War Stories–The National Guard

By Andrew Wiest, Ph.D.

In 2005 I viscerally knew that the old National Guard was no more.  My closest friend, the godfather to my eldest son, was leading a company of the 150th Combat Engineer Battalion of the Mississippi National Guard on combat operations in Iraq.  The unit, locally raised, had just suffered serious losses before Hurricane Katrina swept through the area, laying many of their homes waste.  Disaster relief, for their own families, was needed.  But the men and women who normally would have been tasked with that relief were a world away on a dusty battlefront.

As a historian I knew that this was an important moment in history, as the National Guard shifted from being weekend warriors to a combat force relied upon for multiple deployments.  As a local product I knew that the stories of my neighbors, the men and women who served in the National Guard, deserved to be told.  So, as a veteran of many a book project, I set out to gather and tell the story of the 150th and to use that story as a lens through which to view the wider saga of the transformation of the National Guard.

Next stop?  The archives, of course.  I knew exactly what I needed.  Operations orders, after-action reports, and historical unit summaries – the basic hammer, screwdriver, and saw in the toolkit of the military historian.  And to humanize those dry documents I knew that I would also need oral histories – the personal stories that make warfare come alive on the printed page in all of its horror and glory.  To my researching dismay, though, I quickly discovered that there was no true central repository for all things National Guard.  For the Army – head to the National Archives or to the Center of Military History.  For the National Guard?  Well, it turned out that the National Guard story was nowhere and everywhere simultaneously.  The National Guard story was in armories, attics, local archives, and individual memories spread all over the state.  And, if you wanted to take the story further, this wasn’t the situation just in Mississippi, but in 49 other states as well.

What had started as a book project had mushroomed into something much larger.  My colleagues and I at the Dale Center, in tandem with the Mississippi National Guard, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, The Mississippi Humanities Council and the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at Southern Miss, decided to launch the program, “War Stories – National Guard.”  Our goal is to gather the diffused story of the National Guard together into one place for the first time.  Our goal is to conduct oral interviews with a new generation of guardsmen and women to collect their stories before it is too late – a task all the more important in an age where most personal documents of war were digital and, thus, maddeningly lost in the ether and to time.

“War Stories – National Guard” is just getting started.  The first few major documents have been located, and the bedrock oral interviews are ongoing.  It is our hope that through this process we will be able to capture the story of the National Guard during this important moment of transformation.  With the documents and oral testimonies in place we hope to provide a research home for the legacy of the National Guard.  A place where researchers worldwide will be able to access the tactical, cultural, and social stories imbedded within the greater whole.

And, in the end, I hope that I can also finally get down to writing my new book. Continue reading

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Teaching the American Civil War Through the Experiences of Civil War Veterans

by Susannah Ural, Ph.D.

* This post was originally published in The Journal of the Civil War Era on March 26, 2019: https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/2019/03/teaching-the-american-civil-war-through-the-experiences-of-civil-war-veterans/ *

Historic American Buildings Survey James Butters, Photographer A

South elevation (front) of Beauvoir as it appeared in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Studying the experiences of Civil War veterans and their families helps students understand the complex forces that shaped late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century America. Their life stories help instructors explain soldiers’ motivations for service, discuss battles and campaigns, describe conscription and dissent, unravel the process of emancipation, and examine the political and economic upheaval of the era. By studying a veteran from a single company or regiment — and the communities in which they were raised — students discover how historical figures experienced the larger historical trends we study in class. I have developed an exercise focused on veterans to help undergraduates conduct the kind of “on the ground” research that Civil War historians routinely do using online databases.

Lately, my students have been researching the veterans, wives, and widows who lived at Mississippi’s Confederate home from 1903 through 1957, which is also the subject of my article in the March 2019 special issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era.[1] The project brings sweeping historical concepts to a local level that is both familiar and approachable, and it helps students study the Civil War generation not as monuments and memorials, but as men and women whose lives personified the complex forces that shaped nineteenth- and twentieth-century America and continue to inform our classrooms.

Take, for example, the case of Jacob and Mary Ratzburg, who moved to the Jefferson Davis Soldiers’ Home in Biloxi, Mississippi, in March 1905. He was seventy-nine and she was sixty years old. Jacob had immigrated to the United States from Schleswig-Holstein in 1852 at the age of twenty-seven, coming through New Orleans and eventually settling in Lauderdale, Mississippi, in 1860, one year after he became a U.S. citizen. He worked as a brick mason and supported his German-born wife Louisa and a daughter or step-daughter, Louena. Across town, Mary Jane Beverly was just fifteen years old, one of six children, none of whom attended school, and who were supported by her father and eldest brother who were both carpenters and poor, but independent farmers.

In April 1861, Jacob Ratzburg was part of the early rush of men to arms. He joined the 8th Regiment Mississippi Volunteers for one year and re-enlisted in the spring of 1862. He appears to have served in good health and without injury until the Atlanta Campaign in 1864, when Private Ratzburg was captured and held as a prisoner until the end of the war. Less than a year after returning home, he married Mary Jane Beverly. It’s unknown if he and his first wife divorced or if she died; little is known of her daughter either. By 1870 Jacob, still a brick mason, and Mary had three African-American farm laborers living with them, including an eleven-year-old girl named Eda Ratzburg, whose surname indicates that she may have been enslaved to Jacob or a member of his family before 1865. By 1880, the Ratzburgs had moved to nearby Meridian, where Jacob and Mary supplemented his income by running a boarding house, but by the early 1900s, they were struggling. In 1904, Jacob, now seventy-eight, was sufficiently impoverished to be approved for a Mississippi Confederate pension. But the Ratzburgs still could not live independently, which led to their admission to Mississippi’s Confederate Home, commonly known as Beauvoir. Jacob died there in 1907, two years after arriving. Mary was eligible to stay as a Confederate widow, and she married a fellow veteran resident, J.N. Webb, at the home in 1914, and after his death, Mary remarried to another resident, George Bazemore. She died at Beauvoir in 1929.

This is a solitary case of a Civil War veteran, but consider the numerous nineteenth-century themes that run through his life: ethnicity and immigration; slavery and emancipation; education and literacy; economic instability; labor and farming; birth, death, and marital rates; extended families resulting from death, divorce, and remarriage; and New South efforts to care for and memorialize Confederate veterans. And these are in addition to fundamental military history themes in his story: early volunteering vs. later enlistees or draftees; the Confederate effort to motivate one-year volunteers to re-enlist by offering leaves of absence (which Ratzburg received in the spring of 1862); the heavy toll of combat at places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where the 8th Mississippi suffered 47 percent casualties; the increasing intensity of the war by 1864 seen in the Atlanta Campaign; and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system witnessed through Ratzburg’s long captivity.

The research involved to uncover these stories can be adjusted depending on the time instructors want to dedicate to the topic and students’ skill sets. A simplified project might involve picking a veteran home — U.S. or Confederate — or picking a military unit from the county or region where you teach. Don’t assume that this requires you to restrict yourself to Confederate units if you live in the South. Were African-American units raised in your area? Were other Union units? Similarly, if you live in the North, you can study dissent just as well as southern students can. Are you teaching in sections of the country where northerners and southerners deserted the ranks in large numbers? Where draft riots shocked communities from New York to Wisconsin? Supplementing students’ research with readings from published experts will help them contextualize the records.[2] Similarly, the articles in the March 2019 Journal of the Civil War Era special issue on veterans will aid their interpretation of veterans’ postwar years.[3]

Once instructors select their approach – such as a particular company or regiment – they’ll need a list of those who served in the unit (a muster roll). These are accessible through sites like Fold3.com, which allows instructors to isolate their search to the Civil War, then to the Union or the Confederacy, to a specific state, to individual units, and then to a surname. When students locate an individual’s name, they can access the soldier’s compiled military service record, which contains information like their age and location when they enlisted, as well as anything that happened to them during their time in service: wounds, illnesses, leaves of absence, or records of capture, imprisonment, or exchange.

When students have secured the location and date of a veteran’s enlistment, and hopefully their age, this helps students locate the veteran in census records using databases like Ancestry.com or the free online resource FamilySearch.org. Census records can reveal if they were large or small slaveholders and, in the case of Jacob Ratzburg, if freedpeople remained in the same area after the war and possibly in the same households. This opens an opportunity to discuss the challenging process of emancipation, a lesson that can be enhanced with digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records on Ancestry or FamilySearch. These help students study the process of emancipation at the local level while they also ponder how white and black soldiers shifted from wartime service to occupation duty (a topic that resonates with veterans in today’s classrooms).

Students can then access digitized pension records available through Ancestry, Fold3, or state archives or historical society websites to study the postwar lives of veterans and their wives or widows who, facing poverty, were eligible to receive financial assistance from the federal government (Union veterans) or their southern state government (Confederate veterans). Digitized newspaper collections like Chronicling America (free), Newspapers.com, or Genealogybank.com also add to these projects by allowing students to see how a veteran’s community experienced the war and postwar period on a daily basis. Veterans and their families sometimes appear in articles or in obituaries, but newspapers are most useful for helping students consider significant wartime and postwar developments at a local level. Admittedly, some of these databases have subscription fees, but instructors can often get free access through libraries, or they can factor subscriptions into students’ expenses for the class (much like the cost of books).

Teaching the American Civil War through the experiences of veterans help students wrestle with key concepts about this conflict and era. It also brings the experiences of individuals who are often overlooked — due to a lack of traditional sources like letters and diaries — into the classroom. Finally, students master valuable research skills and engage with and contribute to their local communities. It’s an active learning project that excites and inspires students, helping them see connections between the present and the past, and the lessons to be learned from each.

Online Resources to Bring Veterans into the Classroom

Sample Classroom Project:

The Beauvoir Veteran Project

Selected Databases:


Chronicling America

Connecticut Civil War Records

Family Search

Florida Confederate Pension Applications

Florida Old Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Home

Fold 3

Genealogy Bank

Illinois Civil War Muster and Descriptive Rolls

Indiana Digital Archives

Michigan Civil War Service Records

Mississippi Confederate Pension Applications

Missouri Soldiers’ Records: War of 1812 – World War I


Pennsylvania Civil War Veterans’ Card File, 1861-1866 Indexes

Soldiers and Sailors Database

Susannah Ural is Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She specializes in nineteenth-century America, with an emphasis on the socio-military experiences of U.S. Civil War soldiers and their families. Dr. Ural’s latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit (LSU, 2017).

[1] Susannah J. Ural, “‘Every Comfort, Freedom, and Liberty’: A Case Study of the Mississippi Confederate Home,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019): 55-83. Their research is featured online at www.beauvoirveteranproject.org.

[2] Readings might come from Margaret M. Storey, Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004); Robert M. Sandow, Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011); Jennifer L. Weber, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2008); Richard Reid, Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[3] Special Issue: Reconsidering Civil War Veterans, The Journal of the Civil War Era 9, no. 1 (March 2019). See also Brian Matthew Jordan, Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2016); James Marten, Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Barbara A. Gannon, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).


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The Long-Established Foundation of George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order”

by Samantha A. Taylor, Ph.D., Guest Contributor

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Photo courtesy of the White House.

Last week, George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away at the age of 94. He was the last president of the Cold War and the first of the post-Cold War era, and his “New World Order” was the foundation upon which his successors built their foreign policies. Yet, Bush’s worldview was not entirely new. It revived many of Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about a liberal world order that the U.S. had a moral obligation to lead. Embedded in both Wilson and Bush’s international visions were ideas that originated in the Enlightenment and inspired the founders of the U.S. – self-determination, the social contract between citizens and their government, and republicanism. Between 1989 and 1993, Bush attempted to establish a liberal world order that would promote global stability and peace. For much of his presidency, Bush proceeded cautiously and optimistically. However, the chaotic nature of the post-Cold War world regularly threatened his efforts.

Bush entered the presidency with an extensive understanding of U.S. foreign policy and global position built upon his previous experience in federal service. Beginning with his career as a naval aviator during World War II, Bush developed an understanding of the world through his position as a Congressman, head of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and vice president to Ronald Reagan. As president, Bush drew on those experiences as he crafted his responses to the collapsing Soviet Union, transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe, and the evolution of Cold War-era international institutions to address the issues of the post-Cold War world. As he wrote in his 1990 National Security Strategy:

Today, after four decades, the international landscape is marked by change that is breath-taking in its character, dimension, and pace. The familiar moorings of postwar security policy are being loosened by developments that were barely imagined years or even months ago. Yet our goals and interests remain constant. And, as we look toward—and hope for—a better tomorrow, we must also look to those elements of our past policy that have played a major role in bringing us to where we are today. It is our steadfastness over four decades that has brought us to this moment of historic opportunity. We will not let that opportunity pass, nor will we shrink from the challenges created by new conditions…This Report outlines the direction we will take to protect the legacy of the postwar era while enabling the United States to help shape a new era, one that moves beyond containment and that will take us into the next century.[1]

Although the alleged Communist threat that had given purpose to U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War was gone, the interests that had needed protection during that era did not change. In his strategy, Bush outlined four broad U.S. interests: the survival of the United States as a free and independent nation; a healthy and growing economy; a stable and secure world order that fostered democracy, political freedom, and human rights; and vigorous healthy and cooperative relations with allies and friendly nations. As Bush crafted his new world order, he relied on ideas and values that long had given the U.S. an international mission and determined its interests.[2]

The first significant test of Bush’s new world order occurred in Middle East. As Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi troops into Kuwait, Bush argued that failing to push back Iraqi aggression would establish a precedent for the post-Cold War period indicating that aggression was acceptable in the new era.[3]Although Bush’s collective security solution to the Persian Gulf crisis was at least temporarily successful, he faced difficulties replicating it in response to subsequent crises in Yugoslavia and Somalia. Despite its record of mixed results, Bush introduced the liberal international order to the post-Cold War world, emphasizing collective security, the use of international institutions for conflict resolution, and the promotion of democracy and human rights. Liberal internationalism informed the worldviews of Bush’s successors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, just as it had shaped the foreign policy strategies of several of Bush’s predecessors. Although President George H. W. Bush presided over the transition from the Cold War to a new world order, the ideas that influenced his international strategy had been central to America’s understanding of itself and the world since the nation’s founding.

Dr. Samantha A. Taylor received her Ph.D. in 2017 from the University of Southern Mississippi, where she was a Dale Center doctoral fellow. She is currently a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College teaching national security and finishing her first book, an examination of American military and diplomatic strategy in the first decade after the Cold War.

[1]George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States 1990, Preface, http://nssarchive.us/NSSR/1990.pdf(accessed June 10, 2015).

[2]George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1990, 2-3. George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1991, 3-4, http://nssarchive.us/NSSR/1991.pdf(accessed June 11, 2015).

[3]Memorandum “The New World Order: An analysis and document collection, n.d.” folder Dyke, Nancy Beard Files OAID CF01473-012 “New World Order National Security Council George H. W. Bush Presidential Library.

Posted in diplomacy, Foreign policy, George H.W. Bush, international relations, national security strategy, Post-Cold War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Remembering

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D. and Susannah Ural, Ph.D.

Camp Shelby gold star2

Gold Star Families Memorial Monument dedication ceremony at Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, May 15, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Susannah Ural.

Lindsey Wilbur sat in the front row at the unveiling of a Gold Star Families memorial at Camp Shelby in south Mississippi on May 15 and wondered where were the widows? Where were the children of fallen service members? The ceremony program featured speeches by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, the Camp and state commanders, the last surviving WWII Marine to receive the Medal of Honor, and a mother and a father of slain soldiers. The Gold Star parents shared their heartbreaking stories of losing their children. For Ms. Wilbur, though, who lost her husband, Staff Sgt E-6 Chris Wilbur, less than two years ago, and is now raising an eight-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter alone, wartime loss remains raw, messy, and complicated. The Gold Star Families memorial at Camp Shelby is a moving tribute that fulfills its purpose to remember lost service personnel and their families. But we fail them if we expect a monument to fully address what the Wilbur family and others like it are still enduring. We have failed these families if we remember names and wars without any real sense of why the sacrifices were made and their impact on the families of fallen soldiers.

Camp Shelby gold star1

Gold Star Families Memorial Monument dedication ceremony at Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, May 15, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Susannah Ural.

The event at Camp Shelby and the Memorial Day commemorations that millions of Americans are holding this weekend share a common focus on memory and loss. One of the most famous of these ceremonies included an 1884 address by Union Army veteran and later US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who promised that it was the “great good fortune” of Civil War veterans that “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” He saw deep purpose in these annual gatherings that offered an opportunity for “a national act of enthusiasm and faith.”[1]Such passion, Holmes argued, was key to Americans’ willingness to fight for the good, as they defined it, in their communities and their nation. But Holmes celebrated a life both “profound” and “passionate.” As we embark on our Memorial Day commemorations and Gold Star monument dedications, our passion is certainly intact. Thousands of towns across the nation will host parades, will mark graves, and they will take time to honor and to remember. And this is good. But do we have any sense of what drove us into these wars, how Americans debated them at the time, and what military families endured? If we remember without context and without lessons, are we really benefiting anyone?


Gold Star mothers of World War I. Photograph courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The concept of gold star families dates back to World War I. Families who had a member serving in the conflict flew flags with a blue star for every man fighting. If one of those family members died in the war, then a gold star would replace the blue one. In 1918, the Women’s Committee of National Defenses convinced President Woodrow Wilson to adopt the use of a black armband with a gold star on it to signify the mourning of a dead serviceman. A decade later, a group of twenty-five mothers established the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. Beginning in 1936, Americans have observed Gold Star Mothers and Families Day on the last Sunday of September. After World War II ended, Congress allowed the military to present gold star pins to families of service personnel killed in combat. In 1973, as the Vietnam War was drawing down, Congress expanded gold star pin eligibility to include families of any service member who died while on active duty.[2]Today, American Gold Star Mothers still exists, along with other organizations, to aid gold star families, who the U.S. Army refers to as “gold star survivors.”

Decoration Day, known today as Memorial Day, had more sporadic origins in the 1860s. Some argue that it started when African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina gathered in May 1865 to lay wreaths and memorialize the deaths of hundreds of Union prisoners of war outside that city. To these mourners, the dead symbolized the sacrifices that led to the emancipation of millions and saved the Union. About the same time, separate groups of mourners gathered in Georgia and Mississippi where local women honored their Confederate dead. Similar ceremonies took place in Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania to honor Union dead. These events were made official by Gen. John A. Logan when, as commander of the largest Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, he declared that every May, Americans should pause to decorate the graves and ensure that the nation never forget “the cost of a free and undivided republic.”[3]

But our memorials are simply moving carvings in stone if we fail to couple them with learning. Civil War monuments are a prime example of this. They exist in hundreds of American communities, but they cannot capture the complexities of that war or its full impact on hundreds of thousands of families. Northern monuments often ignore emancipation with their focus on Union, while Confederate memorials, in addition to ignoring slavery, disregard the tremendous dissent that existed in southern white and black communities that weakened their war effort. Many Civil War monuments focus on the suffering of families, but how many led to the improved care of military personnel and their loved ones? That is not their purpose. Their goal is to honor and remember, and the limitations of that medium inspires powerful emotions, but few lessons. Those are our responsibility.


Cindy Sheehan, founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, lost her son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, in Iraq in 2004. Photograph courtesy of Slate.com.

We are no better at remembering the complexities of more modern conflicts. We have largely forgotten events like the antiwar rally in Philadelphia in 1969, when members of the city’s Gold Star Mothers chapter blocked the reading of names of fallen Vietnam soldiers. The mothers did so because they believed that the demonstrators did not value what their sons fought and died for in Vietnam.[4]But rather than publicly castigate them, President Richard Nixon sent the women a message praising their efforts and invited them to the White House. Not all Gold Star mothers held the same views as the Philadelphia mothers. In 1971, some marched with members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War to Arlington Cemetery, where mothers placed wreaths outside the gate. Gold Star mothers also got involved in efforts to recover POWs and MIAs from Vietnam. In 2005, Cindy and Patrick Sheehan, who lost their son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, in Iraq in 2004, founded Gold Star Families for Peace. In order to help grieving families heal, we need to learn more about their losses. Monuments are a start; frank conversations must follow.

The journalist Gloria Emerson, who spent years covering the Vietnam War and wrote about Gold Star Mothers for the New York Times in 1973, explained that at the end of World War I, when women suggested to President Wilson that a black armband with a gold star could symbolize a fallen soldier, the point was to emphasize “the glory of death, not the sadness.” The mothers Emerson interviewed spoke easily of their deceased sons. Marie Hart, president of the organization in 1967-68, told Emerson that the mission of Gold Star Mothers was “not to dwell on the loss but to help the living.”[5]It is our job, instead, to discuss those losses. Talking about the deaths of service personnel in all forms is how we will come to terms with what war does to families. As Congress acknowledged in 1973, gold star families have lost active duty service members in various ways, not just in combat. Addiction and mental illness have taken the lives of servicemen and women, and in the age of the all-volunteer military, where service members and families face multiple deployments to war zones, context and conversation about how and why soldiers have died will help us understand more deeply soldier and family experiences.

The Gold Star Families Memorial Monument at Camp Shelby is the first of its kind to be built in Mississippi. Three more are planned for the state, and thirty-five monuments exist in thirty-six states throughout the country. They stand as physical reminders of the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and children American military families have lost to war. Open, honest conversation across political lines about how and why service personnel die, what grieving military families need, and how the government and the military might better take care of service members so as to prevent non-combat deaths will make the monuments more powerful. Respectful discussion and debate are foundational to a healthy democracy, that political tradition for which American servicemen and women ostensibly fight and die, leaving behind broken families desperate for answers about why their loved ones are gone. A monument will always be a failure if we expect it to tell their full story without subsequent conversations about war deaths and their legacies.

Heather Marie Stur is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow at the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. She is a co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War IIand the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era.

Susannah Ural is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit.




[4]Holly S. Fenelon, That Knock at the Door: The History of Gold Star Mothers in America(iUniverse, 2012), 263.


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Is North Korea Trump’s China Moment?

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.


Richard Nixon meets Mao Zedong in China, 1972. Photo courtesy of the National Security Archive, George Washington University.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump are set to meet in Singapore on June 12. Since hearing the talk of a rendezvous between the two heads of state, I’ve been thinking about Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao Zedong in China in 1972. Nixon was the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China, and although the U.S. and China did not establish formal relations until 1979, Nixon’s visit set the process of normalization in motion. Limiting nuclear arms proliferation was among Nixon’s motivations for reaching out to Mao, along with his hope that friendlier relations with China would help Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. U.S. diplomatic engagement with the PRC angered American allies Taiwan and Japan, but it allowed the Americans to pressure the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons and was a clear example of détente between the U.S. and Communist countries.

trump kim

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, are scheduled to meet on June 12 in Singapore. Image courtesy of CNN.

On a surface level, it’s easy to compare Nixon’s visit to China with the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Trump, like Nixon, presents himself as vastly different from his predecessor, particularly in that he is willing to make aggressive moves toward eventual peace. Nixon ran his 1968 presidential campaign on the promise to end the Vietnam War, a product of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, if not Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to destroy ISIS and pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear weapons deal. Both Nixon and Trump resolved to meet with brutal authoritarian leaders, Mao and Kim. For both presidents, negotiating with the leaders of enemy or rogue states was acceptable if they believed doing so was in the U.S. national interest. Scandal hovers over Trump’s presidency as it did over Nixon’s. The “White House Plumbers” began their machinations in the summer of 1971; Trump faces all sorts of allegations, from knowledge or worse of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election to paying off adult film actress Stormy Daniels to deny that the two had an affair. On the cultural front, ping-pong diplomacy was part of the Nixon-Mao meeting, and the 2018 Winter Olympics featured a joint North and South Korean women’s hockey team.

The contextual differences between the Nixon and Trump presidencies limit the usefulness of such comparisons, and analysts already disagree about the extent to which we can compare Nixon’s China moment with Trump’s overtures to North Korea. Political scientists Michaela Mattes and Jessica L.P. Weeks argue that the comparison makes sense. Nixon’s established anti-communist record made voters trust his diplomatic advances toward China, while a dovish president likely would have faced harsh criticism from the American public for seeking peace with an enemy nation. Political adversaries might accuse a dove president of being “soft” on Communism or whatever the enemy state’s perceived evil was. Mattes and Weeks believe that Trump’s hawkish rhetoric has positioned him to retain legitimacy among his political base as he reaches out to a rogue state like North Korea. On the other side of the debate, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake asserts that Trump’s upcoming meeting with Kim will not be the president’s “Nixon to China” moment. Lake writes that China was a Cold War power, and the tensions between China and the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War made the Nixon visit monumental. Conversely, North Korea is a weak, isolated state that depends on China for its survival. A meeting between Trump and Kim will not produce the kind of international ripple effect that Nixon’s China trip did, Lake concludes.

Yet here, again, is the importance of context. North Korea is not a great power, and so at face value, Trump’s planned meeting with Kim Jong-un might seem insignificant compared to Nixon’s visit with Mao. But the international context of 2018 is much different than that of 1972. The contemporary moment is not one in which great power antagonisms shape international relations. Terrorist networks and rogue states with nuclear capabilities pose some of the primary threats to global security. In the context of the early twenty-first century, a meeting that leads to the opening of the Hermit Kingdom and the limiting, or even dismantling, of its nuclear arsenal could provide a blueprint for future diplomatic engagements with isolated states. As historians in the coming decades assess Trump’s foreign policy record, they will let us know whether “Trump to North Korea” was a transformative moment in the history of international relations or a forgettable example of contrarian attention-seeking.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

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“We’re on the Same Side”: Anglophone Exceptionalism, Darkest Hour, and Dunkirk

by Alan Allport, Guest Contributor

“The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.” So declared Winston Churchill in his address to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. Churchill was speaking on the same day that Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of Allied forces from the Dunkirk beaches, formally ended. Thanks to the efforts of DYNAMO, most of the men (though not the equipment or weapons) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had been trapped in a small pocket of northern Flanders thanks to the success of the German Blitzkrieg, had been successfully extracted from France back across the English Channel.

But from Churchill’s point of view on June 4, 1940, the campaign in France, and Britain’s involvement in it, was far from over. “We have our duty to our Ally,” he pointed out to his fellow MPs. RAF aircraft were still operating from bases in western France on June 4. British strategic bombers would soon be arriving at airfields near Marseilles to begin raids on Italy, which was (correctly) expected to declare war on the Allies any day. Even as the bedraggled veterans of the Dunkirk campaign were disembarking at southern English ports, the 52nd Lowland and 1st Canadian infantry divisions were preparing to cross the Channel in the opposite direction, to join the British 1st Armoured and 51st Highland infantry divisions still in France. Churchill conceived of them as a second BEF which would help the French push back the Germans massing along the Somme and reestablish stability on the Western Front. As he made clear to the Commons on June 4, he did not believe that the catastrophe at Dunkirk had made the fall of France inevitable. “There is no reason why we should not in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us,” he said. Churchill would take considerable persuading over the weeks to follow that France really was doomed to defeat and that further assistance to Britain’s ally would serve no purpose.


Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Focus Features.

None of this, however, makes it into the version of the speech that audiences hear in Joe Wright’s biopic Darkest Hour (2017). So far as Darkest Hour is concerned, it is the Prime Minister’s famous peroration which matters. Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, assures the Commons that Britain will “fight on the beaches … on the landing grounds … in the fields and in the streets” rather than surrender; that he and his compatriots will “defend our island home … if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” To be sure, the movie includes Churchill’s promise that “we shall fight in France”; but this is very much a throwaway remark. Wright’s story, which ends with the successful evacuation from Dunkirk and Churchill’s fervent roar of defiance, leaves its audience in little doubt that the Anglo-French alliance is already doomed by the beginning of June 1940. The future of the war, and further resistance to Nazi tyranny, is very much all in Britain’s hands now – at least until the intervention of the United States after Pearl Harbor.

Indeed, although Darkest Hour spends little time concerning itself with Churchill’s French counterparts one way or the other, the film drops more than a few hints that the whole Anglo-French partnership was, from Britain’s point of view, a mistake from the beginning. At one of his first Chiefs of Staff meetings as Prime Minister, a shocked Churchill is informed by General Ironside that “the entire French Ninth Army – some 200,000 men – have capitulated … surrendered, deserted. It was a rout.” Further evidence of French lassitude is soon provided when Churchill flies across the Channel to rally the leaders of the Third Republic. “We must rouse our old friends to a heroic resistance,” the old warrior insists: but the film makes it clear that this is one of Churchill’s touchingly naïve fantasies, and one that is about to be cruelly exposed. At his meeting with Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, the British leader’s enjoinments for the French Army to immediately counterattack the Germans are met with cool Gallic cynicism. “We have lost,” Reynaud baldly responds. “He’s delusional”, he adds to his colleague Daladier as Churchill’s plane departs. “He’s English,” Daladier notes. The film strongly concurs with Daladier’s view. If the fight against Hitler is to continue, Darkest Hour suggests, les Anglo-Saxons can expect little further assistance from their Francophone neighbors. They simply do not have the same right stuff.


Dunkirk, Warner Bros.

Dunkirk, the other 2017 movie blockbuster which covers much the same historical territory as Darkest Hour, comes to similar conclusions regarding the Anglo-French alliance of 1940. As one of its promotional taglines declares: “When 400,00 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” Never mind that around half of those 400,000 Allied troops trapped in the Dunkirk pocket were already ‘home’ in May 1940, being French or Belgian troops; Dunkirk is very much a story of deliverance to safety from a hostile and foreign place, of a doomed and foolish overseas venture in the service of incompetent and untrustworthy allies. “Survival is victory”, goes another of the film’s taglines. Survival, for Dunkirk, is to be understood strictly in British terms. Survival after this continental disaster will, after all, be a prelude to victory in the Battle of Britain and all the moral grandeur of the Churchillian ‘finest hour’ of 1940.

The film addresses the question of Britain’s responsibility to its allies most directly in the sequence in which a group of BEF soldiers confront a Frenchmen who has been hiding in their midst, disguised in British Army uniform, and trying, like them, to get off the beaches. The soldiers are making a bid for escape in a leaky trawler; at least one of them must disembark, presumably to be shot by the enemy, if the vessel is to stay afloat. “A Frog! A bloody Frog! A cowardly little queue-jumping Frog!” one of the British soldiers snarls when the duplicity is revealed. Another soldier, ‘Tommy’, tries to defend the Frenchman: “we’re on the same side!” he reminds his comrades. The dialogue that follows is a performance in miniature of the whole moral issue at Dunkirk: do the British on the beaches still have a continuing obligation of any kind to an ally which (it is strongly implied) has let them down so badly?

“It’s not fair!”

“Survival’s not fair.”

“He saved our lives.”

“And he’s about to do it again … we need someone to get off so the rest of us can live – you want to volunteer?”

“Fuck no. I’m going home.”

“And if this is the price?”

“I’ll live with it, but it’s wrong.”

While the film shows some sympathy for Tommy’s moral qualms, it also suggests that the ruthless logic of the other British soldiers might be more defensible in the service of the greater good. “We need our army back,” the unnamed senior naval officer in charge of the evacuation mutters off-the-record when he is asked if he will honor Churchill’s promise to evacuate French and British soldiers at the same rate. Dunkirk offers little challenge to this cold-blooded calculation. If squeamish considerations for the fate of the French had overridden all other concerns, it suggests, then the war might have been lost there and then on the beaches in May 1940. Perfidious Albion was quite right to think solely of its own needs at the moment of crisis.

It’s perhaps not surprising that these visions of British moral exceptionalism and the necessity of detachment from continental entanglements have struck a sensitive chord in the UK in the months following the troubled Brexit vote. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and the bête noire of embattled ‘Remainers’, has urged young Britons to go out and see Dunkirk. Gary Oldman has been asked what he thinks Churchill would have made of Brexit. The London Times journalist Jenni Russell has lamented that Dunkirk was released at this particular moment, for its “narrative of heroic retreat in order to fight another day, cannot help but feed the national pride in Britain’s capacity to triumph eventually, no matter what the odds … nothing could be less helpful to our collective psyche.” Ian Jack accuses the two films of “feeding Brexit fantasies.” Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk’s director, has denied any such thing. Patrick Porter backs Nolan up, insisting that the film “does not end simply celebrating homecoming and a departure from Europe.” Anthony King demurs, seeing Dunkirk as “structured around the question of British nationalism” in a way that depicts “home [as] the only redemption from the alienating emptiness” of France.

The significance of these films for a British people wrestling with their conception of themselves and their place in the world is understandable enough. What is interesting is the extent to which Churchillian and Dunkirk myths might also be resonating with modern American audiences. Both films, though preoccupied with purely British historical stories, and without any leading American characters or actors, have done very well at the US box office. Dunkirk has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Darkest Hour too is up for Best Picture, with five other nominations, including Gary Oldman as Best Actor. Churchill’s status, shared only with Lincoln, as the one historical statesman to whom all US politicians wish to be compared, remains as solid as ever. Mike Huckabee attracted much attention, and no end of derision, for his Twitter claims that Darkest Hour demonstrated what “real leadership” looks like, and that in President Trump, “we have a Churchill.”

But perhaps it’s not so surprising that stories of lone Anglophone defiance in a hostile world of babbling foreigners should be gaining traction on the other side of the Atlantic. Most Americans had barely heard of Dunkirk before Nolan’s film. To most of them, perhaps, it remains an obscure overseas battle. But America is going through its own isolationist hour (‘finest’ or not) at the moment: retreating into trade protectionism, eyeing its foreign allies with increasing distrust and resentment, literally raising its border walls. It’s not difficult to see how accounts of a white English-speaking people standing unaided against belligerent aliens might find purchase among certain constituencies of American movie-goers – and voters – in the Trump epoch. Whether they or their President might also see the Dunkirk story as a cautionary tale of the catastrophe that can befall nations that take their allies for granted is not so clear.

Alan Allport is an Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University. His books Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War (2009), and Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945 (2015), are both published by Yale University Press. His forthcoming two-volume history of the Second World War, British Iliad, will be published in North America by Knopf.


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“We Danced While They Bombed”: Popular Dancing in Britain during the Second World War

by Allison Abra, Ph.D.

Abra book coverIn the fall of 1939, during the first months of the Second World War, famed American war correspondent Edward R. Murrow undertook what he called an “investigation into London nightlife.” Describing a recent tour through some of the restaurants, hotels, and night-clubs in the city’s West End he observed that “business is good; has in fact improved since war came.” In particular Murrow noted that there were now more dance bands being featured than before the war, and that many establishments “where one could eat without musical distraction in the old days have now engaged small orchestras.” As Murrow summed it up, “Customers want to dance.”[1]

The war was in its infancy when Murrow wrote, but the phenomenon that he observed would endure until its conclusion, when Britons celebrated their victory by dancing in the streets on VE Day. Additionally, as I discuss in my recent book Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50, throughout the war, dancing took on a host of important cultural meanings that helped the British people express who they were as a nation, and to define how and why they were fighting.


East London in the aftermath of the German Blitz of 1940-41.

From the moment the war broke out there was voracious press coverage of Britain’s “dancing boom.” As one dance magazine reported about London’s first and most famous dance hall, ‘It takes more than a war to empty [the] Hammersmith [Palais]… [it] is, in fact, doing better business than ever.”[2] From that point on, the British people’s desire to dance was frequently deployed as evidence of their high spirits, fortitude, and endurance. When the Blitz began, stories about dances carrying on during air raids were abundant. An illustrative report described the scene in a dance hall as German bombs rained down, observing that “the band … played on, and the dancers continued as though nothing had happened, although many of the windows had been blown out.’[3] Special attention was focused on the persistence of dancing in Dover, which suffered under both heavy bombing and enemy shelling across the English Channel from occupied France. A journalist marveled in 1942 that under such conditions the town still staged weekly dances, and that “One occasion saw the orchestra vie with German gunners as to which could make the most noise: dancers remained swaying to the rhythm of war and a ‘hot’ band! … [showing] the ‘carry on’ spirit of a town living under the shadow of German long-range artillery.”[4] Reports of this type helped to establish the belief in the “Blitz spirit,” and the British people’s stalwart refusal to succumb to Nazi aggression.

Dances were also frequently heralded for being spaces where social unity and “community feeling” were on vivid display. A letter to the editor of a dance magazine described his experience at a Manchester dance hall, where “before a few dances were over, I found quite happily that all the dancers were singing as well as dancing – in fact, it almost became community singing – and it really did help us all to feel more cheerful.[5] There was a belief that dances were a unifying force, bringing together people of different classes, from distinct regions within the British Isles and from across the British Empire, and cementing bonds between the British and their military allies, such as Poles or Americans.

Dance hall proprietors also sought ways to enable their patrons to make tangible contributions to the war effort during their visits, positioning dancing as not only a morale-booster but a way of doing one’s “bit.” In a notable example, the Manchester Ritz hosted a “Tank Week” in 1941, during the course of which a large inflatable tank was pushed around the ballroom, and as they danced across the floor patrons dropped coins upon its surface; by week’s end the hall had raised over fifty pounds towards the building of a new tank. Dancing therefore provided enjoyment and relaxation, but also enabled Britons to feel that even in their leisure time they were contributing to the country’s victory in the war.

Meanwhile, with growing restrictions on dancing in Nazi Germany and across occupied Europe, the British saw their very ability to dance as something that distinguished them from the enemy, and reinforced their reasons for fighting. As one writer opined in 1944, in “dictator-occupied countries… force rules and freedom goes and with it dancing which so truly expresses a freedom of spirit and action that is distasteful to rulers and conquerors.’[6] The dance craze in Britain thus came to represent the nation’s continued freedom from tyranny, and the people’s dancing bodies became a physical expression of their enduring democracy.

It is important to note that this vision of the dancing nation – cheerful, defiant, and united – shrouded lingering social tensions, on the dance floor and beyond. While it was a predominant belief during the so-called “people’s war” that shared sacrifices and the collective waging of the war effort were dissolving social divisions of class, gender, race, age and region, historians have clearly demonstrated that many societal fissures were exacerbated rather than eliminated during the war years.[7] This was no less true of the dance floor, where, for instance, controversies over interracial dancing sparked significant tensions or even violence. Even the much vaunted dance craze was to some degree illusory. For all the times that dances continued during air raids, there were other occasions when they simply shut down; attendance at leisure venues also declined significantly during moments when the military situation appeared particularly grim, such as during the German offensive in 1940, when, as one contemporary put it, “the mood of the people is not to go out nearly so much at night to make whoopee in the West End.”[8]

Dancing in London on VE Day

Dancing in London on VE Day, May 8, 1945.

Yet even with these necessary caveats, dancing undoubtedly played a critical role in constructing and presenting – within Britain and around the world – the dominant image of the fighting nation, and the ideals upon which it waged the war. Indeed, I argue in the book that for all of the ways that the “people’s war” was a myth, the dance floor provided a space where that myth could be realized and experienced by wartime Britons, even if only in the ephemeral “moment of dance.”[9] Dancing in World War II Britain thus has much to tell us about the role played by popular culture in wartime, and how it operates not solely as escapism or propaganda, but as a crucial site for the creation and expression of soldiers’ and civilians’ motivations and belief systems.

Allison Abra is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society and the Nina Bell Suggs Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. A specialist in modern British history, she is the author of Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50 (Manchester, 2017).

[1] Edward R. Murrow, This is London (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941), p. 41.

[2] Irene Raines, “London Ballroom Notes,” Dancing Times (November 1939), p. 74.

[3] “Bombed, But Danced On,” Dance News (18 October 1941), p. 1.

[4] Frank Illingworth, Britain Under Shellfire (London: Hutchison & Company, 1942), p. 42.

[5] “Manchester Notes,” Modern Dance (October 1939).

[6] James Mackenzie, Stepping Out (Danceland Publications, 1944), p. 6.

[7] Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[8] MOA: TC 38/8/D, Correspondence, Letter from H.E. Smith to Tom Harrisson (21 May 1940).

[9]The “moment of dance” is a concept articulated by dance studies scholar Julie Malnig in: Julie Malnig, “Women, Dance, and New York Nightlife,” in Julie Malnig (ed.) Ballroom Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 82.

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Why We Need to Study Soldiers and Families

In honor of today’s release of her latest book, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, Dale Center co-director Susannah Ural reflects on a new approach to writing unit histories.

by Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.


Isaac Cline’s ambrotype of Josephine “Josie” Scott, 1863. Image courtesy of the Texas State Historical Association.

In the summer of 1863, Josephine “Josie” Scott walked into Isaac Cline’s photography gallery in Palestine, Texas. Her features and attire in the image Cline captured that day are unremarkable. What stands out was Scott’s decision to hold an ambrotype of her husband while Cline made an ambrotype of her.

Josie Scott’s husband was Lt. John G. Scott, a member of the 1st Texas Infantry. Serving in the Texas Brigade in Lt. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the 1st Texas was known for aggressive fighting that had won them an unwanted honor the previous September at the battle of Antietam. They suffered the most casualties of any regiment on either side in the war in that bloody fight. But even 87 percent losses (higher than the 82 percent often quoted) had not broken the regiment, though it had made a host of women like Josie Scott widows. Perhaps it was with this in mind that she decided to send her husband a subtle message that, even though he was a thousand miles away, he was with her, just as she was with him.

Josie Scott’s image highlights the strong familial bonds that sustained a hard fighting unit like the Texas Brigade through four years of war. By the time she had the ambrotype made, Hood’s Texans, as they were known, were already famous for helping to roll back Union forces at the battles of Gaines’s Mill and Second Manassas, for their astonishing bravery at Antietam, and for seizing the first if not the second of their objectives at the Battle of Gettysburg. The men of this unit had raced to be among the first to reach Virginia when the war began because it was there that they believed they could best contribute to Confederate victory. They could have fought just as honorably closer to home, but not, they argued, as effectively. So they remained in the east, year after year, suffering such astonishingly high casualties that they earned another dubious honor. Most Civil War soldiers were twice as likely to die from disease as they were in combat, but by the end of the war, the opposite proved true for the Texas Brigade.

Hood’s Texans became a textbook unit in lessons of leadership and soldier ideology, and rightfully so. But too often overlooked is the significant role that their families played in helping their men sustain that determination to fight. This unit reminds us that when we study units to understand what made them effective or ineffective, we need to more closely consider the contributing role played by their immediate families. While some Southern wives, mothers, and fathers were telling men that they needed to come home or writing to governors to insist that soldiers’ families receive the care they were promised, astonishingly few letters like this came from Texas Brigade families. This may be because many of them had the financial stability to offset the hardships caused by the war, to help other brigade families, and to raise funds for their men in Virginia. But families’ letters and diaries also indicate that they shared their volunteers’ belief that sacrifices were necessary to secure Confederate independence.

Texas Brigade soldiers and families continued to face hardships together, as a unit, long after the fighting stopped. When veterans opened businesses, for example, they were more likely to cite their service in the Texas Brigade than anything that had to do with their new enterprise. When Dr. R. J. Breckenridge, who ended the war as chief medical examiner for the Army of Northern Virginia, opened his practice in Houston, he advertised his original position as a surgeon in Hood’s Texas Brigade to attract patients, not his training or prominence in Lee’s army. By 1870, five years after they returned home, those connections helped to ensure that two-thirds of the veterans and families of Hood’s Texas Brigade were more financially secure than their friends and neighbors in the same county. They waged the peace of Reconstruction together as a unit just as they had waged the war.

Josie Scott’s ambrotype reminds us that it is only by studying the full picture of a military unit — the men at the front and their families at home — that we can begin to understand what drove them to war, how they fought and endured it, and how they navigated the rocky peace that followed.

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D. is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of four books on the U.S. Civil War, including the latest: Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit. Ural credits the Blount Professorship in Military History, which she held from 2013-2015, for giving her the time and support she needed to complete her decade-long study of this unit.

Posted in military families, Military history, soldiers, U.S. Civil War, unit histories, war and society | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The War Stories We Tell

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.

best years of our lives poster

Poster advertising the 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives.

My Honors students and I recently watched the 1946 Oscar-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows three World War II veterans as they return home and struggle to settle back into civilian life. Homer Parrish (portrayed by an actual wounded World War II veteran) lost both hands while serving with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Fred Derry, an Army Air Forces captain, suffered from nightmares of his time at war. Sgt. Al Stephenson took to the bottle to smooth the jarring reentry into his roles as husband, father, and banker. There were no ticker tape parades, no triumphant landing of victorious soldiers into the arms of a jubilant public. The three veterans arrived at an airport alone, and in trying to find a flight to their hometown, learned that they were all going to the same place. No one met them when they landed. They shared a taxi, which dropped them off at their respective homes on an ordinary day. They hugged their families, and everyone expected things to get back to normal. But the vets only felt “normal” when they were in each other’s company, sharing drinks and stories at the local bar.

Change the fashion, the cars, and the soundtrack, and The Best Years of Our Lives could have been about Vietnam veterans. The lonely return home, the struggle to cope with war wounds and terrifying flashbacks, and the difficulty reconnecting with family and civilian friends are all hallmarks of the American public memory of the Vietnam veteran. What’s more, we have created an image of the Vietnam veteran as a man whose wartime experience was distinct, especially when compared to the vets of his father’s generation. The Vietnam veteran was ignored, if not abused. The Vietnam War was uniquely traumatic, and all Vietnam veterans served in combat units or were otherwise in the line of fire. America was on the winning side of World War II, so that made it easier for veterans to process the pain. Not so, according to The Best Years of Our Lives.

Burns docThe comparison between the World War II and Vietnam veteran experiences struck me because I was watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War at the same time that my students and I watched The Best Years of Our Lives. Burns enforces the image of the distinctly damaged Vietnam veteran by prioritizing the voices of infantrymen and Marines. The archival footage of Americans shows men in violent battle, and the veterans interviewed describe the horrors of combat. The anecdotes are dramatic, and the documentary’s use of them suggests that combat was the primary American experience in Vietnam. Karl Marlantes, Tim O’Brien, and W.D. Ehrhart no doubt conveyed the feelings and experiences of many Americans who served in Vietnam. Yet historian Meredith Lair has argued with convincing archival evidence that, depending on the year, most American troops served in the rear echelon, where the greatest risk to soldiers and the military’s mission was boredom.

Burns does not tell that story. His is a fairly one-dimensional view of the U.S. soldier’s experience in Vietnam, just as the long-established image of World War II troops gleefully returning home to a hero’s welcome is simplistic. Americans—the public, filmmakers, writers, and historians—seem to be unwilling or unable to complicate the popular portrayals of World War II and Vietnam veterans. Why not acknowledge that some veterans of “the good war” spent their entire lives battling their wartime demons? Why not incorporate into our national narrative stories of Vietnam vets like Joel Blackwell, whose time in-country was an adventure, “a lark,” as he wrote recently in the New York Times?

Why are Americans so invested in the story of the traumatized Vietnam veteran? If American male soldiers appear as victims in our collective memory, does that help us stomach the bad policies and decisions Americans made regarding Vietnam? If Vietnam vets were uniquely traumatized by their war experiences compared to veterans of other wars, does that allow Americans to argue that the Vietnam War was an anomaly rather than a typical example of what the U.S. does in the world? I often wonder what World War II veterans might have told us if they had come out of war into a culture of consciousness raising and protest. Had Ken Burns interviewed American veterans who had no gruesome tales to tell, it would have been more difficult for him to produce a documentary that portrays Americans as victims of the Vietnam War, rather than perpetrators or bystanders.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

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Let Us Speak of What We Have Done

Editor’s note: In the October 2017 issue of Civil War Times magazine, Dale Center co-director Dr. Susannah J. Ural was invited along with 14 other leading Civil War scholars to offer her thoughts on the current debate over Confederate memorials. The post below is an extended version of her thoughts on subject.

By Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.

There’s an obelisk at Karnak built to honor Hatshepsut, one of the few women pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Its inscription captures her curiosity at how she, who ushered in a period of prosperity and peace, would be remembered: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say — those who shall see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.” Hatshepsut’s successor, for reasons still debated, nearly destroyed every memory of her. But history has a way of haunting us. Our current struggle with a Confederate past has me wondering, like Hatshepsut, how future generations will interpret our decisions.

Hood's Texas Brigade monument front of the Texas state capitol

Hood’s Texas Brigade monument in front of the Texas state capitol.

In an era of great division, a point that is often missed in the Confederate monuments debate is that most factions rightly agree that history should not be erased. The question is in how it should be remembered. In my opinion, if citizens come together through a democratic process and agree to remove monuments in their community, they should do so. That’s how democracy works. But don’t hide them away in warehouses. Place them at museums or battlefield parks where historians and interpreters can help visitors learn about the motives behind the Lost Cause. These monuments were erected at the height of this movement to, yes, honor concepts of sacrifice for liberty and family. Countless letters from the men and women who endured the Civil War and raised the money to build these monuments verify that. When Confederate veteran Joseph B. Polley, who fought in the 4th Texas Infantry, debated with his fellow veterans about the design of the Texas Brigade monument in Austin, he insisted that it had to feature an individual soldier rather than Jefferson Davis or a Confederate commander. “If a medallion of Davis appears on the monument at all, it is bound to have the central and most conspicuous place, and the men and women who when we are dead and gone look at it, will accept it as a monument to Davis and the cause he represented.” Instead, Polley and his fellow Texas Brigade veterans decided to depict a common soldier representing “the brave men to whose memory alone it should be dedicated.” (J. B. Polley, Floresville, Wilson County, Texas to Col. B. F. Chilton, Angleton, Texas, July 18, 1908. F. B. Chilton Papers, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.)

"Silent Sam" monument at UNC-Chapel Hill

“Silent Sam” monument at UNC-Chapel Hill

We need to recognize, however, that many of these monuments were also erected amid an effort to entrench a ruthless tradition of white supremacy. One of the best-known examples of this is the recently removed Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans. Another appears in the speech by Confederate veteran and Southern philanthropist Julian S. Carr at the 1913 dedication of the Confederate memorial at UNC-Chapel Hill. Carr celebrated many things in his speech, including “what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South — When ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.” (Carr’s full speech is here; this quote is from page 9-B; sources relating to this monument can be found here).

I don’t believe there is a universal answer to the monuments question, just as I fail to see a universal motivation in those who erected them. The past is messy, and that messiness is what inspires so many of us to study it. So, let’s talk about these complexities, and preferably at sites that have trained historians and archivists on staff who can help visitors research and read original sources and enjoy an informed debate about the issues — not so we can all agree, but so we can reach our own informed conclusions about the past to help us shape a better future.

Joseph B. Polley, Private, Company F, 4th Texas Regiment, 1862-65

Joseph B. Polley, Private, Company F, 4th Texas Regiment, 1862-65

I truly hope the fury over these monuments will inspire a similar fury to support education about the Civil War and its enduring legacy. Rather than mock simplistic videos and erroneous postings from museums that are understaffed and misinformed, we might consider how we can come together to help sites across the nation improve their facilities. We can remind our representatives why funding education in the humanities is so important. We can support groups like the Civil War Trust, which works tirelessly with diverse groups of scholars, educators, and preservationists to save and interpret Civil War history. We can also volunteer our services at historic sites in our area. But I want to be clear that volunteering needs to be done under the direction of a trained public historian, archivist, or museum curator. Otherwise, well-intentioned volunteers can interpret in ignorance or damage more than we preserve. But under such direction, many of us have the education, research, computer, and organizational skills that museums can put to use transcribing and digitizing collections, editing signage, and helping with publicity. These approaches would be a better use of funds and energy than, as some suggest, erecting more monuments that represent alternatives to, say, the White League memorial in New Orleans. In a city that is facing potentially crippling financial challenges, I’m not convinced that erecting and maintaining more monuments is a realistic solution.

Like Hatshepsut’s obelisk, Confederate memorials “speak of what [we] have done.” Let us do just that at historic sites designed for that purpose, where Confederate symbols, including the flag, are and should be part of the landscape from which visitors learn.

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and President of the Mississippi Historical Society. She is the author of Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Osprey, 2013) and The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 (NYU Press, 2006). Her current project, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, will be published this year by LSU Press.

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