I don’t normally share reader mail, but this struck me as worth posting. It’s been a few years since I last visited Stratford Hall and while I had a pleasant visit I too was struck by the emphasis on the cherubs.
Today I visited Stratford Hall. The Great House obviously demonstrates the Lee family’s tremendous wealth during the eighteenth-century, and, while I was generally impressed with the interpretation of the plantation, I was a bit disappointed that there is not a more significant effort to interpret the slave life enforced and endured at Stratford Hall.
The docent pointed out the cherubs in the nursery’s fireplace that young four-year-old Robert E. Lee said good-bye to when he and his family moved to Alexandria. Apparently, as the story goes, young Robert recognized the gravity of his family’s move and that he would not see his cherubs anymore.
What struck me with this story is how it conveys his sense of childhood innocence, which of course we should expect from a small child. Sheltered from the world around him, he had become attached to these cherubs set into the fireplace’s iron backing. He regarded them as something real, something deserving of a farewell, all the while his family enslaved dozens of African Americans and denied them the opportunity of any similar sense of childhood bliss. Did young Robert ever hear the crack of a whip or the crying horror of a slave being sold away from his family? We’ll never know perhaps. But if he did, his family and possibly even black servant protectors shielded him from the oppression outside and away from the Great House and its more immediate and stately environs.
I have young children who have neither experienced nor have come to understand the ugliness that the world perpetuates and endures. For this, I am thankful beyond expression. I often wonder what they will grow up to become, to believe and to defend as worthwhile. Young Robert grew up to defend a slaveocracy- an institution that represented everything opposed and contradictory to those cherubs in the fireplace. Acknowledging our history, even its ugliness, helps to strive to do better for the next generation.
Word came earlier today that David Barton’s publisher has pulled his most recent book on Thomas Jefferson. Barton is best known as the evangelical Christian, who has built a career on uncovering or reclaiming the truth about America’s founding and Founding Fathers from the community of secular and liberal historians. Barton claims to be a historian. Over the past few years he has amassed a growing following who embrace his interpretation of the role of Christianity in the lives of individual Founders and in the establishment of this nation. Barton enjoys support from a wide range of public figures and is now the official court historian for Glenn Beck. So what happened?
First, it is important to note that Barton’s published works have been scrutinized from the beginning by professional historians, but to little avail. What made the difference in recent days is the growing resistance from fellow conservative Christian historians and scholars, who are actually trained in the field. It’s a growing list, but I would start here and for a critique of Barton’s book, Jefferson’s Lies, I recommend John Fea’s 4-part series.
On the one hand it is unfortunate that it took fellow conservative Christian historians to finally bring about the removal of this book from stores since their religious and political views have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments. Their arguments stand or fall based on how they read the relevant evidence cited by Barton as well as the strength of his interpretation. Barton is not being attacked because of his personal beliefs, but on his skill or lack thereof as a historian. Anyone who spends enough time reading these rejoinders will conclude that there are serious flaws with Barton’s work. In the end Barton claimed to be offering the general public a corrective to those evil secular/liberal historians without taking the essential step of engaging the relevant historiography. While Barton may not understand this his publisher certainly does.
So, what does this have to do with the Civil War? First, Barton and Beck recently tried their hand at doing some Civil War history and as you might imagine the results were pretty abysmal. More on point, however, it is important to keep in mind that we have plenty of David Barton-types in our own community. Check out any number of titles from Pelican Press, for example, and you will find the same flawed approach to doing history. Authors rail against what they see as a liberal/secular bias among professional Civil War historians and other writers, but when it comes to actually engaging their arguments they are silent. Either they are unfamiliar with their publications or they are simply incapable of engaging the arguments.
Let’s face it, the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places. Without getting into another tired discussion of who is and who is not a historian, we can at least say that one’s claim to the title stands or falls on the quality of the work produced. What we now can say with confidence is that Barton is no historian.
Today was a good day for the discipline of history.
This story out of Haywood County, North Carolina about the display of the Confederate flag on public ground is perfect for helping us to move beyond the popular narratives of North v. South and black v. white. It’s a fairly straightforward story:
For years, David Crook had been making monthly rounds past the Confederate Memorial on the lawn of the historic courthouse and tucking a tiny flag into the ground at its base. And for years, an anonymous person who felt the flag carried negative symbolism had been pulling them up. “They kept disappearing,” said Thomas Shepard, whose own ancestors fought for the South. “So we kept replacing them.” The flag tug-of-war gradually ramped up, with a new one being put down and pulled up almost daily. The county was forced to wade into the fray in June, when a local attorney complained about the tiny flag display and asked the county to intervene.
County officials decided to remove the flags for good and this enraged those who see the flag as central to their understanding of the Southern/Confederate past. What I find interesting is the way in which this debate has been framed by the local newspaper. They refer to flag advocates as “Confederate supporters” but this tells us very little about the wide range of views held by white Southerners re: their past.
Despite the heated emotions on display in the comments section of the article no one in this dispute has a monopoly on Confederate heritage. It turns out that not all (perhaps not even a majority) of white Southerners have a deep need to see the Confederate flag on public property. This does not imply that they hate their past or are ashamed of it in any way. It doesn’t even necessarily imply that they have a problem with the Confederate flag. Are we really going to argue that the UDC has turned its back on standing up for a meaningful Confederate past simply because it refuses to press the issue on the Confederate flag? The UDC is the organization responsible for placing the marker on courthouse grounds in 1940. Does anyone else not see the UDC as the last line of defense against the trivialization of the Confederate flag by its so-called “supporters.” It must be upsetting to some that they can’t frame this debate along racial lines or even as a legacy of those meddling carpetbaggers. Even H.K. Edgerton and his fancy t-shirts seem just a little out of place here.
This is just another example of why extreme flag advocates have become gradually more marginalized in the South. It’s not because they are victims or because they are being discriminated against or even because others will not learn their history. Their mistake is in their assumption that the flag means the same thing to all people (even white Southerners) and that it is indispensable to maintaining a meaningful connection to the past.
On June 30 the Anderson County UDC dedicated a marker to Wade Childs, who accompanied his owner as a body servant in Orr’s Rifles. Andy Hall recently took this one apart, not that it takes much time and effort to uncover these cases of so-called black Confederate soldiers. This one is an absolute mess. There is no question that Childs was a slave, but not surprisingly there is no indication of this on the marker. The only thing missing from this little ceremony is H.K. Edgerton prancing about in one of his Dixie Outfitters t-shirts.
I am sure the African-American community in Anderson County appreciates their hard work of acknowledging one of the many horrors of slavery. Wait, where is the black community? [note strong New Jersey sarcasm. :-)]
Next month President Obama will be renominated by the Democratic Party in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte lays claim as the last Confederate capital in April 1865. It is here that Jefferson Davis learned of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. At first glance these two events may seem unrelated but not to the folks interviewed in this article.
“Charlotte is a New South city,” said Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South. “It existed during the Civil War and had some importance, but this city’s character has been shaped by reinvention since the Civil War. That spirit of reinvention is one of the reasons why the DNC decided to come to Charlotte. It is a city with a history but has never been a prisoner of its history.”
James Ferguson, a Charlotte attorney who has been heavily involved in the civil rights movement, said Obama’s renomination “is a historic event that is even more historic than the Confederate cabinet’s last meeting here. “The nomination comes at a time when Charlotte is seeking to identify itself as a world class city, as a city coming into its full identity after a period of phenomenal growth,” Ferguson said. “In terms of African-Americans, there is this whole question of whether we are reaching a point where there is full equality or are we still dealing with having a first African-American this or that, and (saying) ‘that seems to be enough.'” The continuing quest for full equality is symbolized by the renomination, Ferguson said, adding: “This election is equally important if not more important than the first election of President Obama, because it takes two terms for a president to really push forward a full program.”
David Goldfield, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said the Charlotte renomination is compelling because “the Confederacy was born as a defense of slavery, and yet here in the last capital of the Confederacy we’re nominating a black man for president. “It’s something we should feel very proud of,” Goldfield said. “We have come a long way as a region and we have come a long way as a country. White supremacy was not confined to the South — it was a national ailment.”
I tend to think that the attempt at irony here is weak given the emphasis on Charlotte’s evolution since the end of the war. As the article suggests, there are so few reminders of Charlotte’s Confederate past that unless you look for it you are likely to miss what is there. Obama won Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in 2008. If anything gave us a sense of the evolution of the history of the South after 1865 it was the results of that election. We already know this narrative.