Reconstruction at the 2016 Civil War Institute

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Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, directed by Peter Carmichael, will have as this year’s theme “Reconstruction and the Legacy of the Civil War.” The conference has already sold out, an interesting reflection on claims that no one really wants to remember or reflect upon Reconstruction.

C-SPAN (in this case, C-SPAN 3, I believe) will be present, broadcasting live on the afternoon and evening of June 18 while recording other sessions for future broadcast. Yours truly will speak at 7:15 PM Eastern Time on “Ulysses S. Grant and the Continuing Civil War,” where I’ll give people an overview of some of the themes that will be part of the second and concluding volume of my Grant biography, entitled Ulysses S. Grant: The Fruits of Victory, 1865-1885. You may follow the proceedings and commentary on Twitter at  . Note that my talk will be the last one of the evening: clearly Peter is depending on me to finish the day (reprising my role as scholarship’s answer to Mariano Rivera). Given who’s talking before, I hope I have enough time to cover my topic and answer questions. If not, I’m prepared to burn one of his scarves.

In preparation for the conference, I answered a few questions about my topic.



On the Challenges of Punditry

In my role as a historian of presidents and the presidency, I find myself in a every interesting position during election years. Media outlets and audiences want me to do two very different (if related) things: offer historical perspective (“Has this ever happened before? What happened then?”) and political prediction (“What will happen next?”). The former task is fairly straightforward, although there are a lot of amateur presidential historians out there (and, to be honest, it doesn’t take much to be a superficially compelling talking head or authority).

The latter function is a bit more challenging. Predictions, after all, no matter how well grounded in past patterns, are subject to change, and never is this more evident when one has to write in anticipation of an event where the outcome may change things or somrthing might happen to render one’s prediction pointless. We’ve seen that a lot this election year.

We’ve seen Donald J. Trump seize the Republican nomination despite all sorts of claims that he would not do so (although early on I suggested that the discussion about the Republican establishment was problematic: it suggested there was such an establishment, that it agreed on certain things, and it had a candidate who could take Trump on and win). We’ve weathered talk of a contested/brokered convention. It’s been interesting to see the rise and levelling off of Bernie Sanders, and process that as much as anything suggested some of the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. Moreover, in a process where so many rules have been broken and where conventional wisdom has suffered some big hits, it behooves the historian to tread carefully, qualifying answers in the face of pressure to say something new and sensational (although I must admit that saying the obvious and even banal in an authoritative manner is also part of the job).

Let me give one such example. Several months ago it looked as if both Trump and Sanders might find themselves stymied by the nomination process. Both candidates complained about the rules and their respective party establishments. That much was obvious. After all, these men were both outsiders, and one could expect as much. But was there anything else to say? Not unless one wanted to engage in somewhat rather wild speculation … that perhaps Trump and Sanders ought to make common cause against a system that didn’t work and that prevented the sort of insurgent candidacies that they were pursuing from getting very far. Perhaps particular differences needed to be set aside in light of this common assumption that government simply wasn’t working. That’s right … didn’t it make some odd sort of sense for Trump and Sanders to unite, at least in attacking the system?

A wild idea? Of course. I noted at the time that to make it was quite risky (it was highly unlikely that this would occur), but, even offered as “a modest proposal” in Swiftian style, it would make a splash. All it would take would be for Trump to fall short in New York and the door would open to advancing such a radical proposal. Even mockery of it would be useful in initiating a discussion about the inability of the present system to get things done and the growing impatience with such a stalemate. That Trump made several comments about Sanders’s struggles and criticisms in rather supportive and understanding fashion suggested that this was not a completely bizarre idea, although no one in their right mind would think of a Trump-Sanders ticket.

But Trump won New York. So did Clinton. It did not take long for the Republican field to falter, then fold, while Sanders could never quite get over that setback.

I don’t think the Trump story is very interesting lately. Amusing, yes, but not interesting. Watching prominent Republicans squirm as they reconcile their support for the presumptive nominee with their increasing horror at what he says (especially on that most presidential of mediums, Twitter) is sure to make one’s day. But the process of foes becoming supporters and endorsers if not friends is old hat. It just may be more fun this time around.

That left the drama of Bernie Sanders’s struggle to continue his fight, the candidate growing ever more shrill and nasty as his chances continued to evaporate. What would Bernie do? What could he do? And what could I say about it?

It was with those thoughts in mind that I set down the following thoughts last Saturday:

The Democratic primary season came to an end this week with voters in California and New Jersey choosing once more between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The actual results don’t matter all that much, except in the eyes of reporters who cover the primary season as if it was a horse race (it’s more like a marathon). Clinton emerged from the primaries with a majority of the delegates chosen through that process pledged to support her: the rest is interpretation of the political optics offered by the results.

For Sanders, the challenge is simple. Having protested the rules through which Democrats choose their presidential candidate—notably the provision for superdelegates who are free to make their own choice as to whom to support—he now finds himself dependent upon that very process in order to secure the nomination of a party he has only recently joined. He must win them over to prevail. Moreover, having shared with voters his impatience with discussions of Clinton’s email server while she was secretary of state, Sanders must now rely on that continuing controversy as Exhibit A in making the case that he is more electable than his rival in the general election against Republican Donald J. Trump.

Sanders’s supporters have waxed eloquent about the unfairness of the superdelegate system, which is fulfilling the function it was designed to perform: making sure party leaders had a disproportionate role in selecting the party’s presidential nominee as a way to deflect threats from outsiders just like Sanders. The Vermont senator has basked in playing the role of the anti-establishment outsider whose outspokenness challenges all the rules, so he cannot be surprised by what’s happened. Instead, he must now rely upon persuading superdelegates to support him and thus to overcome Clinton’s margin of pledged delegates selected through primaries and caucuses—the people’s choice, if you will—and to be the choice of the party elite, not exactly where an outsider should want to be.

Sanders knows that his best chance to win superdelegates’ support rests with his claim that he’s more electable than Clinton. But what makes him more electable? For all the passion involved in his candidacy and his message, it is doubtful that a majority of voters in a general election would embrace a self-described Democratic socialist. Instead, he must rely upon exploiting Clinton’s Achilles heel: her repeated fumbling responses to stories of scandalous and corrupt behavior, primarily her handling of e-mail while she was secretary of state. Such controversies raise questions about her integrity and fitness for office. Nor is Sanders alone in hoping for new revelations or more mismanaged damage control: Trump’s chances this fall depend on whether independent voters see him as the lesser of two evils.

Sanders’s chances for victory depend on his embracing a system he once attacked and hoping it will react to the continued prominence of a scandal he once set aside. It has been that kind of year.

As of last weekend, that was a reasonable analysis of Sanders’s dwindling chances. He would have to challenge his own brand, so to speak, if he wanted to win. Only if bad things happened to Clinton did he really stand a chance.

Now, for such a piece to have any influence or impact, it would have to appear in print this week … and only if certain things happened. But it’s reasonable to assume that circumstances might have made this an interesting analysis … depending on what happened next. So file this under if/then analysis.

Then came Monday evening. I was watching the Stanley Cup Final when a news crawl on NBC notified me (and, I assume, lots of other hockey fans) that several news organizations had concluded that Clinton had secured the support of a majority of all the delegates. Now she, too, was a “presumptive nominee.”

Mind you, the primary contests on Tuesday would have secured a majority of delegates for Clinton … she was in position to proclaim on Tuesday what news organizations declared on Monday evening. But the Monday annoucement sparked all sorts of discussion (and recriminations), making Tuesday anticlimatic. Fair enough. But, almost in anticipation of what might happen next, Democratic leaders, led by Barack Obama, decided to transform triumph into coronation, complete with sympathy for the loser’s good fight.

You fought the good fight, Bernie, but now it’s time to step aside. We can do this nicely, with smiles, handshakes, and congratulations all around … or, if you don’t get the message, it could get nasty. Capisce? 

That strategy appears to have worked. Today, as the Obama administration rolled out the president’s powerful endorsement of his former secretary of state, party leaders met with the runner-up and consoled him while paying tribute to his campaign. At this writing Sanders seems placated, even happy, and his pledge to keep up the fight all the way to Philadelphia has lost much of its edge. What looked at one point to be a bitter fight appears now to be a vibrant and lively discussion between people who agree on fundamentals (note I said appears). Image and impression and perception are everything.

Under such circumstances it would be foolish indeed for Sanders to pursue what I believed last Saturday was his last chance to secure the nomination. Nor would it make any sense now to offer last Saturday’s take as meaningful commentary on the situation as we see it today. In sort, those words go away now, consigned to a discussion of what-ifs that are characteristic of discussions political as well as historical.

That is, unless things change.

Sometimes they do.


Another Walk in Arlington

Last February I had the opportunity to spend the better part of a day walking around Arlington National Cemetery. Mind you, a day is nowhere near enough to see all that one may see, but I had spent time there before, especially in the area around Arlington House, where many distinguished (and some undistinguished) Civil War era figures have been laid to rest.

For someone who has been doing a great deal of research in the Civil War/Reconstruction era, there are also gravesites to see that most visitors might overlook. Here are some of those gravesites.
DSC02278Daniel Ammen was a childhood friend of Ulysses S. Grant, and the friendship continued throughout their military careers. While Ammen’s brother Jacob attended West Point, Daniel entered the Navy, rising to the rank of rear admiral.

DSC02376But he never forgot his friend Ulysses: in 1871 he named a son after the 18th president.

DSC02339Joseph J. Reynolds was one of Grant’s classmates at West Point. He would see service both in the Civil War and on Reconstruction occupation duty.

DSC02286William W. Belknap commanded a regiment from Iowa during the Civil War. Later he would become Grant’s secretary of war, succeeding John A. Rawlins (who is buried not all that far away). In 1876 Belknap would resign his office in an effort to avoid being impeached for malfeasance in office in a rather colorful affair involving the sale of post sutlerships, an enterprise in which two of his wives (who happened to be sisters) were deeply involved.

P1100701And here’s Orville Babcock, who joined Grant’s staff during the Civil War and then joined his boss in the White House. Some people found him charming, but others believed he was calculating and more than a little corrupt. Surely Babcock’s involvement in the negotiations leading to the abortive annexation of the Dominican Republic and the Whisky Ring scandal suggest that there was a lot of smoke and, in the latter case, more than a little fire, and that’s just for starters. Yet Babcock kept a government job, and drowned of the coast of Florida in 1884 while doing his work as an inspector of lighthouses.
DSC02407Another one of Grant’s staff officers who got himself in trouble after the Civil War was George K. Leet, who was accused of corrupt activity in the New York Customs House. Grant did not stand by Leet as he had stood by Babcock, even if he came to regret supporting Orville.

DSC02336Less well known to all but a few researchers was another of Grant’s private secretaries, Culver C. Sniffen, whose autograph I’ve seen more than a few times (but he always signed documents “C. C. Sniffen,” so only now do I know his actual first name). I didn’t come looking for him, but here he is.
DSC02373And, to conclude this stroll through the cemetery, I bring you William F. “Baldy” Smith and family. At one time Grant thought a great deal of Baldy Smith, but later he had good reason to revise that estimation.

We’ll return to the cemetery another time.

Memorial Day, 2016: Americans in Europe

Last June I traveled to Luxembourg, Belgium, and France to visit various military sites, including a host of battlefields. I happened to be present at the bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo, just as I had been present at the sesquicentennial of the battle of Gettysburg.

I remember those visits well. Yet what impressed me most was the number of American military cemeteries in the area, commemorating the dead of World Wars I and II. I spent a good deal of time exploring several World War I cemeteries, including the largest (Meuse-Argonne) as well as the smallest (Flanders Field), which I visited first.

The entrance to the American military cemetery at Flanders Field.
Signs of remembrance inside the chapel, featuring the ever-present poppy.
The graves surround the chapel at Flanders Field. Although they seem to be many, this is the smallest World War I cemetery there.
This soldier died on the day the war ended.
You see many crosses, but you also see the Star of David.

The Aisne-Marne Cemetery is located near Belleau Wood. You can see the edge of the woods behind the chapel.

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, near Belleau Wood, France.
Some 2,289 Americans are buried here.
The graves went on and on under a clear sky in a meticuously-maintained resting place.
Looking eastward … this cemetery is not far from Chateau-Thierry, and Belleau Wood is just behind it.
At each cemetery, there is a chapel, containing the names of the unidentified dead. The US 2nd Division held this position.

Perhaps the eeriest moment during this part of my visit came when I traveled to a nearby German cemetery, only to discover that you could see the American cemetery from it:

Former foes face each other in common repose.

As we moved through France, we came upon more cemeteries. Not all were to American soldiers, of course; that’s a story for another day, and I told part of it earlier this year in recalling my visit to Verdun.

Here is the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, where 6,012 Americans are buried.
Trees line the cemetery, enclosing the major sections.
That fact would have come as great comfort to Joyce Kilmer, who is buried here.
One American soldier killed during World War I is not buried in a World War I cemetery, although he’s buried in France. That’s Quentin Roosevelt, whose mother arranged for this monument to be erected in Chamery just after the war. A fighter pilot, Roosevelt was shot down in the skies behind this fountain on July 14, 1918.
Roosevelt’s plane crashed in the fields behind the fountain. Today his body rests next to that of his brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., at the American military cemetery at Normandy.

As much as one wants to comprehend the ebb and flow of military operations, these cemetaries draw upon one’s emotions as much as they force one to think about what war costs.

Here is the American military cemetery at St. Mihiel, south of Verdun.
This memorial overlooks some of the 4,153 Americans buried here.


The doorhandles to the chapels are doughboys.

We saved the largest cemetery for last, and for a particular reason. It was late one afternoon when we arrived at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, and so our visit was somewhat hasty, although I achieved my most important objective.

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the largest American World War I cemetery.
There are 14,246 Americans buried here.
One of them is Arizona’s own Frank Luke, America’s second-leading aerial ace and a Medal of Honor recipient, known as “The Balloon Buster.”

We often visit Civil War battlefields to see where men fought and died, but we often think of the battle itself. In these cemeteries, one thinks of the lives lost and the sacrifices made … something to remember this Memorial Day.

Confederate Heritage Salutes Veterans

This is how they do it at Sea Raven Press, long known for its support of Confederate heritage correctness scholarship:

SRP 1.JPGOne million armed African American slaves supporting the Confederacy by taking up arms. That shows a certain ability in math as well as history. Where did they hide all these soldiers? General Lee wants to know.

And, by all means, honor the Confederate Battle Flag … like this:

SRP 2Of course, there are too many stars there, and the flag is shredded, but these are mere details.

And finally, we all know that Confederate heritage has nothing to do with present politics, right? Sure …


This is the sort of political correctness I’m sure some people who whine about it can get behind. Just ask Matthew Heimbach.


A Confederate Heritage Apologist Shares His Understanding of History: Phil Leigh

Phil Leigh is a very funny person posing as a student of the American Civil War. He’s duped other people and publishers into believing the same thing. Writing about history allows him to get something off his chest, and he can become very unhappy when someone reveals that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and that what he says reveals that he holds some beliefs and prejudices that might not make him a very appealing person … unless, of course, you are a fellow Confederate heritage apologist in a state of constant denial (with a bitter edge) when it comes to African Americans.

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The Memphis Massacre of 1866: A Conference Blog

Readers of this blog will recall that not long ago I mentioned the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (also known as the Memphis Riot of 1866, although the reasons for the renaming are of interest) in examining a rather badly-flawed attempt to discuss the event and its implications.

It seems only right and proper to direct you now to a blog bringing together and reporting on the results of a recent conference on the event. Click here to go there. I guarantee you’ll learn something.

I think this is a wonderful way to share the scholarship presented at a conference by people who know what they are talking about, and I believe more conferences should follow suit.