Just back from the Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. It was enjoyable to be surrounded by friends, old and new, as I spent three days there. During the 150th anniversary (starting in 2011) of the Civil War, the Civil War Institute has focused on the specific anniversary year. Thus this year, the topics were centered around the war in 1864. Which as far as I’m concerned is the most interesting year of the war.
Friday’s programming began in the late afternoon with a masterful overview of the war in that pivotal year of 1864 by my friend (and recent PhD) Brian Matthew Jordan. In 40 minutes or so, Brian complicated the traditional narrative that the war was already won in 1863 and that the North was predestined to victory on the battlefields around the South as well as at the ballot box with the Presidential election in November. He covered North and South, from St. Albans, Vermont to the Trans-Mississippi. I continue to be amazed. He was followed by a conversation between CWI’s director, Peter Carmichael and Gordon Rhea regarding the Overland Campaign in May-June 1864.
Saturday’s programming began with Pete Carmichael on Robert E. Lee’s struggles with his corps commanders, James Longstreet (recovering from a wound much of 1864), Richard S. Ewell (shattered by the war and thus sent to command the Richmond defenses in May 1864)/Jubal A. Early, and Ambrose Powell Hill (in and out of command due to his own health issues) as he attempted to annihilate the Federal Army of the Potomac. Following him was Brooks Simpson weaving together humor and seriousness to discuss Ulysses Grant’s ability to deal with what he called the “problem of Virginia.” Brooks stated that Grant did not want to fight in Virginia. In January 1864, before he was tapped as general-in-chief had been asked by then general-in-chief, Henry Halleck for a plan to destroy the Confederacy. Grant consulted with Cyrus Comstock and William F. “Baldy” Smith who had both been in Virginia earlier in the war. Grant ended up proposing an amphibious assault out of eastern North Carolina which could have destroyed the vital Wilmington & Weldon and Petersburg & Weldon railroads. The Army of the Potomac would have protected Washington D.C. Halleck rejected the plan. As Brooks more or less summarized, Grant felt like if Virginia could not be his theater of decision, he would work to make sure Lee could not be the decision maker in the Old Dominion either. Much of the larger plan of Grant would result in the war being decided in the Deep South until the August promotion of Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley to army command. It was then when Virginia was converted to a theater of decision-making on Grant’s terms.
Certainly’s Saturday’s most disturbing topic was delivered by Ari Kelman. Ari spoke about the contested memories of the Massacre at Sand Creek which he wrote a book about. It has been well received and received awards. The greatest reminder that I took away from Ari’s talk (beyond the mutilated bodies of Native people) is that the idea of “healing” is very complicated between the Federal government and groups of people who have been oppressed. The creation of Sand Creek National Historical Park was greeted by government officials as an acknowledgement of the massacre that took place there in 1864. Yet descendent tribal leaders struggled to find the healing because of the long, contested and testy relationship between the Federal government and tribal folks. Ari positioned this event within a larger framework of America embarking on its empire as the Republican party could mold through policy and war, how the west would be settled.
Almost ironically during the afternoon concurrent sessions, I went to Kevin Levin’s talk about white Union troops’ memories of the Battle of the Crater and Caroline Janney’s talk about Petersburg civilians in 1864-1865. Regrettably, I missed Susannah Ural’s talk Saturday evening as I made final preparations for my program the next morning.
Sunday started with my friend Dr. Keith Bohannan speaking on the Atlanta Campaign Keith criticized Sherman’s poor use of cavalry. He also drew the contrasts between Sherman’s positive relationship with the Abraham Lincoln administration and Ulysses Grant and Joseph E. Johnston’s negative relationship with the Jefferson Davis administration. He suggested that Sherman may not be remembered for crushing battlefield victories in 1862-1863; but, he was a master at maneuvering during the Atlanta Campaign.
I followed Keith to discuss United States Colored Troops at the Battle of the Crater. I was pleased with the talk; though, I had other examples of reactions to the battle. I did make it through all the participants who approached the microphones to ask questions so there was something to be said for skipping over some examples. I was pleased as soon as the talk was over to see a stream of people line up to ask other questions, express their happiness with the talk, etc. You missed it? You have an opportunity to see it. I’ll explain later.
Following my not very “pick me up” story, concurrent sessions broke out and I listened to Eric Leonard discuss the prisoner of war situation in 1864, particularly at Camp Sumter near Andersonville, Georgia. However, it was the story of John January of the 14th Illinois Cavalry that continues to be seared in my brain. January was captured in the summer of 1864 and sent to Andersonville. He was transferred to Florence, South Carolina in November 1864. Having gangrene and a will to live that most of us are fortunate to never have to face, January along with some others managed to amputate his feet since he was not able to convince Southern physicians that his life was worth saving. He did survive and lived many years after the war. Important things to come out of this:
- Andersonville more deadly than the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.
- Andersonville is in a league of its own and apologists need to stop attempting to compare it with Northern prison camps for Confederates or even other Confederate prison camps for Federal soldiers.
- Prisoner of war exchange breakdown occurs because of the enlistment and service of black men; not a simple refusal of Ulysses Grant or Abraham Lincoln to exchange Confederates.
- Andersonville’s prisoners were exposed to the slave culture as they were treated to iron collars and dogs hunting them down when they tried to escape. For those who did escape, they found (like runaway slaves), that they found their best help with other blacks.
- PoW camps are places for us all to reflect on the consequences of all wars.
In the afternoon, we heard from Dr. Crystal Feimster about mutiny and rape cases at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Lt. Colonel Augustus Benedict was a completely disgusting man who fortunately was dishonorably discharged as he treated his ex-slaves turned soldiers no better than the slaveholders they had left behind. What her program partially exposed was that gaps existed between blacks about their freedom and Northern whites’ perceptions of black freedom. Black laundresses, victim to sexual assault, did not simply think of themselves as safety seeking refugees but real working-class women. Blacks could testify against whites in court martial cases, setting up another real belief that there would be something different in the aftermath of the war. Of course, many black people were disappointed in the post-war years to find that equal justice would be elusive. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dr. Feimster exposed that white officers at Fort Jackson attempted to intimidate and silence the laundresses’ voices as they wished to expose the truth about the sexual violence at the fort. I immediately thought about the long history and the on-going desires by some people to silence and ignore sexual violence. Equally disgusting is the trend of blaming the victim. Among the many areas where people who know history cannot say “History doesn’t matter” because it’s easy to find the echoing voices of these laundresses in the world today including in the United States of America.
Concurrent sessions started again and I went to hear Antwain Hunter’s research on black North Carolinians relationship with guns and local and state laws and practices. A question emerged in this talk: did the Confederacy dissolve from conflict between local/county rights versus states’ rights versus national rights/needs? Research by Jamie Martinez regarding slaveholders’ resistance to sending enslaved laborers to dig earthworks in Virginia and North Carolina definitely suggests so.
Dinner ran late and so I was prevented from going to Barton Myers’ discussion of guerilla warfare. But based on tweets from those in the session, I can say he drew the conclusion that guerilla warfare did nothing for the Federal or Confederate national aims but stirred local drama and bad relationships.
Beyond the talks, it was amazing to see over 400 people in attendance, 250 were first time participants and I’d hazard a guess that some 100 were age 45 or less. There were other black people there and at least one Asian lady. I spoke with several high school and college students after my talk about USCT experience during the war. Thus I was restored to know, I’m not the only young, black person whose love of the Civil War era began when I was a young child. I send my praise to Dr. Pete Carmichael, Dr. Ian Isherwood, Dr. Brian Jordan, Dr. Jill O. Titus and VERY importantly, Diane Brennan, Allison Jordan, and Brian Johnson for their work on putting on an amazingly well-organized conference.
Finally, if you’re upset you missed CWI, you can catch several sessions thanks to the great folks at C-Span. Saturday’s sessions were shown live and then stored online. You can view them here: http://series.c-span.org/History/Events/Gettysburg-College-Civil-War-Institute-Annual-Summer-Conference/10737444464/. Sunday’s sessions done by Keith, myself, and Eric and I believe Crystal’s talks were all recorded. Anyway, you can catch those on July 4th on C-Span. Mine is to air at 6PM Eastern time and re-airs at 6AM on July 5th.