ECW welcomes Chris K. Howland, the Editor of America’s Civil War Magazine
“Celebration” and “Glory” were prominent buzzwords when we embarked on the Civil War Sesquicentennial in 2011, and although the resulting four-year period probably didn’t live up to the expectations of grandeur we anticipated, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t memorable. Now, as we prepare for the war’s 160th anniversary, I admittedly don’t get a sense of any widespread celebratory mindset out there. Clearly, the ongoing push to remove Confederate monuments and memorials from public spaces across the country in recent years, as well as the renaming of buildings, schools, streets, and such that honor various Confederate icons, has thrust our nation’s most divisive period of history into a new dimension. How it tends to be appreciated and interpreted by modern audiences has certainly been altered. All the same, there were great leaps forward in Civil War study over the past decade, and we can be confident that trend will continue over the next ten years.
It has been gratifying, for instance, to see the continuing reassessment of Ulysses S. Grant’s character and reputation as both general and president, thanks to the likes of Ron Chernow for his 2018 masterpiece Grant; John Russell Young’s Conversations With Grant, edited by Brian V. Hunt; and the History Channel’s 2020 three-part miniseries Grant. Sam Grant was a complex individual and leader. Criticisms that he was no more than a drunk, a butcher, or merely lucky because of the tremendous military resources and manpower he was handed are—and always have been—unfair. I also welcome reexaminations of his presidency from 1869-1877, which give him far more credit for what he was able to accomplish and provide better context to his seeming inability to recognize scheming members within his administration and the resulting corruption.
The reputation of another controversial Civil War icon was given new perspective during the Sesquicentennial: Stonewall Jackson, the subject of what I consider a remarkable book by award-winning author S.C. Gwynne, published in 2014. As a military genius, Stonewall deservedly had few doubters. What many couldn’t accept about him—and what Gwynne addressed in his book—were his ties to the Confederacy and slavery. In an interview in our January 2021 issue, Gwynne made sure to acknowledge Jackson’s humanity, saying: “If you looked at Stonewall Jackson as a slaveowner, which he was, you can’t ignore that he was so much more enlightened than Thomas Jefferson. Three of Jackson’s slaves, as I write about in my book, he rescued; people begged him to buy them in order to save them. Another one he gave his freedom to and then when that man got sick, he [Jackson] financed his treatment and recovery…”
Among other Sesquicentennial reassessments of the Civil War, further recognition of often-overlooked groups of soldiers, such as African Americans, is nice to see. Those who know me well are aware of my passion for the fighting in the Trans-Mississippi Theater, where American Indians representing both the Union and Confederacy frequently clashed. But it was in the Eastern Theater where the story of Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters during the Overland and Petersburg campaigns particularly caught my eye. I’d like to give Company K a shout-out. It took a while for that unit’s American Indians to earn recognition in the Army of the Potomac. What those men did during the Battle of the Crater was remarkable. One soldier, Pentwater Chippewa Antoine Scott, repeatedly climbed the walls of 30-foot-deep crater to defend his comrades under fire at the bottom of the pit. It was fitting that Company K was the first unit to raise a flag when Petersburg finally fell on April 3, 1865, and it is fitting that on Veterans Day 2011 the Petersburg National Battlefield honored Indian soldiers with a candlelight ceremony at Poplar Grove Cemetery.
Here’s hoping for another remarkable ten years.