Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000.  The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations.  I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday.  I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews.  One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond.  If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case.  I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg. 

Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section.  I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing.  The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous. 

Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress.  So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people.  At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context.  That is much broader than left and right obliques.  An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service.  Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred.  So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites.  Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation.  I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements.  In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly.  This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields.  And why is that?  I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain.  They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context. 

By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race.  He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.

Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000.  The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations.  I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday.  I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews.  One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond.  If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case.  I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg. 

Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section.  I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing.  The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous. 

Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress.  So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people.  At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context.  That is much broader than left and right obliques.  An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service.  Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred.  So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites.  Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation.  I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements.  In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly.  This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields.  And why is that?  I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain.  They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context. 

By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race.  He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.

So Simple Even My Students Understand It

[An attempt to connect some ideas that are currently floating around in my head into one coherent post.]

Today I took a small group of students up to Chancellorsville.  We spent about 4 hours driving to different locations and had lunch on the battlefield.  Our stops included the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the spot where Lee and Jackson met for the final time.  We followed Jackson’s flank march and ended up back at the Visitor’s Center where we followed Jackson’s reconnaissance and fatal shots.  Following lunch we drove over to Hazel Grove where I discussed the action on May 3.  The Park Service has done quite a bit since the last time I visited the battlefield.  The trees around Fairview have been cut, which provides an excellent view from Hazel Grove and makes it very easy to interpret the ground along with its significance to the fighting.  At the Chancellor House I noticed two new markers by the remnants of the foundation.  One focuses on the Chancellor slaves and the other on the Chancellor women who were forced to take refuge in their basement for much of the battle.  I mentioned that the two markers reflected an attempt on the part of the Park Service to broaden their interpretations of the military to include issues of race, slavery, and civilian life.  At one point I mentioned that this was a divisive debate and that many believe that the Park Service should stick to coverage of the movement of troops and other issues strictly related to battles and campaigns.  As we walked back to the bus one of my students inquired why this was so controversial.  If I remember correctly the student said: "Isn’t it true that civilians and slaves were often caught up in the confusion of battle?"  Leave it to a student to reduce an emotionally-charged debate down to the essentials.

Speaking of civilians I’ve read a few reviews of "Sherman’s March" and am not surprised to find that there are people who will continue to take issue with the "destructiveness" of his campaign and the image of the Union army as engaged in plunder and rape.  I don’t mind that people still find a reason to get emotional about it all, but I refuse to consider it as having anything to do with history.  As I toured the battlefield today I thought a bit about our tendency to understand Georgia’s civilian population as a white civilian population.  Apparently, Georgia’s blacks do not count in many peoples attempts to understand Sherman’s movements.  The two groups experienced that march very differently, which must be acknowledged by historians in writing about the campaign.  This acknowledgment is not a moral judgment, but the result of a responsibility to tell as complete a story as possible.  What I find so fascinating is the tendency of many to identify with people who lived during the Civil War.  Yes, there are people who have ancestors who fought on both sides, but even here I wonder whether such a close identification is useful in and of itself as a means to greater understanding.  I say this as someone who has no personal connection to the war nor as someone who was raised on stories of the war or groomed on battlefields during my formative years.  I didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.   

What I mean to say is that I have absolutely no interest in any type of moral vindication for either side.  I am pleased that slavery ended as a result of the war, but I have no interest in any moral identification with the men on the battlefield or with the civilian leaders in Richmond and Washington, D.C.  As a historian my primary interest is in better understanding why events transpired from as many perspectives as possible.  I am not psychologically wedded to any assumptions about the relative goodness of Southerners vs. Northerners, but I am fascinated by people who do.  You can see it in people’s expressions when they leave the realm of history to another place that is more about their own personally constructed ideas about what happened and what it means that it happened.  While I admit to finding the language and tone worth dissection it is not from the perspective of a historian, but as someone who is interested in the ways we become emotionally invested in our ideas of the past. 

Sherman’s march brings this out in a visceral kind of way.  Most people find a need to reduce his decisions down to an overly simplistic condemnation as if Sherman was the first and last general to bring war to civilians.  Interestingly we tend not to have these types of discussions when it comes to the bombings of German and Japanese cities during WWII.  The Civil War was not WWII but the kind of war fought was similar if not much more severe.  Allied planes bombed many cities into rubble which collapsed any neat/traditional distinction between military and civilian targets.  The latter, one could argue, were targeted to bring about military ends.  Within this broader context Sherman’s campaign was mild at best.  His army destroyed infrastructure and lived off the land to survive and this served to drain the will to continue to fight from many on the home front.   Please don’t write  me to share the personal hardship stories of ancestors or to try to convince me of some vague "moral monster" label that you believe ought to be applied to Sherman.  I am not interested.  I have nothing at stake in the way I perceive Sherman as a moral being.  I don’t get goose bumps from certain images or from my own self-perceptions of the general.  Again, I am interested in historical questions surrounding the campaign.  How can the campaign be understood as a logical extension of Union war policy?  Did it succeed?  How did Sherman and his men relate to the civilian population – both black and white?

To those of you who have watched "Sherman’s March on the History Channel I would ask you to think about any strong reactions you may have.  Are your reactions the result of careful review of recent published works, including biographies of Sherman as well as studies of the campaign?  Or is it an extension of deep-seated feelings that have more to do with the luck of family and geography than with a genuine interest in the past?

Ken Burns’s Crater

Ken Burns’s short segment on the Crater reflects both continuity and change in accounts of the Crater.  Here is the transcript from the movie.

Title: The Crater

Union Soldier – In front of Petersburg: The mine which General Burnside is making causes a good deal of talk and is generally much laughed at.  It is an affair of his own entirely, and has nothing to do with the regular siege…

Narrator – For a month a regiment of Pennsylvania coal miners worked to dig a 500 foot tunnel beneath the Confederate lines and pack it with four tons of gun powder. Burnside’s idea was to blow a hole in the Petersburg defenses, then rush through to take the town. Above ground, not far from the tunnel, the unsuspecting Confederate commander was General William Mahone, a veteran of almost every major battle fought by the Army of Northern Virginia.

At dawn on July 30, Union sappers lit the fuse.  A great crater was torn in the earth, thirty feet deep, seventy feet wide, 250 feet long. The stunned Confederates fell back. Then the plan began to fall apart. A precious hour went by before the Union assault force got started, and when it did three divisions stormed down the great hole, rather than around it.

Their commander, General James H. Ledlie, did not even watch the battle, huddling instead in a bomb-proof shelter with a bottle of rum. Once inside the crater, the Union soldiers found there was no way up the sheer 30-foot wall of the pit – and no one had thought to provide ladders. General Mahone ordered his men back to the rim to pour fire down upon them.

Scores of black troops were killed when tried to surrender at the Crater, bayoneted or clubbed by Confederates shouting, “Take the white man! Kill the Nigger!”

Ulysses S. Grant – "It was the saddest affair I have ever witnessed in the war. Such opportunity for carrying fortifications I have never seen and do not expect again to have." General Ledlie was dismissed from the service; Burnside was granted extended leave and never recalled to duty.

Washington Roebling (July 30, 1864): "The work and expectation of almost two months have been blasted… The first temporary success had elated everyone so much that we already imagined ourselves in Petersburg, but fifteen minutes changed it all and plunged everyone into a feeling of despair almost of ever accomplishing anything. Few officers can be found this evening who have not drowned their sorrows in the flowing bowl."

William Mahone was not in direct command of the units around the salient that was attacked.  Shortly following the explosion Lee ordered Mahone to bring his division, which was situated about two miles north of the salient, into the battle.  The emphasis on Mahone perhaps attests to the focus on his Virginia brigade during the postwar years in memoirs and public commemorations.  Another point to make is that there was only a 15-minute gap between the initial explosion and the order to attack.  The reference to 1-hour by Burns is completely off target.  The bulk of the Union force did in fact move into the crater and many of the units did become disorganized as a result; however, a number of units were able to advance beyond the physical contours of the crater.  The picture of the enitre Union attack bogged down in the crater is vividly reflected in the opening scenes of Cold Mountain.  On the positive side, Burns does acknowledge Confederate rage at having to fight United States Colored Troops and the use of Roebling does accurately reflect the drop in morale among the men of the Army of the Potomac as they assessed the battle specifically and the overall progress of the campaign.  Confederates, on the other hand, experienced a renewed sense of confidence in their ability to prevent Grant from taking Petersburg and perhaps win the war.

Neo-Confederates On The Crater

Over at H-CivWar Donald Shaffer reviews John Cimprich’s recent study, Fort Pillow, a Civil War Massacre, and Public Memory (LSU, 2005).  I read the book and have to say that I was just a bit disappointed.  With a title that includes a reference to “public memory” and the presence of U.S.C.T.’s I was hoping for something that would help me think through similar issues about the Crater and memory.  Unfortunately, the section on memory was much too short and provided very little information on how to better understand the evolution of accounts about the battle and massacre of black soldiers.  A short section of Shaffer’s review resonated with me:

The last chapter again highlights what is the main weakness of _Fort Pillow:  A Civil War Massacre and Public Memory_–its brevity.  Although there is much worthwhile in this book, Cimprich leaves many significant topics unexplored or underexplored.  By focusing much of chapter 7 on the development of Confederate memory, particularly as it pertained to Nathan Bedford Forrest, he leaves the northern interpretation and more recent interpretations of this incident too thinly covered.  Indeed, one memory topic begging for attention, which Cimprich virtually ignores, is the recent rise of the neo-Confederate sentiments among Civil War enthusiasts and how this movement deals with Fort Pillow, not to mention its larger  view of African Americans in the conflict.

I’ve spent too many bytes on the question of how neo-Confederates handle issues of race and the presence of black soldiers in the Union army.  We know the drill: thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy and were loyal throughout the war.  Shaffer rightfully criticizes Cimprich for not discussing more recent attempts to minimize or ignore the slaughter of black soldiers at Fort Pillow  I’ve seen the same thing in reference to the Crater.  The argument typically has two parts.  First, ignore wartime accounts authored by Confederates who took part in the battle and then emphasize until you are blue in the face that Union soldiers also “massacred” black soldiers during and after the battle.  One of the best examples of this can be found at the website, The Petersburg ExpressThis passage is the result of an email that I wrote that was posted on their website.  Lucky me.

To isolate the incidents of White Confederate soldiers killing USCT while ignoring incidents of White Union soldiers killing USCT, [USCT killing White Confederates], or the murders of White soldiers by White soldiers on both sides presents incidents of USCT being killed by White Confederates as a false and inflammatory image. It makes it appear that such incidents were particular and one-sided when they were part of a much wider pattern perpetrated by both sides. You also fail to understand that Confederate soldiers served side-by-side with Blacks who operated in the Confederate military not only in support functions, but also as armed Confederate combat soldiers. The evidence of their combat service as contained in the Federal Official Records, Northern newspapers, and the letters and diaries of Union soldiers are so numerous and compelling that the National Park Service has recognized their service undertaken to research those sources and add them to the African-American History Web Project.
I want to start by saying that in my extensive research of wartime accounts I came across a number of Union accounts that expressed the worst kind of racism towards the black soldiers who took part in the battle.  A number of soldiers went so far as to explain the Union defeat as a result of black soldier’s lack of courage.  I even came across a couple of accounts where the writer admits to seeing black soldiers treated violently by their white counterparts, including one New Hampshire soldier who admits to seeing a black soldier shot as he ran from the Crater.

As I see it the problem for neo-Confederates is that while they are correct in pushing for the recognition that black soldiers were treated poorly on both sides there is simply nothing comparable to  Confederate wartime accounts.  Letters, diaries, and even newspapers are littered with accounts of how black soldiers were treated both during and after the battle.  There should be no surprise about this given the way these men interpreted the site of armed, uniformed, and angry black men.  They make clear in their letters and diaries that their presence on the battlefield clarified just what was at stake if the war were lost.  Of course racism coursed throughout the country before, during and after the Civil War. No one region had a monopoly on it. That does not, however, cancel the need for a careful study of how Confederate soldiers behaved at the Crater and why.  To ignore these accounts is to leave out a salient aspect of the battle.  In trying to nail down just how many black soldiers were shot after the battle I rely on Bryce Suderow’s article in the journal, Civil War History [(Sept. 1997): 219-24].  If he is way off the mark then let me know.

In their failure to include wartime sources the website stresses postwar accounts and usually without any analysis.  Consider this page which brings together a number of accounts purporting to support the idea of black Confederates.  No interpretation of when they were written, by whom, or why, just lay it out and hope that the reader will jump to their preferred conclusion.  Anyone familiar with the literature on postwar politics and the trend towards reunion and reconciliation understands the hazards of interpreting these sources.  It doesn’t necessarily imply that these sources shed no light on the war, but there needs to be some analysis provided.  Isn’t that was serious history involves?  Challenging accounts that help us understand what happened at the Crater and why by arguing that racism and poor treatment prevailed in the Union army does not get us any closer to understanding wartime Confederate accounts.