Tag Archives: Reconciliation

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

The Sainsbury’s Christmas Advert

 

 

You have all by now surely seen the British grocery chain Sainsbury’s exceedingly well-done Christmas advert depicting the famous 1914 Christmas truce and football match – where German and British soldiers put aside their weapons and come out of their trenches for a brief moment of camaraderie.  As one who writes about soldiers,  memory, and reconciliation I found this commercial very interesting. Understanding that Christmas is for sharing, these men show no spirit of enmity. Rather, they enjoy a celebration of humanity and selflessness in the midst of chaos while recognizing, as the ad implies (with the distant sound of artillery), that they will soon have to return to hostilities.

What are your thoughts?

With compliments,

Keith

The Americanist Independent
 

Speaking Engagement in Pasadena – October 28th

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 9.33.16 AMGreetings to my Southern California friends – I will be speaking to the Pasadena Civil War Round Table on October 28th at 7:15 PM. The place: the Pasadena Central Library. The topic: Civil War veterans and reconciliation. This talk will be kicking off my book tour, of sorts…kind of promotional and kind of informative at the same time. If LSU press comes through by then, I might even have a copy or three on hand. Come one, come all – I PROMISE you will not be disappointed!

Here’s the deets.

With compliments,

Keith

What You Might Find Inside a Used Book

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Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 8.22.42 AMThis is the inscription on the frontpiece of my personal copy of Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg: Report of the Pennsylvania Commission (Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, c1913). Or what I simply call the “Pennsylvania Report.” I bought the book in Gettysburg back in 2001 from a small book store specializing in battle ephemera. I wish I could remember the name of the store…or where exactly it is (or was) located. Anyway…it’s pretty cool when you can trace a book’s history. I did a little digging and found a great image of Francis H. Hoy – who, as stated, served as the Senior Vice Commander of the Department of Pennsylvania, GAR in 1915. In 1919, as I discovered, he served as the department’s Chief of Staff.

But enough about Hoy. The book is full of photographs from the 1913 Blue-Gray reunion at Gettysburg, marking the 50th anniversary of the battle. A significant number of the images clearly depict a reconciliatory spirit…and these images have dominated much of the scholarly analysis of the reconciliation movement. I take issue with some of these ideas and underscore a number of the most “forgive and forget” images in the August issue of The Americanist Independent. It would it worth it to you to check it out.

With compliments,

Keith