Breaking News: Lincoln Advocated Colonization

Thomas Ball

The American Studies class that I team teach just finished reading William Gienapp’s concise biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Of all the challenges that students coming to Lincoln struggle with is the issue of colonization.  It’s not simply that Lincoln advocated colonization before the war it’s the extent to which he pushed for it during the war itself.  It simply doesn’t mesh with the image of the “Great Emancipator” that many of my students come to class with.  The same holds true for my AP sections.  Luckily, the textbook that I use by Eric Foner does a first rate job with this particular topic. Understanding the steps that Lincoln took toward emancipation as well as the evolution of his thinking concerning race goes far to humanizing Lincoln and coming to terms with the challenges he faced during the Civil War.

Apparently, there is a new book set to be released that focuses specifically on Lincoln’s colonization policy.  According to a Washington Times review, “Newly released documents show that” Lincoln pushed for colonization, “to a greater degree than historians had previously known.”  I don’t know much about these new documents, but supposedly they show that Lincoln continued to push for colonization even after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It would be interesting to know which slaves Lincoln was hoping to colonize; if I had to guess we are talking about those slaves in the border states.  I always remind my students that regardless of what Lincoln desired, African American leaders rejected his proposals.  Here is the book description:

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement explores the previously unknown truth about Lincoln’s attitude toward colonization. Scholars Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page combed through extensive archival materials, finding evidence, particularly within British Colonial and Foreign Office documents, which exposes what history has neglected to reveal—that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization for close to a year after emancipation. Their research even shows that Lincoln may have been attempting to revive this policy at the time of his assassination.

Using long-forgotten records scattered across three continents—many of them untouched since the Civil War—the authors show that Lincoln continued his search for a freedmen’s colony much longer than previously thought. Colonization after Emancipation reveals Lincoln’s highly secretive negotiations with the British government to find suitable lands for colonization in the West Indies and depicts how the U.S. government worked with British agents and leaders in the free black community to recruit emigrants for the proposed colonies. The book shows that the scheme was never very popular within Lincoln’s administration and even became a subject of subversion when the president’s subordinates began battling for control over a lucrative “colonization fund” established by Congress.

That’s an interesting scenario that Magness and Page lay out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Consider the following comment by one of the co-authors:

The way that Lincoln historians have grappled with colonization has always been troublesome. It doesn’t mesh with the whole ‘emancipator.’  The revelation of this story changes the picture on that because a lot of historians have tended to downplay colonization. … What we know now is he did continue the effort for at least a year after the proclamation was signed.

I would love to know which historians are being referenced here.  And what exactly is the criticism?  The authors claimed to have uncovered new documents that change the narrative of Lincoln and colonization.  O.K., I get it, but that doesn’t mean that historians have downplayed colonization.  In fact, the very opposite is true.  The story is front and center in both the biography and textbook that my students read.  It’s present in just about every recent biography that I’ve read in recent years.  Sorry boys, but this is not news.  At least it’s not news to my high school students.

Finally, agree with Richard Williams, however, in that I would love to see some kind of interpretive plaque placed at the Thomas Ball statue.

Earl Hess’s Crater

The new issue of Civil War Book Review is now available, which includes my review of Earl Hess’s new book, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).  I think we can safely say that we’ve seen enough military studies of the battle of the Crater over the past few years.  They run the gamut from detailed tactical studies to thoughtful commentary about the significance of the racial component of the battle.  Earl Hess’s new book belongs somewhere in the middle.  Not surprisingly, his book is the best overall study of the battle.  I’ve had the opportunity to review three recent Crater studes: Alan Axelrod, The Horrid Pit [Journal of Southern History], John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History [H-Net], and Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 [Civil War Book Review].

Over the past two decades Earl J. Hess has established himself as one of the foremost authorities of Civil War military history. He has done so with award-winning studies of the experiences of the common soldier, battles such as Pea Ridge and Gettysburg, and (in the opinion of this writer) one of the finest brigade histories ever written. In recent years Hess has added to this list with a history of the rifle musket and a 3-volume study of the evolution and influence of earthworks on the war in the Eastern Theater. Rather than rehash the standard narratives, readers have come to expect that Hess will challenge many of their deep-seated assumptions about the war. In the case of his most recent study of the battle of the Crater that task is made more difficult given the publication of four books of varying degrees of quality over the past five years.

The increased attention to the Crater over the past few years stems from both the 2003 release of the movie, Cold Mountain, which featured a vivid recreation of the battle, as well as broader resurgence of interest in the final year of the war and the Petersburg Campaign specifically. The lack of scholarly attention has left us with an overly simplistic view of the battle that has tended to focus on the spectacle of the early-morning detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a futile Union assault. Into the Crater offers a necessary corrective to many of the finer points of the story as well as to assumptions that fundamentally alter the way we understand the evolution of the campaign, the battle, and its outcome – both of which serve to move us away from what appears to be a tragedy in the making.  [Read the rest of the Review.]

What’s Wrong With the Black Confederate Debate?

Photoshopped image of Louisiana Native Guard

Brooks Simpson has chosen to wade into the mire that is the black Confederate “debate”.  In his most recent post he surveys a short list of the standard primary sources that have been used to prove the existence of black men in the Confederate army.  As Brooks notes, they are all problematic for any number of reasons, but at the end of post he offers the following:

But there does appear to be a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit in the use of these pieces of evidence to make a case for the presence of African Americans in the Confederate army as willing participants in fighting for the cause of southern independence.

Why do you think that is?  What conclusions might we draw?  Could you explain why these examples are still used by people who claim a fidelity to historical accuracy?  After all, they offer no defense of their use of these examples in light of the information presented.  They simply continue to present the examples.

Deception is clearly involved in the case of the Photoshopped image of the Louisiana Native Guard, but the cut and paste references to Frederick Douglass, Lewis Steiner, Ed Bearrs, that populate so many websites beg for a different response.  I don’t even think that we need to fall back on the need to demonstrate that slavery was not central to the Confederate experience and the Civil War more generally.  In the end, what this reflects is an inability to engage in historical analysis.  I am going to sound like an elitist for saying this but so be it: Many of these people are simply not well read in the history of slavery, the social and cultural dynamic within the Confederate army, and the politics of the Confederate government.

Consider the following examples of how a few folks choose to define their terms:

“So what is the definition of a body servant?  A body servant is a gentleman’s gentleman.  These African-American men, whether freedmen or slaves, dedicated their lives to the service of men who in some form or fashion shaped the United States of America.  In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors Degree or equivalent level experience.  Ask any salesman. You cannot secure an appointment with a senior executive without getting approval from his or her  executive assistant.” — Anne DeWitt

What is a black Confederate?

“A person of color whose heart and beliefs lie to the South. There are people who ask why Civil war headstones don’t stat that, the answer is the same reason modern day ones don’t. I would not count a minority who didn’t love the South for better or worse or during the war wanted to flee.” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“The definitions already offered as to what constitutes a black Confederate reflect my view: ANY person of color, that served the Confederate States in defense of their homeland – officially enlisted or not – if they in any way attempted to defend their Southern homeland against the illegal invaders (Union troops). I don’t know how you can be more definitive than that. Soldiers don’t just define those on the front lines (although there were many black Confederates in that position), they include all support troops as well. The guys on the front line could not perform their duties without those support troops. Those working in pistol factories as well, they were making the weapons for the front line personnel. That’s just common sense to me!” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“BLACK CONFEDERATES INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO BLACK PEOPLE PAID PENSIONS BY SOUTHRON STATES AFTER THE WAR…….” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

“(1) Any… slave or free Black Southerner who preformed a service for the Confederate Military and in doing so saw military action and actively took up arms in defense of the South, or the Confederate military (or any individual in it) at the risk of his own life against the Union invaders. (2) Any slave or free Black Southerner who wore the Confederate uniform and in doing so continued to preform whatever services with a Confederate regiment even beyond the requirements of their services (specifically in regards to a slave who continued to serve beyond the death of their white master with distinction).   (3) Any slave or free Black Southerner who was interred in a Union Prisoner of War camp, who endured the indignities and hardships of imprisonment and remained loyal to the Confederate cause of the South specifically, defying all attempts on the part of his captors to take the oath of loyalty to the Union.” — Southern Heritage Preservation Group

Most of these descriptions are so vague that they are meaningless.  What we have here is not a debate about whether free and enslaved blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate army.  The folks referenced above are not engaged in deception; rather, they simply do not understand the relevant history nor do they understand how to engage in historical analysis.

Update on Crater Manuscript

Update: I just agreed to do my first book signing in Chicago at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Of course, the date has yet to be determined. This is shaping up to be a pretty good weekend.

I am pleased to report that Remembering War As Murder: The Battle of the Crater took a giant leap forward yesterday toward publication.  As many of you know back in August I submitted a revised manuscript to the publisher after responding to extensive comments by three anonymous reviewers.  All of them provided a healthy dose of criticism and suggestions for improving the overall manuscript.  Following the resubmission I was told that the manuscript would be sent to one of the original reviewers as well as a new outside reader.  A few weeks ago I heard from the first reviewer, who gave it the green light and yesterday I received a copy of the second report.  The reviewer was incredibly enthusiastic and concluded that the book, “stands to make a real and lasting contribution to the field of Civil War Memory studies.”  That’s music to my ears.  Both reviewers pointed out a few minor things to address, which I will take care of over the next few weeks.  I’ve been working with a university press, which is why the process is perhaps a bit more involved than usual. Let me just say that it’s been worth it. The peer review process once again served me well and no doubt saved me from a few errors and helped to point out ways to make my argument even stronger.  The final step will be to present the manuscript to the publisher’s board of editors in May.  In addition to making these final changes I am also putting together a list of possible photographs as well as a few ideas for the cover.  I would love to have the famous John Elder image of the Crater on one side and Don Troiani’s recent print of Mahone’s Charge.  The two images beautifully capture the central theme of the book, which is the evolution of how Americans remembered the racial aspect of the battle.

This will be my first book and like every author I hope it sells well.  The reviewer quoted above also suggested that the book will likely be used in college classrooms and be attractive to Civil War enthusiasts as well.  That’s a positive sign, but how many academic titles have been marketed as having the potential to bridge these two communities?  I assume that most people who publish with university presses don’t expect their book to break into mainstream readership.  In my case, however, it will be very interesting to see the extent to which my Online presence will push sales.  Yesterday I offered a brief update on the status of the manuscript on my Facebook page and within a few hours I had over 40 people express their enthusiasm.  A number of people emailed me to let them know when the book is available for pre-order.  I am going to go out on a limb here to suggest that this may be the first academic history title to come out of a strong social media presence.  As many of you know much of this project was discussed at one point or another on this blog and many of you offered assistance through your thoughtful comments and offers to share your own research materials.  What I am suggesting is that many of you have become invested in this project for one reason or another and I have every reason to expect that this will translate into additional sales.

It’s too early to tell, but I may have stumbled upon not only a legitimate method of vetting my ideas with a large audience, but in turning that interest eventually into a book sale.  Stay tuned.

“Teachers Are Nation Builders”

Today was one of those days that I live for as a historian and teacher.  I spent the day in Virginia Beach with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a workshop on the Civil War and historical memory.  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Fitz Brundage sketch out some of the salient commemorative themes during the postwar period while I worked with the group on analyzing a collection of primary sources and discussing how to approach some of these themes in the classroom.  The teachers were enthusiastic throughout both sessions.  It was impressive given that the material can be incredibly difficult and even a bit draining to those who are approaching these issues for the first time.   We have amazing teachers in our classrooms and we need to support them.

The president was right to describe teachers as “nation builders.”  I wish the general public had the image of teachers sitting around engaged in serious discussion as part of their professional development rather than the stereotypical views so closely associated with our worst fears about public education.  So, what were we really doing today in Virginia Beach?  We were doing what we do every day in our respective classrooms, which is making a G-d Damn Difference.  Now what about you?