Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Just Finished Reading - The Quarters and the Fields

While recent years have produced a significant amount of scholarship on how slavery differed out in various regions of the United States, few studies have offered a solid comparative examination. The Quarters and the Field: Slave Families in the Non-Cotton South by Damian Alan Pargas helps fill that void.

In this important work Pargas argues that slaves' family life was largely determined by the "varied nature of regional agricultural in diverse southern localities." In making that argument he emphasizes what has emerged in recent slavery studies: time and place made a important difference in slaves' lives. To provide evidence for his argument, Pargas examines sources from three different geographical counties: Fairfax County, Virginia; Georgetown District, South Carolina; and St. James Parish, Louisiana.

The transition from tobacco to grain agriculture in northern Virginia impacted the lives for slaves there in many ways. The switch created a surplus of slaves who owners sought to either sell or rent out, both of which often separated families temporarily at best or forever at worst. In addition, a change in staple crops came with a change in daily work patterns. In coastal South Carolina, slaves drastically outnumbered whites and rice cultivation brought owners tremendous wealth. Georgetown District was a relatively stable slave population region. There was less out migration through the interstate slave trade or owners moving to other areas of the South than in northern Virginia. Sex ratios were relatively equal on South Carolina rice plantations and working task style rather than gang style allowed additional opportunities for family time together. In St. James Parish, Louisiana, where sugar planting reigned supreme, the industrial nature of the work produced an ever-regimented style of labor that benefited best from male workers. This produced unequal sex ratios and often hindered mate selection and thus the development of family units.

Following chapters cover topics like "Family Contact during Working Hours," "Family-Based Internal Economies," "Marriage Strategies and Family Formation," and "Forced Separation." In the book's conclusion Pargas sums up his argument quite nicely: "The crucial link between different local economies and slave family life has long been underestimated in the historical literature. Past studies have tended to paint one-dimensional pictures of American slave families by underestimating regional economic differences and by ignoring or--far more often--overemphasizing the agency of slaves in shaping their own lives. It is in this context that the comparative approach is so valuable, as it offers a means for understanding slave families in different settings as they truly were: dynamic social units that were formed and existed under different circumstances across time and space."

The Quarters and the Fields is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on regional differences in slave family life. Its thorough research and comparative format makes for engaging and informative reading. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Hard Marching Every Day

If you're a Civil War enthusiast and you've read your fair share of published soldier letters, you likely know that not all soldier's letters collections are created equal. Some soldiers were just plain able to convey their thoughts and share their experiences better than others. Then, too, one must consider the audience they were writing to. It made a significant difference whether a soldier was writing to his mother or father or his wife or a newspaper back home, who published his letters in their editions. The later was the case with Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Infantry.

Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865, edited by Emil and Ruth Rosenblatt. Fisk's letters to Montpelier's Green Mountain Freeman have appeared in numerous scholarly works on the Army of the Potomac, as his career spanned the fours years of the war. In many ways Fisk's writing to a newspaper who shared his thoughts colored what he wrote. The majority of this missives to the Freeman are safely written due to the fact that he knew many different people would be reading them. If he had been writing to someone on a more close basis, or recording in a diary or journal he likely would have shared more private thoughts. However, there are occasions when he gets quite personal and tells about times when his patriotism wains and when perhaps he did not do his full duty. There were several occasions when he straight up tells of his fears or seeks a more safe position from which to observe an engagement. He usually doesn't mind telling he cares about his hide remaining without holes. This tendency follows closely with Peter Carmichael's idea of soldiers' pragmatic adaptability as a means of coping with the stresses of military life.

Fisk's 2nd Vermont spent the majority of its time in the Army of the Potomac's VI Corps. The VI Corps saw especially hard fighting during the Overland Campaign, around Petersburg, and during Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley Campaign. They certainly put in their time marching from place to place. Unfortunately for me and my interests, Fisk was detailed as a hospital guard at City Point during the March 25, 1865 Battle of Jones Farm and the April 2 Breakthrough, and thus doesn't leave much comment on either event other than mentioning the death of Capt. Charles Morey on April 2.

The editors mention that Fisk kept a diary in addition to sending letters to the Freeman. One wonders why perhaps the diary wasn't included as an appendix to the book. It would be interesting to compare his private diary thoughts to his public letters sent to the newspaper.

Regardless, Fisk's letters make for a good and informative read and provide significant insight into the challenges Civil War soldiers faced on a day-to-day basis. Hard Marching Every Day is book at every student of the Civil War soldier should read. I recommend it.

Here are a few passages I found particularly insightful:
Dec. 31, 1863: "Camp life is about as dull as a soldier need wish it to be. A cold, drizzling rainstorm is just now upon us, and the pattering rain drops are making merry music on the canvass overhead, while not a few of them manage to find their way inside of our little shanty. At every crack, under the eaves, and all around, the water persists in obtruding its unwelcome presence in our midst. Some of these impertinent raindrops, with a presumption quite unpardonable, pay no attention to the roof of our house, but rush through and drop inside as if aware of the superior comfort to be found near our fire, which they have have nearly put out. The consequence of all this is that our floor of mother earth is becoming very muddy and slippery; our blankets, our beds and our knapsacks are becoming soaking wet, and everything in the tent is beginning to present a horribly untidy appearance. Notwithstanding all these unfavorable circumstances, I have secured myself a position on my bunk, with two knapsacks for a seat, and in events, I have determined to pen you a fine lines."

June 11, 1864: "These bullets have a peculiar sound. Some of them come with a sharp 'clit,' like striking a cabbage leaf with a whip lash, others come with a sort of screech, very much such as you would get by treading on a cat's tail. Then there are others, the sharpshooters' bullets we suppose, that whistle on a much higher key, and snap against a tree with as much force as if the tree had been struck by a heavy sledge hammer. Some strike in the dirt with a peculiar "thud," others fly high in the air and make a noise similar to a huge bumble bee. They do not tarry long by the way. What they do is done quickly, and woe to the man that stands in their way."

 Dec. 15, 1864: "We are finally back here on Gen. Grant's line fronting Petersburg. . . . There is nothing desirable about this place. It is all fighting and no fun. We neither whip nor get whipped here. Is regular cold blooded duelling, day after day, with no decisive result on either side, and fellows no braver than I am, get tired of it after a while. I suppose those that are braver have keener relish for this continual skirmishing and picket firing, but I own I haven't, and a man that writes must tell his own feelings and speak his own thoughts. But they have got us here now, and we will make the most of it. Somebody must do this work, and they probably thought it might as well be us as anybody. We know how it is done."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Lincoln and the Abolitionists

A welcome addition to the ever-growing Concise Lincoln Library collection, published by Southern Illinois University Press, is noted abolitionist historian Stanley Harrold’s contribution, Lincoln and theAbolitionists.

In order to understand the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists, Harrold contends that it is important to understand their vastly different backgrounds. Lincoln, born in slaveholding Kentucky, raised in southern Indiana and frontier Illinois, was a product of the environment and the people he grew up with. Although often commenting on the basic immorality of slavery, largely as a violation of the revered Declaration of Independence, as a young man, and even deep into his political career, Lincoln felt slavery was a political conundrum that would be difficult to solve. And, as Harrold puts it so well, “being ‘antislavery’ was not the same thing as being an abolitionist.” (p. 6)

Harrold explains that once Lincoln embarked on his political career, it was those politics that kept him from moving into the abolitionist camp. Taking on a political life as a Whig and revering “The Great Compromiser” Henry Clay as his ideal politician left Lincoln with a pragmatic approach to what would be the future of slavery in the United States. The man who would be one day become known as “The Great Emancipator” knew that any success he was to have in politics—particularly in local and state politics—depended on meeting in agreement, at least on a certain level, with those who cast the votes. Lincoln often saw abolitionists as disrupting the Union and thus chose to maintain a rather conservative stance on the institution of slavery and race relations in Illinois and reject the more radically perceived abolitionist view of immediate and uncompensated emancipation. He knew doing so was instrumental to his success in climbing the political ladder.

The majority of Lincoln and the Abolitionists focuses on the Railsplitter’s rise to the presidency, and rightly so. As mentioned above, understating Lincoln’s background is prerequisite to understanding how he viewed abolitionists and approached their methods. However, the short treatment—always a challenge with a “concise history”—on the often fraught relationship between President Lincoln and abolitionist leaders like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Horace Greeley, and Frederick Douglass leaves considerable room for further examination. Despite this fact, Harrold makes clear that abolitionist pressure influenced many of Lincoln’s decisions regarding slavery during his presidential terms.

Lincoln and the Abolitionists clearly achieves its goal in providing a short, thoroughly researched, yet highly-readable explanation of the sometimes rocky relationship between the two parties. Despite their differences in backgrounds, political ideology, and ultimate goals, both Lincoln and the Abolitionists, and thus their interactions, left a tremendous impact on the history of the United States that still resonates today. Harrold’s book makes that particular relationship dynamic ever so more understandable for both casual learners and well-versed historians. I recommend it.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom

While the majority of the the accounts that historian Calvin Schermerhorn uses in crafting his Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South are well known to students of slavery studies, how he interprets those accounts is what makes this book truly an original piece of scholarship.

Schermerhorn focuses his work on the Chesapeake Bay region, examining how the "peculiar institution" played out in coastal or tidewater areas roughly between Wilmington, Delaware and Wilmington, North Carolina. This region was in the midst of great transition during the first half of the 19th century. As tobacco agriculture began to wane due largely to soil exhaustion in many of these states' eastern most counties, being replaced with grain cultivation and city and town manufactures, the centuries old practice of human bondage began to change as well. Not needing the larger populations of slaves for the labor intensive tobacco plantations, planters and farmers sought sell or find new uses for slaves; which often resulted in enslaved family separations. Schermerhorn looks at how enslaved individuals attempted to exercise agency to deal with these disruptions.

As mentioned above, using many well known slave narratives, such as those of Charles Ball, Moses Grandy, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, as well as a number of less famous accounts, the author examines how the enslaved developed networks that tried to keep their families together, reunite separated family members, and just navigate day to day in a "slave society." Schermerhorn contends that as planters died and their children inherited slave property, or a new generation sought to migrate to the emerging "Cotton Kingdom" to the southwest, or they tried to reduce their surplus slave populations through sales to traders, all of these situations and more had a detrimental impact on the enslaved maintaining cohesive family situations.

Through the sources he chose to use the author shows that slaves worked almost every angle available to them to try to keep their families together. Sometimes their decisions and actions were effective and sometimes they were not. However, the argument bears strength and shows that the enslaved were not passive actors in this drama. Enslaved men and women used emerging new technologies and the skills they had learned to try to manipulate both free and enslaved individuals in their surrounding environments and the life situations they encountered to try to produce best-effect scenarios.

In addition, Schermerhorn also shows that African Americans shouldered the burdens of a changing market-based Upper South. Slaves built the canals, railroads, and town and city factories that emerged in this region during this time. Slaves were rented out in large numbers by their owners, who often placed more value on the amount of money their human property could earn rather than their monitory worth. Whether working the region's waterways, toiling in other families kitchens, earning "overwork" pay in tobacco factories, or doing dangerous work on the railroads, enslaved people attempted to use these roles and the people around them to keep their family relations together and away from the hungry maw of the internal slave trade that chew up so many enslaved families.

This is an amazing book. Well written and researched, it should find a welcome spot on the bookshelf of any serious slavery studies student. I most emphatically recommend it!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Just Finished Reading - God's Almost Chosen Peoples

While both sides called upon the Almighty to assist the successful pursuit of waging war for their respective causes, it could not be so. Only one could ultimately be victor. In God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War by George C. Rable, we learn how Union and Confederate citizens, soldiers, slaves, refugees, politicians, and ministers drew on their faith to help make sense of our nation's great tragedy.

With a thought provoking prologue, 20 instructive chapters, and an engaging epilogue, all covering 400 page of text, Rable has produced the most comprehensive historical account to present of religion's role in the Civil War.

Of course, many of the chapters that I found most interesting were those that dealt with the soldiers and their chaplains. "Fighting for God and Country," "Temptations of the Camp," "The Shepherds and Their Sheep," "Christian Soldiers," "The God of Battles, "Carnage," among others tells the thoughts and emotions of men in the field and also of their loved ones back home, who pled for God's protection of their loved ones in the army.

Starting his coverage in the years just before the conflict, ranging through those four difficult years, and going just beyond its close, Rable includes the major denominations of the period: Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians, but he also makes sure that non-protestant religious groups such as Mormons, Catholics, and Jews also receive coverage. This work utilizes many popular, and thus published, sermons by some of the top ministers of the day, but the author's research goes much deeper to uncover many unpublished primary sources from everyday people to show the central part that religion played in mid-19th century American's lives.

Common themes of that period's citizens' and soldiers' concerns are those of the role of Providence in time of war, how sin determined reversals in fortune, and how the Almighty would ultimately judge who would win and who would lose. Some Northerners felt certain that the Confederacy would be judged harshly for its attempt to perpetuate the institution of slavery, while many Southerners believed that the Union would ultimately be held accountable for waging what they viewed as an unjust war on civilians and their physical and human property.

Extremely well written, thoroughly researched, and interpreted in an a engaging manner, God's Almost Chosen Peoples will remain the go-to source for understanding religion's role in the Civil War for many years to come. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

Well, another month flew by and my library continued to increase by a few more books. Its growth has almost become as inevitable as death and taxes. This most recent group of books has some old and some new and some in between.

The "old" is Frederic Bancroft's classic study Slave Trading in the Old South, which was first published in 1931. However, unlike many slavery studies that came out during the Jim Crow-era and that claimed the institution was benign and even beneficial, Slave Trading in the Old South used thorough primary source research to show that the domestic slave trade was instead the commodification of human beings for blatant exploitative purposes.

One of the "new" is the recently published Upon the Fields of Battle: Essays on the Military History of America's Civil War by editors Andrew S. Bledsoe and Andrew F. Lang, and featuring a forward by Gary Gallagher. Not only do I feel a certain obligation to keep up with the latest scholarship in Civil War military history for my work, I also genuinely enjoy reading it. This 2018 volume includes studies by many of the top scholars in the field. Familiar names like Kenneth Noe, Earl Hess, Brian McKnight, John Hennessy, and Brian Jordan, among others, present a dozen thought provoking essays on a diverse set of military history topics.

An "in between" is Gary Gallagher's Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War. This 2008 book is one that I've wanted to read since it came out. Being the owner of several Civil War prints, I'm interested to see if Gallagher discriminates between those art pieces that seem to reflect images of the war versus those that appear to romanticize it.

No student of the Petersburg Campaign should be without a copy of Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg by Earl J. Hess. Although I've already read it, I now have it among my collection for ready reference.

Another of the "new is The First Republican Army: The Army of Virginia and the Radicalization of the Civil War by John H. Matsui. I've long been an enthusiast of the Second Manassas Campaign and try to read any new works on that and associated fights. Matsui's book appears to argue that the leadership of the Army of Virginia had a more radical political bent than their colleagues in the more conservative Army of the Potomac and helped convince Lincoln about the military necessity of emancipation in the late summer/early fall of 1862.

Another of the "new" is published by Fordham University Press. A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War by James G. Mendez makes use of letters written by family members of African American soldiers to Union military officials and now held in the National Archives. The letters illustrate the effect the Civil War had on black families in the free states and the contributions that black soldiers made to preserve the Union, end slavery, and advance their claims for citizenship and equality.

My interest in Civil War naval subjects continues to grow with my library. So, I was quite happy when our book club group at work chose Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack [Virginia], and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History by Richard Snow for our next discussion. Evolution in weapons technology is a hallmark of Civil War history, and I'm looking forward to learning more about how it played out on the waters. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

Courage Under Fire: Lt. Gardner C. Hawkins, 3rd Vermont Infantry

I apologize for the lack of posts during the last week of March. My work responsibilities were such as to leave little time for anything other than gaining some much needed rest.

While preparing for tomorrow's 154th Anniversary of the April 2, 1865 Petersburg Breakthrough walking tour I researched a little deeper into someone I had read, heard, and spoke about many times before. Yet, I wanted to see if I could find out a little more about this seemingly shadowy historical figure. I feel that I both succeeded and failed.

Gardner C. Hawkins was born February 11, 1846. His service records state that he was a native of Pomfret, (Windsor County) Vermont, which is in the central part of the Green Mountain State. The 1850 census shows that Gardner grew up in a large family and as a four year old, was the youngest boy of the household. Gardner's father, Lewis, is listed as a 44 year old farmer, who was born in Vermont. Although all of the Gardner's near neighbors owned real estate, Lewis apparently did not. Gardner's mother, Hannah, was a 43 year old Canadian native. Gardner's 6 brothers and 3 sisters ranged in age from 22 to 2 years old. All were born in Vermont.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find Gardner in the 1860 census. However, I did find his father and mother, a brother, and sister. They had moved to the Bridgewater community, also in Windsor County. In 1860, Gardner's father had land now valued at $1400.00. His parents did not apparently have any other surviving children after younger sister Isadore was born in 1848.

Wherever Gardner was in 1860, he showed up in Woodstock, near where he was born, in 1864 to enlist in Company I of the 3rd Vermont Infantry on January 28. Gardner was just shy of 18 years old! He is listed as 5' 11" tall with a light complexion and having blue or hazel eyes and brown hair. His stated pre-war occupation was that of clerk. He apparently received a $300.00 bounty for enlisting.

Gardner's early army career seems to have included clerking duties at regimental and brigade headquarters. Apparently he did well in his work, as on November 19, 1864, Gardner received a promotion to 2nd lieutenant in his company by the governor of Vermont. He received another promotion, to 1st lieutenant of Company E on March 28, 1865. Gardner was not only 19 years old! After the war the War Department retro-acted Gardner's promotion to February 25, 1865.

Apparently, on the early morning of April 2, Gardner was serving as acting adjutant with the 3rd Vermont, who was a member of the Vermont Brigade. That dawn found the Vermont Brigade stacked in columns of regiments for the attack on the Confederate earthworks opposite them. The stacked formation was intended to make the greatest impact and return positive results. The attack kicked off at about 4:40 a.m. with the 5th Vermont leading, then the 2nd, the 6th, the 4th, the 3rd, and finally the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery (fighting as infantry and also known as the 11th Vermont).

The Vermonters encountered picket fire early from the Confederates as they were at the point of the attack. Brushing the pickets away, the Green Mountain men ran into greater trouble when they encountered multiple lines of abatis, stacked branches meant to impede the attacker's progress. Finding holes through the obstructions and making their own, too, the men made for the last yards of open ground in front of the Confederate ditches.

Leading the men of his command forward, Gardner saw them stall due to heavy rifle and artillery fire from the enemy. In an effort to inspire his charges, Gardner pulled his sword from its scabbard and waved it over his his head encouraging his men to do their duty and go on. While so doing, Gardner received a grievous wound through the face. His surgeon reported that he found Gardner "suffering in consequence of a wound . . . by a ball passing in near the ear, over the cheek, under the eye, through the nose, and out the opposite side." As one might image the terrible injury left the young lieutenant a bloody mess. However, when his comrades attempted to remove him from the field during the action he demanded that he remain where he was until he was confident that the attack had succeeded.

Gardner was eventually taken to Union hospitals, probably at the nearby Union's City Point base, and he was at last back home in Woodstock, Vermont by early May 1865 attempting to recover. By that point, with the war winding down due to the previous surrenders of the two main Confederate armies, men like Gardner, who were dangerously wounded late in the war were discharged. Gardner received his official discharge on July 8, 1865.

Still, much later, in 1893, Gardner revived the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism on April 2, 1865.

Gardner C. Hawkins's official commendation reads: "for extraordinary heroism on April 2, 1865, while serving with Company D, 3rd Vermont Infantry, in action at Petersburg, Virginia. When the lines were wavering from the well-directed fire of the enemy, First Lieutenant Hawkins, acting adjutant of the regiment, sprang forward, and with encouraging words cheered the soldiers on, and although dangerously wounded, refused to leave the field until the enemy's works were taken."

Gardner C. Hawkins lived a relatively full life after his wounding on April 2, 1865. He moved to Massachusetts, became an inventor of sorts and lived to be 67 years old, dying in 1913. He rests in peace in Lindenwood Cemetery in Stoneham, Massachusetts, and serves as an inspiration of courage under fire.