Thursday, October 30, 2008

Effigy 1870 & 2008

Yesterday morning an effigy of Barack Obama was found hanging by a noose from a tree on the University of Kentucky campus -- the campus where I study the history of racial violence and racism in Kentucky, the campus where I teach that same history to students. (link here) I presume that if/when the perpetrators of this are caught, they'll cry crocodile tears about being ignorant of the implications of their action, being ignorant of the history of racial inequality, violence, and lynching that has plagued this state since before emancipation. And I will be the first person to stand up and call "bullshit." Even for 18 year old freshmen, the weight that these images carry in American -- particularly Southern -- society is too great not to be noticed. Sure, there was the effigy of Sarah Palin hung recently, and we should too decry that as inappropriate. But the two acts ARE NOT equal. There is too much cultural baggage attached to the hanging of black men to not consider this an act of racial intimidation.

Strangely, though, I am not outraged; I am not livid. Perhaps I should be. Instead, I am disappointed; I am saddened. I am, frankly, embarassed. On Saturday I am going to Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tenn. to deliver a paper on the state-sanctioned racial violence of the Kentucky National Legion during Reconstruction. I am honestly nervous about having to hold my head up in front of my audience and deliver this paper. Does this undermine my credibility as a historian representing the University of Kentucky? How does the horiffic act of a member (presumably) of my institution cast me? Was it one of my students? One of my classmates? My paper's title is drawn from a Republican newspaper editor's sighing acceptance of his inability to stem the tide of the state's campaign of violence and lynching, every bit the equal of states in the former Confederacy. "So Goes Democratic Law in a Democratic State." I can begin to understand that Republican editor, a voice crying out in the wilderness, pointing to the racism in American society, despite our best attempts to hide it, to call it something else, to justify it in some way.

I think I will give a short preface to my paper, acknowledging the effigy and asking the audience to think about what Kentucky's history of racial inequality and violence -- or of inequality and violence toward any group -- may have to bear on this incident, on this election. I claim that insecurity brought on by the social chaos of slavery's end motivated this response. That economically unstable, socially precarious, and politically threatened young white Kentuckians lashed out against African Americans attempting to claim political equality. They claimed that a "Black Peril" was upon them, threatening to overtake everything they held dear. I claim -- and they claimed at the time -- that a political contest was about more than the office at stake. It was a contest for the soul of the state. Hopefully, then, the audience at this panel might start a conversation through the lens of history that bears meaning for today. This is what history does. This is why historians matter. They clarify the murky memories of the past, and provide examples of when society achieved great things and when it didn't.

I'll close with a quote from an item in Frederick Douglass's New Era from Aug. 18, 1870 commenting on the first election in Kentucky when blacks could vote. In the face of racism, the Democratic Party machine, and the bayonets of the militia, Douglass remains hopeful for a brighter, more equal, future. Hopefully Kentckians, Americans, can do the same today.

[White Kentucky] built their shanty on the sand bank of slavery, but the rising tide of freedom and equality has flooded back into the wretched hovel, and the whole organization has set to work with a "White Man's Party" mop, to sweep back the wave of human progress. They are doing their best. There is a splash and a spattering, but the tide ever rolls inward, and the great ocean of liberty outside shows the utter feebleness and futility of the effort. While they are vigorously mopping, the sand bank is melting away, and the whole structure will speedily cave in, or be carried out to sea, and engulphed beyond the hope of recovery. That tide is resistless.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Forrest Still Making The Headlines

Although covered recently by Kevin over at Civil War Memory, here is another story about the Forrest High courtesy of the AP.

Confederate general’s name may come off Florida school

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nathan Bedford Forrest was a millionaire slave trader, a ruthless Confederate general, an early Ku Klux Klan leader — and the namesake of what is now a majority African-American high school.
After almost a two-year delay, the Duval County School Board next week will consider whether to change the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School to Firestone High, after the street it sits on. The board joins other Southern districts that have hotly debated whether to strip Confederate leaders’ names from schools and other buildings.

The squabble is part of the modern South’s never-ending soul searching over the Civil War and its legacy, a discussion that often finds Forrest at the center.
“This guy was a brutal monster,” said Steven Stoll, an adjunct sociology instructor at Florida Community College who is white and supports changing the name of the high school. “Why would you want to keep honoring a person like this? It is an insult to black people.”
Forrest is hardly the lone Confederate hero whose name adorns streets, buildings and other public projects, or used to.
But efforts to strip Confederates’ names and take down memorials to them have mostly been thwarted throughout the South, often after being denounced as part of an effort to remove all references to the Confederacy. In Hampton, Va., for example, attempts to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School and Jefferson Davis Middle School failed.
Some say Forrest’s deeds have been exaggerated and have to be considered in the context of the Civil War.
“Forrest was revered all over the world and his tactics are still studied today,” said Lee Millar, president of the General N.B. Forrest Historical Society in Memphis, Tenn. “He became a hero to all.”

Born poor in Chapel Hill, Tenn., in 1821, Forrest amassed a fortune as a plantation owner and slave trader, importing Africans long after the practice had been made illegal. At 40, he enlisted as a private in the Confederate army at the outset of the Civil War, rising to a cavalry general in a year.
Some accounts accuse Forrest of ordering black prisoners to be massacred after a victory at Tennessee’s Fort Pillow in 1864, though historians question the validity of the claims.
“He did not order a massacre. He did order wholesale killing, but I do believe he lost control of the battle and there were people killed who should not have been killed,” said Brian Steel Wills, a professor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, who wrote a biography of Forrest.
In 1867, the newly formed Klan elected Forrest its honorary Grand Wizard or national leader, but publicly denied being involved. In 1869, he ordered the Klan to disband because of the members’ increasing violence. Two years later, a congressional investigation concluded his involvement had been limited to his attempt to disband it.
After his death in 1877, memorials to him sprung up throughout the South, particularly in Tennessee.
Forrest High School in Jacksonville opened as an all-white school in the 1950s, getting its name at the suggestion of the Daughters of the Confederacy. They saw it as a protest of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that eventually integrated the nation’s public schools.
Now, blacks make up more than half of the student body.
Two 17-year-old seniors at the school say the consensus among students is to leave the name alone.
“As students, (the name is) not a big deal to us,” said Jamal Freeman, a black student who noted it would cost a lot to change uniforms for the band and sports teams, nicknamed the Rebels.
Sabrina Lampp, a white student, said a change “takes all the memories away.”
Jacksonville has three other schools named after Confederate generals, none as sensitive as Forrest.
“He got a bad rap,” said L.A. Hardee, a member of the board at Jacksonville’s Museum of Southern History. “He was an honorable man. People don’t take into consideration the times. It’s a Southern thing. They ought to keep the name.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Rifled Musket at Chickamauga

I am currently reading The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth by Earl Hess. This is a very good book that really fills out the argument made by Paddy Griffith years ago, that the Rifled Musket did not change the battlefield. However, I am impressed by the healthy dose of statistics from Chickamauga. Here are some examples:

28th Alabama Infantry held up for 10 minutes in a firefight at 20 yards.

74th Indiana Infantry held its fire until there Confederates were only 60-70 yards away.

Wilder's Brigade, as were their usual tactic, let the Confederates get to within only 50 yards before opening fire.

Now the forested enviroment made an impact on these ranges to some degree, most soldier accounts claim initial visibilty was between 100 to 150 yards through the forest. This is still almost point blank range, literally waiting until you can see the whites of their eyes. So it really ties into why soldiers are fighting on their backs in this fight.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Battle as the Recruit Saw It

Trying to give some consideration to the military side of things, I pulled this article from the CS veteran's magazine Southern Bivouac that sheds some light on the rank and file perspective of combat. It's got some fantastic observations on soldiers in battle and in camp. It sums up a good deal of what we have read about the pre-battle and battle experience from other sources and has some great observations.

"The Battle As The Recruit Saw It"

The camp-fires threw their flickering rays over the bronzed faces of the men as they sat grouped around, and the shadows of the forest trees were lengthened on the sward. A few soldiers were dreamingly thoughtful of distant homes where other log-heaps were tossing their fitful flames also over a thoughtful dreamers, thinking and dreaming of the absent boy in the far-off Tennessee camp; some of the men were smoking, others engaged in absorbing games of cards, with hilarious accompaniment of jest and laughter, but by far the greater number, thoughtless of the future, careless of the present, and altogether apathetic to a degree characteristic of the Southern soldier, were simply doing nothing.

A courier gallops into camp, making his way through the contending lights and shadows to regimental headquarters. As he passes inquiring faces are turned toward him, and the exclamation, "Something's up, boys," passes from fire to fire, and -- all settle again to their pastimes, but soon to be interrupted by an order to "cook five days' rations and be ready to move at once." The woodman of each mess is soon busy with his axe, the mess-cooks are busily arranging their culinary apparatus, that is, shaking the mud from their gum coats, on which the dough is to be kneaded; the general "utility man" trots off with all the canteens within reach to the nearest branch; all are busy as bees and as the waning camp-fires dart out their struggling lines of light over the darkening grove, the rations are cooked and haversacked, and all save the camp sentries are sleeping, as only tired soldiers can sleep. With the first streak of morning light the "long roll" rumbles, and drowsy, hurrying, half-clad men fall in; then by twos the regiment threads its way through the wood and is soon on the road to "we know not where," but to a prospective battle even now sending hither its promises in the firing of the distant pickets.

The sound becomes nearer, clearer, more rapid than before; the command is quick-timed, the skirmishing in front is more exciting, couriers are dashing hither and yon; wagon-masters are urging their teams rearward, ordnance officers forcing their wagons forward, cavalry with rattling sabers galloping alongside and past the infantry, leave a cloud of dust trailing behind them; artillery under whip and spur are coming up in a run to secure a commanding knoll, ambulances are seen in solemn procession in the rear, and we are filed in on the right of the road and fronted in battle line with other commands that have preceded us; muskets are loaded, the firing in front still continues, skirmishing becomes rapid, then a lull. Our arms are stacked and we are rested "in place" and soon loll around, assume a look of confidence and indifference we do not feel and endeavor by light jests to shake off the nervous tremens produced by the popping of guns on the picket-line. A courier gallops by, then another, a third follows, soon an "orderly" hurries toward us from headquarters, the firing becomes spirited and nearer, our skirmishers are in sight, falling slowly backward, contesting inch by inch. Attention! Every man in his place, the skirmishers are forced nearer, we are moved forward to their support; the long dark lines of the enemy are seen to advance to the support of their skirmishers; the cavalry by a sudden dash debouch to protect the flanks, and then a "boom," a crush in the timbers, a shell whirring just over our heads proclaim the opening of the ball. The rattle of musketry becomes continuous, and our artillery responds to the enemy's guns.

The enemy comes steadily toward us. "Steady, men," still nearer. "Steady," "Ready," "Aim," "Fire," and a line of lurid flame leaps from our guns; "Steady," "Load at will," "Fire," "Fire at will." -- Crash, rattle, boom, shout, shriek of shell and wounded men, the smoke rolls upward and onward, filling the space intervening between the opposing forces, we fire at the smoke, and thus the battle goes on.

A soldier falls, another is struck, poor Sam is borne to the rear and mortally wounded; the ranks close up. "Forward," others fall, and are carried back; still the den of conflict continues and our captain's cry rises above the tumult. "Steady, men," "Fix bayonets," "Steady," "Charge," and then the Confederate yell rises above all other sounds of the raging conflict, bearing encouragement to our sorely-pressed brothers, and sending with it a terror to our foes. We yet press on in the charge; the enemy momentarily gives way; then grape and canister sweep our thinned ranks, and we in turn are forced back, then "forward" again, and so throughout the day, advancing, now receding like a tidal wave, and so struggling until night closes the contest. Our lines are reformed to converge to the main road like the closing of a huge fan, and we soldiers of the line are revolving in mind the anomalous state of affairs on which a victorious army is in full retreat.

Southern Bivouac, Vol. I, pp. 112-114, 1882.

The article is anonymous, though its author was clearly an Army of Tennessee vet. And though it is not about any battle specifically, that very vagueness lends the observations an almost universal applicability. The Bivouac was frequented by any number of veterans of the western campaigns, including some prominent figures like Fred Joyce, John Jackman, and Sam Watkins. Still, it hits on some essentials of the Civil War combat experience that all those fellows would have been more than familiar with. Personally, I think the sound effects and use of vocabulary sounds like Watkins, but maybe I read too much of him. Best part, in my mind, is the discussion of the preparation for battle, the hurried packing and gathering of one's earthly life in preparation to go into battle and possibly lose it.

Neat stuff, no? Is it realistic? Does it contrast with the "modern" fighting that we see, in some of our other posts here?

Monday, October 13, 2008

October 13th, 1864 Capture of Dalton, GA

Today marks the 144th Anniversary of the first major contact between the soldiers of the Army of Tennessee and USCT troops. After the fall of Atlanta, Hood began a northward movement in an attempt to force Sherman to abandon Atlanta. Hood struck at Sherman's supply line, the Western and Atlantic Railroad, and there were a number of small battles fought with Union garrisons along the way, the most notable being the Battle of Allatoona Pass on October 5th. Hood arrived in front of Dalton on October 13th, which was then garrisoned by a large detachment of the 44th USCT and a few companies of white troops totaling about 750 men, all under the command of the 44th's colonel, Lewis Johnson.
The town was surrounded by Hood and artillery placed on a ridge that overlooked the town and its garrison. Hood sent in a demand for unconditional surrender or risk the whole garrison be put to the sword, as his infantry prepared to attack, Pvt. William Bevins of the 1st Arkansas remembered, "While the artillery made ready the Texans passed the word down the line as though it came from General Cheatham, 'Kill every damn one of them,' which would have been carrying out their own threat of 'no quarter.'" Given the odds Johnson surrendered. The USCTs were seperated from their officers and soon forced to work tearing up the railroad, several incidents occured where at least six USCTs were shot down for refusing.
With the railroad broken again, Hood moved westward to the community of Villanow, along the way, Bevins recalled, "That evening the Texas command moved over to us. We heard them yelling and singing but did not know what had happened. They were guarding the negro prisoners, and were calling to us, 'Here are your "no quarter" negroes, come and kill them!" The poor negroes, with eyes popped out nearly two inches, begged, prayed, and made all sorts of promises for the future. They soon moved on out of sight....". At Villanow a pen was errected to house the 44th, and a call was sent out to locals to claim any of them who might have been runaways and the USCT officers were paroled and sent to Chattanooga. The stay at Villanow was short though and Hood continued moving westward. Over the next couple of weeks Hood would continue westward with the USCTs in tow. What remains a mystery is what happened to the majority of them, 350 would make it to the end of Hood's march to Florence, Ala, where they were sent work rebuilding railroads in Mississippi, Rev. Charles Quintard would recall seeing them, "I saw a number of Negroes captured at Dalton-some in the most distressing condition-evidently dying." A few made their escapes and made it back to what remained of the 44th at Chattanooga. Still others would have been claimed by their former owners, or those who said they were their owners. Still others died along the route, the exact numbers are lost to history.
One of the most haunting images of the Civil War comes from one member that would survive the whole ordeal, Hubbard Pryor. Pryor was a runaway from North Georgia who had joined the 44th in March of 1864, at which time two photographs were made of him, one in uniform and the other displaying the condition he arrived in.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Weary Life of a Soldier

Another letter from the collection I am working with currently. Major Benjamin F. Buckner of the 20th KY Inf. (US) writes to his fiancee Helen from Mississippi in the midst of the campaign in 1862. In this letter, he describes his appearance in the field -- no doubt greatly changed from the last time she had seen him off to war. Given Lee's posts this summer about Generals' appearance in the field, I figured this compliments (despite Buckner wearing Blue).

Camp Near Corinth Miss
May 24 1862
My Dear Helen,

Your idea of my personal appearance under the ___ circumstances is far
from correct. I wear a black wool hat, and my face is nearly of the same
color, my hair short, my mustache trimmed close, my whiskers cut off – beard of
about a weeks growth, (I have no time to shave oftener than once a week as you
may imagine, when I tell you that we have been in such a state of watchfulness
that I have not pulled off my sword for nearly two weeks)[.] My uniform
consists of a stiff pair of soldiers’ shoes minus the strings, a pair of coarse
army pants and a blouse without shoulder straps.
Actual service in the field dispels all the romance of soldiering. It is a
laborious drudging life for anyone of lower rank than Colonel, and I would
rather be a negro under Harrison Thompson (for the same length of time) than a
private soldier.

I think the last paragraph is fantastic. Because while Buckner serves in the Union army, he was still from a slaveowning family in Central Kentucky. So his comparisons, his worldview, his understanding of the essential meaning of drudgery is all drawn from that experience of growing up in a slave society. Harrison Thompson, as you may have guessed, was a large planter in Clark Co. Ky., Buckner's home county. These compairsons, this shared worldview, raise the question: how different are some of these Border State Unionists from their Confederate counterparts? The a later section of the same letter may shed some light on ideological differences. Buckner writes regarding a comment Helen's friend (and big-time Secessionist) Sally Moore had made. The comment was not recorded in Buckner's letter, but I gather it was something about hoping all the US troops would catch yellow fever from the Mississippi swamps.
I did not attribute it to any thing except that mania Secession which despite
her good sense, has taken possession of her mental faculties, perverting them
from the nobler purposes for which they were intended and which they [are] wont
to fulfill. I therefore dont hold her responsible for it, but hope on her account that she may be speedily convinced of the error of her ways. … Dont tell Sally any thing except that her remark was not offensives, as I really did not care a straw fact and like her too much to get angry with her about it.

Though Buckner believes secession is equivalent to madness, in the end he never questions Sally's (or any other secesh's) motives. Preserving slavery is, as his other letters reveal, his goal as well. He just understands the Constitution and the Union as the more secure, more conservative means of its preservation. And as wild and inappropriate a step as he believes secession to be, because he personally knows many of its proponents (including Helen and her family) and because, fundamentally, they fight for the same thing he can never bring himself to be angered at them. Love the sinner, hate the sin.

More to come from Ben later.