History Channel Does Reconstruction Right

Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to historian, Vernon Burton:

At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)

Part of the problem is that our tendency to remember Appomattox as some kind of love fest or the beginning of reunion obscures the level of violence that continued into Reconstruction.  Much of that violence was perpetrated against southern blacks to reinforce assumptions of white supremacy and prevent freed slaves from exercising newly-won civil rights.  Such a view has grown steadily among academic historians since the 1960s and in recent years can be seen in a wave of more popular titles.  The pervasiveness of this view can be seen in a recent History Channel documentary, titled, Aftershock: Beyond The Civil War.  Based on only viewing the first episode it looks like this particular documentary is not so concerned with the complex political issues that dominated the period, but with the scale of violence that was used to terrorize blacks into submission.  It suggests that perhaps the war did not end in 1865, but took on a different form in the years that followed.

My You Have a Pretty Toe

Battlefield-GettysburgSome of you know that the cover story for the April issue of Civil War Times will feature my article on Confederate military executions.  This is a project that I’ve had in the works for a couple of years, and although I am not finished thinking about the subject, I thought it might be worthwhile to share some of my findings with a general audience.  In addition to the article I am also finishing up a 500 word sidebar on an execution that took place in “Stonewall” Jackson’s corps in August 1862 for the same issue.  December has been incredibly productive for me without the pressure of having to churn out daily blog posts.

In the course of my research I came across an interesting account that I am hoping to follow up on in the near future.  The account comes from the Charles Thurston Papers which are housed at the University of Virginia.  Writing from Centreville, Virginia in November 1861, Thurston promised his family to send home a souvenir from the battlefield and hoped to include the following:

I am only pleased to hear from Mother that you are such a good boy and Edwin, too.  Fine lads both of you, and I shall certainly bring you home something good for sore eyes in the shape of a bomb shell, Yankee toe, a Stone Bridge, or Bull Run Walking Cane.  I cut one out the other day, a soldier on the end of it, and I believe I will send it to Mr. Cooks.

You can see that I am interested in Thurston’s desire to send home a body part.  This is the only such account that I’ve come across, but I am sure there are plenty more.  I would very much appreciate any references (Union and Confederate) that you’ve come across in the course of your reading/research.  It seems to me that this would make for a very interesting essay.  I would also like to know if there are any secondary sources on the subject.  I know that it was quite common during the Jim Crow Era to remove bones from lynching sites to keep as souvenirs.  At first glance it seems to touch on the fascination that soldiers attached to battlefields and their struggle to come to terms with the brutality of war.  That Thurston hoped to send a body part home suggests a need to impress upon loved ones of just what he and others experienced in battle.  Thanks in advance for your assistance.

Will Greene’s Civil War Petersburg

greene-petersburgI know I promised to stay away until January, but I don’t really consider this to be a violation of my blogging hiatus.  My review of Will Greene’s book, Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War (University of Virginia Press, 2006), is included in the most recent issue of the journal, Civil War History [December 2009, (pp. 504-05)], and I thought I might pass it on for those of you who need a quick Civil War Memory fix.

Although most Civil War enthusiasts are no doubt familiar with the ten-month campaign that enveloped the city of Petersburg between June 1864 and April 1865 few can say much about how its civilian population, both black and white, experienced the changing conditions wrought by war.  The increase in the number of community and regional studies has led to rich insights into the ways both white and black southerners experienced the hardships of war on the home front.  In addition to studies of the home front historians such as Frank Towers and Louis S. Gerteis have examined the extensive growth experienced in urban communities during the final two decades of the antebellum period and beyond.  A. Wilson Greene’s Civil War Petersburg straddles both of these categories and the result is the most scholarly study of the Cockade City to date. Continue reading