Is The History of Gettysburg More Than a Collection of Facts?

9780448465753_p0_v1_s260x420It’s been interesting following some of the early reactions to Allen Guelzo’s new book from within that small, but devoted community of Gettysburg buffs on various social media channels.  I am not an expert on the battle. I’ve read a bit and only in the last year or so have I been able to find my way around on the field with little difficulty.  If I am lucky enough to be on the field with an expert I give them my full attention and trust

I am about half way through and I am thoroughly enjoying the book.  That said, for a book this size I have no doubt that there are factual mistakes.  How can there not be.  The battle is a major event that has been poured over by historians. There are people who have devoted years of study to the battle as a whole and/or to various moments during the battle.

As a result it should come as no surprise that this book will be picked apart tooth and nail, by folks whose understanding of specific aspects of the battle outstrip Guelzo’s. I am not suggesting that it should not be.  Who is going to deny that getting the facts right is important? The author may, indeed, have mistakenly placed Two Taverns on the Taneytown Road or referenced Jubal Early as commanding three brigades instead of four.  Like I said, there are factual mistakes in just about every history book.

What I am wondering about, however, is whether the release of a new book on the battle of Gettysburg is simply another opportunity to run through a checklist of facts and accepted profiles of the standard list of characters.  Is there room for interpretation in a battle where there is so much emphasis placed on such excruciating factual minutiae?  Is the history of Gettysburg more than a collection of facts?

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The Civil War’s Untold Story

It’s the name of a 5-part documentary that will air on PBS in February 2014.  The preview looks pretty good, though it’s not clear to me exactly what is new or “untold”.  The commentary by historians is certainly within the mainstream of current interpretation, but perhaps parts of it will be new to the general public.  One thing that I really like is Allen Guelzo’s constant reinforcement of the importance of democracy and republican government as what was at stake.  The scene of impressed slaves working on Confederate earthworks looks very promising for the obvious reasons. No hint of Lost Cause rhetoric, which is very nice to see.

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The Esprit de Corps of Confederate Camp Servants

Glad to see that so many of you found this morning’s post to be of interest. There is so much to unpack in the Caffey book regarding the presence of camp servants with the Army of Northern Virginia.  This passage is of particular interest to me.

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other.

First, here is one example that potentially helps to explain why so many Union soldiers and other observers claimed to have sighted entire companies and even regiments of blacks in the Confederate army.  More interesting, however, is the question of why camp servants were allowed to march together in what appears to have all the trappings of a distinct unit in the Confederate army. This is pure speculation based on my extensive reading into the primary and secondary sources so feel free to disagree.

We know that individual camp servants functioned in small groups within companies.  They worked together to complete specific chores, especially washing and cooking so it’s not surprising to find these men bonding with one another.  Marching as a group not only deepened those ties with one another, but gave the men a sense that they were a distinct part of the army itself.  In other words, it encouraged a sense of belonging.  The passage above points to unofficial ranks, which suggests that these men may have been disciplined by one another.  Confederates likely understood that the uniforms and marching together would have tied their slaves more closely to the army and even encourage them to stay rather than run away.  This would have benefited the Army of Northern Virginia given its proximity to the Army of the Potomac through much of the war and especially when it was on march in Maryland in 1862 and Pennsylvania the following summer.

Caffey suggests that the discipline exerted by servants may have been more severe than that of their masters.

I know an instance of a boy who ran from the Eighteenth Mississippi, just before Manassas, July, 1861. He was recaptured during the engagement; for the Yankees putting him in the front, together with other runaways, made him very uneasy, so he slipped into our lines again, but was seized by two colored men, who observed the manoeuvre, and was handed over to his master. His owner refused to see him, and the general wish of our servants was, that he should be hung or shot for a traitor! He was given over to them, and met a death at their hands more violent than any white person’s anger could have suggested. Incidents of this kind, however, illustrative of the colored people’s loyalty to the South, are too numerous and tedious for enumeration.

What better than slaves disciplining themselves.  It goes without saying that at no point does Caffey shift from describing these men as slaves to soldiers.  In fact, Caffey, like others, was entertained by these men on march.  “They make me laugh.”  What the author illustrates is the extent to which the challenges of camp life, march, and even battle stretched the master – slave relationship. We can read into this account what we want.  There is plenty here to highlight the narrow and self serving interpretations found on hundreds of black Confederate websites.

In the end, what we can see, if we pay careful attention, is how the Army of Northern Virginia practiced slavery.

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Slavery Traveled With the Army of Northern Virginia

jake3

Impressed Slaves Working on Confederate Earthworks

Included in Allen Guelzo’s new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, is a brief examination of the size of both armies.  In looking at the Army of Northern Virginia Guelzo includes a few sources that estimate the number of slaves, who performed various roles as personal servants and impressed workers.  One particular account by English-born Confederate artilleryman, Thomas Caffey, published in 1864 stood out in particular.  The source is available online and includes and incredibly detailed, but self serving picture of the role and motivation of slaves in the Confederate army.  Here are a few excerpts, but I encourage you to read the section in its entirety, which runs from pp. 278 to 285.

In our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash—nine tenths of the ditching falls to our share—yet in all these thousands I have yet to hear of more than one hundred who have run away from their owners! This is true, although they are continually moving about with ‘passes’ at all hours, and ten times more frequently than masters: what greater opportunities could be presented for escape? They are roaming in and out of the lines at all times, tramping over every acre of country daily, and I have not heard of more than six instances of runaways in our whole brigade, which has a cooking and washing corps of negroes at least one hundred and fifty strong! ….

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other. They scour the country far and wide for chickens, milk, butter, eggs, and bread, for which they pay little or nothing; always stoutly swearing they have expended all ‘massa’gave them, and unblushingly asking for more….

There was a very old, gray-haired cook in an Alabama regiment,” Jenkins remarked, “who would follow his young master to the war, and had the reputation of a saint among the colored boys of the brigade; and as he could read the Bible, and was given to preaching, he invariably assembled the darkeys on Sunday afternoon, and held meetings in the woods. He used to lecture them unmercifully, but could not keep them from singing and dancing after ‘tattoo.’ Uncle Pompey, as he was called, was an excellent servant, and an admirable cook, and went on from day to day singing hymns among his pots round the camp-fire, until the battle of ‘Seven Pines’ opened, when the regiment moved up to the front, and was soon engaged.

Caffey wrote this before the Gettysburg campaign kicked off, but it is not a stretch to imagine such numbers accompanying the Army of Northern Virginia as it moved through the slave state of Maryland and into free Pennsylvania.  We know that as it did the state’s free and formerly enslaved blacks fled, some of who ended up trapped and sent south by invading Confederates.  The Army of Northern Virginia operated, in large part, around the work of slaves.  As an institution the army’s reliance on slave labor ought to be seen in line with the operations of southern railroads, industrial centers such as Tredegar and, of course, large plantations.  All of them relied on the forced labor of slaves.

And for a brief moment in the summer of 1863 this system of labor, that was so important to the pre-war South and by extension, the Confederacy, was introduced into free Pennsylvania by the Army of Northern Virginia.

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They Died For Their Country

Union Monument in Concord, MA

It is sometimes easy to forget in this turbulent world of Civil War memory that these men died for the country that all of us call home.

[I took this photograph earlier today in Concord, MA.]

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Vindicating Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th

burning-of-darien-from-glory

With the 150th anniversary of the burning of Darien, GA approaching one local historian hopes to vindicate Col. Robert Gould Shaw of any responsibility.  We all know the scene in Glory when Shaw orders his men to torch the town only after the threat of court-martial by Col. James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.  Montgomery and General Hunter play the perfect villains in the movie, which ultimately leads to a transfer for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from hard labor to combat and glory at the base of Battery Wagner in July 1863.  It’s hard to know what McIntosh County historian Buddy Sullivan has planned for the commemoration beyond reminding his community that the raid did not take place during Sherman’s March of 1864 and that Shaw was indeed following orders.

Most of us know about this little incident from Glory and the movie gets a lot right.  Yes, Shaw disapproved of Montgomery’s order to join his unit and burn Darien.  According to historian Russell Duncan, “Shaw believed the action unjustified and disgraceful, and said he could have assented to it only if they had met Rebel resistance.” (pp. 43-44)  Shaw was concerned about the negative publicity that eventually was reported in northern and southern newspapers.  While it is true that Shaw was forced to follow orders it’s not clear whether noting that Col. Montgomery was also carrying out direct orders from General David Hunter will make it into Sullivan’s upcoming presentation.  Better to have a foil with which to vindicate Shaw.   [click to continue…]

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