Archive for category Civil War

Booth Family Drama

Nora Titone’s My Thoughts Be Bloody (2010) provides an interesting new perspective on the Lincoln assassination.  Unlike most books on the topic, Nora begins with the colorful exodus of the Booth family patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, from England in 1821.  Fleeing his first wife and a three-year old son back in London, Junius Brutus Booth sought to begin a new life in the United States with his mistress Mary Anne Holmes.  He would eventually sire ten children with Mary Anne, including Edwin and John Wilkes Booth.

The first portion of the book is largely devoted to the life of Junius Brutus Booth who was not only a Romantic in every sense of the word, he considered himself a pantheist and was fiercely vegetarian, but also a drunkard.  By doing so, Nora strives to illustrate the environment from which the president’s assassin emerged.

John Wilkes Booth was forced to live as a boy with great economic privation and shame as his father’s first wife found out about Mary Anne and moved to Baltimore expressly to taunt and expose her through the courts as an adulteress.  The first Mrs. Booth would follow the family around the city’s streets screaming “whore” at the family as they went about their daily chores.

Nora also exposes a Oedipal struggle of sorts between the father and his two most famous sons, Edwin and John Wilkes, which later metamorphosizes into a struggle between the two brothers.  Edwin was by all accounts the son who inherited his father’s theatrical talents while John Wilkes merely obtained his old clothing and stage props.  Yet John Wilkes refused to concede that he would forever be outshone by his older sibling.

By the time that Nora reaches the last chapter of the book and the fateful night of Lincoln’s death at Ford’s Theater, we are already prepared to see this horrendous tragedy as in fact another dramatic play in the struggle for ownership of the Booth name.  Through killing the president, she implies, John Wilkes did not so much seek to influence the southern cause as he did to win the struggle that began between him and his father and then continued with his older brother Edwin.

Hindsight suggests that John Wilkes won the contest that Nora outlines as his name remains far better known than that of his brother Edwin or his father.  The great tragedy, however, that becomes apparent in this book is that John Wilkes could no longer distinguish between life and life on stage.  The two had merged towards the end of his days into one tragicomic stream.

My only complaint with the work is how long it takes the narrative to begin.  In her quest for proper contextualization, Nora runs the risk of losing the reader in the early sections of the book.  Nonetheless it is refreshing to see that “well-researched” popular history is alive and well as a genre.  Here is a work that is both authoritative as well as fun to read once you get past the first 30 pages.  Who would have imagined that in killing the president John Wilkes was actually killing the image of his brother?

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The Civil War In the Era of Civil Rights

Yale historian David Blight in his most recent book American Oracle continues to examine the tension between the reconciliationist and emancipationist narratives of the Civil War, which he began in his seminal 2001 work Race and Reunion.  Here he brings that narrative forward from the Gilded Age and outlines for the reader how the United States chose to remember the war during its centennial, a time period that also coincided with the nation’s growing struggle over civil rights.  Rather than offer a broad sweep, Blight chooses to focus on four major writers who made the Civil War their theme during this period:  Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin.  Mixing biography with textual analysis, he attempts to expose how these writers resisted the tendency during the centennial to highlight the clichéd interpretations of the war as a myth of heroism or national unity (both of which were desirable at the height of the Cold War).  Instead these four authors, Blight asserts, strove to expose the tragic elements of the war.  What we had learned and what the nation still failed to recognize.

Warren, according to Blight, focused mainly on the need for soul-searching in the postwar South and how it had largely been avoided.  Catton, in contrast, created a mythology of the Union soldier that highlighted the hardships they had endured for cause and country.  Wilson exposed the hypocrisy surrounding the war’s ideals and hoped to shake American’s from their sense of smug uniqueness as a nation.  Baldwin, in Blight’s view, held the most tragic vision of the war as it remained part of his day-to-day experience as a Black man.

I wanted to like Blight’s book more than I did, but it really comes across as a rushed job.  Perhaps this might have worked as a series of lectures.  The best portions of the book are in the middle where Blight examines the source of Catton’s fascination with the war and attempts to rescue him from charges of mindless hagiography of the Boys in Blue.  His reading of the eclectic scholar Edmund Wilson is also quite cogent.  Yet despite these bright spots, the author proves himself to be better at description and cultural analysis than he is as a close reader of literary figures and texts.  In this respect the book underscores the limits of interdisciplinarity.  Blight tried to write a work of literary criticism and in the process ends up reminding us that he is a historian.

If nothing else, this book has succeeded in making me want to reread Robert Penn Warren and I will definitely pick up a copy of Catton’s memoir Waiting for the Morning Train.  American Oracle serves as a reminder that the primary source, full of life and meaning, is the point for writing secondary texts such as Blight’s in the first place.  So that what we have loved you may love as well.  Thanks David for sharing these texts you love with me.

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Stephen Crane Article Now Available

You can see a preview of the first page at this link:

My article appears on the first pages of the Fall 2011 issue. Not too shabby.

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Alexander C. McClurg Archive?

I know common sense dictates one project at a time, but I’m doing some preliminary research for a second book manuscript. As part of that research I’m trying to find archives holding the personal papers of Alexander C. McClurg.

Newberry Library in Chicago has the business records of his publishing company, most dating from after his death, but I’m hoping that someone out there retained his letters or other personal effects.

If you know of any collection relating to Alexander C. McClurg, you can either respond to this post or email me at



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Civil War POW Camp Discovered

Archaeologists have discovered a POW camp in southeastern Georgia that was briefly used to house Union soldiers.  Since they had to leave in a hurry to flee the advance of Sherman’s army, a lot of interesting artifacts were left behind.  If you’re interested, here’s a link to the article:

For those of you in Chicago.  We had a POW camp here as well in the Bronzeville area:  Camp Douglas.  It housed Confederate POWs.  No traces of the site itself remain.  It was built over years ago.  But a monument does exist at Oak Woods Cemetary to commemorate the many unknown dead from the camp, called Confederate Mound.


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Legacy of the Civil War Conference

I’m also proud to announce that I will be presenting at Chesnutt Hill College’s “Legacy of the Civil War” conference in November. The paper will explore a personal narrative written by Union veteran Charles Cummings who lost his feet in a work related accident but tries to obscure this fact through his writing. By calling himself a “war relic,” he suggests to the reader that his injuries are actually war related. Cummings’ pamphlet provides an excellent example of late nineteenth century attitudes towards veterans as well as discourses surrounding disability and poverty.

For more information on the conference, visit:

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Article on Stephen Crane

After months of editing, my article on Stephen Crane’s novel “The Red Badge of Courage” is due to be published in the Fall issue of “American Literary Realism. In that article I provide an original perspective on this classic Civil War tale that exposes the resentment of the younger generation of middle class white men coming of age in the 1890s and the aging veterans of the Civil War.

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