It was a great day at CWI yesterday. First up was Pete Carmichael speaking on “Robert E. Lee & the Search for a Battle of Annihilation.” Thanks to C-SPAN you can view it here:
It was a terrific presentation, as usual, though I have to disagree with him regarding his response to my question. I think Professor Gallagher is spot on.
Next up was Brooks Simpson and “Contingencies & Circumstances: U.S. Grant and the Problem of Virginia in 1864,” a truly masterful presentation.
After that we heard from Ari Kelman speaking on “A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek.”
I purchased his book to read after the conference. I’m not convinced we should view Sand Creek as really part of the Civil War. It may have happened during the years of the Civil War, and it may have involved men who had been mustered into Federal service, but that doesn’t make it part of the Civil War, just as the USS Pueblo incident wasn’t part of the Vietnam War. I’ll read his book and take a closer look at his arguments, though, and report back.
After lunch we broke up for concurrent sessions. C-SPAN televised two of these sessions. Brian Craig Miller talked about “Remembering the Destruction of an Army: John Bell Hood’s Tennessee Campaign in Myth & Memory” and Megan Kate Nelson spoke on “Ruins of Revenge: The Burning of Chambersburg.”
Since C-SPAN was already televising those presentations I attended two others. First there was Kevin Levin speaking on “The Battle of the Crater in Memory.” This was a bit different from his past presentations and his book in that he looked at it primarily from the Union point of view in this talk.
Kevin quoted a Federal soldier after the July 30, 1864 battle at the Crater as saying, “Everyone here is down on the [n-word]s.” This was the nadir of white Union perceptions of the USCT. Black soldiers were seen falling back without having been engaged, but not mentioned by these soldiers was the fact that just as many, if not more, white soldiers were falling back as black soldiers. The scapegoating of the USCT by white Union soldiers was widespread, but it was temporary. Many white soldiers did acknowledge the bravery of the USCT and there was a growing consensus that African-Americans could and should contribute to the Union war effort, but that commingling of the races in the ranks should be avoided.
Confederate soldiers were instantly transformed by the sight of armed black troops. This was a manifestation of long-standing fears of slave rebellions. White Union soldiers found themselves as targets of confederate rage as well as the black troops. This led to fear on their part, and led to incidents of white Union troops firing on their black comrades. Some captured USCT officers tried to distance themselves from their men, but one who steadfastly stood by his men was Freeman Bowley, who withstood taunts and abuses from confederates after his capture but always proudly acknowledged he was a USCT officer and refused to distance himself from his command.
By the early 20th Century the public memory of the Crater was clearly in the hands of white Southerners, though, and white veterans didn’t have much to say about it. Kevin’s presentation was very well done and gave us a view of the Crater’s memory that we don’t normally see.
The second presentation I attended was Caroline Janney’s “A War Thoroughfare: Confederate Civilians and the Siege of Petersburg.” This was a very enlightening lecture. We learned that Petersburg endured the longest siege of the war, ten months in length from June of 1864 to April of 1865. In 1860 Petersburg was a bustling manufacturing hub. In a population of about 18,000, half were African-Americans. Of those African-Americans, 6,000 were enslaved and 3,000 were free. This was the largest free urban black population in Virginia. Five railroads crossed through Petersburg. It was a modern city with gas lights, a municipal water system, and 159 grocers. It was a prime target for Union armies during the war. In the summer of 1862, enslaved labor was used to construct a 10-mile-long line of fortifications known as the Dimmock Line, named for Capt. Charles Dimmock. During the war, troops came and went along the railroad. The ladies of Petersburg organized sewing and aid societies, and 1500 local men enlisted in the confederate army. Due to the effects of the war, including the commandeering of the trains by the confederate army and the Union blockade, much of the trade in the city was suspended, leading to the closure of most of the tobacco factories and most of the iron works. The mills remained open due to the labor of women, children, and older workers. The Bermuda Hundred campaign led to a wave of refugees coming into the city and added to the scarcity of goods in the city. One of the city’s proud moments came on June 9, 1864 when a Union force of 6500 cavalry and infantry were sent to try to capture Petersburg and the town was defended by “125 gray-haired sires and beardless youth” who held off the Union men until troops could be brought in. On the 16th of June the first shells began to fall into the city and on June 18, Robert E. Lee arrived. The Old Market section of the city was the hardest hit by the bombardment, which was aiming at the railroads going through the city. In all, about 625 buildings were hit by shelling.
There was a wide variety of refugee experiences in the city. Many decided it was in their best interest to leave. Whether someone stayed or left often depended on two factors: their location in the city and whether or not they had the financial means to leave the city. Refugees seem to fall into four categories. Those who left in May of 1862 were the wealthier residents. Another category included those who left the bombardment section to live in the western part of the city. A third category were those who left the city to live north and west of it. The final category were the impoverished. They had no means of moving, and they created tent cities outside the range of the guns where they took up residence. There was a constant flow of people in and out of Petersburg. Some stayed out of the city for months while others moved back and forth, sometimes on a daily basis. The best source on civilians in Petersburg is the Charles Campbell diary.
Shelling was a constant presence in people’s lives. They gave a nickname to one Union gun, calling it the “Petersburg Express.” The residents were able to determine the gun’s firing schedule and know when it would be safe to walk in the streets while that gun wasn’t firing. Some residents constructed bombproofs while others used sand bags, cotton bales, and their basements to provide shelter. People continued to leave the city and by mid-summer much damage had been inflicted. The siege exacerbated the scarcity of goods, and tomatoes cost $5 per quart while eggs were $10 per dozen. The weather at this time added to the burden. It was hot and dry that summer, and the city suffered a severe drought. From mid to late July the residents were able to have some relief from the shelling, which encouraged many to come back into town. The explosion of the Crater was on July 30, and the explosion and the battle following it did little to change the life of the Petersburg civilians. However, after the battle the shelling started up again. Due to the shelling, people became used to the danger. Some sense of normalcy developed by November. Schools opened, passenger trains still operated, and there were even weddings performed, some of them between soldiers and civilians. Some of these weddings were for a year, some for the rest of the war, some for a week. The First Baptist Church opened a soup kitchen which fed over 600 people a day. Soldiers would bring their clothing to some homes to have the clothing washed and dried.
On April 2, 1864 Petersburg fell and white residents braced for the worst as Union troops marched into town. Black residents flooded into the streets cheering the Union troops and the US Christian Commission set up a relief station to feed the poor. In the years after the war, the white residents chose not to remember the shelling or much of the siege. Rather, they chose to remember June 9 and the defense of the town. I thought Carrie did a wonderful job with her lecture. We learned a great deal and she was a very engaging lecturer.
During dinner we had a Dine-In Discussion. I was in a group with Antwain Hunter discussing the confederate proposal to arm slaves. It was a very good discussion in a free-flowing form with a number of good points made. That evening we were treated to Susannah Ural giving a lecture called “Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: Soldiers, Families, and Morale in 1864” based on her latest book. She talked about a number of soldiers and their families and how the war affected them. Some of them were initially highly enthusiastic about the war and became disillusioned by it. We often hear of the 70% or 80% of Union soldiers who re-enlisted during the war, but Susannah introduced us to some of the 30% or 20% who didn’t, who decided that while they still believed in the Union cause, felt they had done their duty and it was time for others to step up and do their duty. She also talked about another soldier who stayed for the duration of the war and then joined the Freedman’s Bureau afterward, even though his wife was not enthusiastic at all about his participation. This was yet another outstanding lecture, giving us a perspective many of us have not seen before.
This first full day of the conference was an outstanding experience, as we’ve come to expect at the CWI.