Interesting thoughts about Civil War manuscript collections

To my readers, I want to apologize for neglecting this blog for so long and not posting anything for almost a year. I have not left blogging and am not done with this site, but life’s been quite busy with teaching and trying to finish a dissertation, so my free writing time has been limited. That said, I want to thank you all for sticking it out with this site and hope you will come back, as I hope to get back into it a bit more in the near future. I am always willing to consider new topics to write about, so let me know.

That said, I want to tip my hat to Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory for sharing this interesting article from the Gettysburg Compiler via Facebook. Written by Kevin Lavery, an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College, while part of their Civil War Institute, this article on manuscripts and the right to be forgotten from history really made me think.

As someone who has worked in a special collections department for over two years now, I deal with manuscripts of all types on a regular basis, including diaries and letters. These sources, as Mr. Lavery points out, are quite important to researchers, but the ethical dilemma he raises does hold some weight. Some of what he raises about historians’ responsibilities in dealing with unpublished sources is important, as we are dealing with another human being’s private conversation and while that individual may be dead, the intimacy of the words on the page do not lessen because of death. This means that such words must be treated with respect.

Does this mean that we should not use them to understand the past? Certainly not, but it does mean that we must strive to avoid what is termed presentism, or applying the standards of our time to those of the past. My mentor from my undergraduate days always used the example of one of your descendants picks up a letter you wrote describing eating a juicy steak and recoils in horror. Though a little tongue in cheek, his point was that we do not want to be judged based upon the standards and values of a time we are not familiar with, so we should not judge those who came before us by our standards because their time held different values than ours in some cases.

As I read such sources, I always try to see what such writings tell me about the past, but I am uncomfortable with the pseudo-psychological role that some scholars take when evaluating sources, as we can never fully understand what another human being felt during a given event, especially when recalling it in a later writing. One of the best examples would be the field of military history. In writing about warfare, a scholar, who happens to be a combat veteran may understand, to an extent, the gripping accounts of battle written by a soldier long ago, as they share the same broad experience of being in combat. Yet, the differences would be in the nature of that combat, the personality of the soldier involved that wrote the letter, diary, or memoir, as well as the societal norms of that period. Sherman’s generalization that “war is hell” is as accurate today as 150 years ago, but the nature of war has changed in many ways since then.

In the end, it seems that Mr. Lavery’s analysis would argue that we should let the authors of Civil War manuscripts speak for themselves and perhaps respect their privacy a bit by not delving into nuances regarding such writings. These men, and women, were writing to loved ones about an important event that was shaping their very lives, no more, no less. For them, it was a matter of staying in touch with home during a time when mail was slow and death could be quick. When faced with one’s mortality, even as a younger person, and with the technological limitations placed on your ability to communicate over great distances, the very soul of a man may be poured out on a piece of paper, in an effort to not leave something unsaid to those back home.

I welcome your thoughts on this interesting subject.

150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Given it’s still July 1 here in the Central Time Zone, today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. The battle has been the subject of much discussion and several movies, including my favorite Gettysburg (1993). It remains one of the largest battles in North America, with over 50,000 casualties. With this anniversary and the benefit of new technology the folks at ESRI produced an amazing interactive map of the battle, including three-dimensional animation related to the troop positions. I encourage you all to check it out at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/A-Cutting-Edge-Second-Look-at-the-Battle-of-Gettysburg.html.

I have been following some of the internet coverage of the 150th anniversary reenactment held this past weekend and it looks like, for the most part, the event went well, though some unfortunate reenactors suffered heat injuries. My good friend Stuart Lawrence is returning home from taking part in the event and hopefully will share an after action report and pictures. Now, I am going to take a bit of time to watch the portions of Gettysburg related to the first day. More to come in the next two days on this momentous anniversary.

Review of Death and the Civil War

I would like to take this opportunity to remind you all that American Experience on PBS will be airing a documentary by Ric Burns (younger brother of filmmaker Ken Burns) entitled Death and the Civil War on Tuesday, September 18 at 8:00PM Eastern Time. The airing is timely, as it will be just after the 150th anniversary of the bloodiest single-day battle in American history with the Battle of Antietam on September 17.

This film, based upon Drew Gilpin Faust’s landmark work This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), illustrated how the Civil War changed how Americans on both sides of the conflict perceived death. Prior to the war, influenced by the religious revival of the Second Great Awakening, people believed in the concept of a “good death”, which involved dying at home, surrounded by loved ones, at peace and ready to go, and possibly and offering of last words to friends and family. This death was rooted in Christian tradition emerging in the nation through the early 19th century, where a new belief in a corporeal heaven, gained wide acceptance by the eve of war. This belief held that the deceased will gain a renewed body upon entering heaven and will reunite with loved ones who passed on before them, as well as the surviving relatives and friends when they die, with all living in everlasting peace and harmony with God.

As the war’s cruel reality shattered notions of a short, relatively bloodless conflict, Americans faced a new concept of death, as hundreds, and soon thousands, of young men were slaughtered in their prime, unable to enjoy the tranquility and dignity of a “good death”. Soldiers soon adapted to this changing circumstance and created the same conditions, in a modified fashion, for their dying comrades. The men were surrounded by photographs of loved ones, their army friends, and were able, when possible, die in relative peace. The deceased’s comrades also took on the unenviable task of notifying loved ones of the demise of the soldier, as well as arranging for shipment of effects and, if able, the body.

This documentary did an outstanding job of analyzing the harsh situation facing the nation in the early years of the war, that stands in stark contrast to how our nation treats the war dead today. Before and during the early years of the war, the federal government did not bear responsibility for identifying, accounting for, and treating its war dead. The result was that many dead were not identified initially, being buried in graves marked “Unknown”. Further, the government had no way of effective notification of casualties, with relatives relying upon the casualty reports in local papers, which could be inaccurate, creating increased anxiety among people as to the fate of their loved one serving, whether they were dead or not. Death was exacerbated by the lack of an ambulance corps, preventing early evacuation of wounded, which caused many to linger on the battlefield, dying of their wounds, without the comfort of the “good death”.

The film revolved around several themes: dying, burial, emotions around death, memorializing, identifying, and slavery. Each of these themes was well treated. Slavery was quite interesting, as the African-American experience with death was quite different through the horrors of slavery, which created a higher mortality possibility for them than whites. They created their own concept of the “good death”, which involved dying in the struggle for freedom. What was interesting to consider was that the historians involved in the film argued that contraband camps, where escaped slaves were initially housed, represented one of the first American examples of refugee camps, where conditions were quite harsh and fostered a higher mortality.

Beyond the overall content of the documentary, there were several things that stood out for me in this piece. One was the early mention of the casualty figure of 750,000, which is based upon new research that appeared in the journal Civil War History (December 2011), that is still gaining acceptance in the scholarly community and will take years to gain full recognition. The use of the figure will go far in terms of generating wider acceptance of the new calculations of just how many died in the war.

In addition to the use of new casualty figures, the story of 19th century methods of embalming and the role photographers played in bringing the savagery of death on the battlefield to Americans’ homes. Further, commemorating the dead, both through establishing national cemeteries and creating Memorial Day (on both sides of the Mason-Dixon) was an important subject. It was quite interesting to consider that without the Civil War, we likely would not have the system of national cemeteries, let alone an accounting of our war dead, at least as we know it. The story of Charleston blacks burying deceased Union POW’s from the racetrack prison camp and leading a commemoration ceremony and parade with Union forces in early May 1865 represented one of the earliest occurrences of what we know as Memorial Day.

With an all-star cast of historians and commentators, including Drew Gilpin Faust, Vincent Brown, David W. Blight, and George Will among others, Ric Burns has crafted a masterful documentary in the vein of his brother’s The Civil War. It combines the use of photographs, filmed scenes, and stirring narration, including powerful and emotional examples from the primary sources of the war, the writings of the people experiencing the war themselves. While Faust’s book is an important read and I urge everyone to read it, Death and the Civil War is a must-see documentary that illustrates the transformative effect of the war on our nation in the midst of its 150th anniversary.

Recent adventures in reenacting

The past two weekends have been quite fun for me, as I participated in Pipestone Civil War Days 2012 from August 10-12, (we didn’t get back to Grand Forks until Monday evening due to a car problem, but made the best of it) and then set up a Civil War living history display as part of East Grand Forks Heritage Days on August 18-19. I also did a display at the Hubbard County Museum in Park Rapids, Minnesota on July 29, which was fun.

For Pipestone, I fell in with the 1st South Carolina, Company H, which was my one time this season doing a Confederate impression. It was a good time seeing old friends and we took in a concert with the 97th Regimental String Band, who played period music.  The battles were good, though we surrendered on the second day. I also experienced the fun of firing my musket in damp conditions, resulting in two incidences of unintentionally firing a double charge, as the first charge did not discharge, making the kick and flash quite noticeable. Here are some pictures from Pipestone. The best part of the weekend was the chance to have a tintype made of me using a period photograph by Dave Rambow, who I have met at several other events.

Heritage Days was good this year, as we had a bigger display and had Den Bolda and Mike Larson from Fargo join us on Sunday. Saturday, Joe, Stuart, Ethan Brazee (who was trying out reenacting for the first time), and I met several people and we figured almost 150 stopped by our display that day. We may have gained some new recruits. It was a great time and thanks to Drs. Doug and Laura Munski for providing some of the pictures on both days.

Here are the photos from all the events.

Shiloh 150 years later

Yesterday, April 6, and today mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee. This battle is significant in several ways, some which are explored in a New York Times article published yesterday. One of my buddies and fellow reenactor attended one of the 150th events last weekend and there is a buzz about them on one of the major reenacting forums. However, this battle is still one that is popular for people to read about and study, though not to the level of Gettysburg, but one of the most studied in the Western Theater.

The battle that began near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River, near a small church called Shiloh, which meant place of peace, came to symbolize the carnage that characterized the Civil War. The Union forces were pushing down the Tennessee River towards the rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi. Having achieved two important victories in February against Forts Henry and Donelson, the Union was beginning to take the war to the South, under the leadership of Ulysses S. Grant. It was part of the larger strategy to gain control of the major inland waterways to cut the Confederacy in two. Confederate forces were hopeful of thwarting the Union strategy by delivering a major blow in the West, which reflected the state of the war in the East that was going in the South’s favor.

On April 6, General Ulysses S. Grant had established his camp on the bank of the Tennessee River, at Pittsburg Landing, the night before and was not prepared for General Albert Sydney Johnston’s Confederate army, which was encamped nearby. The Confederates launched a surprise attack on the Union camp that morning, which sought to drive the Union away and back up the river. Though initially caught off guard, Union troops rallied and fought a bitter fight against the Confederates along a line extending from the river for over a mile to Owl Creek. Part of the Union line engaged in heavy fighting, which became known as the Hornet’s Nest, where Union forces held firm. Fighting raged all along the line, with hundreds falling, including General Johnston, who was wounded in the back of the knee and bled to death. Johnston was the highest ranking officer killed on either side during the war.

After the first hard day of battle, a storm raged, with lightning flashing, showing hogs among the dead. Wounded soldiers came to a small pond to drink and bathe their wounds, dying the water pink, earning the small body the name “Bloody Pond”. William Tecumseh Sherman approached Grant under a tree, sheltering during the storm after the first day, and said, “Well, Grant, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Grant replied, “Yes, lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”

The second day, April 7 brought bad luck for the Confederates. The Union army was reinforced by General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio, which arrived the previous night. Further, the Confederates were disorganized by the loss of Johnston, which placed P.G.T. Beauregard in command, who did not realize he was outnumbered. In addition, Confederate command was rife with problems revolving around personality conflicts and subordinates not following Beauregard well. Facing a Union counterattack, Confederates were forced back from their gains the previous day and withdrew from the field, eventually back to Corinth.

The battle was the bloodiest in American history up to that time, and some claimed more casualties were suffered than all American wars combined to that time. Union casualties were 13,047 (1,754 killed, 8,408 wounded, and 2,885 missing), while Confederate losses were 10,699 (1,728 killed, 8,012 wounded, and 959 missing or captured). In addition to Johnston, Union general W.H.L. Wallace was also killed. Though initially vilified for his handling of the battle and the cost, Grant’s career was cemented by this victory. Though rumors circulated that he was drunk and calls for his job were made, Lincoln retained him, saying “I can’t spare this man; he fights.” Sherman also emerged a hero, and was a trusted subordinate and friend of Grant. This battle is quite important for the course of the war in the West and there are several great books on it, including:

Grimsley, Mark, and Steven E. Woodworth. Shiloh: A Battlefield Guide. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Sword, Wiley. Shiloh: Bloody April. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992.

Woodworth, Steven E., Ed. The Shiloh Campaign. Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press, 2009.

The Bull Run of the West 150 years ago

Just a quick posting to let you all know about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri that occurred August 10, 1861. The battle is considered the Bull Run of the West, as it was the first major engagement of the war in the West and, like its Eastern counterpart, was a Confederate victory. In addition, Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was killed in the battle and it paved the way for German immigrants to participate in large numbers for the Union cause, as they made up a portion of Lyon’s army. This is a short posting, as I am heading down to take part in the weekend events to commemorate the battle, including the reenactment. I will post on this early next week, but will be away from the blog for a few days. Until then, happy reading and researching.