Is The History of Gettysburg More Than a Collection of Facts?

9780448465753_p0_v1_s260x420It’s been interesting following some of the early reactions to Allen Guelzo’s new book from within that small, but devoted community of Gettysburg buffs on various social media channels.  I am not an expert on the battle. I’ve read a bit and only in the last year or so have I been able to find my way around on the field with little difficulty.  If I am lucky enough to be on the field with an expert I give them my full attention and trust

I am about half way through and I am thoroughly enjoying the book.  That said, for a book this size I have no doubt that there are factual mistakes.  How can there not be.  The battle is a major event that has been poured over by historians. There are people who have devoted years of study to the battle as a whole and/or to various moments during the battle.

As a result it should come as no surprise that this book will be picked apart tooth and nail, by folks whose understanding of specific aspects of the battle outstrip Guelzo’s. I am not suggesting that it should not be.  Who is going to deny that getting the facts right is important? The author may, indeed, have mistakenly placed Two Taverns on the Taneytown Road or referenced Jubal Early as commanding three brigades instead of four.  Like I said, there are factual mistakes in just about every history book.

What I am wondering about, however, is whether the release of a new book on the battle of Gettysburg is simply another opportunity to run through a checklist of facts and accepted profiles of the standard list of characters.  Is there room for interpretation in a battle where there is so much emphasis placed on such excruciating factual minutiae?  Is the history of Gettysburg more than a collection of facts?

The Civil War’s Untold Story

It’s the name of a 5-part documentary that will air on PBS in February 2014.  The preview looks pretty good, though it’s not clear to me exactly what is new or “untold”.  The commentary by historians is certainly within the mainstream of current interpretation, but perhaps parts of it will be new to the general public.  One thing that I really like is Allen Guelzo’s constant reinforcement of the importance of democracy and republican government as what was at stake.  The scene of impressed slaves working on Confederate earthworks looks very promising for the obvious reasons. No hint of Lost Cause rhetoric, which is very nice to see.

Slavery Traveled With the Army of Northern Virginia

Impressed Slaves Working on Confederate Earthworks

Included in Allen Guelzo’s new book, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, is a brief examination of the size of both armies.  In looking at the Army of Northern Virginia Guelzo includes a few sources that estimate the number of slaves, who performed various roles as personal servants and impressed workers.  One particular account by English-born Confederate artilleryman, Thomas Caffey, published in 1864 stood out in particular.  The source is available online and includes and incredibly detailed, but self serving picture of the role and motivation of slaves in the Confederate army.  Here are a few excerpts, but I encourage you to read the section in its entirety, which runs from pp. 278 to 285.

In our whole army there must be at least thirty thousand colored servants who do nothing but cook and wash—nine tenths of the ditching falls to our share—yet in all these thousands I have yet to hear of more than one hundred who have run away from their owners! This is true, although they are continually moving about with ‘passes’ at all hours, and ten times more frequently than masters: what greater opportunities could be presented for escape? They are roaming in and out of the lines at all times, tramping over every acre of country daily, and I have not heard of more than six instances of runaways in our whole brigade, which has a cooking and washing corps of negroes at least one hundred and fifty strong! ….

Did you ever remark our servants on a march? They make me laugh. Soon as the word ‘march’ is whispered abroad, these fellows bundle up their traps, and get them into the wagons, by some sort of sleight of hand, for I know that my baggage, with ‘little tricks’ added, far outweighs the authorized sixty pounds — a captain’s allowance. After safely stowing away all they can, the cooks shoulder some large bundle of curiosities of their own, and with a saucepan, skillet, or frying pan, all march some fifty yards in front of the band, whistling and singing, forming in regular or irregular files, commanded by some big black rogue who, with a stick and a loud voice, enforces discipline, among his heavy-heeled corps. And thus they proceed far ahead, monopolizing all attention as we pass through towns and villages, grinning and singing as they go, and frequently dressed up in the full regimentals of some unfortunate Yankee or other. They scour the country far and wide for chickens, milk, butter, eggs, and bread, for which they pay little or nothing; always stoutly swearing they have expended all ‘massa’gave them, and unblushingly asking for more….

There was a very old, gray-haired cook in an Alabama regiment,” Jenkins remarked, “who would follow his young master to the war, and had the reputation of a saint among the colored boys of the brigade; and as he could read the Bible, and was given to preaching, he invariably assembled the darkeys on Sunday afternoon, and held meetings in the woods. He used to lecture them unmercifully, but could not keep them from singing and dancing after ‘tattoo.’ Uncle Pompey, as he was called, was an excellent servant, and an admirable cook, and went on from day to day singing hymns among his pots round the camp-fire, until the battle of ‘Seven Pines’ opened, when the regiment moved up to the front, and was soon engaged.

Caffey wrote this before the Gettysburg campaign kicked off, but it is not a stretch to imagine such numbers accompanying the Army of Northern Virginia as it moved through the slave state of Maryland and into free Pennsylvania.  We know that as it did the state’s free and formerly enslaved blacks fled, some of who ended up trapped and sent south by invading Confederates.  The Army of Northern Virginia operated, in large part, around the work of slaves.  As an institution the army’s reliance on slave labor ought to be seen in line with the operations of southern railroads, industrial centers such as Tredegar and, of course, large plantations.  All of them relied on the forced labor of slaves.

And for a brief moment in the summer of 1863 this system of labor, that was so important to the pre-war South and by extension, the Confederacy, was introduced into free Pennsylvania by the Army of Northern Virginia.

Best of 2012

KantrowitzThe end of my first full year of living in Boston and what a year it’s been.  It should come as no surprise that the highlight of the past year was the publication of my first book in June.  I’ve always loved the social aspect of doing history, whether its teaching in the classroom, working with history teachers or lecturing in public.  I’ve met some wonderful people this year and I thank each and every one of you for purchasing a copy.  Based on the few notices I’ve received from the publisher it looks like sales have been brisk.  I am hoping that my royalty check at least allows me to take my wife out for a really nice dinner next month.

As for 2013 I am looking forward to working with the Massachusetts Historical Society on some programs for teachers as well as the Massachusetts 150 Commission.  On the writing front I am hoping to complete the Confederate camp servants book and finish up with editing the letters of Captain John Christopher Winsmith.  We shall see.  For now I want to thank all of you for continuing to visit Civil War Memory.  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been at this thing called blogging for over seven years now.  Happy Holidays to you and your family.

…and now to the list.

Continue reading “Best of 2012”