Edward Porter Alexander Comes Through Again

Edward Porter AlexanderI‘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.

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John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins Respond

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.

[click to continue…]

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Southern Heritage Meets Southern History

bildeIt’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.

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What I Am Not Saying About the Crater

I am putting the finishing stages on my essay which examines events that transpired at the conclusion of the fighting at the Crater.  In a recent post I suggested that one way to interpret the response of Confederates to the presence of black Union soldiers was along the lines of a slave rebellion.  That post generated a great deal of feedback, much of it critical and greatly appreciated.  I also ended up having an interesting exchange with a good friend and fellow historian on Facebook which was quite helpful.  [That's right, you can engage in intellectual exchanges on FB.] This individual suggested that it was a mistake for me to argue that the Crater was a slave rebellion since the men who fought in Union ranks were not slaves.  There was also the concern expressed that by characterizing it as such I would minimize, if not distort, the significance of their participation.

In the strictest sense I am not arguing that the Crater was a slave rebellion.  An entire division of free blacks and former slaves donned the uniform of the United States of America.  Indeed, there is a real risk of losing sight of this crucial fact if I were simply to reduce their presence to that of slaves.  The recruitment and service of these individuals comprises an important place in the broader narrative of this country’s history of freedom and race relations.  The last thing that I would ever want to do is contribute to the collective amnesia and misunderstanding that has for far too long characterized our memory of USCTs.

What I am arguing is that the massacre of USCTs by Confederates along with their wartime accounts must be understood within the broader context of the history of slave rebellions (real and imagined) that stretched back to the beginning of the nineteenth-century.  As I’ve stated before, all too often the actions of Confederates in response to the presence of USCTs has been reduced to one of uncontrolled rage.  Others have given a nod to the role that race played in their actions and written accounts, but have failed to fully explain their particular form.  After all, race/racism can shape our actions and thoughts in any number of ways.  Why did it lead to a massacre and how can we explain the convergence of thought in the accounts written by Confederates who took part in the battle or who learned of it later?

At the root of my argument is the assumption that collective violence cannot be reduced to an undefined rage that is left disconnected from broader cultural, social, and political practices.  In short, violence often serves to maintain a certain way of life.  The swift and often violent responses to rumors and actual rebellions helped to shape the perceptions of white southerners throughout the antebellum period and helped to unite them around the shared goal of maintaining a slave society based on white supremacy.  Such violence not only helped to maintain the stability of the region, but reinforced shared assumptions about why insurrections occurred at all and who was to blame.  Swift and violent responses became sanctioned and provided a visual reassurance that steps were being taken to prevent future insurrections.

I am convinced that the interracial parade that took place the following day in Petersburg along with the detailed reports of the massacres found in letters and newspapers served to reassure white southerners on the home front and even functioned so as to allow them to “witness” the violence and aftermath through the eyes of loved ones at the front.  It was imperative that those on the home front understand the dangers that black soldiers represented to their way of life.  Newspaper accounts suggest that many viewed the response of Lee’s men at the Crater as they had come to view the necessity of swift action against rebellious slaves before the war.  This was socially and culturally sanctioned violence that took place in the aftermath of the Crater.  Consider this editorial from a Richmond paper, which I posted last week:

We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.

Notice the choice of words: “Butcher every negro,” and not every black soldier.  Indeed, white southerners did not view these men as soldiers; rather, their cultural framework reduced blacks to slaves and armed blacks to a direct threat to their security and place in a strictly-defined social order.  I’ve found Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (UNC Press, 2009) to be quite helpful in fleshing out the extent to which violence functioned to maintain a collective identity as well as a strictly defined political, social, and racial hierarchy.  “But even the violence and those deaths were themselves representations,” writes Wood, “conveying messages about racial hierarchy and the frightening consequences of transgressing that hierarchy.”  In a way the response of white southerners at the Crater provides a bridge between the violent response to slave insurrections during the antebellum period and lynchings during the Jim Crow period.

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Trouble in the State of Jones

State of Jones historian and blogger, Vikki Bynum, is in the middle of a lengthy review [Part 1 - Part 2] of Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer’s new book, The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded From the Confederacy.  If I remember correctly, the book is going to be turned into a Hollywood movie at some point soon.  I am about half-way through it and while I’ve enjoyed it thus far it is clear from reading Vikki’s review that there are serious problems that I do not have the background to pick out.  For instance, despite the book’s subtitle there is no evidence that a declaration of secession was ever issued.  More problematic is the claim that Newt Knight served at Vicksburg.  Other problems abound, accoring to Bynum.  Given Vikki’s research into the State of Jones there is no one more qualified to judge the overall quality of this study.  I highly recommend her book.

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