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  • Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War by David Silkenat
  • Evan A. Kutzler (bio)
Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War. By David Silkenat. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. Pp. 368. Cloth, $39.95.)

Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant did not have to improvise at Appomattox. The surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia was neither the first nor the last capitulation, and it drew from an evolving discourse on when and how honorable surrender took place. “Far from neophytes to surrender,” David Silkenat writes in Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War, “both armies at Appomattox brought a profound understanding and appreciation of how surrender worked and what raising the white flag meant” (190). According to Silkenat, historians have trivialized this most famous surrender as either the “bang” that ended the bloodshed or the “whimper” that marked only a shift in conflict that continued throughout Reconstruction. In contrast, Silkenat considers this event as just one of “a succession of negotiated settlements, each dependent on particular local circumstances and the idiosyncratic desires and objectives of Confederate and Union officers” (221). The evolving discourse on surrender began before Fort Sumter and extended well beyond Appomattox.

Surrender involved decision making from army commanders to individual soldiers. Silkenat connects the discourse on surrender with a nearly endless list of overlapping topics: soldiering, military strategy, changing prisoner-exchange policies, the emergence of a “hard war,” African American soldiers, guerilla warfare, and memory. Surrender touched everything. Raising the White Flag is an accessible and useful addition to a large body of scholarship that explores social and cultural histories within traditional military history.

The chapters proceed thematically and, for the most part, chronologically. Silkenat divides the nearly 673,000 soldiers who surrendered during the Civil War into two categories. “Formal surrenders” (or, in chapter 10, “surrender sites”) included Fort Sumter, Vicksburg, and the myriad surrenders in spring 1865; “battlefield surrenders” were more individualized and represent an overlooked part of the wartime experience (2). There are limitations to this broad categorization. Individual surrender could also double as desertion and went well beyond battlefields. Straggling, foraging, and just having a bad sense of direction were among the many patterns of circumstance that led individual soldiers to surrender.

Surrender did not always blemish honor. Antebellum military manuals said nothing about raising the white flag, but surrenders in 1861 reveal unwritten expectations. David Twiggs in San Antonio and Robert [End Page 284] Anderson in Charleston harbor both had southern origins, similar military careers, anti-Republican views, and isolation. “The fundamental difference between them,” Silkenat writes, “at least in the view of the Northern public, was their conduct prior to, during, and after their surrenders” (49). Twiggs was labeled a traitor, his “treasonous” surrender joining with other “cowardly” surrenders that could sink the public reputations of officers and men. Anderson, in contrast, fought until the outcome at Fort Sumter was clear, negotiated honorable terms for soldiers under his command, and kept his cool. “In a curious way,” Silkenat writes, “almost everyone emerged from the surrender [of Fort Sumter] with their reputations enhanced” (35). Fort Sumter was a model for honorable surrender that contrasted to the previous surrender at San Antonio and later ones at San Augustin Springs, Fort Donelson, Harpers Ferry, and Fort Jackson.

While Raising the White Flag stresses the agency of both the person offering surrender and the one accepting it, Silkenat also shows how policies from the Dix-Hill Cartel to the Lieber Code shaped surrender. In searching for the perspectives of enlisted men, Silkenat offers an interpretation that echoes historical concerns within President Lincoln’s cabinet. He argues that “the generosity of the Dix-Hill cartel gave both Union and Confederate soldiers ample incentive to surrender” (99). The result was the glut of battlefield surrenders in late 1862 and early 1863. More men surrendered than died at Gettysburg, and Silkenat describes this battle as the “high-water mark for battlefield surrenders” (124). Silkenat even suggests that Gettysburg might have played out differently if soldiers had known that the prisoner-exchange system was breaking down that same summer. In...