William Mahone, Nelson M. Blake, and the Journal of Negro History

Access to JSTOR through my school’s library has made life much easier.  I recently came across a wonderful review of Nelson M. Blake’s 1935 biography of William Mahone which appeared in the Journal of Negro History [Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1936)].  The reviewer was J.H. Johnston who taught Virginia State College (now University) in Petersburg which was the site of both Mahone’s postwar residence and the site of the battle of the Crater.  The content of Johnston’s review reflects a vibrant black countermemory of the war and Reconstruction; his main points are clearly decades ahead of the interpretive agenda of much of the historical community.  Blake’s William Mahone of Virginia, Soldier and Political Insurgent [Garrett & Massie Publishers, Richmond, 1935] is still the only biography available.  It is clearly dated in certain respects; unfortunately no one that I know is planning to write an updated account though it is desperately needed.  Most of Mahone’s personal papers are located at Duke University while smaller collections can be found at the Library of Virginia and the University of Virginia.

What I find so interesting about Johnston’s review is that he clearly understands what the publication of this biography means within the context of memory of Mahone.  He references the monument of Mahone that was placed on the Crater battlefield which makes no mention of his role as a Virginia statesman.  His suggestion that “The author [Blake] has thus dared to render long deserved service to Mahone’s memory” points to the extent to which white Southerners (particularly white Virginians) worked to erase Mahone from public memory of the war and Reconstruction.  After all Mahone was the “Hero of the Crater” who led the most successful bi-racial coalition which controlled Virginia’s government for four years and resulted in his election to the U.S. Senate where he aligned himself with the Republican Party.  Johnston understands all too well that this biography, which devotes only one chapter to his war years and eight to his postwar career, does not compliment the Lost Cause version of the war.

The Readjuster Party was overwhelmingly supported by the Negro voters of Virginia; and because of Mahone’s political association with Negroes this former Confederate officer was despised, and until now an effort has been made to consign him to oblivion. (p. 215)

Johnston seems pleased that Blake does not relegate blacks to the background, but acknowledges that made “intelligent use of their ballot.”  It should be remembered that the standard account of Reconstruction argued that black Americans were ill-equipped to exercise the vote and/or that corruption ran rampant because of their involvement in the Southern states.  Few correctives could be found at this point, though W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 had been recently published.

As much as Johnston praises Blake’s study he does acknowledge serious shortcomings which today would be inexcusable, but at the time understandable.  In particular, Johnston criticizes Blake’s handling of the Crater and a reference to USCTs as “half-drunken negroes.”  The reviewers frustration with Blake is perhaps a function of the fact that although Blake is able to praise blacks for voting for Mahone he is unable to take the next step which would involve a more sympathetic portrayal of African Americans more generally.  Much of the literature about the Crater was written without any interest in the black perspective and the specific reference to “half-drunken references” was one way white Southerners could make the point that unless blacks were drunk or forced to fight by evil yankees that they remained loyal.  Blake would have had to spend considerable time looking for the limited amount of archival material that is available which may have given him a different perspective.  Perhaps he did not know to even question this reference.  Along similar lines while Johnston praises Mahone for completing his railroad from Norfolk to Petersburg before the war and under very difficult conditions he fails to “mention the black workmen in the swamps that helped Mahone build his railroad.”  Finally, Johnston cites what he perceives to be a major weakness in Blake’s analysis of Mahone’s political success in his failure to reference those black politicians who worked in the Readjuster Party.

The biography of Mahone will be completed only when it makes it clear that these Negro men were the authors of the bills and the makers of the laws that brought these gifts to the Negro people of the state.  This book, then, while it is a deserved tribute to William Mahone and gives a far better picture of the Reconstruction in Virginia than one finds in other such works, must be supplemented with a treatment of the participation of the Negro in the Readjuster Movement. (p. 216)

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through the Journal of Negro History in JSTOR.  Given the broad assumptions that defined the nation’s understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and race a perusal through Carter Woodson’s journal serves as a reminder that black Americans took an interest in their history and worked hard to counter the overtly racist assumptions that were so prevalent at the time.  Not until the 1970s would there be studies of black politicians during the Readjuster Era along the lines envisioned by Johnston.

Two Important Slave Narratives Published

BlightDavid Blight’s latest book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped Freedom is now available.  From the jacket:

Slave narratives, some of the most powerful records of our past, are extremely rare, with only fifty-five post–Civil War narratives surviving. A mere handful are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group with the publication of A Slave No More, a major new addition to the canon of American history. Handed down through family and friends, these narratives tell gripping stories of escape: Through a combination of intelligence, daring, and sheer luck, the men reached the protection of the occupying Union troops. David W. Blight magnifies the drama and significance by prefacing the narratives with each man’s life history. Using a wealth of genealogical information, Blight has reconstructed their childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the north, where they reunited their families.

In the stories of Turnage and Washington, we find history at its most intimate, portals that offer a rich new answer to the question of how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. In A Slave No More, the untold stories of two ordinary men take their place at the heart of the American experience.

Still the “Champion of Enslaved Men and Women”

There is a new and extended trailer for the upcoming film Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story.  Check this new clip out if you didn’t think it possible for an even more absurd treatment of this very important historical figure.  This time historians James I. Robertson and Col. Keith Gibson offer commentary.  Robertson touches on the "trauma of [Jackson] being given away" at an early age which is no doubt true.  He concludes that "family became far more important than a normal person" and this shaped a more "tender-hearted person" which is "not shown in battle."  Again, I see nothing wrong with such a comment.  Unfortunately, this then serves as a lead-in to the absurd claim made by Richard Williams that Jackson "was the champion of enslaved men and women" and the "proclaimer of good news." 

First, someone please point out to me the places in Robertson’s book where Jackson is interpreted as some kind of champion of the very people he owned.  The editor of this trailer did a wonderful job of interpreting Jackson and slavery along traditionally paternalistic lines.  Jackson valued and yearned for family and this must be evidence that his ownership of slaves was benign.  Actually, not only was it benign, but we are being asked to celebrate Jackson’s ownership of slaves. 

I know some of you are wondering why I keep harping on this and related issues.  Well, let me just say that I am a teacher and I care about what is both taught in the classroom and distributed for viewing in the general public.  In the end this kind of film is dangerous.  It perpetuates the same stereotypes that one can find in movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind.  What makes this worse is that we are at a point where we know so much more about the "peculiar institution".  But even if we ignore the scholarship the idea that anyone will seriously consider the possibility of celebrating slave ownership is perverse in the extreme. 

Do we really have to ask Mr. Williams whether he would be willing under any circumstances to exchange places with one of Jackson’s slaves to make this point?  Of course, I have not seen this film nor do I have any interest in doing so.  I’ve seen enough! 

Update: One of my readers was kind enough to inform me that responses to this piece have been posted.  See here and here.  I applaud Williams for at least making an attempt to respond even though he does not address the point of this post which is the idea that we can characterize any slaveholder as a "champion" of the very people enslaved.  The other guy seems to be just a bit unstable.

Did Lincoln Free the Slaves?: Interpretation in the Classroom

This week my Lincoln class will focus on the summer of 1862 and the events that led Lincoln to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, just five days following the battle of Antietam.  I want my students to tackle the question of how to explain emancipation and why historians disagree over Lincoln’s role specifically.  In addition to William Gienapp’s biography students will read an article by Ira Berlin titled "Who Freed the Slaves: Emancipation and its Meaning" which is included in a wonderful collection of essays edited by Brooks Simpson and David Blight titled Union and Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era (Kent State University Press, 1997).  Finally, students will watch scenes from Ken Burns’s Civil War.  Their assignment will be to compare the three interpretations.  Gienapp presents a well rounded interpretation of how Lincoln responded to both political pressure and military events within the context of emancipation.  The Berlin article offers an interpretation that places the abolitionists as well as the slaves themselves at center stage and offers a corrective to our traditional top-down picture of Lincoln as the primary agent of emancipation.  I am going to emphasize and spend the most time on Burns who I believe offers a rather convoluted picture of emancipation.  I’ve said before that the worst thing a teacher can do is show Burns without any guide or activity that engages students.  My emphasis on Burns is in part preparation for a talk that I will give (assuming the panel is approved) on teaching the Civil War at the upcoming June meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians.  In addition, I am in the beginning stages of a book-length project with my former thesis advisor that will provide the most complete analysis of Burns’s documentary to date.  More on that at a later date.

I plan to begin the Burns documentary with Episode 3 and the sections "Saving the Union" (August 1862) through "A Higher Object" (September 1862).  Students will have part of the transcript available to follow along.  What is striking is the complete absence of any discussion on how the military situation for the Union is shaping policy on slavery.  The first section focuses on McClellan’s reappointment to command as well as the defeat of Union armies under the command of Gen. John Pope.  Shelby Foote makes a few appearances to talk about the camaraderie of men in arms as well as the human price of war.  The only mention of slavery before the section on Antietam is a reference to Horace Greely’s letter to Lincoln calling for the emancipation of slaves as well as Lincoln’s famous response.  In addition, British Prime Minister Palmerston hints at the possibilities of official recognition of slavery.  Burns then shifts to Lee’s invasion of Maryland as well as the battle of Antietam itself.  Following that section is the final chapter to be shown, titled "A Higher Object" which opens with an image of Ulysses S. Grant and his failed attempt at taking Vicksburg.  A short interview with historian Ed Bearrs follows:

The Confederacy was on the offensive over a thousand mile front. Mr. Gladstone, a power in the English cabinet, is saying, “Jeff Davis has made a navy. He’s made an army and what’s more important,” intimating that he’s made a nation. But, the invasion of Maryland fails. Lee is defeated, falls back. They lose at Perryville in Kentucky. They lose at Iuka and Corinth in Mississippi, and even Newtonia, Missouri. And the Confederate tide rolls back. Lincoln, as a result of Antietam, converted the war to a higher plane, again the master politician. He announces the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, it doesn’t free a single slave in revolt, frees only as a war measure and only frees a slaves in states where the Confederacy is in control. And it will take effect on the first day of January.

Bearrs is a bizarre choice to interview on this subject.  When you get beyond his mannerisms he offers a rather simplistic overview of Lincoln’s decision.  This is the extent of the analysis of what led to Lincoln’s decision to issue the proclamation.  Images of slave families follow as the viewer listens to  Sam Waterston recite a few choice lines from the document.  There is no attempt whatsoever to look at this moment from the perspective of African Americans and this will provide a nice point of contrast with Ira Berlin’s article.  The British perspective and decision not to recognize the Confederacy is given voice by the philosopher John Stuart Mill: "The triumph of the Confederacy would be a victory of the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of friends all over the civilized world. The American Civil War is destined to be a turning point, for good or evil, of the course of human affairs."  The only African American quoted comes at the end of Episode 3 as Burns wraps up, from various perspectives, the changes that have taken place throughout 1862.  No surprise that the individual in question here is Frederick Douglass: "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree- “Free forever.” Oh, ye millions of free and loyal men who have earnestly sought to free your bleeding country from the dreadful ravages of revolution and anarchy, lift up now your voices with joy and thanksgiving for with freedom to the slave will come peace and safety to your country."

This alone would give the class plenty to analyze, but in fact Burns does not completely ignore the story of slaves or the perspective that they influenced events at the highest level of government.  Burns does this with a number of short interview clips with historian Barbara Fields who has worked with Ira Berlin on the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.  What makes this interesting for the purpose of analysis is the placement of those clips throughout the documentary.  I plan to collect these interviews as reference points for my students.  Here are a few examples:

Prologue to Episode 3: It could have been a very ugly filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all. And it was the battle for emancipation, and the people who pushed it forward – the slaves, the free black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens – it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher.

"The Beast": Episode 3: The slaves understood that that war was about slavery before it was a war. They made a nuisance for the army and they also made an issue that the army had to deal with. And if they army had to deal with it, the War Department had to deal with it. If the War Department had to deal with it, Congress had to deal with it. That means that every fugitive slave who made a nuisance of himself to the local commander eventually made a figure of himself to the Congress of the United States

"Oh! Be Joyful": Episode 4: The people most affected by the Emancipation Proclamation obviously did not receive it as news because they knew before Lincoln knew that the war was about emancipation and moreover they knew, as perhaps Lincoln did without fully realizing it, and certainly as many people today do not realize, that the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to get them their freedom. It said that they had a right to go and put their bodies on the line if they had the nerve to believe in it and many of them had the nerve to believe in it and many suffered for that.

Again, these clips are sprinkled throughout the documentary and should bring additional perspective to our discussion.  Students can think about why Bearrs was interviewed instead of Fields in the section immediately following Antietam as well as whether these passages are properly integrated into the overall narrative that Burns introduces.  Hopefully, the discussions will be informed and students will leave with a greater appreciation of the challenges involved in interpretation. 

Review of Robert K. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia

This review is slated for publication in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.

On 15 May 1864 Captain John C. Winsmith of the 1st South Carolina Infantry penned a lengthy letter home in which he described the horrific fighting that had taken place in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House. In the seven pages, which included vivid descriptions of the battlefield and the constant movement of troops, Winsmith made only one brief reference to the weather. He reported that on 12 May he spent the night “in a heavy rain.” Winsmith’s failure or lack of interest in reporting the weather reflects our own tendency to overlook the physical conditions in which battles were fought. We know that the summers were oppressive in those uniforms and that they suffered on the march and in winter camp, but beyond that we can’t say much. We are dependent on individual historians reminding us, but here again the subject is covered in varying degrees and typically hinges on the thoroughness of the individual researcher.

Thanks to Robert K. Krick we no longer have to wonder about the weather along the Washington D.C. – Richmond corridor. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia (University of Alabama Press, 2007) brings together the records of C. B. Mackee of Georgetown D.C., who faithfully recorded temperature and precipitation three times a day between 1 October 1860 30 June 1865. Krick organizes Mackee’s readings into fifty-seven tables, which also include sunrise and sunset for Richmond along with the dates of solstice and equinox. The tables make it possible to draw conclusions about the weather over time. For instance, although historians have written about the summer heat in the most colorful terms, a brief survey of the summer of 1864 shows a wide range of afternoon temperatures. We now can be much more precise. Brief reports from other regions can be found in the section that follows each table, which also includes references to the weather by the men in the ranks as well as civilians.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive weather survey for all of Virginia. The focus on the Washington–Richmond corridor reflects Krick’s own interest in the region where the Army of Northern Virginia spent much of its time and won some of its most impressive victories. Readers looking for analysis on the affects of weather on various campaigns will be sorely disappointed as Krick’s agenda is to provide a useful reference source rather than interpretation. That said, given Krick’s knowledge of the war in Virginia it would have been useful to include additional commentary on the ways in which a more complete understanding of weather conditions affects and challenges certain well-engrained assumptions about various battles and campaigns. For instance, Krick admits in the introduction that “traditional lore about weather during some Civil War episodes has been exaggerated, even fabricated” and refers to popular descriptions of the battle of Fredericksburg and its “frigid” conditions (p. 6). In fact, the readings indicate rather mild temperatures with afternoon highs between 56 and 68 during the period 12–15 December 1862.

It will take others to bring to bear the information that Krick has provided to the various battles and campaigns that transpired on the fields of eastern Virginia. Perhaps Krick’s brief reference to Fredericksburg will lead to other revisions. This project may also inspire others to do the same for other regions of the nation that witnessed heavy fighting. One final note: Although Winsmith recorded “heavy rain” for the night of 12 May 1864, table number 44 shows that he may also have experienced hail.