Nearly a month ago the Twitterverse tweeted with commentary on a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia by Gary Gallagher. Apparently Gary was determined to take on current understandings of the American Civil War, namely the emphasis paid to emancipation and the debate over when the Civil War ended. Gary took several authors to task concerning the first point, which received most of his attention, before turning to the second point at the 40:45 mark of the video below:
As I understand it, Gary’s argument is that present concerns shape our inquiry of the past, framing the questions and suggesting the answers we seek. There’s nothing exceptional about that observation: it’s often at the core of many a historiographical essay, the sort of discovery usually reserved for first year graduate seminars and for the occasionally perceptive undergraduate.
(Note: as an undergraduate student at UVa, I took a course under Robert D. Cross, who is honored by this lecture series. We met in his residence on The Lawn, one of the Pavilions, to discuss … the history of New England (HIUS 570). He later read my honors thesis … and I found him a gentleman as well as a scholar. But I digress.)
Although Gary doesn’t mention it explicitly, it appears to me that one of the targets of the latter part of his lecture is Greg Downs, whose After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015) has impressed many readers, including yours truly, with its careful examination of the transition from war to peace in the years between 1865 and 1871. Greg is very explicit about how events of the last fifteen years have shaped how he has viewed the period under study. Some critics would call that presentism, and, judging from what Gary had to say, he would agree. If we are to accept this argument, the notion that the Civil War continued after Appomattox has been shaped by recent headlines and our experiences in the Middle East.
It’s an attractive, even seductive explanation. One could cite Downs’s own prose in support of it. One could also point to the number of declarations made over the past decade about how we need to understand that the war did not end at Appomattox (or Bennett’s Place, or somewhere else in 1865) as a way to understand the conflict in a larger sense … a suggestion usually made as if this is a new idea for which the observer deserves much credit for being so clever and insightful.
But it’s also wrong … or at least incomplete.
I wish I could say that the idea the the Civil War did not end in 1865 first came to mind in 1989 with the completion of a certain dissertation that was published two years later, namely my own Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (1991). Originally, this manuscript was supposed to take Grant from the end of the war through the end of his presidency, echoing much of what I had done in the above-mentioned honors thesis, which was way too long for an honors thesis, as I who now supervise them know only too well. Do as I say, Barrett students, not as I did. As I commenced writing the dissertation, however, I found myself going back before 1865 to discover a great deal about Grant’s thinking about the means and ends of war, politics, and peace, so much so that I looked at Grant’s prewar thinking about politics, slavery, and the sectional conflict prior to 1861 in the dissertation’s first chapter. That was about as close to writing about antebellum antislavery politics as I got for years, even though originally that (and neither Grant nor the Civil War and Reconstruction) had been my intended field of inquiry when I came to Wisconsin in 1979.
Before long, however, I found that telling Grant’s story during the war and his tenure as general-in-chief during Reconstruction was so engaging, so absorbing, that I would have to end my work with his election as president in 1868. After all, so the expression goes, there are two types of dissertations: good ones and finished ones. Even then, I could look at Grant as a political actor, note how his attitudes and assumptions about issues changed, and how the means and ends of the war and Reconstruction changed as well. It didn’t hurt that during much of that time I was working as an assistant editor with The Papers of Andrew Johnson, located at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, followed by three years teaching history at Wofford College, located in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a haven of KKK activity during Reconstruction.
Now I knew it was true that sometimes scholarly inquiry is shaped by present circumstances, and this was somewhat the case in the 1980s, but for a much different reason than one might suppose. Although I had written about Grant as far back as 1979, one event that refocused my attention on him was the appearance of William S. McFeely’s 1981 biography, which won the Pulitzer Prize after receiving a glowing review from McFeely’s own dissertation adviser, C. Vann Woodward. Many readers speculated that McFeely’s take on Grant was shaped largely by the collapse of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. That consideration did not disturb me: McFeely’s handling of evidence was another matter altogether, as I suggested in an article published in 1987 in Civil War History that served as my introduction to big time scholarship.
By that time I was fully into writing the dissertation while working full time. However, as I handed in chapter after chapter, one of my readers suggested that what the dissertation lacked was several interpretive themes that held it together from beginning to end. Yes, the manuscript showed that Grant was not quite a political ignoramus, and that his attitudes on the war, reunion, reconciliation, and race changed over time and as circumstances shifted. But, if this was to be something more than simply a Grant-centered study, one with larger implications, what could they be?
It was at that point, after a great deal of thinking and reflection, that I came upon a rather valuable insight: namely, that there was a Clausewitzian connection between means and ends as well as between war and politics that gave Grant’s own evolving understanding of the conflict a much broader meaning. Defining the ends of conflict helped one select the appropriate means to wage it; war and politics were part of a broader continuum, and, if war was politics by other means, as the corruption of Clausewitz’s writing expressed it, than Reconstruction as a political act was often war by other means, especially when it came to terrorism.
I remind you that I came to that conclusion in the late 1980s.
Nor was I alone in viewing Reconstruction this way. Back in 1981 Richard N. Current had contributed a chapter to a book of essays on Grant. Entitled “President Grant and the Continuing War,” it explored how Reconstruction defined what the Civil War achieved (and what it did not achieve) as well as Grant’s role in securing what Michael Les Benedict, quoting Richard Henry Dana, called “the fruits of victory,” all the way back in 1975 (and which I first used in 1979 in my first published article).
One can see signs of my thinking in the introduction to Let Us Have Peace, a book shaped greatly by the work and suggestions of many historians, none more so than my adviser, Richard H. Sewell, and second reader Allan G. Bogue. I say this simply to give credit where credit is due, and to remind readers of how intellectual creativity is the product of the interaction of minds and previous work upon the “author,” often rendering the first person form (as in “my work”) problematic. I spoke of “the interrelationships of warmaking and peacemaking” during the Civil War and Reconstruction, arguing that
Conquering the Confederacy was but one step of the Union effort; reintegrating the defeated South into the reunited states was of equal importance. Reconstruction began at Fort Sumter; Appomattox, although an essential step, left much unsettled. The struggle for reunion spanned both war and peace.
To Grant, I claimed, “the Civil War and Reconstruction were part of the same long struggle to preserve the Union, destroy slavery, and establish a durable peace to secure what Grant’s contemporaries called ‘the fruits of victory.'”
Nor was Grant alone in that understanding. William T. Sherman noted that “Reconstruction was a corollary of the war” in writing about Grant; Philip H. Sheridan declared that the only way to secure “peace and quiet” was to ensure that “the States which were in rebellion surrender their attempts at political power as absolutely as Lee surrendered the Military strength of the rebellion at Appomattox Court House.”
In short, my insight, founded on the insights of others, that the war in a larger sense did not end at Appomattox was shared by several key players in the event itself … no presentism there, just a rendering of what some folks thought at the time (I’d add Frederick Douglass and some other folks to this list, but that’s another essay).
All this reminds me of an observation Allan Bogue made to me in a seminar during my first year of graduate school. In an effort to counter the usual easy claims of “relevance,” he turned to me as an example of someone who was studying things that could not easily be relevant in 1980, including impeachment, disputed elections, and military occupations (he did not mention terrorism). Of course, since then we’ve had the Clinton impeachment, the election of 2000, 9/11, and wars followed by occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case I found myself recruited as an expert to place current events in past context.
So I have to disagree with Gary Gallagher. The notion that the Civil War did not end at Appomattox is not the product of recent events. It may have gained more traction for that reason, but that’s not the same thing. Moreover, I think Gary ought to have known better. After all, who served as the in-house reader for Let Us Have Peace when it was being reviewed by the University of North Carolina Press? Gary W. Gallagher.