Who Is a Victim of History?

Update: A must read post by Robert Moore at Cenantua’s Blog.

This morning one of my readers asked me to clarify my thoughts about a recent post on Sherman and those who claim to be victims of his army’s actions in Georgia and the Carolinas.  This reader’s email reflects not only the post itself but some of the comments that followed it:

Why are there victims from the slavery system, but it would be impossible for there to be any from Sherman’s march? The question is not over whether Sherman’s army’s actions actually caused the damage to create victims. It is because it seems you are saying the southern people must disconnect from what they see as the sufferings of their ancestors, but it is fine for the descendants of slavery to do so.

First, let me be clear that no one is talking about “disconnecting” from the suffering of one’s ancestors.  My early education as a Jew was built on the importance of not forgetting what happened to fellow Jews during the Holocaust.  Such an identification often functions as the glue that holds a community/society together.  At no time, however, did I ever claim to be a victim of that event or that my life had been directly impacted by it even though members of one side of my family did fall victim to the Nazi’s Final Solution.

I don’t accept that all historical events have the same weight in terms of their continued effect on the present.  That, of course, would be silly.  Any answer must be qualified by the individual or community’s connection to the event and a host of empirical factors.  In the end, whether you are a victim of the past or in some sense suffering as a result of that past action/event has everything to do with how that event continues to impact you economically, politically, socially, and even psychologically.

The question of whether the history of slavery has left us with victims in 2012 came up in the comments section, but apart from my very brief comment, I don’t quite know how to respond.  I don’t know too many African Americans who claim to be victims of slavery, though the question of the long-term consequences of institutionalized racism has certainly been debated.  The question of whether some Native Americans can claim to be victims or casualties of federal policy also seems to me to be worth considering.  On the other hand, you don’t hear much from those Japanese-Americans who claim to be victims of the policies of the federal government during WWII and I suspect that even if you did those people who have the biggest problem with my post would no doubt voice their disagreement.  In each of these cases the long term economic, social, political and psychological would be measured differently by different people.

So, where does all of this scrambling leave us in regard to Southerners and Sherman’s March?  [Oh, and let’s remember that we are talking about white Southerners.]  It leads us right back to where we started.  Let’s hear from those people who claim to be victims of Sherman’s March just how their lives have been impacted.  How have they suffered economically, politically, socially, or even psychologically as a result of United States policy in Georgia in 1864-65?

148 Years Ago Today

At about this time the USCTs of the Ninth Corp’s Fourth Division had entered the battle.  Part of one brigade ended up in the confusion of the crater itself, but much of the division managed to maneuver to its right and into the confusing and complex chain of earthworks that extended outward.  A couple of regiments pushed their way to some of the most forward positions that any Union regiment would occupy this day.  They performed admirably in what was a difficult situation.

That said, there remains some confusion as to their role in the outcome of the battle of the Crater.  Part of the story about the Crater and the men of the Fourth Division rests on a counterfactual or an assumption about the preparedness of the men under Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s command. Consider the following from an article in the Petersburg Progress-Index:

“This breakthrough would have likely ended the war,” said Park Ranger Randy Watkins, who blames incompetent Union commanders, who in a last minute decision pulled a well-trained group of U.S. Colored Troops from the frontlines to replace them with less experienced white soldiers. “The Union should have won this battle,” Watkins said.

It’s as if we want the difference between victory and defeat to rest on the racism of the Union high command.  “If only Meade had more confidence in these men….”  Meade simply did not believe that these men stood a better chance of success compared to the white soldiers and their use came with political risks.  Much of this is based on the well told tale that the Fourth Division had been trained specifically for this attack.  It is true that they trained, but it must be remembered that this would be their first real taste of battle.  While a few regiments may have performed drills tailored to a cratered landscape the evidence suggests that much of their training was done as part of any attempt to prepare green troops for battle.

Even before Mahone’s counterattack commenced Confederates in the area around the crater kept up stiff resistance and did much to stymie the Union advance.  One reenactor quoted in the Progress-Index commented on the bravery of these men:

“The Battle of the Crater stands for the resolve of the Southern man,” said re-enactor Michael Peacock, a Texas native who now calls Midlothian his home. “To Confederate soldiers, there was no surrender. This ran deep in their veins and still does,” he said.  Sam Watkins, who portrayed a private in the Confederate artillery, said that the Battle of the Crater was more important than the Battle of Gettysburg. “This right here was the defense of Petersburg,” he said.

Indeed, there was no surrender…no surrender that is for many of the black soldiers in the Fourth Division.  And this had everything to do with the fact that they were defending a civilian population in Petersburg.  Whatever ran “deep in their veins” it was excited by the fact that the site of black men in uniform solidified what the war was about and what the consequences would be if a Confederate victory in this battle and the war were not secured.

Note: For those of you visiting the battlefield my book is now available at the Petersburg National Battlefield book store.

Back From Chicago

Just a quick shout out to Daniel Weinberg (l) and Bjorn Skaptason (r) of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop for inviting me to Chicago as part of their Virtual Book Signing series.  I had a wonderful time.  Dan did a great job interviewing me along with Glenn LaFantasie.  We didn’t get into any great detail having to do with the book, but I appreciate his laid back style and the chance to reflect on some broader issues related to historical memory.  I signed around 25 copies and we even had a nice little audience in the story, which made it that much more intimate.  The store has a small number of signed copies available for purchase and I strongly encourage you to buy from them if interested.  It’s important that we do what we can to keep independent book stores like ALBS in business.  The interview should be uploaded at some point soon and will be posted here at that time.

My wife and I had a great time in Chicago, though our stay was much too short.  We did meet up with old friends and had an incredible dinner in Greek Town yesterday evening.  We did a great deal of walking and spent plenty of time looking up at the beautiful architecture.  That said, it was nice to touch down earlier tonight in Boston.  I’ve spent much of the past month on the road so it will be nice to relax and get back to a regular routine.

Upcoming Talk:  This Saturday I will be speaking and signing books at the Grand Army Hall in Scituate, MA.  The event is being sponsored by the Sons of Union Veterans and it promises to be a fun time for all.  I am going to talk about USCTs at the Crater.  My talk will take place at 11am.

Saturday Book Signing at Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago

Tomorrow I will be signing books at the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago.  The signing and interview, which takes place at 12 noon, is part of their highly successful Virtual Book Signing series.  You can watch the program live online, order a signed copy of my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, and have it mailed to you directly.  The ALBS has been incredibly supportive of my blog as well as my book.  This event was scheduled about a year ago right after I announced the final approval of the manuscript.  I am really looking forward to meeting Dan Weinberg, Bjorn Skaptason and rest of the gang.  It really is an honor to be asked to participate in an event that has attracted so many talented historian.

Don’t worry if you miss tomorrow’s event as an edited version will eventually be uploaded to their YouTube page.  See you tomorrow from the “Windy City”.

Untwisting Sherman’s Neckties

As a quick follow-up to yesterday’s post on Sherman and Civil War memory I thought it might be helpful to cite a passage from William G. Thomas’s new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America.  No image of Georgia in 1864 is more iconic than that of Sherman’s men destroying southern rails and turning them into what became known as Sherman neckties.  The destruction caused by Sherman’s army almost always eclipses the rebuilding that took place immediately following the war.

Reconstruction of the South in this respect was literally re-construction, a fact long obscured in the era’s twisted history, which the white South remembered long as punishment and subordination, conveniently forgetting the generous terms of their restoration….

No railroad suffered more than the Western and Atlantic (what Wright called the Chattanooga and Atlanta) because of both Union army maneuvers across it and Confederate cavalry raids against it during the Atlanta Campaign in the summer of 1864.  The Confederates tore up twenty-five miles of the railroad in a massive raid aimed at disabling the Union’s key supply route.  And in an effort to cut off Atlanta from external communication, Sherman just before his November March to the Sea, “very effectually destroyed the road” and gave orders for Wright’s Corps to remove sixteen miles of track between Resaca and Dalton.  Yet, after Sherman’s March was completed, Wright’s Corps went back to Atlanta and rebuilt nearly all of the Western and Atlantic, laying down 140 miles of new track and cross-ties, raising 16 bridges, and erecting 20 new water tanks.  Close to $1 million in construction labor and $1,377,145 in new material were expended on the Western and Atlantic before turning it over to the state of Georgia and its original corporate officers in September 1865. (pp. 183-84)

According to Thomas, in less than one year rail service in the South had been largely restored.  The book details the rebuilding that took place throughout the South toward the end of the war.  I highly recommend it.

You Are Not a Victim of Sherman’s March

In addition to giving a talk on how to teach Civil War monuments in Charleston for the Civil War Trust, I also took part in a panel discussion in which participants could ask anything that was on their mind.  Some of the participants submitted their questions beforehand.  One participant asked what war crimes William Tecumseh Sherman could be brought up on for his actions in Georgia in 1864.  Well, I jumped all over that one.

I recommended that if the individual in question is sincerely interested in the relevant history of Sherman’s March and how it fits into broader United States military policy during the Civil War that he/she ought to read Mark Grimsley’s The Hard Hand of War.  I pointed out that Sherman did nothing that would warrant anything along the lines of a war crimes trial and that if we were to do so posthumously we would have to apply it to scores of American commanders throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries along with their civilian authorities.

While I wasn’t sure that it applied to this particular individual, I went on to suggest that people who pose these types of questions are motivated by some irrational belief that they themselves are victims of Sherman’s army.  They maintain a close identification with those people who were impacted regardless of whether their ancestors lived in the army’s path.

I suggested that this type of identification has very little to do with history and everything to do with an emotional need of the individual.    I certainly don’t believe that I or anyone else for that matter has a responsibility to acknowledge such a question as anything more than this.  In short, it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously beyond its significance as one of the last vestiges of the Lost Cause.

It’s one thing to imagine those involved and perhaps the next generation maintaining a less than gracious attitude toward Sherman, but as far as I am concerned such a stance carries no weight today.   [On this point, see Thom Bassett’s recent article in the Civil War Monitor on Sherman. He argues that Sherman’s reputation remained fairly positive during the first few decades after the war.]

Regardless of where you live and how you happen to trace your family lineage, no one today is a victim of Sherman and his army.  We would do well to find demons that did something other than help to preserve this nation during war.

Crater Book Gets Its First Review

Thanks to fellow historian, high school teacher, and blogger Jim Cullen for taking the time to write a review of my Crater book for the History News Network.  Jim’s critique is thoughtful and raises some important questions about my interpretation.  I especially appreciate the following:

One also wonders about the next turn of the wheel. Like most historians of the last half-century, Levin renders this story as one of Progress. There was what really happened, then it got hidden by a bunch of racists, and now the truth has reemerged. Without denying the salutary consequences of writing African Americans back into history — or endorsing the mindless dead-ender insistence on “heritage,” whose advocates never seem to spell out just what they’re affirming a heritage of — one wonders if the story is this simple.  What are we in the process of forgetting these days? How can such absences be traced? Where might the story go from here? These are difficult questions, and it may be unfair to expect Levin to grapple with them. Perhaps he gets credit for doing so much so well that he provokes them.

First, let me say that I do indeed consider the broad parameters of this story as one of progress.  Early on one of the reviewers asked me to address some of these questions, especially the question concerning the future of our Civil War memory.  While I decided to bring the story to the present day I never felt comfortable about abandoning the traditional ground of a historian.  I suspect my next project will free me up in this regard.

I also agree with Jim that this story is predictable for those familiar with the literature, especially David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which despite recent scholarly challenges, continues to exercise a profound influence on my thinking.  That said, I didn’t write this book primarily for folks familiar with the historiography.  Yes, I hope that the book appeals to scholars, but I wrote it primarily for folks who may never have read an entire book on Civil War memory.  I wanted something that would serve as an introduction and lay out some of the tough questions that Americans have grappled with over the years.

Finally, I really appreciate the kind words about my blogging.  In many ways, this book was made possible as a result of blogging and fits neatly into this broader project of how I’ve chosen to share my interest in Civil War history and engage the general public.