldiers’ ideological convictions. But it seems absurd to me to boil down something so political by focusing on key words, especially since there are many ways Confederates could have expressed the idea of independence.

The absence of a word doesn’t suggest the absence of a thought or feeling. Take sex. In the course of all my Civil War research, I don’t recall many details about Confederates’ sex lives. Yet, I can imagine they thought about and engaged in sex. And if I knew a soldier had three children, I could be fairly sure he was not a virgin.

Confederates used trains often. The train was important to the Confederate war effort. But I don’t recall much talk of trains.

The point is, sometimes actions speak more than  words–whether it be about patriotism or slavery or sex. A patriotic soldier might talk about “independence,” or “fighting for our rights,” or “freedom,” or “self-rule,” or states rights, or whatever. Or he might not desert his post when some shitheel in his company asks him to run off with him. If someone asked you how patriotic you were, how exactly would you prove it? Would you say that you were patriotic because you paid your taxes or because you refused to on the ground that your taxes supported an unjust war or crooked politicians that you thought were un-American? Would you prove it by waving a flag?

At one point in Reluctant Rebels, Noe discusses Private Grant Taylor, who wrote in 1864 about his fear of subjugation at northern hands. On this subject, Noe uses his soldier sample to score points off of James McPherson, whom, Noe believes, erroneously found the term subjugation “ubiquitous.” In contrast, Noe states, “Only seventeen soldiers in the sample (5.3 percent), roughly representing Lower South and Upper South evenly, joined [Private Grant] Taylor in decrying it.” Where some might say “very few,” Noe would say 5.3%.

And yet, at what point does a number become significant? 5.3% doesn’t seem significant. But what? 10%? 25%? 70%? What are we expecting exactly from these long dead soldiers? And what exactly does quibbling over percentages tell us about the Confederate war effort?

Were I to ask today’s soldiers whether they preferred Coke or Pepsi, I could easily come up with some hard numbers. I might even ask them about whether or not they believed they could eradicate terrorism. But even if I could ask that, what does that tell me about the war effort?

When examining the Confederacy, it doesn’t make sense to take soldiers out of the context of the larger war effort. It’s great to know what percentage of men hated slavery, liked slavery, hated trains, liked trains and sex and pork rations. But the soldier was responsive to decisions made at higher levels. The Confederate army wasn’t simply a mob of men with ideas about certain things. They were subject to taking orders and grand strategy. It didn’t always matter what they thought.

Thus, in Marching Masters I wasn’t obsessed with statistics or looking at the “common soldier” (that is, a statistically normal one–though “normal” is subjective in many respects). I did not weigh privates more heavily than officers, even though privates were far more numerous in the army. My book would have been impossible to write without looking at high-ranking men like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee. These men gave orders and determined policy. And their ideas changed over time. Lee wielded far more influence than any other man in the army. While it’s nice to know whether or not 53% or 18% or 29% of men in the ranks supported the enlistment of black troops, Lee and Jefferson Davis wanted it, and they got the Confederate Congress to pass a bill to that effect. I think Lee had lots of support in the ranks for this measure. But the army was not a democracy. Why should we be obsessed with what common men thought?

Ideas are important. But in war, actions matter most. A man did not have to be a proslavery theorist to show he was proslavery. He didn’t even have to own slaves.

At a simpler level, Noe complains that I did not include a chart–as he did in his book, Reluctant Rebels–showing how many men I “looked at” from each state, what their age was, number of slaves owned, etc.  In Noe’s appendix, he lists how many men he looked at from Alabama. The number is 56.5. How does one get .5 of a person? Noe notes that .5 means a man split his time between two regiments.

However, one could ask, did the soldier really split his time between these two regiments equally? Or maybe 40% between one and 60% between another? 75/25? One could question the validity of splitting the difference.

At a more serious level, Noe’s sample of soldiers is heavily weighed toward Alabamans, who make up 17.7% of his sample, despite the fact that Alabamans made up only 9% of all Confederate soldiers.  Why are Alabamans so prominent in Noe’s book? I reckon it’s because Noe is a professor at Auburn University, which would have a lot more resources about Alabama than say, Rice or Vanderbilt or UVA.

In his sample, Noe included one soldier from Kentucky, one from Maryland, and 2 from Missouri. The number of men from Texas in his sample equals the number of men in his sample from Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland combined. Can one soldier from Kentucky–never mind Missouri–actually speak for the experiences and attitudes of thousands of men from those states? No.

And regardless of what this one soldier from Kentucky (note: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, John Bell Hood, Albert S. Johnston, and Braxton Bragg were all born in Kentucky) thought or did, it likely had little impact on the war as a whole. Kentucky was far more important than what any one soldier said about it. In my book, I did look at more than one Kentuckian. But what was more important was the importance of Kentucky as a slaveholding state (Kentucky had more slaves than any state outside the Confederacy) and the efforts by the Confederate army to conquer it.

One can find other misrepresentations in the number of slaveholders in Noe’s sample. Of his total of 320, there were 92 men who owned slaves. This is 29%. Only 5% of southerners owned slaves in 1860. This percentage increases if one looks at only future Confederate States. But it does not come close to approaching 29%.

And yet, Noe’s numbers reflect a larger reality: slaveholders were over-represented in the Confederate army. When it comes to slaveholding, one simply cannot look at any large number of Confederate soldiers that will reflect the slaveholding demographics of the South as a whole.

Among Noe’s slaveholders, 21% would have been considered planters, who owned 20 or more slaves, even though planters made up less than 1% of the slaveholding classes. Another 21% owned 10-19 slaves. The average slaveholder in the Old South owned 5 slaves. The largest number of slaveholders in the Old South consisted of those who owned one slave. Yet, only 8 in Noe’s sample owned one. 64% percent owned more than 5. All of these numbers are wildly unrepresentative.

But does it matter? Does the fact that Noe does not contain a  representative number of the South’s slaveholders invalidate his claims? Certainly not. But it does call into question the importance of this kind of number crunching, especially since Noe and I do not disagree about the general attitudes among Confederates. Our difference is mostly a question of emphasis. I put slavery at the heart of the Confederate war effort, while Noe does not.

I think quantitative methods is great if you are looking at a sample of people about which you can gain easily measurable data. if I keep polling people about whether they like Coke or Pepsi better and I inevitably get a pro-Coke result, I can probably conclude that most people prefer Coke.

But no one ever took a poll of Confederate soldiers to see whether or not they thought they were fighting a war for slavery. And even then, the results might have changed based on where and when you asked your questions. Regardless, need we always believe the results of a poll?  Polls themselves can be flawed.

Why should a military historian be held to using quantitative methods anymore than someone writing about any aspect of slavery? Or anything? Would someone who had written a book about feminism be called to task for not asserting what percentage of feminists thought about a certain idea? Do feminists historians routinely say their research included a “sample” of women? I think not.

In my introduction, I admit that my book is admittedly impressionistic in nature. But so was Bell Wiley’s classic book Johnny Reb, a 70 year old work that is still in print. I think statistics are good when you want to quantify something concrete: how many troops served in combat, how many were casualties, how many deserted. But these numbers are hard to come by. Quantifying something as inherently subjective as racism or patriotism is even more difficult for the historian. And perhaps, something not worth pursuing.

 

 

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Marching Masters: The Agony and Ecstasy of the Amazon Ranking

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Last week, the Central Arkansas Library System put out an annual report in which it noted the top ten authors in terms of people who had borrowed his/her book in the past year. Five of the top ten spots were held by James Patterson. Others in the top ten included Steven Baldacci, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovitch, and John Grisham, if memory serves.

James Patterson has sold an astonishing 300 million books. Yes, 300 million. As things stand, I’m only about 299, 999, 600 copies away from Patterson.

Look out, Jim. I’m coming for you. Soon, every 60 year old on the beach will be carrying my book.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there actually was no James Patterson, that in fact he is the creation of some supercomputer run by a team of twelve snarky graduate student at Berkeley, who are working on a study about how to get artificial intelligence to write popular fiction. The professor in charge of the project (real name: Klaus Schreiber) is the one who does the public appearances.

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James Patterson: real or imaginary?

All props to Patterson’s sales figures. But I can’t even name one book he has written. I’m no fan of Stephen King, but I could name a lot of his books. And his movies. Same for Grisham. Nevertheless, we need a James Patterson. We need people who write paper books that “average” humans will read.

I’d love to have Patterson’s time and resource to write full time. But, even if I did, I wouldn’t write beach books. I’d want to be Hemingway or Graham Greene or Bukowski-lite.

I’ve been to Hemingway’s house in Key West. Patterson lives in Palm Beach. I’ve been to West Palm Beach. I prefer Key West.

 

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Hemingway’s house: sunny and lush, just like Papa.

The writing of a university press book is not a lucrative business. My first royalty check was so small that my publisher declined to write me one (and would only do so after I had cleared $50, thank you).

The only good way to check the progress of a book on a daily or weekly basis is by way of the amazon ranking. Now, amazon is not the only book seller. There’s Barnes and Noble and countless small retailers. But amazon at least gives you a good idea of whether or not  your book is selling well.

For academics, you will be lucky to crack the top 200,000 in books on any given day. Once, I was in the top 100,000. That might not sound great, but there are millions of books available on amazon. And getting into the top 200,000 assures you will be in the top 100 for books in a Civil War category–in my case, the Confederacy. Apparently, though, there isn’t much separation between authors on amazon. Most likely, the selling of one or two books can send you rocketing toward the top of the charts. Conversely, you can plummet very quickly in a few hours. Just yesterday, I was ranked at around 1.3 million in amazon books. Today, I’m back in the top quarter-million.

The head swells. The head shrinks. For me, the goal is to get to the paperback. By then, I might even get a royalty check.

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