An Unremarkable Letter About Black Confederates

Thanks once again to Vicki Betts for passing along documents related to the controversial issue of black Confederates.  This latest gem is a letter from John C. Breckinridge’s cousin (Matilda Breckinridge Bowyer, of Fincastle, VA) recommending her son to recruit black soldiers, dated March 26, 1865.  What is so striking, however, is how unremarkable it is.  The document fits perfectly within the narrative accepted by professional Civil War historians and serious students of the war.  Not until March 1865 did the Confederate government authorize the enlistment of a limited number of slaves into the Confederate army.  There is nothing unusual about a mother with close ties to high political office, who attempts to advance her sons career following the passage of new legislation.

It is also worth commenting on what this letter fails to acknowledge.  At no point does Matilda Breckenridge acknowledge that slaves were already serving in Confederate units.  Nor does she suggest that her son had any experience with or prior understanding of the recruitment of slaves as soldiers.  In fact, I have never seen a letter written by a Confederate civilian, soldier or politician that points to the presence of a significant number of slaves serving as soldier in the Confederate army.

Stephanie McCurry on Power and Politics in the Civil War South

One of the most important books published last year was Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010).  This talk was given at Duke University and I highly recommend it if you have not had an opportunity to read the book.  McCurry spends a great deal of time laying out her hemispheric explanation of the Confederate slave enlistment debate.

We Are Not Living in Lincoln’s House Divided

This weekend’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona has led to a great deal of commentary about the intense partisanship that currently animates our political discourse.  I am as concerned as the next person about the short- and long-term consequences of a political landscape and media culture that seems to have little patience for rational debate.  To be honest, I don’t know where this most recent shooting fits into all of this.  That said, I tend to take a cautious view of the doomsday scenarios because I think they tend to contribute to the toxic atmosphere.

As a historian I understand the desire to place this shooting as well as broader concerns surrounding our political and cultural wars within a historical context.  Allen Guelzo gives it a shot in this interesting commentary on what the Civil War can tell us about the fine line between words and violence.  Guelzo expresses concern that “that the lids are rattling again” because the issues at stake strike at a difference over fundamental values:

This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today’s passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.

First, I couldn’t agree more that the language has become overly hyperbolic, but that may not be a sign of impending doom for our democracy.  We may simply have become much too sensitive given the advances in communication technology.  That said, I don’t think the Civil War sheds much light on our current political culture.  As divided as Americans are over the issues mentioned by Guelzo not one of them divides the nation regionally.  We are not living in Lincoln’s House Divided.  As much as I find Lincoln’s appeal to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” as well as “the better angels of our nature” it’s hard to imagine that we are headed down that road.

I find it interesting that few have compared our climate to the 1960s.  Perhaps this weekend’s shooting ought to remind us of the assassinations of King and Malcolm or that of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  Somehow the nation survived a period that witnessed violent political protest, social unrest, and an unpopular foreign war.  Are we as a nation really in a more dangerous position than this?  I find it interesting that Guelzo bypasses this period, but I suspect that many who are concerned about our present trajectory have done so as well.  Perhaps it reflects the extent to which the violence and partisanship of that period has become legitimized.

I’ll end with Guelzo’s final thought and one that I completely agree with: “Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should.”

Frederick Douglass’s Loyal Slaves

Frederick Douglass

Tomorrow my American Studies classes will begin to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, but I still look forward to every opportunity to revisit this book.  At some point I would like to teach an elective on the history of the nineteenth-century through a close examination of Douglass’s life.  As I was making my way through chapter 3 [pp. 20-21] I came across one of my favorite passages in which Douglass explores the complexity of the master-slave relationship.  In it he explains what appears to be the language of the loyal and contented slave.

It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head.  They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have anything to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man. I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false; for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!

Developing Historic Land To Save It in Petersburg

I enjoyed reading John Hennessy’s most recent post on our perceptions of what it means to live on battlefield land.  He’s right that it is no longer acceptable for real estate developers to advertise the development of Civil War battlefields, which implicitly implies its destruction.  I admit that on occasion I’ve fantasized about living in a Civil War era home nestled on hallowed ground.  At the same time I rarely worry about whether those who currently occupy historical homes hold similar beliefs.  I tend to think that the caretaker perspective is the exception to the rule and the one that needs to be explained.  Perhaps this explains my resistance to taking a firm stand in the continued drama unfolding in Gettysburg between preservationists and commercial developers.

John notes that our tendency to resist the commercial development of historic land was not always so and he cites the sale of the McCoull House on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  It would be interesting to know at what point a community arrives at a preservationist mentality.  I find it difficult to imagine a farmer in Sharpsburg or some other remote site worrying about the preservation of his land; rather, I assume that what was most on his mind was economic recovery.  At some point, however, the community did come to see preservation as a worthy goal – with the help of the federal government, of course.

Commercial developers in Petersburg, Virginia continued to exploit the proximity to Civil War battlefields well into the twentieth century.  In the case of the developers of Pine Gardens Estate the sale of land was to be used to preserve significant Civil War sites in and around Petersburg.  The ads also reveal an attachment to well-worn themes of national reunion and reconciliation by the twentieth century. As many of you know the Crater battlefield itself was turned into a golf course before it was brought under the management of the National Park Service in 1936.  Ironically, it may have been the development of this land that helped to save it at a time when city managers pushed commercial development.

Some of you have been asking about the status of my Crater manuscript since the revised version was sent to the publisher back in August.  I haven’t heard anything yet, but I am hoping to hear something soon.