Bridging the Gap Between Civil War and Reconstruction

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.

Crater Book Now Shipping

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.

Thanks again, everyone. 🙂

I Think the Union Army Had Something To Do With It

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….

William Faulkner, “Intruder in the Dust”

The Future of the United States in the Summer of 1862

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.

Collective Memory 101

Next week I head down to Charleston, South Carolina for the Civil War Trust’s annual teachers institute.  This is my third year working with CWT and it’s always a rewarding experience.  My talk is on the history of Civil War monuments and how they can be integrated into the classroom.  As a preface to my talk I need to introduce the concept of collective memory.  Here are a few points from Michael Kammen’s seminal study, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture, that I hope will help to get the ball rolling.

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.

Finding Meaning in Battlefield Minutiae

I have plenty to share about this past week’s CWI at Gettysburg College.  It was an honor to be asked to speak and I had a wonderful time meeting and talking with the participants.  Peter Carmichael has done a fabulous job as the institute’s new director and I look forward to returning in 2014 to help mark the events of 1864.  While there were many highlights that I hope to share over the course of the next few weeks the most rewarding experience of the conference was spending the day with John Hennessy on the Second Manassas battlefield.

I first met John in 2007 as I was working on the final chapter of my Crater manuscript, which addresses recent interpretive challenges on the Crater battlefield and elsewhere.  John was kind enough to meet me to talk about interpretation and since then we have remained good friends.  No one has taught me more about public history and I consider John to be something like a mentor. [Buy John’s book.]

Some of you know that while I enjoy visiting battlefields I am not preoccupied with tactical details.  I do not give much thought to the alignment of units or try to nail down exactly where they were. Give me an overall sense of what happened and I am good to go.  I’ve never given much thought to Second Manassas beyond the strategic level; in fact, this was my first time on that particular battlefield.

To watch John lead a tour is to watch a masterful storyteller, who has thought deeply about what the battlefield has to teach us.  He moved seamlessly between the strategic and tactical levels as well as the political implications of the campaign as it unfolded.  He even asked the group to reflect on questions related to memory.

We stopped at places like Brawner’s Farm, the unfinished railroad, and Chin Ridge and John went into great detail about the action that took place there.  John, however, didn’t simply describe the action that took place there and share first-hand accounts, he explained why doing so is important.  He suggested that we need to engage in a little imaginary discipline and understand that the ground under the soldiers feet at any given moment constituted the entirety of the battle.  This was a revelation to me.  I’ve always remained detached from this perspective since I was only interested in the larger picture, but for the first time I was able to see the battle as a collection of more localized encounters that were self contained for the men involved. How the broader battle might unfold is irrelevant from this perspective.  What matters is maintaining formation, holding ground, and looking after the man next to you.  The result was a personal connection to a battlefield that I have not experienced anywhere else.

Thanks, John.