One of the things that I regret about my book on the Crater is that I failed to spend sufficient time exploring Union accounts of the battle, both during and, especially, after the war. Given that I wrote the book while living in Virginia I was always primarily interested in Confederate accounts (wartime and postwar) and what they had to say about issues related to slavery and race. Continue reading “Massachusetts at the Crater”
This weekend I am attending a conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society called “Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion.” Last night John Stauffer gave the keynote address on abolitionism in the Bay State and today I attended three panels. The range of topics discussed is really quite impressive. I especially enjoyed Jim Downs’s discussion of the health challenges faced by newly freed slaves during the war as well as his thoughts about how all of this challenges our triumphalist narrative of the Civil War. I also enjoyed Katy Meir’s analysis of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and Megan Kate Nelson’s paper on soldiers as tourists. [Stay tuned for an announcement regarding a project that Megan and I will begin working on together in the very near future.]
Tomorrow we will finish up with three more panels, including two that include papers on historical memory by Barbara Gannon and Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai. What is striking, however, is that this conference does not include one paper on military history. An outsider attending this conference would have little sense that this event included four years of horrific violence. There is little sense that the men from Massachusetts ever fired a shot in the Civil War. Of course, I am not the first person to make this observation about the place of military history in academia, but it is quite striking nevertheless. The closest we get to a Civil War general is George McClellan’s 1863 visit to Boston. I certainly don’t mean in any way to diminish the quality of the presentations that I’ve heard over the past two days. As I said, I’ve learned quite a bit and I suspect that we will see many of these papers published at some point.
Of course, it’s a silly question, but I do have a point. Last week an AP story on the challenges of commemorating the Civil War in Mississippi was picked up by news organizations across the country. No one will deny that there are plenty of landmines to negotiate, but I am impressed by what is taking place. Mississippians are exploring their past.
More to the point, the “angst-filled” state of Mississippi is doing a hell of a lot more than my new home of Massachusetts, which just recently established a Civil War sesquicentennial commission. Other than the website, however, there is no activity to report. This is unfortunate since we are approaching a crucial time in our sesquicentennial remembrance in which Massachusetts played a key role. Surely the state can find the resources to organize some type of event to mark the raising of the first black soldiers as well as other key moments in the state’s Civil War past.
As someone new to the state I certainly understand the place of the Revolution in our popular imagination, but there is plenty to learn and to commemorate from that Second American Revolution.
One of the stumbling blocks that I continue to come up against in researching the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry is in reference to Governor John Andrew. The problem is especially acute given my interest in the pay crisis of 1863-64. Andrew played an important role as an advocate for these men, but I am only able to skirt the surface of his involvement thus far. Unless I am mistaken, the last biography was written in 1904. I suspect that his pre-mature death in 1867 as well as the general trend of the nation’s collective memory by the end of the nineteenth century has something to do with his disappearance from the historical landscape.
Of course, he makes a very brief appearance in the movie Glory and you will find him referenced in scores of Civil War studies that focus on the organization and deployment of black Union soldiers, but there seems to be little more. Can anyone think of a more important Civil War era governor? Andrew is central not only to the inclusion of African Americans in the United States military, but emancipation itself.
I am now toying with writing a Civil War biography of Andrew. Such a focus would allow me to continue to research black Union soldiers and the story of black citizenship in Massachusetts, but it would also highlight Andrew’s role in this dramatic story. I suspect there is also room to talk about how Andrew was remembered in connection to emancipation and black soldiers after his death.
[Post title comes from a letter written by Col. Robert G. Shaw on Feb. 4, 1863, which appears in Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.]