The Tough Questions

At the end of What This Cruel War Was About Chandra Manning offers some final thoughts about the challenges that the war presented to Americans in 1865 and by extension to the way we remember.

First, Confederate soldiers’ admirable devotion to their families and abhorrent attachment to the enslavement of other human beings sound a cautionary note because those impulses were so closely related.  There is little doubt that most white southern men cared first and foremost about the well-being and material advancement of their loved ones, and the steadfast love so many displayed for their families surely stands among the noblest of human emotions.  Yet that love led otherwise good and ordinary men to embrace and fight for an institution that stole the lives and bodies and families of other human beings.  Clearly, the connection between soldiers’ attachment to their families and the institution of slavery does not suggest that love of family is to be disparaged, or that it inevitably leads to an atrocity like slavery, but it does raise sobering questions about the ills that human beings will justify when they convince themselves that they owe no obligation to anyone beyond those to whom they are related or who are like themselves.

Second, astonishing changes took place in many white Union men’s ideas about slavery and eventually, if more fragilely, about racial equality.  When ordinary men, many of whom began the war without a single black acquaintance but with plenty of prejudice toward African Americans, actually met black people face to face and often came to rely on the aid, comfort, and military intelligence that former slaves offered to the Union Army, they found reason to discard old views.  Those changes remind historians of the power of events to rearrange even the most seemingly immovable cultural ideas and attitudes among people in the past, and they alert all of us to the dramatic changes in attitude and achievement that can take place when people who think they have nothing in common find themselves thrust into interaction and interdependence.

Finally, the vision of a very different United States could be seen clearly by men like David Williamson in the spring of 1865 but had faded tragically by the turn of the twentieth century.  Taken together, the vividness of the vision and its eventual fading challenge historians to investigate more rigorously exactly how the United States could in the crucible of war create such vast potential for change and then, in the end, fail to fulfill it. (pp. 220-21)

I can remember reading one of Manning’s North and South articles last year with my Civil War class and wondering how she would end this study.  After reading this book I am more convinced the Manning is going to divide Civil War enthusiasts right down the middle.   That divide will be drawn between people who are comfortable discussing the way in which Union and Confederate soldiers thought about race and slavery over the course of the war and those who will interpret Manning’s conclusions as an indictment of the Confederacy or perhaps “Pro-Union.”  Another way of framing this is that Manning risks having the contours of her preferred debate relegated to Robert Penn Warren’s wonderful distinction between “the great alibi” and the “treasury of virtue.” That would be unfortunate as Manning has given us a very thoughtful and analytical study with a great deal of wartime sources to think about.  It is one of the most complete accounts of what soldiers thought about race and slavery published to date.  In some ways I can’t help but think of this book as a challenge to our Civil War community – broadly understood.

It seems clear to me that we can have this discussion without it being reduced to a childish debate about which region of the country can claim moral superiority.  And the reason is because the nation as a whole moved in a direction that did not include reinforcing or protecting the Reconstruction amendments.  The national agenda changed owing to the reconstruction agendas of white southerners, the Republican Party (by 1877), and the federal government.  By 1900 GAR camps in the North were largely segregated.  That said, I find that Manning’s emphasis on contingency in 1865, or the claim that the future could have been different, is enough to force readers to move away from a more defensive posture that involves interpreting the past in ways that reinforce contemporary political, cultural, and racial assumptions.  In other words, there was a salient distinction between the way that Union and Confederate soldiers understood race and slavery and it is our job as serious students of history to deal with it regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us.


Hey Rudy, Is It Just About State’s Rights?

Politics surely makes bad historians of us all.  Take Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani who recently addressed the Alabama State Legislature on flying the Confederate flag atop the state capitol:

"One of the great beauties of the kind of government we have, which is a national, federal government, [is that] on a broad range of issues, we can make different decisions in different parts of the country," the GOP presidential front-runner said after addressing the Alabama Legislature.  "We have different sensitivities and at different times we’re going to come to different decisions, and I think that is best left to the states," Giuliani said.

Perhaps Rudy should have reminded the state legislature about when those Confederate flags were placed atop the state capitols in the South.  In 1956, 82 of 106 southern congressmen signed a Southern Manifesto, denouncing the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision as a "clear abuse of judicial power," and calling for resistance to "forced integration" by "any lawful means."  States took various measures, including banning the NAACP from operating within their borders.  My own state of Virginia took the step of closing the public schools rather than have black and white children learn together.  Finally, as a symbol of defiance, Georgia’s legislature incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its state flag in 1956, and Alabama and South Carolina soon began flying the battle flag over their state capitol buildings.

Hey Rudy, good luck courting those conservative white southerners.


A Few Thoughts About Don Imus

Unless you’ve had your head under a rock you have heard about Don Imus’s incredibly insensitive comments made about the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team.  Last Wednesday Imus described the predominantly black team as "nappy-headed hos."  The issue came up this morning in my Women’s History course.  Keep in mind that my students are all females, but I was asked what I thought should happen to Imus.  As a teacher my first instinct is to throw the question back and ask the students what they think, which I promptly did.  There were a number of questions and suggestions, but I was finally asked again to weigh in.  First, I reminded my female students that this is as much a gender as it is a racial issue.  Would Don Imus have said the same thing about a male team?  In terms of punishment, however, I expressed more concern about the way in which the question has been framed and discussed in the mainstream media.  As a society we have little patience in dealing with racial issues and fewer people even know how to honestly engage in dialog.  I don’t know what kind of punishment Don Imus should get because I find the question itself confusing.

What I don’t understand is why as a society we continue to tolerate this kind of language. Don Imus has one of the most popular radio talk shows (broadcasted live on MSNBC) and is a regular stop for politicians on the campaign trail, well-regarded journalists, and other popular figures.  What I have difficulty understanding is the fact that he apparently felt comfortable enough to say those things at all.  There was no hesitation in sharing these thoughts over the airwaves owned by NBC. The same can be said in regards to the comedian Michael Richards who also let loose a barrage of racial invectives on his black audience a few months ago.  I don’t believe for a minute that either Imus or Richards are rotten to the core, but they are clearly racially insensitive.  Their actions speak for themselves.  If as a society we believe that this language should not be countenanced in any way shape or form than we have to ask what consequences reflect those values.  In the end I’m not really concerned about Imus’s feelings of regret and the possibility of redemption.  I am much more concerned about the members of the Rutgers basketball team who didn’t do anything wrong apart from the fact that they are predominantly black and women.

This kind of racist-sexist language has a long history in this country  There are times when we slide into oversensitivity, but I don’t believe that this is an example.  To those people whose first instinct it to throw out the old "PC" arguments I think it is necessary to ask at what point a certain kind of language becomes unacceptable in the public discourse.


Sherman’s March on the History Channel: Update

Today I received a very complimentary email from the Bill Oberst Jr. who played Sherman in the upcoming History Channel film on Sherman’s March.  He wrote me a lengthy email which showed him to be incredibly thoughtful about both the history of Sherman’s March and the production of the film.  I invited Bill to think about writing a guest post that would be included along with my own review on April 22.  Luckily he agreed to do it.  I look forward to reading his thoughts.  I am sure that our two posts will give readers a great deal to think about. 


Corroboration in Historical Studies: Chandra Manning and the Battle of the Crater

My wife is a neuroscientist who constantly reminds me that the value of any individual research project’s conclusions relates directly to whether those results can be replicated by independent parties.  Unfortunately, we don’t have anything comparable in historical studies.  We can take steps to ensure that our conclusions have been challenged by peers who may question the sources utilized or the interpretation of those sources.  When done correctly and honestly the peer review process can lead to stronger conclusions.  Still, there is a certain amount of underdetermination between evidence and interpretation.  We do our best.

I’ve finished with Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War War Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. I have much to think about, especially in connection with my work on memory and the Crater.  In one of the chapters I make an argument about how Confederates interpreted the presence of USCTs in the battle and specifically about why they were so enraged.  I was pleasantly surprised to read that Manning found many of the same themes in the letters she surveyed of Confederates who either faced USCTs in battle or who took the time to write home about what their service meant to their view of the war.  Manning argues that Confederates – both nonslaveholders and slaveholders – understood the war as a defense of slavery.  While other issues certainly animated Confederates at different times, according to Manning, the issues of race and slavery served to focus the army.  Internal fissures may have threatened the unity of the Confederacy, but these problems never trumped the importance of defending the “peculiar institution.”  Regardless of status white Southerners held to the belief that the maintenance of slavery guaranteed their respective place in the political/social hierarchy.  More importantly, defeat would mean race wars and miscegenation.  My archival sources indicated that the experience of having to fight USCTs at the Crater reinforced the importance of continuing the fight, but I was surprised to discover in Manning’s study just how early in the war Confederates were focused on the issue.  Confederates in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia focused their attention on the recruitment of black soldiers from the beginning of 1863.  This is important because the battle of the Crater is the first time they faced USCTs which suggests that the rage exhibited must have been building for quite some time.

Here is just a short section from my Crater manuscript which touches on how Confederates responded to the presence of USCTs:

Lee’s officers and men were already engaged in heated combat by the time Edward Ferrero’s black division entered the battle, and it did not help that many of them, according to Thomas Smith, “charged me crying no quarter, remember Fort Pillow.  Private Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird of the 12th Virginia recalled proudly that “The negro’s charging cry of ‘No quarter’ was met with the stern cry of ‘amen.’” Writing after the war, one Union veteran was surely correct when he noticed that for a Confederate soldier, “It seemed to add increased poison to the sting of death to be shot by a negro.”  The Confederates considered such an act as violating all rules of warfare and the sacred rights of humanity.”  For many of the men fighting in the vicinity of the Crater, this was their first experience fighting black soldiers, and their response suggests a heightened sense of rage and purpose.  “It had the same affect upon our men that a red flag had upon a mad bull,” was the way one South Carolinian who survived the initial explosion described the reaction of his comrades.  David Holt of the 16th Mississippi remembered, “They were the first we had seen and the sight of a nigger in a blue uniform and with a gun was more than ‘Johnnie Reb’ could stand.  Fury had taken possession” of Holt, and “I knew that I felt as ugly as they looked.”

Many Confederates relished retelling of their experiences in the Crater fighting Ferrero’s division.  “Our men killed them with the bayonets and the but[t]s of there [sic] guns and every other way,” according to Labnan Odom, who served in the 48th Georgia, “until they were lying eight or ten deep on top of one enuther and the blood almost s[h]oe quarter deep.”  Another soldier in the 48th Georgia described the hand-to-hand combat: “the Bayonet was plunged through their hearts & the muzzle of our guns was put on their temple & their brains blown out others were knocked in the head with [the] butts of our guns.  Few would succeed in getting to the rear safe.”  Even after acknowledging the bravery of the black soldiers in the crater who “fought us till the veary last,” John Lewis who served in the 61st  North Carolina of Hoke’s division and participated in the final attack of the day, was satisfied that “[W]e kild asite of nigers.  Both the horror of battle and rage at having to fight black soldiers must have been apparent to the mother of one soldier as she learned that her son “shot them down until we got mean enough and then rammed them through with the Bayonet.”  Another soldier admitted that, “Some few negroes went to the rear as we could not kill them as fast as they past us.”  Lieutenant Colonel William Pegram described moments on the battlefield in great detail for his wife where black soldiers “threw down ther arms to surrender, but were not allowed to do so.  Every bombproof I saw had one or two dead negroes in them, who had skulked out of the fight, & killed by our men.”

The presence of black soldiers served as a rallying cry for Confederates who did not participate in the battle; writing about the battle served as an outlet through which they could express their own resentment and anger over the use of black soldiers.  Describing how, “Our men bayoneted them & knacked ther bra[i]ns with the but[t] of their guns,” as did Lee Barfield who served in the 62nd Georgia Cavalry, may have been the next best thing to being there.  Even A.T. Fleming, who served in the 10th Alabama but missed the battle due to illness, could not help but allow his racist preconceptions to pervade a very descriptive account in which Confederates “knocked them in the head like killing hogs.”  Perhaps commenting on the dead black soldiers on the battlefield or the prisoners, Fleming described them as the “Blackest greaysest [greasiest] negroes I ever saw in my life.”  While stationed at Bermuda Hundred during the time of the battle, Edmund Womack wrote home to his wife, “I understand our men just chopped them to pieces.”

Once the salient was retaken, Confederate rage was difficult to bring under control.  Accounts written in the days following the battle rarely shied away from including vivid descriptions of the harsh treatment and executions of surrendered black soldiers.  Jerome B. Yates of the 16th Mississippi recalled, “Most of the Negroes were killed after the battle.  Some was killed after they were taken to the rear.”  Another soldier admitted that “the poor deluded devils were butchered right and left.”  Lieutenant Freeman Bowley of the 30th USCT wrote, “As the Confederates came rushing into the Crater, calling to their comrades in their rear, ‘The Yankees have surrendered!’ some of the foremost ones plunged their bayonets into the colored wounded.”  “The only sounds which now broke the silence,” according to Henry Van Lewvenigh Bird, “was some poor wounded wretch begging for water and quieted by a bayonet thrust which said unmistakably “Bois ton sang. Tu n’aurais de soif.” [Drink your blood. You will have no more thirst]. James Verdery simply described it as “a truly Bloody Sight a perfect Massacre nearly a Black flag

Confederates who took part in the battle or heard about the presence of black soldiers secondhand were forced to explain away what some perceived as acts of bravery and skill on the field.  John C.C. Sanders, who commanded the Alabama brigade in Mahone’s division, was forced to admit that the “Negroes. . . . fight much better than I expected.”  However, he was quick to qualify this statement with the conviction that “they were driven on by the Yankees and many of them were shot down by the latter.”  J. Edward Peterson, who served as a band member in the 26th North Carolina, described the black soldiers at the Crater as “ignorant” and like Sanders assumed they were forced to fight by the Yankees.  Peterson went on to conclude that because of this they did not deserve such harsh treatment by Confederates following the battle.

As a result of their experience fighting black soldiers, many Confederates experienced a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the cause.  Years after the war, Edward Porter Alexander remembered that the “general feeling of the men towards their employment was very bitter.”  “The sympathy of the North for John Brown’s memory was taken for proof,” according to Alexander, “of a desire that our slaves should rise in a servile insurrection & massacre throughout the South, & the enlistment of Negro troops was regarded as advertisement of that desire & encouragement of the idea to the Negro.”  William Pegram also acknowledged the perceived threat as stated by Alexander when he noted that “I had been hoping that the enemy would bring some negroes against this army.”  And now that they had, “I am convinced . . . that it has a splendid effect on our men.” Pegram concluded that though, “It seems cruel to murder them in cold blood,” the men who did it had “very good cause for doing so.”  According to Pegram’s most recent biographer, the experience facing black troops during the war renewed his commitment to the values of the antebellum world, “which had given birth and meaning to his nationalistic beliefs.”  The experience of fighting black soldiers for the first time served to remind Lee’s men of exactly what was at stake in the war—nothing less than an overturning of the racial hierarchy of their antebellum world.

Newspapers added to the growing chorus of rage upon learning of the presence of African-American soldiers on the battlefield.  Editors not only used the opportunity to share the details of the battle and the cry of “Remember Fort Pillow,” but also reflected on the broader meanings of black participation.  One newspaper pointed to the hypocrisy of Northern claims of equality between the races and concluded that “hatred of race never dies out.”  “The white man will never fall down to the level of the negro, nor the negro rise up to the level of the white man.”  The upshot of such discussion, according to this writer, was “miscegenation, which is but another name for amalgamation.”  “Saturday was the first occasion on which the Army of Northern Virginia ever fought against negro troops,” wrote the Richmond Dispatch, “and it is hardly probable that Grant’s darkeys will be over-desirous to run against that army again.”  The author of this account could not resist pointing out that “our men, enraged by the cry of ‘No Quarter’ slaughtered them like sheep.”  “Comparatively few were taken prisoners, while hundreds were slain.”  Perhaps out of a need to explain away what appeared to be fearless behavior exhibited on the battlefield by black soldiers, this writer reduced their conduct to the influence of alcohol: “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long as they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.”

The presence of black soldiers at the Crater and other battlefields directly challenged notions of Southern paternalism and racial hierarchy.  In addition to citing alcohol as a stimulus to fight, others blamed Northerners who “fill the hearts of these confiding poor creatures with vindictive rage and thirst for revenge against their people, their masters, who have treated them with kindness and humanity.”  Commentators avoided any acknowledgment that African Americans were engaged in a fight for their freedom and chose instead to contrast Northern “outrages” with the noble Southern soldiers and Robert E. Lee, whom they regarded as “the Christian gentleman without stain and without dishonor.”  The fighting on July 30 was not to be understood simply as another instance of indescribable bloodshed, but rather as a fight for survival against an enemy that was now reduced to inciting formerly loyal slaves against their loving masters.