Petersburg, Race, and the Aftermath of the Crater

Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading my entire archival collection of Union accounts of the Crater and looking specifically at how they characterize the performance of USCTs.  I’ve divided the sources between wartime and postwar and hope to draw some conclusions about the way in which the men reference or fail to reference this crucial aspect of the battle.  As you might expect the few accounts from white officers of USCT regiments spend much more time focusing on the performance of black soldiers during the battle.  One account in particular was penned after the war by First Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley of the 30th U.S. Colored Infantry.  Bowley was a prolific writer following the war.  The particular passage that I will discuss is from and address that was printed in the MOLLUS Papers of California.

Bowley provides a detailed and rich account of the actual battle, but it is a comment about the events following the battle that caught my eye.  As many of you are know doubt aware large numbers of black soldiers were massacred by Confederates at various points during and following the battle.  Black and white prisoners were sent to various prisoner camps throughout the South.  Their trip began as an orchestrated parade through the streets of Petersburg.  Bowley was captured towards the end of the battle and here is his account:

The next day we were taken through Petersburg.  It was Sunday, and our captors proposed to make a grand spectacle of us for the benefit of Petersburg citizens.  First came General Bartlett–his cork leg was broken, and he was mounted on a sorry looking nag, without saddle; then four wounded negroes, stripped of everything but shirt and drawers; then four officers viz: Col. E. G. Marshall, 14th N.Y.H.A.; Col. Stephen Weld, 56th Mass. Infty.; Col. Daniel White, 31st Maine; Lt.-Colonel Buffam, 4th R.I. Vols.; then four more wounded blacks, then four officers, and so on, alternating the whites and blacks.  I was in the third file of officers, and as the head of the column reached the streets of Petersburg, we were assailed by a volley of abuse from men, women and children that exceeded anything of the kind that I ever heard.  I was seven months before I saw the Old Flag again, and my first impression of the Confederacy did not improve with a more intimate acquaintance.

Historian Will Greene provides analysis of A.P. Hill’s decision to mix white and black soldiers for the march through Petersburg.  Greene sees the decision as primarily an attempt on the part of Hill to humiliate white Union soldiers.  He is no doubt correct in pointing this out: "Hill understood that by doing this he would imply that white Union soldiers were no better than the former slaves who fought by their sides." (p. 209) The overwhelming number of Union accounts in my collection blame the black soldiers for the disaster at the Crater; the racial invective is incredibly strong.  [I am going to comment on this in the next few days and how these accounts fit into Chandra Manning’s analysis.] It is unlikely that Hill was aware of the strong reactions against black soldiers, though it is still the case that he would have understood how such a decision would play out in the minds of white Union soldiers.

What is missing from Greene’s account is how this decision to mix white and black soldiers played out amongst the civilian population of Petersburg.  Seeing white and black men interspersed would have provided the clearest demonstration of just what was at stake if the Confederacy lost the war.  Given the overwhelming sense of insecurity and fear of racial mixing and emancipation that comes through the letters of Confederates it seems reasonable to suggest that this decision also served as a message to the white residents of Petersburg.  [Click here for an earlier post on Greene’s book and some statistics about slavery that are relevant to this issue.] The presence of black soldiers in this battle aroused the same fears from both slaveholding and non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers.  Hill’s decision no doubt bound the same two categories within the civilian sphere.  In short, the decision should be seen as an attempt to forge a bond between the army and civilian population at a time when the outcome of the war and the will of white Southerners remained in doubt. 

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So Much For Credibility

While I tend to see this whole Gallagher controversy from a different perspective from Eric and J.D., I do understand that they feel a need to respond.  They’ve decided to write a letter to CWTI which will appear in the next issue.  In it they will no doubt try to make the argument that Gallagher singled them out and intended to demean their scholarship.  Again, I will probably disagree with their conclusions, but they have every right to respond.  Hopefully, they will be able to make their points in a clear and concise manner; we will have to see if Gallagher takes the opportunity to respond.  However, it is going to be difficult to convince readers to sympathize if they are willing to change their book website in such a way.  Click here and here.  To say that this is the book that Gallagher doesn’t want you to read is not only silly, but has nothing at all to do with what he actually said in the interview.

I’m sorry to say that in my view J.D. and Eric have lost some credibility.

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“Much Ado About Nothing”: What Gallagher Meant

I stopped by my local bookstore to pick up a Father’s Day gift and I did my best to walk out without the new issue of Civil War Times Illustrated which includes the Gallagher interview.  I made my through it and have to say that it is a pretty good interview.  Without trying to dodge the issue I am just going to say straight out that the reaction to Gallagher’s claims about the importance of recent Gettysburg-tactical studies are way over the top.  I don’t believe he was singling out Eric and J.D. nor do I believe he had any sense that it would be taken as such.  First here is the question and full response:

Questions: You delivered a paper at the Society of Civil War Historians that asked the question: Do we need another book on Gettysburg?  Do we?

Answer: Well, I think that there are some books on Gettysburg we really don’t need.  If you just love Gettysburg and want to know everything about it, then this flood of books that comes out looking at tinier and tinier parts of the battle in greater detail are of interest.  But for most people, those who want to understand the Civil War, or even the war in the East or the Gettysburg campaign, do they need 450 pages on two hours in the Railroad Cut?  I don’t think so.  I just don’t think that this literature takes us any place.  Do we need multiple books about what Lee’s real plan at Gettysburg was?  Or, more recently, I think there have been two, maybe three, new books on Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign.  I just can’t believe that there is anything new to say about Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign.  I really believe there is not.  All the arguments have been laid out, pro and con.  All the key documents have been available for a very long time.  So you either pick your John Mosby school that says Stuart was pretty much doing his job, acting within his orders, and even Alan Nolan sort of fits into that, or you go to the other side where it’s Jeb Stuart’s fault.  I think Jeb Stuart didn’t do a good job.  But the notion that there would be a lot that’s new, enough to support new books–and not just one new book but maybe two or three–I just say, stop the madness.

Part of the problem is that Gallagher’s response was pulled out of an interview that focused broadly on Civil War historiography.  At no point does he criticize people who write detailed tactical studies nor does he take a shot at people who buy and read them.  Gallagher was simply making a point about whether certain types of studies add to our interpretive understanding of the campaign.  I tend to agree with Gallagher on this specific point about tactical studies of Gettysburg.  Accumulating more facts and drawing a different conclusion about those facts does not in and of itself constitute a new interpretation.  Approaching a controversy or question from a fundamentally new set of assumptions does.  For instance, when Drew Faust looked at the question of Confederate defeat through the lens of gender she was giving us a new interpretation.  George Rable’s study of Fredericksburg also presents the reader with a different set of of assumptions with which to interpret military history.  We also have a flood of new studies of the impact of battles/campaigns on civilian populations.  Finally, understanding battles/campaigns by analyzing the role of memory is another more recent interpretive trend.  Perhaps Gallagher could have made that point more clearly, but even a cursory glance at what he said should have rendered his meaning intelligible.  I should also point out that at no point does he suggest that microhistories are irrelevant as a genre.  Again, he was making a comment about Gettysburg literature.  You can agree or disagree. 

The readers of J.D.’s and Eric’s blogs who got so emotional about all of this and suggested that Gallagher’s comments were a reflection of elitism would be surprised by a comment made while discussing the pervasiveness of our popular cultural perceptions of Gettysburg:

All of those things coming together have shaped perceptions to a huge degree.  This also shows how irrelevant most academic scholarship is.  You have all this scholarship that’s been coming out since the late 1970s, ’80s and into the early ’90s saying that Gettysburg isn’t that important, but of course that has no impact on the real world.

I wonder if Peter Carmichael (the interviewer) should feel offended by Gallagher’s comments?  Was his scholarship being singled out?

By the way, I met John Hope Franklin this past weekend.

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Microhistories-Tactical Studies and Civil War Memory

A reader left a very thoughtful comment to my post on the Gallagher interview in CWTI.  [For the entire comment scroll down to #15.]  I think it is worth asking the questions posed not as a way to criticize the genre, but as a way to better understand its popularity in Civil War circles specifically.

Why is it that the Civil War attracts so many people to write microhistories and tactical studies (in a way that every other conflict does not)? Even acknowledging factors that make it more probable for someone to write about a Civil War engagement (number of participants, availability of sources, number of engagements, etc), there are a disproportionate number. Is it a way of providing closure for the war that avoids anything that could possibly relate to today and our lives as we live them? Writing, or reading, 450 pages on the Railroad Cut is a nice way of telling ourselves we have learned something about history and the Civil War. Ultimately though, where does this lead us? It is akin to memorizing the telephone book. You know a lot of facts, but what can you do with all of those facts. Is the point of learning to collect knowledge, or is the point of learning to actually do something with that knowledge.

Any thoughts?

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Meeting John Hope Franklin

On Saturday Michaela and I headed up Rt. 20 from Charlottesville to attend a reunion of descendants of James Madison’s slave population at Montpelier.  The highlight of the visit was a 90 minute discussion between John Hope Franklin and Roger Wilkins.  Simply put, Franklin is one of my intellectual heroes.  His career embodies a strong commitment to racial justice through activism and scholarship.  It would be more accurate to say that his scholarship is in fact a form of activism, and at 92 he is still going strong.  Franklin reflected on his life as a black historian and the challenges of writing black history at a time when the field was non-existent.  I especially enjoyed listening to him discuss why it is so important to tell the story of slavery as part of American history and the perils of ignoring or forgetting the past.  The Q&A was lively which was to be expected given the topic and the audience.  I like to think that my own research on Civil War memory is in a way a form of activism.  I to believe that it is important for a nation to confront its collective past in all of its richness, which includes both moments of great achievement as well as disappointment.  And I am convinced that one can keep this moral goal in mind without it impinging or threatening the integrity of scholarship.

The trip also gave us a chance to see the progress on the renovations of Montpelier.  The changes areCimg0239 quite impressive.  The home is being restored both inside and out to its original plan that would have greeted a visitor in 1820.  It had to be done as anyone who has visited knows that it is very difficult to see the home as Madison’s rather than the Dupont’s.  The original bricks are clearly visible on the outside.  On the inside the home is currently gutted.  Work is being done to restore original doorways and walls; it is a unique opportunity to see a major work-in-progress.

What I was most impressed with was the tour of the home.  Our guide did an excellent job of integrating the story of the slave population into the house tour.  At one point during the earlier discussion Wilkins told a story about visiting Mount Vernon in the mid-1980s with his family.  On the tour the guide talked about the innumerable number of people who visited Washington without once mentioning the slaves who worked the plantation.  He jokingly mentioned that a tourist would have left with the impression that Martha was a very busy wife.  We have indeed come a long way.  Our guide was able to weave the stories of the slaves into her presentation without any difficulty at all and it made for a much more interesting tour.  Madison is the star of the tour.  Much of Madison’s preparation for the Constitutional Convention was done at Montpelier and that story must be told.  At the same time both the home and surrounding grounds are a testament to the many lives whose stories also deserve to be told.  My wife and I have visited Monticello at least 10 times, but I am convinced that we heard more about slaves on one tour of Montpelier than all of those previous tours combined.

Additional photographs from the day can be found over at my flickr page.

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