Tuesday, January 28, 2020

New and Noteworthy: Life During Wartime--Living, Dying and Surviving in Richmond, Virginia

Rebel Richmond Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital,Stephen Ash, University of North Carolina Press, 296 ppages,  illustrations, bibliographic notes, bibliography, 2019.  $35.00.

Reviewed by Michael E. Woods (Marshall University) Published on H-CivWar (January, 2020)

A fresh-faced lieutenant screams from a hospital bed. Shopkeepers fence stolen goods, while an equally entrepreneurial embalmer smuggles deserters and draft dodgers out of town in coffins. Neighbors hear a confectioner lashing an enslaved girl with a leather strap; the next day, the four-year-old child is found dead. In a filthy shack near the wharves, a young prostitute dies alone from a laudanum overdose. These kinds of stories are rarely commemorated with monuments or dramatized in reenactments. But they are all Civil War stories, and they all find a place in Stephen V. Ash’s outstanding Rebel Richmond: Life and Death in the Confederate Capital

Richmond was a national capital and a target for attack, a commercial hub and a manufacturing powerhouse, a haven for refugees and a place of captivity. But although historians have thoroughly documented the city’s political and military histories, the experiences of its humbler residents, whose numbers swelled to more than 100,000 during the conflict, have received less attention. The purpose of Ash’s book is to explore “how ordinary Richmonders”—black and white, enslaved and free, male and female, rich and poor, civilian and soldier—“fared in the maelstrom of war” (p. 3).

Ash quite logically emphasizes Richmond’s uniqueness, but the city’s prominence in both history and historiography means that this book will fascinate not only local historians but also readers interested in everything from common soldiers and women’s history to class conflict and slave resistance.
Ash surveys life in wartime Richmond in a series of thematic chapters. The city’s diverse population was fractured along lines of wealth, status, and occupation, but most Richmonders faced an increasingly severe struggle to get by as neighbors multiplied and resources dwindled in what one local paper aptly called the “metropolis of the South” (p. 19).

Richmond’s population may have tripled during the war as bureaucrats, soldiers, refugees, impressed slaves, and drifters, driven by force or free will, crowded into the city. With housing scarce and rents soaring, civilians squeezed into rented rooms, hotels, and offices while soldiers and enslaved laborers lived in nearby barracks and encampments and a growing number of captives—including political prisoners and captured Union soldiers—languished in jails and camps. And although proximity to a rich agricultural hinterland had kept antebellum Richmond well fed, wartime disruption and overcrowding created a parallel crisis of sustenance. As with the housing shortage, public efforts to increase food supply met with mixed results: most Richmonders did not starve, but the poor and the wards of the Confederate government waged a desperate struggle for subsistence.
Unlike food and shelter, jobs were plentiful in a city where fierce competition for workers pitted private manufacturers against public-sector employers and the military. Even though Confederate officers detailed soldiers to work in factories and other productive enterprises, the labor shortage remained acute, so considerable numbers of enslaved people, free blacks, and white women and children filled the void. Of course, with so many strangers coming and going, old fears of insurrection and new apprehensions of disloyalty fostered an atmosphere of suspicion.

Deserters and Unionist agents did not topple the city’s Confederate power structure, but the prevalence of crime and immorality, coupled with resistance by enslaved people, made many affluent white Richmonders fear the worst. The outbreak of Richmond’s infamous bread riots in April 1863 seemed to portend a more general uprising of the city’s motley underclass, and for the last two years of the war, local officials mixed poor relief with paramilitary repression in an effort to keep order. The proximity of military force reassured Richmond’s elite, but the proliferation of military hospitals, complete with the sights, sounds, and smells of suffering and death, provided a constant reminder of the war’s costs.

Ash has indeed brought “wartime Richmond to life as a city of flesh-and-blood men, women, and children of many sorts who responded in very human ways to extraordinarily trying circumstances” (p. 5). The success of this rich social history stems from diligent archival research. Ash delved into a variety of manuscript materials, including personal correspondence, the records of the Southern Claims Commission, church and hospital records, and letters received by the Confederate Provost Marshal’s Office and the Confederate Secretary of War.

These dusty files yielded a trove of poignant stories that demonstrate how Richmond’s diverse residents navigated a city shaken to its core by an increasingly revolutionary conflict. From the arrest of an African American bartender who allegedly spoke to a white man with “insolent and provoking language” (p. 175) to hospital matrons’ attempts to brighten their dreary living quarters, Rebel Richmond compellingly illuminates how Richmonders lived, labored, and died in a city where the war sometimes reached the suburbs and was never far away.

This book complements previous accounts of wartime Richmond by Emory M. Thomas and Ernest B. Furgurson, which relied (particularly in Thomas’s case) more heavily on published materials.[1] It also will provide opportunities for comparative analysis if read alongside other urban histories, such as Wendy Hamand Venet’s study of Civil War-era Atlanta and William Warren Rogers Jr.’s work on Montgomery.[2] Indeed, what Richmond shared with other Confederate cities may be as important as what set it apart. Richmond’s status as a political, industrial, and military center certainly made it a distinctly attractive target for Union strategists and a singularly powerful symbol of Confederate nationalism, and Ash quite reasonably underscores its uniqueness.

But many aspects of Richmond’s story had parallels in other Confederate cities. Union war planners coveted New Orleans and Atlanta; manufacturing boomed in Selma and Augusta; refugees streamed into Raleigh and Columbia. Rebel Richmond therefore underscores the centrality of cities to the story of the Confederacy. As Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers have pointed out, for all the obvious importance of Southern plantation agriculture, and for all the Lost Cause paeans to an agrarian way of life, cities were at the heart of the Confederate project, from the meeting of secession conventions to the manufacturing of war materiel and the marshaling of armies.[3] Rebel Richmond demonstrates this point brilliantly and poignantly. Regardless of where they came from or why they were there, Richmonders—all 100,000 or more of them—experienced an emphatically urban Civil War.

Bibliographic Notes:
[1]. Emory M. Thomas, The Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971); Ernest B. Furgurson, Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).
[2]. Wendy Hamand Venet, A Changing Wind: Commerce and Conflict in Civil War Atlanta (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014); William Warren Rogers Jr., Confederate Home Front: Montgomery during the Civil War (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999).
[3]. Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers, “Introduction: Historians and the Urban South’s Civil War,” in Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era, ed. Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015): 1-23.
Full Text Source: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54431

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

New and Noteworthy: Gettysburg: The Living and The Dead as Viewed by a Poet and a Photographer

GettysburgGettysburg: The Living and the Dead, Kent Gramm with photography by Chris Heisey, Souhtern Illinois University Press, 225 pp, profusely illustrated, 2019, hardcover, $29.95.

Reviewed by Matthew A. Borders, (National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program; review published by H0Civil War, January 2020.
I knew that this work, Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead, would be a challenge from the beginning. An artistic work, the book looks at the largest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere through a myriad of lenses, peoples, times, and writings. This is not, nor does it purport to be, another military history of the Battle of Gettysburg. That being said, it is set up in a manner that would familiar to anyone who has read military histories of the battle. Gettysburg has four distinct chapters, covering the first day of fighting with twenty separate entries, the second day with thirty-five entries and the third day with fourteen entries. It ends, as many histories of the battle do, with a chapter on the aftermath, which contains nineteen individual entries.

Each entry, be it a poem or short story, is accompanied by an image. This structure struck me not only as a familiar choice, but also possibly a deliberate one to help the reader. As most are already familiar with the three traumatic days of the battle, this structure seems designed to place the reader into the right mind-set of each day and its aftermath.

That may be the reason why I found the first chapter so jarring. Set up as it is, even with a snippet of the famous 1889 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain speech just before the table of contents to set the stage, the first chapter has little to do with the Battle of Gettysburg as the opening poems are broad enough to describe almost any conflict. This is not a bad thing, and in fact can bring the past and present closer together as it reveals shared passions, fears, and sorrows. As the chapter continues, however, Gramm also reveals much of himself. There are numerous references to the Vietnam War in this chapter (entry 8: Blood Trail, entry 9: 'Stang, entry 18: Stayin' Alive) and sprinkled throughout the book. The war is seen as a mistake and or something to be protested by the author.
Some of his stories go so far as to use the memory of historical figures from the Battle of Gettysburg as inspiration for these protests. There are several very well-written short stories in this chapter taken from the soldier's perspective and even one apparently real letter from a migrant worker in 1927 who worked in the orchards around Gettysburg. In all, this is a very scattered chapter that feels lacking in focus.

Much like the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg itself, which saw the longest period of fighting, stretching well into the night on some parts of the field, the second chapter is the longest. It is also where I feel the book finds its focus. Of the thirty-five entries, again mostly poems and short stories, the majority focus on the Battle of Gettysburg or its participants. It is also where we start to see a large helping of one of the subthemes of Gettysburg, the supernatural. This had been hinted at since the beginning of the book, but over a third of the entries of this chapter have to deal with ghosts or spirits tied to or trapped on the battlefield, for any number of reasons. Some are trying to communicate with the living to dissuade us from repeating the follies of history, some are still fighting the battle, and some are searching for fallen loved ones. This a theme that is hard to escape in Gettysburg, as the town itself is awash in ghost tours of dubious quality and historic accuracy.

The best aspect of Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead is the bravery of the author to tell his stories and poems through a broad range of voices. Both Union and Confederate soldiers are portrayed, sometimes with sympathy towards their enemies, often with the passions and hatreds of the war on full display. We hear the voices of women—those caring for the wounded, watching over the dead, pining for the lost, or educating the current generation. Veterans both old and new are written about, as are former rangers, battlefield guides, museum curators, and even a reenactor in one story. I will admit I was surprised to see the author use an African American dialect in two of his entries, a bold decision and a commendable effort to include the whole story of the region. The story that spoke to me the most, however, and which in today's climate of intolerance struck me deeply, comes nearly at the end of the work, entry 85: North and South (pp. 207-09). Two fathers, one from Wisconsin and one from North Carolina, tour the battlefield together, discussing fatherhood, loss, and the war. Both are products of their regional bias, neither having really dealt with anyone from the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. This story ends with two men having a better understanding of the other and a promise to memorialize a loss from a much more recent conflict. I sincerely hope that this story, presented from the perspective of a writer, is the fulfillment of that promise.

It would be a mistake to review Gettysburg: The Living And The Dead without touching on the beautiful photography of Chris Heisey. The images are as diverse as the stories and poems themselves, and sometimes suffer from the same out-of-place feeling that some of the writings have. Every poem or story has at least one image attached to it. Most of these are dramatic shots of the battlefield landscape or the monuments on it. Entry 31: War Means Fighting (pp. 79) is one such example of an oddity, as it has a praying mantis on page 78 to accompany the story. Surprisingly, almost a quarter of the images are wintry shots of the battlefield or monuments, and there are numerous autumnal landscape shots. Considering the sweltering July conditions in which the battle was fought, the snow-and-ice-covered images are beautiful, if unexpected.

While I had some concerns reading this work, I am glad I did. Our cultural landscapes, even our most studied, such as Gettysburg National Military Park, have meant and continue to mean different things to different people. While I may not understand all of the author and the photographer's perspectives and choices for Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead, it is obvious that they care deeply for this historic landscape, the history that happened here, and its visitors.

Citation: Matthew A. Borders. Review of Gramm, Kent; Heisey, Chris, Gettysburg: The Living and the Dead. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54316

Monday, January 13, 2020

News: The most intact Grand Army of the Republic Post is located in Carnegie, PA

2162165_web1_sig-CarCar-011620 Carnegie Carnegie Corner: Remembering veterans of long ago
For Union Civil War veterans, April 1865 started a time of healing and renewal. We often forget that there were no social safety nets for these men who so nobly served the call to arms to defend the Union. Not until 1930 was there a Veterans Administration as we know it today.
Some things never change. Politicians made empty promises to “care for those who have borne the burden, his widows and orphans.” Immediately following the end of the war, there was little political pressure to see that these promises were kept. Consequently, on April 6, 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded in Decatur, Ill., by former Union officers to serve as a united voice in holding the government accountable to make good on those promises.

By 1900, about 7,000-plus GAR Posts were scattered across the U.S., providing a place for veterans to turn to for fellowship, networking and, if needed, charity. Think of it as today’s American Legion or VFW Posts for veterans of the Civil War. The GAR founded soldiers’ homes and were active in relief work and in gaining more liberal federal pension legislation. Orphan schools were founded in Pennsylvania to care for and educate the children of veterans.

The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie has been documented by scholars as probably the most intact GAR Post in the country. In a 1911 catalogue, veterans from the post wrote “… we leave for our children and their children, this room full of relics, hoping they may be as proud of them as we are, and that they may see that they are protected and cared for all time.” It’s a responsibility to our veterans that we don’t take lightly. We are honored to tell their stories, display their artifacts and educate the public on what they accomplished for our nation.

The Capt. Thomas Espy GAR Post 153 is open to the public, free of charge, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday. Private tours can be arranged by appointment. A lecture is held every second Saturday of the month. The Jan. 11 talk begins at 1 p.m. and is on the Battle of Philippi, W.Va., with speaker Jon-Erik Gilot. Light refreshments are served. For more information or to schedule a tour, call 412-276-3456, ext. 9.

Diane Klinefelter is the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall Espy Post curator.

Text source: Tribune and Review

Friday, January 03, 2020

New and Noteworthy: The Entrepreneurs Who Save the Union

Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation, Jeffry D. Wert, DaCapo Press, 228 pp., 16 pages of b/w images, 2018, hardcover $30.00, paperback $24.00. 

Review Author: Len Riedel, Blue & Gray Education Society

Civil War Barons is a relatively short and tight book. At 209 pages, it is an easy read in any circumstance. I have known and respected Jeff Wert for some time. A former history teacher in Pennsylvania, Jeff long ago earned the respect of the Civil War community, and his frequent publications since then always are well researched and written. With more than 10 books and far more articles on his résumé, you cannot say you are well read on the war unless you have read some of his works—especially his book about James Longstreet. So it was with reasonable expectation that I opened the cover and dove in.

The literature of the Civil War has produced any number of thematic derivatives, and so this work by Jeff was a new and, as it unfolded, intriguing angle about civilian support for the war effort. I have long maintained that we cover the period before the war and after the war because people just were not there when the shooting started, and they didn’t go to a remote island after the war ended. Jeff shows in a compelling fashion how key people in a variety of innovative ways built the support infrastructure that made the Union war effort successful. The names are generally familiar: Vanderbilt, Armour, Borden, Carnegie, Deere, Squibb, Parrott, Weyerhaeuser, and many others.

Jeff offers mini biographies on his subjects that describe how each one came from a position of strength or failure to address the challenge and opportunities presented by the Civil War. The stories of condensed milk, canned meats, lumber, wagon building, artillery, rapid fire weapons, farm instruments, and medical advances work together to help the reader understand how each and every contribution accumulated to provide the resources needed to win the war.

It seems that in our studies we far too often take for granted these support elements, and yet the evolution of repeating rifles, the construction of multiple gunboats in just over 90 days, and the ramping up of shoes mechanically stitched to meet the needs of the growing army are miraculous in their adaptive and functional performance. I recall being a youngster in the 1960s and buying U.S. Savings bond stamps two and three at a time, and yet here is the story of Jay Cooke who revolutionized fundraising from the public as a whole by selling bonds. It is simply amazing to contemplate.

Not all turn out well, and not every person was a good guy. Some were simply ruthless and made money far in excess of what they would ever need or spend in their lives. Many overextended themselves or were unable to sustain their success after the war. Others extrapolated their processes and changed to meet the demands of the following Gilded Age. Some were selfless in the face of national need, and others were successful rapscallions. What struck me was how these developments unleashed American capitalism in all of its raw power and lifechanging potential.
I am a better informed person as a result of this work. It is not mentally taxing, but, frankly, Jeff’s genius in the selection of his topic has filled a significant niche that one could live without, but if you happen upon it you will have an epiphany. I think this book is worth your time and would give it a solid 3.5 stars, maybe even 4, on a 5-star scale.

Image Source:  A canning food factory (1898) | Wikipedia
Review Source:  Len Riedel, Blue & Gray Education Society

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

News: Glory, The Film: a Reflection on it 30th Anniversary

Poetry Not Yet Written: Revisiting Glory Thirty Years Later

Ella Starkman-Hyne, December 10, 2019 at Muster: The Web Log of the Society of Civil War Historians

Glory begins as so many Civil War films do: the sun rises on a vast battlefield, brave Union men march into war, and a ferocious battle ensues, American and Confederate flags billowing in the background. Despite its adherence to well-worn tropes, however, Glory tells a tale that is often obscured – even obliterated – in Civil War narratives. Edward Zwick’s 1989 classic follows the story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the first African American regiments to fight for the Union cause. Viewed within the larger canon of Civil War films, Glory is a triumph. Most of these narratives sidestep the issue of slavery in order to appeal to the widest possible audience; Glory, in contrast, never lets the viewer forget that this truly was a war of emancipation. This laudable achievement aside, though, Glory has many significant shortcomings. And, as the film celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this December, it is well worth asking the question: who gets to tell this story?
Given Glory’s subject matter, the viewer could reasonably expect the men of the 54th Massachusetts to take center stage. Yet, mere moments into the film, it becomes clear that Glory is, in many ways, the story of the regiment’s white colonel, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). The powerful narration of the film is drawn from Shaw’s real-life letters home, affording the viewer intimate access to the colonel’s thoughts, fears, and hopes. Never mind that the men of the 54th also wrote letters home – this fact is never imagined, much less acknowledged, and the viewer remains wholly unaware of the inner lives of the black men at the heart of the story. This negligence has significant consequences in Glory, and no small amount of unintended irony. At the beginning of the film, Shaw declares with evident self-satisfaction: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.” In fact, there was a well-established tradition of African American poetry by this time in American history, a literary movement that included the voices of both free and enslaved black people.[1] The poetry of these men and women was indeed being written – Colonel Robert Gould Shaw simply wasn’t reading it.[2]

The men of the 54th are immensely compelling characters in their own right, yet Glory’s depiction of the regiment’s black soldiers never quite reaches the depth and nuance it reserves for its white protagonist. This lapse is most painfully evident in the case of Trip (Denzel Washington), a composite character based on several real-life soldiers who came to the unit as former slaves. Trip is a quick-tempered and confrontational man, who refuses to back down in the face of authority. In one of the film’s most significant moments, he turns down the honor of carrying the American flag into battle, defiantly telling Colonel Shaw: “I ain’t fighting this war for you, sir.” As powerful as Trip’s character is (Washington would win an Academy Award for his portrayal), the viewer’s insight into his lived experience remains quite limited. The few conversations touching on his enslavement are filled with tense silences, and the true contours of his suffering are never fully explored. This superficial portrayal of Trip’s life – whether a matter of intention or oversight by Glory’s producers – was a missed opportunity; even in the 1980s, there was no dearth of literature on slavery the filmmakers and screenwriters could have used for research.
Furthermore, Trip’s fury is often tempered – even invalidated – by his colleagues in the 54th. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) takes issue with Trip’s aggrieved demeanor throughout the film, chastising him for being “full of hate” merely because he’s “been whipped and chased by hounds.” In case Trip misses the point, Rawlins declares: “that might not be living, but it sure as hell ain’t dying. And dying’s been what these white boys have been doing for going on three years now, dying by the thousands, dying for you, fool.” This statement is distressing for two reasons: first, Rawlins denies Trip the right to be angry, asserting that the horrors he experienced as a slave do not justify his bitter outlook and, moreover, do not match the ultimate sacrifice made by “these white boys.” Furthermore, the assertion that white men had been dying for African Americans throughout the Civil War is deeply flawed, given that many Union soldiers joined the war effort purely to fight secession and did not, in fact, support the cause of emancipation; some even deserted when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.[3]

Over the past thirty years, historians have generally praised Glory for its historical accuracy, its skillful depiction of the war’s oft-forgotten heroes, and its refusal to adhere to Lost Cause ideologies. Shortly after the film’s cinematic release, Pulitzer-Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson wrote a review of Glory in The New Republic, citing it as “the most powerful and historically accurate movie about that war ever made.”[4] McPherson wrote that Glory  would “throw a cold dash of realism over the moonlight-and-magnolias portrayal of the Confederacy,” and might even restore the heroic image of black soldiers which prevailed in the North for a brief time during and after the war, before the Lost Cause became entrenched.[5]

Nearly two decades later, the historian Gary Gallagher made similar observations about Glory in his book, Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. Gallagher’s analysis focuses primarily on Glory’s depiction of the Civil War as a battle of emancipation, noting that Hollywood films since the late 1980s have largely dismissed preservation of the Union as a central motivator for Northern soldiers. This artistic license, Gallagher writes, often comes at the cost of historical accuracy, effectively promoting a “flawed conception of the North’s Civil War,” given that many white soldiers were ambivalent toward the cause of emancipation.[6] This negligence notwithstanding, Gallagher maintains that Glory had a positive and tangible impact. He notes that even its star, Denzel Washington, had been unaware that black people fought in the Civil War. Washington was hardly alone; Gallagher writes that “moviegoers across the United States left screenings with a similar realization that the military struggle between 1861 and 1865 had not been a lily-white affair. In that respect, Glory worked a sea change in popular perceptions about the conflict.”[7]

McPherson and Gallagher have certainly made valuable contributions to the conversation about Glory. However, their respective analyses overlook a vital aspect of the film’s legacy: the framing of the 54th’s story though Colonel Shaw’s perspective. For decades, sociologists and black theorists have explored the implications of black stories being told by white storytellers, often referred to as “racial ventriloquism.”[8] Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charise Pimentel examine this topic in their book, From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life. These scholars note that white-authored narratives are frequently “used to structure perceptions of American race relations, particularly black racial experiences,” while the work of black writers rarely achieves such dominance.[9] The authors assert that this cultural hegemony persists despite the continuing efforts of black storytellers. Although black writers, filmmakers, television producers, and scriptwriters have depicted both black and white stories through mainstream media, their works seldom achieve the level of financial success granted to white-authored narratives, “and thus do not figure greatly in Americans’ understanding of race in general and black experiences in particular.”[10] These white writers – no matter how well-intentioned – are thus culpable in a “long history of constructing ‘blackness’ to serve hegemonic concerns,” a tradition which effectively denies black people the agency to tell their own stories.[11]

In cinema, such narratives are often referred to as “white savior films.” Sociologist Matthew Hughey investigates this phenomenon in his book, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption. He writes that these stories are “often guided by a logic that racializes and separates people into those who are redeemers (whites) and those who are redeemed or in need of redemption (nonwhites).”[12] White savior films can have profound societal consequences. Hughey cites studies on the lack of interracial communication in many predominantly white areas in the United States, noting that 86 percent of suburban whites live in communities where black people make up fewer than 1 percent of the population.[13] In this context, he asserts, popular films become a kind of proxy for real-life interracial interactions. [14] This framework is certainly at work in Glory. Although the film depicts the 54th Massachusetts as a regiment of former slaves, the majority of the soldiers were, in fact, born free in the North.[15] Such a depiction paves the way for a falsified journey from slavery to freedom, a journey not possible without the fearless leadership of their white colonel (and white savior), Robert Gould Shaw.
The makers of Glory were certainly telling a story that needs to be told – but it is not their story to tell. Indeed, as Glory celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this December, it is worth taking a closer look at whose voices are being heard, both onscreen and behind the scenes (Glory having been written, directed, and produced by white men). In accepting the premise that the poetry of black Americans had “not yet been written,” Glory ensures that whatever poetry it does present is that of its white hero and savior. Viewers must question why, in a film specifically about black soldiers, the perspectives of African Americans are so conspicuously absent. In recent years, many historians have begun to call for a new Civil War documentary, one in which Shelby Foote’s romanticized view of the Old South is not the dominant voice. Perhaps it is also time for a new Glory, a version devoid of “racial ventriloquism,” in which the men of the Massachusetts 54th are not only free from slavery, but free to tell their own stories.

[1] Erika DeSimone and Fidel Louis, Voices beyond Bondage: an Anthology of Verse by African Americans of the 19th Century (Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2014).
[2] Katie O’Halloran Brown, “Letters of Black Soldiers from Ohio Who Served in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries during the Civil War,” Ohio Valley History 16, no. 3 (2016): 72-79.
[3] James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 123.
[4] James M. McPherson, “TNR Film Classic: ‘Glory’ (1990),” The New Republic, January 15, 1990, https://newrepublic.com/article/91210/tnr-film-classics-glory-january-15-1990.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Gary W. Gallagher, Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 92.
[7] Ibid., 95.
[8] Claire Oberon Garcia, Vershawn Ashanti Young, and Charise Pimentel, From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 1.
[9] Ibid., 1-2.
[10] Ibid., 2.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Matthew W. Hughey, The White Savior Film: Content, Critics, and Consumption (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 2.
[13] Ibid., 15.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Joseph T. Glatthaar, “‘Glory,’ the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, and Black Soldiers in the Civil War,” The History Teacher 24, no. 4 (1991): 475-85, 478.

Images:  Denzel Washington in Glory. Courtesy of Tristar Pictures.; Matthew Broderick, who portrayed Robert Gould Shaw in Glory. Courtesy of Tristar Pictures; Promotional poster for Glory. Courtesy of Tristar Pictures.

Ella Starkman-Hynes

Ella Starkman-Hynes is an independent author and graduate of McGill University. She is currently applying to graduate school for U.S. history and intends to specialize in Civil War memory. Her research focuses primarily on the depiction of the Civil War in popular culture, and she is currently working on a project examining northern memory of the war through twentieth-century literature.

Monday, November 25, 2019

New and Notable: The Leadership Team of Lee and Jackson

The reviewer is Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson who earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse.

The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the ConfederacyThe strength of this book is a well-researched and well-written narrative that seamlessly combines military strategy and human lives together in a way that is compelling for both historians and general readers. The writing is not heavy or full of military jargon that might leave a reader bogged down, which makes the book enjoyable to read. The themes of command, strategy, and leadership come across strongly throughout the book and typically Keller is careful with his post-war sources to expose biases and Lost Cause rhetoric. This book would be perfect for a reader who is looking for a scholarly approach to the Lee-Jackson partnership, one who is trying to analyze Confederate leadership and military strategy, or even one who is looking for a good read about Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. 

A critique of the book is that while Keller looks at Lee and Jackson through the particular lens of command and leadership, he does not make a radically new argument about these two men. Much of this history has been researched and written about before, and Keller is just highlighting certain aspects to analyze why this partnership grew so strong and how it affected military strategy in 1862 and 1863. For those who are well versed in the history of these campaigns and in the careers of these two men, much of this information will be familiar. I think the most compelling part of the analysis was the chapter in which Keller pulls away the Lost Cause rhetoric to show that Southerners at the time reacted in those ways to Jackson’s death.

He also delves into the “what if” question that historians usually avoid. He does a pretty good job navigating that fine line in his chapter about Gettysburg, but chooses to close his book with an imagined vignette of “what did not happen,” where a one-armed Jackson rides with Lee and crosses the Mason-Dixon line on their way towards Harrisburg, PA (247-248). While it is a more compelling narrative, it would have been stronger to end on a more scholarly note instead of playing into fantasies that are usually held by Lost Causers. 

The entire review is located at A Civil Discourse.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

New and Noteworthy: Illinois Soldiers In Their Letters, in Their Words

In Their Letters, in Their WordsIn Their Letters, in Their Words: Illinois Civil War Soldiers Write Home,  Mark Flotow, editor, Southern Illinois University Press, 320 pages, 12 illustrations, 2 maps,  bibliographic notes, bibliography, index, October 2019, $26.00.

From The Publisher: A vital lifeline to home during the Civil War, the letters of soldiers to their families and friends remain a treasure for those seeking to connect with and understand the most turbulent period of American history. Rather than focus on the experiences of a few witnesses, this impressively researched book documents 165 Illinois Civil War soldiers’ and sailors’ lives through the lens of their personal letters. Editor Mark Flotow chose a variety of letter writers who hailed from counties throughout the state, served in different branches of the military at different ranks, and represented the gamut of social experiences and war outcomes.

Flotow provides extensive quotations from the letters. By allowing the soldiers to speak for themselves, he captures what mattered most to them. Illinois soldiers wrote about their reasons for enlisting; the nature of training and duties; necessities like eating, sleeping, marching, and making the best of often harsh and chaotic circumstances; Southern culture; slavery; their opinions of commanding officers and the president; disease, medicine, and hospitals; their prisoner-of-war experiences; and the ways they left the army. Through letters from afar, many soldiers sought to manage their homes and farms, while some single men attempted to woo their sweethearts.

Flotow includes brief biographies for each soldier quoted in the book, weaves historical context and analysis with the letters, and organizes them by topic. Thus, intimate details cited in individual letters reveal their significance for those who lived and shaped this tumultuous era. The result is not only insightful history but also compelling reading.

Preface ix
1. A Lifeline of Letters                                      2. Illinois Citizens Become Soldiers
3. Camp Life and Bonding with the Boys         4. Soldiering
5. Managing Affairs from Afar                         6. Seeing the Elephant
7. Southern Culture through Northern Eye       8. Officers, Generals, and “Old Abe
9. Debility and Diseases                                  10.  Writing the Indescribable as P.O.Ws 11. Soldiers No More
Appendix A: Soldiers’ Brief Biographies
  Appendix B: Chronology of the Civil War
   Appendix C: Quoted Soldiers, by County of Origin

Endorsements:  “Words matter, and by allowing Illinois soldiers to speak for themselves, the Civil War comes alive anew. Flotow helps us envision the ‘real war’ that Walt Whitman observed would ‘never get in the books.’ The editor’s fresh approach provides an intimate and illuminating portrait of the war and those who fought it. In Their Letters, in Their Words is a superb addition to Civil War literature.”—Stephen D. Engle, author of Gathering to Save a Nation: Lincoln and the Union’s War Governors

 “Flotow has done a fine job of linking together, as well as comparing and contrasting, the comments of 165 Illinois soldiers on a wide variety of Civil War subjects. The result is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read for anyone with an interest in the Civil War.”—Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, author of The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine