Click here for an earlier post on this subject.
Gettysburg College historian, Allen Guelzo, has a short op-ed piece in the Gettysburg Times on the ongoing efforts to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Guelzo assumes a rather gloomy posture owing to the small number of states that have organized commissions, the inability of the federal government to get involved, and the continued difficulty to attract African Americans to Civil War related events. All of these point, especially, the last one, deserve our attention and even concern, but I tend to think that Guelzo’s skepticism is misplaced.
To be completely honest, I am surprised as to what has been done already to acknowledge the 150th anniversary of the war. There is no reason why we must officially acknowledge this milestone. We could just as easily wait for the bicentennial year. It would be nice to see a few more states approach the level of activity to be found in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, but let’s not hold our breadth. What Guelzo misses entirely is the number of museums along with state and local historical societies, which will organize events, teaching materials, and other resources for their local communities. How about the attention that the National Park Service will bring to all of this? Yes, their exhibitions and events will vary in quality, but that should not be of any great concern. Perhaps Guelzo’s concern about the number of state commissions is more about how it reflects on Americans’ overall attitude to its collective past. He may be asking, “Are we this disinterested in our past?” Yes and no. On the one hand we are in the middle of a pretty bad recession, which has no end in sight. It’s no surprise that remembering events that took place long ago through the spending of millions of dollars may not seem like the best use of tax dollars. I happen to agree with that sentiment. On the other hand, perhaps one can make the case that there is no longer a need for a top-down model of national historic commemoration. Information is much more easily shared via the Internet and information is much more easily accessible by a broader spectrum of the general public. We can see this in action here in Virginia as local communities are taking the lead in organizing Civil War commissions.
Guelzo concludes with the following:
There is a much to celebrate in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. There is also a great deal of anger and disappointment, and in some places, downright contempt. The Civil War re-enactment community mistrusts academic Civil War historians; the academics, in turn, are regarded by the public historians as gate-crashers of their collections and exhibitions; public historians suspect relic and memorabilia dealers of piracy; and the general public seems interested in history only when it’s painted-up in bizarre, horror-movie formats. These are all obstacles in the path of a worthwhile Sesquicentennial. But the greatest challenge of the Sesquicentennial will be how to synthesize the Civil War’s “old” story of battles-and-reunion with the Civil War’s “new” story of race and gender. Until that begins to happen, and until the competing re-enactment, academic, and public empires decide that they all have a common stake in the Sesquicentennial, state legislatures, historical societies, and organizations are likely to take the safe road, and call the whole thing off.
There is something to this, but it smacks of arm-chair navel gazing. The divisions between various constituencies cannot be so easily drawn and in the case of the relationship between reenactors (general public) and academic historians, I would argue that it is simply false. I also think that Guelzo’s characterization of the general public’s interest in the past is also way off the mark. It doesn’t explain the popularity of Glory or the fact that last year’s Signature Conference, sponsored by the University of Richmond and Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission attracted over 2,000 people. Guelzo is absolutely right that the biggest challenge is expanding the general public’s understanding of the war beyond the battlefield, but even here I would suggest that he misses the mark. Here in Virginia I’ve traveled to numerous historical institutions for exhibits and lectures over the past ten years that focus on issues of race and gender. You can even find it at the Museum of the Confederacy. [“Before Freedom Came” takes us all the way back to 1992.] No doubt, public historians have struggled with the question of how to attract African Americans to Civil War related events, but there is no magic bullet here. All you can do is continue to work to present the general public with projects that reflect solid scholarship and a commitment to inclusiveness.
The extent and scope of our national Civil War commemoration will reflect local urges to take steps to organize. No doubt, we will see much more of it in certain places around the country, but we should keep in mind that it does not have to be all or nothing.
A casino at Gettysburg is a really bad idea. This video was played today during the public hearing before the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission. At the same time I just love the manipulation involved in utilizing superstar historians such as David McCullough and documentarian, Ken Burns. For some reason we believe that because Matthew Broderick and Stephen Lang were in Civil War related movies that they command authority in the way we think about the past. Actually, I find the local activists to be much more interesting since the casino will directly impact their community. Enjoy the video.
A few of you have asked if I could put together an overview of the many posts that I’ve done on the subject of black Confederates. This is a start and it’s something that I will come back to to update and expand. This will hopefully answer common questions that new readers have about my own position on this subject as well as provide a reliable list of resources for further reading. You can find a link to this post in the navigation menu at the top of the page.
Regular readers of this blog are all too familiar with the frequency of posts on the hot topic of black Confederates. It is safe to say that the largest number of posts on this blog have been devoted to the subject and collectively constitute what I hope is a helpful resource for those who are trying to wade through the morass that defines this divisive topic and public debate. With so much attention focused on this subject it may be difficult for readers to know where to begin. This page is meant to serve as a road map to help readers to better understand the evolution of my own thought about this subject as well as advice on where to go for credible information and what to avoid. I should point out that my writing on this subject is not meant or intended as an authoritative or final word on the subject. I’ve used this blog to ask questions and to offer some of my own ideas about various aspects of the subject and on how others have approached the subject.
You will find a wide range of posts on this issue, but all of them revolve around a basic assumption that this subject is part of a broader discussion of slavery and race relations during the Civil War. Most of the posts on this site can be found under a category heading, titled, “black Confederates.” [Keep in mind that you are reading them in the reverse order in which they were published.] I suggest that you begin with my two earliest posts on the subject in which I begin to sketch out my own interest in the subject in response to the publication of Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation [Part 1 and Part 2 and here]. One of the biggest problems is the lack of any consensus on language and how to describe the presence of free and enslaved blacks in Confederate armies. In my view we must begin by assuming that blacks were not soldiers based both on the refusal on the part of the Confederate government as well as the almost complete lack of wartime evidence (enlistment papers/muster rolls, etc.)
I’ve never had to issue a formal disclaimer for this blog, but with the start of the new school year now seems like an opportune time, especially for a select few. It goes without saying that the views expressed on this site are mine and mine alone. I do not write in any official capacity as the department chair and as a history teacher at St. Anne’s – Belfield School, though I do write about my experiences in the classroom. Civil War Memory has no official connection to my place of employment and the St. Anne’s – Belfield School does not endorse this site in any way. The URL of this site is is not associated with the school and this website is financially maintained by me.
I hope that clarifies things.
It’s hard to believe that this ridiculous story about a Confederate flag cake is still in the news. There are legitimate issues having to do with the public display of the Confederate flag, but this is not one of them. It looks like Winn Dixie has taken a slight financial hit as a result. Actually, I have no idea whether there is a correlation. The company pulled the cake after receiving a complaint and issued a public statement that this was an “error in judgment.”
If someone had a problem with the cake what they should have done was purchase it and eat it. In fact, interested parties could have wrapped the purchasing, eating, and digesting of the cake around all kinds of symbolism. Oh well, another wasted opportunity. Move on folks, there is nothing to see here.
One of the books that I am currently reading is Julie Flavell’s When London Was Capital of America (Yale University Press, 2010). It’s one of those books that allows you to shift perspective on an important period in American history. In this case Flavell pushes her readers to acknowledge the political and cultural significance that London held for many Americans in the last decade before the Revolution. I always remind my students that our tendency to view the colonists as Americans in waiting obscures the extent to which they tried desperately to remain British. This book is fleshing out that idea for me.
Chapter 2 focuses on the challenges that slaveowners experienced when bringing their property to the metropolis. American slaves were exposed to an entirely new set of conditions and influences, which, in turn challenged and reshaped the master-slave relationship. Flavell structures this chapter around Scipio, who was the slave of Henry Laurens of South Carolina. Scipio changed his name to Robert upon arrival in England. The author uses Robert to discuss stories of runaway slaves as well as the Somerset trial, which resulted in the freedom of one slave. None of this is new to me. What is new to me is Flavell’s discussion of the influence of poor/destitute whites on the perceptions of American slaves:
Back in the colonies there was nothing to equal what Robert saw. What buildings, what monuments, what dress, display and equipage! The townhouses and the plantations of the Carolina rich only gave a foretaste of the reality. But at the same time – what poverty, what deprivation! Even the slave quarters at home probably did not prepare him for what he encountered on his solitary perambulations through the Great City.
What he saw were some of the poorest white people in the empire, degraded, half-starved, stinking and desperate, stripped of all dignity, people whose conditions was enough permanently to change his idea of the white race. ‘[T]hey learn here to despise whites.’ So wrote a West Indian planter of the plantation slaves who were brought to London.
This got me thinking about the extent to which such an analysis may apply to the thousands of slaves, who were present in the Confederate army as personal servants and impressed workers. We’ve discussed how different roles played by slaves in the army challenged and shaped the master-slave relationship, but how did the sight of poor whites contribute to this dynamic? The sight of poor whites and yeoman farmers following orders and, at times, living in squalid conditions may have been a shock for slaves. More specifically, the strict discipline imposed on enlisted men by officers, who were also their social and political superiors in peace time may have challenged slaves’ assumptions about their own place within the antebellum racial hierarchy. How often did slaves see the kind of wartime discipline imposed on white men by other whites before the war? I think this is something that needs to be analyzed much more extensively.
Just a few thoughts on this beautiful Sunday morning.
I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of the help that I’ve received over the years from my readers. My Crater manuscript is filled with references shared by readers and my own thinking has been shaped by the rich commentary that follows many of the posts on the subject. That continues as I begin my next book-length study of black Confederates. Today I was contacted by NPS historian, John Stoudt, who came across the following reference in Ed Ayers’s book, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 1992).
The following passage comes in a chapter that examines the culture of elections during the postwar period and the manipulation of the black vote.
It usually took far more than such bullying, though to gain the votes of disaffected or apolitical blacks. One Democrat wrote to North Carolina Senator Matt Ransom to solicit his support for a pension for “a very deserving honest old colored man He is very destitute and unable to work and he certainly is deserving a pension (if any body is). He votes the democratic ticket straight out and uses his influence for the democrats, and in the last election his vote and influence with that of twenty or thirty more colored voters saved the democrat party in my county.” The white Democrat had promised his black ally that he would “do all in my power to get his pension for him. I want him to have it and I want him to have it bad.” [W.H. Lucas to Sen. Matt Ransom, Jan. 6, 1892, Ransom Papers, UNC-SHC]
My question is whether it is possible to narrow down the type of pension that an elderly black man might have received in 1892. According to James G. Hollandsworth Jr., former slaves did not begin to receive pensions for their time in the Confederate army until 1927. Regardless of whether the pension had anything to do with the war itself, this should remind us that “black Confederate” pensions must be interpreted within the context of Jim Crow and white political control. Black men, who applied for pensions based on their roles as servants/slaves during the war had to maneuver through this structure and the possibility of financial gain surely would have influenced how they responded on the official forms. This passage also should caution us in drawing a direct connection between a pension form and the war. It is possible that some pensions given to former slaves reflect the kinds of election practices described above.