I‘m behind in my APUS History classes which has forced me to move quickly through the Civil War. You can imagine how frustrating that is given my interests. Regardless, I am very particular about the language I use to describe the past and I expect my students to be attentive to such matters as well. It matters how we refer or describe individuals and events, especially when discussing our Civil War. I’ve already mentioned my preference for consistently referring to the United States rather than the Union or the North.
In my discussions today I noticed a couple of students looking at me funny whenever I referred to a Confederate invasion of the United States. Of course, I was referring specifically to the Maryland Campaign of 1862 and Gettysburg Campaign the following summer. [We could also throw in Jubal Early’s little foray in 1864 in as well.] I inquired into their strange stares and one of the students admitted that he was not used to thinking of the Confederate army as an invading army. Not surprisingly, this same student had no difficulty coming to terms with an invasion of the South or Confederacy. A few students embraced Lincoln’s fairly consistent belief that the southern states were in rebellion and therefore still a part of the nation, but they had no qualms with the idea of an invasion.
I guess this has everything to do with the assumption that the Confederacy was simply fighting a defensive war. But it also goes to some of our more cherished beliefs that draw a sharp distinction between Confederate and United States armies. For the latter, we immediately think of Grant and Sherman, who did, in fact, engage in aggressive offensives throughout the war. On the other hand, we do have difficulty acknowledging the same aggressive tendencies in Confederate commanders. We would rather remember them as leading a gallant defensive effort against overwhelming resources rather than as engaged in a war that would hopefully lead to independence for all slave holding states. Invasions are carried out by generals like Grant and Sherman, not by Lee and Jackson. I suspect that my students are dealing with this baggage. If I had more time or if that comment had come in my elective course on the Civil War I could have utilized any number of primary and secondary sources that shed light on this subject.
Interestingly, this film was done in 1982, well before the YouTube Era. You will have to excuse me, but for some reason I find this sort of video to be quite funny. This one clearly reflects the persistence of the “Grant the Drunk” narrative. A more recent video that depicts Grant with bottle can be found here. Enjoy.
While looking through some “sexually explicit” images related to the Civil War I came across this interesting collection by artist, Justine Lai. The artist is based in San Francisco. Lai has this to say about her first Online exhibit titled, “Join or Die”:
In Join Or Die, I paint myself having sex with the Presidents of the United States in chronological order. I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public legacies and private lives. The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents. A power lies in rendering these patriarchal figures the possible object of shame, ridicule and desire, but it is a power that is constantly negotiated.
You can find the rest of the collection here. Of course, if you are easily offended or of Puritan descent I would refrain from clicking through and move on. Although I don’t find this to be that interesting, I am always struck by the ways we choose to remember our collective past. I guess it gives new meaning to the widely held belief that the public is constantly getting screwed by the government.
“If Grant had a drinking problem, the answer to your question could be that he was willing to sacrifice thousands of more men due to the fact his judgment was impaired by alcohol.” – Richard Williams [scroll down for comment]
Thousands of more men compared to what exactly? Compared to someone who is best remembered as the embodiment of civilized warfare?
Robert E. Lee’s Casualties (1862-1865)
Seven Days battles – 20,204
Second Manassas – 9,000
Sharpsburg – 13,000
Chancellorsville – 13,000
Gettysburg – 21,000
Overland Campaign – 31,000
Petersburg Campaign – 28,000
Ulysses S. Grant’s Casualties (1861-1865)
Battle of Belmont – 3,100
Forts Henry and Donelson – 2,700
Shiloh – 13,000
Vicksburg – 4,800
Chattanooga – 5,800
Overland Campaign – 38,000
Petersburg Campaign – 42,000
Yesterday I mentioned that beliefs about Grant and alcohol typically have something to do with larger issues. Williams’s comment is a case in point. If it can be shown that Grant had a serious enough problem with alcohol it might provide evidence for another long-standing belief, which is that he needlessly sacrificed his men in battle. The image of “Grant the butcher” provides the perfect foil against Robert E. Lee who embodies the martial characteristics of the Virginia cavalier. Does anyone doubt that this is exactly who Williams had in mind in his implicit comparison. As the argument goes Lee fought a traditional war of virtuous generals and civilized tactics while Grant and Sherman ushered in a new era of warfare that anticipated the blood baths of the twentieith century.
My noting Lee’s casualty statistics should not be interpreted as an attack of any kind. I tend to agree with Gary Gallagher’s analysis of Lee as a modern general who understood the importance of offensive, but costly operations as representing the best strategy given issues related to infrastructure, manpower, and the expectation of the civilian population. Still, one might conclude that Grant’s casualty figures demonstrate that he did indeed needlessly sacrifice his men in battle. Of course, you do not have to be an alcoholic to order large numbers of young men to their deaths. You could just as easily be a Virginia gentleman.