Matt Gallman’s Stone Soup Discussions

Over at Civil War Memory Matt Gallman has made another appearance in the comments section.  This time he’s responding to a post by Kevin Levin concerning the process of emancipation sparked by another post (you know how this works) from Don Shaffer at Civil War Emancipation about how Benjamin F. Butler chose to treat the arrival of several fugitive slaves who sought protection (and freedom).  The cagey Butler eventually responded to the situation in front of him by classifying the blacks in question as contraband of war, thus effectively transferring their ownership to the United States of America (which is not the same thing as granting them freedom).  Butler’s solution provided the legal rationale for the First Confiscation Act, passed by Congress in August 1861, only a few weeks after Congress had declared that the sole object of the war was reunion.

That in itself is an interesting story, but Matt objected (and, in my  opinion, rightly so) to Kevin’s rather flippant expression of impatience with the question of “Who freed the slaves?” (Note: Kevin gracefully conceded that Matt had a point.)  As readers of this blog know, I used that question to spur discussion here; as others know, I think that the question is fundamentally flawed, even if it is useful as a spur to discussion.  That’s because I view emancipation as a process with many actors, each contributing something to the process, and I think “How did freedom come?  How was slavery destroyed?” are better questions to ask to explore that process.

Yet, as Matt points out, asking some questions is valuable because of the discussion that follows: even if the question is flawed, attempts to answer it can be enlightening and can help us frame better questions to ask.  He cited two other questions along the same line, adding that he termed the resulting discussions “‘stone soup’ discussions,”, because, as he puts it, “The question is silly or reductive, but the discussion is valuable.”  Although I have somewhat of a different take on the silliness of the question and the usefulness of the answers as opposed to the discussion, I want to share the two other examples Matt cites, along with some observations of my own:

“Why Did the Confederacy Lose?” (or the Union win):  I think this is a useful question that has led to reductive answers, largely because people read the questions as “what is the single most important reason” for Union victory or Confederate defeat.  It tends to sidestep the equally provocative (and more provoking) question of “Was Confederate defeat (or Union victory) inevitable?”  If one refrains from offering monocausal answers, and looks instead to the interplay of several factors, I think the question leads to more fruitful discussions.  Monocausal answers are a bit too easily set aside.  Let me give you an example.  If one hears that Confederate divisiveness (internal dissent, lack of will, whatever) explains Confederate defeat, one simply responds that there was also Union divisiveness and internal dissent, and a will that faltered at times until events on the battlefield gave cause for optimism.  One might then argue that Confederate divisiveness was more important because the Confederacy had less of a margin for error given the relative balance sheet of resources between the two sides, which is then countered by an argument that God is not always on the side of the bigger battalions … and so on.  My own take on this is that Confederate defeat came when the Union assembled a leadership team that used Union advantages to great effect, which in turn pushed Confederate resources beyond the breaking point, and that in the end the fate of the Union was indeed settled in the homes of Americans who interpreted battlefield results.  That’s as much an answer to “how” as it is to “why.”  But it’s not a simple answer, although it has evolved in part because of this debate over a simple if flawed question which is nevertheless not sterile.

“Was the Civil War a Total War?”  Matt himself states, “This is in my view a silly question.”  I think it was more of a strawman question asked by Mark Neely in a widely-cited article.  While Neely was doubtless correct in exploring the intellectual imprecision of the term and its rather sloppy use by historians, his own effort to answer it struck me as clever rather than insightful and at times quite silly (and he knows this, because I spoke in just such terms in a 1994 session of the Society of Civil War Historians, which was part of the Southern Historical Association’s annual meeting at Louisville, Kentucky).  I’m more satisfied by Mark Grimsley’s handling of this issue in The Hard Hand of War (1995) but even more content with how I addressed how Ulysses S. Grant wrestled with these issues in my Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991); I’m currently working on a study of Union warmaking that addresses the kind of war the Union waged in such a fashion as to weave together military means and policy ends.  Here the question (or more specifically Neely’s answer) has sparked my research and thinking, as has my response to Grimsley’s book, which in my mind slights political reconstruction or the efforts to use the olive branch as well as the sword, especially in 1864-65 (Grimsley offers a three-stage model of escalation that overlooks reconstruction/reconciliation efforts because it is more narrowly focused on military commanders and does not take into account the ways in which Grant and Sherman talked about broader issues).

In all three cases, I don’t think either the questions or the ensuing discussions were at all “sterile.”  I think they were quite fruitful.  However, I also think that precisely because they cause us to reframe our lines of inquiry and to ask new questions that perhaps we need to recognize the limits of their usefulness even as we acknowledge their contribution to moving the discussion forward.

What do you think?

19 thoughts on “Matt Gallman’s Stone Soup Discussions

  1. Donald R. Shaffer May 28, 2011 / 10:23 am

    Hi Brooks. Since this whole discussion started with me, let me jump in to comment. Yes, sometimes “stone soup” discussions can be useful, if for no other reason than to spur a conversation. However, in this case “Who freed the slaves?” tends to become “Who was most important in freeing the slaves?” As I noted in one of my comments on Kevin’s blog, I’ve seen the latter question cause one of the giants of the profession (James McPherson) to misrepresent the argument made by another giant of the profession and his editing project (Ira Berlin, et al.) in an attempt to marginalize their insight that the slaves had an active role in their own emancipation. McPherson, as far as I know, is no longer pursuing this topic but the cause of marginalizing the slaves has been picked up of late by Gary Gallagher, which explains the less than stellar review Eric Foner gave his book recently in the New York Times. I agree with you totally that “I view emancipation as a process with many actors, each contributi[ng] something to the process,” and that better questions need to be asked on the topic of emancipation among scholars. Let’s leave the stone soup discussions to dealing with our students and when necessary with the public. Intelligent historians can and should able to do better than stone soup.

  2. Kevin May 28, 2011 / 11:05 am

    Hi Brooks,

    You said: “In all three cases, I don’t think either the questions or the ensuing discussions were at all “sterile.” I think they were quite fruitful. However, I also think that precisely because they cause us to reframe our lines of inquiry and to ask new questions that perhaps we need to recognize the limits of their usefulness even as we acknowledge their contribution to moving the discussion forward.”

    This is precisely what I should have said if I had taken the time to craft a more precise blog post. That’s what happens when you try to fit a little blogging into what was a busy day. That ought to explain my “rather flippant expression.” 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 29, 2011 / 9:55 am

      We’ve all been there, which is why I now view blogging as a far more deliberate act of communication. I can recall making quick replies on discussion groups which then called forth answers that suggested that far more (malicious) thought had gone into my remark (usually this was connected with members of George H. Thomas’s fan club) than was the case. I now realize that some people live for the moment of playing “try to trip up the scholar” than I thought possible. Not all of them are non-professionals: I’ve encountered a few graduate students with the same attitude. 🙂

  3. Ray O'Hara May 28, 2011 / 11:28 am

    With “who freed the slaves” who gets interpreted as by many as an individual and not as a collective who by many who try to answer it. the simple answer is Congress did with the 13th Amendment but it took secession and it’s suppression to give the will and political cover to Congress to do so.

    Why the North won, better leaders. Lincoln had it over Davis, Grant and Sherman were better than their Southern counterparts,
    Lincoln’s Presidential Cabinet was much more effective Other than Mr Benjamin no one in the CSA cabinet stands out or even gets the occasional mention in histories
    Northern Governors also seemed to be more the team players,, sure they had to be coddled and massaged but the CSA state Governors when they pop up are being downright obstruction to Davis. And the CSA Governors mattered as the War had a way of visiting their States. when the enemy is at the gates it’s not time to get defensive about ones prerogatives.

    Total War, to me it means war against the enemy’s infrastructure and society and the mobilization of your own,so in the context of its time, yes it was.
    Sherman’s March, Sheridan’s Valley Campaign weren’t campaigns against the CSA armies, they were aimed at the CSA people and economy that is total war writ large.

    No one thought the Bs could take the Habs or TB, so that no one thinks they can’t manage against the potent Vancouver Canucks is just the more glory when they do 😉

    I figured after the horrible start it would be the ALL-Star break before the Sox took 1st.
    sure Mo looks ageless, but DSJ is looking old.

  4. Matt Gallman May 28, 2011 / 12:37 pm

    I freely acknowledge that I am mostly a glass half full guy when it comes to these sorts of discussions. In the “who freed?” discussion [or WFTS?] I don’t think that either McPherson or Berlin was at his best in some senses. But I am not sure why I should care. Those essays and others generated good discussion, good insights, and good pedagogy. Did JMcP come off as a bit dyspeptic? Sure. But his essay does make a really nice case for why Lincoln – as one important individual – really matters in this narrative. Again, to me the idea is to take away the broad insights from an interesting discussion rather than to relive the historiography or to dismiss the discussion because of some flaws in an essay.

    The “Why The North Won” discussion can sometimes look like the “Why Did Kennedy Win in 1960?” discussion. That is, any large historic event that is “close” might have gone the other way if you tweak a single variable. If we keep the focus on black agency, I think that Joe Glatthaar’s famous essay on the role of the black troops in Union victory (ie they were not just symbols in blue uniforms) is a nice example of insights that come out of those stone soup discussions

    My thoughts on the Total War discussion largely come down to my impression that folks are a bit too free with constructing their own definition of TW and then applying it to their evidence. [It is, after all, a term with a history.] But in that debate the glass is surely more than half full.

    I am saddened by how badly some folks seem to be misreading Gary Gallagher’s book.

    • Kevin May 28, 2011 / 1:21 pm

      I agree, Matt. I don’t think Gallagher was attempting to minimize the role of the slaves in helping to bring about their own emancipation. Rather, his argument hinges on pointing to a dead spot in the secondary literature, which minimizes the role of the Union army. Foner went completely off the deep end in his review of G’s book, specifically in his critique of how he handled Lawson’s book, “Patriot Fires.”

      It’s an excellent book and one that will, no doubt, lead to additional scholarly output on specific themes.

  5. Donald R. Shaffer May 28, 2011 / 3:38 pm

    I’m not surprised to see people jumping to Gary Gallagher’s defense, and I agree with him that the Union army played an essential role in emancipation. But he actually does try to downplay the significance of the slaves in emancipation. Certainly, Gallagher is doing it in his talk last June at the SCH conference (thanks Kevin for the link to it), and at one point in his talk like McPherson tried to lump Berlin, et al. into the “self-emancipation” camp, a characterization which I know personally they reject. Certainly the Union army had essential part in emancipation as did Lincoln. I know that Ira Berlin, Leslie Rowland, and their colleagues over the years at the FSSP, would agree on that point (just to be clear, I’m a Maryland Ph.D. although I never was a formal part of their project, although I rubbed shoulders for them for years as a grad student as the FSSP office was on the same floor as the T.A. offices at UMCP and my carrel was just outside their door). They are arguing that the slaves had an indispensable role as well, essentially by the collective actions forcing the Lincoln administration and the Union army down the road of emancipation. If slaves had not fled to Fortress Monroe and continued to flee the Union lines throughout the war, it is possible that northern leaders, civilian and military, would have followed their initial inclination to ignore the issue of slavery. We’ll never know for sure and I refuse to go to far down the road of counter-factual “what if” history, but I’m bothered by scholars–even if they have been nice to me personally, as both Gallagher and McPherson have been in my limited dealings with them–who seek to marginalize the role of slaves in emancipation to make more important Lincoln and the Union Army in that process. They all had roles to play, end of story.

    • Ray O'Hara May 28, 2011 / 4:01 pm

      I think Lincoln was smart enough to understand slavery had to go to have a lasting peace without the “contraband” issue.

  6. Sherree May 29, 2011 / 3:03 am

    “If slaves had not fled to Fortress Monroe and continued to flee the Union lines throughout the war, it is possible that northern leaders, civilian and military, would have followed their initial inclination to ignore the issue of slavery. We’ll never know for sure and I refuse to go to far down the road of counter-factual “what if” history, but I’m bothered by scholars–even if they have been nice to me personally, as both Gallagher and McPherson have been in my limited dealings with them–who seek to marginalize the role of slaves in emancipation to make more important Lincoln and the Union Army in that process. They all had roles to play, end of story.”

    I agree with this assessment. I am not completely certain that this is what Gallagher is doing, however. I have not yet read Gallagher’s book, but from the talk that Kevin linked to, it seemed to me that the driving force behind Gallagher’s argument concerning the “Union War” was the casting of his interpretation in terms that many of the white participants in that war would have agreed with–as the War of the Rebellion. That is a question that I have grappled with lately in my own thinking on these topics, precipitated by reading CW blogs: was the American Civil War actually a civil war or was it the War of the Rebellion? What does it mean when we conceptualize the Civil War as the War of the Rebellion fought by loyal Americans who saved the union and freed the slaves, because this is how the narrative filters down to the public. In that sense, Gallagher’s emphasis upon the role that saving the union played in the war effort strengthens the argument of agency for African American men and women. In other words, some white men fought for Union only and not to free the slaves. Ultimately, freeing the slaves–providing and creating the public will to free them–rested upon the shoulders of the freedmen and slaves themselves, along with committed white abolitionists. The Union Army did the rest, white and black. Lincoln provided the essential leadership and brilliance. The Confederacy inadvertently showed the way by using slave labor for its war effort,demonstrating on the ground the fact that the Union must do something about the slaves. The USCT proved, one hundred years before the famous marcher in a civil rights demonstration held up a sign that said “I am a man”, that they were, indeed, men, and that they were fine soldiers, too. And all in all, it was a perfect storm: slavery would end, and end it did. Now for the big question: what is stone soup?

  7. TF Smith May 29, 2011 / 10:02 am

    Hobo or tramp comes to the door and asks the housewife for some water so he can make stone soup by boiling his soupstone.

    Housewife is fascinated and wants to see this happen.

    As the soup starts boiling, tramp asks for a little salt for falvoring.

    Housewife, getting into the spirit of the thing, gives some salt and offers some pepper as well.

    Tramp asks for something – vegertables, bouillion, whatever – to add to the stock.

    Housewife obligees.

    Eventually, tramps gets beef, etc, and makes the soup, absent the stone.

    Tramp gets good meal.

    There’s a variant where housewife gets so into the spirit, tramp is invited in and nature takes its course.

    There are variants in folklore that include travelers and townspeople, making for a nice little parable of cooperation, etc.


    • Ray O'Hara May 29, 2011 / 10:27 am

      When I learned the story in a grammar school reader back in the 1960s the 3 men were soldiers of Napoleons Army.

      • Sherree May 29, 2011 / 1:53 pm

        This is off topic, but now I am intrigued. Why had I never heard of this until this morning? (soldiers from Napoleon’s army? Fascinating)

        Raw headed bloody bones. Does anyone else know that story?

        Thanks Ray, TF, Don, Matt, Kevin, and Brooks.

        The Internet can be an empty, vacuous place. It can also be a place—and space—in which meaningful connections are made and meaningful discussions are held.

  8. Sherree May 29, 2011 / 10:28 am

    LOL!…..Thanks TF….Sherree

  9. Ray O'Hara May 29, 2011 / 2:21 pm

    Sherree when I learned it the 3 Napoleonic soldiers{the French of the 1st Empire were noted foragers} were foraging in a rural town and they used their wits to fool the rube townfolk into providing them with a free meal, ultimate they got enough to make a great pot full that fed everybody and all agreed stone soup was the best ever.

    I don’t know your age but these days they never teach the old stories anymore so if you are younger you might not have encountered it,. “Back in the day” things like Aesop’s fables were standard cartoon fodder , most notably the Fractured Fairy Tales segment of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

  10. Sherree May 30, 2011 / 6:10 am

    Hi again Ray,

    No, age is not the factor. (artful dodge on that topic, btw 🙂 Cultural differences may be, but I won’t speculate, because I am not certain. Besides, I remember Rocky and Bullwinkle, too. A collection of Aesop’s Fables just wasn’t a book included in my reading list, although I know the “moral of the story” of many of the fables (tortoise and the hare; the boy who cried wolf, etc)

    When I was eight years old, I was listening to my grandmother’s stories, which she usually told at three in the morning when I was lucky enough to be granted permission to stay up that late. She was a gifted storyteller, and many of her stories, although by no means all, concerned–you guessed it—the Civil War, since my grandmother’s grandfather was in the Civil War and several battles were fought in my county. That was my introduction to the war. And that is how long I have been thinking about it.

    My reading list included Little Women, Look Homeward, Angel, and the entire collection of Nancy Drew books, since the protagonist of the Nancy Drew detective series was a female, and my mother approved of that, having, herself, grown up in a time period in which women were expected to find a husband, marry, and produce children, even though my mother’s own mother was a tobacco farmer and successful entrepreneur. Raw head bloody bones was a story told by my grandmother when she told what she called “booger tales”. I googled Raw head Bloody Bones, and to my surprise, there it was. A “booger tale” takes on meaning, too, when considered in the context of Cherokee culture and history.

    This is all a long way from our original topic, but maybe not. Perhaps we don’t need to trick each other into cooperating, but can freely cooperate, understanding that cooperation is to the benefit of all. By that, in this context, I mean we, the public and the academic community, or we the academic community and the public, depending upon your perspective.

    I know that technology is only as good as the people who use it. Yet, I have seen, on a personal level, how it can be used in a constructive manner. A First Nations friend of mine from Canada credits the outreach that her reserve was able to achieve through the internet as part of the reason that the Canadian government reversed itself and built a school for children who were literally freezing in the run down buildings that passed for schools, and that the children were forced to attend when toxic chemicals from mining were discovered in the reserve’s regular school building.

    Thanks for allowing this rather lengthy digression, Brooks. If I can add anything to the discussion of Gallagher’s stance on the role that saving the Union played for many in the Civil War (and I would never presume to do anything more than simply provide observations of someone outside of your, Kevin, Robert, Keith, Don, Gary Gallagher and Matt’s profession; to do otherwise would be rather like advising a seasoned heart surgeon how to perform a bypass) I would simply point out that, in my view, Gallagher sees interpretative approaches as somewhat distinct categories—categories that he has laid out: Union; Confederate: Emancipationist; and Reconciliationist. This new book is his “Union” interpretation.

    Thinking of the Civil War as the War of the Rebellion has helped me to understand and empathize with the Union soldier. For me, bringing the universal down to the particular, as we used to say in literature classes in those heady days when one studied art for art’s sake, the limited amount of information that you have given your readers about your ancestor who was a drummer boy has had a tremendous impact. I just can’t imagine a child being brought into a war. Or a teenager either, even though it is generally the very young who do fight—and die—in wars. But most of all, I can’t imagine a young boy born a slave forced to be a drummer, let’s say, in an army dedicated to keeping him enslaved. That is why I agree with Barbara Fields. Without emancipation, a Union victory would have been meaningless.

    Thanks again, Brooks. Have a peaceful, thoughtful, and yes, a happy Memorial Day. Sherree

  11. Matt Gallman May 30, 2011 / 8:35 am

    For what it is worth, when I originally wrote of the “stone soup” story I was thinking about the version where visitors get the community to combine their resources to produce a product (the soup) that is greater than the sum of the parts, even though the stone doesn’t really contribute to the result.

    Donald argues that Gallagher “actually does try to downplay the significance of the slaves in emancipation.” If you think about it, that is a problematic way to phrase the point because it suggests that there is an agreed upon “significance” that Gallagher is trying – for whatever reason – to downplay. I think that it would be more accurate to say that Gallagher is perhaps trying to suggest that others have exaggerated the significance of slaves in the process, and he is trying to offer an appropriately balanced assessment,

    I’d say that the original posting about Ben Butler unintentionally downplayed the significance of the slaves (nobody was “trying” to do that I am sure), but the subsequent discussion has found a better balance. GG is I think engaged in the same pursuit.

  12. Donald R. Shaffer May 30, 2011 / 10:49 am

    Respectfully, Matt, my post does not imply general agreement on the significance of slaves in emancipation. GG has a good point about the importance of the Union army in ending slavery. But as I wrote before, at least in his address last June, like McPherson before him, he takes on scholars–most notably Ira Berlin et al.–who believe the slaves did have a significant role in their own liberation and (unintentionally I think) misrepresents their views. The FSSP has a balanced view of the different roles various individuals and groups played in emancipation and GG, with the best of intentions, is throwing it out of balance. But I’m glad he’s reminding us all of the importance of the Union army in emancipation. I just wish he didn’t needlessly do so at the expense, historically speaking, of other actors such as the slaves, who also played an essential role, and misrepresent the views of other scholars by distorting reductionism.

    • Ray O'Hara May 30, 2011 / 12:35 pm

      The contribution of Blacks to America has been long underplayed but now the pendulum is swinging too far the other way, with such statements as “Slaves built America” being bandied about implying White America was made up of mainly slave owners and whip wielding overseers.

      Even the Black Confederate Myth is gaining traction among unlikely people,
      Melisa Harris-Perry a Professor of Black Studies at Princeton,,endorsed the idea of there being thousands who served in the CSA Armies during one of her many Rachel Maddow Show appearances.
      Rachel nodded in agreement and showed the picture of that demonstration company raised late in the war, photographed and then disbanded. But it shows some Blacks in Rebel uniforms {no weapons} and from that it’s easy for proponents to extrapolate tens of thousands service with the armies.

      If the slaves had stayed on the plantations do you think emancipation wouldn’t have happened ?

      Emancipation wasn’t the result of a mass desertion by slaves, although they did flee when the Yankees approached but in areas the Armies didn’t go the slaves were stuck at the plantation.
      Emancipation came about because it was soon perceived by the Union people as the cause for the war and removing it was essential to the war being a success and not to being repeated further down the line.
      Emancipation was less about helping the Blacks and more about destroying the Confederacy

      It’s a dangerous topic to discuss, a wrong word or a misunderstood point can easily get someone in hot water. and as the original topic/post shows it is rife with misunderstanding and people talking post each other.

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