Gettysburg 150th Is Not All Reunion and Reconciliation

VABattleFlag

Looks like the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg is not going to be defined completely by the powerful pull of reconciliation. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and others have requested that the state of Minnesota return the flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry which was captured on July 3. 1863 by a member of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. On July 2 the unit played a crucial role in stopping the Confederate assault against Cemetery Ridge. In the process it suffered an 80% casualty rate. On the following day the First Minnesota defended the Ridge against the Pickett-Pettigrew assault. It was during this final engagement that the Virginia flag was captured.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton had this to say in response to McDonnell’s request:

“The third day of Gettysburg, the 47 Minnesotans that survived the day before, rejoined the battle and that was the day that they captured the flag of the regiment of Virginia… which resides in the Minnesota Historical Society to this day,” Dayton said. “The governor of Virginia earlier this year requested that the flag be loaned, quote, unquote, to Virginia to commemorate — it doesn’t quite strike me as something they would want to commemorate, but we declined that invitation.”

“It was taken in a battle at the cost of the blood of all these Minnesotans,” Dayton continued. “And I think it would be a sacrilege to return it to them. It was something that was earned through the incredible courage and valor men who gave their lives and risked their lived to obtain it. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a closed subject.”

What do you think? Does Virginia have a claim to this flag? There is a tradition of returning captured flags as symbols of reunion and reconciliation. I don’t have a strong opinion either way. The flag is currently on display at the Minnesota Historical Society and is being properly preserved. The governor clearly has strong feelings about the subject, but I see nothing wrong with loaning the flag to the Virginia Historical Society if it decided to once again request the flag temporarily for an exhibit.

I haven’t heard much from the Southern Heritage/Flagger types out there. They have problems with the Virginia governor owing to his recent shift on Confederate Heritage Month. Many have been outspoken about the interpretive slant of the VHS and they certainly don’t approve of the Museum of the Confederacy, which is best positioned to be able to preserve and properly interpret the flag.

Nope, I guess it’s best to leave it in the capable hands of the MHS. They have as solid a claim to it as anyone and it’s probably safer there.

Wish I had thought of this: “As a gesture of reconciliation by Minnesota, that might be nice, but as a symbol of Virginia’s reconciliation with its African-American citizens — and a large number of others such as General George Thomas & General Winfield Scott who did not commit treason in the name of states “rights” — maybe Virginia should say we don’t want that symbol of rebellion back.”

21 comments

Retreat From Gettysburg

Gettysburg Storm Damage

Earlier today I returned from five days in Gettysburg for the annual Civil War Institute. Like last year, I feel rejuvenated and utterly exhausted. I had an incredible experience interacting with the participants and catching up with many good friends. Thanks to Peter Carmichael and the rest of the CWI staff for all the hard work. I can’t imagine the logistical juggling that takes place beforehand, but they seem to do it so effortlessly and that they do it in the name of history education makes it that much sweeter.

I donned a couple of hats this year. On Sunday I spend 90 minutes with an incredible group of high school students to talk about Civil War memory. We compared and contrasted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with that of Wilson’s in 1913 with an eye on how memory evolves. That evening I hosted a small discussion over dinner about about the kidnapping of former slaves and free blacks by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign. We used two chapters from Margaret Creigton’s The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle to help frame our discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion and I want to thank Al Mackey and Mike Rodgers for taking part. Finally, I took part in the final evening’s panel on the war in 1863. The panel also included Scott Hartwig, Robert Sandow, Judkin Browning, Jaime Martinez, Chris Stowe, and Peter Carmichael. It will be broadcast on CSPAN at a later date. [click to continue…]

6 comments

Was the Civil War a Good War?

Tony Horwitz’s piece in the Atlantic yesterday has raised some eyebrows. I enjoyed it, though the author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War would have done us more of a service if he had explored beyond the ivory towers. Hey, we are in the midst of a Civil War Sesquicentennial and there is a lot going on out there that defies easy categorization and that is worth exploring. But if we must stick with a couple of academics to define the current state of Civil War memory than so be it.

Horwitz’s interview with Fitz Brundage and David Goldfield raised the question of whether the Civil War was a good war and whether the bloodletting was worth it in the end. I tend to avoid these questions. That said, I find myself agreeing with the thrust of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s response.

The fact is that the Civil War didn’t represent a failure of 19th-century Americans, but that the American slave society — which was itself war — represented a failure of humanity. That failure was the price America paid for its conception…. I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin [in] 1860, but in 1660. The brutal culmination of that war may not have allowed us to ascend into a post-racial heaven. But here is something I always come back to: In 1859 legally selling someone’s five-year-old child was big business. In 1866, it was not. American Slavery was a system of perpetual existential violence. The idea that it could have been — or should have been — ended, after two and a half centuries of practice, with a handshake and an ice-cream social strikes me as really wrong.

I’ve always maintained that the right side won the war and that we are better off without slavery. Who is going to disagree with that? Was it worth the price? Certainly, those enslaved must have thought so along with those Americans who were not willing to stand by and allow their Union to be destroyed. What else can I offer that adds or detracts?

OK, back to packing for Gettysburg!

54 comments

Elbert Guillory Gets Right With Lincoln and the Republican Party

It’s always interesting to watch politicians distort the past for their own purposes.  This week Elbert Guillory decided to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. As he explains in this short video, he did so based on his understanding of the broad political history of race. Why he only recently came to some of these realizations goes unmentioned, but here are a few highlights. According to Guillory “the Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an abolitionist movement.” It was the Republican Party that gave blacks rights of citizenship during Reconstruction. Democrats have always been on the wrong side of the history of race. Most importantly, “they were the party of Jim Crow.” Guillory praises Dwight D. Eisenhower as the champion of the Civil Rights act of 1957.” Somehow he forgot that it was a Democrat from Texas who pushed for the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.

Ultimately, Guillory’s break with the Democrats is based on a rejection of the notion that only big government can improve the lives of Americans.  But isn’t much of the history of freedom for African Americans the result of government intervention? Setting aside the important role that blacks played in securing their own freedom didn’t the government intervene directly during the Civil War to free slaves? Finally, wasn’t Reconstruction itself the most extreme example of government intervention during the postwar period before the 1930s? Wasn’t it Southern Democrats who wanted to be left to sort out their affairs without federal intrusion. [click to continue…]

37 comments

“No Hired Hessians or Negroes in the Southern Army”

In 1909 Philip K. Fall, Commander of the Dick Dowling Camp in Houston, welcomed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to their annual meeting. His brief welcome acknowledged the UDC’s crucial role in preserving and protecting the memory of the men who fought under the Confederate flag. Fall’s address also reflects the “limits of reconciliation” between North and South at the beginning of the twentieth century by framing the conflict as a defensive war against radical abolitionists fighting to carry out John Brown’s final mission. In the process Fall also shares a little nugget that is lost on those who depict the Confederate army as a racially integrated institution filled with loyal black soldiers.

Being notified only a day since, that our comrade was called away on an important matter and could not represent Dick Dowling Camp, the duty devolves upon me to greet you, on behalf of our Camp. Such short time leaves me ill prepared to do the occasion justice, but I know our good women will accept the will for the deed. The veterans of Houston welcome you, one and all, and we shall prove your humble and loving servants during your stay with us. Command us whenever necessary. As the years pass by we feel more and more the benefits accruing from your loving and valiant struggle in our behalf. Had you not thrown down the gauntlet and assumed the offensive for the old soldiers of the Confederacy, their names would have gone down in a partisan Northern history as rebels and traitors; who tried to disrupt what they call the greatest and best government on earth, when in fact, they in arbitrary, puritanical spirit, brought about the disruption, causing a war such as the world has never known, hiring nearly a million Hessians and nearly two hundred thousand Africans, to slaughter their brethren of the South. Nothing but a civil war could have ever satisfied the John Brown stripe of abolitionists, especially after their leader John Brown was hung.

The war was not the worst feature of the sixties. The myriads of carpet-baggers that flocked like buzzards, all eager to filch from the already impoverished and heartbroken whites, as well as from the poor deluded ex-slaves, what little was left, proved to be a carnival of misery, which can never be blotted from the memory of any who experienced the miserable rule of those Northern birds….

This is a statement of facts, which cannot be controverted. What few of the Southern veterans that yet live, glory in the fact that their noble women are now their protectors, as were they of the women in the long, long, ago. No soldier in the past or present ever received the homage of their women, as do those of Dixie Land. There were no hired Hessians or negroes in the Southern army. All fought for a principle they knew to be right and thousands upon thousands gave up their lives in defense of truth.

Fall is not suggesting that there were no blacks present in the army. Confederate soldiers encountered them performing myriad roles in camp, on the march, and on a wide range of military projects. What Fall is saying is something very different. He is remembering a war of white citizen soldiers defending their homes and a new nation from radical abolitionists and their immigrant and black hirelings. Fall is drawing a sharp distinction between what he believed constituted two very different societies. To suggest that blacks fought as soldiers would be to place the Confederacy on the same moral level as the United States. Fall is sharing his understanding of Confederate Exceptionalism.

It’s a memory of the war that was no doubt filtered through a concern that many Americans expressed at the time over the effects of continued immigration on the cultural and political identity of the nation.

Look, if there were black Confederate soldiers in the army, individuals like Fall would have said so.

22 comments