Monday, July 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Raising the White Flag

From the Civil War's beginning, throughout its deadly course, and to its bitter end, surrenders occurred. Some surrenders were famous, like those at Fort Sumter, Vicksburg, and Appomattox. But, what about on the field of combat when one soldier got the best of another and demanded he give up? What about situations when surrenders are demanded, rejected, and then a massacre occurs? These issues, and many more, are covered in the trailblazing study Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War by David Silkenat.

Civil War officers had little precedence to go on when it came to surrenders. As Silkenat explains early in the book, there was no true textbook model for how to go about surrendering or demanding surrender. However, the Fort Sumter incident did provide an example for how future surrenders (on a large scale) should ideally play out. It was typical for Civil War surrenders to be initiated by the demand of the subjugating forces rather than it being offered up by the subjugated force. And, another point that seemed to bear importance was the issue of surrendering to someone of equal or higher military rank. There appears to have been no real loss of honor in surrender situations where there was a true attempt at resistance or when a military leader believed further resistance was futile and he accepted the same fate as his men. But, when commanders "gave up the fort" without a shot being fired, or they fled, leaving others to "do the deal" of surrendering, they could expect a healthy dose of criticism by their soldiers and citizens alike.

The most illuminating chapter, in my opinion, is Chapter 3, "Instinctively My Hands Went Up: Soldiers, Agency, and Surrender on the Battlefield." In it Silkenat explores surrender on the small scale. From the soldier's-eye-view in the heat of combat there was not often the time or opportunity to consider the pros and cons of demanding or offering one's surrender. When soldiers believed that they had a reasonable chance for a quick prisoner exchange they were more likely to surrender, however, as the exchange cartel broke down with Confederate refusal to treat black prisoners as legitimate soldiers, fighting men tended to battle more desperately and refuse the enemy's surrender demands. In addition, soldiers who were viewed as outside of conventional (white, regular, loyal) warfare bounds, such as African Americans, guerrillas, or Southern Unionists, sometimes were not afforded the ability to surrender.

Other chapters in the book focus on soldier surrenders at the Battle of Gettysburg, a comparison of Grant and Forrest and their understanding of "unconditional surrender," surrender and the "hard war," and looks at the final surrenders at Appomattox, Bennett Place, and others across the South.

Surrender still makes its way into our current events. Prisoner of war soldiers in our current war zones, and the president's comments on Sen. John McCain's Vietnam capture not being heroic in his eyes, keep the issue of military surrenders on our minds. But when it comes to the Civil War, Silkenat summarizes things well with the book's last paragraph: "Recognizing the central role of surrender in the Civil War requires some reconsideration of what being American means. If Americans define themselves as a people who never give up, never compromise, and never surrender, what does it mean that during one of the defining events in the nation's history, Americans surrendered in droves? For many modern Americans, 'take no prisoners' and 'never surrender' function as mantras, signifying their ideological purity and relentless work ethic. Yet if we are to learn anything from the Civil War generation, we might come to see surrender not as a sign of weakness but as a hallmark of humanity."

In a conflict in which about one in every four soldiers experienced surrender it is astounding that the topic has not been the focus of a book-length study until now. Raising the White Flag is an important work in the field. Hopefully it will provide a scholarly opening for future historians to explore other aspects of this topic (like how surrender played out differently in different campaigns or theaters, etc.). I highly recommend it.

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