Monday, August 1, 2022

NPR Adds Editor's Note to Juneteenth Story

 NPR National Correspondent John Burnett this morning added an editor's note to his June 20 story about General Gordon Granger and Juneteenth, which I criticized in this early-July blog post (written July 1 and revised over the next few days).

The editor's note links to my blog post. But credit for getting it into print goes to Granger's great-great grandchildren, Maverick and Champe. Champe brought the story to my attention, and Maverick pressed NPR to add a different perspective. 

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Another Review of Montgomery Biography

The review below is from the spring/summer edition of The Journal of America's Military Past. 
The two prior reviews were by Civil War Books and Authors and ARGunners Magazine.

James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, by Robert C. Conner.
Havertown, Pa.: Casemate, 2022. 210 pp., $34.95.
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, there was one region
of the country where bitter fighting had been going on since 1855.
That region, nicknamed “Bleeding Kansas,” straddled the lower
two-thirds of the Missouri-Kansas border, where anti-slavery
“Jayhawkers” from the Kansas Territory and pro-slavery Missouri
“Border Ruffians” had been skirmishing for about six years to
determine popular sovereignty. Jayhawkers, who wanted Kansas to
enter the Union as a free state – not accomplished until January 1861
— rode into Missouri, murdering slave owners, burning their farms,
and liberating their slaves, while Border Ruffians rode into Kansas
Territory to retrieve slaves and otherwise exact revenge. One of the
most important leaders in that deadly struggle was Kansas’s James
Montgomery, whose active life is covered in this biography by Robert
Conner, a former journalist.
Born in Ohio in 1814, Montgomery moved to the Kansas Territory
in 1854, after having lived in the slave states of Kentucky and
Missouri. He bought a farm in Linn County, which bordered
Missouri, and when not farming, he served as a Campbellite
(Christian) preacher. Montgomery was a staunch abolitionist, and he
soon became a leader in southeastern Kansas’s anti-slavery community.
He became associated with the notorious John Brown and
“came to share Brown’s view that a civil war to free the slaves was
both inevitable and justified.” (p. 4)
After the Civil War finally broke out, Montgomery was commissioned
as the colonel commanding the Third Kansas Infantry
regiment, which was assigned to James H. Lane’s Kansas Brigade
(Lane was also a U.S. senator). In 1863, Montgomery took command
of the Second South Carolina Infantry (later designated as the 34th
U.S. Colored Infantry), a regiment that was formed from liberated
slaves. With that unit, he fought in the Department of the South,
including participating in the 1863 Combahee River Raid in South
Carolina, where he worked with the famous African American
abolitionist Harriet Tubman to liberate almost 800 slaves. In February
1864, Montgomery commanded a brigade at the Battle of Olustee,
in northern Florida. That fight resulted in a Union defeat, but
his brigade fought well and prevented the battle from becoming a
complete rout.
Illness caused Montgomery to resign his commission, but shortly
after returning to Linn County in September 1864, Montgomery
returned to uniform for one final campaign. Confederate Maj. Gen.
Sterling Price was leading a 12,000-man force westward across the
state of Missouri and threatening federal strongpoints on the border
with Kansas — Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Kansas City,
Missouri. In early October, Governor Thomas Carney of Kansas
called up the Kansas State Militia (KSM), and Montgomery took
command of the KSM’s 6th Regiment, which rushed north to the
Kansas City area to help prevent “Old Pap” Price from invading the
Sunflower State. Montgomery’s citizen-soldiers fought well in the
actions that ended with the Battle of Westport. In defeat, General
Price’s ragtag column then quickly retreated south along the border,
passing within a few miles of Montgomery’s farm. Thus ended the
Price Raid, and the decade of fighting in that part of the country
effectively came to an end. Montgomery returned to civilian life at his
farm, and he died there in 1871.
The author shows James Montgomery to have been a brave leader,
who labored in the fringe areas of the war to defeat the Confederacy
and to end the scourge of slavery. The book would have benefitted
from at least two maps, one depicting the actions of Montgomery and
his units in the Department of the South and one showing the closing
days of the Price Raid, but Civil War buffs will still find a lot to enjoy
in reading about this abolitionist warrior.
Roger D. Cunningham

Friday, July 1, 2022

NPR's Highly Dubious "Facts" and "Myths" about Juneteenth (revised)

August 1 note: NPR has now added an editor's note to the story linking to this blog post.

 "Four enduring myths about Juneteenth are not based on facts", asserts the headline of a June 20 National Public Radio piece which was brought to my attention today by Champe Granger, great-great granddaughter of Gordon Granger, whose biography by me was published by Casemate in 2013 and reissued in paperback this year.

The NPR journalist, John Burnett, claims the Juneteenth order was written not by Granger but Frederick Emery, "who hailed from an abolitionist family in Free Kansas." Burnett's sole source is Ed Cotham, who apparently thinks Emery's background is sufficient evidence for this claim.

In reality, Granger was a major general commanding all federal troops in Texas. As a major on his staff, Emery was a much junior officer essentially acting as Granger's secretary. He may have written out the order and advised on its wording, but Granger would have paid very close attention to the language, including the reference to freedom meaning "an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves." Those words were used not because of anyone’s na├»ve idealism, but because the Confederate ruling class of Texas remained unconvinced that the federal army and government intended to enforce abolition and equal rights, and Granger decided it was necessary to clarify the matter.

The language is stronger than Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which was the legal authority under which Granger acted, and also stronger than the June 13 order from Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, his military commander (who was in New Orleans). Neither Lincoln nor Sheridan said anything about the former slaves having "absolute equality" of human rights with their former masters.

NPR says Granger’s order “also contained patronizing language intended to appease planters who didn’t want to lose their workforce.” This refers to the last part of the order, which says: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Maybe I shouldn’t pick on NPR, because the National Archives has called this “racist language,” in apparent ignorance of the context, and other outlets have taken up the same line.

While most of those two sentences come directly from Sheridan’s order, Granger also made a crucial change to soften the impact. Sheridan had ordered Granger to tell “freedmen that they must remain at home,” whereas Granger only advised them to do so. He recognized the contradiction, that you couldn't both tell the slaves they were free and tell them they "must" stay where they were. But it wasn't bad advice for the time being. Most of the Union troops being sent to Texas were going south to the border with Mexico, which had its own civil war under way in which Generals Ulysses S.Grant and Sheridan (but not the political leaders in Washington) were inclined to intervene. There were precious few soldiers to maintain law and order and enforce emancipation in the huge, unconquered state of Texas. Granger was struggling just to supply his own troops and horses, and his advice to the former slaves to stay put and work as “hired labor” was a recognition of reality, an attempt to prevent hunger and uphold public safety, as there were many former Confederate soldiers travelling in the state.

Granger and his comrades had just engaged in a long and bloody war at first for the purpose of defending the Union while stopping the spread of the slave power -- and then by 1864 they were fighting outright for the abolition of slavery in America. To now judge them along with leaders such as Lincoln as insufficiently anti-racist by 2022 standards of political purity, is to do a serious disservice to historical understanding.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Juneteenth as a Hopeful Symbol of National Unity


(Galveston mural by Reginald Adams)

In June 1861, when the jayhawker James Montgomery was commissioned by the governor of Kansas as “Colonel of the Third Regiment of Volunteers for the United States Service,” he was joining up to fight for the abolition of slavery. He was soon recruiting Black teamsters in 1861 and Black soldiers in 1862, and by 1863 and 1864, most of the troops he commanded were African-American. They joined the Army for the same reason he had, to abolish slavery.

But that did not apply to most northern soldiers in 1861, who volunteered to preserve the Union, and were suspicious of – or recoiled from -- radicals like Montgomery and his now deceased comrade John Brown who had helped bring on the war.

Nor did Abraham Lincoln, the country’s new anti-slavery president, describe himself as an abolitionist. Prior to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, he was trying to avoid the approaching conflict, reasonably fearful of its terrible cost. And when the war started, he reasonably calculated that immediately embracing abolition would guarantee a quick Confederate victory, because it would alienate more potential supporters of the Union than it would inspire, especially in the armed forces and the border states.

The North was radicalized on this issue through the course of the war, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which became effective on Jan. 1, 1863, as the key turning point. Frederick Douglass, the Black abolitionist whose son Lewis would fight under Montgomery’s brigade command, thought January 1 should be celebrated forever as the end date of slavery. But first the war had to be won.

And in Lincoln’s birth place, Major General Gordon Granger, commander of the federal Army of Kentucky, was worried that the state was about to secede in protest against the Emancipation Proclamation. His superior General Horatio Wright sent a message from his headquarters in Ohio to General Henry Halleck in Washington on Dec. 30, 1862, discussing plans, if necessary, to arrest Kentucky judges and legislators.

In June 1863, Montgomery led a raid up the Combahee River deep into South Carolina, west of Charleston. Accompanying him was Harriet Tubman, who played a key role as a civilian intelligence agent and guide, and helped organize the enslaved people who were fleeing from plantations to the two Navy boats – despite Confederate fire which killed at least one of them, a girl. Both Montgomery and Tubman had become famous before the war in separate endeavors to bring slaves to freedom, but those prewar numbers were dwarfed by the almost 800 slaves freed in this one raid.

Montgomery went on to fight at the siege of Fort Wagner and, in 1864, at the battles of Olustee and Westport. The more senior Granger fought in the Tullahoma campaign of 1863, at the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and around Mobile.

Meanwhile, the abolitionists continued their political work. On April 8 1864, the U.S. Senate voted 38-6 to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. On June 15 it passed the House 93-65, short of the required two-thirds majority. Also in June, the Republican party platform included and Lincoln endorsed an abolition plank, framing it as necessary to support the Union. The issue was debated in the campaign, which was won in November by the Republicans including Lincoln. He immediately made House adoption of the 13th Amendment a top priority, which was achieved by a vote of 119-56 on Jan. 31, 1865.

In early to mid 1864 Lincoln had thought his re-election unlikely, but battlefield victories helped the Republican cause. And even though his Democratic opponent George McClellan retained considerably popularity in the Army, the soldiers’ vote went heavily for Lincoln.

There is no record of the word “Juneteenth” appearing in print during the lifetimes of Montgomery or Granger. It was an African-American dialect word deriving from the date, June 19, 1865, on which General Order No. 3 was issued by Granger, the new commander of the District of Texas.

Granger had arrived by ship in Galveston two days previously with 1,800 troops to assert federal control over the largest American state. Texas, unlike most of the Confederacy, had not been conquered by the Union Army. Its ruling class, as shown by contemporary newspapers, remained unconvinced that the U.S. government would actually enforce the abolition of slavery, and thought some system of forced labor would remain in place. The enslaved people of Texas, many of whom had been brought there from other Confederate states, were unsure what would happen.

Granger was no ideologue. But he thought it necessary, on his own authority, to use language strong enough to make clear to everyone, White and Black, the position of the U.S. government: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. …”

For the next decade and more, Republican politicians and the U.S. Army and law enforcement, including General and President Ulysses S. Grant, tried to turn expressions such as “absolute equality” into law and reality, in which efforts they were partly successful. Their allies included some courageous former Confederate soldiers, such as Grant’s attorney general, Amos Akerman, who led the campaign to smash the Ku Klux Klan in 1870-71, and James “Pete” Longstreet, Grant’s friend before and after the war. Longstreet led largely African-American police and militia who battled White League rioters in New Orleans in 1874, after which Grant sent in federal troops to restore order.

Yet Reconstruction ended with the Grant administration in 1877, and many of its gains were lost.

In Texas, however, Juneteenth was celebrated annually in Black churches, picnics and parades, becoming a focus of community self-help, creativity and empowerment. It spread slowly through the South, and contributed to a new civil rights movement, led by nonviolent African-Americans, which in the mid-20th century succeeded in dismantling Jim Crow abuses and restoring the advances lost after the collapse of Reconstruction.

Douglass, an admirer and ally of Grant’s, did not live to see a national holiday adopted to celebrate the end of slavery. When it did happen in 2021, 156 years after the end of the war, June 19 was chosen and not January 1, as he had suggested. Tubman has been proposed to replace the slaveholder and Indian-remover Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

In the 1980s a bipartisan political movement created a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King. Juneteenth was enacted last year on a similar basis, and there does not seem to be significant opposition to putting Tubman’s picture on U.S. currency.

But it may be helpful to clarify the issue. The Lost Cause school of Civil War history, highly influential for much of the 20th century, was broadly conservative and sympathetic to the South, idealizing its agrarian, aristocratic, chivalric qualities, while unfairly deprecating northern leaders such as Lincoln and Grant. It has something in common with its apparent opposite, the modern aesthetic reaction against “white savior” narratives, which is often combined with harsh judgment of Union leaders as insufficiently anti-racist by 21st century standards. Both viewpoints tend to minimize the extent to which the Civil War was about abolishing slavery.

The truth is that America’s costliest war – perhaps 750,000 dead -- was always about slavery. The initial cause was preventing its expansion, which both sides saw as likely to lead to its ultimate extinction. By 1864, with the war still raging, most northerners explicitly endorsed abolition. That became what Union soldiers, White and Black, were fighting and dying for. Those historical facts are not erased by the persistence of racism and the long-term difficulty of enforcing Granger’s proclamation.

While Juneteenth does celebrate the resilient courage of African-American culture in the long wake of slavery and Civil War, it also memorializes an immense national sacrifice.


Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Juneteenth Talk Coming Up Saturday; Plus Second Review


I'll be giving a free talk (with Q&A) about Juneteenth this Saturday, June 18, at 2 pm at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs. The museum store will be selling my books, which I can sign after the event.

The theme will be how the abolition of slavery became the overriding aim of the Civil War -- and the genesis, meaning and lasting importance of Juneteenth, our newest federal holiday. Something along the lines of what I wrote here for the Grant Cottage website -- but new and improved. I'll put up a blog post about what I said after I say it, along with my first Twitter thread, if I can figure out how to do that on a site where I'm still a newbie. I'm @RobertCConner or Robert C. (Bob) Conner on Twitter, with the James Montgomery book cover as my visual ID. (You can also find me on Facebook, though not on its Messenger service because I don't want to be hacked again.)

That Montgomery biography was well-reviewed by Civil War Books and Authors

It's the second review I've seen. The first, by AR Gunners magazine, also was positive, and included both the Montgomery book and the reissued biography of Gordon Granger, both of which I'll talk about Saturday. (The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant may also get a mention.)

But mainly I'll talk about Juneteenth, how it is rightly seen as a celebration and memorialization both of the resilient courage of African-American culture in the wake of the Civil War, and of the immense national sacrifice which made that possible.

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Old Newspaperman Returns from New York


This is only Civil War related because I was speaking last night to the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York, an hospitable and appreciative bunch who put me up at the Bentley Hotel and fed me an excellent meal at Draught 55 restaurant. Join them if you live down thataway, and sign up for their upcoming bus trip to West Point.
Forgoing sightseeing, I have parked myself at the Moynihan Train Hall, the old post office building (with the iconic slogan carved around its top) where my grandfather Joseph Gaffney worked for many years. (His son, my uncle, was killed at the Battle of the Bulge.)
In September 1985 I had a memorable meeting with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (after whom the station is named) at the tiny office of the Glens Falls Unit of the Albany local of The Newspaper Guild, which was seeking its first contract at The Post-Star, where I worked as a reporter. I also was chairman of the Guild unit. We organized most of the paper, and our first and only contract won the first ever benefits for its mailroom employees. Moynihan showed up in cagey support, and I tip my hat to him in the great beyond.


Saturday, May 21, 2022

Casemates in Review

A layer of sod in the wall helped protect this barracks against cannon balls, according to one of the excellent guides I talked to Friday at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, NY. It's a 1970s reconstruction of the Revolutionary War fort commanded by Col. Peter Gansevoort (who was grandfather to the writer Herman Melville). Fort Stanwix successfully resisted a British siege in August 1777, which contributed to the American victories 110 miles east at Saratoga in September and October. That northern campaign was the turning point of the war (and Benedict Arnold played a key role at both locations).
 I think the sod is why they call it a casemate:

Casemate also is the name of the publisher of my two nonfiction books. (The historical novel The Last Circle of Ulysses Grant is published by Square Circle Press.) Those two biographies, of James Montgomery and Gordon Granger, have received a good joint review by Ben Powers in ARGunners Magazine -- which I appreciate.
The patient wife and I stopped at Fort Stanwix on our way back from Syracuse, where she snapped my picture pontificating (not singing an operatic aria) to the Onondaga County Civil War Round Table.

My next scheduled speaking gig is Monday evening in Manhattan at the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York.

NPR Adds Editor's Note to Juneteenth Story

 NPR National Correspondent John Burnett this morning added an editor's note to his June 20 story about General Gordon Granger and June...