A Crater Narrative That Does Not Offend

The Crater by Tom Lovell

I am almost finished reading Newt Gingrich’s co-authored historical fiction on the Crater and I have to admit that it’s not half bad.  The attack has commenced and not going well.  The book is almost entirely about the 28th United States Colored Troops with Major Garland White as one of its principal characters.   There are a few scenes set in Confederate earthworks and a very short section set in Lee’s headquarters following the explosion, but the rest of it focuses on the black soldiers with the help of a fictional character by the name of James Reilly, who works as a sketch artist.

Even without having finished the book, what is clear is that Gingrich and Forstchen do everything they can not to offend, which is quite an achievement given the nature of the subject.  Let me just give you one example.  All of you have read that the Fourth Division went into the battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  That reference appears twice in the battle sequence, but take a look at how it is framed by the authors:

There was no quarter.  The pent-up rage, the insanity of a world that had driven them to this moment, was unleashed, both sides screaming “No quarter, no prisoners! as they shot , cut, and slashed at each other. [p. 259]

Both sides were screaming foul oaths of hatred and rage.  Centuries of slavery and the cruelty and fear it engendered, combined with three years of bitter war with no end in sight, unleashed a pent-up fury on this day as both sides screamed: No quarter, no prisoners!” [p. 266]

They certainly were, but we also know based on the historical record that the black troops screamed, “Remember Fort Pillow.”  That, of course, is conveniently left out as is pretty much any reference to the racial hatred that animated Confederate troops during the battle.  There is a context for understanding cries of “No quarter” that animated the black men in blue that is crucial to this history.  They knew what was at stake if captured.  The same holds true for Confederates who faced the attack of the black troops as well as those who heard about it.  Their rage took a specific form that had its roots in white supremacy and fears associated with slave rebellions that extended back into the antebellum period.  Unfortunately, it looks like this theme will continue to be ignored in what remains of the book.  More later.

Silas Chandler Makes the Cover of Civil War Times

Civil War Times (February 2012)

I just received my author copies of the latest issue of Civil War Times, which should hit newsstands any day now.  As you can see Silas Chandler made the cover.  I love the fact that he is pictured alone and out from behind the shadow of Andrew Chandler.   It’s powerful.  Kudos to whoever made this decision.  What Myra Chandler Sampson and I tried to do in this short article was tell as much of the story from Silas’s perspective as possible rather than the mythical story that has come to dominate popular memory.  That narrative’s treatment of Silas as a loyal slave and/or soldier is little more than a self-serving attempt to ignore or minimize the place of slavery and race in the Confederate war.  He has a much more interesting story to tell if we are only willing to listen.

Myra and I want to thank Dana Shoaf and the rest of the editorial staff for their hard work and for their agreeing to take on this manuscript.  I have no doubt that their inboxes will be flooded in a matter of weeks.  I can already anticipate the reaction.  This is my third feature article in CWT in the last year and I have nothing but the highest praise for the work they do.  Finally, congratulations to Civil War Times on this their 50th anniversary.  Included in this issue are articles by Harold Holzer, Scott Patchan, and Jacqueline G. Campbell.  They also published an essay by Glenn Tucker on James Longstreet that originally appeared in their very first issue, which I think is a great idea.

The Confederacy, Southern Unionists, and Civil Liberties

This video is part of the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point.”  It tackles the complex subject of southern unionists and the protection of civil liberties during wartime.  Questions surrounding civil liberties often come up in reference to the steps Lincoln took at various points during the war, but rarely comes up in the context of the Confederacy.  It’s nice to see the VHS tackling these subjects and for a short clip I think it does so effectively.  What do you think?

The best book on the subject is Mark Neely’s, Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism (University of Virginia Press, 1999).

The Future of Slavery

John Gast's "American Progress"

Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past.  We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible.  Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us.  I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).

As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals.   Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860.  It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction.  It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any  discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole.   In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.

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