Portfolio

by Allan Branstiter

It has been twenty years since my dad received a box of magazines from a truck driver outside a plastic pipe factory in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Not every dad would accept a beaten box of glossy mags from a trucker, and even fewer would bestow said box upon their 12-year-old son. But my dad did, and in doing so kicked off what became a life-long interest in the history of the American Civil War. I remember the event vividly: Dad pulling up in his Ford Ranger just after dinner, the soft sides of a heavy cardboard box straining to contain its contents, and the colorful images of soldiers fighting and dying upon the shining covers of the innumerable issues of Civil War Times Illustrated staring back at me as I deposited them all over my bedroom floor.

Cpl. Joseph Pierce, 1862
Cpl. Joseph Pierce, 1862

Of the thousands of pages I would eventually read about the Civil War as a boy, a single page stands out in my memory more than the rest. On the final page of many issues of Civil War Times Illustrated during the early 1990s, the editors would dedicate a page to the life of individual veterans of the Civil War. One was set aside for Joseph Pierce, the adopted Chinese son of a sea captain who served in the 14th Connecticut Infantry at Gettysburg. Pierce’s image currently hangs in the Gettysburg Museum; however, few people knew about him twenty years ago. When I first discovered him, Joseph Pierce’s existence unsettled me for reasons that took me years to understand. I remember that moment clearly. Pierce’s Asian face stared up from the page at my Asian face—two brown bodies surrounded by a sea of white culture and white history.

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by Allan Branstiter

[X-Posted from Agreeing Loudly]

IMAGE: BRANDI SIMONS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

This past Tuesday, half-term governor Sarah Palin endorsed fellow reality TV star and demagogue Donald Trump for president of the United States of America. That same day, her son Track, an Iraq war veteran, was arrested for drunkenly assaulting his girlfriend with an AR-15 and attempting to prevent her from reporting it to the police. At a press conference the next day, Sarah Palin addressed “the elephant in the room” and used her son’s alleged domestic violence incident as a platform to blame Obama for not supporting the troops, especially those with PTSD.

“My son, like so many others,” she explained, “they come back a bit different. They come back hardened, they come back wondering if there’s respect for what it is their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military have so sacrificially given to this country.” Remarking that she could “related with other families who can feel these ramifications of PTSD and some of the woundedness our soldiers do return with,” she then turned to Obama as the root of the victimization of American veterans. “It starts from the top,” she concluded, “the question though, that comes from our own president, where they have to look at him and wonder, ‘Do you know what we have to go through?’”

In the days since, many veterans have rejected Palin’s statements. Liberal critics wuickly condemned her overtly partisan manipulation of veterans issues, while others (like Bill Maher) argued that Track’s actions were the product of poor parenting, not combat trauma. Some [see 1, 2] have even gone as far as to argue that Track Palin never saw combat and, therefore, is lying about having PTSD (recent studies have shown that 31% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD, including many who never saw combat). While the response to Palin’s remarks has been almost exclusively negative, she is tapping into a perception among conservatives that Obama and Democrats neither care or understand the military or veterans.

Whether or not Track Palin suffers from PTSD remains unknown. As a veteran who has been treated by the Army and the VA for anxiety issues in the field and at home, I’d hate to attempt to diagnose Palin from afar. However, there are some lessons to be garnered from Palin’s statements that have not been addressed by most observers, namely where her statements come from and their effect on public perceptions of veterans. Most people on the left side of the aisle have dismissed Palin’s remarks as a bald-face and shameless attack on Obama. And yet Palin is tapping into several less obvious ideological and cultural strains regarding the role of veterans in American life.

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If you have an uncle or aunt who keeps insisting that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery and that anyone who says otherwise is an egg-head pinko long-hair revisionist, show them this video arguing the very point you’re trying to make. Not only is it from a conservative university (Prager University), features a uniformed professor of history from West Point, and clocks in at a easy-consumed 5.5, it also ends with an appropriately patriotic appeal to the moral superiority of the “Civil War was about Slavery” camp. What it lacks in Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” or John Wayne waxing romantic about bob-whites and stuff, it more than makes up for in conservative bona fides. So tuck this handy video away until you need it!

Ah, who am kidding…even this won’t work.

 

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One of my favorite historians on the internet is Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory. He’s been blogging about the war for around ten years, and the amount of content he produces never ceases to amaze me. Up until recently, Levin had been working on researching the Myth of the Black Confederate. After the murders at Emanuel A.M.E., he switched gears and began covering the debate surrounding the display of the Confederate Flag. His analysis was insightful, historical, and sharp–a refreshing departure from the “Heritage or Hate” debate. It’s definitely a must read if you are interested in the issue.

After Charleston, I was a little worried that Levin’s work on the Myth of the Black Confederate had been placed on the back burner (though I understand why the Rebel Flag debate had to be addressed). This morning I was delighted to see that Levin has published a debut article with the Daily Beast that brought together both topics. Definitely give it a read. Levin’s insight into why the Sons of Confederate Veterans rely on black activists so much is enlightening.

414QcLDljwLOn a final note, I ran into Anthony Hervey–the “Black Confederate” mentioned in Levin’s lede–in Speaker’s Corner in London, of all places, when I was interning with the U.S. Embassy. I had no idea he was anything more than some random lunatic spouting off hate and Neo-Confederate slogans. He gave me a card depicting the cover of the book he was trying to sell. I completely forgot about him, so it was a bit of a shock to read about his passing in Levin’s article. I can’t say he’ll be mourned on this website. While I am often frustrated with the fact that Americans would rather attack the symbols of racism rather than it’s social and institutional scaffolding, Hervey serves as a reminder such symbols have power and must be challenged at every turn.

Portfolio, Reviews

by Allan Branstiter

John Charles Frémont
John C. Frémont

In the end, you leave convinced that it is impossible to understand the Civil War without considering the history of the coinciding American settler colonial project in the West. . . . Empire and Liberty reminds visitors that the events of the nineteenth century did not occur in isolation.

The day I moved to Los Angeles from Mississippi I was greeted by an image of John C. Frémont near the summit of light pole outside my new apartment. Shaggy-haired and determined, the explorer was depicted in an old engraving of him mounting the Rockies, urging bearded youths westward towards opportunity, cheap land, and freedom. In 2015, I could understand the appeal. If only a starry-eyed and heroic candidate promised my generation autonomy, cheap rent, and inexpensive tuition, we might take up the torch and follow. For now, all Frémont had to offer was an exhibition about the West and the Civil War, as well as a respite from the bustle of the city. That’d have to be enough for now.

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