American Civil War

The 5th New Hampshire Project Studies the Experiences of Civil War Veterans

As Professor Masur mentioned in his February post, the History Department has started an intermittent lecture series to “reach out to the campus community and give students a chance to learn about history outside of the classroom.” On March 25, it was Professor Dubrulle’s turn to deliver a talk about what he calls “The 5th New Hampshire Project” and some of the research he’s done recently to support a student project about the life outcome of 5th New Hampshire veterans after the Civil War was over. What follows is a shortened version of what he discussed.


The Origins of The 5th New Hampshire Project

I started the so-called “5th New Hampshire Project” (so-called by me) in the summer of 2017 when I knew that I’d be teaching History 352: The Civil War and Reconstruction in the spring of 2018. I wanted to create a New Hampshire-focused research project for students in that class. I eventually settled on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry as an object of study for two reasons. First, it is notorious for having suffered more combat fatalities than any other regiment in Union service during the Civil War. Second, although it was by no means a “typical regiment,” its experiences provide an ideal vehicle for exploring a wide variety of topics associated with the war. I eventually amassed a large collection of primary and secondary sources associated with the 5th New Hampshire so my students could research a number of different subjects.

As time went on, though, I realized that the project could do more than merely support the students in my Civil War course. For one thing, it could provide other students with opportunities to do research projects great and small. For another, as maintaining this collection and overseeing student research became more time-consuming, I realized that it would be increasingly difficult to keep a separate research agenda of my own. So I started thinking about making the 5th New Hampshire the subject of my next book. As it stands now, my general idea is that the book will use the regiment to explore various dimensions of the Civil War soldier’s experience. These dimensions would include subjects like recruitment (which itself would cover issues like the draft, substitution, and the use of immigrants), military leadership, discipline, the experience of combat, tactics, desertion, medical care, politics, relations with the home front, and so on. The plan also envisions tracing the experiences of men in the regiment from the antebellum period all the way through to their lives as veterans. Throughout, I will rely on the latest historiography to illuminate these experiences to produce a book that could be used in undergraduate courses.

Student Research and The 5th New Hampshire Project

So far, this project had relied on student research, and I hope to continue that tradition in the future. Back in the fall of 2017, the department kindly allocated four research assistants to assist me. Two of them, Caitlin Williamson ’19 and Lauren Batchelder ’18, transcribed soldiers’ letters for students’ use. Two others, Greg Valcourt ’19 and William Bearce ’19, took soldiers’ abbreviated service records that appeared in The Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion. 1861-1866 (1895) and transferred them onto a sortable, searchable Excel file. This work was enormously helpful for me and the students in the Civil War class. Later, Josh Pratt ’22 transcribed more letters, Emma Bickford ’22 used various records to tabulate the casualties the 5th New Hampshire suffered at Antietam and figure out what happened to these men later on.

In addition, several students have approached me asking to use the material for larger research projects. Emily Lowe ’19 obtained a summer honors research fellowship in 2018 so she could use the regiment as a case study in the treatment of combat trauma. And Katherine Warth ’21 has approached me about doing a statistical study of the life outcomes of veterans of the 5th New Hampshire. It’s this last project I’d like to spend the remaining time discussing.

Veterans, Trauma, and the 5th New Hampshire

To quote Benedetto Croce, “All history is contemporary history.” Among scholars, interest in the experiences of Civil War veterans has really taken off in recent years. That interest probably has something to do with where the United States finds itself ourselves today; as a result of the two wars we’ve recently fought, we have large numbers of veterans with recent combat experience, and the American public seems especially aware of these veterans’ difficulties in adjusting to civilian life. So Katherine’s interests are congruent with those of contemporary scholars.

Using the 5th New Hampshire for this kind of study is especially interesting because the regiment lost a great number of men due to illness and combat. It suffered large numbers of casualties at five important battles: Fair Oaks, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. As the chart below indicates, of the original 1000 volunteers, very few emerged from the war unscathed.

Figure 1. (click for larger image): These figures cover the original thousand-some-odd volunteers who were mustered in around the middle of October 1861. The numbers are based on an Excel spreadsheet that was compiled using The Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion. 1861-1866 (1895). The men mustered out in June 1862 belonged to the regimental band; they were sent home after the Seven Days’ Battles. Those mustered out in October 1864 had completed their three-year term of service and had not re-enlisted. Note that 30% of the original volunteers did not survive the war. Moreover, almost half of them received disabled discharges due to wounds or illness. 

For a variety of reasons, I think these numbers, which come from the Revised Register, undercount the number of casualties. Whatever the case, the question Katherine and I have is, what effect did this kind of physical and psychological trauma have on veterans’ lives after the war?

The Data and the Sample

First we had to figure out how to go about doing a study of this sort. Over the course of the war, 2500 men served in the 5th New Hampshire, and we just don’t have the man- or woman-hours to look through all of their lives, so we had to make our pool of soldiers manageable. I decided to that we ought to look at the original 1000 volunteers. First, it was a good way of limiting our task and, second, this group would be easier to trace than the substitutes who flooded the regiment in 1863 and after (many of whom were foreign-born and many of whom deserted).

I then asked Professor Tauna Sisco in the Sociology Department, the Queen of Statistics, how big of a pool I would need to get a representative sample. She said 300. So I decided I’d have to select every second man on an alphabetical list, knowing I’d have to skip a large number who died in the service (roughly 270). I’m happy to report that as of the date of this talk, I’ve collected biographical information on 100 men, and I have some preliminary findings to share. At the rate I’m going, I’ll end up looking at about 380 men.

You might well ask, what kind of data are you using, and how do you get access to it? I’ve got a free Family Search account, and using that, I can find the following documents: census records, enlistment papers, pension index cards, pension payment forms, marriage records, birth records, records of town payments to the families of soldiers during the war, death records and certificates, records from the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, and so on. I can’t find every type of record for every man, but I’ve been able to piece together pretty decent biographies on just about everyone.

For this talk, I mined the biographies for three types of information: lifespan, cause of death, and crude social mobility as measured by occupation upon enlistment versus terminal occupation. I have far more information than that, but I thought these three topics would be interesting. The following, then, are raw data coupled with some very sketchy hypotheses. And, of course, more questions.

The first question worth asking is: “How representative is our sample so far?” The sample seems fairly representative of the regiment. To name one example, the percentage of native-born Americans among the original 1000 volunteers was 88%; in my sample, it’s 92%. And as you can see from the graphic below, in some important ways, the sample actually seems representative of Northern soldiers in general. For those who are interested, by the way, the average age of my sample upon enlistment was 24, and the average height was 5’8”, both of which are pretty much in keeping with Northern norms.

Life Outcomes: Lifespan

So let us take a look at lifespan. The average lifespan of the men in my sample was 65.6 years. It’s hard to understand the significance of that figure. There is a debate among demographers over the life expectancy of the Civil War generation, so I can’t quite place this figure. On the one hand, it sounds impressive when you take into account that almost two-fifths of these men had been shot and around half of them had obtained a disabled discharge from the army. On the other, it doesn’t sound quite as impressive when you consider that life expectancy for men in this period was dragged down largely by infant mortality—if you made it to 20, you had a good chance of living to your 60s.

We should remember in this context, too, that lifespan is only a very crude measure of health. It says nothing about the quality of life. The Veterans Census of 1890 reveals a number of veterans then in their 50s living with painful old wounds or chronic illnesses contracted in the army.

Life Outcomes: Death

And that brings us to death—what killed these men, and what do their deaths say about their lives? Out of the 100, I found 61 causes of death.

We’d have to compare this list to normal causes of death at the turn of the century, but several things stand out. The number of deaths related to alcohol looks rather high. It’s hard to nail down a precise figure because in addition to the veterans who clearly died from the effects of alcoholism, you have a number who may have died of diseases associated with the overconsumption of alcohol or expired under circumstances that may lead one to think they were alcoholics (e.g. deaths from liver cancer, congestion of the liver, a five-day drinking spree, and so on). The number of suicides also seem fairly high, and I have a sense that such causes of death may have been underreported.

It is interesting to see the number of old people’s diseases on this list—a reflection of the fact that a fair proportion of the sample died in old age (38 of the 90 men for whom I found both birth and death dates lived past the age of 70).

Life Outcomes: Social Mobility

Before you die, you do things like hold a job down, and that job says something about how successful you are. In 96 cases, I found the occupation of enlistees in 1861, and for 81 of those men, I located information about the last job they held before they retired or died.

Figure 2. (click for larger image): The majority of the occupations listed on this chart were self-reported on enlistment forms in 1861. The US Sanitary Commission figures come from a survey that was conducted among over 600,000 Northern soldiers during the war. There are some very good matches between the sample of men from the 5th New Hampshire and the US Sanitary Commission Figures (e.g see farmers). 

Of the 81 cases where I found sufficient information to make a judgment, in only 8 cases did a veteran experience downward social mobility. Overall, if we look at the question broadly (that is, what percentage of men fit in which general category) there appears to be palpable positive social mobility. It’s hard to say what these results indicate. To what extent are changes in occupation a matter of one’s doing and to what degree are they a function of a changing economy? And how much of this outcome was influenced by the war experience? Part of the problem is that we have no control group; an entire generation of Northern men served in the war, so it’s hard measure the veterans of the 5th New Hampshire against other men of the same age. But some economic historians have controlled for this type of problem, and we’ll have to see how they did it.

Figure 3. (click for larger image): These pie charts compare the occupations of enlistees in 1861 with the terminal occupations of veterans after the war. Note the degree to which the proportion of professionals and owners of capital increased—from under 30% to just over half. Notice too that the proportion of unskilled/semi-skilled laborers fell from almost 45% to under 30%. In general, veterans of the 5th New Hampshire enjoyed upward social mobility, but how did it compare with Northern men as a whole during this period?

Conclusion

There are a lot of problems with looking at life outcomes statistically. Statistics can only tell you about correlations, not causes. Causes have to be determined on an individual level—and even then, the case is difficult. Moreover, if we are determined to look at veterans’ post-war experiences through the lens of war trauma, we run the risk of suffering from the worst kind of confirmation bias. Statistics cannot tell the whole story—they always must be supplemented by other evidence (such as, say, the letters of James Larkin, pictured above, who worked his way up from 1st Lieutenant in Company A to Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th New Hampshire; photo courtesy of David Morin). So as Katherine and I forge ahead on this project, we will look at more primary and secondary sources to shed light on the statistical analysis of veterans’ experiences.

Advertisements

History Majors Make the Civil War “Legible and Searchable” for the Future

“What is a gabion?”

“Where are the Bolivar Heights?”

“What does ‘N. f. r. A. G. O.’ stand for?

“Is that word ‘gout’?”

These kinds of questions were asked every Friday afternoon around 2:30 in Professor Hugh Dubrulle’s office this semester. Why? Four student research assistants—history majors Caitlin Williamson ‘19, Gregory Valcourt ‘19Lauren Batchelder ‘18, and William Bearce ‘19 (from left to right in the photo above)—prepared materials for the research project that will be assigned in History 352: The American Civil War and Reconstruction which Dubrulle will teach next semester (Spring 2018). This project will require students in the course to do research on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and write papers explaining the degree to which the regiment’s experiences match up with what current Civil War historiography claims about a variety of topics. These topics will include studies of the regiment’s participation in various battles and biographies of its leading officers. Other papers will look at topics such as desertion, politics, discipline, leadership, recruitment, medicine, and so on.

Why choose the 5th New Hampshire? Dubrulle says there are several reasons: “First, it lost more combat fatalities over the course of the Civil War than any other unit in Federal service. We ought to remember and honor this distinction, but it also raises the following question: what made it possible for this regiment, which was a typical product of its time and place, to compile such an outstanding service record? Second, much primary source material is easily available in local archives or online. Third, there are some excellent secondary sources about the unit in print, particularly Mike Pride and Mark Travis’ My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (2001).”

Williamson, Batchelder, Valcourt, and Bearce assisted Dubrulle with a number of important tasks, including transcribing letters and entering information from regimental service records into a searchable database. As Valcourt put it, their job consisted of making “the past legible and searchable for the future.” Williamson and Batchelder first transcribed the letters (34 of them) of Pvt. Miles Peabody (born and raised in Antrim, NH) who enlisted in Co. K of the 5th New Hampshire in 1861 at the age of 21. Williamson and Batchelder then moved on to transcribe selected portions of Lieut.-Col. James E. Larkin’s correspondence. A coach painter from Concord, NH, Larkin was mustered in as a 1st Lieut. when the regiment was organized in October 1861. He eventually became the commander of the unit in June 1864.

Both Batchelder and Williamson enjoyed getting to know Peabody and Larkin through their letters. Williamson commented that “I became really attached to the soldiers while reading their correspondence! I felt for them and found myself really invested in their stories that were told over a century ago.” Batchelder also felt an affinity for the men whose letters she read. On occasion, however, she was startled by what they wrote: “A lot of people assume that the Northerners were ‘the good guys,’ but there were times when I transcribed the letters and I would see these people fighting for the Union making a racist comment or saying something completely unexpected.” Such moments made her realize that while she shared a common humanity with these soldiers, they lived in a very different world.

Although Batchelder noted that “some people have the messiest handwriting,” Williamson pointed out that reading handwriting was actually affecting: “There is a lot of emotion in these letters, and much of it is expressed in the handwriting.” Not only that, Williamson felt that reading the letters helped illuminate Civil War history in a striking way that other sources could not. As she put it, the correspondence allowed her to study the conflict more broadly than one might have thought. The letters show “what they [the soldiers] were eating, what they were doing with their time, how they slept, what the weather was like, their experience on the battlefield—along with other important moments, all seen from different perspectives.”

Meanwhile, Bearce and Valcourt scoured Augustus D. Ayling’s Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 (1895) for the abbreviated service records of all the men who served in the 5th New Hampshire during the war. They then transferred this information to an Excel spreadsheet that is both searchable and sortable. Arrayed in this fashion, the data can yield all sorts of interesting patterns. For instance, Bearce quickly noticed that substitutes and foreign-born soldiers seemed much more likely to desert than volunteers and the native-born. Valcourt was stunned by the large number of casualties the regiment lost in the last days of the war at the Battle of Farmville (otherwise known as the Battle of High Bridge)—a fight he’d never heard of. Both research assistants recognized that intriguing trends in the data could prove very useful to students writing papers on any number of topics. At the same time, Bearce also saw that the “the quantitative information [from the database] complements the qualitative data from the transcription of letters.” Among other things, “one can use the service records to contextualize the letters and vice versa.” Valcourt was struck by the strange stories “and colorful cast of characters” that seemed to emerge from the spare notes of the abbreviated service records. His favorite person was Oliver Grapes, an original volunteer in the regiment who deserted in July 1863 and, using the alias Oliver Vine, volunteered the next month as a Wagoner in the 3rd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. As Valcourt explained it, “you learn about the ‘small’ people in order to understand ‘big’ people and events.” At the end of the day, though, through the exercise of data entry, Bearce learned how “quantitative history can be, and how the quantitative aspects of history comes to be.” And, of course, both Bearce and Valcourt brushed up on their Excel skills.

Throughout the semester, all of the research assistants were intrigued with finding out “the rest of the story.” Batchelder and Williamson were crushed to learn that Peabody died of illness in November 1864 near Alexandria, VA. They were relieved to learn, however, that Larkin survived the war. Unfortunately, as a result of his military service, he suffered from ill-health, particularly rheumatism, for the rest of his life. Larkin floated between a number of jobs before dying in 1911. From his very different perspective of having dealt with the service records, Bearce was interested in finding out what happened after the war to the soldiers he studied. Noting that Ayling’s Revised Register had addresses for many veterans who had survived to 1895, Bearce stated, “I would really like someone to take on the challenge of doing research using the post office addresses listed in the registry for some purpose. These just seem absolutely tantalizing to me, and I think a paper trying to find out how people adjusted after the war would be very interesting.” One can only hope that future students working with these sources will take on that challenge as well as some of the others presented by the material.

And by the way, what are the answers to the questions above? A gabion is a wicker basket filled with earth and used to shore up fortifications. Bolivar Heights overlooks the town of Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. “N. f. r. A. G. O.” stands for “No further record Adjutant General’s Office, Washington DC.” And yes, the word in the letter was “gout.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Grant as the American Ulysses

Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016).

Scholars have recently sought to rehabilitate Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation. This reputation had suffered from attacks both during and after Grant’s lifetime. His military genius was underestimated and seemed to pale in comparison with the imaginative Sherman and the wily Lee. At worst, the story went, he was a butcher, at best he was a practitioner of attrition, that most repulsive of strategies. There were the stories and rumors about his drinking that seemed to dog him through much of his career. Then there was the widespread corruption associated with his presidency. In the last few years, though, a number of historians have dwelled on his military and political strengths. White’s book is the culmination of these latter efforts.

The best part of White’s biography traces Grant’s pre-war path. The reader encounters some old chestnuts (Grant was an excellent rider) and some new stories (Grant was a voracious reader of novels at West Point—particularly those of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “dark and stormy night” fame). What White seeks to do in this part of the book is show what Grant learned in these years and what this period did to prepare him for what was to come. It is in this part of the biography that the idea of Grant as a 19th-century American Odysseus is most patent—he traveled, witnessed a great deal, and grew as a person. For instance, during the Mexican War, as a regimental quartermaster, he learned about the significance of logistics, and having served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the conflict, he made a close study of their leadership styles (Grant preferred Taylor). The biography has an intimate feel here that it loses once Grant becomes a historical figure through the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson during the Civil War. To name several examples where this intimacy is most evident, Grant’s relationship to his father and his courtship of Julia Dent are both interesting, not only for what they reveal about these people and the period, but also because of what they show about his character.

White’s coverage of the Civil War years is adequate but it does not always clarify Grant’s special contribution to Union victory. White seems better at describing Grant’s direction of operations (e.g. the Overland campaign and the Siege of Petersburg) than analyzing Grant’s conception of strategy (e.g. his vision of the best route to Union victory, which included, eventually, making war on the Southern nation). It is in this part of the book that T. J. Stiles’ criticism—that White “details mistakes, but not flaws”—becomes particularly apposite.

That problem continues with White’s recounting of Grant’s time as president, especially since he does always provide the necessary context for understanding politics during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Grant is portrayed as a man of good intentions—particularly in relation to Native Americans and African Americans—but White does not always explain how these intentions, particularly in the former case, manifested themselves in policy (although he is quite clear about how Democrats and centrist Republicans held Grant back on Reconstruction policy). In other cases, White is not always clear about the paradoxes of Grant’s policy, particularly in regard to the annexation of Santo Domingo or his attitude toward the gold standard and inflation. According to White, if Grant had flaws, they were tragic ones; for example, as an honorable and decent man, he had difficulty recognizing the possibility that those around him could be dishonorable and indecent (see his relations with Orville Babcock or Ferdinand Ward). Of course, many of Grant’s finest qualities were on display as he lay dying of cancer and wrote what is widely considered a great American autobiography.

A main asset of this book is its recognition that Grant was an extraordinary man who resembled an ordinary one. What White tries to convey to the reader is that Grant’s strength was not merely a matter of intelligence. It was a moral strength that was founded on his honesty, modesty, justness, and moderation (as well as an often overlooked religiosity). This power, often, but not always, allowed him to take the true measure of the world and what it ought to have been far better than many of his contemporaries. If White does not always provide the necessary background or explain all the details, he is nonetheless on the mark when it comes to understanding the subject of his biography.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

New Orleans and Its Disappearing Confederate Statues

One Thing after Another has noticed over the last several months that national politics has crowded just about everything else out of the news. Stories about history’s contemporary relevance or impact are sometimes difficult to find these days. So if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the saga now taking place in New Orleans.

In July 2015, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, asked his city council to remove four monuments from the city. Five months later, after much public debate, the city council voted 6-1 to do so. Three of the monuments celebrated Confederate heroes: Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederacy), Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia), and P.G.T. Beauregard (a prominent Confederate general born outside of New Orleans). The fourth, the Liberty Monument (erected in 1891), memorialized the so-called Battle of Liberty Place (1874). This armed struggle pitted the Crescent City White League, which sought to settle a disputed election by seating a Democratic governor by force, against the metropolitan police (along with elements of the state militia) which fought to defend a Republican regime associated with racial equality. An inscription added in 1932 explicitly celebrated the battle as a step in the direction of white supremacy.

On Monday, April 24, the Liberty Monument was disassembled. Over two weeks later, on Thursday, May 11, the statue of Davis was removed. The workers who took away the Davis statue wore flak jackets for protection and masks to conceal their identity. Such precautions should come as no surprise; the whole exercise has been incredibly controversial, and the statues have been the scenes of protests as well as counter-protests.

What position should one take on the removal of these statues? One Thing after Another believes that the following interview of Professor David Blight (an expert on the history of slavery and the American Civil War who teaches at Yale while directing the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery) in Slate contains a great deal of good sense:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/interrogation/2017/05/should_new_orleans_remove_its_civil_war_monuments_historian_david_blight.html

Yes, One Thing after Another understands what its readers have come to expect—that this blog usually refers to articles only to criticize them. This case, however, is different. Blight makes a number of thoughtful points throughout his interview. Anybody who has read this blog’s discussion of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic will be familiar with several of the ideas that emerge from this exchange. The three most important and relevant ones are as follows.

First, the Confederates fought valorously (much—if not all—of the time) but for a bad cause that was inextricably tied to slavery. One Thing after Another ought to remind readers that such is not merely the verdict of contemporary historians. This blog recalls Ulysses S. Grant’s verdict in his Memoirs (1885), which describes the preliminaries preceding Lee’s surrender at Appomattox:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Blight argues, then, that those inclined to defend the memorials ought to admit that the Confederate cause was “deeply flawed or terrible.” However, they ought to also realize that the contemporary South should feel neither shame nor pride for what Southerners did over 150 years ago. As Professor Randy Sparks (a scholar at Tulane University whom the interviewer refers to and with whom Blight agrees) asserts, Confederates were “men of their time and place.”

Second, people need to see, as Sparks argues, that now “is our time, and our place.” We cannot change what our ancestors did, but we can influence the world that our descendants inherit. Much of the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate statues really has to do with contemporary issues (an argument that Horowitz also makes). For sure, a number of these issues are rooted in the legacies of slavery and the war (e.g the underprivileged position of African Americans today). Still, when people argue about, say, the Confederate battle flag, more often than not, they are projecting today’s concerns on the past. Such debates are often truly about present-day disputes concerning inequality, race, economic opportunity, identity, the basis of community, the limits of government authority, and so on. We ought to have conversations about these issues without making inapt, ahistorical, or anachronistic references to the Civil War.

Third, having recognized these points, we can’t and shouldn’t destroy every Confederate memorial. Attempting to stamp out such memorials would pose to communities questions that admit no easy solution (e.g. Is this or that a memorial? What does it commemorate?). Such a policy would also come to feel oppressive as localities fell under the shadow of a memorial police. As Blight points out, iconoclasm is dangerous because no one quite knows where it will lead. American history without Davis, Lee, and Beauregard would be incomplete, so we cannot erase them from the past. But we can, as Blight suggests, erect “tasteful, important, meaningful new memorials” that show how history has moved on from the Lost Cause fable. In this fashion, we can bring memory and history closer together, an achievement that would prove a public service. Blight refers to the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Memorial on the edge of Boston Common (a patinated plaster cast of which is pictured above) as a possible model for future monuments, and rightly so. If we are compelled to remember Confederate leaders like Davis, Lee and Beauregard, justice demands that we do a better job of representing the complexity of the American Iliad. That task involves publicizing the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins by traditional memorialization of the war (e.g. African Americans, poor Southern whites, and women) but who played such an important role in the conflict.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: Slavery and the 1.6%

The 1.6% and Slavery

The following is a tale of memes, bad history, poor logic, and misleading statistics. It is also a story about how information on Facebook can come unmoored from its original context and find itself applied in startlingly different directions. Above all, this narrative has to do with the way in which parts of the internet have helped perpetuate a culture of partisanship and intellectual sloppiness.

The meme above has circulated on Facebook for some time. One Thing after Another has traveled throughout the internet to find its origins—alas, without success. Like many other images, videos, messages, and memes on the internet, it has metastasized to the extent that it is impossible to locate where this tumor began.

What is clear, though, is that this kind of meme is a product of social media. Social media place a premium on concision, that is, the short, snappy expression of ideas. That is probably why wit, attempts at wit, or what passes for wit, seem to dominate posts on Facebook and, of course, Twitter; as we all know (or should know), brevity is the soul of wit. At the same time, the disposable nature of posts on platforms like Facebook (and particularly Snapchat) make for an environment that is not conducive to real discussion, mindfulness, or thought.

In their sober moments, most people probably understand these problems instinctually. And perhaps one can even realize how the nature of the social media world makes it particularly susceptible to hoaxes and other stupid gambits. Remember that one about how Mark Zuckerberg was going to give away $4.5 million to Facebook users who shared a “thank you” message? But why not latch onto a concrete example that involves history—such as the meme above that has aroused One Thing after Another’s ire?

The meme above is not particularly special. In fact, it is exemplary. It is a product of Facebook. It seems incisive, it sounds authoritative, and it appears relevant. It even cites a source in an official-sounding way. Only the dullest or most uninformed person could fail to catch the progressive message that makes an analogy between the 1.6% of 1860 and those who have been labeled the “1%” today. The rich, so the message seems to say, used us for their own purposes then in just the way that they use us now. Yet, like much else on Facebook, this meme is manipulative when it isn’t misleading. Its facts are wrong, its reasoning is faulty, and the analogy it makes is specious. And yet, when you look at the public’s reaction to this meme, you find that nobody is critical or educated enough to call it out.

We should begin by explaining what is wrong with this meme. Let us start with the 1.6% figure which was supposedly obtained from the Census of 1860. If one divides the number of slaveowners by the total free population of the United States, the figure is actually closer to 1.4%, but that’s not the main problem. Calculating the figure in such a way at all really minimizes the proportion of people who had a stake in slavery. First, determining the number of slaveowners relative to the number of “U.S. Citizens” is beside the point. Slaveowners did not “convince” all Americans “to fight a civil war.” Rather, they ostensibly convinced “the majority of southerners” to take up arms (more about why that statement is problematic later). For that reason, the number of slaveowners should be compared to the number of Southerners. But this issue brings us to a second distortion. If we want to figure out slavery’s true heft in the South, we really ought to establish how many families owned slaves. Doing so would show us how many white Southerners had an immediate interest in slavery. After all, the head of the household was not the only member of the family to value slavery. His wife, his children, and any other dependents had a stake in the institution. Indeed, as his children grew older, they too, in all likelihood, would become slaveowners themselves.

Figuring out what proportion of Southern families owned slaves is really quite simple. The University of Virginia has a Historical Census Browser that allows one to search, map, and calculate figures associated with various censuses (the calculator for the Census of 1860 is here). One Thing after Another has run the figures, but for convenience’s sake, we refer you to Andrew Hall at Dead Confederates: A Civil War Era Blog who has presented them in a tidy table. As you can see, about 31% of the families in the states that seceded owned slaves. The range runs from 49% of families in Mississippi to 20% of families in Arkansas. In some ways, these figures don’t even begin to capture slavery’s centrality to Southern social and economic life. Let us push to the side that slaves were responsible for producing the South’s main cash crops or that slaveowners often rented out slaves to those who did not have them. Let us just focus on the fact that almost a third of families in the Confederate states owned slaves. That figure gives one a much better sense of slavery’s gravity than “1.6%.”

Given these figures, a great number of these slaveowners could not have been “rich plantation owners.” In fact, according to the Census of 1850, half of all slaveowning families owned between one to four slaves. There were great plantation owners with over 100 slaves, but there were fewer than 8,000 families in this position in 1850 (compared to the almost 175,000 families that owned between one and four slaves). Clearly, slavery’s strength did not rest on the power of a few rich men. Rather, its strength was grounded in its distribution among a great many middling men.

This point is confirmed by Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. A very high proportion of men who volunteered to serve in the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia were slaveowners, belonged to families of slaveowners, or had some connection to slavery. “Rich plantation owners” did not need to convince such men to fight; they were already willing to fight. And that fact completely undermines the point of our unfortunate meme.

Such a picture of slavery makes nonsense of the claim that slavery “reduced the value of their [Southerners’] own labor and pay.” Starting with Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), which was the first work to subject the economics of slavery to serious study, it has become increasingly clear to historians that slavery was very lucrative. That is why so many Southerners bought slaves. If Southerners did not invest in railroads or factories, that was because investment in slaves who could grow cotton was much more profitable. That fact accounts for the enormous amount of Southern capital tied up in slaves during the antebellum period. Confidence in the profitability of slavery was reflected by the fact that the price of slaves was skyrocketing up to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Some of you might read this post and think to yourself, “Congratulations One Thing after Another, are you proud of yourself for destroying a dumb meme?” No, One Thing after Another is not proud. The problem is that you can search the internet far and wide without locating a refutation of this meme. In fact, wherever you find this meme posted, you are sure to see that it has elicited a variety of comments that reveal the degree to which the ideas of historians and the beliefs of the public are separated by an enormous abyss. In other words, the meme seems to evoke historical lunacy and delusions among commenters.

Not only that, but the misinformation associated with this meme has spawned other inaccurate memes that repackage the “facts” in a very different interpretive framework.

The 1.6% of whites

If our initial meme was progressive in outlook, its offspring leans in a very different direction which is just as mistaken and just as dangerous (if not more so). What further memes will this meme generate? Where does it all end? How can academia counter the rapidly pullulating mass of memes that apparently pass for education on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest? By writing a blog post?

History Majors from the Passages Program Remember Gettysburg

Passages Program Gettysburg

This summer, three incoming history majors got the opportunity to travel to Gettysburg, PA with other incoming students and several upperclassmen as part of Student Activities’ Passages program.

One Thing After Another sat down with freshman participants Jacob Bass, Drew Collins, and Tim Siracusa, as well as senior Kristen Van Uden, who led the trip along with senior Liliana Kane, junior Mike Schmidt, and Dr. Karlea Joiner, Assistant Dean of Students.

The students’ busy itinerary began with a battlefield tour led by two enthusiastic park guides, highlighting the major points of the battle.  “My favorite part of the trip was definitely touring the battlefield. Standing on the ground where one of the most important events in American history took place [was] such a surreal feeling” said Tim. The battlefield is extensive, and so the tour could not be entirely comprehensive, but the group focused on Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, and the site of Pickett’s charge. Seeing the grounds of these famous events provided the students with a more authentic understanding of the battle. “We were able to connect with the actual place in a way that cannot be achieved through any amount of reading or study” Kristen observed. “One of the most interesting parts was when we were driving through a field that was filled with about 50 vultures. Our guide explained that in the days after the battle, the entire area would have been flooded with vultures, just like we were seeing right in front of us. It makes sense, but you don’t often think about disturbing facts like that when contemplating the more military side of the battle.”

The group then returned to the retreat center where each night they cooked family-style meals as a group, went swimming, relaxed on the porch, and played games on the lawn.

That night, they went on a ghost tour of downtown Gettysburg. The guide lit the way through the narrow streets with a lantern, accentuating the eerie atmosphere. There was even a full moon. . . .  So did you see a ghost? The students apparently could not come to a consensus.

The next day the group traversed three states in one hour to see Harper’s Ferry, the site of abolitionist John Brown’s famous 1859 raid. The buildings Brown seized have since burned down, but the students saw the arsenal where he was captured by J.E.B. Stuart who was then only a first lieutenant. In addition to information about the raid, the living history site educates its visitors about 19th-century economics. It is also a little-known fact that there was actually a Civil War battle around the town in September 1862. There were several museums in Harper’s Ferry detailing the stories of the main players in the site’s colorful history. Jacob remarked that these personal stories, as well as the ones featured at the Gettysburg museum, helped him to really connect with the people involved and made him wonder about the stories of his ancestors who fought in the Civil War.

The students finished the day with a lazy tubing trip down the Shenandoah River.

On their last day in Pennsylvania, the group explored the downtown Gettysburg area, spending time shopping and trying to meet the challenge the battlefield guide had set out for them: to locate all nine artillery shells that were still lodged in buildings. They toured the David Wills house, where Lincoln stayed after he delivered the Gettysburg Address. They later visited the cemetery where the Address was given. Kristen describes the impact of visiting the cemetery: “The number of graves, especially of unknown soldiers, was almost incomprehensible. Then you learn that the Union army refused to bury Confederate soldiers in this cemetery, so multiply that number by at least two. It forces you to really come to terms with the scope of the battle.” Some of the students were able to see the grave of Jennie Wade, a young woman who was killed by a stray bullet while baking bread at a friend’s house in downtown Gettysburg. She was the only civilian killed in the battle.

Tim originally signed up for the trip to see new places and learn more about his favorite subject. “The main reason I was interested in the trip was that I am a history major. As much as I enjoy American history, my knowledge of the Civil War era is somewhat weak, so I thought it would be a good learning experience.” What started as a potentially fun adventure and an opportunity to travel and meet new people quickly became an unforgettable and cherished experience. Jacob says that the best part was “being able to meet new people, including one of my best friends.” These shared memories have translated into daily life on the Hilltop.

Having had an encounter with experiential learning has definitely kept these students’ love for history alive. Classes are going great so far, and they are excited for what the semester brings.

Memory in the Former Confederate Capital

Jackson Honor Guard

After our last post about memory and the Confederate battle flag, Casey Breslin ’11, one of our history majors, who has recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, offered to write a post about what he discovered there when he contemplated the town’s history. One Thing after Another was happy to accept his submission–and his photograph above of Confederate re-enactors patrolling around the Jackson monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.


Richmond, Virginia, is a city on the rise. Young people flock to it because the cost of living is cheap, the job market is decent, and the atmosphere is everything a young twenty-something could want in a city to start a career. Whether it is a locomotive factory that has been converted into a movie theater or a developer who has transformed an old feedbag factory into an apartment building, Richmond has a unique strain of entrepreneurship that seems to incorporate the past by repurposing it for current ventures.

It is an artistic and musical city (the metal band Lamb of God is based in Richmond) and according to NBC news, it is the third most tattooed city in America with 14.5 tattoo parlors per 100,000 people. Many of the younger residents sport the hipster look and could easily be cast as extras in IFC’s Portlandia. Luckily, they remain and thrive in this diverse southern city. Trade publications and consumer reports consistently rate Virginia’s capital city as one of the most business-millennial-friendly cities in the United States.

Yet, within this cosmopolitan and forward-looking environment, there are many reminders of the four bloody years when the states were not united under one flag. The state capitol of Virginia once served as the capitol for the Confederacy. Its capture, along with that of the Shenandoah Valley (the Confederacy’s bread basket), was the operational goal of the Federal Army of the Potomac. Few other areas in the continental North America were more affected by war than the 100-mile radius surrounding Richmond. To commemorate the Virginian lives that were lost, the city is littered with monuments, museums, and memorial plaques—to the Confederacy.

I recently moved to Richmond and had visited it every weekend for almost a year before that. When I got to know the city, I barely noticed the monuments at first. I was excited to be closer to many of the battlefields but didn’t notice the men being commemorated at first. Sure, they are quite large and often have infuriating traffic circles around them, but Monument Avenue is flanked on either side by historic multimillion-dollar homes and townhomes. In effect, Monument Ave is somewhat of a sensory overload, and the monuments, however impressive , do not command the full attention of one driving by in a car.

I first took real notice of the monuments during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in 2015. While walking along, I saw Confederate soldiers, with fixed bayonets I might add, marching around the perimeter of the Stonewall Jackson Monument.

I did a quick Google search and realized that I was down in Richmond on Lee-Jackson Day Weekend. This Virginia state holiday is celebrated on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Established in the late 1880’s to commemorate Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Jackson’s name was added to it for his birthday in 1904, and then it was merged with Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983. In 2000, they were formally split, and have since been celebrated separately, but on the same weekend.

The obviously awkward juxtaposition of legacies demonstrates a perfect conflict, once again, the various levels of city, state, and federal government. The legislature in the state house located in Richmond instituted these holidays celebrating the lives of two of the finest Confederate generals, yet Richmond as a municipality declines to celebrate it: no parades, no wreath laying, no services. Many other municipalities in Virginia have elected not to observe it as well. Any commemoration in Richmond proper is done by private citizens like reenactors in the picture. Virginians from across the state meet in the capital building to write laws, yet the city government has since declined, or if I want to be really cute, nullified that potential political football. Imagine that! It appears that in the last few years, Richmond residents are aware of the tensions this holiday can inspire and have chosen to ignore the state’s intention.

Given the tragic event in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, non-observance of the Virginia state holiday on Richmond’s party is the right choice. Once again, state governments must decide how to remember the Civil War in a way that accounts for all of the human suffering that constituted the Civil War. Richmond, as a city, has struck the correct balance as of late.

As mentioned earlier, the 100-mile radius around Richmond was changed forever, and many of the young men who lived there never returned home. I can say with charity and sincerity that it must have been more difficult to accept the outcome of the war living this city, because the reminders were everywhere. On the other hand, a printer from Concord, NH could go home to a similar life. A sensible person can realize this, even while keeping in mind the vile peculiar institution which ended as a result of the war and those who fought to codify and preserve it forever. Memory has blended in with the fabric of this city, much the same way as historic buildings have been renovated to fit current commercial needs.

The monuments in Richmond are large and impressive, but at the same time they are only really visible to people who are actively looking for them and want to remember. Not everyone who comes here is a Civil War buff like me-it’s just a city that has a big Wells Fargo building downtown. In the hustle and bustle, monuments are easily lost. Like so many of the historic parts of Richmond, the monuments are there if you look, but blend perfectly in if you do not—even if some of them have traffic rotaries near them. Many are placed on grass dividers that separate the sides on Monument Avenue, and college students from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond are often found there playing corn hole and engaging in various types of open container violations. Clearly they aren’t active Confederate sympathizers, and from what I can tell, no neo-Confederate forces have mustered to stop them.

The Confederate battle flag is not near or attached to the monuments, unless people bring it there—which has happened. There are also people who have used the battle flag to protest the lack certain memorials and plaques in part of the city. The feeling towards these people is that they are the dying embers of a far less polite generation. I am not prepared to level charges of racism because I do not know any of them. However, some of these protests are regularly held in an area not far from a synagogue and a historically black church, and I find a certain lack of sensitivity there. A red banner calls attention to itself in a way that violently clashes with the more muted and reserved presence of the monuments.

Richmond still maintains the White House of the Confederacy and the Museum of the Confederacy. These are excellent sites to visit, and they do not wave a politically charged flag for all to see. Rather, they explain to those who wish to know what that flag meant to those who carried it. Everyone benefits from that clear spirit of compromise, and it can hopefully be instructive to similar southern cities who wish to make their streets more welcoming to all southerners.

This is not to suggest that Virginia as whole has no more issues to wrestle with in terms of its Confederate past, or that is has somehow escaped Jim Crow. Far from it, actually. Route 1 is also known as the Jefferson Davis Highway, and this name is currently protested heavily in the more liberal parts of Northern Virginia. Monument Avenue also has a monument to Jefferson Davis, not exactly someone who was on the ground fighting it out with the average soldier. In my Yankee mind, his monument is the hardest to accept. However, in the nineties, one of Richmond’s finest sons, Arthur Ashe, was added to Monument Avenue. The addition of this African-American athlete sparked all the predictable protests and racial tensions. Of course, no monuments have been erected remembering slaves who formed the backbone of the Virginian economy for so many years.

For now it seems, a live-and-let-live approach has the tacit approval of Richmond residents, even if there is a disparity in who exactly is actively remembered. The monuments blend into this busy city, and for the most part, do not disrupt the daily life of your average pedestrian. Those who have waved the Confederate battle flag in protest strike a dissonant note, and when they gather, I can see members of a younger generation view them with embarrassment and annoyance while accepting their right to assemble peacefully. The closest thing to a Confederate soldier these days in Richmond, ironically is the gaunt, bewhiskered peace-loving hipster. He uses his disposable wealth to buy what look like rags, silly felt caps, and he often declines to wear shoes. If you put an Enfield in his hands, however, he’d look like a Confederate private, ready for a forced march around the Federal left flank.