The All American Perspective

An outlook is bleak when nothing worse can be said than the truth. To this end, there is no ‘sugar-coating’ the elements of obliteration, subjugation, necrosis and above all, ‘Hatred’, in all its ugly forms, (physical, racial, social, ad infinitum), that were part of the Civil War/War Between the States’, (CW/WBTS), conduct and legacy. That is beyond dispute and this is when the ‘romantic and dashing’ image that is all too common of the conflict is torn away and the solemn meaning of the ‘Death Debt and Blood Price’ that this war was, is laid bare. And yet, even amidst the scarlet viscerality of the many accounts there can be found glints of humanity amongst and between the combatants. It is not enough to go looking for them amidst the evidence; the researcher must choose to give them meaning in interpretation. This is more than simply a historiographical procedure; it is often a reflection of the values of the finder him or herself.

It can not be expected that positive incidents that run counter to the harsh reality of the social times and conflict diminish the stark and bloody consideration the evidence would leave us with, as if by wizardly means. Rather, it is offered up that these incidents possess a seed of reconciliation precisely because they are found amidst the destructive power of  one of the war’s chief elements, that of ‘Strife’. In my opinion, stripped of all hagiography, they are important for precisely those reasons. They are as follows-

After the Battle of Fort Wagner, South Carolina on 18 July 1863, Confederate Lieutenant Iredell Jones of the 1st South Carolina, who fought at the engagement, was moved by the conduct of the 54th Massachussetts’ to write, “…The Negroes fought gallantly and they were headed by as brave a colonel as ever lived…the Negroes were as fine looking a set as I ever saw…” (1) This supports the generalisation that those White Americans who had direct experience with their Black counterparts recorded the greatest amount of change in their racial outlooks and beliefs. Even the ultra-Confederate Charleston Mercury could not hide a subtle measure of respect for the 54th in a line that would travel the globe, “…a small body of the enemy succeeded in gaining a lodgement in a salient…Here they maintained their position for more than an hour…it was not until a small force of Georgians had ascended the magazine…that the audacious Yankees surrendered.” (2)

The horrific and tragic Battle of the Crater on 30 July 1864 can not be euphemised. And yet, even therein, embers of respect were alit between foes. During the engagement, a number of Union troops were able to crawl to the upper-outer edges of the crater and from these makeshift breastworks, fired desperately as a last-ditch effort. Members of the United States Coloured Troops were the main of this last defence. The papers of Private Henry Bird of the 12th Virginia, lodged in the Virginia Historical Society, account that Private Bird set himself against the racism too many would engage in that day. Regarding this incredible tenacity of these Black Union troops, he would write, “They fought like bulldogs and died like soldiers.” (3)

The trail of the heartening challenge of racial prejudices of the day, and in their place, the mark of a discernible respect between persons, was witnessed in the actions and attitudes of both armies and their commanders. Thomas Morris Chester, the war’s lone Black American war reporter for a large copy, dispatched, “…an arrangement has been entered into…The rebels and our coloured soldiers now converse together on apparently very friendly terms, and exchange such luxuries as apples, tobacco and hard tack…” (4)

Gamaliel Bradford recorded in his biography, Lee: The American, that the General once intervened to stop the brutalisation being inflicted on captured Northern Black soldiers, possibly even saving their lives and setting an example.  Bradford cites Lee as telling the Confederate soldier responsible, “If I ever hear of you mistreating a prisoner again, be he as Black as Erebus, I will hang you to the nearest tree.” (5) The citation in the work’s text is consistent with the timeline when the Army of Northern Virginia took Black Americans into slavery on either its 1862 or ’63 invasion of the North. But the alleged wording used of, ‘prisoner’, is more consistent with a military status, and thus, a captured USCT member. This is an interpretation consistent with Thomas Forehand Jr.’s interpretation. (6) Though Bradford finds the precise wording of the quote atypical of Lee, the action on the General’s part is highly likely to have occurred.

Historian, Ron Chernow, and commentator, Adam Serwer, have noted at hammering length in their works that prisoner exchanges ended between North and South in October of 1864 on part that Robert E. Lee refused to exchange Black prisoners of war equally with their White counterparts in negotiations with Ulysses S. Grant. (7) While Chernow’s thousand page-plus work is a prime study in biographical structure, it is clear he over-reaches when, by attempting to convey to Grant a maximal scope of prestige, his methodology places Lee at a seeming deliberate disadvantage by witholding perntinent material, while Serwer wildly and irresponsibly seeks to present only material deliberately gauged to provoke an Orwellian emotionally nationalistic response amongst the cultural-politico sphere of American society he rests assured that will already agree with him. The latter is a classic propaganda, not a scholarly historical work.

A closer examination of their works reveals not a historical discredit to General Lee, but a marked flaw on their respective methodologies, in practice of what historian Patricia Grimshaw of the University of Melbourne termed as the worst form of historical revisionism; when a writer or historian deliberately attempts to dissuade or discourage their would-be audience from critically reflecting upon or with historical questions and evidence outside of a very carefully drawn ‘circle in the sand’, that the researcher has carefully pre-selected and managed that will bolster their stance, rather than actively engaging with as wide as possible a scope of evidence and drawing up the highest number of historical questions in their work, especially those that challenge the researcher’s arguments, and encouraging their readership to do likewise. (8) 

Precisely this methodological practice is a cornerstone of the nascent False Story school of CW/WBTS studies. For what is wrongly omitted by it from the historical record is that Lee held this position at the time during the negotiations due to the policy of the Confederate government, not out of his own personal views. Even more importantly, also omitted is that it was Robert E. Lee who convinced the same ministry to reverse this policy not long after, and swap prisoners on equal basis, without regard for race. (9) While an argument can be raised that this policy reversal by the South came too late to effect a real chance for the Confederacy to win the war, it is just as true, and has been for too long under-respected, that all of America, the South as well as the North, challenged the racial prejudices that had hitherto completely dominated the American landscape leading up to the CW/WBTS.

While it is to Grant’s legacy and credit that he played a significant role in this historical process of advancing racial equality in America by means of the prisoner exchanges, it should not be forgotten or dismissed out of hand his hesitation to accept a renewal of exchanges when the South did offer to disregard racial status. His strategy of Total War rested to a large extent on that the same stance would maximise the number of  soldiers in prison camps. This in turn would mathematically ensure the attrition of the South into defeat. As he put it,

“…It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here”, (10), and,

“…We ought not to make a single exchange nor release a prisoner on any pretext untill the war closes. We have to fight untill the military power of the South is exhausted, and if we release or exchange prisoners it simply becomes a war of extermination.” (11)

Grant made no mention of this when he appeared before Congress on the matter. (12)

The purpose of this inclusion is not to impugn but to ellucidate; there are both fair and balanced measures of criticism, coupled with inspiring examples of magnaminity to apply to all in the Great American Conflict, such as Grant’s benign and well-received offer to send rations to feed the surrendered and starving Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, and and his immediate halting of any cannonading or human victory cries in the Army of the Potomac when the results of Appomattox became known. (13)

It is a well-known account of the war that during the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862, Stonewall Jackson’s troops made a defensive stand against repeated charges by John Pope’s Army of Virginia, to the point of which some of the Confederate lines ran out of ammunition and while refusing to withdraw, were forced to hurl rocks against the determined attackers. Lesser well-known in the origin of this account was the tribute that  Colonel Bradley T. Johnson, commanding Second Brigade, paid to the Union colour-bearer and soldiers of the affray, “I saw a Federal flag hold its position for half an hour within ten yards of a flag of one of the [Confederate] regiments in the [railway] cut, and go down six or eight times, and after the fight one hundred dead were lying twenty yards from the cut, some of them within two feet of it.” (14)

One of the most poignant moments of reconciliation during the war is also one that has scarcely received historical interest, and returns us to the Battle of Fort Wagner. Embedded in irony, it occurred when Robert Gould Shaw, Colonel of the 54th Massachussetts Infantry, (the first troops to be recruited from Black Americans in the North and of the film, ‘Glory’), met the brother of Nat Turner, whom had led the 1831 slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. In his letter to his mother, Shaw offers many observations of the Union-held area of South Carolina he was posted to, including about the local Black American population and the intertwined social activities, both longstanding and in flux, between the two races. But of this critical moment in American and world history, so little can actually be gleaned. Shaw’s letter, (the sole piece of evidence of the encounter), merely reads-

“…I met Mr. Arthur Turner, a brother of [Nat] Turner’s, over there, and today he came to see me – he has been teaching here some time.” (15)

This unique historical interaction is important not only on its own merits, but for how it can help distinguish structural elements of historiography, particularly the False Story school. It is tempting to ‘read in’ many things as factual into this encounter, but a proper historical methodology must refrain from this. One of the flaws that a researcher must at all times abstain from, at the cost of historical credibility if transgressed, is to extract and/or impose as proven fact something from or about a historical source that can not be at least reasonably argued to a satisfactory point, (a classic example of this malpractice is the classic False Story school’s work, Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, by the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor. (16)  Pryor castigates Lee when discussing the attempted visit upon the General in 1866 by Amanda Parks, one of the former-Arlington estate slaves, in her discussion of their exchanged letters, (of which, only Lee’s response has survived).

Pryor depicts the intention of these as Parks having attempted to procure aid of some type from the General, seemingly to create the opportunity to  censure Lee for not providing any, and to present this strident appeal to the emotional reaction of the reader to accept her biases’ as fact, rather than as an argument. (17) There is no evidence whatsoever in the letter from Lee to Parks, dated 9 March 1866, which can be said to support Pryor’s contentions. (18) Nevertheless, a debt of gratitude is owed to the late Mz. Pryor for being the first historian to catalogue and bring to public light a previously unknown cache of primary documents about General Lee and his life.

Notwithstanding, a part of the incumbent duty of historians is to provide an explanation of figures and events of the past, not merely to recount textual record of date and place that is demarked on reference sources, primary or secondary. As Penny Russell offers, “…When the sources are ambiguous, contradictory or simply absent, we can not take a quick trip to the [nineteenth] century to see how things really were…Historians write with intent to build their version of the past in the imagination of their readers…” (19) When evidentiary trails run cold or simply vanish, the historian is thus put in a place of being forced to engage what might be termed, ‘historical imagination’. That is to say, the historian must be willing to offer a reasonable explanation that has a rational connectedness to the available evidence or circumstances, while at the same time, openly disclosing that the argument they are offering is not a concrete statement of fact, but an ‘educated guesstimate’. This is exactly the methodology engaged by numerous historians and is offered herein. (20)

From across an incredibly diverse origins, destiny had drawn Colonel Shaw and Nat Turner’s brother, together. It is keeping with a strict observance of fact to be mindful that, no matter the obvious living connection, Arthur Turner was not his brother, (though it is fair to speculate that the son of wealthy Boston abolitionists’ likely attempted a discussion with him about this). Born six years after Nat’s carnage-filled bid to destroy slavery and enable freedom for enslaved Black Americans in Virginia in 1831 (21), Shaw’s thoughts might have still reflected on this legacy of racial strife, hatred and a failed bid for freedom and the end of American slavery. Did he reflect on how these elements were, as of yet, unresolved in the world and events that surrounded Turner’s brother and himself? Did either man consider if, just as Nat Turner had not lived to see the end of slavery and racial strife, would they? There are no answers; there are only historical questions that can be put by historians, past, present and future. What can be stated with certainty is that Shaw would not live to see that the American flag he marched in arms against, would also commit itself to ending slavery, in same with the one he served. (22)

Perhaps the most fitting example for not only Americans, but all citizens of the world, to look back on the American Civil War/War Between the States to regain a basis of reconciliation, (no matter which side, if any, their loyalties are drawn towards), to pay homage to what is found in common rather than along a point of division, is to critically reflect that the primary hero for either North or South, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, each went out of his way to comfort dying and/or grieviously wounded soldiers of the opposite side, and in so doing, if not to convince them upon argument, nevertheless, won over both Johnny Reb and Billy Yank on humanitarian grounds with respect for courage and a handshake of compassion; a symbolic thanking them for their service. (23) This example of the past makes for a tacit conjure of an attempted repetition in our living times, all the more so when it is further considered that Black Americans of the day publicly hailed in heroic fashion both the President and the General. (24)

The importance of these past accounts lies in that they are drawn together here in the attempted spirit of Reconciliation. Past and present, they serve as a reminder that when we can find something good in or of an adversary, no matter how minor, then that is proof…that there is good in ourselves.

Lest We Forget,

The Blood Price & Death Debt.

Respect & Honour for they-

Who wore the Blue and the Gray.

They sleep, forever, in The Hall,

Americans, all.’

REFERENCES:

(1) Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, Massachussetts In The Army & Navy During The War of 1861-65, Vol. I,  Boston: Wright & Potter Printing Co. – State Printers, 1896, 87; Rosen, Robert N., Confederate Charleston: An Illustrated History of the City & People During The Civil War, University of South Carolina Press, 1994, 108.

(2) Charleston Mercury, as cited in, Sydney Morning Herald, [colony of New South Wales, Australia], 30 October 1863.

(3) Virginia Historical Society, Henry Bird – Margaret Randolph, 5 August 1864, Bird family papers. Richmond, Virginia; http://www.essentialcivilwarcurriculum.com/the-battle-of-the-crater.html [Accessed 31 July 2018]. A number of USCT had been specially drilled to assault the Confederate line upon detonation of the enormous landmine, but plans had changed and the specialist core of USCT had been replaced by White troops who had received no training and received wholly inadequate instructions. Refer to Davis, Burke, Gray Fox: Robert E. Lee & The Civil War, Fairfax Press, New York, 1956, 339-44.

(4) Philadelphia Press, 1 September 1864. See also, Military History Matters, February 2020, Issue 113, Gerald Lefurgy, ‘Letter-Editor: Chester’s Exemplary Patriotism’.

(5) Bradford, Gamaliel, Lee: The American, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1912, 295, endnote 17.

(6) Forehand Jr., Thomas, Ed., Robert E. Lee’s Softer Side, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, 2007, 40, 140.

(7) Chernow, Ron, Grant, Head of Zeus, 2017, 450-51; Serwer, Adam, ‘The Myth of the Kindly General Lee’, The Atlantic, 4 June 2017.

(8) Refer to Patricia Grimshaw, Melbourne Historical Journal, ‘The Fabrication of a Benign Colonisation? Keith Windschuttle on History’, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2003, 11-17. Grimshaw had been referring to the questionable methods of interpreting and writing of history as practiced by her colleague, Keith Windschuttle, about the nature of violence between Aboriginal Australians and the European newcomers on the Antipodean frontier.

(9) Southern Historical Society Papers, (SHSP),Robert E. Lee – Dr. Charles Carter, 17 April 1867,Vol. I, 1876, 121-22. “…I offered to General Grant to send into his lines all the prisoners within my department, which then embraced Virginia and North Carolina, provided he would return me man for man; and when I informed the Confederate authorities of my proposition, I was told that, if it was accepted, they would place all the prisoners at the South at my disposal. I offered subsequently, I think, to the committee of the United States Sanitary Commission, who visited Petersburg for the purpose of ameliorating the condition of their prisoners, to do the same. But my proposition was not accepted.” Lee stated the same point during his 17 February 1866 Congressional testimony. Refer to, Report on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session, 39th Congress, Washington D.C., Government Printing Office, Part II, 1866, 135. See online version at https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Robert_E_Lee_s_Testimony_before_Congress_February_17_1866 [Accessed 21 February 2020].

(10) The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (OR), Ulysses S. Grant – Benjamin Butler, 18 August 1864, Series II, Vol. VII, 606-07.

(11) Ibid, Grant – William H. Seward, 19 August 1864, 614-15.

(12) New York Daily Tribune, 13 February 1865.

(13) Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Vol. II, New York, Charles L. Webster & Company, 1892 ed., 494-95; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, Red River to Appomattox, Vintage Books – A Division of Random House, New York, 1974, 948-49. When halting the Union jubiliation in camp at Lee’s surrender, Grant is credited with stating, “The war is over, the rebels are our countrymen again, and the best way of showing our rejoicing will be to abstain from all such demonstration.” See, Whipple, Wayne, The Heart of Lee, Philadelphia, George. W. Jacobs & Company, 1918, 193. See also the MA thesis of Major Donald R. Pierce, The Effects of The Cessation of Exchange of Prisoners During the Civil War, US Army Command & General Staff College, 1993, 16-19, 49. For an oversight of most of the minute aspects regarding the discontinued prisoner of war exchanges from 1864 onwards and their resumption near the end of the conflict, refer to James McPherson’s, Battle Cry of Freedom: The American Civil War, Penguin Books ed., 1990, 792-800.

(14) OR, Vol. 12, Part II, 666-67; Bevin, Alexander, Such Troops As These: The Genius & Leadership of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, Berkley Caliber, New York, 2014, 172.

(15) Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS AM 1910/169/280-283, Robert Gould Shaw papers, Robert Gould Shaw – Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, 3 July 1863. https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:27176661$282i [Accessed 22 March 2020].

(16) Pryor, Elizabeth Brown, Reading The Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, Penguin Books, 2008.

(17) Ibid, 454.

(18) Refer to, Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee, Westminster, Archibald, Constable & Company Ltd., 1904, 222-23, written by Lee’s son, as well Brion McClanahan’s YouTube lecture, ‘Misreading the Man’, wherein he  examines Pryor’s methodology. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJk7z2BiWzI [Accessed 28 February 2020]. See also, Philadelphia Press, 12 June 1865, wherein Thomas Morris Chester wrote that vouchment from the General veritably guaranteed a Black American in occupied-Richmond from harm, when re-establishing civil order was a significant issue and Black Americans were especially prone to risk.

(19) Russell, Penny, ‘Almost Believing: The Ethics of Historical Imagination’, The Historian’s Conscience: Australian Historians on The Ethics of History, Melbourne University Press, Stuart Macintyre, Ed., 2004, 107.

(20) For good examples of this practice, refer to Howell, Michael & Ford, Peter, Illustrated True History of The Elephant Man, Penguin Books, 1980, Chapter One. The authors’ offer a variety of possible explanations for the numerous discprepancies which occur in the most well-known account of Joseph Merrick, ‘The Elephant Man’, by his famed physician at the Royal London Hospital, Sir Frederick Treves, in the latter’s, The Elephant Man & Other Reminisces, Cassell & Company, Ltd., London, New York, Toronto & Melbourne, 1923, Chapter One. Michael Cathcart and Andrew Moore have both used this practice to produce convincing accounts, based on exhaustive research of vast amounts of both primary and secondary evidence, about Great Depression-era, conservative Australian paramilitary organisations. See, Defending the National Tuckshop: Australia’s Secret Army Intrigue of 1931, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, 1988, by Cathcart and Moore’s, The Secret Army & The Premier: Conservative Paramilitary Organisations in New South Wales, 1930-32, University of New South Wales Press, 1989.

(21) Wilson, R. Jackson, Gilbert, James, Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, Nissenbaum, Stephen, Scott, Donald M., Eds., The Pursuit of Liberty: A History of The American People to 1877, Vol. I, 3rd Ed., HarperCollinsCollege Publishers, 425-39.

(22) For information on the Duncan F. Kenner Mission in December of 1864 to France and Britain, refer to, Henry, William Wirt, ‘Kenner’s Mission to Europe’, The William & Mary Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1, (July 1916), 9-12; Bauer, Craig A., ‘The Last Effort: The Secret Mission of The Confederate Diplomat, Duncan F. Kenner’, Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association , Vol. 22, No. 1 (Winter, 1981), 67-95; McClanahan, Brion, ‘Jefferson Davis & The Kenner Mission’, https://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/jefferson-davis-and-the-kenner-mission/ [Accessed 21 March 2020]. Kenner’s papers are held in the Louisiana State University’s Special Collections’ Library.

(23) For Abraham Lincoln consoling and shaking the hand of Confederate Colonel Harry L. Benbow, whom was bed-ridden after resisting the Union breakthrough at Petersburg in April of 1865, see, Sandburg, Carl, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Vol. IV, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939, 171, and of Robert E. Lee doing same towards a crippled Union soldier upon the Gettysburg battlefield, refer to, Whipple, Heart of Lee, 170-72.

(24) Sandburg, Lincoln: War Years, Vol. IV, 176-77; Leyburn, John, “An Interview with General Robert E. Lee”, The Century Magazine, Vol. 30, May 1885, 166-67.

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