As we enter into the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction many historians are questioning how to re-interpret the period and present it to the public. From a lay perspective history is often seen as stagnant, made up of names, dates, and facts to be learned and recited. But in reality, the understanding of history shifts and changes as new evidence is uncovered or a new interpretation is adopted. In historian lingo this is called historiography, essentially the history of how history has been understood and presented in the past. In terms of Reconstruction, there has been a wide swing of scholarship in the last century.Read More
What are the boundaries of Reconstruction and how can historians redefine them? This was the subject of a roundtable session at the Southern featuring Stephen Hahn, Stacy L. Smith, Elliott West, and Heather C. Richardson as panelists. Historians usually define the period of Reconstruction as 1865-1877 where Americans rebuilt the country and racial relations after the Civil War and most equate the end of Reconstruction with the destruction of black civil rights in the south. These historians challenged the audience to rethink the meanings of Reconstruction.Read More
The small town of Irwinville, Georgia would become the setting for one of the greatest and perhaps overlooked episodes of the sesquicentennial story. In a piece announcing the victorious capture of Davis in Harper’ Weekly, a Union officer commented on the night of May 11, 1865, “a fight ensued, both parties exhibiting the greatest determination…the captors report that he (Davis) hastily put on one of his wife’s dresses and started for the woods, closely followed by our men, who at first thought him a woman, but seeing his boots while he was running, they suspected his sex at once.” And so begins the legend of Davis the cross-dresser.Read More
Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston to Union General William Sherman. While history focuses on Lee’s surrender at Appomattox as the end of the Civil War, Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place was significantly larger and demonstrates the lack of a definitive end to the war.Read More
April 14, 1865 dawned as a good day in Washington, D.C., not merely because of the religious importance of Good Friday to the city’s Christians, but more due to the events of the past eleven days. In just over a week and a half the Civil War began to rush towards a momentous finish. On April 3, Richmond, the Confederate capital, fell to the Army of the Potomac. Less than a week later, roughly seventy-five miles to the west and south, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, retiring the Confederacy’s most formidable fighting force. Despite this bevy of success, the war was not yet over. Joseph E. Johnston continued to elude Union forces in North Carolina, Jefferson Davis and most of the Confederate government remained at large, and scattered pockets of resisted still stood across many rural reaches of the South. Yet, for many in Washington, including Abraham Lincoln, the final act of the conflict was near at hand. As Richard Carwardine noted in his biography of Abraham Lincoln, these were “twilight days between war and peace.” Indeed, by the end of Good Friday, a day which began so promising in the nation’s capital, that twilight would seem all the more deeper.Read More
Now that the 150th anniversary of Appomattox has passed, the Civil War sesquicentennial is over, right? Not quite.
Most Americans consider Appomattox the end of the war; that was certainly what I was taught in school when I was younger. However, Robert E. Lee’s surrender is only the beginning of the end. When Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox he surrendered only the men under his command, not the entire military force of the Confederate States of America.Read More
Much has been made of the surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. Historians note that myth surrounds those final bedraggled days of the Army of Northern Virginia, the magnanimity with which Union soldiers welcomed their fellow Americans back into a nation at peace, and the causes won and lost in the subsequent years. Though it took months for the rest of the remaining Confederate forces to surrender their arms, no moment stands more clearly in historical memory as marking the end of the United States’ most costly war than the meeting in which Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces to Ulysses Grant. While myth may obscure some of the more concrete realities of that day – what was with Wilmer McClean anyway? – the peace wrought by those two great generals was nothing short of remarkable both for what it ended and what it began.Read More
The Battle of Sailor’s Creek, many will argue, was a final death knell for Lee’s army. In the day’s engagements Lee lost about a quarter to one-third of his army (depending on which casualty report you look at), 8,800 men out of the roughly 30,000 effectives he had that morning. Of these casualties, around 7,700 were captured or surrendered—one of the largest surrenders without terms during the war. Among this number was almost the entire corps of Richard Ewell—3,400 of his 3,600 men were among the dead and captured. Ewell himself was taken prisoner, along with seven other Confederate generals: Joseph B. Kershaw, Montgomery Corse, Eppa Hunton, Dudley M. DuBose, James P. Smith, Seth Barton, and Robert E. Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee. Anderson’s corps lost around 2,600 out of 6,300 and Gordon’s casualties numbered at 2,000.Read More
The Union army broke the Confederate lines at Petersburg early on April 2 after the engagement at Five Forks the previous day. Lee knew the position was lost, and the army’s only hope was to move west to find reinforcements and supplies. With the Confederate army moving west, Richmond was now exposed to the Union army. That night the Confederate government and the troops left in the city evacuated in haste, taking the last open rail line to Danville, VA, which would be the last seat of the Confederate government. Throughout the night into April 3, retreating Confederates set fire to portions of the Confederate capital, hoping to destroy supplies before the Union soldiers could reach them.Read More
In the waning days of March 1865, as the armies in both blue and gray languished in the muddy trenches of Petersburg, Ulysses S. Grant still searched for a final, climatic battle. However, since 1861 the Civil War had transformed into a type of warfare very different than lines of soldiers advancing across open, rolling fields. As both armies settled into miles of intricately built trenches and stalemate ensued, that Clausewitzian final battle of apocalyptic proportions seemed increasingly unlikely. The end of the war would come, but in ways not even the premier military leaders of the time expected.
As winter turned to spring in 1865, Robert E. Lee’s confederate Army of Northern Virginia was suffering from a chronic lack of supplies, rising casualty figures, and heavy desertion. However, the Virginian had created an extremely strong line of defenses around Petersburg that the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that was the Army of the Potomac had been unable to breach. Grant knew that if a weakness on this line could be found and exploited properly, it could not only mean the fall of Petersburg and subsequently Richmond, but eventually the surrender of Lee’s Army and the end of the war.
This opportunity came on Petersburg’s Western Front 150 years ago, on April 1, 1865, at a place where five roads converged. It became not only a battle of strategic importance, but also a captivating study in leadership and reputation. The Battle of Five Forks was brief, but its significance unquestionable.Read More
The 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox is less than a month away.
If you have spent any time around a battlefield or related Civil War historic sites, you have probably heard people musing about what these commemorative landscapes will look like after the sesquicentennial closes. In short, many (most) people presume: they won’t look like much. Even die-hard Civil War buffs are predicting a sharp decline in visitation, interest, and enthusiasm once Appomattox passes.
I find that deeply troubling.Read More
The time I spent working at Ford’s Theatre and President Lincoln’s Cottage exposed me to research that left me with one common-sense conclusion: there were many different Abraham Lincolns. Just like we are one person with old friends from college and another person with our students, people are complex. I do not want anyone to think “Lincoln was such a giant and so iconic, that he must be different than all of us.” On the contrary, Lincoln was very much like us: multi-faceted. Here lies the question: Which Lincoln is your Lincoln? As we set to enter the year 2015 and begin planning commemorative activities for President Lincoln’s assassination I wonder, what do you remember most about his legacy as a person? Could it be Lincoln the Great Emancipator or Lincoln the Lawyer? Better yet, what about Lincoln the Commander in Chief? Two of my personal favorites: Lincoln the Family Man and Lincoln the Theatre Lover.Read More
The United States did not enter the Civil War with the intent to destroy slavery. However, by the end of the war in 1865 slavery had been dealt its death blow. Today marks the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment passing Congress, and moving on to the states for ratification. While the Emancipation Proclamation is more famous, it was the 13th Amendment that gave emancipation meaning and solidified the end of the war as the end of slavery in America.Read More
Dr. James A. Mowris surveyed the scene around him and could not help but be struck by its terrible grandeur. The forty year-old surgeon, under whose care were the veteran soldiers of the 117th New York Infantry, watched enraptured as thousands of Union troops disembarked onto the North Carolina coast. As the “downy web footed infantry” splashed ashore, a United States Navy fleet provided cover fire, bombarding Confederate-held Fort Fisher nearby. Fort Fisher protected the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, where for four years sleek Confederate blockade runners had slipped past Union warships and returned laden with much needed provisions, war materials, medicine, and more. By 1865, Wilmington was the Confederacy’s last remaining open port, a thin golden lifeline the connected the beleaguered South to the outside world and all its riches. Yet James A. Mowris and the nearly 9,000 other Union soldiers accompanying him had arrived to cut that invaluable lifeline. It was Friday the 13th, January, 1865, and the last great coastal campaign of the Civil War was underway.Read More