I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about this little controversy as I make my way around the blogosphere and read the comments from various quarters. While there is no way of getting around the fact that this book has serious interpretive flaws, I have to wonder whether, in the end, the book has some redeeming qualities. It may be more accurate to suggest that given the state of our popular memory of the South, slavery, race, and the Civil War generally this book may still serve a positive function.
[Cross-Posted at Cliopatria]
The ongoing dispute between Victoria Bynum, the author of the well-regarded study, The Free State of Jones (UNC Press, 2001) and Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the authors of the brand new book, The State of Jones (Doubleday, 2009), shows no sign of letting up. Now that the story has been picked up by the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, I’ve decided to explain how I came to be involved in this little squabble. I’ve received a number of emails from interested readers inquiring as to how I got involved, including a few that have taken liberties in assuming some kind of loyalty to one side. I want to clear the air and offer my own assessment of this unfortunate incident.
It seems fitting to offer a few thoughts about the Crater on this the 145th anniversary of the battle. On Monday Brendan Wolfe posted a fascinating entry on the Crater massacre over at the Encyclopedia Virginia blog. In the process of putting together their entry on the battle, my friend, VFH Intern, and UVA graduate student, Peter Luebke uncovered an important story out of the Northern Neck of Virginia in June 1864. In the summer of 1864 reports circulated in Richmond newspapers of the raping of a white woman 11 times at the hands of soldiers from the 36th USCT. Peter rightly inquires whether these newspaper reports help to explain the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers following the battle on July 30. In citing a recent study by Jason Phillips (a book all of you should read) Peter notes the extent to which the men in Lee’s army exchanged news in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and helped to encourage all kinds of rumors. The important point here is not whether the rape in fact occurred, but that those who heard of these stories would have given them legitimacy. At no point does Peter ever suggest a direct causal connection between the stories of rape and the Crater massacre. I’ve spent the past 5 years reading the letter and diaries of Lee’s men through the summer of 1864 and I have not once come across a specific reference to this incident on the Northern Neck. That said, I agree with Peter that it’s enough to suggest that to the extent these stories filtered through the ranks they would have contributed to the intensity of the response by Confederates.
Three books have been published on the battle of the Crater over the past two years and I have had the opportunity to review all of them. I reviewed Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit for the Journal of Southern History and my review of John Schmutz’s The Battle of the Crater is forthcoming at H-Net. Before I left for Amsterdam I was contacted by Civil War Book Review to see if I might be interested in reviewing Richard Slotkin’s new study, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864. On a personal note, all three books reference one or more of my own publications on the battle, which, of course, is nice to see.
Both Axelrod and Schmutz are heavy on tactical detail, but quite weak on interpretation, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Slotkin’s book since last summer. The title alone suggests that the issue of race is central in Slotkin’s analysis and a quick read of the preface confirms it:
I‘ve heard from a few people over the past few weeks that they are having trouble viewing Civil War Memory. The problem seems to be with those of you who are running one of the older versions of Internet Explorer. In some cases an error message is received and in the worst cases the loading time simply runs out. It looks like one of the twenty WordPress plug-ins that I use could be causing the problem, so one way to deal with this would be for me to go through one by one to find the culprit. I have neither the time nor the patience to carry out such a project. Apparently, the easiest fix is for you to upgrade to Internet Explorer 8. Please do let me know if the problem persists after upgrading. I would have been more proactive if the number of visits had significantly declined, but surprisingly, just the opposite happened and even after being away from the blog for two weeks.