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?