“It Looks Like We’re Going To Need To Plow Our Own Fields From Now On”

You can find additional cartoons by this illustrator at birthofanotion.com.  If you haven’t already done so I highly recommend reading Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over, which is now in paperback.  In addition, I recently finished reading Joe Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army.  Both studies analyze the role of slavery and race during the war and particularly the way it shaped Confederates and white Southerners.  Glatthaar’s book is a first-rate synthesis of recent Civil War historiography without getting bogged down in an analysis of those studies.  Check out the interview with Glatthaar at Civil War Book Review.

The Tough Questions

At the end of What This Cruel War Was About Chandra Manning offers some final thoughts about the challenges that the war presented to Americans in 1865 and by extension to the way we remember.

First, Confederate soldiers’ admirable devotion to their families and abhorrent attachment to the enslavement of other human beings sound a cautionary note because those impulses were so closely related.  There is little doubt that most white southern men cared first and foremost about the well-being and material advancement of their loved ones, and the steadfast love so many displayed for their families surely stands among the noblest of human emotions.  Yet that love led otherwise good and ordinary men to embrace and fight for an institution that stole the lives and bodies and families of other human beings.  Clearly, the connection between soldiers’ attachment to their families and the institution of slavery does not suggest that love of family is to be disparaged, or that it inevitably leads to an atrocity like slavery, but it does raise sobering questions about the ills that human beings will justify when they convince themselves that they owe no obligation to anyone beyond those to whom they are related or who are like themselves.

Second, astonishing changes took place in many white Union men’s ideas about slavery and eventually, if more fragilely, about racial equality.  When ordinary men, many of whom began the war without a single black acquaintance but with plenty of prejudice toward African Americans, actually met black people face to face and often came to rely on the aid, comfort, and military intelligence that former slaves offered to the Union Army, they found reason to discard old views.  Those changes remind historians of the power of events to rearrange even the most seemingly immovable cultural ideas and attitudes among people in the past, and they alert all of us to the dramatic changes in attitude and achievement that can take place when people who think they have nothing in common find themselves thrust into interaction and interdependence.

Finally, the vision of a very different United States could be seen clearly by men like David Williamson in the spring of 1865 but had faded tragically by the turn of the twentieth century.  Taken together, the vividness of the vision and its eventual fading challenge historians to investigate more rigorously exactly how the United States could in the crucible of war create such vast potential for change and then, in the end, fail to fulfill it. (pp. 220-21)

I can remember reading one of Manning’s North and South articles last year with my Civil War class and wondering how she would end this study.  After reading this book I am more convinced the Manning is going to divide Civil War enthusiasts right down the middle.   That divide will be drawn between people who are comfortable discussing the way in which Union and Confederate soldiers thought about race and slavery over the course of the war and those who will interpret Manning’s conclusions as an indictment of the Confederacy or perhaps “Pro-Union.”  Another way of framing this is that Manning risks having the contours of her preferred debate relegated to Robert Penn Warren’s wonderful distinction between “the great alibi” and the “treasury of virtue.” That would be unfortunate as Manning has given us a very thoughtful and analytical study with a great deal of wartime sources to think about.  It is one of the most complete accounts of what soldiers thought about race and slavery published to date.  In some ways I can’t help but think of this book as a challenge to our Civil War community – broadly understood.

It seems clear to me that we can have this discussion without it being reduced to a childish debate about which region of the country can claim moral superiority.  And the reason is because the nation as a whole moved in a direction that did not include reinforcing or protecting the Reconstruction amendments.  The national agenda changed owing to the reconstruction agendas of white southerners, the Republican Party (by 1877), and the federal government.  By 1900 GAR camps in the North were largely segregated.  That said, I find that Manning’s emphasis on contingency in 1865, or the claim that the future could have been different, is enough to force readers to move away from a more defensive posture that involves interpreting the past in ways that reinforce contemporary political, cultural, and racial assumptions.  In other words, there was a salient distinction between the way that Union and Confederate soldiers understood race and slavery and it is our job as serious students of history to deal with it regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us.

A Book We All Should Read

My copy of Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (Knopf) arrived today.  I’ve mentioned Manning’s scholarship on a number of occasions.   It was a great pleasure for me to be able to join her for a panel discussion about Civil War soldiers at the most recent AHA meeting.  I’ve read a great deal of her work over the past two years and have used Manning’s North and South Magazine articles in my Civil War class.

This book should receive a great deal of attention as it focuses on an important topic and has been released by a popular publisher.  Manning explores the way soldiers on both sides of the Potomac understood the issues of slavery and race over the course of the Civil War.  This is a touchy issue for many Civil War enthusiasts and for Americans generally.  We’re not very comfortable talking about these issues and tend to steer clear at all costs.  All too often these discussions, including specific questions and answers are framed in ways that reflect more about how we would like to understand Civil War soldiers rather than the soldiers themselves.  For instance, in an attempt to distance slavery/race from the world of the Confederate soldier we mention how few actually owned slaves – as if ownership were somehow a sufficient reason to ignore the ways in which non-slaveholders may have understood and responded to the “peculiar institution.”  On the other hand, we prefer to distance Union soldiers from the same issue by asserting blanket statements about the primacy of preserving the Union over emancipation.  In both cases there is little willingness to explore the complexity of the topic or the ways in which the war transformed the men on both sides in relationship to these issues.  In contrast to this overly simplistic stance on what is perhaps the central issue of the war and American history we have no problem appreciating the voracious appetites of those people who leave no stone unturned in tracing the excruciating minutiae of a Civil War battlefield.

Manning’s book is steeped in archival sources.  There are literally hundreds of individual soldier collections, and Manning kept “data sheets” on 477 Confederate soldiers as well as 657 Union soldiers.  In addition, Manning utilizes for the first time over 100 regimental newspapers.  What Manning has given us is arguably the most complete study of how Confederate and Union soldiers understood slavery/race throughout the war.

If we listen to what soldiers had to say as they fought the Civil War, the men in the ranks do not allow us to duck the uncomfortable issue of human slavery, but rather take us right to the heart of it.  They force us to look at it unflinchingly, and what is more, to see it a as a national, not simply southern, issue that defined a war and shaped a nation. (p. 18)

As you might imagine I will have much more to say as I make my through this book.  In the mean time go out and buy this important book.

Civil War Odds and Ends

Check out the programs for two upcoming conferences that will focus heavily on the Civil War, the South, and Virginia history.  The first is the Second Annual Virginia Forum which is scheduled for April 13-14 at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.  This conference brings together scholars who focus on all areas of Virginia history.  I took part last year and had a wonderful time.  The American Civil War Center and Virginia Historical Society will host a conference titled “In The Cause of Liberty: How the Civil War Redefined American Values” on March 23-24.  Participants include James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, Nina Silber, David L. Lewis and George Rable.

HNN includes two interviews with James McPherson and Eric Foner which were taped at the recent meeting of the AHA in Atlanta.  The session was titled “Why I became a historian.”  Finally, Chandra Manning will be interviewed today on Civil War Talk Radio followed next week by Gabor Boritt.

Finally, the latest issue of the OAH Magazine of History focuses on Abraham Lincoln.  The staff is planning a few issues devoted to Lincoln over the next two years.  If you are a high school history teacher I highly recommend subscribing to this publication.  The lesson plans are all first-rate and the articles are written by some of the leading scholars in their respective fields.

Peter Carmichael on Civil War Talk Radio

I thoroughly enjoyed Friday’s interview with UNC-Greensboro historian Peter S. Carmichael.  Check out the interview, and more importantly, read The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunionit’s well worth the time.  I wanted to take a few minutes to comment on a few points made during the interview.  Carmichael touched on a number of issues in connection with his latest research, including his thoughts about battlefield interpretation and on the way the “last generation” forces us to rethink our assumptions about how we remember the Civil War and the postwar period.

At one point Carmichael touched on a point regarding the tendency for more traditional military narratives to ignore the ideological/political convictions of the soldiers on the field.  The question that prompted this comment asked about the experiences of Carmichael’s sample on the battlefield and their reputation as committed Confederates which in some cases bordered on the fanatical.  The traditional study can help us but little in understanding how men experienced the war since they tend to be seen as mindless chess pieces that are manipulated by their commanders.  Carmichael made the point by noting that the battlefield is a “site where you see the most extreme form of political action.”  For the men that comprise his study their battlefield experiences were a “consequence of their world view.”  Carmichael qualified this by giving a nod to the work of Bell I. Wiley who laid the foundation for our analytical studies of soldier life.  While Wiley tended to ignore the role of ideology as a motivator his research remains valuable to understanding the “material reality” of the common soldier.  I was pleased to hear that Carmichael is preparing the volume on Civil War soldiers for the Littlefield Series which is scheduled for release during the sesquicentennial.  He plans to provide both a historiographical overview of the field of soldier studies as well as a comparative account of Union and Confederate soldiers.  [Speaking of soldiers Chandra Manning is scheduled to be interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio in the next few weeks and her long-awaited study is also set for publication with Knopf in the near future.]

I was especially interested in Carmichael’s comments on the postwar years and memory.  He prefaced his comments by telling a short story about John W. Daniel who in 1867 spoke to a group of women at Manassas and told them to forget about the past.   Daniel’s comments serve to remind us that our own perceptions, which tend to be wrapped up in the blanket of Lost Cause ideology, was not by any means universally subscribed to by white southerners.  We tend to generalize about the different regions, and the most common move is to compare the industrial-capitalistic North with white Southerners who were defending the values of a traditional agricultural and peaceful society.  Carmichael’s young Virginians stand in sharp contrast with this overly simplistic image as they were pushing for a more progressive and expansive economy in the years leading up to the war.  That they continued to do so following the war did not represent any kind of betrayal, but a continuation of what they had assumed would further the interests of the Commonwealth before the fighting had started.  Of course they wanted all of this within a slave-holding society; the point is that what appears to be a mutually exclusive set of values is more a function of how we choose to remember and interpret the Southern past.  Is it any surprise that the way we remember certain iconic figures such as R. E. Lee – who of course is the paradigm example of this traditional picture of the South – is so grounded in an interpretation that stands in sharp contrast with our generalizations about the North in the nineteenth century.  And any attempt at questioning this is deemed to be “P.C” or “revisionist” or whatever – rather than the result of serious historical inquiry.  It is curious to me why some people simply assume such a defensive attitude in dealing with historians that question or suggest that our popular images of the past may not hold up under close scrutiny.  It reminds me of an out-of-control child screaming at the top of his lungs.

Carmichael reminds us that postwar Southern society was a “society up for grabs.”  While our popular memory assumes a society that struggled against the tide of modernism, capitalism, and black political power historians in recent years have uncovered a much more complex region.  Reconstruction was not a disaster for the white South; in fact we now know that increased black political action led to the first state schools in some parts of the South and other pieces of legislation that were impossible during the antebellum years when the elite slaveholding class governed.  In other words, not all white Southerners were on the same page after the war.  There is no better example of this than the four years of Readjuster control under the leadership of former Confederate Major General William Mahone.  The Readjusters increased black political office-holding which in turn led to an increase in the number of black students in the public schools as well as black teachers.  Mahone was despised by many white Virginians for threatening white supremacy and he was seen as a hero by both black and white Virginians.  While their control of the state government only lasted four years it is incredible to think that most Virginians no nothing about it.  The reason why we don’t remember is because we prefer to think of the white South as unified around a certain set of political assumptions.  In my research on Mahone and the Readjusters I went through scores of history texts that were used in the Virginia schools between 1900 and 1940 and could barely find a word about this important political movement.

The study of how American have chosen to remember the Civil War is not a conspiracy concocted by liberal-minded/revisionist/Eastern elite/Yankee historians who are bent on destroying all that is “good and pure” about the South.  [As I mentioned in a recent post most of these historians were born and bred in the South and educated in the South.]  One of the points that I am trying to make here is that there was never a time after the war when white Southerners were in agreement over how to remember the war.  The above-mentioned story about John Daniel reminds us that plenty of people were willing to give the back of their hand to the memorialization of the past and William Mahone was content to use the past to help with his own business and political interests.  White Southerners have been challenging the Lost Cause history of the war from the beginning.

Serious research is full of surprises; unfortunately, those surprises are sometimes perceived in a way that gives little weight or reflects little interest in how those conclusions were arrived at.  As someone who was born in New Jersey and came to the serious study of history in his mid-20’s I am fascinated by the complexity of Southern history.  My hope is to understand it better.