Who Won The Overland Campaign?

Last night Gary Gallagher addressed the Charlottesville Civil War Roundtable. His topic was the Overland Campaign and the more specific question of which side could claim to have come out ahead by the beginning of the siege of Petersburg.  Gary has been a guest every year, even going back to when he was teaching at Penn State before he moved to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Not surprisingly he gets a large turnout every year.  I’ve read most of Gallagher’s scholarship and am rarely surprised by his topics or conclusions.  I enjoy watching him engage the audience and the chance to share what many of us know to be his great passion in life.  He’s got a real knack for combining a serious interest in the war with an entertaining speaking style.  His criticisms are typically couched in a dry, but serious wit.  At the beginning of his talk he criticized his own colleagues in the academy who teach or study the war without any reference to the military side.  Most of the audience enjoyed this little swipe at the academy, but Gary was quick to counter with the fact that most of the people in the audience study nothing but the battles and have little or no appreciation for the broader issues.  "Somewhere between both of these approaches," Gallagher concluded "is where the real Civil War resides." 

I am not going to go through Gallagher’s full presentation; those of you familiar with his books and edited collections know where he stands in terms of the broad outline.  While he admitted that it is easy to conclude that both armies had reasons to be optimistic about the way the campaign evolved, Gallagher seemed to tip his hat to Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  And the main factors involved had to do with the campaign’s political ramifications.  Gallagher argued that morale was actually higher in the Army of Northern Virginia at the beginning of the Petersburg Campaign compared with the Army of the Potomac.  Based on my reading of the manuscript and other primary sources in reference to the Crater I have to agree.  I was very surprised by how Confederates and those on the home front responded to the Confederate victory on July 30, 1864.  It rallied both soldiers and citizens around the belief that Grant’s army could be dealt with successfully at least until the fall elections.  And the presence of black soldiers reinforced for many white Southerners just what defeat would involve.  Gallagher was careful to emphasize the steps that the Democrats and "Copperheads" took to win the presidential election.  I highly recommend Jennifer Weber’s new study of the Copperheads.  She argues persuasively that we have not fully appreciated their growing influence in the North and especially in states like Indiana as the Overland Campaign and engagements around Petersburg left horrendous casualties and a sense that the war was not close to being won.  The Copperheads exercised tight control on the Democratic Party platform which was formulated in August 1864 and even managed to get one of their own on the ticket with McClellan.  Weber does point out that the Copperheads’ fatal flaw was in never presenting a reasonable alternative to seeing the war to a successful conclusion through military means; they failed to answer important questions about the legality of secession and emancipation (slavery).  This oversight alienated most of the soldiers in the army and guaranteed their support for Lincoln and even led to violence against individual Copperheads while on leave. 

What I was most struck by was the sharp change in public opinion regarding the Democrats following Sherman’s capture of Atlanta in early September 1864.  Support or interest doesn’t gradually decline, it disappeared throughout much of the country.  Gallagher compared this sharp shift with the summer of 1862 and Lee’s successful defense of Richmond and offensive that culminated at Antietam.  It is clear to me that the fighting around Petersburg did not guarantee Lincoln’s re-election; in fact it threatened it.  It was the capture of Atlanta that brought about the dramatic change in the political climate of the North which guaranteed Lincoln’s re-election.  A good case can indeed be made that as late as mid-August 1864 Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had the advantage.


Where Is The War In My Civil War Class?

This is my fourth year teaching the Civil War course and as all of you know I thoroughly enjoy it.  When I planned the first year I was very concerned about the balance between battle coverage and broader political, cultural, and social issues.  Basically, I was concerned that teaching a course on the Civil War in the heart of Virginia would bring young boys with a voracious appetite for the Lost Cause and the kind of battlefield coverage that I am not qualified or even comfortable teaching.  In yesterday’s post Hugo Schwyzer briefly touched on this tension in reference to his own Western Civilization course:

In my survey courses, I do very little military history.  In my Western Civ classes, there are a few battles so vital I describe them in detail: Salamis and the Somme, for example.  But I always fall short of what some of my eager young men want.  Every prof who teaches survey courses knows the type: the earnest lad who comes to office hours, filled with righteous anguish because I chose to talk more about the unique status of Spartan women than the heroics of their husbands and brothers at Thermopylae!  I’ve noted that the most consistent complaints I get as a professor is the lack of military history in my survey courses. I emphasize religious, gender, and social history at the expense of battle tactics time and again, and given the time constraints, I make no apologies for it.

What is interesting to me is that most of my students in this class over the past four years have not pushed or questioned the amount of straight-forward military history in the class.  I’ve never had a student come to my office and complain that I didn’t do justice to Jackson’s flank march at Chancellorsville or Meade’s defense at Gettysburg.  Since this course is structured thematically we tend to touch on broader issues over time rather than a strict chronological approach.  For example, last week we talked about the broader issue of emancipation and the Federal government’s steps towards the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Seven Days’ Battles and the battle of Antietam were discussed in this context, but were not covered in any serious detail apart from their connection to the transition from "Limited" to "Hard War," emancipation, and foreign recognition.  Even our trip to the Chancellorsville battlefield, which is fast approaching and will be focused heavily on the realities of battle, will also be used to address a whole host of issues beyond the battlefield. 

To be honest, I don’t think my students really care about the kinds of things that drive most Civil War enthusiasts.  The "Lee To The Rear" accounts simply fail to stir.  I remember once during that first year where I gave a fairly detailed lecture about the actual battle of Antietam.  Now, I should say that I am a pretty good lecturer, especially when I am discussing something that I care about.  By the middle of the class at least 75% of the students had lost focus or had that look of complete despair.  This doesn’t mean that military history is ignored – far from it.  What it does mean, however, is that at least in my class the battles and campaigns must be connected to the bigger issues of the war.  So, I tend to agree with Hugo’s bold comment in reference to the balance between religion, gender, social history (I should also add politics) and battle tactics.  And I also make no apologies for it.


This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Museum: A Review of the ACW Museum At Tredegar

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond.  The museum’s debut was last weekend and the reviews thus far have been generally positive.  I spent about three hours and had a chance to take everything in, including all three movies that define three distinct spaces: the cause of the war, the war on the home front, and the war’s legacy.  Throughout the exhibit area the visitor is introduced to three interpretations which follow how the war was interpreted by the Union, Confederacy, and African-Americans. 

Overall, the exhibit provides the most sophisticated interpretation of the Civil War that I’ve ever experienced in a museum setting.  The list of historical advisers clearly exercised a great deal of influence over the content of the films as well as the narrative that accompanies each artifact and other technical exhibits.  What we have is an interpretation that anyone familiar with recent trends in Civil War historiography will easily recognize.  This makes for an exhibit that is challenging as visitors are forced to draw certain distinctions and perspectives that are not readily familiar.  The first section of the exhibit which focuses on the history of the nations from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to Lincoln’s election includes an excellent video which explores the role of slavery.  At the beginning viewers are asked to vote on the cause of the war by pressing one of four buttons on the seat’s armrest.  The choices are: (1) Federal v. States Rights, (2) Economic/Cultural Differences, (3)  Westward Expansion, or (4) Slavery.  Surprisingly slavery came out ahead of the other three.  With the help of three narrators the video explores the first three options by examining how each revolved around slavery.  By the end slavery can be seen in all of its complexity and stands out as the most important issue on the national scene by the mid-1850’s. 

The second section takes you through the first shots and begins the process of exploring the complex relationship between the battlefield, home front, and slavery.  A second video does a fantastic job of explaining the conditions on the ground between the lack of success for Union armies in the East and especially the actions of fugitive slaves as factors that explain Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Slaves are considered as full actors and the Proclamation is explained as a document that was responsible for nothing less than the "transformation of American society."  Again, the interpretation here fits perfectly into recent studies of the war in 1862-63 and Lincoln’s own journey to this important decision.  The narrative tends towards realism and makes it a point to keep the viewer focused on the military necessity behind Lincoln’s decision and the initiative taken by the slaves themselves.  The video also introduces the viewer to the introduction to U.S.C.T.’s who "seized the opportunity to fight" and began the long process of "making America One National for All."

The one film that I had trouble understanding was called, "The War Comes Home: 1863" which attempts to explain – as best one can – the emotional and material price of the war on the home front.  The video is narrated by a generic character who never identifies himself as Northern or Southern, but does a fairly good job imparting an "everyman" image.   The video focuses specifically on 1863 and begins with a brief history of the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Vicksburg before connecting these events to the Richmond Bread Riots and the New York City Draft Riots.  These are important events, but the narration and images fail in its attempt to bring the connection to light.  The video ends with coverage of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner, which only complicated things for me further.  If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion: I would have concentrated on one battle or campaign such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg and explored how large-scale conflicts that took place in populated areas impacted the local economy and the population.  In the case of Gettysburg the additional themes of the Army of Northern Virginia’s steps to capture escaped slaves could have been added to the mix.  The jumping from Richmond to New York to Charleston left no time to do justice to this important interpretive strand of the exhibit. 

Overall, the artifacts are clearly explained and also bare the mark of recent scholarship.  One of the best examples of this is the order authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers into Confederate armies in March 1865.  There is no reference to the presence of large numbers of black soldiers; the narrative is limited strictly to the events surrounding the document.  Included are three passages from white Southerners who were clearly troubled by the prospects of black recruitment.  No reputable historian has demonstrated the presence of significant numbers of black Confederates so there is no place for it in this exhibit.  There is a wonderful little space for children which includes some hands on activities that are quite thoughtful.  One activity asks children to think and write about how we communicate with loved ones away at war today and another activity involves deciding what kinds of things should be sent in a basket to soldiers at the front.

The final section of the exhibit concentrates on the legacy of the Civil War.  There is a video that explores elements of the Lost Cause and the gradual displacement of the "emancipationist" interpretation of the war for one that achieved wide exposure and a general consensus.  While Reconstruction is referenced as a time of hope the harsh realities of Jim Crow are not lost on the audience.  However, between a reference to the long march between the "Civil War and Civil Rights" and a wall that is covered with images from the twentieth century, the viewer is left with a sense of optimism that our founding ideals are alive and a more complete appreciation still within reach.  The narrator suggests that to think about the legacy of the war is not just to think about "forts and reenactments, but a better understanding of what the war means."

With so much to praise, however, I do have a few concerns.  First, I found it difficult to follow the military history of the war.  Large maps that track each year of the war were clear reference points, but there was a lack of focus on major battles apart from their connection to the exhibit’s other interpretive strands.  I am especially concerned that this is going to be a problem for visitors who are expecting a heavy dose of battlefield interpretation.  Unfortunately, there are relatively few artifacts to view.  Perhaps this will change, but it does reinforce my earlier point that this is an intellectually demanding museum.  I’ve said it on this blog countless times, most Civil War enthusiasts are not interested in the complex issues related to race, slavery or the home front.  I wonder whether the museum runs the risk of alienating those groups.  Time will tell and I am willing to admit that these concerns may be entirely misplaced. 

On a more serious note I will not be surprised to read that certain groups, especially heritage groups, are not satisfied with the heavy emphasis on race.  At almost every turn the visitor is confronted with videos about race and their volume guarantees that while walking talk of fugitive slaves, emancipation, and U.S.C.T.’s will remain constant companions.  Again, time will tell, but the ongoing opposition to the NPS’s interpretive revisions is a sufficient reason in and of itself to be concerned.  I am pleased to see such a strong emphasis on education and outreach at Tredegar; this should be their focus as young Americans provide the most important vehicle for sharing a broader and more meaningful interpretation of the Civil War.  [I was pleased to learn that my friend Jim Alperston has been awarded the museum's first annual Samuel L. Gravely award for excellence in teaching the Civil War. Jim is an energetic teacher who includes multiple battlefield and museum visits in his Civil War curriculum.]

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial right around the corner, I couldn’t be more pleased with the overall quality of the ACW Museum at Tredegar.  The location of the exhibit inside one of the Tredegar buildings is ideal and its proximity to the James River, Belle Isle, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the rest of downtown Richmond makes a trip all the more worthwhile.  I encourage all of you to visit and/or support in any way possible.  Oh….and did I mention that I bought a Lincoln bobblehead in the museum store?


History Carnival XLI

The latest History Carnival is up at Jeremy Boggs’s Clioweb.  Go check it out.  Thanks to whomever submitted "Another Poor Historical Analogy."  Well done Jeremy!


Civil War Memes

Brooks Simpson asks why specific claims persist in Civil War studies even after they’ve been challenged by careful research:

Why would one want to continue to use a story that is not only not
supported by evidence, but rather clearly contradicted by it, and where
the veracity of the account in which the story appears is questionable,
to say the least?

You tell me.

I just finished reading Jennifer L Weber’s fine study of the Copperheads (Oxford University Press) and in her comments about Cold Harbor she lays out the standard story of soldiers stitching their names  in their coats for identification following the battle and 7,000 Federals killed in less than an hour.  Both of these stories have been challenged by Gordon Rhea.  Other examples include the tendency to see Gettysburg as the "high-water mark" of the Confederacy or states rights as the cause of secession.  Brooks cites a story between Lincoln and Alexander McClure that continues to find a home in histories even though they’ve acknowledged the research that challenges the claim.  Countless other examples abound in the literature.  While sloppy research and a lack of awareness are no doubt involved it is worth exploring another possibility.  In this case it is the idea of the meme.

From Wikipedia:
The term "meme" (IPA: [miːm], not [mɛm], or [mimi]), coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, refers
to a unit of cultural information transferrable from one mind to another.
Dawkins said, Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,
ways of making pots or of building arches.
A meme propagates itself as a
unit of cultural evolution analogous in many ways
to the gene (the unit of genetic information). Often memes propagate as
more-or-less integrated cooperative sets or groups, referred to as
memeplexes or meme complexes.  The idea of memes has proved a successful meme in its own right, achieving a
degree of penetration into popular culture rare for a scientific theory.

Proponents of memes suggest that memes evolve via natural selection — in a way very similar to Charles Darwin’s ideas
concerning biological evolution — on
the premise that variation, mutation, competition, and "inheritance" influence their
replicative success. For example, while one idea may become extinct, other ideas will survive, spread and mutate — for better or for worse —
through modification.  Meme-theorists contend that memes most beneficial to their hosts will not
necessarily survive; rather, those memes which replicate the most effectively
spread best; which allows for the possibility that successful memes might prove
detrimental to their hosts.

And which memes "replicate the most effectively" in the Civil War community?  Well, it seems to me those that reinforce the stories that its readers and even researchers want to hear.  We are indeed emotionally attached to certain strands of thought from our Civil War.  You can see it at Civil War Roundtables where the audience waits on the edge of their seat to hear the standard story that will reinforce childhood stories.  Perhaps these memes persist because most Civil War enthusiasts (reader or writer) do not see the Civil War as history (strictly understood) but as entertainment or heritage.  In the end, it makes for a better story.  What’s the Civil War without the story of those soldiers stitching their names into their coats so that their bodies can later be identified?