The Author’s Corner with Lauren Thompson

book cover (1)Lauren Thompson is  Assistant Professor of History at McKendree University. This interview is based on her new book, Friendly Enemies: Soldier Fraternization throughout the American Civil War (University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

JF: What led you to write Friendly Enemies?

LT: In the Summer of 2009, I was a Seasonal Park Ranger at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park. At the end of each day, I would make my rounds in the visitor centers before locking up. One evening, I was drawn to an exhibit in the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, entitled “Friendly Enemies.” The exhibit, which has since been replaced when the visitor center received an upgrade, depicted Union and Confederate soldiers trading coffee and tobacco along the Rappahannock River during the Winter of 1863. I kept trying to wrap my head around such strange interactions. The daily tours I gave were all about the bloodshed and carnage. How were men able to brush off those horrors and fraternize with the enemy?

I wanted to see if I could understand, from the soldiers’ themselves, why they traded with their enemy. Initially, I had hoped I could find a soldier or two who could explain it to me. Little did I know, I found dozens of soldiers’ depictions of fraternization across the Rappahannock. While working on my doctorate, I could not help but wonder if fraternization happened elsewhere–at different campaigns and between men in different armies. I visited archives in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. Their accounts revealed that anytime soldiers opposed one another for extended periods of time, they fraternized. Their interactions went beyond the trade of coffee and tobacco, too. Many times, it was in the form of newspaper exchanges, and, most importantly, the negotiation of ceasefires to limit bloodshed. It was at this point I realized these interactions meant something much greater to these soldiers than I had originally thought. I set out to answer where, why, and how fraternization happened.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Friendly Enemies?

LT: When citizen soldiers experienced unthinkable hardships, they coped with warfare by carving out spaces of fraternity, reprieve, and survival. Fraternization highlights soldiers’ ability to shed sectional differences and identify with one another’s mutual circumstances.

JF: Why do we need to read Friendly Enemies?

LT: An in-depth analysis of fraternization demonstrates how Union and Confederate soldiers worked together to limit bloodshed amidst the bloodiest war in American History. It is incredible that enemies traded during the siege of Chattanooga on the slopes of Missionary Ridge and had “swimming parties” in the Chattahoochee after the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Fraternization, thus, demonstrates a critical nuance in scholarship on the common soldier. We tend to classify soldiers into dichotomies i.e. volunteer v. conscript, courageous v. coward, steadfast v. deserter, etc. At first, I thought, perhaps the men who fraternized were just “bad” soldiers–men who did not want to be there and would do anything and everything to express their dissatisfaction. However, as I read about the men who fraternized, they were anything but cowards–-in fact, many of them received promotions and a handful were Medal of Honor awardees. The overwhelming majority of them were volunteer soldiers, who wrote openly about fraternization (and the benefits it provided) while simultaneously expressing their anger for cowards and shirkers. They also recorded their loyalty to their service and efforts to remain enlisted until the war’s end.

This study also helps us understand postwar race relations. While fraternizing, men did not discuss slavery, sectional strife, or, most importantly, over what terms they would end the war. Thus, common soldiers began a trend that we would see on a national scale after the guns fell silent in April 1865. Fraternization was the prototype for sectional reunion after the war–one that avoided debates over causation, honored soldiers’ shared sacrifice, and promoted white male supremacy.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

LT: I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. My mom loved history and took my brother and I to historical sites in the region–Gettysburg & Antietam–when were in grade school. It was from that point on that I wanted to learn everything about the Civil War. We’d read books, watch documentaries, and go to reenactments. Upon majoring in History in college, I realized there was so much more to learn about the Civil War Era and US History as a whole. It was at that time my advisor encouraged me to pursue my PhD–I wanted to keep learning history and most of all, I wanted to teach it. For any event in history, there are multiple perspectives. I like to uncover and tell the stories we rarely hear about.

JF: What is your next project?

LT: My next project is going to shift gears and jump from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era. I now live and teach in St. Louis, Missouri. I teach African-American History and have become involved in local social justice groups. And, I also really enjoy learning about Sports History. Sports and recreation can be a lens to investigate race, class, and gender. I am researching race relations and recreation in St. Louis, particularly in public parks, youth sports, and high school athletics during the Civil Rights Era.

JF: Thanks, Lauren!

The Author’s Corner with Carl Guarneri

Lincoln.jpgCarl Guarneri is Professor of History at Saint Mary’s College of California. This interview is based on his new book, Lincoln’s Informer: Charles A. Dana and the Inside Story of the Union War (University Press of Kansas, 2019).

JF: Why did you decide to write Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: I hatched plans for Lincoln’s Informer many years ago when I learned that Charles Dana, whose experience at the Brook Farm commune I had covered in my first book, The Utopian Alternative (Cornell University Press, 1991), moved on to a fascinating—and virtually unstudied—Civil War career. My interest was piqued when I learned that Dana’s war memoirs, published in 1898, were actually ghostwritten by the muckraker Ida Tarbell and, I discovered, riddled with mistakes. I took the absence of a trove of personal Dana papers as a research dare, along with the several thousand wartime telegrams sent by him that are recorded on microfilms at the National Archives. Although the Civil War had not previously been my scholarly focus, I had been teaching it for three decades, which stimulated my desire to do some original scholarship in the field. Several other book projects clamored for my attention first. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the long delay because it enabled me, once I returned to the Dana project, to benefit from so much fine Civil War scholarship that appeared in the intervening years.

As an Assistant Secretary lodged in Washington’s corridors of power and a special agent sent by Lincoln and Stanton to the front to file confidential reports, Dana, I sensed, was a wonderful source for telling the inside story of the Union war. My friends kept pointing out that he bore a resemblance to a fictional character (like Forrest Gump) who just happened to be present in the middle of a series of momentous historical events. But Dana was real, and he did more than observe history; he made it. His reports helped to make Union generals like Grant and break others, such as McClernand and Rosecrans. Meanwhile, at Washington he supervised Union spies, lobbied legislators for Lincoln, and helped police the contentious Union home front. My research brings out Dana’s important behind-the-scenes role, while the book’s sideways approach allows me to take the measure of Union leaders like Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant without adding to the leaning-tower pile of their published biographies.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: This is not primarily a thesis-driven book but a dramatic and (I hope) colorful narrative that clarifies along the way many controversies about Civil War battles, generals, and events, and offers a fresh look at Lincoln, Stanton, Grant, and Union leaders. Its cumulative effect is to highlight Dana’s substantial contributions to Union victory, and, more generally, the indispensable role that people most readers have never heard of–special agents and bureau chiefs in the War Department–played in organizing and sustaining the Union’s massive war effort.

JF: Why do we need to read Lincoln’s Informer?

CG: Scholars and history buffs who can’t get enough of the Civil War will, I trust, not require strenuous convincing! For them, and for students and other readers, Lincoln’s Informer addresses important and perennially fascinating Civil War questions (Why did northerners reject secession? Who freed the slaves, and why? How did Lincoln finally find the right generals? Did the President’s use of patronage help or hinder the war effort? Was there a Confederate conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln?), but it does so from a fresh angle by excavating the actions and views of a little-known confidant of Union war leaders, an administration insider with surprising influence. The book’s narrative suggests some “revisionist” answers to these questions. Equally important in my view, as Lincoln’s Informer tells its story in detail it gives a feel for the way the Civil War’s momentous events unfolded day-by-day in the eyes of key participants.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CG: In retrospect, our autobiographical paths always seem clearer, even predestined. As a curious kid in a home-bound, working-class Italian-American family, I found escape in the vicarious travel of poring over maps and collecting stamps, and in the backward time-travel of historical fiction. I had the benefit of encountering inspiring history teachers in high school and college, too. But the truth is that I studied economics and art history as an undergraduate, and only in approaching graduate studies did I turn—or return—to history. It was a professor of French history who urged me to focus on the United States—which I had not studied in college—and to examine its transatlantic and global connections. It turned out that studying US history this way satisfied my curiosity about other times and places while also illuminating our own. Since then I have veered between “ballooning”—assessing the US in global perspective—and “burrowing”—digging deeply into specific events and primary sources, rejoicing that practicing history allows me to do both.

JF: What is your next project?

CG: Deconstructing Charles Dana’s ersatz memoirs has whetted my appetite for exploring issues raised by Civil War memoirs as problematic historical sources, which can be mined—always with caution— for information about wartime events, but can also be examined as explorations in the workings of memory, as survivors’ attempts to fix historical legacies, and as interventions in ongoing military and political controversies. I’m hoping to pursue this further. Meanwhile, in keeping with my interest in transatlantic history, I am preparing an edition of Dana’s newspaper reportage of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe.

JF: Thanks, Carl!

Gettysburg Religion

Steve Longenecker’s new book, Gettysburg Religion: Refinement, Diversity, and Race in the Antebellum and Civil War Border North, just came across my desk today.  Fordham University Press did a really nice job with the dust jacket and it comes with endorsements from Ed Ayers, Ruth Doan, and Steve Woodworth.

I have been waiting for someone to write a religious history of Gettysburg and I know Steve has been working on this project for several years.  I smell a speaking gig at the new Seminary Ridge Museum.

Here is a taste from the jacket blurb.

In the borderland between freedom and slavery, Gettysburg remains among the most legendary Civil War landmarks. A century and a half after the great battle, Cemetery Hill, the Seminary and its ridge, and the Peach Orchard remain powerful memories for their embodiment of the small-town North and their ability to touch themes vital to nineteenth-century religion. During this period, three patterns became particularly prominent: refinement, diversity, and war. In Gettysburg Religion, author Steve Longenecker explores the religious history of antebellum and Civil War era Gettysburg, shedding light on the remarkable diversity of American religion and the intricate ways it interacted with the broader culture. Longenecker argues that Gettysburg religion revealed much about larger American society and about how trends in the Border North mirrored national developments. In many ways, Gettysburg and its surrounding Border North religion belonged to the future and signaled a coming pattern for modern America.