Camp Servants and Confederate Exceptionalism

Over the past few weeks I’ve made steady progress on my new manuscript, which is now tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Enduring Myth. The first chapter on the history of Confederate camp servants serves as what I hope will be a solid foundation for the rest of the study. No historian has been more helpful to me in framing this chapter than Eugene Genovese, especially the short book, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, which he co-authored with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.

The book offers a concise overview of those elements of slaveholding paternalism that the Genoveses have explored over the course of their career up to the moment of secession. They close with a brief analysis of the war years and even references a few examples of camp servants. This is where my study enters.

My goal in the first chapter is to outline the role that camp servants played in propping up the intellectual world of a slaveholding society. There is no denying that the mobilization of this specific group took place for reasons of necessity. In that sense they can be included among that much larger group of impressed slaves that supported the war effort on the state and federal levels. The critical difference, however, is that camp servants, in contrast with impressed slaves, were not nameless. They lived and worked in close proximity to whites beginning with their masters and likely interacted at times with members of the broader community. Continue reading “Camp Servants and Confederate Exceptionalism”

Not Your Grandfather’s ‘Fall of Richmond’

The week-long commemoration marking the fall and liberation of Richmond, the evacuation of Petersburg by Lee’s men and its eventual surrender at Appomattox Court House is in full swing. A slew of events marking this important moment in American history are being offered by a wide range of organizations. Taken together these programs offer the public a tapestry of narratives that reflect the many ways in which the events of early April 1865 were experienced.

Such a project is not without its challenges given the strong emotions that often shape the responses of people who are invested in certain narratives of the war. It is easy to focus on moments of conflict, but from what I’ve read thus far I can’t help but conclude that Richmonders and many others are taking full advantage of this opportunity to learn about the many voices that could be heard in this final chapter of the war. [I say this even as I make my way through Greg Downs’s new book. More on this at a later time.] Continue reading “Not Your Grandfather’s ‘Fall of Richmond’”

The Death of a Colonel and a Cause

Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Five Forks outside of Petersburg, Virginia. One of the most popular stories from that fight is the gallant defense of the crossroads and mortal wounding of Confederate Colonel William Pegram. To this day Pegram occupies a special place in our collective memory of the war. Like the crossroads he defended, Pegram’s life and legacy bring together a number of important narrative threads, including devotion to the Confederacy, family and God, fearless leadership on the battlefield and a youthful exuberance snuffed out all too soon.

William McCabe’s description of Pegram’s injury and death is incredibly moving and as a close to what a “good death” should involve in war. It is easy to get wrapped up in a narrative that celebrates young Pegram’s character and martial valor. He is, indeed, an appealing young man. At the same time we should not look beyond the cause for which he never lost sight of during his four years in the Confederate army. His commitment to the Confederacy and his willingness to expose himself on the battlefield time and time again and even after the point where many believed the cause was lost were a function of firm devotion. Continue reading “The Death of a Colonel and a Cause”

“Forever Scarred By Their Service”?

In re-reading a section of Anne Rubin’s new book about Sherman’s March I came across a couple of paragraphs that touch on some of the concerns that I’ve expressed about the extent to which we have applied the lessons of recent wars to Civil War veterans. Rubin hones in on the dangers of doing so in regard to how Union veterans remembered the march and their interactions with Southern civilians.

Nor did they use memoirs or fiction to pour out their hearts and souls, expressing shock or trauma at what they saw or did. Today we are accustomed to stock war stories with their mix of crusty old generals, fresh-faced young recruits, and eventually the traumatized veteran, forever haunted by the things he saw and did… Recently, we’ve seen the twenty-first century version, with a host of new memoir s of Gulf War service. In April 2008, a Rand Corporation study announced that one in five service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan reports symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. We think that soldiers are forever scarred by their service, especially when they are asked to make war on civilians.

But what of their nineteenth-century counterparts? Analogies have often been made, albeit imperfectly, between the Vietnam War and Sherman’s March. James Reston’s 1986 work, Sherman’s March and Vietnam makes the connection most explicitly, arguing that Sherman was the metaphorical father of destructiveness and that connections can be drawn between the soldiers of the 1860s and 1960s. In Reston’s words, “the wanton violence of Sherman’s bummer and Westmoreland’s grunt differs as looting differs from killing, but neither time nor morals are static. Stealing the jewels from a peasant’s hooch in Vietnam would be precious little crime today. The patterns of behavior in both armies were encouraged by the official policy and extended the rules of permissible conflict in the same degree.” So, if Vietnam (and now Gulf and Afghanistan) veterans have been troubled by their service, and indeed, the vast majority of their writings seems to indicate that they were, one might be able to assume that Sherman’s veterans felt a similar sort of, if not remorse, at least discomfort. (p. 97)

According to Rubin, however, they did not. Perhaps as the author suggests these veterans remembered in a “celebratory fashion” because they were convinced that they had won the war. Of course, the same individual could just as easily exhibit symptoms of what we now call PTSD or struggle in any number of ways readjusting to life as a civilian. Again, my interest here is not in discounting recent attempts to apply the lessons learned in recent wars, but rather in remaining attentive to how we apply them.

A Few Thoughts About Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home

It is difficult to deny the influence that the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on recent scholarship about Civil War veterans and the broader genre of studies that now fall under the heading, “dark history.” In the preface to his new book, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, Brian Matthew Jordan makes this connection explicit:

But even today, as soldiers return home from new and more  complex wars farther away and more difficult to imagine, we still have trouble seeing the pathos of American veteranhood. More than 26,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dwell in homeless shelters; thousands suffering from posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries have yielded to drugs and alcohol; divorce and suicide rates among recent veterans have reached record highs; and bureaucratic delays have kept some veterans waiting impatiently for promised benefits. These veterans, too, are fighting an unending war. And like their forebear in blue, they will ensure that debates over the meaning of war will be long, difficult, and complex.

Indeed, this short list of postwar maladies and challenges frames Jordan’s beautifully written and accessible book. [I started reading last night and finished late today.] Continue reading “A Few Thoughts About Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home”