BookChat with David Silkenat, author of Raising the White Flag

Raising the White Flag-coverI was pleased to spend some time recently with a new book by historian David Silkenat, senior lecturer of American history at the University of Edinburgh. Silkenat is the author of Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the Civil War, published in last year by the University of North Carolina Press (click here for more info). Prof. Silkenat was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about the book.

1) People quickly identify Fort Sumter as the place where the war started, but you twist that in its head a little by pointing out that it’s the site of the first surrender (the first in a long series of surrenders, actually). That shift in thinking seems like a pretty cool invitation to readers to think about this whole topic in a different way. Can you comment on that?

Silkenat headshot
David Silkenat (photo courtesy of White Dog Photography)

Fort Sumter was very important in establishing the template for when surrender was appropriate and honorable.  Major Robert Anderson surrendered after 34 hours of bombardment, with the fort on fire, and with no reasonable chance of retreat, reinforcements, or victory. He knew that continuing to fight would only lead to the death of the men under his command. Both Union and Confederate observers concluded that Anderson did the right thing—he was praised as a brave hero in newspapers across the country. When Anderson and his men went to New York after the surrender, the city held an enormous rally to honor them.

Nearly all of the surrenders who came later—Ft. Donelson, Vicksburg, Appomattox Courthouse (and dozens more that I describe in the book)—met the Fort Sumter rubric: the surrendering force had taken fire and had exhausted all other avenues before choosing to raise the white flag. While no one liked surrendering, choosing not to fight under such condition was considered honorable. There are a handful of surrenders that didn’t meet this standard, and they prompted significant public outrage. Probably the best example of this is the 1862 surrender at Harpers Ferry—the largest Union surrender of the war—when they raised the white flag before many of the soldiers had an opportunity to fire their weapons.

While Fort Sumter is often seen as the start of the war, it actually wasn’t the first surrender. In early 1861, there are a series of Union military installations in the South that surrendered to Confederates. The most important of these (and now largely forgotten) was Gen. David Twiggs’ surrender in San Antonio in February 1861.  Without firing a shot, Twiggs surrendered his entire command, which included 19 forts and 2,600 soldiers—15% of the entire pre-war army. Branded as a traitor across the North, Twiggs became the template for dishonorable surrender, a kind of mirror image of Robert Anderson.

2) The publisher’s blurb says the book looks at “the conflicting social, political, and cultural meanings” of surrender. That must have presented a pretty tangled landscape for you to sort through. What was that challenge like?

Surrender was a loaded term in the nineteenth century, much as it is today. It had connotations of cowardice and weakness. In the 1850s, both abolitionists and fire-eaters said they would never surrender their values. Yet, military officials understood surrender as a part of civilized warfare. They believed that war should be fought according to rules.  One of those rules was that you should accept the surrender of an enemy and treat prisoners with dignity.

In tracing the different ways in which Americans talked about surrender, I was struck by how often modern political leaders claim that Americans never surrender. President Kennedy said so during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Every major and minor politician since then has uttered something similar, including Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush, Obama, McCain, and Trump. Obviously, these are men who agree on very little, but they all subscribe to the idea that Americans never surrender. Yet, people from the Civil War era had a more nuanced and complex relationship with the idea of surrender.  They understood that surrender was often the best option available.

3) You say roughly one in four soldiers surrendered at some point during the conflict. Did that affect attitudes about having to surrender over time?

Surrendering was once of the most common shared experiences soldiers had. By the end of the war, most soldiers on both sides had some experience with surrender, either surrendering themselves or accepting the surrender of an enemy.

For the most part, Civil War soldiers didn’t stigmatize surrender. Whether they were surrendered by their commanding officer or chose to surrender on the battlefield, they understood that surrender was preferable to dying needlessly in combat.  Soldiers who surrendered on the battlefield—throwing down their weapons and raising their arms—were rarely accused of cowardice. Indeed, the soldiers most likely to surrender were often the bravest ones in their regiment. They were the first to advance and the last to retreat. That’s how they ended up close enough to the enemy to surrender. When they were paroled and exchanged, many of these men were promoted, an indication that surrender didn’t tarnish their reputation.

4) “Unconditional surrender” ended up defining U. S. Grant, although he didn’t always stick to that framework as the war went on. How important do you think that title was for him in the grand scheme?

The nickname stuck more because of his initials than his conduct. Grant was involved in three major surrenders—Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Appomattox Courthouse—only in the first of which did he demand unconditional surrender. That was for very practical reasons: Confederate soldiers were fleeing the fort at night, escaping across the Cumberland, and Grant wanted to make sure that when he took the fort that there was still a garrison to surrender.

At Vicksburg and Appomattox Courthouse, Grant did not demand unconditional surrender. He negotiated with both Pemberton and Lee and offered generous terms in both cases. Part of Grant’s military genius was that he understood how to use surrender effectively. He recognized that if he could compel Confederates to surrender, it would not only help the Union cause, but save a lot of lives on both sides. Imagine the death toll if Grant’s forces had assaulted fortified positions at Fort Donelson and Vicksburg, or if Appomattox Courthouse had been the site of a massive final battle rather than a surrender.

If anyone deserves to be associated with unconditional surrender during the Civil War, it’s not Grant, but Nathan Bedford Forrest. As I describe in the book, Forrest repeatedly demanded unconditional surrender and threatened to massacre enemy soldiers if his offer was rejected. Sometimes he did this as a bluff—demanding surrender when he had fewer soldiers. Many folks are familiar with Forrest’s conduct at Fort Pillow—where his soldiers killed USCT soldiers who were trying to surrender—but Fort Pillow was only one of more than a dozen times when Forrest demanded unconditional surrender.

5) You point out that surrender was markedly different for whites who fought than it was for blacks who fought. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

White soldiers had reasonable expectations that they would be well treated if they surrendered, especially during the first half of the conflict. From the beginning of the war, they believed that offers to surrender would be accepted and that as prisoners they would receive housing and shelter. In 1862, the implementation of the Dix-Hill prisoner exchange system meant that white soldiers would only briefly be held as prisoners before being patrolled and exchanged, which made surrender an attractive option when the alternative was dying on the battlefield. In 1863, the Lieber Code laid out clear guidelines for the treatment of surrendered soldiers.

None of these benefits extended to black USCT soldiers. The Confederacy did not consider African Americans to be legitimate soldiers and would not extend prisoner of war protections to them. In theory, Confederate policy was to enslave captured black soldiers. In practice, they were often killed—we have many accounts of Confederates slaughtering surrendering black soldiers at Fort Pillow, Plymouth, Milliken’s Bend, Olustee, and other battles. In some battles, like the Crater, USCT soldiers concluded that since Confederates wouldn’t let them surrender, they were under no obligation to accept the surrender of rebel soldiers. Part of the reason why battles like the Crater were so brutal is that both sides realized that surrender wasn’t an option.

The Confederacy’s refusal to extend prisoner of war rights to USCT soldiers had significant consequences for all soldiers. It was the major reason why the Dix-Hill prisoner exchange system broke down. Its collapse is what set the stage for the prison crisis of 1864, as surrendered soldiers faced the prospect of an indefinite confinement in an overcrowded prison. It led directly to the horrific conditions in Andersonville and Elmira, both of which only opened after prisoner exchange collapsed.

6) The war didn’t end with the neat and tidy surrender at Appomattox. How important do you think that surrender has become for us in making sense of the war, versus the very messy string of surrenders that followed it?

It’s important to recognize that the Confederacy itself didn’t surrender—Confederate armies did. This happened for two reasons. Lincoln told his generals not to entertain political questions—including the surrender of the Confederacy—because he had been arguing since his inauguration that the Confederacy was illegitimate. Lincoln went to great pains not to take actions that would imply political recognition of the Confederacy, something that a general surrender would do. Jefferson Davis also believed that the Confederacy could not surrender. He told associates that he did not think the Confederate Constitution empowered him to surrender.

So instead of one big surrender, like with Japan at the end of the Second World War, the Civil War ended with a series of surrenders. Many people use Appomattox as a shortcut for describing the end of the war, but many Confederate diehards didn’t see Lee’s surrender as conclusive. The surrenders that followed weren’t simply repetitions of what happened in the McLean parlor. Depending on the disposition of the officers involved, their relative military strengths, and the broader political context, these surrenders unfolded very differently.

This piecemeal collapse of the Confederacy had significant consequences, not only for the end of the war, but for the broader contours of the postwar world. It shaped emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Lost Cause in profound ways.

7) Was there a particular surrender you enjoyed researching and writing about?

That’s a very hard question to answer, because there are so many good stories I found while writing the book. The sources for some of the famous surrenders, especially Fort Sumter and Appomattox Courthouse, are so rich. I also relished piecing together the stories from some important surrenders that have largely been forgotten, such as David Twiggs’ surrender in 1861 or the surrender at San Augustin Springs in the New Mexico desert.

If I had to pick, I really enjoyed writing about the CSS Shenandoah. Part of the tiny Confederate navy, it was engaging in commerce raiding near Alaska when the war ended, attacking whaling vessels close to the Artic Circle. The crew didn’t believe it when they initially heard that the Confederacy had collapsed. When they finally discovered in early August 1865 that the Confederacy was long dead, they worried that they would be prosecuted for piracy for the raids they had conducted after its fall. Believing they would get better treatment by the British, they sailed around the world to surrender in Liverpool in November 1865.

I also enjoyed writing about surrender at the battle of Gettysburg. We often think about Gettysburg as the bloodiest battle in the war, but more soldiers surrendered there than were killed. From the very beginning of the battle through to Lee’s retreat into Virginia, both Union and Confederate soldiers were surrendering by the thousands. There is a chapter in the book that re-tells the Gettysburg campaign from the perspective of the men who surrendered and shows us a very different battle than the one most people are familiar with.

And here are a few short-answer questions:

What was your favorite source you worked with while writing the book?

I used a wide variety of sources: the O.R., newspapers, memoirs, diaries, and private correspondence. Finding sources was never a problem with this project—soldiers recognized how important surrenders were and wrote a lot about them. If I had to pick a favorite, I really loved working with manuscript sources in the archives. There is nothing quite like holding the original documents themselves.

Who, among the book’s cast of characters, did you come to appreciate better?

That’s tricky, as the book has a huge cast of characters. Nearly all of the major figures from the war play significant roles: Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant, Sherman, Jackson, etc. I came to really appreciate Grant not only as a warrior, but as a peacemaker. His conduct at Appomattox Courthouse can’t get enough praise. Simon Buckner is also really interesting: on two occasions he was tasked with surrendering a major Confederate force when his superiors did not want to take responsibility.

The people that fascinated me the most were those soldiers who were involved in multiple surrenders. I found several soldiers who had surrendered three or times and many more who experienced both sides of surrender.

What modern location do you like to visit that is associated with events in the book?

I have two favorites: Appomattox Courthouse and Bennett Place. I was lucky in April 2019—the month the book came out—to be at both sites on the anniversary of the surrenders. Neither site gets as much tourist traffic as many battlefields, which is a shame, because they are great places to reflect on what the war meant to those who participated and what the war continues to mean today. The American Civil War Museum’s branch in Appomattox Courthouse has an amazing collection, including Lee’s uniform and sword.

One of the facets that intrigues me about these sites is that they aren’t dominated by monuments the way that battlefields are. There are very few monuments at Appomattox Courthouse. The Unity Monument at Bennett Place is a very unusual monument—it doesn’t really fit into the standard iconography we associate with the Civil War.

What’s a question people haven’t asked you about this project that you wish they would?

One question that has baffled me, really from the very beginning of my research, is why someone hadn’t already written this book. Given that the war starts with a surrender, ends with a series of surrenders, and had several of its major campaigns end in surrender, it’s surprising that someone hadn’t tried to connect these dots before. Maybe that says something about American attitudes toward surrender or about the way we’ve approached the Civil War.

3 Responses to BookChat with David Silkenat, author of Raising the White Flag

  1. As a native Missourian, I appreciate the corrective commentary that Appomattox (while very important in reality & symbolism) didn’t end the War. I had 3 ancestors who were surrendered by Kirby Smith & paroled nearly in Louisiana nearly two months after the ANV. Then there were the unsurrendered, unrepentant, unreconstructed Rebels, like JO Shelby & his men who fled to Mexico. I look forward to reading this book.

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