Yesterday I finished reading Yael Sternhell’s wonderful book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, which explores various aspects of mobility in the Confederate South. The author argues that what could be seen on the roads throughout the South tells us quite a bit about Confederate nationalism, the collapse of slavery and a strictly defined racial hierarchy, and defeat.
Her brief discussion of the capture of Jefferson Davis caught my attention:
On May 10, while camping outdoors in the piney woods near Irwinville, Georgia, Davis and his party were captured. Two Union cavalry regiments, searching for the presidential party, raided their camp at daybreak with no specific knowledge of who was staying there. In the confusion of the raid, Davis tried to escape from his tent and into the woods, but a Federal officer noticed him attempting to get away and called him to stop. With a carbine gun pointed at him, Davis had no choice but to surrender. Much has been made of the fabricated story that he was dressed as a woman when caught. Yet the true significance of the circumstances of his capture lies in the fact that he was apprehended not only in flight, but in the woods. Davis was forced to follow the ways of his former slaves and take refuge within the alternative geography they had used for generations to hide from the bloodhounds and armed patrollers who chased them without mercy. The Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee’s dignified surrender at Appomattox. It ended with Jefferson Davis, in the forest, staring in fear at a group of white men who were coming to get him. The war had reduced even the most elevated of masters, the Confederate president, to a desperate runaway. [p. 192]
Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant. All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks. If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook. Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery. Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s. Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.
The question of how far we’ve come in expanding and correcting certain elements of our collective memory of the Civil War has come up on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere. I have stressed the extent to which we have moved beyond a strictly Lost Cause narrative of the war to one that is much more inclusive, especially in reference to Unionists, women, and African Americans. This can clearly be seen on the institutional level in places such as the National Park Service and a wide range of history museums. While I believe it is important that we acknowledge these changes I don’t want to minimize the challenges that public historians continue to face in engaging the general public in programs that deviate from the popular stories of battles and leaders. This is a fight that is far from being won and I have nothing but admiration for those people work day to day on the front lines.
All we can hope for is that our public historians and other interested parties remain committed to doing good history that continues to deepen and expand the general public’s understanding of the nation’s past. However frustrating it is we do need to remind ourselves that many of the questions and subjects that are now openly being discussed are inconceivable just a few decades ago.
Exhibit A: The city of Charleston will commemorate Robert Smalls this coming weekend with a number of entertaining and educational programs. [Who is Robert Smalls?] Is there any evidence that Smalls’s name was mentioned once during the centennial? In the state and city where disunion began this weekend belongs to a black man, whose story directly challenges much of what many people continue to believe about the Civil War. Even if the events scheduled attract a smaller audience, compared to more popular Civil War related events, those who do attend will have been well served and in a position to share what they’ve learned. The simple fact that such an event has even been planned is worth acknowledging.
One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war. With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation. As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.
Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862. It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor. Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited. Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.