Boston’s Civil War Memory or Lost Cause

Abolitionists

The other day I briefly noted my surprise by how little the war was being discussed in a conference devoted to Massachusetts and the Civil War.  What I am struck by now looking back on the three days of talks at the MHS is the overwhelming emphasis on Boston’s abolitionist community.  That should not come as a surprise given the location of the conference and the place of the abolitionists in local memory.  I learned quite a bit about them and I accumulated a nice list of books and article from the papers, which were wisely precirculated.

By the end of the conference the abolitionists’ agenda had emerged as the dominant narrative of the Civil War.  In fact, if this conference can be defined as reflecting a Civil War memory it would have to be that of the abolitionists themselves and their agenda beginning in the antebellum period through the war and into the era of Reconstruction.  It was so palpable that even our understanding of the war’s meaning and the success or failure of Reconstruction had little chance of being critically examined without Garrison, Douglass, and the rest of the gang looking over our shoulders.  There was little consideration of the importance of Union, as recently analyzed by Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War>, nor was there much of an attempt to distinguish between the goal of ending slavery and the question of civil rights.  The war had been reduced to an agenda with racial equality as its ultimate goal.  In short, it was all or nothing.

This became abundantly clear to me during the final panel of the conference.  Barbara Gannon offered a snapshot of the racial dynamic in the GAR from her award-winning book, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic.  Barbara’s book does a brilliant job of showing through extensive research of GAR records that many camps were integrated and that African American veterans often achieved important positions.  Black veterans were able to campaign for racial justice during camp meetings even if most whites did not support specific proposals.  The extent of interracial cooperation was possible, according to Barbara, because both black and white soldiers enjoyed a shared experience of having saved the Union and destroyed slavery in the process.  They shared a comradeship that was tested by battle.  Her argument counters the claims by David Blight and others that the emancipationist narrative was ultimately sacrificed by white veterans in favor of sectional reconciliation by the turn of the twentieth century.

Although the moderator of the panel praised the book, he left little doubt that he believed Barbara’s central argument to be fatally flawed.  Barbara had overstated the case for interracial cooperation and understanding because GAR camps did not stand up as a bulwark against the encroachment of Jim Crow and other forms of racial intimidation throughout the nation.  In that very point we can see the fruits of giving the abolitionists run of the room in defining the Civil War’s legacy.  Barbara’s response was quite composed when a sharper response would have been more than justified.  The war left white and black veterans with a certain understanding of one another that had been shaped by their shared sacrifice during the war.  They were bound to one another through victory, the destruction of slavery, and the shared experience of suffering and sacrifice. Again, Barbara reminded the audience of how important it is that we acknowledge the end of slavery as a signal accomplishment.

The problem as I see it is that we want to view these men as something they were not.  We are the ones that want/need to see Civil War soldiers as civil rights crusaders and they will always come up short when we proceed from such a starting point.  They were citizen soldiers who answered their nation’s call to service.  In the process they saved the Union and by the middle of the war many of the men in the ranks understood that slavery also needed to be abolished.  They believed both goals had moral worth.  After they finished they went home and did their best to put their lives back together.  They were proud of having accomplished these two goals.  This brings me back to my earlier concern that a broader focus on the war in this conference would have gone a long way to understanding the experience of Bay Staters in the war.  It goes without saying that not everyone, dare I say most Americans, was preoccupied with the question of black civil rights during and after the war.  That appears to be our preoccupation having gone through the Civil Rights Movement.  We would do well to place it in check.

12 responses... add one

Thanks for the kind words, perhaps we should separate Civil War memory from reconstruction memory. The failure to realize the promise of the 14th and 15th represents a memory failure or amnesia about reconstruction.

To what extent did Americans at the time view the periods as distinct? The conference suffered from a lack of focus on the actual war. The abolitionists themselves were often understood apart from any sense that there was a war filled with significant victories and setbacks. Surely this influenced their outlook. The implied interpretation of Civil War soldiers embraced by the moderator seemed to be that unless they stood firm on the achievement of full civil rights for their black comrades then they ought to be considered failures. I don’t know if this implies a false Civil War or Reconstruction memory or both. It doesn’t reflect my understanding of how Union soldiers understood why they were fighting.

My guess – if you lived through them they were distinct. Imagine you are an American of either section soldier or civilian.War comes. You have one way of life that is over. This must have felt like a new phase of your life, or the life of the nation.War ends. The shear emotional a psychological sense of relief would present a strong break with the past.We talk about the Civil War era, and we look for long term patterns. To the people who lived through it they likely saw the discontinuities and breaks. Also, emancipation, the word, means being freed from slavery the fact that African Americans and some of their allies want more is understandable BUT the end of slavery matters.

Right. I guess the problem here is compounded by the fact that besides Megan’s talk about soldiers as tourists and Kid’s discussion of honor most of the discussion was about black Union soldiers. They fit easily into the abolitionist/civil rights narrative and on this view, in the end, they were abandoned by their former white comrades by the end of the 19th century. Reductionism in historical interpretation is usually a dangerous bet.

How one sees the study of history influences what is studied. You could look at history as a journalistic review of past events, which I think is a more traditional approach, or view it selectively in search of events and characters who serve a modern narrative. I suspect this is where the study of history is moving.

History is seen by some, and probably rightfully so, as competing for a place at the table, and adapting it to fit modern narratives may at times be an attempt to make it “relevant” (as if history has ever been less than relevant). Professionally, fitting scholarship to narrative appears to be an increasing necessity as the academy becomes politically polarized (or monopolarized might be a better term).

In these confines you can’t very well study the “war” part of the Civil War as you would then be dealing with dead white men, violence, and the notion of a “good” war. Which leaves you retelling the war as a morality play where the Abolitionists are the stars and the thousands of dead soldiers merely bit players who advance the plot but have no speaking lines.

There is the rub. History was for too long told without including the voices of the abolitionists, slaves, women, and civilians. How do you include those voices without erasing battles, leaders, and soldiers from the narrative. I would think it could be done and greatly expand our understanding of the war, but is there an interest in a balanced approach among academics?

Thanks for the comment. I am not sure the issue here is one of narrative v. the analytical (assume this is what you mean by “modern narrative). The issue I am getting at here is one of scope and voices, regardless of whether we fit them into a traditional narrative or analytical essay.

The problem is not that the abolitionists have long been ignored as much as how they have been remembered. Finally, I would suggest that academics are interested in a “balanced approach” no more or no less than anyone else. Not really sure what you are getting at with that final thought, but thank again for the comment.

I believe some of the difference is sectional. My fraternal grandparents came to the United States, as did a large portion of the population in the north, from Europe in the early part of the last century. The battles and leaders narrative wasn’t important to immigrants because it wasn’t part of their own history. In that sense it isn’t surprising this aspect of the war is underplayed in Massachusetts. And since the north won the war the need to continue to examine the how, why, and where may not be as strong. In the south it required explanation on some level to what was still, well into the last century, a culturally homogenous group.

It may also be some present day historians are more comfortable with political history than military history. After Vietnam it may have become less socially acceptable to view a war, any war, as yielding a positive result. Better to focus on how politically active groups affected social change than examine the idea of “Union” and what it meant to soldiers during the war.

As for the last comments I made, I think there is a finite amount of room (resources, professorships) made in academic circles for the study of history and within that room a finite amount of space available to for research of different topics. In the correction for the past overemphasis on military history maybe there isn’t much room left for academic research on military aspects. Today’s approach isn’t unbalanced in terms of being inaccurate, but it does reveal a profound shift away from the military in favor of the societal/political.

I believe we can make room for both areas in academic research, but it will take a broader realization that history “matters” and for academic institutions to fund accordingly. Right now seems to be the view that business and the sciences are so vital we can de-emphasize the humanities. I think this is a profound mistake.

I don’t agree with your first point about the supposed lack of interest in military history in the North. I’ve spoken to numerous roundtables and I’ve kept pretty close watch on public events, both of which are deeply engaged in military aspects of the war. In this case it has more to do with the place of military history within academia. And as I mentioned in the earlier post, most of the speakers in this conference were former MHS Fellows. In other words, the lack of a military history presence reflects the priority of this particular institution.

Overall, there is plenty of military history being written even by academics.

There’s a flip-side to this coin for those of us that focus on researching abolitionism and its many different facets: it promotes a facile and monolithic image of abolitionism. No better signifier exists of this than the word “the” in my mind (not blaming you Kevin, PBS did the same thing). Functionally, there is no group that can be labeled “the abolitionists” because it implies a consensus which, just as on the opposition’s side, didn’t exist. That word helps place Boston in a position of “Capitol” of abolition and merges many different gradated views on slavery into one pot, both of which are dead wrong. There can be no Capitol of a movement with so little consensus; abolitionists (and other antislavery advocates) disagreed on far more than they agreed on.

Americans, and with them many historians, don’t understand the fractures in the mob of anti-slavery activists of the 19th century, much like in modern politics we tend not to acknowledge the not-so subtle difference between someone who puts an “end hunger” bumper sticker on their car and someone who works in the soup kitchen every weekend.

And yet we as historians appear content with this view. Very few are critical of abolitionism, very few investigate how abolitionists nearly universally fail in the late war period and beyond in sustaining a fight for freedom. Analyzing the war with Douglass and Garrison peering over your shoulder is fine, as long as that war begins to include how their “friends” weren’t living up to the dream either. Why abolitionists are above reproach when no one else is has always confounded me. Abolitionism goes to war hasn’t been fully done yet.

Hi John,

This is an excellent point, but I do want to stress that the conference offered a very rich and nuanced understanding of the abolitionist community both in terms of geography and time. That does not come through clearly enough in this post, in part, because the relevant distinctions that you point to did not emerge clearly enough when talking broadly about the goals of the war and its legacy.

Like I said in the post, I walked away with a much deeper understanding of the abolitionists themselves as well as plenty of good reading for the near future.

My great great great grandparents emigrated from just a few miles east of the Oder to western Wisconsin in 1855 on a ship built in Boston and partly owned by its captain, a man originally from Boston named Sheldon Hubbard, who sailed out of New York.

Company F of the 27th Wisconsin, my great great grandfather’s unit, was recruited by a young man from upstate New York named Samuel Decius Hubbard who moved to Wisconsin in 1859. At the time of the 1860 census he was listed as a laborer, living in the home with the family of a man named Baldwin, who apparently had survived an accident in 1843, an 85 foot fall from a tree near Rochester, New York, while cutting a limb from the tree that contained a beehive. The newspaper report indicated his head struck a root when he hit the ground so it’s possible he may have been brain damaged. Hubbard parlayed his recruiting efforts into a commission as captain of the company and and also managed to get himself elected as a state assemblyman representing the communities whose sons he had recruited as soldiers. Hubbard had attended Hamilton College in New York for two years, less than five miles from his residence as a teenager in 1850. One of the founders of the college was a Hubbard and its best known alum then was also a Hubbard and a descendant of the school’s founder. That alum had graduated twenty years earlier and by 1860 was thriving as a lumber baron in Saginaw, Michigan.

I’ve been looking for some time now for a family link between the Hubbard who brought my German ancestors to America and the Hubbard who recruited Company F, but still haven’t found one. I did, however, hear from a third cousin, twice removed, in Tampa, Florida, about a year ago. She’s got a very detailed family tree she’s assembled and wanted to thank me for the contributions I’ve made to it. I’ve had a good look at her family tree. My great grandfather had an older brother, a younger sister and a step brother when they were orphaned by the Civil War in 1865.

My great grandfather and his younger sister moved to upstate Wisconsin when they were of marriageable age around 1880. The older brother moved to Ohio around 1890 when Standard Oil of New Jersey discovered oil there and built a refinery. One of his daughters married the son of a man who had recruited a company in Ohio and served as its captain. He wasn’t a Hubbard, but the couple did produce a daughter and she married a man whose grandmother was a Hubbard who’d was married during the Civil War to a man from Boston named Christopher George. This fellow wasn’t the star of the television series, Rat Patrol. He was a builder and an architect and in 1874 he built a church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the couple had lived throughout the war. The church they built was the First Congregational Church and it’s still there and still in use.

Six years ago I visited my mother-in-law in Milwaukee. She still had her memory then and was still driving, so I talked her into driving me to Carroll College in Waukesha so I could visit Wisconsin’s Civil War Museum. Unfortunately, the museum was closed. Everything had been packed up into boxes and shipped to Kenosha where we were told a new museum was under construction. I understand the new museum is now open for business and it’s right next door to the First Congregational Church.

My mother-in-law is still going strong. She’s now almost 93 years old. She has a live-in care-giver, a former nun from Burkina Faso who is computer literate, cooks terrific crepes, plays a mean guitar and is fluent in French, Spanish and now English. She married a Desert Storm veteran a year ago and that’s done wonders for her outlook. I’m looking forward to getting her perspective on America’s Civil War when I visit Milwaukee and hopefully Kenosha a few weeks from now.

Join the Conversation