One hundred and fifty years ago Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and paved the way for ratification by the states. With a roll call and signatures roughly 240 years of slavery ended and yet as a nation we do nothing to publicly acknowledge this milestone. It’s striking given our collective embrace of a narrative that places the United States at the forefront of freedom. Even Steven Spielberg’s celebratory narrative about the build-up to this very moment in Lincoln has done little to increase awareness and interest. Why do we look beyond this moment?
I don’t have any firm answers, but the tension I often feel in my own teaching of this important event perhaps offers a few clues. On the one hand there is something quite remarkable about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. You would have been hard pressed to find Americans in 1861 predicting the end of slavery and that same year Congress passed a never-ratified amendment protecting slavery from future amendments. Lincoln backed it. Even in 1862 it is easy to imagine how a military victory might have resulted in a reunited Union with slavery largely intact. From this vantage point the end of slavery in 1865 appears to be nothing less than an achievement. [click to continue…]
There are a number of observations that one can make about our nation’s Civil War memory as it has taken shape during the sesquicentennial and where it might be headed. The most obvious is that the public display of the Confederate flag is in full retreat in the South. There are numerous examples that I could sight to support this claim.
Increasingly, in the past few years, Lee-Jackson Day has fallen under increased suspicion in the South. Let’s face it, the holiday currently exists in many Southern states in name only. Public offices might be closed, but very few people formally acknowledge the day in any significant way. Even in Lexington, Virginia, where both Lee and Jackson are buried, it takes people from outside the community ‘to remind residents that it’s that time of year again. And in places where Lee-Jackson Day falls on Martin Luther King Day the latter almost always attracts more attention. [click to continue…]
Anyone who has followed this blog for any amount of time likely has a sense of the importance that I attach to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. It is, by far, the most popular topic on this site. Over the years I have had to deal with a wide range of reactions from fellow historians. There are those who have supported my efforts, those who look on in confusion and those who betray an air of condescension – as if I have descended into a circus show. In the last few months I have written very little about this subject. There have been a couple of stories out of North Carolina, but other than that the media attention has died down.
The recent essay in The Root by John Stauffer has reignited interest. This time, however, that interest has been confined to academic historians, who have chosen to wade in with their thoughts about the debate and how to move forward. Jim Downs’s contribution reflects what happens when a historian enters a discussion too hastily.
Enter historian and fellow blogger, Donald Shaffer, into the mix. Let me get straight to the point that I fundamentally disagree with the observations and recommendations contained in Shaffer’s post.
In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.
First, why is this specific debate not worthy of the attention of academic historians specifically? To say that academics do not have the “power to suppress this myth” is not only a non-starter (since academics can’t suppress any narrative that has gained cultural cache) it also fails to consider the positive impact that historians can and have had on this debate. [click to continue…]
The following list includes advanced reader copies, books sent directly from the author or books purchased through my Amazon affiliate account. I am currently reading Martha Hodes’s new book and I can’t recommend it enough. She is a wonderful storyteller.
Megan L. Bever & Scott A. Suarez eds., The Historian behind the History: Conversations with Southern Historians (University of Alabama Press, 2014).
Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Norton, 2015).
Donald Frazier, Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February-May 1863 (State House Press, 2011).
Donald Frazier, Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861January 1863 (State House Press, 2009).
Donald Frazier ed., Love and War: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball (State House Press, 2010).
David T. Gleeson ed., The Civil War as Global Conflict: Transnational Meanings of the American Civil War (University of South Carolina Press, 2014).
Martha Hodes, Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press, 2015).
Jason Sokol, All Eyes are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn (Basic Books, 2014).
Daniel R. Weinfeld ed., After War Times: An African American Childhood in Reconstruction-Era Florida (University of Alabama Press, 2014).
We can now add Jim Downs to the list of historians who has decided to wade into the debate about the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Rather than directly engage Stauffer’s claims, however, Downs offers a meta-analysis of my response. He begins by mis-characterizing my own view by suggesting that I believe there were no black Confederate soldiers. I don’t believe that I have ever made such a statement.
The crux of his argument comes down to the following:
The problem of Levin’s criticism lies in its formulation. He is asking Stauffer to retrieve archival evidence from the 19th century that fits a 21st century definition of soldiers. He is asking Stauffer to practice historical research that privileges white, Confederate record-keeping over the ways that black people observed, wrote, and remembered the war. He is asking Stauffer to play according to the rules in which traditional historiography, often the purveyors of epistemic violence, define evidence and engage in archival collecting.
This is simply inaccurate. In fact, anyone who has spent any time reading this blog or the few articles that I’ve published is aware that I am interested primarily in what the concept of the citizen-soldier meant to Americans in the 1860s. More to the point, I am not asking John Stauffer to play by any specific set of rules beyond offering a reasonable interpretation of the evidence that he chose to emphasize. [click to continue…]