Jefferson (who?)

If you thought the dearth of events commemorating the bicentennial of Robert E. Lee’s birth was depressing you ain’t seen nothing yet.  This year is the bicentennial of Jefferson Davis’s birth, but even his home state of Mississippi is uninterested.  According to an AP story:

"Even Mississippi, the state where Davis made his plantation fortune and
to which he retired after the war, gave the idea of commemorating Davis
a lukewarm reception. A bill to establish a commission "for the purpose
of organizing and planning a celebration in recognition of Jefferson
Davis’ 200th birthday" easily passed the House, only to die in the
Senate appropriations committee."

Bertram Hayes-Davis, head of the Davis Family Association and
great-great grandson of the only president of the Confederate States of America, has had little luck in organizing activities in honor of his
great-great grandfather.  The Department of Defense refused to even
consider organizing an event to acknowledge Davis’s service as
Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce. The Jefferson Davis
Bicentennial Organization has very little listed on its calendar of
which is more than likely how it will remain throughout the rest
of the year.   

Part of the problem is that Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial is overshadowing everything as it should be.  Civil War historian and Davis biographer William J. Cooper had this to say:

Lincoln "saved the Union. He emancipated the slaves. I mean, he won the
war," Cooper says. "Fighting against Lincoln is, you know, fighting
against motherhood."

True enough, but that is only part of the story.  It does not explain why so little has been planned in states like Mississippi and by Southern Heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  One can assume that they are not rushing to acknowledge Lincoln’s historical significance.  But perhaps last week’s reenactment of Davis’s inauguration provides a clue.  Hayes-Davis took part in the reenactment of his ancestor’s
swearing-in ceremony in Montgomery on February 15; however, rather than repeat
the oath he simply kissed the Bible and turned to the crowd
and said, "So help me God."  One is left wondering exactly what he was reenacting.

I suspect that Hayes-Davis did not want to be perceived to be engaged in another act of treason, but it is the very oath of office to defend the Confederate Constitution that both reflects Davis’s significance to American history and perhaps why he has been so easily dismissed as an object of public commemoration.  No doubt the fact that the oath was to defend a constitution that was explicitly written to defend and perpetuate slavery shaped their decision to bypass it altogether.  It is much easier to focus on the battlefield heroics of Lee and Jackson, in part, because their actions can be interpreted as apolitical.  We can wrap their actions around the Victorian ideals of masculinity and courage without acknowledging that the armies they led were extensions of a political system.  Davis on the other hand could never be understood apart from the muck and mire of Confederate politics even though he achieved, according to Donald E. Collins, a certain amount of public acclaim in the South towards the end of his life – and more importantly, even if his policies and decisions in Richmond contributed substantially to the growing popularity and eventual legendary status of Lee and Jackson. 

Perhaps the failure to commemorate Davis’s life reflects our continued preoccupation with battles and leaders and our unwillingness to more fully appreciate or come to terms with the political realities of the war.  In the end, did anyone come close to embodying the Confederate cause more so than Jefferson Davis?

Alan Axelrod’s Crater

The following review of Alan Axelrod’s The Horrid Pit: The Battle of the Crater, The Civil War’s Cruelest Mission is slated to appear in the Journal of Southern History.  Writing for the JSH does not leave much room to explore specific points in any detail, but in this case everything that needs to be said is included.  Anyone familiar with Noah A. Trudeau’s volume on the Petersburg Campaign will notice immediately Axelrod’s use of extensive quotes from the Committee’s Report on the Conduct of the War.  Axelrod also utilizes extensive quotes from various reports that make for a very choppy read.  I find this to be incredibly distracting.  It is the job of the historian to interpret for the reader and while I sympathize with the idea of allowing historic figures to “speak for themselves” I personally find it difficult to keep track of the author’s analytical points.  In the case of the Joint Committee Reports the inclusion of extensive passages can be misleading given the fact that the individuals in question are pointing the finger and covering their asses.  In this case analysis is essential.

The final year of the war in Virginia has received a great deal of attention from historians over the past few years. This can be explained, in part, by the move away from the Lost Cause assumption of the inevitability of Confederate defeat following the Gettysburg campaign; more importantly, however, historians are asking more analytical questions about the evolution from “limited” to “hard war” as well as addressing interpretive themes stemming from the “New Military History.”  The Petersburg Campaign and the battle of the Crater in particular offer an ideal case study with which to examine the relationship between the battlefield, home front, and politics along with important questions surrounding the introduction of United States Colored Troops to the battlefield.  Unfortunately, the battle of the Crater – best known for the failed attempt on the part of the Union Ninth Corps to break the growing siege of Petersburg by tunneling and detonating 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a massive attack – has received only scant attention by historians.  The publication of The Battle of the Crater: “The Horrid Pit” (Lynchburg, VA, 1989)) by Michael Cavanaugh and William Marvel remains the only book-length study of any merit, although its focus is limited almost entirely to the battlefield.   Although a timely release, Alan Axelrod’s similarly titled book adds very little to our understanding of the battle or how it fits into the broader campaign.

While Axelrod clearly intended to write for the general reader, even on that level this book falls short.  Analysis of the battle rarely moves beyond the basic outline of the planning and execution of the mine as well as accounts of the horrific fighting that took place on July 30, 1864.  Archival materials on the Crater abound, but unfortunately, Axelrod bypasses these sources altogether along with much of the secondary sources that are readily accessible to historians.  Instead Axelrod relies overwhelmingly on the Official Records as well as the reports from the Committee on the Conduct of the War; the result is a top-down picture that never penetrates to the level of the common soldier and his experiences both in the earthworks and in battle. The absence of research materials in this study makes it impossible to say much of anything about how this battle was experienced by the men on both sides as well as the residents of Petersburg who were directly affected by the fighting. The most significant oversight in this regard is Axelrod’s failure to acknowledge the importance of the presence of black Union soldiers, which Confederates clearly acknowledged as nothing less than a slave uprising and a threat to the South’s white racial hierarchy.   Analysis of the racial aspect of this battle can tell us much about the changing racial boundaries in both the North and South brought about as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Similarly, Axelrod offers very little analysis in terms of how this battle fits into the Petersburg Campaign or the evolution of the war through the end of 1864.

American Civil War Center at Tredegar Names Its First Black President

From the Richmond-Times Dispatch:

Christy S. Coleman, a native of Williamsburg, will take over as president around April 7.  Previously, Coleman has served as president and CEO of The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the country’s largest African-American museum. It is in Detroit.  “The thing about Tredegar that was most interesting to me is that they are not only interested in the history, they are interested in exploring the legacy of the history,” Coleman said from Detroit.

Coleman began her career in history while still an undergraduate student, working as a living history interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. After studying briefly at the College of William and Mary, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in museum studies from Hampton University.  “I am what is referred to as a public historian,” she said. “It is my job to take what the academicians do and make it relevant to the general public.”

Coleman said the center seems to be doing a good job of fulfilling its mission to balance the perspectives of the Union, the Confederacy and the African-Americans.  “The fact of the matter is, there is already a Museum of the Confederacy, and I don’t feel like I’m going to have to compete with them,” she said.

American Civil War Center at Tredegar

July 4 and Vicksburg or Who is a Southerner?

Chris Waldrep’s fine study of the Vicksburg campaign and historical memory was recently reviewed at H-Net.  Apparently, the reviewer repeated the old tale that because of the date of the surrender residents of the city refused to celebrate July 4th after the war.  Waldrep’s response:

I would like to clarify one small matter, however.  It is not true that the date of the surrender "kept Vicksburg citizens from celebrating Independence Day until the mid-twentieth century."  I documented numerous celebrations of the Fourth of July by white and black people in Vicksburg between 1863 and 1945. It is a myth that Vicksburgers did not celebrate the Fourth.  I even found the origins of this false story in the records of the National Park Service.  In 1945 the NPS superintendent in Vicksburg generated the story that Vicksburgers had not been celebrating the Fourth as a way of attracting press publicity for the park.  It worked. [Click here for Alexander Mendoza’s review.]

I will also point out that according to the 1860 census 6,896 whites lived in Warren County with 13,800 black people.  Does it really make sense to think that the majority black population would refuse to celebrate the day they were emancipated? 

Well, it does make sense given our tendency to define our terms narrowly and in a way that draws a necessary connection between southerner and white.  What is most disturbing is the fact that the NPS was responsible for this story.