Robert Cook reviews Bruce Levine’s new book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the War over at H-South. Here is the first part:
In an interview with Dan Wakefield of _The Nation_ in January 1960, Karl Betts, executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, made it clear that awkward facts would have no part in the upcoming commemoration of America’s greatest trial. When asked if any effort would be made to mark the centenary of emancipation, Betts responded, “We’re not emphasizing Emancipation. You see there’s a bigger theme–the beginning of a new America. There was an entire regiment of Negroes about to be formed to serve in the Confederate Army just before the war ended. The story of the devotion and loyalty of Southern Negroes is one of the outstanding things of the Civil War. A lot of fine Negro people loved life as it was in the old South.”
Half a century ago views like this were unremarkable. What was, for white supremacists, the comforting myth of black loyalty to the Confederacy held firm in spite of growing awareness inside the academythat, given half a chance (or less), enslaved southern blacks were willing to abandon their masters and, in the case of two hundred thousand adult males, enlist in the armed services of the United States to defeat the aspirant proslavery republic whose forces were arrayed against it. Half a century on, it is depressing to report that views akin to those of Karl Betts are still alive and kicking. Visitors to the Georgia Heritage Coalition website will find a recent 32-part series by Bill Vallante (a Confederate battle reenactor currently “living ‘behind enemy lines’” in New York state) attempting to detail the military support given to the Confederacy by southern blacks and to debunk the efforts of “liberal” historians to undermine “the truth.” Like it or not, historians of the American South are in the front line of the modern culture wars. What we need urgently, however, is not crusading history (for that will be dismissed or ignored by those without an attachment to the crusade), but good history that can be diffused effectively across the country. We are fortunate, then, that Bruce Levine is an accomplished historian and that he has fashioned a coherent and accessible analysis of the tortured Confederate debate over the military mobilization of slaves.
I checked out the link provided for Vallante and lo and behold a little exchange that we had a few months ago made it on his website. Apparently, Vallante was not pleased with the content of my blog. What a surprise. Here is Vallante’s commentary. Notice that he did not provide a link to my site. Again, what a surprise:
Recently I sparred with a (white) neo-abolitionist blogger who had, in his daily rants, written a tribute to Martin Luther King. Flanking this tribute however were two “pot-shots” at General Lee, whose birthday comes at about the same time as King’s, and several pot-shots at the SCV.
I asked him why it was that he seemed unable to stay in his own little corner and have a good time celebrating something he sees as important without going over to someone else’s corner and poking fun at something that someone else considers important? “What is it”, I asked, “about you people that makes you so inclined to be pests?”
Needless to say, he did not appreciate my sarcasm. His response was as follows:
“First of all it is not “your corner” or anyone’s corner for that matter. It’s called American history and my blog’s theme focuses on the way in which Americans have chosen to remember their past. In large part and in reference to the Civil War this has involved highlighting an idealized Confederate past by ignoring the contributions of African Americans.”
I didn’t really expect the blogger, a transplanted yankee/liberal teacher now living in Virginia, to comprehend the philosophy of “live and let live”, so his failure to comprehend my analogy of staying in his own “corner” didn’t really surprise me. Besides, “Live and Let Live” has never been the liberal way.
What is significant however, is his reference to an “idealized Confederate past” and “ignoring the contributions of African Americans”. Contemporary (liberal) historians often describe this notion with the phrase, “Civil War Memory”, a phrase popularized by Amherst historian/professor David Blight. Blight and those like him maintain that our “memory” of the war is in error, and that the way Americans “remember” the war has left the African American out in the cold. Of course, Mr. Blight and company intend to remedy this situation. Remember the phrase because you’ll be hearing more and more of it as America draws closer to the 150th Anniversary of the “Civil War.
This is a great example of how not to argue about history. Perhaps I will use it as an example next year in one of my classes. Thanks Bill.