During a Q&A panel that I took part in for the Civil War Trust’s Annual Teacher Institute in Charleston an audience member asked us to speculate on whether official recognition of the Confederate states by a European nation would have helped their cause. My response began by pointing out that even if some kind of recognition had taken place actual intervention would have been extremely unlikely. I then asked the audience to step back and reflect on why we are so caught up with Civil War counterfactuals and more importantly why the most popular involve imagining a scenario leading to Confederate victory?
What irks me is the playfulness of it all. Why are so many of us caught up in imagining a Confederate victory? Why would anyone even want to seriously consider it at all? Lost in this imaginative act is the United States and union itself. Think about it. Apart from a small group of extremist kooks, most of us who engage in counterfactual thinking are not actively campaigning for the dissolution of this country. I think it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of patriotic Americans hope that this experiment in republican government will continue, but its end is exactly what we are implying when we play this little game.
Today I arrived in Gettysburg, which owing to its place in our popular imagination as the great turning point of the war, has spawned countless counterfactuals. We should walk this field not imagining what might have been, but grateful that the United States won this battle and the war.
More in the next few days about why I am in Gettysburg.
We’ve heard quite a bit in recent years about the need to step back from our tendency to draw a sharp divide between the war years and Reconstruction. Historians such as Mark Grimsley and James Hogue have reminded us that the violence did not stop after 1865. Just as importantly, many of the crucial political questions surrounding civil rights for African Americans had yet to be nailed down. A good case can be made that the war did not end in 1865.
There is a practical question of how historians can help us to imagine a more seamless shift in 1865. Perhaps without intending to do so, David Cecelski does just that in his forthcoming book, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War. First of all, Galloway is absolutely fascinating. Based on limited archival sources, Cecelski does an admirable job of tracing his life from slave to Union spy to North Carolina legislator.
In the span of two paragraphs Cecelski has both Lee and Johnston surrendered and the president assassinated. It comes right in the middle of a chapter, which means no colorful reflections on what the war meant or unanswered questions about the future. Rather, the author leaves us on the ground in North Carolina where Galloway and other African American leaders continued their work:
Galloway could not dwell long on the president’s death or on what possibilities for black America might have passed with him. In North Carolina, as throughout most of the old Confederacy, African American life quickly resumed the urgency of a guerilla war, and neither he nor other local activists could afford to hesitate in their labors….
In the aftermath of the Confederacy’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, Galloway and his compatriots continued to focus on expanding the Equal Rights League into new parts of the state and on advocating for voting rights and political equality. Neither came easy. With the fall of the Confederacy, new multitudes of African Americans gained freedom, left the places of their servitude, and headed into towns such as New Bern and Beaufort. (p. 174)
It’s very subtle, but quite effective. For millions of Americans, including Galloway, the surrender of armies and assassination of a president did not signal the end of the struggle.
Update: Just learned that 426 copies have been sold thus far. Not bad. Word on the street is that the SCV purchased copies for all camp commanders.
Just a quick note to say thanks to all of you who have written emails congratulating me on the release of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder. It’s incredibly humbling to know that folks are paying good money for my book so I do hope you enjoy it. The book is now shipping from all major distributors, including Amazon. I would love to get a review or two up on the Amazon page at some point soon. Let me know what you like and what you don’t like.
Thanks again, everyone.
“Fourth Minnesota Regiment Entering Vicksburg” (July 4, 1863) by Francis D. Millet (1846-1912) – This painting is in the Minnesota Historical Society Collections.