Reconstruction at the CWI–June 18, 2016

Over the first 24 hours of the conference attendees have been treated to discussions about white southern concepts of honor during Reconstruction, especially among former Confederates; several perspectives on black emancipation and the efforts of the formerly enslaved to reconstruct their lives; how white northerners viewed Reconstruction; the experience of military reconstruction for the occupying forces; and, this evening, a series of talks about Union and Confederate veterans, culminating in a presentation exploring how one rather prominent Union veteran–namely Ulysses S. Grant–sought to define and defend in peace what seemingly had been secured in war.

For those of you who are interested in that last topic, I’d make sure to fire up C-SPAN3 at 7:15PM ET. You may recognize the speaker.

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.



Gary Gallagher and the Continuing Civil War

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.

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The Grant Memorial Restoration


You see it frequently, although you don’t always know it, and sometimes you don’t recognize it. It’s the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial in Washington, DC. Located just west of the Capitol, at the eastern edge of the Mall, the general today looks out across a reflecting pool toward the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Often one sees the monument in the foreground of a shot of the west face of the Capitol building.

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September 4, 1863: A Close Call

On September 4, 1863, the Union almost lost the American Civil War.

On that day Ulysses S. Grant was visiting Nathaniel P. Banks’s command at New Orleans. He had hoped to work with Banks to direct an operation versus Mobile, but that idea had been shelved for the moment. On this day he went out to nearby Carrollton to review the Thirteenth Corps, which he had detached from his Army of the Tennessee to join Banks after the fall of Vicksburg, as well as the Nineteenth Corps, commanded by the man who finished first in Grant’s class at West Point, William B. Franklin. At the conclusion of the review there was a jollification, as folks called it, and alcohol circulated freely. Afterwards Grant mounted his horse–a rather spirited horse, not one of his own–and started back with a cavalcade toward New Orleans. Later the general would describe his mount as “vicious and but little used,” but the horseman in him always enjoyed such challenges.

On this day, however, it would be the horse who would emerge in better shape. As Grant approached a railroad, an oncoming locomotive sounded its whistle. The horse panicked, shied, and fell, taking Grant down with it. The general was knocked unconscious, his left leg crushed underneath the horse. “We thought he was dead,” recalled one nearby observer. Officers carried the general to a nearby inn, where he slowly regained consciousness. But the leg would pose a serious problem for weeks to come, and some would say that he never quite recovered from the accident.

For years to come some observers would try to make even more of the incident. After all, this was Ulysses S. Grant, and everyone had heard the whispers … and sometimes they were more than whispers. Banks and Franklin both claimed that Grant was intoxicated. How that would have played into the accident was not clear. After all, Grant did not simply topple off the horse. Had he veered too close to the track, causing the whistle to be blown? Maybe. Other observers made no mention of alcohol. Perhaps, one might argue, Grant’s judgment as a rider was impaired by a bit too much to drink, which may have fueled the equestrian daredevil’s willingness to take risks riding. No one knows, although one suspects that spirits and a spirited mount together was not a good idea.

Grant’s injury was so severe that it took him months to recover and affected his ability to travel to Chattanooga the following month to take charge of matters there. But the story–and the possibility that alcohol was involved–should give pause to those who make certain declarations about Grant’s drinking. True, this incident did not take place during military operations, but it had some impact on what Grant could do for weeks. Moreover, now that he was a major general in the regular army, Grant was destined to play a critical role in forthcoming operations, and this injury might have prevented him from taking the field–and, after all, a more serious accident could have killed him. So much for saying his drinking never harmed anything but his reputation. As it turned out, its effects on the course of the war were minor at best … but it need not have been that way.