Women as Objects in Civil War Art

Richmond Bread RiotIt’s difficult to deny that the image of women in the work of contemporary Civil War artists tells us much more about the individual artist than the reality of women’s lives or the way those lives were transformed during the Civil War.  I pick on Mort Kunstler quite a bit, but his characters beg for analysis and often ridicule.  Such is the case with his most recent offering, “Autograph Seekers of Bel Air.”  One could even go so far as to suggest that in a great deal of the Civil War print culture women don’t even exist outside of the gaze of men or, in this case, fawning over men – usually Confederates.  Historians of the Lost Cause have noted the role that women played in support of the Confederate cause and their admiration for Confederate chieftains such as Jackson, Stuart, and most importantly, Lee.  Of course, while there is a great deal of evidence to support such claims, it also offers a very narrow view of women that obscures class distinctions and the hardships that they faced throughout the conflict.

I recently finished reading Stephanie McCurry’s lead essay in the newly-published collection, Wars Within a War: Controversy and Conflict Over the Civil War (UNC Press, 2009).  McCurry focuses on poor soldiers’ wives who took steps to organize in response to an increasingly encroaching Confederate government which left them with serious food shortages and unprotected from the Federal army and slaves.  In her analysis, McCurry uncovers interstate communication and organization that led to food riots in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Salisbury, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama.  According to McCurry, the extent that the war politicized women involved a renegotiation of their relationship with the state.

McCurry’s essay (part of a larger and much anticipated book project) represents a small piece of a much larger story about women during the Civil War that historians have uncovered over the past few decades.  Much of this literature has redefined what we know about women, their roles, and the consequences of the war on the place of women in the polity.  It would be silly of me to inquire into the absence of these women in contemporary Civil War art.  Most of these images tell us very little about the lives of Southern white women during the war, though they tell us a great deal about how white men today choose to depict them or what they hope their customers (white men) will want to purchase.  And that is their purpose.  They reaffirm an image of women as apolitical and submissive in the presence of men and a world where gender roles have been solidified.  Northern women may have pushed for the suffrage, equal pay, and other anti-discrimination laws, but not white Southern women.  They have always been content to worship and serve at the altar of men.

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Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley’s Crater

wilson-honor_in_commandOne of the most interesting Union accounts of the Crater is Lieutenant Freeman Bowley’s memoir, which was published in the National Tribune between April 1899 and September 1899.  [In 2006 Keith Wilson published these articles as Honor in Command.]  Bowley served in the 30th USCT from May 1864 till his capture at the Crater on July 30, 1864.  Bowley’s memoir is valuable for a number of reasons.  His memory is clearly intact and offers vivid descriptions of battle and life as a prisoner in Columbia, South Carolina.  In reference to the Crater it provides a detailed account of his capture and the threats he faced as an officer in a “colored regiment” both in Petersburg and while a prisoner.  Unlike some of his fellow officers who worried about the repercussions from leading blacks into battle, Bowley refused to hide his rank and unit.  There are a number of passages that are worth referencing, but I am going to confine myself to a few that bear on my previous post.

Some of the most interesting passages illustrate his interactions with civilians, particularly women.  One woman, who sold Bowley some dumplings following his capture at the Crater said the following: “‘Yo’ Yanks is all a miserable lyin’ set of thieves, come down yere to steal we’uns niggers.  If I was a man I’d git a gun and shoot ye dead; I’d git a sword and chop yer to pieces.’”  Once out of Petersburg the prisoners were shipped by rail to Danville where they stayed for a short period.  A group of citizens met the train and were outraged at the site of black soldiers and their “abolitionist allies”:

A crowd of citizens gathered around the depot.  The sight of negroes among the prisoners excited them greatly.  Cries of “Kill them! Hang the nigger!” resounded on all sides.  Two officers were pointed out as being officers of colored regiments.  The mob howled with fury and some one brought a rope.  The two officers, Lieut. Shell [Shull], 28th USCT, and Lieut. Dowling [Downing], 31st USCT were dragged from the car, and it seemed as though they were to be hanged then and there.

Luckily the men were not executed, but the rage expressed that day must be understood as the desire to see the leaders of a slave rebellion executed rather than simply as retribution against a hated enemy.  A few weeks later while being imprisoned in Columbia, South Carolina Bowley had another experience with a white Southern woman:

Visitors “to see the Yankees” were an almost everyday occurrence, and the guards never failed to designate me as “That thar little Yankee cuss is an officer in a nigger regiment.”  I had never made any retort, until one day a woman made the remark, “He ‘un had orter be hung for makin’ the niggers fight we ‘uns,” when I turned and said, “Yes, madam; I am an officer of a nigger regiment and I am proud of it.  The time will come when the blackest nigger who wears blue will be a better man than any rebel who ever wore gray!”  The woman flushed, furious with anger.  “If I had my way, I’d kill all you Yankees who came down here to fight we ‘uns and steal we ‘uns niggers–niggers we brung up jes’ like our own children–an teach ‘em to fight we ‘uns,” she said.

I think we should not lose sight of the fact that Bowley’s recollection of this woman’s response comes roughly thirty years after the war; however, we should note that it fits perfectly within the paternal mindset of white Southerners who viewed their slaves as family and who believed that discontent and outright rebellion must be understood as external.  Bowley and other USCT officers continued to worry about their status and safety throughout this period.  They wondered specifically as to whether Confederate authorities would enforce an act that stipulated that any white officers captured on the field of battle leading black soldiers would be treated “as inciting servile insurrection.”  Within the framework of a slave rebellion this act of the Confederate Congress does not seem like such a radical turn.  In fact, it fits neatly into long-standing assumptions surrounding what to do with those who would incite complacent slaves against their caring masters.  Bowley witnessed it first hand.

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Was the Battle of the Crater the Last Slave Insurrection in the Western Hemisphere?

I‘ve decided to begin my Crater manuscript with the forced post-battle march of roughly 1,500 black and white Union soldiers through the streets of Petersburg before being sent to prisons further south or, in the case of many USCTs, back into bondage.  The scene perfectly captures the central theme of my study, which is the evolution of the memory of the battle and specifically the participation of a division of USCTs.  However, even apart from the memory aspect of the battle, by beginning here we also place the event itself in a much different light.  For most military historians the battle represents the culmination of bloody fighting that defined the “Overland Campaign” and the June offensives outside of Petersburg.  It is also the last decisive Confederate victory in the East.  But there is much more to this story than a massive explosion and fierce fighting in a closely defined space.

For the men in the Army of Northern Virginia this was their first experience fighting USCTs on a large scale and it occurred in a battle to defend an important rail center and civilian population in Petersburg.  Apart from the successful defense of Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862 this was the only other time where Confederates could characterize their actions in such terms.  The salient difference this time around, however, was that Confederates and white Southerners no longer looked on the “Yankee” army as simply an enemy that needed to be destroyed, but as the extension of a government that had inaugurated servile insurrection.  If we stick closely to the letters and diaries written by Confederates than we must come to terms with their experience of having to put down a slave rebellion.  I want to get beyond some of the more entrenched interpretive categories, which dominate the discussion that simply highlight the defense of slavery as a motivating factor or explanan for the men in the army as well as the remaining civilians of Petersburg.  It’s their experiences that I am trying desperately to understand.  How do we understand the rage that animated Confederate soldiers both during and after the battle that led to the slaughter of an unknown number of USCTs?  I don’t mean to downplay the sense of horror surrounding the scale of the explosion that caught an entire brigade off-guard and which created a landscape unlike anything experienced before or the emotional demands placed on soldiers in battle.  There would be something significant to explain regardless of an explosion along with the intensity of fighting and it has everything to do with how white Southerners experienced race as well as their place and responsibilities within a slave society based on white supremacy.

It seems to me that to interpret this battle along these lines forces us to look beyond the war entirely.  If the Crater is to be understood as a slave insurrection than we need to better understand how white Southerners had already come to experience both the threat and fact of rebellion.  Relevant events include John Brown’s failed raid, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, as well as both Gabriel’s and Denmark Vesey’s attempted insurrections.  We should also not forget that news traveled far and wide throughout the western hemisphere during the antebellum period.  Americans (especially slaveholders) paid careful attention to news coming out of the Caribbean and would have helped to reinforce assumptions about how best to prevent and understand slave rebellions.

While our tendency in certain circles is to address the role of slavery in Confederate ranks by noting that most soldiers did not directly own slaves it is important to remember that the maintenance of slavery in much of the South involved all white Southerners.  Beyond the social structure itself, which placed all white men above black slaves and free blacks, whites played a number of important roles in the direct maintenance of slavery.  The best example were the slave patrols, which were commonly made up of non-slaveowners.  Such a role would have given white non-slaveowners a clear sense of their obligations not just in the maintenance of the institution, but in the protection of a broad segment of white southern society.  [Can we see the ANV at the Crater functioning as a large slave patrol?]  Again, it is important to remember that the ANV was protecting a civilian population in Petersburg throughout the campaign; these men would have interacted with civilians as they were rotated in and out of the earthworks.

For Confederates and white Southerners their understanding of the motivation of USCTs would have been framed by long-standing assumptions about black inferiority as well as the perceived role of abolitionists in stirring up what many believed to be loyal and docile servants.   Once again, a broader “Atlantic World” perspective is helpful.  One of the most influential accounts of slave rebellion was Bryan Edwards’s Historical Survey of the French Colony of St. Domingo.  Edwards was a West Indian planter, Member of Parliament, and historian and was located in Jamaica when the rebellion in Saint-Domingue broke out.  Edwards’s account placed the blame for the insurrection squarely on the French abolitionists and by doing so set the stage for understanding South Carolina’s attempt to ban abolitionist literature during the tariff crisis and how slaveowners explained Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which followed closely on the heels of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator (January 1831).  White Virginians worked desperately to frame an explanation that placed blame on outside forces rather than their own slave population, which they believed to be content.  The failed attempt at Harper’s Ferry arguably confirmed the worst fears of white southerners regarding the ultimate goals of northern agitators.

Confederate letters and diaries from the Crater confirm this long-standing tendency to blame abolitionists and other instigators rather than acknowledge any desire for freedom on the part of the slaves themselves.  Many believed that black soldiers were drunk and cajoled by conniving northern politicians and ruthless abolitionist officers.  Sources also indicate that Confederates viewed white Union soldiers as well as officers in USCT units as willing accomplices.  Some Union officers ripped their rank and unit identifications from their uniforms for fear of being treated as leading a slave rebellion.

One of the most obvious ways in which the thinking about slave rebellions can prove helpful is in reference to the post-battle slaughter of captured black soldiers.  According to historian Bryce Suderow, captured black soldiers were executed on three separate occasions, the largest number occurring after the battle.  The exact number is difficult to nail down, but it is not a stretch to suggest that anywhere between 200 – 300+ USCTs were executed.  I’ve tended to explain this mass execution as a function of Confederate rage at having to engage blacks in close fighting.  No doubt this is true, but we should not ignore the catalyst for that rage that extends beyond the battlefield.  An 1816 rebellion on the island of Barbados resulted in the execution of roughly 200 slaves and in Demerera (1823) another 200 slaves were executed following a failed rebellion.  Interestingly, roughly 200 slaves were either publicly tortured or executed following Turner’s Rebellion in 1831.  Such violent responses served a number of purposes, most notably it sent a strong message to the slave community of who was in control, that such behavior would not be tolerated, and that such actions had no hope of succeeding.  A direct and brutal response would also work to drain any remaining enthusiasm for rebellion.  If we apply this framework to the Crater we can move beyond the mere fact of rage and better discern the intended consequences of the scale of the violence meted out to black soldiers.  It is important to note that these men were responsible for the defense of a civilian population and any remaining slaves in the area.  A strong message would have been sent to the region’s (and beyond) black population that any attempt in following in the footsteps of these soldiers would be dealt with in the harshest of terms.

And this brings us finally to the interracial parade of Union prisoners through the streets of Petersburg the day after the battle.  First and foremost, the parade – ordered by A.P. Hill – represented control and submissiveness to the residents who lined the streets and verandas “in holiday attire.”  What I mean to suggest is that the army demonstrated its ability to continue to defend the residents of the city from the Union army as well as captured black soldier.  Once through the city most of the prisoners were sent to prison camps further south while some of the black prisoners ended up being returned to slavery.  While the interspersing of Union prisoners served to humiliate white soldiers it also worked as a gentle reminder of just what was at stake given the introduction of black soldiers into the Union army.  The parade was a controlled example of miscegenation and it was acknowledged as such by local residents.  One onlooker yelled, “See the white and nigger equality soldiers”, while another asserted, “Yanks and niggers sleep in the same bed.”  This latter comment is quite telling.  How much of a jump is it from seeing white men forced into close proximity with blacks to imagining some of the worst case scenarios following a successful slave rebellion?  Of course, there is death, but there is also the long-standing fear of white women being raped by “savage” blacks.

I should point out that I am not suggesting that Confederates who took part in the battle or even most white Southerners who read about the battle second hand thought of it as a slave rebellion or had visions of Nat Turner and John Brown in mind.  What I am suggesting, however, is that over time white Southerners had become attunded to seeing their slave society in a way that was reinforced by a a concern for its continued maintenance and a clear record of what happens when that hierarchical structure is threatened.  Understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion offers a number of interpretive entry points into the experiences of Confederate soldiers that I hope to explore in more detail in the coming weeks.  It also connects our understanding of the Civil War to the broader “Atlantic World” and reinforces my suspicion that at least one Civil War battlefield has something in common with the battlefields of Barbados, Haiti, Demerera, Southampton and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

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Ron Maxwell’s Arlington Speech

The History News Network has posted Ron Maxwell’s recent address at the Confederate cemetery at Arlington.  He starts off with the right tone, but unfortunately, toward the end he was much too distracted by the Sebesta-Loewen petition.  If you are going to honor soldiers than honor soldiers.  That’s the purpose of Memorial Day.  It just seemed to me to be out of place.  Even more interesting is Maxwell’s theme: “The history of America is liberation.”

In the 19th century the work of liberation would continue, slowly, falteringly, but steadily. Before slavery could be ended by law a transformation of the hearts and minds of Americans had to take place. Mammon is a heavy shackle on the soul. When profits are fused with prejudice change is even harder to accomplish. It is argued that the liberation of America from the nightmare of slavery would have happened in time, as it did throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere, without a savage Civil War. Alternate histories and speculations of paths not taken are of endless interest, but the facts of history cannot be undone. We did have a brutal Civil War. And the work of liberation continued.

Are we to understand that the Confederate soldiers being commemorated by Maxwell contributed to the liberation of slaves and beyond?

These graves stand as monuments not just to the slain – but to remind us of a world that could have been, but for their sacrifice. A world of oppression, a world of ignorance, a world of conformity. One need only look at the images from Pyong Yang in North Korea – the regimented masses offering homage to their supreme leader – to catch a glimpse of the prison camp that could have been our destiny as well.

Now this is what I call historical revisionism.  Well done, Ron.

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John Brown’s Pikes

For some reason John Brown is back in the news of late with a specific focus on his continuing legacy as well as the pikes or spears that were to be used during the raid.  For an excellent discussion of Brown’s life as well as the significance of the Harpers Ferry Raid I highly recommend viewing a webcast from the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s recent “Signature Conference” held at the University of Richmond.  You can view all the sessions, including the session on Brown (you need to download Real Player), which featured historians David Blight, Manisha Sinha, Clarence Walker, and David Reynolds whose recent biography of Brown is well worth reading.  One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion is their emphasis on placing Brown’s life and motivation (Calvinism) as well as his actions in the context of black rebellion in the United States and especially in the Caribbean.  The emphasis on the latter led me to read Edward B. Rugemer’s recent book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008), which I highly recommend.

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