2017 Civil War Institute Day Two

This was the second day of the CWI. It’s been another great day.

We started off with Professor John Quist of Shippensburg University and Professor Michael Birkner of Gettysburg College speaking on James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War. This was an excellent team talk. Buchanan blamed secession on abolitionists and fire-eaters. Buchanan was a doughface, which was a northern man of southern attitudes. His primary goal was to protect the Democratic Party. An expansionist, Buchanan also made an enemy of Stephen A. Douglas by denying Douglas any patronage and removing Douglas allies from offices he controlled. Buchanan always wound up nodding to the southern perspective on the slavery issue. He pulled out all the stops in supporting the proslavery Lecompton constitution in Kansas. Also, his cabinet wasn’t all that able. Justice John Catron of Tennessee told Buchanan what the outcome of the Dred Scott case would be, and asked that Buchanan convince Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania to vote with the southern justices and Samuel Nelson so it would be seen as a cross-sectional decision. Buchanan was successful in doing this, leading to a 7-2 decision, with two of those in favor being northern justices and the other five being the five southern justices on the court. Ultimately, Buchanan’s actions helped lead to the breakup of the Democratic Party in 1860. Buchanan, we learned, was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You can see the presentation here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?429295-2/president-james-buchanan-southern-secession

Next up was John Marszalek, Professor of History Emeritus at Mississippi State University, on Major General Henry W. Halleck. This was another great presentation. Halleck was considered the leading military thinker of the time. He organized the successful Union military maneuvers in the West and he saved Sherman for the Union. On the other side he almost lost Grant for the Union. His capture of Corinth was considered so important his soldiers nicknamed him “Old Brains.” Halleck was involved in every major military decision and played a major role both militarily and politically. No military man was as central to the Civil War’s outcome as Halleck. His career before the war was highly successful, but during the war he was seen as a failure. Why? There are a number of theories. Professor Marszalek investigated whether Halleck had Graves’ Disease or Mercury Poisoning, and decided on Hemochromatosis, an iron retention problem. He also had terrible psychological problems as a result of his dysfunctional relationship with his father.

You can see this presentation here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?429295-5/union-general-henry-halleck

Next up was T. J. Stiles, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, speaking on “The Trials of George Armstrong Custer.” He told us going into the Civil War, America was a romantic, sentimental society, not very technical, and not very organized. After the Civil War, the country will become more technical, more organized, less romantic, and less sentimental. It is, then, a transitional time. Custer received professional training at West Point, at a time when only 1% of white American men went to college. Custer was a romantic figure there, pulling several pranks and being described as “boyish” and “trifling.” He was court-martialed shortly after graduation for not breaking up a fight between two cadets, and he received a letter of reprimand. Custer joined the Army of the Potomac on the Peninsula and was assigned to the topographical engineers where he performed duty scouting ahead of the lines, even being one of the first officers to rise in a balloon and be an aerial observer. He participated in the Newbridge Raid and had a daring role, leading him to be selected to be on Major General George B. McClellan’s staff. He rose steadily due to a combination of merit, knowledge, and patronage. Custer was a Democrat, from a Democrat family. His father was from Maryland. Custer had a close cultural and political affinity for the South. McClellan’s departure in late 1862 left Custer without a patron, and he finds a second one in Alfred Pleasonton. He was on Pleasonton’s staff when he participated in the battle of Aldie on June 17, 1863. Custer is a talented fighter and has personal skill fighting with the saber and the revolver. Pleasonton got permission from Major General George G. Meade to replace some of his brigade commanders, and one of those elevated was George A. Custer. He shows up at the Battle of Hanover, his first day in command. He’s in combat. He deployed his men on foot to make use of their Spencer rifles. On July 3, he disobeys his division commander, Hugh J. Kilpatrick’s, orders to return to him and stays with Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg and participates in the fight on East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg against JEB Stuart’s cavalry. He deployed his men in a skirmish line and led several counter-charges. Custer was aggressive, but he wasn’t foolish or rash. On July 14, at Falling Waters, he’s ordered to charge by Kilpatrick, even though he doesn’t want to make the attack. The 6th Michigan Cavalry is cut to pieces. Custer never became disillusioned during the Civil War due to the role he filled. His old romantic ideals are reinforced. He hired Eliza Brown, a black formerly enslaved teenager, as his cook. She transforms herself into his household manager. She intercedes for the men with Custer. In this way, Custer deals with the reality of slavery. He marries Libbie Bacon in February of 1864. She comes to camp expecting to manage his household and finds Lizzie there. Even though they like each other, the two have a struggle for power over the household. Custer tried to build support with Republican congressmen like Francis Kellogg, and to that end sent Libbie to Washington to build that influence. In the 1864 Election he distanced himself from McClellan and spoke out for Lincoln, which alienated him from his father. Custer wants to win the war, and doesn’t think the Democrats can do that if they’re elected. At Third Winchester, he becomes a household name and has a new patron, Major General Philip H. Sheridan. In Reconstruction, Custer is in Texas and takes part in the adjudication of the murder of a slave girl. He has troubles with his troops because he retaliates outrageously against minor infractions and the troops are poorly paid. Desertion rates climb. Custer gets involved with Andrew Johnson on his infamous “Swing Around the Circle,” appearing on the platform with Johnson. In 1867 he is court-martialed again. His last patron is William T. Sherman, who gets him reinstated on active duty in time to participate in the Little Big Horn campaign. This was a really outstanding presentation.

You can see this presentation here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?429295-4/general-george-armstrong-custers-trials

After lunch we had concurrent sessions. Professor Earl Hess was in the main lecture area. His session was on confederate general Braxton Bragg. You can see his session here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?429295-3/confederate-general-braxton-bragg

I attended Professor Ken Noe’s session. Ken, a fellow Hokie, is a Professor of History at Auburn University. His session was on “Reluctant Rebels,” considering those soldiers who joined the confederate army in 1862 and after. He considered three types of motivation: initial motivation, which is what caused them to enter the army; sustaining motivation, which is what kept them in the army; and combat motivation, which is what made them willing to fight and possibly die.

He found these “reluctant rebels” made up 46.5% of the confederates. Of these, there were 120,000 conscripts, or 15% of the confederates (compared with 46,000 Union conscripts); there were 70,000 confederate substitutes, or 9% of the confederates (compared with 118,000 Union substitutes); and there were 180,000 confederate late enlistees, or 22.5% of the confederates (compared with 1.3 million Union late enlistees, a number that included 180,000 African American soldiers).

In looking at motivations, he found that 61 of his sample of 320 soldiers, or 19%, were motivated by ideology. So a relatively small number were ideologically motivated, which included country (32 soldiers), revolution (9), independence (29), tyranny (15), subjugation (17), states rights (12), and duty (14). There were 92 soldiers who were slave holders or the sons of slave holders. That’s 31% of them. Of these, 8 said they specifically enlisted for slavery and 67 specifically said they were supporting slavery, compared to only 2 who wished it would go away. In their writings, they talked about slaves in camps who were abused, killed, or lynched. In no case did they write about African Americans as comrades.

Other motivations included hatred of Yankees (55 or 17%), collecting a bounty (35 or 11%), the draft, and substitutes. By February of 1862 the confederacy was running out of volunteers and had to resort to conscription.

In looking at sustaining and combat motivation, he found religion identified by 122 soldiers (38%), supporting their comrades identified by 82 soldiers (26%), unit pride by 38 soldiers (12%) and combat by 91 soldiers (29%).

In summarizing his findings, Professor Noe told us they didn’t fight for ideology, states rights, or “The Cause.” They fought for family, localism, property, and slavery. Home permeated their motivations, and even the bounty men took the bounties and the pay to support those at home. This was yet another excellent presentation.

At the next concurrent session, Fiona Deans Halloran, who teaches US History at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City, Utah, gave a presentation on political cartoonist Thomas Nast. You can see that presentation here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?429295-6/political-cartoonist-thomas-nast

I attended the session conducted by Professor Rachel A. Sheldon of the University of Oklahoma, and her session was called “Washington Brotherhood: Politics, Social Life, and the Coming of the Civil War.” She said there was an official space in Washington and an unofficial space, and most of the policy making happened in the unofficial space where intersectional interaction was common. The men lived, ate, worshipped, and drank together. There were three consequences of this: real political discussions generally happened in social settings; it gave politicians different understanding of events like Preston Brooks’ caning of Charles Sumner, than the rest of the country had; and it gave them a view of the American Union that gave them a different perspective on the sectional crisis than other Americans had. Much of what politicians said on the Floor of the House and the Senate was “bunkum speechmaking,” which wasn’t for their colleagues, but instead was geared for consumption by their constituents back home. There was a lot of sectional interaction due to boarding arrangements and social engagements. Congressmen from all sections lived together in boarding houses and hotels, and if in private residences they were neighbors. The city had an active social calendar, and congressmen from all sections were invited. This was a really outstanding discussion.

In the final presentation before dinner, Barton Myers of Washington and Lee University gave a presentation on Robert E. Lee on the Front Lines of Battle. In this he discussed the five “Lee to the Rear” episodes: one at the Wilderness, three at Spotsylvania, and one at Saylor’s Creek. You can see that presentation here: https://www.c-span.org/video/?429295-7/battles-robert-e-lee

At dinner I participated in a dine-in discussion with Professor Lorien Foote of Texas A&M University on retaliation during the war. She’s researching this subject for her next book, and we had a very good and enjoyable group discussion. We came to the conclusion the purpose of retaliation threats was to limit the destruction in war and to draw lines beyond which the two sides didn’t want to go.

After dinner there was a terrific panel discussion on William Tecumseh Sherman with Ken Noe, Brooks Simpson, John Marszalek, and Earl Hess, moderated by Pete Carmichael. While there wasn’t much new brought out, it was still an excellent discussion touching on Sherman’s need for the order he wanted to have imposed, his poor use of tactics, his strategic vision, and the way the lost cause myth perverted his memory. Fortunately the lost cause view is dying out and comparatively few people are ill-informed enough to still hold to that view.

The last presentation of the day saw Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University discussing the dreams Civil War soldiers wrote home about. These included dreams of their wives ignoring them, no longer loving them, and being unfaithful to them, as well as romantic dreams of their wives and other women as well.

This was an excellent day, and left us hungry for the next day to start.

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4 comments

  1. Ken Noe · · Reply

    Thanks for the kind assessment, Al.

    1. I call them like I see them, Ken. 🙂

  2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    I want to give a little shout-out to the staff of CWI for including the segment on dreams. Why? Because it is precisely the sort of topic matter that a hard-core, linear-thinking scientist such as myself would have run screaming in the night to avoid. I detest psychology….normally. However, I somehow found this presentation by Johnathan White, endearing. It helped to humanize the very same soldier that I am mostly comfortable dealing with in military histories and battles — ORs & private letters are my game. Sometimes one must be dragged kicking and screaming beyond the comfort zone, and it this case, the experience was rewarding.

    1. Pete and his staff do a great job in bringing scholars who are doing interesting work to the attention of the CWI attendees.

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