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Robert K. Sutton

Civil War to Civil Rights

Robert K. Sutton Delivers Second Arthur A. Hansen Lecture

March 30, 2010

Robert K. Sutton, chief historian of the National Park Service, delivered the second Arthur A. Hansen Lecture March 22 in the Clayes Performing Arts Center.

The program is named in honor of Hansen, emeritus professor of history, and sponsored by the Center for Oral and Public History that he formerly directed. The first Hansen Lecture took place in 2008, when the center marked its 40th anniversary.

The following is the transcript from Sutton’s lecture, “Civil War to Civil Rights: The Sesquicentennial in the National Park Service.”

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th and first African American president of the United States. One-hundred-and-forty-eight years earlier, when Abraham Lincoln, another Illinoisan, became the 16th president, it was inconceivable that Mr. Obama could have even held office, much less been elected president. In 1861, 4 million blacks were slaves, and most free African Americans were denied rights that other white Americans took for granted.

In human history, 148 years is not a very long time. For example, if we add together the tenures of the three longest reigning British monarchs (Queen Elizabeth II is currently the third longest) the total years are 178. The oldest verified living person, if you’re not convinced that biblical figure, Mathuselah, lived to 996, died at 122+ years. So, to me, at least, it is remarkable that we could have an African American president only 148 years after 4 million African Americans were enslaved.

In the United States, we believe our national parks provide the best laboratories to understand our history. From the cliff dwellings of ancient American Indian cultures in the Southwest through Minute Man National Historical Park, where the Revolutionary War began, to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota, that interprets the Cold War, we manage and interpret a breadth and depth of prehistoric and historic sites unparalleled on the globe.

Arthur A. Hansen, left, listens to Robert K. Sutton's lecture.

Among these special places, we manage 20 or so of the most important Civil War battlefields, from Fort Sumter, where the war began, to Appomattox Court House, where it ended. Over the years, we have managed and interpreted these battlefields as military parks. Many were created by Congress and managed by the War Department to honor the soldiers who died there, as well as to learn about the battles and tactics.

When the National Park Service took on the responsibility of managing these battlefields in 1933, we continued to focus on who shot whom, where, when and how.

Starting with Chickamauga and Chattanooga, the first military park established in 1890, veterans would return to the site, tell their stories of the battle, and visually transport visitors back in time. The story of the battle at Chickamauga, was, indeed, a very riveting tale.

On the final day of the battle of Chickamauga, Gen. William S. Rosecrans, the Union commander, moved a division from his line to cover what one of his aides thought was a gap in another part of the line. As it turned out, the aide simply could not see the Union troops in the tree cover, so the perceived gap in the line was really defended. But by moving this division, Rosecrans created a real hole in the line, which under normal circumstances, would have been covered quickly. Commanders and their aides always checked to make sure that there were no gaps in the line, or to use the terminology of the day, to ensure that none of the regiments or divisions were “in the air.” Yet, at that moment, at that very spot of this gap in the line, and by total coincidence, Confederate Gen. James Longstreet unleashed an attack, not knowing that the point of attack was uncovered.

In the ensuing melee — and in what could have been a disastrous Union defeat — Union Gen. George Thomas held his strong defensive position behind the front lines, allowing most of the Union army to retreat north to Chattanooga. Thomas’ stand, and the fact that he averted a complete disaster, earned him the nickname of the “Rock of Chickamauga.”

We have focused a great deal of attention to the discussion of commanders over the years. We pose and answer questions such as: did a particular commander make good or bad decisions on the battlefield? Or, did they have the confidence of the troops under their commands?

Again, returning to the Battle of Chickamauga, we have analyzed the command of Rosecrans, whose career went into a downward spiral after the battle. The blame for the defeat was heaped on his shoulders, while Longstreet was considered a hero for breaking through the Union line. Ultimately, though, he was a flawed hero because he was not able to capture the Union army. Thomas, on the other hand, achieved heroic status because he held off the Confederates long enough for the Union army to retreat.

Thomas actually deserved attention beyond his military prowess, and is one of the most fascinating officers in the Civil War. He was one of the few United States Army officers from Virginia who opted to stay with the Union Army. By deciding to stay in the Union, however, his family disowned him, turned his pictures to the wall, and refused assistance from Thomas before his death in 1870 and from his friends later. Thomas’ family, who owned more than 20 slaves, was among the elite of Southern slave-holding families. Yet, after the war, Thomas became a strong advocate for African Americans, having observed, firsthand, the fighting prowess of black soldiers under his command.

Discussing Thomas and other commanders will always be an important part of our battlefield interpretation. But, for our more than 11,000,000 annual battlefield visitors, it is important to keep current with the evolving military historiography to best serve our visitors. Thus, we also need to talk about the participants on the ground — the common soldiers — who were far more concerned about killing or being killed in the battle, than whether or not their commanders were effective. Some 30 years ago, British military historian, Sir John Keegan, wrote "The Face of Battle," which focused attention on common soldiers and their experiences in battle, and how these often differed from the perceptions of their commanders.

To illustrate this point, in the Battle of Chickamauga, Ambrose Bierce, one of America’s most important literary figures from the 1800s, participated in the battle, having been recently promoted to first lieutenant in the Union army. After the war, Bierce wrote a fictional short story — “Chickamauga” — describing in graphic detail the horrors of war. Much later, in 1898, after Chickamauga became a military park, Bierce reflected that “on that historic ground occurred the fiercest and bloodiest of all the great conflicts of modern times — a conflict in which skill, valor, accident and fate played each its important parts; the result a tactical victory for one side, a strategic one for the other.” In describing the carnage of the battle, Bierce never mentioned the commanders.

In some battles it seemed that the commanders were describing entirely different battles than their soldiers.

Gen. William T. Sherman, during his famous March to the Sea through Georgia, briefly described a strategically unimportant battle in the town of Milledgeville, the state capital of Georgia at the time in his memoirs. Milledgeville, by the way is not, nor likely ever will become, a National Park. Instead of focusing on the battle, Sherman wrote a humorous piece about some of his young officers who took over the state House of Representatives. After a spirited debate, they repealed the ordinance of secession, and called for the governor and Jefferson Davis to appear to receive kicks in their rear ends.

Yet, the soldiers who actually fought in this battle had quite different descriptions of Milledgeville. Union soldiers marched into town and saw a heavy column of infantry marching toward them. They fired, the Confederate column retreated, then attacked again and again. The Union soldiers fired again and again, resulting in about 600 Confederates casualties. The Union soldiers later discovered that most of the soldiers were old men or young boys. One Union soldier wrote: “I was never so affected at the sight of dead and wounded before. I hope we will never have to shoot at such men again.” Another wrote, “There is no god in war. It is merciless, cruel and vindictive, unChristian, savage, relentless. It is all that devils could wish for.”

Many of us who managed Civil War battlefields recognized that expanding the military history to include the stories of the common soldier was important. But we also understood that an even more compelling theme was: why were they fighting in the first place? What caused the Civil War?

Clearly, the causes were complicated, but they could generally be placed in three categories: political, economic and social. But, why was the political cause such that it would lead to a civil war? Why was the economic issue so important? Or, why was the social cause of such consequence it would lead to the Civil War?

Actually each of these categories had a root cause, and that was the institution of slavery. In many ways, the causes of the Civil War were like peeling an onion. One layer of the onion was politics, another was economics and yet another was social issues. Once all of these layers were removed, the core was the institution of slavery. If slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, what was the institution like?

To help us develop interpretive themes like what caused the Civil War, we invited the leading scholars on the Civil War era to a symposium at Ford’s Theater — another National Park — in 2000.

One of our speakers, Ira Berlin from the University of Maryland, helped us better understand the institution of slavery. He said slavery had two parts. On the one hand, it was the most inhumane, shameful, demeaning and sadistic treatment ever meted out to any American. Slave owners separated husbands from wives and removed children their parents. It brutalized people, physically and psychologically.

But, as Professor Berlin notes, slaves did not surrender to their plight. They created niches for family life, religious worship, education, and formal and informal associations, as well as a unique culture, cuisine, language and music.

“Indeed,” as he said, “the creative legacy of slavery is so great that we must concede that if slavery is the darkest part of America’s past, it may also be the most creative part of America’s past.”

The economy of slavery was an important part of the equation. As I noted earlier, in 1860, there were approximately 4,000,000 slaves in the United States. About 30 percent, or 385,000, of the white population in slave states owned slaves, and of that number 12 percent owned 20 or more slaves. About 30 percent of the nation’s population lived in the South, but 60 percent of the wealthiest individuals were concentrated in the South. Further, the per capita income in the South was nearly double that in the North. To place these figures in more modern terms, in the 1950s only 2 percent of American families owned corporation stocks equal to the value of one slave in 1860. To carry these statistics a little further, the value of slaves in the United States — again in 1860 — was valued at about $3 billion, which was greater than the combined value of railroads, factories and banks in the entire country and greater than all land, cotton and goods in the South.

So, the economic value of slaves on the eve of the Civil War was considerable.

At a conference held at the University of Richmond, Virginia, in April 2009, the panelists on a session entitled “The Future of Virginia and the South” looked at the nation in 1859 on the eve of the Civil War, confirmed the statistics listed above and further concluded that “the year of 1859 saw the slave-based economy of the South at an all-time peak. Slaves [were] never worth more, cotton [was] never worth more, and the slave-based economy of the upper South [was] never more diversified or valuable.”

For all of you students, when you are in a classroom learning about American history, and your professor says something like: “slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War,” be honest with me. You nod your heads, write that down, then regurgitate that back on an exam, right? In the National Park Service, unlike a university, we potentially have 300 million students, so when we say something like slavery was the principle cause of the Civil War, we must make absolutely sure that a statement like that is based on the best, most up-to-date information.

In fact, up until 1933, many were managed by the War Department for those purposes.

Shortly after Abraham Lincoln took office, the American Civil War started with the bombardment and surrender of Union forces at Fort Sumter in Charleston (S.C.) Harbor, followed several months later by the first major land battle near Manassas railroad junction in Virginia. Four years later, the war ended.

It was the bloodiest war in American history, in which some 620,000 Americans lost their lives.

The war, which began to restore the Union for the North, and to separate from the Union for the South, gradually became a war that would forever decide the fate of the institution of slavery in the United States. The course of the war shifted in September 1862, after the narrow victory at Antietam Battlefield, when President Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

He announced that the proclamation would officially take effect on January 1, 1863, declaring that slaves would be freed in the states that were in rebellion. Shortly after he issued his proclamation, President Lincoln wrote to one of his generals saying “to use a coarse, but an expressive figure, broken eggs can not be mended. I have issued the emancipation proclamation and I cannot retract it.”

Many slaves did not wait for the proclamation.

John Boston, a slave in Maryland, took the unusual and very cleaver step of escaping from his owner in a Union state by crossing the Potomac River to Virginia, where he found refuge with the 14th Brooklyn New York Regiment stationed there in 1862. Robert Smalls, a slave, who was the harbor pilot on the armed Confederate military transport steamboat CSS Planter in Charleston Harbor orchestrated one of the most daring and celebrated escapes during the war. In the spring of 1862, Smalls and his fellow slave crew commandeered the Planter, picked up their families from a nearby wharf, and piloted the vessel through Confederate sentries in the harbor where they surrendered the Planter to the Union blockade and gained their freedom.

Early in the war, most Union soldiers were willing to fight to preserve the Union, but not to end slavery. However, as they observed the treatment of slaves in the theaters of war in the South, and as they became acquainted with escaped slaves like John Boston and Robert Smalls, their views toward ending slavery as a war aim changed. Their sentiments were like those of Ohio Col. Marcus Spiegel, who in 1863 wrote to his wife that he did not "want to fight for Lincoln's Negro population any longer."

A year later, however, just before he was killed in Louisiana, Spiegel again wrote to his wife, but this time he had observed the "horrors of slavery," and said the he was now "a strong abolitionist."

Other Northern soldiers changed their views toward slavery when they witnessed the fighting abilities of the 200,000 African American soldiers who joined the ranks of the Union Army shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were ratified, ending slavery, guaranteeing the rights of citizenship to Americans of all colors and giving all males, black and white, the right to vote. In the intervening years between the end of the Civil War and the inauguration of Barack Obama, there would be major setbacks in the road to equality for African Americans, but the Civil War changed the trajectory of American history permanently.

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, the National Park Service will trace the progression of the nation from the beginning of the conflict at Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston Harbor, through the battles at Manassas National Battlefield Park, Antietam National Battlefield, Gettysburg National Military Park, and the other major battle sites to the end of the war at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. We will focus on the battles and tactics, military successes and failures, but we also will draw attention to the civilians who often were unwitting participants, the individual soldiers whose perceptions of the battles often were quite different than those of their commanders, and the families of the soldiers who were left behind and often struggled to feed their families or were grief stricken when their husbands and sons did not return home.

With our rich tapestry of parks, we also will feature Cane River Creole National Historical Park in Louisiana, the amazingly rich park that interprets everything from the slave economy with intact slave quarters and the plantation “big” house, to the sharecropper economy that followed the war. Visitors also can visit Nicodemus National Historical Park on the barren plains of Kansas, where a group of former slaves fled the South in 1877 after the end of Reconstruction to create their own community.

There were setbacks along the road to equality for African Americans. Although the 14th Amendment to the Constitution seemed to say that all Americans were equal, the landmark Supreme Court Decision of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, said that “separate, but equal” facilities and schools were legal. The struggle for equality, however, did not end with Plessy v. Ferguson.

In another landmark Supreme Court Decision, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the court declared “that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate, but equal’ has no place.” Further, the court found that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Visitors can learn more about this Supreme Court case at Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Park located in the “separate, but equal” Monroe School in Topeka, Kan., attended by Linda Brown, the plaintiff in the case. Visitors also can visit Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas, where, in 1957, President Eisenhower sent soldiers to enforce the federal court's order to desegregate Central High — thus becoming the first president since Reconstruction to use federal troops to support African American civil rights.

Without the Civil War, without the amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery, guaranteed equal protection and gave all males the right to vote, and without the Supreme Court decision that ended segregation and the actions of the Federal Government that enforced that decision, Barack Obama likely would not be the president of the United States as we begin the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. We are very fortunate to have the tangible landmarks of all of these events from the Civil War to civil rights in our national parks. We sincerely hope you will take the opportunity to visit and learn about your history during this commemoration.

To learn more about these parks and the many others that tell the story from Civil War to civil rights, visit our Website at

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