Skip to main content

tv   The Civil War Harold Holzer on Civil War Objects  CSPAN  August 21, 2020 9:31am-10:16am EDT

9:31 am
c-span3. next on the civil war, historian harold holdser and valerie paley of the new-york historical society talk about artifacts featured in their joinl publication, "the civil war in 50 objects." in this series they talk about artifacts related to ulysses s. grant and benjamin butler. this took place online and the new-york historical society binded the video. >> good evening, and welcome. tonight's topic is modern major generals. first i want to remind everyone tonight's program, which is being recorded, will last approximately 45 minutes. this will include 15 minutes for questions and answers. please submit your question by the q&a on your zoom screen during the time. we will respond to as many possible during the final part of the program.
9:32 am
now, modern major generals. some have commented about our use of the civil war and using 50 objects while the emotional history seen through objects takes in the totality of the context of the war, it doesn't really consider the military history or sequence of battle. harold, what do you think about that? >> well, it's a fair enough comment mtd ogs k comment. of course, the objects we're discussing are all somewhat related to new york's history. so it's related to the soldiers who served, the leaders who helped or hindered the union war effort. the relics they brought back from battle. i think sort of along the way here over these last seven weeks we touched on battles. those who have experienced them and certainly the battle for new york city because early on we dealt with the draft riots, which almost constituted a
9:33 am
battle. >> indeed, indeed. so we're doing okay, i think. >> that's a fair comment. >> i agree. and i thought we might as well air it. but tonight's program features two objects. james reed lamp den's ulysses grant portrait from 1868 and coin by benjamin franklin butler designed this, colored troops before richmond. so first up is the landon portrait of grant. so it's 1864. usous ulysses s. grant arrives in washington to receive his promotion from the general. and interestingly enough, he's the first since george washington to achieve that rank. >> right, right. >> but he raises his eyebrows when he tried to register at the willard hotel. why? >> well, he gets to the willard having been to washington quite
9:34 am
seldom, and he asked for a room. he's with his little boy, by the way. and the desk clerk gives that desk clerk kind of look like franklin pangbore in the movies if there are any movie buffs out there, we don't have any rooms. he implores them and he said they have a room up in the attic. so he sort of takes. it he takes the ledger and in those days he signed the book, u.s. grant and son and twirled it around on a rotating disk and the desk clerk looked at it if he had a monocle, it would have popped out of his eye. oh, gosh general grant, we have a wonderful suite for you. and i believe they gave him the suite lincoln stayed in on the second floor overlooking 14th street. suddenly he was treated by royalty. but it goes to show you what a simple bearing he had and how
9:35 am
unostentatiously he presented himself, even on the eve of the moment he's going to become ranked along side washington in the military hierarchy. >> truly. he was sort of scruffy and unkempt and he was so averse to pretension that this was in many ways you say the foundation of an irresistible public image. how so? >> you know, he had been proceeded in command by general winfield scott, was quite the popping jay with epaulets and swords. he was 70 years old. looked sort of ridiculous, feathered triefen hat and then by george mcclellan, called the little napoleon, because he also favored more ornate uniforms. grant by contrast dressed in a field uniform which was usually dusty. he chomped on cigars.
9:36 am
once the country found out after he became famous that he liked cigars, he was bombarded with cigars. he never had to buy another cigar. but this became his cache, kind of reverse glory that he didn't care about himself, that he was unpore pretentious and it just added to his celebrity. his unper tensous we should add helped him live down two negatives, two really cripple negatives. one were rumors about his excessive drinking, which were true to a degree. he did binge drink and was a bad drinker be apparently a bad drunk. when he was unoccupied, he drank. and he had an aide to camp that just watched out for his not getting ahold of a bottle of any gift that was sent to him. he was also at this point in washington living down an act of kind of the most overt act of
9:37 am
anti-semitism that any military commander had promulgated in american history to that point and that is issue an order to clear his entire command in the west of the old jews. so essentially triggering a pa grum was he was annoyed by jewish traders who had begun to trade in his camp. so he had to live down a bit, and i think his last of portension helped him get through that. >> interesting. but he fist cat can aputed to national attention in february 1862 by capturing ft. henry and donaldson in tennessee. >> right. >> how did the press characterize the man and that event? >> suddenly u.s. grant, his foretfor fortuitously late in life monogram, he demanded
9:38 am
unconventional stardom, so, yes, he became a celebrity overnight but the visual media could not keep up with his celebrity. so here we see an early image of grant. it is an image of grant but happens not to be ulysses grant. but someone found an image of a beef contractor in illinois and since grant had a longer beard than at that point they just got that out to the newspapers and this is the image of grant that people first saw. notice he's wearing a feathered hat, epaulets. very long bean. >> did but he was so obscure, they didn't know it was the right grant. >> and it was soon replaced by the real grant. >> here is the real grant. we have an image of him on the field. the next slide. and -- which was interesting he had a camp artist in his midst. tell us a little bit about this
9:39 am
famous an troe visit portrait. >> this is a very casual photograph of grant in the field. and i will add that this is a fairly rare one in the collection. grant was photographed more than any american at the time, i'm convinced of it. frederick douglass may be a close competitor and lincoln third. grant always had photographers around him and posed for remarkably candid photographs, which were hard to accomplish in the field. and this unassuming man, at least that's his public persona, also had a camp artist following him in the manner of artists who followed george washington as we say, previous lieutenant general. john antrovist was a very well trained painter who followed him to chattanooga, did a painting of him and very well received
9:40 am
painting and grant liked it and it was shipped back to washington where it was displayed in the u.s. capitol, and obliging abraham lincoln to have a look at it because grant had become so, so popular, and so acclaimed that it was believed that lincoln would be disrespecting him not to go look at it. so, yeah, he had photographers. he had camp artists. and he managed to maintain the home spun image, very much like, guess who, abraham lincoln, his commander in chief. >> these depictions also served a purpose as far as grant supporters were concerned not only to elevate him in terms of military rank but perhaps to put him in the public eye politically. did images really have that sort of power to do such a thing? >> yeah, i think how successful abraham lincoln was as a presidential candidate when images of him as a rail splitter
9:41 am
began circulating in 1860. i think they had a huge effect. images were not as promiscuous as they are now. you couldn't find them on the internet because there was no electricity. and you couldn't find them in magazines or newspapers. they were sought after. they were hung on walls, put in family albums. yes, the grant victories early in the war and lincoln's seeming inability to maintain control of the civil government in the wake of the emancipation proclamation encouraged a lot of grant admirers to propose he either replace grant on the republican ticket in 1864 or to be the democratic nominee. since grant was not known to have any politics, and eschewed politics, he did not even vote
9:42 am
in the 19847 election. by the way, lincoln would not entertain the idea of promoting him to lieutenant general until he had backdoor assurances he would have no such plan. and he wrote back to the dnc, i have no political ambitions in either party and that was enough to satisfy lincoln. but they almost had him as a candidate well before grant was ready. >> interesting. so back to grant makes it to washington to receive his third star and lincoln threw him a party at the white house. but the torrent of guests had trouble finding him in the crowd, this slightly built hero, didn't know he was slightly built. so what did he do at this party? >> so, first of all, he met abraham lincoln, who is easy to see in a crowd. he was 6'4". average men were about 5'4" or
9:43 am
5'5". so grant simply climbed up with lincoln's encouragement on a saty so he could be seen above the crowd. everyone rushed forward. this was not calculated to please the first lady, who spent a fortune in federal money to redecorate the white house. she took an immediate dislike to grant and his wife, who was not there, but soon, like extended to julia. but this crushing scene was immortalized by yet another painting by peter rogermel called the republican court at the white house, by which he means small arm republican court. by the way, this perception was the first time abraham lincoln ever met ulysses s. grant and later they retreated to the cabinet room and in a more private seen lincoln conferred his promotion. >> in the painting grant is standing on a pedestal as opposed to a sofa.
9:44 am
>> looks like a pedestal for sure. >> more and more images proliferated of grant in the final year of the war, and he, as you said, found time to pose for photographs and in the field and sometimes in the studio, but sometimes we saw him in softer, domestic scenes later on. like this one, with his family. a collection of new york historical. >> and another one too. >> yes. this makes him look a lot softer and more like a home body, i guess. >> yes. >> but more typically, we see portraits of him in uniform, like this one. so after the war every union hospital, lee club, organization, commissioned grant for a portrait painting for its walls. one of the best, as you say, our
9:45 am
first object this evening, the james e lambden portrait of grant. so tell me, what's so special about this painting in. >> i hope everybody sees it bears some relationship to the photo we just had up. lambdin was a confederate portrait painter. he had done john marshall and other celebrities and studied under thomas sully. he had done webster. he had done lincoln or was about to do lincoln and, yes, like many capable portraitures he wanted grant pose for clubs and homes and veteran organizations. this is one of those portraits and i love it because it really reflects grant's kind of casual self-confidence. hands in pocket, wearing the
9:46 am
uniform, but calmly in command as all of the portraits showed him. by the way, speaking of politics, you mentioned 1868 as the date this painting was completed, and there's a political story too because that's the year grant himself, three years after lincoln's death with andrew johnson no longer viable to run for a term in his own right, he had gone through impeachment barely, grant is the obvious choice. so he's a candidate. and these are the paintings that served as his posters and note that these campaign posters do not take him out of military uniform. they are there to remind people that he is the hero of the war that he won the contest for the union. by the way, why is he successful? i think in a way there's a pattern to the way americans deal politically with war
9:47 am
heroes. winfield scott ran for president too. and he was the hero of the mexican war but he didn't win. the epaulets, the feathered hats don't go over well in campaigns. zachary taylor, who grant really models himself after. he knew him in the mexican war, won the presidential election. grant won the presidential election. and look at 1952, dwight eisenhower, again, another general who had gone to peace time but remembered as a war hero, was recruited by both the democrats and republicans. not douglas macarthur, not the fancy guy, but dwight eisenhower. so there's a pattern here and grant fit right into the story line. >> interesting. the story line obviously continues and we remember grant as one who saved the union, in fact. but today with the failing of
9:48 am
monuments and statues, we've recently seen grant's statue toppled, which is somewhat unfortunate. do you want to comment on that? >> you know, i have been writing a lot and speaking a lot on statues. this is a side of it, we should only look for a moment, but it was toppled and defaced in janel gate park along with a statue of francis scott key. i understand the rational for those although i don't agree with the public vanedalism of statuary. grant is a mystery. the last explanation we heard was he was the last american president to own a human being. he was given the gift of an enslaved person by his father-in-law. grant did use him and not pay him but he also did liberate him and give him his freedom. and no president did more for civil rights in the 19th century than usous se ulysses s. grant.
9:49 am
he fought for constitutional amendments, enhancing citizenship and voting rights, batsled the ku klux klan to a sta standstill before he gave up the presidency. i think it's tragic really. one hopes the understandable pent-up rage about monumentalizing american heroes without really understanding all of the nuances of their stories calms down a bit so we can look at these on a case-by-case basis. >> absolutely. so that brings us to our next object this evening. it's a coin designed by major general benjamin franklin butler. so who was this guy butler? was he a kind designer or major general? >> he's not bad, as we see. the invocation on the right is a little off the mark, but -- he's a complicated, bizarre, controversial figure.
9:50 am
he was a democrat in politics in massachusetts. he was a businessman. he owned a mill. very successful. he was a white supremacist in as late white supremacist as late as 1860. he supported jefferson davis as president of the united states for the democratic convention in 1860 and then he didn't even support steven douglas. and he ran for governor on a brok bre breckinridge ticket and lost. and immediately touches off controversy because he has the army buy his unit's uniforms from his own. not a cool move. so he has a little corruption in his story as well. >> but why does lincoln appoint him major general in the army
9:51 am
then? >> because lincoln did not want the war to just be a war of professional west point trained soldiers, and they did not want it to be a war only of republican generals. he made a big effort to recruit democratic generals. and unfortunately he appointed butler so quickly that he had a high rank in the hierarchy of the military which turned out to be a problem. >> he was a real character, though. he was very homily, as you say practically grotesque. he had an interesting hard knock rags to riches kind of life. needless to say he was a provocative figure as you say, but what things did he do to stir up controversy? >> as you say he was not the
9:52 am
most -- not easy on the eyes as they say. so he goes into the service and he gets a commission and he winds up at fortress monroe in virginia. and one day and ancuff american rolls up in a skiff and he says i escaped from slavery and i want the protection of the union army. this is year and a half before our emancipation. and benjamin butler thinks about it, he's a lawyer and he says you are a contraband of war, i take you, i accept you. and then more african-americans, you know, enslaved people liberated themselves, and that's where the term contraband comes from, and that's the term for people who escaped slavery on their own but their freedom was not guaranteed by executive
9:53 am
order or legislation. so butler becomes a hero in the early movement for freedom and recognition of the yearning of enslaved people for their own liberation. and he's transferred to new orleans. new orleans was really conquered by the union early in the war. but butler marches in and declares himself the conqueror of new orleans anyway and he establishes a command there which is more controversial it turns out than anything he's done in his career. he issues an infamous order that i think we have on the screen in
9:54 am
which he says that if any women -- if any women are caught treating union soliers with disrespect they'll be libel saying you will be arrested for prostitution. butler was kind of a brutal occupying force. he's alleged to have made corrupt bargains with consulate offices and stolen a piece of the action. he's allegedly confiscated spoons from plantation owners so he became known as spoons butler. and eventually he was relieved of his command and sent away to his next controversial assignment. and that's when the story picks
9:55 am
up and explains the medal. >> you know, it's interesting just before we leave new orleans that along with the really bad stuff that he did there, the sanitary conditions improved. yellow fever there abated, and he left the city wealthier than when he arrived. and that's kind of an interesting silver lining i guess. >> yeah, he was a good organizer and he definitely whipped the town into shape. and against that a person who was caught dragging an american flag through the streets was hanged. and so creating order with brute force has its limits, so i think his occupying -- his record as an occupier will remain in dispute for generations. >> this brings us to late september, 1864 as he observes an all black regiment fighting at new market heights near the
9:56 am
confederate capital of richmond. what happens? >> he's not only observing them. he's commanding them. and one fifth of his force is made up of african-american troops, u.s. colored troops. and half of them die in this assault. now, butler had, you know, done really badly in all of his campaigns. he didn't do well that day. he would go onto do terribly at the battle of wilmington, north carolina. but on this day butler recognized the heroics of african-american troops, and he decide today commemorate them by having this medal struck to present to them in a kind of a kingly gesture. it was not uncommon but it was a rarity for african-american troops. and it may be the only one of its kind struck as a presentation piece for
9:57 am
african-american soldiers. >> we have a slide after the war of some african-american musicians that -- ifdw the next slide, please. but back to the butler medal. >> it marked a specific battle and celebrated a specific regiment. but tell us a little bit more about this extremely rare object. >> so they struck a few in silver and the rest in bronze i guess for officers. we have one of the silver copies. and you see it. beautifully designed, ornate,
9:58 am
and it's got a hole at the top so it could be fastened to the uniform like any other medal. but, of course, you know, the hierarchy of the military didn't like that and they judged this medal to be unofficial. and it was never designated as an official token of esteem for these brave soldiers, so they always wore it on the other side of their lapel and kind of flashed it to each other. when they met at reunions. and in sympathy butler is said to have worn his always on the inside of his lapel as well as a token of respect. it's really beautiful. >> 200 soldiers received these medals, and what a pity they couldn't actually wear them on the uniforms proudly. >> the slogan in latin is great
9:59 am
because it means freedom will be theirs by the sword. and it's an early, early acknowledgement of african-american contributions and the effort just to create their own freedom. yes, the emancipation proclamation created a legal framework for freedom, but the u.s. colored troops had to fight for in battle against those who would remain their oppressors. i want to read one thing butler wrote of this medal. i had done for my negro soldiers what the government had never done for its white soldiers.
10:00 am
a little boastful but he was very, very proud. i have been fully rewarded, he concluded by seeing the beaming eye of many a colored comrade as he drew his medal from the innermost recesses of his concealment. so they shared it almost like a secret code. >> that's lovely. just a fascinating story and a fascinating man so how wonderful we have this object to expand on that. so that takes us to our q&a portion of the evening and we have a question. and that is was general butler an abolitionist before entering the army, and was he a political appointee? >> so he was not an abolitionist before entering the army. he was, you know, sort of pro-buchanan -- but he clearly
10:01 am
grew by leaps and bounds. i think we said in the book he went from a white supremacist to a white supremacist's worst nightmare. and like many his evolution was dictated by what he observed of african-americans and what they did on the battlefield. so ultimately an abolitionist who put his own life on the line to procure freedom and would help african-americans procure freedom for themselves. he was an elected official on local and state levels. he had a political career after the civil war. there was even talk of his
10:02 am
running for president after the war. of course what those campaign posters would have looked like would have been a little strange. he was definitely commissioned by abraham lincoln to serve in the armed forces. >> next question, possibly a stumper. who was the person who took the first real circulating photo of grant? and how did the false picture that we showed get exposed? >> it's definitely going to remain a stumper the person who took the first photograph of gra grant. in the absence of available photographs the earliest grant was this non-grant, and then the grant did have a very long bill
10:03 am
in the early days of campaign. and supposedly his wife came to camp, and said this will never do and he trimmed the beard, and that's when he got the rounded beard that remained his trademark for the rest of his life. there was a bearded photograph that came out soon thereafter that was the real grant. and then the grant of the shorter beard became the subject of artists and photographers in '63 and '2, and by '64 and '5 he was photographed so constantly. there's a great story that shows
10:04 am
it must have been exactly the way he was in battle when he was unperturbed by bullets and artillery fire. he was posing for a photograph once under a skylight which was the norm then because studios had to be lit by sun usually on the top floor of a commercial building. and suddenly for no particular reason the skylight just shattered and fell to the floor with pieces hitting him, shards and falling all around him. i don't know how he could have known whether it was an accident or an assassination attempt, but he never broke his pose. he never left the neck immobilizer that he'd been fastened into as was the custom of the day. just continued to pose, and they took the picture. >> next question. did grant realize he made a bad decision on jewish soldiers, and
10:05 am
then did he later try to make amends to jews when he became president? >> he did realize it was a mistake, and his wife -- he was kind of -- first of all he was really in trouble with jewish voters in new york in his first campaign for the presidency. and i think jewish opposition made it a very close election in new york state. closer than it should have been. when he got to washington grant went to a friday night sabbath service at the synagogue in washington and sat there for hours wearing a top hat and not understanding the all hebrew possibly in part german service
10:06 am
and appointed jews to more government posts than any previous president. >> here's a question about grant and anti-semitism. was he in fact an anti-semite early in life? >> you know, i think the army and the civilian culture were both rife with anti-semitism. the military had almost a tradition of anti-semitism. and if you read the editorials published in the north and the south in the early days of the civil war there was a lot of blame attributed to jews or
10:07 am
mercenary activities for prof profiteering, for making shoddy clothes. you know, it was ramp want ant culture. so was he an anti-semite? i guess the same way he was a slaveholder but later became the enemy of the ku klux klan, he was anti-semitic. and he had a father who was a character and always trying to make money off of his son's fame. and one of the things that triggered his notorious order excelling jews was the fact that his father turned up in his camp one day with his new business partner who happened to be jewish. and both of them were looking for ways to exploit the situation for profit.
10:08 am
there was money to be made in selling things to soldiers that were bereft at having things that made civilian life endurable. he couldn't throw his father in jail so he attacked the jews. it manifested by his father's business pattern. geeish leaders immediately went to abraham lincoln to protest this order, and some very famous rabbis, and lincoln received them and he said we've come to father abraham and lincoln immediately saw the justice of their complaints, and he countermanded grant's order. but he was very careful about it, and this shows how savvy lincoln was. he ordered general hallic, his general in chief to countermand the order because he did not want to publicly rebuke a military man who had done so well. the last thing he needed was to
10:09 am
turn grant off and make him sulk or worse take to drink in reaction to an affront. he did reverse the order. >> interesting. one more grant question and that is what was his feeling about using black troops? >> you know, there are several schools of thought on that. i would say at the very outset meaning march 1863 when black recruitment is authorized and other historians may disagree with me, but i don't think he was tremendously enthusiastic. maybe more than sherman but less than lincoln and stanton wanted him to be the secretary of war. ultimately again you have a revolution in thought when you see soldiers in action. and once he heard about the heroics of black troops at battery wagoner and also the
10:10 am
mistreatment of certain african-american troops by confederate generals who threatened to send black troops into slavery and some were not slafbls to begin with. or massacred african-american soldiers after they had thrown down their arms and surrendered. lincoln was furious, grant was furious. and again he watched black soldiers performing once he came east and then he became their champion. >> interesting. still on the topic of black troops a question about butler. did he form the first full black regiment? >> no, he didn't form the first. the first was the celebrated 54th massachusetts headed by robert gould shaw, a very young colonel who went to his death at fort wagoner and buried in a
10:11 am
mass grave along with his soldiers. and by the way, just to show how indiscriminate and frightening some of the rage against monuments are the great augustus saint goddens relief sculpture of the 54th was deface would some paint i think up in massachusetts. and again, i think some people object to the hierarchy of the picture as they did to the theodore roosevelt at our neighbor the museum of natural history because robert gould shaw, the white colonel is shown on a horse and the black soldiers were marching on foot, but that is how it was. he's the officer, he say on horseback, the soldiers were on foot. and the same when grant came by his soldiers. anyway, just an aside. but, no, he didn't form the first black regiment. he didn't form any black regiment. he inherited it when he became
10:12 am
the commander in 1864. >> here's something that is sort of foreshadowing of our final episode, question about grant and lee. were they ever friends before or after the war? >> this caller wants me to give away one of the big punch lines of next week, but i'll do it. i will say this grant knew lee and lee didn't know grant. how about if we leave it at that and tell the story next week when we talk. i think grant's feelings were hurt. but, you know, lee was a more exalted figure in the mexican war. and he was a commander and grant was in charge of supplies. it showed off his organizational skills, but he didn't become
10:13 am
well-known to some of his comrades evidently. >> stay tuned for next week for the answer to that question. >> a full answer. >> a full answer. the next question did generals stay out of the line of fire to avoid getting killed? if so, did some generals like grant chafe at the idea of not risking their lives with their men? >> that's a great question. and since our program is called the modern major general it should be acknowledged that modern major generals did not get on a horse and lead men into battle. they stay back of the lines. they got messages from their commanders. they instructed lines of men to move this way and that. if they got position they could see waves of soldiers flowing and ebbing themselves.
10:14 am
not with a gun, not with a rifle but holding binoculars. it looks almost a little dainty. it does not look very tough, but that was what grant in the age of modern generals did. although grant, you know, performed some astonishing and breathtaking acts of bravery during his service. he was certainly not a cowered but the most efficient use of his time was to be observing the whole field. >> so we've come to the end of our time, and it just flew by. and i know everyone who's watching us will join me in thanking herald holster from sharing his time and expertise. it is always a delight to be in
10:15 am
conversation with you harold. and we want to thank you for your interest and your questions and your support. have a good night and see you next week. >> weeknights this month we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's available every weekend on c-span 3. in 2015 for our american artifacts series we traveled about 45 minutes west of new orleans to visit whitney plantation in wallace, louisiana, to learn about the history of slavery in america. following is a conversation hosted by thomas jefferson's monticello. watch tonight beginning at 8:00 eastern and enjoy american history tv this week and every weekend on c-span 3. >> up next on the civil war


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on