Today I completed a rough draft of an essay on John Christopher Winsmith and his servant Spencer for the NYTs Disunion column. Winsmith’s letters are incredibly rich and help to sketch a constantly evolving master – slave dynamic during the first sixteen months of the war. As a teaser consider the following reference to Spencer accompanying Winsmith on picket duty in northern Virginia in September 1861:
I took Spencer along to carry my knapsack [etc], and Ralph and I with him stopped at a house on the road, and drying ourselves thoroughly had a most delightful rest. Sunday just after daylight we left and joined to Regt. Then we proceeded to Upton’s Hill in sight of Munsin’s to do picket duty. The enemys lines are not so near the former as the latter place, and therefore our men got no shots at the Yankees. The view was fine, and just such as I have described in a former letter as having enjoyed from Munsin’s. Occasionally in the distance we could see the Yankees moving about, but no fight occurred during our stay.
This is the only time that Winsmith acknowledges this role in his letters, though I suspect it was quite common among officers at least during the early stages of the war. One wonders how many of these Yankee sightings of black men in Confederate ranks were of this nature.
U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Wilson said he would likely rule on the city of Lexington’s request to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Sons of Confederate Veterans Stonewall Brigade in “one to two weeks.” The Sons have maintained all along that a Lexington ordinance banning all flags from city flagpoles except the city’s, the commonwealth’s, and the U.S. flag, specifically targeted them. Lawyers for the Sons said the flagpoles were a “designated public forum,” therefore the Constitution protected the Sons, and most any others who requested to fly flags from city flagpoles. Attorneys for the city said the ordinance was “government speech,” essentially saying that since it was Lexington’s flagpoles, the city could choose which groups represent its brand and which ones didn’t. Sons of Confederate Veterans Stonewall Brigade leader, Brandon Dorsey, said: “I think in this case city council made it abundantly clear that the reason why they were trying to shut [the use of the flagpoles] off from us was because they didn’t like the flags and didn’t like [our] group.” Lexington city officials declined to comment after the hearing.
So, what are the implications for this case? If the judge decides against the city the Sons of Confederate Veterans will get to display the flag in downtown Lexington and if the judge decides in favor of the city the SCV gets to display the flag in downtown Lexington.
The book should be available in a matter of a few weeks, but you can now read the entire first chapter and snippets of the rest at Google Books. The first chapter focuses on the battle itself and pays specific attention to how Confederates assessed having to fight black soldiers. Other blogger/authors have expressed their frustration about these previews and I am certainly sympathetic. That said and apart from the legal issues involved I am not too concerned. In fact, I don’t think it will have much of an impact, if any, on sales. Times are tough for many people and if those interested can at least get a taste of what is in the book than I am happy. Ultimately, I wrote the book for it to be read and to stimulate discussion and hopefully lead to some understanding of this event.
I am pleased to see that the first chapter is previewed in its entirety. It covers material that has led to some pretty heated debates on this blog and has even reinforced the belief in a small number of people that my motivations for writing are based on a hatred of all things southern. Yes, how silly. The nice thing about a book is that you have to lay it all on the line. I did my best to interpret the battle based on the evidence collected and my thorough reading of relevant secondary sources. Ultimately all interpretations are incomplete and subject to correction.
The 67-year-old Sakoguchi recalls seeing the labels on crates outside his parents’ small grocery store in San Bernardino. Years later, while scouring swap meets near his home, he discovered that the 10-by-11-inch images had become coveted collectibles. Sakoguchi experimented with the format and found that the pastoral elements of the labels made it easier to tackle controversial topics, including AIDS and 9/11. “When I paint with these labels,” he says, “it’s disarming, no matter the subject. People don’t want to be lectured about politics or race, so I use images and colors that soften the blow.”
I am not surprised that public officials in Union County, North Carolina have finally authorized the inclusion of a marker/monument on courthouse grounds to honor its local slave population. [I’ve followed this story for quite some time.] Given everything I know about the folks involved in this project I am not optimistic that the final wording of the marker will do justice to what we know about the history of free and enslaved blacks and the Confederacy. The history will be distorted.
This is unfortunate since slaves like Aaron Perry and Weary Clyburn deserve to be remembered. The final wording of the marker will likely reference their service in the Confederate army and their having been awarded pensions late in life. This interpretation will satisfy the self-serving agenda of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who are committed to remembering the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights. It will also satisfy the descendants of these men, who wish to see their ancestors remembered.
These men deserve to be remembered, but not for living a life that falls outside of the historical record. They deserve to be remembered because they survived slavery. We can only imagine what hardships and humiliations these men suffered as chattel. How many experienced the lash or the pain of separation from loved ones? How many suffered from the intense desire to be free?
On top of all of this these men were forced to endure the hardships of a war that, if concluded in favor of their owners, would have ensured their continued enslavement. Tens of thousands of slaves were impressed by the Confederate government as laborers, while thousands more accompanied their owners to serve their individual needs. The presence of slaves in the army did not mark a change in their legal status. They were not brought to war to place them any closer to freedom. Quite the opposite. Now, in addition to the hardships experienced at home these men were forced to negotiate a new set of challenges and dangers. Violence was anything but foreign to the nation’s slave population by 1861. Separation from families was anything but new for these men.
And yet these men survived. They even went on and managed to eke out an existence during very difficult times that perhaps filled them with pride in knowing that their lives were finally their own.
Yes, we should honor these men. Honor them not for serving the Confederacy, but surviving it.
This morning I learned that Natasha Trethewey has been named as the next poet laureate. Many of you know Trethewey from her penetrating collection of poems on the racial legacy of the Civil War, titled Native Guard. Her selection comes at an important point in the Civil War Sesquicentennial as we begin to commemorate those events that mark emancipation and the recruitment of African Americans into the United States army. It is a commemorative landscape fraught with landmines, but I am comforted in knowing that there are voices out there that can help to guide us through.
The ghost of history lies down beside me, rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.
Here is a video of the author reading “Elegy of a Native Guard” on location.
How should the terrorists be interpreted in the museum?
What should be done with the remains of 9-11 victims and how should they be memorialized?
How much influence should 9-11 families have on interpretation?
What artifacts should be included in the museum?
How should the politics of 9-11 be handled, including subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
There are no easy answers nor should there be at this stage. I was struck by the issue of how to handle the most emotionally sensitive materials such as voice recordings and images. The designers of the museum have sectioned off certain exhibits and made it possible for visitors to exit at certain points if the experience becomes too much. As someone who is personally invested in this story I can appreciate the steps taken here, but the historian in me is concerned.
If we are going this far to protect visitors from certain sights and sounds than perhaps it is too soon to even consider a museum. Perhaps the site should remain a memorial for the near future and perhaps the museum would have been better placed in NYC, but away from Ground Zero. The people in charge of interpreting the site may have achieved a certain level of detachment, but the general public may still be far behind.