Category Archives: Memory

Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Civil War Memory

It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention.  It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT.  Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War.  The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.

Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar.  Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war.  From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.

There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well.  As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.

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Joan Waugh’s 2011 Fortenbaugh Lecture at Gettysburg College

On November 19, Professor Joan Waugh delivered the 2011 Fortenbaugh Lecture at the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg.  Professor Waugh’s lecture, “‘The Rebels Are Our Countrymen Again’: U.S. Grant and the Meaning of Appomattox” reexamines the familiar story of the historic surrender of Confederate forces to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. The surrender at Appomattox is generally considered the end of the American Civil War, enshrining a powerful image of a peaceful, perfectly conducted closure to the bloody conflict. Yet the details of Grant’s magnanimous surrender document provoked debate, anger, and opposition among the Northern public. This mixed reception casts doubt on Appomattox as a shining moment of reunion and reconciliation, predicting the troubles that lay ahead for President Grant and the country in the postwar era.

A Crater Narrative That Does Not Offend

The Crater by Tom Lovell

I am almost finished reading Newt Gingrich’s co-authored historical fiction on the Crater and I have to admit that it’s not half bad.  The attack has commenced and not going well.  The book is almost entirely about the 28th United States Colored Troops with Major Garland White as one of its principal characters.   There are a few scenes set in Confederate earthworks and a very short section set in Lee’s headquarters following the explosion, but the rest of it focuses on the black soldiers with the help of a fictional character by the name of James Reilly, who works as a sketch artist.

Even without having finished the book, what is clear is that Gingrich and Forstchen do everything they can not to offend, which is quite an achievement given the nature of the subject.  Let me just give you one example.  All of you have read that the Fourth Division went into the battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  That reference appears twice in the battle sequence, but take a look at how it is framed by the authors:

There was no quarter.  The pent-up rage, the insanity of a world that had driven them to this moment, was unleashed, both sides screaming “No quarter, no prisoners! as they shot , cut, and slashed at each other. [p. 259]

Both sides were screaming foul oaths of hatred and rage.  Centuries of slavery and the cruelty and fear it engendered, combined with three years of bitter war with no end in sight, unleashed a pent-up fury on this day as both sides screamed: No quarter, no prisoners!” [p. 266]

They certainly were, but we also know based on the historical record that the black troops screamed, “Remember Fort Pillow.”  That, of course, is conveniently left out as is pretty much any reference to the racial hatred that animated Confederate troops during the battle.  There is a context for understanding cries of “No quarter” that animated the black men in blue that is crucial to this history.  They knew what was at stake if captured.  The same holds true for Confederates who faced the attack of the black troops as well as those who heard about it.  Their rage took a specific form that had its roots in white supremacy and fears associated with slave rebellions that extended back into the antebellum period.  Unfortunately, it looks like this theme will continue to be ignored in what remains of the book.  More later.

Newt Gingrich’s Crater

Update: After hearing from one of my readers I decided to pick up a copy of the book and write a detailed review for a major publication. Stay tuned.

One of my readers was kind enough to forward a review of Newt Gingrich’s new co-authored book, The Battle of the Crater: A Novel.  I am not a fan of Mother Jones, but the review is actually quite interesting and clearly reflects that politicization of one of the most racially significant battles of the Civil War.  No, I have not read the book and I don’t have any intention of doing so.  Consider the following:

The novel is intended in part to honor the black regiments that saw action at the Crater and help correct the narrative that says they cost the North the battle. (In fact, they nearly won it.) But in correcting one narrative, it whitewashes another, because none of the rebels we meet in Crater carry with them much animus to black soldiers. The only Confederate we see in any level of depth is a former journalist who, as a matter of principle, never owned any slaves. Our rebel points out, accurately, that not all black POWs were murdered—but that’s sort of splitting hairs when you consider that battlefield accounts describe white Confederates bashing in the skulls of surrendering and wounded black soldiers “like eggshells.”

I guess this is just what one would expect when the goal is to attract the African American community while at the same time not alienating white constituents, who are not likely to be interested in reading about how Confederates responded to the presence of an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  It’s not as if the authors didn’t have access to archival records; in fact, I came across the “eggshell” reference more than once in the course of my own research.

The significance of the battle for Confederates (both slave and non-slaveowners alike) has everything to do with its racial aspect.  Even a cursory glance at the archival record demonstrates that they did not make any effort to conceal what they did and why.  They wanted their loved ones back home to understand just what was at stake in the event of Confederate defeat.  It’s not just Confederate attitudes that appear to be ignored, but by Union soldiers as well.  Their response to the participation of the 4th Division was mixed as opposed to the consensus achieved by Confederates, but you can find plenty of blame and racial invective hurled in their direction.  [Of course, I go into great detail about all of this in my forthcoming book on the Crater.]

How far will Newt and Forstchen go to tailor a story to meet the demands of a presidential campaign?

Instead, the authors veer in the other direction. Gingrich and Forstchen even craft an imaginary scene in which General Robert E. Lee, the embodiment of Southern honor, instructs his subordinates to make clear that black soldiers at Petersburg are to be treated like any other opponent. But there’s no historical evidence that Lee gave any instruction of the sort. Nor did Lee intervene in the immediate aftermath, when his army pushed to return black POWs to their former masters.

Even in the world of historical fiction this takes things way off the deep end.  There is no exaggeration in the passage quoted above.  At no point did Lee intervene in the immediate wake of the battle when it is likely that the largest number of black soldiers were massacred nor did he attempt to prevent the return of prisoners to former masters.  Why?  Because in the wake of emancipation and a protracted defense of a civilian population in Petersburg the July 30 battle reaffirmed nightmarish images of defeat at the hands of armed black men.

I guess none of this helps much in Newt’s presidential bid.

Robert E. Lee on Robert H. Milroy or Emancipation

Lincoln Writing the Proclamation of Freedom

I am really sorry to have missed last weekend’s “Years of Anguish” event in Fredericksburg organized by John Hennessy and including Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, and Jeff McClurken.  Apparently, at some point during his presentation Gallagher commented on Lee’s views on slavery and emancipation with a reference to his January 10, 1863 message to James Seddon:

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