September 10, 2012. Fr. Stephen Duncan of Galveston, Texas conducts a memorial service for U.S.S. Hatteras Fireman John G. Cleary and Coal Heaver William Healy, who died in the battle with C.S.S. Alabama, January 11, 1863. This service, conducted over the wreck of Hatteras, is believed to be the first to honor these men, both of whom were Irish immigrants. The service marked the beginning of an intensive survey of the wreck conducted by a team of archaeologists and technicians assembled by NOAA, that will create a three-dimensional sonar map to document the storm-exposed remains of the USS Hatteras. The wreck itself will not be disturbed, and no artifacts will be recovered. The wreck is a protected site, and because the remains of the two crewmen were never recovered, the site is considered to be a war grave.
A memorial wreath and red and white rose petals scattered on the Gulf of Mexico at the site. I’ll have more to write about this project soon. In the meantime, here’s a NOAA press release providing the basic details. More Fr. Duncan here.
Via Michael Lynch at Past in the Present, archaeologists in Illinois believe they’ve uncovered remnants of Camp Douglas, the infamous Civil War prison camp in Chicago.
Under 150 years worth of accumulated dirt, Demel and his team of mostly volunteer diggers uncovered limestone that likely made up the foundation of Camp Douglas, the most important legacy of Chicago’s role in the War between the States. “It’s exciting,” said Demel, a Northern Michigan University archaeologist, as he stared at a piece of Camp Douglas poking through the dirt for the first time in more than a century. . . . Named after U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who owned the 60-acre site where the camp’s 200 buildings stood, Camp Douglas was initially a training site for about 25,000 Union soldiers, many of them black. In 1862 it was adapted as a prison camp. In 1864, anti-war activists staged the “Camp Douglas Conspiracy,” a failed attempt to free prisoners in hopes of disrupting that year’s presidential election, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. By the end of the war, more than 4,000 rebel soldiers had died there — and the final resting place for many of them was Oak Woods Cemetery, where such famed black Americans as Harold Washington, Jesse Owens and Ida B. Wells are buried. Camp Douglas was demolished after the Civil War, the wooden posts and limestone structures that remained eventually sinking into the Near South Side earth. Now a small but enthusiastic group of academics and volunteers is trying to bring Camp Douglas back into the city’s consciousness. “This is probably the most significant Civil War site in Chicago,” said historian Robert Girardi, who was at the dig site early Friday morning.
The full story, along with video, is available here (free registration required).
Camp Douglas was located just back from the Lake Michigan shore on the south side of Chicago, not far from present-day White Sox home at Cellular Field.
This image shows the approximate boundaries of Camp Douglas overlaid in Google Earth. The gold star shows the approximate location of the excavation.
Update, June 12: The researcher behind the stone, Julia Barnes, pushes back hard against my piece below:
Andy, as with many issues, reporters make mistakes. The reporter did a good job and was trying to do a public service. The records for Wade Childs stated that he was a “body servant,” not “body soldier.” The burial site for both men, Lewis and Wade Childs, was the West View cemetery in Anderson. This is not supposition. It is based upon the death certificates. Both were buried in the same cemetery, by the same undertaker, about 12 months apart. This is not a fake grave. It is a placement based upon the records of the Anderson Cemetery records office, the South Carolina Vital Records department, and the Pension records found in the SC Archives, which noted his burial location and date. All of this was reviewed by the City attorney for approval of the placement of the headstone.
Fair enough. More in the comments.
Even in the muddle of half-understood documents, vague definitions and simplistic, patriotic tropes one comes to expect of news stories about black Confederates, this one’s a mess:
Childs served as a body soldier with Orrs Regiment of the South Carolina Rifles in the Confederate army during the Civil War. He carried the belongings and camp supplies of white soldiers, one of some 20,000 to 50,000 slaves who labored during the war.
[Julia] Barnes believes he might also be one of the 3,000 to 10,000 black Confederates who Harvard researchers suspect fought for the South. The Southern army did not record black soldiers, said Barnes, an Anderson County historian.
I’ve never heard the term “body soldier” before, but I suspect I will again. It’s a modern obfuscation that both sounds substantive and conveniently elides the terms used 150 years ago. It’s not a term real Confederates would have understood or used. Childs would have been known as a “body servant,” or simply as a slave. There is a passing reference to Wade Childs’ being enslaved, but no reference to soldiers Private John Chiles or Captain James S. Cothran, to whom (according to his pension record) Childs was acting as servant. Childs labored for those men, not for the Confederate army. The headstone makes no reference to Childs’ role whatsoever. That’s almost unheard of on such stones, and suggests very strongly that the folks who put it up feel like the less said about that status, the better.
Mike Barnes, the local SCV camp commander, is quoted as saying that “they are considered veterans by the state of South Carolina,” but in fact the state viewed men like Childs very, very differently than it did rank-and-file Confederate soldiers. South Carolina first awarded pensions to disabled white veterans and their widows in 1887, and gradually expanded eligibility for other white veterans in the decades following. It was almost forty more years, though, before men like Childs were made eligible:
Act No. 63, 1923 S.C. Acts 107 allowed African Americans who had served at least six months as cooks, servants, or attendants to apply for a pension. Then in 1924, apparently because there were too many applications, the act was amended to eliminate all laborers, teamsters, and non-South Carolinians by extending eligibility only to South Carolina residents who had served the state for at least six months as “body servants or male camp cooks.”
The evidence for Child’s involvement with the Confederate military seems to rest entirely on his 1923 pension application (read it here), which is fine as far as it goes. (See another example of the limits of Confederate pension records here.) But the pension application is very clear about what Childs’ (or Chiles’, as it’s given in the application) role was during the war as a servant — none of this vague “body soldier” business mentioned there.
It’s also important to note that, as is often the case with such applications, the case for Childs’ worthiness for such a pension was made not only on his wartime service to his master, but also on his continued adherence to the racial status quo antebellum in the South. “Wade has been a faithful, dependable negro [sic.],” his primary sponsor writes, “humble to white people and always willing to serve them.” Contrary to the assertions of the local SCV camp commander, this is hardly a case of Childs’ service being recognized by the state as being anything like that of white veterans, armed and in the ranks.
Make note also of the fact that, as of 1924, African Americans who had worked as laborers and teamsters, men whose activities were arguably more directly beneficial to the South’s military effort, were explicitly excluded from the pension program in favor of those men like Childs who had served individual white soldiers. Cooks and personal servants counted; the men who built earthworks and drove wagons did not. That was the policy of the state of South Carolina.
All of this is par for the course in “honoring” black Confederates, but there’s an additional element here that adds another layer of dubious research findings:
Barnes and her husband discovered that Childs’ brother Lewis was buried at Westview, a historically black cemetery. They concluded that Wade Childs must be buried there, too.
Westview’s military corner facing Reed Street is “wall-to-wall” with unmarked graves, Barnes said.
“I had been looking and found his brother there,” Barnes said. “It’s logical that he would be there since his brother is there. We don’t know where, but when we saw Lewis, we felt his was there, too.”
Yes, you read that right — they have no damn idea where Wade Childs is actually buried. They’re guessing, and placed a stone in that cemetery, on that spot, because they “felt” that was the spot, that it was “logical” to them. It’s a fake grave, just like the ones in Pulaski — with the exception that the folks in Tennessee at least added fine print noting that location of the person mentioned is unknown. No such truth-telling here.
To add an extra bit of irony, these noble defenders of Southron Honour™ put up a stone with a rounded top, like those of of U.S. veterans, not the peaked top usually used for former Confederates. How on earth did they get that one wrong?
I dare say these folks found a local African American man in the South Carolina pension rolls, and ended up so determined to commemorate their very own black Confederate that little details like, oh, actually knowing where he’s buried became irrelevant to putting up a marker and chalking up another “forgotten segment of South Carolina’s past.” Thank goodness these folks are only promoting heritage — if they called this half-baked foolishness history, they’d be laughed out of town.
Update, May 31: I originally put this down in the comments, but it might be useful to explain further why I’m a bit exercised about this “fake grave” business, an action that I (still) consider to be so misleading as to border on willful dishonesty.
Long-time readers may recall my post just about exactly a year ago on Peter Phelps, a white Confederate soldier who’d been named as a “black Confederate” by another website. In researching Peter Phelps, I found documentation not only of the cemetery he was buried in, but also the section. Unfortunately, there is no marker there now to identify the exact spot, so I posted a photo of the area with a caption that it showed the area where he was buried, but the precise location is not known. That’s fair, that’s accurate, and that’s honest. What I did not do is take a picture of an empty patch of soil and state, “this is Peter Phelps’ grave,” which is essentially what the Barnes are doing with Wade Childs.
As for their assumption that Wade Childs is buried next to his brother, the Phelps case is also instructive. Peter’s wife, Lucinda, died several years before he did, and we know (again from interment records) that she was buried in a plot in the same part of that cemetery. But section and plot numbers also make it clear that they are not buried together, as one might assume a married couple would be. While it may seem “logical” to think that Childs is buried near his brother, in the absence of actual evidence of that, it seems foolhardy to me to make that assumption and set it in stone (literally) for future generations. Visitors to that South Carolina cemetery a week from now, a year from now, fifty years from now, are going to be left with the belief that they saw the grave of Wade Childs, when in fact they might not have been within fifty (or a hundred) yards of it. Does that sort of precision really matter? Yes, I think it does, especially when it involves placing a marker that’s intended to last for generations to come.
As I’ve said, there are many ways to recognize a person, or a burial, without setting up a fake grave. It can be done. Even the faux cemetery for black Confederates at Pulaski, which is disingenuous and misleading in so many ways, acknowledges that the men so “honored” do not actually lie under those stones.
For those who want to engage in the heritage vs. history debate, this commemoration of Wade Childs offers lots to chew on. It’s a great example of the difference between two different approaches. Serious historians know the limits of their knowledge of a subject, and are willing to say “we don’t know that; we don’t actually know where Wade Childs is buried.” A serious historian does not go around setting up a simulated gravesite as a means of “honoring” a deceased person, or making up a term like “body soldier” to muddy the waters around the man’s actual role in the war, while ignoring critical elements of the primary, documentary record that undermine the chosen narrative. “Heritage” advocates do that sort of thing all the time, and aren’t even aware they’re doing it, or understand that it’s a problem.
So by all means, “forward the Colours,” y’all. Just don’t think what you’re doing counts as history.
Image: Jennifer Crossley Howard, IndependentMail.com.
Over at the Big Map Blog, they have an 1862 map showing the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coasts. (The original is in the Library of Congress, here.) The map, published in New York, is intended to show the vulnerability of the Confederate coastline, and the difficulty the South would have in establishing an overseas trade essential to its survival. This was at a time when formal diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy, particularly by France and the United Kingdom, seemed a real possibility, and a potentially-decisive factor in the outcome of the war. The map was, according to its creator, Edmund Blunt,
prepared to show at a glance the difference in extent of the Coasts of the U. States occupied by the loyal men and rebels; its circulation it is believed will have the effect of counteracting the exertions of Traitors at home as well as abroad.
Blunt continued, “persons having correspondents in Europe would do well to send copies of this sketch to them for Circulation.” Heh.
There are a lot of reasons to appreciate this map as an informative tool, not least of which is that it conveys fairly complex information with extreme economy of line and text. (Edward Tufte‘s great-grandfather probably loved it.) There’s not an unnecessary figure or word on it, Blunt’s propagandizing notwithstanding. Union-occupied parts of the coast are shown with a bold line, while Confederate-held areas are drawn with a lighter line. Each potentially significant port or inlet is marked with the maximum depth of water over the bar at its entrance, a critical factor that restricted the size of ships that might effectively use that port. I like the map because it becomes immediately clear how geography shaped Union naval strategy on the one hand, and Confederate blockade-running on the other — why, for example, Mobile and (later) Galveston became important blockade-running ports in the Gulf of Mexico, while other ports did not.
The map also serves as a reminder of just how sparsely-populated and inaccessible some parts of the South were in the 1860s. Almost the entire coast of Louisiana is written off, “not a Harbour over 8 feet.” The southern tip of Florida (the Everglades) from the Keys westward, is noted as being “swampy or uninhabited.” Almost all of Florida’s Atlantic coast, from St. Augustine south to the Keys, is similarly dismissed as being unimportant militarily, or for maritime purposes. Sorry, Josephine.
So what are your favorite CW maps, and why?
The Galveston Historical Foundation has announced its 2012 Menard Summer Lecture Series, this year focusing on the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. I’ve been honored to be asked to participate, along with some of great historians it’s been my pleasure to know. Presentations will be offered on Sunday afternoons in June, July and August, on the dates listed. Reservations are recommended. Tickets for individual lectures are $10 for GHF members and $12 for non-members; tickets for the entire series are $35 and $40, respectively. Reservations may be made with Jami Durham at GHF at 409-765-3409.
“Overview: The Battle of Galveston“
Dr. Donald Willett, June 3rd at 2:00 p.m.
On October 8, 1862 the city of Galveston, the largest and wealthiest city in Texas, surrendered to Union forces. For most Texans this action was unacceptable. In response, the Confederacy sent General John Bankhead Magruder to the Lone Star State to avenge the defeat. Magruder quickly put in place a brash plan that defied all military logic, defeating the superior Union forces and forcing them to abandon the “Queen City of the Gulf.” Galveston became the only Southern seaport ever recaptured by the Confederacy and the only major seaport still in Rebel hands when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Don Willett is an Associate Professor in the Maritime Studies Program at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where he teaches classes on American and Texas history, the American Civil War and reconstruction and the history of American sea power. He earned his BA from St. Edward’s University, his MA from Stephen F. Austin State University and his doctorate from Texas A&M University. He is past president of the East Texas Historical Association and on the Board of Directors for the Gulf South Historical Association. Willett has published two books on Texas history, The Texas That Might Have Been: Sam Houston’s Foes Write to Albert Sidney Johnston and Invisible Texans, as well as several articles. He is currently working on an anthology of Galveston titled Galveston Odyssey: Essays on Galveston History.
“The General Behind Juneteenth”
It has become one of the most important symbols of the end of the Civil War and the coming of Emancipation. But what do we really know about the events that shaped it? On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger issued General Orders No. 3 from his headquarters in Galveston. Granger’s order confirmed that the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect in Texas. Celebrated today as the origin of the “Juneteenth” festivities, General Granger’s June 19 order was actually the result of a long chain of political and military events involving the battles and leaders of the Civil War. In his multi-media presentation, Ed Cotham will describe the events that led to General Granger’s arrival in Galveston, the issuance of the Juneteenth order, and the reaction to that order.
Edward T. Cotham, Jr. is the prize-winning author of many books and articles on Civil War history, emphasizing the battles and skirmishes in Texas. A frequent lecturer on these subjects, Ed also leads occasional tours of Texas battlefields and state historic sites. His published works include Battle on the Bay: the Civil War Struggle for Galveston, Sabine Pass: the Confederacy’s Thermopylae, and The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine: The Illustrated Note-Book of Henry O. Gusley. Ed wrote a chapter on Federal naval strategy and Texas in The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas during the Civil War. This book was the winner of the Fort Worth Civil War Round Table’s A.M. Pate, Jr. Award for excellence in research and writing on the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi.
Mr. Cotham is President of the Terry Foundation in Houston, Texas. The Terry Foundation is the largest private source of scholarships at Texas universities with more than 700 Terry Scholars on scholarship. He holds an undergraduate degree in Economics from the University of Houston and a Masters Degree in Economics from the University of Chicago. A native Texan, Cotham returned to Texas to obtain a Law Degree from the University of Texas in 1979.
Edward T. Cotham, Jr., June 17th, 2:00 p.m.
In the closing months of the Civil War, long, low blockade runners slipped in and out of Texas ports, racing both to keep the Confederacy supplied, and to generate dramatic profits for their owners. It was a risky, high-stakes gamble that was the foundation for many fortunes on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost 150 years later, archaeologists and historians have begun to uncover the stories of these remarkable vessels. The discovery of the paddle steamer Denbigh in 1997, and of a wreck believed to be the famous Will o’ the Wisp in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, open the door to a long-overlooked story of patriotism, avarice and daring during those last desperate months of the conflict.
Andrew Hall has served as a volunteer with the Texas Historical Commission investigating shipwrecks for more than 20 years, and was part of the first group of state marine archaeological stewards appointed in the United States in 2001. Hall served as co-principal investigator of the Denbigh Project, the most extensive excavation and research program on a Civil War blockade runner in the Gulf of Mexico. He has served as historian, illustrator or website developer on several nautical archaeology projects, including the 1686 wreck of the French ship La Belle (1995-97) the Civil War blockade runner Denbigh (1997-2003), and the U-166 Project (2003). He wrote the chapter on the interface between nautical archaeology and the Internet in the International Handbook of Underwater Archaeology (2002), and has co-authored several other journal articles.
“For-Profit Patriots: Blockade Runners of the Texas Coast”
Andrew Hall, July 15th at 2:00 p.m.
“Yellow Fever in Galveston During the Civil War”
“No disease brought more fear and more deaths to Galveston’s early residents than yellow fever,” one modern historian has justly declared. No less than seven major epidemics struck Galveston between 1837 and 1860, killing more than two thousand people. Yet another deadly yellow fever epidemic struck Galveston in the summer and autumn of 1864 during the Civil War, striking civilians and Confederate troops that garrisoned the island. The lecture will examine the grim – yet interesting – role that yellow fever played during the Civil War in Galveston, including misconceptions of the causes of disease, precautions that could have been taken, and heroism displayed in sick rooms, in the voices of those who lived through it.
James Schmidt is a chemist by training and profession. After receiving his B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Central Oklahoma, he has worked in a number of private, government, and industrial laboratories, and is currently employed as a scientist with a biotech firm in The Woodlands, Texas.
Mr. Schmidt has had a life-long interest in history, with a special regard for the Civil War. His historical writing credits include more than fifty articles for The Civil War News, North & South, Learning Through History, World War II, and Chemical Heritage magazines, and other publications. Mr. Schmidt is also a popular speaker and has given lectures on the Civil War to groups around the country.
Mr. Schmidt’s books, Lincoln’s Labels: America’s Best Known Brands and the Civil War, Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine co-edited with Guy Hasegawa, and Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory, have received praise from both popular and academic historians alike. His next book, Galveston and the Civil War: Voices of an Island in the Maelstrom, will be published by The History Press in Fall 2012.
James Schmidt, August 12th at 2:00 p.m.
It’s going to be a great summer.
In 1932 a U.S. Army cavalry officer, Major George S. Patton, Jr., submitted a term paper to the Army War College on the likely characteristics of the next major war, and how the military should prepare for that event. As part of the background to his analysis, Major Patton gave brief synopses of previous wars going back to Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty, and the broad lessons to be derived from them. This is what Patton wrote about the American Civil War:
In the Civil War both sides used identical organizations and tactics.Lesson. — Identical methods produce long wars. Up until the Summer of 1863 a regular force on either side would have had decisive results. After that date both sides were professional in everything but discipline. NOTE. — In 1864, Lee wrote a long order on the necessity of securing discipline. (HENDERSON) The initial successes of the South were largely due to the fact that the superior enthusiasm — emotional urge — replaced discipline. In the North this enthusiasm was less marked, especially in the eastern armies.
The reference Patton cites appears to be this passage in G. F. R. Henderson’s Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War:
That [Lee’s] circular [on discipline] was considered necessary after the troops had been nearly four years under arms establishes beyond all question that the discipline of the Confederate army was not that of the regular troops with whom General Lee had served under the Stars and Stripes; but it is not to be understood that he attributed the deficiencies of his soldiers to any spirit of resistance on their part to the demands of subordination. Elsewhere he says, “The greatest difficulty I find is in causing orders and regulations to be obeyed. This arises not from a spirit of disobedience, but from ignorance.” And here, with his usual perspicacity, he goes straight to the root of the evil. When the men in the ranks understand all that discipline involves, safety, health, efficiency, victory, it is easily maintained; and it is because experience and tradition have taught them this that veteran armies are so amenable to control. “Soldiers,” says Sir Charles Napier, “must obey in all things. They may and do laugh at foolish orders, but they nevertheless obey, not because they are blindly obedient, but because they know that to disobey is to break the backbone of their profession.” Such knowledge, however, is long in coming, even to the regular, and it may be questioned whether it ever really came home to the Confederates. In fact, the Southern soldier, ignorant, at the outset, of what may be accomplished by discipline, never quite got rid of the belief that the enthusiasm of the individual, his goodwill and his native courage, was a more than sufficient substitute. ‘The spirit which animates our soldiers,’ wrote Lee, ‘ and the natural courage with which they are so liberally endowed, have led to a reliance upon those good qualities, to the neglect of measures which would increase their efficiency and contribute to their safety.” Yet the soldier was hardly to blame. Neither he nor his regimental officers had any previous knowledge of war when they were suddenly launched against the enemy, and there was no time to instil into them the habits of discipline. There was no regular army to set them an example ; no historic force whose traditions they would unconsciously have adopted; the exigencies of the service forbade the retention of the men in camps of instruction, and trained instructors could not be spared from more important duties. Such ignorance, however, as that which prevailed in the Southern ranks is not always excusable. It would be well if those who pose as the friends of the private soldier, as his protectors from injustice, realised the mischief they may do by injudicious sympathy. The process of being broken to discipline is undoubtedly galling to the instincts of free men, and it is beyond question that among a multitude of superiors, some will be found who are neither just nor considerate. Instances of hardship must inevitably occur. But men and officers-for discipline presses as hardly on the officers as on the men-must obey, no matter at what cost to their feelings, for obedience to orders, instant and unhesitating, is not only the life-blood of armies but the security of States; and the doctrine that under any conditions whatever deliberate disobedience can be justified is treason to the commonwealth.
That the Confederate armies matched off to war in 1861 with great enthusiasm is undoubted, as was the widespread belief that one Confederate soldier could whip five, ten, twenty Yankees. But Patton makes the point that both the Union and Confederate armies, being overwhelmingly composed of non-professionals, always lacked that final ingredient that marked professional armies, that of unbending discipline. (Lee may have bemoaned the lack of discipline, but was himself known to be a soft touch.)
In his paper, Patton suggests a drop-off in Confederate enthusiasm from mid-1863 on, but Henderson goes further, making the argument that when the enthusiasm that had marked the Confederate effort during the first two years of the war began to fail, after two hard years of war and twin defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Union was just finally taking hold of a cause that would carry them to victory. Henderson writes:
Enthusiasm in the [Union’s] cause was fast diminishing when Lincoln, purely on his own initiative, proclaimed emancipation, and, investing the war with the dignity of a crusade, inspired the soldier with a new incentive, and appealed to a feeling which had not yet been stirred. Many Northerners had not thought it worth while to fight for the re-establishment of the Union on the basis of the Constitution. If slavery was to be permitted to continue they preferred separation; and these men were farmers and agriculturists, the class which furnished the best soldiers, men of American birth, for the most part abolitionists, and ready to fight for the principle they had so much at heart. It is true that the effect of the edict was not at once apparent. It was not received everywhere with acclamation. The army had small sympathy with the coloured race, and the political opponents of the President accused him vehemently of unconstitutional action. Their denunciations, however, missed the mark. The letter of the Constitution, as Mr. Lincoln clearly saw, had ceased to be regarded, at least by the great bulk of the people, with superstitious reverence. They had learned to think more of great principles than of political expedients; and if the defence of their hereditary rights had welded the South into a nation, the assertion of a still nobler principle, the liberty of man, placed the North on a higher plane, enlisted the sympathy of Europe, and completed the isolation of the Confederacy.
It’s worth recalling that, though he was born in California, Major Patton was a Virginian by family history, a former cadet of the Virginia Military Institute, and the namesake of his grandfather, a Confederate officer mortally wounded at the Third Battle of Winchester. When Patton was a child, one of his father’s closest friends, and a frequent visitor to the Patton household, was John S. Mosby, one of the most famous cavarlymen of the war. Patton’s “Confed cred,” as it were, is unassailable, and his admiration for the soldiers of the Confederacy is unquestioned. But at the same time, neither he nor his source, Henderson, fall into the ideology of the Lost Cause, that the South was simply overwhelmed by force of numbers, its nobility and morale intact. Rather, they argue that a lack of discipline, in both armies, was temporarily offset by gung-ho enthusiasm and esprit, that finally came to full flower in the Union army — “investing the war with the dignity of a crusade” — just as it began to falter in the Confederate ranks.
Are they right?
(H/t to Tom Ricks’ fantastic Best Defense blog.)
Image: Colonel George S. Patton, Jr., between the World Wars. Fort George G. Meade Museum.
I’ll be speaking at the March 19 meeting of the SCV’s John Bell Hood Camp No. 50, at Shrimp & Stuff Restaurant in Galveston (7 p.m., in the private dining room). My talk will be a preview of my March 27 presentation at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, “For-Profit Patriots: Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast.”
I appreciate the invitation, and am looking forward to it.
Image: Digital model of the blockade runner Will o’ the Wisp, wrecked at Galveston in February 1865.
My teevee viewing for a long time since has been mostly restricted to current events and, as the general election season gets closer, political news. Regular entertainment television is not usually part of my schedule, but I’ve taken a shine to NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, a series that takes celebrities and goes digging for stories of their ancestors. (It’s apparently an adaptation of a British series.) Camera crews follow the celebrities around to different parts of the country and overseas to meet with various genealogists, historians and archivists who help them along in their discovery. The show has done several episodes that had a particular Civil War focus, profiling Matthew Broderick and Spike Lee, but there are other stories that are interesting, as well. Kim Cattrall, for example, uncovered some family secrets that were difficult to learn, but that she found important to know.
The third season of the show began last Friday with Martin Sheen, whose birth name is Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez. Sheen is probably known as much for his political activism as for his acting career. The Sheen episode focuses primarily on two uncles who, in the first half of the 20th century, fought in civil wars in their home countries. Sheen’s parents were both immigrants to the United States, his mother from Ireland and his father from Spain. His mother’s elder brother, Michael Phelan, fought in the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s for the Irish Republican Army against the National (or “Provisional”) government, headed by Michael Collins. His Galician father’s brother, Matias Estévez (right, with his family), fought for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War against the fascists under Franco. Both men found themselves on the losing side of their respective wars, and both ended up imprisoned by their fellow countrymen. There’s an even more remarkable discovery farther back in Sheen’s family tree, but you’ll just have to watch the episode for that.
One of the things I thought about while watching Sheen’s episode was that, while he felt an obvious natural affinity to those two men, each of whom had taken up arms for a political cause, and found themselves imprisoned for it (in Matias Estevez’ case, for years), there was no indication that Sheen saw their causes as explicitly his cause. There was no suggestion that Martin Sheen saw himself, personally, as obligated to carry on the fight against the current government of the Republic of Ireland, or go go on a loud, chest-thumping rant about Franco’s fascists. (Possibly because he’s still dead.) It seemed very different than the way some people view the legacy of their ancestors in this country, who fought through a much older conflict, now long past any living memory.
There are some things I don’t much like about Who Do You Think You Are?, all of which are probably due to the necessity of condensing complex stories into a 40- or 45-minute package of entertainment. They compress what would normally be months or years of research by an individual to an improbably short period of time. They use historians and archivists with access to records that, while presumably available to the public, are often obscure and not really accessible to non-specialists. They ignore the dead ends and false leads that are bane of any genealogical researcher. They sometimes take what I think of as a “maybe” finding and present it as an established fact. And inevitably, they tend to zero in on the ancestors who seem to have the most entertaining story, or the most relevance to the modern day celebrity, rather than the more mundane folks who much make up the bulk of that person’s tree.
But what the show does right, I think, makes up for those flaws. It makes the point rather well that prior generations lived lives as complex and difficult — often much more difficult — than our own. It conveys the notion that their stories need to be told, too. It makes doing that historical seem easy (much easier than it often is), and undoubtedly inspires a lot of people to try their hands at it. And that seems to me to be a worthwhile thing.
A quick reminder that tomorrow evening, Monday, at 6:30, the Houston Museum of Natural Science will present another in its lecture series in conjunction with the Discovering the Civil War exhibition. Historian Chris Tabor will present “They Fought Like Tigers: Skirmish at Island Mound.” From the museum website:
The action fought by the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers on October 29, 1862, marked the first time that an African-American regiment experienced combat during the Civil War. No quarter was asked and none given by either side during the fight, which involved brutal hand-to-hand combat. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Chris Tabor has focused his research on the particularly brutal warfare that raged in Western Missouri. He authored The Skirmish at Island Mound which provides the first ever detailed research into the first battle fought by African American soldiers during the Civil War.
On of my readers, PH, passes along this recent review in the New York Times of the Museum of the Confederacy, and its ongoing effort to chart a new course, away from its founding as a shrine to the Lost Cause, to a more comprehensive, balanced view of the conflict, its origins and its legacy. (Kevin has blogged on it as well.) Edward Rothstein makes a second visit to the MoC, and notes the shifting tenor of the institution’s public exhibitions and programs.
The Museum of the Confederacy embodies the conflict in its very origins; its artifacts were accumulated in the midst of grief. The museum’s first solicitation for donations, in 1892, four years before its opening, is telling: “The glory, the hardships, the heroism of the war were a noble heritage for our children. To keep green such memories and to commemorate such virtues, it is our purpose to gather together and preserve in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy the sacred relics of those glorious days. We appeal to our sisters throughout the South to help us secure these invaluable mementoes before it’s too late.”
That heritage casts a long shadow over the institution. When I visited in 2008, slavery still seemed an inconsequential part of Southern history. And Southern suffering loomed large.
But changes have been taking place. Several tendentious text panels (in one, Lincoln was portrayed as having manipulated the South into starting the war) have been removed. And gradually, under the presidency of S. Waite Rawls III, the museum, while keeping its name, has been expanding its ambitions, trying to turn its specialization into a strength instead of a burden.
Nonetheless, Rothstein comes away feeling that, while the worst examples of the MoC’s old historical narrative are gone, there’s nothing yet that has taken their place:
The delicacy is strange. There is so much in the exhibition [“The War Comes Home”] that is illuminating about the war. And it isn’t that the Virginia Historical Society is embracing the Lost Cause. Far from it. But the institution is trying to take a path that will least offend those who do. Or is it suggesting with its questions that it would be callous to continue with finger pointing? After all, isn’t one man’s traitor another’s patriot?
The problem, though, is that the Civil War then becomes merely a tragic clash of two sides, each convinced of its virtue and fidelity to national ideals. That is not an embrace of the Lost Cause, but it leaves us a war with no higher cause at all.
Rothstein should be patient, I think. Museums are not shrines; they exist for education and research, and unquestioning hagiography is best left to others. The MoC in particular, with its unsurpassed collection of Civil War artifacts, documents, and images, is far too valuable a resource to give itself over to a fixed story of parochial, navel-gazing victimhood. Like every institution of its type, the Museum of the Confederacy is, and should be, always a work in progress.
Image: “Museum of the Confederacy CEO Waite Rawls announced on Thursday [April 14, 2011] the museum’s plans for interior exhibits. Part of the plan includes bringing the uniform won by Gen. Robert E. Lee, of the Army of Northern Virginia, at the Appomattox surrender in April of 1865 (pictured at left). Also included will be the sword Lee brought to the surrender.” Via Lynchburg, Virginia News & Advance.