Head on over to the Atlantic for my most recent essay on the legacy of our Civil War’s African American soldiers and the movie, Glory. The essay brings together a couple of posts that I recently did on how I teach the movie and how I utilize the history of the pay crisis try to give students a different perspective on the significance of what these men accomplished during the war [see here and here]. You can check out all of my Atlantic essays here.
Let’s not get all worked up about George Lucas’s recent interview on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show over his comments about the the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Lucas talked about the difficulties in securing Hollywood financing for his new film, Red Tails, owing to the film’s all-black cast. Lucas told Stewart:
I wanted to make it inspirational for teenaged boys. I wanted to show that they have heroes, they’re real American heroes, they’re patriots that helped to make the country what it is today. And it’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fodder. It’s like a real, they were real heroes.
Lucas is not suggesting that the men of the 54th were not brave in battle or do not deserve to be remembered. He is commenting on the way in which they are remembered in film and he is right to point out that the story is told largely through the eyes of a white protagonist. Does anyone seriously believe that Glory could have been made any other way?
The Second World War is largely remembered as a white man’s war, so we shall see if Lucas is able to tell a story with no white leading roles. Click here for an extended movie trailer.
I am in the process of reviewing the final edits of my Crater book. As I made my way through chapter 1 I came across one of my favorite quotes that appears in the section that explores how white Southerners assessed reports of the massacre of black Union soldiers. The quote comes from the Richmond Examiner, which appeared on August 2, 1864:
We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of the men in the Fourth Division charged into battle screaming “No quarter” and/or “Remember Fort Pillow.” Reports of this battle cry can be found in the letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers who were present during the battle as well as those who were not. They can also be found in many Southern newspapers, including the Examiner. It is fairly easy to judge who was positioned to hear such a battle cry, which raises the question of why the reference is so pervasive in southern accounts.
Scene set at Blandford Church Hill, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 1:45pm – July 30, 1864 in The Battle of the Crater by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen
“Finish it,” Lee said, looking at [William] Mahone. “For heaven’s sake, they are cornered. Bag the lot, and finish it. If we wait until dark they will escape. For that matter, I am stunned they have not yet brought up reserves to strengthen their line and perhaps threaten another section to draw us off. I want it finished now, before they can launch another attack and stretch us too thin to hold.”
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his solider. “I want the full honor of war observed. Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Mahone looked at him, as if to reply.
“I know what our President has said, but in this army, sir, my orders on this day carry full weight. We are Christian soldiers, sir. Do you understand me? Passions must not rule, even in the heat of battle. If I hear of any atrocities, I will ensure that those involved shall face court-martial and the full penalty of military law.”
He drew Mahone a bit closer. “Do we understand each other, sir”?
There was only one answer Mahone could possibly give to such a man. “Yes, sir.” [pp. 281-82]
Of course, there is no evidence that such a conversation ever took place and there is no evidence to suggest that Lee did not know or disapprove of the slaughter of black soldiers after the battle. This is nothing less than a gross distortion of the battle even for a work of historical fiction. Why this scene is necessary for their narrative will be the subject of my review.
I am almost finished reading Newt Gingrich’s co-authored historical fiction on the Crater and I have to admit that it’s not half bad. The attack has commenced and not going well. The book is almost entirely about the 28th United States Colored Troops with Major Garland White as one of its principal characters. There are a few scenes set in Confederate earthworks and a very short section set in Lee’s headquarters following the explosion, but the rest of it focuses on the black soldiers with the help of a fictional character by the name of James Reilly, who works as a sketch artist.
Even without having finished the book, what is clear is that Gingrich and Forstchen do everything they can not to offend, which is quite an achievement given the nature of the subject. Let me just give you one example. All of you have read that the Fourth Division went into the battle with the cry of “No Quarter.” That reference appears twice in the battle sequence, but take a look at how it is framed by the authors:
There was no quarter. The pent-up rage, the insanity of a world that had driven them to this moment, was unleashed, both sides screaming “No quarter, no prisoners! as they shot , cut, and slashed at each other. [p. 259]
Both sides were screaming foul oaths of hatred and rage. Centuries of slavery and the cruelty and fear it engendered, combined with three years of bitter war with no end in sight, unleashed a pent-up fury on this day as both sides screamed: No quarter, no prisoners!” [p. 266]
They certainly were, but we also know based on the historical record that the black troops screamed, “Remember Fort Pillow.” That, of course, is conveniently left out as is pretty much any reference to the racial hatred that animated Confederate troops during the battle. There is a context for understanding cries of “No quarter” that animated the black men in blue that is crucial to this history. They knew what was at stake if captured. The same holds true for Confederates who faced the attack of the black troops as well as those who heard about it. Their rage took a specific form that had its roots in white supremacy and fears associated with slave rebellions that extended back into the antebellum period. Unfortunately, it looks like this theme will continue to be ignored in what remains of the book. More later.