2015 Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College Day One

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This year’s summer conference of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College was, as always, an outstanding experience. The conference began on Friday, June 19 in the College Union Building Ballroom at Gettysburg College, and it concluded with the arrival of the buses returning attendees from our two-day tours of the Richmond/Petersburg/Appomattox area. As usual, it had a number of attendees who were older, but it also had attendees who were high school and college students, some in their twenties and thirties, some in their forties and fifties, and a few African-Americans as well. You can see the CWI’s photo gallery here.

After a welcome from CWI Director Peter Carmichael, we were treated to an overview of the War in 1865 by Aaron Sheehan-Dean of LSU. He told us the Federals instituted a strategy of exhaustion which led to victory. The Federals didn’t win because they had superior resources. They won because they used their superior resources effectively. Even so, it took years for them to design a strategy for victory. Divisions existed within the confederacy as well. Taxes weren’t popular, though the redistribution they allowed benefited many folks. Black southerners provided support for Union troops. Along with those confederate divisions, the Union side had its own divisions. The Democrats marshaled resistance to the Lincoln administration. Dissent was prominent but not determinant for both sides. During his talk, Aaron identified some pivot points during the war: Seven Pines, Antietam, Gettysburg/Vicksburg, the Atlanta campaign, the 1864 election, and especially the trifecta of the Fall of Atlanta, Mobile Bay, and Sheridan’s victories in the Shenandoah Valley. Diehard rebels, though, remained in power in the confederacy, relying on chutzpah and rumor to sustain themselves through the winter of 1865. Jefferson Davis and R. E. Lee, though, knew more was needed to sustain the army, and this led to the revolutionary policy to enlist slaves as soldiers. The confederate congress, though, couldn’t bring themselves to mandate emancipation as part of the enlistment legislation. It fell to Davis to add the proviso for emancipation to the administrative instructions for carrying out that enlistment. The Union, meanwhile, projected a posture of determination and capacity. Sherman was a juggernaut going through the Carolinas. The Army of Northern Virginia suffered up to 100 deserters per night in February and March, a sign the soldiers were recognizing the war was over. Lincoln’s visit to Richmond sent the public message the war was ending, and the erosion of Lee’s army during his retreat sealed its fate at Appomattox. Coastal South Carolina and Georgia became test cases for land redistribution. Sherman issued Special Field Orders #15 in January of 1865 providing land that had been abandoned by their owners to freed slaves. Sherman most likely did this to relieve his army of the burden of caring for them, but also due to a meeting he had with representatives of freed slaves. Andrew Johnson, though, pardoned the planters and let them reclaim their land. The war seriously retarded southern economic growth for decades and allowed northern corporations to build on their strengths, providing good wages and low unemployment. There were also cultural changes. Sectional animosities hardened because deprivation and loss welded white southerners together, along with fear and anger over racial changes taking place. There was a profound crisis in southern masculinity as southern women were forced to assimilate new responsibilities in the war and wanted stability afterward. The war’s results confirmed northern masculinity and prompted northern women to push for more change. It also destroyed the fantasy of the loyal slave. After the war there were increasingly violent efforts by southern whites to control southern blacks. The Civil War had changed almost everything. It transformed old problems of slavery and state rights into modern problems of racism and federalism.

Aaron’s excellent presentation was followed by a conversation between Pete Carmichael and James M. McPherson regarding the anniversary of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Battle Cry of Freedom, with Prof. McPherson discussing how the book came about and providing insights into what he learned through his research. It was an interesting conversation.

That ended the first day of the conference. It was terrific to see everyone again and to begin an intensive immersion into the Civil War once again.

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