When Memory and History Collide

I got a kick out of this short editorial by Kevin Cullen in Danville, Illinois, who recently went looking for information about an ancestor that served in the Confederate army.

For years, I imagined Private Cullen riding a magnificent stallion, attacking the Yanks with his saber, carbine and Colt. In my mind’s eye, he wore gauntlets, a gray felt hat with a jaunty plume, and black boots that reached to the knee. He was, in every sense of the word, a fearless Southern cavalier.

But this week, well, reality struck. I had contacted The Confederate War Department, an online service that researches military records. I had hoped to get all sorts of thrilling information; instead, I discovered that my ancestor first went AWOL, then he deserted in June 1863 — and was never heard from again.

Regardless, he probably could have told some amazing tales. The Fourth Regiment, Kentucky Mounted Infantry, organized at Bowling Green, Ky., in September 1861, had 213 men disabled at the Battle of Shiloh, and then it fought at Baton Rouge and Jackson. As part of the Army of Tennessee, it fought at Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign. It lost 21 percent of the 275 men engaged at Chickamauga…

All things considered, I’m glad Private Cullen deserted. If he had been killed at Chickamauga, I wouldn’t be here today.

For those of you who harbor such fanciful thoughts about an ancestor that you know nothing about I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Howard Bahr’s The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil War.  You have to admire Cullen’s honesty.  Not everyone could have chatted with Robert E. Lee or charged fearlessly over the earthworks.  And it’s reassuring to know that the Confederate War Department is still active.

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New To the Civil War Memory Library, 03/02

River of Dark DreamsHoward Bahr, The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil War, (Picador, 2006).

William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, (Center of Military History, 2011).

Christopher Hager, Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing, (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Harold Holzer and Sara Vaugn Gabbard eds., 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).

Walther Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Rhonda Kolh, The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).

Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts, (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, (University of Georgia Press, 2012).

John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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Confederate Like Me

black confederate

Earlier this week I received my author copies of the latest issue of The Civil War Monitor, which contains my essay on Confederate camp servants.  As I’ve said before, I am very excited about this particular piece.  It encompasses some of what I am trying to address in the first chapter of my book on the same subject. [click to continue…]

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The Way Home

H/T to Peter Winfrey

I highly recommend taking the time to watch this video in its entirety.  It follows a group of black seniors to Yellowstone National Park.  Along the way there is a discussion of why black Americans have apparently lost touch with the history of our national parks, nature and the joys of reconnecting.  It’s an incredibly touching film and in my mind Ranger Shelton Johnson is a superstar.

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Confederate Heritage Advocates Devour Their Own

Confederate Heritage FlaggersIf you want a sense of how obsessed some Confederate heritage advocates are about the battle flag look no further.  I came across this gem of a thread on the Confederate Flaggers Facebook page earlier today and it doesn’t disappoint.  Billy Bearden is an active Flagger and on occasion will share a thought or two on this site.  I like having him around.  Once in a while he offers something worthy of reflection, but this clearly represents a walk off the deep end.

No one on this page seems to know why the Covington (Tenn.) chapter of the SCV chose to remove the battle flag from the cemetery in favor of a First National Flag and as far as I can tell no one has bothered to ask.  I actually don’t have a problem with the display of battle flags in Confederate cemeteries.  It seems to me that the people who are offended by the symbol are not likely to visit and if its presence helps those who wish to commemorate/remember these men than so be it.  Perhaps the group removed it because the battle flag has proven to be too much of a distraction from the men they wish to honor.  Perhaps the group understands that their ability to reach out to the broader community will be hampered by all the negative attention that particular flag will likely generate.  Ultimately, what is more important, debating the divisive history of the flag or sharing the stories of the men the SCV are committed to honoring and a time when that project is under assault?

[click to continue…]

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Nathan Bedford Forrest, Race, and Memory in Memphis

Over at the Atlantic I share some thoughts about the recent controversy in Memphis surrounding the renaming of Forrest Park.  I hope the essay at least provides a bit of historical context to this issue.  Once again, thanks to Court Carney for making my job much easier.  Tennessee’s state legislature finally passed a measure making it illegal to remove monuments and/or change the names of public places in honor of military figures.  The legislation is not affect recent changes in Memphis.  Here is a short clip from the debate in Nashville between the sponsor of the bill and Representative G.A. Hardaway of Shelby County/Memphis.

The state of Georgia is now considering similar legislation.  There is something ironic about the passage of legislation by state legislatures to protect monuments to people who supposedly fought for nothing more during the Civil War that the right to make decisions through their local governments without outside interference.

[Click here for all my posts at the Atlantic.]

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