Category Archives: Southern History

Some Myths Die Hard

From across the ocean the Guardian offers a short review of recent Civil War novels, including E. L. Doctorow’s, The March. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read much fiction in recent years so I can’t comment on the titles reviewed. What is interesting to me is the way in which the reviewer sets the scene for Doctorow’s story of Sherman’s “March to the Sea” following the capture of Atlanta in 1864:

The March by EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and many other novels, follows the brutal progress of General William T Sherman’s army of 60,000 Union soldiers through the South in 1864. After setting Atlanta ablaze, they marched to the sea, then north through the Carolinas. Everywhere they slaughtered troops and livestock, burned cities, villages and plantations, and lived off the land. Their blithe disregard for civilians established a pattern that dogs American forces to this day.

I assume that remembering an embellished or exaggerated version of Sherman’s march makes for better fiction even for our friends across the ocean. Again, I can’t comment on Doctorow’s narrative, but this reviewer seems to view the subject of the story through the lens of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Few will doubt that Sherman’s march highlighted the final transition in Union policy to total war, but it should be remembered that this shift did not usher in a brand new style of warfare. As Mark Grimsley has demonstrated in his book, The Hard Hand of War: Union Policy Towards Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, the tenets of “hard war” policy had a rich history going back to the medieval ages. Grimsley also shows through an analysis of letters and diaries from Sherman’s men that very few commented on the march as a shift in policy. Rather the war had evolved from “limited” to “pragmatic” to “total” war policy. Both sides engaged in operations which collapsed the distinction between civilians and the battlefield. Of course Sherman’s policies stand out since much of the war was fought in the South. This is a wonderful example of how a certain perception of the past becomes ingrained in our collective memory thus bringing about a sense of “seeming understanding.”


What Political Act Freed the Slaves?

Check out Mode for Caleb for a thorough analysis of the meaning of political action as it relates to the abolitionist movement. The question of how historians should understand the necessary and sufficient conditions of political behavior has tended to focus on those “who were willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in formal “politics,” whether by organizing antislavery parties, running candidates for local and national office, and forging cross-party coalitions” as opposed to those who like Garrison himself who refused to take part in the process or were disfranchised for one reason or another. I agree with Caleb that our definition of “political” must be extended along the lines of Steven Hahn’s analysis in his most recent award-winning book, A Nation Under Our Feet. From McDaniel’s post:

One of Hahn’s central–and most provocative–points is that enslaved and recently emancipated people in the South “constituted themselves as political actors” and created a “distinctive African-American politics,” and that they did so long before being declared legally free or obtaining the right to vote (p. 1). To call people who lacked legal citizenship “political” actors, Hahn argues, requires “a broad understanding of politics and the political … that encompasses collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power” (p. 3). This broad understanding does not exclude the traditional definition of the political arena as having to do with the electoral arena; Hahn’s book follows his “political actors” from slavery through emancipation and into partisan politics during Reconstruction, so he does not mean to diminish the importance of electoral politics by arguing for the existence of what he calls “slave politics” (p. 3). But Hahn does argue that viewing “slaves, who had no standing in the official arenas of civil and political society, as nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical” prevents historians from understanding the kinds of political choices that freedpeople made once they were enfranchised and endowed with citizenship rights. The transition from slavery to freedom did not transform formerly apolitical slaves into political agents, but rather transposed struggles over power from one political arena into another.

Such an analysis works well in the classroom in reference to the question of who freed the slaves. Most of my students when asked answer the question by pointing to Lincoln, but when asked to explain why he decided to free the slaves when he in fact did so they fall flat. Their image and explanation is of a president who somehow arrives at the conclusion in a vacuum. The act of issuing the proclamation itself becomes a sufficient explanation to the question of who freed the slaves. Hahn’s analysis forces us to step back to look for the external reasons that steered Lincoln in a certain direction. This year my students analyzed a range of source to better understand Lincoln’s decision. One of the first sources we looked at was a famous photograph of fugitive slaves followed by the beginning of the movie Glory which includes a scene showing the passing of escaped slaves along with the voice of Robert G. Shaw reading a letter home. I asked them to think about how fugitive slaves might impact the war effort for both sides. How might their presence in Union camps present both problems and opportunities for local commanders and eventually the Lincoln administration. More importantly, we tried to understand the motivations and intentions of the slaves themselves-as difficult as that is given the lack of traditional documentation. Still, it is not difficult to interpret their motivation and to do so by utilizing political terms. The very act of escape toward Union lines can be interpreted as political behavior. Hahn’s analysis reminds us of our bias towards written sources and the need to acknowledge behavior as an indication of political action. African Americans like Hiram Revels and others did not become political actors during Reconstruction, but moved into different political arenas. The goal is not to ignore Lincoln’s role in bringing about emancipation, but to acknowledge those, including those on the grass roots level, who engaged in political behavior that shaped the president’s policy of preserving the Union.

Introducing students to such an analysis also has a more immediate benefit. Since we tend to interpret political behavior as simply exercising the vote students often feel cut off from any opportunity to voice their concerns about national and world affairs. I’ve seen this intensify over the past few years. Understanding that political action that goes beyond simply casting a vote has the potential to bring about fundamental change can be empowering for those not yet of the voting age.


Editing the Civil War

As I’ve mentioned in the past, in addition to my Crater manuscript I am working on editing a large collection of letters for publication. The letters are from Captain John Christopher Winsmith who served first in 5th and later in the 1st South Carolina Infantry. The collection, which is housed at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond contains roughly 265 letters. They are beautifully written and the content covers the entire spectrum of Civil War themes. At this point I still do not know much about his background. The Winsmith’s made their home in Spartanburg, South Carolina and were apparently fairly large slave owners. John attended the Citadel before he left owing to disciplinary problems. He had just passed his law exam on the eve of the war. The bulk of the letters run from from 1859 (I have one letter from 1851 from the Citadel’s archives) to 1864. I plan to take a few days early this summer to drive down and spend time in the local historical society. I recently discovered that the home and slave quarters are still standing. At this point I’ve transcribed 173 letters. Winsmith saw action in Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. The letters are incredibly rich and will prove useful to both researchers and those who just enjoy allowing the participants to tell their own story.

As I am getting closer to completing the basic transcriptions and looking for a publisher I now have to think more seriously about how to edit these letters. Part of the problem is that I am not clear as to exactly who reads these collections. I rarely read an edited collection straight through; rather, I use these for various research projects. My guess is that the publication of diaries, letters, and memoirs is a recent trend, probably following on the heels of Ken Burns’s documentary and the emphasis on Sam Watkins and Elisha Hunt Rhodes. I have no doubt that the increase in social histories of Civil War soldiers and unit histories also explains this trend. I’ve started to pay closer attention to the format of published primary accounts. I would love to hear from some of you out there if you have any suggestions. Let me know which published accounts stand out and why.


An Inspirational Story From Lonnie Bunch

Yesterday on C-SPAN I watched Allen Weinstein who is the Archivist of the United States interview Lonnie Bunch who is the founding director of the Smithsonian’s planned National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was an excellent interview and I was thoroughly impressed with both the intellectual rigor and emotion that Bunch brings to the table, which will be necessary in steering this project through. There were a number of times when Bunch had to address important interpretive questions surrounding slavery; perhaps the most prevalent being the importance of balancing the horrors of slavery and racial discrimination without losing sight of the initiatives and humanity displayed throughout by African Americans. I was also surprised to hear that a good chunck of the money will be used to gather artifacts from the 20th century. Towards the end of the interview, Weinstein asked if there are any personal stories that drive his endeavors. Bunch told the story of his grandfather. His grandfather worked as a sharecropper until his early 20′s when he decided to become a dentist. Somehow he managed to earn a degree from Howard University by age 30. Once his degree was completed, however, he found out that much of the job market was closed to him on account of the fact that his degree was from Howard. He then asked for the most respected Dental program in the country and was told the University of Chicago. This man made the choice to apply to the school and go through the program over again from the start. It will be stories like this that will hopefully animate the new museum.


Thinking About Reconstruction

One of my favorite classroom exercises takes place during our examination of Reconstruction. I divide the class into groups of four and ask each group to imagine that they are serving on a congressional committee in charge of Reconstruction policy. They must work together and answer the following questions: (1) What responsibilities did the federal government have in protecting the rights of the newly-freed slaves? (2) What steps should have been taken against former Confederates? (3) What was the role of the U.S. military in enforcing the specifics of the federal government’s policy? (4) What was the relation between the former Confederate states and the nation? Once each group arrives at a specific list of responsibilities the class debates the relative merits of each list in order to arrive at one final class policy. I enjoy watching the students think critically about these issues as it provides a window into the question of what might have been had certain conditions been different. Were the harsh realities of Jim Crow inevitable?

I just received the new issue of the journal Civil War History (December 2005). This issue includes essays which “enter the realm of ‘what if’ history by conjecturing a Reconstruction policy that could have produced by 1900 better economic conditions for the South and a racial situation that would not have degenerated into the abyss of violence called Jim Crow segregation.” The essays were originally presented at the 2004 meeting of the Social Science History Association. I’ve already read William Blair’s insightful essay on the role of the military during Reconstruction and its importance in protecting the rights of black southerners. Blair considers the possibilities of maintaining a stronger military presence in the South, but in the end concludes that this “was unthinkable for practical, economic, and political-ideological reasons.” I found most interesting the introductory essay by James L Huston who provides a list of reasons that historians have cited over the years to explain why Reconstruction did not prove to be more successful.

• Refusal of Congress to redistribute land to ex-slaves and poor whites
• Inevitability of a capitalist economy to reduce African Americans to wage-earning subsistence
• Cultural gap existed between the market-driven individualism of white reformers and communitarian subsistence goals of the newly-freed slaves over the definition of “work.”
• Republicans were too moderate
• Republicans were limited by the ideals of monetary responsibility, laissez-faire government, states rights, and individualism
• Republicans were too racist to more completely support black Americans
• Republican Party was sufficiently weak in the South
• White Racism: white southerners were willing to engage in violence to maintain the antebellum racial hierarchy

I am considering having my students right a short counterfactual essay as a way to bring this group exercise to a close. Here is Huston on the heuristic value of the counterfactual exercise:

Teaching students the importance of context in human affairs is actually a more formidable task than many of us realize. Having students determine the historical forces at work in some period (the parameters of the problem, so to speak), a set of potential solutions, and then sort out what was realistically possible, is a powerful exercise. Moreover, it also provides students with an insight into basic principles of historical inquiry that they can then apply to the present in which they exist: understanding the context, constructing hypothetical solutions, and then testing the proposed solutions against their understanding of the forces and ideologies at work. (p. 363)