You should definitely take a look at Drew G. Faust’s NEH 2011 Jefferson Lecture, titled, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian.” [pdf] It is incredibly thoughtful. [Click here for David Blight’s introductory remarks.] I think Faust effectively explains the difficulty of trying to capture the horrors of war as well as the dangers involved in trivializing it. The following passage at the end caught my eye and pretty much sums up why I have little interest in attending the Manassas reenactment this summer:
There is just something about reenacting that I find troubling and yet I know that there are very serious people, who are passionate about it and who see it as a form of education. I don’t want to be entertained by representations of battle, suffering, and loss. On the other hand I don’t have a problem with a reenactment of a slave auction, which also depicts violence and personal loss. This may be an inconsistent attitude on my part, but I just can’t imagine ordering a hot dog or picnicking at a slave reenactment.
What I do completely agree with, however, is Faust’s final comment regarding our current wars. I do believe that battle reenactments help to trivialize war and prevent us from considering the tough questions that any citizenry in a democracy must consider before going to and during war. In the end, I am skeptical that the narrative of a reenactment gets us closer to any meaningful understanding of what it means to go to war as well as the costs.
I recently re-read Philip D. Dillard’s essay, “What Price Must We Pay for Victory?: View on Arming Slaves from Lynchburg, Virginia and Galveston, Texas, which appeared in a collection of essays honoring the career of Emory Thomas. Dillard argues that the slave enlistment debate was shaped by a localities proximity to Union military threats. While Lynchburg was forced to deal with a Union advance in the Shenandoah Valley by late 1864, Galveston remained relatively isolated from the threat of war. Dillard reminds us that sentiment in connection with the enlistment debate was shaped directly by the perceived threat to slavery. Residents of Lynchburg eventually came to grudgingly endorse a resolution supporting enlistment while Galveston’s location allowed its residents to consider the threat to slavery and the racial hierarchy in isolation from the threat of war.
One editorial in the Galveston News authored by “Pelican Private” who was stationed in the Galveston defenses caught my attention:
The discussion is untimely and fraught with evil; it engenders panic when there is no danger. Shall we sell slavery, the legacy of our fathers–a legacy halloed by the best blood of the Caucassian race–to purchase independence: Go to the red fields of Manassas, Sharpsburg and Shiloh…and tell their whitened bones that you are so base, so low, so abject that you are ready to abandon the cause for which they fell.
I have no idea whether this individual was a slaveholder, but I don’t think it matters. What I find interesting in the account is the difficulty involved in imagining slaves as soldiers. While the residents of Lynchburg eventually endorsed such an idea we ought not to make the mistake of assuming that supporters eagerly embraced the measure. In fact, that it came so late in the war suggests just how committed white southerners were to a slave society. It also reflects their commitment to the concept of the citizen-soldier. White southerners were obligated to serve their nation because of their status as free men. Slaves were not simply property, they were not citizens of the country. Pelican’s editorial must be understood, in part, as a plea to maintain the status of all white men.
The iconic image of Andrew and Silas Chandler has fueled some of the most outlandish claims about the service of thousands of black Confederate soldiers as well as the continued loyalty of slaves to their masters and the Confederate war effort. In the case of Andrew and Silas the image of the two men seated and armed has been used as a centerpiece of a narrative that assumes a close friendship between the two that began before the war and lasted well into the postwar era. None of these claims can be supported by the available evidence. One of the claims that can be found on countless websites suggests that Andrew assisted Silas in procuring a pension in the 1870s. Silas did indeed apply for a pension, but not until 1916 and it is not clear that it was approved. Most importantly, the pension that Silas received was for his presence in the army as a slave and not a soldier.
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A recent post over at Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads has got me thinking about the tragic nature of the Civil War. Brooks offers the following in response to two recent editorials by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Cohen:
Was it an awful war? Sure. Was it tragic? In some ways, yes, but not necessarily in the ways in which Coates contests the term. It was tragic that white Americans could not bring themselves to realize the promise of their own revolutionary and Revolutionary rhetoric. It was tragic that in the end they could not bring an end to slavery short of secession and war. Doubtless Coates would agree that Reconstruction was a regrettable tragedy that illustrated the same shortcomings. In short, even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation. Moreover, if we continue to concentrate on the story of the destruction of slavery and the achievement of emancipation as a wartime phenomenon, we risk losing sight of the fact that what freedom meant remained undefined and incomplete, and that during Reconstruction, a truly tragic era, white Americans once more fell short of realizing the ideals which they claimed to cherish, leaving a legacy with which we still wrestle.
I tend to agree with Brooks’s assessment, but I wonder if this characterization of the tragic nature of the war reflects the continued hold that the “War to End Slavery Narrative” exercises over our collective memory. Yes, I am reflecting on this in the wake of having finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War. In other words, our definition of what makes the war tragic reflects the value that we have come to place on emancipation and slavery, which may not match up so easily with how the citizens of the United States in the 1860s viewed the meaning of the war.
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