Book of the Week


Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South
by Jaime Amanda Martinez

"Martinez challenges the standard critiques of slave impressment with fresh and substantial evidence. An original contribution to Civil War scholarship."
--George Rable
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Glenn David Brasher: Top 10 Events in Civil War History, 2013

Today we welcome a great year-end roundup of Civil War history-related events, compiled by Glenn David Brasher, author of The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom.

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A year’s end always brings multiple “Top Ten” lists. The community of Civil War enthusiasts is not immune to the practice, usually creating lists of the best books. For fun, I humbly offer my own rankings, but they are not limited to books. Here in descending order are my top ten “events” in Civil War history for 2013.

Lincoln film poster

10. Spielberg’s Lincoln released on home video

This blockbuster 2012 movie generated much debate, as many historians criticized it for not providing a more thorough depiction of the events that led to slavery’s destruction. Most agreed, however, that Daniel Day-Lewis’s characterization of Lincoln was spell-bindingly good and historically solid. Furthermore, the film created a “teachable moment” for historians to engage in a public conversation about emancipation. With the release of the movie on home video, the film can now make its way into the classroom. I’ve already successfully used it to stir discussion with my own students. keep reading →

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Kathryn Shively Meier: Civil War Soldier Trauma in Unexpected Places

Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, by Kathryn Shively Meier[This article is crossposted at uncpressblog.com.]

We welcome a guest post from Kathryn Shively Meier, author of Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions—strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat—which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy: nature.

In the following post, Meier explains that soldiers reported traumas from unexpected sources.

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Since World War I, the language available to describe mental afflictions as a result of military service, as well as diagnostics and treatments, has expanded exponentially. The year 1980 saw the introduction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Lately, the news has been awash with reports linking physical brain injuries to the symptoms of PTSD, further enhancing our ability to understand and treat the mental repercussions of battle in our armed forces. Yet modern conceptions of soldier mental health do not necessarily translate to clearer understandings of soldier mental trauma in the past. Union and Confederate soldiers described a great deal of their mental suffering as incurred outside of combat. In fact, most Civil War soldiers looked forward to combat as a sporadic and exciting break from the taxing and monotonous day-to-day soldiering that wore down their resolve.

Understanding the mental experience of Civil War soldiers requires entering into an era when physicians lacked sophisticated understandings of the human brain and the contemporary lexicon offered few words to characterize mental health. This is not to say that Civil War soldiers did not provide ample evidence of their states of mind while serving. Soldiers used such terms as “the blues,” loneliness, and homesickness to explain their reasons for devolving into alcoholism, defying direct orders, straggling or deserting, and occasionally ending their lives. They relied upon correspondence with those at home to prevent mental decline, often beginning or ending their own letters with a desperate plea for increased communication with loved ones. Civil War surgeons, responsible for maintaining the overall health of regiments, possessed only a few terms for describing mental disorders, excluding all but the most severe cases. Specifically, U.S. surgeons provided official reports on insanity or “nostalgia,” a potentially fatal case of homesickness with the associated physical problems of fever, stomach ailments, and even death, while Confederate surgeons recorded only nostalgia or mania. All other mental ailments fell through the cracks of official reporting and therefore official care.

Civil War soldiers were quite clear about what burdened their minds, though their descriptions may surprise modern Americans. keep reading →

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Jaime Amanda Martinez: Zeb Vance, Ken Cuccinelli, and Chris Christie: Governors as Bellwethers

Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South by Jaime Amanda Martinez[This article is crossposted from uncpressblog.com.]

We welcome a guest post today from Jaime Amanda Martinez, author of Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South. Under policies instituted by the Confederacy, white Virginians and North Carolinians surrendered control over portions of their slave populations to state authorities, military officials, and the national government to defend their new nation. State and local officials cooperated with the Confederate War Department and Engineer Bureau, as well as individual generals, to ensure a supply of slave labor on fortifications. Using the implementation of this policy in the Upper South as a window into the workings of the Confederacy, Confederate Slave Impressment in the Upper South provides a social and political history of slave impressment. Martinez challenges the assumption that the conduct of the program, and the resistance it engendered, was an indication of weakness and highlights instead how the strong governments of the states contributed to the war effort.

In the following post, Martinez considers the 2013 gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia by looking back to another time when a state gubernatorial contest—North Carolina, 1864—proved to be the bellwether for a subsequent national election.

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In the summer and fall of 2013 (at least prior to the shutdown) the political pundits, finding themselves bereft of national elections to debate, focused a great deal of attention on two gubernatorial races. Admittedly, these two elections would have made national news under any conditions: Virginia is a populous swing state, while New Jersey’s incumbent governor Chris Christie is a recurring figure in “will-he-or-won’t-he” conversations about future presidential candidates. But in the absence of Congressional midterms or some comparable marker of national sentiment, the elections in Virginia and New Jersey have been touted as indicators of where the Republican Party, and indeed the entire country, will head in 2014 and beyond.

The North Carolina governor’s race in 1864 served a similar role. Though often overshadowed in discussions of Civil War politics by the U.S. presidential election of 1864, the North Carolina race, which pitted incumbent Zebulon Baird Vance against newspaper editor William W. Holden, tells an equally important story about shifting political winds. And because 1864 counted as an “off” year in Confederate politics, the contest between Vance and Holden garnered a lot of attention. 1863 had been a big election year for the Confederacy, bringing huge turnover in Congress, a popular new governor in Virginia (William “Extra Billy” Smith), and an easy re-election for perennial Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown. But in 1864, North Carolina stood largely alone to represent the sentiments of southern voters.

The difference between the two candidates was stark. keep reading →

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David T. Gleeson: Irish Confederates and the Meaning of American Nationalism

The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson

[This article is crossposted at uncpressblog.com]

Today we welcome a guest post from David T. Gleeson, author of The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America. A new history of the Irish in the Confederacy, The Green and the Grey evaluates the ambiguities and complexities of the Civil War experience for Irish Americans in the South. Taking a broad view of the subject, Gleeson considers the role of Irish southerners in the debates over secession and the formation of the Confederacy, their experiences as soldiers, the effects of Confederate defeat on Irish Americans and their emerging ethnic identity, and their role in the rise of “Lost Cause” ideology. Focusing on the experience of Irish southerners in the years leading up to and following the Civil War, as well as on the Irish in the Confederate Army and on the southern homefront, Gleeson argues that the conflict and its aftermath were crucial to the assimilation of Irish Americans in the region. Throughout the book, Gleeson draws comparisons to the Irish on the Union side, expanding his analysis to engage the growing literature on Irish identity in America.

In a previous post, Gleeson explored how Irish immigrants in Charleston “became southern” by participating in Lost Cause memorializing. In today’s post, Gleeson explains how studying Irish identity in the Civil War can shed light on American identity as well.

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In early November 1860 New Orleans resident Michael Nolan, an Irish immigrant originally from County Tipperary, but who now owned a coffeehouse in the French Quarter, campaigned hard for the election of National Democrat Stephen Douglas to the presidency. Nolan loved the Union, it seemed, and did not want it to break up. In the sectional crises of the 1850s the Irish, in both the North and the South, had been on the side of compromise and opposed to any extremist positions that might threaten the United States, which had provided refuge from political discrimination and economic blight in Ireland. Yet shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s victory in that election, Nolan and hundreds of fellow Irish New Orleanians marched through the streets in support of Louisiana’s secession. As a member of the Louisiana militia, in his case the Irish “Montgomery Guards,” Nolan had gone from being a defender of the United States to one of the “Republic of Louisiana.” He would go on to become a prominent Confederate officer reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, serving with distinction, before being killed in action at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Yet while Nolan and thousands of other Irish men from New Orleans were off fighting in Virginia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, others at home undermined the Confederate cause. Some guarding the city mutinied, allowing Union forces to occupy it without firing a shot. Most accepted the defeat with ease, and Union commander General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler found the Irish helpful in his running of the fallen city. Back at the front, Irish Confederate soldiers retained a reputation for being brave soldiers but were also more likely to desert than native Confederates. It seems that the Irish in the South could shed their American nationalism for a Confederate one, and, after defeat, take up the American again just as easily.

As an immigrant myself, I can attest that one’s sense of identity is heightened by the immigration experience. In your new country, even when your language is the same as the natives, you suddenly you have an “accent,” your religion and culture are different, and you must adapt to new social and political realities. Immigrants then give us valuable insights, not only into their own changing identity, but also that of the host country. Irish immigrants in the South had to become Americans and Confederates. They had to negotiate the cultural traits they brought from Ireland with the demands of loyalty to their new home. And it was this Irish cultural baggage which played the key role in binding them to the United States and the Confederacy. keep reading →

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David T. Gleeson: Immigrants and American Wars: The Irish Confederate Experience

The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America by David T. Gleeson

[This article is crossposted at uncpressblog.com]

Our guest post today comes from David T. Gleeson, author of The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America. A new history of the Irish in the Confederacy, The Green and the Grey evaluates the ambiguities and complexities of the Civil War experience for Irish Americans in the South. Taking a broad view of the subject, Gleeson considers the role of Irish southerners in the debates over secession and the formation of the Confederacy, their experiences as soldiers, the effects of Confederate defeat on Irish Americans and their emerging ethnic identity, and their role in the rise of “Lost Cause” ideology. Focusing on the experience of Irish southerners in the years leading up to and following the Civil War, as well as on the Irish in the Confederate Army and on the southern homefront, Gleeson argues that the conflict and its aftermath were crucial to the assimilation of Irish Americans in the region. Throughout the book, Gleeson draws comparisons to the Irish on the Union side, expanding his analysis to engage the growing literature on Irish identity in America.

In the following post, Gleeson explores how Irish Charlestonians’ participation in Lost Cause mythologizing helped solidify their acceptance into southern culture.

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When immigrants and other offspring fight in American wars, it’s seen as a key element to them integrating into the American society and politics. One is familiar with the appearance of Irish and Mexican American soldiers in the U.S cavalry in westerns such as Fort Apache (1948) or the obligatory representative of every white ethnicity in World War II movies such as Stalag 17 (1953) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), where natives and ethnics learn to respect each other in the tempest of war. Indeed, Christian Samito, a legal historian of the Civil War era, in a study of Irish and African American soldiers in the Union army, has described the whole experience as “becoming American under fire.”

My own work for The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America indicates that military enlistment and prowess on the battlefield were key elements of Irish integration into the Confederacy. The performance of Captain William Ryan and his “Irish Volunteers” of Charleston, for example, at the Battles of Secessionville in 1862 and again at Battery Wagner in July 1863, in defense of their adopted city, earned the Irish praise in the local press. Even one newspaper, which had been sympathetic to the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings in the 1850s and had been a critic of the Irish response to the Confederacy, had to recognize “the gallant charge led by Captain Ryan and the Irish Volunteers.” When killed in action at Battery Wagner, another Charleston correspondent stated that, “no nobler soldier” had fallen in battle. As it was for the African American 54th Massachusetts on the Federal side, immortalized in the movie Glory (1989), the fight at Wagner on Morris Island was just as important for the image of Irish in Charleston. keep reading →

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