The Daily Beast Shows How Not to Think about the Confederate Flag Controversy

Jonathan Horn’s short article in The Daily Beast is designed to highlight his new biography of Robert E. Lee by wading into to the Confederate flag controversy at Washington & Lee University. While it will likely convince those predisposed politically to agree with his conclusions the historical content falls short. Horn’s basic point is that the available evidence concerning Lee’s brief tenure as president of then Washington College and his overall attitude regarding Confederate defeat ought to serve as a guide for how we see the current controversy about the display of the flags.

Far from being relics of Lee’s tenure, the Confederate battle flags only arrived in the college chapel decades after Lee’s death and were later replaced with the historically meaningless reproductions that hung until recently.

Lee did not want such divisive symbols following him to the grave. At his funeral in 1870, flags were notably absent from the procession. Former Confederate soldiers marching did not don their old military uniforms, and neither did the body they buried. “His Confederate uniform would have been ‘treason’ perhaps!” Lee’s daughter wrote.

So sensitive was Lee during his final years with extinguishing the fiery passions of the Civil War that he opposed erecting monuments on the battlefields where the Southern soldiers under his command had fought against the Union. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” he wrote.

Publicly, Lee played the reconciled ex-Confederate general. He had every reason not to want to bring negative attention to his struggling college campus in the immediate wake of the war. It is no surprise that he would not have wanted Confederate flags flying on campus or in any other part of Lexington, Virginia. However, as we well know Lee remained bitter in private about defeat, emancipation, and occupation. [click to continue…]

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Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later

My abbreviated course on the Civil War has hit the ground running in the last two weeks. This time around I am using Louis Masur’s brief history of the war and Reconstruction and so far it is working out well. I tend to look for a concise narrative that I can supplement in various ways. For their first supplemental reading I had students read an essay by Charles Dew based on his book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race. [click to continue…]

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Trailer For “Point of Honor”

Well, the trailer for the pilot episode of Amazon’s “Point of Honor” is available and its even worse than first thought. It looks like a movie version of a Don Troiani Mort Kunstler painting. It is worth emphasizing that in light of recent Hollywood releases “Point of Honor” is an outlier given the narrative’s emphasis on distancing slavery from its main characters. Certainly, the success of “Twelve Years a Slave” demonstrated that the movie-going public can handle an honest portrayal of some of the harshest realities of American slavery and the master-slave relationship. Even Ron Maxwell has been able to push the envelope of the traditional Civil War story with “Copperheads.”

Are there any examples of a West Point cadet renouncing the institution of slavery at the beginning of the war and then fighting for the Confederacy? I honestly don’t know.

This pilot episode appears to be so cliche ridden and so poorly conceived that there is a chance that it never sees the light of day. Judge for yourself.

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Will It Be a ‘Point of Honor’ to Respect the Past?

Of course, we should not pre-judge Amazon’s forthcoming Civil War drama called, “Point of Honor.” But let’s be honest, it is very likely going to be another in a long line of disasters.

At the start of the Civil War, a Virginia family, led by their West Point bred son, John Rhodes (played by Nathan Parsons, True Blood), makes the controversial decision to defend the South while freeing all of their slaves. At battle against his northern brethren and his best friend and brother-in-law Robert Sumner (played by Christopher O’Shea, Baby Daddy), John leaves his three strong-willed sisters at home to run the plantation that is now without a free labor source. The choice to protect the life they have always known and defend the moral high ground will pit the family against one another and test their strength, courage and love.

While full-scale Hollywood movies such as “Lincoln” and “Twelve Years a Slave” have left their mark, smaller productions have been less successful. Think of the failed Kickstarter campaigns organized by Ron Maxwell and the producers of “To Appomattox.” The need to distance central characters from the institution of slavery closely follows the narrative in “Field of Lost Shoes” as it does with the 1960s Hollywood movie, “Shenandoah.”

I look forward to seeing how “Point of Honor” pulls off explaining why a Virginia slaveowning family would free all their slaves at the beginning of the war.

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“The Most Pernicious Idea” 150 Years Later

At the beginning of the Civil War neither side was willing to accept volunteers and/or draft African Americans into their respective armies. For the United States that process only began in fits and starts in 1862 before it commenced in earnest following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For the Confederacy it occurred in March 1865, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox and the end of the war. [click to continue…]

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