UDC Uses and Abuses the History of Slavery

In my last post on “black Confederates” I wondered whether the two women dressed in mourning attire were white.  Well, I have no doubt that the women in  these images are indeed white.  And…yes, they are decorating the grave of “Pvt. Henry Henderson, a black Confederate soldier.” This article is so poorly reported that it is impossible to know for sure the status of Henderson without going to the archives.  That said, I have an idea.  According to the article:

Henderson was born in 1849 in Davidson County, NC. He was 11 years old when he entered service with the Confederate States of America as a cook and servant to Colonel William F. Henderson, a medical doctor. Records show Henry was wounded during his service, but he continued to serve until the war’s end in 1865. He was discharged in Salem, NC, age 16.

As Peter Carmichael notes in his essay, Confederate officers often brought their slaves with them as camp servants as a reflection of their social status and for their services.  And many were even outfitted with uniforms.  After noting that 60-90,000 “black Confederates served” in the Confederate army the author notes that Henderson’s sons received their father’s one and only pension check from the state of Tennessee in 1926.  Of course, as many of you know the receipt of a pension check does not tell us much of anything about the status of black men in the Confederate army.  [Consider the case of Weary Clyburn and see a recent post by Robert Moore, here]

Like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy.  Henry Henderson deserves to have his story told as well as have his life recognized and honored by his descendants.  Based on the skimpy evidence provided in this article we should conclude that Henderson was a slave who happened to find himself with the army as a young boy.  That this boy was forced to join his master in the army at such a young age, and was eventually wounded, must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.  I often wonder what Henderson himself would say about such a spectacle.

The women in these images are not honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave.


Revisiting Peter Carmichael on “Confederate Slaves”

This guest post on black Confederates/Confederate slaves by historian, Peter S. Carmichael, ran last July and received a great deal of attention.  Given the number and range of comments on a recent post on the subject I thought it would be helpful to run it again for those of you who are new to the blog.  I refrained from responding to most of the comments since we are still mired in fundamental problems when confronted with this question.  Yes, a few of you out there get it that what is needed is serious research and attention to the question of what it is we are even talking about. Others are citing sources that make little sense without serious critical analysis while others are hung up on vague comparisons with the north that have nothing to do with the subject.  And then there are always a few on the fringe who fail to see beyond their attachment to contemporary political/cultural issues.  As far as I am concerned, Carmichael’s essay constitutes a starting point for those of you who first want to understand the broad analytical contours of the subject.  It does not provide all the answers, but does address the questions that need to be examined.

“We were the ‘men’”: The Ambiguous Place of Confederate Slaves in Southern Armies

On August 6, 1861, the Richmond Enquirer ran an extended article, entitled “Ebony Idols,” on a camp slave named Sam who refused to leave his master during the battle of First Manassas. Sam received public acclaim for his stalwart behavior under fire, and the Enquirer recounted a boastful speech that he delivered to a group of Richmond slaves. Sam promised his black audience that “I wasn’t scared. I am not one of those kinds.” The story of Sam was intended to assure white audiences that slaves, even when the Yankees were shooting at them, would remain forever faithful. This claim of slave fidelity largely rested upon the Enquirer’s denying Sam his manliness, and utilizing antebellum stereotypes to describe black men as effeminate sambos.

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Comment From H.K. Edgerton

You can imagine my surprise when I noticed this comment from H.K. Edgerton in response to the last post.  For those of you who do not know of Mr. Edgerton, he is one of the more outspoken and charismatic proponents of the black Confederate myth.  Interestingly, Mr. Edgerton is African American.  He can be found in a Confederate uniform and carrying a Confederate flag on long treks through the South.  His last mission took him to the inauguration of Barack Obama in January.  I’ve offered extensive commentary about Mr. Edgerton over the course of the life of this blog, which you can find at the bottom.

It is unfortunate that those of you who were educated in the Federal school system have such a dim view of the honorable Black confederate soldier. If you can be so proud of the Black Union soldier who received half the pay of his counterpart, one who fought with a bayonet at his back from his white counterpart, watched as his wives were raped by the union soldier and used as concubine, watched as his Southern Black and White families homes were burned, food stuffs to feed innocent women and children stolen, animals killed, women raped and murdered. You go ahead and be proud of the Battle of the Craters, and Denzelle Washington’s Glory as the Union Whites murdered their black’s returning to their lines.

Here in the South we shall continue to honor Napoleon Nelson ant the other the Black men who rode with the Honorable General Nathan Bedford Forrest , and the likes of Holt Collier, Levi Carnine, Rev. Mack Lee and celebrate Dick Poplar in Petersburg, Virginia. The shame is that you truly believe the propaganda of your Northern Master.

Unfortunately, Edgerton’s comment follows the standard Lost Cause narrative along with vague comparisons/references to the challenges that blacks faced in the Union army as well as the North generally.  Still, it’s nice to know that he is reading the blog.  See the following posts for additional commentary about Edgerton:

H.K. Edgerton Marches Through Texas

H.K. Edgerton and Nathan B. Forrest: Brothers in Arms

The Real Price of Forgetting the Past

H.K. Edgerton Goes to Washington

Edgerton Sighting in Ringgold, Georgia

The Last Black Confederate Surrenders

Mourning Black Confederates

memorialservice03I have no idea when this ceremony honoring black Confederates (Confederate slaves) took place or who is behind this particular website, but this image of two women dressed in mourning attire is quite striking. Are the women who are placing flowers at the grave site white? If they are than we’ve come very far indeed in rewriting history and reconfiguring our understanding of race and gender in the antebellum and Civil War South.  Bizarre indeed.

Some choice quotes:

“Randall Burbage, commander of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Confederate heritage is something that cannot be bought or earned, but instead has been inherited through birthright.”

“Our heritage, black and white, is intertwined. It has been since the founding of this country.  It gives us the opportunity to see where we came from and where we’re going. Being a Confederate is something to be proud of. We honor these men because they are Confederate soldiers.” – Theresa Pittman, president of the S.C. Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy

Should the SCV and Richmond Partner to Improve Oakwood?

oakwood-george-f-gilbert-csaI support the Sons of Confederate Veteran’s request to partner with the city of Richmond to improve the grounds at historic Oakwood Cemetery.  Such a project would work to improve a public space and bring attention to an aspect of the city’s rich history.  The plan is to preserve the Soldier’s Monument replace deteriorated grave markers with upright headstones.  Actually, the SCV has been pushing for just such a partnership for a number of years, but has been met with resistance from various officials.  It’s not difficult to imagine why and even the SCV seems to understand it, though I have to wonder whether they really appreciate the nature of these concerns or are even willing to take ownership of their role in shaping recent perceptions of the organization as well as the history of the Confederacy.

While I support the organization’s efforts I do have a few concerns.  First, I imagine that the cost-effectiveness of such a venture will have to be demonstrated.  If the city’s hesitation is a reflection of the ambivalence of the local population than they will need to show that this will not place a heavy burden on the taxpayers.  After all, it’s their money and if they do not want it to go to such a project than that’s the end of it.  My bigger concern, however, is with the marking of graves.  The SCV has shown utter incompetency when marking soldier graves in the past, especially the marking of so-called black Confederates.  I would hope that some type of oversight will be exercised by the city to ensure that those buried are not used as propaganda in the SCV’s ongoing campaign to beautify its image.  One must wonder how many black Confederates are buried in Oakwood.

Other than that this seems to be a worthwhile project that will benefit the city and state.

Monument to South Carolinians Unveiled on Spotsylvania Battlefield

_2MM1779.JPGThis weekend the Sons of Confederate Veterans from South Carolina unveiled a monument to McGowan’s brigade on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  The monument commemorates the fighting that took place at the “Bloody Angle” on May 12, 1864.  New monuments are barred from most battlefields, but the federal legislation creating the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in 1927 permits states to continue to place markers on the field.  As of 4/12/09 there were two comments following the article:

1. The McGowan Brigade Monument is a fitting tribute honoring brave soldiers who died in a misguided attempt to subvert the Constitution and attack the United States of America. No one should misinterpret this monument as a tribute to the Confederacy.

2. Thank you for this well writen article. I enjoyed it very much. I realized how far from home our Confederate soldiers traveled in their attempt to preserve our Constitution in their 2nd War for Independence.

“Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln”

I am making my way through Barry Schwartz’s Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and learning quite a bit about the gradual decline of his prestige following WWII.  In chapter 5 I came across a reference to a series of short cartoons titled, “Hard Drinkin Lincoln”, which was done by Icebox.com.  A quick search on YouTube brought up three episodes.  Please don’t watch this if you are easily offended.  Enjoy!

Episode 2: “Super Abe”

Episode 5: “The Rocky Hitler”

Are History Textbooks On Their Way Out?

Over the past two years I’ve made the sharpest transitions in the way I approach the teaching of history.  In my survey courses I’ve dispensed with the traditional textbook in place of individual secondary sources.  I’ve also begun experimenting with Social Media applications as a way to broaden both the way my students communicate with one another as well as the audience for their projects.  The place of the textbook in the survey course raises a host of questions about the purpose of the course and the skills that we, as teachers, hope to impart to our students.  In a recent post, David Bill argues as to why textbooks ought to be permanently shelved in light of the advantages the Internet offers.  On the face of it I agree with Bill.  Not only are they much too expensive, they are also environmentally and economically unfriendly.  The crux of his argument is as follows:

No matter how you slice it, a textbook cannot provide the same richness, depth, and perspective as the Internet.  A textbook limits a student, it prevents inquiry and further investigation.  As educators, if we are attempting to develop critical thinkers and challenge our students to ask thoughtful questions, they need to have access to multiple points of view and should be able to investigate on their own.  A textbook cannot provide that, the Internet does.

To help make his point, Bill also includes a funny little satirical video made by a couple of high school students and their teacher which shares the limits of their history textbook.  I love the fact that they use my AP textbook to make their point.

Yes, there is something cute about the video, but what in the end is the point?  On the face of it there seems to be nothing mutually exclusive between the textbook and the Internet.  My guess is that Joe has a laptop within arms reach and if he wants to access more information about Frederick Douglass or check out a map to be saved for future reference he can do so.   Joe’s frustration is easy to identify and his point is well taken.  If we are to keep the discussion on the level of the ease with which information can be accessed than this is a non-issue: Internet 1, textbook, 0.  It seems to me, however, that the transition to a digital classroom is much more complex and involves questions that go beyond the ease with which students can navigate through dense amounts of information.

The tipping point in the Internet v. Textbook debate has much more to do with the way in which we conceive of the idea of the history survey as opposed to simply a question of information access.  As I mentioned in a recent post, the history textbook fits neatly into a traditional course whose overarching goal is to communicate a foundational narrative that can be absorbed and regurgitated in one form or another.  Within this framework instructors can introduce historical concepts such as perspective, causation, narrative, etc., but the textbook functions as the bedrock.  It serves as a reminder (even if not intentional) that there is a standard narrative that can be known and consumed for purposes such as the cultivation of good citizenship and polite conversation.  I should also mention that there is something very comforting about textbooks.  They may be overpriced and boring as hell, but they do provide a bit of comfort to students who need something tangible at an arm’s reach.  Even with my move away from textbooks to individual secondary sources I’ve had students inform me that they miss the textbook for these very reasons.  Of course, I freely admit that this probably has more to do with how they’ve been conditioned to think of as the study of history from an early age as opposed to anything innate. Our student friend, Joe, may in fact be more of an exception than the rule.  Some of our students, like Joe, who’ve embraced the Web2.0 Revolution have no doubt moved beyond this entirely and have embraced the potential of the digital classroom.  For these students, the value of information is measured in relationship to the number and quality of hyperlinks extending to other sites as well as their ability to utilize it for their own purposes.  In short, textbooks are static while the Internet is dynamic.

It’s become almost a truism that our students are much more technically savvy than the rest of us, but I’ve come to a different conclusion.  Yes, they spend a great deal of time on the Internet, but this does not necessarily translate into an ability to navigate and manage its content and tools successfully and in a way that deepens their understanding of the past.  The comfort level may be one thing, however, there are skills that still need to be taught.  The move away from textbooks will only happen once teachers are trained to think of the Internet as a tool to help students think historically and as historians in their own right.  It’s not just about being able to double-click for more information about Douglass or saving a map for future use.   My point is that the usefulness of textbooks hinges not simply on the ease with which students can access information, but on how instructors conceive of their classrooms.  In abandoning the textbook for the richness of the Internet, including Social Media tools as well as the vast array of primary sources, we are engaging our students to think about the process and presentation of history through the sifting of vast amounts of information.  I suspect that this is the main reason why textbooks will not be abandoned in the near future; their role remains deeply embedded within the history curriculum and they function as an anchor in a vast sea of information.  What we need is something more like a gestalt shift in our fundamental goals as history teachers.  The rethinking of the history classroom must happen on the K-12 levels, but especially in our undergraduate and graduate schools of education.  A few questions come to mind:

1. Is the study of history a set of facts to be memorized or a process to be experimented with and shaped into various forms?

2. Should we be emphasizing the complexity of fewer historic events over a cursory understanding of a more inclusive narrative?

3. To what extent are we comfortable as teachers with allowing students to draw their own conclusions about the past?

4. Are our classes designed to encourage students to think about history beyond the confines of our classrooms?

5. To what extent are we using our classes to encourage students to think about and weigh information?

Thanks for reading!