I spent a year doing research for my Civil War novel, “Seen the Glory” — reading obscure books and eyewitness accounts, talking to re-enactors and National Park Service historians — and, over time, I discovered what I think of as the sordid side of the Civil War. One of the books I read, not at all obscure, was “The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History,” by Margaret Creighton.
It’s an excellent book, but I think Creighton was overly charitable to the Confederacy with her title. One aspect of the history she refers to — a vein that runs through the Civil War from first to last — was never forgotten. It was ignored, sometimes denied, sometimes covered up. People North and South refuse to confront it today.
In July 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Robert E. Lee, was in Chambersburg, Penn., a few days before it went on to its epic appointment at Gettysburg. This is from my novel:
The Rebels had put the Negroes facedown on the brick pavement in front of the courthouse. There were twenty-five or thirty Negroes, all but a few of them women and children. Soldiers stood over them with their smallish breech-loading rifles resting on their shoulders and their limp slouch hats shading their faces.
“Pardon me,” Sally said.
“Ma’am,” the soldier said, and smiled vaguely and without impudence. He unshouldered his rifle.
“Could you please explain what you men are doing here?”
The soldier wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, gaining some time, perhaps. “These here is contrabands, ma’am. We gawn take them back down where they belong.”
“Contrabands,” Sally said.
“Slaves, ma’am. Runaways.”
“Not all of them were slaves,” Sally said. “Some of them were born here.”
A two-horse carryall came into the square with soldiers riding before and behind it. The wagon was crammed with Negroes, women and children, two men. The driver was a soldier. He stopped the carryall, and one of the riders snapped out an order and the Negroes got down, slow, looking about them as if the place were alien, as puzzling to them as a dream can be puzzling, as grotesque and chaotic. Two of the children had to be lifted down by their mothers.
“And do you intend to abduct the children?” Sally said.
“They’s contrabands, Ma’am.”
I imagined this scene, but I didn’t invent it. Lee’s cavalry roamed the countryside around Chambersburg, capturing African Americans, runaway and freeborn both, men, women, and children. After the battle they took them to Richmond to “special depots,” where they were sold into slavery. There are no reliable numbers, because no one wanted to talk about it afterward. I have read that 1,000 were picked up, and that some 300 were finally delivered in Richmond.
“I saw no men among the contrabands,” a white woman wrote, “all women and children. Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along. I sat on the front step as they were driven by just like we would drive cattle.”
Robert E. Lee unquestionably knew about this.
We can only guess at his thinking, but In my novel he tells General Longstreet, “I can restrain the men from destroying private property, molesting women, setting fires. But if I forbid the seizure of a runaway slave, I put their loyalty to me in jeopardy. The Negro is the cause of this war, and the men know it and I can’t stanch the rage they feel. I’m not sure I want to. It makes them terrible fighters.”
The rage Lee mentions in my imagining was real, and it was pervasive. At Fort Pillow, Tenn., Confederates under General Nathan Bedford Forrest slaughtered upwards of 300 black Union soldiers who had surrendered and dropped their weapons. Forrest wrote afterward, “The river was dyed with the blood of the slaughtered for 200 yards. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with southerners.”
It was the same after the Confederate victory at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Va. “The Confederates attacked with a fury when they discovered they were fighting blacks,” Scott Hartwig, who was then chief historian at Gettysburg, told me. The Northerners were bottled up and surrendered; whites were taken prisoner, blacks were shot, bayoneted, and clubbed to death. “It was a slaughter, a disgrace, a war crime,” Hartwig said.
After the Battle of Gettysburg, a Vermont private went into a barn on ground that had been held by the Confederates and found the body of a young black man. The Vermonter wrote a letter home, describing the body in graphic detail. He had been tortured, mutilated, and left to die.
Eudora Welty wrote of plausibility in fiction, and of the plausibility of the massive bear, Old Ben, in Faulkner’s novella “The Bear.” Old Ben is walking around with 50 slugs in him, which seems unlikely in real life, but credible in Faulkner’s story. “Old Ben and every one of his bullets are part of the truth of this story,” she wrote. “William Faulkner’s particular truth.”
The vicious, unchecked racism of Confederate fighting men and their leaders is my particular truth in “Seen the Glory.” The reader can accept it uncritically or not, but unlike Old Ben, it comports with the historical record. It makes it impossible for me to condone any commemoration of the Confederacy and its champions, including Robert E. Lee.
John Hough Jr., who lives in West Tisbury, is the author of “Seen the Glory.” This is excerpted from a talk he gave at his alma mater, Haverford College.