Does Gingrich’s Crater Novel Reflect Progress?

Ta-Nahesi Coates has some interesting things to say about my Gingrich review at The Atlantic.  This particular passage caught my eye:

This pattern those sympathetic to the Confederacy acknowledging the sacrifice and honor of black soldiers is relatively new. Kevin’s right that it’s often tied into a hesitancy to see the Confederacy as it really was. But to my mind, Gingrich’s novel is progress–not the ultimate solution, but progress. For a century, the Lost Cause rendition of history meant writing black people, as agents, out of it. [my emphasis]

On one level it is easy to view Gingrich’s interest in highlighting the story of United States Colored Troops as progress even though it does so without threatening the Lost Cause interpretation of Confederate soldiers and Robert E. Lee.  I admit as much in the review, but at the same time we should be careful not to get ahead of ourselves.  As I also mentioned in the review, Gingrich’s narrative of the 28th USCT basically follows the story line laid out in the movie, Glory.  That story is now roughly 25 years old.  From this perspective it’s not clear to me what kind of progress we are talking about.  Is it progress simply because we are talking about Gingrich, a Republican or a former representative of a southern state?

Yes, Gingrich’s failure to deal with Confederate perceptions may tell us much about continued resistance among white southerners in dealing with the tough questions of race, but his narrative of USCTs perhaps tells us something about white America as a whole.  Ever since the release of Glory in 1989 the popular view of USCTs has revolved around their sacrifice for the Union through failed attacks against the Confederacy.  We can handle challenges of discrimination from within the ranks and even hints of a unfair pay, but only if there is resolution at the end of the story.  In Glory we get it in the wonderful image of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th and in Gingrich’s book we get it in his insistence on their crucial role in winning the Civil War.  Don’t get me wrong, this is a story that needs to be told, but I think there is an element here that functions to assuage the insecurities of white Americans when it comes to dealing with race and I think it transcends region and politics.

It’s something that I’ve been self-conscious about as I research the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the pay crisis for my next book project.  As many of you know for over a year the 55th as well as many other black units refused to accept a pay lower than what their white comrades received.  In the case of the 54th and 55th they even refused their own state’s willingness to make up the difference.  Not only did the men in the units go without pay as they were fighting and dying for the Union, but their families back home suffered as well.  The Glory/Gingrich model treats Confederate defeat and emancipation as a bookend, but perhaps if we place this struggle withing the broader context of the civil rights struggle we can learn something new about the broad sweep of American history.  At this point in the game that would constitute progress.

My Review of Newt Gingrich’s Crater Novel Published in The Atlantic

The Atlantic, December 5, 2011

Last week I mentioned that I went ahead and picked up a copy of Newt Gingrich’s new Civil War novel, The Battle of the Crater, at the insistence of my friend, Yoni Applebaum.  He suggested that I write a review and submit it to The Atlantic, which I went ahead and did.  Today the review is live on their website and I couldn’t be more pleased.  Thanks to Jennie Rothenberg Gritz for reviewing it and especially for agreeing to publish it.  We are talking about cross-posting excerpts from specific posts on their site and I’ve been encouraged to go ahead and think about possible topics for future publication.

Welcome to those of you who have clicked through from The Atlantic.  If you are interested in commentary on the Civil War and historical memory you have come to the right place.  I’ve been blogging for six years now.  The subjects covered sit at the intersection of Civil War historiography, education, and public history.  I encourage you to take some time to browse the site.  You can join the Civil War Memory facebook page, which is a great way to keep track of the latest posts as well as other stories that relate to this blog’s theme.  Finally, click here for more information about my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Thanks so much for stopping by.

A Challenge to the Southern Heritage Preservation Group

It looks like the latest issue of Civil War Times magazine is now available at your local newsstand.  As I mentioned last week the issue features my co-written essay with Myra Chandler Sampson on Silas Chandler.  We intended the piece to challenge some of the more popular assumptions surrounding Silas’s relationship to Andrew as well as his Civil War experience.  Admittedly, the evidence that we were able to marshal is limited, which makes any attempt at a robust interpretation problematic.

I am not surprised to learn that the good folks at the Southern Heritage Preservation Page are upset with the piece.  Apparently, Gary Adams, who is the groups executive chairman, picked it up and he had this to say:

I picked up the latest issue of Civil War Times and found a story by one of many of you favorite writer this time credited to Kevin Levine and Myra Sampson (a descendant of Andrew Chandler)…. This is same magazine and author who had comments to his previous story censured and sent directed to the author. This resulted in discussions for boycotts of both the magazine and advertisers but we argued against that but I will admit we may have to reconsider that decision. The question remains whether or not the poor research is on purpose or attributed to a lack of talent.  Here it argues Silas was a servant not a soldier. What I found strange was they fail to mention the family was and is tore with the same argument.

Now I have no idea what Mr. Adams is referring to in regards to comments from a previous CWT article nor do I have any advice on whether it might be worthwhile to boycott the magazine and sponsors.

What I will offer Mr. Adams and the rest of this group is the opportunity to write a response to the specific claims made in this article that will be published on this blog.  You can’t beat that.  Historical interpretations are always in need of revision based on the gathering of additional sources or a counter-interpretation of existing evidence.  This would be a wonderful opportunity to bring together the collective knowledge and wisdom of the entire group against their number one enemy.  Best of all, they get to do it on this very blog.  I look forward to reading and learning from their research on Silas.

The End of Confederate Heritage

The reason why the members of the first generation of Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy emphasized such a strict code governing the display of the Confederate flag was that they understood the risks of it being appropriated in a way that threatened to disconnect it from its Civil War roots.  By the 1950s and 60s that battle had clearly been lost through its use as a symbol of Massive Resistance and later through its appearance on everything from cigarette lighters to bikini bottoms.  This story of a black University of South Carolina Beaufort student who chose to display a Confederate flag in his dorm window is but the latest example of this gradual decline.

So here we have a flag that was carried by the military arm of a government pledged to defend slavery and white supremacy and that remained a symbol of racism and hatred for this student’s parents has now become little more than a colorful rag in the hands of a young black man.  What does the flag mean to him?

“When I look at this flag, I don’t see racism. I see respect, Southern pride,” he said. “This flag was seen as a communication symbol” during the Civil War.

“I’ve been getting a lot of support from people. My generation is interested in freedom of speech,” Thomas said.

“I think he’s got a really good point. It’s just a flag, and in and of itself, it doesn’t have any racial meaning. It only has as much meaning as you put into it,” said Reed.

That’s about it.  The flag was a “communication symbol”… you know, guys waved them back and forth to send signals.  The student in question doesn’t seem to have any interest in the Confederate war nor does his display of the flag seem to have much to do with the Civil War era at all.  So much for Confederate/Southern heritage.  That hasn’t prevented the Confederate heritage community from embracing him as their latest hero.  In the past few weeks the most popular defenders of Confederate heritage include a middle school student from New Jersey and now this guy.  Hilarious!

That Was My Head That Just Exploded

Lee and Jackson by Mort Kunstler

Scene set at Blandford Church Hill, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 1:45pm – July 30, 1864 in The Battle of the Crater by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen

“Finish it,” Lee said, looking at [William] Mahone.  “For heaven’s sake, they are cornered.  Bag the lot, and finish it.  If we wait until dark they will escape.  For that matter, I am stunned they have not yet brought up reserves to strengthen their line and perhaps threaten another section to draw us off.  I want it finished now, before they can launch another attack and stretch us too thin to hold.”
“Yes sir.”
“And General…”
“Sir?”
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
“Yes, sir.”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his solider. “I want the full honor of war observed.  Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Mahone looked at him, as if to reply.
“I know what our President has said, but in this army, sir, my orders on this day carry full weight.  We are Christian soldiers, sir.  Do you understand me?  Passions must not rule, even in the heat of battle.  If I hear of any atrocities, I will ensure that those involved shall face court-martial and the full penalty of military law.”
He drew Mahone a bit closer. “Do we understand each other, sir”?
There was only one answer Mahone could possibly give to such a man. “Yes, sir.” [pp. 281-82]

Of course, there is no evidence that such a conversation ever took place and there is no evidence to suggest that Lee did not know or disapprove of the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle.  This is nothing less than a gross distortion of the battle even for a work of historical fiction.  Why this scene is necessary for their narrative will be the subject of my review.