Author Archives: Kevin Levin

About Kevin Levin

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post. Scroll down and leave a comment if you are so inclined. Looking for more Civil War content? Join the Civil War Memory Facebook group. and follow me on Twitter. Check out my book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder, which is an ideal introduction to the subject of Civil War memory and the 1864 battle.

Edward Sebesta is Back and Without Focus

As he promised in January Ed Sebesta has petitioned President Obama to discontinue the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate statue at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.  Actually, this petition goes much further than last year’s in requesting that the federal government “revoke the Sons of Confederate Veterans participation as a recognized charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, deny the SCV permission to host events for the United States Army, and prevent the SCV’s future involvement Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs in America’s high schools.”  In doing so Sebesta has moved away from focusing the nation’s attention on a specific public site in favor of a broader look at the neo-Confederate movement.  Unfortunately, any focus on the monument that Sebesta hoped to maintain is lost and I suspect that most people will not pay much attention to the SCV’s political activities and involvement in JROTC.  Before commenting further, I want to share what I wrote last year:

First, let me say that there is much in this new petition that I agree with.  The SCV promotes a Lost Cause inspired narrative of the Civil War that at times borders on racist.  You can indeed see this on the many chapter websites as well as their bookstore on the national site.  As far as I am concerned the fundamental problem for Sebesta is that President Obama made the right decision last year.  Rather than fuel the debate, which only worked to move interested parties further away from one another, the president sent an additional wreath to the African American Soldiers Monument in Washington, D.C.

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Hey Clyde Wilson, I Don’t Believe You!

I know that Professor Clyde Wilson is widely known for his involvement with a number of institutions associated with the neo-Confederate movement such as the League of the South, but this guy was trained as an undergraduate and graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina.  He wrote his dissertation at UNC and went on to write a couple of pretty respectable books, including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew.  Wilson is best known academically for his work on editing the John Calhoun Papers.  I guess what I am getting at is that behind what I can only describe as a commitment to expressing a conservative world view through these organizations there is a well-trained historian.

I have no problem with Wilson wanting to express his political views, but it is incredibly disturbing to see him sacrificing his integrity as a historian to do so?  Consider the following quiz that has been attributed to Wilson at the Confederate Digest site.  [Update: I didn't notice but the source is Lew Rockwell.]

  • What American President launched a massive invasion of another country that posed no threat, and without a declaration of war?
  • What President raised a huge army at his own will without the approval of Congress?
  • What President started a war of choice in violation of every principle of Christian just war teaching?
  • What President said that he had to violate the Constitution in order to save it?
  • What President declared the elected legislatures of thirteen States to be “combinations” of criminals that he had to suppress?
  • What President said he was indifferent to slavery but would use any force necessary to collect taxes?
  • What President sent combat troops from the battlefield to bombard and occupy New York City?
  • What President sent the Army to arrest in the middle of the night thousands of private citizens for expressing their opinions? And held them incommunicado in military prisons with total denial of due process of law? And had his soldiers destroy newspaper plants?
  • What President was the first ruler in the civilized world to make medicine a contraband of war?
  • What President signed for his cronies special licenses to purchase valuable cotton from an enemy country even though he had forbidden such trade and punished other people for the same practice?
  • What President refused medical care and food to his own soldiers held by the enemy country?
  • What President presided over the bombardment and house-by-house destruction of cities and towns that were undefended and not military targets?
  • What President’s forces deliberately targeted women and children and destroyed their housing, food supply, and private belongings?
  • What President’s occupying forces engaged in imprisonment, torture, and execution of civilians and seizing them as hostages?
  • Under what President did the Army have the largest number of criminals, mercenaries, and foreigners?
  • Who was the first American President to plot the assassination of an opposing head of state?
  • Who had the least affiliation with Christianity of any American President and blamed God for starting the war over which he presided?
  • What President voted for and praised a law which forbade black people from settling in his State?
  • What President said that all black people should be expelled from the United States because they could never be full-fledged citizens?
  • What President was the first to force citizens to accept as legal money pieces of paper unbacked by gold or silver?
  • Who was the first President to institute an income tax?
  • Who was the first President to pile up a national debt too vast to be paid off in a generation?
  • Who is considered almost universally as the greatest American President, indeed as the greatest American of all times and as a world hero of democracy?
  • What predecessor is President Obama most often compared to?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is Abraham Lincoln.  Again, I have no problem with Wilson wanting to express his political views.  Honestly, I could care less about his broader world view.  What I don’t believe is that these questions accurately reflect his understanding of Lincoln and the broader issues related to the Civil War.  The questions are simply too childish and uninformed to be an honest reflection of Wilson’s understanding of the relevant history.  In short, I don’t believe you, Clyde Wilson.

Black North Carolinians Plan to Erect Faithful Slave Marker

A group of historians and other concerned citizens recently lobbied the commissioners of Union County to “recogniz[e] the contributions of 10 black Confederate pensioners, known as colored troops during the Civil War.”  We’ve seen all this before and it doesn’t look like anything will steer certain folks away from making this all too common mistake regarding the conditions under which black Southerners were given pensions after the Civil War.  The assumption seems to be that a pension indicates that a given individual served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  [For some reliable commentary on pensions please read James Hollandsworth, Jr., Robert Moore, and the Library of Virginia.] The group wants to install a small monument to these ten individuals in front of the old courthouse in Monroe.

The most disappointing aspect of this story is to read the words of the descendants of these men who were forced to endure the horrors of war as property, ultimately without any choice in the matter.

Aaron Perry of Charlotte is the great-grandson of one of the pensioners, also named Aaron Perry, a Union County slave who fought with the North Carolina 37th Company D. Although the Confederate States lost, their story should be remembered.  “I think it’s a great thing,” said the younger Perry, 72. “It’s been a long time ago, so I’m not going to overlook that. What’s so bad about it? They’re honoring these 10 North Carolina soldiers for being helpful to their country, even if it was under slavery.  “They lost that war, but my great grandfather helped rebuild the camp at Fort Fisher,” Perry said. “He played his part, even though he was under slavery and somebody else’s command. When you enlist in the service, you’re taking orders from somebody.”

Notice how Mr. Perry completely collapses the distinction between status as a slave and citizen.  In what way was the Confederacy “their country” given the constitution’s provisions that specifically protect the institution of slavery?  Even worse is the failure to distinguish between having to take orders within a military command – a responsibility that under certain conditions is conferred on citizens – and status as a slave which views the individual as an extension of his master’s will.  What could be clearer?

Of course, it should come as no surprise that Earl Ijames is involved in this nonsense.  Ijames works as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, which is part of the NC Department of Archives and History.  I guess Ijames couldn’t resist referencing Weary Clyburn, who happens to be his favorite “Colored Confederate.”  Unfortunately, Ijames isn’t even sure whether Clyburn was a slave or a free man at the time of the Civil War.

Between Perry and Ijames we get a sense of the quality of “research” and thought that seems to be behind this project.  I am sad to say that in 2010 we have two African American men, who are essentially hoping to erect a monument to faithful slaves of the Confederacy.  What could be more pathetic?

“We are Hand and Glove With the Universe, and Think the Obligation is Mutual.”

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) “On The Fear Of Death” (1821):

Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?

I was first introduced to Hazlitt as a graduate student in philosophy while studying theories of diachronic personal identity. Hazlitt’s more philosophical essays are not read much these days and this has a lot to due with the fact that he published between David Hume and Immanuel Kant. As a result, he is better known for his social commentary than his philosophical works. What I find exciting in Hazlitt’s work is the combination of an analytical approach within an experientially-based narrative.

Hazlitt asks us to think about our attitudes towards both the past and the future. He sees an inconsistency between the anticipation of a point in the future when we cease to be as opposed to the point in the past when we ceased to be. How should we explain this inconsistency? Both attitudes are acts of the imagination. We have to imagine ourselves at some point in the future and we also must imagine ourselves in the past. Hazlitt suggests that the inconsistency is at its root irrational. I find this to be very comforting. Could it be that our fear of death is in part socially constructed; in other words, that it is the result of living in a society which emphasizes the future? I wonder if it is possible to condition an individual to worry as much about the past as we do about the future. Again, both are functions of the imagination. Perhaps this inconsistency connects to the psychological pull of a universe that we believe is here for each of us. We find it difficult to imagine a future without us in it. Interesting again that we don’t seem to have this concern about the point in the past where we do not yet exist. Imagine for a moment that we cold anticipate the future filled-in and see the point where we no longer existed. Would this change our attitude towards the future significantly? Perhaps it would make us more fearful knowing when our time was up, but again, we have access to the same information in reference to the past. Back to Hazlitt:

People walk along the streets the day after our deaths just as they did before, and the crowd is not diminished. While we were living, the world seemed in a manner to exist only for us, for our delight and amusement, because it contributed to them. But our hearts cease to beat, and it goes on as usual, and thinks no more about us than it did in our lifetime. The million are devoid of sentiment, and care as little for you or me as if we belonged to the moon. We live the week over in the Sunday’s newspaper, or are decently interred in some obituary at the month’s end. It is not surprising that we are forgotten so soon after we quit this mortal stage: we are scarcely noticed, while we are on it. It is not merely that our names are not known in China – they have hardly been heard of in the next street. We are hand and glove with the universe, and think the obligation is mutual. This is an evident fallacy.

I can’t help but think about my recent post regarding our strong desire to identify with and find meaning in the lives of our Civil War ancestors.  Their experiences seem larger than life and the issues involved, we believe, were significant.  Along the way we make personal and ideological connections, some based on evidence, but many spun by a strong desire for a heroic story that not only validates the historic figure’s life, but our own as well.  Perhaps in identifying so strongly with individuals from the past – regardless of whether they are related to us or not – we are looking to find meaning in our own lives.  In other words, if their lives mattered than perhaps ours do as well..