Tag Archives: William Mahone

Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies

In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis.  The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity.  Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010).  If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.

Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example.  I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond.  Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic.  I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic.  My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did.  I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay.  The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is.  He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece.  I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did.  I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay.  What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic.  I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity.  There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback.  The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.

I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005.  Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews.  This is one of the nicer reviews.

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Richard Slotkin’s Crater

cemeteryridge_evm00001255The following review of Richard Slotkin’s new book, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 is now available in the latest edition of Civil War Book Review.

With the publication of three books on the battle of the Crater in the past two years, one might reasonably ask if there is a need for yet another. These previous treatments (written mainly by non-academic historians) have collectively addressed the tactical complexity of the battle, including the early morning explosion of 8,000 pounds of black powder under a Confederate salient and they have provided an exhaustive account of the close-quarter combat and blood-letting that ensued for close to eight hours on a battlefield that was ripped open by the initial blast. Such a focus is a staple of traditional military history. But as much as we have learned about the nature of combat in the trenches around Petersburg in the summer of 1864 there are key aspects of this battle that have not been sufficiently addressed by the previous literature.

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“The Question of Atrocity” for Richard Slotkin

I am just about finished reading Richard Slotkin’s new book on the Crater, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, and have enjoyed it immensely.  The book is very different from the two previous studies of the battle in that Slotkin provides a much needed analysis of the racial components of the battle rather than a traditional military history.  Yes, there is more to a battle than moving from place to place.  I am in the process of writing up a formal review for Civil War Book Review, but wanted to share something that I learned for the first time.

Although I wish Slotkin had gone a bit further in his analysis of the massacre of USCTs he does an excellent job of presenting both the immediate and long-term conditions that help explain the scale and complexity of the violence.  First, Slotkin correctly references the proportion of dead to wounded in the battle in comparison with other Civil War battles.  On average, the ratio of wounded to dead was 4.8 to 1.  At the Crater, the overall ratio for Union troops was 3.7 to 1, though for black soldiers it was 1.8 to 1.  Slotkin’s analysis of the tactical ebb and flow of the battle reveals a number of moments where soldiers on the battlefield were executed and not just black soldiers.  [It should be pointed out that Slotkin is not the first historian to point this out.  In 1987 Bryce Suderow published an article in the journal, Civil War History, which was later included in a collection of essays on Civil War massacres.]  The first massacre actually occurred by black soldiers in Sigfried’s brigade, who advanced into battle with the cry of “No Quarter.”  According to Slotkin, the battle cry was intended “to overcome that supposed docility and motivate them to fight with absolute determination.” (p. 339)  White officers quickly intervened once their men became engaged with the enemy.

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What’s Up With the “M”?

800px-Mahone_MausoleumToday was the perfect day to drive to Petersburg and hang out at the Crater.  I try to get down there at least once a year to recharge the batteries and find those special places where I can lose myself in the past for a few moments.  This trip I decided to walk off the field itself into the wooded areas along the edge of the battlefield.  I walked a few hundred yards along the Confederate right where the 46th and 34th Virginia were located.  The Federal attack managed to occupy about 200 yards along this portion of the battlefield, but what is striking when you walk this area is the incline that they would have had to manage.  In short, it would not have been an easy area to defend given the disorganization in Federal ranks and decisiveness of the Confederate counterattacks beginning at roughly 9am.  Along the Confederate left one is also struck by the uneven terrain and the difficulty that the Ninth Corps would have had in securing the area that was defended primarily by brigades from North Carolina under the command of Col. Lee M. McAfee.  I also explored one of the two “covered ways” that the Ninth Corps used for its attack as well as numerous smaller traverses.  Finally, I followed the “covered way” used by Mahone’s division for their counterattack.  If you walk about 100 yards beyond the crater you will come to a depression where the wood line is extended out.  Find an entrance into the woods and you can walk a few yards before the ground levels out.  It’s of course impossible to know what the area looked like on July 30 given that the battlefield functioned as a golf course in the early twentieth century.  I actually spent so much time exploring the area beyond the perimeter of the field that I almost forgot to make a quick trip around the crater itself.  Along the way I ran into a very nice couple who were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.  I asked if they had any questions and ended up giving them a fairly detailed account of the battle and a bit about what happened on the site after the war.  They were very grateful.

From there I went to Blandford Cemetery which I like to call, “Lost Cause Central”.  I absolutely love walking Blandford.  It’s a beautiful spot and you can usually walk it with very few people around.  I did my usual route, which took me to the Confederate section and William Mahone’s mausoleum.  It’s a very curious resting place.  You can’t really see it in this photograph, but the only indication that this is Mahone’s gravesite is the “M” that is situated inside the star above the door.  Mahone was larger than life and in my mind the most important Virginia politician of the nineteenth century after Thomas Jefferson.  The structure itself is an imposing one and perhaps fitting given Mahone’s importance, but one wonders why there is nothing more than a letter to identify its occupant.  You might say that an “M” is all that would have been needed in this case, much like the simplicity of “Grant” on the monument in Washington, D.C.  Or it could reflect the bitterness and anger that befell Mahone owing to his foray into politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party, which controlled Virginia state politics for four years.

Mahone’s obituaries reflect a deep mistrust from around Virginia that followed him until his death in October 1895.  Much of what I found tried to focus on his military career, but in the end could not fail to notice what many deemed to be the actions of a traitor.  The Richmond Times Dispatch offered a dispassionate overview of Mahone’s military and political career and listed numerous regret notices from Virginia politicians and “resolutions of regret” from local Confederate veterans organizations, including the A. P. Hill Camp, Gray’s Veterans, and the R. E. Lee Camp.  The Norfolk Landmark reported to its readers that Mahone’s death “removes one of the most conspicuous figures in the public life of this State since the war.”  After describing his accomplishments on the battlefield, the paper concluded that Mahone “combined with signal strategic ability a personal bravery and self command” and “enjoyed the confidence and esteem of General Lee.”  Virginia “loses one of her most distinguished sons,” suggested the Portsmouth Star and “as an organizer of forces, he was unquestionably one of the greatest minds of the age.”  North of Richmond, the Fredericksburg Free Lance described Mahone as a “Confederate general who displayed great ability and achieved marked success.”  Even while offering favorable accounts of Mahone, the same newspapers could not resist commenting on his controversial political career.   Another newspaper urged its readers to remember Mahone’s political legacy: “The name of Virginia was dragged in a mire of reproach and became a by-word and a mockery.  From the effects of that political delirium we are just recovering.”  And the Fredericksburg Free Lance predicted that Mahone’s death “will probably bring about the entire union and thorough cooperation of the divided and disorganized Republican party of Virginia.”  Finally, one eulogist noted that, “Few public men have ever had such a loss of friends as Mahone.”

Could the placement of the “M” somehow have been the result of an unspoken compromise between the Mahone family and the community?  Mahone’s remains would be interred at Blandford, but keep the visual reminder to a minimum.  When it comes to trying to understand and/or debate how to remember the Civil War generation there is a tendency to simplify in a way that ignores the complexity of the lives being remembered.   The categories employed tend to be more about how we feel or how we choose to identify with the past.  What I find so interesting about Mahone is that he serves to remind us that not even his own generation could agree on how he ought to be remembered.

To wrap up my trip I met my friend, Emmanuel Dabney, for lunch in Petersburg.  Emmanuel works as an interpreter for the NPS at Petersburg and is currently working on an M.A. in public history.  He is incredibly passionate about historic preservation and hopes to make a career in the NPS.  I predict that Emmanuel is going to be a real force in the preservation world.

Nat Turner Lived 40 Miles From the Crater

Nat_Turner_woodcut

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about the images of slave rebellions and miscegenation that shaped the world view of white Southerners throughout the antebellum period.  In the case of Nat Turner’s Rebellion newspapers throughout Virginia and beyond offered extensive coverage and attempted to offer an explanation that would assuage the concerns of what white Southerners believed to be docile and loyal slaves.  However, even before the bloody events that transpired in Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831 there had already been close coverage of slave insurrections in the broader “Atlantic World” that stretched back to the rebellion in Saint Domingue.  In fact, by 1831 explanations purporting to explain why their slaves might rebel had already been strongly embedded by subsequent rebellions in Demerera, Barbados, and elsewhere.  The explanation that abolitionists (Missionaries) were responsible for the violence on their plantations provided a ready-made answer for Southern slaveowners who pointed the finger at the small abolitionist community in Boston.  Such an explanation, however, makes little sense without a broader appreciation of how events throughout the Atlantic World shaped their outlook.  Indeed, as historian Edward Rugemer asserts in his excellent study, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the Civil War, explanations of Turner’s Rebellion take on a hysterical quality.  He notes that by the time of the insurrection William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator had only recently begun publication, though its circulation was quite limited, The American Anti-Slavery Society had not yet been formed, the “Declaration of Sentiments” had not been written, and the New England Anti-Slavery Society had not even published its second Annual Report.  Finally, many northern newspapers condemned the violence in Virginia.

A few months after Turner’s Rebellion a much larger insurrection in Jamaica (“Baptist War”) involving 60,000 slaves broke out.  This was followed by England’s decision to abolish slavery in the West Indies.  My point is that to understand the fears of white Southerners (slaveowner and nonslaveowners alike) we have to consider the few rebellions that took place throughout the colonial and antebellum periods in a much broader context.  Information flowed back and forth freely first through word of mouth in port cities and later via the printed word.  White Southerners did not have to have seen the above woodcut, which was published in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County to understand the dangers of insurrection or their role in preventing such a nightmare.  By 1831 many white Southerners had come to view their world from a defensive posture which acknowledged the threat to slavery as stemming from ruthless abolitionists and a distant government.

William L. Garrison → Nat Turner → Jamaica → England abolishes slavery in West Indies → John Brown → Election of Republican Party → Emancipation Proclamation → Crater → ?

The men who joined the regiments that constituted the Virginia brigade of Mahone’s division at the Crater did not have to have seen the above woodcut because they lived it.  All of the regiments were raised in the Richmond-Petersburg-Norfolk area and William Mahone was born and raised in Southampton County.  The woodcut beautifully frames how we as historians should unpack/analyze how Confederates at the Crater viewed the presence of USCTs as well as how they responded.