Some of our readers may know that a controversy has arisen been promoted by neo-Confederates over a proposal to memorialize Union solders killed in the bloody Battle of Olustee (or Ocean Pond, as Northerners remembered it), which took place in Florida in February 1864. As Brooks Simpson reports on his excellent blog, at least one Confederate veteran recalled pretty clearly that black Union soldiers were murdered as they lay wounded in the aftermath of the battle. That assertion is supported by evidence from the papers of Colonel James C. Beecher, who commanded the 35th USCT (formerly the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers) at Olustee. Writing to his wife two months after the events, Beecher insists:
“…there is now no doubt that all of my wounded men left on the field at Olustee were bayoneted in cold blood. It is said to have been done by some South Carolina troops.
The enemy report only 18 prisoners from my command. At least fifty were known to have been left on the field and at the depot at Sanderson and Berbers Station.
You may judge this does not make me particularly happy. Especially when the new man came to relieve Gen. Seymour.* While he pities the poor ‘Loyal Floridians’ who suffer so much from the effects of the war [he doesn’t] see anything particularly out of the way in this. Says he has no doubt my wounded were murdered, but that its “very hard to restrain men when their blood is up” etc etc.
If there were but ten stupid Generals in the whole army of the United States, each one of the ten would be assigned to command a district, and there wouldn’t be but ten districts made unless an eleventh stupid G. could be put in charge of it.”
Source: J. C. Beecher (Jacksonville) to ‘My beloved’, 13 April 1864, James C. Beecher Papers, Radcliffe College, Schlesinger Library
*General Truman Seymour was relieved of his command after the Olustee disaster and replaced by General John B. Hatch, who would later come into confrontation with freedpeople in Charleston over his leniency toward former Confederates.
Images courtesy of Florida State Archives, Florida Memory
“I regret to inform you that I found the place [St. Augustine] full of open and avowed traitors. I was insulted in the streets by secession females. I learned that there were women residing there whose husbands are in the rebel service, and who are receiving rations from our Government. Seventy-five slaves are receiving wages from our people, who are owned by rebel masters, and their wages are paid over to the agents of these masters.
[Recounting an incident involving a slave handed over to his ‘master’ in Florida]: While I was in St. Augustine, I was informed…that a fugitive slave who ran away from his rebel master—a man named Col. Titus (of Kansas notoriety)* and who holds a commission in the rebel army—was delivered up to said Titus by virtue of an order signed by Capt. Foster [in] circumstances…so disgraceful to our army that I felt it my duty to report them. This negro came to our lines from his rebel master heavily [wounded], having traveled a distance of eight miles in this condition to our pickets. He remained with our troops until [Titus] came with an order signed by Capt. Foster…directing Col. Sleeper to deliver him to his owner. He was delivered to Col. Titus. On receiving this negro Col. Titus put a slipping noose rope around the negro’s neck, with a timber pitch at his arm, mounted his horse and dragged the poor victim off in the presence of our troops….
On the day of my arrival [at St Simon’s Island, Georgia] a party of rebels came over to the island for the purpose of murdering the negroes. They were immediately attacked by the negro pickets and surrounded in a swamp. There were about twenty men on either side, and quite a brisk action occurred. The negroes lost two killed and one wounded severely. The rebel loss is not known, as they fled, and succeeded in making their escape from the island….”
General Rufus B. Saxton to Edwin M. Stanton, 20 Aug 1862, Rufus and S. Willard Saxton Papers, Sterling Memorial Library: Yale University
* Colonel Henry T. Titus (after whom the town of Titusville, Florida, is named) was a northern-born Confederate who before the war had traveled to Kansas to join proslavery ‘border ruffians’ there, playing a prominent role in the sacking of Lawrence and at one point reportedly holding two of John Brown’s sons as prisoners.
In the latest in a series of interviews with prominent scholars of US slave emancipation, Brian Kelly of the After Slavery Project interviewed historian Bruce Levine about his most recent book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South (Random House, 2013). Levine is a prolific and wide-ranging scholar whose books include The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War (1992), Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (1992), and Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (2007), which was awarded the Peter Seaborg Prize for Civil War Scholarship and was a finalist for the Jefferson Davis Award.
BK: I’m struck by two main trends in recent scholarship on the American Civil War. On the one hand if we look at writing on the war since, say, the publication of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom in 1988, there seems to be a deliberate turn away from the kind of organic integration of social and military history that he attempted and a return to a more exclusive focus on the logistics of war-making. So much of the recent debate centers on the military history of the conflict, and on the ways in which the North’s conduct of the war reflected a commitment or an indifference to emancipation: Gary Gallagher’s The Union War pushes this in a quite provocative way. Alongside this we see an emerging consensus (Yael Sternhell calls it the “new revisionism”) that the war was “unnecessary”—in one rendering “America’s greatest failure.”  In both of these approaches slave emancipation is almost left to one side, as an incidental outcome of the war.
Fall of the House of Dixie seems to cut against these trends. While you pay close attention to military developments, the focus of the study is elsewhere—on the transformative social and political effects of the war, the diverse array of actors that effected that transformation, and the revolutionary effects of the destruction of slavery. It seems quite clearly attuned to the ‘neo-abolitionist’ impulse sidelined in other recent scholarship. Can you explain the reasoning behind your approach and tell us—from your own perspective—what distinguishes it from other recent work?
BL: Scholarship on the Civil War since Battle Cry of Freedom looks more variegated to me than I guess it does to you. There is, of course, still a great deal of military history being produced; I think much of that is quite valuable. But a lot of social and cultural history has been and is being done, too.
I certainly agree with your observation, however, that there’s been a striking increase lately in “new revisionist” or “neo-revisionist” writing about the era. These essays and books revive some views once widespread but then challenged and eventually widely discredited by the fine work of a generation of historians (many of them sensitized by the civil rights movement) including Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, Leon Litwack, Lawanda Cox, and Eugene Genovese, Eric Foner, and James McPherson. Now the clock is being turned back to the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, and we are hearing once again that the Civil War could and should have been avoided because real differences between North and South were supposedly not big enough to warrant such a costly and sanguinary conflict; that the differences that did exist could and should have been resolved peacefully, through compromise; that the needed compromise didn’t materialize because of ignorance, paranoia, hysteria, political incompetence, careerism and mis-leadership, regional-cultural animosity, or all of the above.
What’s behind this trend? I think both academic-intellectual habits and current political sentiments have played roles here. The profession as a whole has for some time been placing a tremendous (I believe, an exaggerated) emphasis on “contingency” generally. That emphasis received a great boost with the rise of post-modernism and post-structuralism, with their disdain—as Gary Wilder put it—for “the study of long-term and large-scale historical processes. In the name of contingency, particularity, and difference, structural analysis and societal explanation were increasingly discouraged.” In studies of the Civil War, its origins, and its outcome, this preoccupation with contingency probably helped revive the view that the war arose not from fundamental societal differences in the North and South but because of events or developments that were more smaller in scale, less deeply rooted, more ephemeral or accidental – and, therefore, that the war could have been avoided if only one or more links in the actual chain of events had been fortuitously absent.
Modern doubts about the Civil War’s necessity have probably (in some cases, obviously) been nourished by political developments in our own time. These include alarm at the polarization of politics, the sharpening and coarsening of public political discourse, the two major parties’ much-decried “failure to compromise,” and an increasingly skeptical attitude toward all wars stimulated by disillusion with the current US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. These modern-day sentiments and values then lead (in my opinion, mislead) some scholars toward a neo-revisionist reevaluation of the most important conflict in the nation’s history.
My own book argues, in contrast, that the outbreak of the American Civil War was anything but accidental. Far from being the product of chance occurrences, political malpractice, or misplaced popular passions, it arose from basic trends and long-growing conflicts within U. S. society — from the growth and development of economies, perceived interests, values, assumptions, and norms premised on very different kinds of labor systems.
The first few chapters of The Fall of the House of Dixie advance and document that argument. The rest of the book undertakes a project I’ve looked forward to undertaking for many years — showing just how that war produced a massive social revolution, one that fundamentally transformed the South, and how different parts of the southern population experienced and participated in that social cataclysm. Central to that story, of course, is the interaction between the course and logic of that war and specific nature of the South’s social structure, especially chattel slavery.
BK: Let’s talk about the process by which the Confederate war effort began to falter, and then ultimately to fail. At the outset of hostilities, you suggest, the ‘House of Dixie’ was a fairly impressive structure: among other things, secessionists seemed to have succeeded in uniting a fairly diverse southern white population behind their project. Elite whites even boasted that their slaves, and the small population of free blacks in cities like Charleston and New Orleans—would remain loyal in the looming confrontation with the Union. But by the fall of 1862 the foundations of that structure are beginning to show cracks, and—as the war continues—to heave and ultimately to collapse. What happened to the seemingly impregnable South?
BL: The white population of the South was, of course, socially heterogeneous. Only a minority owned slaves, and only an even smaller minority owned enough people to afford themselves lives of genuine luxury. In peacetime, much of the non-slaveholding majority remained tied to the planter elite by bonds of convenience (including the perceived material benefits of slavery even to the slave-less) and white-supremacist ideology. And at the war’s outset, those bonds remained strong in most of the South. But as the war continued, its costs in blood and treasure mounted, and these bore down very unevenly on the white population. Non-slaveholders, who had the smallest palpable stake in the Confederacy’s survival, found themselves making the greatest sacrifices in its behalf. It was they who were serving and dying in the greatest numbers; wartime shortages and taxes affected them most severely.
After a few years of this, common whites asked themselves in steadily growing numbers just how much of this they were prepared to tolerate for the sake of slavery and southern national independence. Laws that explicitly discriminated against them (most obviously, the “20-negro” exemption from the draft) or placed a disproportionate share of the war efforts costs on their shoulders (impressment and the tax in kind, for example) only increased resentment of what increasingly seemed to many “a rich man’s war” being waged mostly by poorer families. Masters who placed the preservation of their personal property above the needs of a war that they had themselves brought into being — and such masters included some prominent members of the Confederate elite — fanned the flames of such resentment.
Subjected to stresses like these, the bonds holding the white South together began to fray. In some cases, they snapped. In some cases, indeed, they snapped quite early, as in the four so-called loyal border states as well as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Elsewhere, disaffection and demands that the Confederate government find a way to bring the war to an end became widespread by the end of 1862, elsewhere during 1863 and afterward. Desertion increased, and armed bands of deserters and draft resisters formed in a number of states.
Military successes, especially in the eastern war theater, could bolster morale and (by making a Confederate victory seem imminent) limit such discontent. But Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga dealt severe blows to such rosy expectations. By the end of 1864, the handwriting was pretty clear on the wall. Lincoln had been re-elected handily, Lee was besieged in Petersburg and Richmond, Sherman had taken Atlanta and was cutting roughly through Georgia on his way to the coast. Even many who remained attached in their hearts to the Confederacy and all it stood for found it hard to continue fighting and dying as hopes of somehow achieving victory winked out.
I’d like to add something here, if I may. As you know, a debate has been raging for years among historians about whether the South lost the war for “internal” reasons (because it lacked unity and morale) or “external” reasons (because of battlefield losses that were caused by other factors and that eroded the Confederacy’s political cohesion and sapped its fighting spirit). Although some reviewers perceive my book as a battery in support of the “internal” argument, I didn’t intend it to be that. As I said above (and tried to make clear in the book), the heavy blows that the Union army dealt to southern society, directly and indirectly, were crucial to the growth of discontent within the Confederacy.
BK: One of the obvious changes in the way historians understand the war in recent years has been the fundamental reappraisal of the slaves’ role in undermining the Confederacy. We’ve come a long way from William E. Woodward’s declaration, in 1925, that African Americans were “the only people in the history of the world…that ever became free without any effort of their own.” Today I suspect it would be difficult to find a college history classroom where the central role of the slaves in linking the war with their own emancipation is not openly acknowledged, and some scholars go quite a bit further. Your own account dismisses Woodward’s fable about “happy, contented Negroes,” but it also suggests we need to qualify the assumption that slaves across the South jumped at the first opportunity to desert their masters or throw in their allegiance with the Union. Can you elaborate?
BL: Much work about enslaved peoples (and, indeed, other oppressed and exploited groups) seems defined by a struggle between an often over-eager search for “agency” and a mounting over-reaction against such a search. I am trying to make a realistic appraisal of what American slaves wished to do, hoped to do, and were actually in a position to do. Only in San Domingue was any population of slaves able to destroy slavery by their own efforts alone. For a whole range of reasons, slaves in the U.S. were not in a position to do that prior to 1861. It took what both David Walker and John Quincy Adams anticipated decades earlier — the eruption of full-scale war between North and South — to allow thousands and thousands of slaves to act effectively in ways that helped directly to break the system down. The trickle of successful antebellum escapes from slavery could now swell into a flood, a hundreds of thousands of recently-enslaved men (and, of course, already-free black men) could actually serve and fight in the armies that destroyed the slaveholders’ state. But whether any given person would or could join in that process was shaped by a number of factors, including that individual’s personal qualities (including courage/audacity and desperation), his or her understanding of what the Civil War was about and who was likely to win it, and the proximity of Union armies. On the last score, Susan O’Donovan’s fine book, Becoming Free in the Cotton South, reminds us how limited was the agency of slaves during the war in places far from Union lines — and, for that matter, how that kind of wartime experience limited what was likely after the war as well.
BK: There is a long-running debate over the effects of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: some argue that since it freed only those slaves under Confederate jurisdiction, it was virtually meaningless as a practical measure. Your study suggests that the effects were far more profound: that the measure had a tangible effect even in territory that the Union had not yet conquered, and that by late 1863 and 1864, slavery as an institution was finished, or at least seriously crippled.
BL: There are widespread misunderstandings of many aspects of wartime emancipation. A number of authors will tell you, for example, that the Second Confiscation Act (1862) freed virtually no slaves. That assertion is wildly off-base. It arises, I think, from confusing two distinct provisions of the law, one dealing with confiscating slaves and another with confiscating non-human forms of property. The second part did indeed have limited effect for various reasons. But the first part certainly did facilitate the confiscation and emancipation of many Confederate slaves during the second half of 1862.
A similar claim that the Emancipation Proclamation was toothless has far less support among modern scholars but a good deal more in parts of the general public. That claim arose during the war years, when both Confederates and northern Democrats deliberately misrepresented the proclamation’s significance in order to demean its issuance as supposedly hypocritical. Here is Lincoln, they said, leaving those slaves living in the Union still in chains while declaring free precisely those slaves in the Confederacy over which he actually has no control.
It is of course true that — primarily for legal/constitutional reasons — the proclamation applied directly only to slaves living in as-yet unoccupied parts of the Confederacy and not to the four slave states still in the Union. But its issuance nonetheless had very real consequences for Confederate slaves. It meant, for one thing, that, thereafter, whenever Union armies advanced further into the Confederacy, they would bring freedom to all the slaves they encountered there. And—as indignant slaveowners in Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, and even Delaware well understood—any blow directed at slavery within the Confederacy also indirectly undermined slavery within the so-called loyal slave states. The proclamation also encouraged Union officials, their radical-minded supporters within those states, and the slaves themselves to begin directly to dismantle slavery there, too.
As a result, about half a million slaves were free by the end of the war, and many who were still formally enslaved in the defeated states had by then begun to use the palpably weakened wartime position of their masters to increase their own freedom of action. Starting in late 1863, some individual Confederate masters and their political representatives began concluding that the blows by then already dealt to slavery had effectively destroyed it as an institution, no matter how the war ended. This was certainly the thinking behind Patrick Cleburne’s proposal in December 1863-January 1864 to offer freedom to male slaves who would fight for the Confederacy. And the same prognosis lay behind Jefferson Davis’s eleventh-hour decisions to adopt the Cleburne idea and even to offer initiating some form of gradual emancipation if only Britain and France would give him some kind of wartime assistance.
Were Confederates who judged slavery already dead by 1864 right? It’s hard to say. Had the Confederacy won the war, it would likely have begun trying to strengthen the bonds of slavery within its borders (unless, again, France and Britain had accepted Davis’s offer). How effective Confederate forces would have been in such a campaign is also difficult to guess.
BK: Let’s return to some of the issues raised at the outset of the interview. It must be a common experience for those who teach this period to come to the end of a semester, having discussed the collapse of Reconstruction and the harsh regime that later took hold, to find students concluding that despite the huge costs of the war, nothing fundamental had changed—that emancipation had delivered very little for freedpeople. And as we noted this is reflected in much of the recent historiography on the Civil War. You end your book with an acknowledgement that white elites were able to “avoid a radical alteration in southern society” but nevertheless insist that the war was “a worthwhile, necessary, and even glorious one.” How do you reconcile these two assertions?
BL: As a result of the Civil War and its aftermath, slavery’s destruction remained a central fact of postwar life. It’s certainly true that black field laborers found themselves saddled with a sharecropping system that exploited and oppressed them and kept most of them trapped in poverty. But that system never compared in severity and brutality with the work regime of the pre-war South. The southern elite never managed to effect a complete counter-revolution in the sense of restoring the status quo ante bellum. It would have liked to restore slavery but couldn’t. Which meant that millions of black Americans could not again be bought and sold like furniture or cattle. And that white landowners could never re-assert the degree of day-to-day control over black people that slavery had given them.
Nor did those ex-masters ever succeed in reintroducing the kind of global controls embodied in the Black Codes promulgated during presidential reconstruction. In other words, they could not strip black people—even in the nadir of the Jim Crow era—of the greater freedom of action that accompanied emancipation. That fact had weighty consequences for the plantation system. Black field hands now successfully refused to work with the old intensity; they fought the return of gang labor, and they retained far more of the fruits of their own labors than was ever possible under slavery. In the process, they appreciably raised their living standards compared to antebellum times.
Just as (if not more) important, the rights—de facto as well as de jure—that black people won during and retained after emancipation increased immeasurably their ability to fight for greater freedom and equality of rights down the road. Strengthened family and community ties, access to education and political experience, the ability to leave the southern countryside for urban centers in the North as well as the South – all such gains helped the descendants of slaves not only to survive Jim Crow but eventually to triumph over it. It’s very hard to imagine how any of that would have been possible had slavery not been destroyed in the 1860s.
And for those who experienced, or heard, or read about what slavery’s enemies had accomplished during the 1860s, the memory of the second American revolution could provide hope and inspiration.
BK: Its hard not to be struck by the sheer range of your scholarship on the Civil War. Your Spirit of 1848 was one of a small handful of books that inspired me to apply for graduate study in history. My students have used Half Slave and Half Free for as long as I’ve been teaching the Civil War, and in recent years your Confederate Emancipation has been extremely important for cutting through what had for too long been a very confused (perhaps a contrived) debate on black ’service’ to the Confederacy. I expect that this most recent study will get heavy classroom use once its out in paperback. Where do you go from here? Is there another related project in the works?
BL: Thanks, Brian. That’s very kind of you. But it’s a mutual admiration society: I think very highly of your work on southern coal miners and now on Reconstruction.
My own next book looks at the life and times of Thaddeus Stevens. None of Stevens’s biographies, I think, has successfully rooted him in his specific time and place. That goes for earlier, rather hostile works (such as Richard Current’s Beardian portrait) as well as for the more recent, friendlier ones — notably Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography and Hans Trefousse’s deeply researched but rather narrowly focused recounting of Stevens’s life. As a result, the social and ideological roots of Stevens’s particular brand of democratic radicalism have not been adequately laid bare. I hope that putting him back in his actual setting — including the post-revolutionary Vermont of his birth and upbringing — will allow me not only to make better sense of who this individual was and why but also to re-examine the roots and flowering of popular antislavery sentiment in the North that made it possible for such an individual to become so influential a political figure in the 1850s and 1860s.
This study will also, I expect, allow me to re-examine some recently controversial subjects such as the rise of and divisions within the early Republican party, the nature and evolution of wartime Republican policy, and the strengths and weakness of the postwar attempt to remake the South into a more democratic and egalitarian society — to look more closely than I’ve previously don at the latter stages of the Second American Revolution.
 Yael Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3:2 (June 2013): 239-256
 Gary Wilder, “From Optic to Topic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns,” American Historical Review 117: 3 (June 2012): 723-745.
In his Life in Dixie Land, or the South in Secession Time, ‘Edmund Kirke’ (pen name for the New York journalist James R. Gilmore) records the following conversation he had with a slave teamster in 1862. According to Kirke, his driver was African-born, and had been brought to the Carolinas at a young age via Cuba, eventually ending up working as a porter on the streets and wharves of Georgetown, 65 miles north of Charleston. Kirke remarks that “three days with him (a ‘remarkable negro’ of ‘superior intelligence’) banished from my mind all doubt as to the capacity of the black for freedom, and all question as to the disposition of the slave to strike off his chains when the favourable moment arrives. From him I learned that the blacks, though pretending ignorance, are fully acquainted with the questions at issue in the present contest.” As an example Kirke recalls the response he received (rendered ‘in dialect’) when he suggested that the war would leave the slaves “no better off”: “No, massa, ‘t won’t do that. De Souf will fight hard, and de Norf will get de blood up, and come down har, and do ‘way wid de cause ob all de trubble–and dat am de nigga…. When (the South) fight de Norf wid de right hand, dey’ll hev to hold de nigga wid de the leff.”
As an example of the slaves’ familiarity with the essence of the war, Kirke recalled the words of a song “then current among the negroes of the district.” Its content is the more remarkable for the fact that it seems to have foreseen enlistment of black northerners in the Union Army:
Hark! Darkies, hark! It am de drum
Dat calls ole Massa way from hum,
Wid powder-pouch and loaded gun,
To drive ole Abe from Washington;
Oh! Massa’s gwine to Washington,
So clar de way to Washington–
Oh! wont dis darky hab sum fun
When Massa’s gwine to Washington!
Ole Massa say ole Abe will eat
De niggas all, excep’ de feet–
De feet, may be, will cut and run
When Massa gets to Washington.
Dis nigger know ole Abe will save
His brudder man, de darky slave,
And dat he’ll let him cut and run
When Massa gets to Washington.
The next is in similar vein:–
A storm am brewin’ in de Souf,
A storm am brewin’ now,
Oh! hearken den and shut your mouf,
And I will tell you how:
And I will tell you how, ole boy,
De Storm of fire will pour,
And make de darkies dance for joy,
As dey neber danced afore.
So shut your mouf as close as deafh,
And all you niggas hole your breafh,
And I will tell you how.
De darkies at de Norf am rise,
And dey am comin’ down–
Am comin’ down, I know dey is,
To do de white folks brown!
Dey’ll turn ol’ Massa out to grass,
And set de niggas free,
And when dat day am come to pass
We’ll all be dar to see!
So shut your mouf as close as deafh,
And all you niggas hole your breafh,
And do de white folks brown!
‘Den all de week will be as gay
As am de Chris’mas time;
We’ll dance all night and all de day,
And make de banjo chime–
And make de banjo chime, I tink,
And pass de time away,
Wid ’nuff to eat and ’nuff to drink,
And not a bit to pay!
So shut your mouf as close as deafh,
And all you niggas hole your breafh,
And make de banjo chime.
Oh! make de banjo chime, you nigs,
And sound de tamborin,
And shuffle now de merry jigs,
For Massa’s ‘gwine in’–
For Massa’s ‘gwine in,’ I know,
And won’t he hab de shakes,
When Yankee darkies show him how
Dey cotch de rattlesnakes!
So shut your mouf as close as deafh,
And all you niggas hole your breafh,
For Massa’s ‘gwine in’–
For Massa’s ‘qwine in,’ I know,
And won’t he hab de shakes,
When Yankee darkies show him how
Dey cotch the rattlesnakes!*
*symbol for the state of South Carolina
Source: Edmund Kirke, Life in Dixie Land, or The South in Secession Time (London, 1863), 14-16.
In our ongoing series of interviews with scholars working on the Civil War and Reconstruction, After Slavery blogger Brian Kelly interviews historian Glenn David Brasher about his award-winning study, The Peninsula Campaign & the Necessity of Emancipation (UNC Press, 2012). Brasher, formerly a battlefield site interpreter for the US National Park Service, teaches nineteenth-century US history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He is the recipient of the 2013 Wiley-Silver Award from the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi.
BK: In the introduction to The Peninsula Campaign, you discuss your experience in the National Park Service and your dissatisfaction with the way the war was presented to the public as an early motivation for undertaking this study. Can you share with our readers some of what compelled you to begin the research and follow it through to publication?
GDB: I was a seasonal park ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park for 8 summers during the 1990s, and during that time I saw very few African American visitors. This fact stood out to me, because black participation in the Civil War was one of the first things that got me really interested in studying the conflict. As a young white college student from Alabama, seeing the movie Glory in 1989 was a particularly eye-opening experience. From the African-American perspective, the war was a fight for personal freedom, and that aspect seemed especially intriguing to me. Thus it seemed strange that very few blacks seemed to be interested in the war.
Yet at that time, the National Park Service was only just then starting to feature interpretation that included stories about slavery, slaves, and black troops. At Richmond, the displays were very dated and mostly just told stories about white soldiers and battlefield tactics. There was essentially nothing about slavery’s centrality to the causes of the war, or the war’s impact on bringing emancipation—much less anything about African-American participation in the war. I had to wonder, if blacks did come to the battlefields, was there anything there to particularly intrigue them or educate them about the role of blacks in the Civil War? The answer seemed to offer a good explanation for why few ever came.
Much of this has changed now, and the Richmond Battlefield has come very far in placing the war into a larger context, especially in its main visitor’s center at the Tredegar Ironworks. I have friends who work there, and I can tell you that there are some very fine historians on that staff who see the war as more than just battlefield tactics. Additionally, the park includes sites associated with the 1864 battles around the city, and this allows them to nicely incorporate the story of black troops later in the war.
Still, most of the park’s sites are associated with the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, and African-American perspectives on this event are much less obvious. The Union failure in the campaign was one of the primary events that convinced many Northerners that it was a military necessity to emancipate slaves in order to win the war. It is no coincidence that in the weeks after the campaign, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act and Lincoln proposed an Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.
Yet the battlefield park’s interpretations focused almost exclusively on Union general George McClellan’s failure to capture Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s ascension to command. There was basically nothing to show that the campaign had had such a pivotal role in turning the war into one that led to emancipation. Even less featured at the park was the role that African Americans themselves played in shaping the campaign.
In many ways, my book was written as an effort to correct these shortcomings. I’d really like to play some role in changing the ways that we look at the Peninsula Campaign—not just the Park Service, but also the public at large. I’m not interested in writing books that only find an audience among other academics. As a result, my book avoids jargon and theory, and just tries to tell a good story—a story that hopefully will get people looking at this military campaign in a new way. I was drawn to Civil War history by a movie, and my time as a park interpreter honed my conviction that public history has an essential impact on shaping perceptions of historical events. Thus I firmly believe that as academics we have to get more involved in bringing solid interpretations to larger audiences.
BK: I’ll come back to the interpretive angle of your work later, because I think you’re being a bit modest in that regard, but let me ask you about one of the central contributions, as I see it: your focus on the essential role that slaves played—usually as impressed laborers—in making it possible for the Confederate military to prosecute the war. In the end its dependency on this source of labor seems to come back to haunt the Confederacy. Can you elaborate?
GDB: It does come back to haunt them in a big way. From the start of the war, Southerners publicly boasted that their slaves would be a source of strength to their cause, and in the first two years that certainty turned out to be true: not because the enslaved voluntarily served the Confederacy, but because they were impressed into building fortifications and entrenchments. Most white Southerners viewed menial labor as work fit only for black men, and Confederate leaders found it exceedingly difficult to get white soldiers to perform this essential labor effectively (this changed by the end of the war). As a result, the early Confederacy relied heavily on slave impressment.
As other historians have shown, slaveowners grumbled and complained about impressment because of how hard their slaves were worked by the government, and because the war deprived masters of the services of their laborers at critical times in the agricultural season. Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning, for example, argues that slaveowner resistance is another indication of how weak the Confederacy was internally: she uses it to question the degree and power of southern nationalism. I think my own work, and especially Jaime Amanda Martinez’s recent monograph, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South, have both shown that these impressments were more of a southern strength than McCurry acknowledges. But I think there was something more important going on with slave impressment that ultimately played a larger role in Confederate defeat, and that was the effect it had on making Northerners begin to see emancipation as a military necessity.
As early as First Manassas, the northern press pointed out that slave-built fortifications significantly hindered Union military operations. During the Peninsula Campaign, these assertions grew louder and louder, and came from soldiers, newspaper editorialists, and most significantly, from the floor of Congress. In pushing for a Second Confiscation Act, politicians repeatedly pointed out that slave-built entrenchments were stalling McClellan’s drive on Richmond—proof that depriving the Confederacy of their slave laborers was becoming essential to winning the war.
Additionally, when the campaign ended in defeat after the Seven Day’s Battles, the argument was made that Lee’s army had been able to attack the Army of the Potomac with so much energy and aggressiveness because southern soldiers had been better rested than Yankee soldiers, who had been compelled to build their own fortifications while the Confederates relied on their slaves.
I found that in July 1862 these points were being made repeatedly by a broad spectrum of Northerners (not just radical Republicans and abolitionists), and this created a momentum for emancipation as a military necessity that could not be ignored by Congress or the president. Based on what I found in my own research, I feel that other historians have not emphasized this dynamic enough when discussing the factors that led to support for emancipation. In my mind it was absolutely critical.
BK: This is perhaps a good point to return to the interpretive angle of your work. In the developing debate over whether the northern war was one for ‘Union’ or ‘emancipation’, you place your own work fairly explicitly in the ‘war for the Union’ camp. In the introduction, for example, you point out the problems in pursuing a purely ‘bottom-up’ approach to the war—its tendency to downplay the importance of political and military leadership. But it strikes me that your own research—for a monograph that is first and foremost concerned with military history—stakes out a kind of elusive middle ground, and suggests the inadequacy of the ‘either/or’ proposition for capturing the dynamic quality of the War: it demonstrates a clear relationship between slave self-activity and the wider transformation of the war, for example. Do you want to clarify your own position on this?
GDB: It is interesting to me that you say this, because my intention was to place myself in the middle ground on the question of “Who freed the slaves?”—not so much the question of “Union or emancipation?” Of course the two overlap in many ways, and perhaps, as you suggest, my work has demonstrated how.
I do place myself in the “War for Union” camp. Lincoln and the Republican Party were definitely an anti-slavery group that was committed to destroying the institution in the long run. Yet they believed that this could only constitutionally be done by preventing the spread of it into the new territories and by concurrently cutting off all federal support for it and using the national government to encourage gradual, compensated emancipation (and possibly colonization). The fact that they promoted this anti-slavery agenda is what created the paranoia in the south that led to secession. Of course there is nothing controversial about these statements.
However, recently James Oakes has argued, in Freedom National, that the core of the party also believed that emancipation might be effected quicker if a war for the Union occurred, and if that happened they were more than ready to free the slaves as a “military necessity.” While some Radicals in the party embraced this idea, I don’t think that it has been proven that the core of the party embraced such radical measures even before the war started (my online review of Freedom National makes my reservations about the work fairly clear). In line with northern sentiment, the party was committed to fighting a war to stop secession, and nothing further. Of course many radicals immediately hoped and even predicted that the war would wind up freeing the slaves, but they were a pretty significant minority, not only within the country as a whole, but also within the Republican party. So what happened to change that? Why did so many come to believe that saving the Union required emancipation? This is where my book tries to make a contribution.
The war’s military contingencies caused the change. The fact that there was a war did not alone make it a “military necessity” to free the slaves, either legally or in the minds of most Northerners. Most optimistically believed that 22 million Northerners could defeat 9 million Southerners without having to call on the slaves. And in fact, most felt that emancipation would only hurt their cause because it might encourage more southern resistance as well as lose the Border States. But as events unfolded, the radical argument that slaves must be freed in order to win the war gained credence. As previously noted, it became increasingly apparent that the South gained significant military advantages by tapping into their supply of slave laborers to build fortifications and entrenchments, and rumors even circulated that they were using slaves in combat roles. Additionally, the enslaved community provided military intelligence that significantly helped Union military operations and the case was made that such aid could be increased if more slaves were encouraged to abandon their masters.
But the argument that emancipation was a military necessity could not have been successfully proven had the war’s contingencies not strengthened the point. If McClellan had been a more effective commander, it is possible that Richmond would have fallen in the spring of 1862. Combined with Union military successes elsewhere, the capture of the Confederate capital at that time would have made a pretty convincing case that freeing the slaves was NOT a military necessity. How could it be necessary, legally or otherwise, if the war was clearly being won without resorting to emancipation?
I firmly believe that had military events shown that emancipation was not necessary to preserve the Union, and the war then successfully won, slavery would have survived the conflict essentially intact. Having preserved the Union, Lincoln and his anti-slavery party would then simply have turned to combating the institution in the long term with the tactics that they had campaigned and been elected on—stopping its spread, cutting support, encouraging gradual and compensated emancipation, etc.
Thus the failure of the Peninsula Campaign was pivotal in showing Northerners that emancipation was required in order to win the war. It is at that point that preservation of the Union and slave emancipation became wedded to one another (and let’s not forget that significant resistance to this connection continued for the duration). This melding of Union and emancipation absolutely required the war’s military events to have unfolded in the way that they did. And those events played out the way that they did because of the actions of military and political leaders, as well as the actions of the slaves themselves.
BK: This is I suppose the central contribution of your study: as you suggest, it was the North’s inability to make significant breakthroughs on the battlefield—McClellan’s failure to inflict a defeat on numerically inferior Confederate forces—that compelled a rethinking both among the Union rank-and-file and on up the chain of military and political command. At the same time Lincoln’s attempt to persuade the Border States of the merits of voluntary emancipation is reaching the end of the road. In this context the argument about emancipation as a “military necessity” becomes difficult to counter. Here I wonder if we can move onto more speculative ground: was there a context that might have allowed Lincoln and the Republicans to move from ‘mere’ pragmatism to principle, to consolidate a body of northern opinion that might uphold black equality after military necessity had ceased to be an issue—that is, after the war was ended?
GDB: This is an interesting question, and I have been pondering an aspect of it for my next project. I’ve argued that the actions of African Americans during the war played a significant role in convincing Northerners that emancipation was a necessity, but of course freedom and equality are two different things. Did black military involvement in the war also help convince a broad spectrum of Northerners that Africans Americans were full human beings that deserved equal rights? We know that recruiters and promoters of the USCT’s insisted that military service was a path to gaining citizenship rights. We also know that near the end of his life, Lincoln himself argued that black soldiers and “the intelligent” deserved consideration for certain rights, specifically suffrage. And as Barbara Gannon has shown in her monograph, The Won Cause, the post-war Grand Army of the Republic contained significant numbers of white veterans who were sympathetic to the rights of black veterans.
Despite all of this, as your question indicates, radical Congressional Reconstruction ultimately failed. Why? We could go with David Blight’s explanation, that reconciliation between North and South was achieved only through the North’s willingness to absorb some of the tenets of the Lost Cause, effectively obliterating the memory of black services in the war and shunting slavery and emancipation far into the background of the war’s causes and outcomes. But while there is undeniable truth to many aspects of this influential thesis, I believe that Caroline Janney’s new work, Remembering the Civil War, has blasted considerable holes into it. Union veterans were not willing to simply forget what their efforts in the war had done for African Americans, nor were they always willing to forget what blacks had done to help win the war.
So could Reconstruction have turned out differently? I do believe that Lincoln’s shift at the end of his life, the sentiments of many (though hardly all, and very far from most) white Union veterans, as well as the goals of the radical Republicans, could have all gelled nicely to create a more long lasting commitment to black citizenship rights. But, at the risk of sounding too much like I embrace the “Great Men” approach to history, I believe the essential ingredient had to be Lincoln.
Throughout the war, we know that he proved himself a master at keeping a leash on the radicals, holding back their impulses until public opinion could catch up with their goals. Had he survived the war, he would have been at the height of his powers to influence and shape the course of political events. That is not to say that there would not have been a fight between him and the radical Congress, and there is no way for us to say with absolute certainty that he would have won that fight, slowing down the push for black rights until public opinion could catch up. Who knows? The fight might have ruined his presidency, but we can all agree that he stood a better chance in that fight than his successor. Andrew Johnson was obviously little qualified to slow the impulses of the radicals, and in fact, his defiant actions only unleashed their revolutionary impulses. These unrestrained efforts were met with the massive and violent southern resistance that played such a significant role (though hardly the only one) in causing Northerners to want to move on to other national issues.
But to answer your question most directly, I believe that had Lincoln lived, his political clout and leadership, reinforced by sentiment among that minority of white veterans that supported the rights of their black comrades, could have created a more enduring northern support for black citizenship rights. To support this cause, my sense is that both Lincoln and those veterans would have pointed to the significant and effectual role that African American had played in the war that had saved the Union. With both Lincoln and these veterans behind this argument, I believe it would likely have played much better with the public than the more radical one based on moral principle (just as it had done during the war), at least initially. In my mind, Lincoln’s last speech—when he suggested that black veterans be given the right to vote—was his opening salvo for making just such a case. It was perhaps the first small step in a gradual process. Southern white resistance would have remained, of course, but Lincoln’s slower pace, his ability to reign in the radicals, and his emphasis on the role that African Americans had played in the war, might possibly have won the day in the long term.
I do not think I ever had quite so proud a day…. Today, for the first time I marched my whole regiment through Beaufort & back. They did march splendidly, as all admit. The dear 51st did not compare with them… To look back on twenty broad double ranks of men, (for we marched by platoons) every polished musket with a black face at the side of it, every face steady to the front, marching on into the future; it was magnificent, and when we returned, marching by the flank, (this is in fours,) with guns at “support arms,” & each man covering his file leader, (the prettiest way of marching in the world) the effect was as fine. I had cautioned them before we left, not to be staring about but to look straight before them, & with their accustomed fidelity they did it. One of them said, since, “I didn’t see anything in Beaufort–every step was worth half a dollar,” & they all stepped as if it were so. It was just the way my old company used to do in Worcester–only think of the difference–what character & culture did there–here the evoked self-reliance of a race does with drill & personal magnetism of course added in both cases. And whereas there, as rival Captains indignantly averred, we [“]had the whole town to blow for us,” this was marching through throngs of prejudiced critics, officers & privates, who had all drilled as many months as we had weeks, & who were absolutely compelled to admit how admirably the regiment appeared. Dr. Rogers & others rode about among officers who came jeering and contemptuous, & had to say at last “they do splendidly,” one Captain in the N.H. 4th, the best drilled regiment here, & he bitterly pro slavery said in the hearing of our LtColonel [sic], to a circle of officers, “There is nothing in this Department that can excel them.” And indeed one of our recruits, who did not march with the regiment, watching the astonishment of some white soldiers, said, “De buckra soldiers look like a man who done steal a sheep“! i. e. I suppose sheepish.
from the War Journal of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Camp Saxton [Port Royal, SC], 19 January 1863 (pp. 88-9)
This section of the country from the Santee to the Pee Dee River is almost entirely open to the enemy, with the exception of a very small Cavalry force between this place and Georgetown, say one hundred men. So far this small force has been able to check their advance any distance into the interior. They have been up our Rivers, took and destroyed every thing, set the negroes free and in many places armed them, and they (the negroes) have given us battle in two instances. Recently they have reinforced their forces at Georgetown with a negro Regiment, and landed fifty waggons and two hundred mules. This evidently means an advance into the country; in fact we have reliable information that they are making preparations to move through this section….
R. C. Logan (Kingstree, SC) to Governor Andrew G. Magrath, 5 April 1865
When I was in Charleston in the first part of last month, you will recollect I called your attention to the manner in which the negroes we had sent to work on the fortifications were managed. I complained that they were not divided off and assigned to the control or command of practical men acquainted with negroes and how to get work done, and so forth. You observed that you intended to have them divided off and strictly attended to. I know it is almost impossible to have anything done right, particularly if not in the direct line of military duty and service. There has been great irregularity in the manner of executing the requisition for negroes. Parts of neighborhoods have been taken down and others not even notified. The negroes have been retained beyond the time they were taken down for, and this too without giving any notice to their owners or agents. You know that all such things produce great dissatisfaction and complaint. If notice were given in advance, when negroes are absolutely required to remain, as a military necessity, it would be better. We have sent down in all some eight thousand negroes, and this produces in the aggregate much derangement in getting crops, so necessary for winter support. I hope it will not be long now before you can discharge all that belong to the country, and impress those who are in and around the city to finish as the work necessary to get in provisions is not required in and around the city, and there are many necessarily idle all the time in such a place. It strikes me too that, after cool weather, our soldiers could be directed to do much work, such as is done in other armies…. I tried to make a system last spring, by which a corps of negroes could be attached permanently to the army as Spades-men and axe-men, under military discipline and army regulations. I still think it could be done, and it would be far better than to derange agricultural labor in the rural district, by constantly calling for negro labor at times occasionally deeply injurious to raising or gathering of crops.
Governor Frances W. Pickens (South Carolina) to General P. G. T. Beauregard, 5 November 1862
There is at present as far as we can learn, a general feeling of depression among the South Carolina troops, which possibly may eventually develop into a Union sentiment. The feeling the soldiers express is: “We have no negroes to fight for, while the slave-owners have all taken good care to retire to the interior of the State where they can live in safety.” The question is beginning to pass among them, “Why should we stay here to be shot, when those who have caused the war have run away?” This is dangerous talk, and, we are told, officers have great difficulty in maintaining the organization of their Regiments. At least these are stories brought by the negroes who are continually escaping to our lines, and the unanimity of their reports seems to lend the appearance of truth to them. The fact is, the frightful effects of the explosions of the 11-inch shell which some of our gun-boats carry, have produced a great panic among the land forces of South Carolina. Negroes from Charleston report the city in a great fright, the inhabitants making preparation to leave at the sound of the first note of alarm. I hope we may catch old [John] Tyler. It would do me a deal of good to see the traitor sent North to be dealt with properly. There is a strong contrast between the treatment of our prisoners, and that received by the unfortunates who fall into the hands of the “chivalry.”
William Thompson Lusk [HQ, Second Brigade: Beaufort, SC] to Elizabeth Freeman Adams Lusk, 9 Jan 1862, in War Letters of William Thompson Lusk, 113-4
The slave population of this district is very numerous—whilst the white is extremely small. For the purposes of police, there are not left us along the Rivers, men enough in any neighborhood to form a suitable Patrol. The government of the Police Court is the sole authority remaining to us to control the negroes and to keep order. The constant presence and proximity of the enemy exercise an unhappy influence over them and it has been the duty of the Police Court to resort to severe measures, in order to repress their demoralized spirit. In the past three years, eleven have accordingly been sentenced to suffer the extreme penalty of the Law and have been executed, and others have been punished for offenses committed against the peace and good order of the community—a condition of perfect quiet now exists here among us. …the status of the Police Court ought to be sustained, with a view to its dignity and usefulness, or its existence abolished.
Francis L. Parker, President of Police Court of Georgetown District to Governor Andrew G. Magrath, 24 December 1864