Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death. What follows is a short essay I originally intended for my column at the Atlantic. Unfortunately, my regular editor is out on maternity leave and there was no way to get it posted in time. No big deal. Here it is for your consideration.
The commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863) last week means but one thing: Next stop, Gettysburg! But before Civil War enthusiasts can shift their attention to what is still commonly referred to as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy there is one loose narrative thread from the Chancellorsville campaign that needs to be brought to a conclusion. Eight days following his accidental wounding at the hands of his own troops in the early evening hours of May 2 General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson died. News of his death sent the Confederacy into national mourning and for some it raised profound questions about its future and whether God had forsaken their cause. Jackson’s death left Robert E. Lee without one of his most talented and trusted subordinates. His final days in battle and on his deathbed have never really diminished in our popular memory of the war. [click to continue…]
Update: I’ve sold two copies of the book in the past hour. I guess there is no such thing as a negative review. 🙂
I have to say that I really thought my book’s Amazon page was going to be flooded with negative reviews from day one of publication. I even spent some time strategizing over how I might respond, but the negative reviews never appeared. Better late than never. Up until three days ago there was only one review posted. In the last few days one very positive review appeared and today I noticed the following review from “silver dollar”. [click to continue…]
There doesn’t seem to be any let up in the number and range of Civil War memory studies published or soon to be published this year. As someone who has contributed to this body of scholarship you might expect that this brings a smile to my face and you would be correct. That said, I do think we need to be wary of a tendency that is at the center of this particular genre.
Implicit in the act or performance of historical memory is the assumption that the event or individual in question ought to be remembered. Historians of Civil War memory don’t simply focus their readers on a dead past they dig down to show why something was forgotten and why it ought to be remembered and perhaps even celebrated. We cast a moral lens on the generation that supposedly ignored or intentionally dismissed some aspect of the past and we make a moral claim on our own generation as to its importance.
I am reminded of this having just finished a brand new book on the subject that I need to review for one of the Civil War magazines. It’s a solid book and one that I will recommend, but it did raise for me the question of whether historians can go too far in making claims on our own sense of justice regarding the contentious ground between forgetting and remembering. I was certainly guilty of this in my early research on William Mahone. Not everything needs to be remembered or given a prominent place in our collective memory.
More importantly, not everything that is forgotten is a moral injustice. That’s tough for a historian of Civil War memory to appreciate especially if we assume a role as something akin to a moral crusader who sets out to bring moral balance to the historical universe. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I don’t mind admitting that I need to be much more attentive to this tendency in myself.
Anyway, that’s my thought for the day.
Dear Mr. Vanderburg,
Thanks for taking the time to read yesterday’s post and for your comments. As I stated in my response this is a subject that I’ve written and lectured on extensively over the past five years. The popularity of the black Confederate narrative highlights both the extent to which history has become democratized and the increased use of the Internet as a research tool. Many people first learn about this subject through the print and/or online newspaper, which offers a non-critical and often flawed account of the complex history involved.
This article out of North Carolina that appeared today offers another textbook example of what is wrong with the way this subject is often analyzed and presented to the public. The story of Weary Clyburn is one I’ve been following for a couple of years. He is arguably one of the most popular examples of a black Confederate soldier that never existed. Maddie Rice is sincerely interested in the story of her father, but over the years she has been aided by heritage organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who have publicly distorted the history of Clyburn to serve their own needs. [click to continue…]
Today Cleveland.com [associated with the Cleveland Plain Dealer] is running a textbook example of how the myth of the Black Confederate soldier is spread. Start off with what appears to be an unusual story of two black individuals who play Confederate soldiers. Treat them as authorities in the relevant history and fail to do any preparation as a reporter that might allow you to ask a few penetrating questions about historical literacy and you’ve got yourself a nice little human interest story.
From the article:
Estimates of their number, varying from several hundred to more than 10,000, are debated among Civil War historians.
Jones, 51, of Youngstown, noted, “If we can honor the black Union soldiers who fought, we can honor the black Confederate soldiers who fought.”
Jones said that famed black abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted in 1861: “There are at present moment many Colored Men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers, having musket on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down any loyal [Union] troops.”
Jones utilizes the biographies of past black Confederate soldiers Holt Collier and John Wilson Buckner for first-person portrayals. Collier was in the Battle of Shiloh, then served in a Texas cavalry unit. Buckner served with a South Carolina artillery unit and was wounded in the battle for Fort Wagner in 1863.
Given these few passages we can safely assume that their research involved little more than a scan of websites.