Category Archives: Civil War Historians

The Price Of Forgetting: New Biography of Albion Tourgee

One of the more disturbing consequences of our tendency to interpret the Civil War and the postwar period along the lines of reunion and reconciliation and void of any references to emancipation is our failure to give credit to those who continued to push for civil rights. Even Frederick Douglass tends to be forgotten by the end of the Civil War though he continued to remind the nation of the service and sacrifice of black Americans in the Civil War until his death in 1895.  Rather than waste time and ponder counterfactuals about Gettysburg I often find myself wondering what our national memory might have looked like had we decided to highlight the work of those who concerned themselves with civil rights issues rather than stories that concentrated on the mythology of the "Old South", silly tales of Christian Warriors and narratives that watered down military service to a set of innocent virtues that all Americans could identify with.  Perhaps we would be able to see the modern Civil Rights Movement more as a continuation of steps taken earlier rather than as a reaction to conditions following the Second World War.  Better yet, perhaps the Civil Rights Movement would not have been necessary at all.  Some of the most exciting historical scholarship is now focused on uncovering the lives of Americans who worked tirelessly in the postwar period on issues related to race.  Historian Mark Elliott’s Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest For Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford University Press, 2006) tells the story of one of the most important civil rights advocate, lawyer, and author of the latter part of the nineteenth century.  From the book description:

Civil War officer, Reconstruction "carpetbagger," best-selling novelist, and relentless champion of equal rights, Albion Tourgee battled his entire life for racial justice. Now, in this engaging biography, Mark Elliott offers an insightful portrait of a fearless lawyer, jurist, and writer, who fought for equality long after most Americans had abandoned the ideals of Reconstruction.

Elliott provides a fascinating account of Tourgee’s life, from his childhood in the Western Reserve region of Ohio (then a hotbed of abolitionism), to his years as a North Carolina judge during Reconstruction, to his memorable role as lead plaintiff’s counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson . Tourgee’s brief coined the phrase that justice should be "color-blind," and his career was one long campaign to made good on that belief. A redoubtable lawyer and an accomplished jurist, Tourgee wrote fifteen political novels, eight books of historical and social criticism, and several hundred newspaper and magazine articles that all told represent a mountain of dissent against the prevailing tide of racial oppression.

Through the lens of Tourgee’s life, Elliott illuminates the war of ideas about race that raged through the United States in the nineteenth century, from the heated debate over slavery before the Civil War, through the conflict over aid to freedmen during Reconstruction, to the backlash toward the end of the century, when Tourgee saw his country retreat from the goals of equality and freedom and utterly repudiate the work of Reconstruction. A poignant and inspiring study in courage and conviction, Color Blind Justice offers us an unforgettable portrayal of Albion Tourgee and the principles to which he dedicated his life.

I just picked up a copy and look forward to reading it over the winter break.

Eric H. Walther’s Yancey

William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil
War
. By Eric H. Walther. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xi, 477 pp.
Acknowledgments, introduction, legacy, bibliography, index. Cloth $39.95, ISBN 0-8078-3027-5).  This review is slated for publication in the journal Louisiana History.

With the 1993 publication of The Fire Eaters (LSU Press) Eric H. Walther established himself as one of the leading historians of the most radical sect of southern political leaders of the 1850’s. That earlier study included William L. Yancey who is the subject of his most recent biography. Yancey, along with Robert B. Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, and Louis T. Wigfall and others stood out owing to their adherence to secession as a means to securing Southern liberty, honor and ultimately the protection of slavery, and not simply as a way to gain concessions from the North. In drawing these discussions Walther demonstrated that not all Southern radicals could properly be classified as fire-eaters; however, the latter camp did represent the interests of many white
Southerners and their views were met with widespread support. The fire-eaters were a diverse group that did not always agree with one another, but their agreement that the federal government constituted a threat to Southern society suggests that secession was not a conspiracy, but a reflection of a deeply embedded commitment to defend the interests of a slave society.

Walther’s most recent book offers a detailed and sympathetic examination of how William L. Yancey evolved into one of the South’s most vocal fire-eaters of the antebellum period, Confederate senator and commissioner to England. Walther’s Yancey is complex and his personal journey into becoming a radical was anything but pre-determined. In achieving these ends Walther does not shun the categories of psychohistory; in fact, he refers to Yancey’s “search for
order” and a need to find a substitute for his stepfather, the Reverend Nathan Beman, who was both abusive and an ardent abolitionist. “The violence of his youth” writes Walther, “planted the seeds of violent acts later in his life, affairs of honor that won him the respect of many in the South.” (374) Yancey spent his early years in the North and was educated at Williams College before moving to South Carolina where he edited a newspaper and studied law under the direction of Benjamin Perry who argued against John Calhoun’s theory of nullification. Yancey adopted the unionist views of his mentor before moving to Alabama where he was then influenced by his cousin Jesse Beene and Dixon H. Lewis who was one of the leading states’ rights Democrats. In 1841 Yancey was elected t as a congressman.

This drive to maintain order and his fervent defense of his personal values and honor led to both and incident in 1838 where he fatally shot his wife’s uncle and a duel with North Carolina congressman Thomas L. Clingman. Yancey’s outbursts and attacks in congress against some of the more notable northern politicians such as John Q. Adams and Daniel Webster won Yancey much support and influence. However, even with strong statements insupport of the “Alabama Platform” and against the Compromise of 1850, according to Walther, Yancey only moved beyond a need to please political mentors following the death of Calhoun.

Throughout the 1850’s Yancey’s political convictions grew more radical than those of his mentors and became associated with a growing group that viewed the Union only as a means to protecting the interests of white southerners and secession as a viable alternative in case the federal government failed in that
responsibility. In 1859, Yancey urged the calling of a convention by the state of Alabama, in the event of the election of the Republican candidate for president in 1860. At the Democratic convention of 1860, he and other southern extremists withdrew. In March 1861, he was sent by Provisional
President Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy’s first Commissioner to England and France, seeking recognition. Following his return to Alabama in 1862, Yancey was elected to the Senate of the Confederacy, and served until his death on July 27 1863. Walther shows that although Yancey clashed with President Davis over constitutional principles and the growing power of the Confederate government he remained willing to negotiate for the benefit of the country that he helped bring about. Yancey died at the age of forty-nine due to kidney failure.

Eric H. Walther has succeeded in crafting a sympathetic and analytical biography of Yancey that reveals as much about the society and politics of the Deep South as it does about his own complex and controversial public life.

James McPherson Set To Release New Edited Collection In January

I was browsing the History News Network and noticed that James McPherson is set to release a new edited collection in January titled, This Mighty Scourge of War: The American Illiad, 1861-1865.  Like his other collections, this one is published by Oxford University Press.  Here is a description from their website:

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom and the New York Times bestseller Crossroads of Freedom , among many other award-winning books, James M. McPherson is America’s preeminent Civil War historian. Now, in this collection of provocative and illuminating essays, McPherson offers fresh insight into many of the most enduring questions about one of the defining moments in our nation’s history.  McPherson sheds light on topics large and small, from the average soldier’s avid love of newspapers to the postwar creation of the mystique of a Lost Cause in the South. Readers will find insightful pieces on such intriguing figures as Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Jesse James, and William Tecumseh Sherman, and on such vital issues such as Confederate military strategy, the failure of peace negotiations to end the war, and the realities and myths of the Confederacy. This Mighty Scourge includes several never-before-published essays–pieces on General Robert E. Lee’s goals in the Gettysburg campaign, on Lincoln and Grant in the Vicksburg campaign, and on Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief. In that capacity, Lincoln invented the concept of presidential war powers that are again at the center of controversy today. All of the essays have been updated and revised to give the volume greater thematic coherence and continuity, so that it can be read in sequence as an interpretive history of the war and its meaning for America and the world. Combining the finest scholarship with luminous prose, and packed with new information and fresh ideas, this book brings together the most recent thinking by the nation’s leading authority on the Civil War. It will be must reading for everyone interested in the war and American history.

Perhaps we can all chip in and buy a copy for Dimitri.  Hey Dimitri it looks like McPherson has been upgraded from “dean of Civil War historians” to “master historian of the Civil War in our time” by Gabor Boritt. It must be a conspiracy.

Eric Foner On George W. Bush: “He’s The Worst Ever”

The other day I mentioned how much I dislike those Top 100 most influential Americans lists.  The same holds true for those lists that poll historians on the worst presidents, but in the case of our present leader it’s hard to disagree with historian Eric Foner.  This op-ed is set to appear in tomorrow’s Washington Post:

Ever since 1948, when Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr. asked 55
historians to rank U.S. presidents on a scale from "great" to "failure," such
polls have been a favorite pastime for those of us who study the American
past.

Changes in presidential rankings reflect shifts in how we view history. When
the first poll was taken, the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War was
regarded as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting black men
the right to vote. As a result, President Andrew Johnson, a fervent white
supremacist who opposed efforts to extend basic rights to former slaves, was
rated "near great." Today, by contrast, scholars consider Reconstruction a
flawed but noble attempt to build an interracial democracy from the ashes of
slavery — and Johnson a flat failure.

More often, however, the rankings display a remarkable year-to-year
uniformity. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt always
figure in the "great" category. Most presidents are ranked "average" or, to put
it less charitably, mediocre. Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren
G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Richard M. Nixon occupy the bottom rung, and now
President Bush is a leading contender to join them. A look at history, as well
as Bush’s policies, explains why.

At a time of national crisis, Pierce and Buchanan, who served in the eight
years preceding the Civil War, and Johnson, who followed it, were simply not up
to the job. Stubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to
consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes, they surrounded themselves with
sycophants and shaped their policies to appeal to retrogressive political forces
(in that era, pro-slavery and racist ideologues). Even after being repudiated in
the midterm elections of 1854, 1858 and 1866, respectively, they ignored major
currents of public opinion and clung to flawed policies. Bush’s presidency
certainly brings theirs to mind.

Harding and Coolidge are best remembered for the corruption of their years in
office (1921-23 and 1923-29, respectively) and for channeling money and favors
to big business. They slashed income and corporate taxes and supported
employers’ campaigns to eliminate unions. Members of their administrations
received kickbacks and bribes from lobbyists and businessmen. "Never before,
here or anywhere else," declared the Wall Street Journal, "has a government been
so completely fused with business." The Journal could hardly have anticipated
the even worse cronyism, corruption and pro-business bias of the Bush
administration.

Despite some notable accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy, Nixon is
mostly associated today with disdain for the Constitution and abuse of
presidential power. Obsessed with secrecy and media leaks, he viewed every
critic as a threat to national security and illegally spied on U.S. citizens.
Nixon considered himself above the law.

Bush has taken this disdain for law even further. He has sought to strip
people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta in
Anglo-American jurisprudence: trial by impartial jury, access to lawyers and
knowledge of evidence against them. In dozens of statements when signing
legislation, he has asserted the right to ignore the parts of laws with which he
disagrees. His administration has adopted policies regarding the treatment of
prisoners of war that have disgraced the nation and alienated virtually the
entire world. Usually, during wartime, the Supreme Court has refrained from
passing judgment on presidential actions related to national defense. The
court’s unprecedented rebukes of Bush’s policies on detainees indicate how far
the administration has strayed from the rule of law.

One other president bears comparison to Bush: James K. Polk. Some historians
admire him, in part because he made their job easier by keeping a detailed diary
during his administration, which spanned the years of the Mexican-American War.
But Polk should be remembered primarily for launching that unprovoked attack on
Mexico and seizing one-third of its territory for the United States.

Lincoln, then a member of Congress from Illinois, condemned Polk for
misleading Congress and the public about the cause of the war — an alleged
Mexican incursion into the United States. Accepting the president’s right to
attack another country "whenever he shall deem it necessary," Lincoln observed,
would make it impossible to "fix any limit" to his power to make war. Today, one
wishes that the country had heeded Lincoln’s warning.

Historians are loath to predict the future. It is impossible to say with
certainty how Bush will be ranked in, say, 2050. But somehow, in his first six
years in office he has managed to combine the lapses of leadership, misguided
policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors. I think there is no
alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history.