Listening to these two knuckleheads talk Civil War history on a recent show is both entertaining and disturbing at the same time. By the way, David Barton’s new book on Thomas Jefferson was recently voted “Least Credible Book in Print” at the History News Network. I have no doubt that the recognition is well deserved.
Update: A must read post by Robert Moore at Cenantua’s Blog.
This morning one of my readers asked me to clarify my thoughts about a recent post on Sherman and those who claim to be victims of his army’s actions in Georgia and the Carolinas. This reader’s email reflects not only the post itself but some of the comments that followed it:
Why are there victims from the slavery system, but it would be impossible for there to be any from Sherman’s march? The question is not over whether Sherman’s army’s actions actually caused the damage to create victims. It is because it seems you are saying the southern people must disconnect from what they see as the sufferings of their ancestors, but it is fine for the descendants of slavery to do so.
First, let me be clear that no one is talking about “disconnecting” from the suffering of one’s ancestors. My early education as a Jew was built on the importance of not forgetting what happened to fellow Jews during the Holocaust. Such an identification often functions as the glue that holds a community/society together. At no time, however, did I ever claim to be a victim of that event or that my life had been directly impacted by it even though members of one side of my family did fall victim to the Nazi’s Final Solution.
I don’t accept that all historical events have the same weight in terms of their continued effect on the present. That, of course, would be silly. Any answer must be qualified by the individual or community’s connection to the event and a host of empirical factors. In the end, whether you are a victim of the past or in some sense suffering as a result of that past action/event has everything to do with how that event continues to impact you economically, politically, socially, and even psychologically.
The question of whether the history of slavery has left us with victims in 2012 came up in the comments section, but apart from my very brief comment, I don’t quite know how to respond. I don’t know too many African Americans who claim to be victims of slavery, though the question of the long-term consequences of institutionalized racism has certainly been debated. The question of whether some Native Americans can claim to be victims or casualties of federal policy also seems to me to be worth considering. On the other hand, you don’t hear much from those Japanese-Americans who claim to be victims of the policies of the federal government during WWII and I suspect that even if you did those people who have the biggest problem with my post would no doubt voice their disagreement. In each of these cases the long term economic, social, political and psychological would be measured differently by different people.
So, where does all of this scrambling leave us in regard to Southerners and Sherman’s March? [Oh, and let's remember that we are talking about white Southerners.] It leads us right back to where we started. Let’s hear from those people who claim to be victims of Sherman’s March just how their lives have been impacted. How have they suffered economically, politically, socially, or even psychologically as a result of United States policy in Georgia in 1864-65?
At about this time the USCTs of the Ninth Corp’s Fourth Division had entered the battle. Part of one brigade ended up in the confusion of the crater itself, but much of the division managed to maneuver to its right and into the confusing and complex chain of earthworks that extended outward. A couple of regiments pushed their way to some of the most forward positions that any Union regiment would occupy this day. They performed admirably in what was a difficult situation.
That said, there remains some confusion as to their role in the outcome of the battle of the Crater. Part of the story about the Crater and the men of the Fourth Division rests on a counterfactual or an assumption about the preparedness of the men under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s command. Consider the following from an article in the Petersburg Progress-Index:
“This breakthrough would have likely ended the war,” said Park Ranger Randy Watkins, who blames incompetent Union commanders, who in a last minute decision pulled a well-trained group of U.S. Colored Troops from the frontlines to replace them with less experienced white soldiers. “The Union should have won this battle,” Watkins said.
It’s as if we want the difference between victory and defeat to rest on the racism of the Union high command. “If only Meade had more confidence in these men….” Meade simply did not believe that these men stood a better chance of success compared to the white soldiers and their use came with political risks. Much of this is based on the well told tale that the Fourth Division had been trained specifically for this attack. It is true that they trained, but it must be remembered that this would be their first real taste of battle. While a few regiments may have performed drills tailored to a cratered landscape the evidence suggests that much of their training was done as part of any attempt to prepare green troops for battle.
Even before Mahone’s counterattack commenced Confederates in the area around the crater kept up stiff resistance and did much to stymie the Union advance. One reenactor quoted in the Progress-Index commented on the bravery of these men:
“The Battle of the Crater stands for the resolve of the Southern man,” said re-enactor Michael Peacock, a Texas native who now calls Midlothian his home. “To Confederate soldiers, there was no surrender. This ran deep in their veins and still does,” he said. Sam Watkins, who portrayed a private in the Confederate artillery, said that the Battle of the Crater was more important than the Battle of Gettysburg. “This right here was the defense of Petersburg,” he said.
Indeed, there was no surrender…no surrender that is for many of the black soldiers in the Fourth Division. And this had everything to do with the fact that they were defending a civilian population in Petersburg. Whatever ran “deep in their veins” it was excited by the fact that the site of black men in uniform solidified what the war was about and what the consequences would be if a Confederate victory in this battle and the war were not secured.
Just a quick shout out to Daniel Weinberg (l) and Bjorn Skaptason (r) of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop for inviting me to Chicago as part of their Virtual Book Signing series. I had a wonderful time. Dan did a great job interviewing me along with Glenn LaFantasie. We didn’t get into any great detail having to do with the book, but I appreciate his laid back style and the chance to reflect on some broader issues related to historical memory. I signed around 25 copies and we even had a nice little audience in the story, which made it that much more intimate. The store has a small number of signed copies available for purchase and I strongly encourage you to buy from them if interested. It’s important that we do what we can to keep independent book stores like ALBS in business. The interview should be uploaded at some point soon and will be posted here at that time.
My wife and I had a great time in Chicago, though our stay was much too short. We did meet up with old friends and had an incredible dinner in Greek Town yesterday evening. We did a great deal of walking and spent plenty of time looking up at the beautiful architecture. That said, it was nice to touch down earlier tonight in Boston. I’ve spent much of the past month on the road so it will be nice to relax and get back to a regular routine.
Upcoming Talk: This Saturday I will be speaking and signing books at the Grand Army Hall in Scituate, MA. The event is being sponsored by the Sons of Union Veterans and it promises to be a fun time for all. I am going to talk about USCTs at the Crater. My talk will take place at 11am.