The Sunday Question: Republicans and Reconstruction

Not too long ago, I posed the following question about Republican policymakers and Reconstruction: “Why did Republicans prove unable to preserve and protect what they had established”

A poster who has contributed to this group, seeing this question elsewhere, preferred “unwilling” to “unable.”

What do you think?  Which do you prefer, and why?

One note: I think we should be careful to define what we mean by “unwilling” and “unable,” because one could say that in the 1870s Republicans chose not to do certain things because they were sure it was political suicide and ultimately counterproductive (that is, vigorous Republican action would lead to a Democratic backlash, with the Democrats triumphing at the polls).  This was a consideration in 1875, for example.  I would argue that not acting in those cases really can’t be measured as a question of will, because the results would have been counterproductive.  However, others may embrace futile gestures as signs of commitment and will.

I also reject another underlying assumption: that if Republicans simply pursued a rigorous Reconstruction with commitment, they would have prevailed.  I don’t see that as a sure thing, and I see it as a way to allow white southerners off the hook.  For those people who think white southerners should never be held accountable for their behavior, focusing on Republican responsibility seems to be the way to go.  Of course, once Republican retreat from Reconstruction left southern whites to their own devices, we know what happened.

What if … this Union general had not died?

Military narratives of the American Civil War tend feature the deaths of certain Confederate generals as major turning points.  Albert Sidney Johnston and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson claim pride of place here.  Earl van Dorn … well, he was killed as a result of a different sort of action, so we can set him aside.  But several Union generals also perished during the conflict, and their passing offers the opportunity to discuss “what if?’ as well.  Today’s fatal five include:

Nathaniel Lyon, who was killed at Wilson’s Creek on August 10, 1861;

Charles F. Smith, who died as a result on an injury on April 25, 1862;

Phil Kearny, who was killed at Chantilly on September 1, 1862;

John F. Reynolds, who was killed at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863;

and James B. McPherson, who was killed outside Atlanta on July 22, 1864.

Which death was most significant, and why?  Which of these men, if they had remained alive and healthy, would have made the most impact on the course of the war?  One can offer different answers to each of these questions.

Among those considered were John Buford and John Sedgwick, but in the end I think these five offer the most opportunity for discussion.

Deconstruction and Reconstruction

I just — JUST — finished responding to readers’ comments about an essay I’ve written about accounts of what happened on November 25, 1863, at Orchard Knob during the battle of Chattanooga.  Like many people, I once embraced the story of a soldiers’ charge to take the heights of Missionary Ridge.  Now I find the story to be much more complex, involving issues of Grant’s intent (a two-stage assault, aimed first at taking the rifle pits at the base of the ridge, followed by orders to take the crest of the ridge … orders that were never actually issued), command confusion (various commanders report different versions of what they were told to do) that says something about how well the command system of the Army of the Cumberland functioned (it did not), and a lot of speculation about the role of George H. Thomas in that afternoon’s operation and his response to what was going on around him (here the speculation is rich but the actual evidence is largely lacking).  The evolution of the various narratives resembles the debate over Lee, Longstreet, and July 2 at Gettysburg, in that questionable accounts manufactured long after the battle (and with the accounts of key players changing) were treated by some people as solid evidence.

When it comes to issues of evidence, I want to find out what happened.  I proceed with the initial assumption that all accounts are equally suspect and yet all might well contain at least some truth in them.  In this case I soon dismissed the accounts of several Thomas biographers, because they were exercises in speculation (how did Thomas feel?  Was he smiling or smirking?  What did he say in private conversations no one else heard?  The lack of evidence did not prevent several people from offering rather richly-developed answers).  The actual evidence concerning Thomas’s thinking and feeling is in fact sparse.  After a while, one sees patterns develop and you see how some pieces of the puzzle fit together (such as the rather flawed way in which orders were transmitted to division and brigade commanders that afternoon, leading to vast disagreement over the objective of the operation).  You also see how the various stories evolve over time, often to suit personal agendas.  Early accounts had Grant far more confident and Thomas far more nervous about the assault than we have been led to believe; later accounts have an unhappy Grant snarling while Thomas watches quietly, either smirking, smiling, or shaking, depending on the account.  One also learns to extent to which certain biographers are rather dependent upon secondary sources that simply echo their preexisting prejudices (Benson Bobrick’s embrace of Donn Piatt comes to mind … those people who have read Bobrick ought to read Piatt, whose book is available online).

Here’s one place where I have problems with the memory school of Civil War historiography.  I admit that it is very useful to look at how stories develop and how various versions reflect certain agendas.  In the end, however, describing for me how the debate over Longstreet at Gettysburg evolved doesn’t tell me what I want to know about Longstreet at Gettysburg (long before David Blight’s book became the most-cited book on this subject, there were historians such as Thomas Connelly and William G. Piston who dealt with the evolution of historical memory concerning Longstreet, as detailed here).  I want to find out, as best I can, what happened.  Then I can look at the hows and whys, and I can ponder why people told the stories they told.

In my essay on Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, I explored the various stories about the assault, and I came away concluding that many participants had reshaped the narrative to serve various ends.  Those people included Grant and Sherman, especially when it came to explaining the overall battle plan and the reasons Grant decided upon an assault on November 25.  But they weren’t alone, and over time one could see Thomas’s subordinates and other observers fashioning their own accounts in self-serving ways (Thomas, who died in 1870, left very little on his role on this operation).  I found earlier reports to be more reliable, precisely because they were not framed in response to various agendas, because those agendas had not yet developed (with the exception of Sherman, whose special pleading approaches the ridiculous).  So, while my essay explored how different accounts evolved and weighs those explanations as evidence, it doesn’t pay as much attention as it might to why people told the stories they told.  Sometimes the agenda’s very apparent: sometimes the motivation is not.  For example, I don’t know why some people fall in love with George H. Thomas.  The intensity with which they defend their hero tells me that something else is going on here than mere infatuation: the outrage with which they treat anything that contradicts their vision and the allegations they make about people who don’t agree with them approach the surreal.  However, exploring that fandom (which, I should say, exceeds in intensity Trekkies and Harry Potter fandom combined) really doesn’t help me uncover what George H. Thomas did and didn’t do on November 25, 1863.

So it’s all fine and good to deconstruct accounts and offer explanations for them.  However, I remain more interested in reconstructing the past, as best as I can do it, and finding out first what happened before I venture explanations as to how and why.  I confess that that practice gives me much more satisfaction, and that approach has helped me in offering what I believe are sounder accounts of several critical episodes (especially in Grant’s life) than heretofore existed.

Yes, I expect the usual incoming comments from George H. Thomas’s adoring admirers.  Ho hum.

An Interesting Question

I came across this query, posed by a professionally-trained (and PhD-bearing) historian who hails from the South:

Why in 1865 when the US had crushed the rebs, didn’t the Republicans establish equality for blacks on a firm legal foundation?

Apparently this professional historian’s training was rather incomplete, unless we are simply to assume that the scholar in question is asking a question to provoke discussion because he in fact knows the answer.  Or does he?

Continue reading

More Researchers Behaving Badly

You know, it’s just been six months since the story of a reported forgery of a Lincoln document broke.  So here we go again …

I confess to having never heard of Barry H. Landau before today.  Indeed, “presidential historian” as a category within the profession has been circulating for only a few decades: I have not seen it as a field in graduate programs, although it have found it a useful label for those of us who study multiple presidents (writing on a single president should not make one a “presidential historian,” any more than writing on one war makes one a “military historian” as opposed to, say, a “Civil War historian”).  Just over a week ago, Mr. Landau was holding forth with CNN on how presidents employ the United States flag.  Now he’s in a bit of trouble … charged (with another person) of attempting to steal documents from the Maryland Historical Society, including documents bearing the signature of … you guessed it … Abraham Lincoln (you mean you didn’t guess it?).

I’m always waiting to hear the outrage that would follow from someone trying to make away with James Buchanan’s little black book or Chester Alan Arthur’s clothing inventory.

Beware of researchers bearing cupcakes and cookies, apparently.  No word on whether scotch or brandy would be more effective.

The Rise, Decline, and Persistence of Civil War Discussion Groups

Back in 1994 I became dimly aware that people liked to discuss the American Civil War in internet discussion groups.  These groups were somewhat different from the group sponsored by H-Net, H-CivWar, which has evolved over the years into a bulletin board featuring book reviews.  There were various forums (I’m sure some commenters have their favorites and their memories) associated with those early days of the internet, as well as usenet’s “alt.war.civil.usa” and a moderated usenet group in the soc. hierarchy: the former group features in the neighborhood of a hundred posts of month (it once had several thousand a month) and can be reached through Google Groups, while the latter no longer functions due to a host of problems that proved impossible to resolve.

Yahoo’s groups feature also gave rise to the creation of a number of discussion groups, several of which still thrive.  Among them is the group “StudyoftheCivilWar,” where yours truly remains as a (now) largely passive moderator (there are other moderators and an owner); many of the posters who were once essential to the usenet group have migrated there.  Then there is “civilwarhistory2,” where, as we’ve seen, many posters with Confederate sympathies (so to speak) hang out in a community with its own charm; a series of smaller groups (group owners and members are free to publicize those groups in the comments), as well as a number of once-active but now slumbering groups such as “civilwarwest” and “LeeandJacksoncivilwarclub.”  It appears that the recently-created “civilwardebate” has not really gotten off the ground.

Other websites host their own discussion groups, including, which seems rather lively at times.  Over the years I’ve visited other groups, but not stayed long, and now is the chance for people from those groups to get a little publicity for themselves.  One group, the Gettysburg Discussion Group, is really rather impressive in a number of ways, and is well worth your while.

The persistence of some groups is frankly remarkable, because in other groups a number of patterns of discussion emerge that over time become rather predictable; without membership turnover the same discussions are reenacted over and over again, and interest dwindles (this also happens when moderators become too heavy-handed, as in the case of civilwarwest).  In some cases groups morph into little virtual communities with easily-understood relationships and interactions that sometimes resemble a reality show (I dare say that’s why some people remain interested in those groups, just to see what will happen next).  Those professional historians who dabble in the internet tend to be drawn more to blogs and much less to online discussions: an effort to make H-CivWar a more active discussion group failed in the 1990s, and the experiment’s never been tried again as a conscious ongoing endeavor.

Again, if you know of groups that I’ve overlooked and that you want to bring to everyone’s attention, the comments section is open.

Jubal Early’s Raid

In July 1864 Jubal Early and his men approached the outskirts of Washington, DC, tested the Union defenses north and northwest of the capital, and chose to withdraw rather than to launch an assault.  He he arrived a day or so earlier, perhaps he would have decided differently, but his advance on Washington was delayed when Lew Wallace and a makeshift defense force put up a sharp little fight at Monocacy, Maryland, close to Frederick.

What do you think was the impact of Early’s July raid?  What could have happened?  Was it a sideshow, or something more?