Yesterday I shared a short excerpt from the John H. Claiborne letters, which are located in Special Collections at the University of Virginia. I was looking for one particular letter in which he discussed his camp servants. Unfortunately, no date was included in the description of the collection so I had to make my way through roughly 50 letters. I finally found it at the very end, but it was well worth the time spent. Claiborne briefly references a number of slaves that assisted him as chief surgeon in Petersburg, but not until the letter below did he reflect on their place in the army as well as the future of slavery.
Claiborne references the impressment policies of the Confederate government along with his own responsibilities as a slaveholder. There is a great deal of paternalism that courses throughout and an interesting passage in which he reaffirms the supposed loyalty of his slaves. In reading the letters you get a clear sense that Claiborne and his slaves endured great hardship in Petersburg during the final year of the war, but in the end his slaves never move beyond being acknowledged for their instrumental value.
I am writing from the Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia, where I am going through some files related to body servants and impressed slaves. Here is a little nugget from the John H. Claiborne letters, which I’ve spent quite some time with over the past few years. This collection of letters and other materials really needs to be published. Claiborne was the chief surgeon in Petersburg during the final year of the war. Here is an excerpt from a letter to his wife, dated July 17, 1864:
Oh when will the day of retribution come? Can this conquer the South? Let the spoiled and bleeding and exiled and starving people of Virginia answer. Not a murmur – not a complaint not a craven cry for peace have I heard — but war — blood for blood — let us perish and our little ones — but let the fight go on — better to fill freemen’s graves than to live as yankee serfs. You see their undying spirit in the thin – compressed lip and fierce hungry eye. One of my Surgeons told me the other day that his wife who is in N.Va. wrote him that she was penniless — that she was soon to be confined and that she did not know what she should do. Another — a man for a long time was a captain in a Va. Regiment and a noble brave fellow and a good soldier until his health forced him into the Med. Dept. told me that he had a letter from his wife a day or two ago and that she was working in the cornfield day by day trying to make break for his little ones. These were people of affluence & refinement before the war. Both of the gentlemen were educated in Europe or partially educated there and accustomed to all the elegance & luxuries that wealth could supply. There is suffering but you see it only in the earnest face & compressed lip — and you hear it in the muttered denunciation of wrath against the yankees. No whining for peace or stop the war. It is said we Virginians are too proud of our State. It may be so — but none will deny we have cause to be proud of her. I envy no other & detract from no other but I thank God I am a Virginian. We may be blotted out of the book of nations but the name of Virginia & of her sons & her daughters can never perish.
As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declaration of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do. [my emphasis]
I think John is absolutely right and this is an issue that came up a few times during the conference in Raleigh, but it didn’t receive nearly enough attention. My paper attempted to sketch some of the challenges that the National Park Service in Petersburg face in attracting African Americans and the local community to the battlefield. I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans. I’m not even sure how one would go about this. At the same time and given their location within a predominantly black community I do believe that the NPS does have a responsibility to be sensitive to the extent to which decisions made within its own institution and beyond served to alienate African Americans from a landscape that figured prominently in a narrative that traced the transition from slavery to freedom.
It is clear to me that public historians need to spend much more time coming to terms with the myriad ways in which Americans approach their past. With all of the attention being paid to how little Americans supposedly know about the past, it would be much more helpful to try to better understand why so many of us feel drawn to the past. [One useful source is Roy Rozensweig’s and Thelen’s, The Presence of the Past.] A new YouTube video interview of H.K. Edgerton by the Sons of Confederate Veterans points to just how important this is if we hope to offer an interpretation of the past that responds to the needs of various consumers of history. I’ve written extensively about H.K. and while I find him to be quite entertaining it would be a big mistake to dismiss him without considering his core message. I find it very difficult to follow much of his thinking about slavery, Reconstruction, the Klan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in this video. Frankly, I don’t get the sense that H.K. has read much history at all.
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.
Over the past two decades Earl J. Hess has established himself as one of the foremost authorities of Civil War military history. He has done so with award-winning studies of the experiences of the common soldier, battles such as Pea Ridge and Gettysburg, and (in the opinion of this writer) one of the finest brigade histories ever written. In recent years Hess has added to this list with a history of the rifle musket and a 3-volume study of the evolution and influence of earthworks on the war in the Eastern Theater. Rather than rehash the standard narratives, readers have come to expect that Hess will challenge many of their deep-seated assumptions about the war. In the case of his most recent study of the battle of the Crater that task is made more difficult given the publication of four books of varying degrees of quality over the past five years.
The increased attention to the Crater over the past few years stems from both the 2003 release of the movie, Cold Mountain, which featured a vivid recreation of the battle, as well as broader resurgence of interest in the final year of the war and the Petersburg Campaign specifically. The lack of scholarly attention has left us with an overly simplistic view of the battle that has tended to focus on the spectacle of the early-morning detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a futile Union assault. Into the Crater offers a necessary corrective to many of the finer points of the story as well as to assumptions that fundamentally alter the way we understand the evolution of the campaign, the battle, and its outcome – both of which serve to move us away from what appears to be a tragedy in the making. [Read the rest of the Review.]