Three Ways to Remember Robert E. Lee

Every few days I check online newspapers for articles on Robert E. Lee.  I am putting together a talk for two conferences that I will take part in later this year.  My particular focus is on how black Americans remember Lee and the Civil War more generally.  Here are a couple of items that I’ve come across in recent days.  Is it just me or are Juneteenth celebrations making a return? 

The announcement came nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had little impact on Texas due to the lack of Union troops to enforce the executive order. But with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee in April 1865 and Gen. Granger’s arrival, forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance. It is said slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the street with jubilant celebrations upon hearing the news.

In this case Lee and his army serve as an obstacle for emancipation.  If you are in Lexington today you can join "Bud" Robertson and the United Daughters of the Confederacy for a celebration of Lee’s character.  My guess is that little will be said about slavery, race and other divisive issues.  "I said it’s a celebration."  And finally, here is how the Florida chapter of the League of the South has chosen to remember Robert E. Lee’s 200th birthday.  Why the hell wasn’t I invited?

Petersburg, Race, and the Aftermath of the Crater

Over the past few days I’ve been re-reading my entire archival collection of Union accounts of the Crater and looking specifically at how they characterize the performance of USCTs.  I’ve divided the sources between wartime and postwar and hope to draw some conclusions about the way in which the men reference or fail to reference this crucial aspect of the battle.  As you might expect the few accounts from white officers of USCT regiments spend much more time focusing on the performance of black soldiers during the battle.  One account in particular was penned after the war by First Lieutenant Freeman S. Bowley of the 30th U.S. Colored Infantry.  Bowley was a prolific writer following the war.  The particular passage that I will discuss is from and address that was printed in the MOLLUS Papers of California.

Bowley provides a detailed and rich account of the actual battle, but it is a comment about the events following the battle that caught my eye.  As many of you are know doubt aware large numbers of black soldiers were massacred by Confederates at various points during and following the battle.  Black and white prisoners were sent to various prisoner camps throughout the South.  Their trip began as an orchestrated parade through the streets of Petersburg.  Bowley was captured towards the end of the battle and here is his account:

The next day we were taken through Petersburg.  It was Sunday, and our captors proposed to make a grand spectacle of us for the benefit of Petersburg citizens.  First came General Bartlett–his cork leg was broken, and he was mounted on a sorry looking nag, without saddle; then four wounded negroes, stripped of everything but shirt and drawers; then four officers viz: Col. E. G. Marshall, 14th N.Y.H.A.; Col. Stephen Weld, 56th Mass. Infty.; Col. Daniel White, 31st Maine; Lt.-Colonel Buffam, 4th R.I. Vols.; then four more wounded blacks, then four officers, and so on, alternating the whites and blacks.  I was in the third file of officers, and as the head of the column reached the streets of Petersburg, we were assailed by a volley of abuse from men, women and children that exceeded anything of the kind that I ever heard.  I was seven months before I saw the Old Flag again, and my first impression of the Confederacy did not improve with a more intimate acquaintance.

Historian Will Greene provides analysis of A.P. Hill’s decision to mix white and black soldiers for the march through Petersburg.  Greene sees the decision as primarily an attempt on the part of Hill to humiliate white Union soldiers.  He is no doubt correct in pointing this out: "Hill understood that by doing this he would imply that white Union soldiers were no better than the former slaves who fought by their sides." (p. 209) The overwhelming number of Union accounts in my collection blame the black soldiers for the disaster at the Crater; the racial invective is incredibly strong.  [I am going to comment on this in the next few days and how these accounts fit into Chandra Manning’s analysis.] It is unlikely that Hill was aware of the strong reactions against black soldiers, though it is still the case that he would have understood how such a decision would play out in the minds of white Union soldiers.

What is missing from Greene’s account is how this decision to mix white and black soldiers played out amongst the civilian population of Petersburg.  Seeing white and black men interspersed would have provided the clearest demonstration of just what was at stake if the Confederacy lost the war.  Given the overwhelming sense of insecurity and fear of racial mixing and emancipation that comes through the letters of Confederates it seems reasonable to suggest that this decision also served as a message to the white residents of Petersburg.  [Click here for an earlier post on Greene’s book and some statistics about slavery that are relevant to this issue.] The presence of black soldiers in this battle aroused the same fears from both slaveholding and non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers.  Hill’s decision no doubt bound the same two categories within the civilian sphere.  In short, the decision should be seen as an attempt to forge a bond between the army and civilian population at a time when the outcome of the war and the will of white Southerners remained in doubt. 

So Much For Credibility

While I tend to see this whole Gallagher controversy from a different perspective from Eric and J.D., I do understand that they feel a need to respond.  They’ve decided to write a letter to CWTI which will appear in the next issue.  In it they will no doubt try to make the argument that Gallagher singled them out and intended to demean their scholarship.  Again, I will probably disagree with their conclusions, but they have every right to respond.  Hopefully, they will be able to make their points in a clear and concise manner; we will have to see if Gallagher takes the opportunity to respond.  However, it is going to be difficult to convince readers to sympathize if they are willing to change their book website in such a way.  Click here and here.  To say that this is the book that Gallagher doesn’t want you to read is not only silly, but has nothing at all to do with what he actually said in the interview.

I’m sorry to say that in my view J.D. and Eric have lost some credibility.

“Much Ado About Nothing”: What Gallagher Meant

I stopped by my local bookstore to pick up a Father’s Day gift and I did my best to walk out without the new issue of Civil War Times Illustrated which includes the Gallagher interview.  I made my through it and have to say that it is a pretty good interview.  Without trying to dodge the issue I am just going to say straight out that the reaction to Gallagher’s claims about the importance of recent Gettysburg-tactical studies are way over the top.  I don’t believe he was singling out Eric and J.D. nor do I believe he had any sense that it would be taken as such.  First here is the question and full response:

Questions: You delivered a paper at the Society of Civil War Historians that asked the question: Do we need another book on Gettysburg?  Do we?

Answer: Well, I think that there are some books on Gettysburg we really don’t need.  If you just love Gettysburg and want to know everything about it, then this flood of books that comes out looking at tinier and tinier parts of the battle in greater detail are of interest.  But for most people, those who want to understand the Civil War, or even the war in the East or the Gettysburg campaign, do they need 450 pages on two hours in the Railroad Cut?  I don’t think so.  I just don’t think that this literature takes us any place.  Do we need multiple books about what Lee’s real plan at Gettysburg was?  Or, more recently, I think there have been two, maybe three, new books on Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign.  I just can’t believe that there is anything new to say about Jeb Stuart during the Gettysburg campaign.  I really believe there is not.  All the arguments have been laid out, pro and con.  All the key documents have been available for a very long time.  So you either pick your John Mosby school that says Stuart was pretty much doing his job, acting within his orders, and even Alan Nolan sort of fits into that, or you go to the other side where it’s Jeb Stuart’s fault.  I think Jeb Stuart didn’t do a good job.  But the notion that there would be a lot that’s new, enough to support new books–and not just one new book but maybe two or three–I just say, stop the madness.

Part of the problem is that Gallagher’s response was pulled out of an interview that focused broadly on Civil War historiography.  At no point does he criticize people who write detailed tactical studies nor does he take a shot at people who buy and read them.  Gallagher was simply making a point about whether certain types of studies add to our interpretive understanding of the campaign.  I tend to agree with Gallagher on this specific point about tactical studies of Gettysburg.  Accumulating more facts and drawing a different conclusion about those facts does not in and of itself constitute a new interpretation.  Approaching a controversy or question from a fundamentally new set of assumptions does.  For instance, when Drew Faust looked at the question of Confederate defeat through the lens of gender she was giving us a new interpretation.  George Rable’s study of Fredericksburg also presents the reader with a different set of of assumptions with which to interpret military history.  We also have a flood of new studies of the impact of battles/campaigns on civilian populations.  Finally, understanding battles/campaigns by analyzing the role of memory is another more recent interpretive trend.  Perhaps Gallagher could have made that point more clearly, but even a cursory glance at what he said should have rendered his meaning intelligible.  I should also point out that at no point does he suggest that microhistories are irrelevant as a genre.  Again, he was making a comment about Gettysburg literature.  You can agree or disagree. 

The readers of J.D.’s and Eric’s blogs who got so emotional about all of this and suggested that Gallagher’s comments were a reflection of elitism would be surprised by a comment made while discussing the pervasiveness of our popular cultural perceptions of Gettysburg:

All of those things coming together have shaped perceptions to a huge degree.  This also shows how irrelevant most academic scholarship is.  You have all this scholarship that’s been coming out since the late 1970s, ’80s and into the early ’90s saying that Gettysburg isn’t that important, but of course that has no impact on the real world.

I wonder if Peter Carmichael (the interviewer) should feel offended by Gallagher’s comments?  Was his scholarship being singled out?

By the way, I met John Hope Franklin this past weekend.