The Atlantic, December 5, 2011
Last week I mentioned that I went ahead and picked up a copy of Newt Gingrich’s new Civil War novel, The Battle of the Crater, at the insistence of my friend, Yoni Applebaum. He suggested that I write a review and submit it to The Atlantic, which I went ahead and did. Today the review is live on their website and I couldn’t be more pleased. Thanks to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz for reviewing it and especially for agreeing to publish it. We are talking about cross-posting excerpts from specific posts on their site and I’ve been encouraged to go ahead and think about possible topics for future publication.
Welcome to those of you who have clicked through from The Atlantic. If you are interested in commentary on the Civil War and historical memory you have come to the right place. I’ve been blogging for six years now. The subjects covered sit at the intersection of Civil War historiography, education, and public history. I encourage you to take some time to browse the site. You can join the Civil War Memory facebook page, which is a great way to keep track of the latest posts as well as other stories that relate to this blog’s theme. Finally, click here for more information about my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.
Thanks so much for stopping by.
It looks like the latest issue of Civil War Times magazine is now available at your local newsstand. As I mentioned last week the issue features my co-written essay with Myra Chandler Sampson on Silas Chandler. We intended the piece to challenge some of the more popular assumptions surrounding Silas’s relationship to Andrew as well as his Civil War experience. Admittedly, the evidence that we were able to marshal is limited, which makes any attempt at a robust interpretation problematic.
I am not surprised to learn that the good folks at the Southern Heritage Preservation Page are upset with the piece. Apparently, Gary Adams, who is the groups executive chairman, picked it up and he had this to say:
I picked up the latest issue of Civil War Times and found a story by one of many of you favorite writer this time credited to Kevin Levine and Myra Sampson (a descendant of Andrew Chandler)…. This is same magazine and author who had comments to his previous story censured and sent directed to the author. This resulted in discussions for boycotts of both the magazine and advertisers but we argued against that but I will admit we may have to reconsider that decision. The question remains whether or not the poor research is on purpose or attributed to a lack of talent. Here it argues Silas was a servant not a soldier. What I found strange was they fail to mention the family was and is tore with the same argument.
Now I have no idea what Mr. Adams is referring to in regards to comments from a previous CWT article nor do I have any advice on whether it might be worthwhile to boycott the magazine and sponsors.
What I will offer Mr. Adams and the rest of this group is the opportunity to write a response to the specific claims made in this article that will be published on this blog. You can’t beat that. Historical interpretations are always in need of revision based on the gathering of additional sources or a counter-interpretation of existing evidence. This would be a wonderful opportunity to bring together the collective knowledge and wisdom of the entire group against their number one enemy. Best of all, they get to do it on this very blog. I look forward to reading and learning from their research on Silas.
The reason why the members of the first generation of Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy emphasized such a strict code governing the display of the Confederate flag was that they understood the risks of it being appropriated in a way that threatened to disconnect it from its Civil War roots. By the 1950s and 60s that battle had clearly been lost through its use as a symbol of Massive Resistance and later through its appearance on everything from cigarette lighters to bikini bottoms. This story of a black University of South Carolina Beaufort student who chose to display a Confederate flag in his dorm window is but the latest example of this gradual decline.
So here we have a flag that was carried by the military arm of a government pledged to defend slavery and white supremacy and that remained a symbol of racism and hatred for this student’s parents has now become little more than a colorful rag in the hands of a young black man. What does the flag mean to him?
“When I look at this flag, I don’t see racism. I see respect, Southern pride,” he said. “This flag was seen as a communication symbol” during the Civil War.
“I’ve been getting a lot of support from people. My generation is interested in freedom of speech,” Thomas said.
“I think he’s got a really good point. It’s just a flag, and in and of itself, it doesn’t have any racial meaning. It only has as much meaning as you put into it,” said Reed.
That’s about it. The flag was a “communication symbol”… you know, guys waved them back and forth to send signals. The student in question doesn’t seem to have any interest in the Confederate war nor does his display of the flag seem to have much to do with the Civil War era at all. So much for Confederate/Southern heritage. That hasn’t prevented the Confederate heritage community from embracing him as their latest hero. In the past few weeks the most popular defenders of Confederate heritage include a middle school student from New Jersey and now this guy. Hilarious!
Lee and Jackson by Mort Kunstler
Scene set at Blandford Church Hill, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 1:45pm – July 30, 1864 in The Battle of the Crater by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen
“Finish it,” Lee said, looking at [William] Mahone. “For heaven’s sake, they are cornered. Bag the lot, and finish it. If we wait until dark they will escape. For that matter, I am stunned they have not yet brought up reserves to strengthen their line and perhaps threaten another section to draw us off. I want it finished now, before they can launch another attack and stretch us too thin to hold.”
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his solider. “I want the full honor of war observed. Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Mahone looked at him, as if to reply.
“I know what our President has said, but in this army, sir, my orders on this day carry full weight. We are Christian soldiers, sir. Do you understand me? Passions must not rule, even in the heat of battle. If I hear of any atrocities, I will ensure that those involved shall face court-martial and the full penalty of military law.”
He drew Mahone a bit closer. “Do we understand each other, sir”?
There was only one answer Mahone could possibly give to such a man. “Yes, sir.” [pp. 281-82]
Of course, there is no evidence that such a conversation ever took place and there is no evidence to suggest that Lee did not know or disapprove of the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle. This is nothing less than a gross distortion of the battle even for a work of historical fiction. Why this scene is necessary for their narrative will be the subject of my review.
The Crater by Tom Lovell
I am almost finished reading Newt Gingrich’s co-authored historical fiction on the Crater and I have to admit that it’s not half bad. The attack has commenced and not going well. The book is almost entirely about the 28th United States Colored Troops with Major Garland White as one of its principal characters. There are a few scenes set in Confederate earthworks and a very short section set in Lee’s headquarters following the explosion, but the rest of it focuses on the black soldiers with the help of a fictional character by the name of James Reilly, who works as a sketch artist.
Even without having finished the book, what is clear is that Gingrich and Forstchen do everything they can not to offend, which is quite an achievement given the nature of the subject. Let me just give you one example. All of you have read that the Fourth Division went into the battle with the cry of “No Quarter.” That reference appears twice in the battle sequence, but take a look at how it is framed by the authors:
There was no quarter. The pent-up rage, the insanity of a world that had driven them to this moment, was unleashed, both sides screaming “No quarter, no prisoners! as they shot , cut, and slashed at each other. [p. 259]
Both sides were screaming foul oaths of hatred and rage. Centuries of slavery and the cruelty and fear it engendered, combined with three years of bitter war with no end in sight, unleashed a pent-up fury on this day as both sides screamed: No quarter, no prisoners!” [p. 266]
They certainly were, but we also know based on the historical record that the black troops screamed, “Remember Fort Pillow.” That, of course, is conveniently left out as is pretty much any reference to the racial hatred that animated Confederate troops during the battle. There is a context for understanding cries of “No quarter” that animated the black men in blue that is crucial to this history. They knew what was at stake if captured. The same holds true for Confederates who faced the attack of the black troops as well as those who heard about it. Their rage took a specific form that had its roots in white supremacy and fears associated with slave rebellions that extended back into the antebellum period. Unfortunately, it looks like this theme will continue to be ignored in what remains of the book. More later.