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:
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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.
I do not consider myself to be a religious person. Yes, I was raised in a reformed Jewish household, but following my Bar Mitzvah I made a conscious decision to forgo further religious education; this suited my parents just fine. I didn’t particularly enjoy my Wednesday afternoon Hebrew classes; in fact, it would be more accurate to say that I loathed these sessions. Like most kids at that age I was much more interested in sports and hanging out with friends on the beach or the arcades on the Atlantic City boardwalk. I’ve stepped into a synagogue on a handful of occasions since my thirteenth birthday for the weddings of friends and family. Still, the time spent in synagogue did instill a sense in me that I am a Jew, despite the fact that I do not practice any formal aspect of the religion. This self-identification was instilled, in part, through a heavy emphasis on the history of antisemitism and profound suffering as well as the redemptive power of good deeds and the hope of better times for Jews around the world. It should come as no surprise than that I learned quite a bit about the Holocaust. We discussed the relevant history as well as the nature of evil and the moral responsibility that was both embraced by all too few at the time as well as the countless numbers who turned a blind eye or who took part in the murder of 6 million Jews. Looking back I see much more clearly just how close we were (growing up in the 1970s) to the event itself. We had a number of Holocaust survivors in our congregation who spent time with us to talk about their experiences. At about that time I learned that most of my family on my mother’s side was lost in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I first read Anne Frank’s diary at the age of 10 and than again in high school. Like millions of children around the world who continue to read it, I was moved by her story and forced to measure my own struggles and fears against those faced in that tiny attic room at 263 Prinsengratz in Amsterdam. To this day it is the Holocaust that serves to remind me of my Jewish identity, but it is Frank’s diary that will forever serve as the face of that tragic and sad time.
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I was in the process of ordering Jeffrey McClurken’s new book on Amazon when I came across this hilarious book on Lincoln that is being published by Pelican Press. The book is titled, Lincoln Über Alles: Dictatorship Comes to America. Eat your heart out, DiLorenzo. The brief description is priceless: “Abraham Lincoln’s election was favorably influenced by the influx of German revolutionaries who fled Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848. Then, his agenda to establish a central government with unlimited political power caused the American Civil War. This fascinating book puts forth these arguments and also explores how, after the war, the legality of secession was viewed.”
On a different note, check out the thoughtful and hard-nosed critique of recently-published Lincoln studies by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic. One of the books reviewed is by our friend, John Stauffer, who clearly has trouble handling critiques of his scholarship.
It’s nice to be home, but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that I am already missing Amsterdam. In fact, I would love to spend a few more weeks, if not months, in the city. Actually, it’s the first foreign city where I can imagine living. The people are simply wonderful and the city itself is beautiful. They are unpretentious and, with just a little prodding, some of the friendliest people that I’ve ever met. The Dutch have mastered the art of living. There are plenty of book stores and cafes in which to read and converse with friends. It was nice not seeing a Starbucks on every other corner. Public transportation is a snap. The city’s international profile is a breadth of fresh air. Things clearly get done, but there is no rat race. As many of you know, people get around predominantly on bicycles, which translates into what appears to be a pretty healthy society – a lesson that we here in the United States need to take seriously. A trip to Amsterdam really does highlight how dangerously overweight and lazy we are. The nights are long so there is plenty of time to walk after dinner. People sit on their porches with a bottle of wine or look out from their beautifully lit apartments.
Michaela and I spent much of our time walking along the canals, exploring narrow side streets, and eating plenty of good food. Each morning started in a little cafe with croissant and other assorted pastries. We hit the main art museums, including the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum along with a number of historic tours such as the Anne Frank House, which I will comment on at some point later. Let’s just say it was one of the most moving experiences in quite some time. We also took a day trip to Den Haag to see the sites and Vermeer’s “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” in the Mauritshuis. The art is simply spectacular. The Van Gogh museum gives you a nice overview of the evolution of his work during the last few years of his life, but I was also impressed with their collection of Redon. And as much as I enjoy Rembrandt’s use of light I couldn’t get enough of the fanciful winter scenes painted by such artists as Jan Steen and Adriaen van de Venne. In fact, I bought a nice little collection of these images in one of the museum stores.
The food is as wide ranging as you could possibly want. The best part of dining overseas for me is you never have to worry about being rushed out of a restaurant. You can sit as long as you want and the waiters never clear your plate before the other person is finished. I have a great deal of difficulty sitting for long stretches of time in restaurants here in the states, but without the anxiety of having to vacate a table I am able to sit for hours overseas. It’s a cultural difference, but a crucial one at that. You enjoy both the food and company that much more.
I hope you will understand if things are a bit slow around here for the next few days. My mind and heart are still in Amsterdam and I have a couple of books that I want to finish, including a biography of Anne Frank and a short history of the city. I actually just ate a 2-day old croissant from Amsterdam rather than the crap that passes for one here in the states.
You can check out some photographs from our trip if interested. You will also notice some photographs from a family wedding that we attended, before heading to Amsterdam, in Hinterzarten, Germany – the heart of the Black Forest.
I‘ve said more than once that I find Civil War memoirs to be very difficult to use when trying to understand the war itself. Many are self serving and are inevitably influenced by the political, social, and economic conditions present at the time of writing. While difficult to use to illuminate the war itself, I enjoy trying to piece together an analysis that places the source in its proper context. One thing I’ve learned after years of research on the memory of the Crater is that nothing written by former Confederates and other Southern commentators after 1879 can be understood apart from the radical political changes that William Mahone introduced to the state and the lingering bitterness and suspicion that would be attached to his reputation well into the twentieth century.
That said, we can identify those postwar sources that seem to transcend the influences mentioned above. Please don’t ask me to explain how we can identify these specific sources; suffice it to say, we just know – think “Brewmaster’s Nose.” There is a sense that the author is attempting to be fair and balanced; he is self-effacing and may even accept blame on occasion. I can’t think of a better example of such a narrative than Edward Porter Alexander’s Fighting for the Confederacy, which was edited by Gary Gallagher back in 1989. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. There are very few memoirs that top 500 pages that I can claim to have read in their entirety, but I can honestly say that I’ve read it through twice and large sections multiple times. In contrast with Military Memoirs of a Confederate (1907), Fighting for the Confederacy was written for his grandchildren and, if I remember correctly, was written while in Nicaragua. No doubt, this helped to shape the narrative.
Recently, I decided to go back and reread Alexander’s chapter on the Crater as I finish up my essay on understanding the post-battle massacre of USCTs as a slave rebellion. It should come as no surprise that nothing I’ve read in the letters and diaries of Confederates who were at the Crater describe it as a slave rebellion or reference the likes of John Brown and Nat Turner, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across the following:
In fact there were, comparatively, very few Negro prisoners taken that day. It was the first occasion on which any of the Army of Northern Virginia came in contact with Negro troops, & the general feeling of the men toward their employment was very bitter. The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro. (p. 462)
This was not the first time that I read this passage and I’ve even used it in different places in the manuscript, but reading it again as I think about slave rebellions, John Brown, etc. gives it a salience that I failed to fully appreciate.
Update: Click here for Victoria Bynum’s third and final installment of her review of The State of Jones
A few days ago I posted a link to Victoria Bynum’s two-part review of the new book, The State of Jones, by John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins. I did so because of her published work on the subject and a belief that there is no one more qualified to evaluate a new study that professes to add to or alter our interpretation of the relevant issues involved. I stand by that decision. That said, historical debate is never static, but is a continual process or dialectic and it is in that spirit that I share this response by Stauffer and Jenkins.
In response to your recent post about The State of Jones:
Debate is one thing; we welcome that-indeed we would be happy to debate Victoria Bynum (or a disinterested scholar) on your blog or any other venue. It’s quite another thing for Bynum to try to discredit our book, The State of Jones, as part of her effort to trumpet her own book and remain the only source on the subject. We hope to have an equal forum to defend our work and respond to the criticism of it. We wrote the book The State of Jones because the historical record about the Unionist guerilla Newton Knight and Jones County, Mississippi was incomplete, and inaccurate. We spent four years sifting through the evidence and writing with painstaking care for historical context and accuracy, and it was a labor of love and devotion. Our book was commissioned by the legendary publisher Phyllis Grann of Doubleday Books, and it is firmly documented in every respect. You state, citing Victoria Bynum, “there is no evidence” that Jones County seceded from the Confederacy. We will quote directly from the wealth of primary source evidence below.
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It’s such a breadth of fresh air to read this story in light of the recent attempts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to distort the past by honoring slaves as Confederate soldiers. Finally, a story where the historical record justifies the placing of a marker acknowledging the military service of Amos McKinney, a former slave who served voluntarily in the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV. McKinney’s granddaughter, Johnnie McKinney Lester, remarked that her grandfather “would be so proud of all of this.” Well, we have no way of knowing what he might think, but at least this recognition reflects the historical record and doesn’t have to distort the past (as in the case of so-called “black Confederates”, which ignores the fact of coercion) to satisfy our own emotional need to remember and commemorate our past.