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It’s Not Your Grandfather’s Civil War

By Tim Rowland
1/26/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

The National Park Service used the sesquicentennial to shed new light on an old story.

AS THE NATION PREPARED TO commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in 1961, the remarkable Robert Smalls was not part of the conversation.

Born into slavery in Beaufort, S.C., Smalls worked the docks of Charleston Harbor, acquitting himself so well that he eventually was trusted to navigate steamships through the tricky waters in one of the South’s more important ports.

Thirteen months after Confederate artillery had fired on Fort Sumter, Smalls was a wheelman for the CSS Planter on a mission to deliver a cargo of cannon to an island fortress. On the way, its white officers, in a decision they would come to regret, tied up their craft in Charleston Harbor and disembarked for a night on the town. Smalls and a small crew of black sailors bided their time, and at 3 o’clock on the morning of May 13, 1862, they fired the Planter’s boilers and prepared to run the gantlet through Charleston’s heavily armed harbor. Smalls dressed in an officer’s uniform, pulled the brim of the captain’s familiar straw hat low over his brow and coolly sailed into the history books.

At least he might have had he been white.

A hundred years later, in the midst of America’s conflagration over civil rights, no one was raising a glass of bourbon to men like Smalls. Congress had created the United States Civil War Centennial Commission in 1957, but, unwilling to risk a Civil War redux, it left ceremonies and interpretations up to the states, which, after giving the matter some thought, were more than happy to take this artistic license and run with it.

So in the South, the centennial became a fireworks-laced celebration  of states’ rights and individual courage,  and a political justification of laws that  kept blacks at the back of the bus. The  era of Civil War reenactments was  born, and North and South enthusiastically, almost wistfully, reminisced over  the war as if, instead of an American  tragedy, it had been a particularly  competitive round of golf. Rather than  punctuating how much we changed as  a nation, it was more symbolic of how  much we hadn’t. The low point occurred  early on in Charleston, when a black  woman seated on the New Jersey Centennial Commission was denied equal  accommodations in a city hotel.

In his work Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial 1961-1965, historian Robert Cook  noted that states-rights cheerleading  for school segregation in the newspapers during the centennial was eerily  similar to the headlines related to slavery a century prior. “Successful and  genuinely popular commemorations of  secession in Alabama and Mississippi  revealed the raw power of historical  memory as a tool of political and cultural warfare,” Cook wrote.

Today, the centennial is widely  regarded as a disaster, one the National  Park Service was determined not to  repeat, even at the risk of alienating  some of the Civil War’s core constituency. “We went into this journey realizing  it would be a sensitive thing,” said  Michael A. Allen, a community partnership specialist for the Park Service  at Fort Sumter. “We wanted a broad-based, diverse holistic commemoration  that wouldn’t look like 1961.”

As such, the sesquicentennial commemoration has had a far different  look and feel than the centennial, and  has featured a new cast of heroes and  a new storyline that tells what the war  has meant to the American psyche,  from secession right up to recent  events in Ferguson, Mo. This isn’t to  say the great battlefields and generals  are being ignored; instead, they are  being woven into the larger tapestry  of the American drama, while at the  same time African Americans, Native  Americans, women, Hispanics, Pacific  Islanders and run-of-the-mill families  caught in the crossfire whose stories  were largely untold have taken their  seat at the table.

Historian Edward Ayers, president of  the University of Richmond, views the  sesquicentennial as “Civil War history  coming of age.” It’s history seen from  a broader perspective—through the  eyes not just of military historians, but  sociologists and social scientists as well.

“We’re getting beyond that great  divide between military history and  social history, and seeing it in different  ways,” Ayers said. “This is not to diminish the battles, but to show why they  mattered.”

Seen in this light, even the battles  might challenge some of our traditional assumptions. First Manassas  was a relatively small and, by Civil  War standards, not terribly bloody.  But its impact in Southern confidence  and Northern angst was tremendous.  Chickamauga by contrast produced a  far more shocking casualty sheet, but  when the gunfire had faded away, little  was accomplished or had changed.  Even Gettysburg, Ayers said, might  deserve a second look. Though the  battle has been long considered the  turning point of the Civil War, “a few  weeks later (the armies) were right  back where they started,” Ayers said.


IN MANY CASES, THE examination of minority participation  in the war is unplowed ground. Battles  and great generals have been the subject of exhaustive investigation, so they  offer little in the way of fresh angles.  But mainly, these new stories represent  a conscious decision by the Park Service  to put the Civil War into greater historical context, going beyond Appomattox  to include Jim Crow, segregation and  the Civil Rights movement.

It was in some ways a break from  the Park Service’s comfort zone, which  traditionally relied upon an aloof and  sterile recounting of the facts, while  largely steering clear of modern politics  and feathers that the scrutiny of time  might ruffe. So for one thing, the standard Civil War timeline—nation breaks  apart, terrible war ensues, nation gets  back together and lives happily ever  after—had to go.

Both North and South had been  guilty of painting a prettier picture than  the facts would warrant. For blacks,  the dissolution of slavery was certainly welcome, but it in no way solved their  social and economic problems, many  of which persist today. Long before his  pith-helmeted glory days, the future  Lord Stanley—then an immigrant who  was swept into war against his wishes  and wound up wearing both the gray  and the blue—was astounded that white  men would kill each other over the  well-being of negroes. Many men on  both sides would have heartily agreed,  and when the war was over, so was  any effective care for the black man’s  future. “Reconciliation was only reconciliation among the white people,” said  Carol Shively, communications coordinator for the Civil War Sesquicentennial Southeast Regional Office. “It was  not only time for us to tell [minorities’]  stories, it was well past time.”

So in 2008, the Park Service produced  a critical analysis of its own past performance and a road map for change. The  report, “Holding the High Ground,”  pulled no punches: “We, as a nation,  still use our battlefields to define the  nation’s Civil War experience in largely  military terms—through the eyes of  the participants of battle,” it said. “We  emphasize military outcomes, with little  discussion of the relationship of those  military events to social, economic, and  political evolution of the nation. As a  result, large segments of the population  fail to see the war’s relevance.”

From elementary school on, for  example, most Americans have it drilled  into their heads that the Civil War  pitted brother against brother. But how  many have been told that at the Battle  of Honey Springs in what would become  Oklahoma, Creek fought against Creek,  Cherokee against Cherokee, and whites  were the minority in both the Northern  and Southern armies?

The Park Service, the “High Ground”  report continued, “has failed to find  ways to engage large segments of  Americans in ways that demonstrate  how the war is relevant to them.”

The sesquicentennial would change  the way the Park Service did business, and to institute that change,  the Park Service needed Robert  Smalls—and many like him.

It wouldn’t be the first time Smalls  was enlisted as a rallying point. Following his daring escape, he met with President Lincoln, helped recruit nearly  5,000 former slaves to fight for the  Union and continued to lend his navigational skills to the Yankee cause.

“To many observers, Robert Smalls  was the first African American hero of  the Civil War,” wrote his great-granddaughter Helen Boulware Moore. The New York Times described Smalls that  way in 1862, and Congress appropriated  $4,584—half the value of the ship—to  give to Smalls and his crew. Smalls went  on to serve 12 years in Congress, but  the Planter went to the bottom of the  sea during a storm in 1876.

In another time, streets and schools  might have been named in his honor.  Instead, it fell to the National Oceanic  and Atmospheric Administration’s  Voyage to Discovery initiative to honor  Smalls in the most significant way it  could. And on May 13, 2014, exactly 152  years after Smalls’ adventure, NOAA  announced that years of tedious and  technical exploration had paid off and  the remains of the Planter had likely  been found under nine feet of sand off  the shore of South Carolina.


BUT BRINGING NEW STORIES to the surface was only half the battle.  The Park Service also had to deftly  decouple itself from past practices.  Park Service representatives in South  Carolina had to sit down with members  of the community and explain why there  would be no fireworks over Fort Sumter  in April 2011, a conversation that went  about as well as could be expected.  Instead, a single beam of light over the  fort was split into two.

Allen acknowledged there were difficulties with marking anniversaries in  South Carolina, especially when a group  of blacks and whites exchanged words  at a solemn commemorative ceremony  of secession mixed with a celebratory  ball held by the Sons of Confederate  Veterans. “Some people yelled at the  mayor,” he said. “We still had people  thinking this was 1961.”

In the end, a meeting was arranged  among representatives of the NAACP  and SCV. “We told them that our success depends on how well you two organizations cooperate.”

Nor did the Park Service hedge its  bets about the causes of the war, which  it solidly traced to slavery. Predictably,  this hasn’t been universally applauded,  but to explain how the war has affected  lives to this very day, it had to be done,  according to Shively.

“I’m proud of us for putting a sword  in the sand and saying we’re going to  talk about the causes,” Shively said.  “I’m not sure the traditional audience  has been terribly excited. We get [negative] comments on it in the parks every  day, and they have a right to their opinion; we show respect to everyone’s opinion. But it was the right thing to do.”

So the Park Service sought out stories of those previously left out of the  discussion and brought rare exhibits  to the fore. At Monocacy National  Battlefield, Robert E. Lee’s infamous  Special Orders No. 191 was on display  for three months, allowing visitors to  view the document within sight of the  fields where it was found by Union  soldiers. The intelligence it revealed  forced the South to abort an invasion  into Pennsylvania and led to a showdown four days later at Antietam. To  add a human touch, the Park Service  brought in descendants of the soldiers  who had found the orders on a roadside,  wrapped around a couple of cigars.

Another document with close ties  to Lee—a battlefield map drawn by  Stonewall Jackson—was displayed for  the public for the 150th anniversary of  Chancellorsville. The map was apparently drawn in the days leading up to  Jackson’s celebrated flanking maneuver  that doomed the Yankees. Little more  than a week later Jackson would be  dead, and the map became one of Lee’s  rare wartime keepsakes, preserving  Jackson’s scrawl as one of his few lasting connections to the man himself.

Indeed, the sesquicentennial has  been notable for the people of all  backgrounds who have a personal connection to the war, said Beth Parnicza,  historian for the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park. If the  centennial was about armies, the sesquicentennial is about individuals.

Parnicza was on the Wilderness  battlefield when a man with a photo of  an ancestor approached her and asked  about the soldier’s position on the field.

He was historian and blogger Robert  Moore, who, right down to the hour on  the battle’s 150th anniversary, pinned  the photo of Capt. Michael Shuler, his  third great-grand-uncle, to a poplar  tree in the area where the soldier fell in  the dense undergrowth. Shuler’s story  demonstrates the complexity of the war  in personal, civilian terms; Moore wrote  that although Shuler fought for the  Confederacy, his father opposed secession and his uncle was a unionist.


ANOTHER FACTOR HAS MADE the sesquicentennial more friendly  to people with a newfound interest in  their connection to the war: Internet  access. Moore said that when he was  writing unit histories in the 1990s, he  would often wear his tires to the nub,  trundling off to the Library of Virginia  in Richmond, or the National Archives  in Washington. Today, much of the same  information is easily accessed on the  Web, and sharing that information with  an interested public is only a blog- or  Facebook-post away.

It was this technology—real-time  communication with two other people  hundreds of miles away—that helped  Ajena Rogers discover an astounding  part of her past that had escaped her  until the sesquicentennial. Rogers, now  a supervisory ranger at the Maggie L.  Walker National Historic Site in Richmond, Va., had worked for the Park  Service since 1984, creating a niche  acting out the roles of historical figures  that she’d painstakingly researched.  Until the sesquicentennial, she had no  idea that her own family tree held a  remarkable story of derring-do.

She had known her great-great-grandfather, James Shields, and his  brother, George Washington Shields, as  remarkable men who went to law school  after the war and became propertied  attorneys. Her grandmother faintly remembered George Washington  Shields after he moved back home from  New York, where he had been the first  African American to graduate from  Cornell University. She recounted how  the “crazy old uncle,” elderly and blind  by this time, tended to frighten the children who would scurry to the other side  of the street on his approach.

Then, two years ago, Rogers got wind  that her great-great-uncle had written  a memoir of his early life, and that it  might still exist. With the aid of genealogist Drusilla Pair and Cornell law  professor Kevin Clermont, the manuscript was discovered in a Hampton,  Va., museum archive. From the manuscript, she learned that for James, a  slave, the last straw occurred when he  was beaten for using a rotting fence rail  to make a small fire on a frigid night.

He escaped, was recaptured and escaped again, eventually reaching Union-held Fort Monroe, where he was protected as contraband of war. His family, having no idea of his fate, made its own daring escape a year later. But nine more months would pass before they were reunited with James.

For Rogers, reading the manuscript was a suspenseful, soul-wrenching experience. “It was written like a great novel,” she said. “I’m sitting there yelling, ‘No, don’t [take the fence rail]. You know better, your mamma taught you better than that!’ Then I’d have to remember that of course he got away, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“The battlefields and weapons are  cool as well, but there’s more to it,” Rogers said. “Sometimes you don’t realize that there are stories within you, and within your own family.”

That was something the Park Service came to appreciate first-hand: “I think  the greatest lessons most of us learned were personal,” said Fredericksburg’s Parnicza. “Getting a better sense of the people we talk about on a daily basis, watching visitors learn, explore and discover an interest in their past, and finding parts of the battlefield we’d never  explored or researched before.”


TO ECHO THAT SENTIMENT, the Park Service and a number of historians began digging into areas and peoples that in the past had attracted scant attention. The role of Hispanics, Asiatics and Native Americans became the subject of three books the Park Service produced to tell their stories.

A curious example of ongoing sesquicentennial scholarship is the effort to identify Asians and Pacific Islanders  who fought in the war. Making the job more difficult was the tendency to  assign them new names that tripped more easily off Anglo tongues.

By 1836 the Atlantic slave trade had officially come to a close, but  the demand for cheap labor had not. Thwarted to the east, Caribbean planters looked to the Pacific, devising a  clumsy charade in which virtual slaves from South China and India were labeled colonists, or indentured servants—which offered Asians faint hope because, writes historian Ruthann Lum McCunn, conditions were so poor they frequently expired before their contract of servitude did. In Britain, liberal politician Lord John Russell bluntly called it “a new system of slavery.”

Predictably, these maltreated Asians would frequently mutiny or escape, and by the eve of the war had begun to show up on America’s Eastern Seaboard. Although their numbers were small, Asians volunteered for service in high percentages. Many were mariners who, McCunn writes, might not have seen much difference in risk between civil and military sailing. It’s also possible they didn’t entirely understand what documents they were signing.

Asians show up even in Southern armies that permitted only whites to serve because in 1860, census takers had only three racial options on their forms—white, black and mulatto—and the occasional Asian they chanced upon left them a bit stumped. So often as not, Asians were checked off as white.

Joseph Pierce (his new moniker was a combination of the standard “Joe” from “Joe Chinaman” and a last name he was given because, why not, Franklin Pierce was president at the time) was luckier than most. He was raised and schooled in Connecticut by the parents of Capt. Amos Peck, an incredibly enlightened naval officer for the day, who purchased  the boy from a destitute Chinese family with few good options. Pierce joined the 14th Connecticut Infantry in the summer of 1862, just in time to be thrown into the fray at Antietam. The following summer, Pierce and his comrades were repulsing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg at a terrible cost.

Pierce went on to a successful career as a silver engraver, but was only vaguely known to his descendants until they were contacted by historian Irving Moy. Moy, also of Chinese ancestry, had been inspired in 1994 by a photo of Pierce in a magazine crediting him with being the only Chinese soldier in the Army of the Potomac. Moy went on to research and write extensively on Pierce’s life, revealing information that amazed Pierce’s descendants. “It is so gratifying to learn and feel proud of what he did for this country,” said great-granddaughter Mimi Vargas. “I’m very happy that he and other Chinese immigrants who fought in the Civil War have been given [attention] that they earned. Since Irving Moy, I pay more attention to things about the Civil War [and] I visited Gettysburg and saw the picture of Joseph Pierce in the museum.”

Still, Moy said, more work is needed to bring these figures out of the shadows. “The participation of Asians and Pacific Islanders in this war is still  unknown to the most ardent of Civil War students,” Moy said. “It gives me great pride being Chinese to share the story of Joseph Pierce. I hope his story, and those of other Asians and Pacific  Islanders, will inspire those who hear it and help them appreciate that the history of this nation is made up and continues to be made up of countless stories of known and unknown immigrants who come to this country and contribute to our national tapestry.”


UNDERSTANDING THESE stories and the context in which they are told has, over the past four years, changed the way in which we view the war. Be it in individual performances, minority contributions or grand visions, the sesquicentennial has been notable not so much for the new information it has produced but for the new ways in which what we know is evaluated and consumed. Park Service members, Ayers said, “are the heroes” for deciding to do things differently this time, and then following through. And there will still be room for study and evaluation when the bicentennial rolls around.

“The Civil War doesn’t seem worn out, there still seems to be an insatiable interest,” he said. “The trick is finding  something new that is worth saying. It’s our responsibility as historians to show how this drama will keep unfolding.”


Tim Rowland is the author of New York Times bestseller Strange and Obscure Stories of the Civil War.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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