Category Archives: Civil War Historians

A Few Minutes With David Blight

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship.  Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site.  Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater.  This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance.  After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.

[Click here for Part 2]

“It Is a Sad Day Indeed For All Of Us Who Love the South”

Civil War memory is indeed a very strange landscape. Up until today I would have said that the once widely held view that slavery was benign and that the slaves themselves remained loyal throughout the war reflects its most absurd side.  However, the folks over at Richard Williams’s site have somehow managed to trump even that.

In response to a short post marking the anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Norther Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 one reader had this to say:

It is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South.  This was followed by a response from Williams: “Yeah, me too.”

Apparently, that caught the attention of my good friend and fellow historian, Mark Snell, who posted the following in response:

Why is it sad that the killing ended? Why is it a sad day that the institution of slavery was coming to an end? Why is it sad that this date signaled the beginning of a new era, one that would make the United States the strongest and richest country in the world–with some of the ex-Confederate states in the forefront of that economy today? Can someone explain this “sense of sadness” to me?

Williams offers the following response:

That’s a legitimate question, but please don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. No one laments the end of slavery – at least not anyone I know. That’s absurd. Moreover, it was Lee who did not want to see the killing continue. Grant is the one who seemed to be willing to continue to supply an endless supply of human cannon fodder.

The sense of sadness to which I’m referring was eloquently expressed by none other than General Grant:

“My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.”

First, no one put words into Williams’s mouth.  Mark was simply asking how anyone in their right mind could consider it to be a sad day given that it brought slavery that much closer to being finally extinguished. More to the point, it brought the slaughter to an end.  How could it possibly be a sad day?  Even stranger is the reference to Grant as somehow wishing to continue the violence.  Williams provides no evidence whatsoever for this ridiculous claim.  I guess somehow we are to believe that Grant had an easier time ordering young men into battle and to their deaths.  Of course, the only way one could get away with such a claim is if he ignored the entire Seven Days’ Campaign, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg – to name just a few. That’s not a criticism of Lee.  After all, they were both generals trying to win battles and bring about victory.

Mark offered a follow-up to Williams’s response, but unfortunately it was rejected without explanation.  It’s difficult to understand why:

I didn’t put words in anyone’s mouth. I simply asked some very legitimate questions, and I still haven’t gotten a legitimate response to them. The only reason Lee surrendered when he did was because he had no choice. He was cut off from retreat and had no chance of linking up with Joe Johnston. Your assertion that Grant wanted to continue to supply cannon fodder is illogical: if he wanted to continue the war, he could have refused Lee’s surrender. That makes about as much sense as saying that the South had a vast unused manpower pool–all those black Confederates–that could have been employed to further prosecute the war. Grant’s feeling of depression concerning his defeated foe is quite understandable. After all, weren’t they all Americans? But to use Grant’s memoirs to validate your point tells me nothing about Mr. Simons’ remark that today ‘is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South,’ nor does it explain your apparent agreement with it. I love the South, and I’m sure a lot of black Southerners do too, but I doubt if they see today as a ‘sad day.’

Thanks for allowing me to comment.

Well, so much for all the silly accusations about how the “liberal elite” stifle the free exchange of ideas.  For the life of me I can’t think of a better example of pure nostalgic bullshit.

Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

Most of us think of the significance of this day in 1865 as revolving around the soldiers who met for the final time at Appomattox Court House.  The images and stories of Lee and Grant in the McLean House and the famous salute between Gordon and Chamberlain, which may or may not have occurred according to William Marvel, color our imagination.  Here is another story from that day.

Fannie Berry was at Pamplin City, Virginia, as stray Rebel fugitives from the Army of Northern Virginia tried to fend off their pursuers.  “The Yankees and Rebels were fighting, and they were waving the bloody flag, and a Confederate soldier was up on a post, and they were shooting terribly.  Guns were firing everywhere.” when “all of a sudden” she heard the strains of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and looked up to see Union soldiers approaching.  “How far is it to the Rebels?” a soldier asked her.  But she was too afraid to reply, because, “if the Rebels knew that I told the soldier,” they would have killed her.  She told him she didn’t know, but when he asked again, Berry darted behind her master’s house and furtively pointed in the Rebels’ direction.

A regiment of black troops marched up, and according to Berry, as soon as the Rebels caught sight of them, they raised a white flag “as a token that Lee had surrendered.  Glory! Glory!” Berry exclaimed.  “Yes, child, the Negroes were free, and when they knew that they were free they –Oh! Baby!–began to sing: ‘Mary don’t you cook no more,/You are free, you are free./Rooster don’t you crow no more,/You are free, you are free…’ Such rejoicing and shouting you never heard in your life.”  For Samuel Spottford Clement, it seemed that at last God had heard the prayers that slaves had “sent up for three hundred years.” [From The Slaves' War by Andrew Ward, (p. 247)]

It is indeed an important day in American history.

[Image: Don Troiani's "The Last Salute" HAP]

Why We Need Cenantua More Than Ever

The fallout over Governor McDonnell’s apology will no doubt continue throughout the day today.  I will probably not follow much of it as I can anticipate the fault lines that will frame the vast majority of responses.  Yesterday I offered a brief commentary as to what I think this turn of events signifies.  It comes down to a significant segment of the population voicing their view that a Lost Cause narrative that held sway in Virginia throughout much of the twentieth century is no longer acceptable.  That raises the question of how a governor should go about publicly recognizing an event that is crucial to our understanding of ourselves as individuals as well as our place within a collective narrative as Virginians and Americans.

The public discussion that has ensued will likely remain bitter and is unlikely to move us forward as a community.   After all, for many this debate is about politics and about whose stories are worth remembering and cherishing.  We desperately need to move out of our comfort zones to embrace a narrative and collective memory that is much more inclusive and that deals head on with the tough issues through serious scholarship.

Whenever these disputes arise I inevitably make my way over to Robert Moore’s Cenantua’s Blog.  Robert is a native Virginian who regularly shares his fascination with his own family’s rich history, which bridges many of the interpretive divides in the South.  It’s a story that includes Confederates, Unionists and every shade in between.  Robert embraces all of it on an emotional and scholarly level and has worked hard to reconcile and come to terms with what are often contradictory and conflicting narratives.  Given the often contested strands of Civil War memory at work since the end of the Civil War Moore’s approach is refreshing.  Unfortunately, his perspective on the Civil War as a white southerner is sometimes seen by others as a threat and is often marginalized.  We do so at our own peril.

Consider Richard Williams’s most recent post on the governor’s proclamation.  Williams is also a white Virginian who lives in the Shenandoah Valley and proudly defends his Confederate heritage.  That defense often involves dismissing the views of others who he believes are illegitimate for any number of reasons.  In his defense of the governor Williams provides links to both this site and a post authored by Brooks Simpson at Civil Warriors as examples of the relentless assault on tradition by the liberal elite.  What is striking, however, is that Williams fails to provide a link to Robert Moore’s post even though there was a link on my post and Williams is a regular reader of Moore’s blog.  He was no doubt aware of it.  It’s easy for Williams to easily dismiss us as illegitimate; after all, Simpson and I are not native to the South.  But what about Moore?  He has as much of a claim on Virginia’s past as anyone and yet he is ignored entirely.  The failure to provide a link speaks volumes.

Folks like Williams can cast the debate as an epic struggle or as a battle between two opposing views of the past only by ignoring fellow white Virginians like Moore.  After summarizing his own family’s history, Moore offers the following observation about the governor’s proclamation:

That’s just one of the reasons why it’s obvious that Confederate History Month is too narrow in scope in regard to what is important for Virginians to recognize. It too easily serves as a dismissing “remembrance” activity, continuing to tuck away the complex truths about Virginia in the war. It’s convenient that while hurraying “our Confederate heritage”, we can so easily forget those Virginians who found it not so great; the disillusioned and disaffected, the Unionists and “leave-aloners”. What about those Virginians who walked on eggshells during this time, whites and blacks alike? Try living in a society in which you live under fear of harm or outright death if you wished to vote against secession. I don’t know how many accounts I have seen where Virginians were not able to voice their opinions and their devotion to the old Union without fear of violence, yet were just as passionate about what even they called “the sacred soil of Virginia.” How many “Virginia’s Confederates” were actually unwilling conscripts or were disaffected or disillusioned Confederates who were sometimes physically forced from their homes to either join or return to the ranks (and whose descendants continue to blindly praise these same people as “Confederate heroes”)? Whether free black, slave, white farm laborer, or whatever, Virginia’s Civil War heritage is defined by all of these people. Confederate History Month doesn’t perpetuate our understanding of this, but muddies the waters. That’s why Confederate History Month SHOULD be changed to Virginia Civil War Heritage Month, in order to identify the many different angles (including those who embraced the Confederacy) that define the reality that was Virginia at the time of the war. This IS the “Commonwealth’s shared history” and it IS important for all Virginians to recognize this.

This is the best explanation that I’ve read as to why we desperately need to move away from overly-simplified and nostalgic narratives of our Civil War past. We ought to be driven by a sincere interest in history and a commitment to understanding the complete story of how white and black Virginians struggled to make sense of four long years of destructive war.  Moore’s commentary also offers a warning to the black community that it ought not so easily dismiss those who wish to remember and commemorate their Confederate ancestors.  Acknowledging one’s Confederate ancestry does not imply racism.

Our insistence on continuing to carve up the calendar along lines that have a tendency to divide rather than unite Virginians will get us nowhere.  I am hoping that next year Governor McDonnell will set aside April as a time to remember Virginia’s Civil War past in its totality.  Robert Moore offers us an emotional and intellectual road map to get us there.

[Photograph taken from Cenantua's Blog]

Bell I. Wiley’s Timeless Analysis of the Common Civil War Soldier

This is the latest installment in the Civil War Classics series written by students in Professor Peter Carmichael’s graduate level readings course at West Virginia University. This review of Wiley’s analysis of fraternization in The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank was written by Lauren Thompson.  Click here for other posts in the series.

Bell Irvin Wiley’s influential accounts, Life of Johnny Reb and Life of Billy Yank, provide groundbreaking insight concerning the daily life of the common Civil War soldiers.  During those times when life turned monotonous and dull, Wiley found that soldiers could be remarkably creative in relieving the tedium of camp.  Fraternization was one form of escape, a topic that Wiley does not mention in Johnny Reb, but a matter that he explores in Billy Yank.  The underlying cause of fraternization, he argues, was simply curiosity.  While both sides were certainly inquisitive about the other, Wiley overlooks the deeper social and political meaning of these peaceful encounters between combatants.

Although forbidden by military order, thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers shared conversations, held swimming parties, traded goods, shared newspapers, and visited opposing sides while on picket duty. Wiley argues that prewar fraternal organizations such as the Masonic Order and the shared common language were reasons as to why many soldiers were friendly with the enemy.  Wiley also argues that the shared position as victims of political machinations also drove men to fraternize. In the end, Wiley’s investigation of the common soldier reveals that soldiers admired one another for their bravery on the battlefield, virtuous qualities of character, and sympathy for the hardship.

Wiley is at his best when describing examples of fraternization at Vicksburg, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg; however, he leaves many questions unanswered.  Wiley neglects to analyze the larger meaning of these interactions and why these men risked their lives to chat with the enemy.  When one gets beneath the veil of fraternization as a demonstration of shared Americanism between Northern and Southern soldiers, one sees a cultural of alienation that developed in the ranks.  Enemies could empathize with each other because of the bloodshed and terror they had experienced. The exposure to death and hardship these men experienced turned their linear pre-war world upside-down.  The rigors of army-life and feelings of disposability as cannon fodder challenged the soldiers’ independence and manhood they strove to gain in society.   Fraternization served as an outlet where soldiers subtly dissented as part of a culture of alienation during the time between battles.

Wiley’s depiction of fraternization remains a valuable starting point to probe the cultural life of Civil War soldiers.  The social history foundation provided by Wiley, his “bottom-up” research indispensable, but as historians we need to get underneath the descriptions of daily life in order to see how soldiers made cultural meaning of their wartime experiences.