Should Descendants of Confederate Soldiers Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday?

Well, historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans member, Greg Clemmer thinks so.  Clemmer is the author of Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor, which was published back in 1997.  Unfortunately, he is one of the few voices of reason within the SCV.  Consider what he has to say about Lincoln’s birthday as well as his reasons for attending commemorative events at the Lincoln Memorial:

We have already touched on answers to that first question in previous Examiner articles. Yet most students of the war recognize that the Lincoln Memorial is a monument to democracy … that it is for everyone … that it primarily honors the martyred president’s success in restoring the Union … and that it remains a vivid reminder of our ongoing challenge to bind up the nation’s wounds….

Most recall that over the years the Lincoln Memorial has hosted a number of epic events, from contralto Marian Anderson’s live performance before 70,000 and a national radio audience in 1939, to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, to the inauguration celebrations of George W. Bush in 2001 and Barack Obama just two years ago. Yet few know that this memorial was built of Indiana limestone and Colorado marble, or that Daniel Chester French sculpted Lincoln’s seated figure out of marble from the hills of Georgia….

Yes, just as aged Confederate veterans attended the Lincoln Memorial’s original dedication in 1922, there has been a “Confederate presence” at the monument on this day down through the years. Representatives solemnly present a wreath to honor Lincoln, but a wreath accompanied by that Confederate battle flag—yes, the most recognized symbol of the civil war—walked across those marble steps in remembrance of the sacrifice of both sides … yet signifying to all, the binding up of the nation’s wounds.

Clemmer’s column serves as a reminder that there is a long history of Southern admiration for Lincoln and not simply among black Southerners.   On February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.”  Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution.  At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

Consider the following 1929 survey of 4,658 boys and girls in Alabama living in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham done by David Spence Hill.  Hill asked the following: Of all persons whom you have heard, or read about, or seen, whom would you most care to be like or resemble”?  One third of the boys and 60% of the girls named a relative or personal acquaintance; however, when it came to historic and public figures their answers were quite telling.  Of the boys, 26% chose Washington while both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee came away with 5% each.  The girls also overwhelmingly chose Washington, but Lincoln earned 3% while Lee only earned 2%.  Barry Schwartz’s analysis of the data is worth repeating in full:

Hill’s survey shows Lincoln’s prestige to have been feeble among school children, but he also documents the decline of the Confederate tradition.  That Lincoln and Lee are named by virtually the same small percentage of respondents is surprising, given the belief about the South’s lingering resentments.  No longer can negative Southern attitudes toward Lincoln be attributed to nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes.  Moreover, Alabama children were discovering ideals in the present as well as the past.  Boys ranked Charles Lindbergh (22 percent) just below George Washington.  Girls also mentioned Lindbergh, along with film stars Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Ruth Elder.  Not the Confederate hero but George Washington and contemporary entertainers were competing against Abraham Lincoln for Southern children’s attention and respect. (p. 55-56)

One of the most popular publications of Confederate nostalgia was Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine and in 1939 one of its contributors complained that “praises for Lincoln emanate in almost equal fervor from practically every section of America.”  Not too long ago newspapers inquired as to why Southern states were not taking part in Lincoln Bicentennial events.  Of course, anyone who bothered to look would have noticed that there are numerous events throughout the South which acknowledge in one way or another his importance to American history.  In fact, Lincoln is getting much more attention than both Lee and Jefferson Davis.  My guess is that the author of the piece was driven more by popular perception than any serious understanding of Lincoln’s place in our national memory.  One of the reasons why I find the study of memory to be so intriguing is that it has the potential to surprise.  I am constantly struck by the extent to which our assumptions about the past or the ways in which previous generations interpreted the past deviate from our own.  We should be careful not to use those who came before as a means to our own ends.  So, if you are a white Southerner who respects and admires Lincoln, it turns out that you are in very good company.

Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner?

Sometimes I wonder if people are aware that there is a historical profession that has been engaged over the past few decades in the critical analysis of every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life.  Consider the following description of an upcoming BBC documentary on Lincoln:

To most Americans Abraham Lincoln is the nation’s greatest president – a political genius who won the Civil War and ended slavery. Today the cult of Lincoln has become a multi-million dollar industry, with millions of Americans visiting his memorials and thousands of books published that present him as a saint more than a politician.

But does Lincoln really deserve all this adulation? 150 years after the war his reputation is being re-assessed, as historians begin to uncover the dark side of his life and politics. They have revealed that the president who ended slavery secretly planned to deport the freed black people out of America. Others are asking if Lincoln should be remembered as a war hero who saved the nation or as a war criminal who launched attacks on innocent southern civilians.

His “reputation is being re-assessed?”  Historians haven’t just “begun to uncover” anything. You couldn’t even think about doing this documentary without the fact that historians have been working on more critical and balanced interpretations of Lincoln for years. How many books on Lincoln came out during his bicentennial alone?  Give me a break.

By the way, Henry Louis Gates did this very same video a few years ago and in my view he did a much better job.

Breaking News: Lincoln Advocated Colonization

Thomas Ball

The American Studies class that I team teach just finished reading William Gienapp’s concise biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Of all the challenges that students coming to Lincoln struggle with is the issue of colonization.  It’s not simply that Lincoln advocated colonization before the war it’s the extent to which he pushed for it during the war itself.  It simply doesn’t mesh with the image of the “Great Emancipator” that many of my students come to class with.  The same holds true for my AP sections.  Luckily, the textbook that I use by Eric Foner does a first rate job with this particular topic. Understanding the steps that Lincoln took toward emancipation as well as the evolution of his thinking concerning race goes far to humanizing Lincoln and coming to terms with the challenges he faced during the Civil War.

Apparently, there is a new book set to be released that focuses specifically on Lincoln’s colonization policy.  According to a Washington Times review, “Newly released documents show that” Lincoln pushed for colonization, “to a greater degree than historians had previously known.”  I don’t know much about these new documents, but supposedly they show that Lincoln continued to push for colonization even after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It would be interesting to know which slaves Lincoln was hoping to colonize; if I had to guess we are talking about those slaves in the border states.  I always remind my students that regardless of what Lincoln desired, African American leaders rejected his proposals.  Here is the book description:

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement explores the previously unknown truth about Lincoln’s attitude toward colonization. Scholars Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page combed through extensive archival materials, finding evidence, particularly within British Colonial and Foreign Office documents, which exposes what history has neglected to reveal—that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization for close to a year after emancipation. Their research even shows that Lincoln may have been attempting to revive this policy at the time of his assassination.

Using long-forgotten records scattered across three continents—many of them untouched since the Civil War—the authors show that Lincoln continued his search for a freedmen’s colony much longer than previously thought. Colonization after Emancipation reveals Lincoln’s highly secretive negotiations with the British government to find suitable lands for colonization in the West Indies and depicts how the U.S. government worked with British agents and leaders in the free black community to recruit emigrants for the proposed colonies. The book shows that the scheme was never very popular within Lincoln’s administration and even became a subject of subversion when the president’s subordinates began battling for control over a lucrative “colonization fund” established by Congress.

That’s an interesting scenario that Magness and Page lay out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Consider the following comment by one of the co-authors:

The way that Lincoln historians have grappled with colonization has always been troublesome. It doesn’t mesh with the whole ‘emancipator.’  The revelation of this story changes the picture on that because a lot of historians have tended to downplay colonization. … What we know now is he did continue the effort for at least a year after the proclamation was signed.

I would love to know which historians are being referenced here.  And what exactly is the criticism?  The authors claimed to have uncovered new documents that change the narrative of Lincoln and colonization.  O.K., I get it, but that doesn’t mean that historians have downplayed colonization.  In fact, the very opposite is true.  The story is front and center in both the biography and textbook that my students read.  It’s present in just about every recent biography that I’ve read in recent years.  Sorry boys, but this is not news.  At least it’s not news to my high school students.

Finally, agree with Richard Williams, however, in that I would love to see some kind of interpretive plaque placed at the Thomas Ball statue.

Black Confederates in a 7th Grade Classroom?

Yesterday I had a wonderful phone conversation with a 7th grade history teacher from Boston.  The subject of black soldiers in the Confederate army came up in his class as part of a discussion of USCTs.  The teacher promised the class that he would look for information, which led him to my recent NYTs editorial.  From there he decided to contact me directly.  I offered him what I consider to be the accepted scholarly consensus and then we discussed various resources that could be used in class.  The first thing I suggested was the UVA case study of the doctored image of the Louisiana Native Guard.  From there I directed him to my Black Confederate Resources page and my recent screencast reviews of two websites.

So, it looks like a class of 7th graders will be introduced to issues of media literacy via my two screencasts, the ease with which images can be distorted, and a short video by Bruce Levine from the BC Resources page.  Yes, I am tooting my own horn, but I couldn’t be more pleased that the hard work that I put into this site is finding its way into history classrooms around the country.

Earl Hess’s Crater

The new issue of Civil War Book Review is now available, which includes my review of Earl Hess’s new book, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (University of South Carolina Press, 2010).  I think we can safely say that we’ve seen enough military studies of the battle of the Crater over the past few years.  They run the gamut from detailed tactical studies to thoughtful commentary about the significance of the racial component of the battle.  Earl Hess’s new book belongs somewhere in the middle.  Not surprisingly, his book is the best overall study of the battle.  I’ve had the opportunity to review three recent Crater studes: Alan Axelrod, The Horrid Pit [Journal of Southern History], John F. Schmutz, The Battle of the Crater: A Complete History [H-Net], and Richard Slotkin, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864 [Civil War Book Review].

Over the past two decades Earl J. Hess has established himself as one of the foremost authorities of Civil War military history. He has done so with award-winning studies of the experiences of the common soldier, battles such as Pea Ridge and Gettysburg, and (in the opinion of this writer) one of the finest brigade histories ever written. In recent years Hess has added to this list with a history of the rifle musket and a 3-volume study of the evolution and influence of earthworks on the war in the Eastern Theater. Rather than rehash the standard narratives, readers have come to expect that Hess will challenge many of their deep-seated assumptions about the war. In the case of his most recent study of the battle of the Crater that task is made more difficult given the publication of four books of varying degrees of quality over the past five years.

The increased attention to the Crater over the past few years stems from both the 2003 release of the movie, Cold Mountain, which featured a vivid recreation of the battle, as well as broader resurgence of interest in the final year of the war and the Petersburg Campaign specifically. The lack of scholarly attention has left us with an overly simplistic view of the battle that has tended to focus on the spectacle of the early-morning detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient followed by a futile Union assault. Into the Crater offers a necessary corrective to many of the finer points of the story as well as to assumptions that fundamentally alter the way we understand the evolution of the campaign, the battle, and its outcome – both of which serve to move us away from what appears to be a tragedy in the making.  [Read the rest of the Review.]