Category Archives: Union

Vindicating Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th

burning-of-darien-from-glory

With the 150th anniversary of the burning of Darien, GA approaching one local historian hopes to vindicate Col. Robert Gould Shaw of any responsibility.  We all know the scene in Glory when Shaw orders his men to torch the town only after the threat of court-martial by Col. James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.  Montgomery and General Hunter play the perfect villains in the movie, which ultimately leads to a transfer for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from hard labor to combat and glory at the base of Battery Wagner in July 1863.  It’s hard to know what McIntosh County historian Buddy Sullivan has planned for the commemoration beyond reminding his community that the raid did not take place during Sherman’s March of 1864 and that Shaw was indeed following orders.

Most of us know about this little incident from Glory and the movie gets a lot right.  Yes, Shaw disapproved of Montgomery’s order to join his unit and burn Darien.  According to historian Russell Duncan, “Shaw believed the action unjustified and disgraceful, and said he could have assented to it only if they had met Rebel resistance.” (pp. 43-44)  Shaw was concerned about the negative publicity that eventually was reported in northern and southern newspapers.  While it is true that Shaw was forced to follow orders it’s not clear whether noting that Col. Montgomery was also carrying out direct orders from General David Hunter will make it into Sullivan’s upcoming presentation.  Better to have a foil with which to vindicate Shaw.   Continue reading

 

Interpreting Mount Auburn Cemetery’s Sphinx

Mount AuburnIt is one of the most unusual memorials on any Civil War commemorative landscape North or South.  I vividly recall my own loss for words during my first trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery in 2011.  It is a stop at the top of my list for next year’s Civil War Memory class and thanks to Joy M. Giguere’s essay in the March 2013 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era I now have a bit more interpretive ammo under my belt.  Continue reading

 

They Attacked Shouting “No Quarter”

USCTs CraterOne of my responsibilities at the upcoming Future of Civil War History Conference at Gettysburg College is to moderate a panel on interpreting USCTs at historical sites.  Panelists include Barbara Gannon, Emmanuel Dabney, Hari Jones, Joseph McGill, Jill Newmark, and Robert Sutton.  The presenters have already submitted short essays on various issues that they believe are important to discuss.  I’ve pretty much finished reading through them and am in the process of identifying challenges associated with the interpretation of USCTs as a point of departure for further discussion.  Many of the papers reference the influence of the movie Glory on popular perception as well how we interpret the massacre of black soldiers on battlefields such as Fort Pillow and at the Crater.  While I am particularly interested in how we frame the massacre of black soldiers the question of how we address instances where black soldiers executed Confederates has not been adequately addressed.  Consider the following passage written by Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney who does address this with visitors to the Petersburg National Battlefield.

One of the ironies I discuss with visitors is that the US Colored Troops capture Confederate earthworks which were primarily dug by slaves and free blacks. In discussing the troops assaulting these works, I read directly from a letter written by Henry M. Turner, chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Troops. Turner stated that the Black troops and the “the rebels were both crying out – ‘Fort Pillow!’ This seems to be the battle-cry on both sides.” He wrote of the men assaulting the position and the Confederates retreating which he humorously wrote that the Southerners went “out the rear of the forts with their coat-tails sticking straight out behind.” Immediately, he makes a powerful summary of how Confederate prisoners were treated as he penned, “Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with a very few exceptions.” I tell our audiences that while Chaplain Turner did not condone killing of Confederate prisoners it was done in retaliation to the Southern Congress’ May 1, 1863 legislation which stated that Black men found in the Union army’s ranks were slaves in insurrection and that the white officers leading them were inciting a servile insurrection. In both cases the Confederate legislators and the war department condoned the execution of USCTs as well as their white officers. I note that according to white Union soldiers, some of them that night stopped more Black troops from killing Confederate prisoners.

I suspect that these are very difficult stories for visitors to digest.  They certainly don’t fit the overall narrative of those who have been influenced by the movie Glory as well as the Sesquicentennial’s emphasis on emancipation and the sacrifice of black soldiers.  In this narrative battlefield massacres are central to a story of African American sacrifice for the Union and the eventual attainment of civil rights.  Whether intentional or not our embrace of emancipation as the central theme of the Civil War affords black soldiers what might be described as a kind of moral immunity.

When USCTs are killing Confederates they are engaged in a fight for freedom and in those unfortunate moments when they are executed they are victims of an uncontrollable rage that has its roots in a society committed to maintaining slavery and white supremacy.  How should we characterize incidents of black soldiers executing Confederates?  I agree with Emmanuel that part of the explanation must reference legislation from the Confederate Congress, but that doesn’t constitute everything that we can learn from accounts such as the one cited above.

We have little difficulty coming to terms with white Union and Confederate rage on the battlefield and how it sometimes led to acts that fell beyond the rules of war.   But what happens when the conduct of blacks on the battlefield takes a turn, however slight, toward something that resembles Nat Turner’s Rebellion?  More to the point, what do we gain from looking more closely at these accounts when interacting with the general public and/or in the classroom and what are the risks involved?

 

As President Abraham Lincoln Explained…

secession

Jon Carson does a wonderful job of responding to the recent flurry of White House Petitions requesting that individual states be given the right to secede from the Union.

Thank you for using the White House’s online petitions platform to participate in your government.

That sentence alone defuses any credibility that these silly petitions might enjoy.  There is just a little irony in Americans utilizing their Constitutional rights through a website that encourages participatory democracy and that is maintained by taxpayer dollars.

But just in case you slept through your American history and civics classes Carson follows up with a reminder that the sacrifice paid by Americans during the Civil War and beyond guarantees your right to petition your government.

Our founding fathers established the Constitution of the United States “in order to form a more perfect union” through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. They enshrined in that document the right to change our national government through the power of the ballot — a right that generations of Americans have fought to secure for all. But they did not provide a right to walk away from it. As President Abraham Lincoln explained in his first inaugural address in 1861, “in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” In the years that followed, more than 600,000 Americans died in a long and bloody civil war that vindicated the principle that the Constitution establishes a permanent union between the States. And shortly after the Civil War ended, the Supreme Court confirmed that “[t]he Constitution, in all its provisions, looks to an indestructible Union composed of indestructible States.”

It’s almost as good as the White House response to the Death Star petition.