A Settled Question

I am making my way through the new collection of postwar accounts that George Bernard likely intended to be a follow-up volume to his War Talks of Confederate Veterans (1892).  Bernard served in the 12th Virginia, was present at the Crater, and remained very active in the A.P. Hill Camp, Confederate Veterans.  War Talks is an invaluable source, especially when it comes to the Crater so I was very pleased to hear that a collection of reminiscences by Bernard and others was being readied for publication.

There are only a few accounts of the Crater, including Bernard’s dedication address at Blandford Church in which a tablet was placed to remember the men from the Virginia brigade who died in the battle.  The address follows a pattern which I explore in my new book on the Crater.  While private reminiscences written by Confederate veterans continued to address the strong emotions re: the presence of black Union soldiers, public addresses took little notice.  In fact, Bernard steers completely clear of what was pervasive in the letters and diaries of Confederate in the immediate wake of the battle.  According to Bernard, “Our dead comrades fought and died in defense of their rights, their homes and their firesides.”  No surprise there.

Toward the end of the speech Bernard offers some thoughts that are often overlooked by those who claim to live politically in their footsteps:

The results have been many and far reaching, but none more striking than the growing conviction among thoughtful minds of the world, those of the North included, that the people of the South, however unwise or inexpedient may have been their act of secession, were, under the circumstances that surrounded them, justified in resorting to arms to maintain the right of their States to withdraw from the Union, if they saw fit, as they did to exercise this right.  But it is proper to add here that the same omnipotent power, in His infinite wisdom has allowed future events so to shape themselves that all now regard the question of secession as finally settled against the right as claimed by the seceding states and no people of our re-united country are more loyal to it or would go further to defend it than the people of the South and especially the Confederate veterans.

We too easily lose sight of the fact that while the activities of Confederate veterans during the postwar decades reinforced their connection to the 1860s and with one another it did not prevent them from moving forward.  These men ought not to be interpreted as stuck in time.  It may not be a stretch to suggest that their experiences in the war eventually enhanced their love and attachment for the United States.

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How Many Americans Are Interested in the Civil War?

Of course, it is an absurd question, but apparently the producer and writer of the upcoming TV mini-series, “To Appomattox” wants to know.  An email circular is going around to Civil War round tables and reenacting groups to try to gauge the number so as to guarantee a financial return.  I commented on this series a few weeks ago, but this program is shaping up to be a real doozy.

First off, if you are making a movie or mini-series to appeal to Civil War buffs it is going to suck big time.  If we ever do get a chance to see it we can rest assured that a sufficient number of Americans are still interested in the Civil War. :-)

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Following in Faulkner’s Footsteps

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.

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Confederate Articles

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Bridging the Gap Between Civil War and Reconstruction

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.

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