Matt Isham has published a thoughtful post in which he assesses the black Confederate controversy over at A People’s Contest. While I appreciate Matt’s positive assessment of the attention that I’ve given the subject over the past few years, his critique misses the mark. Consider the following:
Of course, the person who has done yeoman work on this issue is Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory. He has challenged black Confederate mythmakers with vigor and gusto for several years now and shows no signs of slowing down, as he will be publishing a book on this subject soon (find his latest post on the topic here). Levin consistently has pointed out the basic historical illiteracy of the mythmakers, particularly their inability to understand how 19th century Americans conceived of citizens, slaves, and the citizen-soldier.
This, of course, is all well and good, especially the heavy lifting Mr. Levin has done on this issue. After all, it is one of the most important aspects of our mission as educators to expose the public to the fraudulent nature of such myths as the black Confederate story. I wonder, however, if historians are not in danger of sinking down into the mire of this debate by continuing to pay attention to every continued claim from the mythmakers and supporters and every rebuttal in the blogs and the news media. To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on this, but I feel as though this debate is beginning to yield diminishing returns. Surely, the public has been educated about the debate and the shortcomings of the black Confederate thesis. Carrying on the debate with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other true believers yields nothing, for they are resolved to support their position regardless of whatever evidence and logical analysis is marshaled to expose the fallacy of their belief.
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Update: 50 Cent learns more about the history of slavery and South Carolina during Reconstruction.
Rapper 50 Cent and MTV recently revealed a clip from his upcoming Rock Doc titled “50 Cent: The Origin of Me,” which features 50 Cent traveling to Edgefield, South Carolina, in search of his roots. In one clip, the rapper encounters an elderly woman, who explains the significance of the Confederate Flag to 50 Cent, who appears visibly irritated with the conversation. “People really don’t understand what’s going on at that period of time,” the elderly woman told 50 Cent. “Black citizens in this country really needs to study the history, because it’s just as much the black ancestry as it is the White ancestry.” Despite 50’s explanation for the Confederate flag being seen as racist and why it offends many people, the woman acted as though there were no valid reasons for taking offense to it, saying that it has to do with black ancestry as well as white ancestry. “She’s offering her truth- what‚ she’s accepted as the truth based on information given to her, but I don’t agree with it,” 50 Cent said.
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Willie Tarver, of Wadley, made concrete gravemarkers in the mid-1960s before moving to large-scale concrete and metal figurative sculptures. Tarver’s sense of humor is visible in works like Cap Lee #3, which melds the artist’s features with those of Robert E. Lee. [source]
You should definitely take a look at Drew G. Faust’s NEH 2011 Jefferson Lecture, titled, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian.” [pdf] It is incredibly thoughtful. [Click here for David Blight’s introductory remarks.] I think Faust effectively explains the difficulty of trying to capture the horrors of war as well as the dangers involved in trivializing it. The following passage at the end caught my eye and pretty much sums up why I have little interest in attending the Manassas reenactment this summer:
There is just something about reenacting that I find troubling and yet I know that there are very serious people, who are passionate about it and who see it as a form of education. I don’t want to be entertained by representations of battle, suffering, and loss. On the other hand I don’t have a problem with a reenactment of a slave auction, which also depicts violence and personal loss. This may be an inconsistent attitude on my part, but I just can’t imagine ordering a hot dog or picnicking at a slave reenactment.
What I do completely agree with, however, is Faust’s final comment regarding our current wars. I do believe that battle reenactments help to trivialize war and prevent us from considering the tough questions that any citizenry in a democracy must consider before going to and during war. In the end, I am skeptical that the narrative of a reenactment gets us closer to any meaningful understanding of what it means to go to war as well as the costs.
I recently re-read Philip D. Dillard’s essay, “What Price Must We Pay for Victory?: View on Arming Slaves from Lynchburg, Virginia and Galveston, Texas, which appeared in a collection of essays honoring the career of Emory Thomas. Dillard argues that the slave enlistment debate was shaped by a localities proximity to Union military threats. While Lynchburg was forced to deal with a Union advance in the Shenandoah Valley by late 1864, Galveston remained relatively isolated from the threat of war. Dillard reminds us that sentiment in connection with the enlistment debate was shaped directly by the perceived threat to slavery. Residents of Lynchburg eventually came to grudgingly endorse a resolution supporting enlistment while Galveston’s location allowed its residents to consider the threat to slavery and the racial hierarchy in isolation from the threat of war.
One editorial in the Galveston News authored by “Pelican Private” who was stationed in the Galveston defenses caught my attention:
The discussion is untimely and fraught with evil; it engenders panic when there is no danger. Shall we sell slavery, the legacy of our fathers–a legacy halloed by the best blood of the Caucassian race–to purchase independence: Go to the red fields of Manassas, Sharpsburg and Shiloh…and tell their whitened bones that you are so base, so low, so abject that you are ready to abandon the cause for which they fell.
I have no idea whether this individual was a slaveholder, but I don’t think it matters. What I find interesting in the account is the difficulty involved in imagining slaves as soldiers. While the residents of Lynchburg eventually endorsed such an idea we ought not to make the mistake of assuming that supporters eagerly embraced the measure. In fact, that it came so late in the war suggests just how committed white southerners were to a slave society. It also reflects their commitment to the concept of the citizen-soldier. White southerners were obligated to serve their nation because of their status as free men. Slaves were not simply property, they were not citizens of the country. Pelican’s editorial must be understood, in part, as a plea to maintain the status of all white men.