Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Michael Fellman and Intellectual Bravery

There was sad news Monday with the passing of Dr. Michael Fellman, of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. I never had the opportunity to meet him in person, but had a wonderfully long conversation with him on the telephone, discussing his work on the American Civil War.

I had some good history professors in college, but I think being a student of Dr. Fellman would have been something special -- powerful, and inspiring. Just read his welcoming remarks to his 2nd-year history students, at the start of a new school year back in 1997.

Fellman was big on the courage of one's convictions, and academic freedom. He told his students, "The basic rule of play here is academic freedom, yours and mine. Many forces, both within and without the university, are only too happy to sacrifice academic freedom to some higher good - to the production of workers tailored to corporate demands, for example, or to the creation of brain-washed cadres of the ideologically correct. I would never ask you to sacrifice your independence to my notion of the higher good, but I will encourage you to search hard to find your own voice, your own independent stance toward life."

Fellman didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk when he traveled to the belly of the beast, Richmond, Virginia, to hold forth on that most holy of southern icons, Robert E. Lee. As reported in the online magazine, The Tyee -- in whose pages Fellman was a tireless political analyst:
Intellectual bravery

He never tapered off in his intellectual bravery and feistiness. Invited to give a talk on Robert E. Lee in the spring of 2002 in Richmond, Virginia, where to many Lee is a legend of high minded chivalry, Fellman matter of factly presented the historical record showing Lee to have been deeply racist even by standards of the day and a rallying figure for those who, after the Civil War, established a segregated South that kept African-Americans disenfranchised for another century.

Upon being told that the conference sponsors were outraged by his speech, Michael responded that he didn't give a damn. And when, the next day, supporters came forward, Michael drew hope in this sign that attitudes can change, providing "one of the most emotionally complex, edgy and ultimately rewarding experiences of my life as a historian. I believed I had spoken out of my convictions. I felt freedom."

Right on.

My conversation with Dr. Fellman took place in 2000 when he agreed to do a one-hour Q&A session with the CompuServe Civil War Forum. Here is a transcript of that discussion, which has been residing in the forum library lo these past twelve years. 

*     *     *     *

Edited transcript of the 27th session of the Civil War Forum Conference Series.

--Guerrilla War in Missouri
--"Citizen Sherman"
--Robert E. Lee

Guest: Dr. Michael Fellman

Date: Friday, September 18, 2000


(David Woodbury):
    Good evening, and welcome to the 27th installment of our Civil War Forum Conference Series, and the first of the year 2000. Our guest this evening is Dr. Michael Fellman, professor of history at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (Burnaby, British Columbia), and author of several Civil War-related titles, include two under discussion tonight: "Inside War: The Guerrilla Conflict in Missouri During the American Civil War" (Oxford University Press, 1989) and "Citizen Sherman : A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman" (Modern War Studies) [University Press of Kansas]

Q. (David Woodbury):
    What particular interests or circumstances led you to delve into a book-length study of the guerrilla fighting in Missouri?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    I first came to Civil War history from social and cultural history in the early 1970s, rather than being a military historian by training. I was particularly interested in issues of violence in American culture, and my first piece of this sort was an article I wrote on Theodore Parker as an anti-slavery spokesman in the 1850s that appeared in the "Journal of American History" in December, 1974. Parker was filled with an angry racism, even though he was an antislavery figure -- something I had not been expecting to find, given the other secondary literature. And I began to realize how violent the thought was that accompanied the unfolding events in the 1850s.
    From Parker I went to a study of the rhetoric in "Bleeding Kansas," ["A Study Of The Fighting Words Used During That Conflict"], which appeared in a book I edited with Lewis Perry, called "Anti Slavery Reconsidered," published in 1979. I learned enough doing that study to realize that the shit truly hit the fan in Missouri during the American Civil War, and I also became aware that there was guerrilla warfare all through the border states of the Upper South... I knew that the Union ran Missouri by martial law. So I thought there would perhaps be some records in the National Archives in Washington.
    Now, I must say parenthetically, Phil Paludan's fine little book on East Tennessee, ["Victims," 1981] was the only book on guerrilla warfare anywhere in the U.S. that was based on archival research, so I didn't know what treasures I would find in the military records in Washington. It was an extraordinarily thick find, and I realized quite quickly that the problem would be to do justice to the richness of those sources. They amounted to an oral history of war, not just from soldiers, but from men and women trapped in the war, telling their stories with great urgency. I also spent lots of time in the archives in Missouri and the surrounding states looking at letters and diaries. I was interested in the values of the soldiers who went into the state, as well as the people who resided there. And I was interested in the very experience of war, not only who did what to whom, but why; not only the literal record, but the emotional record of the war. Although the study was of guerrilla fighting in Missouri, I really wanted to talk about war in general, and what it does to people. And I would say that the war in Vietnam, which was the most powerful experience of my young adulthood -- though I was in the opposition rather than on the field of battle -- and the holocaust, the most significant historical event of the 20th century, are also issues that I was working through when I was analyzing what happened in Missouri. What would happen later, for example in Bosnia, came as no surprise to me -- Missouri, in particular, was but a kind of war involving all against all.

Q. (David Woodbury):
    Regarding "Citizen Sherman," what sorts of insights do you feel you uncovered about Sherman-the-man that do not emerge in other biographies, e.g., those by Marszalek , B.H. Liddell Hart, or Lloyd Lewis?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    After having studied war from the bottom up in Missouri, I thought, again as a social and cultural historian, to approach issues of leadership in war. I did not seek to look at Sherman as an exceptional figure, as a "great man," but rather as a citizen of his culture, a representative man of his culture who at the same time had great power. Thus, for example (unfortunately) nearly everyone was a racist in 19th century America, but Sherman was not only a virulent one, but one who had the power to enact his racial attitude[s] in significant ways during the war itself. This certainly is one of the contributions of my book. Lloyd Lewis did discuss Sherman's racism, rather approving of it, but more recent biographies did not engage the subject in any significant way. I think I went into considerable depth on the subject and showed why Sherman was the way he was towards excluding black troops from his command. I also know I'm the first person to discuss his insubordination to Abraham Lincoln on this subject, which outdid Douglas MacArthur.
    Certain Civil War historians like to talk about the Union effort as a crusade against slavery and racism, but the whole record is very ambiguous, and as Robert Penn Warren pointed out many years ago in his fine little essay on the Civil War,["The Legacy Of The Civil War," 1961], people in the North have no particular grounds to celebrate where [their forebears] stood on race... I also think I had some new things to say about Sherman's manic depressive personality, including a close analysis of his breakdown in Kentucky late in 1861[,] a great deal about his marriage and his child-rearing practices, and I explored the very thick record -- 37 years long -- of his bad Victorian marriage, showing how such a marriage worked. I don't believe I've ever read such a thick description up close ... also [as a contribution, was] the long chapter on mourning rituals, when little Willie died in 1863, which tells us a great deal about how Victorians dealt with death. And, too, I tried to tie Sherman's personality to the way that he practiced psychological warfare, in which, in my opinion, he was a genius of destruction. This was not just "rhetoric" as some recent biographers have put it, but a very astute way of warring against civilians in order to demoralize a democratic army.
    I also tried to show the ways in which Sherman calibrated the use of actual force, the ways in which he stopped short of the genocide that he indicated he might be willing to practice... and I also spent a great deal of effort to describe the politics of war, for example, the dealings with Stanton, the meanings of his settlement of blacks on the land during the war, and the separate peace treaty he drew with Joe Johnston at the end of the war. I also tried to deal, as much as I could, with his extraordinary post-war life, the feuding with other generals, the womanizing, and all... I hope I accounted for some of the origins and implications of this very powerful personality -- a person who broadened the meanings of war in American society. By the way, just this month Penguin Classics has reissued Sherman's memoirs with a long introduction and notes by yours truly.

Q. (Clair Conzelman):
    [What do you have to say about Sherman's] attitudes towards Native Americans?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    I had a full chapter on that... I thought that both he and Grant were extremely cynical toward the negotiations with the Plains Indians in 1867-68, and I also was struck how little they worried about the threat from the native people. My take on Sherman was that he was the grand strategist of the elimination of the Plains Indians -- that he just wanted to push them out of the way, and that he was certain that time was on his side. [This policy] certainly demonstrated Sherman's ruthlessness, tied to his contempt for other races, but in his way he was also quite clear-headed about the political and social structure of the people he was fighting. He was a very smart man, and actually there are some indications that his native opposition rather admired his warrior nature.

(Clair Conzelman): Interesting...thanks!

Q. Lorne Colmar:
    Touching upon your earlier mention of northern attitudes toward slavery and race... From your extensive study of first-hand accounts, would you say the issue of freeing the slaves / raising up the black race featured in people's minds, or was their motivation to participate in the fighting based on other issues?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    Motivations for fighting are multiple and variable. Some people fight with ideological consciousness. A recent study -- not McPherson's -- suggests that perhaps six percent were driven by ideological concerns, most particularly slavery. I ran across one or two such people in Missouri, but more soldiers, for example, found that they could trust black informants while whites lied in their teeth, which led certain of the soldiers to admire black people more than they had... but such soldiers and others [also] were there because everyone in their hometown went to war, because it was a great adventure, because they hated the enemy who shot their comrade, because their girlfriends told them there wouldn't be anymore kisses unless they went. And some [went to war] because they could loot, and many others were looking for a way to duck out of the war as quickly as they could. But to conclude that somehow what really mattered was the single issue of slavery for these soldiers is a misconception. Having said that, one might also add that slavery was the effective cause of the southern rebellion. Had there been no slavery, there would have been no reason to secede. So the deeper cause of the Civil War was slavery, and yet here again, in the North, opposing slavery did not mean that one believed in racial justice for black people.

(Lorne Colmar):
    Much as I expected. Thanks for the pointer on the percentage citing ideological beliefs.

Q. (Margaret D. Blough):
    How much did the outbreak of the larger American Civil War depend on the already existing hostilities between Kansas Free-Soilers and Kansas and Missouri pro-slavery forces? Did it intensify the hostility or just add allies.

A. (Michael Fellman):
    Everything escalated. I certainly saw Bleeding Kansas as an opening round, but the sustained viciousness of the guerrilla war, particularly in those Missouri counties just to the east of Kansas City, were huge by comparison to the events that came before. Yet, the fighting words were all in place in the 1850s, and there was a great rush on both sides to go back at it. What's equally interesting to me is that people who sat out the prior round of hostilities could be swept so quickly into it. Guerrilla war escalates at a frightful pace, and should make us think carefully about how rational we think even we are... I always tell people that I am an agnostic on the issue of what I might do, never having been there, and when I've talked to veterans who have been in combat, they've told me that even the most brutal things I discussed were only an approximation of what they had lived through... none of them have been self-righteous about their own ability to rise above the situation.

Q. (Paula Gidjunis):
    Is there a legacy left today as a result of the bloody wars in Missouri/Kansas? Has it impacted people today?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    People tell me that the Missouri-Kansas football games in the 1920s still resembled war more than sport, but I think that the legacy has pretty much died down. There are some people who cling to the Civil War to this day for ideological purposes, people who, particularly in the South, use the glories of the Confederacy as a guise for, in my opinion, a defense of white supremacism. I expect to hear from some of them after my book "The Making of Robert E. Lee" is published. As for me, I do see the Civil War as a historical subject. I consider myself a partisan of neither side. Instead, my passion is to understand in a detached way what warfare is about, as well as I can. I think the Civil War is politically loaded to this day -- there's no denying that. But one need not be naive when analyzing it.

Q. (Jeff Simo):
    Your take on Sherman? Was he just getting the job done, or do you think he got a kick out of what he did?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    He adored using that power, he had never felt so alive. It would be interesting to compare Sherman to George Patton, probably the [other] most articulate [general] the US has ever had. Certainly if you compare Sherman to Grant or Lee, Sherman's gift of phrase and the depth of his understanding of how to eviscerate the enemy, were profound. However, Sherman was not a random killer of civilians and the war could have gotten further out of hand than it did. It was horrible enough as it was.

Q. (Stevan F. Meserve):
    In your coming Lee book, are you taking on Jubal Early and the Southern Historical Society, or is it about the modern re-making of Lee's image?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    Tom Connelly did a magnificent job on the posthumous legacy of Lee, and that's not my subject... the title comes from my sense of Lee continuously trying to invent himself in a masterful way, in a world that had rather gone past his old-fashioned aristocratic sensibility. I tried to explore his conflicted personality in new ways, and explore him within his cultural setting: race, class, gender. And also to uncover his political beliefs more thoroughly, as well as his sense of what he was doing as a general. Sometimes I saw myself as being on a rescue mission, trying to save him from his worshipers, who managed to dehumanize him in the name of sainthood. Not a single biography that I read escaped his overwhelming presence, much of which was created by Jubal Early et. al.

(Stevan F. Meserve):
    Fascinating. I look forward to reading it.

(Michael Fellman):
    Steve, it will be out in November just in time for you to buy copies for all your friends for Christmas.

Q. (Clair Conzelman):
    How do you see Sherman's relationship with Sheridan, during the Civil War and the Indian Wars?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    There was no relationship during the Civil War. [Afterwards] Sheridan followed Sherman when Sherman went to Washington after Grant became president. I think the three of them saw eye-to-eye on the counterinsurgency they were fighting [against the Plains Indians], and I actually think that Sherman lost interest in the protracted struggle well before it was over. He trusted Sheridan implicitly, and had better things on his mind, like going to the theater... Some of the Civil War generals who fought the Indians, like [Nelson] Miles, developed a certain sympathy for them -- Sherman never did. I don't think (getting back to your question) that Sherman and Sheridan were close in the same way that Grant and Sherman were. Let me just add that Grant cut Sherman out of the loop, not about Indian warfare, but about using Union troops in the South during Reconstruction. Sherman was unsympathetic to blacks, and to Reconstruction, and Grant knew this..

(Clair Conzelman):
    Who was closer...Grant to Sheridan, or Grant to Sherman?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    Sherman, who adored Grant, always blamed Belknap, the Secretary of War. He couldn't believe that his old friend Grant would betray him. I think Grant was one of the few people Sherman was incapable of hating at any time, and indeed, at the very end of his life when Grant was dying of cancer, he told Sherman that his recent visit was better for him than the ministrations of 100 doctors. Sherman in his usual way wrote about that to 1/2 a dozen friends with a kind of touching quality one associates with young boys... Grant meant the world to him. I don't know about Grant and Sheridan. But I know about Grant and Sherman. Grant is very hard to read. There is that letter that Grant wrote to Sherman when he was heading east to take over overall command of Union armies in 1864, which is as passionate as Grant ever became in expressing gratitude.

Q. (Lorne Colmar):
    Regarding your earlier mention of Sherman's willingness to contemplate genocide as a tool of war...How does this sit next to the policies followed during the March to the Sea, when tough rules were maintained with respect to protecting civilian lives? The two appear diametrically opposed?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    Lorne: I think I misspoke, or you misunderstood. What I'm saying is that he hinted at genocide, but absolutely never practiced it, and I go to considerable pains to discuss the restraint in practice. There was a dialectic between the destruction he permitted, and even encouraged, and that which he and his troops never practiced... The same man and the same soldiers were capable of something far more ruthless and brutal when they fought the Indians, where there were genocidal episodes... and there were incidents of the slaughter of black prisoners by Confederates which were genocidal as well.

(Lorne Colmar):
    Of course. So rather it was that Sherman considered genocide may have been necessary rather than in any way desirable?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    I think in the US the distinction has always been [made] on racial grounds, and white northerners and white southerners would rarely behave towards other white people as they would towards Indians or blacks. However, I believe that the shooting of POWs is almost a completely undiscussed issue when it comes to the Civil War, and I have talked with other Civil War historians who agree with me that it was not at all unheard of -- perhaps other scholars will find ways into dealing with this issue -- but there was no systematic slaughter of white civilians during the war, of which I'm aware... There was one point, after the Fetterman massacre (1866), [when] Sherman said in a military letter, "I wish I could kill them all, by which I mean men, women, and children..." but the next day he withdrew that overt desire. He may have been just covering his tracks, but even Sherman knew that there was a limit to what one could say along these lines, even when it concerned Indians. There were Americans, particularly in the East, who were quite sympathetic to the "noble Savage," and though this could amount to a condescending paternalism, it presented certain political limits on the expression of race hatred toward Indians, of which Sherman was fully aware.

Q. (Pete Romeika):
    [The] Post-war Midwest saw the rise of factions like the James Gang and the Younger Brothers --could that be considered a spillover of that guerilla warfare?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    Pete, you should read the last chapter of "Inside War"... There are many connections.

Q. (Teresa N. Blaurock):
    I wanted to ask what conclusions you've come to over the way Ellen Sherman withdrew from public life, and that Sherman asked his daughter to serve as his hostess.

A. (Michael Fellman):
    In my book I have a long discussion on the war between the Shermans... Her reclusiveness was directly related to her incredible piety. She thought the world was a snare and a delusion, and her husband was very much in the world, and thought his wife was shirking her duty to him. This was one of their issues, along with her great fear that he would go to hell unless he were to convert to the true Catholic faith... and he was a notable agnostic. They fought for a lifetime, no holds barred, and these were their two biggest ostensible issues. She bettered him in domestic warfare, something I discuss at considerable length, so his daughter was his hostess by default. I might add that Robert E. Lee's religiosity, although Episcopalian, was not that far from Ellen Ewing Sherman['s]. Lee's attitudes towards "vita activa" was at times as retreatist from the world as Ellen Sherman's. His stoic Christian set of beliefs needed more analysis, in my opinion.

Q. (Margaret D. Blough):
    Dr. Fellman, regarding your upcoming Lee book, you've given us some idea of how it will be different from the host of books already written on Lee -- what sources did you look at in order to have a fresh perspective on him, rather than the traditional alternatives of either hagiography or hatchet job?

A. (Michael Fellman):
    It's hard to find new Lee sources. Unlike Sherman, he was not a devoted letter writer... so, much of what I have to say comes from reinterpreting material others may have noted. For example, I did find connections between Lee and the redeemers of the Conservative Party of Virginia... and sorting that out I found that Lee was a political activist, far more than the earlier biographers had indicated. This portion of my book will come out next month as an independent essay in the journal "Civil War History." This is not Lee in the heavens, but Lee very much in touch with other political gentlemen of his ilk, with his own rather strong opinions about the evils of Reconstruction, and the Yankees, and his deep annoyance at black people living in freedom for the first time...

Thank you, everyone, for coming. If you didn't get your question in, or I evaded you, feel free to email me at [].


Margaret Blough said...

Thanks, David. I remember that discussion on the CW Forum. It was amazing.

Seeker said...

Not sure if Fellman knew about Lee's slave ledgers. He should.

Lee was not racists, as much as he was a sadist. He had slave girls tied up and whipped-- as he screamed at them. He sold children, or at least separated them deliberately from their mother.

In fact, contrary to the fraudulent biography by Freeman, Lee not only did not free his wife's slaves, he continued to purchase more -- from bounty hunters. Apparently Lee even bought men women and children his hunters found in the North -- who were not ever his slaves, and may not have ever been anyone slaves.

The real story of Lee will not be fully known until we get more acces to his slave ledgers - the records in his own hand, of his bounties, payments, and lists of slaves.

Lee refused to obey VA court orders to free his wife's slaves, in fact, he went to court, or his lawyer did, DURING the Civil War, to fight their order than he obey the will. When Lee finally freed anyone, it was so late, that no one was buying them anyway. They were worthless.

Essentially Lee was nothing like the myth. He seemed to enjoy whipping slaves, he was more of a sociopath than a man of principle.

As far as his "devout" Christianity, Lee turned that off when he wrote sexually explicit letters to women, a habit he held his whole life, even after the Civil War. WHen he wrote his wife, he could wrap himself in Jesus, and justify his treatment of slaves, which she apparently questioned, by claiming God ordained not only slavery, but the torture (painful discipline). Pain, wrote Lee, was necessary for their instruction.