Earlier this week my class took part in a simulation that required them to advise the President on what to do with the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter. Below is the assignment and the list of documents that they used to construct their essays. The discussion went extremely well. One thing that I will do next time is have students come to class with outlines of an argument and allow them to use the class discussion to help with a final draft. A number of students were swayed from their original positions. The majority counseled that the fort should be resupplied and they argued mainly based on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. They agreed that some kind of conflict was inevitable, but they also believed that a strong stance in the name of the Union was warranted.
Background: On March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States from the new Republican Party. Between his election on November 6, 1860 and February 9, 1861, seven states in the Deep South seceded and formed a new nation – The Confederate States of America. President Lincoln has scheduled a meeting of advisers for March 29, 1861 to discuss the looming crisis in Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter, where Major Robert Anderson is surrounded by Confederate forces and desperately short of provisions. He reports that by mid-April he will be forced to surrender unless relieved.
Assignment: As a member of the cabinet you are requested to advise the president on a course of action. The meeting will take place on Tuesday February 12 and you will come prepared with a 2-3 page essay outlining your recommendation. Your essay should be addressed to the president and can be written in the first-person voice. References to individual documents can be made indicating the doc # in parentheses at the end of the sentence. (Doc. #)
Questions that you will likely be asked by the president:
Evacuate or reinforce Fort Sumter?
Send only supplies or send additional troops as well?
What are the likely consequences of reinforcement or abandonment?
Is there any hope of South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South returning peacefully to the Union?
What is the likelihood of losing the Upper South (especially Virginia) if the decision at Sumter leads to fighting? What is the feeling in that part of the country?
In the likelihood of war, how will the military situation change if we lose the Upper South? (territory, industry, population, etc.)
What is the state of morale in the North. How is a decision at Sumter likely to effect support for the president and the Republican Party?
How important is it to show strength at Sumter and reinforce the president’s commitment that the Union will be preserved?
Selection from James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom — This will provide you with an overview of events leading up to and following Sumter. Pay careful attention to quotes that McPherson uses. They provide a window into what people were thinking at the time about a possible crisis.
“The Choice is Charybdis”/NYTs Disunion by Jamie Malanowski — What important information does Stephen Hurlbut add to Lincoln’s decision?
Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address — What does Lincoln’s speech reveal about his view of the Union and a possible course of action? Does he anticipate violence?
Jefferson Davis’s Inaugural Address — What does Davis’s speech suggest in terms of policy toward Sumter and does it include anything that Lincoln should consider?
Positions of official cabinet members
Secretary of State Seward counsels restraint for the sake of the Republican party and the nation.
Lincoln to William Seward, April 1, 1861
Lincoln to Winfield Scott (Commanding general of United States forces in 1861), March 9, 1861 and Scott’s response to Lincoln, March 11, 1861
Virginia State Representative Chapman Stuart’s address to the secession convention on April 5, 1861 — According to Chapman at this time is there sufficient reason to secede from the Union over slavery? Why or why not? Why might this be important information for Lincoln to know and how do you think it should fit into his decision making re: Sumter? In other words could the opinions of those in the state legislature like Chapman change if Lincoln were to threaten a fellow southern state? [Note: Virginia’s secession convention has been in session for over two months. During that time they took one vote for secession on April 4 and those against won (88-45).
Diary entries by New York City resident, George Templeton Strong — Does Strong’s pessimistic attitude (an attitude likely shared by others) pose any problems for Lincoln?)
Congressman John A. Gilmer of North Carolina (March 1861) — reports on the situation in his state between those pushing to stay in the union and those advocating secession.
A Marylander Rejects Disunion – Maryland congressman Henry Winter Davis on secession and the firing on The Star of the West in Charleston Harbor
Entries by Charleston newspaper editor William Gilmore Simms
Diary entry (January 30 and February 28, 1861) by Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard
Maps/Charts — See the class blog for a series of maps on Fort Sumter and Secession
Below is a very short video of Oakes offering his own understanding of the popular question of who freed the slaves. His answer offers a concise overview of the main argument in his book. I am going to include this video for my students to consider as they work through a collection of primary and secondary sources on emancipation.
I am in the home stretch with Bruce Levine’s wonderful new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South. It’s extremely well written and is an excellent introduction to the story of the Confederacy and the central role that slavery played in its ultimate failure. It should come as no surprise that Levine spends a good deal of time toward the end of the book exploring the debate over the enlistment of black soldiers into Confederate ranks. The following two paragraphs address the conflict between the recruitment of blacks into the army and the stated goals of the Confederate government to protect the institution of slavery.
What follows serves as a reminder of how dangerous it is to generalize about what Confederates were fighting for outside of any historical context. This is especially true for those who reduce this complex question to states’ rights.
Some of the measure’s [recruitment of blacks] champions responded coyly to this most fundamental of objections. The editors of two Richmond papers declared that they and the white South as a whole had been fighting not for the sake of slavery but to secure states’ rights and southern independence. “We are told by some horrified individuals,” said the Richmond Sentinel in affected surprise, “that this is ‘giving up the cause.'” But, its editor demanded, just what cause are they referring to? “We thought that independence was, just now, the great question.” “This war is waged for the liberty, independence, and nationality of these States,” the Enquirer chimed in, and it was “for this object only” that “the people have made the tremendous sacrifices of the last four years.” It follows as night the day that “any measure which secures the liberty, independence and nationality of these States is justified and made our imperative duty.”
Davis’s opponents found this claim simply laughable. Yes, they retorted, we value states’ rights. But the purpose of those rights has always been to protect the southern master from interference by a potentially hostile national government. All southerners knew that “slavery–aggressions upon it by the North, apprehensions for its safety in the South”–was the “cause of Secession and that “all other questions were subordinate to it,” one Georgian now reminded his president. “The principle of State Sovereignty” was “important to the South principally, or solely, as the armor that encased her peculiar institution.” They had finally opted for full-scale independence for the same reason–to guarantee slavery’s future. “Of what value is ‘self-government’ to the South,” one Texan demanded, once “the very fabric of Southern prosperity” has been lost? (252-53)
What I find so interesting is that the eventual bill that was passed through the Confederate Congress authorizing the enlistment of slaves into the army was rendered entirely ineffective because individual states and slaveholders held so tightly to their individual property rights in opposition to what they perceived to be an overly intrusive federal government in Richmond. The only slaves that would be welcomed into the Confederate army were those who had been manumitted by their masters and who freely chose to join. In the end, Confederates understood what states’ rights was all about.
One of my responsibilities at the upcoming Future of Civil War History Conference at Gettysburg College is to moderate a panel on interpreting USCTs at historical sites. Panelists include Barbara Gannon, Emmanuel Dabney, Hari Jones, Joseph McGill, Jill Newmark, and Robert Sutton. The presenters have already submitted short essays on various issues that they believe are important to discuss. I’ve pretty much finished reading through them and am in the process of identifying challenges associated with the interpretation of USCTs as a point of departure for further discussion. Many of the papers reference the influence of the movie Glory on popular perception as well how we interpret the massacre of black soldiers on battlefields such as Fort Pillow and at the Crater. While I am particularly interested in how we frame the massacre of black soldiers the question of how we address instances where black soldiers executed Confederates has not been adequately addressed. Consider the following passage written by Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney who does address this with visitors to the Petersburg National Battlefield.
One of the ironies I discuss with visitors is that the US Colored Troops capture Confederate earthworks which were primarily dug by slaves and free blacks. In discussing the troops assaulting these works, I read directly from a letter written by Henry M. Turner, chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Troops. Turner stated that the Black troops and the “the rebels were both crying out – ‘Fort Pillow!’ This seems to be the battle-cry on both sides.” He wrote of the men assaulting the position and the Confederates retreating which he humorously wrote that the Southerners went “out the rear of the forts with their coat-tails sticking straight out behind.” Immediately, he makes a powerful summary of how Confederate prisoners were treated as he penned, “Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with a very few exceptions.” I tell our audiences that while Chaplain Turner did not condone killing of Confederate prisoners it was done in retaliation to the Southern Congress’ May 1, 1863 legislation which stated that Black men found in the Union army’s ranks were slaves in insurrection and that the white officers leading them were inciting a servile insurrection. In both cases the Confederate legislators and the war department condoned the execution of USCTs as well as their white officers. I note that according to white Union soldiers, some of them that night stopped more Black troops from killing Confederate prisoners.
I suspect that these are very difficult stories for visitors to digest. They certainly don’t fit the overall narrative of those who have been influenced by the movie Glory as well as the Sesquicentennial’s emphasis on emancipation and the sacrifice of black soldiers. In this narrative battlefield massacres are central to a story of African American sacrifice for the Union and the eventual attainment of civil rights. Whether intentional or not our embrace of emancipation as the central theme of the Civil War affords black soldiers what might be described as a kind of moral immunity.
When USCTs are killing Confederates they are engaged in a fight for freedom and in those unfortunate moments when they are executed they are victims of an uncontrollable rage that has its roots in a society committed to maintaining slavery and white supremacy. How should we characterize incidents of black soldiers executing Confederates? I agree with Emmanuel that part of the explanation must reference legislation from the Confederate Congress, but that doesn’t constitute everything that we can learn from accounts such as the one cited above.
We have little difficulty coming to terms with white Union and Confederate rage on the battlefield and how it sometimes led to acts that fell beyond the rules of war. But what happens when the conduct of blacks on the battlefield takes a turn, however slight, toward something that resembles Nat Turner’s Rebellion? More to the point, what do we gain from looking more closely at these accounts when interacting with the general public and/or in the classroom and what are the risks involved?
A recent Op-ed piece in the Washington Post written by retired high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein is making the rounds on various social media channels. I am not surprised that it has resonated with college professors that I interact with online because it is addressed specifically to this group. Bernstein uses the opportunity to vent her frustration regarding the state of high school education and what he sees as the effects of No Child Left Behind. I have never operated under its strictures, but I certainly identify with Bernstein’s experience in the AP classroom and the often defensive posture that teachers assume when questioned by non-educators. In short, I get it and I am sorry to see that it has cost this country another passionate educator.
My frustration with this editorial comes not so much with its content, but in who it is addressed. At the end Bernstein essentially apologizes to college instructors for the quality of students that now populate their classrooms – even in elite schools.
Now you are seeing the results in the students arriving at your institutions. They may be very bright. But we have not been able to prepare them for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them. It is for this that I apologize, even as I know in my heart that there was little more I could have done. Which is one reason I am no longer in the classroom.
Whether Bernstein intends it or not such a view reinforces a complaint that I am hearing more and more from friends of mine who teach at the college level. I should point out that I know for a fact that many of my friends are passionate teachers who take their responsibilities in the classroom very seriously. Still, the tweets and Facebook updates that pick out deficiencies among students or the questions that are asked of me directly about the state of secondary education grate on me.
What I want to ask in these moments is what are you doing in the classroom to address this? What kinds of pedagogical practices are you utilizing in the classroom to address specific problems? No research skills? No analytical writing skills? How exactly are you addressing this. The shift from high school to college is no longer a matter of handing students off, but a close continuation and even introduction to certain methodologies and content.
We are all teachers, we are all in the same boat. No apologies necessary.