It Ain’t Over Until You Cross That River and Rest Under the Shade of the Trees

Last night Frank O’Reilly presented a talk to Charlottesville’s Civil War Roundtable.  As many of you know he is a historian with the National Park Service in Fredericksburg and the author of the award-winning book The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (LSU Press, 2003).  Although I’ve mentioned more than once my preference for George Rable’s Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (UNC Press, 2002) I thoroughly enjoyed O’Reilly’s study and learned last night that the book had been nominated for a Pulitzer prize.

I attended last night’s meeting with the assumption that he would talk about the death of "Stonewall" Jackson at Guiney Station where that NPS continues to maintain and interpret the site of the generals death.  While I’ve never visited the site I’ve heard my share of goofy stories of how the event is reenacted, leaving at least one visitor with the belief that she could "sense" Jackson’s presence.  Unfortunately, O’Reilly focused his presentation on the events of May 2, 1863 and specifically on the wounding of Jackson by his own troops.  Needless to say I was disappointed, though I probably would not have been as upset if he had decided to focus on a topic all-together different from the popular mantra of Jackson’s last moments with the Army of Northern Virginia. 

Before I continue I do want to point out that O’Reilly did a great job last night.  Although his presentation was clearly pulled right out of the battlefield tours that you can hear if you visit Chancellorsville, O’Reilly was incredibly enthusiastic.  It is a clear sign that he enjoys what he does and wants you to be able to identify with a piece of American history.  And that’s always nice to see.

Last night was just another confirmation of my belief that most Civil War enthusiasts are content with hearing the same stories told well over and over.  The more detail the better as if the added information will get us to some little gem or uncover the secret that implicitly lay just below the surface.  O’Reilly began by reminding the audience that Jackson was at the "peak" of his career and that his wounding represented one of the "tragic moments in American history."  Notice how setting things up in such a way shapes the narrative of the day’s events.  Confederates become the principal actors, as they should be, considering that it’s Jackson’s corps that is on the move.  My concern is that this can be and usually is taken to the extreme.  The battle becomes the Confederate’s to lose; this tendency to tell the story from their perspective in the hopes of achieving some kind of dramatic effect can also be seen in the way the story of the battle of Gettysburg is often told. 

Worst of all, our understanding of contingency on the battlefield is shaped by what one side did as opposed to a richer discussion of how the actions of both sides brought about a certain outcome.  In the case of May 2 the story ends up as a build-up to Jackson’s own wounding.  Hanging there in the background is the possibility that Jackson can continue his assault and destroy the Federal Army.  And if he can’t do it on the evening of May 2 there is the possibility – given that he has maneuvered his men on the field with the goal of pinning the Federals down rather than pushing them beyond the Rappahannock – of continuing the assault the following day.  Meanwhile, little is said about what the Federals are doing just a stones throw away to hamper any further advance. 

Rather than see May 2 as a build-up to a decisive Confederate victory why not interpret Jackson’s attack as putting the Federal army around the Chancellor House in a much better position given that they are now more tightly compacted and as a result are in a position to either sweep down and take the smaller force commanded by Lee or counterattack against Jackson?  With Jackson on the field, however, anything is possible.  With such a focus on May 2 it is no surprise that few people appreciate the importance of the fighting the following day which goes down as one of the bloodies days of the war.  My guess is that most people who travel to Chancellorsville want to hear about Jackson so it is no surprise that interpretations focus on Jackson and the events of May 2. 

Not only is the shooting of Jackson tragic, but we’re not satisfied until we put him in the grave.  Not so fast, however, as we need to milk those final dramatic scenes at Guiney Station for all it’s worth. 

Soak It Up!

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I’ve had this vision of myself for the last 5 months sitting at home over the course of the summer and working diligently on completing my Crater study.  I can flesh it out for you even more.  I’ve got assorted papers scattered over my desk, the cats are sitting quietly on the windowsill; next to the computer sits a fresh cup of coffee, and cigarette.  Wait just a minute, I don’t smoke.  Anyway, some of you out there know what I am getting at.  Well, two weeks into my summer and I am stalled at the gates.  This is the classic example of the sharp difference between our perceptions of the life of a writer and the harsh reality.

I’ve been working on this study for close to 4 years.  It evolved from an essay on the postwar political career of William Mahone and expanded into a study and M.A. thesis for the University of Richmond on how the battle of the Crater has been commemorated and remembered by white southerners.  While the thesis is fairly well organized each chapter was conceived as a separate essay with plans to publish sections of it in various magazines and academic journals.  Luckily that has come to pass. 

My problem, however, is in re-thinking how I want the individual essays to fit together into a book-length narrative.  I’ve spent so much time thinking about this project as a collection of individual essays that I am finding it very difficult taking one step back in hopes of gaining a broader perspective.  I have three boxes of hanging folders that are packed with research material from various archives, but I don’t know if I should take a few weeks and go through everything once again in hopes of picking up something that I may have missed and attaining that new insight on how it all comes together.  Perhaps I should quit trying to revise my chapters and start from scratch.  My frustrations are compounded by the fact that I have a university press that is very interested in in publishing this project.  I simply don’t want to screw this up. 

A big part of the problem is that I’ve trained my brain into thinking along the lines of a journal-length essay.  I pretty much have the formula down: start off with a catchy opening that grabs the reader’s attention and anticipates the body of the essay, lay out your thesis, comment on the relevant historiography, present your evidence and analysis, and top it off with a conclusion that leaves the reader with something to think about.  Maybe some of you out there have a little advice that would be helpful.  I assume there is no formula out there, but some of you no doubt have been in my situation.  I am clearly not in a state of desperation, but I do need to utilize my time wisely this summer.  High School teachers don’t have the luxury of being able to do serious writing over the course of the year. 

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Hooked on World Cup Soccer

Well, I am hooked on World Cup Soccer.  I am still not sure how it happened, but I have to admit to sitting in front of the TV this past weekend riveted.  Keep in mind that I attended schools that did not offer soccer as a sport and my friends and I didn’t play or watch soccer.  The more I think about my new found interest the more I realize that it may have more to do with wanting to take part in an event that involves people from all over the world rather than simply wanting to watch 22 men kick a ball back and forth.  Perhaps this interest is magnified given the general perception that the United States takes little interest in the affairs of the rest of the world. While I cheered for the U.S. team on Saturday against Italy I have to admit to enjoying the fact that we can’t claim to be the "big boys" on the block.  The U.S. isn’t perceived as anything special or even necessarily respected on the international soccer scene while other teams such as Brazil have a rich history of success.   In the end, the game acts as an equalizer among nations.  It was a thrill watching and listening on Saturday to the Italians as their national anthem was being played.  They had their arms around one another and enthusiastically belted out the words.  The Americans were much more complacent and very few took the opportunity to sing along. 

Given that I have no experience playing the game I’ve had some difficulty following the rules.  I understand that the goal is to place the ball in the opponent’s net, but beyond this I am lost.  What’s a yellow card as opposed to a red card, how does substitution work, and why do they add time at the end of the half?  Luckily I have my wife who is from Germany who explained it all to me in very clear language. 

This stands in sharp contrast to our trip to Fenway Park a few years back and my attempt to explain baseball to my wife who understood about as much as I understand the game of soccer.  I never realized how complicated the game is.  My wife asked some excellent questions: Why three strikes?  Why do they run in that direction?  Why does that player keeping touching himself in the crotch?  I’m sure I didn’t handle these questions in nearly the same fashion as my wife did in response to my questions.  I’m sure I thought to myself, "How can you not understand the game of baseball?  Didn’t you watch or play it when you were a kid in northern Germany?" 

As I don’t have cable I am going to have to find a sports bar on Thursday to watch the U.S. and Ghana.   


The Crater Massacre

Bryce Suderow’s 1997 Civil War History article titled "The Battle of the Crater: The Civil War’s Worst Massacre" is the most complete analysis of the slaughter of United States Colored Troops.  (The article was recently reprinted in Gregory J.W. Urwin ed. Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War [Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2004]).  While the article is only five pages long, Suderow includes a great deal of important information and lays out a detailed explanation of the casualties of Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero’s black division.   He makes two important points: First, Suderow argues that there were four separate massacres of black soldiers between their introduction to the battle around 8:00am to the close of the battle and the surrender of a sizeable number of the division.  Second, he provides a corrective to the exact numbers that may have been executed at some point during the battle.

Suderow claims that there were four separate "massacres" of black soldiers during the battle.  To make his point Suderow utilizes the written testimony, both contemporary and postwar.  The first massacre occurred around 9:00am when the men of Brig. Gen. David Weisiger’s Virginia brigade and the Alabamians under the command of Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright killed black soldiers who were part of the deepest penetration beyond the contours of the crater and were now wounded and trying to retreat back into position with the rest of the Federal units.  Of the four "massacres" that Suderow cites this is the least convincing.  He references three Confederate accounts and one by Lt. Freeman Bowley of the 30th USCT; all of them suggest that wounded black soldiers were gunned down as they attempted to make their way back into the crater from their advanced position.  Part of my problem is with the claim that this represented a massacre.  Suderow never defines his terms, which is problematic as his next three instances differ in one crucial respect: the intention to kill specifically black soldiers.  Yes, these men were hollering "No Quarter" and I have no doubt that Confederates were enraged by their presence on the battlefield, but given that these are the first units that Gen. Mahone’s brigades met it is impossible to know how they would have handled the situation if they had faced white units or a combination of white and black units.  In other words, it seems reasonable to ask, given the gravity of the situation, whether white Federal soldiers might have been gunned down indiscriminately as Confederates made their way closer to the crater itself. 

The second instance, which lasted from 10:00am until noon, involved Mahone’s men hunting down black soldiers who had taken shelter in bombproofs.  Some that were not executed outright were gunned down while being led back through Confederate lines and this represented a third massacre.  Both instances are documented by Suderow and here I believe he is on more solid ground as these men were not actively engaged in the fight and at least in the latter example had already surrendered.

Finally, following the battle a number of black soldiers were executed.  B.F. Philips, who served in the Alabama brigade which made the final counterattack around 1:00pm, recalled in 1907 that Mahone had sent orders for the men "not to kill quite all of them."  A soldier in Robert Ransom’s North Carolina brigade also remembered the treatment of black soldiers following the battle: "When I got there they had the ground covered with broken headed negroes, and were searching about among the bomb proofs for more, the officers were trying to stop them but they kept on until they finished up."   

The second part of Suderow’s article – and the more important part – is his analysis of the actual numbers of black soldiers that may have been massacred.  The nominal list of casualties in Ferrero’s Fourth Division shows that 219 soldiers were killed in the battle.  Suderow believes this number is much too low and here is his argument:  While Confederates claimed to have buried 750 Federal soldiers a nominal list suggests a total 504 killed including the 219 black soldiers.  So, we have 246 bodies that are unaccounted for as compared with the Federal casualty list.  While the list of captured black soldiers includes 410 names, Confederates claimed to only have captured 200 black soldiers.  Suderow then went back to the service and pension records of these 410 soldiers and discovered the following: 205 killed, 13 mortally wounded, 62 wounded in action, 3 mortally wounded and captured, 13 wounded in action and captured, 72 captured — Total of 368 (of 410; the other 42 were not casualties).

Adjusted claims for the Fourth Division, according to Suderow, include 423 killed, 13 mortally wounded, 744 wounded, 3 mortally wounded and captured, 13 wounded and captured, and 73 captured–a total of 1,269 men.  An important point that Suderow makes at the end of the article about the Crater is that while the ratio of blacks killed to wounded was 423 to 757, about 1 to 1.8 the ratio of killed to wounded for the war in general was 1 to 4.8. 


When Is It Appropriate to Commemorate?

I came across this letter which was printed in the Montgomery Advertiser, and although it is brief it makes alot of sense.  Here is the letter by Bill Little of Montgomery in full:

I am a white native Alabamian, with two great-great-grandfathers who fought
for the Confederacy. As a state employee, I have for nearly 25 years been given
holidays for Confederate Memorial Day and Jefferson Davis’ birthday. While I
enjoy having these days off, I would urge the Legislature to end these as state

My reasons have nothing to do with my personal opinion as to whether the
Confederate dead or Jefferson Davis should be remembered. I simply believe that
a state holiday should be an occasion that all the people of the state wish to
celebrate, or at least acknowledge as appropriate. This is apparently not true
for many, if not most, black people in Alabama, for reasons that I can

Ending these holidays would not represent a collective decision that the
Confederate dead and Jefferson Davis are not worthy of remembrance. It would
mean only that the remembrance of them is not a matter on which all Alabamians
can agree, and thus that these holidays are not appropriate for the state as a

The cynic in me can’t help but wonder whether this letter is a fraud, but perhaps it is a small sign of sanity out there.