Remember Confederate History


Whereas, the years Two Thousand Eleven through Two Thousand Fifteen mark the Sesquicentennial commemoration of the War Between the States; and

Whereas, South Carolina became the first state to adopt an Ordinance of Secession on December 20, 1860; and

Whereas, South Carolina cast her fate with her sister southern states in ratification of the Confederate Constitution and became a faithful partner in the Confederate States of America; and

Whereas, South Carolina provided proud examples of leadership during truly trying times such as the statesmanship of Governor Francis Pickens and the heroism of General Wade Hampton, III whose dashing cavalry exploits were known far and wide; and

Whereas, the men and women of South Carolina, both civilian and soldier alike, sacrificed so much and contributed so greatly in the defense of their state; and

Whereas, the commemoration of South Carolina’s invaluable role to the Confederacy is still today a source of pride among our people and a major reason for citizens and visitors alike to explore the history of our great State; and

Whereas, the lessons to be learned from this period of our history are so important, even in matters facing America today. Now, therefore,

Be it resolved by the Senate:

That May is officially designated as Confederate History and Heritage Month in South Carolina and to encourage all citizens and guests of our State to learn more about this crucial time in the history of our people.

So, did South Carolinians do a good job of remembering their Confederate history this weekend?  I would say so.

On Jefferson Davis’s Capture

Yesterday I finished reading Yael Sternhell’s wonderful book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, which explores various aspects of mobility in the Confederate South.  The author argues that what could be seen on the roads throughout the South tells us quite a bit about Confederate nationalism, the collapse of slavery and a strictly defined racial hierarchy, and defeat.

Her brief discussion of the capture of Jefferson Davis caught my attention:

On May 10, while camping outdoors in the piney woods near Irwinville, Georgia, Davis and his party were captured.  Two Union cavalry regiments, searching for the presidential party, raided their camp at daybreak with no specific knowledge of who was staying there.  In the confusion of the raid, Davis tried to escape from his tent and into the woods, but a Federal officer noticed him attempting to get away and called him to stop.  With a carbine gun pointed at him, Davis had no choice but to surrender.  Much has been made of the fabricated story that he was dressed as a woman when caught.  Yet the true significance of the circumstances of his capture lies in the fact that he was apprehended not only in flight, but in the woods.  Davis was forced to follow the ways of his former slaves and take refuge within the alternative geography they had used for generations to hide from the bloodhounds and armed patrollers who chased them without mercy.  The Civil War did not end with Robert E. Lee’s dignified surrender at Appomattox.  It ended with Jefferson Davis, in the forest, staring in fear at a group of white men who were coming to get him.  The war had reduced even the most elevated of masters, the Confederate president, to a desperate runaway. [p. 192]

This is one of the most insightful books I’ve read about the Confederacy this year.  I only wish I had this when writing my own essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Civil War Memory Starts With the Children

Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant.  All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks.  If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook.  Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery.  Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s.  Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.

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Robert Smalls Weekend in the Crucible of Secession

The question of how far we’ve come in expanding and correcting certain elements of our collective memory of the Civil War has come up on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere.  I have stressed the extent to which we have moved beyond a strictly Lost Cause narrative of the war to one that is much more inclusive, especially in reference to Unionists, women, and African Americans.  This can clearly be seen on the institutional level in places such as the National Park Service and a wide range of history museums.  While I believe it is important that we acknowledge these changes I don’t want to minimize the challenges that public historians continue to face in engaging the general public in programs that deviate from the popular stories of battles and leaders.  This is a fight that is far from being won and I have nothing but admiration for those people work day to day on the front lines.

All we can hope for is that our public historians and other interested parties remain committed to doing good history that continues to deepen and expand the general public’s understanding of the nation’s past.  However frustrating it is we do need to remind ourselves that many of the questions and subjects that are now openly being discussed are inconceivable just a few decades ago.

Exhibit A: The city of Charleston will commemorate Robert Smalls this coming weekend with a number of entertaining and educational programs.  [Who is Robert Smalls?]  Is there any evidence that Smalls’s name was mentioned once during the centennial?  In the state and city where disunion began this weekend belongs to a black man, whose story directly challenges much of what many people continue to believe about the Civil War.  Even if the events scheduled attract a smaller audience, compared to more popular Civil War related events, those who do attend will have been well served and in a position to share what they’ve learned.  The simple fact that such an event has even been planned is worth acknowledging.

Our Struggle to Commemorate the Peninsula Campaign

One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war.  With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation.  As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.

Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862.  It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor.  Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited.  Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.

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Debating Darwin at Gettysburg

Andy Hall has a thoughtful post that explores his favorite scene from Ron Mawell’s “Gettysburg.”  I don’t have a favorite scene from any of Maxwell’s Civil War movies.  For me they are more or less bearable.  It just so happens that this morning another scene from the movie landed in one of my rss feeds.  It’s one of those scenes that leads me to hope that Maxwell never raises sufficient funds to complete the final installment of the trilogy.

In this scene Lewis Armistead and George Pickett debate the merits of Charles Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.  Now I have no idea whether Armistead or Pickett ever discussed Darwin’s theory, but it is possible given that the first edition of his On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.  No doubt Americans in the scientific community were aware of it and while I doubt that the two had read Darwin’s book it is likely that they were at least aware of the controversy its publication caused.

The question that interests me, however, is why this scene is in the movie at all.  It’s not enough to say that it satisfies the need for a night time scene set in camp.  Perhaps it fits into the popular narrative that the Confederacy was fighting to maintain a pre-modern society that had already taken hold in the North.  The publication of Darwin’s Origin is commonly referenced as one of those moments that signaled the birth of a modern age and as a threat to traditional religious thought, which would no doubt resonate with many who choose to see Confederate leaders as “Christian warriors.”

In the end, I don’t know why it was included.  That said, I have little doubt that a significant percentage of “Gettysburg” fans believe that Robert E. Lee constitutes an argument against Natural Selection. 🙂