Things have been a bit slow around here this week owing to the amount of time I’ve spent preparing our house to be sold. I have to say that it was at times difficult going through my library and making the tough decisions as to what to keep and what to discard.
One of my readers tipped me off to this video from the 2011 auditions for “American Idol.”
From the Civil War Era Collection at Gettysburg College
Description: “Robert E. Lee and a southern planter pull apart a slave into two pieces. Lee states, “I must have the slave or cave in.” The southern planter states, “Anyhow you can’t have MY Nigger.” His armies were so depleted in 1864, that General Lee advocated the conscription of blacks into military service. This was thought to be fundamentally against the ideas of the South, and planters severely opposed the idea causing a political battle in the Confederate Congress. It was not until 1865 that blacks were conscripted, and even then they did not see any action in the war.”
Comment: Slaveholders resisted the efforts on the part of the Confederate government to conscript as well as impress their slave property. They resisted, in large part, because they viewed these efforts as a direct violation of their rights as property holders. In other words, they viewed these efforts as a reflection of a government that had overstepped its constitutional bounds. The cartoon also places the eventual conscription of a small number of blacks into the army as an act of desperation rather than a measure that conformed to the expectations and assumptions of a slaveholding society at war. In short, it was a last ditch effort that made no impact on the eventual outcome of the war.
These cartoons serve to remind us of just how far removed the public discussion is from anything approaching a proper historical context. Thanks again to Vicki Betts for passing along this reference – wonderful image.
Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to receive an email from one of Professor Edward C. Smith’s current students. Professor Smith teaches at American University and on occasion has been a vocal advocate of the black Confederate narrative. He was featured not too long ago in a post that included an excerpt of a speech he gave on the subject to a group of Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1993. This video is available for purchase through the SCV and is one of the earliest references I can find. The student left two comments and they are quite revealing:
This is interesting to me because of the drama of late in Virginia concerning inclusion of black Confederates in history textbooks. I am also taking classes with Ed Smith at American University in DC, who is considered an authority on black Confederates (though honestly, his research methods are a little sketchy). If you have not yet met Ed Smith, you definitely should. Not only is he a fountain of knowledge, but just an interesting person in general. He is not reachable my email though, so how to get in touch with him is something you’d have to explore….
Indeed, Prof. Smith is not a historian in the traditional sense. I would say he is more of a folklorist than anything. He has no formal post-secondary education, but knows a lot about a lot of things through experience. He’s not an academic though, and I think that’s what messes things up. People assume he is an academic, but in reality he’s more of a grandfather type. You might learn a lot from your grandfather but you’re probably not going to be able to source him in a thesis. For example, he’s sent me on a wild goose chase looking for letters that, if they exist, will be extremely historically valuable. But so far I can’t find them, though he swears they’re there. Basically… Ed Smith is a great guy, you can learn a lot of interesting stuff from him, but his historical work is not academic. Still, if you ever have a chance to hang out with him, you definitely should.
Professor Smith’s profile page at AU does not include any references to post-secondary education. [Note: Smith is in the Anthropology Department at AU.] That’s not such a concern to me. What does concern me is that he is often touted as an expert on black Confederates even though he has not published a single peer-reviewed article on the subject. Professor Smith sounds like an interesting person. Indeed, I found a number of thought provoking essays while searching for information about Smith. I appreciate that this student was able to convey her admiration for her teacher without losing sight of perceived shortcomings.
Whatever his areas of expertise might be, the subject of how how African Americans were mobilized by the Confederacy is clearly not one of them.
Last Friday I spent the afternoon with Gilles Biassette, who writes for La Croix in France. He spent a few days in the United States talking with people about the Civil War Sesquicentennial. We talked about a wide range of topics as we walked through Lee and Jackson Parks, the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia and the campus itself. Gilles asked excellent question and I even had the chance to ask him about historical memory in France. Of course, there is always the concern that a reporter will butcher what I have to say, but I think it turned out really well. It seems appropriate that a French publication would express interest in our Civil War given that Europe closely monitored the events of 1861-65.
Mais cette passion américaine n’est pas que militaire. Comme l’atteste le nouveau musée de Gettysburg.
Ils l’ont refait il y a quelques années, explique Kevin Levin, professeur à Charlottesville et auteur d’un blog très riche sur la guerre de Sécession et sur son héritage, Civil War Memory. Avant, il y avait des murs couverts d’armes, et le reste tournait autour des mouvements de troupes… Maintenant, il n’y a plus qu’un échantillon de la collection d’armes du musée. À la place, une excellente exposition sur l’esclavage, le rôle des femmes, les conditions de vie à l’époque. Ce qui n’a pas plu à tout le monde ! Des gens ont râlé, disant qu’un musée sur une bataille, c’est fait pour parler de la guerre, pas de l’esclavage….
L’image d’un Sud esclavagiste combattant au nom de la liberté a de quoi faire bondir… « Ce type d’argument est repris par ceux qui veulent minorer le problème de l’esclavage, poursuit Kevin Levin. On entend même, depuis quelques années, certains prétendus historiens assurer que des Noirs se sont battus côte à côte avec les Blancs dans l’armée sudiste. Mais il n’y a absolument aucun élément qui prouve ceci ! Ce qu’on sait, en revanche, c’est que certains militaires étaient partis se battre avec leurs esclaves, présents sur le front pour accomplir leur travail d’esclaves….
La guerre de Sécession est toujours une passion américaine, précise Kevin Levin. Mais cet intérêt est beaucoup plus émotionnel qu’intellectuel : cette guerre permet surtout aux Américains d’établir un lien avec leurs ancêtres, de ressentir le passé.
I haven’t done a Civil War Roundtable talk in some time, but I almost always enjoy the experience, especially the Q&A with folks who share my passion for this history. Today I accepted an invitation from the North Worcester County Civil War Roundtable to give a talk on black Confederates. The talk is scheduled for October 11. I couldn’t be more pleased as this will be my first talk in my new home of Massachusetts. My talk is going to explore the evolution of the black Confederate narrative over the past few decades through a close look at the story of Silas Chandler. I am also going to talk about the perils of digital sources, which I recently explored in my NYTs op-ed piece.
One of the things I worried about was moving to a place outside of my main interest in the Civil War, but I am now much more confident that I can find outlets in which to share my fascination with the history of the South and the Confederacy. Perhaps I can establish myself as the go-to guy on certain topics, especially during the next few years. I am hoping to schedule a few more talks on this subject at least through the next year or two. As soon as I get established in Boston the plan is to finish up the black Confederate book. I’ve been collecting source material and sketching out ideas. While I want to write a scholarly study I also want to explore how this narrative has played out in popular culture. Think of it as: academic study meets “Confederates in the Attic”. I am hoping to work with one of the major publishers on this one. Once I finish this book I am going to look into writing something about the Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston.