2016 Bridgewater College Civil War Institute

On Saturday, April 16, I attended the 2016 Bridgewater College Civil War Institute in Bridgewater, Virginia. It was another excellent program. The symposium’s theme was “Civil War Memory and Memorialization.”

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The program kicked off with Professor Peter Wallenstein, Professor of History at Virginia Tech. He spoke on “Remembering Reconstruction–And All the Ways It Never Was.” He began with some quotes from Senator Harry Byrd, who called the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education the “greatest internal crisis since the War Between the States,” and the “worst blow [to the South] since Reconstruction.” In 1958, massive resistance to desegregation was at its height. Massive resistance was the movement to close public schools instead of integrating them. Byrd said the election that year was the “most important election we’ve had in Virginia since the days of Reconstruction.” He then talked about Samuel Wilbert Tucker, one of the forgotten heroes of the Civil Rights Movement in Virginia. He said Tucker’s father, speaking to Tucker, had spoken of life for African-Americans “before they Jim Crowed us.” Jim Crow’s basic contents were segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans. “Before they Jim Crowed us,” then, refers to Reconstruction. Tucker, according to Professor Wallenstein, was animated by the sense of what had been and could come back. His opponents, however, were animated by the sense of what had been and the determination that it never be allowed to come back. Professor Wallenstein then spoke about various interpretations of Reconstruction, beginning with Woodrow Wilson’s. Wilson wrote a great deal of fiction about Reconstruction, albeit unintentionally. When he wrote about Reconstruction he made claims such as Reconstruction should not have happened, that if Lincoln had lived, things would have been far different, that Reconstruction consisted of “negro domination” of the Southern states, and that after Reconstruction the “true citizens” retrieved control of their states. Another interpretation was Thomas Dixon Jr.’s. Dixon was a novelist who turned his novel on the KKK into a stage play, with thunderous applause when the KKK appeared on stage. Dixon’s novels depicted African-Americans as lust-crazed animals who sought to rape white women and depicted the KKK as heroic defenders of white women’s virtue. The theatrical presentations proved to be very powerful teaching tools, and they influenced popular memory of Reconstruction. Professor Wallenstein told us Professor Eric Foner’s view was that Reconstruction was primarily about the rights of African-Americans. Professor Wallenstein’s view is that the white Republicans who framed the 14th Amendment were afraid of the 3/5 Clause and its effects after the end of slavery. With freedom to African-Americans, the population of black Americans in the South would be counted at a 5/5 level, not 3/5 of enslaved people. This would effectively reward the South for their rebellion. The power of Republicans to keep their policies in place was the central point of Reconstruction, according to Professor Wallenstein. He said to achieve that power, African-Americans had to be enfranchised. Professor Wallenstein had some good points, and he had some good information for us, but his presentation was disjointed and difficult to follow, and he tended to leave out some details that would allow us to do further research on his points, such as citations for court cases he mentioned during the presentation.

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Waite Rawls, Founding co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum, gave a presentation based on Professor Carolyn Janney’s book, Burying the Dead But Not the Past, about the Ladies’ Memorial Associations in the South after the war. These associations were the seeds of feminism in the South. They found and reburied over 72,000 confederate soldiers. They’re responsible for Memorial Day, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Museum of the Confederacy, and countless statues around the South. The biggest group was in Richmond, headed by the wife of George Wythe Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s grandson. The group engaged in political acts as well, and the ladies could say things men could never get away with saying. There were actually three in Richmond, one for Oakwood Cemetery, one for Hollywood Cemetery, and one for the Jewish Cemetery. This was a pretty good presentation and we learned much about these associations.

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Next up was John Coski of the American Civil War Museum. He gave us a history of the confederate battle flag and its display.

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We learned in the 1940s a journalist infiltrated the KKK and reported on its use of the confederate flag in its rituals.

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We also found out the flag appeared in popular culture beginning around 1948, including some highly questionable uses:

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African-Americans have been denouncing use of the flag from the 1940s. It’s not a new thing, unlike what many people believe.

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The final presentation featured Professor Elizabeth Varon of the University of Virginia on “Legacies of Appomattox: Lee’s Surrender in History and Memory.” This was based on her excellent book, Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War. She talked about how there was a myth of a gentleman’s agreement at Appomattox, and that there was a contest over its meaning. Lee sought to turn military defeat into a moral victory. He looked on the surrender as a negotiation to secure honorable terms for his blameless men, and signified a victory of might over right. Continued peace, in Lee’s view, depended on the North’s good behavior. Grant, on the other hand, saw it not as a negotiation, but rather as a military victory. His view was that Lee had no cards to play. The surrender, to Grant, was to effect the confederates’ repentance, and to him continued peace was contingent on the South’s good behavior. The two views were completely incompatible. Lee used the term “restoration,” which was the favorite theme of the Peace Democrats, meaning restoring the Union as it was. Lee was looking to restore the South to the prosperity of its halcyon days before the abolitionists imbued African-Americans with “false hopes” of freedom and equality. He had no illusions about keeping slavery, but Lee wanted to retain the racial hierarchy. Lee’s farewell to his troops was a political statement. It was an attempt to discredit the Northern victory. Lee was implying Union troops were not equal to the confederates. A major point was the use of the term, “not to be disturbed” by the United States as long as the confederates observed the laws in force. The Union perception was this was a reminder to the confederates of their obligations as paroled prisoners. The confederate perception was that it imposed conditions on the North. In an interview with the New York Herald, Lee warned that if harsh conditions were imposed the confederates could resume fighting. Immediately after the war, Lee was not a symbol of submission but instead was a symbol of measured defiance. Grant rejected the confederate viewpoint. He sought a confession of wrongdoing. Vindication was Grant’s key term. Surrender vindicated Grant and the Union Army. Many Union soldiers felt they had been the underdogs, and they attributed their victory to their superhuman efforts and the influence of Providence. The confederates believed any demand for change was inherently punitive. In a May 1866 interview, Grant was deeply disappointed by Lee’s behavior, and said he had been “behaving badly.” According to Grant, Lee was setting an example of “forced acquiescence and grudging acceptance.” Grant read into Lee’s actions an attempt to denigrate the Union victory. A third perspective was that of African-Americans. It ushered in a new era for them. It was a vindication of black freedom and racial justice. African-Americans were present at Appomattox as both liberators and liberated. To them, it was the culmination of a long struggle, and April 9, 1865 was considered the real moment of emancipation. It was the long-awaited moment of deliverance. Lee came closest to confessing the truth of being militarily defeated in an April 20, 1865 letter to Jefferson Davis in which he wrote, “The apprehensions I expressed during the winter, of the moral [sic] condition of the Army of Northern Virginia, have been realized.   The operations which occurred while the troops were in the entrenchments in front of Richmond and Petersburg were not marked by the boldness and decision which formerly characterized them.   Except in particular instances, they were feeble; and a want of confidence seemed to possess officers and men.   This condition, I think, was produced by the state of feeling in the country, and the communications received by the men from their homes, urging their return and the abandonment of the field.   The movement of the enemy on the 30th March to Dinwiddie Court House was consequently not as strongly met as similar ones had been.   Advantages were gained by him which discouraged the troops, so that on the morning of the 2d April, when our lines between the Appomattox and Hatcher’s Run were assaulted, the resistance was not effectual:   several points were penetrated and large captures made.   At the commencement of the withdrawal of the army from the lines on the night of the 2d, it began to disintegrate, and straggling from the ranks increased up to the surrender on the 9th.   On that day, as previously reported, there were only seven thousand eight hundred and ninety-two (7892) effective infantry.   During the night, when the surrender became known, more than ten thousand men came in, as reported to me by the Chief Commissary of the Army.   During the succeeding days stragglers continued to give themselves up, so that on the 12th April, according to the rolls of those paroled, twenty-six thousand and eighteen (26,018) officers and men had surrendered.   Men who had left the ranks on the march, and crossed James River, returned and gave themselves up, and many have since come to Richmond and surrendered.   I have given these details that Your Excellency might know the state of feeling which existed in the army, and judge of that in the country.   From what I have seen and learned, I believe an army cannot be organized or supported in Virginia, and as far as I know the condition of affairs, the country east of the Mississippi is morally and physically unable to maintain the contest unaided with any hope of ultimate success.   A partisan war may be continued, and hostilities protracted, causing individual suffering and the devastation of the country, but I see no prospect by that means of achieving a separate independence.   It is for Your Excellency to decide, should you agree with me in opinion, what is proper to be done.   To save useless effusion of blood, I would recommend measures be taken for suspension of hostilities and the restoration of peace.”

You can see other examples of Professor Varon’s discussing the surrender here and here.

The symposium, as usual, was an excellent experience, and I’m already looking forward to next year’s symposium.

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4 comments

    1. My pleasure, Rea.

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    There is such a density of information here, that I may have to take notes on your notes! My Reconstruction studies have centered around the classic beginning/ending dates of 1860’s – 1877, so this contemporary overview was a nice addition. Furthermore, the last section is a herculean note taking effort that suggests that Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War.must be an excellent book. Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

    1. Thanks. The book is really terrific.

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