The Second Day

By Ian Isherwood ’00

Like yesterday, breakfast was a success. (The addition of bacon was a wise choice by the folks at Servo. The shredded cheese next to the scrambled eggs, perhaps, a stroke of genius.) Warmed with coffee and bacon, adorned all manner of Civil War related sartoria, our conference attendees packed the ballroom for the day’s work of understanding different angles on the war in 1864.

It is hard not to see the Gettysburg College Ballroom as one of the great fields of honor for Civil War historians. Here Civil Warriors introduce new ideas, revisit old interpretations, frolic in Clio’s fruitful orchard searching for the right ingredients for their ambrosia.

And today there was an intoxicating elixir concocted by our presenters. At the start was Keith Bohannon presenting on Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. With a military map towering over his head, Bohannon argued that Sherman’s great legacy was one of supply and maneuver and not battlefield success. The anxious general was a master logistician – one unmatched by his foes – and the Atlanta campaign demonstrates what a talented Civil War general could do with an army of high morale under him, political support above him, and the ability to resupply his army behind. Bohannon took a well-known story and gave it some analytical heft.

Next up was Emmanuel Dabney who spoke on United States Colored Troops at the Battle of the Crater. Dabney expertly described the complexities of combat mining and siege engineering, the growing frustrations of commanders in 1864, and the command rivalry between Burnside and Meade that led to tactical disaster during the battle. Using contemporary sources, Dabney painted a portrait of a Union army that needed USCTs, but commanders who were uncomfortable with black troops, and fellow blue-jacketed soldiers who viewed black soldiers with racial abhorrence. Dabney not only told the story of USCTs at the Crater, but wove together the social and cultural strands that make this violent story so very interesting (and so very sad).

Crystal Feimster then spoke on the Fort Jackson mutiny, racial violence, and rape. Feimster’s talk detailed the complexities of racial and sexual views of nineteenth century Americans and the problems of power dynamics within the army. Black soldiers, cruelly treated by officers, laundresses sexually assaulted by white officers, army leaders confused, contradictory, and blinded by their own prejudice in trying to administer ‘justice’ – this is a story that reveals so much about the past, but also leads to so many more questions. It demonstrates, at its heart, how much work there is to do within Civil War Era Studies, by examining racial violence and gender in wartime. The audience left with a different understanding of ‘the war’ in 1864 for sure.

We had two concurrent sessions today. My telepathic abilities have not improved, so I will, regrettably, list the presenters and their topics. Like yesterday, I have heard nothing but good things and I would encourage you #twitterstorians to scroll through our conference hashtag #cwi2014 for notable points from these lectures.

  • Eric Leonard on POW stories
  • Eric Mink on the 23rd USCT at Alrich Farm
  • Ashley Whitehead Luskey on Cold Harbor and the soldier’s psyche
  • Jonathan Noyalas on the Battle of Cedar Creek
  • Jared Peatman on the Gettysburg Address in memory
  • K. Stephen Prince on ruins and reconstruction
  • Antwain Hunter on blacks and firearms in the Confederacy

Barton Myers from Washington and Lee was our last speaker. Myers spoke on guerrilla war in 1864 and the Confederacy’s use of irregulars. Partisan warfare was much romanticized during the war (and now) but it was miserably violent business that had little strategic value in the way it was practiced. Guerrilla war, to Myers, was a localized affair, one in which communities conspired with bushwhackers, and atrocities widespread. He argued fundamentally for a broader definition of military history, one that examines brutality and violence by partisans and their supporters in a similar way that we examine violence and atrocity in other wars. There will be time for reflection after the conference, but I could not help but think of his talk together with Susannah Ural’s last night on war and society. Much to ponder.

The evening ended with a special viewing of The Civil War: The Untold Story. The section of the film screened was on the war in 1864 and used mostly age-appropriate living historians, who were filmed fighting behind impressively reconstructed field fortifications. The film addresses some essential issues and has some notable experts (including two from the Gettysburg College faculty).

There were many different tiles today set in the increasingly complex mosaic of a nation at war in 1864. Onto day three where your field correspondent will leave the comfort of the air conditioned ballroom and go out into the actual field.

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