Every now and again the media does something right. Shocking, I know. But have you been paying attention to the New York Times Disunion Series? Since the beginning of the year, the NYT has been publishing opinion pieces interpreting events and people of the Civil War. Of course, they are doing this because this year marks 150 years since the war between the states (but about slavery, yes I said it) began. And if there’s something that everyone (Republican, Democrat, Independent) in our nation loves to do, it’s remember a war. And Americans love the Civil War. It seems to me that the reasons for this love is unending: the end of slavery, states rights, Southern pride, the new military technology of the war, brother versus brother… and it just keeps going.
Anyway, the NYT series is an interesting one because it encompasses all of these ideas. Each article takes on an issue, event, or person. The authors make arguments and the pieces often conflict with each other. Many of the articles are also written not by journalists but Civil War historians. And not the pop ones like Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) but ones like Stephanie McCurry (Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South) or Ethan J. Kytle (Strike the First Blow: Romantic Liberalism and the Struggle Against Slavery in the United States, 1850 -1865). I love the Disunion Series because it demonstrates what’s exciting and interesting about history. It’s not about memorizing the dates and battle names of the War, but about picking apart the war, making interpretations, expressing arguments, and having a discussion. Fun with History’s new blogger expressed this type of sentiment about making and reading history in his recent post “Made Everyday.”
From NYT article, "The General in His Study" Courtesy of Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial Mary Custis Lee
I haven’t read nearly enough of the articles in the series but the ones I have read are interesting, fresh, and illuminating. Today’s piece, “The General in His Study” takes up the oft-argued point that Robert E. Lee struggled between his loyalty to union and his loyalty to his beloved Virginia. Of course, we know he sided with Virginia and served as a great military leader for the Confederacy until 1865. Elizabeth Brown Pryor (Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters) presents a letter by Lee’s eldest daughter Mary Custis Lee (pictured above) that describes the difficult decision her father made. (The online version of this article includes a scan of this letter!) Lee worried about what his family would think of his decision to take up arms against the Union, apologizing “I suppose you will all think I have done very wrong.” What Brown introduces here isn’t that Lee made a difficult decision, but just how painful, how personal, and how un-inevitable it really was. History is never destiny, any number of realities can change the course, and Brown demonstrates this powerfully in her discussion of Lee.
It’s just this type of discussion and carefully writing of a historical figure’s decision that makes me love this series. In a moment when we remember the Civil War through endless reenactments and Charleston’s disturbing secession ball, the Disunion Series provides a serious and thoughtful discussion of America’s War.
Update: Just found out, you can also follow this series on Twitter: @nytcivilwar