Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans And Memory

I am posting this entry on Saturday at 2:30pm.  At this time I am sitting in a conference room in the Atlanta Hilton with five other panelists to discuss our work in the View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers.  The panel is titled “Soldiers, Citizens, and Sources: The Uses of Civil War Soldiers in Writing U.S. History and includes Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Kent Dollar, Chandra Manning, Charles Brooks, Jason Phillips and myself.  Since this is a roundtable discussion each panelist is only given about 5 minutes.  This will allow for  plenty of time to engage the audience in discussion.  Here are my remarks.  Since I am posting this on Wednesday there is a good chance that changes will be made before Saturday.  Feel free to comment.

“Some Thoughts About Confederate Veterans and Memory”
Presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association,
January 6, 2007

For the past four years I’ve been researching the battle of the Crater in historical memory – primarily the way white Southerners, including the veterans themselves, shaped the public’s understanding of this particular battle. As many of you know the battle took place on July 30, 1864 and involved an attempt on the part of the Army of the Potomac to tunnel under a Confederate salient in hopes of breaking the growing siege of Petersburg.  The Union attack – which included a division of USCT’s – failed miserably and constituted the last decisive victory for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before their surrender in April 1865.  This project started out as an essay on William Mahone – who led the Confederate counterattack at the Crater – and his attempt after the war to utilize his war record to benefit both his business and political careers.  I say this at the outset because my primary goal was not to study Civil War veterans as a group.

As the project moved beyond the narrow focus of Mahone and on to the battle itself the veterans emerged as an integral part of the story.  I had read David Blight’s Race and Reunion and was prepared for evidence of national reconciliation in connection with the Crater battlefield.  Through reunions and monument dedications both Confederate veterans from Virginia and their counterparts in the North used the battlefield as a forum to highlight the bravery exhibited by men on both sides.  And Union veterans  – particularly from Massachusetts – played an important role in working with their former enemies to bring the battlefield under the control of the National Park Service in 1936.  While it is important to acknowledge, as does John Neff in his recent study of the commemoration of Civil War dead, that national reunion and reconciliation was not a given the veterans achieved a great deal of consensus which continues to dominate the way the general public thinks about this particular battle.  The most significant point is the extent to which the role of USCT’s during the battle and their treatment by Confederates following their surrender had been eliminated from public memory by the turn of the century.

While the level of consensus achieved by Confederate veterans about the battle did not surprise me, the strong points of disagreement within their ranks did.  The literature on Confederate veterans beginning recently with Gaines Foster and Charles Reagan Wilson point to a gradual achievement of consensus structured around the tenets of the Lost Cause. A more local perspective reveals much more complexity.  I am going to briefly present two examples in connection to the Crater in which conflict amongst Confederate veterans shaped the memory of the battle.  The first is explored in my essay in The View From The Ground.  Veterans of Mahone’s division, including brigades from Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, along with other units from North and South Carolina debated through the turn of the century over who could claim credit for their victory.  Virginians succeeded in claiming the victory as their own by minimizing the contributions of units from outside the Commonwealth.  While their strong convictions about their roles in the battle point to continued feelings of Confederate nationalism their desire to claim the battle for themselves became intertwined with issues of honor rooted in local and state identity.  The tendency for veterans to focus on individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate and American.

More interesting is the fierce debate among veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade that took place as a result of the general’s foray into Virginia politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party.  I explore this in an article that appeared in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 2005.  The Readjuster Party controlled the Commonwealth from 1879 to 1883 and resulted in Mahone’s election to the United States Senate.  The Readjusters welcomed Virginia’s black population into the party and as a result enjoyed increased access to the polls and political power around the state.  The racial shake-up that resulted served to divide Mahone’s former command.  In short, Reconstruction came later for Virginians, compared with the rest of the South, not as a result of the federal government or “carpetbaggers” but at the hands of one of their own.

Newspapers reserved plenty of space for former soldiers who aligned themselves with or against their former commander, and they expressed themselves by either reinforcing or challenging Mahone’s reputation as the “Hero of the Crater.”  Mahone was compared with John Brown and Benedict Arnold and questions were raised about his performance at the Crater, including whether he gave the order to charge or whether he was even present on the battlefield.  One of Mahone’s most vociferous critics was Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who commanded the Virginia brigade at the Crater.  Given Weisiger’s rank and close association with Mahone his claims to have ordered the attack at the Crater were given a great deal of attention.  The damage done to Mahone’s reputation can be seen in Weisiger’s obituary which appeared in the popular publication Confederate Veteran in 1893 and cited him as the “Hero of the Crater.”

Throughout the postwar period Mahone had taken steps to organize the men under his command tohelp in first consolidating his rail lines and later his political interests.  He did this by assisting in organizing a veteran’s organization that eventually took the generals name and by offering free passes on his rail lines to attend annual meetings.  The debates that involved Virginia’s veterans showed that these men were not simply pawns that could be manipulated but were active political agents in their own right.  The debates between veterans of the battle were not about getting the history right, but about the conditions surrounding who could claim a legitimate connection to a Confederate past.  At the height of Readjuster control history and politics became almost indistinguishable with Mahone himself serving as a lightning rod that divided his old command.  In August 1883, Robert Bagby – who served in the 3rdGeorgia Regiment of Mahone’s division appealed to his fellow comrades to look beyond politics:

It is not my wish or desire to applaud Gen. Mahone for the active part he bore in the late war between the States, or vilify or abuse him for his connection with Virginia state politics but as a Confederate soldier who followed where he led in the dark and trying hours of the past. I, for one, am willing to let politics of the living present rest long enough to remember the record made by Gen. Mahone while fighting for a principle that was near and dear to us all.

Mahone was the most divisive former Confederate general in Virginia following the war, much more so than James Longstreet.  After all, while Longstreet was criticized by popular Lost Cause advocates such as Jubal Early he continued to be welcomed at reunions and other events by the men of his old corps.  Mahone’s political decisions, however, worked to alienate the men under his command and it was these men who worked to end the party’s control of the state by 1883.

Both examples suggest the way the Confederate past could be made to serve the present needs of the men in the ranks and perhaps points in the direction of further research.  There is a great deal of consensus when we look down on Confederate remembrances.  We can see the broad outlines of the Lost Cause, which among other things explained away slavery as a cause of secession and celebrated the virtues of the Confederate soldier and turned the likes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into icons.  In doing so the Lost Cause presented its readers and later generations with a united front.

When we take the view from the ground, however, we are forced to come to terms with a great deal of conflict that outlasted the war, the fault lines and hidden controversies that often defined the peace.  In the case of the debates between Virginia veterans and their one-time comrades over who could claim credit for victory at the Crater the men identified more with their own states rather than a more abstract Confederate past.  Within Virginia itself the veterans of Mahone’s Virginia brigade came to blows over the political decisions of their former commander.  In both cases the experiences of the Civil War continued to provide meaning on a local level to the way Confederate veterans identified with their changing surroundings in a post-emancipationist world.

So where do we go from here?  I am intrigued by the possibilities that community studies offer as an avenue for future study.  They provide the right level of focus as they are more likely to exploit local politics and other issues that are missed in broader studies.  Unfortunately most of these local studies give short thrift to postwar experiences or if they do steer clear of issues of memory.  An exception to this rule can be found in Jonathan Sarris’s A Separate Civil War, which compares Lumpkin and Fannin counties before, during and after the war – both situated in northwest Georgia.  The postwar experiences of Confederate veterans and Unionists neighbors in both counties and the sometimes bitter debates that took place are rendered intelligible through a careful analysis of the socio-economic patterns that shaped their pre-war and wartime experiences.  There are other possibilities for future research which we can talk about during the discussion session.


All About A Quilt

I’ve been following with great interest Ralph Luker’s recent series of posts over at Cliopatria on the myth of slave quilts.  I am interested in this mainly because I don’t know anything about it.  Apparently there is a long-standing myth that slaves were guided north by following signs that were stitched into quilts.  This myth was accepted in 2005 by a graduate student and his advisor at UNLV who encouraged his student to pursue this story even after it was revealed that it could not be verified based on the available evidence.  The advisor posted a notice on H-Net for help in finding evidence:

The original quilts have by now disintegrated, and apparently there are very few
first hand accounts of how quilts were used in practice. What I’m looking for,
then, are references to quilt-use in popular literature. Do you know of any
novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc, from the antebellum period that in
some way mention quilts in association with the underground railroad or the
abolition movement in general?

In response historians such as David Blight explained why there is no evidence, buts still the thesis went forward.  Blight and Paul Finkelman offer additional comments on all of this at H-Net and according to the former the quilt story is going to be incorporated into a planned monument to Frederick Douglass to be placed in Washington, D.C.  That is very disappointing.

At one point Luker asks why we need to believe this nonsense even after it is shown that the story lacks credibility.  Fellow Cliopatria blogger Oscar Chamberlain offers his own response to this question.  I was particularly intrigued by one of his suggestions:

7. Unlike some fields, physics, for example, the lines between the professional
and the non-professional historians and the history they produce is extremely
blurry. There are fine—or at least accurate—people who do history outside of the
profession as well as some jokers. And there are many people on both sides of
the line who do good work much of the time but not all the time. And then there
is the well-produced muck. We often complain about this blurring when we discuss
what students learn (the student says,“I love the History Channel"), but we
rarely talk about what we learn, not always consciously, from popular sources
that don’t seem like muck.

I think Chamberlain’s point here is particularly appropriate for Civil War studies.  That "blurry" line is both a blessing and a challenge.


Keith Olberman Commentary: Too Little Too Late

The blogosphere is heating up over Keith Olberman’s commentary last night about the proposed "surge" of troops planned for the new year and on the president’s repeated calls for "sacrifice."  The Daily Kos call it an "11 minute piece of brilliance."  I watched it this morning on the MSNBC website and thought it was on par with previous commentaries.  This was clearly meant as a direct attack against the president.  Overall I find most television news shows to be more about entertainment than about actual news.  While I agree with the substance of Olberman’s commentary it is too little, too late. 

First, I should say that I never supported the war in Iraq.  As someone who lost a relative on 9-11 I supported the president’s decision to go into Afghanistan 100%, and I thought he did a very good  job in the days and weeks following that horrific day as a rallying point for a grieving nation.  I was hoping that we would find and either capture or kill Osama bin Laden.  From day one I though that the talk of Iraq was a distraction from what was clearly a legitimate target.  I never believed that we would find WMD or that we could somehow bring democracy to Iraq.  And as most conservatives will tell you that shouldn’t be the goal of this nation’s foreign policy to begin with.  [See Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads]  What is so disturbing about the recent round of books on the lead up to the war and the occupation is that our intelligence community in fact did do their jobs.  There were plenty of doubts expressed by intelligence services re: WMD and what would happen in case of an extended occupation.  They were ignored.  I’ve been reading and highly recommend  Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Hubris and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

From day one the job in Iraq was botched, but the American people, including our elected officials didn’t question any of it.  [We couldn’t even execute Saddam Hussein properly.]  Worse than that we demonized those people as anti-American who did question the administration.  Even Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq was labeled a political opportunist and a disloyal American.  Large protests were seen as peripheral by most mainstream news agencies.  This is the sickening part of the entire story as far as I am concerned.  Even with this country’s recent history we allowed the situation to get out of control.  The president has asked the American people to sacrifice for this so-called "War on Terror"  from the beginning and yet I look around and struggle for the evidence of national sacrifice on the home front.  I suspect that the reason we never engaged in serious dialog about this war is because sacrifice was never really necessary.  Most of us have no direct connection to the men and women who are risking their lives or who have lost their lives in this senseless war. 

As bad as things are they will get worse unless the American people stand up and demand that it stop.  It was appropriate for Olberman to refer to Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address.  My only disagreement is that if these soldiers do die in vain it will not simply be on the hands of the president.  I fear that they already have died in vain.  Olberman’s commentary was flashy and emotional, but what does it matter if that is both the beginning and end of  the opposition to all of this nonsense.  The more I think about it the more I am convinced that Olberman’s anger should not have been directed at the president; it should be directed at the American people.  We allowed this to happen.  Our public officials in Washington are only accountable if we demand it.

In the end I have to conclude that we got what we deserve.

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Remembering Virginia’s Unionists

One of the places where the distinction between those interested in "heritage" as opposed to history comes into play is the question of Southern Unionism.  In recent years historians have explored the complexity of what William Freehling calls "the many Souths."  On the other hand those with an interest in "southern heritage" find it difficult to talk about the history of the Confederacy without talking about white loyal Confederates in the Lost Cause tradition.  Race may be a difficult topic to broach (as it is for most Americans) but the presence of pockets of Southerners who remained loyal to the United States is perhaps even more troubling.  Think about the postwar scene and what happened to Confederate generals such as James Longstreet and William Mahone who for one reason or another decided to back political views that were perceived to be a threat against conservative southern slaveholding values.  Longstreet and Mahone were not Unionists, but their treatment following the war reminds us of the influence of the Lost Cause tradition which laid out a unified white Southern face during secession and the war. 

Two bloggers (Richmond Democrat and Slantblog)in Richmond are supporting steps to honor the state’s Civil War Unionists.   From the Richmond Democrat:

A few days ago I proposed that the time had at last come to honor Virginia’s
Unionists — Virginians who had stayed loyal to the United States during the
American Civil War. My proposal is based on the simple premise that Virginians
who render heroic service to the United States are deserving of some recognition
in the form of a monument or monuments…

I bring this to your attention not because I am an advocate or because I am convinced that this blogger’s intentions have any chance of succeeding.  I am much more interested in what the proposal does to the way most of us think about the South.  Can "heritage" incorporate Southern Unionists? 

My local PBS station recently aired a short documentary about the debate surrounding the Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  A few Confederate reenactors were interviewed who tried to make the point that they were not necessarily against a monument to Ashe, but the placement of it in close proximity to Lee, Stuart, Jackson, and Davis.  Let’s assume that this had nothing to do with Ashe being black, but a matter of wanting to preserve Monument Avenue for Virginia’s Civil War heroes.  If that be the case could we expect opposition to the placement of a monument honoring Elizabeth Van Lew, Major General George H. Thomas or Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th USCT?  All of these figures are important parts of Virginia’s rich Civil War history and can be considered to be heroes because of their actions. 

I am convinced that in the end most people tied to "Virginia heritage" desire to maintain a white only interpretation with "others" fitting in in ways that do not threaten certain preconceived notions such as secession and slavery.  Evidence for this can be found in the opposition to the placement of the Lincoln and Tad statue a few years back.  The idea that a portion of the Richmond population (both white and black) welcomed Lincoln to the capital of the Confederacy in its final moments was simply too much to ask. 

I am still thinking my way through the question of whether heritage and history are mutually exclusive ways of looking at the past. 

Earlier Posts:
Is Heritage History?
Is Heritage History? (Part 2)


New Lee Painting Uncovered

Looks like the Museum of the Confederacy has uncovered a real artistic gem.  From the Richmond Times-Dispatch article:

A rare portrait of Robert E. Lee will be showcased at the Museum of the
Confederacy in January to celebrate the Confederate general’s 200th
birthday.  "If you look at all the books about Robert E. Lee, this painting is not in
them," said Waite Rawls, the museum’s president and CEO. "I think it’s that
mystery that is so intriguing. When was it painted and under what

The owner of the painting, who does not want to be identified, purchased it
at an estate sale in Richmond in February. Since then, he’s been researching its
past, with help from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, libraries and the
Internet.  Still, questions remain.  "We don’t know if Lee sat for the painting or whether it was painted from a
photo," said the owner, a Henrico County resident who typically displays the art
in his living room.

Another mystery surrounds its age. It dates to at least 1868, when artist
Thomas B. Welch showed it in a juried exhibition in Paris.  "We don’t know where it’s been since then," the owner said. "It’s
frustrating. I want to know."  One thing he is sure about is his good fortune.  "I went to the estate sale, and there it was hanging over the fireplace," he
said. "I wasn’t going to pass it up."

The owner of the painting has allowed the MOC to make copies for sale ($300) in hopes that the proceeds will help its financial situation.  It might be worth purchasing as it is a limited printing and it will benefit the MOC.  Click here to see the image.


Ervin Jordan Reviews Robinson’s Bitter Fruits of Bondage

Last week I chose Armstead Robinson’s posthumously published Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 as the best Confederate study of 2006.  Check out Ervin Jordan’s very thoughtful and insightful review of the book over at H-Net.  The two were friends and colleagues here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia.  Jordan is an archivist at UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections and specializes in the Civil War.

Armstead Louis Robinson (1947-1995) was a colleague, friend, and mentor; we discussed our respective books-in-progress on many occasions. As the
University of Virginia special collections’ research archivist and Civil War specialist, I am currently processing his papers (70,000 items) which include several groups of _Bitter Fruits of Bondage_ manuscripts and research material; these are not yet available to the public but once they are, his dedication to the historian’s craft will be deservedly appreciated. As a teacher, Black Studies advocate, Civil War historian, and founding director of the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, Robinson was widely respected among his peers. One monograph of African-American intellectuals included him among a pantheon of nearly two hundred exceptional minds including W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, and Cornel West. Colleagues familiar with Robinson’s academic career as a student and teacher maintain he was a genius born to be a historian; as a history undergraduate his maturating skills were acknowledged by mentors such as Eugene Genovese who quoted Robinson’s unpublished honors thesis in his peerless _Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made_ (1974).

Read more.

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