Think Anew, Write Anew

One of the characteristics of much (although not all) writing on the American Civil War is the tendency to rehash the same old arguments and repeat the same old narrative lines. To be sure, novelty for novelty’s sake is not always a good idea, in that the outrageous and the outlandish often become mere distractions. But in a career marked by reading and writing, it is interesting how at time we spend so little time thinking … and I mean thinking long, hard, and deep about what we do and how we do it. I fear that at times we’ve lost the ability to look at sources with fresh eyes, to read them or look at them freed of as much baggage as we bring to our work.

Sometimes the result appears to be a minor revision. Looking hard at the story of Ulysses S. Grant’s purported “bender” on the Yazoo during the Vicksburg campaign, it took me some time to make sense of what most probably happened and why, in part due to coming across a revealing passage in a draft biography of Grant by James H. Wilson and in part by looking at some correspondence that mentioned Grant’s ill health prior to the famed June 6, 1863 boat ride. That, along with a fresh reading of John A. Rawlins’s letter of that same day, led me to conclude that Grant was ill, took a few drinks to feel better (as others had advised him to do), and got drunk. That narrative reconciled a great deal of evidence, but the fresh reading of the Rawlins letter also suggested that there had been a previous report of drunkenness in March 1863, perhaps the very report that John A. McClernand sought to exploit when he sent a crony to speak with Lincoln on the subject of Grant’s personal habits. Perhaps this is of little interest to anyone not deeply interested in Grant’s life, but the stories about the Yazoo bender and its significance have formed an interesting theme in a number of Grant biographies.

Sometimes the revision is a bit more telling. I’m sure folks have heard that after Shiloh, Abraham Lincoln told a Pennsylvania politico pressing for Grant’s removal that “I can’t spare this man: he fights!” This story forms a key component of the traditional narrative about Lincoln’s steadfast support of Grant throughout the conflict. The trouble is that absolutely nothing else in the original tale checks out: Alexander McClure’s story can be contested by documentation in so many areas that no one sensitive to the use of evidence would continue to embrace the tale, although some unapologetic admirers of Grant can’t pry themselves loose from the quote, because its appeal is so overwhelming.

And yet all of this remains small potatoes compared to rethinking really important issues. Properly understood, I’m a Civil War and Reconstruction historian (among other scholarly and professional identities). As such, I’ve come to question the boundaries we draw between these two events, and I’d say that in a larger sense we err in separating them in the first place. I’ve argued that Reconstruction begins during the secession winter of 1860-61, in that any reestablishment of the American republic as a unified whole would have entailed some sort of negotiated institutional reconstruction. I also think that dating the end of the war as the spring of 1865 (as if Lincoln unfurled a banner across the White House on April 10 declaring “Mission Accomplished”) distorts the fact that in many ways Reconstruction established what the war really achieved, and that coercion and violence were fundamental in that process. Sure, the cause of Confederate independence was extinguished, but the principles for which white Southerners joined the Confederacy were not, and if the war destroyed slavery, what emerged afterwards defined what freedom meant.

Let’s put it this way: how many of you have read James M. McPherson’s classic narrative of the war (and the coming of the war), Battle Cry of Freedom? That book ends in 1865. How would the narrative change if it went to, say, 1877? How would the title sound then?

Comments (7) to “Think Anew, Write Anew”

  1. I’m very sympathetic with your point about viewing the Civil War and Reconstruction within a single frame, at least some of the time. That’s one of the most valuable things about Wille Lee Rose’s classic work, Rehearsal for Reconstruction.

    Another way of pushing on the boundaries of our historiographical frames for the Civil War and Reconstruction is to pursue more transnational ways of thinking about the period. I think there are enough histories now being written in this vein to begin to think of the period between 1848 and 1877 as a second Age of Revolution in the Atlantic World, although one with results that were more mixed (or as mixed?) as the first one that stretched from the 1770s to the 1790s.

  2. Might the more recent trend of studying Reconstruction and the war itself concurrently be linked to increased study of the West and Trans-Mississippi theaters? After all, it was in these areas that major state political and economic power centers (ex. New Orleans, Nashville) were captured very early in the war by Union forces. This forced political leaders to think about practical post-war reintegration/reconstruction issues even as the end of the war overall was not in sight. A more eastern-centric view doesn’t address these issues until the war was almost over.

  3. Brooks:

    Is it unreasonable to view the Grand Review as the Civil War’s
    “Mission Accomplished” moment? The enemy regime was destroyed
    politically and militarily, but then a new phase in the
    struggle commenced.

    (Also, I suspect that if James McPherson were to carry his
    narrative beyond 1865 the title would sound something like
    “Ordeal By Fire”.)

  4. Ethan,

    I think that’s an apt analogy. Anthony Cordesman suggested something very like it in an October 2004 lecture. See this blog post, which introduces the lecture and contains a link to the whole thing.

  5. The April 10 date was a deliberate choice for many reasons, given Lincoln’s address on Reconstruction on April 11.
    Indeed, the Grand Review does mark the end to one stage of the conflict, and perhaps the only stage that counted for
    those who saw the war as one of reunion and restoration. We should be wiser in retrospect, however, and there were
    enough people who were wise at the time. In that sense I think Lincoln was wiser than most in seeing Reconstruction
    as integral to the conflict, even if I also believe he was just starting to come to grips with the notion of what
    freedom meant (which is why I find frustrating the speculation about “what had Lincoln lived?”).

  6. Have you given any thought to revising America’s Civil War for Harlan Davidson to
    include discussion of Reconstruction as a continuation of the conflict?

  7. Ethan–

    Given the traditional chopping of textbooks, the most I could do in the text would be to offer
    a page or two of reflection on this.

    I’d rather give the reconceptualization notion center stage, and combine it with another way
    to reconceptualize the period as a testing of traditional institutional ways of governance and
    conflict resolution. We like to think of Americans as not resorting to violence but working
    “through the system,” but the period of the 1840s through the 1880s shows that Americans were not
    always willing to pursue peaceful political solutions or accept existing institutional structures
    as legitimate. Not all of this action was directly connected to the sectional crisis, as the Dorr
    Rebellion and the chaos in Maine in 1880 suggest. Link that to redefining the polity and considering
    the proper scope of government sets the war and reconstruction into a broader context.