Brooks’s question is a good one, but I think we can extend it south of the Mason-Dixon Line as well. Paul Quigley does a brilliant job in his new book of analyzing how white southerners negotiated their own deep ties to union during this period, including those who remained loyal and those who came to identify closely with the Confederacy.
My question is a slightly different one. Why do we find it so difficult to appreciate the concept of union for millions of Americans (north and south) in 1861? It’s also challenging to teach it and as I contemplate my own return to the classroom in a few weeks I look forward to the opportunity to take another crack at it. In the meantime here is a lecture by Gary Gallagher in which he explores some of these questions based on his latest book, The Union War.
More to the point, the “angst-filled” state of Mississippi is doing a hell of a lot more than my new home of Massachusetts, which just recently established a Civil War sesquicentennial commission. Other than the website, however, there is no activity to report. This is unfortunate since we are approaching a crucial time in our sesquicentennial remembrance in which Massachusetts played a key role. Surely the state can find the resources to organize some type of event to mark the raising of the first black soldiers as well as other key moments in the state’s Civil War past.
As someone new to the state I certainly understand the place of the Revolution in our popular imagination, but there is plenty to learn and to commemorate from that Second American Revolution.
I love writing for the Atlantic, but I have learned to hate the comments section. My last post on changing attitudes surrounding the public display of the Confederate flag is now pushing 300 comments, but I would venture that 98% of them are worthless. It should come as no surprise that the post has been co-opted by a few select voices, who clearly have way too much time on their hands. One woman apparently spent a sleepless night and the better part of a day writing and monitoring the post. The level of vitriol and pettiness now being expressed is quite impressive and I have no doubt that they will get at least another 100 comments out of it. I did my best to respond to the few comments that actually touched on points in the post, but they are now lost in a sea of narcissism. The comments thread is a perfect example of why I moderate discussion here.
The comments included the standard litany of accusations that I am anti-Southern/Confederate and that I am part of a broader conspiracy that wants to remove all reminders of the Confederacy, including the flag. This is silly. In fact, the post in question was an attempt to challenge the standard narrative that paints Southerners as one-dimensional and makes a few descriptive claims that may or may not be true.
Southerners (white and black) do not speak with one voice on what is acceptable surrounding the display of the Confederate flag.
A growing number of Southerners (white and black) acknowledge the complex history of the flag from its use as a battle flag to its role in the resistance to desegregation.
Over the past few years the flag’s visibility on high-profile public and private sites has waned.
Organizations that have challenged the removal or absence of the flag from such places have met with little success.
Those are four descriptive claims that, like I said above, may or may not be accurate.
I do believe that the visibility of the Confederate flag will continue to suffer owing, in part, to the people who claim to be its staunchest defenders. This all or nothing attitude is simply not a workable strategy if the points I made above are accurate. Despite what my detractors say, I do not want to see the Confederate flag completely removed from our historical landscapes because it is part of our history. It has an important story to tell. The only question remaining is whether moderate voices will emerge from various constituencies to lead a discussion about what is and is not acceptable.
What is clear is that the status quo is untenable and even the most creative insults that you can hurl in my direction is not going to change that.
My editor at the Atlantic asked me to revise a recent post on the DNC and the Confederate flag. You can read it below or at the Atlantic. I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects. What I find funny is that the posts I’ve written for the Atlantic that could be construed as Union bashing or whatever the equivalent is this side of the Mason-Dixon Line rarely receive any kind of condemnation. Funny how that works. Click here for the rest of the my Atlantic columns.
Next month’s Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation’s first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region’s progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.
Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that “remnants of the Old South linger in our region — and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.” Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents “heritage, not hate.” (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland’s story puts it, “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.”)
I haven’t commented on what Brooks Simpson refers to as “the gift that keeps on giving” in some time, but news that Ann DeWitt is once again posting is too good to pass up. You know Ms. DeWitt as the person who discovered an entire regiment of black Confederate cooks and the owner of one of the most confused websites on this subject. She is now posting under the name “Little Rebel” and it looks like Ms. DeWitt’s “research” interests have led her to a subject near and dear to my heart.
Yes, we all can’t wait for the next big discovery. In the eight years that I’ve spent with Mahone’s men I have never come across a reference to anything other than body servants and impressed slaves. This is not to say that Confederates under Mahone’s command did not have black soldiers on their minds. They wrote a great deal about an entire division of black soldiers, who took part in the battle of the Crater and they wrote openly and approvingly about their massacre. In all the letters, diaries, and postwar accounts penned by Confederates who were there not one mentioned their own loyal black soldiers.
Spend enough time with what Confederate soldiers actually wrote and you will have some idea of why the Confederacy struggled with the question of the enlistment of blacks.
I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond. It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well. While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war. In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.
As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans. I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.
Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater. One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks. Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only. As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.
A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:
I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg. We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.
An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals. The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well. William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.
All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.
You can decide whether you find this offensive. It’s a clip from an old show called History Bites, which ran from 1998-2003. Here is a link to the show’s Wikipedia entry if you are interested in learning more about the program.