David Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer of American History at the University of Edinburgh. This interview is based on his new book, Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Raising the White Flag?
DS: Growing up, I constantly heard that “Americans never surrender” – every president and major political figure since JFK has uttered some version of this claim. Yet, during the Civil War, armies and individual soldiers surrendered all the time. Trying to make sense of why they surrendered so often was the motivating impulse behind the research.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Raising the White Flag?
DS: It argues that American ideas about surrender at the beginning of the Civil War grew out of inherited notions that surrender helped to distinguish civilized warfare from barbarism, but evolved over the course of the war as demands for “unconditional” surrender, the enlistment of black men into the Union Army, the proliferation of guerrilla warfare, and what some historians have termed “hard” warfare all challenged the meaning of surrender. In the final phase of the war, when Confederate defeat became inevitable, surrender became the route to peace, albeit a difficult and perilous one.
JF: Why do we need to read Raising the White Flag?
DS: The American Civil War began with a surrender at Fort Sumter and ended with a series of surrenders, most famously at Appomattox Courthouse, with dozens of surrenders in between (Ft. Donelson, Harpers Ferry, Vicksburg, etc.). One out of every four Civil War soldiers surrendered – either individually on the battlefield or as part of one of the large surrenders. Looking at the Civil War through the lens of surrender opens up new questions about the plight of prisoners of war, Confederate guerrillas, Southern Unionists, and African American soldiers, the culture of honor, the experience of combat, and the laws of war.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DS: I first really fell in love with American history in high school because of some great teachers. In college, I had my first experience with archival research and I was hooked. I taught high school for several years before going to graduate school, and it wasn’t really until graduate school that I knew I wanted to be an academic historian.
JF: What is your next project?
DS: I’m currently writing an environmental history of American slavery.
JF: Thanks, David!