Tag Archives: Civil War

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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MHS gets Robert Gould Shaw’s sword

The Massachusetts Historical Society has acquired a pretty special Civil War object: the sword that Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts, was carrying when he fell at Ft. Wagner.  Descendants of Shaw’s sister found it while cleaning an attic, and it’s going on exhibit this month.

The Globe reports that the sword was “stolen from Shaw’s body shortly after he was killed,” but doesn’t say how it made its way back to his family.  The MHS, however, has traced its provenance all the way back to its manufacture, so it’s the real deal.

Quite an acquisition!  I’d almost be willing to drive to Boston just to see it.

 

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Dusting off Civil War Bookshelf

It looks like Dimitri Rotov is blogging again after more than a year on hiatus.  And he’s just as dissatisfied as ever with the state of Civil War historiography.

I’ve always found his posts stimulating, even when I disagree with him (which is often).  It’s nice to see him back at the keyboard.

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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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Footnoting ‘Free State of Jones’

The movie’s not out yet, but one thing’s for sure: Gary Ross, the writer and director of Free State of Jones, is a guy who takes history seriously.

In advance of the film’s release, on June 24, Mr. Ross, whose credits include “Seabiscuit” and the first installment of “The Hunger Games,” is posting an elaborate website annotating some three dozen topics and scenes from the movie, allowing audiences to click through and evaluate for themselves his historical sources, including many primary documents.

“I stopped my life to read and study for two years before I even started writing a script,” Mr. Ross said during a recent interview in his office in Manhattan. “If people want to pick apart this history, they can. But they should know that this wasn’t the glib work of a screenwriter who was inventing things.”

The website’s pretty impressive.  It’s not just an assemblage of short essays on various aspects of the movie’s historical background, but a scene-by-scene breakdown complete with citations to scholarly sources—I mean actual, honest-to-goodness, Chicago Manual of Style footnotes.

I was already interested in seeing this movie, but now I’m really, really interested in seeing it.

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The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…

THE FIRST AND LAST

LYNCH AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING BOOKS FROM

MY GRADUATE COURSE REQUIRED READING LISTS

A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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