The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors. “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.
It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact. This is just another straw man argument. That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences. That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well. I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.
In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful. In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries. That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.
Our standard narrative of Reconstruction goes something like this: After the war the southern states were forced to re-write their state constitutions to conform to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. In many of these states these changes were imposed by occupying federal armies. Between 1865 and 1877 African Americans enjoyed a brief window of civil rights and political privileges that would not be seen again until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s. The Compromise of 1877 left the southern states once again in control of their own futures and quickly instated a series of Jim Crow laws that left their African American population disfranchised and reduced to second class citizens. In short, the black population was abandoned by the federal government. This narrative has become so deeply embedded in our collective memory (at least in our textbooks) that we tend to assume that the end of Reconstruction led inevitably to Jim Crow.
Early on in my Mahone research I was intrigued by a letter that J. Horace Lacy wrote to the general at some point during the post-Readjuster years. Lacy shared a conversation he had with Robert E. Lee at a commencement dinner at Washington College in which the general revealed that in the event of his death or inability to lead the army he had Mahone in mind as a replacement.
Gen’l Hampton sat on the right and I as an orator of day on left of Lee. Turning to Hampton Gen’l Lee said something in a low tone, I leaned back as I thought it was possible it might be something confidential. Laying his hand upon my knee he said lean over Major I only wish Hampton and yourself to hear. Then Gen’l Hampton in the dark days which preceded the fall of the Confederacy, for a good while I was almost hopeless, and you know I did not spare this poor life, for I thought it became me to fall on one of those fields of glory. My artillery was handled well, the cavalry was in the very hands, after the death of Stuart that I preferred to any other. But I often thought if a stray ball should carry me off who could best command the incomparable Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Of course I could not nominate a successor that whole matter was in the hands of the President. But among the younger men I thought William Mahone had developed the highest quality for organization and command.
The words were written down by me that evening and are in my desk at Ellwood. I write them now hastily in a public room. But I know they are accurate. We drifted so far apart politically and I so entirely condemned your policy and methods that I would not give them to the world. Now I cheerfully write them and as far as I am concerned this may be an open letter to the world.
It’s a great story and I don’t mind admitting that back in 2004 I was seduced by it. Mahone was my guy and I was going to rescue him from historical oblivion. In fact, in my first public talks about Mahone I used the well known 1907 print, Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews to make my point. I was still thinking through issues related to how to handle certain kinds of evidence as well as questions surrounding historical memory. More importantly, at the time I still didn’t have as solid a grasp of just how divisive Mahone’s postwar politics were and my understanding of the Confederate high command was also lacking.
There is a wonderful story to be told about this good man Mahone and his contributions that is not being taught in today’s schools. Preserving this national and state historic landmark is an opportunity that this SCV Camp feels will become something positive for all the public to reflect upon while being taught about Billy Mahone…. I can tell you that when sitting in the tavern during one of the monthly SCV meetings, you can feel the history coming out of the walls. We are very proud to have been able to preserve such a historic place and help to promote the true Southern history through purchasing Little Billy Mahone’s boyhood home.
After six long years, I am pleased to announce that the University Press of Kentucky will publish my first book, Remembering War as Murder: The Battle of the Crater. Yesterday I received an email indicating that the manuscript received the unanimous approval and enthusiastic support of the press’s editorial board. The book will appear in their series, New Directions in Southern History, which is edited by Peter Carmichael, Michelle Gillespie, and William Link. If everything goes as planned the book should be available by Spring 2012.
I am looking forward to working with Kentucky during what will no doubt be a hectic next few months, but I am already confident that they are going to do a first-rate job. Back in 2007 I published a chapter in a book of essays on Civil War soldiers edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean and I have another piece that is slated to appear in the final volume of their Virginia at War series, edited by James I. Robertson and William C. Davis.