Author Interview: Caroline Janney

Author Interview: Caroline Janney

Our special issue in March 2019 on Civil War veterans includes an article by Caroline Janney, titled “Free to Go Where We Liked: The Army of Northern Virginia After Appomattox.” Janney is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (2008) and Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2013), as well as co-editor with Gary W. Gallagher of Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign (2015). She serves as a co-editor of the University of North Carolina Press’s Civil War America Series and is the past president of the Society of Civil War Historians.

Thank you for participating in this special issue, Carrie, and also for chatting with us briefly. Many of our readers have read your article in this March 2019 issue, but could you briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article?

Most works on the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia end their story with the surrender on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox. An examination of the immediate post-surrender period, however, suggests that many of Lee’s men did not experience surrender as a definitive conclusion to their experience as Confederate soldiers. Because of Grant’s generous surrender terms, they dispersed from Appomattox more like soldiers than vanquished rebels. But their journeys also revealed the degree to which a substantial portion of Confederate civilians continued to support them even in defeat and highlighted the ways in which Confederates might continue to fight the results of emancipation. The disbanding of Lee’s army thus foreshadowed much of what would play out in the years to come as Confederate soldiers-turned-veterans continued to resist changes to the southern social and political order.

Your work is an excellent example of how, even with a topic as heavily researched as Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, there is still room for historians to offer new insights. What inspired you to undertake this research?

I have long been interested in what happened to soldiers–both Union and Confederate–after the fighting stopped. That is what led me to spend so much of my career studying memory. But in recent years, I’ve continued to push back to the immediate postwar period, or in this case, perhaps even before the war was truly at an end. I initially thought I would write just an essay in a volume I was editing on how Lee’s soldiers made their way home after the surrender. But once I began the research, I realized the story was much more complicated and went in many more directions than I had anticipated.

The work that we do as historians is often like that, isn’t it? Research in archives can lead us in new directions. Which connects to another question I have for you. As I read your article, it struck me that it was probably challenging to locate a source base that could address these questions. Can you share what kind of methodological approach you used here?

When I began this project, I reached out to Patrick Schroeder at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park. I can’t begin to thank him enough for all of the advice he gave me then–and continues to give me on a regular basis. He shared many of the park research files on “Going Home Accounts” of Confederate soldiers. That was my starting point. From there, I’ve continued to look for any diary, letter, or memoir that talked about the period after April 9, 1865–both in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac. Beyond the accounts of individuals, I have spent a great deal of time at the National Archives looking at a variety of records from Departmental ledger books to parole records. At NARA, Trevor Plante has been incredibly helpful in helping me to locate material.

You offer some fascinating stories of specific soldiers and regiments, including one that highlights how racial tensions between Confederate parolees and USCT soldiers escalated in the war’s immediate aftermath. What happened with Fenigan’s Florida brigade, and what makes that story significant?

After receiving their paroles at Appomattox, several members of Fenigan’s Brigade made their way to City Point where they hoped to take a steamer south to Florida. While waiting for a ship, they embarked on what would be the first of several murders of United States Colored Troops during their trip home. Each time, they managed to avoid getting caught. I argue that these murders underscored the degree to which wartime atrocities by Confederates against the USCT continued after April 9, 1865. The Confederate army had often disregarded and, in numerous instances, sanctioned the killing of African American soldiers. It should therefore come as no surprise that even after surrendering, these rebel soldiers continued to behave as they had prior to Appomattox.

Early in the article, you write that “the process by which Lee’s army would leave Appomattox served to embolden the sense that the Army of Northern Virginia had not been vanquished” (6). This connects, I think, to the popular myth that the Confederacy did not suffer a true military defeat—the United States merely had more resources and more soldiers. Do you think that these generous surrender terms in some way contributed to the development of this myth, which remains a part of Lost Cause ideology even today?

Although I do not fault Grant for his generous terms–he was doing precisely what Lincoln had asked of him in an effort to swiftly reunite the nation–the terms did allow Lee’s soldiers to quite literally walk away from the battlefield with a promise not to be disturbed by Union authorities. In other words, they would not be punished for their experiment in rebellion. They were not paraded through the streets of Washington as captives of war. They were not locked away in prison camps for years to come (as British soldiers surrendering at Yorktown had been). They were, as one of the men I write about observed, “free to go” where they liked. The terms, coupled with the firm belief that even if the armies had been defeated Confederate sentiment had not surrendered, absolutely informed the Lost Cause.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Just to remind them that there is often more to the story than we might initially think. Some of my favorite history books are those that tackle a topic that we thought needed little explanation. Sometimes asking what seem like the most obvious questions can lead to the most surprising stories.

Thank you, Carrie. That’s an important reminder, and we appreciate your participation in this conversation during this very busy point in the academic year. Readers, please feel free to ask her more questions on Twitter, @CarrieJanney.

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