Category Archives: Southern History

Eliza Frances Andrews Remembers The Crater – Well Sort Of

I’ve been reading the wartime journal Eliza Frances Andrews, (b. 1840) titled The war-time journal of a Georgia girl, 1864-1865 (1908).  Most of it concentrates on events in Georgia, specifically Sherman’s “March” but in the preface Andrews provides a wonderful overview of how white Southerners – and by this time much of the rest of the country – had come to view the war.  In doing so she references the Crater.

The diary was written in a time of storm and tempest, of bitter hatreds and fierce animosities, and its pages are so saturated with the spirit of the time, that to attempt to banish it would be like giving the play of Hamlet without the title-role. It does not pretend to give the calm reflections of a philosopher looking back dispassionately upon the storms of his youth, but the passionate utterances of stormy youth itself. It is in no sense a history, but a mere series of crude pen-sketches, faulty, inaccurate, and out of perspective, it may be, but still a true picture of things as the writer saw them. It makes no claim to impartiality; on the contrary, the author frankly admits that it is violently and often absurdly partisan – and it could not well have been otherwise under the circumstances. Coming from a heart ablaze with the passionate resentment of a people smarting under the humiliation of defeat, it was inevitable that along with the just indignation at wrongs which ought never to have been committed, there should have crept in many intemperate and indiscriminate denunciations of acts which the writer did not understand, to say nothing of sophomorical vaporings calculated now only to excite a smile. Such expressions, however, are not to be taken seriously at the present day, but are rather to be regarded as a sort of fossil curiosities that have the same value in throwing light on the psychology of the period to which they belong as the relics preserved in our geological museums have in illustrating the physical life of the past. Revolutions never take place when people are cool-headed or in a serene frame of mind, and it would be as dishonest as it is foolish to deny that such bitternesses ever existed. The better way is to cast them behind us and thank the powers of the universe that they exist no longer.

I cannot better express this feeling than in the words of an old Confederate soldier at Petersburg, Va., where he had gone with a number of his comrades who had been attending the great reunion at Richmond, to visit the scene of their last struggles under “Marse Robert.” They were standing looking down into the Crater, that awful pit of death, lined now with daisies and buttercups, and fragrant with the breath of spring. Tall pines, whose lusty young roots had fed on the hearts of dead men, were waving softly overhead, and nature everywhere had covered up the scars of war with the mantle of smiling peace. I paused, too, to watch them, and we all stood there awed into silence, till at last an old battle-scarred hero from one of the wiregrass counties way down in Georgia, suddenly raised his hands to heaven, and said in a voice that trembled with emotion: “Thar’s three hundred dead Yankees buried here under our feet. I helped to put ‘em thar, but so help me God, I hope the like ‘ll never be done in this country again. Slavery’s gone and the war’s over now, thank God for both! We are all brothers once more, and I can feel for them layin’ down thar just the same as fur our own.”

That is the sentiment of the new South and of the few of us who survive from the old. We look back with loving memory upon our past, as we look upon the grave of the beloved dead whom we mourn but would not recall. We glorify the men and the memories of those days and would have the coming generations draw inspiration from them.

Andrews is referring to the well-attended 1903 Crater reenactment which was held in Petersburg and on the actual battlefield.  I have no reason to believe that Andrews was not in attendance that day, but the event was widely covered by all the major newspapers so she would have had every opportunity to read stories such as the one outlined above.   What is so striking to me is the tension that persist between the acknowledgment of her strong emotions during the war and the way she prefers to remember the war later in life.  One could challenge the implicit assumption that “cool headed” necessarily implies some form of objectivity as opposed to her “sophomorical vaporings.” [I am going to try to use that phrase today at some point.] While her memory of the war in 1908 is not being fueled by the same passions of youth and harsh realities of war it is clear that the references to reunion and the hope that “coming generation draw inspiration” from the men on both sides were influenced by factors equally salient.

Where To Study The Civil War In Graduate School

I recently received an email from someone who stumbled onto my blog while looking for places to study the Civil War in graduate school.  Here is the email:

I stumbled on your blog while doing some of my research on grad schools.  Since you seem to have your ear to the ground regarding Civil War academia, I was wondering if you know which grad schools have the best reputations for study of Civil War, have the best Civil War scholars, etc.  I’ve already assembled a list of some of the schools, based in part from input I’ve received from guys like Gallagher, Robertson, and Davis, but I’d appreciate any information you might have. Thanks for your time.

Since I don’t really "have my ear to the ground" on this one I thought it might be worthwhile to appeal to some of my readers for help, especially those of you who teach the Civil War on the college level.  still, I might take a crack at this one.  First, I would think of the Civil War broadly and look at departments that have a strong concentration in Nineteenth-Century and/or Southern History.  Obviously, the University of Virginia would be an ideal place to go given that Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Michael Holt, Julian Bond, and Grace Hale all teach in the department.  In addition, there is the Center For Digital History and the Carter G. Woodson InstituteRice University has a strong concentration in Southern History, including John Boles who edits the Journal Of Southern History.  If I were going to graduate school I would seriously consider the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Joe Glatthar, Jacquelyn D. Hall and Fitz Brundage cover a wide range of issues that connect to the Civil War.  The University of North Carolina at Greensboro now has a Ph.D program in United States History and there is a strong concentration in the Nineteenth-Century, including Charles Bolton, Peter Carmichael, and Loren Schweninger among others.  Penn State University has Carol Reardon, Mark Neely and William Blair on its faculty along with the George and Anne Richards Civil War Center.  Finally, Ohio State University includes both Mark Grimsley and Joan Cashin.  There is also a strong concentration in African-American history.

That’s just a few that I could think of off the top of my head.  Perhaps Emory University, Arizona State University, University of Georgia as well as Harvard University should be considered.  Anyone else want to offer their advice?

The 1964 Crater Reenactment That Wasn’t

I haven’t commented in quite some time on my on-going Crater manuscript. The project is close to completion as I am trying to knock out the last chapter which covers the period from roughly 1940 to the present.  By 1940 the Crater – now under supervision by the National Park Service -  was being interpreted as it had been going back to the turn of the century.  The broad outline of the battle focused on strictly military aspects of the battle, including the role of Mahone and his Virginia brigade.  Apart from references to Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina brigade which bore the brunt of the initial explosion other Confederate units were only being briefly referenced.  More importantly, the presence of United States Colored Troops was almost entirely ignored as well as the broader issues of race and emancipation, which by this time had been supplanted by themes of national reunion and reconciliation.  All of this was reinforced in the public eye as a result of two well-attended reenactments that took place on the battlefield in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937. [I've placed a number of related articles on my website, including most recently, "The Battle of the Crater, National Reunion, and the Creation of the Petersburg National Military Park: 1864-1937" which appeared recently in the Virginia Social Science Journal (2005): 13-27.]

Between 1940 and 1960 the Park Service worked to improve access to the Crater and to provide interpretive markers as well as a recorded narrative that would outline the battle as visitors walked the grounds.  High-ranking military officers such as Dwight D. Eisenhower as well as others from such countries as Germany, England, and France walked the battlefield during the postwar years.  Very few African Americans visited Petersburg or any other Civil War battlefield during this period.  By the mid-twentieth century the purging of any reference to emancipation and black participation in the war had been completed.  More importantly, Jim Crow legislation had not only divided the races into separate schools, it kept African Americans from challenging a battle narrative that was geared to whites only.  Federal institutions such as the National Park Service was staffed by whites and the interpretation of the battle that was inherited from the turn of the century was defined by an agenda set by white Southerners or by a shared set of values among white Americans generally that promoted nationalism. 

The challenge to this agenda began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued into the 1970′s.  Without going into too much detail, by challenging the racial hierarchy of much of the country African Americans began the long process of becoming more involved in state and national politics which in turn presented a challenge to the way the public remembered its past.  More immediate to the 1960′s, however, the Civil Rights Movement interrupted white America’s celebration of the Civil War Centennial.  While events in 1961 such as the reenactment of First Manassas proved successful, by 1963 interest was waning.  I need to do more research on what was going on in Petersburg as community leaders began planning a reenactment to commemorate the Crater in late 1963- early 1964.  What I do know is that plans were scrapped and in its place a simple stone marker was unveiled on the battlefield in a quiet ceremony on July 30, 1964.

The most sustained challenge to the way the Crater was being interpreted took place in the 1970′s.  Not until the 1970’s did blacks command sufficient political power necessary to demand a more inclusive historical memory of the South. In 1978 a research team from Howard University led by Joseph E. Harris issued a report on the status of both black soldiers and slaves in the Park’s interpretive guides and other programs. Not surprisingly, the committee recommended substantial additions from the acknowledgment of individual black regiments to the addition of reading material for tourists to the hiring of black interpreters. Consultation with interpreters revealed that “little information was presented concerning black personnel since few visitors are aware of their services during the battles.” And when told that upon request information was made available it “was never stated what information was given to the visitors.” Black students at Virginia State University who were interviewed considered the primary function of the PNMP to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The teams final report “recommended that park officials not only incorporate the achievement of black personnel in their capacities as soldiers and laborers but that personnel are trained to present details concerning the black presence in greater Petersburg.”

I am going to bring the story up to the present with a discussion of Cold Mountain and the possibilities of interpretive revisions given the National Park Service’s recent steps to broaden the way its battlefields are interpreted

This Is Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War Museum: A Review of the ACW Museum At Tredegar

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar in Richmond.  The museum’s debut was last weekend and the reviews thus far have been generally positive.  I spent about three hours and had a chance to take everything in, including all three movies that define three distinct spaces: the cause of the war, the war on the home front, and the war’s legacy.  Throughout the exhibit area the visitor is introduced to three interpretations which follow how the war was interpreted by the Union, Confederacy, and African-Americans. 

Overall, the exhibit provides the most sophisticated interpretation of the Civil War that I’ve ever experienced in a museum setting.  The list of historical advisers clearly exercised a great deal of influence over the content of the films as well as the narrative that accompanies each artifact and other technical exhibits.  What we have is an interpretation that anyone familiar with recent trends in Civil War historiography will easily recognize.  This makes for an exhibit that is challenging as visitors are forced to draw certain distinctions and perspectives that are not readily familiar.  The first section of the exhibit which focuses on the history of the nations from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to Lincoln’s election includes an excellent video which explores the role of slavery.  At the beginning viewers are asked to vote on the cause of the war by pressing one of four buttons on the seat’s armrest.  The choices are: (1) Federal v. States Rights, (2) Economic/Cultural Differences, (3)  Westward Expansion, or (4) Slavery.  Surprisingly slavery came out ahead of the other three.  With the help of three narrators the video explores the first three options by examining how each revolved around slavery.  By the end slavery can be seen in all of its complexity and stands out as the most important issue on the national scene by the mid-1850′s. 

The second section takes you through the first shots and begins the process of exploring the complex relationship between the battlefield, home front, and slavery.  A second video does a fantastic job of explaining the conditions on the ground between the lack of success for Union armies in the East and especially the actions of fugitive slaves as factors that explain Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  Slaves are considered as full actors and the Proclamation is explained as a document that was responsible for nothing less than the "transformation of American society."  Again, the interpretation here fits perfectly into recent studies of the war in 1862-63 and Lincoln’s own journey to this important decision.  The narrative tends towards realism and makes it a point to keep the viewer focused on the military necessity behind Lincoln’s decision and the initiative taken by the slaves themselves.  The video also introduces the viewer to the introduction to U.S.C.T.’s who "seized the opportunity to fight" and began the long process of "making America One National for All."

The one film that I had trouble understanding was called, "The War Comes Home: 1863" which attempts to explain – as best one can – the emotional and material price of the war on the home front.  The video is narrated by a generic character who never identifies himself as Northern or Southern, but does a fairly good job imparting an "everyman" image.   The video focuses specifically on 1863 and begins with a brief history of the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg and Vicksburg before connecting these events to the Richmond Bread Riots and the New York City Draft Riots.  These are important events, but the narration and images fail in its attempt to bring the connection to light.  The video ends with coverage of the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner, which only complicated things for me further.  If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion: I would have concentrated on one battle or campaign such as Gettysburg or Vicksburg and explored how large-scale conflicts that took place in populated areas impacted the local economy and the population.  In the case of Gettysburg the additional themes of the Army of Northern Virginia’s steps to capture escaped slaves could have been added to the mix.  The jumping from Richmond to New York to Charleston left no time to do justice to this important interpretive strand of the exhibit. 

Overall, the artifacts are clearly explained and also bare the mark of recent scholarship.  One of the best examples of this is the order authorizing the recruitment of black soldiers into Confederate armies in March 1865.  There is no reference to the presence of large numbers of black soldiers; the narrative is limited strictly to the events surrounding the document.  Included are three passages from white Southerners who were clearly troubled by the prospects of black recruitment.  No reputable historian has demonstrated the presence of significant numbers of black Confederates so there is no place for it in this exhibit.  There is a wonderful little space for children which includes some hands on activities that are quite thoughtful.  One activity asks children to think and write about how we communicate with loved ones away at war today and another activity involves deciding what kinds of things should be sent in a basket to soldiers at the front.

The final section of the exhibit concentrates on the legacy of the Civil War.  There is a video that explores elements of the Lost Cause and the gradual displacement of the "emancipationist" interpretation of the war for one that achieved wide exposure and a general consensus.  While Reconstruction is referenced as a time of hope the harsh realities of Jim Crow are not lost on the audience.  However, between a reference to the long march between the "Civil War and Civil Rights" and a wall that is covered with images from the twentieth century, the viewer is left with a sense of optimism that our founding ideals are alive and a more complete appreciation still within reach.  The narrator suggests that to think about the legacy of the war is not just to think about "forts and reenactments, but a better understanding of what the war means."

With so much to praise, however, I do have a few concerns.  First, I found it difficult to follow the military history of the war.  Large maps that track each year of the war were clear reference points, but there was a lack of focus on major battles apart from their connection to the exhibit’s other interpretive strands.  I am especially concerned that this is going to be a problem for visitors who are expecting a heavy dose of battlefield interpretation.  Unfortunately, there are relatively few artifacts to view.  Perhaps this will change, but it does reinforce my earlier point that this is an intellectually demanding museum.  I’ve said it on this blog countless times, most Civil War enthusiasts are not interested in the complex issues related to race, slavery or the home front.  I wonder whether the museum runs the risk of alienating those groups.  Time will tell and I am willing to admit that these concerns may be entirely misplaced. 

On a more serious note I will not be surprised to read that certain groups, especially heritage groups, are not satisfied with the heavy emphasis on race.  At almost every turn the visitor is confronted with videos about race and their volume guarantees that while walking talk of fugitive slaves, emancipation, and U.S.C.T.’s will remain constant companions.  Again, time will tell, but the ongoing opposition to the NPS’s interpretive revisions is a sufficient reason in and of itself to be concerned.  I am pleased to see such a strong emphasis on education and outreach at Tredegar; this should be their focus as young Americans provide the most important vehicle for sharing a broader and more meaningful interpretation of the Civil War.  [I was pleased to learn that my friend Jim Alperston has been awarded the museum's first annual Samuel L. Gravely award for excellence in teaching the Civil War. Jim is an energetic teacher who includes multiple battlefield and museum visits in his Civil War curriculum.]

With the Civil War Sesquicentennial right around the corner, I couldn’t be more pleased with the overall quality of the ACW Museum at Tredegar.  The location of the exhibit inside one of the Tredegar buildings is ideal and its proximity to the James River, Belle Isle, the Museum of the Confederacy, and the rest of downtown Richmond makes a trip all the more worthwhile.  I encourage all of you to visit and/or support in any way possible.  Oh….and did I mention that I bought a Lincoln bobblehead in the museum store?

White Guilt In The Classroom

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

One of my students came to class this morning with a look of deep frustration.  When I asked if everything was alright he responded by saying that he felt guilty about being white.  He had just come from his English class where they are reading Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography and between that class and history he admitted to feeling a bit defensive about race.  I thought it was a perfect opportunity to discuss the issue as a class and I asked him if he would repeat his comment for the benefit of his fellow students, which he agreed to do.  We are currently working on a fairly detailed packet that takes students through some of the intricacies of the Constitution, but I thought this was clearly more important.

As we began the discussion I was surprised by how many students agreed with this student’s comment.  Some of the students who didn’t necessarily feel guilty did admit to a feeling of defensiveness or shame that this country could have sanctioned or permitted the horrendous acts that defined slavery, which are described so eloquently by Douglass.  For many students this is the first time that their history class has emphasized the importance of race and slavery as a central theme of American history and that can easily bring about a feeling of uneasiness and even a temptation to distance oneself from it.  I gave the students as much time as they needed to share their thoughts in their own language, and I was amazed by how carefully they listened to one another. 

Once they finished I offered to share my own perspective on this issue which the students seemed eager to hear.  I tried to make the point that their difficulties are a result of the way they’ve been taught to interpret American history.  Since most of them admitted to not having learned much about slavery or race before this year I suggested that their broad view of American history was skewed towards seeing freedom as progressively expanding within a white-only community.  Race and slavery represents a kind of external threat to their clean and tidy interpretation; more importantly, that external threat is seen as existing outside the boundaries of American history.  In short, there is an implicit assumption worked into their psychology over the years that white = American and black/slave = "foreign". 

The problem is that they don’t interpret Frederick Douglass’s story or the broader story of black America as an American story.  While it is impossible to deny the horrors of slavery there is a way to see the story of black America before emancipation and after as a story of resilience and courage in the face of the worst possible conditions imaginable.  As we’ve already discussed in class – a point that I reminded them of – was that by the 18th century the slave population through many of the colonies was beginning to increase naturally and families were becoming more stable.  A distinct African-American culture evolved and involved some of the same practices such as marriage along with many of the same hopes and dreams that we take for granted.  And all of this took place in a slave society.  I am not trying to simplify slavery or excuse it, but point out that within the strict confines of slavery people managed to live their lives with a strong sense of meaning attached to it.  Douglass’s story is the quintessential American story as his dreams involved "stealing his body" and escaping from slavery.  You simply can’t get any more American than the slavery to freedom saga. 

There is a mental shift that needs to take place when introducing this material to high school students.  They should not interpret Douglass simply as a black man, but as an American who understood – as have so many – the price and risks involved in attaining basic freedoms.  I am not surprised by their reaction and I am glad that it surfaced so early in the year.  As I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, I teach in a predominantly white school with students who are financially fairly well off.  I believe that teaching history involves taking ownership of your history and this can be done without the feelings of guilt.  The racial issues that we continue to struggle with are intimately bound up in the past.  If we are to bridge those barriers it seems that a good place to start in challenging our deep rooted assumptions about what it means to study American history should take place in the classroom.