Richmond Daily Dispatch Now Online

The Richmond Daily Dispatch is now accessible on-line.  The work has been overseen by University of Richmond History Professor Robert Kenzer and Librarian James Gwin.  The project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  Two years ago I took part in a day-long meeting with roughly 50 other historians and teachers to discuss the direction of the project; it is nice to see it come to fruition.  Plans also call for the digitizing of the Richmond census which will make this an even more useful research tool.  From the Richmond-Time Dispatch article:

The Daily Dispatch, one of four predecessors of The Times-Dispatch, was
chosen because its circulation was equal to those of all other Richmond papers
combined, it was independent of any political party and it was able to continue
publishing throughout the war.  It also contained news from the entire East Coast, reprinting articles from
distant newspapers and even the letters of captured Union soldiers.

Plans also include digitizing the Richmond census and linking to other databases that contain relevant material.  I’ve already used this in class and the search engine works well so check it out.   

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George Bernard: 12th Virginia Infantry

A few years ago a collection of papers belonging to George Bernard was uncovered.  I remember hearing about it from someone down at the Petersburg National Battlefield Park, but at the time it was not known who had discovered the papers or what was being done with them.  The collection looks to be a set of talks along the lines of his 1892 War Talks of Confederate Veterans – perhaps a second volume.  Well, yesterday I was contacted by an individual who is organizing the material for publication.  I have yet to speak to him, but I have to say that this is very exciting news for those of us interested in Mahone’s division and specifically the Crater.

War Talks is one of the most important sources on the Crater.  The book is essentially a collection of talks presented to the A.P. Hill Camp of Confederate Veterans in Petersburg, Virginia along with various appendices of newspaper clippings about various battles.  The section on the Crater easily comprises the largest section of the book.  In 2003 Morningside Press issued a reprint of the book.  Unfortunately, the reprintlacks an introduction which is absolutely necessary if one is to understand Bernard’s goal.  The book’s publication in 1892 followed very intense debate among Mahone’s veterans surrounding his role at the Crater.  Mahone’s foray into politics and his leadership of the Readjuster Party split his former command, including David Weisiger who commanded the Virginia brigade at the battle and later became one of his most vociferous critics.  Many of Mahone’s critics argued that he was not with his men on the field and that he did not order the famous counterattack.  Bernard’s main goal was to show that Mahone was in fact on the battlefield on July 30 1864 and gave the order to charge the Federals who were hugging a perimeter not much larger than the outline of the Crater itself.  In addition to debate among Virginia’s veterans there was also an on-going debate between veterans from Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia over who could claim responsibility for victory at the crater.  [My forthcoming essay in The View From the Ground analyzes this debate along with Bernard’s account.]  Bernard’s War Talks focused on solidifying the victory for Mahone’s Virginia brigade.  While he acknowledged the presence of the Alabama and Georgia brigades, according to Bernard, the charge of the Virginians was responsible for retaking the Crater.  Without any background surrounding these debates it is impossible to understand why Bernard chose to concentrate on these specific themes of the battle.

The book proved to be very influential in organizing the 1937 Crater reenactment.  Douglas S. Freeman used it for his narrative that accompanied the event and the National Park Service used War Talks for their battlefield markers.  I look forward to learning what exactly is contained in this collection of papers, whether they were being organized by Bernard for publication and when. 

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Historians Write, But Does Anyone Listen?

Thanks to Brian Dirck over at A Lincoln Blog for providing a link to Ed Ayers’s thought-provoking review of Nicholas Lemann’s book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.  Ayers raises a number of interesting questions about our popular perceptions of Reconstruction and the general publics failure to take into account the significant interpretive developments that have taken place since the end of World War II.  From the review:

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells a story we keep trying to forget: White Southerners used every kind of violence at their command to destroy Reconstruction after the Civil War. Beguiled and benumbed by Gone With the Wind, many white Americans still imagine Reconstruction as a crime against the white South, marked by the sins of the carpetbaggers and the corruption of the Reconstruction governments. It is good to have this stubborn fable of Reconstruction refuted by a gifted and respected writer. It is good that it received a front-page New York Times review with a striking graphic of a Confederate battle flag in which the stars have been replaced by bullet holes. May it be widely read.

I disagree with Ayers that this is a story that we "keep trying to forget" since most Americans – and even those who consider themselves to be "Civil War buffs" have never known anything else.  Just the other day I came across a post from a fellow blogger who referenced the same overly simplistic view of Reconstruction even as he sets his sights on researching a crucial aspect of that period.  No one has done more to package the best of recent historical scholarship into books that have wide appeal.  But let’s face it Reconstruction is much too difficult for most white Americans to grasp.  I see this every year when I teach this subject.  Feelings of guilt are strong and for those more focused on the war itself, Reconstruction fails to provide anything approaching the glory of the battlefield.  So, what are we left with but talk of "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers" and a set of simplistic assumptions that assumes a unified white South and obedient former slaves.  The overarching problem for most casual observers of the period is that Reconstruction seems to challenge an overly optimistic view of American history that assumes continual progress.  Forget that this was a period where African Americans voted, were elected to office, and were able to pass legislation that often benefited poor southern whites for the first time.

Ayers also briefly comments on the failure of academic historians to compete with popular writers such as Lemann:

That is too bad, for the writing of history has never been richer, deeper, or more inventive than it is today, and historians have never been bolder in tackling new topics in new ways than they have been in the last two generations. The writing in many academic books is as good as the best nonfiction. These books have made a place for the people who have been left out of the best-selling histories, and they are the driving force behind the most innovative historical documentaries on television; they help shape the next generation of history, driving innovation and creativity; they are debated in fervent discussions on campuses across the country and around the world. But they remain part of a secret conversation and do not make a public mark as books.

Anyone familiar with recent titles authored by professional historians can sympathize with Ayers.  It is safe to assume that Ayers hoped to crack this barrier with his most recent book, In The Presence of Mine Enemies, though it is unclear to what extent he achieved this goal.  Academics have to take some responsibility for this failure and for the general public perceptions of the Ivory Tower.  In the end, however, Ayers’s observations have little to do with popular v. academic history, but with a general lack of interest in reading serious history that challenges some of our basic assumptions from this period.  It comes down to education and the teachers who man the trenches day in and day out. 

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“…and the rest of us are fortunate to get to tag along.”

Thanks to fellow bloggers John Moye and Sally over at Greenespace for their very kind words in recognition of my 1-year blogiversary:

Congratulations to high school history teacher Kevin Levin, whose Civil War Memory site celebrated its first blogiversary yesterday. How lucky his students are to have a teacher who’s so engaged with the complex contemporary understandings, academic and popular, of the Civil War era. For example, he recently asked his students to take the WPA slave narratives and compare two interviews with the same person conducted by different interviewers. Today before breakfast he has already weighed in on the Confederate flag as fashion statement. Levin is teaching history as critical thinking, and the rest of us are fortunate to get to tag along.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the implications of that last line.  As I mentioned the other day, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my blogging experience has been the interaction with a fairly large group of readers–many of them teachers, professional historians, and a broad group of Civil War enthusiasts.  I’ve been teaching in some capacity since 1994.  I love the classroom dynamic and the chance to excite and broaden the intellectual scope of my students, not to mention my own.  Most importantly, teaching is meaningful work; what happens in the classroom, when done right, has a value in and of itself.  Those of you out there who teach know what I am talking about. 

Blogging has worked as a natural extension of my teaching; in short, the classroom has become much larger.  That people have been so supportive of my on-line efforts has naturally led to the question of how I might adjust my career in a way that would put me in contact with a wider and larger group of people.  I am thinking broadly here.  Perhaps work in a historical society or museum doing educational outreach would prove interesting or working with teachers on various interpretive skills that would make them better historians.  It is all very exciting and just a little nerve racking. 

Of course, I will keep you informed as I think through the issues involved.  And I welcome the advice of my readers.

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Glory In The Classroom

This week my Civil War class has been watching Glory, which I believe to be the most thought-provoking movie of the period.  I allowed the students to watch it through apart from a few interruptions when I thought it necessary to point out places where the script veered from the history.  Here is a short overview of the movie written by Professor Robert Kenzer of the University of Richmond for his Civil War film course.

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The following information comes from one of the best studies of Colonel Shaw and the 54 Massachusetts, Russell Duncan’s Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune:  The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw.  This book contains a 67-page biography of Shaw as well as 300 additional pages featuring the various letters Shaw wrote to family members, some of which are read in the movie.

By far the most significant fact about Shaw not mentioned in the movie was that he was married to Annie Kneeland Haggerty.  Indeed, the omission of his marriage raises two questions about the movie. One, did the movie leave out this fact on purpose because it may complicate Shaw’s relationship with his troops? In other words, could a man who was married seem to place as much importance on his troops as Shaw did in the movie? Would the meaning of his death appear to be the same if the viewer knew he left a widow? Two, it is important to note that Shaw wed Annie while the 54th was training at Camp Meigs in Reidville, Masssachusetts in early 1863. Indeed, Shaw left the camp for a considerable time to make the arrangements for his wedding as well as for the wedding itself and the honeymoon. Further, as Duncan notes, Shaw’s mother, who was especially committed to his service as commander of the 54th, was worried that “Annie distracted her son from his obligations to the regiments.” (p. 37) For example, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase visited the camp to meet Shaw the Colonel was on his honeymoon. Again, would Shaw’s dedication to his troops have seemed diminished if the viewer knew this aspect of Shaw’s personal life?Finally, it should be added that because the movie did not reveal Shaw’s wife, it could not include his many letters to her. Instead, the movie largely focused on his letters to his mother. There is no question that when Shaw wrote his mother that he did so in a manner to bolster her strong abolitionist and pro-black sentiments. Likewise, his letters to his wife Annie indicate much more ambiguity and personal doubts about his men and his leadership abilities.

Shaw’s tendency to be influenced by his mother is best seen when Governor John Andrew offered him command of the 54th. Of course, in reality this was not done at a party in Boston but was tendered by a letter to Shaw carried by his father while Shaw was in winter camp at Stafford Court House, Virginia. Shaw initially refused the offer, writing to his father, “I would take it, if I thought myself equal to the responsibility of such a position.” However, as Duncan observes, Shaw’s motives for refusing were far more complex: Shaw had been through a lot with his regiment [as you saw in the opening scenes at Antietam], and seen many of his friends die near him. He was loyal to their memory and to the men who remained to fight on future fields.” When he discussed the offer with his close friend and tentmate Charles Morse, Shaw, according to Duncan, wondered whether the position might be ridiculed, doubted that blacks would enlist, and questioned the fighting ability of black troops.” (p. 23) Clearly Shaw’s decision to change his mind and accept the offer was influenced by his mother who, after learning of his initial refusal, wrote her son: “Well! I feel as if God had called you up to a Holy work. You helped him at a crisis when the most important question is to be solved that has been asked since the world began. I know the task is arduous…but it is God’s work.” (p. 24) Could this more complicated story have been portrayed in the movie?

The next comparison concerns the training of the 54th Reidville, Massachusetts. While it is a minor issue, the 54th was not in camp over Christmas. Indeed, Camp Meigs did not open for training for the 54th until February 21, 1863. There are a number of aspects of the recruiting and training of the 54th that need to be contrasted with the movie’s portrayal. First, while the majority of black soldiers were former slaves (as shown in the movie), this simply was not the case with the 54th. To raise this unit a massive and expensive effort was conducted to attract northern free blacks. While most of these free blacks were not as well educated as Shaw’s boyhood friend Thomas, they surely were not runaways. Second, the 54th was one of the best-equipped northern units from its very foundation. Duncan reveals, “Shaw did what he could to insure the comfort of his men.” (p. 32). In contrast to the movie, Shaw ensured that the regimental quartermaster, Lt. John Ritchie, met the needs of the troops. After all, as Governor Andrew’s “model” regiment, their every need was considered and met. Indeed, they did not sleep four to a tent as in the movie but occupied ten wooden barracks. Third, if the unit suffered under cruel training, if was not inflicted on them by an Irish drill sergeant, but Shaw himself. Duncan describes how in “an effort to prevent ridicule and instill discipline,” that Shaw went too far. For a minor disturbance Shaw put the offenders in the guard house, in chains, and worse. When men quarreled with officers, Shaw threatened them with death. He forced some men to stand on barrels for hours. Others were gagged and had their hands and feet bound with their arms stretched around heavy sticks.” Indeed, even the camp commandant called this punishment “contrary” to what the army permitted, thought they never included flogging as shown in the movie. Significantly, the commandant “ordered Shaw to stop all ‘severe and unusual punishment not laid down by regulations.’” A fourth difference with the movie was that while Shaw made sure his mother never heard him use racist speech, clearly to his close friends his tone was much different as he referred to his recruits at this time as “niggers” and darkeys.” (p. 35) Still, it should be noted that there is no question that as the training of the 54th passed that, as Duncan notes, “Shaw became attached to his men and defended them strongly against outside abuse.” He had been forced by their actions to question, then conquer, his own misconceptions.” Duncan adds, “As Shaw changed, he won the respect of his men…. Shaw still wondered what they might do when they reached the battlefield, but he finally stopped calling them niggers.” (p. 35)

The next critical comparison between the movie and the reality of the 54th concerns the Darien Raid. In some ways this story took place just as the movie showed, with important differences. There is no doubt that Shaw was not happy when Colonel James Montgomery ordered the 54th to join his unit and burn Darien. According to Duncan, “Shaw believed the action unjustified and disgraceful, and said he could have assented to it only if they had met Rebel resistance.” (pp. 43-44). Shaw surely was concerned about the negative publicity that might emerge from the event that, in fact, was reported in northern and southern newspapers. What is not brought out in the movie is that Montgomery was acting on orders from General David Hunter. Indeed, it was not Shaw’s threat to expose Hunter’s personal expropriation of southern property that got Shaw and the 54th released from Hunter’s command. In fact, President Lincoln at this time replaced Hunter—not because he was acting in an illegal fashion to feather himself financially, but because of his intense vindictiveness toward the South. It should also be noted that while Shaw clearly spoke out against what happened at Darien that in his accommodations in the Sea Islands he, according to Duncan, “added its furnishings with accent pieces from Darien. (p. 46)This ambiguity about Darien extended into Shaw’s feelings about Montgomery. For example, when writing to his wife Annie on June 12, 1863, just after the Darien raid, Shaw declared, “Montgomery from what I have seen of him, is a conscientious man, and really believes what he says,–‘that he is doing his duty to the best of his knowledge and ability.’” Two weeks later Shaw described Montgomery to his mother as “being a very simple-minded man—and seems to be pleased at any little attention—perhaps because he has been so much abused. You will see that he is very attractive to me, and indeed I have taken a fancy to him.” Besides showing Shaw’s fuller relationship to Montgomery, the movie ignores the fact that Montgomery also later participated in the assault on Fort Wagner. Of course, this is because the movie falsely suggests that Montgomery was linked to Hunter’s supposed financial misdeeds. Thus, Montgomery cannot also be united with Shaw in some more noble effort as the attack on Fort Wagner is portrayed.

As far as the assault on Wagner, the movie is pretty accurate. Yes, it incorrectly has the assault coming from the wrong direction, but that really is not essential. Further, it is true that because the 54th had fought so effectively at James Island days before that it won the admiration of the white Federal troops to the extent that it did march through thirteen white Federal regiments, many of whom cheered. Yes, Shaw gave some letters to Edward Pierce the newspaper correspondent before the assault. And yes, Shaw led the assault and was killed largely as shown in the movie. However, unlike in the movie, not all of the 600 men of the 54th were killed—though 272 killed, wounded or captured is surely a significant share for a single engagement. It should be noted that another 1,200 Federal white troops were also killed, wounded or captured at Wagner. Finally, it is true that the Confederate commander at Wagner ordered Shaw’s body to be thrown into a ditch with his dead black comrades as an insult. When Shaw’s parents learned of this act his father wrote Edward Pierce that they could hope for “no holier place” for their son’s body. Indeed, one month later after Wagner fell, they told the Union commander not to move Shaw’s body.

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Following the movie the class began a discussion of memory and the process by which this story was forgotten in place of a narrative that emphasized reconciliation and reunion.  I ask the students to pay careful attention to the scene that takes place right before the assault on Wagner between Trip and Shaw.  Shaw asks Trip to carry the regimental colors in the upcoming fight which he refuses to do.  At one point in the exchange Trip asks his commander what the men of the regiment stand to gain from this war.  The second scene takes place right before the final attack when Shaw approaches the Harpers reporter and says, "Remember what you see here."  It is a perfect line to set us up for a discussion that involves the gradual removal of African Americans from the national narrative as well as the beginning of Jim Crow.  We used an article by David Blight which appeared in North and South Magazine back in April 2003 to get the discussion off the ground.   

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