Marching Masters: Response to the Illinois State Historical Society Journal

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To the Book Review Editor of the Illinois State Historical Society Journal:

Allow me to respond to Robert T. McKenzie’s review of , published in the Spring 2015 issue of your journal. Dr. McKenzie’s superficial reading of contains distortions and lapses in logic that I feel need addressing as a means of evaluating the merits of his review and my book. I would also like to use his review as an opportunity to address larger issues concerning the war and the methodology of scholars who write about it.

Allow me to respond to Robert T. McKenzie’s review of Marching Masters, published in the Spring 2015 issue of your journal. Dr. McKenzie’s superficial reading of Marching Masters contains distortions and lapses in logic that I feel need addressing as a means of evaluating the merits of his review and my book. I would also like to use his review as an opportunity to address larger issues concerning the war and the methodology of scholars who write about it.

Confederates as “Slaves”

McKenzie’s review is accurate until the last line of the second paragraph. After discussing why Confederate troops joined the military, he states, “Above all, [Confederate soldiers] feared becoming slaves themselves.” The “above all” comment is McKenzie’s, not mine. A portion of the second chapter of my book examines Confederates’ fears of becoming “slaves” to the Yankees were the Union to triumph. But I do not think a widespread fear of whites becoming “slaves” was a reason “above all” for why men fought. It certainly was an important reason. Slavery for southern whites was not an abstraction. Whites knew slavery firsthand, and because of that, they never went into much detail concerning what “slavery for southern whites” might mean in practice. And yet, worries about becoming “slaves” was not as strong as fears of emancipation, which southern whites believed would cause black men to run wild, committing atrocities. And decades after the war, Confederates continued to decry emancipation.

Class Warriors?

More seriously, McKenzie errs when he states, “Woodward absolutely rejects the position held by some historians that poorer Confederates sometimes resented being enlisted in a rich man’s war on behalf of the master class.” I don’t reject (“absolutely” or otherwise) that Confederate troops “sometimes” complained that it was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” To reject that southerners did so would ignore the documentary record. I do in fact discuss complaints about the “rich man’s war” in my book. What I reject is the notion that class trumped race in the Confederacy, generally, or in the army in particular.

McKenzie apparently believes serious class antagonism existed in the army. Class played a role in the army, to be sure. But was it fatal to the Confederate war effort? I don’t think so. I won’t get into how class issues often blended into racial ones and vice versa (and have continued to do so). But I will say that more Confederates had stronger views on black people than they did Karl Marx. Southern whites lost far more sleep over what slaves might be planning in the cabins than what planters were doing at the State House.

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Marx proved too liberal to work as an editorial writer for the New York Tribune. Needless to say, he was not popular among Confederate soldiers.

Besides, “poorer Confederates” is a loaded term. Unless he is Bill Gates, everyone is poorer than someone else. That doesn’t make him poor or a class warrior. Soldiers complain, that’s their right. In the context of the southern army, poverty doesn’t necessarily make him a deserter or anti-Confederate. McKenzie might believe that Confederates “resented being enlisted in a rich man’s war on behalf of the master class,” but I don’t, for several reasons. I don’t see Confederate soldiers as dupes of the master class. Most Rebel soldiers, being the good Jacksonians that they were, enlisted of their own free will. They didn’t always like army policy, but they put up with a lot of hardship and injustice.

The Master Class

It was my intention in Marching Masters to redefine—or at least suggest—what the “master class” truly was. Defined narrowly, it means slaveholders. More broadly, I see it as including slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike who had white skin. Southern wealth was built on slavery, and non-slaveholders knew getting rich in the South meant owning many slaves. Even those who wanted no part of owning humans wanted to make sure that blacks were kept subservient. Whenever a white man called a black man “boy,” he was employing a weapon of the master class.

Another inaccuracy is McKenzie’s statement that “Woodward finds little evidence that the rebels’ commitment to slavery never wavered.” In fact, my book contains many examples of Confederates confronting the reality of blacks running away, rebelling against masters, and joining the ranks of the Union army. Chapter Five opens with a South Carolina (yes, even South Carolina) slaveholder becoming fatalistic about the survival of slavery amid the destruction emancipation wrought on his plantation.

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The “Emancipation” Debate

In early 1865, a significant number of Confederates (no one knows how many) supported the enlistment of slaves so that they might fight in the Rebel army. The debate over black enlistment in the last few weeks of the Confederacy was only significant in Lee’s army. And the final, weak bill that passed in mid-March 1865 would not have happened without Lee’s and Davis’s strong support. The enlistment debate clearly showed that many Confederates’ commitment to slavery had wavered. But the debate issue was an instance of—as Lincoln might have put it—how to “cut off a limb to save the body.” For most Confederates, even if their commitment to slavery as they wanted it wavered, their commitment to slavery writ large did not break. Confederates thought African Americans were best kept enslaved. The war dictated otherwise, but events showed that Confederates viciously resisted moves toward emancipation.

Proslavery Politics

Southern whites were very adaptable in manipulating free and enslaved African Americans to maintain slavery. They had 300 years of practice in doing so. The so-called emancipation debate of early 1865 (it was not a debate about seriously considering freeing most or all the slaves) showed that much had changed in the South. Obviously by then, many Confederates had altered their views on what slavery must mean in practice were the Confederacy to survive. But they their proslavery principles had not wavered.

McKenzie says, “Woodward’s observations about the connection of slavery to the Confederate war effort are well supported but largely commonplace. His assertions about how a commitment to slavery figured in the Confederate mindset will be more controversial.” I may be misreading this passage, but at best, it contains a distinction without a difference. At worst, it contradicts itself. Perhaps McKenzie believes that slaveholding politicians started a war for slavery that had little support among the general populace.

The point of my book, however, is to show the ideological link between the army’s high command, its lower officers, common soldiers, and Confederate civilians. Democratic armies are supported by the general populace. Sherman understood this, as did many others during the Civil War. The Confederacy consisted entirely of slaveholding states, and therefore, I read the Rebel war effort as an attempt to defend the proslavery interests of those states and their democratic population through force of arms.

Despite the obvious proslavery nature of the rebellion, McKenzie stresses the class based elements of the Confederate war effort, noting my “insistence that class-based resentment of slaveholders was almost non-existent and that proslavery ideology never wavered throughout four long years of war.” To say that I believe class resentment was “almost non-existent” during the war’s four years (whether long or short) is again a distortion. I’m not sure what “almost non-existent” means, but if McKenzie wants to push the idea that class divisions were rife in the Confederate ranks then, I must disagree. And the reason why the war lasted four years (long or short) was because of the strong support politicians had for fighting it, inside and outside the army.

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How exactly does class factor into a discussion of this image from the early 1970s, courtesy of the late George Wallace?

How to Lie with Statistics

McKenzie’s next issue with my book concerns methodology. He writes, “Rarely does an academic historian writing for a university press reveal so little about his approach to the evidence.” This is an absurd statement. First of all, I am not an academic (no offense meant to academics), but an archivist who works at a university. To say that I “reveal so little” is disingenuous. Marching Masters is copiously footnoted. All sources cited in the text are included in the bibliography and endnotes. I am not hiding anything. The documentation for the book rested on hundreds of primary and secondary, published and unpublished, sources, many of them familiar to military scholars. I would hope that at this point in his career, Dr. McKenzie understands how historians operate: they read books, they go to archives, they write things down, make an argument, and footnote what they found. This practice has changed little in the last hundred years or so.

What I think Dr. McKenzie wanted me to do was discuss a “sample.” The inclusion of a “sample” has been popular among some Civil War scholars for the past twenty years. In 2010, Kenneth Noe published Reluctant Rebels, which contains a sample of 320 soldiers, with accompanying charts and percentages. Dr. McKenzie objects to my anecdotal approach to the sources, much as Dr. Noe criticized me in a review in the Civil War Monitor published in April 2014.

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The notion of “sampling” has been popular since James McPherson proudly noted in 1997 in For Cause and Comrades that he “sampled” 1,071 Civil War soldiers, 429 of whom were Confederates. Scholars estimate that roughly three million men fought during the war. Assuming McPherson “sampled” 1,071 of three million troops, he sampled .000357% of all the soldiers who fought during the war. This is hardly a sample that would have great merit among a trained statistician. From a scientific standpoint, what Civil War scholars have been doing with their sampling is closer to the “surveys” one finds on The Family Feud.

I do not wish to diminish the achievements of Dr. McPherson or Dr. Noe, whose scholarship I admire. Instead, I want to suggest how Civil War historians are trying to hammer an anecdotal square peg into a scientific round hole. But to say more about my “approach to the evidence”: I did research for years at numerous archives and libraries. I used facts and opinions to construct a narrative and make an argument. What I thought was important and interesting became the subject of chapters. Much was left on the cutting room floor, and much of that for purely editorial reasons. UVA Press was not going to publish a 500 page book. Instead, I had to do the best I could in 206 pages of text. Endnotes, bibliography, and index took up another 90 pages.

Perhaps I tried to do too much. The task of writing about the Confederate army, rather than a single army or a single regiment or single soldier, was a daunting one. Dr. McKenzie clearly wanted me to make more conclusive statements about what all 800,000-1,000,000 Confederates thought at any given time, perhaps using percentages to do so—37% were virulently racist, 81% liked having body servants in camps, 49% disliked Davis’s views on black enlistment, 99% disliked hardtack, 88% sang “Maryland, My Maryland” during the invasion of September 1862, etc. It is one thing to state percentages about something concrete, such as how many men voted for Lincoln or how many Confederate troops were literate. It is much more difficult to make concrete claims about things as subjective as racism, patriotism, and how one generally feels about the war effort. Statistics are antithetical to nuance.

I don’t believe that scholars of the Confederate army should see historical actors as some kind of polling group or feel that they work for Gallup rather than the world of the humane letters. Military historians of the Confederacy are among a long line of scholars going back to Douglas Southall Freeman and Bell Wiley. Freeman’s and Wiley’s works hold up well (and are still in print), despite the absence of “samples.”

I’m willing to bear criticism for not following the lead of recent historians. But I’m not sure why those who examine the Civil War soldier are held to a standard different from other scholars. Should all studies of the past contain “samples” that come from a “representative” cross section of people? When writing about the civil rights movement, for example, must a scholar make sure that the views of people from all the 50 states be included? Should such a history contain appendices that break down all their sources by state and county, age, and property ownership? I would hope not. It is difficult to make precise statements about even a small group of people, let alone a group as varied as the Confederate army. If Marching Masters is to be criticized for saying “some,” “many,” or “most” at times—which McKenzie found “frustratingly imprecise”—a book critic should at least provide examples of when and why such statements were unhelpful. For surely, all historians make such claims.

To again bring up the late Bell Wiley, Dr. McKenzie seems to agree with the scholarship of The Life of Johnny Reb in its exclusion of politics from the Confederate war effort. Wiley, though, was writing in a Jim Crow South that didn’t think race and slavery were an important aspect of Civil War history. Historiography has shifted quite a bit, yet McKenzie finds odd my emphasis on politics. Despite what his review says, however, I don’t write about politics to the exclusion of personal issues for explaining why men fought. Indeed, it would be impossible to write a book about the Confederate army that ignores personal motivations.

Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father

McKenzie apparently reviewed my book based on what he wanted to read rather than what he read. He wanted a book about “the more personal motives for fighting that many historians have found to be influential, such as personal honor, commitment to place, and loyalty to family.” Scholars can read about such important things in other books, but that was not what Marching Masters, with its supposedly “commonplace” assumptions, is about. Personally, I think the whole notion of “honor” driving southern history is nonsense if one ignores its racial foundation. Nor should we divorce proslavery thinking from the desire to defend home and family. Whether he knows it or not, McKenzie is restating what the Lost Cause said for decades: that the war was not about slavery, but about defending homes, firesides, and family. Defending them from what? The tariff? I think not. Confederates were prepared to shed blood and die to avoid the political advances of Lincoln and his “Negro/Negro-loving allies.”

Stranger vs. Stranger

Dr. McKenzie suggests that the Civil War was really just the old “brother versus brother” conflict as advertised on the Time-Life books TV commercials I used to watch as a kid. As Confederate apologists have noted, “How could it have been about slavery, since most southerners didn’t own slaves?” Well, for the same reasons the U.S. fought a war in Afghanistan and Iraq even those most Americans did not lose a loved one in the 9-11 attacks. Politics. Glory helped correct the notion that the Civil War was only a white man’s war. So did Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary. The war was not simply an exercise in defending personal honor or rival families settling old scores. Nor was it all about, as Shelby Foote summarized it, “I’m fightin’, ‘cause you’re down here.”

Modern wars are fought for political, not personal reasons. To stress the class based nature of the Confederate army contradicts Dr. McKenzie’s belief that the war was more personal than political. Some individuals are in a class of their own. But the whole notion of class is political in nature. Regardless, I don’t necessarily see a clear distinction between the personal and the political in much (most? I don’t know, and neither does Dr. McKenzie) of American history, whether those politics be local or national in scope. As any political observer today knows, people get very emotional, indeed can become hysterical, when it comes to politics. Many (sorry, I can’t be more precise than that) have taken politics very personally (“where’s my bailout?”) since the fall of 2008 and the election of our first African American president.

When it came to fighting, many Confederates surely had reasons more personal than political, communal rather than country-wide, for doing so. Yes, they had many, many reasons for fighting and dying and doing whatever they did. But my book is not about every reason they had for joining and staying in the military. In case the title of my book is unclear, I focused on slavery, which I feel important, indeed, necessary, in a discussion of the Civil War soldier. The Hatfields and McCoy’s? The fact that Jeb Stuart’s father-in-law opposed him during the Seven Days campaign? Not so much.

From the 2012 show “Hatfields & McCoys.”

Blood feuds are relatively small affairs, whereas the Civil War was a modern conflict, where men who did not know one another engaged in mass slaughter over political principles. As we all know, war is politics by other means. Men fought for many reasons, but McKenzie wants to take slavery out of the equation, or at the very least, subsume its importance beneath other motivations. In a way, then, he only shows how necessary a book like mine is, for even among historians, there is resistance to the idea that the Confederacy was fighting to preserve slavery.

McKenzie concludes that “careful readers will question whether the author has satisfactorily proven his sweeping counter-argument.” Readers have a right to question what I say, and I hope many do. But such a statement sounds like the complaint of neo-Confederates who claim that Marching Masters is “re-writing” history. There’s no point in writing history that will not at some level rewrite it. “Well-supported or not,” though, mine is not a scientific proof, but a monograph. I used books and papers, not a microscope and charts, to do my work. Better to write a “sweeping counter-argument” than leave dirt on the historical floor.

Despite taking fifteen years to complete, and using considerable documentary evidence, the central argument of Marching Masters did not convince Dr. McKenzie. That is unfortunate. It is one thing to receive a bad review. It is quite another, however, to have such a review misconstrue and distort your arguments. I hope next time. Dr. McKenzie will be more careful.

Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published by University of Virginia Press in 2014. He is working on a second book on Johnny Cash.

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I Wanted to Be Wade Boggs, but I’m More Like Bill Buckner

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By Colin Woodward

Back in 2009, my then girlfriend (now wife), bought me a pack of baseball cards. I saw the cards of many players I grew up with. Two of them, Wade Boggs and Bill Buckner, played on the infamous 1986 Red Sox team, which came within one strike of winning the World Series. Had the Sox won that game, the team would have broken a 68 year long slump: as of 1986, the Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918.

The 1986 Season

That year, Boggs was my hero. For the third time in five years, he led the American league in hits and batting average. Bill Buckner, a former Cub and Dodger, also had a good year. His batting average was much lower than that of Boggs, but he drove in 102 runs–far more than Boggs did. To drive in 102 runs is impressive for any player in any year.Buckner also swatted 18 homeruns and hit 39 doubles. Were he playing today, Buckner’s salary would be in the eight-figure range.

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Buckner had had a good year, and the year before that, he had 110 RBIs. In 1986, Buckner played first base most of the year, despite his bad ankles. Buckner was a 36 year old veteran who was in his 18th season, with near-Hall of fame caliber statistics.

It’s easy to forget how good Buckner was. Instead, his career is overshadowed by the error he made in Game 6.

Game Six

Here’s what happened. Leading 3-2 in a best of seven series, the Red Sox went into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six with a two-run lead. The first two Mets batters made outs. But then a rally started. The Mets ended up tying the score. Ray Knight was in scoring position when Mookie Wilson hit a routine ground ball to Buckner. Buckner let the ball go through his legs. Knight scored. Mets win.

The Red Sox went on to lose game 7 and the Series. Buckner came to epitomize “the Goat” both in New England and across the baseball world. In 1987, the Red Sox had a losing season. Buckner finished the year with the Angels. Geographically, Buckner was as far as he could have been from Boston and still playing major league baseball. Buckner hit .306 for the Angels, his highest average in five years.

It was easy to call Buckner the Goat, the chump, the guy who brought down every Red Sox fan’s dream of winning the first World Series since 1918. But really, the Red Sox should never have been in the Series at all.

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The 1986 ALCS

In the American League Championship Series, Boston pulled off an amazing come-from-behind win against the Angles in Game 5, in Anaheim. The Red Sox were down to their last strike when Sox outfielder Dave Henderson hot a ball off the end of his bat that had just enough pop to get over the fence. The Sox went on to win the game in 10 innings and take the series in seven games.

What the Mets did to Boston, the Sox had done to the Angels a few weeks before. The Angels pitcher who gave up the homerun to Dave Henderson, Donnie Moore, killed himself in 1989. But there was no curse. The Angels had to wait until 2003 to win their first World Series.

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1987

Buckner finished 1987 with the Angels. But Boggs stayed where he was. In 1987, the “Year of the Live Ball,” Boggs again led the league in hits and batting average. He also had career highs in homeruns (24) and RBIs (89). The Red Sox had a lousy year, but not Boggs. My hero was safe. Buckner was gone. And there was always next year. The next year was a good one for Boston. The Red Sox won first place in a weak American League East Division.

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Boggs had another stellar year. He again led the league in hits and average as well as doubles and runs. He was without a doubt, the best hitter in the American League, if not the majors (where his only competition was Tony Gwynn).

Boggs was my hero, the guy whose stance I copied when mine wasn’t working for me in Little League. He was the “Chicken Man,” who supposedly ate chicken before every game. Another one of his superstitions was that he took his final laps at 7:17 at night before a game in the hopes of going 7 for 7 (which has been done only once since 1892 in a 9 inning game). He even had a candy bar: the 352 bar, named after his lifetime batting average of .352.

Margo

In 1988, Boggs was at the height of his career. But then scandal hit. And Boggs arguably went through a far greater humiliation than Bill Buckner ever went through.

The press announced that Boggs was having an affair with Margo Adams. Boggs was a married man, and he was shamed in an era before we assumed our best athletes were dishonest and sleazy. In one of the Red Sox yearbooks from the early 80s, Boggs was seated with his wife Debbie in their house in Florida. Boggs looked tan and happy. And maybe he was happy with Debbie. But he was also happy with Margo. Until she told everyone.

The scandal worsened. Adams posed for Penthouse magazine. Rude fans of the Red Sox’s opposing teams began yelling “Margo! Margo!” when Boggs came to bat. Boggs went on Barbara Walters with his wife, and he cried like a little bitch. he had also cried on the bench when the Red Sox lost to the Mets in Game 7 in 1986. Both Boggs and Buckner were in need of redemption. In 1990, Buckner returned to the Red Sox. It was his final season. Buckner didn’t have a great year. Boggs had his worst season up until that time. The Red Sox made it to the playoffs, but they were swept by the awesome Athletics team.

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Curse of the Bambino

In 1990, Dan Shaughnessy published his book The Curse of the Bambino, which discussed not just the 1986 season, but all the bad luck that had accompanied the Red Sox since the team sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918. It was probably the low point in the history of being a Red Sox fan.

At the end of the 1992 season, Boggs signed with the Yankees. His hitting skills had worsened since the Adams scandal. For Boggs to have signed with the Yankees was for me–and many Sox fans–an acts of betrayal. First you cheat on your wife, then you cheat on your team? Buckner committee an error, an honest mistake. Boggs, though, was just a jerk.

With the Yankees

Once in New York, however, Boggs became a better hitter, and he won a World Series ring. He finished his career in his adopted home state, Florida. In 2005, Boggs was inducted in the Hall of Fame. He finished his career with over 3,000 hits, 578 doubles, and a .328 batting average. Boggs wore a Red Sox cap at his Hall of Fame induction. But he didn’t finish his career with Boston. Bill Buckner did, though.

Buckner didn’t make the Hall of Fame. But he came close. He had 2,715 lifetime hits, 498 doubles, more than 1,200 RBIs, and he was a career .289 hitter. His career spanned from 1969 to 1990, but for most of those season, Buckner played fewer than 140 games.  Had Buckner been healthy for two more seasons in his prime, he would have finished his career with 3,000 hits and thus have been assured entry into the Hall. But he didn’t.

And yet, he had a higher lifetime batting average than Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg, Carl Yastrzemski, Craig Biggio, and Tony Perez, just to name a few. He also had far more hits than Sandberg. And unlike Sandberg, the great Cubs second baseman, Buckner came very close to winning a World Series.

Almost

Buckner was a very good player, but not a Hall of Famer. As with so many of us, Buckner was good but not great. Memorable but not immortal. The guy hobbling on one leg, trying to win the big game.

Buckner almost caught Hank Aaron’s 715th homerun. But he didn’t. He could’ve made that play in the ninth inning of Game Six. But he didn’t. Maybe if Buckner had fielded Mookie’s slow roller, the Sox would have won that game in extra innings. Maybe not. They could’ve won game seven, but they didn’t.

Life is a series of moments that we can never get back. Maybe we could have gotten into a better school, made first string, first chair, got that raise, caught that game fish. Might have ended that relationship better. Might have done better in the interview. Got the bad guy, found the cure.

Baseball players are lucky. There’s no Hall of Fame for most of us. Just life. Boggs is there. Buckner isn’t. But Buckner never cried.

Redemption

In 2008, Buckner received a four-minute standing ovation at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, who had won the World Series the year before. It was the second for Boston in three years. In 2004, the Sox came from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the detested Yankees, winning the last two games in Old Yankee Stadium. “The Curse of the Bambino” was no more.

The Sox went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series. That took care of previous defeats at the hands of the Cardinals in the 1967 and 1946 World Series. Boston fans have a long memory. In 2013, the Sox won yet another World Series. Again, the team beat the Cardinals. Game Six and the Buckner error are now just history, just a footnote to one of the most storied franchises in all of sport.

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Bill Buckner appeared in one of the final episodes of the great sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David, a Yankees fan, even wanted to see Buckner redeemed. On the show, Buckner makes a great catch. And Boggs? The last story I heard about him involved him drinking massive quantities of beer on a cross-country flight while he was playing. Was Boggs an alcoholic? I dunno. No one knew about Margo Adams for a long time either.Wade Boggs: Hall of Fame drinker.

I wanted to be like Boggs, but I was more like Buckner. And that’s a good thing. I realize the Hall of Fame is for major achievements in baseball. But someone like Buckner makes you want to reassess our criteria for entry in it. He was a very good player and one who had a major role in the history of the sport. Wade Boggs certainly hasn’t shared the stage with Larry David.

Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is also a lifelong Red Sox fan and baseball enthusiast. He is working on a book about Johnny Cash.

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Arkansas Historical Association Meeting, 2015

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Johnny Cash has been good to me.

I was in West Memphis last week at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association. I was representing my employer, the Center for Arkansas History and Culture at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. I gave a talk on Saturday on James Guy Tucker, Jr., and Vietnam.

In west Memphis, I was also lucky enough to win two awards. They were for articles I had written about Johnny Cash and Arkansas. They both were about Cash, Winthrop Rockefeller, and prison reform in Arkansas. One was published in the Pulaski County Historical Review, and it won best article for 2014. The other award was for best unpublished article submitted to the Arkansas Historical Association.

So, to recap my career. Amount of money I have made from writing a peer-reviewed book that has been available wherever books are sold: $0.

Money from writing Johnny Cash-related articles that were not peer-reviewed: $900.

How many books would I have to sell to get $900 in royalties? I don’t want to know.

Publishers have also been warming up to me. I have written only one entire chapter of my Johnny Cash book, yet I have had two publishers interested in the project.

I was also contracted recently to read a book manuscript on Johnny Cash. In a world of billionaires, $200 is a small sum. But for a historian who is used to writing things for free, a few hundred dollars is a lot. Some scholars can go a very long time without getting any money for their work.

And not just Johnny Cash, but the Arkansas Historical Association has been good to me. This year was the third year in a row that I presented a paper at the annual conference. My first was in Helena in 2013. At that point, I was actually starting to feel that I knew what I was talking about with Johnny Cash. It was only my third academic talk. And it was nice practice for someone like me who is not comfortable with public speaking.

The AHA is a very laid back conference. No one comments on your paper, as they sometimes do at other conferences. Many of the presenters and attendees I’ve met are not in academia at all. In short, it’s less stuffy. It’s very Arkansas in that way. I often appreciate Arkansas’s lack of pretentiousness.

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Before heading to the conference, I stopped with my family at Uncle John’s in Crawfordsville. It’s a restaurant in a typical Delta town. Farming is still king in Crawfordsville. It reminded me a lot of Dyess, which I visited twice last year. I liked this decoration that was hanging on the men’s room wall.

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I stayed overnight in Memphis for the conference. I didn’t get to see much, but that was kind of the point: I wasn’t going to have much time to look around.

And since I stayed in east Memphis, I saw where people live. Should you only ever visit downtown Memphis and Beale Street, you would never get an idea of where people’s houses are.

Maybe my next trip will Elvis-decadent. I’d love to go back for the Beale Street music festival this year. John Fogerty will be there. Wilco, too. But I have a baby coming around that time. Kids are inconsiderate that way.

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The banquet for the AHA conference was held at the Southland dog track. it wasn’t easy to walk past all those slot machines without making a bet. I don’t have money to gamble. But maybe if Johnny Cash stays good to me, I will.

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The Walking Dead and the American Apocalyptic Tradition

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By Colin Woodward

The Walking Dead is regarded as one of the best shows on television. It’s certainly the most violent and disturbing. I  have watched it from the beginning, and it is not a show that leaves you feeling indifferent. At its best, it is an inspired and timeless comment on human nature. At its worst, it is sadistic torture-porn.

To read the show politically, one could see it is a fantasy for all the government-hating survivalists out there. At a religious and historical level, it speaks very much to the American apocalyptic tradition.

Americans’ fascination with the apocalypse is as old as America itself. Recently, I reviewed a book on the Civil War and the apocalypse: Apocalypse and the Millennium in the American Civil War Era. Every generation must deal with the notion of the end of the world. My parents remember the Cuban missile crisis and “duck and cover.”

When I was growing up in the 1980s, the Soviet Union, with its many, many bombs, was still seen as an existential threat. A TV movie like The Day After examined nuclear obliteration. The 1984 film Ghostbusters satirized our obsession with Armageddon by showing the undead driving cabs in New York City.

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On the one hand, The Walking Dead is a horrifying exploration of the collapse of civilization. Flesh-eating zombies roam the land. People survive based on their wits and their aim with a bow or a gun. But even the toughest of them aren’t always lucky. The show can be extremely dark and bleak.

On the other hand, the show portrays how well humans can react well in a crisis, and how they cling to decency and humanity even when the End of Days seem upon us.

The United States is a country founded on Enlightenment principles, best expressed in the Declaration of Independence. But the earliest settlers of what became the United States were arriving on our shores in the late 1500s and early 1600s: essentially at the tail end of the middle ages. They were post-Renaissance people. But they were also pre-Enlightenment. The armor and weapons the men of Jamestown or Plymouth carried around looked downright medieval.

The ethos of the Walking Dead, really, is truer to the 17th century than it is the 21st. A plague is decimating humanity. Cars don’t run. Infrastructure has collapsed. Commerce is non-existent. There is no government to help. Whenever our heroes Rick, Darryl, and Maggie find refuge at a building, house, or community, the place turns out to be a trap. Whatever exists behind walls seems more sinister than what is in the natural world. Our travelers stick to the road, but it is leading nowhere.

Much of the shows design and props are a throwback to the Middle Ages–an era when towns were surrounded by walls and forts. Once an enemy breached the walls, all hell broke loose. The same holds true in The Walking Dead. The characters often try to hide behind walls, whether it be an abandoned prison or a “Utopian” community run by the sadistic “Governor.” The walls may protect, but they also obscure and become traps. Empty cities are perilous mazes. Hospitals are sinister. The price to defend the walls is often a high body count. Far more characters get slaughtered behind walls than they do in the open field and the woods.

The weapons of the show are also throwbacks to the pre-gunpowder days. Take Darryl’s bow. Yes, it’s symbolic of the man’s backwoods, cracker roots. It is also a nod to the middle ages and the pre-gunpowder days. The show also features many uses of the sword and the knife. One character is like a black samurai–another nod to the middle ages. And when guns fail, knives save characters who would’ve otherwise been dead. Guns are a modern invention. They are powerful, but often fail. They jam. They run out of bullets. In The Walking Dead, the gun is a symbol of the failure of modern society.

At its core, the show is far more Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who wrote of the “war against all,” than it is Thomas Jefferson and his belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Hobbes famously said that life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The folks in The Walking Dead live in a true “war against all” situation. Violence and killing is constant. In a grotesque parody of Christian theology, the dead rise but not in the way Lazarus did. They are not miracles, but insatiable monsters. The show is Biblical in its obsession with the end of the world. And though past zombie sagas, like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, had a healthy dose of good ol’ American satire, The Walking Dead rarely seeks out humor.

Nor does it seek out much pleasure. The violence is pornographic. But sex is never shown. The only character with seemingly any hint of the libertine is the fiery-haired Abraham, who doesn’t mind sipping on a whiskey bottle or going to bed with the woman with the pigtails.

Usually, though, The Walking Dead holds to the grim aesthetic of the pioneers and the Wild West: people move through the wilderness, but there are dangers at every tun. Every week, the show is like an updated version of the Donner Party. It also employs many of the tropes of the Wild West. But The Walking Dead is a world even more chaotic than the Wild West, which, as brutal as it could be, was a step the country needed to take in order to “civilize” the West. And one wonders: are the humans of the Walking Dead the pioneers or are they the Indians?

The popularity of The Walking Dead may be read as statement on contemporary American society in many ways. Unlike the apocalyptic vision of the Cold War, things do not end in a big bang. Rather, the world ends with the relentless attack of slow-moving zombies. Perhaps the show taps into our post-911 fears of Islamic extremism, which is a low-tech, but no less terrifying threat to western civilization than the Soviet Union was.

In today’s political climate, we hear a lot–too much, really–of religious rhetoric. Just a few years back, I heard people say they thought Obama literally was the anti-Christ. And that his presence was a harbinger of the End Times. It’s easy to dismiss such talk as crackpot. But it was serious, and it suggests that those that cling the language of Armageddon don’t fear the Rapture. Rather, they welcome it.

By depicting the harshest realities of a post-apocalyptic world, the show forces us to become virtual survivalists. We think: how would I do in this situation? Sure, Rick looks tired, but he also is tan and is in good shape and is a natural leader. By setting characters in a Hobbesian world, The Walking Dead is terrifying. It is also appeals to a grim but stoic ideal. In The Walking Dead world, Americans’ love of guns, hunting, and rugged individualism are advantages. Long wars–Hobbesian or not–are exhausting, but they can also tests us in ways no other human experience can.

The Walking Dead is not just superior entertainment. In a way, it is the exact opposite. It wants us not to escape, but confront the harshest types of human behavior. It places us in an apocalyptic situation and asks: how would you fare?

America’s interest in The Walking Dead can be read many ways. But it clearly is a history lesson in how the apocalypse continues to fascinate our society.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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Me and Johnny Cash, Part IV: Cash and Cash

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By Colin Woodward

Here’s the amount of money I have made so far from selling hundreds of copies of a peer-reviewed book, published by one of the best universities in the South, featured on amazon.com, and carried in stores at Barnes and Noble: $0.

Here’s the amount of money I have made by writing about Johnny Cash: $450. And I haven’t published anything yet on him.

If you had told me fifteen years ago that studying Johnny Cash was more lucrative than the Civil War, I would have started research on Cash back in graduate school.

Last month, I was lucky to win a prize from the Pulaski County Historical Society for an article I wrote on Johnny Cash and his early Arkansas roots. I had never shown the article to anyone before sending it to the prize committee. The award was $300. It’s the largest prize I have ever won.

Last month, I also did a ten minute spoke-word story on the podcast Tales from the South about my adventure in Cashlandia. A day after it aired, someone at University of Arkansas Press asked me to review a manuscript on Cash. And I would receive a $150 honorarium for doing so.

Welcome to the weird world of historical scholarship. You never really know where and when you will get paid for writing anything. If you’re lucky, you’ll one day get paid for writing something.

Being a scholar entails a long period of apprenticeship. Early on, you can’t be picky. Write reviews for anyone. Get an article published in a journal, if you can. But keep writing. Then, once you’re done with your advanced degree, get your book published, as quickly as possible. Don’t expect any money from it. Try not to wince when you hear about the millions of copies that bourgeois trash like Fifty Shades of Grey sold. And try not to be too bitter.

For a while, simply getting published will be a thrill. Eventually, though, writing history for free becomes exhausting and frustrating. And yet, you learn there is a at least a little money to be made at various places. Academic book reviews and book publishers don’t pay well, if at all. But some encyclopedias, whether online or print versions, may offer from $30-60 for an entry. That’s not much when you work out the hourly rate for writing a scholarly encyclopedia entry. But it’s more than zero, more than you would get for a peer-reviewed book or article, and you will feel better about getting money for writing.

The Encyclopedia of Arkansas, for example, offers to pay for all entries (it also gives you the option to donate the money back to the encyclopedia). It’s a great way to get practice writing and doing the historical craft. And you can earn enough money for dinner.

EOA

In the past few years, I’ve made a few hundred dollars writing for encyclopedias. But my book? Well. I’m still waiting for my first check. Charlie Rose, please return my calls.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.

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Randy Newman: Southern Historian?

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Randy Newman in 1972, featured on the cover of his album Sail Away.

By Colin Woodward

Last month, I saw Randy Newman perform with the Conway Symphony Orchestra at the University of Central Arkansas. I’ve always liked Randy Newman. If you know anything about music, chances are you can name at least one of his songs. I recall hearing  “I Love L.A.,” which came out around the time I first remember listening to music, back in the early 1980s.

In Conway, Newman didn’t mess around. He played his “best of,” which covered floods, bad love, the slave trade, genocide, communism, child murder, and kinky sex. The usual. What does it say about me that one of my heroes is a cranky, mumbling piano-player in his 70s that I’ve never met? Not sure. I like Americans who go against the grain. And besides, loving old men is the way entertainment goes these days. Our senior musicians endure, while our young athletes and others fade away.

Newman is known for his caustic, acerbic wit and a tendency to offend. The singer got flak for his 1977 hit “Short People,” which was written purely as a goof. Newman had no idea how vocal and bitter the short people lobby was. In Conway, Newman was in classic form. He made a joke about American Sniper and how dumb his sons were in comparison with his daughter. He also called Little Rock a “dump.” Was he kidding about Little Rock? You’re never sure with Newman.

Years ago, one moment really endeared me to Newman. When he finally won an Oscar in 2002 for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc.(after losing on many other occasions), he told the crowd, “I don’t need your pity.” He then chastised the Academy Awards’ orchestra for trying to cut him off during his speech. He told them they were being “rude.” It was one of Newman’s best moments.

One reason I’ve liked Newman is not just because his songs are funny, but because history plays such a prominent role in his work. Newman was born in Los Angeles and has been there most of his life, but he lived in New Orleans for a while as a kid, and he has family with southern roots. His penchant for southern history is most pronounced on 1974’s Good Old Boys, a concept album about the South, with several songs about Louisiana and the bizarre governorship of Huey “Kingfish” Long in the 1920s and 1930s.

Newman hasn’t been afraid to tackle a subject as tricky or as touchy as race in America. Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” a song inspired by the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox. “Rednecks” is the only song I have ever heard by a mainstream singer than uses the word “nigger” (the only other one I can think of is John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”).

We got no-neck oil men from Texas

Good ol’ boys from Tennessee

College men from LSU

Went in dumb, come out dumb, too

Hustling ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes

Getting drunk every weekend at a barbecue

They’re keeping the niggers down

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We’re keeping the niggers down

Newman, of course, is not promoting racism, but satirizing it. And in “Rednecks,” he skewers northern and southern racism, saying that northern blacks were “free to be put in a cage” in places like West and South Chicago, Harlem, Filmore in San Francisco, and Roxbury in Boston. Racism, Newman, makes clear, is an American problem, not just a southern one.

Needless to say, “Rednecks” did not make the Top 40. And Newman did not play it in Conway. Newman did, however, play several tunes from Good Old Boys, including the moving “Louisiana, 1927,” about the horrible Mississippi River flood of that year.

What is happening down here is that winds have changed

Clouds moved in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The song might have seemed a novelty in 1974, but it became eerily current after Katrina hit in August 2005. Newman’s Good Old Boys made numerous references to depression era figures, but its better songs, such as “Back on My Feet Again” could’ve been about making it in the recession-plagued 1970s, or the early 2010s for that matter. In plumbing the depths of American history, Newman has unearthed the everyday.

Newman has sung about historical topics outside the South, too. His terrific 1999 album Bad Love is something of a history lesson. It opens with the line “let’s go back to yesterday/when a phone call cost a dime.”The Great Nations of Europe” examines the explorers who conquered North America and decimated the native populations. Heavy stuff, and not the type of material most songwriters would want to tackle. But, it’s the kind of song Randy Newman has liked to write throughout his entire career. He is the closest thing to an endowed professor of history that American pop music has produced.

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The University of Central Arkansas, where Randy Newman took the stage last month.

In Conway, Newman joked about how “In Germany before the War” should have been a hit, though the song’s subject–a child killer living in Nazi Germany–was unfit for mass airplay. Hearing it last month made me a little uncomfortable. And yet, the song is not at all explicit. It is disturbing merely in what it suggests.

On a lighter note, “Life Just Isn’t Fair,” about Karl Marx and the failures of communism to combat human nature, also graced Newman’s album Bad Love. “Life” was inspired by a trip to Newman’s school, where “froggish men, unpleasant to see” were alongside “all the young mommies.” The point: ugly, rich men can get the girl. And really, what better motivator is there for men to succeed?

Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, even though his music rarely can be considered “rock.” More appropriately, I think he should be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the American Historical association or the Southern Historical Association.

As Americans, we are products of our history. And few songwriters understand that better than Randy Newman.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.

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Movie Review: Fury

Brad Pitt;Logan Lerman

By Colin Woodward

Fury (2014)

Plot: A tank unit fights its way across Germany during World War II. Along the way, these grizzled, hard-bitten troops teach a wet-behind-the-ears recruit that war is bad.

That plot summary contains cliches. It was meant to. This movie is a cliche.

Someone needs to write a book about how Hollywood, despite all its supposed “limousine liberals” reinforces traditional and conservative values.

Take Fury. It benefits from employing all the tricks of the CGI era. It looks convincing. The film has plenty of mud, blood, and decapitations. The look and feel of the tank’s innards feels real. The acting, on the whole, is competent. Fury is, essentially, however, a remake of The Alamo, in which Americans fight against overwhelming odds.

The film reinforces this idea with some misleading opening titles about American tanks being outgunned by the better-armed Germans. Yes, the German tanks were far superior to their American counterpart, the Shermans. But the Americans had far more tanks with which to wage war, a fact that one scene in the film ably demonstrates. A Tiger is able to pick off several U.S. tanks before being outflanked by Pitt’s crew, which disables the German tank with a shot to its poorly armored rear.

Saving Private Ryan began a new era of (fittingly) violent World War II movies. But even for a war movie, Fury is grisly. Previous entertainments, from Ryan to Band of Brothers to The Thin Red Line, were gritty. But they had an element of humanity about them. The men of Fury, in contrast, only seem to take pride and pleasure in one thing: killing.

Despite the unusually high gore factor in the film, Fury’s plot elements are standard fare. The soldiers are in the mold of the typical World War II platoon. The tank has a Mexican; a nearly incomprehensible and crude redneck; a Bible-quoting southerner with a William Faulkner mustache; a wan, hapless desk jockey whose been thrown in with the veterans; and the tough-as-nails sergeant (played by Pitt). We’ve seen these characters before.

Lee Marvin would have been great in this kind of movie. But he’s been dead a long time, and so instead we get Brad Pitt as the central character. Pitt’s sergeant is something of a sadist. In one preposterous early scene, he forces the new recruit to murder a captured German soldier—shooting the man in the back, no less. And in the ludicrous final act, the film goes into full John Wayne mode. Pitt’s sergeant urges his men to undertake what is essentially a suicide mission, where a handful of men in a broken down tank try to hold off what appears to be a battalion of SS troops.

The film also contains a long, awkward, and gratuitous scene in which the men have a meal with two attractive German women (who are later blown up by stray German artillery). The women look less like people living in a war ravaged town than they do magazine models. And yet, after we have seen countless men torn apart in battle, the director cuts away from the lovemaking scene. No naked flesh in this movie, mind you. Because that would be too much for the viewer to handle. This movie takes pride in not showing any basic human pleasures.

Great war movies are like great westerns. They need strong and charismatic leading men who you will root for, even when those men do horrible things. Brad Pitt, unfortunately, does not have the quality of the great war movie actors. Here, he seems to lack both gravitas and vulnerability. He can be effective in movies like Oceans 11, when he can be suave and snarky. As far as WWII movies go, he was better in Inglorious Basterds, which had the reliable Quentin Tarantino at the helm and was a fairly tongue-in-cheek affair. This movie needs more of an everyman, perhaps Timothy Olyphant or Jeremy Renner leading the tank across Germany

A classic movie like The Dirty Dozen was amoral and often cartoonish. But it had characters you cared about. It knew the movie had to be about more than the killing scenes. Fury doesn’t understand that it’s not enough to have the Nazis be the villains. Countless movies have done that. At the end of the film, we won’t be pleased just because the Americans exacted a higher body count. We want soldiers who are more than just killing machines.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.

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