Sebastain Page on Lincoln and Colonization

Sebastian Page, who with Philip Magness wrote a recent study on Lincoln and colonization that stressed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, left a rather lengthy comment on this blog. Posting it there, I’ve also decided to post it as a separate blog post to call attention to it.

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A Step Too Far

It’s always understandable when an author does not react well to a negative review of one’s work. After all the time and labor one has put into writing a book, it smarts when someone finds that the result isn’t as good as one had hoped. Moreover, a number of positive reviews does not numb the sting left by a negative review, especially when it concerns one’s first book. Over time, one can develop a thicker skin and a more philosophical approach to reviews of one’s work, but to ask that someone not react is to suggest that they should not be human.

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“The most sublime word in our language”: Robert E. Lee on Duty … or Didn’t He?

When it comes to the words of great men, sometimes we discover that they did not say them or write them, but the impression continues to exist in some quarters, largely because we would rather embrace the myth than accept the reality. So it is with the following quote, attributed to Robert E. Lee:

Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.

In truth, even this rendering is an edited version of the expression upon which it is based. Those original rendering was supposedly part of a letter Lee wrote his son George Washington Custiss Lee in 1852, when the son was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The text of the original would not appear until 1864, when it was reprinted in the New York Sun. There the phrase read like this:

Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things like the old Puritan. You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less.

On August 4, 1914, as the world went to war, Professor Charles A. Graves of the University of Virginia Law School addressed the issue of whether the letter was genuine. You can follow his discussion here.

Oh, well.

Give George B. McClellan a Break

At present we are observing the 150th anniversary of George B. McClellan’s attempt to take Richmond in 1862.  I haven’t seen much written about it.  I expect we’ll see something soon, starting with the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s taking charge of the Army of Northern Virginia.  At that point McClellan will become the target of criticism and the subject of a good number of jokes.

It’s easy to make jokes about McClellan.  I should know.  Earlier this month, in delivering a paper about how Grant won his third star, I observed that several speakers cast aspersions on McClellan, and even I raised some questions about him.  Someone in the audience had the audacity to ask about why, if McClellan was such a poor general, did he have such an impressive equestrian statue on Connecticut Avenue (a statue recently restored to its original toy soldier green … not sure I like it).  I pointed out that while many of McClellan’s soldiers may have admired him, the soldier vote went overwhelmingly for Lincoln in 1864 (I would venture that the officer vote, at least in the Army of the Potomac, was much more even) and mentioned the old saw about the two roads going northward from the rear of the statue to allow McClellan to commence a change of base.  Someone else added that the monument’s placement was much further away from the downtown area than were the monuments to other Civil War heroes, although I wonder whether that could be explained in part by time of death (John A. Rawlins has a statue quite near the White House, if you know where to look, but I don’t think that location indicates his importance to anyone but Grant).  Later on, feeling that I’d been unfair to Little Mac, I recounted Grant’s rather even-handed, even generous assessment of him.  However, I fear, the damage had been done.

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Robert E. Lee and Union Black POWs

Several weeks ago Kevin Levin posted some comments about a book by Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen on the battle of the Crater.  One of those posts caught my interest, and not just because of the colorful title.  In the post in question Kevin quoted a passage from pages 281-82; I’ve focused on the issue at hand:

[Lee talking to William Mahone]

“And General…”
“Is it true a colored division was in the assault?”
“Yes, sir.”
Lee stepped closer to Mahone and in an uncharacteristic gesture put a fatherly hand on his soldier. “I want the full honor of war observed.  Those who surrender are to be treated as proper prisoners, with respect, their wounded tended to, their officers shown the respect due their rank.”
Mahone looked at him, as if to reply.
“I know what our President has said, but in this army, sir, my orders on this day carry full weight.  We are Christian soldiers, sir.  Do you understand me?  Passions must not rule, even in the heat of battle.  If I hear of any atrocities, I will ensure that those involved shall face court-martial and the full penalty of military law.”
He drew Mahone a bit closer. “Do we understand each other, sir?”
There was only one answer Mahone could possibly give to such a man. “Yes, sir.”

Fiction.  Absolute fiction.  We know exactly how Robert E. Lee felt about the status of black U.S. POWs.  Why?  Well, because several months later Lee and Ulysses S. Grant exchanged letters on the treatment of captured United States soldiers of African-American descent.

USCT regiments participated in an attack on Forts Gilmer and Harrison southeast of Richmond in late September 1864.  One black brigade attacked Fort Gregg, near Fort Gilmer.   Several soldiers were captured by Confederates.  Soon after the battle, at the beginning of October, Lee proposed an exchange of prisoners to Grant.  The Union commander agreed to the exchange, provided it be limited to soldiers captured during the battles in late September.  He was very specific as to why: noting that some of the Union POWs in Confederate hands were black, he said: “I would ask if you propose delivering these men the same as White soldiers.”

Lee tried to finesse the issue.  Although he was willing “to include all captured soldiers of the U. S. of whatever nation [or] Colour” under my control,” he added that “negroes belonging to our citizens are not Considered Subjects of exchange & were not included in my proposition.”  That was enough for Grant: as his government was “bound to secure to all persons received into her Armies the rights due to soldiers,” he declined any exchange that would not include all Union soldiers.

Several weeks later, Grant learned that Confederate forces were employing black U.S. POWs to build fortifications in areas that were within range of Union fire … in short, using those men as human shields.  Grant immediately approved Benjamin F. Butler’s proposal to employ Confederate POWs in the same fashion, then confronted Lee with that information.

Lee backed down.  He removed the black U.S. POWs from front line labor.  He claimed that their use was simply a result of an administrative snafu; however, he added that Confederate law provided for the reenslavement of former slaves now in U.S. military service.  They should be returned to their masters “like other recaptured private property.”  Meanwhile, he planned to put more U.S. POWs in harm’s way by placing them in a pen at Dutch Gap, which was under Union artillery fire, should Grant not relent with his plans for retaliation.

Grant would have none of this.  To him, it was the color of the uniform, not the color of the person in it, that was important.  It was, he told Lee, “my duty to protect all persons received into the Army of the United States, regardless of color or nationality.”   As Lee had removed the black U.S. POWs from harm’s way, he would do the same with the Confederate POWs under Butler’s control.  However, should Lee or his subordinates misuse black U.S. POWs again, Grant promised to retaliate.

Perhaps Gingrich and Forstchen should have done their homework.

That said, we see here Lee defending Confederate policy, where status and race were of critical importance in the treatment of U.S. POWs; here’s a clear case where Confederates were not above using POWs as human shields, something worth remembering.  It was Ulysses S. Grant who defended the rights of United States prisoners of war, regardless of their race.

You can find the full correspondence here on pages 258, 263, and 323-26; it’s discussed in Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, pp. 65-67, and Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 381-82, 384.

History’s more interesting than fiction.

The Man in Grant’s Tomb

Sometimes friends disagree, and this is one of those cases where they do.

Today on Salon there appears a commentary by Joan Waugh offering a summary of Ulysses S. Grant’s life story and an assessment of how Americans remember him.  According to Waugh, they don’t hold him in very high esteem, despite the fact that he was such an important figure in American history.  After all, she contends, Grant’s record is one of signal accomplishment and laudable intent, between preserving the Union, assisting in the destruction of slavery, advocating black rights, and overseeing reunification.

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When Simplification Becomes Distortion

Over at Cosmic America Keith Harris has a very interesting and telling reaction to his reading of Time‘s effort to address the evolution of Civil War memory.

I think he’s basically right.  We’ve spent too much time discussing the evolution of white southern memory of the war and very little on how African Americans and white northerners approached the issue of remembering the Civil War during the first fifty years after the conflict ended.  From my own reading I’ve concluded that for many white northerners reconciliation was far more conditional than the current presentation of historical understanding would have us believe.

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More Than a Question of Counting?

The news is that in North Carolina and Virginia researchers are recounting the number of Civil War soldiers from each state who died in the Civil War.  These reports suggest that while fewer Tar Heels may have given their lives for the cause of southern independence, more citizens of the Old Dominion sacrificed all in the line of duty in the Confederate military services, enough so that the one-accepted claim that North Carolina suffered the highest number of military war dead might be set aside in favor of Virginia.

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