An Apparent Bias Against Civil War Campaign Studies at the JAH

Today I had a very pleasant lunch with a friend and fellow Civil War historian here in C-Ville.  Among the topics we talked about was an apparent decision on the part of the editors at the Journal of American History to no longer publish reviews of Civil War campaigns.  I thought this was unusual so when I arrived home I went through the last four issues and lo and behold there is not one review of a Civil War campaign.  In all fairness there are plenty of Civil War related studies, but nothing that would count as a battle history.  The decision must be fairly recent since I was able to find a review of James L. McDonough’s Nashville: The Western Confederacy’s Final Gamble in the December 2005 issue.  I don’t know of any other area that is subject to such a sweeping condemnation.  Without any written explanation it is impossible to state their rationale with any precision.  That said, it is easy to speculate that this probably has something to do with a bias against Civil War military historians.  Perhaps the editors have been flooded with the overwhelming number of books from within this particular genre and decided that it was too much trouble to wade through for specific titles that were worth reviewing. 

This is unfortunate as there are a number of first-rate campaign studies that merit serious review in any scholarly journal focused on American history.  George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! and Ken Noe’s Perryville have both been reviewed in the JAH which makes this decision all the more difficult to understand.  The Society of Civil War HIstorians ought to write up a petition in protest.  If I come across additional information I will be sure to pass it on. 

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John Hennessy on Civil War Talk Radio

It’s nice to see Civil War Talk Radio back up and running.  This past week John Hennessy, who is the Chief Historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park, spoke about the way our Civil War battlefields are now being interpreted

Hennessy clearly understands the complexity surrounding his responsibility within the NPS system which must balance both a role as public servant with the responsibilities of a historian.   His chief balancing act over the past few years has been to reinforce the NPS’s mission of remembering the soldiers who fought with a need to do good history.  And doing good Civil War history these days, according to Hennessy, is understanding the ways in which memory of the war was "massaged" or "manipulated" during the postwar years along with a need to provide visitors with "multiple entry points."  Hennessy asked at one point in the interview: "Are NPS historians always trying to learn more or are we memorialists committed to a specific meaning?"  He answers, "A little of both."  Such an approach maintains their original mission of memorializing with a historian’s responsibility to stay on top of new avenues of inquiry.  There is no better example of this than John’s work on a new documentary which details the way in which the fighting around Fredericksburg effected both white and black Virginians.  [Click here for an earlier post which includes two reviews of the movie by Hennessy and me.]  There is nothing contradictory in this approach; in fact, providing visitors with more information and multiple perspectives can only enhance the story people take away.

Part of the problem that Hennessy and others face in trying to enrich the visitor’s experience is that the objections concerning battlefield interpretation are rarely about history.  Rather they are about politics along with a misunderstanding of how history works.  These are not disagreements that can be discussed because they are more emotional than analytical.  Whether it is a conscious thought I tend to think that much of the anger can be reduced to wanting to maintain battlefields as "neutral" sites where broader issues of race and slavery or the civilian perspective are kept out.  I discussed this recently in the context of a visitor survey conducted at Arlington House.

With the sesquicentennial right around the corner it is nice to know that we have people like Hennessy in the NPS who understand that battlefields are not static, that they can be used to help us better understand our history.   Battlefields should be used to recall glorious deeds, but they can also be used to raise the tough questions of meaning and memory which in turn force us to look closely at causes and consequences. 

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Remembering and Forgetting On This Memorial Day

Adam Cohen has a very thoughtful piece in today’s New York Times which explores the way in which we as Americans have chosen to remember Memorial Day.  Cohen cites a few passages from David Blight’s Race and Reunion which references the ceremonies held by black Charlestonians in the months following the war to honor dead Union soldiers:

In “Race and Reunion,” his masterful book about historical memory, David
Blight, a professor at Yale, tells the wistful story of Memorial Day’s
transformation — and what has been lost as a result. War commemorations, he
makes clear, do not just pay tribute to the war dead. They also reflect a
nation’s understanding of particular wars, and they are edited for political
reasons. Memorial Day is a day not only of remembering, but also of selective
forgetting — a point to keep in mind as the Iraq war moves uneasily into the
history books.

Many of the early Memorial Day commemorations, Professor Blight notes, were
like Charleston’s, paying tribute both to the fallen Union soldiers and to the
emancipationist cause. At a ceremony in Maine in 1869, one fiery orator declared
that “the black stain of slavery has been effaced from the bosom of this fair
land by martyr blood.”

Less than a decade later in 1877 — when Reconstruction ended in the South —
at New York City’s enormous Memorial Day celebration, there was much talk of
union, and almost none of slavery or race. The New York Herald declared that
“all the issues on which the war of rebellion was fought seem dead,” and noted
approvingly that “American eyes have a characteristic tendency to look forward.”

Cohen ends his piece with a few thoughts about the ultimate price of our selective memory in the context of the war in Iraq.

When Memorial Day began, the war dead were placed front and center. The
holiday’s original name, Decoration Day, came from the day’s main activity:
leaving flowers at cemeteries. Today, though, we are fighting a war in which
great pains have been taken to hide the nearly 3,500 Americans who have died
from sight. The Defense Department has banned the photographing of returning
caskets, and the president refuses to attend soldiers’ funerals.

Memorial Day also began with the conviction that to properly honor the war
dead, it is necessary to honestly contemplate the cause for which they fought.
Today we are fighting a war sold on false pretenses, and the Bush administration
stands by its false stories. Memorial Day’s history, and its devolution,
demonstrates that the instinct to prettify war and create myths about it is
hardly new.

But as the founders of the original Memorial Day understood, the only
honorable way to remember those who have lost their lives is to commemorate them
out in the open, and to insist on a true account.

With no end in sight in the war in Iraq I admit to finding it very difficult to reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day without getting incredibly frustrated and sad.  My frustration is bound up in the conviction that this government has abused and needlessly sacrificed so many talented and patriotic Americans.  Last night I watched a special 60 Minutes episode which followed an Iowa National Guard unit, along with their families, during their deployment in Iraq.  As the guardsmen prepared for deployment one soldier expressed his confidence that his elected leaders in Washington must fully understand what they are doing.  We now know this is simply not true.  In fact, anyone who chooses to look must come to the conclusion that this is one of the most incompetent administrations in recent history.  And the price of this incompetency is the 3,500 Americans who have made the ultimate sacrifice. 

Memorial Day celebrations give us an opportunity to honor the service of all American military personnel regardless of the war in which they fought.  On one level this seems appropriate and perhaps on one day a year it is even necessary to do so.  However, in doing so we lose an opportunity to ask the tough questions at the very moment when our collective gaze is focused on the wars that this nation has chosen to fight.  Questions about the necessity of this war and the way it has been conducted from the highest levels open painful wounds because they force those willing to look to ask whether any given example of sacrifice was necessary.  In his new study of Nixon and Kissinger, historian Robert Dallek summarizes the consequences of the mistaken assumptions that led and kept this nation in Vietnam for so long: "It was a lesson in the heavy price nations pay when their leaders are held fast by unrealizable hopes that morph into illusions." (p. 134)

As a citizen of this country I feel an obligation to acknowledge the sacrifices and acts of heroism on the battlefield and the home front.  At the same time I also have an obligation to ask whether those acts were necessary and meaningful – beyond the description of the acts themselves.  That acknowledgment and need to inquire into the necessity of it all creates a great deal of tension.  This year I am finding it very difficult to balance on the one hand the selfless behavior and sacrifice reported daily out of Iraq with the utter incompetence of this present administration.  They don’t deserve this military. 

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Remembering Memorial Day

I ran this post last year at this time and thought it would be appropriate to share it again given the increased number of news items purporting to point out the first memorial day celebaration.

It is probably safe to assume that as we approach Memorial Day Weekend we will see an increase in stories purporting to demonstrate the origin of this commemoration.  Even as we emphasize our nationalistic zeal our fascination with the old saw of North v. South will be highlighted for our reading pleasure.  No doubt the question will be framed in terms of when white Americans gathered to commemorate the first memorial day.  Little thought will be given to the possibility that our tendency to see the Civil War as a white man’s war is both too narrow and overly simplistic.  I first came across the story of how black Charlestonians commemorated Union soldiers buried in a local race track in David Blight’s Race and Reunion, and I recently came across the story again in the on-line journal Common-place by the same author.

After Charleston, South Carolina was evacuated in February 1865 near the end of the Civil War, most of the people remaining among the ruins of the city were thousands of blacks. During the final eight months of the war, Charleston had been bombarded by Union batteries and gunboats, and much of its magnificent architecture lay in ruin. Also during the final months of war the Confederates had converted the Planters’ Race Course (a horse track) into a prison in which some 257 Union soldiers had died and were thrown into a mass grave behind the grandstand.

In April, more than twenty black carpenters and laborers went to the gravesite, reinterred the bodies in proper graves, built a tall fence around the cemetery enclosure one hundred yards long, and built an archway over an entrance. On the archway they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” And with great organization, on May 1, 1865, the black folk of Charleston, in cooperation with white missionaries, teachers, and Union troops, conducted an extraordinary parade of approximately ten thousand people. It began with three thousand black school children (now enrolled in freedmen’s schools) marching around the Planters’ Race Course with armloads of roses and singing “John Brown’s Body.” Then followed the black women of Charleston, and then the men. They were in turn followed by members of Union regiments and various white abolitionists such as James Redpath. The crowd gathered in the graveyard; five black preachers read from Scripture, and a black children’s choir sang “America,” “We Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-spangled Banner,” and several spirituals. Then the solemn occasion broke up into an afternoon of speeches, picnics, and drilling troops on the infield of the old planters’ horseracing track.

This was the first Memorial Day. Black Charlestonians had given birth to an American tradition. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses and lilacs and marching feet on their former masters’ race course, they had created the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.

To this day hardly anyone in Charleston, or elsewhere, even remembers this story. Quite remarkably, it all but vanished from memory. But in spite of all the other towns in America that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day (all claiming spring, 1866), African Americans and Charleston deserve pride of place. Why not imagine a new rebirth of the American nation with this scene?

It is easy to see how such an event could be lost during the postwar period as white Americans chose to ignore the theme of emancipation and in its place substituted a narrative that could more easily bring about sectional reunion.  The remembrance of such events, however, challenges those who continue to downplay or ignore entirely the role that slavery played in the secession debates and the eventual outcome of the war itself.  Regardless of whether we choose to remember these central themes, black Americans clearly did view the war along these lines.  And that is not up for debate.

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A Note on Petersburg’s Black Population

Last night I came across an interesting little section in Will Greene’s Civil War Petersburg which analyzes the reaction of the city’s free black population to Virginia’s decision to secede and the deployment of the areas first units.  On the eve of the Civil War Petersburg was a majority black city; twenty-six percent of the city’s free population was black and within the black community 36% were free.  A sizable number, according to Greene, "owned town lots, and some achieved surprising wealth for the time." (p. 8).  Much has been made of the growing percentage of the Upper South’s free black population throughout the antebellum period and its significance during the war years.  William Freehling contends that this general trend towards greater black freedom in the Upper and Border South threatened the states in the Lower South who believed that such changes would eventually spill into their own backyards.  Freehling has also contended that the racial dynamics in the Upper South played a crucial role in the evolution and outcome of the war.  Questions of how to manage large free black populations while at the same time maintain sufficient control of the slaves abounded. 

Greene presents a very interesting written document by a free black man by the name of Charles Tinsley (29 years old) who openly declared his loyalty to Virginia’s cause by volunteering to aid the militia:

We are willing to aid Virginia’s cause to the utmost extent of our ability.  We do not feel that it is right for us to remain idle here, when white gentlemen are engaged in the performance of work at Norfolk, that…is more suitable to our hands….There is not an unwilling heart among us…and we promise unhesitating obedience to all orders that may be given us….I could feel no greater pride, no more genuine gratification than to be able to plant [the Confederate flag] upon the ramparts of Ft. Monroe. (p. 36)

While Greene does not dismiss out of hand Tinsley’s declaration of loyalty to Virginia and the Confederacy he is rightfully skeptical.  The disruption of trade with the  North had already taken a toll on tobacco companies and other businesses which employed free blacks.  Greene cites one resident of James City County who believed that allowing these men to work on fortifications "would be putting them out of harm’s way, thereby lessening the chances of servile insurrection, which it is well to guard against as far as possible." (p. 36) 

I tend to agree with Greene’s conclusions here:

Although some of the black volunteers may have felt a genuine loyalty to Virginia and found sincere motivation n serving their native state, it is difficult to believe that men like Charles Tinsley did not exaggerate their Confederate patriotism out of a sense of self-interest.  Free blacks in Virginia had become experts at accommodation and survival, and their eagerness in volunteering for unarmed military service comported with this instinct.  Calculations of self-protection undoubtedly tipped the scales in favor of cooperating with the rapidly mobilizing whites. (p. 36)

Free blacks understood all too well the precariousness of their legal standing in the years leading up to the Civil War.  I don’t think it is a stretch at all to suggest that their very public claims of loyalty were in part an attempt to assuage the kinds of concerns expressed by the above-cited resident of James City County.  Accepting free blacks for volunteer service took care of reinforcing white Virginian’s own sense of paternalism as well as their fears of slave revolts at a time when the security and stability of their community remained uncertain. 

As I was reading this section of the book I couldn’t help but think of the aftermath of the Crater in July 1864.  In a sense the reaction of Confederates to the presence of USCTs becomes even clearer in light of these early concerns about slave rebellion and race relations.  Keep in mind that the regiments that made up Mahone’s Virginia brigade were raised in the Petersburg and were commanded by the city’s own David A. Weisiger.  Confederates did not see black soldiers as simply an extension of the Union army, but as a realization of their worst fears of racial leveling and servile insurrection come true.  Evidence suggests that a few of the USCTs were originally from the Petersburg area and at least one document suggests that a captured black man was returned to his former owner following the battle.  The public parade of captured black soldiers through the streets of Petersburg and on their way to prison camps further south must also be seen in this context.  The remaining white population in Petersburg was given a glimpse of just what the war had become and just what was at stake in case of defeat. 

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