Talking History: Confederate and African-American Monuments

I had the pleasure of attending the talking history lecture on Confederate and African-American monuments. It was very interesting gaining insights into the origins of these monuments, and that Confederate monuments were initially tied into the politics of resistance to Reconstruction, and later had associations with resistance to integration as well. As someone with a great interest in politics it was also fascinating to hear about the Readjuster Party, something with which I was not familiar. I am going to look more into that period of time in Virginia political history for sure.
It was also very interesting to hear about African-American monuments and their development over the past 150 years or so. The first statues definitely seemed to focus a lot on Lincoln in “liberating” enslaved people, but it was also notable that the contributions of African-American soldiers and sailors slowly became more recognized over time. The “faithful slave” monuments were ones I was not familiar with either, and it was a bit surprising at first to hear about that, but it made sense the more I thought it over in light of some of the paternalistic rhetoric surrounding slavery in the 19th Century and the subsequent romanticizing of that.
Overall I enjoyed the lecture a lot and I’m glad I went.

Military History

Robert M. Citino’s article “Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction describes the differing contemporary fields of military history. He begins by noting the gap between the wide popular interest in military history and the relatively low present academic focus on it. He then describes the three basic strands of military history today: the “war and society” scholars, often referred to as new military historians, who focus on the relationship between armies and the societies which spawn them, traditional operations military historians, and those who apply the newest historical trends, such as memory and culture, to the military. He then goes through the works of several scholars to highlight different approaches to military history, good and bad, touching on conflicts such as World War II, German Unification, and the American Civil War. Of particular interest to him is different methods of analysing the “Military Revolution”: what it is, what technology was critical to it, and its potential relationship to absolute monarchy and European imperialism.
I found the information about the work of Dennis Showalter to be very interesting. I liked that he was able to revive operational military history as an important field while correcting some of its weak points.
I also liked, later on, John Lynn’s distancing himself from certain elements of culture theory: “Extreme proponents of cultural history might dispute the very existence of reality, since all is perception to them. In the realm of military history, such airy discussions tend to become foolish. Thousands of dead and wounded as a result of battle is the kind of hard fact that defies intellectual games.” There have always been sophists and I believe Lynn is right to be cautious of their methods.
Citino basically concludes that the lines between “old” and “new” military histories are very blurred at this point, and the use of these distinguishing terms may no longer even be useful. Differences in emphasis may not be easily categorized as separate schools of thought. He criticizes lingering problems of older historical practices such as emphasizing the greatness of individuals in military encounters. I can certainly see the dangers in overestimating the abilities of one person, but I should think everyone would agree that certain individuals have been remarkable and made monumentally important decisions which would have much greater impacts than just themselves. The article finishes off by inviting the reader to check out military history, as a revolutionary act in an environment which has become increasingly hostile towards it.

Historical Consciousness and Mapping the Discipline

“Historical Consciousness” by Mark Gilderhus is essentially a history of history. That is, it attempts to trace different interpretations and understanding of history by historians through the Early Modern Period coming into the modern world. It begins with Petrarch (after broadly painting the Medieval world) and ends with Marx.
It’s my understanding that Petrarch is responsible for coining the term “Dark Ages” to refer to what is now called the Medieval Period. It’s relieving to me to see scholars breaking from the term. Certainly not a good term to use to refer to the time Oxford University was founded and Sainte-Chapelle was built.
I like Collingwood’s insight a lot, referring to Enlightenment historians as: “polemical and antihistorical.” It’s funny to see Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophers insist that humanity has entered a new age of reason when their time saw such massive bloodshed, and in the case of conflicts like the French Revolution, the Enlightenment philosophers themselves formed part of the inspiration for widespread violence.
Due to my personal interest my favorite parts of this essay were the references to the 17th Century and the English Civil War. It states: “This subject over the years has preoccupied many students of English history as the nation’s central and formative experience.” I would take it a step further and claim it’s not only the central and formative experience of England, but in many senses the United States as well. I would agree with Hume that the Puritans’ dogmatism is case in point in terms of overthrowing the monarchy in favor of a disconnected abstraction (though Cromwell eventually distanced himself from the more radical flavors of the revolution). I would say however that the French revolutionaries were just as dogmatic and dangerous, but with faith in “reason,” whatever that meant, rather than Puritan Christianity.
As for the other essay, “Mapping the Discipline,” it was, as the name suggests, a broad overview of history as an academic discipline. A part that stood out to me early on was this: “Most obviously, for a long time countries have generally been led by individuals, together with small elites, in many parts of the world. Thus ‘politics’ is easily identified and is often seen as what really counts.” The implication here seems to be that in modern, more democratic systems the government is less transparent and that there is widespread doubt about which forces “really count” in contemporary politics. It’s an interesting thought.
The line: “There are a lot more posts in the USA, where academic life built on politicised identities has been considerably more successful.” I have to wonder whether this is a good thing. It could be because the very foundations of the USA, unlike Britain, as a country are political and ideological (Whig).
I liked the insights about the difficulties of analysing history by country, especially when dealing with recently united countries like Germany and Italy. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious solution, but the problem is definitely there. The note about the British not always having been laissez-faire reminded me of how much English and American revolutionaries would invoke the myth of the “free” Anglo-Saxons, suppressed by the Norman Yoke.
Interesting that Marxism is waning in developments. I wonder what the future holds if Marxist interpretations continue to decline and/or not develop.

Historical Awareness/Uses of History

I enjoyed these chapters by John Tosh. A part in particular I liked from the first chapter: “No human practice ever stands still; all demand a historical perspective which uncovers the dynamics of change over time. This is one reason why it is so important that students should study large swaths of history.” What really appeals to me about these chapters by Tosh is that he brings up insights from both the English and French Revolutions, my particular areas of interest as well as being boundless in their historical importance. I was very glad to see Thomas Carlyle cited.
I hesitate to agree with Tosh’s characterization of respect for tradition. I think he’s certainly right in the sense that a blind love for certain traditions, which may be relatively recent, can be detrimental to the study of history. In a broader sense, however, tradition is best practiced not as the worship of ashes but as the preservation of fire. It is an unbroken link to the past, and can make for a beneficial cultural consistency. Just a thought.
Tosh is spot-on about the toxic tendency towards viewing history as “progress.” This is particularly prevalent when people use laughable phrases like “the right side of history,” as if the winning side to any particular historical argument automatically holds the moral high ground as well. This is inherited from the Whig interpretation of history, of course.
I ultimately agree with Tosh’s conclusion which he terms “postmodern,” that it is impossible to entirely detach oneself from the present, as many 19th Century historians sought. It is, however, a laudable aim.
Moving on to chapter 2, I agree strongly with what Ranke. This actually ties back to what I just mentioned about respecting tradition, Tosh says of Ranke: “To conservatives such as Ranke, the political excesses in France were a terrifying instance of what happens when radicals turn their backs on the past: to apply first principles without respect for inherited institutions was a threat to the very fabric of social order.” Self-described “Old Whig” Edmund Burke said much the same. One of my personal favorite writers, Joseph de Maistre, took it a step further and characterized the whole notion of revolution as inherently flawed.
I was delighted by the Christopher Hill quote: “Since capitalism, the Protestant ethic, Newtonian physics, so long taken for granted by our civilization, are now at last coming under general and widespread criticism, it is worth going back to consider seriously and afresh the arguments of those who opposed them before they won universal acceptance.” I couldn’t agree more, to be honest. Counter-Reformation, anyone?
I also found the information about the Soviet cover-up of history to be very interesting. From what I understand, collective social memory, as opposed to formal historical analysis, was quite present in the years after Stalin, seeing as the hatred for him was widespread to the point of tearing down hundreds of statues of him across Communist countries (I believe the largest was in Prague, destroyed in 1962, where there is now a giant metronome to symbolize the passage of time). I’m sure that the glastnost policy played its role in the destruction of Communism, when the historical records were uncovered.