Saturday, April 30, 2011
Historians of Civil War memory write often of the phrase “Lost Cause,” so much so that it has become an agreed upon fact – that southerners commemorating the war understood – or the very least, spoke of the conflict as a war lost from the beginning…a noble pursuit against insurmountable odds that illuminated the honor of the southron people, fighting for what they “thought” was right. Fair enough: many former Rebels couched their commemorative rhetoric in exactly these terms. But was this a consensus among ex-Confederates? Perhaps not. Evidence suggests that within the broader context of the commemorative ethos, many former Rebels disputed this phrase – in fact denounced it. Below is an excerpt from my soon (hopefully) to be released book on the subject of Civil War commemoration and reconciliation. It offers a number of challenges to the Lost Cause argument from prominent former Rebels, not all of whom can simply be written off as unreconstructed anachronisms:
The idea that Confederates fought for principles “they knew to be right” rather that principles they “thought” right (or just) pervades the commemorative literature of the era and shows how the words of men such as [George L.] Christian reflect a broader sentiment among Confederate veterans. Statements concerning the rightness of Confederate principles mirror arguments made shortly after the close of war and follow a familiar pattern in to the twentieth century. As one Confederate veteran suggested in 1867, no one would ever “question the correctness of the principles we have laid down.”
John Herbert Claiborne, a former surgeon with the Army of Northern Virginia and author of several books and articles on the Civil War, took such a stance and professed before a gathering of veterans early in the 1890s. “Away the maudlin confession that we fought for what we thought was right! We fought for what we knew was right,” Claiborne argued, “We yielded, not convinced, but conquered.” Claiborne, a prominent postwar politician who held multiple honorary degrees and served on numerous medical boards, wrote often of the war. Of particular interest was his effort to bolster the Confederate fight in print: a comprehensive collection of reminiscences in which Claiborne lambasted the northern fighting man.
While former Confederates talked themselves hoarse telling and retelling the stories associated with the somewhat less vitriolic Lost Cause rhetoric, they also resurrected Confederate principles that they insisted had not perished in 1865. John S. Beard, for example, agreed in typical form with many ex-Confederates arguing, “that the Southern armies really exhausted themselves gaining victories over the Northern armies. I say all of this is matter of such notorious history that it cannot be denied.” The term “lost” however, rankled some who had followed their states out of the Union. Well into the twentieth century, former Confederates gathered in town squares, meeting halls, and other public places not only to “grasp the fraternal hand [and] revive our olden friendships,” but to “reassert the justice of the cause which was never lost, only delayed for a time, that future wisdom and patriotism may lay deeper and stronger a willing union of the states that shall be perpetual.”
In an undated Memorial Day address, published in 1906 with a collection of speeches and other writings paying tribute to Confederate women, Alabaman John Levi Underwood fleshed out the “cause not lost” theme succinctly. Underwood was an ordained Presbyterian minister who had enlisted as a private in the 20th Alabama in 1861 and eventually became the regiment’s chaplain. As a veteran, Underwood focused on highlighting Confederate resonance in the postwar United States. “People are prone to allude to all Lee fought for as a ‘Lost Cause,’” he stated, yet “Lee has accomplished what he fought for.” Underwood clearly stood behind the United States, rejoicing that echoes of the Confederacy remained. “Who would dare to-day to wipe out a State’s individuality?” he asked, “and do we not find to-day, instead of a centralized power in Congress adjudicating things pertaining to the States, the States themselves settling these matters?”
Bradley T. Johnson, an exceedingly vocal former Rebel, had made such claims at least since the 1870s. “I do not believe that we fought in any ‘lost cause,’” he told the members of the Association of Confederate Soldiers and Sailors of Maryland in June 1874 to great applause, “I denounce the phrase as unworthy of our people and their position. Our cause was that of every lover of liberty, in all time, the world over, the right of a people to govern themselves, and it never has been, never can be ‘lost.’” Later in the century, he assured his followers that all joined, or would soon join former Confederates in celebration of a cause above reproach. “There can never be two rights and two wrongs,” he argued late in the 1890s, “this is so of every question of morals and of conduct.” But for anyone confused regarding the righteousness and soundness of the Confederate cause, he quickly pointed out, “The world is surely coming to the conclusion that the cause of the Confederacy was right.” All “true men and women…will never believe that ‘we thought we were right.’ They will know that we were right, immortally right and that the conqueror was wrong, eternally wrong.”
Elaborating further, Robert E. Lee. Jr., reminded the veterans gathered for a reunion in Richmond in 1907 of what they must certainly have accepted as fact. “Let us not be content with the lukewarm and, if you please, molly-coddling expression that the Confederate soldier fought for what he believed to be right. If precedent is a guide, if argument has any convincing force, if approving consciences any solace, if subsequent approbation by those who once disagreed with him any justification, if duty magnificently performed any indication, then we can assert without fear of any successful contradiction that the Confederate soldier fought and died for what he knew to be right.”
I expect that many will disagree – but the above testimony makes one wonder if those who “knew” their cause was right thought that their cause was indeed lost; that perhaps there was fight left in the South beyond the battlefield, whether political, economical, or social. I welcome any and all comments.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
I would like to thank my Twitter friends @ZebulonPike1813 and @markcheathem for turning me on to this fascinating television appearance by the last living person to witness the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater. His name is Samuel Seymour, and he was 96 years old when this show, I've Got a Secret, was filmed in 1956. Thanks guys - I had never heard of him before.
This is an interesting look at Civil War era memory in action. Seymour was only five years old at the time of the shooting, and he only recalls a man (John Wilkes Booth) falling from the balcony on to the stage. As he says..."It scared him to death." Only later did he learn of the significance of the event.
This mid-1950s television show somewhat trivializes Lincoln's assassination, and really really makes me want to smoke a Winston cigarette, but I have to say I was captivated by the elderly man - a witness to a momentous event in American history. Illustrating that even in the television age (which I am pretty sure is on it's way out now) we are not so far removed from the war.
I am going to add this vintage Civil War related footage to my list of favorites right up there with this: Union and Confederate veterans shaking hands at the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge in 1938.
George Llewellyn Christian was among the most prolific former Confederates around. It seems he had something to say about pretty much everything Civil War related. He wrote numerous articles, published in pamphlet form, and turned up in states all across the South to talk about the war in person. George L. Christian certainly got around.
Christian was a young man in 1861 - only twenty years old. He enlisted in the Confederate army and served with his fellow Virginians until he was horribly wounded at Spotsylvania. Having lost all of one foot and most of another, he managed to hobble off to Charlottesville and earn a law degree from the University of Virginia - and after the war became a prominent attorney.
But he never quite got over Confederate defeat. His writings and speeches are evidence of just how bitter he really was. In an 1894 tribute to Jubal Early, he noted, “The man whose soul is so dead that he is not proud to have been a part of [the Confederate] army, battling not for what he thought was right, but what was right, is too contemptible, in my opinion, to be by any human power raised to the level of brute.”
Four years later, Christian would remind the people of the South, that “whilst the cause for which [Confederates] fought is a ‘lost cause’ in the sense that they failed to establish a separate government within certain geographical limits, it is only lost in that sense. The principles of that cause yet live.” Adding his bitter voice to those of other aggravated former Confederates, Christian noted the significance of monument dedications and gatherings in terms of perpetuating Confederate memories. “Here, history will record a thrilling tale of outrage inflicted upon this defenseless people by the mercenary hordes of the North, permitted and encouraged by the remorseless cruelty and unquenchable ambition of some of their leaders.”
From the looks of things, Christian had a real problem with reconciliation. In the influential Ghosts of the Confederacy, Gaines M. Foster equates such bitter Rebels with Native American Ghost Dancers of the late-nineteenth century. “They clung to the past, defended old values, and dreamed of a world untouched by defeat.” Very few southerners, Foster argues, joined the ghost dance. By the 1880s, “Confederate celebration did not foster a revival of rabid sectionalism.” Detractors perpetuating sectional animosity simply by “not forgetting” during an era when most had presumably agreed to let “bygones be bygones” thus appear out of place in a nation characterized by an outpouring of reconciliationist sentiment.
Or do they? Historians such as Foster (and...David Blight - see post) have effectively misplaced Christian's form of commemoration. The majority of white southerners, they suggest, distanced themselves from efforts to revitalize the divisive aspects of Confederate memory and rejected bitter former Rebels as unreconstructed anachronisms.
Not so fast - in fact, Christian claimed to be a reconciliationist at heart, and he spoke often of his loyalty to the postwar United States - just like most former Confederates. And thus the problem. How do we deal with those who claim reconciliation and then say every thing they can to suggest otherwise? Evidence that I will present in my upcoming book, Across the Bloody Chasm: Reconcilation in the Wake of Civil War, will offer some clues. It seems that Christian was indeed a typical former Confederate reconciliaitonist...one who wanted peace and brotherly harmony between the sections so long as a few terms were met first. Namely...that northerners admitted they were wrong.
Since this was not about to happen - Christian, and many, many more like him, ran up against a bit of a stone wall (so to speak). Northern Unionists were just as stubborn when it came to their version of the war. Reconciliationists all (or most), they could never seem to agree on what the war was about. This is the legacy that we live with in the 21st century. And - it gives me something to write about...so thanks George!
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
With all the whoop-dee-do about Confederate flags these days I thought I might revisit an episode in the flag saga writ large. No, we are not dealing with Rebel flags flying above statehouses in the South, or kids wearing Confederate t-shirts to school.
This story has to do with the president of the United States returning captured Confederate battle flags to their previous owners - former Rebels who many considered traitors. Here's a snippet from my upcoming book on Civil War veterans regarding this troubling affair:
The plan, spearheaded in 1887 by President Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat elected to the White House between Lincoln’s election in 1860 and the election of Virginia-born Woodrow Wilson in 1912, suggested a reconciliatory gesture on the part of the federal government. Cleveland was already at odds with Union veterans – especially with the comrades of the GAR. Having avoided military service by purchasing a substitute – a Polish immigrant named George Brinski – Cleveland spent the war years practicing law safely in Buffalo, New York. This did not sit well with veterans who had faced death on the battlefield. Further, suspecting corruption within the veterans’ pension lobby, Cleveland vetoed a number of allegedly dubious pension bills, actions that did not win him support from the veterans of the GAR, MOLLUS or any other Union veterans’ organizations.
But nothing rankled the veterans more than Cleveland’s proposal to return Rebel flags to the South. Members of the GAR, including Commander-in-Chief Lucius Fairchild, turned vicious. Cleveland even received threats of physical violence. In June 1887 a group of Ohioan veterans resolved that the order to return Confederate flags was “a Dastard outrage and Disgrace to all Patriotic American citizens.” Although Cleveland eventually reconsidered his plans, he could not turn back the clock. Quite possibly, considering the narrow election results in 1888 and the number of voting GAR comrades, Cleveland’s actions in this regard might have cost him reelection.
Any indications that Confederate flags, considered treasonous emblems by many Union veterans, would be returned to southern states fueled bitter opposition. A few disparaged the flags’ very existence. One Union veteran even suggested destroying the treasonous banners. “I confess a regret that we did not burn them up 40 years ago,” he lamented, “They are about as valuable as confederate money.” Early in the twentieth century, when President Theodore Roosevelt and reconciliationist members of Congress once again proposed reuniting former Confederates with their captured colors, GAR men and other veterans fired away with bitter rancor. One collection of post minutes suggest discussions in unanimous agreement concerning what many considered no less than a diabolical scheme to honor treason. Reporting on an address given to Brooklyn Post, 233, Department of New York, by department commander Alan C. Baker, the post recording officer noted in March 1905 that the congressional bill supporting the return of Confederate flags “was in every way a most reprehensible thing to carry out.” For an organization where “No discussion or controversy of partisan political character, or of nature to impair harmony [was] permitted,” veterans took a decidedly partisan stance.
So, as you can see...the whole flag controversy thing has been around for quite a while. And I don't see it going anywhere soon.
Monday, April 25, 2011
Gotta love the West! Especially here in California - we're just so nice and generous and caring. Well...not really. But back in the 1880s, when some good folks were planning a home for destitute Civil War veterans, the idea was to suggest that something was different about the proposed home here in the Bear Republic. In my quest to determine what Union veterans thought about the West, I have begun to uncover a few things. Here is what one San Jose newspaper had to say about the idea of a home -
The plan, as we understand it, is a wider and even more humane one than that of those excellent “Soldiers’ Homes” in the East, where in one large building the veterans are gathered into a male colony, to receive the benefits of which they must be separated form their families. There is something very shocking in this idea, which originated with the English Poor Law Unions, of separating in their old age husbands and wives because they are guilty if the single crime of poverty. An institution will be provided for the single veterans and small cottages, each with a little tract of land, will be allotted to those veterans who are still blessed with the society of their wives whose hearts used to grow faint and their eyes dim as after some great battle they scanned the list of “killed, wounded, and missing."
So are the people of California thinking that those back East are somehow colder, more callous, less sensitive to the needs of those who saved the Union? This is actually a very intriguing question but one at this point I am unable to answer. Let's just say this. It certainly seems from other things that I have been reading that Union veterans who settled West are tending to think of themselves as westerners - and are interpreting and commemorating Union from a western perspective. At least some of them are.
In the nineteenth-century sectional reorientation that recast a nation divided between old and new...East and West, veterans who found their way to California suddenly found themselves with lots to talk about. Aren't you interested in what they might say next??
Sunday, April 24, 2011
I was reading a little about this statue yesterday so I thought I would pitch in with my two cents today.
The Emancipation Memorial in Washington D.C. - aka the Freedman's Memorial - aka the Lincoln Statue has had its share of supporters and detractors since its dedication back in 1876. Designed by Thomas Ball, and depicting Abraham Lincoln as the great emancipator as well as a shirtless shackled slave rising from is knees, the statue is indeed a spot-on target for controversy.
At the dedication, none other than Fredrick Douglass advised the crowd (which included Ulysses S. Grant) that it "showed the Negro on his knees when a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom." And if you really want to push the issue. Historian Kirk Savage has condemned it as "a monument entrenched in and perpetuating racist ideology."
Well.....I suppose that is open for debate. But one thing is for sure. Memorials like this one are sure to get a conversation going about who really freed the slaves. There are a lot of people out there who think of Lincoln as the great emancipator to be sure. But on the other hand....what about self emancipation? It is without question that when slaves had the chance, they made for the Union lines...in essence - freeing themselves. There is an enormous literature on this. For starters I would check out this series edited by Ira Berlin, Barbara Fields, and other prominent historians.
But I ask this...what about the Union army? Didn't they have something to do with it? I mean....really. Without the Union army in the field no proclamations would have amounted to anything - and there would have been no place to escape to. So we can talk about Lincoln the emancipator and self emancipation all day. Both are profoundly significant in terms of the history of freedom on the broader scale. But we must remember that there was a war gong on - and that the army played a crucial role in making emancipation a reality. This is a fact that seems sadly forgotten these days.
I think Robert Gould Shaw said it best: "So the Proclamation has come at last, or rather its forerunner. I suppose you are all very much excited about it. For my part, I can't see what practical good it can do now. Wherever our army has been there remain no slaves, and the Proclamation will not free them where we don't go."
Saturday, April 23, 2011
From time to time I run across these little gems that I feel I need to share with the world. Here's one I found while perusing the archives at Washington and Lee University's Special Collection Department. Back story: in 1980 (ancient history...) the good people of Darlington County, South Carolina gathered together to rededicate their Confederate monument - on the centennial anniversary of Darlington's Rebels' original tribute to their glorious cause.
The speaker for the day was one William Stanley Hoole - a descendant of Axalla John Hoole, a Confederate Colonel of the Darlington Riflemen who was killed at Chickamauga. Now you might figure Hoole (the speaker...not the dead Rebel) to be one of those reconstructed types. Let's see what he had to say.....
Those gallant men and women believed that it was their right to dispel from their lives the economic modernism of the neighbors to the North and thus preserve their own landed conservatism. They shuddered to think that they should ever be forced to shoulder the yoke of Yankee domination. They wanted nothing more than their own country, a country they could love and be proud of, a separate nation, a confederation, a confederacy embracing a cavalier way of life, unfettered by the austerity of Northern Puritanism.
John Brown’s attack on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry had convinced the most reluctant Rebel that there was no longer any camaraderie between himself and his Yankee counterpart. As one Southerner [E. Merton Coulter] put it, “Black Republicanism has buried brotherhood between North and South in the same grave with the Constitution."
Our beloved South Carolina, surfeited to the point of nausea by Northern insults and maledictions, as we all know, made the first move toward secession. They simply wanted to be left alone in peace. But the Republican regime in Washington, infiltrated by indecision, deception, and unprecedented machiavelism saw differently. Instead of letting the “Wayward Sister,” as they called our state, go in peace, they seized Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, dispatched addition soldiers, and ignored all appeals for amicable negotiation. These warlike acts at once rendered Fort Sumter a symbol of Yankee domination, an out-right indignity, an international insult, is you please, which could not be overlooked, even by the most ardent seekers of peace.
Yep - he sounds pretty angry, right? But I wonder....is he really "unreconstructed" or just confused? I run across people all the time who claim loyalty to the Union (as did Hoole) - yet pile this sort of inflammatory language high. Many, I find, are very much like their Confederate ancestors. Perfectly willing to embrace the post-war Union, so long as they could commemorate their war on their terms. What do you think?
Friday, April 22, 2011
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
As you must surely know by now (as I mention this often), I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for people discussing the Civil War. Youtube and Twitter are of course my favorite virtual forums - they never disappoint.
I have noticed something that, as a historian, I find really really really interesting. The word "revision" seems to carry a negative connotation. And individuals all over the place hold the so-called practitioners of "revisionist history" with the greatest contempt.
Now this comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Those who finger point and accuse don't necessarily fall into any easily defined category.
But the way I understand things, people who are screaming about revisionism are kinda missing the point. The words "revision" and "revisionist" have simply been reduced to a code for information that disgruntled would-be historians disagree with. (Bitter??? Table for one).
Here's the deal my angry f-bomb dropping friends. Revision is what historians do (and lots of others, too). If we didn't revise, there would be one book on the Civil War. We would all read it, and that would be it.
Oh sure - historians can write with a bias, and what they write can certainly be a reflection of the times in which they live. But is this by definition a bad thing or something that we simply must come to terms with and be aware of? What we learn about history and historians can tell us a lot about ourselves as interpreters of the past. If you really want to impress your friends at parties - get in to historiography. Now that's some revision we can talk about. Are there noticeable differences in books written before and after the Vietnam era (to use one sorta obvious example)? You betcha.
But all of that aside, I believe that revision is the essential ingredient to reconstructing the past. New evidence always surfaces somewhere, differing analysis produces thoughtful conversations, new insights lead us to reconsider something we may have thought we knew...but didn't.
In other words - you can get all bent out of shape if someone challenges your precious beliefs. But instead of dismissing that person as a "revisionist" in derogatory fashion, why not just have a look at what they are saying, weigh the arguments in terms of credibility, see if their evidence holds water. Do you really want to learn anything - or do you just want to hold fast to what could very well be long outdated?
I am open to critique...so fire away.
So - I've been on Youtube again. It's a guilty pleasure, really. Last night was a real kicker. I followed a few video "suggestions" to a series of posts on black Confederate soldiers. There seems to be this warped idea out there that there were thousands and thousands of blacks serving as soldiers in the Confederate army. One estimation claimed as many as 90,000 black people shouldered a musket for the glorious CSA. You have got to be freakin' kidding me. 90,000?? That is bigger than the whole Army of Northern Virginia at its grandest.
Now I am not saying that blacks were absent from the military scene. When the ANV (or any other CS army) went somewhere, they took black people with them. They were - you guessed it - slaves. They did what they were forced to do. Laundry, cooking, clearing trees, building fortifications, etc. Slaves were drafted in to Confederate service in others ways too (much to the irritation of their masters). They built fortifications around Atlanta, Richmond and Petersburg, for example. These were the toils of slaves. They were not willingly serving the Confederate cause.
The very idea of this is perverse at best. Imagine - blacks serving a country conceived on the idea of racial inequality and the protection of the "peculiar" institution. Wow. Does that mean that a slave or two may at one time have picked up a musket, maybe - but regiments or even divisions of black soldiers. You think we would have heard of them.
Seriously, I have never seen or heard of a letter written by a Union soldier describing the several regiments of black Confederates he faced in battle. I have never read a newspaper describing black Confederate divisions defending a Rebel position. I am guessing it's because they didn't exist. I mean really, don't you think Ken Burns would have at least said something about this? (Insert Ashokon Farewell theme music here..."Dear Mama - today 90,000 black Reb soldiers marched by...we fear the worst...I have dysentery....blah blah blah.")
Now the prospect of raising limited black troops had crossed a few Rebels' minds. Even Robert E. Lee thought it was a good idea. But nothing of significance ever happened in this regard. Rebels in power decided that if they armed blacks, then what they had been fighting for would have been pretty pointless. Late, late, late in the war CSA Congress finally passed legislation to raise a few black troops as sort of a last ditch effort. And there were reports of a handful of black troops drilling in Richmond early in April 1865. But this was way too little waaaay too late.
Now after the war, some United Confederate Veterans dressed up a few former slaves in Confederate gray and paraded them around, I suppose, to show that the war wasn't about slavery and that blacks were in favor of Confederate independence. Oy. So if you are trying to prove that black people supported the Confederate war effort just stop. Or better yet, show me some real evidence that these thousands and thousands of black soldiers actually existed. Put them on a map, show me the battle reports, anything. Just saying they were around doesn't make it so - evidence does.
Have a look at my friend Kevin Levin's Blog, Civil War Memory for a comprehensive look at this topic - he has spent a great deal of time and effort examining the all claims from the moderate to the bizarre. Another friend, Jaime Martinez just wrote a succinct piece on Black Confederates for the Encyclopedia Virginia that you can check out HERE. And of course, if you have any real evidence that these guys actually existed - please submit in the comment section.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Well, there has been a little buzz here at Cosmic America over my critique of Time's article on Civil War memory.
Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads wrote a very thoughtful response and included a few words on one of the best books (that I disagree with, naturally) on the subject of memory - David Blight's Race and Reunion.
I have received comments, here and on Twitter and Facebook, as well as more than a few emails. Some people agree with me, some people think I am missing my mark. Fair enough - there's always lots to argue about. But I was going though the Cosmic America archives yesterday and came across this. It is one of many examples I have of Union soldiers telling it as they saw it - but this one piece, I believe, is a fantastic representation of a very widely held belief.
This is the introductory statement in a book - really a collection of anecdotes written by former Union soldiers - called Sparks from the Campfire or Tales of Old Veterans, edited by Joseph W. Morton in 1899:
Those there are who say ‘let bygones be bygones,’ ‘let us forget all about the war;’ but we cannot endorse these sentiments. Men who talk thus are not those whose life-blood watered the gory field – not those who went promptly to the front when danger threatened, ready to sacrifice life or limb upon the alter of patriotism. We know the war is over; the strife has ceased; the victory has been won; but the story of the great conflict will never diminish in interest, and the tales of veterans will always command respect and attention. Whatever is worth talking about is worth writing; and whatever, is worth writing is worth publishing
These words are about as clear as any that I have run across in terms of how Union veterans remembered the war. So when we begin to think that old soldiers simply put the war behind them and went on about their business, we should reconsider....and have a look at what they actually said.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
As you all know, my current project involves Union Civil War veterans who migrated west - to places like California and Oregon. So naturally, I turned to the William S. Rosecrans collection at UCLA. Rosecrans, former commander of the Army of the Cumberland, moved to Los Angeles after the war and dipped his beak into all kinds of things including the promotion of railroads and heavy investment in land ventures.
I came across an interesting correspondence in that collection that I thought I would share here. It turns out, General Rosecrans was not in sympathy with the government’s policy towards the southern states in the immediate postwar years. The radical measures enacted for the reconstruction of the South seemed, to him, harsh and vindictive. In August, 1868, he wrote General Robert E. Lee requesting him to confer with leading citizens of the southern states and prepare a statement that would reflect the wishes and sentiments of his people with regard to the future of the South. General Lee’s reply is known as the White Sulphur Springs Letter.
Here is a segment of the letter dated August 26, 1868 - concerning former slaves:
It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North & West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws which would place the political powers of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep seated conviction that at present, the negroes have nether the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power. They would inevitably become the victims of demagogues, who for selfish purposes, would mislead them to the serious injury of the public. The great want of the South is peace. The people earnestly desire tranquility & a restoration of the Union. They deprecate disorder and excitement is the most serious obstacle to their prosperity.
This letter is indicative of Lee's public position on freedmen and the restoration of the Union. Privately he spent his days in bitter reflection. But when he conferred with former enemies on public statements, he often took up this conciliatory tone of moderation.
The collection is rich with others' response to the letter - published throughout the South. Nathan Bedford Forrest, P. G. T. Beauregard, and John Brown Gordon number among the many former Rebels who wrote Rosecrans in support of both the letter and Rosecrans's efforts to to initiate correspondence with Lee on the subject. Even Lee himself wrote a brief note of thanks (I'm holding Lee's letter in the picture on the left...cool, yes?).
So as I wade deeper in to the historical record - expect more little tidbits like this one. I am sure there are zillions right around the corner.
Yesterday afternoon, I sat in the veterinarian's office for nearly two hours. No big deal...just check ups for a couple of my more rambunctious felines. The good news was twofold. One - the cats checked out fine. Two, I had plenty of time to read the April 18 edition of Time Magazine. I was particularly taken by David Von Drehle's article "150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War."
The answer, Drehle suggests, is because Americans cannot agree on what the war was about...presumably a fact that would "make Lincoln weep."
Drehle issues stern judgment on the contentions spanning the Internet. And rightfully so - "mainstream" historians - as he puts it - have determined beyond any reasonable doubt that the cause of the war was slavery. In Lincoln's words, the nation during the secession winter of 1860-61 was divided by this single issue: "One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute." Since, there have been plenty who insist that slavery was not the cause of the war - and in fact, merely an incident.
But the author of this article, like many of the self-congratulatory historians of the late twentieth century, obscures the reality of the decades immediately following the Civil War. "For most of the first century after the war, Drehle argues, "historians, novelists and filmmakers worked like hypnotists to soothe the posttraumatic memories of survivors and their descendants. Forgetting was the price of reconciliation, and Americans — those whose families were never bought or sold, anyway — were happy to pay it." Yes, Drehle can join the ranks of those who can feel very good about feeling very bad about the racism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
In Drehle's estimation, even Union veterans were eager to get on with things and smooth over war issues like slavery - in essence erase race from the equation in the name of national reconciliation. Clearly, Drehle has never read a Union veteran's personal memoir, nor has he looked at a Union regimental history, or perused the text of a Union monument dedication. If he had, he would have seen that the cause of the war - slavery, and the noble consequence of the war - emancipation, was a central theme for those who had fought to save the Union. For some - the twin themes of Union and emancipation ran side by side with seemingly equal significance.
In an era of moralizing self righteousness, Union veterans were crystal clear on what the war had been about - and worked tirelessly to ensure that they were remembered for their efforts. Reconciliation from a Union perspective - thus, is not about forgetting as Drehle figures, but about remembering the war on northern terms.
Drehle inexorably marches into his own trap - by seeking to rescue the cause of the war from obscurity (at least among the masses) he obscures the persistent fight to commemorate freedom. "The process of forgetting, and obscuring," he writes, "was long and layered. Some of it was benign, but not all...writers and historians kindled comforting stories of noble cavaliers, brilliant generals and happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause. In the prosperous North, where cities and factories began filling with freed slaves and their descendants, large audiences were happy to embrace this idea of a time when racial issues were both simple and distant."
This painfully simplistic analysis of Civil War memory rotating solely along a racial axis does Time's readers a disservice. Why are we still fighting the Civil War? Because the nation has never moved beyond the sectionalism of the 19th century. Sure - some have glossed a few things over here and there. But there remains a deep-seated sectional animosity that runs through most nationalistic currents evolved since 1865. "Union," while perhaps not as tenuous as it once was, is nevertheless profoundly undefined. That is what would make Lincoln weep.
Monday, April 18, 2011
The other day I had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth Chew, the curator of collections at Monticello. Naturally, I wanted to know what went on at Mr. Jefferson's during the Civil War. And she happily obliged.
But first, a little back story. Thomas Jefferson died greatly in debt. It seems he had a penchant for buying expensive wines and books and a lot of other stuff. And so, his family had to sell the estate - slaves, land, and house. The first buyer was a doctor named James Turner Barclay who purchased the house in 1831. His plan: raise silkworms. This did not work out so well and in 1834 he sold the place to a naval commodore named Uriah Levy.
Now here's where the story really starts to get interesting. Levy was Jewish and had experienced a great deal of antisemitism while in the Navy - to the point of being court-martialed several times. Admiring Jefferson's views on the freedom of religion, he thought Monticello would be the perfect place to settle down. Well, Levy died in 1860 and left the house to the federal government to be used as a home for orphans of naval officers.
Well, the Confederate government seized all federal property upon secession. The Rebs then proceeded to sell the estate to one Benjamin Ficklin - a Confederate intelligence officer and purchasing agent in Europe who had been instrumental in creating the Pony Express and Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska. Ficklin lost the place during the Reconstruction period and it was eventually returned to the Levy family.
Exciting right? I did some more poking around and found out that Monticello had fallen into a state of disrepair during the Civil War period - at one point the house is said to have been used as a Confederate hospital (like every other house in the neighborhood it seems). There are even rumors of Confederate soldiers carrying off vast quantities of Jefferson's possessions. There is no real evidence to support this - but it is a good story anyway.
Today the house and much of the surrounding grounds (gardens, slave quarters, etc) have been restored to their former glory, and I recommend a visit to anyone who happens to find themselves in the Charlottesville area.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Thanks to my friend Scott for alerting me to this photograph. I am not really sure quite what to say, except that I found myself compelled to share it with my readers.
So let's see what we have here. Star Wars Stormtroopers and other Imperial soldiers, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Some Ghostbusters, and Captain Jack Sparrow. Did I miss anyone..? Oh yes, what appears to be a small company of Union Civil War soldiers.
All I know is that this must have been one hell of a convention. If anybody out there knows what this is, please tell me - because I am definitely going next year.
In the meantime - I welcome all comments, critiques, explanations, good jokes, whatever.
Friday, April 15, 2011
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
I have finally sat down to watch The American Experience: Robert E. Lee. Being the avid fan of well-done documentaries, I must say that I was not disappointed - at least not for the most part. We are treated to a mighty fine cast of historians providing the analytical commentary including Peter S. Carmichael, Joseph Glathaar, Gary W. Gallagher, Emory M. Thomas and a number of other first-rate scholars. PBS provides the narration and additional analysis - and as it turns out, a link to a streaming version! So watch and enjoy right here on Cosmic America! Oh, and by the way - you might want to watch the video (if you haven't already) before you continue reading. I wouldn't want to blow the ending.
The emphasis of Robert E. Lee is a move away from the deity in bronze or marble man image that the mighty general has ascended to since his death in 1870. The program paints the Virginia aristocrat as an altogether human figure. A human with an almost obsessive devotion to duty above all else, even family. The film walks us through the life of Lee as a young cadet at West Point, as Winfield Scott's trusted staffer in the War With Mexico, through a religious conversion experience, and as an ardent Confederate nationalist. He is irritable during the 1862-63 winter, at one point humiliating a subordinate in front of others. He experiences a bout of melancholy when he learns of family tragedy, and he suffers from an incapacitating heart condition. In other words - a man with emotions, faults, flaws, idiosyncrasies, and illness...just what we might expect of any other man.
Except that this is Robert E. Lee - and the film is very conscious of letting us know that many - both in the North and South - saw Lee as infallible...a virtuous, honorable soldier in a noble cause.
But Lee is a man who failed. He failed on an epic scale and saw everything that he stood for crumble. No one knew this better than Lee himself. So ultimately, Lee is a tragic figure. A man who on one hand was as virtuous as one can be, but who on the other saw no real problem with slavery and led an army to preserve it. In 1865, his country is defeated, his fortune is gone, his beloved Virginia is in ruins, and his family is only a shadow of what it once was. He spends the few remaining of his life in bitter private reflection.
And thus my critique of Robert E. Lee. The general narration of the film has a somewhat apologetic, even sorrowful tone - it seems to empathize with a man who has lost everything because of a devotion to duty. Do we then walk away from this film feeling as though Lee deserved better than what he got? Even Lee himself once stated that he wished he had not chosen the life of a soldier. Should we wish the same?
Lee is among the most compelling figures in American history. His brilliance and military acumen deserve accolades. But many have a difficult time reconciling this with the fact that a man of such great virtues committed treason against the nation he swore to protect - as does Robert E. Lee.
The film seems to poke a little at this nagging problem. The opening segments - "Lee" reading his pledge of allegiance to the United States as a young army officer bookended by a closing segment of a much older "Lee" reading his oath of loyalty to those same United States suggest that we should think more about his commitment to the national state.
In the end this is the real tragedy - that Lee, with all the promise of a brilliant career, cast his lot with what U. S. Grant would call "the worst cause for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse." One could argue that he stood up to be counted in utter disregard of his devotion to duty - and thus turned his back on his nation and indeed - himself. In this the film only makes slight inroads - ones that perhaps are left for a future documentary.
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
I spend a great deal of time talking about reconciliation and the problematic treatment of the era by recent scholarship. In some ways – many see the common bonds between former enemies as a given and then work backwards from there to try and figure out how that could have possibly happened - more often than not, they wind up obscuring the tense sectionalism that remained in place after the war.
The scholarship concerning the forgiving nature of former enemies follows logically from an argument suggesting Civil War soldiers embraced a mutual respect for their enemies during the war - despite an unparalleled profusion of blood. In 1943, Bell Irvin Wiley’s The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy departed significantly from historiographical trends emphasizing high command, such as Douglas Southall Freeman’s massive four-volume treatment of Robert E. Lee, R.E. Lee: A Biography, by accenting the sentiments of the Confederate private soldier. Wiley identifies a variety of factors that pushed the southern soldier to kill his former countryman. Further, he detects a hatred “deep-seated [that] had been accumulating from the time of [the soldiers’] earliest recollections,” constituting Confederates’ perceptions of a “godless and grasping society.” Testimony from the opening pages of one chapter suggests that Confederate soldiers anticipated carrying hatred beyond the war. One twenty-three-year-old remarked, “May God avenge us of our infernal enemies – and if I ever forgive them it is more than I expect.” Another wrote his wife, “Teach my children to hate them with that bitter hatred that will never permit them to meet under any circumstances without seeking to destroy each other. I know the breach is now wide & deep between us & the Yankees let it widen & deepen until all Yankees or no Yankees are to live in the South.”
Although testimony fueled by anger stands out in Life of Johnny Reb, Wiley’s emphasis quickly shifts to one of the cornerstones of the brothers' war argument. His conclusions lend credence to the postwar respect accorded all Civil War soldiers embedded in the triumphal celebrations of Union. The tendency of enemies to fraternize between battles characterizes his overall view. “The war of the sixties has been called the ‘polite war,’” states Wiley, “and in a sense, the designation is apt. Men of the opposing armies when not actually engaged in a shooting fray were wont to observe niceties that in twentieth-century warfare would be regarded as absurd.” The pervasiveness of Wiley’s characterization of fraternity among soldiers has far surpassed any ideas regarding sectional animosity.
Bruce Catton, among the most popular Civil War historians of the twentieth century, adds his observations regarding fraternal feelings across the killing fields. “Men would shoot and kill when the time came. Yet there was a familiarity and an understanding, at times something that verged almost on liking.” Although Catton discusses animosity engendered by regional loyalties, elements of ill feeling are overshadowed by a brotherly respect throughout his works. In illustrating this idea, Catton relies primarily on stories depicting Confederate and Union soldiers meeting between lines during informal truces. One example describes how a meeting between and Rebel and a Yankee led to talk of the 1864 election. Before long, the Rebel referred to Lincoln as a “damned abolitionist, this immediately brought on a fistfight, and officers had to come out to break it up. Still, men who felt enough at home with each other to argue about politics and fight with their fists over it were hardly, at bottom, sworn enemies estranged by hatred.”
All of this is compelling work - and both Wiley and Catton deserve the respect accorded them then and now. But alas their conclusions are shortsighted - written in a haze of mid-century triumphalism that looked past section in a world where the United States was emerging within the context of a worldwide conflagration. Section was hardly their concern or their focus - and thus was obscured.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
You all remember Ken Burns, right? Of course you do - the revolutionary documentary film maker with a bad haircut who brought the Civil War into the living rooms of millions of television viewers on five consecutive nights back in September 1990. Since, the film has undoubtedly been seen by untold gazillions across the world.
Burns's film has inspired a great deal of dialogue on the war - hell...books have been written in response. Many agree with what he says - and many disagree...not surprisingly, the arguments surrounding this film often fall along sectional lines.
But where ever you stand - the fact that people are talking still suggests to me that Burns must have done something right.
Well, here are Burns's comments at the commencement of the 150 Civil War Sesquicentennial. Enjoy - and feel free to add your own commentary. I think we are going to be in for some fun over the next four years.
PS - if you have never seen The Civil War....come on out from under the rock and watch it.
Scholars have argued that veterans organized and conceived of Civil War commemorations as distinct breaks with the contentious past – as moments at sites of historical memory that established a clear demarcation between what was old and what was new. Simultaneously, they sanctioned cherished memories as a heritage that exalted the present and functioned as a unifying bond between all American soldiers, Yankee and Rebel alike. Forward looking Confederate veterans, historians have argued, paid tribute to their heroes and their cause “that they believed to be just,” erected countless monuments, and looked ahead – selectively recalling the virtues of their past deeds to validate the present while conveniently marginalizing the profound issues surrounding the disruption of war. In so doing, former Confederates contributed to a great national healing, for better or worse, and by century’s end, had reinvented themselves as loyal, patriotic Americans. However, for many ex-Rebels, the past, articulated through commemorations, served as a compelling reminder of disunion in stark contrast against an era imagined as one of robust national reconciliation.
A widely accepted thesis has developed suggesting that veterans constructed a “whitewashed” version of Civil War memory involving little that had been at issue during the war. In Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, for example, historian David W. Blight emphasizes the connection between deep-seated racism and national reconciliation, suggesting “white supremacists and reconciliationists locked arms” and by the “turn of the century delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” This interpretation, while compelling, obscures the tense, often vituperative negotiation processes of formerly warring sections suddenly thrust back together, each staking a claim to a nationalist spirit. To be sure, former Confederates elevated their heroes to the heights of the American pantheon as personifications of national virtue and celebrated their cause as reflective of the original intent of the founding generation while distancing themselves from the fight to preserve slavery. Yet they did so under the watchful eye of antagonists north of the Potomac, many of whom in turn countered what they considered traitorous perversions of the truth. While most former Rebels encouraged national unity and asserted that “history” would ultimately affirm their glorious cause, many nevertheless sided with their bitter comrades and blamed northerners, often with vicious acrimony, for distorting the Confederate vision of state sovereignty and racial hierarchy – the cornerstones of the Confederate nation transposed in the post-war world. The confrontations between former enemies actively working in the reconciliation era to shape their own versions of nationalism reveal periods of heightened anxiety in the southern states. These episodes suggest an ever-widening gap between former enemies, when those considered reconciled seemed to be working against the very unity they proclaimed.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Well....if you ever needed a reason not to send your children to public school in Virginia I think I may be able to help.
A friend sent me an article from the Washington Post that I thought was worth discussing here.
To briefly summarize - it seems that Jessica Boyle, a fourth-grade teacher at Sewells Point Elementary School in Norfolk, Virginia, thought it would be instructive in this climate of sesquicentennial commemoration to divide her fourth graders into groups of black and mixed race children on one side and white children on the other. From there, the white kids bid on the black kids - and there you have it: a pint-sized mock slave auction.
Hmmmmmmm..........recreated slave auctions. One in Missouri that I covered HERE actually taught a valuable lesson about the horrors of the institution. But here is the nugget - the participants were experienced in the art of living history, instrumental in the orchestration of the event, and the reenactment was supported by all involved.
Not that I have any experience at all in the parenting department, but I think it is safe to say that putting young children - without their parents knowledge, by the way - into a potentially explosive situation was...shall we say, careless and insensitive.
We all know how sticky things can get in terms of race in the Old Dominion. And dividing a class along racial lines letting the white kids buy their black classmates is about as asinine as you can get. In other words....you have got to be freakin' shitting me on this one. Perhaps Virginia's (home of Confederate History Month) standards are low when it comes to hiring teachers for the public education system. Who knows. But I'll tell you what friends, if you are one of these teachers and are reading this - try something on for size....the next time you are planning a lesson on slavery, think it through a little. Sheesh.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Well - it has finally arrived: my very own review copy of Gary W. Gallagher's new book, The Union War. Yes indeed - it came in the mail yesterday...and to my surprise - I made it in to the acknowledgments! How freakin' great is that? (Answer: pretty great)
So am all ready to have at this one. If you remember, a while back I did a video interview with Gary concerning this very work. You can check it out HERE.
I promised a review and Harvard University Press took notice and graciously supplied the book - so stay tuned. Give me a few days to do a close read and I will fill you in. I have a sneaking suspicion that The Union War will set the record straight on how the loyal people of the United States understood the Civil War.
Yesterday was an all around great day. Yes it certainly was - I closed the doors on an old project of sorts, got to work in earnest on outlining my principal queries for the next academic venture, and hung out with Bruce Springsteen. Yes that's right - and do you know what we talked about? The Rockabilly scene in LA from the late 80s and early 90s: the Palomino Club, Jack's Sugar Shack, and the Frolic Room on Hollywood Blvd. Cool.
So in honor of that meeting, I will say a few words about how the great state of New Jersey commemorated the Civil War. Now, Jersey veterans were right in line with most other former Civil War soldiers. Which means - they commemorated the war on northern terms - they talked about the salient issues of the war era...treason, slavery, emancipation - you get the drift (at least you do if you have ever really looked at the evidence - or if you read this blog).
For real! Even the good folks who elected George "no friend to the black man" McClellan governor, could get on board with the commemoration of freedom. Have a look at these speech excerpts from monument dedication ceremonies on the Gettysburg battlefield. A lot of these guys thought emancipation was just as important as preserving the Union, which makes it pretty freakin' important.
In terms of relative commemorative importance, many honored Union and emancipation equally. In 1887, veterans of the 13th New Jersey Volunteers showed considerable dedication to both:
This monument shall stand, among the many which are to be erected here, as a silent sentinel to indicate to future generations where soldiers of bravery and renown gave up their lives in defense of their country; to show where are the graves of the true patriots who dared to die for the hopes of man and the redemption of a race from slavery.
Similarly illustrating the impulse to emphasize Union and the eradication of slavery together, an 1888 monument dedicated on the Gettysburg battlefield to the New Jersey 8th Infantry celebrated the men who defended both “great principles” of the Union cause:
The result of the battle decided that the Republic would be saved. That this was to be a land of freemen. That the shackles of the slaves should be sold for iron. That the auction block should be burned. That all free men should breathe the fresh air of heaven direct, and not by inhalation from a master.
So there is a lot to be said about Jersey, some good...some bad - but the vets from the Garden State...at least some of them, kept the spirit of the emancipation cause alive and well - and I don't care what anybody else says.
PS - Nebraska...favorite Springsteen album.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
For decades, we thought we knew what the Rebel yell sounded like. We figured it was somewhere between a blood-curdling scream and an extended YEEEEEEEEEHHHHHAAAAAAAA in The Dukes of Hazzard fashion.
But reports from Union soldiers who heard it in battle don't exactly match up to the popular understanding of the infamous war cry. Federal soldier Ambrose Bierce said of the yell..."It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard -- even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food and without hope." And a New York Times war correspondent remarked “..the Southern soldiers cannot cheer, and what passes muster for that jubilant sound is a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it.” Shelby Foote - who seems to be the master of all things Civil War, stated in Ken Burns's The Civil War, that is was most likely some sort of "a foxhunt yip mixed up with sort of a banshee squall."
Has the sound been lost to history? Well, thanks to the Museum of the Confederacy, maybe not. Have a quick look at these two short videos and see how the MOC pieced together what sounds haunting and just plain scary - just like the Union soldiers described.
The yips, barks and yelps generated in the studio as Waite Rawls, president of the MOC describe and the yell reproduced by Henry Kidd and the other Confederate reenactors may very well be the closest thing we have to the real deal. Sometimes I imagine myself hearing this from a thousand or more voices. Yes - I am a dork.
Friday, April 8, 2011
Since I’ll soon be looking at how Union veterans who migrated to the western United States commemorated the war from a new sectional perspective along an East-West orientation, rather than a North-South. I thought I would revisit some of the literature on the movement away from localism to nationalism in the broader commemorative ethos.
Analyses of a shift to an era defined by a new sense of national unity frames scholarship concerning the broader period of intensified national commemoration. Two examples of works outlining this cultural shift away from celebratory traditions steeped in localism are Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture and John Bodnar’s Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. While Kammen admits that many Civil War veterans for a time remained “unreconciled” due in large part to “regional chauvinism” and “spasmodic bursts of Northern aggressiveness,” he suggests that, in time, “selective memory helped eventually to facilitate reconciliation.” Bodnar frames his work in part around late-nineteenth century divisions between a growing class of entrepreneurs and ordinary people that trumped the sectional divisions embedded in disunion. Ultimately, argues Bodnar, this contest would reconfigure national traditions away from localism and ensure the “political and cultural power of the nation-state.” Further, illuminating the selective nature of memory, many scholars have amplified how people in the present shape the vestiges of the past through today’s predilections. David Lowenthal, for example, in The Past is a Foreign Country, argues that Civil War remembrances illustrate how “past discord [was] simplified or played down, making times of violent strife seem remarkably benign and orderly.”
Ideas regarding individuals’ selectivity in crafting commemorative traditions, especially in public settings, remain extremely influential. At the Southern Historical Association conference held in Richmond, Virginia, between October 31 and November 3, 2007, papers delivered by Karen L. Cox, Alisa Harrison, and Joan Marie Johnson all suggested a historical “redevelopment” at sites of historical memory along reconciliatory lines saving southern tourism from embarrassing tributes to anything recalling the contentions of war. After a brief question and answer exchange, members of the panel agreed that sectional divergence was negligible. Rather, suggested one presenter, significant resonant sectional antipathy is merely a creation of scholars who mistakenly deem post-war sectionalism important.
These are my starting points – and the literature from where I sit is problematic – to say the least. Section was profoundly important to veterans' nationalistic views in the East. My principal inquiry: how to they transpose their views in an entirely new regional setting? I think I am going to really enjoy this new project.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
I am often embarrassed to admit that there are a number of Civil War films that I still have yet to see. Sometimes, I am embarrassed to admit that I have seen one (for example: Gods and Generals). But I am happy to report that I have now added John Ford's Epic The Horse Soldiers (1959) to the arsenal. Not because I thought it was a particularly good film, but because it will give me something to talk about when I want to impress my friends at parties.
For those of you who have not seen this film - There are a couple of things going on. First - the tense love-hate relationship between Colonel John Marlowe (John Wayne) and his prisoner, Miss Hannah Hunter of Greenbriar (Constance Towers). Second, there is the even more tense, pretty much all hate relationship between Marlowe and Major Henry Kendall (William Holden), a Union army doctor.
All of this is set in the Civil War Confederacy, behind enemy lines, so to speak - where the Union soldiers wreak havoc on the Rebel's ability to fight. Tearing up railroads, burning cotton and salt mills...you know, the stuff the Union army was great at doing.
Infused in to the war backdrop is an overtly patriotic bent. Both sides seem intently wedded to their cause. And they express this both verbally and through music - as the men of both armies march in to action singing national and otherwise patriotic songs.
But another theme runs alongside - weaving a reconciliatory thread into the story. While both sides clearly want victory - neither seems particularly hostile (emotionally) toward their enemies - well, at least the men act this way. I'll talk about the women some other day. Of course they fight gallantly - it is their duty to do so. But the film contains all the essential ingredients for a "we are all just soldiers after all" wrap up.
Take the encounter between Kendall and one of his old army buddies who had gone with the Rebs. They have a pleasant exchange, naturally, and go their separate ways to their respective causes. This type of scene in a Civil War film is about as obligatory as the one featuring an amputation. Every Civil War picture has it, you know. But the last scene in the film is really my favorite. It leaves you just plain feeling good about things - when a Rebel officer offers his regimental surgeon to look after Union wounded.
See - we can all just get along...right after we kill each other in great profusion.
There is so much more to talk about....slaves, loyal slaves, Confederate women, the transposition of the Battle of New Market (VMI Cadets...) into the Western Theater, Bill Holden's tight pants, John Wayne's acting chops....the list goes on - so I will save some stuff for a later date.
For now, I want to suggest this. Ford released The Horse Soldiers just two years before the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965). This was a commemoration that highlighted the tragedy of the brother against brother war and the spirit of reconciliation. The film is most certainly a reflection of the times on one hand - but on the other....the centennial commemorative period was (officially) devoid of problematic issues. The films highlights a few. Slavery makes more than one appearance in the film in very interesting ways....stay tuned - I will have lots to say about that later.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
Well, I am once again happy to sing the praises of Twitter. This wonderful platform has allowed the reach of Cosmic America to extend all over the world - and people are talking. They want to know about the US Civil War...and as it turns out, the war's legacy too.
From the small island of Guernsey, situated smack in the middle of the English Channel, Matt (a computer graphics artist) was wondering about the problematic nature of Confederate imagery in a modern age. Is this simply a harmless nod to heritage, or does Confederate symbolism evoke America's troubling racist past?
Addressing this topic always stirs controversy - which is good I suppose. It gives me something to argue about...and I like to argue.
The Confederate Battle Flag (aka, the St. Andrews Cross) and other Confederate symbols can be used for many reasons, not all of them racist. Some folks like to fly it as a way to say "up yours" to the man. It is a symbol of rebellion, which means if you are trying to rebel against something - your school, your government, your parents, whatever...this could be for you.
It can even be used in a sort of "tongue and cheek" fashion. You know...good natured fun combined with regional pride just letting Yankees know that the good ole boys and girls down South have figured out how to let the colors fly - on bumper stickers t-shirts, and bikinis.
Others belong to the "heritage not hate" crowd. These folks insist that their ancestors who fought under this banner were fighting for their rights and protection of their homeland - an American virtue that should be applauded. They despise the Confederacy being compared to the Third Reich, and rightfully so. Confederates were not Nazis.
But here is the problem. It is hard to separate the Rebel flag from other groups. A-holes like the KKK and Nazi skinheads who drag it out whenever they want to spew hatred and racism aren't doing the heritage not hate group any favors.
But there is another problem - one that is little more complex than the simple expression of base racism. The Confederate soldiers, like it or not, were fighting to establish a democratic republic conceived on the notion of racial superiority. The Confederate cause was founded to perpetuate the institution of slavery. Period. This whole "state rights as the cause of the war thing" was really a post war creation voiced by those who were trying to distance their cause from slavery.
Now, I know that there are lots of people out there who will disagree with me, but I have discussed this at length on this blog and I believe the evidence speaks for itself. so I will not go in to that right this second.
Confederate imagery is profoundly offensive to a great number of people, despite the context in which it is used. And thus I say to those of you who insist that it is a harmless symbol denoting regional pride - proceed with caution.
I highly recommend a book by John Coski called The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem. He examines the multiple uses of this flag from the Lost Cause period through massive resistance in the 1950s to modern state flag controversies. If you have any further inquiries, this book should set you straight.
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
Reconciliation is a topic that has been very close to my heart for the last decade. Just to open things up, I want to say a few words about the intersection between national reconciliation and the veterans' efforts to commemorate the war.
Commemorative themes have intrigued historians for decades. Their conclusions can best be described by what I have called the reconciliation premise. The premise, in a nutshell, goes something like this: The overwhelming majority of Civil War veterans moved on from the war and let bygones be bygones. The commemorated the war essentially free from controversy and instead, celebrated the mutual valor of all participants. Civil War commemorations were about remembering bravery and fortitude and forgetting divisive issues such as treason and slavery.
Historian David Blight has proposed that reunion rested on the solid ground of shared racism. In short, being able to write the vexing issues of slavery and emancipation out of Civil War memory allowed the veterans to quickly forgive one another and commemorate the war on "southern terms."
Hmmmmm. Well, I can't deny that Civil War veterans, by our standards, shared the racist assumptions of most people in the 19th century. But is this what reconciliation boiled down to? While Blight and his legion of followers make a compelling argument, I believe that they obscure what was really going on.
Reading through the historical records, one can quickly see that veterans left behind a wide range of opinions on the nation, the war, and their former enemies. The proponents of the reconciliation premise would argue that any individual stirring up a sectional fuss was either an Unreconstructed Rebel or a Bloody Shirt Yank - and definitely an anachronism during the reconciliation era.
But here's the problem. Some of the most vehement, the most vocal, and yes...the most sectional, claimed to be reconciliationists at heart. Reconcilationists talked at length about treason, tyranny, slavery, and oppression. And as it turns out, their commemorative efforts were loaded with highly controversial expressions after all.
Maybe then, reconciliation was something altogether different from what historians have led us to believe. I won't give it all away here - you'll just have to stay tuned. But for now, just think of the reconciliationist commemorative ethos as a heated competition.
Most veterans saw reconciliation as a fact. Nothing less. The Union cause had been about reconciling from the very beginning - preserving the Union explicitly demanded it. Former Confederates had little choice in the matter. But the terms of this reconciliation - and how the reunited nation and the world would remember the war - were highly contested. In some ways, this winner of this battle has not yet been determined.
While many historians insist that reconciliaiton was really about forgetting, I disagree. Reconciliation was about remembering - preserving the memories that led them to war in the first place.
For a couple of books that support the reconciliation premise (books that I argue against), see:
Race and Reunion by David Blight
Ghosts of the Confederacy by Gaines Foster
Monday, April 4, 2011
During the war, Washington City was the most heavily fortified city in the United States or the Confederacy. Indeed it was. What's more, according to the Civil War Trust website, the city was more than likely the most fortified in the world.
Surrounding the capital, there were 68 enclosed forts with 807 mounted cannon, 93 mortars and over 20 miles of rifle trenches. There were military roads, telegraph lines, storehouses, and all kinds of camps - all of which ringed the city.
But did the Rebs ever really consider taking Washington? Not likely. Sure there were a few shot at the city - such as Jubal Early's famous raid in July 1864 - but that was merely a threat, meant to relieve the pressure on Lee's army in Virginia. Other Confederates considered trying to get between Washington and the Army of the Potomac - Longstreet's famous plea to Lee during the Gettysburg campaign was exactly that sort of plan. But nothing came of it.
Any threats on Washington were really only that - threats. Meant more to make the people of the North nervous or to draw Union troops away from the principal Rebel Army operating in the East.
In wartime, taking your opponent's capital seems like a good idea. Remember the Union's early war cry...On to Richmond!!!! But there was no equivalent - On to Washington! resonating in the South. They didn't need to capture the United States capital - the Rebs only needed to wear the northern fighting spirit down to a nub - which they almost did....almost.
The truth is, the Union army didn't really need to go after Richmond, either. U.S. Grant surely knew this. He saw the Army of Northern Virginia as the life blood of the Confederacy. Destroy the army, he thought, the rest will fall in to place. Richmond was evacuated in the last days of the war when Grant began the final chase to Appomattox - it was not taken by force. What do you know...he was right.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
Greetings Cosmic Americans!
Do Americans lack a historical consciousness? Well, I am starting to think so anyway - at least some of them do. Lately, I have been going full throttle with reading, writing, and discussing American history. Why not right? I went to college for a million years, why not do what I was trained to do?
At any rate, I am especially interested in engaging the public - to find out what they know...what they want to know...what they think about US history.
Twitter has been absolutely wonderful for this. Real time conversations with real people! Imagine that!! Who knew just a few short years ago that this would be how we interact?
But here's what I have discovered - people say the darndest things. Oh sure I have had some great conversations with some very knowledgeable folks. But I have also run across a sort of alarming theme. Many Americans have no sense of their own history.
Case in point: I recently stumbled upon an Obama critic who claimed that the president was the "most divisive POTUS in American history."
REALLY??? Let's see, I can think of at least one time in our history when things got just a tad stickier. You know...when Abraham Lincoln was elected, eleven states seceded from the Union, war broke out, and 620,000 people died. I would say that the political climate of the mid-nineteenth century was just a hair more fractious than things today. But I tell you what - if more people knew about the issues that unfolded during the Civil War era, they would certainly better understand the divisions of today - whether they be racial, sectional, political, whatever.
The Civil War Trust suggests that the war is the "central event in America's historical consciousness." Now, I love the CWT but I think they have missed the mark - at least for those Americans whose historical consciousness extends only as far back as their own lifetime.
Well anyway - I called the Twitter guy out and he just got all angry and defensive. Whatever - choose your battles, right?
So - that's my observation for this morning...Off I go to engage the public. The good news? I am finding more and more forums that discuss history from an informed position. Maybe all is not lost. Huzzah!
PS - if you happen to read this and think I am full of crap - let me know! I welcome all comments and criticism. I know....tell me on Twitter
I re-read one of my favorite books this week: William Blair's Virginia's Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861-1865. Let me tell you why I really really love this book.
There is a school of thought in Civil War scholarship that suggests the Confederates did themselves in...that dissension at home and in the ranks meant that Confederate soldiers as well as the the white southern populace were never that on board with Confederate nationalism. The second things got a little rough for the southern cause people abandoned it wholesale.
Naturally , I think this is a load of crap. Rebels stuck it out as long as they possibly could - both on and behind the lines. They were - for the most part - completely in tune with the notion of Confederate independence...despite the hardships that they had to endure.
William Blair drives this point home. His book - a wonderful piece of scholarship that I would recommend to anyone - suggests that Confederates - actually in this case, Virginians - did not lose the war because of failed nationalism or internal conflicts.
Neither of these things work as a simple explanation for Confederate defeat – dissent existed and functioned as a catalyst for change in the Confederacy. And here's the real zinger - Confederates still supported the cause even though they often lost faith in the government. Their “sense of purpose” remained strong until finally in the winter 0f 64-65 the Union army took its toll.
The point - it was wartime. Yes people were pissed because of shortages, conscription, and all of the other things that can just make a wartime society mad - but did they want to abandon the Confederate experiment, or did they just want a fair shake? That, I suppose is the key. You can still support your cause even if you think it is being run poorly.
Virginia's Private War focuses on three counties: Albemarle (Charlottesville), Augusta (Staunton) and Campbell (Lynchburg). These counties contained a range of plantation (slave) and grain farming - representing a wide spectrum of Virginian Confederates. Plus, C’ville was an intellectual center, which means they were doing a lot of thinking about important issues in the vicinity of the University of Virginia (OK, Bill….lets not get carried away).
In the end, Blair credits the Union Army with victory...something that has been curiously overlooked by scholars seeking the ways the Confederates defeated themselves. As it turns out...the Rebs were defeated on the battlefield. Imagine that. Remember, even the storied Confederate George Pickett once said of defeat..."I think the Union Army had something to do with it."