hist-119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

Lecture 1 - Introductions: Why Does the Civil War Era Have a Hold on American Historical Imagination? [January 15, 2008]

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor David Blight: Okay, there's an outline up here. I'm going to try to write a little bigger from now on, and it's been already suggested I use capital letters and maybe practice my printing a little better. I will do that too. I'm not very high-tech. I will occasionally use some visuals, slides here and there, a painting here and there, an image now and then, and certainly maps, especially in dealing with the 1850s and the coming of the Civil War. But every lecture will have an outline in front of you, and the intention in every case is to get to the fifth part of that outline. I almost always do. Almost. But at least you'll have a sense of the structure of the topics or the themes that this lecture is supposed to work its way through.

I do welcome your questions. I'll ask at times if you have any questions. This is obviously a terribly formal situation, me up here on this stage and you out there, looking into your laptops in some cases, doing whatever you're doing on your laptops. Just don't do what one student did a year ago, though. He was right back there in that aisle-way, halfway back. He came in — it was the day I was lecturing on the Dred Scott decision, for some reason I've never forgotten that — and he whipped out the Yale Daily News, and he just was enjoying the Yale Daily News. I didn't know there was that much to read in it for that long, most of the time. But he's just reading the Yale Daily News in front of him. And at one point I stopped, rather loudly, and I said, "The Dred Scott decision is not covered in today's Yale Daily News." And he didn't hear me. So I shouted it again, and by that time the whole class was beginning to laugh, uncomfortably, and he finally realized what was going on. The poor guy crumpled up his newspaper and walked out the back and he never came back. I felt a little badly about it but — Just don't make it so obvious.

All right, does everybody have a syllabus, anyone lacking a syllabus, everyone's got a copy? We may need some more, the balcony people need syllabi. They're hiding up there. David, do you have any extras? [Discussion about availability of syllabi]

Professor David Blight: None left. Okay, we'll have more on Thursday. And I should put it on the Web. Dumb. I will put it up, this afternoon we'll get it up on the Web, through the Registrar's site or however.

Chapter 2. Course Texts and Structure [00:03:09]

Today I'm going to take up the topic primarily of why the American Civil War period has had, still has, such a hold on the American, and for that matter international, historical imagination. That's what I want to talk about primarily.

But I want to say a word or two about the structure of the course and what you need to do, as quickly as possible. First of all every lecture, if you look at the syllabus, has a topic, a title of a kind. I will not get behind, in spite of what it may feel like. The readings are listed each week. We are using, among other things — there's a combination of readings, in fact, a rich combination of historical monograph, historical kind of syntheses, two works of fiction. Two novels, one by Louisa May Alcott, a famous short, classic little book called Hospital Sketches, which was based on Alcott's personal experience as a nurse in Civil War hospitals, an experience that all but overwhelmed her, emotionally, psychologically, and she in some ways could not stop thinking about it. We also are reading — using two readers; that is, collections of documents. One is a collection of documents by, mostly by and somewhat about, Abraham Lincoln, a reader edited by Michael Johnson. There's Nicole Ivy, entering as we speak, the eighth teaching assistant. Sorry Nicole, we just did intros. Anyway, one of the readers is Lincoln, the great speeches, the great public letters. We won't use every document in the book but the great Lincoln stuff is all there and well introduced.

The other reader, which we'll use virtually every week in the course, and teaching assistants will be free with this to assign whichever documents they so choose, any given week. I'm still taking the plastic off this one. It's edited by Bill Gienapp, a great Civil War historian, recently deceased. It's a collection of documents from essentially the Mexican War right on through Reconstruction, many of them very brief and short documents, allowing us at times to teach with a document. It's possible you'll have an entire discussion section that centers around a single document, as well as the other reading you did as background.

The other novel I neglected to mention is a very new novel. And I'm taking a risk in this course. For years and years, and I won't admit how many, I've always taught Michael Shaara's great Civil War novel, The Killer Angels, which I would venture a quarter of you have probably already read. All right, how many of you have already read Killer Angels? Ah-ha. We're not reading it this time. You can't take that week off. We're reading E.L. Doctorow's new novel called The March, which has only been out about a year, just into paperback. It's Doctorow, the great modern novelist of, well, urban America, of race in America, of so many things. He has actually a brilliant short story in the current New Yorker, if you haven't read it. It may not appeal to all of you. It's really about middle-age men in the suburbs. I got it.

Any rate, Doctorow's March is about Sherman's march to the sea. It's about Sherman but it's also about all the people around him. And I think Doctorow accomplished something extraordinary in that novel, which so few American writers of fiction have ever quite been able to imagine — he's not alone but not many have — and that is fully realize slave characters. Those he invents. A lot of real people in that book, and much of it — like so many other of Doctorow's great works, like Ragtime, if you've read Ragtime, or others — much of the language, the dialog, is verbatim out of historical sources. You might even want to read Sherman's memoirs in tandem with it, if you have the time. Whole portions of it come directly out of Sherman's memoirs, and then there are characters invented around it. Anyway, it's that last, horrible, devastating, destructive, evil, but sometimes good, year and a half of the Civil War in Georgia and South Carolina when the Civil War became a truly kind of total modern affair. It's a novel about this beast of war itself but it's very much a novel about what this war was about.

Anyway. I don't want to go into all the readings. I divide this course in three parts which may or may not be obvious the first time you glance at the syllabus. But essentially the first third of the course is the coming of the Civil War, it's the story from roughly the mid-1840s through Fort Sumter. And the second third of the course is essentially the war itself, where we tackle not only how the Civil War was fought, but we tackle what it was about, and we tackle the question of Confederate defeat and Union victory. How do we explain that? And we especially tackle questions of meaning. If a war of such devastation can have meaning in the end, what are those meanings? It's, I think, arguably the most important take-home set of questions and answers you might take out of this course. And of course that means we dwell a good deal on emancipation, the single most revolutionary result of the Civil War, and arguably the single most revolutionary historical moment in American history.

The liberation of 4.2 million slaves to some kind of freedom and some kind of citizenship, at least for awhile. And the third third of the course is, of course, Reconstruction. That "brief shining moment" as Du Bois once called it, of about eleven years from the end of the Civil — from Appomattox to the disputed election of 1876 and '77. Twelve years. One of the most vexing, topsy-turvy, turbulent, embittered periods of American history that historians still fight over, to say the least. It is there where we'll try to understand the consequences of the Civil War. This is a course at the end of the day about the causes and consequences, as well as the course, of this event.

Chapter 3. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Promissory Note" [00:10:47]

Now — but today is January 15th, it is Martin Luther King's birthday. Now I'll start with a very famous passage. It's not usually the passage you hear from the "I Have A Dream" speech. Almost always when the Dream speech is quoted — and now it's quoted in commercials, right? Numerous times, or on radio spots, background. King's voice, as though it's some kind of American chorus for whatever- when, at any moment we need to feel better about ourselves and about race relations. We often just skip right over the first two or three paragraphs of the speech where the central metaphor he sets up in the speech is what he called "the promissory note," in the "bank of justice."

"I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. And so we have come here." Excuse me. "Five score years ago" — and here he is drawing directly off Lincoln — "five score years ago a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation." This was of course August 1963. A hot, a brutally hot August day, King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. "This momentous decree came as a great beacon, light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak," he says, "to end the long night of their captivity." That sentence is almost directly from the Bible. "But one hundred years later the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty, in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come here, we've come to our nation's capital, to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.' But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt, we refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice." I would be thrilled if you walked out of this course and were able to explain to somebody why King made the promissory note the central metaphor of his "I Have a Dream" speech, and you could somehow explain why it hadn't been cashed by 1963, and could then begin to discuss whether it's fully cashed yet. Now — that was just my homage to King.

Chapter 4. Books and the Purpose of History [00:15:31]

Now, I like to do a little ritual at the beginning of every class. If you'll forgive me, it only takes me about ten seconds. But you know we live in a world where all of us in this room take books for granted. We throw books on the floor, we throw books at people, we load them in and out of our backpacks, we drop them here and drop them there, we lose them, we rip them up, we write all over them — I write all over mine. It's only a few generations ago when there really weren't any bookstores to go to. Your great-great-grandparents couldn't meander a bookstore, to speak of, unless they lived in a special section of a special city. Books are precious things. A lot of them are assigned in this course. There's short ones, little ones, big ones, syntheses, novels, monographs. Think of a book, just for a moment, and then you can forget this if you want. But think of a book, any book. It's hard to think of a really bad book this way, but think of a good book, one of your favorite books ever, as like a newborn child, a newborn child brought into the world. A book. Probably a lot more planning and thought and design and construction, at least intellectually, goes into that book than goes into most babies. Books have a cover. They have beginnings, middles and ends. They're somebody's dream, they're somebody's creation. They never satisfy — just like people — but they're in some ways the greatest things we have, and sometimes it's nice to remind ourselves of that, in the places where we take them most for granted.

And I want to quote for you, to you, from the oldest history book in Western civilization. Not just because it's a book, but I think this is a point one can make about any history course, it doesn't matter what the subject is. It can be Social History, Political History, Intellectual History, any history. It can be the History of Ancient Rome, it could be Post-1945 United States, it could be any history. But any history course ought to do the two things that Herodotus named in the opening sentence of the oldest history book we have. This is Herodotus, The History. Isn't it great when you're writing the first book, what are you going to call it? The History; no subtitles, nothing fancy, just — "I, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, am here setting forth my history, that time may not draw the color from what man has brought into being, nor those great and wonderful deeds manifested by both the Greeks and the barbarians, fail of their report, and together, with all of this, the reason why they fought one another."

I don't know how closely you listened to that, but what has Herodotus just said? He's basically said history is two things. It's the story, it's the color, it's the great deeds, it's the narrative that takes you somewhere; but it's also the reason why, it's also the explanations. That's what history does. It's supposed to do both of those things. Some of us are more into the analysis, and we're not so fond of story. Some of us just love stories and don't care about the analysis — "oh, stop giving me all that interpretation, just tell me the good story again." This is what goes on, of course, out in public history all the time: "just tell us the old stories and just sing us the old songs, make us feel good again. Stop interpreting, you historians, and worst of all, stop revising." You notice how that word 'revision' has crept into our political culture? When politicians don't like the arguments of people who disagree with them they accuse them of being revisionist historians. It was even a poll-tested word for a while when Condoleezza Rice was using it. "Revisionist, revisionist." As though all history isn't revisionist.

My favorite story about revisionism is my buddy, Eric Foner, was on a talk show once. About 1992. He was on one of those shouting talk shows with Lynne Cheney, who at that — Dick Cheney's wife — who was then head of the NEH. And this was a time — you won't remember this — we were having this national brouhaha over what were called National History Standards. And Lynne Cheney, if you remember, a real critic of these National History Standards. She didn't particularly like some of the ideas that the historians were coming up with. So on this talk show — it was Firing Linewhere you get two people on and they just shout at each other for an hour, or a half hour, and the producers love it. And Foner is pretty good at rapid fire coming back, he's pretty good at it. Anyway they had this set-to and she kept accusing him and other historians of being "revisionist." And Eric says the next morning he got a phone call from a reporter atNewsweek and she said, "Professor Foner, when did all this revisionism begin?" And Foner said, "Probably with Herodotus." And the Newsweek reporter said, "Do you have his phone number?" Never underestimate the ignorance — H.L. Mencken said this, I didn't — never underestimate the ignorance of the American people. Or of journalists, or of — .

Chapter 5. Why Study the Civil War? [00:22:00]

Now, as to this question of why the Civil War has a hold on us, or a hold on historical imagination in this country. There are many, many ways to think about that. I'm going to take you through seven or eight possible answers to that in just a moment, almost like a list. But again, sometimes if you go back to the oldest explanations you find things that we haven't even thought about. In Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, the first great modern text, in Western Civilization at any rate, about a Civil War, the great Greek Civil War. In Thucydides' great work he has this little sentence where he actually captures a good deal about why civil wars are such vexing, difficult problems in nations' memories once they've had them. So Thucydides said, "The people made their recollections fit in with their sufferings." They began to tell a story that reflected their own suffering. Now the 'they' here might be white southerners. They suffered. They lost. They were truly defeated, conquered. That suffering might be African-Americans. Emancipation wasn't a day of jubilee; it was an agonizing, horrible, terrible, sometimes wonderful, set of experiences into the unknown. And the suffering might be northern Unionists. About 300,000 Yankee soldiers died in the Civil War and about 650 to 700,000 were wounded. People made their memories fit their sufferings.

I also like this little passage, to just put into your craw, about any History course, about any interpretation. And of course I'm going to have a point of view at times in this course; all historians do. Don't even listen to a historian if he or she doesn't have a point of view. None of us are blank slates. None of us can just tell it like it was — "stop interpreting, please." But I always try to remember William James' passage in one of his Pragmatism essays, an essay I think that should be required for U.S. citizenship. If I ruled the world you'd have to read this for U.S. citizenship. In it, James says, "The greatest enemy of any one of my truths is the rest of my truths." It's as though James is saying, "damn, every time I think I really know something — that's the truth — along comes some other possible truth and it screws it up." Why can't history just be settled? Enough already. If it was, it wouldn't be any fun; if it was it wouldn't be interesting; if it was it wouldn't be good for business either.

Now, why does the Civil War have a hold? Why are you here? There's 280 of you here for a course on the Civil War. I know it fits — 10:30 on Tuesday, Thursday — a hundred other reasons — you want a lecture course. Lots of possible answers to all that kind of question. But why does this event hold people? There are now approximately 65,000 books that have been written on the American Civil War — this doesn't even really include the books on Reconstruction — that have been written since Appomattox.

Now, I realized recently when I was giving a public talk that you can't always say "since Appomattox" and people know what you mean. I'm going to assume Yale students do. But that's actually where the surrender was signed that ended the Civil. I was giving a talk recently and I said, "Before Appomattox and after Appomattox" — and I must have said that four of five times. One of the first questions in Q & A is this woman innocently asked, "Well what is Appomattox?" Oh dear. "Well you see ma'am…" Anyway. Since Appomattox 65 — you know what that is? That's more than one per day — have been published in this country on this event. Why?

What does Robert Penn Warren mean when he said, "The Civil War draws us as an oracle, darkly unriddled and portentous of our personal and our national fate"? That's pretty grandiose language, but what did Warren mean? What did Gertrude Stein mean when she said, "There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War"? Of all people, Gertrude Stein was hopelessly interested in this event. "There never will be anything more interesting than that American Civil War," she said. Why are so many people into this? Why do people want to read about it, re-enact it, go play it, go visit it? Is it just heritage tourism? Is it just the attraction of military history? What is it that compels us to remember the most divisive, the most bloody, the most tragic event in our national history? And how do we remember it? Have we sometimes cleaned it up with such pleasing mythology that we've just made it fun?

Why is the Confederate flag a problem? Why doesn't it just go away? It's the second most ubiquitous American symbol across the world, especially since Michael Jordan quit playing. Other than the U.S. flag, the Confederate flag is the most ubiquitous symbol of the United — maybe Coca Cola, okay, but Coca Cola's an international symbol now. You can find the Confederate flag everywhere in this world. I spent a year in Germany and I've traveled a lot in Eastern Europe. I saw it all over the place. I was in Prague, the Czech Republic, in 1993. Jim McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, a book you're assigned largely as background, the largest selling book on the American Civil War published in the last twenty-five years. International bestseller, sixteen weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, was translated into Czech. I mean, nobody reads Czech. Except the Czechs, and even them, even they tend to read fiction in German. Anyway, I was at a bookstore, they had a big display of Jim McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, the whole bookstore window. I couldn't believe it. But how did they display it? With Confederate flags. And they missed the point of the title of the book, but never mind. How do you portray the American symbol less symbolically? Oh it's that Confederate flag that will tell us right away what this is about. Why? Why doesn't the Confederate flag just go away?

Or put another way, why do you love the Civil War? I can't tell you how many thousands of times in public lectures, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera in my — and all Civil War historians face this — people will come up afterward. Usually they want to show you their grandfather's letters, but they'll say, "I just love the Civil War." And you want to just stop them for a moment and say, "You need a shrink." Or, "What is it you love? Is it the aftermath at Antietam? Is it the trenches of Spotsylvania? Is it the latrines at Andersonville? Is it Booth killing Lincoln? What is it you love?"

Is it because we love epics? Is it because a lot of people really are kind of hardwired maybe? We may even be hardwired — biologically — for story. I can't prove that but there's a lot of research on this. Are we hardwired for story, and therefore, to some degree, for epic stories that have heroes and villains and beginnings and ends and great collisions? Maybe.

Is it because Americans love redemption? And people around the world love to think that about us sometimes too. Is it because we like to see or we've converted this terribly divisive experience into a great unifier? Do we go back and look at the Civil War not only to see the beginnings of our own modern time, in a modern American nation, a second American Republic, born out of the death of the first and so on and so forth? But do we actually go back to this most dividing experience to figure out how we became unified? Or as William Dean Howells put it in 1900 in a lovely line, he said, "What the American people always like is a tragedy as long as they can give it a happy ending."

Is it because we see the American Civil War, or have learned to see it, as American's first great racial reckoning? Where the nation's national sin of slavery, as some like to put it, had to finally be remitted in some way, purged, cleansed? In the language used by both sides in this war, of purgings and cleansings. The war that brought a reckoning from 250 years of slavery, destroyed a slave society, brought the end of the First American Republic, and the revolution of emancipation. I think there's a lot to argue that Americans have begun, at least, they've just begun this, to love the Civil War because they love emancipation. They want to live in the nation that freed its slaves.

My favorite line in George Bush the first's Inaugural Address in 1989 — and I'm probably the only one that ever bothers to remember this line or maybe the only one who cares. But Peggy Noonan wrote him a sentence. It's classic inaugural rhetoric and it comes right after the section in Bush One's inaugural where he's saying we must put the war in Vietnam behind us, it is too divisive and so on. And then there's a line where he says, "We must remember, we are the nation that sent 600,000 of its sons to die rather than have slavery." Now, who wouldn't want to live in that country? That's a great line in an inaugural address. Of course it's ignoring the fact that at least half of those people died to preserve slavery. But never mind, I mean — Do we love the Civil War because sometimes there's a lot of guilty pleasure, or not so guilty pleasure, in just loving the details of military history? And if you're one of those, fine, that's great. I had that stage, too. I will confess, if you make me. But what is all that nostalgia about for those battlefields?

Or is it because this experience in American history is ultimately about loss? Are we attracted to loss? Is loss more interesting sometimes than victory? And by loss I mean defeat but also loss in terms of human life, treasure, proportions of civilizations that died. Take loss for just a moment. If you took the 620,000-odd Americans who died in the Civil War, you moved it ahead to the Vietnam era in roughly the twelve years the United States fought in Vietnam, per capita — okay? — approximately four million Americans would've died in Vietnam. That's the scale of death and loss in the Civil War — four million. Now Americans will never sustain four million casualties in a war, I would argue. I can't prove that. Unless Osama bin Laden is coming through that window. Who knows, maybe he will one day. Wouldn't that be cool? You wouldn't sleep through that lecture. But I don't think Americans will ever sustain that kind — but four million — if you came, per capita from the Civil War-era population to the era of Vietnam.

Every year at Antietam, in rural Maryland, on the anniversary of the battle, 17th of September, they put out illuminati, or the illuminaria, excuse me — no, no, whoa, that's a slip — illuminaria, or the little candle lamps, all over the battlefield. They put 23,000 of them out, which was the number of casualties in eight hours at Antietam. And when the sun goes down you can look at the battlefield and get a sense of this kind of powerful, almost artistic sense of the loss. Every one of those little candle lights was a human life.

Related to that, is the American imagination for this event still stimulated in part because sometimes we just like lost causes? We are attracted to defeat sometimes more than we are attracted to victory. Loss in war is sometimes more interesting. Lost causes somehow represent the rebel spirit, a rebellious spirit, an insurrectionary spirit, an insurgent spirit. Some people may be attracted in that way.

And maybe last but not least, and this list could go on and on, there is I think an interest in the Civil War, among serious readers in particular because it does somehow satisfy that search we often all have for origins. The origins of the modern nation state, the origins of big government, the origins of centralized power, the origins of what seemed to be the death of state's rights; but it surely didn't die, did it? We have a state's rights Supreme Court now, in case you didn't notice. The birth of a kind of modernity in America, in many forms, comes out of this era. It doesn't just come out of the Battle of Gettysburg but it surely comes out of the era.

There's also this sense in which, somehow, in that experience of the Civil War in the middle of the nineteen century — fought for the existence of an American nation and for the new definition of that nation, and just how free and equal the people in it would be — is where we may somehow see that transformation from a pre-modern to a more modern world. And sometimes I suspect that's what attracts us.

Chapter 6. Whitman's "Democracy" and Conclusion [00:38:46]

Now, the watch says I only have about two minutes. So let me leave you here. I do think sometimes we're attracted because war is just so beguilingly fascinating. And Drew Faust, a wonderful historian whom you now know is the President of Harvard University, has just published a brand new book, it's literally just out this week. I read it in manuscript, I have a blurb on the back. It's called The Republic of Suffering. And she has much to say in that book, which I highly recommend, about why death is so interesting.

Let me leave you with this. Thursday, I'm going to take up the Old South and begin this comparison of the Old South to the growing capitalist — well, both sides were highly capitalist — northern society. But in 1850 or 1840s America you could find both extremes of, on the one hand, a tremendous seemingly unfathomable optimism about America. It seemed to be limitless and boundless, and nobody captured it, ever, any better than Walt Whitman. But you can also find expressions all over the culture, especially from African-Americans and abolitionists and some slaveholders of a great dread about the direction of the country. In Whitman's first line of his Drum-Taps, his famous collection of Civil War poetry, comes that phrase, which is up here: "First O Songs for a Prelude." And that first poem in Drum-Taps is Whitman trying to capture just how exciting war can be.

But he'd also written a poem like "Democracy." And I'll leave you with this, and I'll start with a response to it on Thursday. In Whitman's "Democracy," as well as several other Whitman poems, you can find this limitless sense of optimism. Just listen to his words: "Sail, sail thy best ship of Democracy. Of value is thy freight, 'tis not the Present only, the Past is also stored in thee." This America, this thing called America to him is the whole world's new beginning. "Thou holdest not the venture of thyself alone, not the Western continent alone. Earth's résumé entire floats on thy keel! O ship is steadied by thy spars. With thee Time voyages in trust. The antecedent nations sink or swim with thee." America is everything, according to Whitman. "With all their ancient struggles, martyrs, heroes, epics, wars though bearest the other continents. Theirs, theirs as much as thine, the destination-port triumphant. Steer then with good strong hand and wary eye. O helmsmen, though carriest great companions. How can I pierce the impenetrable blank of your future? I feel thy ominous greatness, evil as well as good. I watch thee advancing, absorbing the present, transcending the past. I see thy light lighting and thy shadow shadowing as if the entire globe. But I do not undertake to define thee, hardly can I comprehend thee." Well that's Whitman saying, as we all do at times, "America is an idea." This course is the story of what that idea was and what happened to it, and the chance it had coming out of it. 

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