Category Archives: Civil War Sesquicentennial

Retreat From Gettysburg

Gettysburg Storm Damage

Earlier today I returned from five days in Gettysburg for the annual Civil War Institute. Like last year, I feel rejuvenated and utterly exhausted. I had an incredible experience interacting with the participants and catching up with many good friends. Thanks to Peter Carmichael and the rest of the CWI staff for all the hard work. I can’t imagine the logistical juggling that takes place beforehand, but they seem to do it so effortlessly and that they do it in the name of history education makes it that much sweeter.

I donned a couple of hats this year. On Sunday I spend 90 minutes with an incredible group of high school students to talk about Civil War memory. We compared and contrasted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with that of Wilson’s in 1913 with an eye on how memory evolves. That evening I hosted a small discussion over dinner about about the kidnapping of former slaves and free blacks by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Gettysburg Campaign. We used two chapters from Margaret Creigton’s The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle to help frame our discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed our discussion and I want to thank Al Mackey and Mike Rodgers for taking part. Finally, I took part in the final evening’s panel on the war in 1863. The panel also included Scott Hartwig, Robert Sandow, Judkin Browning, Jaime Martinez, Chris Stowe, and Peter Carmichael. It will be broadcast on CSPAN at a later date. Continue reading

Was the Civil War a Good War?

Tony Horwitz’s piece in the Atlantic yesterday has raised some eyebrows. I enjoyed it, though the author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War would have done us more of a service if he had explored beyond the ivory towers. Hey, we are in the midst of a Civil War Sesquicentennial and there is a lot going on out there that defies easy categorization and that is worth exploring. But if we must stick with a couple of academics to define the current state of Civil War memory than so be it.

Horwitz’s interview with Fitz Brundage and David Goldfield raised the question of whether the Civil War was a good war and whether the bloodletting was worth it in the end. I tend to avoid these questions. That said, I find myself agreeing with the thrust of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s response.

The fact is that the Civil War didn’t represent a failure of 19th-century Americans, but that the American slave society – which was itself war – represented a failure of humanity. That failure was the price America paid for its conception…. I am very sorry that white people began experiencing great violence in 1860. But for some of us, war did not begin [in] 1860, but in 1660. The brutal culmination of that war may not have allowed us to ascend into a post-racial heaven. But here is something I always come back to: In 1859 legally selling someone’s five-year-old child was big business. In 1866, it was not. American Slavery was a system of perpetual existential violence. The idea that it could have been — or should have been — ended, after two and a half centuries of practice, with a handshake and an ice-cream social strikes me as really wrong.

I’ve always maintained that the right side won the war and that we are better off without slavery. Who is going to disagree with that? Was it worth the price? Certainly, those enslaved must have thought so along with those Americans who were not willing to stand by and allow their Union to be destroyed. What else can I offer that adds or detracts?

OK, back to packing for Gettysburg!

Touring Gettysburg With Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler

I am hoping to have a bit of time to take Carol Reardon’s and Tom Vossler’s new Gettysburg guide out for a test run next week at the CWI. The book is right up my alley given its emphasis both on what happened during the time of the battle as well as the many postwar battles over memory. Here is a taste of that approach in a series of videos that Reardon and Vossler recently did for CSPAN. First up is the North Carolina monument.

123rd New York Infantry & Culp’s Hill

24th Michigan (Iron Brigade)

Finally, here is David Thompson’s (Civil War Monitor magazine) interview with Allen Guelzo about his new Gettysburg book. This is a book that I recently finished and highly recommend. David was kind enough to give me the opportunity to ask a couple questions of Prof. Guelzo. I suggested he ask whether beliefs in American Exceptionalism have hampered our understanding of the battle and the war as a whole and whether it is fair to measure every new Gettysburg book with Coddington’s classic work.

Georgia Historical Society Interprets Cleburne’s Plan

Thanks to Eric Jacobson of the Battle of Franklin Trust for sending along this image of the GHS’s new marker interpreting Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves for the Confederate army. This should give you some things to think about as you compare this marker with that of the Georgia Historical Commission’s which I posted earlier today. I shared a short video of the marker’s dedication back in 2011. Given my criticisms re: the GHC’s text you can probably surmise which one I prefer. How about you? What goes into an effective historical marker?

cleburne marker, black confederates

Eric also pointed out in a comment re: the marker to Clark Lee (previous post) that the text is verbatim to what is on the Find-a-Grave website. It would be interesting to know which came first. No doubt there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. :-)