Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review - "Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War" by David Silkenat

[Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War by David Silkenat (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Hardcover, 2 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 368 Pages. ISBN:978-1-4696-4972-6. $39.95]

In ones, twos, and even by the tens of thousands, Civil War soldiers surrendered in staggering proportions over the course of the conflict. By some estimates a quarter of all Civil War soldiers found themselves prisoners of the enemy at some point during the war, many more than once. According to historian David Silkenat in his new book Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War this fact alone speaks to the centrality of surrender to the Civil War experience. In an original study that combines features of modern military studies with broader social and cultural history approaches to the topic, Silkenat strongly argues that "surrender profoundly shaped both the character and outcome of the Civil War" (pg. 4).

Not surprisingly given that both sections shared a common martial history and wider American culture, the author finds that opposing combatants shared similar unwritten rules regarding "honorable" surrender. Generally speaking it was deemed acceptable to surrender when facing inevitable defeat, but first one must have already come under enemy action overwhelming enough to prove that further defense meant pointless loss of life that would in no way aid the war effort. The book examines how these 'rules' were followed or not followed during a host of well-known surrender events such as Fort Sumter, Roanoke Island, Forts Henry and Donelson, Harpers Ferry, Vicksburg, and others. Interestingly, Silkenat's survey finds differences in popular reaction between sections when it came to surrenders deemed unjustified by the dictates of honor, with northern newspapers reserving scorn for the officers in charge (though the private soldiers themselves felt shared dishonor) while many southern newspapers also blamed the men in ranks as insufficiently committed to the cause even though they had no input in the decision-making. Formal surrender had potentially serious political repercussions as well. Early on, many in the Lincoln administration feared that simply accepting Confederate prisoners of war implied a recognition of legitimacy, but those confronting such concerns soon succumbed to practicality.

While group surrenders were part of a process commonly involving reflection and negotiation, demanding surrender or asking for mercy on an individual level in the heat of battle was an entirely different matter. Silkenat justly avoids generalizing behavior patterns and expectations on this kind of spur of moment, highly emotional event. It was one of the few instances in the service when the individual soldier was entirely his own agent. When it came down to weighing sure death against becoming a prisoner, the latter was the overwhelming choice. A major difference between individual versus group or mass surrender was the almost entire lack of opprobrium heaped upon the former. Undoubtedly, the distinction was made with at least some popular recognition of the starkly different circumstances involved. Even so, some critics inside and outside the armies believed that individual soldiers surrendered too readily. While there is abundant anecdotal evidence that the exchange system that broke down over the status of black troops led soldiers to redefine the appeal of the surrender option, little hard data is offered.

A section of the book looks at Gettysburg in an atypical context. Soldiers surrendered during Gettysburg in numbers roughly equal to those killed during the war's "bloodiest" battle. Recognizing that surrender was an unusually significant part of the experience of battle at Gettysburg, Silkenat examines the fighting there from the perspective of those made prisoner. Since men from both sides surrendered in large numbers during three days of combat, the battle serves as an uncommonly instructive lens through which to examine the great variety of circumstances associated with surrendering and accepting surrender on individual and group levels.

Another chapter analyzes the concept and exercise of demanding unconditional surrender by using the case studies of two expert practitioners, generals U.S. Grant and N.B. Forrest. Silkenat sees a decided contrast between the attitudes and methods of the two, with Grant seeing the "offer of surrender as a magnanimous gesture, an opportunity to avoid bloodshed, and a route to peace" while Forrest "saw the demand to surrender as a tactical weapon, a stratagem designed to engender terror." (pg. 139). This can be a useful way to illustrate soft and hard variances in the application of unconditional surrender, but direct comparison between the two seems less fruitful given the vast gulf in stature that existed between the two in addition to their operating under completely different military circumstances as army commander and behind-the-lines raider.

As others have also postulated, Silkenat sees 1864 as a transformative period in soldier attitudes toward surrender. With the previous year's breakdown of the exchange cartel combined with widespread knowledge of the horrors of overcrowded prisons, a more general use of black troops in combat, and an overall hardening of postures toward the enemy all being parts of the new mental calculus, this hypothesis seems reasonable but supporting evidence is not conclusive. Even though certain groups (i.e. Southern Unionists, black troops, and guerrillas) had already found surrendering distinctly dangerous for some time and striking examples of more typical soldiers choosing death over surrender can be cited, troops on both sides still continued to surrender in large numbers during the great campaigns of 1864. The author vaguely refers to a decreased ratio of surrendered to killed during 1864 battles in comparison with the two previous years of fighting, but a more systemic analysis is needed.

Several chapters address the series of mass Confederate surrenders that ended the war. Multiple book-length accounts already cover well the two most prominent capitulations at Appomattox and Bennett Place, and the narrative offers a solid synthesis of the literature describing and interpreting those events as well as those that occurred further west and into the Trans-Mississippi. By now one would hope that few readers hold on to the idea that Appomattox ended the Civil War, but the terms offered there served as a model for all of the negotiations that followed and it is undeniable that news of the surrenders back east led to such widespread demoralization and desertion throughout the Confederacy that further organized resistance became impossible. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the Trans-Mississippi. In that vast and largely intact military department where still-numerous Confederate formations were largely out of contact with their Union foes, news of the Lee and Johnston capitulations nevertheless led hosts of soldiers to take matters into their own hands. Riots spread and many officers and men simply disbanded their units, seized what supplies they could from army stores, and headed home.

Beginning his postwar analysis with the ceremonial return to Charleston harbor of the U.S. flag originally lowered at Fort Sumter, Silkenat notes a rather rapid disappearance of the word "surrender" from much of the contemporary discussion. In a kind of mutual agreement aimed equally at avoiding unseemly public expressions of triumph and shame, a growing number of Union adherents tended to portray the final Confederate capitulation in its reunion context while most defeated Confederates were able to take pride in their ultimate surrender after framing the event as the honorable conclusion to an epic struggle against a vastly superior enemy. Even so, the author finds that the very idea of honorable surrender rather quickly disappeared from the American popular and military lexicon, and it carries heavy stigma to this day. The fact that current views on surrender as contrary to American values do not affect modern assessment of the bravery and commitment of Civil War soldiers is an interesting historiographical and cultural development to which the book finds no easy explanation.

Analyzing the process through the eyes of both vanquisher and vanquished, David Silkenat's Raising the White Flag provides readers with a thoughtful, theme-based survey history of the mechanics and meaning of surrender. At all levels, the act of surrender was always more complex than simple offer and acceptance, and the study usefully examines a number of cultural, legal, political, and racial factors that went into framing attitudes and practices, all of which evolved to some degree or another throughout the course of the war. Recommended.

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