“The Good Death”

This year I am working with a student on an independent study that focuses on how the war effected soldiers’ conception of death during the Civil War.  We are looking specifically at the war in Virginia during 1864.  Over the summer this student read This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage Civil War Library) and we are currently reading Jason Phillips’s Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, both of which I’ve read already read and highly recommend.  Beginning next trimester this student will shift to the Special Collections Department at UVA to look at archival sources.

This is the latest installment of the Museum of the Confederacy’s video series and it focuses specifically on death in the Civil War.

African Americans and Black Confederates (Part 2)

[Hat-tip to Brooks Simpson]

This morning I reported that Hampton historian, Veronica Davis, filed a lawsuit against the publisher of the 4th grade history textbook with the black Confederate reference to prevent them from editing the questionable passages.  At first, I thought that this was a reasonable request calling on all parties not to jump the gun, but to first do the necessary work to ensure that the text is properly corrected in a way that brings it in line with modern scholarship.  Thanks to Brooks we now have a copy of the petition and it is bizarre.  Davis supports her petition with the following:

The petitioner is gathering research and witnesses that will support the fact of there being black (African American) soldiers that served in the Confederate Army.

Davis goes on to argue:

The defendants did not establish a committee to investigate whether or not there was an error; they merely accepted the opinion of a Caucasian American parent who happens to be a professor of History at the College of William and Mary.  The parent did not provide written proof to support that her opinion was a fact.  In addition, the defendants disregarded research from notable African American scholars and Confederate Organizations.

And in light of this morning’s post the following is quite interesting:

The changing of the text also presents long and short term effects on the Plaintiff’s children and other children who have studied who have studied the contributions of African Americans, for example diminished self-respect, anger, and increased feelings of worthlessness.

Here is an article about Ms. Davis that appeared this past summer in Richmond’s Style magazine.

African Americans and Black Confederates

I noticed that Ann DeWitt has taken the time to respond to one of my recent posts about Entangled in Freedom [and here].  I will leave it to you to decipher her post.  In addition, yesterday Hampton historian, Veronica Davis filed a lawsuit to halt the deletion of the controversial passage about black Confederates in the Virginia 4th grade history textbook.  [Update: Brooks Simpson has included a link to Davis's petition at Civil Warriors.]  High profile African Americans, who have come to endorse this historical meme and for different reasons include H.K. Edgerton, Nelson Winbush and even Earl Ijames.  One of my readers is convinced that Edgerton and other African Americans are being paid to promote this narrative.  I couldn’t disagree more.  In fact, I would suggest that such an explanation ignores an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon and our collective memory of the Civil War.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what the identification of some African Americans tells us about the evolution of Civil War Memory and while I don’t have any firm answers it might be worth posting for further discussion.  Perhaps the identification with this narrative by some African Americans can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with a Southern past.  That should come as no surprise given the central role that they have played in its formation from the very beginning.  At the same time that role has been decidedly influenced at different points in history by white Americans to buttress their own racial, cultural, and political agenda.  One need look no further than the pervasiveness of an ideology of paternalism (in the context of slavery) during the antebellum period, the advent of the Lost Cause following the Civil War, and more recently a conscious effort to support white political control in the 1950s and 60s through the control of history textbooks.

For many African Americans it is the Civil Rights Movement that looms large as a place to find heroic stories, larger-than-life personalities, and even narratives of racial reconciliation.  The Civil War, on the other hand, has been lost.  As I’ve learned over the years many African American families pushed their history of slavery away either because it was too painful or the narrative had been reduced to one of degradation and misery.  The past few decades has witnessed a dramatic shift in the way that slavery is interpreted as well as the reemergence of African American participation in the war itself – seen most clearly in the 1989 release of “Glory.”  The movie’s success in its appeal to a mainstream white audience ought to be seen as an important milestone in the evolution of popular memory of the war that has come to acknowledge the central role of slavery and emancipation in the overall conflict. Continue reading

Commemorating the Sesquicentennial in Brunswick County, Virginia

Last night I took part in a community forum on the Civil War Sesquicentennial with Waite Rawls, III, Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christy Coleman, President of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.  The event took place in Alberta at the Southside Virginia Community College and was organized by Brunswick County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.  For about 1 hour, and in front of a racially-mixed audience numbering around 100, we discussed the reasons for and importance of commemorating the sesquicentennial.  It was a lively discussion and it was truly an honor to be asked to join this roundtable.  I have nothing but the highest admiration for the work that Christy and Waite do at their respective institutions on a daily basis.  The challenges they face are numerous, but they proceed with the full understanding that their work matters.  I could listen to Christy talk about public history all night long.

Each of us had an opportunity to make an opening statement, which I used to discuss my work in the classroom and how I’ve tried to integrate the sesquicentennial into some of my lessons.  I talked about readings, class discussions, and my annual trip to Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  The audience was given plenty of time to ask questions and they did not disappoint.  I was singled out early on in the discussion by a group, whose questions were entertaining if not predictable.  One individual asked where I was born followed by some rather odd questions about my teaching style.  My personal favorite was a question that asked if I teach my students that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart were great men.  I usually don’t respond to the place of birth question, but I successfully diffused it by pointing out that I am from southern New Jersey.  The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth.  As to the importance of Lee and the rest of the gang I simply noted that as a history teacher it is not my responsibility to tell them what to believe about any historic figure.  My job is to provide my students with the analytical skills to draw their own conclusions.  Some of these same people suspect that I am corrupting my students by teaching them to “hate the South” and yet they have no problem telling me how I should influence what my students believe about the Civil War. Continue reading

Black Confederates Didn’t Exist in 1914

The other day Andy Hall challenged the common assumption that the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery contains a black Confederate soldier.  I encourage you to read Andy’s thoughtful analysis.  You will find images of this monument on countless websites along with colorful interpretations that seem to confirm the existence of these men.  While Andy cites the California Division of the SCV’s website, I am going to return to G. Ashleigh Moody’s response over at the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s Facebook Page.  Apparently, he wasn’t pleased with my initial post, but this will give me the opportunity to quote him in full.  Here is what he has to say about the Confederate monument:

One of the most “telling” monuments to the South and including Black Confederates and other Black Southerners is this 1912 (pre-PC) Confederate Memorial towers 32 and 1/2 feet and is said to be the tallest bronze sculpture at Arlington National Cemetery.  On top is a figure of a woman, with olive leaves covering her head, representing the South. She also holds a laurel wreath in her left hand, remembering the Sons of Dixie. On the side of the monument is also a life size depiction of a Black Confederate marching in step with white soldiers, and among other life size depictions, a Black woman receiving a baby as a father going off to war. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!

If it is a black Confederate soldier it would be news to Moses Ezekiel as well as the folks who gathered to dedicate the monument in 1914.  Consider the original, published history of the monument by Hilary A. Herbert:

But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.

And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U. D. C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.

It’s ironic that Mr. Moody accuses others of falling into the trap of presentism.  His assertion is a textbook example of just such a move: reading into the past through a lens defined by our own assumptions and values.  The problem here is that black Confederates did not exist in 1914.  You will not find a reference to black Confederate soldiers in any of the public addresses given at the monument’s commemoration nor will you find them in newspaper coverage of the event.  While there may be a few scattered references to black Confederate soldiers at this time, I have yet to come across one.  And I suspect that the reason they don’t exist is that white Americans have no use for it. Continue reading