Servant or Soldier?

"Grim Harvest of War" by Bradley Schmehl

While modern day Lost Cause advocates of the black Confederate myth overwhelmingly refer to these men as soldiers, their preferred narrative falls right out of a late nineteenth-century fascination with the loyal camp or body servant.  As I’ve said before there are almost no references to loyal black Confederate soldiers before the 1970s.  What you will find, however, are scores of Confederate Veteran magazine accounts and other works of popular literature that wax poetic about the loyal body servant, who rushed to the battlefield to tend to his master’s wounds or to escort his body home in the event of his death.

I am doing my best in the first chapter of my black Confederate book to explore the complex exchange between master and slave that ensued as a result of being away from home and loved ones and in light of the many challenges associated with camp life and battle.  The difficulty is compounded simply by the fact that we have so few black voices to work with.  What I find so disturbing about this and other interpretations of that relationship is that it harkens back to blatantly racist notion that slaves could not live without their masters.  The loss of the master was tantamount to the loss of a limb.  To put it bluntly, it’s dehumanizing.

One wonders what was going through Bradley Schmehl’s mind when he painted “Grim Harvest of War”.  Was he visualizing the stories of Thomas Nelson Page or those of Ann DeWitt?

15 comments

At the Heart of the Black Confederate Narrative

“Press Forward, Men!” by Bradley Schmehl

Here is a very, very rough excerpt from the introduction to Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory:

At one level the fight over the black Confederate narrative is about whether slavery deserves a central place in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War’s causes, its progress, and consequences.  Indeed, the timing of the introduction of the black Confederate narrative in the mid-1970s corresponds to a dramatic shift in our scholarly and popular understanding of the roles that African Americans played in bringing about their own emancipation and the end of slavery in 1865.  A renewed interest in black agency through a close study of fugitive slaves and black Union soldiers challenged the Lost Cause assumption that the loyalty of the black southern population was never seriously in doubt.   For modern day Lost Cause adherents, however, this development represented nothing less than a seismic crack in an interpretive foundation that made it easy to discuss the Confederacy and even front line soldiers without having to wade into the tough questions of slavery and race.

In effect, the black Confederate narrative dismantled these new interpretations not by denying slavery’s place or the importance of race, but by offering a counter-narrative that located the Confederacy itself at the center of progressive race relations and emancipation itself.  The presence of large numbers of black soldiers and loyal slaves outlines a picture in sharp contrast to a racially segregated United States army and provides evidence that slavery was nearing its end based on internal factors rather than outside pressure.  Finally, it reaffirms the belief that the Reconstruction policies of the “Radical Republicans” were, in the words of William H. Dunning, a “serious mistake.”

16 comments

A Quick Thanks

Amazon.com Store

Just wanted to take a minute to thank those of you who have purchased Civil War books through the Amazon sidebar widget and my new Civil War Memory library/store, which can be accessed through the link (“Library) in the navigation menu.  I recently deleted the widget as part of my regular house cleaning of the sidebar and decided to try out another option.  The store allows you to shop through titles that I own or have read at one point or another without leaving my blog.  I have yet to enter my entire library and I will do my best to categorize them in a way that is easy to browse.  Once that is completed I will play around a bit with the design of the page.

The change seems to have worked as sales have risen quite dramatically over the past week.  As you know, I earn a small percentage on each sale, which allows me to purchase new books.  I recently ordered my friend, Will Thomas’s new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, which should arrive today.  So, again thanks for your continued support and keep buying books.  They are good for you.

0 comments

The Crater You Don’t Know

Crater Battlefield (USAMHI-SC735-RG667S-VOL.8-MOLLUS)

Yesterday I finalized the selection of images that will appear in my forthcoming book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.  Readers will recognize a number of them, but many will be published for the first time.  They include images of the 1937 Crater reenactment that appeared in Richmond newspapers as well as a wonderful postwar image of the Griffith House, which housed a small collection of artifacts and at least one member of the family into the twentieth century.  William Griffith’s decision to preserve the area around the crater ensured that it would not be lost to development.

I am not exactly sure where this is on the battlefield, though I am pretty sure that these are Confederate lines adjacent to Elliott’s Salient, where the explosion took place.  There is another image of the skulls that will appear in the book, which can also be found in Earl Hess’s recent study, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg.

The image above did not make the cut, but I wanted to share it with you because it represents such a sharp contrast with some of the more popular images of the landscape, many of which focus on the crater itself.  These early postwar images help us to imagine a lost landscape that has yet to be shaped by encroaching trees and the effects of a manicured 18-hole golf course that was in operation briefly in the 1920s.  If you look closely you will see at least one black individual.  Former slaves were a common sight on the battlefield collecting human remains for which they were paid based on  weight.

7 comments

The Next Interpretive Challenge

This morning I read Jim Loewen’s brief report of his recent visit to Richmond to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  He was struck by the changes to its public history landscape, both in the form of new monuments and introduction of tours that broaden the historical narrative to include individuals and groups that have for too long been left out.  Who would disagree?  I’ve been making this point for some time now.  In fact, I think it’s such an obvious point that I would suggest that public historians and educators have won the battle to reinterpret the Civil War era in a way that broadens and deepens our understanding along racial and gender lines. Of course, public historians and educators have not won the battle alone; in fact, their role may be secondary compared to the kinds of political shifts that have taken place since the end of the 1960s that have brought a myriad of voices into the public sector that reinforced the need for an interpretive shift.

Click to continue

7 comments