Category Archives: Union

Mississippi Embraces Grant

aleqm5hyycivpxkwzzz89tv1wmodbj7q-wAfew months ago I reported that Mississippi State University is slated to become the new home to the Ulysses S. Grant Papers after 50 years at Southern Illinois University under the direction of John Y. Simon.  Simon’s recent death raised the question of who would continue the massive project of publishing Grant’s papers until historian John Marszalek agreed to take on the responsibility.  This is good news for all Americans interested in Civil War history regardless of where you live.  The most recent AP article covers old ground, but at some point stories such as this need to begin to move away from the obligatory Sons of Confederate Veterans quote.  In this particular piece it comes at the very end:

Still, Grant’s return to the South doesn’t thrill Cecil Fayard Jr., the Mississippi-based leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  “U.S. Grant is not beloved in the state of Mississippi. Southern folks remember well his brutal and bloody tactics of war, and the South will never forget the siege of Vicksburg,” he said.

Why should we care what Cecil Fayard thinks of one of the most important academic projects in the field of Civil War history?  How many members of the SCV are there in Mississippi anyway?  Do they speak for Mississippians?  I seriously doubt it.  There is nothing offensive about an institution of higher learning taking on such a project; in fact, this is exactly why they exist.

It is becoming clearer that the SCV thrives on sensationalism – the only trick left in their book.   One need look no further than their silly little antics in Tampa, Florida where the local SCV chapter has managed to raise another one of their “big ass” flags outside of the city just in time for the Super Bowl. [This is the same group that cut up the first one for profit, and I believe both flags were made in China.]  Marion Lambert says that they are educating the public, but as the Tipsy Historian points out you will be hard pressed to find anything educational on SCV websites concerning the complex history of the flag:

Basically, there is absolutely no thought, content, consideration, or insight behind what they are doing with this ridiculous flag. The SCV Florida chapter is behaving like a screaming child looking for attention by pressing the buttons it knows will get a response. Moreover, the glaring lack of discussion on these sites makes this organization look absolutely foolish.

I know plenty of elementary school teachers and they tell me that the best way to handle children who are acting out and looking for attention is to ignore them.  Good advice.

 

Lee Accepts the Surrender of Grant in His Vicksburg Boots

let_us_have_peace_vhsThis is my favorite painting of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April 1865.  It was painted in the 1920s by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and clearly reflects the ascendency of Lee in our national memory and imagination.  Ferris titled his painting, “Let Us Have Peace” even though these words were not spoken by Grant for another three years as a campaign slogan at the start of his presidential bid in 1868.  We spent quite a bit of time with this painting in class last week and a number of my students were struck by the placement of both Grant and Lee as well as their hand gestures.  In fact, a few students thought that if a viewer didn’t know any better they would have to conclude that Grant was surrendering to Lee.  Notice Grant’s hand as it embraces a much more forceful and self-confident Lee who appears to be in charge of the situation.  The relaxed pose of Grant’s officers in the background reinforces this contrast.

Much has been made of the attire of the respective commanders, which is also quite telling as a reflection of what we find worth remembering.  Supposedly Lee’s immaculate dress and Grant’s muddy boots point to fundamental differences in character rather than the exigencies of the day.  At times it seems as if the contrast is meant to imply that Grant didn’t really deserve to accept Lee’s surrender.  The emphasis on dress in the McLean Parlor continues to find voice.  Consider this short piece in the Vicksburg Post by Gordon Cotton who speculates on whether those boots were gifts from two Vicksburg sisters, Sallie and Lucy Marshall.  It’s a legitimate question, but would it matter at all if a particular narrative of this moment in time had not been burned into our Civil War memory?

One of the reasons I find the study of historical memory to be so fascinating is that often it is not about history at all, but about what the remember believes he/she needs to make sense of the present.  In some cases the form of remembrance eclipses entirely the historical subject in question and its borders become porous.  Robert Moore’s most recent post is a thoughtful reflection on our remembrance of Lee-Jackson Day:

It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living. Look at a historical person (or persons) and consider the part of the historical person’s character, actions, etc., and consider how one may take meaning from these reflections. For some, these reflections might even translate into incorporating qualities that some find desirable in the historical person into the way they conduct themselves in their own lives. As long as reflection does not become something greater than a source of inspiration, and I suppose, guidance (as long as it is positive), then it seems innocent enough.

Mr. Cotton includes the following tribute by Ben Hill, which appeared in the Confederate Veteran in 1901 at the end of his article: “He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public official without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile.  He was Caesar without ambition, Frederick without tyranny, Napoleon without selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”

Perhaps he was all these things and more.  I couldn’t possibly know one way or the other without having spent significant time with the man.  It may even be the case that Lee’s boots were a gift from two residents of Vicksburg.  Mr. Cotton notes that it is impossible to know for sure.  What I do know is that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the McLean house on April 9, 1865.

 

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History

Glory-DVDcoverToday my Civil War classes finished watching the movie Glory, which is still my all-time favorite Civil War movie.  Students enjoy the movie in part because of the heroic story of the unit and the performances by Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick.  The movie does a very good job of addressing the discrimination faced by the 54th Massachusetts as well as their heroic performance at Battery Wagner in July 1863.  Like all historical movies Glory gets certain things right and certain things wrong.  One of the themes that the movie captures is the slow progress that Col. Robert G. Shaw experienced in learning to more closely empathize with his men as well as the gradual changes that took place among white Union soldiers as they questioned their own racial outlook in response to the battlefield prowess of black regiments like the 54th.  This is an issue that my students recently read about in an article by Chandra Manning.  As for problems, well, they abound throughout the movie such as the profile of the regiment, which is presented primarily as a unit of fugitive slaves.  Most of the men were free blacks from Massachusetts and other parts of the North.  Other problems include the time frame for the raising and training of the regiment which began in 1863 rather than 1862 as well as the failure to acknowledge Shaw’s marriage at any point in the movie.

Beyond pointing out such oversights throughout the movie I want my students to be able to think critically about the choices that go into historically-inspired movies such as Glory.  Such questions can include character development and the broader message that movie producers and writers hope to convey to their audience.  In reference to Glory what stands out to me is the emphasis on a progressive story where the individual characters as well as the unit itself becomes more closely connected or identified with the national goal of emancipation and nationalism.  Col. Shaw (played by Broderick) volunteers his regiment in the attack on Battery Wagner as a means of impressing upon the nation the sacrifices and bravery displayed by his men.  Tripp (played by Washington) begins the movie with an overtly selfish perspective, gradually comes to see the regiment as family, and finally falls in battle while holding the stars and stripes.  Even Thomas, who represents the free black men of the regiment and comes to learn during training that he has more in common with fugitive slaves, finds redemption and self-respect by volunteering to carry the flag before the assault on Wagner.

The decision to end the movie with the failed assault at Wagner solidifies this progressive theme, which links the men to one another and, supposedly, the goal of the United States by the middle of the war.  The final scenes depict the grim reality of the battlefield, including shoe-less dead black soldiers, and a mass grave in which both Shaw and his men are buried.  As the movie ends the viewer is told that the performance of the 54th Massachusetts led to the recruitment of upwards of 180,000 men and that President Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of war.  The upshot is that the viewer finishes the movie with the impression that the story of the 54th has been brought to its completion, in large part, because of the death of Shaw.  It’s as if the mission of the unit, in terms of its contribution to the Civil War and American History, has been fully realized.  It is through defeat and death in the regiment that the nation experiences a new birth of freedom.

The problem is that this completely ignores the history of the regiment through to the end of the war and the challenges that it continued to face.  In fact, a broader look at the history of the 54th suggests that it was not at the hands of angry Confederate soldiers that constituted the gravest threat to black Union soldiers, but their own government.  It is with this in mind that my students are now reading a wonderful article by Donald Yacovone, titled “The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, The Pay Crisis, and the “Lincoln Despotism”” which is included in the edited collection, Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).

The “pay crisis” is depicted in that wonderful scene where both Shaw and his men tear up their vouchers after learning that they are to be paid under the terms set out in the Militia Act of 1862  – $10 for black soldiers as opposed to $13 for white soldiers.  Unfortunately, the scene is used to highlight the evolution of Shaw’s identification with his men and is promptly dropped as an issue.  Well, it was an issue throughout much of the unit’s history and it grew worse following the failed assault at Wagner in July 1863 and Shaw’s death.  The article does an excellent job of detailing the steps that both the men of the 54th and its new colonel took to convince the Lincoln administration to rectify the situation.  The situation continued to deteriorate following the Federal defeat at Olustee, Florida as tension in the ranks grew culminating in cases of mutinous discontent.  The most notorious case occurred on February 29, 1864 when Sergeant William Walker faced a firing squad for protesting unequal pay after ordering his company to stack arms in front of their colonel’s tent in November 1863.   Shortly thereafter, Private  Wallace Baker was arrested and executed for striking an officer after refusing to obey an order to fall in for company inspection, also in protest over pay.

It was not until July 1864 that Congress revoked its stance on the issue and awarded the men equal pay from the first day of their service.  I am hoping that this broader focus will give us much to discuss in class tomorrow.  I want to touch on questions of how Hollywood shapes our perceptions of important historical events as well as how this broader focus helps us to anticipate the challenges of Reconstruction and the federal government’s eventual abandonment of these men and the cause of black civil rights.  This reminds me of my favorite scene in the movie which precedes the assault at Wagner.  Shaw approaches Tripp and asks him to carry the regimental colors in the next engagement.  Tripp refuses and a brief conversation ensues regarding the possible consequences of the war.  At one point Tripp asks, “What are we going to get”?  The movie leaves the viewer with a sense of optimism for the future; on the other hand, Yacovone’s piece better prepares students with the tragic quality of Tripp’s question.

 

Fighting for the United States

The other day I mentioned some of the difficulties my students are having in identifying with why northerners rushed to defend the nation in the spring of 1861 as opposed to the relative ease with which they identify with a southern defense of hearth and home.  Thanks to those of you who left a comment or emailed me directly with ideas of primary sources that could be utilized in the classroom.  I went through my own library and found a wonderful collection of letters edited by Nina Silber and Mary B. Stevens, titled Yankee Correspondence: Civil War Letters between New England Soldiers and the Home Front (University of Virginia Press, 1996.  The nice thing about this volume is that the letters are divided by theme and are narrowly focused on a specific region of the North.  The importance of regional affiliation figured prominently in our discussion today.  I had my students read through and discuss four letters from the book, including the following letter written by Isaac A. Brooks [Second Brigade, Second Division, Third Corps, Army of the Potomac]

October 13, 1861

My Dear Children,
    As there are so many of you in the nest at home, I cannot write to each one, and therefore send this to you all.  I think you will be glad to hear from me, in a letter to you all, as well as to hear of me through Mothers letters, for I never forget you, even if I do not write to you.  Mothers account of you are very gratifying to me, for I think you are all trying to be good children, to give Mother as little trouble as you can, & to improve yourselves.  My life here, is not very pleasant, but I submit to it because I think it is for the best and it is the duty of us all, to do what we can for our country and to preserve its integrity even to the sacrifice of our lives, if that is necessary.  It is a glorious country, and must be preserved to our children.  It was given to us entire, and we must give it to you, entire and you must give it as you receive it, to those who come after you.  Remember your country is next to God, in love, and never see it injured, or disgraced, if you have a hand, or a mind, to put forth in its defense.  I hope to return to you in due time, safe and well, and find you are well and happy, but should it be so ordered that we do not meet again on earth, remember to love, and serve your country in whatever way it may be your lot to do so.  To do this, many things are needed, which you will all learn in due time, but one of the foundations will be, to be sober, honest and industrious….
    So be good children all of you, & remember I think of you all, daily, even if I can not see you

Your Affectionate Father

As I mentioned earlier, it's always interesting as a history teacher to watch my students struggle with and come to terms with the language of nationalism and patriotism that course through many of these early letters.  Even in midst of overseas conflict many of my students find it difficult to imagine sacrificing their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  The challenge, of course, is to approach someone like this father who does voluntarily leave his wife and children for the good of the nation and without a guarantee that he will return.  It's as if my students are asking, "Who are these people?"