SHEPHERDSTOWN – In the mid-1860s, rules of civility extended even onto the battlefield, explains David Silkenat, author of “Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War.”
Silkenat, 41, will discuss his latest work next week at a lecture at Shepherd University that’s open to the public.
“The idea that Americans never surrender has been part of our culture for decades,” Silkenat explained in a phone interview. “During the Civil War, if you were under heavy fire and knew you couldn’t win, it was perfectly acceptable to surrender.
“I think the fact that hand-to-hand combat took place, you went eye to eye with your enemy, people were more aware of the humanity involved in the war. The war would have been a lot bloodier if this wasn’t the case.”
About 700,00 soldiers, one in five, surrendered during the four-year war. Silkenat’s book is the first comprehensive study of Civil War surrender, focusing on the conflicting social, political and cultural meanings of the action.
“The Civil War began and ended with formal surrenders,” Silkenat said. “Major Robert Anderson was the commander of Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina in 1861. When the bombardment of the fort by Confederates was overwhelming, signaling the beginning of the war, Anderson surrendered. He was given a parade and considered a hero at the time.”
The war ended in 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant near the town of Appomattox Court House, Va.
“The fact that surrender had such an important part in the war was one of the reasons I wanted to know more about it,” explained Silkenat, a New York City native who said he also was influenced by Ken Burns’ nine-part, 1990 documentary, “The Civil War,” and “Glory,” the 1989 film about Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who led the U.S.’s first African-American regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
Silkenat pointed out that when the war first started, both sides agreed to an exchange program for troops who surrendered.
“After several days, you would be returned to your unit or allowed to go home,” Silkenat said. “This all changed when Confederates shot African-Americans who surrendered. The North stopped the exchange program. POW camps were formed.”
Silkenat said he was fascinated by history from childhood. He earned his undergraduate degree in history from Duke University in Durham, N.C., then taught high school for several years in Florida.
After completing his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he now is the senior lecturer of American history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
“There is a huge interest in the history of the United States in Scotland,” Silkenat said.
“Raising the White Flag” is his third book, following “Driven Home: North Carolina’s Civil War Refugee Crisis” and “Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina.”
“A friend of mine refers to my books as the ‘misery trilogy,’” Silkenat notes.