historian, author, film producer

Tag: violence (page 1 of 1)

Race and Violence: A Conversation Comparing the Post-Civil War West and South

This podcast with Will Thomas and Andy Graybill explores a little-known episode in the Indian Wars–the Marias Massacre–and the wider issues surrounding race and violence in the West and South during Reconstruction. The U.S. Army attacked a camp of Blackfeet Indians on the Marias River in Montana in January 1870, killing over 173, including nearly 90 women and 50 children. The New York Times reacted with disgust, as did much of the Eastern press, and called the event a “slaughter.” Yet, many white Americans in the Western territories greeted the news enthusiastically. The murder of a prominent Montana trader, Malcolm Clark, in August, 1869, set these events in motion, and led to calls for the Army the hunt down Indian “marauders.” The Army, it turned out, attacked the wrong camp of Blackfeet, one afflicted with small pox and unconnected to Clark’s murder.  We discuss what led to this event and explore its significance for Indian policy, the Army, and the West, and we compare the event with racial violence in the South.

Andy Graybill is the author of Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875-1910 (University of Nebraska and University of Calgary Press, 2007) and is currently researching and writing a study of the Marias Massacre. 

On Terrorism, Guerrillas, and the American Civil War

When United Flight 93 crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, the battle for control of the plane’s cockpit became almost immediately an iconic scene for Americans. The bravery of the passengers prompted widespread sympathy, awe, and appreciation. The story of their close confrontation with the terrorists, their grasp of the wider situation developing on that day, and their patriotic rush to overpower the hijackers defined what appeared to be a new form of warfare, one in which citizens might play major roles in meeting the enemy, one where civilians stood on the front lines.

The roots of this type of warfare and the widely felt terror that accompanied it can be found in the American Civil War when southern guerrillas and partisans struck fear in the Northern public. Significantly, the setting for this citizens’ form of warfare was, and continues to be, an important aspect of the encounter with terror. After 9/11, of course, the setting for this violence seemed to be the confined quarters of an airplane. In the Civil War the setting was the cramped cars of the railroad. Both settings have inspired fear in large part because the machine had the potential to become the instrument of war, a hurtling bomb, incredibly dangerous and shockingly terrifying to its passengers. These spaces made people feel anonymous and the violence appear random, as well as starkly opposed to the order and efficiency of the machinery.

During the Civil War something about the tight space of the railroad car and the possibility of attacks instilled fear among the Northern public. When southern guerrillas attacked railroad cars, stripped the passengers of valuables, set fire to the trains, or shot captured men, Northern civilians all along the border appeared at risk in a new way. Soldiers too might be caught in these circumstances.

Ephraim C. Dawes, a 1st Lt., went into the South with the 53rd Ohio Infantry, fought at Shiloh in 1862, and guarded the Memphis and Chattanooga Railroad in 1863. His unit tracked southern guerrillas in Tennessee and Mississippi during these years. The destruction his army produced was something he tried to convey to his family members back in Ohio: “you don’t know what war is. You can’t appreciate it. Wait till an army overruns the country. till all the male population are in arms till your fences are all burned orchards and barns and chicken roosts robbed, Houses entered and valuables stolen–gardens wantonly destroyed and all manner of excesses committed–not so much by the army as by loose craracters [sic] taking advantage of the unsettled condition of affairs to enrich themselves at everybody else’ expense. It may be the worse picture but it is very like things in the West. Tenn. District.”

Dawes’ family in Ohio, however, seemed unconcerned about the escalating chaos afflicting southern civilians and instead worried much more about the mounting threat of guerrilla raids into Ohio and on unsuspecting Northern soldiers and civilians. Dawes tried to calm their fears: “you need not go crazy or trouble yourself at all if I should be captured by guerrillas as they were never known to hurt anybody. All they do is to capture a man, steal all he’s got about him, make him ride a mule bareback 40 or 50 miles parole him and let him make his way afoot to the nearest civilization.”

But the Northern fear of guerrillas could not be so easily set aside. We might consider the role of the new technology of the railroad and the telegraph in structuring those fears. When Confederate partisan rangers brought telegraphic signaling boxes on raids and took control of Northern-run trains and stations, the sophisticated machinery appeared vulnerable in a surprisingly new way.

Moreover, the modern, refined, and enclosed space of the railroad car was also especially important in shaping these fears. The campaign to counter the insurgency of the southern partisans and guerrillas took the Union army years to organize and understand, and it played out differently in Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia. By October 1864, however, the guerrilla warfare and the counterinsurgency efforts of the Union Army had taken an unexpected turn. Union forces were using local Confederate civilians as human shields on the trains in Northern Virginia to prevent John S. Mosby’s men from attacking them. In Richmond the Confederacy’s leading newspaper editors were confident that Mosby would attack the trains anyway, even if he “knew that all who were dear to him were on a train.” They believed Mosby would not hesitate for a second “provided he were assured that the good of his country demanded the sacrifice.”

Such self-sacrifice and, indeed, the sacrifice of family, friends, and fellow citizens was tolerable, it seemed, in the service of the national cause. Northern newspapers routinely disparaged the Confederate guerrillas and partisans as lawless banditti, but Confederate newspapers just as vigorously defended them as legitimate forces in a modern struggle. Of course, the terms encompass a wide range of characters–from the elite and educated but ruthless Mosby to the vindictive and bloodthirsty William Quantrill whose raid on Lawrence, Kansas, indicated to many Northerners the madness and terror of guerrilla warfare.

Their actions, and especially the quite modern setting of their violence (and the fear it sparked), give us a different picture of the Civil War. The war encompassed types of violence well beyond the large-scale set piece battles we are familiar with, such as Gettysburg, and included forms of terror, hostage taking, random violence, and recrimination we have largely forgotten.

On Violence and the American Civil War, Part I

What do we know or think we know about the violence in the American Civil War? We certainly recognize the truth of Walt Whitman’s now well-known quip that the “real war” will never get in the history books. Our present struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly remind us that the reality of war remains a distant prospect for observers, even with “embedded” reporters and instant video satellite feeds from the battlefield.

Americans have tended to see the wars Iraq and Afghanistan as somehow especially violent and arbitrary–IEDs that seem to randomly maim and kill, mortar rounds carelessly lobbed into cities, and ambushes unleashed on supply convoys. Every war, it seems, spawns its own brand of special violence: mustard gas and machine guns in World War I, blitzkrieg tank attacks in World War II, land mines and jungle warfare in Vietnam.

Yet, the American Civil War has rested in American consciousness as somehow an exception, because it has largely escaped both the horror and diminishing that come with a special focus on the character and structure of its violence. Perhaps, it is the seeming grand purpose of the large “set-piece” battles that Americans want to preserve and hold on to, so that the violence, while acknowledged, remains at arm’s length, distant, removed, and on the margin of an otherwise clearly noble, purposeful, and comprehensible struggle. Our view of Civil War violence is quite contained–limited to the large battle and especially its major “charge.”

Violence in the Civil War, however, was shocking, diverse, public, and terrifying. We might consider two images from the war to help us see some of this. One concerns Ephraim C. Dawes, an ardent young Republican and Union army volunteer from Ohio. Dawes fought at Shiloh and other major western battles with distinction. He saw many fights in three years and wrote home that the roar of battle was something he could not adequately describe. Later at the Battle of Dallas in May 1864 in Georgia, Dawes suffered a serious wound. He had his entire lower jaw shot off. Dawes’ wound was painful and ugly. He could not talk, he could not eat, and he was by his own admission grossly disfigured. As he rode the train from Georgia north toward Union hospitals, people stared. Dawes explained to his family: “This trip was the most trying experience of all. Twenty six hours on a hard board seat over the rear trucks of a second class car. My wound was sloughing freely, very painful and offensive. I was nervous and weak. People looking at me annoyed me almost beyond endurance.” At the Union hospital in Nashville, he was given “bichlorinated soda” which when applied to his wound was like “liquid fire.”

A second image concerns the Atlanta Campaign. Much has been written about the destruction that Sherman’s army wreaked on Georgia and South Carolina. One of Sherman’s soldiers, George F. Cram, went back into Atlanta in late October to review the devastation. He found nearly every house “riddled and torn by our shells, here a tall chimney knocked down and there a portico carried away.” He could see how desperate the landscape of war was, for “along each side of the railroad were holes in the bank where families had crawled in to escape our iron showers.” Fine shade trees were “hacked to pieces.” Cram had little sympathy for those caught up in the destruction, but his detail deserves attention. Families burrowed into the railroad embankment in a desperate attempt to escape the violence that surrounded their world.

Violence, Randall Collins tell us in Violence (Princeton University Press, 2008), is difficult for people to perform, even soldiers, no matter how much drill they receive, no matter how much they believe in the cause for which they are fighting. The type, level, and outcome of violence of the Civil War was contingent on the situation, and we should pay attention to what Collins calls the “micro-processes” that structure these violent encounters. When we look more closely at a Civil War battle and its aftermath, and the violence within these events, we see a range of images more modern than we might expect. Refugees fled before armies, people hugged the earth as artillery screamed overhead and slammed into buildings, and wounded soldiers horrified strangers. Indeed, the literature of Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane have placed these realities before us more fully than many histories.

Perhaps the key dimension to the modernity of the Civil War was not its systematizing of soldiers, nor its organization of command structures, nor even, perhaps especially, its degree of ideological commitments. Rather, the modern aspects of the war can be seen in the types of situational violence it prompted: snipers, guerrillas, panicked civilians, wounded veterans, and commanders trying to create a decisive engagement by routing the enemy through massive violence.