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Friday, July 26, 2013

Brooks D. Simpson on the “roller coaster of emotions” during the Civil War’s pivotal year

Brooks D. Simpson, author of six books (including Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph over Adversity, 1822–1865), spoke with us recently about The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It, the latest entry in the critically acclaimed LOA series on the Civil War.

What are the major turning points of the Civil War covered in this third volume?

This volume covers January 1863 to March 1864, the period that marked the final effort of the Confederates to undertake significant offensive operations. These efforts ended in failure at Gettysburg and in the aftermath of Chickamauga. The volume also marks the rise of Ulysses S. Grant to high command. His triumphs at Vicksburg and Chattanooga made him an obvious choice to direct Union military operations in 1864. Americans white and black, North and South, felt the revolutionary impact of the emancipation and enlistment of African Americans, even as dissent, dissatisfaction, and in some cases outright resistance to government policies such as conscription also increased.

What does the experience of reading these contemporary, firsthand eyewitness accounts offer readers that standard narrative histories don't, particularly with regard to this third year of the war?

Readers encounter events much as did the people who described what was happening: no one quite knows what is going to happen next. There’s speculation about the future, misinformation about the present, and a sense of anxiety and exhaustion as people come to terms with the notion that a decisive victory on the battlefield that might bring an end to the conflict remains a long way off.

What does the volume tell us about the role of African Americans in the war?

If the story of 1862 is Abraham Lincoln’s slow but steady journey toward issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, the story of 1863 is how African Americans were active agents in securing their freedom and defining what it meant. At a time when white enlistments were sagging and people protested the implementation of conscription, black Americans did what they could to ensure that what Lincoln called “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” included them among “the people” who would secure and define that “new birth of freedom.” At Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend, and Fort Wagner, black soldiers staked a claim not only for freedom but also for equality.

What do the pieces about the homefront tell us about the diversity of experiences and outlooks in the North and the South?

Americans at home experienced a roller coaster of emotions in 1863. One sees hope giving way to despair when news comes of another battlefield setback, while even the most joyous exultations welcoming news of a victory are soon tempered by the realization that the end is still not in sight. Women and children work hard to make ends meet in the absence of husbands and fathers, always in fear that they may never see their loved one again. By the end of 1863 people on both sides are beginning to wonder whether the war will ever end and whether the struggle is worth the cost.

Which piece do you think readers will find most surprising?

Contemporary American readers will find that their concerns often echo those of the Americans in this book. Both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis struggled to justify administration policies against an increasing tide of dissent which at times erupted in violence as in the Richmond bread riots in April or the New York City draft riots in July. How does one balance freedom with security? When does dissent become disloyalty, and who makes that call? What happens when a war for freedom compromises freedoms?

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

Abraham Lincoln’s letter to James C. Conkling and his fellow Illinois supporters of the Union in August 1863 represents his most direct statement yet about the war now being waged, and he offers as blunt a defense of emancipation as one would ever see. I especially like the penultimate paragraph, which offered Americans the following pointed reminder about the legacy of preserving the Union:

It will then have been proved that, among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost. And then, there will be some black men who can remember that, with silent tongue, and clenched teeth, and steady eye, and well-poised bayonet, they have helped mankind on to this great consummation; while, I fear, there will be some white ones, unable to forget that, with malignant heart, and deceitful speech, they have strove to hinder it.

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