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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Aaron Sheehan-Dean on how Civil War observers “didn’t know when the end was coming”

Aaron Sheehan-Dean, author of Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia, recently edited The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It, the final installment in the landmark four-volume series published by The Library of America. Sheehan-Dean is Fred C. Frey Professor of Southern Studies at Louisiana State University.

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

I think readers will be surprised by the continuing uncertainty about the course of the war. The popular Civil War narrative peaks at Gettysburg in July 1863. But the characters who populate this book didn’t know when the end was coming—Confederates remained optimistic and Unionists quite skeptical until very late in 1864. And even when the end did come, people didn’t know what to make of the war. The closing scenes allow us to see how Americans, North and South, tried to work out the war’s meaning, something that we’re continuing to do.

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

In 1864, enslaved people in the South confronted the true risks of seeking freedom. White owners pursued every means to deter their flight, Union officials often proved unhelpful and unreliable, and even the environment seemed to conspire against them: Joseph Miller, an escaped slave from Unionist Kentucky, describes losing his entire family when they were expelled from Camp Nelson in the midst of freezing weather. But despite all of these dangers, southern African Americans fled slavery by the hundreds of thousands. And they did so partly because free men of color, fighting under the U.S. flag, led the way into the South destroying slavery as they went. Thomas Morris Chester’s dispatches covering the U.S. Colored Troops in the Army of the James eloquently argued that this military service earned black people full citizenship in the United States.

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

They remind us of the huge scope and scale of this conflict. The South alone was larger than continental Europe, and although Napoleon crossed more borders in his campaigns I don’t think he encountered a broader range of people than Grant and Sherman did on their campaigns. So while we speak of this as an American conflict, the range of human experience in it was tremendous. That’s part of what makes it eternally fascinating. It would be hard to find two more conflicting views of the war than those between C. Chauncey Burr, an anti-war Democratic newspaper editor, and Wilbur Fisk, a Republican soldier from Vermont. Burr denounced Lincoln for leading “a war against a great principle—the principle of liberty and self-government” while for Fisk, “slavery and despotism have challenged war with us.”

Are there particular writers you grew closer to, or came particularly to admire, while working on the book?

It’s always a treat to find common diarists and letter writers who did not prepare their works for publication but who write with a brilliant pen. Catherine Edmondston, a plantation mistress in North Carolina, is one of those writers whose range of learning, wit, and clever invective should charm even the most skeptical readers. She tracked the armies’ movements carefully, but expended her sharpest barbs for those Confederate politicians whose failures doomed her nation. She thundered against the Richmond Enquirer’s advocacy of enlisting slaves as soldiers in January 1865: “it offers to sell the birthright of the South, not for a mess of pottage, but only for the hope of obtaining one.”

Most interesting discovery you made while assembling the book?

Given the discussion of “big data” these days, I am always surprised to find nineteenth-century Americans who make the most astute judgments based on nothing more than watching and listening. Charles Francis Adams Jr., whose father served as American minister to Great Britain (and whose grandfather and great-grandfather had each served as president), offered one of the sharpest assessments of Ulysses S. Grant ever recorded. Adams’s unit guarded Grant’s field headquarters in 1864 and he regarded Grant as physically undistinguished but uniquely capable at leading the northern armies. “He handles those around him so quietly & well,—he so evidently has the faculty of disposing of work & managing men,” Adams observed. “He is cool & quiet, almost stolid & as if stupid,—in danger & in crisis he is one against whom all around, whether few in number or a great army as here, would instinctively lean. He is a man of the most exquisite judgment & tact.” The pieces in this volume from Adams Jr. and his brother Henry, and father, all bristle with intelligence and wit.

Piece you think readers will find most surprising?

The story of Appomattox is so well known that we assume every northern soldier reacted with euphoria. That’s why Stephen Minot Weld’s letter to his sister always stops me cold. Weld came from a privileged Boston background and retained a skeptical view of his experiences, but his slow comprehension of Lee’s surrender reminds us of how completely the war had swallowed him. “I had a sort of impression that we should fight him all our lives,” Weld wrote. “He was like a ghost to children, something that haunted us so long that we could not realize that he and his army were really out of existence to us.”

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?

I often quote Spottswood Rice when speaking with students about slavery and emancipation. Rice escaped from bondage and set out to reclaim his children. His steadfastness and confidence reveals how radically the war upended the southern social order. He warned the children’s owner, “when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child . . . I have no fears about getting mary out of your hands  this whole Government give chear to me and you cannot help your self.”

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