When Civil War Reenactors Legitimize Racism

Viceland

Last week I shared a segment of Vice Does America that focused on the interaction between a young black man and a Confederate reenactor in Jacksonville, Alabama. The reenactor questioned Wilbert Cooper as to why he chose not to suit up and join a Confederate unit based on his belief that blacks fought in integrated Confederate regiments.

Today Cooper shared his thoughts about this interaction and the rest of his trip across the country.

I thought a lot about the real and imagined history of slavery on my trip across the country. Time and time again, I came across distorted takes on its practice and ramifications, which have lead me to feel that even though more than 150 years have elapsed since the Civil War, the rot at the core of the American experiment remains. What distraught me the most was this sort of hate-filled nostalgia people I met seemed to have. They fetishised bygone eras that were defined by the brutalisation and subjugation of my ancestors…

As weird as my interaction with [Cliven] Bundy was, the greatest reverence for the days of the antebellum South that I encountered on my trip had to be in Jacksonville, Alabama. Towards the end of our journey, the producers dropped us in the middle of a Civil War reenactment with the promise that the attendees were merely history buffs. As we marched up the hill to where the Civil War camp and battles were to take place, we could see all the hallmarks of the Old South, with bold Confederate battle flags fluttering in the air.

I had a sneaking suspicion things would get ugly, but I tried to put my best foot forward. I donned a hotter-than-hell wool costume so I could look the part of a Union soldier and hopped around in military formations, shooting off caps in the direction of Confederate cosplayers. But every time there was a lull in the action, I heard people saying off-the-wall shit—that slavery wasn’t that bad for blacks, that enslaved blacks weren’t brutalised, that enslaved blacks loved the Confederacy so much they fought for it in the South’s “integrated” military… When I heard this last bit, I knew we had to get out of there. The producers had wanted us to spend the night at the reenactment camp, but there was no way I was sleeping in a place where people legitimately believed that a large number of enslaved blacks wilfully supported their own bondage. The idea was even more reprehensible than what I’d heard from Bundy.

Statements like that made these people seem eager to legitimise America’s horrible history of white supremacy. I was amazed at how much these people pointed to that past as something to aspire to, something to return to. And they had had spent thousands of dollars on costumes and gear to get as close as they could to actually going back in time. It was just too much for me.

Again and again on our trip, I saw white Americans yearn for a time that had long since passed—a time that, often, they seemed to barely understand. It was only after the trip was over that I realised that it was the gulf between these backward-looking fantasies and this modern moment that has made America such an ugly and angry place to be recently, especially on the campaign trail.

You can read the rest of the post here.

30 thoughts on “When Civil War Reenactors Legitimize Racism

  1. Msb

    Thanks for this post, Kevin. I couldn’t access the video on the earlier one. I was glad to hear from Mr Cooper directly.

    Reply
  2. Bryan Cheeseboro

    There is a Facebook group “Yankee Heritage: Honor the Soldiers Who Put an End to Slavery.” someone on that page posted the Viceland video, with this comment:

    “If they had allowed the black guy to join the Confederacy, things could have gotten real interesting. A missed opportunity.”

    My response was this:

    Missed opportunity for whom? I think Wilbert was spot-on in his response to the Confederate who singled him out for making his own choices and doing something outside his Confederate comfort zone. I think it was utterly ridiculous for the Confederate reenactor to question historical accuracy but have nothing to say about people drinking sodas or talking on cel phones. And I had no idea that Arab-American Muslims like Saeed fought for the Confederacy. I mean, the guy had nothing to say about that, either. Anyway, I don’t think any opportunity was missed here at all. Wilbert just took the opportunity to speak up for himself and for the people the Confederacy wanted to enslave forever.

    Reply
  3. David Kent

    “Time and time again, I came across distorted takes on its practice and ramifications, which have lead me to feel that even though more than 150 years have elapsed since the Civil War, the rot at the core of the American experiment remains”.

    The gentleman is spot on with this statement……….unfortunately. There has never been a doubt in my mind that the tea party is racist to the core. The fact that it began with President Obama’s election is no coincidence. The republicans embraced it, and it helped them win a few elections. But……oh how they’re regretting it now. I feel bad this young man had this happen to him, and I hope he knows that the majority of us are with him 100 percent.

    Reply
  4. Allen Edelstein

    Perhaps if ‘slavery wasn’t that bad for blacks’ the people claiming that should try slavery for themselves.

    Reply
    1. Shoshana Bee

      Pulling up my favourite Lincoln quote that I use so often, yet it never seems to lose its punch:

      “Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

      Reply
  5. AD Powell

    I seriously doubt that those Reenactors know what bondage is. They probably think it was just a generous full employment program. The idea that human beings were reduced to the status of livestock is totally foreign to them, as is the concept of “social death.”

    http://multiracial.com/site/index.php/2001/10/01/white-slaves/

    http://multiracial.com/site/index.php/2004/07/01/white-slavery-maternal-descent-and-the-politics-of-slavery-in-the-antebellum-united-states/

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_death

    Reply
  6. Yulanda Burgess

    Reenactors for the most part are well read and know what bondage entailed. In the pigeon holes of their mind, they think that slavery was a fitting situation for African Americans and they give numerous examples to try to prove their point. One must never forget that racists and bigots walk amongst us. It’s not surprising in the least that they appear at Civil War events and seriously espouse their racism to a large audience that frequent these events. Sadly the public think it’s role playing. In reality, they are using a historical venue as a platform for their true modern racist viewpoints.

    I, and numerous others, have been exposed to the same situation as Wilbert Cooper. He had one encounter. I, however, have had many of the last three decades. So, Mr. Cooper’s observations are not profound to me. It mystifies me that Mr. Cooper didn’t anticipate the encounter he experienced.

    African Americans who are involved in Civil War living history (reenactments) are often exposed to the encounter Mr. Cooper experienced. Those who approach us have a specific agenda: to try to downgrade the true legacy of African Americans in the Civil War, to try to dehumanize us as participants, and to try to paint a distorted picture to the public. It is often done in the open before the public. Their monologue is often confrontational and littered with inaccurate comments. Sometimes there are heated encounters, but the majority of the time African American Civil War historical interpreters repulse these situations with documented evidence about the involvement of African Americans in the Civil War. We learn to fight the winning battles and also when to walk away because no matter what we say, the racists will remain racists.

    Reply
    1. Bryan Cheeseboro

      Yulanda,
      Thanks for your response. I have also experienced a lot of what you have talked about. However, many times when neo-Lost Cause Confederates have approached me with the “You know, Blacks fought for the Confederacy?” line, it’s usually been a one-on-one conversation as opposed to an opportunistic moment in front of an audience.

      I really get a lot out of the exchange between Wilbert and the Confederate reenactor in the video. When Wilbert responds to the guy rather than roll over and take his BS, the look of disappointment on the man’s face is absolutely powerful… Wilbert showed him he was a man with a mind of his own.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        When Wilbert responds to the guy rather than roll over and take his BS, the look of disappointment on the man’s face is absolutely powerful… Wilbert showed him he was a man with a mind of his own.

        I think you nailed why this is such a powerful exchange. Thanks.

        Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Is this meant for me, another commenter or the subject of the post? If you are going to offer a critique the least you can do is offer some clarification.

      Reply
      1. Nathan Towne

        I just don’t see the point in fighting these fights against people who are not basing any of their positions on the historical record and have essentially no traction at all. Anyone with any knowledge or common sense can see that those pushing these narratives, whether it be the black Confederate narrative or some sort of Neo-Confederate narrative about racial harmony or something are playing a ridiculous political game. It comes across like tilting at windmills.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Who is “fighting”? Wilbert Cooper? The guy attended a reenactment not knowing exactly what to expect and he ended up engaging one of the reenactors pushing the black Confederate myth. What would you have him do in that situation?

          Reply
          1. Bryan Cheeseboro

            I completely agree, Kevin. Nathan Towne apparently fails to understand we’re not arguing with neo-Confederates as much as we’re agreeing with Wilbert Cooper.

            Reply
        2. Shoshana Bee

          I guess that I could be lacking in the common sense dept., because up until a few months ago, I had no clue what was true or false in the realm of Black Confederates. I spent a goodly amount of time in the Deep South as a child, so whatever I heard became part of my personal historical narrative, and why not? It was the respected adults in my life giving me truths as they knew them to be. To those far more knowledgeable than I, this all must be an over-trodden canard, this truth about Black Confederates, but to those of us who come lately, it is education. Whilst Mr. Levin may have only intended to emphasize Wilbert Cooper’s replies, for me, the value of the bigger picture was equally important in understanding Myths and how they are perpetuated.

          Reply
            1. Nathan Towne

              Kevin,

              There is no doubt that this is correct. This is a criticism that I have voiced to you in the past and as I have no intention of demeaning your ability to talk about what it is you feel obligated to talk about, we should probably just respectfully disagree on emphasis and put it to rest.

              Reply
  7. Yulanda Burgess

    Kevin,
    I appreciate “your emphasis on these issues.” The “black confederate” issue clouds the fact that over 200,000 uniformed African American men fought for their freedom as Union soldiers. How these myths are perpetuated and by whom is very important. Why the myth is perpetuated is doubly important. Having conversations are educational and mind challenging. It’s exemplified by at least one person admitting that these conversations have brought an understanding. I wait for more people to also have this understanding. My personal contentment will come when I bring up in a Civil War crowd that I have at least four ancestors who were enlisted and mustered in Union soldiers does not receive a responsive comment that black men were also confederate soldiers.

    Reply
  8. Lev D Zilbermints

    Yulanda,

    It may be of interest to you that a black man recently published a book about his great-great-grandfather who served General Robert E. Lee during the Civil War. Before serving Lee, this black man’s ancestor served General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Like I said, interesting reading.

    And if he served Forrest and Lee, how many other blacks performed similar tasks?

    Reply
    1. msb

      Lev, if I recall correctly, this person’s claims were disputed either on this blog or over at Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates blog. Even if true, the author recounted his experiences as a slave. There were over 4 million slaves in the South when it started the Civil War, and many were either impressed for government work or taken to the army by their “owners” as servants (and later pensioned as such). In contrast, escaped slaves made up a very large share of the 200,000 United States Colored Troops.
      As detailed in Bruce Levine’s excellent book, “Confederate emancipation”, the Confederacy weakened its previously hard prohibition on using slaves as soldiers when defeat loomed late in 1864. The bill finally passed to recruit slaves as soldiers had resulted in only a couple of companies, who never saw action, however, by the end of the War.

      Reply
    2. Nathan Towne

      Lev,

      William Mack Lee was a slave who served as a body servant and a cook. Per U.S. law, (de jure) he was emancipated with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on the 1st of January, 1863, but remained in service as a slave until the culmination of the rebellion in 1865, when he was emancipated (de facto).

      Reply
        1. Nathan Towne

          I had forgotten that there isn’t clear evidence that his middle name was Mack by birth. I know about the problems with his memoirs though and I know that there is essentially no corrorabating evidence to link him to R.E. Lee. There are three potential William Lee’s though who he most likely is though according to the 1870 census. If you go to the 1870 census search and enter William Lee, black, born in Virginia\approx. 1835, you will find three viable candidates, all of whom were slaves and were emancipated by law on January 1st of 1863 and subsequently (de facto) in 1865. We have basic information on their lives.

          The point that I was making though is that Lee was a slave, not a free man and performed the services of a slave. So I do not see any justification for the previous posters’ assertion.

          Reply
  9. Jim Vines

    FWIW I was there. Yes it was weird listening to the SCV types hold forth on their beliefs. I got sick of it all and left early.

    . .

    Reply

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