It seems fitting to offer a few thoughts about the Crater on this the 145th anniversary of the battle. On Monday Brendan Wolfe posted a fascinating entry on the Crater massacre over at the Encyclopedia Virginia blog. In the process of putting together their entry on the battle, my friend, VFH Intern, and UVA graduate student, Peter Luebke uncovered an important story out of the Northern Neck of Virginia in June 1864. In the summer of 1864 reports circulated in Richmond newspapers of the raping of a white woman 11 times at the hands of soldiers from the 36th USCT. Peter rightly inquires whether these newspaper reports help to explain the massacre of large numbers of black Union soldiers following the battle on July 30. In citing a recent study by Jason Phillips (a book all of you should read) Peter notes the extent to which the men in Lee’s army exchanged news in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond and helped to encourage all kinds of rumors. The important point here is not whether the rape in fact occurred, but that those who heard of these stories would have given them legitimacy. At no point does Peter ever suggest a direct causal connection between the stories of rape and the Crater massacre. I’ve spent the past 5 years reading the letter and diaries of Lee’s men through the summer of 1864 and I have not once come across a specific reference to this incident on the Northern Neck. That said, I agree with Peter that it’s enough to suggest that to the extent these stories filtered through the ranks they would have contributed to the intensity of the response by Confederates.
It’s such a breadth of fresh air to read this story in light of the recent attempts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to distort the past by honoring slaves as Confederate soldiers. Finally, a story where the historical record justifies the placing of a marker acknowledging the military service of Amos McKinney, a former slave who served voluntarily in the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV. McKinney’s granddaughter, Johnnie McKinney Lester, remarked that her grandfather “would be so proud of all of this.” Well, we have no way of knowing what he might think, but at least this recognition reflects the historical record and doesn’t have to distort the past (as in the case of so-called “black Confederates”, which ignores the fact of coercion) to satisfy our own emotional need to remember and commemorate our past.
It’s true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by the number of black Confederates that are claimed to have loyally served. As a teacher I think it is important to stay up to date on new textbooks and other classroom resources, so with that in mind I decided to contact the good people at American Vision to see about getting a review copy of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, which is authored by John J. Dwyer. The book was published in 2005 and is endorsed by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell, Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston. The book is marketed to Christian schools and families that homeschool their children. It is illustrated throughout with the artwork of John Paul Strain and at 650 pages it is by far the longest textbook on the war that I’ve ever come across.
Not surprisingly, the endorsements claim that this book serves as an alternative to the standard interpretations that currently pervade public schools and colleges. Of course, Dwyer never elaborates on what this interpretation includes or explores its supposed weaknesses, but than again this book was not written to raise questions and encourage curiosity. Rather it was written to conform to a Christian outlook that uses the past to justify current political and moral beliefs. Such an approach offers a convenient justification for parents and educators who believe that the secular world must be resisted in all its forms. Dwyer believes that his text moves beyond the “politically correct” studies that are used in secondary schools and colleges and allows the reader to focus on “God’s almighty work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history.” Such an approach doesn’t leave much room for questions about how the author constructs his interpretation since any challenge must necessarily be construed as a challenge to God’s vision. I will leave the epistemological concerns aside for now rather than get bogged down into something that, as a historian, I could care less about.
The book includes no references to outside studies other than a few choice titles that are floated throughout the text such as Charles Adams’s In The Course of Human Events and other books by the Ludwig Von Mises crowd and assorted libertarians. The curious reader is left to wonder what kinds of primary and secondary sources were used. Obviously, I cannot review the entire book; rather, I will proceed in short segments that focus on a representative sample that should give you a sense of why the book is so popular as a homeschool/Christian text.
Consider the author’s treatment of black Confederates as an entry point into the overall quality of this text. The student is prepped for this “analysis” with multiple sections focused on the life of slaves and their relationships with their masters. Dwyer relies heavily on the WPA Slave Narratives as well as Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross. The author acknowledges that historians have pointed out problems with using the WPA sources, but suggests that they reveal a wide range of experiences of slave life. Indeed they do, but the author simply makes assertions that are to be accepted by the reader rather than demonstrating with examples. Dwyer also never mentions the controversy surrounding Time on the Cross, including important critiques by Herbert Gutman and others. Ignoring such problems allows the author to pick and choose from the texts to draw conclusions that confirm the crucial point that God is an ever present force in the lives of slaves and slaveowners. “They (Fogel and Engerman) produced perhaps the most thorough examination of plantation records and first-hand accounts ever done,” writes Dwyer. Just as disturbing is the way in which facts are presented without any context whatsoever. In fleshing out the reality of slave life in the South the reader learns that “thousands of free Southern blacks owned other blacks as slaves, including one hundred twenty-five in Charleston, South Carolina, and over 3,000 in New Orleans. No mention of the complexity of race in a city like New Orleans compared with the rest of the region and no references at the end of the chapter to allow students to read further. I guess it’s all about faith. There is a constant reminder throughout that historians today cannot be trusted and that their research is a product of nefarious motives. The student learns quickly that the author’s goal is to rescue them from such treachery.
The author’s assessment of slavery is difficult to make sense of given the goal of reconciling a Christian world-view and a slaveholding society. There is a palpable tension between acknowledging the reality of slavery and wanting to correct the harshest critiques of slave life. In the hands of a reputable historian such a goal is not only laudable, but essential if we are to continue to uncover the complexity of slave life and race relations in the United States at different times. This is not meant to ignore the harsh reality of slavery, but to acknowledge that it does not constitute the beginning and end of what we need to know. Here is a revealing passage:
Slavery, though not an evil institution when practiced Biblically, was attended with evils as practiced in the South. It was not in any way perfect or utopian. In fact, as a Southern social institution, generally considered, it was evil. Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between Biblical slavery and that practiced in the South. These differences between the Biblical standard and Southern slavery make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South.
One could read this as suggesting that the “evils [of slavery] as practice in the South” was a matter of degree given its sanctioning in the Bible. An “unqualified defense” may not be appropriate, but it certainly leaves room for one that is qualified. For someone who is not a Christian, but who holds to very strong moral/ethical principles it is impossible for me to come to terms with such a distinction. Dwyer takes full advantage of the opening provided in the above passage to present the “Unexpected Blessings” of slavery. No surprise that it is the fact that the slaves were introduced to Christianity. Of course, it implies that the original Africans had no religious identity, but that doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer since the goal of his commentary is to present slaves and slaveowners as some kind of organic whole that at least approached the Biblically sanctioned institution of slavery. As far as I am concerned such a view reflects moral bankruptcy and deserves outright condemnation. But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to question our “politically correct” narrative of slavery how about this one?:
No one needs lament the passing of slavery, and the editors of this volume emphatically do not. But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished? In many respects, the remedy applied has been far worse that the disease ever was. Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2004.
Well, you can probably surmise that I will not be using this particular book in my Civil War survey course, but you can bet that I will break this out for my course on Civil War memory. I was hoping to get to this book’s interpretation of black Confederates, but given the length of this post I will hold it for the next one. It’s a doozy. They even offer up a number of 40,000.
The Richmond Dispatch included a great deal of commentary that referenced the presence of black soldiers in the battle to both warn its readers of possible dangers and as a means to maintain support for the war effort. By including such detail readers on the home front were made aware of the dangers that black soldiers represented and, by extension, the threats posed by their own slaves. According to one editorial, “Negroes, stimulated by whiskey, may possibly fight well so long so they fight successfully, but with the first good whipping, their courage, like that of Bob Acres, oozes out at their fingers’ ends.” The attempt to deny black manhood by assuming they were “stimulated by whiskey” to fight reinforced stereotypes while the reference to “whipping” took on a dual meaning between the battlefield and home front as a way to maintain racial control. In addition, the North’s use of black troops allowed the newspaper to draw a sharp distinction between “heartless Yankees” who brought themselves to a “barbarous device for adding horrors to the war waged against the South” and “Robert E. Lee, the soldier without reproach, and the Christian gentleman without stain and without dishonor.” Highlighting Lee’s unblemished moral character highlighted his role as the Confederacy’s best hopes for independence, but also served as a model for the rest of the white South to emulate as the introduction of black troops represented an ominous turn.
The Richmond Examiner not only acknowledged the execution of black Union soldiers, but went a step further and encouraged Mahone to continue the practice in the future:
We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.
I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about the images of slave rebellions and miscegenation that shaped the world view of white Southerners throughout the antebellum period. In the case of Nat Turner’s Rebellion newspapers throughout Virginia and beyond offered extensive coverage and attempted to offer an explanation that would assuage the concerns of what white Southerners believed to be docile and loyal slaves. However, even before the bloody events that transpired in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831 there had already been close coverage of slave insurrections in the broader “Atlantic World” that stretched back to the rebellion in Saint Domingue. In fact, by 1831 explanations purporting to explain why their slaves might rebel had already been strongly embedded by subsequent rebellions in Demerera, Barbados, and elsewhere. The explanation that abolitionists (Missionaries) were responsible for the violence on their plantations provided a ready-made answer for Southern slaveowners who pointed the finger at the small abolitionist community in Boston. Such an explanation, however, makes little sense without a broader appreciation of how events throughout the Atlantic World shaped their outlook. Indeed, as historian Edward Rugemer asserts in his excellent study, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the Civil War, explanations of Turner’s Rebellion take on a hysterical quality. He notes that by the time of the insurrection William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator had only recently begun publication, though its circulation was quite limited, The American Anti-Slavery Society had not yet been formed, the “Declaration of Sentiments” had not been written, and the New England Anti-Slavery Society had not even published its second Annual Report. Finally, many northern newspapers condemned the violence in Virginia.
A few months after Turner’s Rebellion a much larger insurrection in Jamaica (“Baptist War”) involving 60,000 slaves broke out. This was followed by England’s decision to abolish slavery in the West Indies. My point is that to understand the fears of white Southerners (slaveowner and nonslaveowners alike) we have to consider the few rebellions that took place throughout the colonial and antebellum periods in a much broader context. Information flowed back and forth freely first through word of mouth in port cities and later via the printed word. White Southerners did not have to have seen the above woodcut, which was published in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County to understand the dangers of insurrection or their role in preventing such a nightmare. By 1831 many white Southerners had come to view their world from a defensive posture which acknowledged the threat to slavery as stemming from ruthless abolitionists and a distant government.
William L. Garrison → Nat Turner → Jamaica → England abolishes slavery in West Indies → John Brown → Election of Republican Party → Emancipation Proclamation → Crater → ?
The men who joined the regiments that constituted the Virginia brigade of Mahone’s division at the Crater did not have to have seen the above woodcut because they lived it. All of the regiments were raised in the Richmond-Petersburg-Norfolk area and William Mahone was born and raised in Southampton County. The woodcut beautifully frames how we as historians should unpack/analyze how Confederates at the Crater viewed the presence of USCTs as well as how they responded.