What We’ve Learned: “Reassessment”

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.

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14 Responses to What We’ve Learned: “Reassessment”

  1. Bryce Suderow says:

    When you discuss the reassessment of Grant, you should mention the books grant under fire by Joseph Rose, ulysses S Grant and the rewriting of history by Varney, confederate Waterloo by Mike McCarthy and the writings and lectures of Robert Girardi

    All of these authors call into question grants truthfulness as a writer and his abilities as a general.

    Bryce

    • Grant scholarship has really polarized in the last 20 years. Every book is either a hatchet job or hagiography. Each side makes some good points but it gets tiresome at times.

      I will say Grant’s presidency is being vastly overrated. It is as if the corruption, his embrace of corporations, and his abandonment of blacks in the south and the indigenous in his second term are being forgotten.

    • Taylor says:

      I think Lincoln would still have made Grant the commander of the Union armies. Grant and Sherman made things happen. They were bold and calculating. They produced results, and pressed on to do what was needed to end the war.

      It is so much easier to write a book a 150 or more years after the events than lead an army in a desperate, changing conflict like the U.S. Civil War. It is not hard to understand why Grant and Sherman, other officers, and men in the ranks, had such a low opinion of journalists. I doubt they would have had a much better opinion of armchair generals in the guise of authors and historians, revisionist or otherwise who, after extensive study and discussion, and lengthy thought and composition, essentially pass judgment on those who were required to deal with politics, massive logistics, and complex planning, and with violent, and astoundingly vicious, confrontations that were often evolving minute-by-minute. As the saying goes, “I guess you had to be there.”

      One of the great losses for American history was that Grant died before he could write memoirs about his presidency. If his published memoirs are any indication, they would have been well-written and revealing, and studied to this day.

      • “One of the great losses for American history was that Grant died before he could write memoirs about his presidency. If his published memoirs are any indication, they would have been well-written and revealing, and studied to this day.” – What you mean is unreliable and self serving.

        In my research on Shiloh I have concluded Grant’s Memoirs are not particularly useful. They are contradicted heavily by primary sources written right after the battle. For example, Grant was under heavy cannon fire at Duncan Field on April 6 but his memoirs place it on April 7. I do not hold this against Grant. He was an elderly dying man looking to aid his family and bolster his reputation. I just wish people would be honest about how unreliable the memoirs are in places.

        That said, on the more positive end, Grant’s memoirs are fairly accurate for Fort Donelson. Perhaps the contrast is because he did so poorly at Shiloh, being surprised and having to rely on Buell on April 7. He lived in the shadow of Shiloh his whole life. By contrast, Fort Donelson though is among the North’s great victories, and mostly showed Grant at his very best. There was no need to make excuses.

        Lastly, I agree with the sentiment about judgment, but I wish it would be extended to other generals such as Rosecrans. I am writing about Tullahoma, and his leadership there was superb. His plan failed, but he improvised and pressed on. McClellan, Halleck, and Buell would have likely just given up or settled for taking a small amount of territory. It is a pity he does not get more credit for that and his leadership at Corinth and Stones River.

      • Sean Michael Chick says:

        FYI, I meant to place 😉 after “What you mean is unreliable and self serving.” It was meant in jest, but I cannot edit the comment on here to get that across.

  2. John Davis says:

    In another ten or 15 years, no one will care about Grant, Jackson or the Civil War. All the people who have cared so much over the past 75 years, have bought the books, attended Round Tables and seminars, visited battlefields, given their money to save battlefields will be either dead or too frail to care anymore. Most of these folks will be “Gone With the Wind”, If anyone thinks that demonizing the Confederacy, emphasizing the social aspects of the conflict over battles and generals will bring the kind of interest we have seen in our lifetimes, I think they are just “whistling Dixie”.

    • People want heroes. For now the Union generals are heroes, but that won’t last passed a few protests at a Sherman statue over his post war activities. This will kick in once the last remnants of Confederate memory are wiped away, thereby making “Sherman memes” pointless.

  3. JOHN THOMAS says:

    I taught American History in High School for 30 years what sparked interest were the battles and heroes. Those chapters on social change aroused sympathies but little interest. Regrettably Mr. Davis is dead on in his prediction.

  4. billhenck says:

    I’m a little more optimistic. Interest in certain subjects waxes and wanes, for example, in the 1970s, there was little interest in the Civil War. However, American history is full of fascinating stories and people are drawn to fascinating stories. That’s why preservation is so important. As long as the land is there, the stories are there, and as long as the stories are there, people will be drawn to them.

    • Taylor says:

      There may have been less interest in the Civil War in the 1970s than in the 1960s. That is understandable given that much of the 1960s was the centennial of the conflict, and much of the 1970s was an emotional hangover from Vietnam. It was a time when so many just wanted to put any war behind them. However, I do not recall that there was little interest in the Civil War during that time. It was there, perhaps just less evident.

      With respect, the land alone is not the story. It is the story or, as you say, stories, of what took place on the land, and the who and when and why and how, that are important. Without “the story,” without the history, the land is just…land. That may be why preservation is important. It is certainly why history is important. The question is, what will that history be in 100 years? Will it be revised, contextualized, reinterpreted or even repressed beyond our recognition now and beyond the recollection of the veterans themselves100 years ago, by those who consider themselves as possessing more intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, insight and vision than we who will have gone before? Will it be shaped and presented as something that people are repelled by? Will those who are not given the history even care?

  5. Thank you for your insights, Mr. Howland.
    This may not be the place to ask, but now I’m curious… Can anyone recommend a good book about Native American involvement in the Civil War? I’d be very much interested in learning more. Thanks!

    • Jon Tracey says:

      Perhaps not exactly what you’re looking for, but I enjoyed Megan Kate Nelson’s Three-Cornered War.

    • JOHN M THOMAS says:

      Being from Oklahoma I read Confederate Indians by Frank Cunningham by the 8th grade; also, A Creek Warrior for the Confederacy by David Baird during the war and after the war all the way to statehood. For a good general read try the novel Rifles For Watie by Frank Keith also, on the scholarly side try The Civil War in Indian Territory by LeRoy Fischer. There a several good privately published stories of the war. It’s a great area for research as it combines the war with native american studies. Good Luck and enjoy, John

  6. Thomas M. Grace says:

    Keeping interest alive in the Civil War is a problem, although classes I teach about the war and Reconstruction continue to attract students, even if not in the numbers they once did. Of course, there is a wider problem in the country with historical amnesia. I credit editors like Chris Howland for continuing to publish America’s Civil War, a magazine that consistently maintains a high quality of scholarship. And, while I am at, the American Battlefield Trust (ABT) has a program that funds classroom field trips to Revolutionary and Civil War sites. Chris’s magazine, ABT and perhaps even an occasional Civil War class all help to improve youthful awareness about America’s vital past.

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