Tag Archives: memory

Union Veterans Reflect on Robert E. Lee

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 4.43.30 PMAfter the Civil War, the renown of Robert E. Lee spread far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy. He was respected and praised in the North for his virtues, his fighting prowess, and his conciliation in defeat. Historians such as Alan T. Nolan have noted that the North, whose people “had to acknowledge the honor of the South,” fully embraced the Lee tradition. “Revisionism,” especially in terms of Lost Cause interpretations of the war where Lee figured centrally, argues Nolan, “could not become part of the Civil War legend without northern acceptance, and the North did accept the South’s rewriting of the record.”

While some in the North may have been retrospectively kind to the former Rebel general, Nolan has made far too great a generalization. Union veterans, for example, were hardly generous in their assessment of Lee. To them, Lee was a traitor. In 1891, the Grand Army Record passionately objected to the “saintly slopping over Robert E. Lee,” and others agreed. In fact, GAR protests against Lee helped create a lasting thread in northern commemorative literature. In 1910, one Union veteran wrote, essentially expressing in the same breath how some might find Lee both virtuous and reprehensible: “Though in his Confederate uniform [Lee] may possess all the culture and personal worthiness he had before he thus clothed himself, this badge of disloyalty – of rebellion – so characterizes him that by it he must be judged.” As late as 1922, a variety of groups continued to honor the veterans’ legacy by protesting in “unmeasured terms” the organizations that celebrated the Rebel chief, arguing that treason should never be forgotten, much less rewarded. “No Grand Army man,” offered one Union veteran, “can honorably lend his name to any movement which shall dignify to posterity the name of the traitor Robert E. Lee, or shall make him the equal of the loyal, victorious Grant.”

Union veterans remained determined to praise only the Union heroes who saved the country, rather than a Rebel who had tried to destroy it. The praise allotted to the rebel chieftain wore Grand Army veterans particularly thin. One Collier’s Weekly article citing Lee as America’s most “noble citizen” especially drew fire from the GAR’s patriotic instructor, Robert Kissick of Iowa. “If Lee was all you claim, then the men I represent were wrong in fighting to preserve the nation he fought to destroy.” Further arguing that “Lee did not follow his state out of the Union,” but rather, “his state followed him,” Kissick lambasted the Confederate hero and heaped much of the blame for upper South secession on Lee’s shoulders. As decades passed, few Union veterans could stomach the praise of Robert E. Lee. In 1922, when the American Legion attempted to honor Lee’s birthday, veterans of the Pennsylvania GAR shuddered at the idea that anyone would “place a premium on Disloyalty to the Flag and our Country.”

Although adulation of the Rebel general found a place among northern civilians who perhaps sentimentalized or romanticized the genteel south and all that the Lee family embodied, Lee’s standing among Union veterans never reached the heights the general obtained in the South.

With compliments,

Keith

I Disagree With Some of the Best Books Ever

Screen Shot 2015-11-07 at 9.28.20 AMA former student recently asked me to comment on David W. Blight’s  Race and Reunion. I said it was a great book…but one with which I disagree. And I talk about disagreeing with it all the time. Perhaps a little explanation is in order…

But first, I would like to say that this is an important work in the field of Civil War memory – maybe the most important (at least right now). It is beautifully written and about as captivating as a history book can be. I just think that Blight has missed his mark. Here is my thinking on what I term Blight’s (and others’) “reconciliation premise” – paraphrased from my book, Across the Bloody Chasm, on the subject of veterans, commemoration, and national reconciliation.

Blight, while curiously overlooking northern efforts to commemorate the fight to preserve the Union, examines how participants at events geared toward reconciliation, such as the 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, ignored the principal issues leading to war and the Union war aim of emancipation. At these events, mentions of slavery or emancipation were conspicuously absent. Blight reasons, together with white supremacists, reconciliationists “locked arms” and “delivered a segregated memory of the Civil War on Southern terms.” He concludes, “Forces of reconciliation overwhelmed the emancipationist vision in the national culture [and] the inexorable drive for reunion both used and trumped race.”

Scholars can and should agree that Civil War veterans from both North and South shared in their racist sensibilities; they can likewise condemn them for their actions. But while the participants were undoubtedly racist, emphasizing veterans’ reconciliatory impulses solely as efforts to commemorate a “white only” war runs the risk of obscuring veterans’ intentions. Did veterans calculatingly contribute to historical amnesia along racial lines in the name of reconciliation? There is relatively little evidence pointing to this conclusion. It is true that from the point of view of most veterans, reconciliation seemed the soundest course of action. Yet the memories that informed the terms of reconciliation suggest that Civil War veterans acquiesced to reaching across the bloody chasm (see what I did there?)  only so long as their former enemies accepted their respective arguments – a scenario that seldom transpired.

Even a cursory look at the historical record reveals that the memories of slavery, emancipation, and the trials of freedmen coupled with other contentious issues such as treason and the right of secession loomed large for former soldiers from both North and South. In fact, questions concerning race functioned as a leitmotif throughout the reconciliation era. Whether veterans celebrated the demise of slavery and saw emancipation as a worthy component of their cause, or viewed slavery as an incident rather than a cause of the war, race and the plight of black Americans functioned as a central narrative in the battle to write the terms of reconciliation.

Evidence suggests (and I have examples to spare – just ask) that Blight’s efforts to illustrate the memory of the war as a “white only” “southern terms” affair miss the bull’s-eye by a Confederate mile. The terms of reconciliation were – and still are for that matter – undecided, hashed out, and fought over…on a national scale. Slavery, emancipation, and black people in general were central to this post-war conflict over memory. Neither Union nor Confederate veterans let the citizens of a reunited nation forget their positions on this volatile subject – a subject that has remained among the most divisive generations after the conflict. But as always – I suggest you read Race and Reunion and judge for yourself.

With compliments,

Keith

It’s Just Like You Are There

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 8.23.16 PMOn July 3rd – just a few short weeks ago, I took part in the Gettysburg Sacred Trust Talks and Book Signing Event in, as the event title might suggest, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I offered a few words as part of a panel discussion and question and answer session concerning Civil War veterans and how they told their story of the war.

I really enjoyed the event and being in Gettysburg during the anniversary of the battle was something to behold. Suffice it to say, the Civil War tourist industry is alive and well. Just try and find a parking spot on Steinwehr Avenue and tell me something different.

If you couldn’t make it to the talk – the video is below. It’s a little over a hour, but worth the time spent watching. I would especially pay attention to the engaging questions posed by the audience. It’s just like being there!

 

With compliments,

Keith

GNMP Ranger Christopher Gwinn on What Gettysburg Meant to Its Veterans

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 7.45.26 PMGreetings all – I have really been enjoying the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Winter Lecture Series – all available to view free on charge on the GNMP Youtube channel. Yesterday I had a look at park ranger Christopher Gwinn’s discussion concerning what the Gettysburg battlefield meant to the veterans who had fought their. I believe that Gwinn did a wonderful job confronting what I long ago dubbed the “reconciliation premise,” or rather, scholars’ (read David Blight and others) persistent and influential notion that reconciliationists locked arms with white supremacists and crafted a white-washed Civil War memory on southern terms. The premise, as Gwinn notes, can certainly ring true – but only if viewed through a conspicuously narrow lens. For example, the 1913 and 1938 Blue-Gray reunions on the battlefield were unquestionably devoid of any divisive issues – especially those concerning slavery and emancipation. After all, these were national events honoring both sides and they were specifically meant to foster reconciliation. Rekindling prickly issues over the causes and consequences of the war was not on the agenda.

But Gwinn, quite correctly,  points out that the articulation of Civil War veterans’ memories  at Gettysburg  (especially Union veterans) was somewhat more complicated than the “forgive and forget” scenarios in ’13 and ’38. When not in the company of former enemies, which was the more typical variety of commemorative event, Federal veterans were quite clear on why they had fought, the righteousness of their victory, and the bitterness that continued to inform their memories late in life. They used the Gettysburg battlefield to express their views – however impassioned and however belligerent.

As such, Gettysburg battlefield ceremonies denote not only valor on the field of the so-called “turning point of the war” – as we learn from the inscriptions on the many monuments that cover the landscape, but also – if one reads the speeches delivered at monument dedications – a site of memory where veterans could rehash the more divisive issues.

Gwinn focuses almost entirely on Union veterans, which makes sense considering that Confederates are not well represented on the field. Yet he might have noted with more emphasis that former Rebels expressed their own versions of war memory elsewhere and in equally vehement fashion. Their war memories included issues such as tyranny and the perversion of the intentions of the founding generation – they did much the same thing as their Union counterparts on fields at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and in town squares across the South. In fact,  typical Gettysburg commemorative events reflected the kind of commemoration that took place on both sides of the Potomac – on battlefields, courthouse lawns, and veteran meeting halls. Recognition of this broader sense of veteran commemoration would have served to strengthen his argument about Gettysburg.  But this aside, Gwinn convincingly suggests, and I enthusiastically agree: veterans were willing to reconcile, but only on terms of their own writing. You might guess how all of this worked out.

Please watch the video below and add your two cents in the comments section. I am happy to keep the conversation going. And thanks to Mr. Gwinn for recommending my book, Across the Bloody Chasm. He couples it with Caroline E. Janney’s magnificent Remembering the Civil War, which looks at similar issues but casts a wider net  – and arrives at a few different conclusions. More on that later – I have a review of Carrie’s book in the works.

With compliments,

Keith

Did I Forget Someone?

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 7.57.45 AMGreetings!

Well, in short, the answer is no. But allow me to explain. When I was conducting research on the commemorative efforts of Civil War veterans for my dissertation, giving papers on the topic, and years later, revising the diss for publication as Across the Bloody Chasm, I ran up against a good many people who found it potentially problematic that I wrote only of white Civil War veterans. They questioned: did I overlook, dismiss, or find their commemorative efforts not worthy of analysis? Of course I did not.

Let me assure you I greatly value and hold in the highest esteem the work of black Civil War Union veterans. I believe that there is much one can offer concerning their commemorations by way of investigation. But though many admonished that readers and reviewers would take me to task for leaving black veterans out of my story, I decided, with deliberate intention, not to discuss their commemorative culture.

I will note two reasons for this decision:

First, two historians have recently published excellent studies on black veterans. Donald R. Shaffer’s After the Glory and Barbara A. Gannon’s The Won Cause are both magnificent works that focus on black veteran struggles after the war, having won a sense of manliness as soldiers, and black and white comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, the preeminent Union veterans’ organization.  While I contend that no book is the final word on anything, these two studies generally reflect my personal thoughts on black veterans (thoughts that resonate loudly in the archival record), and I do not feel (at least, not for now) that I could have added anything significant to build on what Shaffer and Gannon have already so elegantly accomplished.

Second, I was looking for the voice of the majority, in essence to learn if there was something crucial and overlooked that drove the general spirit of soldiers’ commemorations against a backdrop of national reconciliation in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. I believe it goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of the men who shouldered muskets in the Civil War were white. The Confederacy fielded  about o% (+/- .0001%) of their military age black men in combat roles, and the Union enlisted roughly 179,000 black fighting men to march into battle with the USCT and other black regiments – a shade short of 10% of the Union army. Combined, well over 3 million men served between 1861 and 1865. Clearly, black soldiers made up only a small fraction of the armies. Moving on, it made perfect sense that after the conflict black veterans would acknowledge slavery as the central cause of the war and celebrate emancipation as its consequence – no matter what anyone else said. Nothing surprising here.

My argument was with the predominating “reconciliationist premise” literature (David Blight’s work especially but also numerous others) that claimed white veterans put aside divisive issues in the name of an entirely benign and whitewashed reconciliation on southern terms.

With rare exception, they did not. In fact, many on both sides discussed with great vehemence war issues such as slavery and emancipation through any number of commemorative activities. And they went further than that, taking on highly volatile topics such as treason, tyranny, and the original intentions of the founders. Those who attended veterans’ gatherings or wrote narratives and recollections were bent on preserving memories, not whiting them out.

So it seems that white Civil War veterans – the majority of those who fought – did not dismiss war issues as readily as some scholars would have you think. They were perfectly willing to reconcile, but only on terms of their choosing – all the while acknowledging that the other side was profoundly wrong. As you might imagine, that did not work out so well. This is the story that I offer. You will have to read my book to see if I executed it successfully.

With compliments,

Keith