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.
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.
Update: Just learned that 426 copies have been sold thus far. Not bad. Word on the street is that the SCV purchased copies for all camp commanders.
Just a quick note to say thanks to all of you who have written emails congratulating me on the release of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder. It’s incredibly humbling to know that folks are paying good money for my book so I do hope you enjoy it. The book is now shipping from all major distributors, including Amazon. I would love to get a review or two up on the Amazon page at some point soon. Let me know what you like and what you don’t like.
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….
The beginning of this blog post from The Weekly Standard by Thomas Donnelly serves as a reminder that something is missing in the way we tend to think about the events in Virginia in the spring and summer of 1862:
…but the fights that brought Confederate General Robert E. Lee to the fore also marked the beginning of a period where the future of the United States was increasingly in doubt. From the moment George McClellan retreated from the gates of Richmond until the repulse of Lee’s final attack at Gettysburg on July 3 a year later, the course of the war, the fate of the American continent, and the prospects for human liberty hung by a thread.
We get caught up in a narrative that pits a blundering George McClellan at the gates of Richmond against a bright new star in Robert E. Lee, who fundamentally altered the landscape of war by September 1862. Don’t get me wrong, we need to understand the strategic and tactical decisions made by commanders on the ground and we may even feel a little pleasure in watching Lee set out on a road that will lead to some impressive battlefield victories, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the future of the United States of America hung in the balance.
If collective memory (usually a code phrase for what is remembered by the dominant civic culture) and popular memory (usually referring to ordinary folks) are both abstractions that have to be handled with care, what (if anything) can we assert with assurance?
1. That public interest in the past pulses; it comes and goes.
2. That we have highly selective memories of what we have been taught about the past.
3. That the past may be mobilized to serve partisan purposes.
4. That the past is commercialized for the sake of tourism and related enterprises.
5. That invocations of the past (as tradition) may occur as a means of resisting change or of achieving innovations.
6. That history is an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.
7. That the past and its sustaining evidence may give pleasure for purely aesthetic and non-utilitiarian reasons.
8. And finally, that individuals and small groups who are strongly tradition-oriented commonly seek to stimulate a shared sense of the past within their region.
From Charleston it’s back to Gettysburg for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Educator’s Conference, which is organized by the National Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation. I get to talk about digital media literacy, but the highlight for me will be my talk on teaching the movie Glory in the Majestic Theatre. It should be a lot of fun.