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Archive for the ‘Guerra civil norteamericana’ Category

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The Civil War and the Southern Belle

In the beginning of the war, Southern women wanted their men to leave — in droves, and as quickly as possible. They were the Confederate Army’s most persuasive and effective recruitment officers, shaming anyone who shirked his duty to fight. A young English immigrant in Arkansas enlisted after being accosted at a recruitment meeting. “If every man did not hasten to battle, they vowed they would themselves rush out and meet the Yankee vandals,” he wrote of Southern women. “In a land where women are worshipped by men, such language made them war-mad.”

Newspapers printed gender-bending cartoons that drove the point home. In one, a musket-wielding woman dressed in trousers and a kepi looms over her cowering beau, insisting, “Either you or I, sir.” One Alabama schoolgirl spoke for many of her peers when she declared, “I would not marry a coward.” At balls and parties girls linked arms and sang, “I am Bound to be a Soldier’s Wife or Die an Old Maid.” One belle, upon hearing that her fiancé refused to enlist, sent her slave to deliver a package enclosing a note. The package contained a skirt and crinoline, and the note these terse words: “Wear these, or volunteer.” He volunteered.

A Winslow Homer drawing from 1865 showing a captain, who lost an arm, with his newly independent wife.

A Winslow Homer drawing from 1865 showing a captain, who lost an arm, with his newly independent wife.Credit Brooklyn Museum


In the sudden absence of husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus, white Southern women discovered a newfound freedom — one that simultaneously granted them more power in relationships and increased their likelihood of heartbreak. Gone were the traditions of antebellum courtships, where family connections and wealth were paramount and a closed circle of friends and neighbors scrutinized potential mates, a process that could last for years. The war’s disruptions forced elite Southern parents to loosen rules regarding chaperoning and coquetry, which one prominent lecturer called “an artful mixture of hypocrisy, fraud, treachery and falsehood” that risked tarnishing a girl’s reputation. The girls themselves relinquished the anticipation, instilled since birth, that they would one day assume their positions as wives, mothers and slave mistresses, that their lives would be steeped in every privilege and comfort. The war ultimately challenged not only long-held traditions of courtship and marriage, but the expectation that one might wed at all.

At least in cities where the Confederate Army established a base of operations, young women were overwhelmed by the number of prospective suitors. Thousands of men flocked to the Confederate capital of Richmond, prepared to work in one of the government departments or to train for duty in the Army. The Central Fair Grounds just west of the city were transformed into “Camp Lee,” where the new recruits set up tents and conducted military drills. “Between eight and ten thousand men went down Main St. this afternoon,” wrote a 16-year-old Richmond diarist. “It was very tantalizing to me to hear the drum and the cheering and to be able to see nothing but their bayonets and the tops of their heads. It is wicked in me to wish that I had gone out so that I might see them, and not to wish that I had gone to church, but I love the soldiers so much, that I forget almost everything else when I get to thinking about them.”

Troops marching through the capital blew kisses to the Richmond belles, who returned the attention with unprecedented abandon, waving handkerchiefs and tossing pocket Bibles and pincushions. In the antebellum years, new acquaintances required a formal letter of introduction, but the war allowed for association with complete strangers, men whose names they didn’t even know. The women took unchaperoned trips to Confederate campgrounds, going on horseback rides and picnics, allowing uniformed men to serenade them and plant lingering kisses on their hands — all activities once restricted to engaged couples. Even their style of banter changed, turning aggressive and overtly political, a rebellion against their old identities as genteel Southern ladies. “I confess myself a rebel, body and soul,” declared a Louisiana girl, adding, “Confess? I glory in it!” Union soldiers occupying Southern towns complained of “she-rebels” who spat at them and emptied the contents of chamber pots on their heads.

The relaxed wartime atmosphere led to increased physical intimacy, although in letters and diaries Southern women admitted only to flirting. Casual relationships, and even casual engagements — “slight, silly love affairs,” as one woman called them — flourished. Both women and men kept engagements secret, sometimes specifying that each was still free to see others. “Neither of us is to consider this engagement binding,” wrote a Georgia belle to her betrothed, a Confederate lieutenant. “If another is loved, no sense of honor will prevent our immediately letting the other know of it — so you are still at liberty to fall in love with whom you please, without considering me at all in the way.” One Georgia cavalryman predicted, “If we Stay heare much longer in about 9 months from now thare will be more little Gorgians [sic] a Squalling through this contry then you can Shake a Stick at.” Such liaisons could endanger elite women’s reputations and, in some cases, their lives. One Richmond woman, who became pregnant after an affair with a married Confederate officer, died as a result of complications from a self-induced abortion.

Southern women in rural areas grappled with entirely different concerns: the dearth of suitable men — or any men at all. By the summer of 1863, in New Bern, N. C., only 20 of the 250 white people remaining in town were men. The war was on its way to claiming one in five white Southern men of military age (leaving behind more than 70,000 widows), a situation that prompted frantic letters to the editor. “Having made up my mind not to be an old maid,” an 18-year-old Virginian wrote to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, “and having only a moderate fortune and less beauty, I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes” (nevertheless she hopefully listed her skills, which included making brandy peaches and “throw[ing] socks in a corner”).

Widowed women in their 30s faced stiff competition for available men in their age group, and suffered constant reminders of their grim odds. The editor of the Petersburg (Va.) Daily Register took pity on older eligible women during the social season of 1864, helpfully warning them against using rouge. “Bachelors are a shy game,” he pointed out, “and when convinced of one deception imagine many more.” As if strategizing over how to thwart younger rivals wasn’t taxing enough, the widows were also national laughingstocks — punch lines to the endless “old maid” jokes that became a staple of American humor. If you were alive during the Civil War, chances are you heard the one about the schoolboy who threw a stone at a dog; he missed the pooch, but hit seven old maids.

As time passed and casualties mounted, some women grew resigned to the idea of life without a husband, while others compromised on acceptable partners. “One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow,” one South Carolina woman mused. “Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace … seemed charming.” One in 13 soldiers returned home missing limbs, and the press, pulpit and politicians reminded Southern women that it was their patriotic duty to marry disabled veterans. The “limping soldier,” argued the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, should be treated as aristocracy after the war: “To the young ladies I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve.” There was, of course, a third option that some women took: the unspeakable faux pas of marrying a Yankee. A Nashville girl wrote her brother in the Confederate Army that the local belles were “dropping off into the arms of the ruthless invader.” One, a girl who carried a stiletto and threatened to emulate Charlotte Corday should the enemy invade her city, had “gone the way of all flesh and married an officer with that detestable eagle on his shoulder.”

Toward the end of the war, many Southern women who were widowed or had never married sustained themselves with female friendships (or “Boston marriages,” as they came to be called in the North). They proudly proclaimed their independence, asserting that they preferred the freedom of single life to the entanglements of marriage — a risky “lottery,” in the words of a Louisiana diarist, that subjected women to the “despotism of one man.” While they certainly mourned the deaths of male suitors — as they did the deaths of male relatives — they no longer considered spinsterhood a tragedy. “Clara … thinks we’ll all be old maids yet,” wrote a South Carolinian, recording a friend’s predictions. She added, “I don’t doubt it, neither do I care very much.”

By 1865, all Southern women — the happily and regrettably single, the perpetually engaged, the wives and widows — had tired of the war. The Confederacy was shrinking, and the morale of its remaining men shrinking with it. The Northern press ran a widely reprinted cartoon called “sowing” and “reaping,” chiding Southern women for “hounding their men on to Rebellion” and then complaining about its effects. The Union blockade had sent the cost of goods and food skyrocketing. They were starving; they feared the terrors of Yankee occupation; they had exhausted both their patriotism and their patience. “Oh my dear husband how shall I live without you?” wrote one Mississippi woman. “When will this cruel war end?” It was time, at last, for the surviving husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus to lay down their arms and come home.

Karen Abbott’s forthcoming book, “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War,” will be published in September. Her website is http://www.karenabbott.net.

SOURCES: Catherine Clinton, “Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South”; Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Women in the American Civil War”; Giselle Roberts, “The Confederate Belle”; Anya Jabour, “Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South”; David Andrew Silkenat, “Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War era North Carolina” (dissertation); Lacy K. Ford, “A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction”; Mary Elizabeth Massey, “Women in the Civil War”; Richard F. Selcer, “Civil War America, 1850-1875”; A. Wilson Greene, “Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War”; William C. David and Russ A. Pritchard, “Fighting Men of the Civil War”; Stephen W. Berry, “All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South” and “Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges”; Amy Murrell Taylor, “The Divided Family in Civil War America”; J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns.”

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This Is How Racist America Was During the Civil War

HNN August 1, 2014

During the Civil War, many New York City newspapers were closely aligned with the anti-war, pro-Southern wing of the Democratic Party. Republicans called them “Copperheads” after the venomous snakes that originate in the area that had become the Confederacy. Their hatred of Abraham Lincoln was probably only surpassed by their virulent racism and hatred of Black Americans. Their pages were filled with racially offensive language that would be blipped out on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and most newspapers today are hesitant about printing. I use the word “nigger” in this op ed. I do not use it lightly and I will only use it when quoting directly from newspaper articles from the era. I do not believe it is possible to convey the depth of racism in Northern society during the Civil War era without using this inflammatory and defamatory term.

In 1864 the Daily News was accused of receiving payments from Confederate agents to promote anti-war rallies in New York City and it inflamed racial tension by claiming that racial mixing or miscegenation was the “doctrine and dogma” of the Republican Party. The editorial page of the Weekly Day-Book, which from October 1861 to October 1863 was known as The Caucasian, carried the banner “White Men Must Rule America.”

In the months leading up to the July 1863 Draft Riots, John Mullaly, editor of the Roman Catholic Church’s newspaper, Metropolitan Record, called for armed resistance. At a Union Square rally May 19, 1863, Mullaly declared “the war to be wicked, cruel and unnecessary, and carried on solely to benefit the negroes, and advised resistance to conscription if ever the attempt should be made to enforce the law.” Following the July Draft riots, Mullaly was indicted for “inciting resistance to the draft.”

In its August 23, 1863 issue, the Herald, which had the largest circulation in the country, predicted that the Republican Party would eventually nominate and unite behind Abraham Lincoln when it realized he was the person “predestined and foreordained by Providence to carry on the war, free the niggers, and give all of the faithful a share of the spoils.” On October 7, 1863, the Herald described the Ohio gubernatorial election as a battle to decide “whether the copperheads or the niggerheads are more obnoxious to the great conservative body of the people.”

The 1864 Presidential election provided the Copperhead press an opportunity to express open, casual, and nasty racism. A key figure was journalist David Goodman Croly, who at one time or another worked for the New York Evening Post, the Herald, and the World. Croly helped to anonymously produce one of the more avowedly racist attacks on Republicans and African Americans produced during the Civil War, a 72-page pamphlet titled “Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the White Man and the Negro.” The pamphlet charged that the Civil War was a war of “amalgamation” with the goal of “blending of the white and black,” starting with the intermixing of Negroes and Irish.

Many newspapers, including the World, argued the pamphlet was the work of abolitionists and represented their actual program, rather than an attempt to undermine abolition. The New York Freeman’s Journal & Catholic Register, a “peace at any cost” Democratic Party newspaper closely aligned with Fernando Wood, claimed that the “beastly doctrine of the intermarriage of black men and white women” had been “encouraged by the President of the United States” and that “filthy black niggers” were mingling with “white people and even ladies everywhere, even at the President’s levees.”

The editors of the New York Times, were eventually sucked in by the fraud. In a March 19, 1864 editorial, they wrote, “We regret to learn from numerous sources that we are on the point of witnessing intermarriage on a grand scale between the whites and blacks of this Republic. It has, as most of our readers are aware, been long held by logicians of the Democratic school, that once you admit the right of a negro to the possession of his own person, and the receipt of his own wages, you are bound either to marry his sister, or give your daughter in marriage to his son. The formula into which this argument has always been thrown was this: If all blacks are fit to be free every white man is bound to marry a black: ‘Niggers’ are blacks: Therefore every white man is bound to marry a ‘nigger.’ “

A week later, on March 26, 1864, a Times editorial stated: “we have no hesitation in saying that if we had at the outset conceived it possible that hostility to Slavery would ever have led to wholesale intermarriage with negroes, or of all marriageable Republicans and their sisters, that party should never have received any countenance or support from this journal. We owe it to ourselves and posterity to say that the odious matrimonial arrangements, into which so many of those whose opinions on certain great questions of public policy we have hitherto shared, have taken us wholly by surprise.”

By March 30, 1864 the Times had realized it was a victim of a hoax. “Trusting entirely, as we stated at the time, to the assertions of the Copperhead press, we have made mention of sundry movements alleged to be in process for the more wide-spread diffusion of the new political gospel of Miscegenation . . .  [T]he Copperhead newspapers have been spreading false reports, which is scarcely conceivable.” However, not only did the paper not apologize for its racism, but it complained “[t]he Copperheads are responsible for this state of things. They have aroused the whole colored community, by their highly-colored pictures of the connubial fate that awaits them at Republican hands, to a state of intense excitement.”

Given the virulent racism of the anti-war Copperhead Democrats and the still open racism of both the pro-war Democrats and Unionist Republicans in New York City and the north, it is amazing that slavery in the United States ended at all. Emancipation was a tribute to the doggedness of abolitionists, Black and White, the need for Black manpower for the North to win the war, and major miscalculations by Southern secessionists who mistakenly exaggerated Northern opposition to slavery and support for Black rights.

Alan Singer is a historian and Professor of Secondary Education at Hofstra University, author of “New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth” (2008), and editor of the “New York and Slavery: Complicity and Resistance” curriculum that received the 2005 National Council for the Social Studies program of excellence award.  This piece was written with research assistance from Joseph Palaia, graduate student, Hofstra University.

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How Coffee Fueled the Civil War

Jon Grispan

The New York Times  July 9, 2014

index2It was the greatest coffee run in American history. The Ohio boys had been fighting since morning, trapped in the raging battle of Antietam, in September 1862. Suddenly, a 19-year-old William McKinley appeared, under heavy fire, hauling vats of hot coffee. The men held out tin cups, gulped the brew and started firing again. “It was like putting a new regiment in the fight,” their officer recalled. Three decades later, McKinley ran for president in part on this singular act of caffeinated heroism.

At the time, no one found McKinley’s act all that strange. For Union soldiers, and the lucky Confederates who could scrounge some, coffee fueled the war. Soldiers drank it before marches, after marches, on patrol, during combat. In their diaries, “coffee” appears more frequently than the words “rifle,” “cannon” or “bullet.” Ragged veterans and tired nurses agreed with one diarist: “Nobody can ‘soldier’ without coffee.”

Union troops made their coffee everywhere, and with everything: with water from canteens and puddles, brackish bays and Mississippi mud, liquid their horses would not drink. They cooked it over fires of plundered fence rails, or heated mugs in scalding steam-vents on naval gunboats. When times were good, coffee accompanied beefsteaks and oysters; when they were bad it washed down raw salt-pork and maggoty hardtack. Coffee was often the last comfort troops enjoyed before entering battle, and the first sign of safety for those who survived.

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A sketch of exchanged Union prisoners receiving rations aboard the ship New York. Library of Congress

The Union Army encouraged this love, issuing soldiers roughly 36 pounds of coffee each year. Men ground the beans themselves (some carbines even had built-in grinders) and brewed it in little pots called muckets. They spent much of their downtime discussing the quality of that morning’s brew. Reading their diaries, one can sense the delight (and addiction) as troops gushed about a “delicious cup of black,” or fumed about “wishy-washy coffee.” Escaped slaves who joined Union Army camps could always find work as cooks if they were good at “settling” the coffee – getting the grounds to sink to the bottom of the unfiltered muckets.

For much of the war, the massive Union Army of the Potomac made up the second-largest population center in the Confederacy, and each morning this sprawling city became a coffee factory. First, as another diarist noted, “little campfires, rapidly increasing to hundreds in number, would shoot up along the hills and plains.” Then the encampment buzzed with the sound of thousands of grinders simultaneously crushing beans. Soon tens of thousands of muckets gurgled with fresh brew.

Confederates were not so lucky. The Union blockade kept most coffee out of seceded territory. One British observer noted that the loss of coffee “afflicts the Confederates even more than the loss of spirits,” while an Alabama nurse joked that the fierce craving for caffeine would, somehow, be the Union’s “means of subjugating us.” When coffee was available, captured or smuggled or traded with Union troops during casual cease-fires, Confederates wrote rhapsodically about their first sip.

The problem spilled over to the Union invaders. When Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union troops decided to live off plunder and forage as they cut their way through Georgia and South Carolina, soldiers complained that while food was plentiful, there were no beans to be found. “Coffee is only got from Uncle Sam,” an Ohio officer grumbled, and his men “could scarce get along without it.”

Confederate soldiers and civilians would not go without. Many cooked up coffee substitutes, roasting corn or rye or chopped beets, grinding them finely and brewing up something warm and brown. It contained no caffeine, but desperate soldiers claimed to love it. Gen. George Pickett, famous for that failed charge at Gettysburg, thanked his wife for the delicious “coffee” she had sent, gushing: “No Mocha or Java ever tasted half so good as this rye-sweet-potato blend!”

Did the fact that Union troops were near jittery from coffee, while rebels survived on impotent brown water, have an impact on the outcome of the conflict? Union soldiers certainly thought so. Though they rarely used the word “caffeine,” in their letters and diaries they raved about that “wonderful stimulant in a cup of coffee,” considering it a “nerve tonic.” One depressed soldier wrote home that he was surprised that he was still living, and reasoned: “what keeps me alive must be the coffee.”

Others went further, considering coffee a weapon of war. Gen. Benjamin Butler ordered his men to carry coffee in their canteens, and planned attacks based on when his men would be most caffeinated. He assured another general, before a fight in October 1864, that “if your men get their coffee early in the morning you can hold.”

Coffee did not win the war – Union material resources and manpower played a much, much bigger role than the quality of its Java – but it might say something about the victors. From one perspective, coffee was emblematic of the new Northern order of fast-paced wage labor, a hurried, business-minded, industrializing nation of strivers. For years, Northern bosses had urged their workers to switch from liquor to coffee, dreaming of sober, caffeinated, untiring employees. Southerners drank coffee too – in New Orleans especially – but the way Union soldiers gulped the stuff at every meal pointed ahead toward the world the war made, a civilization that lives on today in every office breakroom.

But more than that, coffee was simply delicious, soothing – “the soldier’s chiefest bodily consolation” – for men and women pushed beyond their limits. Caffeine was secondary. Soldiers often brewed coffee at the end of long marches, deep in the night while other men assembled tents. These grunts were too tired for caffeine to make a difference; they just wanted to share a warm cup – of Brazilian beans or scorched rye – before passing out.

This explains their fierce love. When one captured Union soldier was finally freed from a prison camp, he meditated on his experiences. Over his first cup of coffee in more than a year, he wondered if he could ever forgive “those Confederate thieves for robbing me of so many precious doses.” Getting worked up, he fumed, “Just think of it, in three hundred days there was lost to me, forever, so many hundred pots of good old Government Java.”

So when William McKinley braved enemy fire to bring his comrades a warm cup – an act memorialized in a stone monument at Antietam today – he knew what it meant to them.

Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook.

Jon Grinspan

Jon Grinspan is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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 A Woman at War

Erin Lindsay

New York Times

June 30, 2014

 

index2On June 19, 1864, Pvt. Lyons Wakeman died of dysentery in the Marine U.S.A. General Hospital in New Orleans, after having marched 200 miles and seen combat at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, part of the Union’s Red River campaign in Louisiana. But it would be years before Wakeman’s real identity was revealed: Lyons Wakeman was born a woman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

The only people who knew for certain the soldier’s true identity were the parents and eight siblings Lyons left behind. But even they decided to keep the soldier’s secret, and afterward spoke only of Lyons as their beloved brother.

How Rosetta – she went by her middle name – managed to conceal her identity during her final month in the hospital is still a mystery. Perhaps those caring for her knew, but simply decided to let Rosetta carry the secret she’d kept for the entire two years she’d served in the 153rd New York State Volunteers to her grave in the Chalmette National Cemetery near New Orleans, where she is buried under her alias.

When Rosetta first left home in rural upstate New York, in the summer of 1862, she found employment as a canal man, agreeing “to run 4 trips from Binghamton to Utica for 20$ in money,” according to her letters home. It was on her first trip ferrying coal that Rosetta “saw some soldiers” near Utica who encouraged her to enlist for three years, gaining her “100 and 52$ in money” plus $13 a month thereafter – a substantial raise from the wages she had been earning.

Much of the money that Rosetta earned she sent home to her parents, telling them, “All the money I send you I want you should spend it for the family in clothing or something to eat.” Since her father was in debt, at least some of Rosetta’s motivation for enlisting was probably to help support her family. But she also alludes to more personal reasons, saying, “I want to drop all old affray and I want you to do the same and when i come home we will be good friends as ever,” and later remarking, “I had got tired of stay[ing] in that neighborhood. I knew that I could help you more to leave home than to stay.”

Private Lyons Wakeman. (Reflection of an Uncommom Man, http://gregsegroves.blogspot.com/2013/07/private-lyons-wakeman.html)

Private Lyons Wakeman. (Source: Reflection of an Uncommom Man, http://gregsegroves.blogspot.com/2013/07/private-lyons-wakeman.html)

What conflict she had with her family is unclear, but perhaps the answer lies in the independent spirit that shines through Rosetta’s letters, particularly when she writes, “I will dress as I have a mind to for all anyone else [cares], and if they don’t let me Alone they will be sorry for it.” She also reveals her hopes of having her own farm, “in Wisconsin. On the Prairie,” and her utter lack of fear of “rebel bullets.”

She does not seem the kind of young woman who would be happy in a traditionally feminine role, and indeed, over a year into her military service, she wrote, “I have enjoyed myself the best since I have been gone away from home than I ever did before in my life. I have had plenty of money to spend and a good time aSoldier[ing]. I find just as good friends among Strangers as I do at home.” She goes on to suggest that she might re-enlist for five years and $800. “I can do that if I am a mind to. What do you think about that?”

How Rosetta managed to serve without discovery is one of the great questions surrounding not just her, but all 250 known female Civil War soldiers. There are clues, however. She must have talked a good game when it came to engaging in typical male enterprises; she peppers many of her letters with questions about the family farm – even, in her last letter home, asking her father to “write all the particulars about that farm and let me know how much stock you have got to keep this summer and how many Calves you raise and how many hogs you have got.” Perhaps, too, as the eldest child, Rosetta had worked as her father’s farmhand and was no stranger to physical labor.

Rosetta must have been good at playing the part, too. She boasted how she could “drill as well as any man” and took up certain masculine mannerisms, telling her mother, “I use all the tobacco I want” and also admitting, “There is a good many temptations in the army. I got led away into this world So bad that I sinned a good deal.”

What exactly her sins were, she never mentions, though in a letter written on Jan. 20, 1864, a few day after her 21st birthday, she detailed a fistfight with another private in her company: “Mr. Stephen Wiley pitched on me and I give him three or four pretty good cracks and he put downstairs with him Self.” What caused the fight, Rosetta doesn’t say, but Wiley was court-martialed twice for drunkenness and once for theft during the fall of 1863, whereas Rosetta “never got to fighting but once.” Still, standing at only 5 feet tall, Rosetta, according to her own account, easily defended herself from Wiley, even though his records describe him as seven inches taller. She was an able soldier, performed her duties as required, and participated in combat bravely. Perhaps that was all the convincing she needed to do.

Interestingly, aside from her family, there were some soldiers who were aware of what Rosetta was doing. A year into her service, after having seen no one from home, she recounted how she “could hardly Stand it” when she learned that the 109th New York State Volunteers were stationed nearby. She obtained a pass to visit and “found Henry Austin and Perry Wilder. They knew me just as Soon as they see me. You better believe I had a good visit with them.” The two young men clearly recognized Rosetta, despite her disguise, and yet, when it was time for her to leave, they let her go and never told anyone of her true identity.

Many of the known female soldiers had help in keeping their secret: husbands, fiancés, family members. Even so, it seems certain that Rosetta and the other women performed their duties well and earned their fellow soldiers’ respect, enough so those same soldiers were willing to continue serving alongside them, and sometimes even testified in order to help the women earn veterans’ benefits.

Rosetta herself did not seem overly troubled by her deception. As part of her duties, she was a guard at Carroll Prison, where there were three female prisoners: “One of them was a Major in the union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels bullets was acoming like a hail storm she rode her horse and gave orders to the men. Now She is in Prison for not doing aCcordingly to the regulation of war.” After this brief description, plus noting the two Confederate spies were “smart looking women and [have] good education,” Rosetta makes no further remarks.

Did she guard these women directly? If so, did she and the female soldier acknowledge each other? What did Rosetta think about the possibility that she, too, might be imprisoned? We’ll never know. Surely it must have been comforting to find another woman in the ranks, even if it was also distressing to know that imprisonment could be her own fate.

Likewise, Rosetta was not much concerned with the reasons for the war. Though she guarded “contraband,” slaves who had been captured or had escaped north and were considered spoils of war, she never mentions slavery directly. Even when she notes that the army had drafted “black men as well as White men,” she makes no judgment. She never even once mentions the idea of preserving the Union, though when she learns of the New York draft riots, she writes, “I would like to see some of them Copperheads come down here and get killed.” And she then blames officers for the war’s dragging on, stating “if they would knock down the officers’ pay to 13$ a month, this war would soon be settle.” But it seems Rosetta’s biggest concerns were getting her pay, helping her family, participating in battle and deciding what she would do after the war.

Regardless of what Rosetta might have done had she lived, it is safe to say that her parents, Harvey and Emily, both native New Yorkers and at least fifth-generation Americans, never anticipated that their eldest daughter would be living as a man and writing letters home from the front lines of the Union Army’s Red River campaign, where she “was under fire about 4 hours and laid on the field of battle all night.” What is obvious is that even if her choices had caused concern, her family loved and respected her enough to preserve her letters and keep her photograph safe and her memory alive for generations. Hopefully, they found a way to be proud of her, too.

Follow Disunion at twitter.com/NYTcivilwar or join us on Facebook.


Sources: Lauren Cook Burgess, ed., “An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, Alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd Regiment, New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864”; DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, “They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War.”

Erin Lindsay McCabe

Erin Lindsay McCabe is the author of the novel “I Shall Be Near to You,” about the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman

 

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I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era

Marshall Poe 

New Books in History  June 5, 2014

David Williams

David Williams

Lincoln was very clear–at least in public–that the Civil War was not fought over slavery: it was, he 61eT-apOtrL._SL160_said, for the preservation of the Union first and foremost. So it’s not surprising that when the conflict started he had no firm plan to emancipate the slaves in the borderland or Southern states. He also knew that such a move might prove very unpopular in the North.

So why did he issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863? There are many reasons. According to David Williams‘ fascinating new book I Freed Myself: African American Self-Emancipation in the Civil War Era (Cambridge University Press, 2014), an important and neglected one has to do with African American self-emancipation. After the war began, masses of slaves began to leave the South and head for the Northern lines. The Union forces received them as “contraband” seized from the enemy during wartime. As such, their status was uncertain. Many wanted to fight or at least serve as auxiliaries in the Union armies like freemen, but they were still seen as property. As Williams points out, the North certainly needed their manpower–as Lincoln knew better than anyone. Bearing this in mind, the President felt the time was propitious to do what he thought was right all along–free the slaves. Listen in.

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The Political War

Allen C. Guelzo

The New York Times  June 5, 2014

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

A Union artillery battery at Cold Harbor. Library of <Congress

Pity Abraham Lincoln. Everything that should have gone right for the Union cause in the spring of 1864 had, in just a few weeks, gone defiantly and disastrously wrong.

For two years, the 16th president had toiled uphill against the secession of the Confederate states, against the incompetence of his luckless generals and against his howling critics from both sides of the congressional aisle. Finally, in the summer and fall of 1863, the course of the war had begun to turn his way. Two great victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg staggered the Confederates, and those were followed by a knockdown blow delivered at Chattanooga by the man who was fast becoming Lincoln’s favorite general, Ulysses S. Grant. “The signs look better,” Lincoln rejoiced, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did.”

Peace was not the only thing that would be brought closer by victory. The presidential election of 1864 was looming, and if Lincoln had any desire for a second term, a victorious end to the war was the surest way to secure it. He had never seriously considered taking what appeared to some people as an obvious shortcut to remaining in office – declaring the war to be a national emergency and suspending elections for the duration, though two Union governors, in Indiana and Illinois, had done what amounted to that on the state level. That only made the need for military victory all the more urgent, and so Lincoln installed Grant as general in chief of all the Union armies in March 1864, and Grant obliged him with a comprehensive strategic plan that united Union assaults in Georgia, Alabama and, under his own direct command, in Virginia.

None of it worked, and the place where it seemed to work the least was under Grant’s own nose. Crossing the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, Grant’s army entered at once into a series of head-to-head contests with Robert E. Lee’s fabled Army of Northern Virginia. Fighting three pitched battles – at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the North Anna River – and enduring numerous smaller collisions, Grant worked his way down toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, which he got within 10 miles of by the end of the month. But the fighting had cost a colossal total of 40,000 dead, wounded and missing, and Lincoln gloomily understood that the Northern public “hold me responsible.”

They weren’t the only ones. Radicals within Lincoln’s own Republican Party in Congress had long been convinced that Lincoln’s preference for a soft postwar Reconstruction was dis-heartening the Republican base. They were further angered when the Republican national committee, headed by Lincoln’s ally Edwin D. Morgan, met in late February 1864 and announced that the party would hold its presidential nominating convention in Baltimore in June, not as “Republicans,” but as the “National Union Convention.” As Grant’s campaign in Virginia ground agonizingly forward, the most vehement of the Radicals – led by Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and Horace Greeley – staged a protest convention in Cleveland’s Cosmopolitan Hall, and on June 4 nominated the Radical darling, John Charles Fremont.

If ever there was a moment when Lincoln needed good news from the battlefield, it was now, and Grant wanted to deliver it. The staggering blows he had dealt the rebels convinced him a little too easily that the Confederates were “really whipped,” that “our men feel they have gained morale over the enemy and attack with confidence,” and that with one more blow, “success over Lee’s army is already assured.” On June 1, Grant launched a hasty strike at Cold Harbor, before the bulk of his army could get into action. Even so, the attack cracked the Confederate defenses on the Cold Harbor road and forced them to fall back. With another good push, Grant might just be able “crush Lee’s army on the north side of the James, with the prospect in case of success of driving him into Richmond, capturing the city perhaps without a siege, and putting the Confederate government to flight” – not to mention providing a rousing military endorsement for Lincoln’s renomination.

But Grant, in his eagerness, had badly misread the Confederates, and when he launched a full-dress attack at Cold Harbor on June 3, it resembled (as one Confederate general put it) “not war but murder.” Well-prepared Confederate infantrymen mowed down federal at-tackers. Grant’s army sustained 3,500 casualties in the main attack and another 2,500 in related actions that day, and the armies settled into a miserable standoff.

Yet Grant carefully limited his report of the Cold Harbor debacle to four terse sentences, including the claim that “our loss was not severe.” And in the official report of the campaign he filed after the war, Cold Harbor consumed just three sentences in 51 pages. For years afterward, Grant’s doubters wondered whether he had deliberately soft-pedaled the failure at Cold Harbor in order to limit political damage to Lincoln on the eve of the Baltimore convention. There is no direct evidence of such collusion; still, Grant’s dismissal of his losses as “not severe” is peculiar.

Even more peculiar, newspaper reporting from the field was shut down by the War Department because of “a violent storm.” The New York Times (whose editor, Henry Raymond, was the new chairman of the National Union Party’s national Committee) did not publish an ac-count of the June 3 attack for three more days, and even then, merely observed that “losses were inconsiderable.”

Strangest of all, however, was Grant’s refusal to propose a truce to recover the wounded from the battlefield until June 7. Military tradition dictated that only the loser of an engagement asked for such a truce. Even though there could not have been much debate about who had won and who had lost at Cold Harbor, Grant delayed the truce agreement (and any public admission of defeat) for four days, while men suffered and died from thirst, blood loss and exposure.

By June 7, however, any anxiety that bad news from Cold Harbor would endanger Lincoln’s nomination was past. That same day, the Union National Convention opened at the Front Street Theater in Baltimore, with Robert J. Breckinridge asking triumphantly, “Does any one doubt that this convention intends to say that Abraham Lincoln shall be the nominee?” They did not, and the next day, undisturbed by any news of Cold Harbor, Lincoln – described by one state delegation as “the second savior of the world” – was unanimously renominated by the convention.

Given how diligently the National Union Party’s staff had worked to ensure Lincoln’s renomination in the months before the Baltimore assembly, even the freshest news from Cold Harbor might not have made much difference. But keeping the ill wind at bay certainly did not hurt. Nor was it uncommon in this war for the impact of bad military news to be blunted by creative hesitation. One of Grant’s corps commanders was overheard telling a staffer not to report actual casualty figures: “It will never do, Locke, to make a showing of such heavy losses.” After that, wrote the officer who overheard him, “I always doubted reports of casualties.” It irked one Philadelphia newspaper on June 9 to admit that “we can scarcely find out that there was fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, yet, until yesterday, no one knew its result.” This was, in the end, a highly political war, in which military decisions frequently turned before the winds of politics. And in the coming months, Lincoln would find far greater political challenges in the path of re-election than the ones presented by Cold Harbor.

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Sources: R.P. Basler, ed., “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”; Larry T. Balsamo, “’We Cannot Have Free Government without Elections’: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 94 (Summer 2001); Gordon C. Rhea, “Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864”; Ralph Morris Goldman, “The National Party Chairmen and Committees: Factionalism at the Top”; Andrew F. Rolle, “John Charles Fremont: Character As Destiny”; The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series One, 37 (pt 1); Gordon C. Rhea, “The Overland Campaign,” Hallowed Ground 15 (Spring 2014); The New York Times, June 6 and 8, 1864; Ernest B. Furgurson, “Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor, 1864”; D.F. Murphy, “Proceedings of the National Union Convention Held in Baltimore, Md., June 7th and 8th, 1864”; Morris Schaff, “The Battle of the Wilderness”; David E. Long, “Cover-up at Cold Harbor,” Civil War Times Illustrated 36 (June 1997).


Allen C. Guelzo, professor of the Civil War era at Gettysburg College, is the author, most recently, of “Gettysburg: The Last Invasion.”

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A Civil War Myth That Hurts Us All

Ira Chernus

HNN  May 25, 2014

153357-362px-Cicatrices_de_flagellation_sur_un_esclaveWhy are so many Americans woefully ignorant of their nation’s history? That perennial question is raised yet again by Timothy Egan in his latest column on the New York Times website.

To prove that the problem is real, Egan cites two pieces of evidence. The first one surely is cause for concern: “a 2010 report that only 12 percent of students in their last year of high school had a firm grasp of our nation’s history” (though historians will surely wish that Egan had added a link to the report, so we could track down the source).

Egan’s second piece of evidence suggests that he may be a participant in as well as observer of the problem. “Add to that,” he writes, “a 2011 Pew study showing that nearly half of Americans think the main cause of the Civil War was a dispute over federal authority — not slavery — and you’ve got a serious national memory hole.”

I’m no expert on the Civil War, but I’ve read a number of recent books by historians who are. They all agree that in 1861, when thousands of Northerners eagerly enlisted, few were  signing up to fight for the abolition of slavery. They were signing up to do the one and only thing Abraham Lincoln called them to do: to save the Union, which is to say to affirm federal authority over all the states.

True, the dispute over federal authority was sparked by the problem of slavery. Most Northerners were determined to stop slavery — but only in the territories of the West, where they feared slaves would block work opportunities for free whites. Hence the popular slogan: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free [White] Men.”

When it came to the existing slave states, most Northerners agreed with Lincoln that there was no legal ground to abolish slavery. Most expert historians suggest that there was still not enough political will in the North to try to abolish slavery.

So from the North’s point of view, at least, federal authority was indeed the fundamental issue.

Only gradually, as the war progressed, did many Northerners come to see it as a war against slavery. Many others never reached that point, as Steven Spielberg’s recent film Lincoln reminded us. Even among those who did get there, most probably embraced abolition largely as both a symbol of and strategic means to victory in the war, not as a good in and of itself.

In the South issues of slavery and federal authority certainly were inextricably entwined. “Slavery was enshrined into the very first article of the Confederate Constitution; it was the casus belli, and the founding construct of the rebel republic,” as Egan writes. That’s a good snapshot of the issue from the Southerners’ perspective.

But it’s the winners who are supposed to write the history of any war. For a Northerner to cite the Confederate Constitution as the full explanation for the war is questionable, at best.

So let’s thank Timothy Egan for adding a bit more proof that even “opinion leaders,” as he writes (as well as “corporate titans, politicians, media personalities and educators”) are sunk, more or less, in that national memory hole. At least their knowledge of history usually has some serious holes in it.

And I should personally thank Egan for reinforcing a point that’s dear to me: When we recall our history, and especially when we bring that memory into the political arena, we are more often in the realm of myth than empirical fact — though most of our political and historical myths aren’t simply falsehoods; they include facts, but those facts are always wrapped in imaginative, symbolic narratives that dictate how we interpret the facts.

The story of the Civil War as essentially a war against slavery — with all other issues secondary — is a fine example. It’s a story so deeply rooted in American public memory, at least outside the white South, that it will probably never be dislodged, no matter how many historians write how many books. Such is the power of myth.

When Egan wanted to understand why Americans have such a weak grasp of their history, though, he didn’t look into the power of myth. Instead he “asked a couple of the nation’s premier time travelers, the filmmaker Ken Burns and his frequent writing partner Dayton Duncan.”

Burns said: “It’s because many schools no longer stress ‘civics,’ or some variation of it,” so students don’t learn “how government is constructed” — a curiously irrelevant response from someone who has enriched our understanding of so many aspects of our history.

Duncan did offer a direct and provocative, if speculative, answer: “Americans tend to be ‘ahistorical’ — that is, we choose to forget the context of our past, perhaps as a way for a fractious nation of immigrants to get along.”

That’s where Egan adds his comment on the South’s Constitution and slavery as the casus belli, as if to prove the point by example. “That history may hurt,” he explains, implying that North and South can get along easier if we ignore the hurts of their fractious past. “But without proper understanding of it, you can’t understand contemporary American life and politics.”

No arguing with that conclusion. Coming on the heels of Egan’s (mis)reading of the causes of the Civil War, though, it points to a more complex view of the American memory hole.

Why do most Americans outside the white South embrace the mythic view of the Civil War as a battle essentially over slavery, from beginning to end? Isn’t it because “history may hurt” — because it would, and should, pain us to recall how deeply racist most Northern whites were in 1861, and how many were willing to let slavery continue in the existing slave states?

If we believe the story of the North in 1861 as a monolithic block dedicated to eradicating slavery, it eases the hurt. It lets us believe that white America, outside the South, has a proud history of sacrificing blood and treasure for the cause of racial equality. It makes the rapid end of Reconstruction, the white Northerner apathy toward Jim Crow laws in the South until the 1960s, and white racism in the North until the present day all look like aberrations in a fundamentally moral history.

So we can more easily forget that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, “America was built on the preferential treatment of white people — 395 years of it.” He rightly laments “our inability to face up to the particular history of white-imposed black disadvantage,” an unbroken history that continues to the present day in wealth, jobs, housing, education, incarceration, voting, and so many other areas of life.

If our ultimate goal is, as Egan suggests, to understand contemporary life and politics, the prevailing myth of the Civil War as a crusade for freedom and equality is counterproductive.

That doesn’t mean we should aim to replace myth with pure objective fact — a noble but impossible dream. It does mean we need a myth of the Civil War that comes closer to the facts and helps to close the still-yawning gap between black and white America. We need a myth that makes sense out of all kinds of racism and racial disparities in the present, not one that obscures them.

Such a myth would probably open up more white hurt, at least for a while. But it’s the only way we might possibly, some day, heed Lincoln’s call to bind up the nation’s wounds.

 

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