I ‘ M R E A D Y T O T A L K.
Having just finished writing Houses of Civil War America — as I post this, barely an hour has passed since I pressed the send button to dispatch the last of the two-hundred-odd captions to my editor at Little, Brown & Company — I can look forward, as well as back over my shoulder.
I A M R E A D Y T O L E C T U R E , T O T H I N K A L O U D A B O U T T H E C I V I L W A R.
The year 2013 has been a busy one, as my travels to talk about earlier books and to research this one have taken me to more than a dozen states, from Louisiana to New Hampshire, from Kentucky to South Carolina. Most recently, I’ve been to Saint Louis and to Auburn, New York. Both were enjoyable adventures, to the Saint Louis Art Museum and to the William Henry Seward House Historic Museum.
In an odd way, the last stop (recall that Henry Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State) reminded me how far in historical terms I’ve traveled in recent years. I recognize now I came to my Civil War project with a significant educational shortfall. School-boy dynamics being what were in my high school days, my status as a basketball player meant I didn’t have to work very hard in U.S. History to get a good grade (the teacher doubled as varsity coach). Thus, I’m embarrassed to say, I came away with a rather imperfect understanding of the Civil War.
My more recent and much deeper researches into Seward, C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, former slave Frederick Douglass, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and dozens of other figures of the era have educated me about their lives, times, and places.
I have thought long and hard about the “Lost Cause,” its cultural meaning and historical significance. I’ve learned much about the reality — and the mythology — of the Underground Railroad. At places like Natchez’s Longwood (pictured above) I contemplated what the war meant to Southerners who didn’t want disunion and saw their world implode when it happened. I enhanced my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic character; I discovered that Jefferson Davis cannot be dismissed as a simple villain. I’ve concluded that Ulysses S. Grant was a better general than the decline of his reputation in the twentieth-century suggests, and that Robert E. Lee probably wasn’t quite the saintly figure some would have us believe. I admire all these men and women — in their moments, in their settings, along with Sherman and Beauregard, the Shakers of South Union, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Forging acquaintances, I found, with Clara Barton, John Brown, John Calhoun, and Cassius Clay offered surprising rewards.
The Civil War is a rich, complex story, one that has many shadings and as many meanings as there are students of its events. Despite the vast existing Civil War literature, over-simplified or partisan views are commonplace; I would like to think the site-oriented approach of Houses of Civil War America, with its mix of architecture, artifacts, biography, and narrative, will permit new understandings.
I look forward, one day, to talking to you, to your group, perhaps in conjunction with the forthcoming Houses of Civil War America (Little, Brown, fall 2013), which, I’m delighted to report, will be a handsome book thanks to the photographic images made by my frequent collaborator Roger Straus III.
Gazing back at the mid-nineteenth century with a new intensity, I have found much to muse upon. And, of course, I’m always delighted to talk about many aspects of the American past — of founding fathers or presidents in general (Houses of the Founding Father, Houses of the Presidents) or, in particular, George Washington (The Painter’s Chair), Thomas Jefferson (Dr. Kimball and Mr. Jefferson), or James and Dolley Madison (Mrs. and Mrs. Madison’s War).
Lecture requests? Questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.