Taking Free Blacks Seriously

Cockspur Island, Georgia following the arrival of the Union Navy, April 1862

It’s a beautiful morning here in Boston.  I do most of my work in a local cafe within walking distance of my home.  In the morning it’s filled with a vibrant group of older Albanians, which often makes me feel like I am overseas.  I absolutely love it.

Back to the Civil War.  I am making my way once again through sections of Clarence T. Mohr’s book, On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia, which is essential reading on the subject of how both free and enslaved blacks both involved themselves in the Confederate war effort and how they were often forced to take part.  I just finished reading the section in which Mohr analyzes evidence of volunteerism in 1861 within the free black community of Augusta, Georgia.  First, here is an incredibly insightful comment by historian Matt Gallman, which was left on Brooks Simpson’s blog:

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Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission in the Classroom

Anyone remotely interested in the Civil War Sesquicentennial can’t help but stand in awe of the work the Virginia commission has done to bring the war to the people of Virginia and the rest of the country.  Right now a flatbed truck carrying a Civil War exhibit is traveling around the state and plans to visit every county by the end of its trip.  The commission also put together a series of videos on the war in Virginia narrated by Professor James I. Robertson, which it has made available to the public schools.  As of the writing of this post it has uploaded five of the modules to YouTube.  Here is the first one, titled “The Coming Storm”.  I highly recommend these videos for classroom use for both middle school and high school students.

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Dear Professor Gates

Correction: One of my readers noticed some very sloppy writing in this post that I wish to acknowledge and correct. I wrote that the SCV did not reference Clyburn as a slave, which is untrue. Interviews with members do include such a reference. What I should have said was that there was no clear reference to his status in the brief clips that show the actual ceremony. Even Earl Ijames references Clyburn as a slave, but like the SCV their  language is unclear and inconsistent, which was the point I was trying to make. The crucial distinction between a soldier and slave has all but been lost in all of this.  Thanks to the reader for keeping me honest and I apologize for the confusion.

I wanted to share some thoughts with you about last week’s talk by John Stauffer on black Confederates.  I had a number of problems with his presentation, which you can read here.  One of the questions I’ve had since the talk is why the W.E.B. DuBois Institute would be interested in such a subject and then I remembered that you have had some exposure with this narrative, most recently while filming your PBS documentary, Looking For Lincoln.  As a former high school history teacher I want to thank you for this series.  At the time I was teaching a course on the Civil War and historical memory so the show fit in perfectly.  My class was able to watch individual segments as a basis for further discussion or other activity.  We all thoroughly enjoyed it.

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How Did Stonewall Jackson Really Get His Name?

Once again, it is my job to bring to your attention various interpretations of the past that reflect how Americans have remembered the Civil War.  They take many forms and, yes, some are truly bizarre.  Consider the following documentary. Stonewall creates a revisionist / historical parallel between Civil War hero Thomas Stonewall Jackson and the monumental Stonewall riots of New York City. It repositions him as a proud leader in the fight for gay civil rights.

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Choosing To Become a Slave

Woodcut from Nat Turner's Rebellion (1831)

Every once in a while you will read about free blacks petitioning local or state government to become a slave.  In the wrong hands such accounts reflect a lingering Lost Cause view that slavery was benign.  Why else would a free black individual choose bondage?  Many of these requests were made in the late antebellum period following John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry.  Many southern states, especially in the Deep South, worried about the effects of the raid on their black populations, both free and enslaved.  In addition to worrying about the ramifications of the Brown raid memories of Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection were easily recalled.  Visitors from the North were suspected of inciting blacks and were often forced to leave.  The smallest acts of violence and arson by blacks were met with swift and brutal punishment to prevent what many perceived to be the beginning of a more general uprising.  In many localities this response included a severe crackdown on the movement and rights of free blacks.  Free blacks already occupied a precarious position in the South, but the increased focus on their movement may help to explain why some chose slavery over freedom.

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