Hosted by that institution’s estimable director, S. Waite Rawls, the sesquicentennial-themed symposium drew some of the country’s finest Civil War historians to offer rigorous, heartfelt, often eloquent arguments for their respective nominees. Robert K. Krick opened with an appeal for “Stonewall” Jackson, the sternly Calvinist and tactically brilliant Confederate commander for whom even Abraham Lincoln bore a grudging respect.
David Blight answered with a riveting account of Frederick Douglass’ life of suffering, resistance and intellectual growth that no slave tamer, however brutal, could crush. To Blight, Douglass did nothing less than “change the world.”
Then came the dean of Civil War historians, James McPherson, to propose a surprising candidate in Admiral David Farragut. A Virginia resident who defied expectations by remaining loyal to the Union, and then punishing the Confederacy with his epochal naval victories, Farragut deserves nothing less than equal credit with Grant and Lincoln, McPherson argued, for overall Union victory.
Brig. Gen. John Mountcastle then made a surprising case for the much-criticized Union General George B. McClellan, architect of a grand army, Mountcastle insisted, who fell victim to unrealistic expectations and bad luck.
Finally, Emory Thomas nominated that indisputable military genius and “liberator of slaves”—so Thomas claimed—Robert E. Lee.
I did not have the privilege of sharing this experience with the crowd gathered in the former capital of the Confederacy. I watched it all on television from the distance and comfort of my den in Rye, N.Y., glued to my favorite Saturday morning Civil War “fix”: C-SPAN-3, American History TV.
And while spending yet another enriching day reaping the benefits of my beloved Channel 102, I seriously considered nominating a write-in candidate of my own for person of the year for 1862—or 1858, 1860 or 1861 for that matter, or any other landmark season in Civil War memory: and that is
C-SPAN itself, particularly its founding CEO, Brian Lamb, history’s best friend and largely unsung hero.
Here is one Civil War giant who deserves at least an aria. For 20 years, Brian Lamb’s unique and irreplaceable network has brought great historians and great history to millions of Americans, stimulating an interest in our past that has become increasingly crucial to the challenge of facing our future. At age 70, he stepped down as CEO at the end of March but plans to continue his weekly interview program, Q&A.
I first met Brian in 1994, after the publication of my book The Lincoln–Douglas Debates. To my surprise and delight, C-SPAN invited me to appear on his late and lamented weekly series, BookNotes. When tape rolled, my future friend typically posed unnerving personal questions (I called my mother a “housewife”; at 96 she still hasn’t quite forgiven me). And he invited predictions I similarly bungled—especially when asked if modern Americans were capable of enduring the kind of marathon, three-hour debates that had ignited such frenzied interest when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas did battle in 1858. No, I ostentatiously replied. We can never again endure protracted political debates. We just don’t have the attention span anymore.
Once the cameras switched off, Brian quietly said, “I think you’re wrong, and we’ll prove it.” That summer, true to his word, C-SPAN inspired and covered gavel-to-gavel re-creations of those seven debates in the very towns where they first occurred. Community-based actors played the roles of Old Abe and the Little Giant, and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of spectators thronged village greens and town squares—often wearing period costumes—to listen afresh to the words that once “set the prairies on fire.”
It turned out that both Brian and I had been right. The words themselves seemed to the modern ear repetitive, uninspiring, sometimes hectoring—seldom rising to the level Lincoln and Douglas achieved at their rhetorical best. But Brian Lamb built it and they came. Modern Americans did thirst for the kind of immersive experience C-SPAN always offers, whether covering congressional hearings or day-long colloquia. The network had succeeded in bringing history to life for hundreds of thousands of viewers. And it was just the beginning.
Full disclosure: Many times since, I have enjoyed the honor of appearing with Brian in an amazing range of venues, from the Willard Hotel in Washington, to the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Ind., to the Lincoln Forum in Gettysburg—and a list of points in between far too long to cite. I recount the highlights not to toot my own horn, but to play a symphony on Brian’s. I am by no means alone in enjoying access to history’s best classroom and most passionate students: the C-SPAN audience.
My colleagues, my friends and historians I have never met and have always longed to hear, have again and again broadcast their wisdom on the C-SPAN airwaves. The broadcasts outclass the noise that pollutes almost every other network, bringing calm perspective, useful knowledge and illuminating discussion to an America otherwise losing its ability to bring any of those qualities to current discourse.
Of one thing I am certain: The eternally modest Brian Lamb will hate this column. For this quintessential host, the guest always deserves the focus, which is his genius. But after all these years, it is high time we applaud the man who does the inviting—and so much more.
During and following the symposium at Richmond, democracy reigned, C-SPAN style. Viewers texted to express their preferences and phoned in to talk (sometimes harshly) to the scholars. At the end of the day, voters not surprisingly elected favorite son Robert E. Lee person of the year for 1862.
Move over, General. With all due respect, the man of the year for 1862—and every other year we explore together in the nation’s greatest history arena,
C-SPAN—is Brian Lamb. He never won a battle, but he’s winning the war to educate us in spite of ourselves. n
Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.
Tags: 20th - 21st Century