Honor Slaves For Surviving the Confederacy

Aaron Perry

I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population.  [I've followed this story for quite some time.]  Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy.  The history will be distorted.

This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered.  The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life.  This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights.   It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.

These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record.  They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery.  We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel.  How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones?  How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?

On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement.  Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs.  The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status.  They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom.  Quite the opposite.  Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers.  Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861.  Separation from families was anything but new for these men.

And yet these men survived.  They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.

Yes, we should honor these men.  Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial Gets a Poet Laureate

This morning I learned that Natasha Trethewey has been named as the next poet laureate.  Many of you know Trethewey from her penetrating collection of poems on the racial legacy of the Civil War, titled Native Guard.  Her selection comes at an important point in the Civil War Sesquicentennial as we begin to commemorate those events that mark emancipation and the recruitment of African Americans into the United States army.  It is a commemorative landscape fraught with landmines, but I am comforted in knowing that there are voices out there that can help to guide us through.

The ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

Here is a video of the author reading “Elegy of a Native Guard” on location.

Memory and History at Ground Zero

There is a wonderful article in yesterday’s New York Times on the challenges of commemorating and interpreting the tragedy of 9-11 at “Ground Zero” in Manhattan.  Back in January I wrote on some of the parallels between 9-11 and Civil War memory at the Atlantic.  As someone interested in public history and interpretation and as a family member of a 9-11 victim I certainly appreciate the competing interests and emotional investment that animate many in this debate.

  • How should the terrorists be interpreted in the museum?
  • What should be done with the remains of 9-11 victims and how should they be memorialized?
  • How much influence should 9-11 families have on interpretation?
  • What artifacts should be included in the museum?
  • How should the politics of 9-11 be handled, including subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

There are no easy answers nor should there be at this stage.  I was struck by the issue of how to handle the most emotionally sensitive materials such as voice recordings and images.  The designers of the museum have sectioned off certain exhibits and made it possible for visitors to exit at certain points if the experience becomes too much.  As someone who is personally invested in this story I can appreciate the steps taken here, but the historian in me is concerned.

If we are going this far to protect visitors from certain sights and sounds than perhaps it is too soon to even consider a museum.  Perhaps the site should remain a memorial for the near future and perhaps the museum would have been better placed in NYC, but away from Ground Zero.  The people in charge of interpreting the site may have achieved a certain level of detachment, but the general public may still be far behind.

Just a few thoughts.