Robert E. Lee: Honorable Man, or Treasonous Scoundrel

I routinely enjoy listening to the personalities on the local talk radio station, KNOX AM 1310, as they cover a variety of topics and have moments of amusement on occasion. Ryan Cunningham, who hosts the Ryan Cunningham Show from 12-3pm on the station noted in late March of his upcoming trip in early April to Tampa, Florida, to cover the Frozen Four for the station. He mentioned that part of his route down to Florida was going to take him near Shiloh National Battlefield.

Ryan noted his interest in that battle and the larger war, which necessitated me calling into the show and sharing my experiences visiting the site two times. I friended him on Facebook and found out he had a good time, but, like visiting most Civil War battlefields, one day can’t do it justice. I do hope he will get the chance to visit again soon, as it is a bit of a drive from eastern North Dakota.

Anyway, he shared with me an interesting thing that happened on Monday’s show, which I missed hearing, where a caller argued that Robert E. Lee was not an honorable man because he fought for the Confederacy. I wish I could have heard the exchange, as Ryan hinted in his message to me that it was an amusing thing. Reading this got me to thinking about that question, as it is a potentially divisive one.

Certainly, one cannot deny that Lee’s pre-war military career and his personality reflected an honorable man. He was one of the most respected officers in the army at the time and such was his reputation that Lincoln offered him command of all Union armies. Had Lee stayed with the Union, like fellow Virginian George Thomas did, one can only wonder how the war would have turned out.

Lee was conflicted in April 1861, go with the Union that he had served for his entire adult life, or resign and side with his home state, which was clearly heading towards secession. History knows which way he chose and he eventually became a beloved general in the Confederate army, as well as begrudgingly respected by his Union counterparts, several of whom had known him before the war and had served under him, or alongside him. Lee achieved some great feats as a Confederate general, but does this service strip him of his honor?

While he did commit treason by levying war against the United States, as noted in Article III of the Constitution, consider his April 20, 1861 letter to Winfield Scott, where he resigned from the Army:

General:

Since my interview with you on the 18th instant I have felt that I ought not longer to retain my commission in the Army.   I therefore tender my resignation, which I request you will recommend for acceptance.

It would have been presented at once, but for the struggle it has cost me to separate myself from a service to which I have devoted all the best years of my life & all the ability I possessed.

During the whole of that time, more than 30 years, I have experienced nothing but kindness from my superiors, & the most cordial friendship from my companions.   To no one Genl have I been as much indebted as to yourself for uniform kindness & consideration, & it has always been my ardent desire to merit your approbation.

I shall carry with me to the grave the most grateful recollections of your kind consideration, & your name & fame will always be dear to me.   Save in the defence of my native State, I never desire again to draw my sword.

Be pleased to accept my most earnest wishes for the continuance of your happiness & prosperity & believe me most truly yours

R. E. Lee

-Courtesy of Civil War Trust

I read in this letter a man conflicted by his competing devotions to his duty as an American soldier and his loyalty to his home state. Keep in mind that many Americans’ identities, both north and south, related to their home state first and the nation second. While the states’ rights movement has clouded some of this in our post-Civil War history, the oath of enlistment for the United States Army is important to consider at that time, where the United States was referred to in the plural. As noted on the Army’s Center of Military History website, the oath used at the beginning of the Civil War read as follows:

I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and to observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States of America, and the orders of the officers appointed over me.

Yes, Lee served a cause that was committed to the maintenance of chattel slavery as part of its existence as a nation, but he conducted such service with honor. Consider his actions at Appomattox Courthouse, where he agreed to surrender to Grant, under quite generous terms. He very easily could have disbanded the Army of Northern Virginia into the hills and led a protracted guerilla war, which Davis seemed to desire. He chose not to do this and acquiesced to Grant’s generous terms. In fact, the respect and honor that Grant and other Union commanders seemed to hold for Lee is evidenced by Grant reminiscing on their pre-war army days.

Yes, Lee took up arms against the United States, which is treasonous, but I must argue that he retained much of his honor as a man, considering how he could have conducted himself and the war. Lee was an old soldier, who was suited to aid in the reconciliation of the nation.

Love him or loathe him, Robert E. Lee remains an important figure in our history and, with that, I will ask you to consider the following question and share your thoughts in the comment section.

Skype-ing the Civil War with students, part II

What a great day today! The St. Louis Blues beat the Blackhawks to advance in the Stanley Cup playoffs and I was hired as a year-long sabbatical replacement at Northland Community and Technical College, which has campuses in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, so I am staying in North Dakota for another year. An added plus is that part of my forthcoming teaching load includes a class on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Needless to say, it has been an awesome day that started out with another amazing Skype session.

Just as with my first Skype session with Gary Kaplan’s group of History Club students in California, I again used this technology to do a brief impromptu talk on the Civil War. Today, I was privileged to be invited to speak to an eighth grade class from Andover Central Middle School in Andover, Kansas. Since it was a morning talk, I was able to broadcast from my home, allowing me to show off my musket to the students and discuss several topics, including how the war relates to today, medicine, training, and some of my experiences as a reenactor.

What was fun was being able to share my screen with them to show via Google Maps where I was in Grand Forks, in relation to their location, as well as some of my pictures from reenacting. I was also able to relate some of my personal interests into history with them, which has its roots in my dad taking me to Fort Scott, Kansas for a living history event when I was six or seven years old (we were stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas at the time). I also wore my sack coat for them too.

The students asked some awesome questions, including one who asked about how I researched my own Civil War ancestors. I also took the opportunity to have them do a bit of drill (mostly basic facing movements) and also described the medical examination, or lack thereof for joining the army. I also told them about women serving in the army, as well as children that served.

In a follow-up email, Dyane Smokorowski, who reached out to me to arrange the meeting, shared that the students were excited and talking about the experience. It is my hope that there will be an opportunity for the students to provide some guest posts here, as well as use this blog as a vehicle to ask questions about the war.

I want to thank Mrs. Smokorowski, as well as Heather Hawkins, who assisted with the technological aspects on their end, for allowing me to share my knowledge on the war.

Fort Sumter fired upon 155 years ago

Today marks the 155th anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter that inaugurated the Civil War. It is interesting to note that I received the April issue of The Journal of Military History yesterday, which features a wonderful essay on the recent historiography on the war and the direction of the field in light of the recent conclusion of the sesquicentennial.

I also must note the irony of the action at Fort Sumter, as P. G. T. Beauregard, Confederate commander, fired upon his former artillery instructor from West Point, Major Robert Anderson, which is referenced in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. With that, I will leave you with the clip from that landmark documentary that details the firing upon the fort.

New book and exhibit by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Megan Williams, Director of External Affairs
mwilliams@pritzkermilitary.org, 312.374.9333

The original journals of a Civil War veteran, Chicagoland native are the focus of
a new book and exhibit by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library

CHICAGO, June 18, 2015—The Pritzker Military Museum & Library will host a free public reception next Wednesday, June 24, to officially launch its newest original work and to unveil an accompanying exhibit on the life and times of Civil War veteran and Valparaiso, Ind. native Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath. The event will begin at 4:30 p.m. on the Museum & Library’s main floor, and will be immediately followed by a formal discussion and recording for television by the book’s editor and others involved in its production, beginning at 6 p.m.

The Museum & Library’s third major publication, Dignity of Duty: The Journals of Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath, 1861-1898 will be released in hardcover and e-book formats and comprises three original documents assembled and edited by Gilbreath’s great-granddaughter, Susan Gilbreath Lane—who discovered the papers in an archive in the late 1970s. The exhibit includes authentic photographs and artifacts from Gilbreath’s scrapbooks, hand-drawn maps commissioned for the book, additional materials on 19th Century America pulled from the PMML’s collection, and a dynamic online gallery and audio experience.

“Major Gilbreath was a mid-ranking field officer and family man who witnessed much of America’s 19th Century history—and he did it with a rifle and pen in hand,” said Museum & Library President & CEO Kenneth Clarke. “Journals like these are very rare.”
Severely wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg during the Civil War—a wound that would haunt him for the rest of his life—Gilbreath not only went on to a successful 37-year military career, but also bore witness to the coming of age of America as we know it. In his later journals, he shares many remarkable experiences, including a hazardous 175-mile journey by stagecoach in the Texas frontier during the Indian Wars; a shipwreck off the Gulf coast; travels in a wagon train pulled by mules with pet names; the second Great Chicago Fire; and the establishment of Fort Custer in the Montana Territory, where his daughter was born in a tent with his cook acting as a midwife.

To provide context for the book and exhibit, Lane will be joined by historian Frederick J. Chiaventone for the 6 p.m. recording of Pritzker Military Presents—one of two long-running series produced by the Museum & library for Chicago public television. Advance registration and a separate ticket are required to attend this program.

To learn more about the incredible life of this 19th Century American soldier, the new book and exhibit by the Pritzker Military Museum & Library, or the June 24 premiere event, visit dignityofduty.org or pritzkermilitary.org.

About the Pritzker Military Museum & Library
The Pritzker Military Museum & Library is open to the public and features an extensive collection of books, artifacts, and rotating exhibits covering many eras and branches of the military. Since opening in 2003, it has become a center where citizens and Citizen Soldiers come together to learn about military history and the role of the Armed Forces in today’s society. The Museum & Library is a non-partisan, non-government information center supported by its members and sponsors.

About Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath
Born in Ohio in 1840, Erasmus Corwin Gilbreath spent his formative years in Valparaiso, Ind., where his parents settled in his youth. Following the death of his father, Gilbreath studied law and worked to support his family until he was called upon in 1861 to assist in the raising of the 20th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. Over the course of a 37-year military career, Gilbreath reached the rank of major twice—once as a volunteer and once with the regular Army—chronicling his experiences while serving in nearly every major battle of the Civil War; on various official assignments throughout the Indian Wars with his wife and children by his side; and finally in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, where he lost his life to an illness in 1898.

Bonds of War-a new blog on the economy of the Civil War

As many of my readers will know, military history, and the Civil War specifically are not just about soldiers and the movements of armies on battlefields, though these are usually the most popular subjects for consumption and study by many people. That said, the Civil War also had a profound economic impact, which is important and worth studying to understand the full influence this conflict had on the nation as a whole.

One enterprising doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, David K. Thomson, who has an impressive curriculum vitae, is chronicling his dissertation research into the role of Union bond sales on the war through his site Bonds of War. Though a new site that is just getting started, as Thomson begins to examine his topic, it will be exciting to see what conclusions he reaches on this unique and seemingly little-known topic of Civil War history. The blog portion of his site will share the stories of those who purchased Union bonds, which looks to be an interesting glimpse into a cross-section of 19th century society.

As someone at the same stage as him, I wish Mr. Thomson luck on his project and success in the historical profession going forward. As you have time during your day, go and check out Bonds of War and support this scholarly project.

The state of Civil War history college courses

There is a fascinating discussion going on over at H-CivWar about the current state of stand alone history courses on the Civil War. So far, the respondents indicated that the institutions they have attended and/or work for all have distinct courses on the conflict, including some offering graduate seminars on it. The discussion seemed to be influenced by both the recent conclusion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, as well as the current trends in historical education and scholarship. That said, I will say that the field of Civil War history is still quite vibrant and while non-military topics have grown in prominence and attention over the years, this is not a bad thing, as there was more to the conflict than just the armies and their battles and movements that do need attention and awareness to more fully understand the profound transformative effect of the Civil War on the United States.

However, the discussion did speak to me, especially in light of the recent Society for Military History white paper on the role of military history in the academy and the discussion among prominent Civil War historians over the state of military history in the larger field that was sparked by two prominent articles in the two flagship journals Civil War History and the Journal of the Civil War Era, which was quite enlightening. It is good to see that several institutions still retain separate classes on the Civil War. I will say that I think eventually such classes will become fewer, mainly because of the increased amount of history that will warrant inclusion in our curriculum. One poster to the discussion considered the idea of placing the war within the framework of the long nineteenth century, which struck me as an interesting way of examining the war.

The nineteenth century in a broad sense was a transformative period for the nation, as we became an industrial nation, while expanding our control and influence across the continent. To be sure the Civil War factored prominently in these developments and would be a major component to a broader course on nineteenth century America. The war is an important component of most survey American history courses, so it is still going to have a position of importance in our history.

Is there a possibility that stand alone courses on the Civil War will eventually fade away? Sure, as what History departments offer fifty or one hundred years from now may be quite different than now. That said, there are still many (yours truly among them) who are passionate about the history of the war and will continue to work in the field in some capacity and are still young enough to continue the interest for years to come. Further, the war still resonates today and we will eventually commemorate the bicentennial of the war. Also, students still seem interested in taking courses on the conflict, at least in my experiences.

We can never predict the future of the field and its place in history education, but it will be interesting to see where trends in scholarship and pedagogy take us and how that influences the nature of courses on the war and how popular they will be. Our nation continues to change and the increasing length of time from the conflict will cause it to fade from memory in some ways, but still hold interest and importance. Consider how educators will grapple with the ongoing centennial of World War I, or, when it comes, World War II and how those events will influence the place of the Civil War within higher education.

The war will continue to interest me and I hope that fifty years from now, there will still be students taking courses on the war in college. Only time will tell.

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.