Reflecting on The Civil War after 25 years

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity in the Civil War blogging community about the rebroadcast, which is starting tonight, of Ken Burns’ monumental documentary The Civil War to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its debut on PBS. Many bloggers note the significant changes in our nation and the debate over how we remember the war that have occurred in the last 25 years. Consider that the direction of the historical study on the war has blossomed in many different ways since 1990. Further, no one in 1990 likely fathomed that we would have an African American president (regardless of your feelings on him and his administration). Needless to say, I hope many in the country will watch this and reflect.

I remember vaguely viewing segments of it when a little boy at Fort Hood, Texas, which was only a couple years after the piece debuted on television. It was still routinely broadcast on PBS then. I had an emerging interest in history at that time, the Civil War in particular. As I got older, watched Gettysburg at 10 and Glory at age 12, I eventually sought out this program and checked it out from my local library on VHS and watched it, enjoying it immensely. A few years ago, I finally purchased it on DVD and watch it occasionally to draw inspiration from different sections when needed.

Tonight’s broadcast features episode one, which focuses on the historical context and causes of the war. To hear of the violent acts and division in the nation at that time (Bleeding Kansas, the attack on Sen. Sumner, and John Brown’s Raid), causes me to reflect on recent violence and riots across the country. I will say that I doubt we’re heading towards conflict as in 1860, but that we must remember the lessons of the war and the horrors that it wrought, so that the “better angels of our nature” can prevail between those on opposite sides of the political fence.

While it is still about an hour and a half away, I always find a semblance of comfort and power in the words Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. He wrote:

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death, and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country, and of the principles I have often advocated before the people, and “the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death,” have called upon me, and I have obeyed.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care, and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers, I call God’s blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.

– Sullivan

(Text courtesy of National Park Service website)

I hope that sincerely hope that many will take time to watch this documentary, especially with children, and educate them on the significance of the conflict and what it means today in our current society.

The Slaves’ Gamble a look at African Americans in the War of 1812

Cross-posted to Frontier Battles

While a little outside the chronological range covered by this blog, I thought I would share exciting news about a new book that seeks to alter our impression of antebellum slavery through the lens of the War of 1812.


Smith, Gene Allen. The Slaves’ Gamble:  Choosing Sides in the War of 1812.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.  272pp. $27.00.

Gene Allen Smith, historian at Texas Christian University, has written an interesting examination of how slaves viewed and used the conflict for their own opportunities.  He showed that the war saw all sides using African Americans to aid their causes, while blacks saw the war as their chance to assert themselves, whether for seeking equality, in the case of free blacks, or freedom for slaves.  Further, the war was a turning point in American race relations, as Smith noted that slavery was in a tenuous situation on war’s eve.

He noted that the war drastically altered this path of decline and that it further halted any potential progress towards freedom or equality, as blacks who joined British forces, seeking to better their lot in life, returned with invading forces, leading enemy troops into American communities. The consequence of this was a greater distrust among whites of arming slaves and enrolling blacks in militia units to augment white manpower, which continued into the Civil War, where African Americans served in segregated regiments with white officers. One of the other major problems resulting from the war was the expansion of available land for plantation agriculture, and plantation-based slavery.(3-4)

Smith begins his study by examining the story of black participation in North American wars. What is great about this chapter is the examination of the cross-cultural interactions, echoing Richard White’s remarkable work The Middle Ground. He concluded that the contributions of blacks to military conflicts during the colonial and revolutionary periods redefined the relationships between blacks and whites in North America.(31)

As he examined the role of blacks during the War of 1812, he weaved in the stories of black participants across the various theaters, providing a new and exciting understanding of the war that is as important to the larger field of study on the war as Donald Hickey. Smith concluded that blacks found became aware that their contributions to the war were minimized in post-war America. Further, white Americans began to react fearfully to black insurrection possibilities and worked to prevent the arming of blacks. Also, northern states began enacting laws outlawing blacks residing in them. Slavery became more entrenched in the South, as new areas were available for cotton production. Thus the war served as the last opportunity for blacks to attempt to fight for their place in society until the Civil War.(210-214)

The book is well researched, relying on sources from such scholars as Richard White, Gary Nash, Ian Steele, Stagg, and Don Hickey. In addition to strong secondary sources, Smith utilized several great primary sources that considered black participation, as well as interactions with Native Americans.

A good monograph that examines the difficult situation faced by blacks as they attempted to choose a side in the War of 1812 to further their position, Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble is a great book for scholars interested in African American history, military history, the War of 1812, and is a good book for those interested in the Civil War, as it illustrates quite well how the forces that led to that great struggle came into being by America’s “second war for independence”.

Historians uncover new Abraham Lincoln records

Documents reveal Civil War era plans to resettle freed slaves in the Caribbean

February 9, 2011 (Washington, DC) – Recently discovered Civil War records have added a new twist to the familiar story of the Emancipation Proclamation. After signing the document that freed the slaves on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln spent the better part of a year attempting to resettle African-Americans in the Caribbean.

Lincoln’s proposal to “colonize” the ex-slaves abroad involved a little known agreement with Great Britain to establish freedmen’s settlements in Belize and Guyana, at the time colonial possessions of the British Empire. Though the U.S. Government investigated the sites and even made preparations for sending the first ship of settlers, the plan later faltered amidst political wrangling within Lincoln’s own cabinet.

The forgotten story of Lincoln’s little-known colonization project was recently unearthed by historians Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page. They present their findings in “Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement,” (ISBN 978-0-8262-1909-1) due out next week from the University of Missouri Press.

Evidence of Lincoln’s post-emancipation plans remained hidden for almost 150 years until its discovery by Magness and Page in seldom-searched consular and diplomatic files at the British National Archives outside of London, and the U.S. National Archives in Washington, DC.

“Lincoln personally pitched the scheme to the British ambassador only three weeks after the Emancipation Proclamation,” said Magness. “It was a matter of diplomatic secrecy, so it left a very sparse paper trail.”

He also explained that several of the American files were dispersed in the fallout from a budgetary dispute that ultimately resulted in Congress suspending the project’s funding in 1864, adding another complication to the search.

“Most of the documents from the American side are missing, and the British files were all transported back to London,” Magness continued. “We essentially had to reconstruct what happened from letters and transcribed copies that were spread across the Atlantic.”

Among the records found at the UK Archives is an 1863 order by Lincoln granting a British agent permission to recruit volunteers among the freed slaves and transport them to Belize.

Dr. Magness is a researcher at George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies, and an Adjunct Professor at American University. Mr. Page is a Junior Research Fellow at the Queen’s College, University of Oxford.

CONTACT: Phillip Magness ~ 281-923-6702 (cell) ~

The Arizona Shooting and Civil War History

With the recent tragic shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and the controversy surrounding the role political speech played in motivating the shooter (I believe he was crazy and prone to commit the crime regardless of the nature of political rhetoric in our country), my historical thoughts went to another attack against an elected official during a period of great turmoil in our nation over an issue more divisive than health care or immigration:  slavery.

Consider the beating of Sen. Charles Sumner (MA) by Rep. Preston Brooks (SC) in 1856. Sumner, an eventual Radical Republican, delivered a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the aftermath of Bleeding Kansas, specifically excoriating Senators Stephen Douglas (IL) and Andrew Butler (SC). Brooks, a nephew of Butler, took offense at the slight to his uncle’s honor and planned to challenge Sumner to a duel. Instead, Brooks approached Sumner on May 22, 1856 as he sat at his desk in the Senate chamber, which was nearly empty. After briefly addressing him about the speech, Brooks began savagely beating Sumner with a cane. As Sumner collapsed after briefly escaping the attack, Brooks continued to beat the unconscious Senator. Others attempted to aid, but were prevented by Brooks’ accomplice, fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, who wielded a pistol. Sumner did not return to the Senate for three more years, while he recovered from his attack. The attack illustrated the deep divide in the country over slavery. Massachusetts attempted to prove a point by re-electing Sumner, using his empty seat as a symbol of both free speech.

The attack then, just as with the tragic shooting of Giffords, sent shock waves through the nation. However, the beating of Sumner has several distinct differences from the Arizona tragedy. First, the attack against Sumner involved another elected official resorting to violence over a disagreement over slavery. Second, there is no sign that Giffords made any inflammatory speeches that would drive someone to attack her like Sumner was beaten. Ultimately, the beating of Sumner was one event in a chain that led to war simply because we failed to compromise, while the shooting in Arizona was the act of a lone gunman with more problems than disagreements over politics.

In contrast to 1856, while we are divided politically today, I doubt we will see legislators come to violence over the issues that divide us. However, in today’s culture of 24/7 media, we are bombarded by the political discord, which influences all, including those unstable people, like the shooter in Arizona. The lessons we must learn from this tragedy is to make every effort to work out our differences over the issues today. Further, we must not resort to restricting speech in light of such events, as that serves no purpose but to prevent further dialogue.

In closing, my thoughts and prayers go out to Congresswoman Giffords and all the victims of this shooting.