A Nation Remembers in Song During the Centennial

Bonus Material: Contrast this with Lyndon Johnson’s 1963 Memorial Day Address at Gettysburg. I have never heard of this before today. Check it out.

This is a fabulous film from 1963 of the U.S. Army Band and Chorus commemorating the Civil War Centennial.  The narrator makes it clear at the beginning that the “Union found itself split in two over the issue of states rights.”  There is not one mention of slavery or black Union soldiers exactly one hundred years later. Songs include “Down By The Riverside”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “We are Coming Father Abra’am”, “Lorena”, “Tenting On The Old Camp Ground”, “The Battle” (new music & spoken word piece), “In the Sweet By-and-By / The Army Bean”, “Yellow Rose of Texas”, “Bonnie Blue Flag”,”Home! Sweet Home!”, “Dixie” & “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

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Earl Hess Reviews My Crater Book

crater lovellThe academic journal reviews of Remembering the Battle of the Crater are just beginning to appear. Overall the reviews have been very positive.  It’s encouraging to know that historians, who you respect, believe that the time it took to research and write was time well spent and that it constitutes a worthy addition to the broader historiography.  I was surprised that the book review editor of The Journal of the Civil War Era asked Earl Hess to review my book given that he contributed a blurb for the back cover.  Either way, it doesn’t get any better than receiving Hess’s stamp of approval in this particular journal.  I am thrilled with his review. 

There are definitely some things I would do different if I had it to do over again.  For one thing I would have done a better job of emphasizing the extent to which the 1903 and 1937 reenactments reflected the limits of sectional reconciliation. This would have situated the book more comfortably within a growing body of scholarship on Civil War memory.

The Journal of the Civil War Era (June 2013): 290-92

The Battle of the Crater, fought on July 30, 1864, as part of the third Union offensive during the Petersburg campaign, has drawn a good deal of attention in the past few years. Several books have been published dealing with the military history of the event, which now seems well covered in the secondary literature. Kevin M. Levin, however, has written a study not of the battle itself but of how it has been remembered over the past 150 years, with a special emphasis on the controversial fact that a division of black troops participated in the attack that followed detonation of the mine that created the famous crater. Many of those troops were slaughtered in the counterattack that restored Robert E. Lee’s line outside the city, shot down in cold blood by enraged Confederate soldiers. [click to continue…]

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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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