My talk last night in Roanoke on Silas Chandler and black Confederates went very well. Of course, I heard that a phone call had notified organizers that a protest was likely, but it never materialized. In fact, the audience was attentive and they asked some excellent questions during the Q&A. It’s easy to exaggerate the significance of that small, but vocal group of partisans who clearly have an emotional stake in this “debate” rather than an intellectual or scholarly interest in this subject. Last night reminded me that there is a general public that is curious about this subject, but doesn’t quite know what to make of it. Many in the audience had heard about the Virginia textbook scandal from last year. What I love about this topic is that it gives me the opportunity to educate the general public about a widely misunderstood topic as well as the dangers of doing research Online.
By focusing on Silas Chandler I am able to steer clear of the numbers game and address more important aspects of the discussion, including the problem of utilizing Internet sources. Most importantly, by poking holes in the standard account of Silas, which pervades the Web, I can demonstrate what is wrong with the state of this discussion in its entirety. Silas really is the poster boy of this subject.
I am putting the finishing touches on my presentation for tomorrow evening at the Western Virginia Historical Society in Roanoke. One of the points that I want to stress is that the black Confederate reference is relatively new to our cultural lexicon. As I’ve suggested before, references to hundreds or even thousands of loyal slaves serving as soldiers in the Confederate army can be traced to the period following the movie, Glory in 1989. Despite the insistence on the part of a small, but vocal group black Confederate soldiers simply did not exist in our collective memory until recently. We have already discussed the case of the Confederate monument at Arlington, which was dedicated in 1914 [and here]. Primary source material related to the dedication ceremony as well as early histories of the site clearly references the image of the black man following soldiers into battle as a body servant (slave). To insist otherwise is to engage in presentism.
It may be helpful to consider a scene in Gone With the Wind that features just the kind of image that is so often misrepresented today. During the evacuation of Atlanta and amidst all of the confusion of Federal shells and runaway carriages Scarlett happens upon former slaves from Tara, including “Big Sam”. He reassures Scarlett: “[T]he Confederacy needs it, so we is going to dig for the South…. [D]on’t worry we’ll stop them Yankees.”
Let’s put aside for now the overt imagery to loyal slaves that is pervasive throughout the movie. What is worth pointing out is that no one describes these men as soldiers and it is unlikely that moviegoers would have made this assumption as well. They would have viewed these men simply as loyal slaves to the South. More specifically, it looks like these men functioned as slaves impressed by the Confederate government.
In the hands of the careless they are whatever you want them to be.
Thanks to CBS’s “Sunday Morning” show for producing one of the most balanced accounts of the Civil War Sesquicentennial that I’ve seen in some time. Not only was it thoughtful, but it managed to include a number of important perspectives without taking on the loaded question of why and how we are still fighting the Civil War. Click here for one of the worst examples of this style of reporting out of England.
Dr. Michael Kogan, a member of Archibald Gracie Camp #985, the New York City Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, gives a few brief remarks at the annual Grant’s Tomb Commemoration, hosted by New York’s Sons of Union Veterans on Palm Sunday, April 17th, 2011. The speech is a wonderful example of the continued hold of sectional reconciliation on our popular memory of the war. The only problem is that it is unlikely that General Grant would have approved of such language. Toward the end of his remarks Kogan applauds Grant for his terms of surrender at Appomattox, but the SCV would do well to remind itself of what he thought of the Confederate cause. Grant offers a very succinct reflection on it in his memoir:
I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”
For Grant the war was not simply a battle between brave soldiers and shared values. I have little doubt that if given the opportunity to do so Grant would remind Kogan and the New York chapter of the SCV that there was a right side and a wrong side in the Civil War.
I just finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War, which in some ways functions as a companion volume to The Confederate War – published back in 1997. Both studies offer highly readable critiques of a wide swath of Civil War historiography with an eye toward pointing out gaps in the literature. In the earlier study that gap was a tendency to ignore the extent to which white Southerners forged a national identity around such military icons as Robert E. Lee. Gallagher asked readers to think beyond the question of why the South lost and explore how the Confederacy managed to resist a concerted effort on the part of the United States to reunite the nation for four long years as well as how it managed to come close to independence on more than one occasion. That opening in the historiography has been filled by Gallagher’s own graduate students and others, who have given us a much richer picture of nation building in the South.
In The Union War, Gallagher’s historiographic critique brings into sharp relief our tendency to minimize and even ignore the meaning that Northerners attached to Union. In my opinion there is no one better at distilling academic debates for a general audience. Gallagher devotes some of his sharpest criticisms to historians such as Chandra Manning and Barbara Field, who suggest that the massive amount of bloodshed could only be justified with emancipation and the end of slavery. On the contrary, Gallagher argues that this runs rough shod over the the meaning of Union to the vast majority of Americans who rallied around the flag and Lincoln’s call to arms. As in his previous study, Gallagher devotes a great deal of time to the importance that Americans attached to the army as a symbol of the nation and to the citizen-soldier, who exemplified its strong sense of sacrifice and patriotism. At the center of this stood Ulysses S. Grant, who has been all but lost to our collective memory of the war.