Hiding the Subject

In today’s salon.com, historian Glenn LaFantasie comments on something many of us have known about for a long time: the reluctance of the Lee family to give full access to the papers of Robert E. Lee and his family.

This is not an uncommon event.  Members of the Grant family tinkered with volume one of the Grant papers, because they did not want to air some of Grant’s comments about Mexico (especially the Catholic Church).  That generation has passed, and it would be a welcome change if the new generation rescinded those restrictions.  But that was not the first time the Grant family had done such a thing: Ulysses S. Grant III, grandson of the general, had played games with biographers for some time one can see this even in his dealings with Lloyd Lewis).  So did the editor of Grant’s papers, John Y. Simon, who got into a debate over the issue of access to the papers with William S. McFeely.  When I discovered a collection of Grant papers at the National Archives (copies of Grant family correspondence), I simply approached the Grant family directly, and members of the family granted me access (you can see these papers cited as “Grant Family Papers” in Let Us Have Peace).  That collection was then added to the Grant collection at the Library of Congress, whereupon Geoffrey Perret claimed he was the first to use them in his 1997 biography.  Apparently he was unaware of how they had been already used, both by the Grant Papers and by me.

I also found the same challenge when getting permission from members of the Sherman family to publish Sherman’s Civil War, although family members proved quite cooperative.

Over the years I’ve talked to various scholars who’ve expressed an interest in editing Lee’s papers, and the issue of family prohibitions has always come up.  As LaFantasie notes, Elizabeth Brown Pryor had a different (and more positive) experience, and you can detect the tension in LaFantasie’s piece.  Sometimes you have to convince the family that you are not out to do a hatchet job on their ancestor (thus, when I approached the Grants, I sent them a copy of my 1987 article on McFeely’s biography; however, on the other hand, I have never joined the Ulysses S. Grant Association or been invited to any of its meetings, and while the leadership of the USGA will have to explain the latter, my explanation for the former was simple: I was not eager to appear to be the house biographer).

LaFantasie’s discussion of Pryor’s experience also reminds us that historians often block the access of other historians to primary sources.  Allan Nevins blocked William B. Hesseltine’s efforts to consult the diary of Hamilton Fish in writing his study of Grant’s political career.  A prominent Grant scholar blocked my access to material by someone who knew Grant in Galena under the excuse that he wanted to publish it first (this was over a dozen years ago; the material was never published, and I can safely say that the scholar in question will not publish it).  That same person tried to block the Sherman Papers project from getting under way.

Absent an impending publication of material, I see no reason other than professional competition and jealousy to act in this way, but it happens.  In turn, sometimes people contact me about their work (Jean Edward Smith did so when he was embarking on his biography of Grant), asking if it’s okay with me that they work on Grant.  Of course it is (it was a nice gesture, however, if nevertheless totally unnecessary).  In turn I have friends alert me that this person or that person are working on Grant, sometimes, it seems to me, with an eye towards gauging my reaction.  I simply don’t care: the idea that historians can block other historians from pursuing topics seems peculiar.  As for family members denying access to material, all they succeed in doing is raising questions: what are they hiding?  Why are they afraid?  In seeking to protect a reputation, they do harm to it.

Research Notes

As the risk of offending at least one reader who thinks that commenting on these issues may not be useful …

Donald Shaffer and Andy Hall have been doing some work inspired by the oft-recited story of Frederick Douglass claims about blacks in Confederate uniform as soldiers in 1861.  People have established that Douglass had to base his claims on the accounts of others, as he was not in position to observe such soldiers firsthand.  Don points to a Congressional debate as offering additional discussion, while Andy tracks down the roots of another story, with some assistance from Harry Smeltzer, who blogs about Bull Run. [Update: Kate Masur blogged about another example in the NY Times Disunion blog for July 27.]

Such research may not always look pretty, but it’s essential if we are going to learn more about the basis for these reports.  You would have thought that Confederate papers would have boasted about the service of loyal blacks in Confederate arms in the war’s first big battle …

… and speaking of roots, here’s Kevin Levin, who highlights how in reacting to Alex Haley’s Roots (and the ensuing television series) back in 1977, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (you know, the heritage, not hate folks who just want true history out there) began to solicit stories from the membership about loyal slaves and their service to the Confederate cause, including service as soldiers.

By the way, it’s rather interesting to look at the cast of the television series.  There you’ll see that O. J. Simpson and Todd Bridges, each famous for other things, were in the cast.  So were a number of television icons, black and white, including Lou Grant and Mike Brady as well as Carol Seaver and Boom Boom Washington, to say nothing of Gordy Howard (who worked for Lou Grant) and James Evans and Percy Fitzwallace.  It’s really a amazing collection of actors.

The Crater: A Missed Opportunity?

Today is the 147th anniversary of the Battle of the Crater, one of the better-known events of the siege of Petersburg.  There’s no need here to go through the details of the mining effort, the bungled planning involving the debate over the use of black soldiers, and the disaster of the assault itself.

Many people point fingers at various Union commanders for what happened.  The incompetence of James Ledlie is assumed.  Not much is said about Edward Ferrero, who commanded the division of black soldiers.  Ambrose Burnside, who (outside of biographer William Marvel) is not kindly treated, usually bears the brunt of abuse, with some reserved for George Gordon Meade, while I stand in a distinct minority for holding Ulysses S. Grant accountable (and, indeed, this is exhibit A in challenging the case that I’m a Grant apologist).  Other than the reaction of William Mahone, who made up for his lackluster performance at Gettysburg by mounting a counterattack, the Rebels seem to have had very little to do with the outcome in the minds of many.  There have been recent books on the battle by Alan Axelrod, John F. Schmutz, Richard Slotkin, and Earl Hess, each of which has its fans, but it is unclear whether those studies have appreciably changed (as opposed to enriched) the narrative about the battle and its place in the Petersburg campaign — and a forthcoming book on the battle by erstwhile presidential candidate Newt Gingrich may make no difference, either.  Yes, our attention’s been drawn to stories of atrocities toward black soldiers, but beyond that these narratives create a more detailed understanding without changing the broader story of the campaign.

I tend to hold Grant accountable because by this time he understood that Meade and Burnside had a flawed working relationship, and that the Army of the Potomac as well as the Army of the James did not always meet his expectations when it came to offensive operations (I acknowledge the argument that perhaps Grant expected too much in the first place).  Thus, to remind me that Burnside fell short here or Meade did something wrong there is besides the point: by now Grant knew that such was often the case, and yet he did very little to overcome what were by now well-known obstacles and part of the friction of war.  If, as Grant later said, such a great opportunity had been lost, doesn’t it seem that he should have done all he could to ensure that such would not be the case?

Others disagree (hello, Jim Epperson).  What do you think?

Then and Now: The Fourteenth Amendment

When I first became seriously interested in the study of Reconstruction policy at the national level I quickly learned that I had to do a lot of reading about constitutional and legal history.  I quickly discovered that there was a rich literature about the Fourteenth Amendment and the intent of the framers and ratifiers of that amendment.  That debate was sparked in large part by debates over how the amendment should be interpreted and applied to various situations.  Sometimes people read back into the past what they wanted to read to justify present-day positions; this is usually the case when people try to discover intent.

I take a different approach.  Continue reading

A Call to Pull Down Stonewall

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia I had cause to venture east from the university and visit downtown Charlottesville.  The folks in Charlottesville were just commencing their efforts to revitalize the area with a pedestrian mall that by now has become an attractive gathering place (I first saw Star Wars down there in 1977; I found several local bookstores more compelling).

Just north of the pedestrian mall, along Jefferson Street, there were two parks, a few short blocks apart.  One, Lee Park, featured a rather striking equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee; a second, to the east, had an equally attractive equestrian statue of Stonewall Jackson (with a statue of a Confederate veteran not far away in front of the county courthouse).  I was fond of both parks, and I’ve revisited them when I was last in Charlottesville several years ago.

It never occurred to me that the statues should be taken down.  Continue reading

Blacks Captured At Gettysburg By Union Forces …

One way to address assertions that many blacks served as soldiers in the Confederate armies is to look at what happened to blacks captured by Union forces.  How were they treated?  How were they classified?  What happened to them?

As James M. Paradis’s study of African Americans during the Gettysburg campaign reminds us, Union forces did capture blacks at Gettysburg as well as during the entire campaign.  Many of them were sent to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.  There Brigadier General W. W. Morris reported that of the sixty-four blacks who arrived at his installation, they were servants of officers.  Sixteen enlisted in Union ranks; four more enlisted as cooks in an artillery regiment; four decided to cast their fortunes with a New York militia unit (and then left the area), and forty were still present, “chiefly employed in police duty.”  Some of them were now working for Union officers (and were paid); others were free Negroes who wished to return to their families.

Paradis describes an ensuing discussion of the status of these captured blacks and their disposition.  Were they prisoners of war (and thus subject to exchange)?  Was it better to put them to work “as paid laborers and teamsters,” allow those blacks who were free to return home (whether counted as exchanged prisoners or not), or should Union authorities retain them “as prisoners, but not prisoners of war”?  A November 1863 accounting of the remaining thirty-two blacks at Fort McHenry showed that sixteen were being employed, ten were now cooks with the volunteer artillery regiment stationed there, and six had escaped.

The following month the War Department issued new regulations concerning these captured blacks.  They would not be part of any exchange of prisoners; they would be given a chance to take the oath of allegiance, and, if they did, they would be released.  Those blacks who did not take the oath of allegiance would be retained as prisoners of war.  As to how many blacks did (and did not) take the oath of allegiance at that point, Paradis does not say.

Note the absence of any captured blacks classified as soldiers.  Note also the fact that many of those loyal servants took the chance of their imprisonment to strike out on their own of choose to become employees of Union officers.

What do we make of this?

UPDATE (June 18, 2013): Thanks to a friend (and the administrative portions of this blog platform), I’ve learned that this blog entry has been the subject of some recent discussion (some of it heated and personal) at CivilWarTalk.com.  You can read some at least some of the archives without joining. Here’s the link to a report in a Richmond paper in October 1863 concerning the forty or so blacks who remained at Fort McHenry after arrangements were made for some of the sixty four men who arrived. The paper quotes a person named R. W. Daniel who had been imprisoned at Fort McHenry as follows:

Lieut. Daniel informs us that there are some 35 or 40 negroes also in Fort McHenry, all of whom were taken at Gettysburg. He says they profess an undying attachment for the South. Several times Gen. Schenck has offered to release them from the fort if they would take the oath of allegiance to the Federal Government and join the Lincoln army. They have peremptorily refused in every instance, and claim that they should be restored to their masters and homes in the South. They say they would prefer death to liberty on the terms proposed by Schenck.

Note that nothing in this report (which escaped Paradis’s view) concerns the issue of the blacks as soldiers. So we can set that aside. What might interest others, of course, is the claim that these fellows “preferred death to liberty” and declined to join the Union army.

Perhaps … yet a month after this report appeared, only six of the blacks appeared to have risked death by liberating themselves, and we don’t know where they went. The remainder apparently reconsidered their decision, and were now employed in one way or another, with ten having enlisted as cooks for the New York artillery unit there.

Since Paradis was not aware of this, I was unaware of it, but this newspaper item needs to be read in context. Not a single captured black argued loyalty to the Confederate cause. Understandably some of them wanted to go home. However, we may conclude that perhaps Daniel or a reporter embellished the story, given the situation bu the end of November. Apparently some of those men preferred liberty to death after all.

As I said, there’s a vigorous discussion about this at CivilWarTalk, which I found interesting as well as amusing (it goes on for several screens, breaking down as it proceeds). It would seem that if the fellow (only a screen name shows) who brought this report to light was truly interested in increasing historical understanding (instead of using the information to cast aspersions and to engage in all sorts of speculation), he would have forwarded the information to this blog. Instead, he exclaims:  “I wonder why Simpson didn’t use this account of the same event, didn’t fit his agenda?”

My agenda was simply to find out what happened, and I thank the mystery poster … although it was someone else who brought it to my attention. As to why the mystery poster failed to do so, or why he failed to place it into context with the information already available to him, well, you’ll have to join the group and ask him. Maybe it didn’t fit his agenda.  🙂

The Truth About Academic Freedom and Tenure (at least to me)

For most college professors, the beginning of the fall semester is just now beginning to beckon.  Most of us have turned in book lists; most of us are working up syllabi (either from scratch or refining what’s there); some of us are already fielding questions from eager students, and many of us are starting to hear about the ambitious agenda the department will supposedly address in the coming academic year (although what’s achieved is usually not what’s anticipated or promised).

Continue reading

The Persistence of the Dunning School

One of the most notable characteristics of Reconstruction scholarship is the need felt by many scholars to launch their studies by reviewing the evolution of Reconstruction historiography.  Generally this starts with a reference to what has become known as “the Dunning School,” named after Columbia University Professor William A. Dunning and his graduate students (although in this case other work is also grouped under this label, including the writings of Dunning’s colleague, John W. Burgess).  Indeed, “Dunning School” is something of an artificial construct, in that Dunning and his students were not the only people espousing these views: rather, their scholarship gave the sanction of historical scholarship to them (today a detractor might well call them “politically correct” scholarship for its time).

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