The British Empire is Dead–But the Debate over Its Morality is Not

A recent essay by Kenan Malik in the New York Review of Books details the latest public spats among historians over the merits of the British Empire.

http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/26/the-great-british-empire-debate/

As Malik states, “like all such debates, this latest controversy comprises many threads.” Was colonialism good or bad? How should one debate these questions in academia and politics? And what has inspired the most recent flare-up in a long-running dispute?

Malik recapitulates the main outlines of this dispute between detractors and defenders of the British Empire. He concludes that “the arguments for the moral good of colonialism are . . . threadbare.” So far as most scholars of the empire are concerned, Malik is correct. The British Empire killed, enslaved, starved, and impoverished too many people on too many occasions over too long a span of time to qualify as a Good Thing. (However, that is, and should be, a different matter from claiming that it was the equivalent of, say, the Nazi Empire. The emergence of liberalism in Britain led to the rise of an influential and persistent party of home-grown critics who castigated the British Empire throughout much of its lifespan—surely an unusual if not unique situation for an empire. Moreover, this liberal strain made the British Empire, among other things, susceptible to the moral suasion of swaraj in India, a weakness from which other empires did not suffer. But that is an argument for another time.)

Malik goes on to assert that the contemporary defense of empire is inspired partly by a Brexit-induced nostalgia for the colonial past, and partly by a desire to learn lessons that will make contemporary Western intervention abroad more effective. In other words, those like Niall Ferguson, who hold the British Empire up as a force for good are not merely engaging in an act of wistful schmaltz; they are thinking about contemporary policy prescriptions that revolve around “foreign intervention and technocratic governance.” Malik concludes:

These are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.

One Thing after Another takes a special interest in this question because this blog teaches a course on the British Empire and, as part of the final examination, asks students to perform a “moral audit” (to use Piers Brendon’s words) of that empire. Piers’ argument that “Imperium et Libertas” was a sort of oxymoron in which an imperium necessarily ruled by force (and undermined libertas) to compensate for its lack of legitimacy carries much weight with this blog. In other words, there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Britain’s version of colonialism. Yet, this blog feels that in an otherwise good essay, Malik elides two important issues.

First, the argument about the British Empire’s merits has been subsumed by a more general dispute about colonialism. The problem with discussing colonialism is that it is not terribly easy to define in a precise manner, and the more one speaks of colonialism (and theories of colonialism), the more one speaks of an abstraction rather than the actual operation of real, flesh-and-blood empires. Discussions about colonialism, then, do not always sufficiently distinguish between different types of empires and often lack nuance. They surely do not capture the historical British Empire which was a mutating and complex entity; merely referring to the source of evil as “colonialism” suggests a static, simple, and monolithic entity. Due to its size, variety of interests, diversity of peoples, and assortments of governing structures (e.g. responsible self-government, crown colonies, protectorates, mandates, princely states, etc.), the empire did not frequently act in unison or speak with one voice. Not only that, but the empire was constantly transforming itself, a fact that is captured by the periodization of scholars who refer to the “first,” “second,” and even “third” and “fourth” British empires—as well as to the different characteristics in each of these phases (e.g. mercantilism, free trade, the “swing to the east,” and so on). Recognizing the bewildering, changing, and kaleidoscopic nature of the empire raises an important question: at any given moment, who or what was the empire? In other words, who was responsible for “colonialism”? Lenin, of course, argued that the culprit was finance capital. He was wrong, but at least he had something specific in mind. As conducted today in public, the debate is not as incisive. The word  “colonialism” conjures up images of the British government in London, imperial administrators, and military leaders. In most minds, it also probably includes British financiers, merchants, and industrialists. But just where does the list end? To what extent was the rest of the country complicit in the crimes of empire? What of the empire’s many British critics who used Libertas to attack Imperium (surely, as a number of observers have pointed out, a unique circumstance for an imperial power)? Our questions cannot stop with the United Kingdom’s borders. What about, say, Indians who worked for the Raj or performed vital functions in the imperial economy—princes, zemindars, soldiers, policemen, low-level administrators, railroad employees, merchants, bankers, and so on?

Second, like many observers, Malik analyzes the motives of the empire’s present-day defenders, but what of its detractors? If “today’s apologists for colonialism are driven as much by present needs as by past glories,” to quote Malik, what are the “present needs” of those who attack the empire? Why does no one scrutinize their motives? Do they get a pass because they are on “the right side of history”? It would seem naïve to claim that they are simply engaged in a disinterested effort to correct interpretations of the past. One example here will suffice: Shashi Tharoor (whom Malik mentions), a former UN administrator (who lost the contest for UN General Secretary in 2006 to Ban Ki-moon) and Indian minister as well as a current member of the Indian Parliament. Tharoor became an anti-colonial stalwart in 2015 when he famously argued at the Oxford Union that Britain ought to pay India a nominal sum in reparations as symbolic compensation for losses the latter suffered under imperial rule. He followed up this performance with Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), a polemic which dwells on the Raj’s cruelty and callousness while explaining how Britain grew wealthy at India’s expense. What is Tharoor after? Certainly, he is not attacking the promotion of “foreign intervention and technocratic governance” that ostensibly lie behind present-day justifications of the empire; it would seem odd for a former UN administrator like Tharoor to assault the empire in an attempt to undermine the case for liberal internationalism. It is possible that Tharoor seeks to burnish his credentials with a young, leftish, educated, Anglo-American crowd as someone who has stayed “woke” by engaging in Britain’s venerable anti-establishment tradition of excoriating the empire. Yet this explanation does not seem fully convincing. Although he has longstanding ties to the transatlantic world (he has lived and worked in Britain and the United States for long periods of time), it appears that Tharoor has committed himself to Indian politics for the time being. And it is perhaps the demands of domestic Indian politics that explain Tharoor’s stance. Tharoor is a member of the Indian National Congress (Congress) which has vainly sought to restore its declining popularity among voters by shedding its traditional mantle of secularism and moving closer to the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which currently rules India. For sure, Tharoor continues to speak the language of inclusion (witness this excerpt from his recent work Why I Am a Hindu), but he, like the rest of Congress, must feel the political pressure of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”). Under these circumstances, attacks on an empire that has long gone and demands for reparations that will never be paid must seem like harmless ways of currying favor in a more stridently nationalist political environment. Certainly, these attacks and demands have gone down well in India. Perhaps Tharoor’s motives can be explained in some other way, and perhaps his situation is unique, but it would not be surprising if the empire’s critics were inspired just as much as its defenders by contemporary politics.

Surely, many probably worry that those who defend colonialism and the good the British Empire did are inspired by a kind of neo-imperialism that will lead to more foreign adventures that culminate in disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan (although Nigel Biggar and Bruce Gilley seem to imply that the whole point of understanding the true nature of colonialism is to avoid making such mistakes when intervening in other countries’ affairs). But as we have seen in Tharoor’s case, we probably also have reason to express concern about the motives of those who denigrate the British Empire. As Bernedetto Croce claimed (and this is not the first time One Thing after Another has referred to Croce’s statement), “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, the concerns and ideas of a historian are, by necessity, dictated by his or her times. History is always political, and no more so than when scholars and politicians use it to make a political point. It is almost futile to inveigh against the forces that prevent the historian from assuming an objective standpoint. Yet in this case, as in others, it seems that all would be better served if historians took the leading role in promoting nuanced and incisive discussions of the past—instead of those who feel most directly the great weight of politics.

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Masur Reviews Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

Note: Professor Masur wrote a review of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS series The Vietnam War for the North Dakota Quarterly. The essay is reprinted here with permission. Professor Masur’s preliminary thoughts on the first episode of the series appeared on the blog in September.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War

America’s war in Vietnam, which ended almost fifty years ago, has never really faded from the country’s memory. Every American military intervention since the mid-1970s has elicited inevitable comparisons to Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial remains one of the most popular destinations in Washington, D.C. The Vietnam War and Vietnam vets continue to crop up in American movies and television programs. Colleges and universities around the country offer courses on the Vietnam War, and Millennials have shown no signs of losing interest in the topic.

This year in particular the Vietnam War seems to be on the minds of Americans. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, recreates a pivotal event related to the war: the 1971 publication of the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of American involvement in Vietnam. Coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of some of the War’s most fateful years, the New York Times has been publishing a series of articles looking back on the events of 1967 and 1968. Last fall, PBS began broadcasting Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part series The Vietnam War.

The Burns and Novick series is of particular interest because viewers tend to judge documentaries as more credible and “truthful” than Hollywood adaptations like The Post. And The Vietnam War it is likely to reach a wider audience than the New York Times series, and will certainly reach more Americans than most scholarly articles and books on the war. If earlier Burns and Novick productions are any indication, The Vietnam War will be watched and re-watched in living rooms and classrooms around the country. High school teachers and college teachers may lean heavily on the series, not only because it is a convenient way to present the war but also because it is powerful and informative. In other words, The Vietnam War may, for the time being, become the single most influential source in shaping Americans’ understanding of the history of the Vietnam War.

As would be expected for an 18-hour series, The Vietnam War offers ample material for analysis. Early reviews have applauded the series for its powerful use of first-hand recollections of the War. Some critics have lambasted Burns and Novick for favoring “balance” over accuracy. These critics feel that the series presents a false equivalence between the United States and its Vietnamese enemies, thus failing to hold the U.S. fully accountable for the war. Many have focused on one line of narration that comes early in the series: the assertion that American officials acted in “good faith” when they oversaw U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

Whatever the documentary’s virtues or shortcomings, Burns and Novick have made an effort to “Vietnamize” their account of the Vietnam War. (“Vietnamize” is a loaded term, of course, as it refers the strategy of shifting military responsibility from the United States to South Vietnam. President Nixon, most closely associated with “Vietnamization,” found the term preferable to its synonym: “de-Americanization.”) The series is available with Vietnamese subtitles, a nod to the fact that the Vietnamese themselves are not only sources for the series, but also a potential audience. Viewers will also notice right away that Burns and Novick include numerous Vietnamese interviewees throughout the series. Less obviously, the historical narrative in the series relies on important recent scholarship on North and South Vietnam during the war. Although The Vietnam War still gives primacy to the war as an American experience (not surprising for a film produced and broadcast in the United States), it gives Vietnam and the Vietnamese a more prominent place in the story.

The most riveting segments of The Vietnam War come from the first-hand accounts of the war. A few stand out. Marine Corps veteran John Musgrave vividly describes his combat experience in Vietnam, his post-war struggles, and his decision to protest against the war. A soldier from Roxbury, Mass. recalls a conversation with his mother, who assures him that he’ll make it back alive because she “talk[s] to God every day and your special.” “I’m putting pieces of special people in bags,” he replies.

Viewers hear the story of enlisted man Denton “Mogie” Crocker from his sister Carol and his mother Jean-Marie. The fact that Mogie himself is present only in pictures and letters tips off viewers to his ultimate fate. The foreshadowing makes it no less heart-wrenching when Carol and Jean-Marie describe the day that they learned of his death.

In an effort to present a more complete account of the Vietnam War, the series also includes interviews with numerous Vietnamese participants. Bao Ninh, a North Vietnamese veteran and novelist, appears in multiple episodes and provides some important insights about the War. In episode nine, he describes the conflict as a “civil war”—a characterization that is generally at odds with the Party-sanctioned narrative that the Vietnamese were fighting primarily against a neo-imperialist foreign enemy. Bao Ninh also offers a touching anecdote near the end of the series. Describing his return home after the war, he says that his mom was overwhelmed with emotion:

For six years my mother had no idea if I was alive or dead. . . . My mother cried [when I returned]. But we didn’t make a scene. . . . In our apartment building, six young men were drafted, and I was the only one to return. We didn’t dare celebrate, didn’t dare express our joy, because our neighbors lost their children.

The series reflects the prominent role that Vietnamese women played in the conflict. Duong Van Mai Elliott describes her experience as a young woman interviewing NLF captives for the RAND Corporation. A North Vietnamese woman talks about her time as a truck driver ferrying materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, constantly threatened by American bombing. Americans may not be surprised to hear American soldiers talk about killing the enemy, but it is still a bit stunning when soft-spoken NLF veteran Nguyen Thi Hoa cooly describes her actions during the Tet Offensive: “When I found them, I shot them. An American, not that far away, about three meters. He opened fire. I raised my AK. I aimed. I had to shoot him. [Pause.] And I dropped him.”

While the interviews with Vietnamese participants do provide much-needed balance to the series, they do not quite carry the emotional heft of many of the American accounts. The series includes some story arcs that span several episodes: the Crockers worrying about Mogie’s fate; Hal Kushner undergoing a harrowing ordeal as a POW and not seeing his family—including a son born after he left for Vietnam—for over five years; Matt Harrison volunteering for a second tour to prevent his brother from being deployed. For the most part, the interviews with Vietnamese participants do not have the same depth, limiting their dramatic power.

The series includes Vietnamese perspectives in other ways as well. The historical narrative that is woven throughout The Vietnam War incorporates some of the most recent scholarship on the war, much of it exploring the political, economic, social, and environmental conditions in North and South Vietnam during the conflict. Several episodes depict the political and social unrest that plagued South Vietnam during the war, but the series also acknowledges that the South Vietnamese generally enjoyed more political freedom than their counterparts in the North. In a stunning revelation, a North Vietnamese Army veteran admits that up to 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians from Hue were massacred in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. “We rarely speak of it,” he says. “So please be careful making your film because I could get in trouble.”

The Vietnam War also incorporates recent scholarship revealing that Le Duan, rather than Ho Chi Minh, was the most powerful North Vietnamese official for most of the war. A hardliner, Le Duan generally pushed for a more aggressive military strategy in the South and seemed willing to accept high numbers of casualties as the cost of victory. Until recently, Le Duan has usually appeared as a secondary figure in scholarship on the war—if he is included at all. His name appears only eight times in Stanley Karnow’s 700-page tome Vietnam: A History, the companion book to PBS’ 1983 multi-part Vietnam documentary. The second edition of George Herring’s America’s Longest War (1986), for years the most popular textbook on the war, did not include him at all. (Even during the war the United States was slow to realize Le Duan’s significance. Episode 5 features a recording of a conversation from early 1966 that appears to be the first time Lyndon Johnson had ever heard his name—Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara has to spell it aloud for the President.) But Le Duan crops up again and again in the Burns and Novick series, usually pushing for another bloody military offensive that he hopes will finally bring victory.

In spite of its efforts to show the war from many perspectives, The Vietnam War does have some unfortunate omissions. The series briefly describes the devastating effects of the war on Laos and Cambodia, but does not include any Lao or Khmer interviewees to tell their stories. Several American interviewees express their sadness at what they consider America’s betrayal of its South Vietnamese allies at the end of the war. The Hmong who participated in America’s covert activities in Lao were similarly left to fend for themselves, often experiencing similar oppression and suffering. And yet they are not even mentioned in the series. By the same token, the final episode briefly mentions that ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam were singled out for oppression in the years after the war ended. Their stories would provide even more evidence of the tragic nature of the war.

Any account of the Vietnam War will necessarily include some gaps and oversights. But viewers who watch the entire series—no small commitment—will encounter the central historical themes of the war. They will also be rewarded with a very human depiction of the Vietnam War, one which places the experiences of the participants at the forefront.

Hollywood History is Wrong–and Maybe That’s OK

Historical films and TV shows are now all the rage. On the big screen, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, Victoria & Abdul, American Made, and a host of other films set in distinct historical periods have caught audiences’ attention. Folks staying at home who content themselves with the tube have been treated to shows like Vikings, The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, Peaky Blinders, and Medici.

But now Simon Jenkins at The Guardian comes to ruin the party by resurrecting an old lament: Hollywood history is fake.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/11/hollywood-history-churchill-getty-trust-fiction?CMP=fb_gu

Indeed, Jenkins condemns this history in the strongest terms—the title of his piece more or less claims that movies treating historical topics are just as phony as “Russian propaganda.” Jenkins points out several examples of events in such films and TV that were manufactured (e.g. Darkest Hour has Churchill taking the Tube in London and asking commuters whether they wanted to make peace with Germany—which, of course, never happened).

Jenkins sees this cavalier attitude toward the truth as a symptom of a contemporary world that has lost its bearings, where journalism “is now made up of unattributed quotes” and the line between fact and fiction has been blurred by tolerance of fake news.

This blog has read The Guardian for a long time and understands that it has several axes to grind. The Guardian generally dislikes American culture and especially Hollywood. Its attitude toward Americans could be summed up generally by Fanny Trollope’s famous condemnation in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “I do not like them. I do not like their principles; I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” Moreover, The Guardian’s politics has made it wary of films like Dunkirk (which to some seems whitewashed and pro-Brexit) and Darkest Hour (the contemporary left in Britain very much dislikes Churchill). Still, Jenkins may be half right.

One Thing after Another has complained in the past about historical inaccuracies in films, especially among those whose explicit purpose seems to be didactic in some way. The thing is, though, there is nothing new about such films. They are not a product of a contemporary truthless age. Hollywood has always produced such movies. Take, for example, The Story of Louis Pasteur, which won Best Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (Paul Muni) at the Academy Awards in 1936. It was terribly inaccurate. But that did not set it apart from all the other major biopics headlined by major stars during that period. Think of Queen Christina (1933), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Rembrandt (1936), Mary of Scotland (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). We could also refer to films set in particular historical periods (e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was released in 1934, or Gone with the Wind, which appeared in 1939). These films are rotten history, but there were important differences between that time and ours. These differences emerges in the Frank Nuget review of The Louis Pasteur Story which appeared in The New York Times and is worth quoting at length:

There are times when even a film reviewer feels the need of a preamble and today is one of them. With your permission, then, before speaking of “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which moved into the Strand over the week-end, the department will confess that it is guilty of heresy. It believes that accuracy is not the most important part of biography. It will accept errors of time and place cheerfully, and it will condone the addition of known fiction to known fact provided these untruths are committed in the interests of a greater truth, which would be the preservation of spirit—not the chronological letter—of a man’s life.

“The Story of Louis Pasteur” telescopes the French scientist’s years and highlights his achievements. It embroils him in a prolonged feud with the French Academy of Sciences and its president. It has him incur Napoleon III’s displeasure and virtual banishment from Paris. It delays his recognition until the evening of his life. It portrays him as a model of scientific detachment, the laboratory method personified, a modest, academic, self-effacing man.

Most, if not all, of this is against the weight of such biographical evidence as one might encounter in staid Britannica or in the more lively pages of Paul De Kruif. And yet, possibly because we have heretical notions, we believe that Warners’ “The Story of Louis Pasteur” is an excellent biography, just as it is a notable photoplay, dignified in subject, dramatic in treatment and brilliantly played by Paul Muni, Fritz Leiber, Josephine Hutchinson and many other members of the cast.

There are two important points worth highlighting about this review. First, Nugent conceived of films and even biopics as art. He recognized that The Story of Louis Pasteur, like most other forms of art, fudged facts or “reality” to present larger more important truths. Second, Nugent was educated enough to know that The Story of Louis Pasteur was factually inaccurate. In other words, he had the capacity to distinguish between art and history, and he performed the service of letting his readers know what the distinction was. If there are differences between Nugent’s time and ours, they amount to the following. First, nowadays, many people possess so little understanding of history and art that they cannot grasp that “historical” films are more art than history. Second, contemporary reviewers, whose task consists of educating the public, have conspicuously failed to delineate the distinction between art and history—largely because they know nothing about the past.

The preceding seems to suggest that what is wanted among audiences and critics today is a broad, liberal education that would allow both to navigate the world of culture somewhat better. In this context, it should be pointed out that Nugent, who reviewed films for The New York Times for years, eventually moved to Hollywood and, among other things, worked with the famous director John Ford. In this capacity, Nugent wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, widely considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. We cannot claim that Nugent was the product of a liberal arts education (he attended Columbia University where he studied journalism), but judging from The Searchers, he was, for the times, a man of wide, human sympathies who understood much about people and things. If we cannot obtain our film critics from liberal arts colleges, maybe these sympathies and understandings, which we associate with a liberal education, are a good place to start.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Hummel Puts on a Display at the NHIOP

Fans of the History Department will be happy to know that Sarah Hummel ’19 has made some news down at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. Hummel used Institute memorabilia to construct two displays, including one that appears in the New Hampshire Political Library. For more information, check out the press release on the Saint Anselm College web site.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

History Majors Make the Civil War “Legible and Searchable” for the Future

“What is a gabion?”

“Where are the Bolivar Heights?”

“What does ‘N. f. r. A. G. O.’ stand for?

“Is that word ‘gout’?”

These kinds of questions were asked every Friday afternoon around 2:30 in Professor Hugh Dubrulle’s office this semester. Why? Four student research assistants—history majors Caitlin Williamson ‘19, Gregory Valcourt ‘19Lauren Batchelder ‘18, and William Bearce ‘19 (from left to right in the photo above)—prepared materials for the research project that will be assigned in History 352: The American Civil War and Reconstruction which Dubrulle will teach next semester (Spring 2018). This project will require students in the course to do research on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and write papers explaining the degree to which the regiment’s experiences match up with what current Civil War historiography claims about a variety of topics. These topics will include studies of the regiment’s participation in various battles and biographies of its leading officers. Other papers will look at topics such as desertion, politics, discipline, leadership, recruitment, medicine, and so on.

Why choose the 5th New Hampshire? Dubrulle says there are several reasons: “First, it lost more combat fatalities over the course of the Civil War than any other unit in Federal service. We ought to remember and honor this distinction, but it also raises the following question: what made it possible for this regiment, which was a typical product of its time and place, to compile such an outstanding service record? Second, much primary source material is easily available in local archives or online. Third, there are some excellent secondary sources about the unit in print, particularly Mike Pride and Mark Travis’ My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (2001).”

Williamson, Batchelder, Valcourt, and Bearce assisted Dubrulle with a number of important tasks, including transcribing letters and entering information from regimental service records into a searchable database. As Valcourt put it, their job consisted of making “the past legible and searchable for the future.” Williamson and Batchelder first transcribed the letters (34 of them) of Pvt. Miles Peabody (born and raised in Antrim, NH) who enlisted in Co. K of the 5th New Hampshire in 1861 at the age of 21. Williamson and Batchelder then moved on to transcribe selected portions of Lieut.-Col. James E. Larkin’s correspondence. A coach painter from Concord, NH, Larkin was mustered in as a 1st Lieut. when the regiment was organized in October 1861. He eventually became the commander of the unit in June 1864.

Both Batchelder and Williamson enjoyed getting to know Peabody and Larkin through their letters. Williamson commented that “I became really attached to the soldiers while reading their correspondence! I felt for them and found myself really invested in their stories that were told over a century ago.” Batchelder also felt an affinity for the men whose letters she read. On occasion, however, she was startled by what they wrote: “A lot of people assume that the Northerners were ‘the good guys,’ but there were times when I transcribed the letters and I would see these people fighting for the Union making a racist comment or saying something completely unexpected.” Such moments made her realize that while she shared a common humanity with these soldiers, they lived in a very different world.

Although Batchelder noted that “some people have the messiest handwriting,” Williamson pointed out that reading handwriting was actually affecting: “There is a lot of emotion in these letters, and much of it is expressed in the handwriting.” Not only that, Williamson felt that reading the letters helped illuminate Civil War history in a striking way that other sources could not. As she put it, the correspondence allowed her to study the conflict more broadly than one might have thought. The letters show “what they [the soldiers] were eating, what they were doing with their time, how they slept, what the weather was like, their experience on the battlefield—along with other important moments, all seen from different perspectives.”

Meanwhile, Bearce and Valcourt scoured Augustus D. Ayling’s Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 (1895) for the abbreviated service records of all the men who served in the 5th New Hampshire during the war. They then transferred this information to an Excel spreadsheet that is both searchable and sortable. Arrayed in this fashion, the data can yield all sorts of interesting patterns. For instance, Bearce quickly noticed that substitutes and foreign-born soldiers seemed much more likely to desert than volunteers and the native-born. Valcourt was stunned by the large number of casualties the regiment lost in the last days of the war at the Battle of Farmville (otherwise known as the Battle of High Bridge)—a fight he’d never heard of. Both research assistants recognized that intriguing trends in the data could prove very useful to students writing papers on any number of topics. At the same time, Bearce also saw that the “the quantitative information [from the database] complements the qualitative data from the transcription of letters.” Among other things, “one can use the service records to contextualize the letters and vice versa.” Valcourt was struck by the strange stories “and colorful cast of characters” that seemed to emerge from the spare notes of the abbreviated service records. His favorite person was Oliver Grapes, an original volunteer in the regiment who deserted in July 1863 and, using the alias Oliver Vine, volunteered the next month as a Wagoner in the 3rd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. As Valcourt explained it, “you learn about the ‘small’ people in order to understand ‘big’ people and events.” At the end of the day, though, through the exercise of data entry, Bearce learned how “quantitative history can be, and how the quantitative aspects of history comes to be.” And, of course, both Bearce and Valcourt brushed up on their Excel skills.

Throughout the semester, all of the research assistants were intrigued with finding out “the rest of the story.” Batchelder and Williamson were crushed to learn that Peabody died of illness in November 1864 near Alexandria, VA. They were relieved to learn, however, that Larkin survived the war. Unfortunately, as a result of his military service, he suffered from ill-health, particularly rheumatism, for the rest of his life. Larkin floated between a number of jobs before dying in 1911. From his very different perspective of having dealt with the service records, Bearce was interested in finding out what happened after the war to the soldiers he studied. Noting that Ayling’s Revised Register had addresses for many veterans who had survived to 1895, Bearce stated, “I would really like someone to take on the challenge of doing research using the post office addresses listed in the registry for some purpose. These just seem absolutely tantalizing to me, and I think a paper trying to find out how people adjusted after the war would be very interesting.” One can only hope that future students working with these sources will take on that challenge as well as some of the others presented by the material.

And by the way, what are the answers to the questions above? A gabion is a wicker basket filled with earth and used to shore up fortifications. Bolivar Heights overlooks the town of Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. “N. f. r. A. G. O.” stands for “No further record Adjutant General’s Office, Washington DC.” And yes, the word in the letter was “gout.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Labbe and Miller Transcribe the Kimball Diaries

Psychology major and History minor Lisette Labbé ’18 (left) and History major Dena Miller ’20 (right) spent part of their semester in the Saint Anselm College Archives transcribing the 1891-1892 diary of Edwin C.H. Kimball.  One Thing After Another caught up with them to learn more about this campus history project.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about the project and how you got involved?

Dena and Lisette:  We are working on producing a literal transcription of the Edwin C.H. Kimball Diaries. Kimball recorded his day-to-day activities from January 1891 to December 1894. For our class project, we are focusing on the 1891-1892 diary. The ultimate goal of the project is to transcribe and digitally scan both diaries to have original pages of the dairies aligned with their transcriptions for viewing on the web.  We were both interested in being involved with the history of Saint Anselm College. So we chose this project as the final project in our History 363: Public History course.

Q: So, what did you know about Edwin C.H. Kimball when you started, or what have you learned about him?

Lisette: I did not even know he was a young farmer of 23 until about 20 pages into the diary. I assumed that he was much older and a parent based on how serious he was and his involvement in local and national politics. After reading further into the diary, it appears that he had a mother, a father, and a sister named Ethel. He was also unmarried. He was very interested in politics and would report voting rankings of political candidates from local and national elections. He would also report events that happened nationally which made me wonder if this was information he learned from his visitors who would stay at his family’s inn. He did not seem to deal much with the inn, focusing most of his efforts on the farm. It was interesting to see him interact with the Monks of the college as he was not Catholic but perhaps Baptist.

Dena:  I get the impression that Kimball was a very intelligent man. So much so that I did not even realize how young he was when I started reading his diary. I would have sworn that the diary was written by someone in his 40’s until he mentioned celebrating his 23rd birthday. Despite this initial confusion, I feel that as the project progressed I got a clear picture of who Kimball was. Kimball seemed to be a very family-oriented young man, judging by the amount of work he did for his family on their farm and in their house. Along that same line, he also seemed to care deeply about his community and his neighbors, since he spent hours a day working on their behalf, especially for Rev. Fr. Hugo Paff, O.S.B. Kimball also seemed to be very interested in politics, both local and national. Overall, my impression of Kimball is positive and I think that, judging by his political interests and community sensibilities, he would fit right in on the Saint Anselm College campus today.

Q: So, no juicy details in these diaries?

Lisette:  The psychology major in me wants to know more about the man behind the diary. But I have learned from this project that his diary was more of a journal or a records book than what we view as a diary in the 21st century.

Dena:  The Kimball family owned the property on Shirley Hill Road that was once used as an entrance to the College. Kimball recorded in his diaries the comings and goings of friends, family, and guests at his family’s inn and boarding house, the Maplewood Farm. Kimball also recorded his economic exchanges with the Monks of the college, usually days spent plowing or haying the monastic fields.  These diaries are essential to the school’s history because they are the only primary documents that recorded the fire that burned down the only college building where Alumni Hall is located in 1892.  But we only got through 1891, so we did not get to read that part!

Q: What does an average day of transcription look like?

Dena and Lisette:  So one of us will go into the Archives and typically Keith has printed out the other person’s transcriptions for us to edit. We will edit them by looking at the original document to check for errors, like a missed or an accidently capitalized letter. Afterwards, there may be edits on our own transcriptions for us to review and fix in the transcription document. So we would have to look at our partner’s edits and the diary to cross-compare before fixing the errors on the transcription document. There is also a working log where we post comments, questions and concerns for our partner, such as “what do you think this word is on page 54 line 4?” After all these steps are done we start transcribing again. If we have any questions, we typically ask Keith, or just text each other.

Q:  That is a lot of detail work! What skills do you think you have acquired through this work?

Dena and Lisette:  We learned how to transcribe exactly from a handwritten source to a digital file, which requires careful detail orientation, an understanding of cursive, and specialized knowledge of Microsoft Word. We also learned many other work-flow and project management skills. The diaries needed to stay in the College Archives, and digital pictures and copies could not be made. Hence, we had to go into the archives to do the transcriptions with the College Archivist, Keith Chevalier. Unfortunately, we could not go in at the same time because we were both working on the same diary and the same transcription document. As a result, we had to learn to schedule shifts around our three different schedules. Because of this problem, we learned how to collaborate as a team, even when the team was never in the same place at the same time. We also learned how to create a transcription and editing log to track our work as well as a style and process guide to help those who come after us maintain a consistent transcribing process.

Q:  You make it sound pretty easy. What obstacles did you encounter?

Dena and Lisette:  One of the major obstacle we have is his handwriting. Kimball forms his letters in very confusing way, where letters could look very different on different pages or pieces of the letters could look like punctuation. For example, when he writes an “a”, it often looks like “,a” because he connects the beginning of the letter to the line on the paper. This has caused confusion and in some cases has made punctuation a judgement call. Other obstacles that we’ve found is that he misspells words and we often find ourselves writing the correct word instead of the literal transcription of his misspelled word.

Q:  What do you think is important about your project? 

Dena and Lisette:  This project is important to the college’s history because we are preserving essential parts of the early life of the college. We are also working towards having the diaries online for the public to view. This initial process is to have the metadata of each page image. Metadata is data that describes and gives information about other data. We have created a catalogue record of each page. Ultimately, when each page of the diary is uploaded, typing keywords will cause all relevant pages and items to appear. These transcriptions are just the first step towards this major archival project.

Q:  So what are possible next steps for continuing this project?

Dena and Lisette: There are many ways in which future students could expand upon the work we have done. First they could continue the transcription—there are three more years to go!  After that, they could create annotations within the text of the diary. Annotations could be used to give context for the people and the situations that he describes in the diary. For example, annotations could shine a light on the political importance of James G. Blaine [a congressman and senator from Maine who was the Republican nominee for president in 1884; he served as secretary of state under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1892], who was mentioned many times. Another way that the project could be expanded upon would be the creation of a searchable index. If a future researcher wants to find all the times that a name or a term is mentioned in the diary (for example, Ethel), the index would refer the researcher to every mention of her name. This index could be expanded even further to include the misspelled versions of common words that would typically be left out of a common search because it was misspelled.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Stedman Teaches History–and Football–at BC High

Some weeks ago, One Thing after Another received a friendly note from alum Bernie Stedman ’08 who now teaches history at his alma mater, Boston College High School. As is often the case, this blog could not let Stedman get away without an interview, especially after it reviewed his Rate My Teachers ratings. Stedman kindly acquiesced, and what follows is the result.

Q: One Thing after Another recalls that you were simply a history major as an undergraduate and that you were not involved in the secondary education program at Saint Anselm College. Were you always interested in teaching, or did you head in that direction after graduation? In other words, how did you become a teacher?

A: I can say that I knew I wanted to become a teacher pretty early in my freshman year. I had always entertained the idea, as my mother, uncle, and grandfather were all teachers and, obviously, the notion of summers off was tremendously appealing! But I would say that during my freshman year I experienced a confluence of finding a strong interest in studying history as well as feeling the pull towards a career in teaching. However, I found that pursuing education classes would diminish my experience in history, so I chose to fully invest myself in a history major and take some education courses when I could spare the time.

Q: Boston College High School is a prestigious institution. How did you position yourself to obtain a job there?

A: I count myself blessed to be a part of Boston College High School. Obviously, I feel that my being an alumnus of the school had a great deal to do with my being able to secure an interview for the job opening, but I also benefited from having been a history major. Since BC High is a college preparatory school, it often focuses on finding candidates who majored in the field they teach and who have had at least some experience in the classroom. Fortunately, I had been a substitute teacher in the Quincy public school system for a couple of years, so I had both the degree and the classroom experience. In addition to that, I had been coaching football and basketball during my time as a sub. Many educators view coaching as an extension of the classroom, and in this particular case I believe the school was looking for someone with experience in both coaching and teaching.

Q: In the school directory, you are listed as a Social Studies teacher, but you got in touch with our department because you are teaching a new course on World War II. What does your teaching rotation look like? What is your favorite class to teach?

A: At BC High, teachers have a lighter course load (four total classes) than most school teachers who typically have five classes. This year, I am teaching a senior elective on WWII, two sections of US History AP (which consists mostly of juniors), and one section of freshman world history. I generally ask to have three different classes because I enjoy having students in different class years. My favorite class to teach is US History AP because I have always been partial to that field, and the course is made up of high-achieving students who are very committed to doing well. This dynamic affords me the opportunity to teach it as a college-level course and put a particular emphasis on the material itself. This was the environment I experienced  at Saint Anselm College, and it’s why I loved studying history.

Q: One Thing after Another’s sources, which are omniscient and omnipresent, indicate that you coach football for Boston College High School. Coaching is a form of teaching; do you find much crossover between instructing students in the classroom and on the football field?

A: I take great joy in coaching football for many of the same reasons that I enjoy teaching US History AP. It is most definitely an extension of the classroom and a form of teaching. And, like US History AP, it is full of kids who are devoted, and willing to work hard and learn. That creates an atmosphere that cultivates strong bonds between you and your students, which is the basis of good teaching. One of the challenges of coaching football is to stress the importance of the teaching dynamic in such a highly competitive environment. Many coaches are not teachers by trade and so it is all the more important to be a classroom teacher on the field in order to maintain the culture and identity of the school. This is a challenge and a task I take very seriously and enjoy very much.

Q: To what extent do you believe your liberal arts education and your major in History helped prepare you for your current position?

A: I would not be in my current position without my liberal arts education. All of the abilities I possess that make me an effective teacher I owe to my education. The ability to think critically, analyze material, engage in discourse, and see situations from different perspectives are skills that my liberal arts education honed for me. I always try to put these at the forefront of my teaching because these are paramount. This is what I try to impart to my students more than details and material from class, because I feel that without the ability to think, write, and speak, knowledge of history, literature, or religion would be useless.

Q: According to Rate My Teachers (yes, we have stooped so low as to check that site), your students think the world of you, and in their inimitable way, their comments indicate that you are hilarious in the classroom. Why do you think you’ve made such an impression on your students?

A: When I teach, I always try to remember the teachers who made me want to be a teacher, and I simply try to emulate them in my own way. At the risk of embarrassing Professor Dubrulle, he was one of my primary inspirations. I always admired the way he was able to incorporate who he was into the material he taught, so whenever I took one of his classes, it felt like something other than a professor conveying material. There was always a richness to lectures because it was obvious that he loved what he studied and what he taught. I try to be the same way in my classroom. I try to incorporate who I am into what I teach so that the subject matter and the exercise of studying history can be more rewarding for both me and my students. I always try to remember the sage advice a teacher gave me: if you are not having fun and sharing a few laughs every now and again, then all you have is history, and most teenagers don’t want that.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.