Interviewed About American Civil War Museum at Tredegar

Today I was interviewed over the phone about the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond for an article that will appear in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.  I had a chance to make some of the points that were included in my recent review of the museum on this blog, and the reporter agreed to include the URL in the article.  That might bring some new readers to this site.  Anyway, the article should appear in the paper soon and I will provide a link if the piece appears online. 

James Clark Remembers The Crater (117th New York Infantry)

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post on neo-Confederates and the Crater.  One of my readers was kind enough to forward me a short excerpt from James Clark’s The Iron Hearted Regiment which tells the story of the 115th New York Infantry and was published in 1865. 

A colored division mount the works, and they too go forward on the charge. We watch them eagerly; it is their first fight, and we wonder if they will stand the shock. Noble fellows! Grandly they cross the field; they are under a withering fire, but still rush on regardless of fallen comrades, and the storm of pitiless lead and relentless grape that pours upon them from three sides, and gain the works with a ringing cheer. Now they sweep everything before them. Prisoners are taken, and are forced to run the fearful gauntlet of fire. A fellow comrade said he saw a colored soldier in an agony of frenzy, bayonet a rebel prisoner, and his own captain justly shot him dead. Others place wounded comrades in blankets and shelter tents, and compel the chivalry at the point of the bayonet to carry them from the field. The colored troops are greatly elated at their success, and wildly mass and crowd together regardless of all order or position." (p. 148)

It would be very interesting to survey the evolution of Union accounts of the Crater and the performance of U.S.C.T.’s.  As I suggested yesterday, a significant number of accounts penned by Union soldiers were critical of their performance.  I obviously do not know whether Clark’s 1865 account was pulled from an earlier diary or letter written at the time of the battle.  To what extent – if at all – does the date of publication in 1865, along with the strong emotions of victory and the passage of the 13th Amendment influence this account?

Neo-Confederates On The Crater

Over at H-CivWar Donald Shaffer reviews John Cimprich’s recent study, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (LSU, 2005).  I read the book and have to say that I was just a bit disappointed.  With a title that includes a reference to “public memory” and the presence of U.S.C.T.’s I was hoping for something that would help me think through similar issues about the Crater and memory.  Unfortunately, the section on memory was much too short and provided very little information on how to better understand the evolution of accounts about the battle and massacre of black soldiers.  A short section of Shaffer’s review resonated with me:

The last chapter again highlights what is the main weakness of _Fort Pillow:  A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_–its brevity.  Although there is much worthwhile in this book, Cimprich leaves many significant topics unexplored or underexplored.  By focusing much of chapter 7 on the development of Confederate memory, particularly as it pertained to Nathan Bedford Forrest, he leaves the northern interpretation and more recent interpretations of this incident too thinly covered.  Indeed, one memory topic begging for attention, which Cimprich virtually ignores, is the recent rise of the neo-Confederate sentiments among Civil War enthusiasts and how this movement deals with Fort Pillow, not to mention its larger  view of African Americans in the conflict.

I’ve spent too many bytes on the question of how neo-Confederates handle issues of race and the presence of black soldiers in the Union army.  We know the drill: thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy and were loyal throughout the war.  Shaffer rightfully criticizes Cimprich for not discussing more recent attempts to minimize or ignore the slaughter of black soldiers at Fort Pillow  I’ve seen the same thing in reference to the Crater.  The argument typically has two parts.  First, ignore wartime accounts authored by Confederates who took part in the battle and then emphasize until you are blue in the face that Union soldiers also “massacred” black soldiers during and after the battle.  One of the best examples of this can be found at the website, The Petersburg ExpressThis passage is the result of an email that I wrote that was posted on their website.  Lucky me.

To isolate the incidents of White Confederate soldiers killing USCT while ignoring incidents of White Union soldiers killing USCT, [USCT killing White Confederates], or the murders of White soldiers by White soldiers on both sides presents incidents of USCT being killed by White Confederates as a false and inflammatory image. It makes it appear that such incidents were particular and one-sided when they were part of a much wider pattern perpetrated by both sides. You also fail to understand that Confederate soldiers served side-by-side with Blacks who operated in the Confederate military not only in support functions, but also as armed Confederate combat soldiers. The evidence of their combat service as contained in the Federal Official Records, Northern newspapers, and the letters and diaries of Union soldiers are so numerous and compelling that the National Park Service has recognized their service undertaken to research those sources and add them to the African-American History Web Project.
I want to start by saying that in my extensive research of wartime accounts I came across a number of Union accounts that expressed the worst kind of racism towards the black soldiers who took part in the battle.  A number of soldiers went so far as to explain the Union defeat as a result of black soldier’s lack of courage.  I even came across a couple of accounts where the writer admits to seeing black soldiers treated violently by their white counterparts, including one New Hampshire soldier who admits to seeing a black soldier shot as he ran from the Crater.

As I see it the problem for neo-Confederates is that while they are correct in pushing for the recognition that black soldiers were treated poorly on both sides there is simply nothing comparable to  Confederate wartime accounts.  Letters, diaries, and even newspapers are littered with accounts of how black soldiers were treated both during and after the battle.  There should be no surprise about this given the way these men interpreted the site of armed, uniformed, and angry black men.  They make clear in their letters and diaries that their presence on the battlefield clarified just what was at stake if the war were lost.  Of course racism coursed throughout the country before, during and after the Civil War. No one region had a monopoly on it. That does not, however, cancel the need for a careful study of how Confederate soldiers behaved at the Crater and why.  To ignore these accounts is to leave out a salient aspect of the battle.  In trying to nail down just how many black soldiers were shot after the battle I rely on Bryce Suderow’s article in the journal, Civil War History [(Sept. 1997): 219-24].  If he is way off the mark then let me know.

In their failure to include wartime sources the website stresses postwar accounts and usually without any analysis.  Consider this page which brings together a number of accounts purporting to support the idea of black Confederates.  No interpretation of when they were written, by whom, or why, just lay it out and hope that the reader will jump to their preferred conclusion.  Anyone familiar with the literature on postwar politics and the trend towards reunion and reconciliation understands the hazards of interpreting these sources.  It doesn’t necessarily imply that these sources shed no light on the war, but there needs to be some analysis provided.  Isn’t that was serious history involves?  Challenging accounts that help us understand what happened at the Crater and why by arguing that racism and poor treatment prevailed in the Union army does not get us any closer to understanding wartime Confederate accounts.

First Meeting Of The Friends Of William Mahone Society

Last night I spent a few hours with two fellow students of William Mahone.  One just finished his PhD at the University of Virginia and the other is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.  The latter had spent the week conducting research in Special Collections at UVA so the three of us decided to get together to talk over a couple of beers.

All three of us have spent significant time researching the postwar political career and memory of William Mahone.  We had a chance to talk about directions in research and future plans.  Few people are currently working on Mahone so it was just nice to be able to talk about a subject and know that you were being understood.  We threw names like Harrison Hold Riddleberger, William Cameron, William Lamb, Stith Bolling, and Abram Fulkerson as if they were household names.  I know, it sounds like a real blast (LOL).  Throw together a couple of overgrown nerds and I guess that’s what you get.  We all agree that Mahone is missing from recent Lost Cause literature, the absence of which has left us with an interpretation that assumes a unified front.  Interpretations tend to trace the development of the Lost Cause through the 1870′s and 80′s with little understanding of what is happening in Virginia.  If there is dissent it stems from James Longstreet’s decision to align himself with the Republican Party.  However, nothing compares with the political maneuvering of William Mahone and the success of the Readjuster Party in the early 1880′s; the party constituted the greatest threat to white political power in the South and led to bitter debates over who could claim legitimate ownership of the Confederate past.  Mahone’s politics led to a bitter debate even among veterans of his own Virginia brigade, which involved serious challenges to accounts of his leadership at the Crater and elsewhere.  Anyone researching Mahone and the Crater who utilizes postwar sources from this time will have absolutely no sense of what is driving these heated disagreements.  This is a topic that I explore in detail in "William Mahone, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History", which appeared last year in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (chapter 3 in my manuscript).  Most studies simply assume that white Southerners were in agreement about who should be celebrated or remembered and why, and this supposedly led directly to reunion and reconciliation with the North.  White Virginians agreed on very little during the last two decades of the nineteenth-century and this is absolutely crucial to acknowledge if we are to have a more accurate interpretation of the Lost Cause.

Part of the problem is the sheer size of the Mahone collection which is located at Duke University.  There are 110 linear feet of material on Mahone in the collection that covers the period 1853-1895 — most of it on the postwar period.  The collection contains 94 volumes of letterbooks, 167 containers of incoming correspondence, 33 containers of subject files, and 41 newspaper scrapbooks.  I spent a week at Duke in the summer of 2003 and worked every day from opening to closing and barely put a dent in the collection.  There has only been one scholarly biography and that was published back in 1935 by Nelson M. Blake.  All three of us had our own stories to tell about working with this collection.  Unfortunately, the most valuable sources are the incoming letters and Mahone’s scrapbooks which contain articles from a wide-range of newspapers.  Much of Mahone’s writing is impossible to read; it looks like and EKG Scan.

I look forward to seeing my two new friends at some point in the near future.  We are planning to organize a panel discussion for an upcoming conference so stay tuned.

What’s In A Name?

Last week I commented briefly on the proposed move decided on by the staff at the Museum of the Confederacy.  Towards the end of that post I suggested that the museum should think about changing its name for public relations reasons.  One of my readers commented that this was a good idea and yesterday I came across an article that reinforces my position.

The parties who dominate city government often regard the MOC as too controversial to support publicly," the report states. "Public personae and potential supporters – including individuals, politicians, corporations and foundations – will not publicly align themselves with the Confederacy and, by association, the MOC."  The report says the museum has not addressed "the problem as one of political correctness and has not seriously addressed repositioning the museum."  So, why not just change the name and take out the offending word?  "It’s not as simple as just changing the name," [H. Nicholas] Muller says. "There’s a history of over 100 years with the name. You can’t change the name without losing some of the supporters. It would be seen as a fairly shallow public relations ploy.

What I don’t understand is if you can’t maintain the support of local civic leaders than what supporters is Muller and others worried about maintaining?  They obviously have no money.  Unfortunately, the increase in publicity surrounding the Confederate flag, the politics of the Confederacy, and its presence in the current Virginia Senate race makes it a public issue that must be addressed.  There are practical reasons to move the MOC and I’ve supported it all along, but if anyone believes that a simple move is going to solve the financial problem and decrease in visitation, think again.  As this short passage above and my comments last week regarding the apparent lack of support among Southern Heritage organizations suggests, the problem is deeper.