Blog

SCWH Annual Meeting In Richmond

The annual meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians will take place in Richmond this November as part of the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association.  Finally, I will get to attend the SHA.  The SCWH’s panel will feature A. Wilson Greene, John Coski, and Alex Wise.  Greene will discuss interpreting combat at Civil War historic sites; Coski will examine the recent challenges that the Museum of the Confederacy has faced in promoting the history of the Confederacy; and Wise will discuss the American Civil War Center’s new exhibit which interprets the Civil War from multiple perspectives in the former capital of the Confederacy.  This promises to be a first-rate panel.

The 2008 meeting of the SHA is scheduled for New Orleans and I’ve been asked to join a panel for the meeting of the SCWH.  The panel will cover Civil War and technology.  I will be joining Mark Grimsley, Anne Sarah Rubin, and George Rable who organized the panel.  My topic is Civil War blogging, which is perfect as I’ve been wanting to write something about this "long strange trip." 

Click here for the SHA’s 2008 call for papers.

Interpreting the Hand of God in American History

[Hat-Tip to Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub]

I am working steadily to get my classes up to speed for the start of the new year.  The course description for my survey course in American history is going through the most substantial revision since I’ve discarded the traditional textbook approach for multiple secondary texts.  As I was browsing a few of the blogs this morning I came across this post that includes a number of course descriptions from Castle Hills Baptist School in San Antonio, Texas.  You can read the descriptions if you dare, but here is their course description for American history:

Students will evaluate the past and learn from its lessons (I Corinthians 10:11), and become effectual Christians who understand “the times” (I Chronicles 12:32). Students will study the history of our country beginning with the Civil War with a biblically integrated filter as they examine the political, social, and economic perspectives. An emphasis will be placed on the major wars, the industrial revolution, and the settlement of the frontier, requiring students to critically analyze the cause and effect relationships of events in history.

Here is (I Corinthians 10:11): Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

…and here is (I Chronicles 12:32): And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do; the heads of them were two hundred; and all their brethren were at their commandment.

I am curious as to whether it is possible to follow this course description and do analytical history.  According to the description the students will focus on the political, social, and economic perspectives of American history.  I take it for granted that all three categories are open to serious interpretation.  Take for example the social history of the United States.  Are we to understand American history as a society based on sharp class lines or as a relatively classless society?  It’s even more difficult if we ask the question over time.  From what perspective should we view the political structure and the central concepts contained within?  Is ‘freedom’ to be understood as wealthy capitalists understood it during the latter half of the nineteenth century or should we consider those pushing the agenda of the welfare state during the Great Depression?  How do we define all three categories if we look at antebellum America through the eyes of a slave as opposed to people heading west to start a new life? 

So, the first problem any serious student of history must come to grips with is that the past is always open to interpretation with much of it hinging on whose perspective you take.  As teachers, however, we still ask our students to draw conclusions about historical change and the characteristics of society at particular points in time.  The best students take great care in structuring their responses in a way that acknowledges the limits of their explanation. 

My question is how do you get from there to any conclusions about how all of this fits into a "biblically integrated filter."  In other words how is a student (or anyone) to know that their particular historical interpretation mirrors God’s plan or any kind of divine intervention over time?  Don’t we run the risk of turning God into an advocate for a certain version of American history: God as social conservative, laissez-faire capitalist, labor advocate, welfare state proponent, etc.  In the context of the Civil War is God a Revisionist, Lost Cause, or Progressive kind of guy?

Unless I am mistaken it seems to me that something has to give.  Either an analytical/interpretive approach is taken where the working assumption is that historical inquiry is carried out along secular lines [notice that this approach as in the case of the theory of evolution does not necessarily deny the existence of God] or we discard interpretation for theology.  Attempting to understand the past in all of its complexity is difficult enough, but adding God into the mix seems to add an entirely new challenge to the process.   

I will continue to work in the archives and worry about the mind of God later.

White Union Soldiers, Race, and the Battle of the Crater

I am putting the finishing touches on an article which is slated to appear in the next volume of Gary Gallagher’s Campaigns of the Civil War Series (UNC Press).  I’ve gone back and expanded the focus (as well as the Crater book manuscript) to include the perspective of Union soldiers and their perceptions of race and the participation of USCTs during the battle.  My collection of sources has included Union accounts from the beginning of my research, however, for a number of reasons I resisted giving them full voice in my study. Part of the reason can be explained by the fact that the postwar focus on commemoration and memory was carried out overwhelmingly by white Southerners.  Given this I decided that my focus on the war years should concentrate on white Southerners.  Since I received the manuscript reviews back in the spring I’ve had a chance to rethink this approach and have decided to expand the focus if for no other reason than to drive home the challenge that black Americans faced from the beginning in working to place their stories within the broader national narrative. 

Recent studies by James McPherson, Reid Mitchell, Earl Hess, and Chandra Manning have highlighted the racial outlook of Civil War soldiers.  Manning has recently argued that the views of Union soldiers evolved to a point which regarded the abolition of slavery as a necessary step in ending the war.  She also contends that a noticeable change in the views of Union soldiers can be seen much earlier than previously thought.  It is important, however, to distinguish (and I believe Manning does so) between a view that connected the end of slavery with the end of the war and a change in perceptions of race.  Even with all of the evidence that Manning musters in demonstrating the way the realities of war and slave system in the South effected Union soldiers I believe we need to be cautious in drawing conclusion which purport to trace views of race over time.  A close look at the response of Union soldiers to their defeat at the Crater is a case in point. 

The other point I want to make before sharing a few wartime accounts is that my inclusion of Union soldiers is not to simply reduce their experiences to those of Confederates (white Southerners).  Racism was no doubt a reality on both sides, but the experience of fighting with or against black soldiers matter and those salient features of their respective experiences need to be taken into account.  While many Union soldiers clearly blamed the USCTs for defeat at the Crater they did not view their participation as a slave rebellion.   Here are a few samples from my collection:

Louis H. Bell to George, August 12, 1864 [4th New Hampshire Infantry, Commander 3rd Brigade]

“July 31st I witnessed the explosion of the great mine in front of Petersburg and took part [in] the charge and was among those who were run over by the panic stricken negros. [W]e used our sabers freely on the cowards but could not stop them and were driven back – pell nell.”

Lt. Hilon A. Parker to Father, July 31, 1864 [10th New York Heavy Artillery]

"Everything went favorable until at 9 o’clock when the rebels attacked our men but the attack – if we can believe reports – could have been easily repulsed had it not been for a panic which scared the Colored troops who gave way and went to the rear with a rush which was almost as baud as the charge of the rebels themselves.”

Edward L. Cook to Sister, August 4, 1864 [100th New York Infantry]

“How do the people North feel about the Petersburgh affair[?] Everybody here is down on the niggers. Our loss was very heavy but a large portion of it was caused by the white troops firing into the retreating niggers. We had Petersburgh in our power that day if the nigs had not been seized with a kind of unusual panic or if we had followed up our success in taking the first line by an immediate charge on the remaining line. The rebel force was very small in comparison to our own as it is proved that only 1 corps was in Petersburgh.”

Alonzo G. Rich to Father, July 31, 1864 [36th Massachusetts Regiment]

“A charge was then made. We gained the fort and the first line of breastworks without a very great loss. They were then halted. We were doing nicely. It was too much glory for white men. Niggers must go in and they skedaddled and created a panic. If it hadn’t been for them we should have occupied Petersburg yesterday by they mixed them up so that they didn’t show white men any mercy att [sic] all. They even bayoneted and shot our wounded…. I am willing the niggers should fight but I say put them all in together and let them fight. If not, keep them out and let the white men do it. They never will catch me in a fight with niggers.”

Orren S. Allen to Wife, August 3, 1864 [112th New York Volunteer Infantry]

“Many try to lay the blame to the Colored Troops, It is a Lie, they fought like heroes, I saw them and I talked with soldiers who has always been down on them before but said they never seen men fight better. They better not say much about the “Smokes” as they call them. When I saw a Brig. Gen. running for his life from where there was no danger. Men were trampled down like grass, ran like cows and but for the bravery of a few they would have been slaughtered.”

Accounts sympathetic to Orren S. Allen’s view are rare among Union soldiers.  Most of what I’ve found place some blame for the defeat on the USCTs.  What these soldiers fail to acknowledge, however, is that those black soldiers were part of the furthest advance on the battlefield before the initial charge of Mahone’s brigade took place around 9am.  The retreating columns also included white men from New Hampshire regiments.  It is not surprising that white Union soldiers would gravitate towards blaming USCTs for their defeat given that their racial views included the assumption that they made poor soldiers.  It is important, however, to notice that even the most virulent racist could still conclude that the institution of slavery must end for the war to be successfully concluded.  So, while I am sympathetic with those who suggest that Union soldier’s views of slavery evolved during the war I am suspicious of anything comparable in the racial context.   

Should a Statue of Oliver Hill Be Placed On Monument Avenue?

On Sunday civil rights attorney Oliver Hill died at 100.  From the Washington Post:

Mr. Hill was born May 1, 1907, in Richmond, but he was raised here in the District. He graduated from Dunbar High School and earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree at Howard University. Thurgood Marshall, who would later be the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, was a classmate, colleague and friend. Mr. Hill went back to Richmond and became the first black person elected to the City Council since 1898. But it was the gnawing unfairness of the court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld separate but equal public facilities as constitutional, that fed Mr. Hill’s passion for using the law to correct injustice.

Mr. Hill was the lead lawyer in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., which challenged "separate but equal" as applied to public schools. Yearning for a roof that didn’t leak and a better learning environment helped change America; Davis was one of five cases that the Supreme Court combined in 1954 when it ruled, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, that segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Mr. Hill’s legacy as a Virginia lawyer is a raft of lawsuits that expanded everything from voting rights to employment protections. Like so many in the civil rights movement, he endured threats to his safety and to his family. And like so many in the civil rights movement, Mr. Hill was undeterred.

I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Hill back in April at the annual meeting of the Virginia Social Science Association where I thanked him for his service to the nation.  There is already discussion regarding the proper way to remember and commemorate Hill’s service to the Commonwealth and the nation.  A statue of Hill will be 1 of 17 to be placed on a monument to Virginia’s civil rights leaders on Capitol Square in Richmond; however, Ray Mcallister of the Richmond Times-Dispatch is already asking whether a statue of Hill ought to be placed on Monument Avenue. 

I think it is a wonderful idea given that Monument Avenue is where Richmonders place their heroes.  Of course, not everyone is happy and any article about the changing profile of this historic avenue will attract the attention of the SCV as if they have some special claim to this location. 

But Henry Kidd, a former national officer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said yesterday: "Oliver Hill does not belong on Monument Avenue. . . . Monument Avenue was dedicated to Civil War generals, and I believe it should stay that."  He and others had objected to the inclusion of Ashe, a tennis legend and humanitarian.  Kidd, of Colonial Heights, said the issue is not Hill but the location. "I have no problem with Mr. Hill having a statue [somewhere else]."

There is a slight semantic obscurity that often accompanies such arguments.  It is true that Monument Avenue was used as a place to dedicate monuments to Civil War leaders, but does that imply that it must?  Does anybody know if there was anything ever written that this particular street must be used indefinitely only for Confederate officers? 

I agree that the SCV has the right to voice its concerns regarding the changing historic landscapes in their communities, and I agree that serious debate and discussion ought to precede such changes.  That said, I am tired of having to consider their views as if they have some special claim to this street.  It belongs to all Richmonders and its citizens have the right to decide what it should look like.  The fact that the avenue had been used specifically as a site for Confederate monuments (up until the dedication of the Ashe statue in 1996) reflects a past defined by white political control and nothing close to a consensus view.  More importantly, such a proposal would involve altering, removing, or destroying not one statue already on Monument Avenue. 

Regardless of whether a statue of Hill is placed on Capitol Square or Monument Avenue it will at least give Richmonders an opportunity to think about who really dedicated his life to freedom and equality.