Tag Archives: Civil War memory

More alternate Civil War histories? Look away!

I assume we’ve all heard that the guys behind Game of Thrones are doing an alt-history series where the Confederacy survives into the present day, and that the entire Twittersphere ripped HBO a new one over it.

We don’t yet know how well the show would grapple with the subject matter, but that interview in which one of the GoT guys seemed to have difficulty recalling the name of the Battle of Antietam doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?

Setting aside questions of historical sensibility or whether a series about modern-day legal slavery would be in good taste, one of the reasons it strikes me as a dumb idea is the fact that we’ve seen the whole Confederacy-wins-the-war premise done So. Many. Times.  The only alt-history scenario that’s more worn-out is the notion of an Axis victory in WWII.  There are so many novels based on the idea that you could build your own Fort Sumter using only the ones written by Harry Turtledove.  In fact, a Civil War setting for alternative history of any kind is pretty stale; it’s got its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud.

Now comes news that Amazon is developing its own alternative offering—an alt-alt-history, I suppose you could call it—which “focuses on freed slaves who form their own country, New Colonia, out of the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, given to them as reparations for the country’s original sin.”  At least that’s a somewhat original twist.

If you ask me, though, storytellers need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to alt-history settings.  They’ve got centuries of the human past to play with.  Give the 1860s and 1940s a rest.

 

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The battle over Shaw’s body

When the news broke that the Massachusetts Historical Society had obtained Robert Gould Shaw’s sword, I started looking up some information on the burial of his body to see what I could find out about how the sword made its way back to the family.  The story of Shaw’s burial in a common trench (on this exact date in 1863, actually) with the bodies of his men is one I’ve known since high school, and I’d always assumed it was pretty well settled.

It turns out that’s not the case.  In fact, there’s a longstanding controversy about why Shaw’s body ended up in a common grave, and over what the party responsible for the burial said about it at the time.

Robert Gould Shaw, via Wikimedia Commons

The story that appears in quite a few secondary works is that Confederate Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood ordered Shaw’s burial in a common grave as an act of intentional desecration, since Shaw died leading African American troops.  In the version I first read as a high school student, Hagood dismissed questions about Shaw’s resting place with a contemptuous remark: “We buried him with his n*****s.”

Johnson Hagood, via Wikimedia Commons

In the original account on which the story is based, however, Hagood’s words are slightly different.  Our eyewitness was John T. Luck, a Union surgeon captured on the day of Shaw’s burial and held at Ft. Wagner.  Here’s how he told the story in an 1865 letter to the editor of Army and Navy Journal:

While being conducted into the fort I saw Colonel Shaw, of the 54th Massachusetts (colored) Regiment, lying dead upon the ground just outside the parapet.  A stalwart negro had fallen near him.  The rebels said the negro was a color-sergeant. The Colonel had been killed by a rifle-shot through the chest, though he had received other wounds. Brigadier-General Hagood, commanding the rebel forces, said to me: “I knew Colonel Shaw before the war, and then esteemed him. Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial. As it is, I shall bury him in the common trench, with the negroes that fell with him.”  The burial party were then at work; and no doubt Colonel Shaw was buried just beyond the ditch of the fort in the trench where I saw our dead indiscriminately thrown. Two days afterwards a Rebel surgeon (Dr. Dawson, of Charleston, S. C, I think) told me that Hagood had carried out his threat.

It’s more or less along the lines of the story as I first encountered it, but with a few differences.  Here Hagood orders Shaw’s burial in a common grave as a postmortem insult, but makes his remark before the burial happens, and without the racial slur that makes the other version seem especially vile.

Whether Haywood himself used the slur in reference to Shaw’s burial or not, it seems that somebody in the Confederate ranks did, or at least that many Unionists thought so, because the phrase was already appearing in Northern sources during the war.  An 1864 article in Macmillan’s Magazine claims that “when the Federals asked for his body the day after the fight, ‘Colonel Shaw!’ they said, ‘we buried him below his n*****s!'”  Joseph Thomas Wilson’s 1890 book The Black Phalanx attributes the phrase to a Confederate major.

In their anthology of stories of American heroes, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge quoted Hagood’s words as they appeared in Luck’s account, but also noted that the more venomous remark became a Union rallying cry:

General Haywood [sic], commanding the rebel forces, said to a Union prisoner: “I knew Colonel Shaw before the war, and then esteemed him. Had he been in command of white troops, I should have given him an honorable burial. As it is, I shall bury him in the common trench, with the negroes that fell with him.” He little knew that he was giving the dead soldier the most honorable burial that man could have devised, for the savage words told unmistakably that Robert Shaw’s work had not been in vain. The order to bury him with his “n*****s,” which ran through the North and remained fixed in our history, showed, in a flash of light, the hideous barbarism of a system which made such things and such feelings possible. It also showed that slavery was wounded to the death, and that the brutal phrase was the angry snarl of a dying tiger. Such words rank with the action of Charles Stuart, when he had the bones of Oliver Cromwell and Robert Blake torn from their graves and flung on dunghills or fixed on Temple Bar.

Perhaps some Confederate used the phrase in response to the requests some Unionists made about Shaw’s body on his family’s behalf, and in the telling it was misattributed to Hagood himself, with Luck’s account and the quote with the slur getting mingled together.

But there was also a debate over whether Luck’s account of Hagood’s words was true.  Indeed, Hagood denied that he singled out Shaw for a common burial at all, let alone that he intended it as a desecration of memory.  Here is Hagood’s 1881 reply to an inquiry about Luck’s story and Shaw’s burial, as quoted in Luis F. Emilio’s 1891 history of the 54th Massachusetts (italics in original):

On the day after the night assault and while the burial parties of both sides were at work on the field, a chain of sentinels dividing them, a person was brought to me where I was engaged within the battery in repairing damages done to the work. The guard said he had been found wandering within our lines, engaged apparently in nothing except making observations. The man claimed to be a naval surgeon belonging to gunboat ‘ Pawnee ;’ and after asking him some questions about the damages sustained by that vessel a few days before in the Stono River from an encounter with a field battery on its banks, I informed him that he would be sent up to Charleston for such disposition as General Beauregard deemed proper. I do not recall the name of this person, and have not heard of him since, but he must be the Dr. Leech [Luck?] of whom you speak. I have no recollection of other conversation with him than that given above. He has, however, certainly reported me incorrectly in one particular. I never saw or heard of Colonel Shaw until his body was pointed out to me that morning, and his name and rank mentioned. … I simply give my recollection in reply to his statement. As he has confounded what he probably heard from others within the battery of their previous knowledge of Colonel Shaw, he may at the distance of time at which he spoke have had his recollection of his interview with me confounded in other respects.

You further ask if a request from General Terry for Colonel Shaw’s body was refused the day after the battle. I answer distinctly, No. At the written request of General Gillmore, I, as commander of the battery, met General Vogdes (not Terry), on a flag of truce on the 22d. Upon this flag an exchange of wounded prisoners was arranged, and Colonel Putnam’s body was asked for and delivered. Colonel Shaw’s body was not asked for then or at any other time to my knowledge. . . . No special order was ever issued by me, verbally or otherwise, in regard to the burial of Colonel Shaw or any other officer or man at Wagner. The only order was a verbal one to bury all the dead in trenches as speedily as possible, on account of the heat; and as far as I knew then, or have reason to believe now, each officer was buried where he fell, with the men who surrounded him. It thus occurred that Colonel Shaw, commanding negroes, was buried with negroes.

Emilio, who was a veteran of the 54th, didn’t buy Hagood’s attempt to evade responsibility.  Even if his denial of Luck’s account was valid, the fact that someone pointed out Shaw’s body, Emilio argued, “should have secured [Shaw] a fitting sepulture, or the tender of his body to his friends. This burial of Colonel Shaw, premeditated and exceptional, was without question intended as an ignominy.”

Luis F. Emilio, via Wikimedia Commons

One of Emilio’s Confederate sources did admit that some of Ft. Wagner’s defenders engaged in “desecration of the dead,” despite the officers’ attempts to prevent it.  Here’s an extract from a letter he received from H.W. Hendricks in 1882:

The morning following the battle [Shaw’s] body was carried through our lines; and I noticed that he was stripped of all his clothing save under-vest and drawers. This desecration of the dead we endeavored to provide against; but at that time — the incipiency of the Rebellion — our men were so frenzied that it was next to impossible to guard against it; this desecration, however, was almost exclusively participated in by the more desperate and lower class of our troops. Colonel Shaw’s body was brought in from the sally-port on the Confederate right, and conveyed across the parade-ground into the bombproof by four of our men of the burial party. Soon after, his body was carried out via the sally-port on the left river-front, and conveyed across the front of our works, and there buried. . . . His watch and chain were robbed from his body by a private in my company, by name Charles Blake. I think he had other personal property of Colonel Shaw. . . . Blake, with other members of my company, jumped our works at night after hostilities had ceased, and robbed the dead. . . . Colonel Shaw was the only officer buried with the colored troops. . . .

If Hagood did indeed order all the dead interred as quickly as possible, one wonders why some Confederates carried Shaw’s body into the fort, across the parade ground, and into the bombproof before taking it back out again.  And did this happen before or after Hagood’s order to bury all the Union dead in trenches?  Perhaps it wasn’t Hagood who singled out Shaw for burial alongside the other members of the 54th, but Confederate soldiers acting on their own initiative who took Shaw’s body back outside the fort and dumped it in a common grave alongside his men.

Emilio’s book also reveals how Shaw’s sword made its way back to his family.  It turned up in a Virginia house during the war, and then got shipped north.  Emilio also reports that a Confederate officer named A.W. Muckenfuss bought Shaw’s sash from a soldier at Ft. Wagner and later sent it to Boston.  (Muckenfuss served in the 1st Battalion, South Carolina Infantry, the same unit as H.W. Hendricks.)

Between Luck’s account and Hagood’s reply, this is a classic case of two primary accounts in direct contradiction, so it’s probably impossible to establish with any certainty whether the Confederate general singled out Shaw for an ignominious burial.  Today, Shaw has not one but several monuments erected to his memory: a plaque on his grandfather’s tombstone at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, another in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, and of course the magnificent memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens on Boston Common.

In any case, whether Hagood or anyone else intended the burial in a common trench as a desecration, Shaw’s family took it as a point of pride.  His father rebuffed attempts to have the body found and exhumed.  “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies,” he wrote, “among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company—what a body-guard he has!”

Jarek Tuszyński / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Reconstructing ‘Free State of Jones’

The reaction to Free State of Jones among movie critics has been pretty lackluster, but most of the historians I’ve heard from seem to have liked it.  (I liked it, too, for whatever that’s worth.)  I suspect this has to do with the fact that the film’s narrative structure doesn’t adopt many of the conventions of storytelling.

Critics have taken the film to task because the plot meanders, because it seems to lack focus, because it tries to do too much, and because the story just sort of tapers off—it “fizzles out long before it ends,” as one critic put it.  From a filmmaking standpoint, these criticisms make sense.  Narratives aren’t supposed to meander and then fizzle out.  Storytellers are supposed to keep things rolling along until events reach a dramatic crescendo and a full resolution.  In Jaws, when Chief Brody detonates that air tank and sends chunks of great white shark into the stratosphere, you know the movie’s over.

Some historical stories conform to these conventions of dramatic narrative.  Gettysburg establishes a few important characters at its outset, then adds in more and more narrative threads, intensifies, and finally reaches a grand climax of resolution.  That happens to be the way the battle played out, so in that case the filmmakers could follow dramatic convention and be faithful to the events they were portraying.

But that’s generally not the way history works.  One of the writers of the musical 1776 once quoted someone as saying, “God writes lousy drama.”

Free State of Jones hits its crescendo near the middle, as Newt Knight’s struggle against the Confederacy becomes an outright war.  After this comes a long, dispiriting declension, in which much of Knight’s work is undone by the retreat from Reconstruction and the return to power of the same people he fought against during the war.  The movie doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a period, but an ellipsis followed by a question mark.

Having read a lot of reviews of the film, I think critics would have reacted more positively if it had been a more straightforward Civil War film, a story of an insurgency culminating in the Confederate flag coming down in front of the Jones County Courthouse and the Stars and Stripes going up.  True, that narrative would’ve been less choppy and rushed, and it wouldn’t have “fizzled out.”  But Gary Ross made a deliberate decision to take a longer view of the Civil War era, one that includes the reversals of Reconstruction. Regardless of whatever liberties Free State of Jones takes with specific incidents or characters, that decision took guts.

And that, I think, is one reason why historians have reacted to the film more positively than movie critics and audiences.  When you’re dealing with history, you don’t always get a story that conforms to narrative convention.  With history, the story sometimes meanders.  It moves in fits and starts, it doubles back on itself, and it tapers off into uncertainty.  That’s exactly what happened in the case of Reconstruction.  If you consider Appomattox to be the end of the Civil War, then the story makes good narrative sense.  It all gets wrapped up in a neat package, with the various narrative threads resolved, the slaves freed, and the Union back together.  But when you take the long view of the Civil War era—as historians often do and as Free State of Jones does—it’s a story of reversals, marked by lulls in the action.  And it’s a story that does indeed fizzle out, just as the nation’s commitment to the war’s gains fizzled out in the 1870s.

Maybe that story isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the ones people are used to hearing about the Civil War.  But I’m glad we got a movie that told it, even if it hasn’t caught on with critics and audiences.

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GA State Rep. Tommy Benton should Just. Stop. Talking.

Normally I’d be thrilled to find a lawmaker who’s passionate about historic preservation, but Rep. Benton’s motives seem…well, to say they’re “other than noble” would be putting it charitably:

He flatly asserts the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery, compares Confederate leaders to the Founding Fathers and is profoundly irritated with what he deems a “cultural cleansing” of Southern history. He also said the Ku Klux Klan, while he didn’t agree with all of their methods, “made a lot of people straighten up.”

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.  That’s an elected official defending the KKK in the year 2016.  According to Benton, the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”  And to promote the wearing of festive, pointy-headed costumes, one might add.

Benton’s views are why for years he has pushed legislation that would protect the state’s historical monuments from being marred or moved. This year he is stepping up his efforts with two newly introduced measures, one of which seeks to amend the state constitution to permanently protect the carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson at Stone Mountain.

Aaaannnnnddd this is one reason why it’s hard for conscientious preservationists who prefer to leave historic monuments in their original context to make their case.  There are plenty of folks out there who have no desire to endorse or perpetuate the sentiments these monuments’ creators wanted to express; they just want to leave historic landscapes intact so that we can interpret them as we would a historic home or an artifact.  But with yahoos like Benton running their mouths, it’s easy to assume that the only folks who oppose removing Confederate monuments are racist ignoramuses.  The best thing Rep. Benton could do for historic preservation would be to put as much daylight between himself and other preservationists as possible.

Oh, and he doesn’t think the Civil War was about slavery, because of course he doesn’t.

Benton, a retired middle school history teacher, equates Confederate leaders with the American revolutionaries of the 18th century — fighting a tyrannical government for political independence.

“The war was not fought over slavery,” he said. Those who disagree “can believe what they want to,” he said.

He used to teach middle school history, and now he’s a legislator.  You decide which is more disturbing; I’ll be slamming my forehead against a desk somewhere.

 

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Will ‘Free State of Jones’ change any popular notions of the Civil War?

The trailer for Free State of Jones is out.  In case you haven’t seen it, here you go.

It’ll be interesting to see if this movie has any effect on popular notions of the Civil War, the South, and the Confederacy.  People have a tendency to equate the “Civil War South” with the Confederacy.  Using “the South” as shorthand for “the Confederacy” in the context of the Civil War is something we all do from time to time, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the two weren’t synonymous.

The Civil War divided Southerners just as it divided the nation as a whole.  This wasn’t just true in the sense that some states in the South never seceded; it was also true of many people living within Confederate territory.  For many Southerners faced with conscription, shortages, home guards, and requisitions of goods, the idea of rallying around the Confederate flag became more and more distasteful as the war dragged on.  And, of course, some Southerners in Confederate-held territory were never crazy about secession to begin with, as was the case for many people here in East Tennessee.

It’s also noteworthy to see a movie depicting blacks and whites engaged in anti-Confederate resistance.  The point here is not to fashion some myth of interracial amity in the nineteenth-century South.  The point, rather, is to consider black Southerners as Southerners—in other words, as real people with some degree of agency living in the South, rather than an inert mass simply awaiting the war’s outcome.  In other words, when we speak of a divided Civil War South, it’s easy to forget that white Southerners weren’t the only potential source of anti-Confederate dissent within the region.

I think a cinematic reminder of these Southern divisions in the Civil War would do us all some good, whatever region of the country we hail from.  A lot of neo-Confederates equate critiques of the C.S.A. with attacks on the South as a whole.  I can heartily agree with them that a lot of Americans carry unjustified and pernicious prejudices regarding this region, but remembering that “the Confederacy” and “the South” weren’t synonymous might help us all examine the C.S.A. a little more dispassionately.  Conversely, folks from the North who let the darker aspects of the South’s history determine their attitudes toward the region and its people might rethink those attitudes after seeing Newt Knight’s story.  Even in the 1860s, there were Southerners doing unexpected things.

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As if millions of violins suddenly played “Ashokan Farewell,” and were suddenly silenced

This would’ve been a lot funnier if they’d used black-and-white images and a Shelby Foote impersonator, but it’s still worth a chuckle.

FWIW, I saw The Force Awakens yesterday, and thought it was pretty good.  Not mind-blowing, not great, not very good…but pretty good.  The story structure’s off-kilter; it’s like a three-act film with the third act lopped off, which gives the whole thing a truncated and incomplete feeling.  And I don’t think they invested enough in the new characters’ arcs, except for Rey.  But it was an entertaining movie, and definitely an improvement on the abysmal Attack of the Clones.

This might sound odd coming from a history aficionado, but I would’ve enjoyed the prequels a lot more if Lucas had displayed less historical sensibility in making them.  The original trilogy works because it draws on basic, elemental, universal notions of storytelling: destiny, love, light vs. dark, good vs. evil.  The prequels, by contrast, involve disputes over trade routes, backroom parliamentary maneuvers, decaying institutions, and debates over political precedent and the dangers of centralized power.  That’s the stuff of good history, but it’s not necessarily the stuff of great myths, not without careful attention to the human element.

Of course, historians are trained to ignore the human element and the universal in their writing.  That’s not a bad thing, not at all.  It’s fundamental to what distinguishes history from other forms of engaging the past.  History is fundamentally about inquiry and explanation, not storytelling.  We shouldn’t abandon empirical research and sophisticated interpretation for emotion and narrative.  But it does help explain why so many people would rather learn about the past from folks like Ken Burns and Shelby Foote, who know a thing or two about drama, the human element, and telling a good story.

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Greene Co. repudiates the Confederacy…again

Like much of the rest of East Tennessee, Greene County was heavily Unionist during the Civil War.  When the state held a secession referendum in June 1861, 78.3% of voters from Greene County opposed leaving the Union.

Indeed, one Greene County resident became the most prominent Southern Unionist in the nation.  Andrew Johnson—the only Southern senator to remain loyal to the U.S., military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, and Lincoln’s second running mate—started his political career in Greeneville, and his home and grave are still there.

These are just a few of the reasons why County Commissioner James Randolph’s recent proposal to fly the Confederate battle flag at the courthouse made absolutely no sense.

He wants to see the Confederate flag displayed at the courthouse as a “historic exhibit,” his resolution states.

The resolution also states that the flag should be displayed to honor Tennesseans who fought for the Confederacy and that the flag represents “heritage and history that our county should be proud of.”

The Confederate flag’s display has proven to be a divisive issue, as some say it represents history and heritage while others see it as representative of slavery and oppression.

Randolph previously said in an interview with The Greeneville Sun that the State of South Carolina’s removal of the flag from its state capitol provoked him to propose the resolution.

Just so we’re clear here: Randolph thought it would be a good idea to fly the Confederate flag…

  1. at a courthouse
  2. where there was no traditional display of the flag
  3. to reflect pride in the history of a county whose residents were overwhelmingly opposed to secession in 1861
  4. and which boasts an outspoken Southern Unionist—Lincoln’s second VP, for crying out loud—as a native son
  5. in the wake of a massive groundswell of opposition to the display of Confederate symbols in public spaces

Little wonder that when Randolph’s fellow county commissioners got together to vote on his resolution a few hours ago, they roundly rejected it.  In fact, the proposal received twenty negative votes, with just one in favor.  (The “yea” vote, natch, was Randolph’s.)  That’s even worse than Greene Co. Confederates’ showing in the ’61 referendum.

Of course, what people in the rest of the country will take away from this episode isn’t the commission’s 20-1 vote against Randolph’s resolution, but the fact that somebody made the resolution to begin with.  And that’ll suffice to confirm every ignorant stereotype they have about East Tennessee in particular and the South in general.

I am so, so, so sick of these kerfuffles over the memory of the Civil War.

Greeneville, TN. By Casey Nicholson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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