Book of the Week


Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War
by Stephen Cushman
foreword by Gary W. Gallagher

"From the lilt of Lincoln’s language to the barbs of Bierce and the pageantry of Chamberlain, Belligerent Muse takes readers into the complicated literary history of how the war was spun and how a national bloodletting transformed the writing of history and the history of writing in the United States."
--Stephen Berry, University of Georgia
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Graham T. Dozier: The Battle of Cedar Creek: The Best of Days, the Worst of Days

A Gunner in Lee's Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter, edited by Graham T. DozierWe welcome a guest post today from Graham T. Dozier, editor of A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter. In May 1861, Virginian Thomas Henry Carter (1831–1908) raised an artillery battery and joined the Confederate army. Over the next four years, he rose steadily in rank from captain to colonel, placing him among the senior artillerists in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Dozier offers the definitive edition of Carter’s letters, meticulously transcribed and carefully annotated. This impressive collection brings to light Carter’s unvarnished opinions of the people and events that shaped his wartime experience and sheds new light on Lee’s army and Confederate life in Virginia.

In a previous post, Dozier discussed Carter’s battleground visit after Bull Run. In today’s post, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Cedar Creek, Dozier reveals Carter’s assessment of discipline and leadership within the Confederate and Union armies there.

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Col. Thomas Henry Carter was an aggressive and disciplined officer in the South’s most successful army. For three years he had distinguished himself as an artillery commander in the Army of Northern Virginia. Now, in October of 1864, while serving as chief of artillery in the Army of the Valley, he was deeply concerned. In letters to his wife, Susan, he described in great detail the crushing Confederate defeat at the Battle of Cedar Creek. He also offered astute observations about the fighting qualities of the Southern army. Carter’s frank opinions not only reveal his frustration over the army’s conduct but also bring to light his views on military leadership.

The battle of October 19, 1864, in the Shenandoah Valley had started out as an almost-total rout of the Union army. The early morning surprise attack by Gen. Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley had overwhelmed two Yankee corps and pushed them to high ground north of the village of Middletown, and Tom Carter’s artillery had played an important role in the apparent Southern victory. Things changed, however, when Early’s force halted its attack for several hours. That gave the Union army the time needed to establish a defensive position and launch a counterattack. The subsequent Yankee assault turned a near-certain Rebel victory into a complete Northern one. Two days later, when Tom took the time to send Susan a letter, he was still stunned. “In the morning [the Confederates] were lions, in the evening lambs. Such facts are incredible to one who has not witnessed them but they are unfortunately too true.”

In the same letter, dated October 21, Carter offered a simple opinion as to why the battle had been lost. “The Yankee discipline,” he asserted, “is immeasurably superior to ours.” In a rare moment of frustration, he lashed out at the behavior of his army’s leaders. keep reading →

Graham T. Dozier: A Civil War Tourist in 1861

A Gunner in Lee's Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter, edited by Graham T. DozierWe welcome a guest post today from Graham T. Dozier, editor of A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter. In May 1861, Virginian Thomas Henry Carter (1831–1908) raised an artillery battery and joined the Confederate army. Over the next four years, he rose steadily in rank from captain to colonel, placing him among the senior artillerists in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Dozier offers the definitive edition of Carter’s letters, meticulously transcribed and carefully annotated. This impressive collection brings to light Carter’s unvarnished opinions of the people and events that shaped his wartime experience and sheds new light on Lee’s army and Confederate life in Virginia.

In today’s post, Dozier shows that visiting Civil War battle sites is not just a pastime for buffs and historians 150 years after the fact. Thomas Henry Carter made a trip just months after the battle to gain insight on the ground at Manassas.

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Of all the ways that Americans demonstrate ongoing interest 150 years after the Civil War, visiting battlefields is perhaps the most popular expression of that attraction. People travel to preserved sites across the country to try not only to learn what happened there but also to imagine what it was like for the men who fought on those fields so long ago. That desire to make sense of those dramatic events is nothing new. In fact, it began for one man only two months after the first major battle of the war had taken place.

Capt. Thomas Henry Carter, the 30-year-old commander of the recently formed King William Artillery, came to the war in 1861 with a genuine curiosity about people and events. He arrived in northern Virginia that September, and one of the first things he wrote to his wife Susan about was the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), which had taken place on 21 July. Specifically, Carter told her what soldiers in the Confederate army thought about the way the battle had ended. “The opinion of the army,” he reported, “is that a tremendous mistake was made in not advancing on to Alexandria immediately after the Bull Run fight.” Clearly this notion troubled Tom Carter deeply. When he considered who was responsible, Carter pointed his finger in one direction. He explained to Susan that “[a]ll admit it now & the blame is put on Davis’ shoulders here. Politicians will ruin us forever.”

Carter did not stop with the assignment of blame. He went further and attempted to draw some lesson from the event. keep reading →

Stephen Cushman: The 150th Anniversary of Probable Failure

Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War, by Stephen CushmanWe welcome a guest post today from Stephen Cushman, author of Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War. War destroys, but it also inspires, stimulates, and creates. It is, in this way, a muse, and a powerful one at that. In Belligerent Muse, Cushman considers the Civil War writings of five of the most significant and best known narrators of the conflict: Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Considering their writings both as literary expressions and as efforts to record the rigors of the war, Cushman analyzes their narratives and the aesthetics underlying them to offer a richer understanding of how Civil War writing chronicled the events of the conflict as they unfolded and then served to frame the memory of the war afterward.

In today’s post, Cushman brings to our attention one of the quieter anniversaries of the Civil War years. It was not a battle nor a political milestone, but acknowledging it can help us better understand the effects of the war’s long and uncertain days on those who lived through them.

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Since April 2011 the Civil War sesquicentennial has brought many anniversaries of large events already memorable, adding to them still more layers of memory and commemoration. The 150th anniversary of Gettysburg in July 2013 is an obvious example, while here in central Virginia May 2014 included many programs and events recalling the beginning of Grant’s Overland Campaign and the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. But the sesquicentennial has done more than simply nudge our various news media to recover and recollect and rehearse major moments included in any greatest-hits timeline of the war. It has also given our collective memory, or perhaps more accurately our collective attention, an opportunity to review the war again in real time.

It is one thing to skim, in a few distracted seconds, an online chronology of the war and think, for example, That’s right, spring and summer 1864, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, the Crater, check, check, check, check, check. It is another to observe, in any way one chooses to observe it, the anniversary of Cold Harbor on June 3, and then to discover that June 8 was the 150th anniversary of the nomination of Lincoln, at the convention of the National Union Party in Baltimore, for a second term as president. Merely to list the two events one after the other in a bare-bones chronology is to risk missing altogether what a long, overshadowed, dispiriting interval the five days between the two events must have been—for the eventual nominee, for the delegates who nominated him, for the people they represented. Yet this silent, fretful interval remains invisible amidst a procession of bigger anniversaries that sail past like parade floats.

Overshadowed, dispiriting, fretful intervals have their anniversaries, too, but they rarely get much attention, even though they took up most of the 1500 days of the war for one side or the other. For one thing, such intervals do not offer us the stuff of spectacular reenactments. How do we stage public reenactments of the epidemic tightness in the chest or roiling in the stomach, the insomnia or melancholy or panic experienced by millions after First Manassas–Bull Run or the fall of Vicksburg? For another, anxious, doubtful intervals rarely come neatly packaged in single moments or artifacts we can point to and date and commemorate on their anniversaries. But there is at least one, and its memorable form came from Lincoln’s pen. keep reading →

William A. Blair: When Silence Wasn’t Golden

With Malice Towards Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era by William A. BlairWe welcome a guest blog post from William A. Blair, author of With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era. Few issues created greater consensus among Civil War–era northerners than the belief that the secessionists had committed treason. But as Blair shows in his engaging account of history, the way politicians, soldiers, and civilians dealt with disloyalty varied widely. Citizens often moved more swiftly than federal agents in punishing traitors in their midst, forcing the government to rethink legal practices and definitions. Ultimately, punishment for treason extended well beyond wartime and into the framework of Reconstruction policies, including the construction of the Fourteenth Amendment. Establishing how treason was defined not just by the Lincoln administration, Congress, and the courts but also by the general public, Blair reveals the surprising implications for North and South alike.

In today’s guest post, Blair discusses how those who didn’t openly support the Union and Lincoln’s administration risked being arrested on suspicion of treason.

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Americans have a high regard for free speech, but should we have the same concern for the protection of silence? Should saying nothing or doing nothing open one to military arrest? What if a president has gone on record as advocating such a policy? This may sound like a ridiculous proposition, given our system of rights embedded in the Constitution. But it is not a hypothetical statement: this scenario faced northerners, border-state loyalists, and especially Confederates in occupied zones during the U.S. Civil War. Saying nothing and doing nothing did bring the U.S. Army to one’s door.

The Reverend K. J. Stewart received a lesson about the problem of silence in a civil war. On February 9, 1862, soldiers dragged this minister of St. Paul’s Church from the pulpit during worship service in Alexandria, Virginia. The reason? He had refused to say the prayer to the president. Soldiers from the 8th Illinois Cavalry, directed by a State Department detective, literally dragged the preacher from the church. He had had to be pried from his grasp on the chancel rail. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Stewart was released fairly quickly.

The most startling statement about silence and arrests came from none other than President Abraham Lincoln. In June 1863, he responded to criticism of military arrests by a group of Democrats from New York in a letter whose lead signatory was Erastus Corning. It was one of less than a handful of public letters that he issued during the conflict and was designed to rationalize the arrest of Clement Vallandigham, former congressman and gubernatorial candidate from Ohio. The politician had delivered a speech that challenged an order by Major General Ambrose Burnside prohibiting criticism of the administration. Vallandigham was arrested, tried by a military commission, and banished from the Union, creating outrage among many Democrats, including the group from New York.

Often missed by historians—but not by Mark E. Neely Jr.—was that a portion of Lincoln’s defense in what became known as the Corning Letter justified arrests that were preventative. In other words, Lincoln condoned imprisoning people before they had done anything wrong. He added that doing nothing could earn a visit from the military. “The man who stands by and says nothing, when the peril of his government is discussed, can not be misunderstood. If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy.” The president added that, similarly, waffling statements suggested an underlying disloyalty that should be nipped. “Much more, if he talks ambiguously—talks for his country with ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘ands.’” Lincoln ended this segment of the letter with a better known statement: “I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.”

This reading of constitutional liberties during wartime mirrored popular conceptions of treason on the northern home front held by Republicans and Democrats who supported the administration. keep reading →

William A. Blair: The Battle over White Suffrage after the Civil War

With Malice Towards Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War EraWe welcome a guest blog post from William A. Blair, author of With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era. Few issues created greater consensus among Civil War-era northerners than the belief that the secessionists had committed treason. But as Blair shows in his engaging history, the way politicians, soldiers, and civilians dealt with disloyalty varied widely. Citizens often moved more swiftly than federal agents in punishing traitors in their midst, forcing the government to rethink legal practices and definitions. Ultimately, punishment for treason extended well beyond wartime and into the framework of Reconstruction policies, including the construction of the Fourteenth Amendment. Establishing how treason was defined not just by the Lincoln administration, Congress, and the courts but also by the general public, Blair reveals the surprising implications for North and South alike.

In today’s guest blog post, Blair discusses the aftermath of the Civil War on voter registration laws and how northerners tried to deny voting rights to former members of the Confederacy.

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Today, Republicans and Democrats argue over voter registration laws, especially the need for photo identification. Democrats see this requirement as trying to limit participation by poorer people rather than to prevent fraud, as the Republicans claim. Similar issues appeared in the Civil War era, as Republicans at that time tried to prevent former rebels and traitors from exercising the franchise, with one of the experiments coming in the form of voter registration.

Registration of voters was not the norm before and during the Civil War. As scholar Richard Franklin Bensel has noted in his The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, keeping accurate lists was virtually impossible in certain places, particularly cities. The development of laws and procedures in this area took shape later in the century, but there were examples of a trial run in early Reconstruction.

The Border States, including the new state of West Virginia, featured the greatest controversy for controlling white voting because so many former rebels returned home and tried to cast ballots alongside the Unionists who had remained loyal. It irked some, for instance, that former Confederate officer Bradley Johnson of Maryland might be able to cast his ballot in a postwar election while still under indictment for treason. Many worried that the traitors who had tried to tear apart the nation would return to power too easily and limit the gains of the war.

The more traditional way of disfranchising men who were considered traitors came through loyalty oaths. keep reading →