The Social and Cultural Significance of Black Confederate Pensioners

confederate veteran, black confederateAs we all know one of the most misunderstood aspects of the debate surrounding the existence of black Confederate soldiers is the existence of pensions that were given by former Confederate states to qualified black citizens at various points during the postwar period.  For the uninformed or those working primarily from a narrow agenda the existence of these pensions is proof positive of the existence of black soldiers and the fantasy of a multiracial army.  The pensions have been used on numerous occasions by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage types to justify new grave markers and other monuments to these men.  I am not interested in returning to this debate. My position is clear.

What I am interested in doing is posing a few questions about these pensions, which is the subject of chapter 3 in my manuscript on the history of camp servants and the myth of the black Confederate soldier.  My goal is to use the pension records and other sources to explore how white Southerners chose to remember the Civil War and specifically the role of camp servants at the turn of the century.  The questions posed clearly assume that the applicant was present as a non-combatant; in other words they are not classed as soldiers.  Regardless of the state the vast majority of black pensioners were servants and cooks.  What is even more revealing is that pension applications make no inquiry as to whether the individual in question was wounded on the battlefield.  This does not mean that such information never made it onto an application, but that it did not change the status of the applicant.  This is a crucial point given the emphasis that black Confederate advocates place on battlefield prowess.  Again, it apparently made no difference to how white Southerners viewed these men during the postwar period.  [click to continue…]

New To the Civil War Memory Library, 04/12

Milliken's BendLinda Barnickel, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

Earl J. Hess, Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign, (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

William A. Link, Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War’s Aftermath, (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Hampton Newsome, Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864, (Kent State University Press, 2013).

Caleb Smith, The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Rand Paul’s False Civil War Memory

Well, I guess you have to give the guy credit for taking the time yesterday to visit Howard University and engage students in a little politics and history.  I was particularly interested in the latter.  One of the problems that Senator Paul ran into was his insistence on giving the student body a history lesson, but even worse was that the history itself was fundamentally flawed.  Senator Paul attempted to draw a straight line from the modern Republican Party to Lincoln and the party that ended slavery and passed the Reconstruction Amendments.  The guiding question throughout was why black Americans to not identify with the Republican Party given its history.  All of the roadblocks, according to Paul, were instituted by Democrats.  No mention of Nixon’s Southern Strategy or Lee Atwater’s work on using race as a political wedge or even Ronald Reagan’s famous references to “welfare queens” and his embrace of “states’ rights” while campaigning in Philadelphia, Mississippi.

I always get a question in class when we get to the first political parties in the 1790s inquiring about modern connections. I do my best to explain that while many of the issues that Americans debated remain consistent the parties themselves have evolved over time.

Paul’s collapse of the past 150 years constitutes not only a superficial understanding of American history, but a false Civil War Memory.  Take a look for yourself.

Hello University of Wisconsin

Update: I couldn’t be more pleased to learn that the class in question is being taught by Steve Kantrowitz. Professor Kantrowitz is the author of More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889, which was my pick as the best history book of 2012. The book is of particular interest to me given that it focuses on the black community here in Boston.

For the past few days a group of students from the University of Wisconsin has been scouring my posts on black Confederates.  I think it’s safe to say that collectively they have read every post on the subject.  I don’t know much at all about why they have been assigned my blog or what they are getting out of it beyond a few tweets from one of the students.  If I am not mistaken one of the students left a comment on an old post.

As an educator this makes my day.

Hey guys.  Please let me know if you have any questions about anything related to the relevant history, the public debate, and the role of the Internet in spreading this myth.  I am more than happy to talk with your class via Skype if interested.  As a historian, blogger, and educator I would love to know what you are getting out of this exercise.  Good luck.

Brad Paisley Meet Leslie Barris

So, in addition to having trouble accessing my blog yesterday the news feed that I use to track stories related to Civil War memory is clogged with articles about the Brad Paisley – LL Cool J controversy.  I’m not sure which is worse.  I don’t have anything insightful to say about the song other than that the music and lyrics are both the work of amateurs.  To be honest, it seems to be much to do about nothing.

On the other hand, I got nothing but props for Leslie Harris of Orange, Texas who asked the city council to consider resolutions and ordinances that would block a planned Confederate veterans memorial that includes a flag just off the interstate.  Harris argues that, in fact, this is not a veterans memorial, but a Confederate flag memorial.  She also offers some comments about the appropriateness of publicly acknowledging Confederate History Month and in the process reminds the audience that white Southern attitudes about the Confederate past are complex.

Boston’s Civil War Memory or Lost Cause

Abolitionists

The other day I briefly noted my surprise by how little the war was being discussed in a conference devoted to Massachusetts and the Civil War.  What I am struck by now looking back on the three days of talks at the MHS is the overwhelming emphasis on Boston’s abolitionist community.  That should not come as a surprise given the location of the conference and the place of the abolitionists in local memory.  I learned quite a bit about them and I accumulated a nice list of books and article from the papers, which were wisely precirculated.

By the end of the conference the abolitionists’ agenda had emerged as the dominant narrative of the Civil War.  In fact, if this conference can be defined as reflecting a Civil War memory it would have to be that of the abolitionists themselves and their agenda beginning in the antebellum period through the war and into the era of Reconstruction.  It was so palpable that even our understanding of the war’s meaning and the success or failure of Reconstruction had little chance of being critically examined without Garrison, Douglass, and the rest of the gang looking over our shoulders.  There was little consideration of the importance of Union, as recently analyzed by Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War>, nor was there much of an attempt to distinguish between the goal of ending slavery and the question of civil rights.  The war had been reduced to an agenda with racial equality as its ultimate goal.  In short, it was all or nothing. [click to continue…]

Common-place Marks Civil War Sesquicentennial

Megan Kate Nelson, Kevin LevinIn between the final day’s sessions yesterday at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Megan Kate Nelson and I met over lunch and cocktails to talk a little business.  Over the next few months we will be co-editing a special issue of Common-place on the Civil War Sesquicentennial and Civil War memory.  The issue is slated for publication in early 2014.  As it stands our approach will be regional with a particular focus on what is currently happening on the ground at various sites, which is broadly construed.  We are trying to cast as wide a net as possible with as many different voices and perspectives as possible.  The nice thing about working with Common-place is that we have a great deal of flexibility both in terms of the number of essays we commission and their length. [click to continue…]

Three Days of Talks and Not a Shot Fired

This weekend I am attending a conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society called “Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion.”  Last night John Stauffer gave the keynote address on abolitionism in the Bay State and today I attended three panels.  The range of topics discussed is really quite impressive.  I especially enjoyed Jim Downs’s discussion of the health challenges faced by newly freed slaves during the war as well as his thoughts about how all of this challenges our triumphalist narrative of the Civil War.  I also enjoyed Katy Meir’s analysis of the U. S. Sanitary Commission and Megan Kate Nelson’s paper on soldiers as tourists.  [Stay tuned for an announcement regarding a project that Megan and I will begin working on together in the very near future.]

Tomorrow we will finish up with three more panels, including two that include papers on historical memory by Barbara Gannon and Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai.  What is striking, however, is that this conference does not include one paper on military history.  An outsider attending this conference would have little sense that this event included four years of horrific violence. There is little sense that the men from Massachusetts ever fired a shot in the Civil War.  Of course, I am not the first person to make this observation about the place of military history in academia, but it is quite striking nevertheless.  The closest we get to a Civil War general is George McClellan’s 1863 visit to Boston.  I certainly don’t mean in any way to diminish the quality of the presentations that I’ve heard over the past two days.  As I said, I’ve learned quite a bit and I suspect that we will see many of these papers published at some point.