Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

David Herbert Donald (1920-2009)

539w-1Today I learned that we’ve lost one of the great Civil War/Lincoln scholars of the last 50 years.  One of the first books I read back in 1995, that started me on this journey to better understand this period of American history, was David Donald’s Lincoln Prize winning biography, Lincoln.  Since then I’ve read Donald’s other biographies of Charles Sumner and William Herndon as well as countless essays on a host of subjects.  I can honestly say that he’s proved critical in my understanding of the Civil War and Lincoln.  In the many interviews that I’ve seen Donald always appeared to be the consummate gentleman.  While an employee for Borders Books and Music (Rockville, MD, 1995-98) I organized a day-long Civil War event that included a number of well-known scholars.  Having recently read Donald’s Lincoln biography I decided to invite him to take part.  Of course, I knew it was a long shot and while he was unable to attend we actually talked on the phone for close to 30 minutes.  We talked all things Civil War and he provided me with an essential list of books to read.

Thanks Professor Donald

Was John Venable a Black Confederate Soldier?

Update as of 5/20: My contact at the NCDAH checked the Adjutant General’s “Roll of Honor” and did not find John W. Venable listed. This was a list (in no way complete) of soldiers serving in NC regiments compiled between 1862 and 1863 or ’64.

Update as of 5/19: So here is where we stand.  First time John Venable is listed in the census he is a free black in his dad’s household – Jeff (which I take it is Jefferson) Venable who is a blacksmith in 1850 and again in 1860 in Surry County.  in 1870, John is listed as head of household and a farmer – his brother is a blacksmith however and they are in Yadkin County.  Ten years later John is listed as head and a blacksmith and living in Yadkin.  Being in Yadkin explains the affidavit from Sawyer who was in Yadkin (explains as in makes sense geographically).

We still have a number of questions that need to be answered.  How do we reconcile the clerk’s statement – no law for this – with the Sawyer affidavit?  My contact at the NCDAH has this to say:

On the one hand the Clerk was obviously wrong in that John Venable, as far as we can track him, is free and not enslaved.  But lets look at the clerk – C M McKaughan in 1920 he is 42 – so born after slavery.  He may have no concept of what a free black man was.  It’s weak but nonetheless plausible, I think.  It might be his only defense – born in a post-slave world, of age at Jim Crow, does he know of such a thing as a free black.  Thus when confronted with a colored woman applying for a pension he thinks “slave” and dismisses the application.  I think it says nothing one way or the other about service – only about what the clerk knew or understood of days before his birth.

Sawyers statement is problematic as well in that we can not substantiate the claim.  The problem is that no records exist that list a John Venable, mullato, as a soldier.  Moore’s Roster includes no listing.  So, what can we reasonably conclude at this point?  For one thing, the clerk is obviously wrong.  The man John Venable (middle initial is H) who has a wife Sarah is a mulatto and is a free person of color in 1850 and 1860.  Sawyers’ statement stands alone and can not be substantiated, which means that we cannot conclude based on the available evidence that John Venable was a black Confederate soldier.

Let me be clear that I am not saying once and for all that John Venable was not a black Confederate soldier, just that the available evidence does not permit us to draw that conclusion.  Perhaps Mr. Ijames has additional documentation in this case.  If so, I urge him to bring it to our attention.  Unfortunately, this is how many of these cases end up.  Primary sources are collected and a conclusion is drawn without corroborating it with other evidence and without giving attention to the obvious, that documents must be interpreted carefully and that often there is more than one legitimate interpretation.  This should be a lesson to all of us.


In one of his comments Earl Ijames referenced the name of Pvt. John Venable of the 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H as evidence of a legitimate black Confederate soldier.  There was no explanation attached except for the following: “Colored. Enlisted on June 5, 1861.”  Without any additional information it was impossible for me to respond or take part in the kind of discussion that serious historians ought to entertain – until now.  If Mr. Ijames is unable or unwilling to bring about that kind of discourse than I will with a little help from my friends in the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  I now have four documents related to Venable’s status in the Confederate army and quite a number of questions.

The documents include John Venable’s widow’s pension application. Unfortunately, I could not upload the second page of the pension application, but it does say, “disallowed no law for this” at the bottom.  The 1927 pension law that included former slaves made no provisions for their widows. The second document refers to him as a “good soldier” and the last document refers to Sarah as the “widow of a slave.”  According to my contact, John W. Venable shows up on the 1880 census in Surry County NC.  The census indicates that he was living with his wife Sarah, a daughter, and his occupation is listed as blacksmith. Venable could not be found in NC in the 1870 census and there appears to be no death certificate.

The published troop roster for 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H., lists a John W. Venable (no rank) and says this about his service: “Colored. Enlisted on June 5, 1861. No further records.” In compiling the roster for that company, the editors did consult some muster rolls. My contact spoke to one of the current editors (he was not around when they did the 21st Reg. volume) who suggested that if Venable had been found on one of the muster rolls, his entry in the published book would have indicated him present on that date.  There is a John Sawyers listed in 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H in the published roster, likely the fellow who provided the affidavit.

Here is where it gets very interesting.  There is no Compiled Service Record for John W. Venable on the NARA microfilm.  In addition, there are two other Venables listed in the published roster for Co. H. (A common name in that part of NC and the adjoining area of VA). My contact found them on the 1860 census, both of their families seemed to be on small farms.  The next move will be to look at the slave census and see if either of them had slaves.

This is why we have an obligation to ask questions and those who make claims have an obligation to back them up – nothing more, nothing less.  I don’t know whether this man was a soldier since we now have too many unanswered questions given the frequency of the name in the unit and the fact that there is no service record for John W. Venable.  As soon as I hear something more I will pass it on.

“Negro Pensioners are Not Classed as Confederate Soldiers”

clyburn2_edited-1That’s according to a document in the pension bureau correspondence files under Union County and in the year 1930 – when Wary Clyburn died.  A friend of mine in the North Carolina Department of Archives and History checked the yearly statement of pensioners produced by the Clerk of Court for the Auditor’s Office.  The following information was conveyed.  Clyburn appears in 1926 and is alphabetical in order with other pensioners – however under the remarks column (which is mostly empty) it clearly indicates he is “colored body servant, Capt. Frank Clyburn;” other remarks indicate a pensioner’s transfer between pension levels or between counties (and one hand written remark noting pensioner is deceased).  In 1927, after the addition of former slaves to the pension series, Clyburn is listed with one other man in a separate section titled “Negro Pensioners.”

There can be no denying that the pension bureau saw him as anything but an eligible body servant – it is how they consistently describe him.  In addition, the Attorney General’s ruling that they could not be soldiers suggests that a case for anything other than body servant cannot be made.  Wary Clyburn was a slave in the 1860s and as late as 1930 the state of North Carolina recognized him as a slave during the Civil War.

So, where does that leave the Sons of Confederate Veteran’s ceremony that honored Clyburn as a Confederate soldier this past summer?  More importantly, what does it say about Earl Ijames’s participation in that ceremony?  Why did he not correct the SCV and Kevin Adkins as they acknowledged Clyburn as a Confederate soldier.  Why did he not state specifically in the face of the camera that Clyburn was a slave whose presence in the army and on the battlefield had nothing to do with choice.  Finally, what is so disturbing is that Clyburn’s descendants were included in this charade.  You decide.  Here is a short clip from the Clyburn celebration.  Now you understand why I do not consider the SCV to be an organization that is serious about the history of the Civil War.

A Statement

It’s been quite exciting around here over the past few days and as you might imagine I’ve found it hard to keep up with all the comments.  The subject of “black Confederates” never fails to excite my readers, but the latest post, which has now topped 100 comments, seems to have taken the discourse to a whole new level.  Because of this I want to take a few minutes to make a few points.

First and foremost, I value your comments.  If I wanted this site to simply function as a forum for my own views than I would have turned off the comments option.  That, however, has always seemed to me to run counter to the very idea of blogging.  Over the past few years I’ve learned quite a bit from my readers and have been forced to reconsider positions on more than a couple of occasions.  While I value your thoughts this does not give you the right to insult me or turn this site into your own forum, even if you believe that I am guilty of the same.  Simply put, the First Amendment does not apply here.  A few of you out there will have noticed by now that your comments are not going through.  Please consider yourself temporarily banned from commenting on this site and please do not email me as they will go unanswered.  Let me say again that this will no longer be tolerated at Civil War Memory.  I retain the right to edit, delete, or ban IP Addresses.  You are free to hurl insults about me on other blogs (assuming you are allowed to do so) or you can start your very own blog.  Remember, blogging is free.  There are also countless Message Boards and Listservs that you can join in on and add to the growing chorus against me.  That’s fine and I accept that this is the price for jumping into the blogosphere.  Ultimately, my goal is to further discussion about those aspects of the Civil War that I find interesting and worthy of analysis.  The level of emotion and invective as of late has made that much more difficult to achieve and it has to stop.

Those of you who have been with me for some time now know that I am passionate about certain issues.  I make no apologies for that.  It can be seen in the frequency of certain subjects and especially in my tone.  Through it all, and with a few exceptions, I’ve always tried to provide reasons for my positions.  I claim no authority on any historical subject beyond what I’ve read and what I’ve researched/published.  Most of my posts include references to books, which reflects a strongly-held belief that I have no access to the historical past beyond what I’ve read.  [Click here to tour my library.]  We have a responsibility to question those who engage the public and who have assumed a position of authority within public circles.  They, in turn have the responsibility to respond if they expect to be treated as authority figures.  I expect the same from the students that I teach, from the readers of my blog, as well as those who have read my published work.  In turn, it is my responsibility to defend and explain myself in light of the positions that I hold.

I have written countless posts on the issue of “black Confederates” and have asked very hard and direct questions about those who make extravagant claims about their numbers as well as their role in the Confederacy.  In addition, I’ve read most of the scholarly literature that bears on this subject.  On a number of occasions I’ve questioned the public statements of Earl Ijames.  As an archivist employed by the state of North Carolina and as someone who has given press interviews and conducted countless workshops Ijames has a responsibility to respond to questions and criticisms.  He may not want to and he may question the motivation and the character of the individual issuing the challenge, but that does not relieve him of his responsibility.  You will notice that at no time did I insult him within the content of the post and I even offered him an opportunity to share his research and clarify his position.  Unfortunately, Mr. Ijames chose to respond by insulting me [see here and here] and calling me an “idiot.”  He even went so far as to threaten to include a photograph of me at his next workshop.  Of course, Ijames is free to insult me until the cows come home, but it doesn’t help his standing as an authority on this subject one bit; in fact, it probably does significant damage to it.  Even better, when I requested a list of his publications on the subject he shot back by suggesting that he would reveal his research at some future date and when he is good and “ready to release it”, though he did invite me to one of his “workshops” on the subject.  This is not the response of someone who wishes to be taken seriously.

So where do we stand?  As far as I am concerned Earl Ijames is not an authority on this subject given his inability and/or unwillingness to engage those who are sincerely interested in this subject and who tend not to sit by passively when it comes to consuming historical studies.  Perhaps one day soon we will be lucky enough to learn more about Mr. Ijames’s work that by all indications has not progressed much beyond the collection of various primary sources.  But don’t take my word for it, even one of his former colleagues has questioned his overall view.

You can rest assured that I will continue to question others and work to bring about cordial and enlightening dialog on this blog.  I do so not as an absolute authority on any subject, but as someone who has the ability to think critically and question.  I expect each and every one of you to do the same.  Thanks.

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.]