Not Everyone Is Upset With Me

Wow…these posts on Confederate slaves really do excite the masses. I really do love the excitement and outrage that it causes within certain groups since it tends to highlight the anti-intellectual streak that runs through our Civil War community.  You would think that with all the time that a few readers are spending on this site that they could have uncovered an entire regiment of black Confederate soldiers.  Anyway, I received this very short, but encouraging email from one of my readers this morning.

Your Thinking About the Civil War Sesquicentennial postings have been one of the better overviews of the causes of the war that I have read anywhere.  Maybe you can get it put in print as a sort of Causes of the Civil War for Dummies.  Also thanks for indulging me; I grew up in a Rural Ole South County seat Town and many of the things on your Blog have enlightened me and some have enraged me.  I recognize we are working from different world views and philosophies yet we are share a common goal of Historical Truth.   Thanks for the Blog and have a great weekend.

[You are very welcome.  It’s always nice to be reminded that the overwhelming majority of my readers are considerate, open-minded, and appreciative of what I do.  As always, thanks.]

The UDC, Black Confederates, and the Manipulation of the Past

Thanks to Betty Baye for a brief, but thoughtful column about a recent phone conversation with a receptionist at the national headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.  Apparently, Ms. Baye was invited to their national convention and decided to follow up to see if the organization included any African Americans.  The receptionist noted that somewhere between 60-93,000 blacks “served” in the Confederate army though “many” went to war as “body servants” with their masters.  Well, at least she didn’t suggest that they were soldiers, but one wonders what “many” is meant to denote or why we constantly fail to describe these men for what they were: slaves.

The author goes on to describe recent ceremonies conducted by the UDC and SCV to commemorate the “service” of black Confederate soldiers such as Creed, Cornelius, and Claiborne Holland.  I have no idea whether these men were enlisted as soldiers or just another case of sloppy research and poor analysis.  Of course a representative described their presence in the army as “patriots who loved our Southland and suffered in its defense.” Creed Holland’s great-great grandson called the occasion “a day of unification.”  Of course, I cannot say what primary sources were consulted to justify such a claim, though I am willing to wager that whatever the source it was not penned by any of the three men cited or even from the war years.  The author also cited the case of Henry Nenderson, but you can imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Kevin Levin, who regularly blogs about the Confederacy, upon seeing a photo of two white women dressed in mourning attire decorating Pvt. Henderson’s grave, wrote just last month that the women aren’t “honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave,” who was forced to join his master and who “must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar groups, Levin argues, “teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy,” and, in fact, “are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson’s life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was — a slave.” [Read my post on Henderson here.]

Some of you are no doubt tired of these posts on “black Confederates”, but I want to make it clear that I am not writing them for you.  My goal is to build up sufficient SEO weight to counter these ridiculous stories that hearken back to a naive Lost Cause narrative that emphasizes slave loyalty and, ultimately, the distancing of the Confederate experience from slavery.  The UDC has been distorting the history of slavery and the Civil War since the early twentieth century, but their increasing black membership is what is truly disappointing.  By involving the descendants of these men as soldiers with full military honors they are using these family members for their own aggrandizement.  No doubt, the family members involved simply want their ancestors to be remembered and to identify with a larger historical narrative.  If the UDC and SCV want to commemorate and remember the lives of these men than they should acknowledge them for what they were.  There is no shame in acknowledging these men as slaves.  In fact, in the case of Henry Henderson it only makes his life that much more worthy of remembrance.

I am going to conclude this post with Betty Baye’s own assessment:

When the black Hollands were memorialized, Virginia state Sen. Charles Hawkins, a Republican, said, “We need to come to grips with the ghosts of our past. … We need to understand this history if we are to grow and prosper.” Fine words. But some find it impossible to confront ghosts of beloved ancestors who engaged in the dirty business of buying, breeding and selling human beings — a business made no less dirty by speaking of it with gentle words; for example, calling a slave “servant,” a plantation a “farm,” and implying that slaves willingly, and knowingly, fought for a cause that, had it not been lost, would have perpetuated their bondage and spread the evil to yet more territories of a young nation. Rather, the United Daughters of the Confederacy comfort themselves with the words and imagery of Mary Nowlin Moon, who, in 1915, wrote of “a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine.”  Few members today, I daresay, see any irony either in their group hosting a “silent auction” at its national convention.

Wrong Cover

State of JonesA couple of days ago a representative of Random House contacted me to see if I might be interested in reviewing a forthcoming book, titled, The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded From the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer.  It’s one of the more interesting stories out of Mississippi and is the subject of an excellent book by fellow blogger and historian, Victoria Bynum.  I’m not overly excited about reading another book on the subject, but I do like John Stauffer’s work so I decided give it a look.  It arrived today, and, hopefully I will have the time to read it over the summer.  What struck me upon opening the package, however, is the cover, which shows both the United States and the Confederate States flags prominently displayed.

I can’t help but think that this is a great example of how the marketing to a general audience hasn’t quite kept up to pace with scholarship on the Confederacy and the South during the Civil War.  After all, this isn’t an example of North v. South or United States v. Confederacy, but an internal conflict within the state of Mississippi.  This story reveals a war that challenges our traditional assumptions and tired cliches that assume a monolithic Confederacy and a region committed to “Southern Independence”.

The two flags may fit neatly into our collective memory of the war, but perhaps an image of a fractured Confederate flag might be more appropriate.  Perhaps something even more exotic?  What kind of cover would you design for this book?

My Library

This is my first attempt at using my new HD video camera. I’m going to continue to play around with iMovie to improve the overall quality. Perhaps I will try uploading to Vimeo to get a comparison.  A number of other bloggers have experimented quite effectively with video blogging and have given me a number of ideas. Stay tuned…

Earl Ijames’s “Colored Confederates”

It looks like Earl Ijames is at it again.  You may remember this past summer that Ijames – a curator at the N.C. Museum of History – was involved in a grave site dedication for Weary Clyburn, who supposedly served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  I covered this story closely and offered a number of reasons to doubt these claims as I have for most of these silly stories about black Confederate soldiers.  Today it is being reported that Ijames will tell Clyburn’s story to 1,500 people later this week at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference in Raleigh.  The problem is that there is no evidence that Clyburn served in the 12th South Carolina Volunteers, though that should not stop Ijames from making the claim.

The available evidence suggests that Clyburn was a slave who went to war with Capt. Frank Clyburn (12th S.C.) and was the legal property of his father.  In the most recent issue of North and South Magazine (June 2009) historians Thomas Lowry and Rev. Alex H. Ledoux offer a few observations about the difficulties of researching “black Confederates.”  One of the examples they cite is Clyburn.  According to the two there is no listing for Clyburn in Broadfoot’s Roster and there is no record of him whatsoever in the National Archives – even under alternate spellings.  [In fact, every case they cite begins with the usual evidence and ends with no record of service.]  Clyburn did apply for a pension, but this is of no help in determining his status in the army, though without any official military records it points to the obvious.  Though not Ijames’s exact words, it is safe to assume that the reporter captured his overall view:

“The historically accurate term is ‘colored Confederates,'” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were freed blacks who offered their services.

Notice the lack of clarity in distinguishing between those who volunteered or were forced to accompany an officer.  They are treated as if they all deserve to be interpreted and remembered along similar lines – a complete lack of historic understanding.  How many free blacks openly served in Confederate ranks given the fact that the Confederate government did not allow it and that men in individual units were committed to running non-whites out of the army.

It isn’t clear whether Clyburn went to war just because his friend had gone; or he thought, as some soldiers did, that no matter who won, slaves would be set free; or he believed he could raise his stature by serving; or he fought because the South was the only homeland he had ever known and he was willing to die to protect it.

At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the available evidence doesn’t point to some of the more extravagant (or even modest) claims about thousands of loyal black Confederate soldiers.  Why is there such scant evidence?  Because they were slaves.  Look for their names in the private records of individual slaveholders and businesses, though we should always keep in mind that the vast majority have been forever lost owing to their status.  As I’ve said before, the most disturbing aspect of these stories is the deception of the general public as well as the families who are curious about their history.  History is a dangerous thing when you don’t know how to do it.

Thomas Jefferson’s New Digs

MonticelloYesterday my wife and I spent a couple of hours at Monticello’s new visitor center, which opened only a few weeks ago. Those of you who have visited Monticello in the past know that the old facility was too far removed from the actual home and the structure itself was in serious need of repair. The new complex sits right below Jefferson’s home and is accessible either by bus or a short walk.  The structure itself is spread out and the various attractions are easily accessible from a very pretty and spacious courtyard.  This makes for easy access to the movie theater, bookstore, restaurant, and exhibits.  The layout is apparently designed to control the flood of visitors that travel to Monticello each year and it does so effectively judging by the size of the crowd.

After purchasing our tickets [$20 for adults – up from $15] we headed on over to the movie theater.  The film “Thomas Jefferson’s World” has a running time of roughly 20 minutes and attempts to give the viewer the big picture of Jefferson’s life and his love for Monticello.  The producers took full advantage of the beauty of Monticello and the surrounding landscapes, but the overall thrust of the film is on the theme of freedom as understood in the Declaration of Independence and on his Bill for Establishing Freedom in the State of Virginia.  The movie gives a nod to slave life and a passing reference to Sally Hemmings, but the bigger problem is the absence of Jefferson, the man.  The final few moments are devoted to the legacy of Jefferson’s vision of freedom, which includes images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela, and, most recently, the inauguration of Barack Obama.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but one wonders whether the time could have been better spent exploring Jefferson’s life as opposed to a legacy that he, arguably, could not have interpreted or even approved.

MonticelloFrom there we headed over to the new exhibit rooms.  I’ve been looking forward to this for some time since I had a hand in the early development of the interactive exhibit, “Thomas Jefferson and the Boisterous Sea of Liberty.”  I had wonderful time sketching out ideas for an exhibit that would allow visitors to explore the complexity and implications of Jefferson’s ideas.  Such an exhibit is absolutely essential given our tendency to overlook the fact that the Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment who believed that the power of reason can be harnessed to improve society and government.  I worked with the staff at Monticello for close to a year and watched as our ideas took shape.  We consulted with historians and examined designs by a number of teams who worked to give us a visual image of the actual exhibit. If I could do it all over again I would major in public history and try to carve out a career in a museum or historic site of some kind.  Questions of how to present history to the general public fascinate me.

Upon walking into the exhibit room I immediately recognized the fruits of our labor.  It looked much like I imagined it when I last worked on the project.  It’s an incredibly attractive exhibit that utilizes various sized panels that cover different stages of Jefferson’s career as well as the major events that comprised his public career.  Smaller screens of different heights protrude from the background screens and allow the visitor to explore various aspects of Jefferson’s life.  Categories fall [“drip”] along a touch screen panel that the visitor can explore by touching.  So, for instance you can click on the Boston Tea Party for more information or a concept having to do with the struggle with Parliament.  The screen expands with images and additional text.  It’s incredibly user friendly, but I was a bit disappointed with the range of options available to the visitor.  Our original idea was to implement a web-style interface that would allow the visitor to click through to any number of screens.  For example, clicking on the concept of freedom might take you to John Locke or a panel on the Whig opposition in England, which in turn might take you to something else.  The exploration would be continuous.  Unfortunately, it looks like you are only given one click before having to choose another selection.  At the same time it is difficult to see how a visitor with little understanding of Jefferson and his world is able to piece together a coherent narrative from the screen options.  Yes, the screens along the wall do provide an overview of some of the most important events of Jefferson’s life, but it takes an inordinate amount of time and involves stepping back from the individual touch screens.  Overall, I think this exhibit has quite a bit going for it and I assume that aspects of it can be reprogrammed; perhaps they can tweak it as more visitors leave feedback.

MonticelloThere are additional exhibit halls, the first focuses primarily on the architecture of Monticello, while the second explores various aspects of life at Monticello as well as Jefferson’s travels.  Between the movie and the exhibit hall it is clear that the staff intended to make life at Monticello and the house itself the main focus.  There is nothing wrong with this, given that the home itself is as much an attraction as the man who built it, but this minimizes the amount of attention that can be given to Jefferson’s life and accomplishments.  Visitors will be hard pressed to find anything about Jefferson’s two terms as President of the United States.  Overall, while the exhibits are accessible and engage the visitor I couldn’t help but feel as if Jefferson himself had been lost.  If I were to make one recommendation it is the need for a video/exhibit that explores Jefferson’s public career in more detail, especially his presidency.

It is important to keep in mind that the center must both prepare visitors for their tour of the house and provide an overview of the man himself.  In short, time is of the essence.  Given that the movie is 20 minutes it is easy to imagine a family of four emerging and ready to take the short bus ride to the top of the mountain.  Ultimately, visitors wanting a more detailed overview of Jefferson will have to purchase a book from the gift shop.  Criticisms aside this is a very attractive and well thought out visitor center that is long overdue.  I couldn’t be more pleased to have played a small role in this project.