Category Archives: War and Conflict

“Most could never forget what they had seen and experienced . . . ” But will we remember?

Guest post by John C. McManus

mcmanusRecently the Anti-Defamation League conducted a worldwide survey designed to measure the extent of anti-Semitic attitudes and knowledge of the Holocaust. Over 53,000 adults in 102 countries were queried by professional pollsters using a data-based research survey method. The results were not encouraging. According to the poll, some 26 percent of respondents admitted to deeply held anti-Semitic attitudes. Perhaps even more disturbing, from an historical viewpoint, is that 54 percent of those surveyed worldwide had never heard of the Holocaust. Overall, almost two-thirds of those surveyed had either never heard of this most monumental of all history’s many great crimes or, worse, they believed it never actually happened.

Not surprisingly, Anti-Defamation League representatives expressed deep disappointment and alarm at such stark evidence of modern day hatred and ignorance. Abraham Foxman, the League’s national director in the United States, said, “The results confirm a troubling gap between older adults who know their history and younger men and women who, more than seventy years after the events of World War II, are more likely to have never heard of or learned about what happened to the six millions Jews who perished.”

Though no less troubled than Mr. Foxman, I was not especially surprised by the results. For several years now, I have witnessed ignorance of the Holocaust in some of my students and especially in popular culture as a whole. On occasion in that same popular culture, I have seen ignorance mutate into outright denial, sometimes out of rebellion against a perceived popular narrative of historical events, sometimes out of misplaced sympathy for anti-Semitic, anti-western, middle Eastern Arabs, and sometimes simply out of sheer hatred for Jews.

As a professional historian, it is not really my intent to become enmeshed in today’s geopolitical controversies. Instead my purpose is to document, chronicle, and analyze the events of the past, while perhaps offering some lessons for our future. My particular focus is on military history, with a specialization in World War II and the history of American soldiers in battle. In eleven books published over the course of more than a decade, I have explored the combat experience for those Americans who do the real fighting in time of war. If there is one theme that has stood out to me, it is the grim, visceral nature of combat for soldiers, especially amid the meat grinder of World War II, by far history’s deadliest war. Many of these same soldiers who fought for their lives on the front lines also liberated or witnessed concentration camps in Germany at the end of the war. Very few had any previous knowledge of the existence of these camps. Over the years, I have been struck by how many of these men told me or other historians or wrote in memoirs or letters that this experience was their most traumatic and unforgettable during the war. Indeed many were never the same after seeing a camp (or multiple camps in some cases). And yet, even though the Holocaust is one of the most heavily documented events in human history, the literature includes very little material about the liberation experiences of American soldiers.

So, in hopes of filling this void, as well as finding out what could have been worse for soldiers than battle, and combating what I perceived as persistent ignorance and denial of the Holocaust, I wrote Hell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945. The book focuses on the liberation of three camps—Ohrdruf, Buchenwald and Dachau—during that momentous month in 1945. These three places, I felt, represented the larger whole of the Nazi concentration camp system in Germany, and the story of their liberation conveys a narrative of discovery as American soldiers experienced it that spring. Indeed, it is sobering to realize that the Holocaust was not just a crime of genocide; in a larger sense it was a huge slave labor operation targeting a multitude of ethnic groups, not just Jews. The camps liberated by Americans in Germany were designed for enslavement, not industrial killing of human beings in massive numbers like the death camps in Poland (where the majority of Jewish Holocaust victims lost their lives). As such, the majority of the survivors encountered by American soldiers were non-Jewish eastern Europeans.

Thus, Ohrdruf, Buchenwald and Dachau were not even among the worst camps in the Nazi empire. But they were horrible enough. In these three terrible, pestilential places, young American soldiers came face to face with a dark and upsetting world of human degradation, along with its sickening manifestations of terrible sights and smells—emaciated bodies stacked in heaps, ovens full of incinerated human remains, warehouses filled with stolen shoes, clothing, luggage, and even eyeglasses, prison yards littered with implements of torture as well as dead bodies and, perhaps most disturbing of all, the half-dead survivors of these camps. The troops became familiar with the unforgettable stench of these places, a nauseating mixture of dead bodies, feces, dirty clothing, body odor and, at times, burnt flesh. “There’s nothing else I can remember in my lifetime that remains as vivid and horrible as that,” Bob Cleary, a young lieutenant who led a reconnaissance unit into Ohrdruf, later said. William Charboneau, who was a nineteen-year-old infantryman in 1945, opined more than fifty years after the war, “Until you’ve smelled burnt flesh or decayed flesh, you have no idea what the odor is. I can still smell it today.” Not surprisingly, most could never forget what they had seen and experienced. “The scenes were so deeply etched in my memory that it is impossible to cast them aside–or to forget–or to permit time to dull the sharpness of those horrifying images of hell on earth,” Jerry Hontas, a Buchenwald liberator, said. “The only thing that vanished was our innocence.” Some could never talk about these horrors; others felt a sense of mission to tell the world, especially as they grew old and the world’s memory faded. This is their story . . .

John C. McManus is a Curators’ Professor of History at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He is the author of Hell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945 which will be published this month by JHU Press. His previous books include The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II and Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II Through Iraq.

Read the results of the Anti-Defamation League survey here.

Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount when you place your pre-publication order for Hell Before Their Very Eyes.



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Filed under American Studies, History, Jewish Studies, Popular Culture, War and Conflict

Casualties of war on September 19 (1756)

Guest post by Len Travers

traversIf Robert Wilson had done what he did today instead of in 1756, they would have given him a medal. That year, September 19 was a Sunday. On that sweltering late-summer afternoon Wilson and nearly fifty other New England soldiers were scouting the rocky, wooded shore of Lake George in New York Colony when they walked into an ambush. Their assailants, Indian and French Canadian raiders three times their numbers, quickly overwhelmed the trapped colonials. Early in the fighting a bullet found Wilson, punching clean through his shoulder. Unable to fight, he somehow broke through the melee and ran for all he was worth eleven miles through the rugged forest back to Fort William Henry, where his doomed patrol had begun. Exhausted from blood loss and dehydration, he gasped out the news, less than three hours old, of what had befallen his companions. Unless help came to them soon, he feared that his company “could not escape” and that “the whole Scout would be Cut of[f].” For all he knew, he was the only one to escape alive.

He wasn’t, but Wilson’s harrowing story was one of many I found in the course of researching Hodges’ Scout, in which I attempted to recover a long-forgotten incident of the French and Indian War. Part of that story follows the fates of survivors, such as the twenty-two-year-old Wilson. Those who made it home, some after years of captivity, found nothing like the welcome, support, and admiration veterans receive today. Wilson spent the ensuing months slowly recovering from the “Grate pain” of his wound. And there was the expense: he had been forced to pay his own way home to Lexington, Massachusetts, and despite (or because of) medical care he “Remained Lowe with his wound all the winter.” After five months he was finally able to do some work, but “he [had] not the use of his showlder so well as he had nor [feared] he Ever shall.” As did so many other injured veterans of the French and Indian War, Wilson was forced to ask for public assistance from his colony government. It took more than two years from the time he was shot, but Wilson was awarded £6—less than half a year’s wages—“in full for his Service and Sufferings,” but the once-hardy young man, now a disabled veteran, would never be the same again.

Such token awards from cash-strapped colonial governments were typical, and if wounded veterans felt short-changed, the families of the hurt, killed, and missing fared little better. Widows often received little from their husbands’ estates (most soldiers died too young to have accumulated much), and remarriage was not always in the cards. Children went without, or were put to servitude for their support, breaking up what was left of families. Harder though not impossible to evaluate is the emotional toll on families rent by war. John Lewis had marched that day with Wilson, but was feared dead. His family moved quickly to administer his pitiful estate, but Lewis’ aged mother Hannah refused to give up on him, writing her “Beloved Son John Lewis if he be living,” into the will she made out the year following.

Hannah Titus was also a grieving mother. Her husband had died early in 1756; she then permitted her seventeen-year old son Benjamin to go for a soldier that year, probably counting on his soldier’s wages to help the family. He enlisted in the same company as his older brother Noah, and together they set off for Lake George. But Benjamin was killed in the same firefight that crippled Robert Wilson, and Noah died from disease soon after. By the end of December Hannah Titus was pleading with a judge to appoint an administrator for the estates of Benjamin, Noah, and their spinster sister Hepzibah, who also had died that year. Robbed of husband and children after a year of cruel loss, guilt-stricken over letting her last son go to war, Hannah understandably felt “not able to do such business myself.”

Recent events remind us that the “social safety net” constructed for modern veterans and their families has often provided too little, and too late, for too many. But in exploring the American past we confront societies for which such things were, comparatively, nonexistent—as the survivors of Hodges’ Scout so tragically learned.

Len Travers is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is the author of Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic and Hodges’ Scout: A Lost Patrol of the French and Indian War, which will be published by JHU Press later this year.

Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount when you place your pre-publication order for Hodges’s Scout.


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Reflections on the Bicentennial of the War of 1812

Guest post by Donald R. Hickey

Flag 1812With the completion of a small conference on the legacy of the War of 1812 in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, over the July 4th weekend, the commemoration of the Bicentennial of our “forgotten conflict” appears to be over. For those of us with a fascination with the contest, it has been quite a run. Although interest in the Bicentennial was limited mostly to sites in Ontario, Canada, and east of the Missouri River in the United States, there was plenty from 2012 to 2015 to keep students of the war busy. Although the significant battles took place mainly in the borderlands along the Canadian-American frontier, the Chesapeake Bay played a significant role in the war. It was only one of ten major theaters of operation, but it was the scene of the most British raids. These included the low point in the war for the United States—the British occupation of Washington, D.C. in August 1814 and the burning of the public buildings there—and a high point three weeks later—the successful defense of Baltimore, which produced “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Maryland did more than any other state to promote the Bicentennial. Maryland officials realized that this was their opportunity to publicize the central role that the Chesapeake had played in the war and in forging the national memory of the contest. Both the Maryland Historical Society and Fort McHenry did their part to see that Baltimore was included in the commemoration. As memorable as any event connected to the Bicentennial was the 2012 June weekend in 2012 when the tall ships docked in Baltimore. It was a rare treat for students of the war because it seemed that the conflict was the talk of the town. Annapolis followed up a year later with one of the most memorable conferences on the war. “From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference on the War of 1812 and Its Aftermath” generated attention not only in the United States and Canada but also in Great Britain.

The Bicentennial produced a flood of books on the war. Most dealt with the conflict’s military and naval history, but there were also some works on other aspects of the conflict. Once again the Chesapeake played a significant role. Especially noteworthy were the books published in the series Johns Hopkins Books on the War of 1812. There are now seven books in this series. These include several titles by Ralph Eshelman illuminating the war in the Chesapeake, Dave Curtis Skaggs’ fine study of William Henry Harrison’s western campaigns, Faye Kert’s pioneering book on privateering, Don Shomette’s seminal study of Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla in the Chesapeake, Carl Benn’s meticulously edited collection of native memoirs, and an illustrated history of the war that Connie D. Clark and I co-wrote. The Press also has published a short book that I wrote on Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans.

The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, by Ralph E. Eshelman, Scott S. Sheads, and Donald R. Hickey

The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812, by Donald R. Hickey and Connie D. Clark

Will the flood of books and related activities during the Bicentennial mean that we no longer have to characterize the War of 1812 as a “forgotten conflict”? This is unlikely. After all, the war hardly compares in grandeur and importance with the Revolution and Civil War, those two great contests that are bookends for the period in U.S. history from 1775 to 1865. And there are many other reasons why the War of 1812 has slipped so deep into the recesses of the public memory. Its causes—maritime rights on the high seas in the Age of Sail—don’t resonate with Americans today. In addition, the war was waged inconclusively in far-flung theaters that stretched from Mackinac Island in northern Michigan to New Orleans on the Gulf Coast. Furthermore, it is not really clear who won the war (although everyone can agree that the biggest losers were the Indians, who were defeated both in Tecumseh’s War in the Old Northwest and the Creek War in the Old Southwest). Finally, the battle casualties cannot begin to compare with the losses in either the Revolution or the Civil War.

Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812, by Donald G. Shomette
William Henry Harrison and the Conquest of the Ohio Country: Frontier Fighting in the War of 1812, by David Curtis Skaggs
Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, by Carl Benn
Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812, by Faye M. Kert

What usually goes unappreciated in most treatments of the War of 1812 is its extraordinary legacy. If we measure wars by their consequences, then it’s hard to ignore the War of 1812. In the United States, the conflict boosted American self-confidence and nationalism, opened the door to territorial expansion, generated the birth of the American military establishment, and shaped the political landscape until the Civil War. Seven of the eleven presidents between James Madison and Abraham Lincoln either launched or boosted their public careers during the War of 1812, and anyone who had served in the field during the conflict had a significant advantage in any quest for elected public office.

The war also forged a national identity. The sayings and symbols that either originated in, or gained wide currency during, the war helped Americans understand who they were as a people and where their nation might be headed. Most of these sayings and symbols still resonate with us today. Among them are “Don’t give up the ship” (Captain James Lawrence’s words as he lay dying after the defeat of the USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon); “We have met the enemy and he is ours” (Commodore Oliver H. Perry’s laconic report after defeating the British squadron on Lake Erie); “Old Ironsides” (which enjoyed four successful cruises during the war and even today is probably the best known U.S. warship); the Fort McHenry flag (long on display as the Smithsonian in Washington); “The Star-Spangled Banner” (which Congress named the national anthem in 1931); Uncle Sam (which became a common nickname for the U.S. government); the Kentucky rifle (which won an inflated reputation as game-changer and war-winner); Andrew Jackson (whose success in the field made him a symbol for the entire postwar era); and the Battle of New Orleans (which forged the myth of American victory in the war).

The war had no less an impact on Canada, for it was essentially that nation’s war of independence, and thus looms large in Canada’s public memory. Even Great Britain could not escape the war’s legacy. Although the British people quickly forgot about the conflict, the British government could not afford this luxury because it was responsible for defending Canada, and no one at the time thought this would be the last Anglo-American war. It did not take British leaders long to realize that the best way to protect Canada was to accommodate the United States, and this strategy ultimately paid off. Despite an often rocky road that included more than a couple war scares, by the end of the nineteenth century a genuine accord had blossomed between the two English-speaking nations. This turned into co-belligerency in World War I and a full-scale alliance in World War II that persists to this day.

The War of 1812 may have been a small and inconclusive war, but it left an outsized legacy that continues to shape the transatlantic world today. This is certainly reason enough to accord the war a bigger place in our public memory and in our history books. By all rights, the forgotten conflict should be forgotten no more.

hickeyDonald R. Hickey, whom the New Yorker described as “the dean of 1812 scholarship,” teaches history at Wayne State College in Nebraska. He has written seven books on the conflict, including Glorious Victory: Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812, and The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. He served as series editor for JHUP’s Johns Hopkins Books on the War of 1812.




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Fall books preview: history

Fall 2015 very largeWe’re excited about the books we’ll be publishing this fall—and pleased to share this series of “Fall Books Preview” blog posts! Be sure to check out the online edition of JHUP’s entire Fall 2015 catalog, and remember that promo code “HDPD” gets you a 30% discount on pre-pub orders. We continue of our preview posts today with forthcoming books in history:

pettigrewLight It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq
John Pettegrew

Light It Up examines the visual culture of the early twenty-first century. Focusing on the Marine Corps, which played a critical part in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, John Pettegrew argues that U.S. military force in the Iraq War was projected through an “optics of combat.” Powerful military technology developed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has placed war in a new posthuman era.

“A bold, complex, wonderfully written book with a revolutionary thesis: that technologies of seeing and the outlook of marines combine to form a ‘projection of force’ beyond the traditional meaning of the concept. Provocative and original.”—William Thomas Allison, Georgia Southern University, author of My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War

Available in October

dowdGroundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier
Gregory Evans Dowd

Rumor—spread by colonists and Native Americans alike—ran rampant in early America. In Groundless, historian Gregory Evans Dowd explores why half-truths, deliberate lies, and outrageous legends emerged in the first place, how they grew, and why they were given such credence throughout the New World. Arguing that rumors are part of the objective reality left to us by the past—a kind of fragmentary archival record—he examines how uncertain news became powerful enough to cascade through the centuries.

“Skillfully written, informative, and stimulating. More than just a collection of rumors and the stories they generated, this book is a smart exploration of the issue of hearsay and the limitations in the evidence historians depend upon to craft their narratives.”—Colin G. Calloway, Dartmouth College, author of New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America

Available in January 2016

traversHodges’ Scout: A Lost Patrol of the French and Indian War
Len Travers

Pieced together from archival records, period correspondence, and official reports, Hodges’ Scout relates the riveting tale of young colonists who were tragically caught up in a war they barely understood. Len Travers brings history to life by describing the variety of motives that led men to enlist in the campaign and the methods and means they used to do battle. He also reveals what the soldiers wore, the illnesses they experienced, the terror and confusion of combat, and the bitter hardships of captivity in alien lands. His remarkable research brings human experiences alive, giving us a rare, full-color view of the French and Indian War—the first true world war.

“Fascinating, vivid, and highly informed. Travers is a master of foreshadowing and verisimilitude. This is the social history of war at its best.”—Gregory Evans Dowd, University of Michigan, author of War under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire

Available in December

reinbergerThe Philadelphia Country House: Architecture and Landscape in Colonial America
Mark Reinberger and Elizabeth McLean

In this masterly volume, Mark Reinberger, a senior architectural historian, and Elizabeth McLean, an accomplished scholar of landscape history, examine the country houses that the urban gentry built on the outskirts of Philadelphia in response to both local and international economic forces, social imperatives, and fashion. The Philadelphia Country House explores the myriad ways in which these estates—which were located in the country but responded to the ideas and manners of the city—straddled the cultural divide between urban and rural. Illustrated with nearly 150 photographs, more than 60 line drawings, and two color galleries.

“Reinberger and McLean have succeeded in illuminating the nature and significance of a specific building type in colonial America, the country house or seat, focusing on those around the city of Philadelphia. The scholarship is extremely sound, the documentation is profuse, and the book effectively presents a tremendous amount of information on a significant topic that deserves elucidation. No comparable study exists.”—Damie Stillman, University of Delaware Professor Emeritus

Available in October

mcmanusHell Before Their Very Eyes: American Soldiers Liberate Concentration Camps in Germany, April 1945
John C. McManus

On April 4, 1945, United States Army units from the 89th Infantry Division and the 4th Armored Division seized Ohrdruf, the first of many Nazi concentration camps to be liberated in Germany. In the weeks that followed, as more camps were discovered, thousands of soldiers came face to face with the monstrous reality of Hitler’s Germany.

Military historian John C. McManus sheds new light on this often-overlooked aspect of the Holocaust. Drawing on a rich blend of archival sources and thousands of firsthand accounts—including unit journals, interviews, oral histories, memoirs, diaries, letters, and published recollections—Hell Before Their Very Eyes focuses on the experiences of the soldiers who liberated Ohrdruf, Buchenwald, and Dachau and their determination to bear witness to this horrific history.

“This is a history that demands to be published. The use of personal witness accounts is the only way to capture the essence of the traumatic experience the American soldiers had to deal with.”—Daniel D. Holt, editor of Eisenhower: The Prewar Diaries and Selected Papers, 1905−1941

Available in November

condonShays’s Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America
Sean Condon

In this concise and compelling account of the uprising that came to be known as Shays’s Rebellion, Sean Condon describes the economic difficulties facing both private citizens and public officials in newly independent Massachusetts. He explains the state government policy that precipitated the farmers’ revolt, details the machinery of tax and debt collection in the 1780s, and provides readers with a vivid example of how the establishment of a republican form of government shifted the boundaries of dissent and organized protest.

“The deepest account of the rebellion I have read, the book keeps a strong narrative line and grows in drama as it proceeds. Undergraduates should cherish this work. Riveting.”—Barry Levy, University of Massachusetts–Amherst, author of Town Born: The Political Economy of New England from Its Founding to the Revolution

Available in July

josephsonFish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans: The Politics of Everyday Technologies
Paul R. Josephson

In Fish Sticks, Sports Bras, and Aluminum Cans, historian Paul R. Josephson explores the surprising origins, political contexts, and social meanings of ordinary objects. Drawing on archival materials, technical journals, interviews, and field research, this engaging collection of essays reveals the forces that shape (and are shaped by) everyday objects. Ultimately, Josephson suggests that the most familiar and comfortable objects—sugar and aluminum, for example, which are inextricably tied together by their linked history of slavery and colonialism—may have the more astounding and troubling origins

“Josephson draws readers into the complexities and fascinations of the study of technological history. A lively and provocative book.”—David E. Nye, University of Southern Denmark, author of Technology Matters: Questions to Live With

Available in November

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Filed under American History, American Studies, History, History of technology, Popular Culture, Publishing News, War and Conflict

Walking hand and hand with the men and women who served

By Kathryn R. Marguy, JHUP Staff

mcmanusOn May 8, 2015, the seventieth anniversary of VE Day, thousands gathered at Horse Guards Parade in London to commemorate the end of World War II in Europe. A stage in the likeness of an aircraft hangar played host to hours of 1940s-themed performances. The bells from hundreds of England’s churches rang out in celebration, and dignitaries placed ceremonial wreaths to pay homage to those lost in battle. In the midst of these festivities, the imminent release of John C. McManus’ book, Hell Before Their Very Eyes, becomes all the more poignant.

Like the relatable, vivid prose of Eli Wiesel and the masterful research of Studs Terkel, McManus’ work expertly captures the experiences of American soldiers as they liberated Nazi concentration camps in the spring of 1945. There, they uncovered unspeakable horrors that would shock the world. Many of the soldiers who stormed the gates of these sites were young men, and no amount of military training could prepare them for the ghastly visions that lay ahead.

Kat Photo 1

The chapel at Cambridge American Cemetery in England.

As an editorial assistant here at Johns Hopkins University Press, I’ve had the privilege of working on several first-rate history books, but McManus’ project holds particular resonance for me. In the summer of 2012, I studied World War II history at St. Edmund’s College at Cambridge. What struck me during my experience was the way the British people remembered the “Good War.” The gruesome hardships of the 1940s are woven into the tapestry of their everyday lives. The reminders are inescapable, from the perfectly preserved corridors of the Churchill War Rooms to The Eagle, a small pub in Cambridge where the walls and ceilings are covered with the names of RAF airmen who would stop in for a pint.

Kat Photo 2

Ceiling of the chapel at Cambridge American Cemetery.

The experience left me ashamed of my textbook knowledge about the war. Dates, names, and treaties I’d come to know through my studies suddenly felt stale when compared to the visceral connection most Europeans my age have. With the same familiarity my American classmates showed discussing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or the Kennedy assassination, my British counterparts would discuss World War II. Many of my colleagues had a personal connection to someone involved in the war. I envied their closeness to this fascinating time in history. It wasn’t until I visited places like the Ely Cathedral’s war memorial, stroked the keys of an original Enigma machine, and walked the narrow halls of the H.M.S. Belfast that it became real. Americans liberated the concentration camps on April 4, 1945, but without a physical link to these events, it is very easy to become distanced from the realities of this war.

Reading Hell Before Their Very Eyes is like walking hand and hand with the men and women who served—every word another step forward, every chapter a vivid diorama of war torn camps. And once the last page has turned, you will feel as if you were there, another brother or sister in arms, fighting for the future.

Kathryn R. Marguy joined the JHU Press staff as an editorial assistant in 2014.




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Taps for the Good War Myth?

Guest post by Michael C. C. Adams

On May 8, seventy years ago, the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany (Victory in Europe or VE Day), followed on September 2 by the surrender of our Pacific opponent (Victory over Japan or VJ Day). As we once again ring down the curtain on our commemoration of World War II, it is worth asking whether the Good War myth, spawned by the conflict, is now in eclipse?

The total victories in WWII were an enormous accomplishment, due in good measure to U.S. contributions in manpower, industrial production, and financial strength. There was much to be proud of. America was the only nation to emerge from the war more prosperous and powerful at a relatively modest cost. But, over time, this achievement was magnified into “The Good War.” From the 1960s on, America’s economic world dominance declined and military victories were harder to achieve, with stalemate in Korea and failure in Vietnam. Domestically, there were major challenges to race and gender discrimination. Many Americans, particularly adult white males, reacted by turning to the 1940s as a golden age. Back then, they said, Americans were united, without ethnic or sexual divides, and everyone knew what they fought for and put shoulders to the wheel. The boys were happy warriors.

Combat in WWII was traumatizing.  Romanticizing it misled those who engineered the conventional wars of the 21st century.

“The Anguish of Combat,” drawing by Howard Brodie. Combat in WWII was traumatizing. Romanticizing it misled those who engineered the conventional wars of the 21st century.

None of this was fully accurate. The myth crested in the 1990s when prominent military historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote that America saved the world for democracy, and argued that D-Day was the key battle. Ambrose at times implied that the U.S. virtually alone forged victory. He wrote sentimentally of the white male rifle squad of WWII as a band of brothers. TV journalist Tom Brokaw felt inspired to conclude that WWII Americans were the greatest generation in human history, a gross simplification of history’s complex patterns. After 9/11, Brokaw predicted that the grandchildren of WWII Americans would be another greatest generation.

This did not happen, and we now hear less about the mythic picture of WWII. Is this important? Absolutely. How we understand the past profoundly molds the ways in which we approach the present and plan for the future. History impacts real world events. Take the Munich analogy. According to mythologizers, at this 1938 summit meeting, Britain and France missed a clear opportunity to stop Hitler’s aggression, leading to the conclusion that we can never “appease” opponents, but must meet all disagreement with force. This distortion of Munich reverses traditional foreign policy, putting war ahead of diplomacy. George W. Bush and Tony Blair used the Munich analogy to justify attacking Iraq before the UN weapons inspectors had finished work. Precipitate demands for strikes on Iran instead of negotiation embrace the same rationale.

In the unique economic circumstances of WWII, U.S. government spending jump-started under-utilized industrial capacity to create unprecedented prosperity. This led to a popular belief that wars invariably boost the economy. Actually, the reverse may be true: massive military spending detracts from other public needs, such as the need for new roads and bridges or better schools and libraries. We cannot simply wish upon a war to solve our economic dilemmas.

Obsession with duplicating the WWII experience led to misreading 9/11 and therefore to inappropriate conventional military responses that cost billions in treasure and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed or driven from their homes, along with thousands of our troops dead or wounded physically and mentally. Top officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. But the events shared only one element in common: serious intelligence failures resulted in “surprise” attacks. The differences were crucial. Pearl Harbor was attacked by the official forces of Imperial Japan. Our enemy was clear and could be fought to conventional unconditional. 9/11 was perpetrated by outlaws mainly originating from our ally, Saudi Arabia. They had no national allegiance or conventional military structure. To destroy al-Qaeda, leading military historian Michael Howard urged an international police action, economical in lives and treasure, with a decent chance of succeeding.

Instead, we launched a conventional war on Afghanistan to deploy our mighty arsenal and allow a vicarious return to The Big War. This strategy appeared to work temporarily but bogged down into America’s longest war when resistance morphed into insurgency. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were not destroyed but shifted operations into western Pakistan. The Bush administration then launched a second inappropriate conventional war, on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Rebutting nervous critics, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted our forces would be welcomed as liberators, replicating France in 1944. Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein was not a foreign occupier like the Nazis. Instead, we became the hated alien occupiers and Iraq remains a failing state.

Parallels to WWII largely fail. WWII was paid for in part by super taxes on the wealthy, and salaries were capped. In the War on Terror, we cut taxes for the rich, leaving a legacy of debt. WWII was fought through the Selective Service, which inducted millions. Our current military is volunteer and represents perhaps 1% of the population. Most young people do not wish to fight, not because they are selfish or cowardly but because they have not bought the rationales for endless war in their short lifetimes. And they know that the most privileged largely shelter their children from harm’s way.

Good War analogies are diminishing because they are irrelevant. Is it time to bury the myth?

adamsMichael C. C. Adams is the author of The Best War Ever: America and World War II, appearing this month in its second edition, and Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, both published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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The Press Reads: African American Faces of the Civil War

Guest post by Ronald S. Coddington

Coddington Chandler

Silas Chandler (right) and Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler, Company F, forty-fourth Mississippi Infantry. Tintype by unidentified photographer (c. 1861). Collection of Andrew Chandler Battaile.

The Library of Congress recently acquired a tintype of Silas Chandler and Sgt. Andrew Martin Chandler. To understand how master and slave came to pose for this photograph, The Washington Post spoke to Ron Coddington about the portrait, as this story appears in Coddington’s latest book, African American Faces of the Civil War. Throughout Black History Month, we will offer a series of excerpts from recent publications, and today we share a selection from African American Faces of the Civil War.

“He Aided His Wounded Master”

 On September 20, 1863, during the thick of the fight at the Battle of Chickamauga, a Union musket ball tore into the right ankle and leg of Confederate Sgt. Andrew Chandler. A surgeon examined the nineteen-year-old Mississippian as he lay on the battlefield, determined the wound serious, and sent him to a nearby hospital.

Soon afterward, the injured sergeant was joined by Silas, a family slave seven years his senior. Silas attended his young master as a body servant—one of thousands of slaves who served in this capacity during the war.

According to family history, surgeons decided to amputate the leg. Silas stepped in. A descendant explained: “Silas distrusted Army surgeons. Somehow he managed to hoist his master into a convenient boxcar.” They rode by rail to Atlanta, where Silas sent a request for help to Andrew’s relatives. An uncle came and brought both men home to Mississippi, where they had started out two summers earlier.

Back in July 1861, Andrew had enlisted in a local military company, the Palo Alto Confederates. It later became part of the Forty-fourth Mississippi Infantry. He left home with Silas, one of about thirty-six slaves owned by his widowed mother Louisa.

Born in bondage on the Chandler plantation in Virginia, Silas moved with the family to Mississippi at about age two. He grew up to become a talented carpenter. The pennies he earned doing woodworking for people outside the family were saved in a jar hidden in a barn, according to his descendants. About 1860, he wed Lucy Garvin in a slave marriage not recognized by law at the time. A light-skinned woman classified as an octoroon, or one-eighth black, Lucy was the illegitimate daughter of a mulatto house slave named Polly and an unnamed plantation owner. Some said Cherokee Indian blood coursed through Lucy’s veins.

The following year, Silas bid his wife farewell and went to war with Andrew. Silas shuttled back and forth from home to encampment with much-needed supplies, delivering them to Andrew wherever he was as the Forty-fourth moved through Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It is probable that it was Silas who brought word home to the Chandlers when Andrew fell into Union hands at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and wound up in the prisoner of war camp at Camp Chase, Ohio. Andrew received a parole five months later and, after being exchanged, returned to his regiment.

In 1863 at Chickamauga, three of every ten men of the Fortyfourth who went into battle became casualties, including Andrew.  Thanks to Silas, he avoided an amputation. According to one of Andrew’s grandsons, “A home town doctor prescribed less drastic measures and Mr. Chandler’s leg was saved.”

Andrew “was able to do Silas a service as well,” according to the family. During one military campaign, Silas “constructed a shelter for himself from a pile of lumber, the story goes. A number of calloused Confederate soldiers attempted to take Silas’ shelter away from him, and when he resisted threatened to take his life. At this point Mr. Chandler and his comrade Cal Weaver, came to Silas’ defense and threatened the marauders with the same kind of treatment they had offered Silas. This closed the argument.”

Silas left Andrew to serve another member of the Chandler family—Andrew’s younger brother Benjamin, a private in the Ninth Mississippi Cavalry. The switch may have happened at Benjamin’s enlistment in January 1864. At the time, Andrew was absent from his regiment, likely at home recuperating from his Chickamauga wound.

Benjamin and his fellow horse soldiers went up against Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army group in Georgia and the Carolinas. A portion of the Ninth, including Benjamin, as their final assignment, formed part of a large escort for Jefferson Davis when the Confederate president fled Virginia after Richmond fell. On May 4, 1865, near Washington, Georgia, Davis separated from his escort and rode off with a much smaller force in an effort to move faster and attract less notice as federal patrols infiltrated the area. Benjamin was among those who were left behind. Benjamin surrendered on May 10. Silas was also there. Union troops captured President Davis at nearby Irwinsville, Georgia, the same day.

Silas returned to Mississippi, rejoined Lucy, and met his son William, who had been conceived while Silas was home after Andrew’s capture at Shiloh and was born in early 1863. Silas and Lucy had a total of twelve children, five of whom lived to maturity.

Silas established himself as a talented carpenter in the town of West Point, Mississippi. He taught the trade to his sons—there were at least four—and all of them worked together. “They built some of the finest houses in West Point,” noted a family member, who added that Silas and his boys constructed “houses, churches, banks and other buildings throughout the state.” In 1868, Silas and other former slaves erected a simple altar at which to celebrate their Baptist faith, near a cluster of bushes on land adjacent to property owned by Andrew and his family. They later replaced it with a wood-frame church. In 1896, Silas’s son William helped to build a new structure on the same site.

Silas remained active as a Baptist and also as a Mason. He lived within a few miles of Andrew and Benjamin, who raised families and prospered as farmers.
Benjamin died in 1909. Silas died ten years later at age eighty-two in September 1919. Andrew survived Silas by only eight months; he died in May 1920.

In 1994, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy conducted a ceremony at the 80 gravesite of Silas in recognition of his Civil War service. An iron cross and flag were placed next to his monument. This event prompted mixed reactions from Chandlers, black and white.

Myra Chandler Sampson wrote of her great-grandfather Silas: “He was taken into a war for a cause he didn’t believe in. He was dressed up like a Confederate soldier for reasons that may never be known.” She denounced the ceremony as “an attempt to rewrite and sugar-coat the shameful truth about parts of our American history.”

Andrew Chandler Battaile, great-grandson of Andrew, met Myra’s brother Bobbie Chandler at the ceremony. He said of the experience, “It was truly as if we had been reunited with a missing part of our family.”

Bobbie Chandler accepts the role of his great-grandfather. When asked about Silas and his connection to the Confederate army, he observed, “History is history. You can’t get by it.”

coddington_african_american_facesRonald S. Coddington is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, editor and publisher of Military Images magazine, a contributing writer to the New York Times’s Disunion series, and a columnist for Civil War News. His trilogy of Civil War books, African American Faces of the Civil War, Faces of the Confederacy, and Faces of the Civil Warall published by Johns Hopkins University Press, combine compelling archival images with biographical stories to reveal the human side of the war. To read The Civil War Trust interview with Coddington click here.

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