Category Archives: Scholarship and Historians

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the U.S. Civil War

A battlefield memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park. Photo by Paul Huard

A battlefield memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park. Photo by Paul Huard

The issue of mental illness arising from the trauma of combat is nothing new. Homer described the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the Illiad. When Achilles’ close friend Patroclus dies in combat, Achilles cries out, “My comrade is dead, / Lying in my hut mangled with bronze, / His feet turned toward the door, and around him, / Our friends grieve.  Nothing matters to me now” and then embarks on a killing spree that is more like an attempt at suicide than warfare.  Call it what you will: “shell shock,” combat fatigue, survivor’s guilt.  PTSD is as old as history.

The U.S. Civil War was no different. While researching another topic, I stumbled across an article from The New York Times by University of Georgia graduate student Dillon Carroll on PTSD and the Civil War.

A key quote:

 Historians are beginning to uncover what was a virtual epidemic of emotional, psychological and neurological trauma that afflicted soldiers after the war. Veterans labored under emotional and psychological stress in ways that are disturbingly similar to the present. Alcoholism was rampant, as was unemployment. Suicide was endemic. Civil War veterans dotted the wards of insane asylums across the country.

Despite all the valor shown during the Civil War, despite all the worthiness of the cause, soldiers both North and South were often damaged men long after the war was finished. I see a need for historians to take a close look at what might be an untouched area of study regarding the real toll of America’s worst war. What they find will not only expand our understanding of that period of history but hopefully reinforce the current argument that the United States needs to provide better services and better outreach to a generation of combat veterans who have fought in America’s wars since 9-11.

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Benjamin Franklin’s Not-So-Famous Sister

250px-Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph-Siffred_DuplessisThey called one another “Benny” and “Jenny” throughout their lives in the letters they frequently exchanged. He was the most famous American in the world at the time. She lived a life of obscurity as a woman in colonial America who gave birth to 12 children and made her own soap. Harvard historian Jill Lepore chronicles the dichotomy of these two lives in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s sister and life-long correspondent. The public broadcasting show “Here and Now” offers a substantial selection from the book as well as an interview with Lepore talking about her book. 

“… One of the things that’s great about them is they really span the whole of the 18th century, which is just these epic moments in Western history, certainly in American history,” say Lepore during the interview. “And you can follow, over the course of their lives, everything happens to them. Most of them are things that Franklin is actually doing and responsible for and that Jane is a witness to. So it’s a fantastic story. And it’s traceable the whole way through because Franklin wrote more letters to his sister Jane than he wrote to anyone else. I mean, here’s this man who corresponded with kings, you know? But he remained deeply loyal to this sister, I think, felt singularly responsible for her. So you – it this great, untold story of American letters.”

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Filed under Book reviews, History of the Declaration of Independence, Scholarship and Historians

Pauline Maier, RIP

Some truly sad news today via History News Network. Pauline Maier, author of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998) and one of the nation’s most lauded historians of the American Revolution, died Monday of lung cancer, according to an HNN article. She was 75.

Maier was among a group of historians who turned the tide of historiography about the American Revolution by emphasizing the

Pauline Maier

Pauline Maier

unique political achievements of the independence movement and the political culture it created. She represented a younger generation of historians who rejected the New Left and Progressive schools of thought, examining how radical English libertarian thought changed American political beliefs and how wide-spread acceptance of natural rights and individual liberty distinctively altered politics, economics, and society. Maier’s thoughts on these subjects deeply influenced my own perspective as a historian, as the pages of this Web site often attest. 

Not only was I influenced by her research, which was always written in clear and interesting prose all-too-uncommon in the academic world, but her work also helped me gain as an American history teacher.  She deeply respected secondary and college educators like me who labor in the trenches day after day so students can learn about (and learn to guard) the democratic principles of this nation. I have used curriculum she created with great success while teaching the American Studies courses that I teach.  Her death is a great loss to scholarship and the intellectual marketplace of the contemporary United States. RIP.

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Edmund S. Morgan, RIP

Edmund S. Morgan, one of the nation’s greatest historians and a scholar who tackled the dilemmas of American slavery, American Edmund S. Morganfreedom, and Puritan faith in a carnal world, is dead at 97. The New York Times reports that Morgan died Monday.

His books such as American Slavery, American Freedom and The Puritan Dilemma were points of departure for historical understanding in colonial American studies when I was a graduate student. Both are still widely assigned to undergraduates today. Morgan combined excellent scholarship with a concise, readable prose rare among professional historians. His long life was a gift to the study of history in this nation. He will be missed. RIP.

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The White House Loves Those Founding Founders!

US-NationalArchives-LogoThe good news: The White House blog recently posted links to the on-line Founding Fathers Archive,  a new website at the National Archives that will allow people to search this collection of papers from the Founding Era. The bad news: The original post (which was no doubt hastily changed today after comments like mine started circulating) referred to Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Co. as “The Founding Founders.” Some people will do anything to avoid stating the obvious in the name of establishing politically correct history. Note that the Web address for the White House blog post still has “founding founders” in the URL — that’s right, folks, I don’t make this stuff up. I suppose no one should be surprised. President Obama’s on-the-fly re-editing of the Declaration of Independence during public addresses has raised eyebrows on more than one occasion.  Note to White House staff: The world’s freest republic was created by flawed white males whose political ideals transcend the moral and political transgressions they made and no amount gender-neutral language will explain that idea clearly. “Founding Fathers” (and “Founding Mothers”) makes the point in a way that is accurate and understandable.

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Agit Prof: David Greenberg Examines the Distortions of Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present made the Boston University professor a rock star among political liberals, Hollywood actors, and long-suffering AP U.S. history students searching for an “alternate view” of American history. It’s not every historian who gets Matt Damon to produce a History Channel special based solely on his book. Rutgers professor David Greenberg is among many critics of Zinn now emerging after his death who are pointing out one nagging fact: Zinn never let the facts get in the way of his historical interpretations. Granted, this news is no news. He may have been a celebrity among zealots with radical causes, but Zinn faced criticism for years from colleagues who shared his political beliefs but abhorred his habit of reducing “historical analysis to political opinion.”

However, in the guise of a book review Greenberg produces one of the most damning portraits of Zinn I have ever read. So much for speaking no ill of the dead, although the essay is hardly just an exercise in kicking the corpse of a famous scholar. I have criticized Zinn’s flagrantly simplistic and ideological interpretations of the American Revolution because of his almost naive desire to avoid examining influential men and women (the “elites”) without conceding they are part of the story no matter what you think of their behavior, as well as his desire to selectively write a narrative that furthers a political cause rather than illuminates the past. History should not be an exercise where scholars “have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Perhaps the tide is turning and Howard Zinn is losing his luster as a folk hero of the institutionalized left — or at least, his status American historian to the stars. Note that the essay is in The New Republic, which is hardly a bastion of right-wing thought.

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Is This Thomas Jefferson? Scholars Claim An Oil Painting Might Be the Earliest Portrait of the Declaration’s Author

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

Is this the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson?

A 1785 oil painting by the French artist Nicolas Delapierre showing a gentleman seated at a desk and beginning to write on a sheet of paper might be the earliest portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted while the author of the Declaration of Independence was the United States’s minister to France.

O. Roy Chalk, who also purchased the renowned 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson now at Monticello, owned the painting for more than 41 years. The entrepreneur was an enthusiastic art collector who used his considerable fortune earned from interests in real estate, airlines, bus companies, newspapers and a rail line that hauled bananas in Central America to purchase works of art by notable works by Vincent van Gogh, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Mary Cassatt, among others. Chalk died in 1995.

Omnis, Inc., a Virginia consulting firm of  researchers, is examining the painting in an effort to authenticate who appears in the portrait. The painting portrays an unidentified eighteenth-century gentleman seated at a desk, cravat undone, and putting quill pen to paper. He is holding a copy of a book titled De la Caisse d’Escompte, written by the French orator and statesman Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, several years before Mirabeau achieved prominence as a leading figure in the French Revolution. The book sharply criticizes methods of financial speculation popular in pre-Revolutionary France. Many of Jefferson’s economic ideals were influenced by Mirabeau,  and echoes of the French commentator’s critiques color Jefferson’s distaste for “stock -jobbers,” the National Bank, and aspects of Alexander Hamilton’s financial plans during the early Federal period.

The researchers established a Web site to release information about the painting, describe current research regarding its subject, and solicit additional information from the public. The Web site has a page called “Jefferson Connections” that offers tantalizing details such as similarities of facial features in the portrait and circumstantial historical evidence that indicates the painting could be a portrait commissioned by Thomas Jefferson. Particularly fascinating is the fact that the painting is similar to composition to a mirror image portrait of John Adams, Jefferson’s close friend, painted by Mather Brown. According to the Web site, unless the parallels in these two portraits are mere coincidences it appears that Brown had access to the 1785 Delapierre portrait in London when he painted the Adams portrait there in 1788.

The site also urges any readers with relevant information about the Delapierre painting to contact the researchers.

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