I noticed yesterday that Louisiana State University Press is bringing out an edition of John Washington’s slave narrative edited by Crandall Shifflett. The problem, of course, is that six months ago David Blight published Washington’s narrative along with a second set in Alabama. Blight struck out across the country to promote the book and it is safe to assume that those who have an interest in the story have purchased the book. [Click here for a related post on David Blight and John Washington.] In yesterday’s post I briefly referenced James McPherson’s review of Drew Faust’s new book on death and the Civil War. In addition to Faust, McPherson reviewed Mark A. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Cornell University Press, 2008). Tell me if I am mistaken, but it seems to me that McPherson preferred Schantz’s study over Faust. Unfortunately, given Faust’s notoriety and the support of Knopf’s publicity department it is unlikely that Schantz will make a splash. Perhaps that is why Amazon is offering the book at a major discount. Timing is everything.
Anyone out there in the finishing stages of a book manuscript on the battle of the Crater and historical memory? Let’s talk.
I highly recommend Steven Hahn’s New Republic review of Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering and Mark Neely’s The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction. Although you can’t read it online I also recommend checking out James McPherson’s review of Faust and Mark S. Schantz’s Awaiting the Heavenly Country: The Civil War and America’s Culture of Death (Cornell University Press, 2008) in the New York Review of Books. McPherson suggests that Faust’s interpretation goes too far in equating the meaning of the war with death rather than emancipation. Eric Foner also made this point in his review which appeared in The Nation.
Actually, Glatthaar refrains from referring to black Confederates in his latest study, General Robert E. Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. When the book first arrived I was tempted to skip directly to chapter 24 which is titled "Blacks and the Army", but decided to read through just in case his analysis hinged on issues discussed in previous chapters. I was hoping that Glatthaar would address the controversy surrounding this subject, but by the time I finished the chapter I understood why he avoided it. The book is essentially a biography of the Army of Northern Virginia and the narrative tends to avoid explicit references to broader historiographical themes; the endnotes list the massive amount of primary sources utilized in this study as well as more detailed statistical analysis culled from his sample size. [In contrast, consider Chandra Manning’s endnotes which are filled with interesting references to historiography, though this is not surprising given that the book was based on her dissertation.] That said, anyone familiar with recent interpretive themes from the past 2-3 decades will easily recognize that this is a sophisticated narrative which situates the Army of Northern Virginia within a broader social and political context. What I like about is that it is organized chronologically, including chapters that address various topics such as religion, home front, discipline, supply, and organization.
By discussing blacks in the Army of Northern Virginia as opposed to black Confederates Glatthaar avoids the semantic pitfalls that accompany the debate. By chapter 24 the reader understands how important the institution of slavery was to a large percentage of the men who served in the army [See my earlier reference to this.] and the role of the army as an extension of a government whose professed goal it was to protect it and the racial hierarchy of the South. Glatthaar surveys the various functions that blacks provided in the army throughout the war, including the impressment of slaves and the experiences of those who accompanied their masters into camp and on occasion into battle. Such a survey – both within the army and in terms of the threat of slave unrest on the home front – serves as a reminder that the burden is on those who would have us believe that large numbers of slaves and free blacks served as soldiers in Lee’s army. In other words, the goal cannot simply be trumpeting photographs, news articles, and other sources that vaguely point to black men in Confederate uniforms or engaged in an activity as a sign of loyalty or as an indication that the ANV is somehow to be understood as an interracial army. The only way you can do so is if you ignore the large body of scholarship that has emerged over the past few decades which demonstrates the centrality of slavery to the Confederate experience. Without saying as much Glatthaar’s brief chapter on this subject brings into sharp focus the fact that the people and organizations who continue to push the black Confederate narrative are completely oblivious to serious scholarship on race and slavery in the Civil War. Sometimes there is no way of getting around having to read those pesky scholarly studies.
Note: Check out Dimitri Rotov’s excellent post on the handling of black Confederates by North and South editor, Keith Poulter. I like the angle on the responsibilities of an editor which I haven’t given much thought to in my own posts on the subject.
Most of you have no doubt heard that Sotheby’s has auctioned a letter by Abraham Lincoln for $3.4 million. The letter in question was written on April 5, 1864 in response to a request by a group of students for Lincoln to free the slaves. He addressed the letter to their teacher, Mrs. Horace Mann:
Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are
so full of just and generous sympathy and that, while I have not the
power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has,
and that, as it seems, He wills to do it.
I don’t know about you, but I am struck by Lincoln’s sensitivity to their request and I love that reference to the students as "little people". First, he takes their request seriously by acknowledging their emotional convictions, but at the same time manages to point to his own limits as president. In other words, Lincoln is saying that it is unfortunate that the issue of slavery cannot be decided based on "generous sympathy" alone. In addition, Mann’s students learn that their president is not all-powerful, but constrained by the Constitution. The reference to God’s will perhaps would have sounded familiar if their teacher had introduced Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in the classroom.