Off to Petersburg

I just put the finishing touches on my paper and accompanying visual presentation for the George Tyler Moore CenterPamplin Park Conference that begins tomorrow afternoon.  Back in 2007 I took part in this conference, but this is the first year that Mark Snell and the rest of the gang at Shepherd University have decided to take the conference on the road.  Teaming up with Will Greene and Pamplin Park was a smart move given that the conference has sold out.  We will spend three days exploring the battlefields around Petersburg and discussing the experiences of the men in the trenches.  Will Greene is the scholar-in-residence and will be be leading the tours.  Additional presentations will be made by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, Walter Powell, and Mark Snell.

You may remember a series of posts I did last summer that explored the ways in which the Confederate response to the presence of USCTs at the Crater connected to the challenges of maintaining slavery during the antebellum period as well as reports of slave rebellions both in the South and Caribbean.  Since then I’ve developed these ideas for inclusion in the first chapter of my Crater manuscript as well as in an article that will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times.  I am going to present a version of that article on Friday.  I want the audience to think beyond the trenches as did the soldiers themselves.  It is important to remember that during the final year of the war the Army of Northern Virginia was defending a civilian population.  Many of the men in Mahone’s Virignia brigade were from Petersburg and the surrounding counties.  Aaron Sheehan-Dean makes a compelling argument in Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (UNC Press, 2007) that during that final year soldiers and civilians grew increasingly alienated from one another.  He suggests that many of the men believed that civilians had failed to appreciate the sacrifices that Lee’s men were making on a daily basis outside of Petersburg.  I argue that the Crater reinforced their connection with the home front and served to remind civilians of just what was at stake in the event of a Confederate defeat.  I am looking forward to the opportunity to try out some of these ideas on Friday.

While I am looking forward to seeing a number of old friends, I am especially looking forward to meeting Earl Hess for the first time.  Back in 2004 I conducted some research on William Mahone for a seminar class at the University of Richmond.  It’s funny how word gets around, but somehow Chris Calkins, who was then the chief historian at Petersburg National Battlefield Park (PNB) found out about it and suggested to Prof. Hess that I might be able to help gather source material for his study of the Petersburg campaign.  I was more than happy to help out since I was planning on turning that essay into an M.A. Thesis on historical memory and the battle of the Crater.  Professor Hess had me working at the University of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, Library of Virginia, Museum of the Confederacy, and PNB.  The source list was extensive and provided me with a great start on my own project.  It definitely saved me a great amount of time and ultimately went into what I consider to be a pretty good thesis.  It will be nice to be able to thank Prof. Hess in person.  By the way, Prof. Hess is slated to release his own study of the Crater in September. That makes four books on the Crater in the last few years, but why do I have a feeling that Hess’s book will be the best of the lot.

I hope to blog a bit from Petersburg, but from what I understand there is a happy hour scheduled for each night.

15 responses... add one

Hi Kevin,

Sounds like a fantastic conference. Dr. Hess is one of the main reasons I do history. He was my professor in college and he always encouraged me to go on and pursue work in the field. Today his work is still a tremendous inspiration to me. Tell him I said hello, if you get a chance.

–ML

Have you been able to finish _Confederate Reckoning_ by McCurry yet? The second half of it does a great job of tieing Confederate slavery, both from the white and the slave viewpoint, to previous slave revolts in the Western hemisphere, and to current and evolving situations in other existing slave-holding countries.

Vicki Betts

Hi Vicki,

I have indeed finished the book and have already highly recommended it. The best chapter is the “Soldiers Wives’ and the Politics of Subsistence” though I would have liked to have heard a bit more about the connections with their husbands in the army. McCurry has very little to say about this. McCurry does an excellent job of framing the emancipation debate within the broader context of impressment. That is going to be very helpful to me as I begin working on the “black Confederates” book.

I would have liked more about the connection between the wives and the husbands in the army, too, as well as more on western theatre and Trans-Mississippi soldiers’ wives. A couple of years ago I did a chapter for _Seventh Star_ on assistance to Texas Confederate soldiers’ families, and I used some of McCurry’s earlier, shorter pieces. I wish this book had been out then. The problem is finding sources directly connecting the wives and husbands. We had relatively few surviving letters or petitions in either the governor’s office or adjutant general’s office to match the desperation of the North Carolina women (most were petitions to exempt doctors and other skilled men, or someone to help manage slaves), as you might expect being distant from nearly all of the battlefields. However, I was able to find a few letters in area newspapers written by soldiers in camps, as well as articles by editors warning that if we don’t help these families, those soldiers will desert and come home and take care of things themselves.

Vicki Betts

Vicki,

I couldn’t tell if McCurry’s goal was for these women to stand on their own or whether it was because of a lack of source material. It’s definitely a minor point. The other point that I should have made is that I think this debate over whether the slaves freed themselves is pretty much played out. All too often it boils down to a disagreement over conceptual analysis, but the bigger problem is that the Union army is almost always lost in the mix. Although it is clear to me that white southerners interpreted moments such as the Crater along the lines of a slave rebellion I think it is a stretch to argue that slaves, in fact, rebelled on a large scale. It was the presence of the Union army that initiated the actions of slaves and we shouldn’t forget that most slaves were not freed until the end of the war.

I think you’re right about the lack of a large scale slave rebellion although I’m sure there was massive passive resistance, as they saw an opportunity to do that. Every few weeks I search the net for new reviews of the book from scholars so much better versed on the sources than I am. They are beginning to show up. Also, there’s a very interesting radio interview with McCurry at http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2010/04/26/confederate-reckoning/ for people who want a preview before plunging into this rather substantial book.

Vicki Betts

Kevin,
I’m almost done reading _Confederate Reckoning_, and agree that the framing of the Confederate enlistment debate within the larger problem of impressment is very enlightening. McCurry does seem to be arguing that slaves did revolt on a large scale, though it manifested itself in a variety of ways, many of which were tactically subtle like asserting their own wills against white authority in daily routines and relationships, are hard to discern from this distance in time as overt elements of revolt. Steven Hahn calls the slave response to the war the largest slave revolt in modern history. If we look at the war through the prism of the slaves’ perceptions, intentions and actions, viewed as a slave revolt, and how these influenced both Union and Confederate policies, the revolutionary nature of this event is starkly evident. Do you think McCurry exaggerates the failure of the Confederate impressment effort?

This:

“….during that final year soldiers and civilians grew increasingly alienated from one another. He suggests that many of the men believed that civilians had failed to appreciate the sacrifices that Lee’s men were making on a daily basis outside of Petersburg. I argue that the Crater reinforced their connection with the home front and served to remind civilians of just what was at stake in the event of a Confederate defeat.” is an interesting point/counterpoint…

Have you looked at Vicksburg to see whether either or both dynamic came into play during that campaign/siege?

Best

I have been over the last several days been tapping into a North Carolina planter woman’s diary in regard to her opinion on USCTs. Needless to say she doesn’t have anything kind to say about them but what is interesting to me is just how tied to the battlefields and occupied places she is. She knows a lot about what is happening and if the action was at Petersburg in 1864, she knew within a couple days. However, she tracks the war regardless of her proximity to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Perhaps a future article in the making, but at least something worth thinking about which I have been in working on another public history Crater project: the “home front” and “battlefield” as a blended landscape in much the way that Kevin is weaving slave insurrection fears into the Crater story.

It may be a stretch, but the siege of Paris in 1871 may also be worth considering, just for an additional example of the impact siege operations had on yet another Western civilian population in (roughly) the same era. Alastair Horne wrote a short one-volumne history that makes for a nice introduction to the 2nd Empire, the city, and the Commune, to at least get your feet wet.

Bonne chance

TF,

I guess it also depends on how we define a siege operation. This was one of the questions that we spent considerable time discussing during the conference. By the end most of us were referring to the campaign as a series of offensive operations rather than a siege. Still, I don’t doubt that it is worth looking into. Thanks again.

Emmanuel,

Sounds like a great source. Perhaps I should check it out.

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