Newt Gingrich’s Crater

Update: After hearing from one of my readers I decided to pick up a copy of the book and write a detailed review for a major publication. Stay tuned.

One of my readers was kind enough to forward a review of Newt Gingrich’s new co-authored book, The Battle of the Crater: A Novel.  I am not a fan of Mother Jones, but the review is actually quite interesting and clearly reflects that politicization of one of the most racially significant battles of the Civil War.  No, I have not read the book and I don’t have any intention of doing so.  Consider the following:

The novel is intended in part to honor the black regiments that saw action at the Crater and help correct the narrative that says they cost the North the battle. (In fact, they nearly won it.) But in correcting one narrative, it whitewashes another, because none of the rebels we meet in Crater carry with them much animus to black soldiers. The only Confederate we see in any level of depth is a former journalist who, as a matter of principle, never owned any slaves. Our rebel points out, accurately, that not all black POWs were murdered—but that’s sort of splitting hairs when you consider that battlefield accounts describe white Confederates bashing in the skulls of surrendering and wounded black soldiers “like eggshells.”

I guess this is just what one would expect when the goal is to attract the African American community while at the same time not alienating white constituents, who are not likely to be interested in reading about how Confederates responded to the presence of an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  It’s not as if the authors didn’t have access to archival records; in fact, I came across the “eggshell” reference more than once in the course of my own research.

The significance of the battle for Confederates (both slave and non-slaveowners alike) has everything to do with its racial aspect.  Even a cursory glance at the archival record demonstrates that they did not make any effort to conceal what they did and why.  They wanted their loved ones back home to understand just what was at stake in the event of Confederate defeat.  It’s not just Confederate attitudes that appear to be ignored, but by Union soldiers as well.  Their response to the participation of the 4th Division was mixed as opposed to the consensus achieved by Confederates, but you can find plenty of blame and racial invective hurled in their direction.  [Of course, I go into great detail about all of this in my forthcoming book on the Crater.]

How far will Newt and Forstchen go to tailor a story to meet the demands of a presidential campaign?

Instead, the authors veer in the other direction. Gingrich and Forstchen even craft an imaginary scene in which General Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Southern honor, instructs his subordinates to make clear that black soldiers at Petersburg are to be treated like any other opponent. But there’s no historical evidence that Lee gave any instruction of the sort. Nor did Lee intervene in the immediate aftermath, when his army pushed to return black POWs to their former masters.

Even in the world of historical fiction this takes things way off the deep end.  There is no exaggeration in the passage quoted above.  At no point did Lee intervene in the immediate wake of the battle when it is likely that the largest number of black soldiers were massacred nor did he attempt to prevent the return of prisoners to former masters.  Why?  Because in the wake of emancipation and a protracted defense of a civilian population in Petersburg the July 30 battle reaffirmed nightmarish images of defeat at the hands of armed black men.

I guess none of this helps much in Newt’s presidential bid.

 

The Confederacy, Southern Unionists, and Civil Liberties

This video is part of the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point.”  It tackles the complex subject of southern unionists and the protection of civil liberties during wartime.  Questions surrounding civil liberties often come up in reference to the steps Lincoln took at various points during the war, but rarely comes up in the context of the Confederacy.  It’s nice to see the VHS tackling these subjects and for a short clip I think it does so effectively.  What do you think?

The best book on the subject is Mark Neely’s, Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism (University of Virginia Press, 1999).

 

Acquisitions, 11/28

I have a huge stack of books that have yet to be cracked open, including the titles listed below, but I put them all on hold to read Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010).  It’s beautifully written and I can’t put it down.

William C. Davis and James I. Robertson, eds., Virginia at War, 1865 (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Richard Newman and James Mueller, eds., Antislavery and Abolition in Philadelphia: Emancipation and the Long Struggle for Racial Justice in the City of Brotherly Love (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

William Kauffman Scarborough, The Allstons of Chicora Wood: Wealth, Honor, and Gentility in the South Carolina Lowcountry (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

Jonathan Daniel Wells and Jennifer R. Green, eds., The Southern Middle Class in the Long Nineteenth Century (Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

 

Top Civil War Books for 2011 at The Civil War Monitor

Winter 2011

Yesterday I received the latest issue of The Civil War Monitor magazine.  I’ve only had a chance to skim through it, but the layout and content look great.  This issue includes essays by Glenn LaFantasie, James Marten, Steven Newton, and a pictorial piece by Ronald Coddington.  I recently purchased a 2-year subscription and I encourage you to do so as well.

This issue also includes selections for top books of 2011 by five historians including yours truly.  I am joined by George Rable, Robert K. Krick, Gerald Prokopowicz, and Ethan Rafuse.  What follows are my selections:

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The Future of Slavery

John Gast's "American Progress"

Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past.  We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible.  Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us.  I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).

As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals.   Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860.  It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction.  It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any  discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole.   In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.

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