When it came to choosing someone to write the Afterword for Common-place’s issue on the Civil War sesquicentennial, Megan Kate Nelson and I both agreed that it had to be Stephen Berry. Stephen is a first-rate scholar and a wonderful writer. He was a great sport given that we weren’t able to send the essays to him until the tail end of the editing process, but somehow he managed to say something meaningful about the major themes covered. Continue reading
I am really enjoying the opportunity to go back and review the letters and diaries of white Northern soldiers who fought at the Crater. Now that I’ve done so I regret not going deeper into these wartime accounts in the book. Hopefully, this little essay project will make up for it. In this post I want to share a couple soldier accounts from the battle and solicit some feedback. Continue reading
I am a big fan of Chandra Manning’s book, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War. It’s an incredibly thought-provoking book and especially helpful when it comes to understanding how Confederates conceptualized the importance of slavery throughout the war. However, I am less convinced by her analysis of how the bitter fighting in the spring and summer of 1864 effected the attitudes of Northern soldiers regarding slavery and civil rights.
While I agree with Manning that by the summer of 1863 many of the men in the ranks accepted the necessity of ending slavery for the sake of the war effort and the Union she goes on to argue that these men had also been inspired to “consider more thoughtfully their own obligations to overcome racial prejudice and promote at least some basic rights for black Americans…” (153). By 1864, according to Manning, military setbacks and other problems caused these men to “back away” from “a world of increasing racial equality and black rights.” Continue reading
I just finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War, which in some ways functions as a companion volume to The Confederate War – published back in 1997. Both studies offer highly readable critiques of a wide swath of Civil War historiography with an eye toward pointing out gaps in the literature. In the earlier study that gap was a tendency to ignore the extent to which white Southerners forged a national identity around such military icons as Robert E. Lee. Gallagher asked readers to think beyond the question of why the South lost and explore how the Confederacy managed to resist a concerted effort on the part of the United States to reunite the nation for four long years as well as how it managed to come close to independence on more than one occasion. That opening in the historiography has been filled by Gallagher’s own graduate students and others, who have given us a much richer picture of nation building in the South.
In The Union War, Gallagher’s historiographic critique brings into sharp relief our tendency to minimize and even ignore the meaning that Northerners attached to Union. In my opinion there is no one better at distilling academic debates for a general audience. Gallagher devotes some of his sharpest criticisms to historians such as Chandra Manning and Barbara Field, who suggest that the massive amount of bloodshed could only be justified with emancipation and the end of slavery. On the contrary, Gallagher argues that this runs rough shod over the the meaning of Union to the vast majority of Americans who rallied around the flag and Lincoln’s call to arms. As in his previous study, Gallagher devotes a great deal of time to the importance that Americans attached to the army as a symbol of the nation and to the citizen-soldier, who exemplified its strong sense of sacrifice and patriotism. At the center of this stood Ulysses S. Grant, who has been all but lost to our collective memory of the war.
Update: The debate went extremely well. Both groups did an excellent job of articulating their respective positions and pointing out what they perceived to be shortcomings in the other. I had to remind them that, in the end, they were on the same team. That is what I find so interesting here. In the same theater of operations you have very different approaches being employed, which gives students a window into the evolution of the war as a whole.
My Civil War class is now focused on the crucial summer of 1862. Students now have a solid grasp of the major campaigns along the river systems out west as well as in the crucial military theater of Virginia through mid-July 1862. We’ve spent a good deal of time examining the evolution of war during this period through a careful reading of Chandra Manning’s study of Civil War soldiers and slavery as well as the push by certain commanders in the field to broaden the scope of the war. It’s impossible to keep a discussion of slavery out of the picture, but I am trying to hold off on a discussion of the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the actions of Fremont and Butler as well as Lincoln’s announcement of a preliminary emancipation proclamation until next week. It’s not a perfect plan, but it does follow Brooks Simpson’s approach in his short introductory text, which students are reading.
Today students will debate the merits of a limited v. and expanded or hard war approach through a reading of two documents. The plan is to divide the class in half with one group reading General George McClellan’s famous Harrison’s Landing letter to Lincoln of July 7, 1862 and General John Pope’s General Orders No. 5, 7, 11, and 13. Students will be expected to debate the scope of warfare outlined in these documents based on the information known at the time. In other words, Lee’s army is still outside of Richmond and Lincoln has not issued a proclamation.