Friday, August 31, 2012

A Little Help From His Friends

At the end of the war, President Andrew Johnson offered amnesty to the overwhelming majority of Confederate soldiers. The sweeping offer did not, however, apply to all. Johnson's Amnesty Proclamation excepted high ranking civil and military officials, as well as those in possession of large estates (exceeding a value of $20,000). These individuals had to apply for a pardon - and had to do so personally to the president.

As did James Longstreet. But it really helps when the commander of the Union armies writes you a letter of reference. Ulysses S. Grant and James Longstreet were pals in the old army, and he clearly admired him. And what do you know...Old Pete was, shall we say, Republican friendly. He even supported Grant for president in 1868. Now how many former Confederates do you think did that? (hint: not many).

Here is what Sam Grant had to say about his old friend:



Knowing that General Longstreet late of the army which was in rebellion against the authority of the United States, is in the city, and presuming that he intends asking executive clemency before leaving, I beg to say a word in his favor.

General Longstreet comes under the third, fifth, and eighth exceptions made in your proclamation of the 29th of May, 1865. I believe I can safely say that there is nowhere among the exceptions a more honorable class of men than those embraced in the fifth and eighth of these, nor a class that will more faithfully observe any obligation which they may take upon themselves.

General Longstreet, in my opinion, stands high among this class. I have known him well for more than twenty-six years, first as a cadet at West Point and afterwards as an officer of the army. For five years from my graduation we served together, a portion of the time in the same regiment. I speak of him, therefore, from actual personal acquaintance.

In the late rebellion, I think, not one single charge was ever brought against General Longstreet for persecution of prisoners of war or of persons for their political opinions. If such charges were ever made, I never heard them. I have no hesitation, therefore, in recommending General Longstreet to your Excellency for pardon. I will further state that my opinion of him is such that I shall feel it as a personal favor to myself if this pardon is granted.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Lieutenant- General.

I'll bet Grant got a Christmas card from Casa Longstreet every year.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Carol Burnett's Take on Gone With the Wind

Long ago - the 1970s I think, the American television viewing public found Carol Burnett amusing. She had her own ensemble cast variety show and everything. Well, here is her lampoon of Gone With the Wind, which from what I understand, was one of her most well-received. The skit features a very annoying (and white) Prissy character. Perhaps Burnett did not want to offend her viewers by including a black slave in her comical recreation the Old South, so she had a white servant affect the mannerisms of what is quite clearly a caricatured simple-minded plantation house worker (much like the original Prissy - just more irritating this time). I remember the show from the 70s and I do not recall an African American cast member, so I suppose that explains the obvious race issue - but the over-the-top antics? And where is Mammy? At least her character - while also a conventional portrayal of a black servant - had depth and complexity.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

A New Yorker's Verse

The Cosmic America files are filled with Civil War era poetry. Some epic, some heroic, but much of it banal, trite. Now and again, little snippets of poetry resound with meaning - a few lines crystallize what the war was about in least for some who shouldered muskets and marched off to fight for a cause.

In terms of emancipation - few in the north enlisted with that in mind. It was only after the war that the destruction of the institution rang true as the moral equivalent of Union. Retrospectively, veterans included emancipation as a fundamental component of their cause.

In 1905, an aging New York veteran recalled such sentiment at a Grand Army of the Republic meeting in Brooklyn. Recorded in the post's minute book, these few short lines tidily joined the twin themes of Union and emancipation.

In God’s name let us march to the mutinous South
       I shall fall, as will many of you
But halt not till slavery’s rebellion shall cease –
       Till the Father of Waters shall flow
Unviewed by a slave form Itasca Lake
       To the far Gulf of Mexico

Striking a tone of moralizing self-righteousness, this short piece nevertheless indicated that an emancipationist memory lived on with the veterans who had determined that the Union should survive - ultimately, without slavery.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Can Either Political Party Claim the Lincoln Legacy?

Who gets him? I am quite sure...certain really, that in our current two-party system, both political parties would like to claim Lincoln as one of their own, so to speak - and position themselves as the inheritors of the Lincoln legacy.

But that opens the door to a little interpretation. Lincoln was on board with things like internal improvements and tariffs - the hallmarks of a stronger central state. Those today who would support less government might have had a problem here. He was also, shall we say, progressive for his time.

We could always go the easy route and say his greater legacy was the spirit of unity. And thus we all get to be on his team. But don't get me started on how vague the term "unity" is. I am confident that Lincoln had an idea of the word's meaning - and I am equally confident that a whole bunch of people disagreed with him. Then and now.

Yes yes yes - I am really generalizing here. But I do so only to get you thinking. I have simply started the ball rolling with a few sweeping statements. I will let you fill in the details.

K (and happy election year)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Union Veterans Reflect on Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee: American hero, icon... and traitor.

After the Civil War, the renown of Robert E. Lee spread far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy. He was respected and praised in the North for his virtues, his fighting prowess, and his conciliation in defeat. Historians such as Alan T. Nolan have noted that the North, whose people “had to acknowledge the honor of the South,” fully embraced the Lee tradition. “Revisionism,” especially in terms of Lost Cause interpretations of the war where Lee figured centrally, argues Nolan, “could not become part of the Civil War legend without northern acceptance, and the North did accept the South’s rewriting of the record.”

While some in the North may have been retrospectively kind to the former Rebel general, Nolan has made far too great a generalization. Union veterans, for example, were hardly generous in their assessment of Lee. To them, Lee was a traitor. In 1891, the Grand Army Record passionately objected to the “saintly slopping over Robert E. Lee,” and others agreed. In fact, GAR protests against Lee helped create a lasting thread in northern commemorative literature. In 1910, one Union veteran wrote, essentially expressing in the same breath how some might find Lee both virtuous and reprehensible: “Though in his Confederate uniform [Lee] may possess all the culture and personal worthiness he had before he thus clothed himself, this badge of disloyalty – of rebellion – so characterizes him that by it he must be judged.” As late as 1922, a variety of groups continued to honor the veterans’ legacy by protesting in “unmeasured terms” the organizations that celebrated the Rebel chief, arguing that treason should never be forgotten, much less rewarded. “No Grand Army man,” offered one Union veteran, “can honorably lend his name to any movement which shall dignify to posterity the name of the traitor Robert E. Lee, or shall make him the equal of the loyal, victorious Grant.”

Union veterans remained determined to praise only the Union heroes who saved the country, rather than a Rebel who had tried to destroy it. The praise allotted to the rebel chieftain wore Grand Army veterans particularly thin. One Collier’s Weekly article citing Lee as America’s most “noble citizen” especially drew fire from the GAR’s patriotic instructor, Robert Kissick of Iowa. “If Lee was all you claim, then the men I represent were wrong in fighting to preserve the nation he fought to destroy.” Further arguing that “Lee did not follow his state out of the Union,” but rather, “his state followed him,” Kissick lambasted the Confederate hero and heaped much of the blame for upper South secession on Lee’s shoulders. As decades passed, few Union veterans could stomach the praise of Robert E. Lee. In 1922, when the American Legion attempted to honor Lee’s birthday, veterans of the Pennsylvania GAR shuddered at the idea that anyone would “place a premium on Disloyalty to the Flag and our Country.”

Although adulation of the Rebel general found a place among northern civilians who perhaps sentimentalized or romanticized the gentile south and all that the Lee family embodied, Lee’s standing among Union veterans never reached the heights the general obtained in the South.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Wing Nuts, Yahoos, and Historical Evidence

I just wanted to say good morning to you all and remind you that Cosmic America welcomes the opinions of everyone - even those of you who disagree with me.

I would remind you, however, that if you make a claim and say you have evidence to support it and then fail to produce said evidence, you are doing a disservice to yourself and the others who think like you do. I mean, I know evidence can be a bit of a bother. But it really comes in handy when you are trying to make a historical argument.

The age old tactic of "if I think so it must be true" or the more recent "I read about it on the Internet" just won't do. Things that happen(ed) in one's mind do/did not necessarily happen in the real world. That sort of methodology just won't get you the respect you think you deserve, and...if you make a wild enough claim, you might even earn yourself a wing nut or yahoo title.

Now there are many reasonable ways to illustrate an argument. Emphasizing the words and/or actions written or undertaken by historical actors is a good place to start. Now I know that one can interpret words, actions, or events differently depending on any number of factors - but again...evidence should play a part in the interpretation somewhere. Shouting (virtually), making bizarre and tenuous connections, and then skedaddling when challenged is not an especially effective way to convince people of anything. In the end, it will only make them want to expose you for the charlatan that you are.

But I will let your comments through anyway. Just because.


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Union Veterans Recall the Burning of Chambersburg

Because the war unfolded almost entirely on southern soil, nearly all incidences of the destruction of civilian property took place in the Confederacy. Former Confederates possessed a wealth of evidence from which to recount stories of looting, destruction, and the general abuse of civilians. But they did not hold a monopoly on stories of "uncivilized" warfare.

The burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on July 30, 1864 reminded loyal citizens of the United States that Confederate civilians were perhaps not the only victims of war they so often claimed to be. When citizens of Chambersburg could not, or would not, pay a hefty ransom demanded by Confederate general Jubal A. Early, the cantankerous Rebel ordered the town fired. Union veterans described the violent scene. Confederates kicked in doors, stole private property, and threatened the townspeople with weapons. Many claimed that Rebels executed their orders with glee, destroying the town while in a drunken state of rage. In June 1905, one GAR veteran described the aftermath of the Rebel invasion.

He [his commander] got there the next morning in time to see the results of that cowardly and uncalled for burning of the homes of women and children. He saw, as did all who where there, the horrors of that terrible scene. Oh, it was something to be remembered as long as life lasts. That little town, beautiful, as you know, was laid in ashes; the people there without homes wandering in the streets, the dead unburied, the sick lying on the sidewalk. It reminded me then and does now as I look upon it, like a terrible dream.

This incident certainly incensed Union soldiers. Later in the nineteenth century, veterans would note the Rebel atrocities as the spark that ignited the final push against Confederate forces in the Valley. “The boys in blue,” suggested one Union veteran in 1881, “frenzied by the sight of homeless, weeping women and children, again charged upon the foe, never allowing them to stop for a moment.”

In the hands of former Federal soldiers, the Chambersburg story grew in intensity by the twentieth century. While no where near as angering as the Andersonville and other prison stories, Chambersburg nevertheless numbered among the many “rebel atrocities,” “increasing acts of barbarity,” and “deliberate acts of vandalism” perpetrated by their former foe. Veterans acknowledged that during the war the incident caused a “considerable civilian panic” and “attracted the anxious attention of the whole country.” Most remained aggravated by the “destruction…caused by a public enemy,” and recalled the acts of “insolence, theft, and violence” alongside the Union battle cry: “Remember Chambersburg!”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What a Difference a Few Years Can Make

John S. Rock was what we might call an over achiever. He was an indefatigable abolitionist, a teacher, a doctor, a dentist, and a lawyer. Some say he coined the term "black is beautiful" but I am not sure anyone can really substantiate that. Either way - Rock was an accomplished fellow.

In terms of significant firsts during the Civil War era, in February 1865 Rock was the first black lawyer to be admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court.

Keep in mind the rapidity of change forged in the crucible of war. Only eight years earlier, in the Dred Scott case, the Court had denied that any black person could be a citizen of the United States.

I would wager that no white American could have predicted Rock's (or any black person's) meteoric rise in March 1857. The mere suggestion of it would have made people look at you funny, to say the least.

Rock died in Boston in December, 1866 of tuberculosis.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Society of the Immortal 600 - No Monument for Morris Island

Okay fine, but who were the Immortal 600? The 600 (since you asked) were a group of former Confederate officers who had been intentionally placed under fire while held as prisoner of war.  Veterans of the 600 had served time in various northern prison camps including Sandusky, Ohio, Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River, and ultimately on Morris Island, South Carolina – where they found themselves used as human shields in a stockade placed before the Union batteries conducting the siege of Charleston.

This may come as no surprise, but these practices along with the allegedly harsh treatment carried out by Union Colonel Edward N. Hallowell and his command of African American guards led many to direct anger northward – a practice that never subsided. In 1910, Thomas Coleman Chandler, a former officer who had left the Virginia Military Institute in 1861 to enlist with the Tyranny Unmasked Artillery, recalled his hardships after an early-twentieth century trip to Morris Island. This aging veteran, who had been wounded several times and captured at Spotsylvania, addressed his fellow former prisoners with imagery as vivid as it was animus. Chandler focused on a number of troubling aspects. “Suffering men” typical of most prison reminiscences formed the foundation of an argument attacking the Union commander and especially the “Negro guards” at Morris Island. These particular points most certainly would have stirred emotions among Confederate veterans reminded of the “brutal laugh of Hallowell and his niggers as they gloated over your suffering.”(This is Chandler's language, not mine. As much as such language offends us today, I think it important to use their words as written).

Recognition of the official Immortal 600 veterans’ organization gained steam in the early-twentieth century when John Ogden Murray, a captain with the 11th Virginia Cavalry and member of the Society, began compiling information on the group with the purpose of publishing the first book-length paean to the 600. Funds generated by such a publication would be set aside to finance a monument to the group on Morris Island. In a powerful work intended to “give the world a true history of the wanton cruelty inflicted upon helpless prisoners of war, without the least shadow of excuse,” Murray vividly recounted how his Union captors “hated everything southern.”

While proceeds fell short of the funds necessary to construct a monument, Murray’s book nevertheless created a stir in the South and saw several printings. Seizing the commemorative reins, the Virginia state legislature recognized appeals to honor the 600 and appropriated necessary funds for the monument in 1910. Making sure to point out that any such monument would pay tribute to those “inhumanely treated by the United States Government,” Virginia legislators kept lingering hostilities in the forefront.

But the monument never materialized. For what ever reason, funding, politics - certainly waning interest did not play a part. Even today heritage foundations and other neo-Confederate groups demand recognition of the suffering of Confederate prisoners at the hands of the United States government. What do you think? Should the 600 have a monument?


Friday, August 3, 2012

How to Scare White Folks - and Other Important Ideas

A black man, armed, in Federal uniform, holding a captured Confederate at the point of a bayonet. Is this an image of the white South's worst nightmares come true? From a Confederate perspective, yes. Many feared exactly this scenario: armed blacks turned loose against their former masters. Of course there is more to the image than that. A black man taking up arms to risk his life for the Union suggests something much more profound. Oh sure, imagery such as this certainly struck fear into the hearts of whites in the South. But it also helped to ensure that blacks could claim basic citizenship rights at war's end. How could one deny rights to a man who had shouldered a musket for and helped secure the national integrity of his country?

While many, both black and white, asked exactly that, the truth is that blacks' rights - even those who were veterans - were often denied in the postwar nation. In this sense, do the postwar decades represent a lost chance to capitalize on Union victory? Your comments, as always, are welcome.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Youtube Presents - Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War

While doing my usual Youtube scan-and-search-for-Civil-War-stuff exercise, I came across this snappy little series from the University of Georgia Press promoting some of their latest releases. This one features Megan Kate Nelson's Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War - a book I enjoyed very much. Have a look, particularly if you have an interest in an analysis at the intersection of environmental and cultural history.