“All His Life He Was a White Man’s Darkey”

One of the most disturbing aspects of so called accounts of “black Confederates” is the almost complete absence of the voice of the individuals themselves.  All too often these men are treated as a means to an end.  Accounts all too often reduce complex questions of motivation to one of loyalty to master, army, and Confederate nation.  Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy [see here and here] now routinely publicize the discovery of what they believe to be black Confederate soldiers and in some cases even involve the descendants of these men, who almost always turn out to be slaves.  What is so striking is the failure on their part to acknowledge their roles as slaves even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  It is important that we see this as little more than the extension of the faithful slave narrative that found voice before the war and reached its height at the turn of the twentieth century.  Apart from the ability to influence the general public through websites, blogs, and other social media formats there is really little that is new in the more recent drives to rewrite black Confederates into the past.  The war, in the end, had little or nothing to do with slavery and slaves remained loyal throughout.

The extension of this faithful slave narrative in recent years can be clearly discerned in the case of Weary Clyburn.  I’ve talked quite a bit about Clyburn over the past few years and in recent weeks.  He seems to be the darling of heritage groups like the SCV as well as a favorite of curator Earl Ijames.  Consider the recent SCV ceremony that acknowledged Clyburn for his loyal service to the Confederacy and resulted in a military marker.  Sadly, this ceremony involved the descendants of Clyburn and gave them the false understanding that he had served in the army.  Clyburn was, in fact, a slave; however, that little fact is never mentioned during the ceremony and it is rarely mentioned in most modern accounts.  In the midst of all the flags, bagpipes, and praise by SCV speakers and Earl Ijames we learn absolutely nothing about Clyburn himself.  What we, along with Clyburn’s descendants, learn is what falls within the boundaries of the faithful slave narrative that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Consider Clyburn’s obituary, which appeared in the Monore Journal on April 1, 1930 under the title, “Old Colored Man Is Buried in the Uniform of Gray.”  He was given this “honor by reason of having been in the Confederate ranks and a life time of faithfulness to the men and their descendants who made up the Confederate armies.”  The obituary is clear to point out the distinction between being “in” the Confederate ranks and serving as a soldier.  Later in the notice the writer does note that Clyburn went to war to “cook for his master, Col. Frank Clyburn of the 12th South Carolina Regiment.”  The story of Weary saving Frank on the battlefield is referenced, which fits perfectly in the overall emphasis on faithfulness.

Had Uncle Weary been a white man he would have been a Confederate hotspur.  Being dark of skin and born a slave he could approach his ideal by being as near as the fighting white folks that he grew up among as his skin and lack of education would allow.  All his life he was a white man’s darkey and his principle did not change when came back from the war.  He went with his white folks and became a Democrat.

It’s a remarkable passage and tells us quite a bit about what white North Carolinians chose to remember about Clyburn’s life.  At every point, beginning with a reference to “Uncle” is the man himself ignored.  He was worth remembering because his actions could so easily be interpreted in a way that would not upset a well-established Jim Crow society by 1930 and at the same maintain their belief in loyal blacks both before, during and after the war.  After the war Clyburn was best known for his participation in Confederate veteran reunions; however, he apparently was never acknowledged as a soldier.  Rather, he played the fiddle at these events and around area hotels to bring in money.

The tragedy in all of this is that Weary Clyburn’s past did not have to be distorted for it to be recognized and honored.  The point that needs to be made is that Clyburn is a hero.  He survived the horrors and humiliation of slavery and war and even managed to make it through the height of the Jim Crow South.  If that is not worthy of remembering and commemorating than I don’t know what is.  Unfortunately, we may never be able to fill in the details of Clyburn’s life, which is itself part of the legacy of slavery and racism in this country.  Sadly, Clyburn is still playing the fiddle for various groups and individuals who for one reason or another choose to distort the past.

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“The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory”

Registration for the second “Signature Conference” sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission opened this week.  This year’s conference will take place at Norfolk State University on September 24, 2010 and will focus on the issues of race and slavery.  Norfolk State is an ideal place given its location.  It was one of those places where the war changed on the ground as scores of slaves made their way into Union lines.  Like last year the commission has assembled a dynamite team of scholars for the various panels.  They include, James O. Horton, who will chair the event, James McPherson, Ira Berlin, David Blight, Dwight Pitcaithley, among others.  Perhaps our friend Earl Ijames should attend to hear Bruce Levine discuss the myth of black Confederates.

This promises to be another entertaining and educational experience and I encourage all of you to register as soon as possible.  I have been asked to live blog the event, which I agreed to do. Given my experience last year I have a much better idea of how to go about it.  Hope to see you there.

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The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

Here is the second post in the ongoing series on Civil War classics written by students in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar. Today Joseph Rizzo reviews David Potter’s classic, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861Read other reviews in the series.

Professional historians, to varying degrees, believe that slavery was elemental to the coming of the Civil War.  While there is disagreement as to the ways that the conflict over slavery and wage labor infused sectional differences, David Potter has arguably done more than any other scholar to forge a consensus on this issue.  In Impending Crisis, he explores the different ways that slavery ignited the sectional conflict while refuting generalizations that describe the North and South as culturally different. Some saw the struggle as a clash of profoundly dissimilar cultures whose disparities transcended the difference over slavery. Others had a more economic opinion and viewed the conflict as a clash between economic interests of an emerging industrialist North and an agricultural South.  A third viewpoint saw the conflict arising from different values between the sections. Potter’s criticism with these three arguments is that they all embellish the differences between the North and South and fail to see the similarities between the two regions. Potter displays how similar northerners and southerners were, and that a sense of American nationalism permeated both cultures more than historians have acknowledged.

Although the cultural, economic, and ideological explanations recognize slavery as an issue in sectional division, they neglect its significance within American culture. Potter shows how slavery was a key element to all three of the explanations for division. “Slavery, in one aspect or another, pervaded all of the aspects of sectionalism,” argues Potter (44). In spite of the American nationalism and cultural homogeneity between the North and South, the slavery issue intensified following the acquisition of new territory following the Mexican-American War and caused both northerners and southerners to lose sight of how much alike they were and how many values they shared. With a breakdown of the two-party system nationally, the Election of 1860 represented how much the slavery issue isolated the two regions as the young Republican party won a victory despite only receiving Northern votes. Not surprisingly, the breakup of the country followed soon after.

By placing slavery at the forefront of the conflict, Potter continues the debate over the main cause of the war. Was the war inevitable? Was slavery the main cause? Michael Holt has led a movement against Potter’s interpretation and responded with a study claiming that slavery was not the central reason, and that the breakdown of the two-party political system caused disunion. William Freehling’s work adds to the historiography by arguing that the South’s culture was not unified over slavery and that these internal divisions fostered anxieties, which fueled extremism. Future studies that elaborate from Potter’s traditional political narrative and infuse political culture will give a more complete analysis of 1850s. Not only understanding how Americans viewed singular events but also how they interpreted the world in which they lived will open new discussions about the causes of the war.

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Exploring the Rebel Yell with Waite Rawls

I am a fervent supporter of the mission of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and its President and CEO Waite Rawls.  The museum has had to deal with some difficult financial challenges over the past few years as well as defending its reputation in a city that has found it difficult to come to terms with its Confederate past.  Through all of this Mr. Rawls has done an excellent job of maintaining the museum as an educational and research institution.  In this video Mr. Rawls discusses the research that went into trying to uncover what the famous Rebel Yell sounded like.  Click here for Part 2 as well as the rest of the MOC’s videos on YouTube.  Enjoy.

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The Burden of Southern History

This is the first guest post in a series of reviews written by students who are currently enrolled in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar at West Virginia University.  Students will contribute 300-500 word reviews of Civil War classics.  Click here for more information on this series.  This review of Woodward’s classic collection of essays was written by Ashley M. Whitehead.  Comments are strongly encouraged.  Read other posts in this series.

Debates concerning the origins and nature of southern distinctiveness have occurred since the antebellum era.  Southerners themselves initially cited their region’s political system, which was deeply rooted in the “peculiar institution” of slavery and state-based government, as the South’s most distinctive feature.  Historians and southerners writing after the Civil War, including proponents of the Lost Cause, argued that the South’s “innocence, traditionalism, virtuousness, and purity” separated the South from a more modern, “aggressive,” and industrialized North—a proposition that held sway up through the middle of the twentieth century.

However, as C. Vann Woodward notes in his seminal work, The Burden of Southern History, northerners were equally complicit in fostering such views of “southern distinctiveness.”  Woodward argues that, beginning with the Lost Cause and sectional reconciliation era of the 1880s, northerners joined the South in celebrations of its regional culture and that they further embraced the idea of southern distinctiveness by portraying the South as a haven and refuge from the disconcerting corruption and rapid modernization of the post-war North.

During the early and mid-twentieth century, Woodward writes, the notion of southern distinctiveness acquired new meaning as Americans began to embrace and promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” on a truly global scale.  This so-called “national myth” portrayed America as a global leader that had never known defeat and whose foundations rested upon an eternal commitment to liberty and morality.  Woodward argues that, in order to justify this “national myth,” Americans used the South as its scapegoat for its previous moral and political failures, including slavery, civil war, and periodic economic troubles.  By “dumping” its historical and moral burdens on the South, Americans thus were able to purge their own (perceived) triumphant national history of its historical baggage; such efforts, in turn, resulted in the increasing differentiation between “mainstream” America and the South and in the perpetuation of the myth of southern distinctiveness.  Therefore Woodward argues, in reality, the South is not as inherently unique as we, as a nation, have come to believe; rather, it is the South’s experiences—of defeat and of an imagined separatism—that have made it seem so distinct.

Woodward’s numerous later additions to his original version of The Burden of Southern History provide insightful commentary on how and why our more recent perceptions of the South have changed over time.  Woodward writes that, in light of the devastating Vietnam War era, Americans have come to see the South as somehow “less distinct,” and its experiences of failure, moral dilemmas, and economic/political troubles as “more American.”  Woodward’s observation is astute, as it reflects the influence that contemporary political issues and national identity crises play in our history as a whole, and our view of the South in particular:  The idea of southern distinctiveness surged when America’s burdens became viewed as strictly “the South’s burdens.” Similarly, the South became less distinct and “more American,” (or America, more “southern”) when America began to experience the same “burdens” that previously had been associated strictly with southern history.

Woodward’s  brilliant analysis of the South’s history, identity and place in American memory shows that southern history is “messy,” ironic, paradoxical, and a complex mix of “lived” experience, myth, and imagination. Woodward writes that truth and meaning from the emotionally-charged historical debates over the South’s contested history is perhaps best found in the work of the poet or an author such as William Faulkner who might better understand the relationship of myth and reality.   Woodward proves himself more than worthy as a conveyor of such truth and meaning.  Indeed, Woodward serves as a sort of poet-historian who understands, far better than most writers, the burden of the past on the present, and vice versa.

Future historians might enrich Woodward’s analysis of the nation’s original literary consciousness of the South through further engagement with literature produced in or about the South in both the antebellum and post-bellum years.  Such studies would help to clarify the depth and regional breadth of nineteenth-century popular opinion concerning the cultural distinctiveness of the South.  Additional scholarship on the differences between geographical and ideological conceptions of “the South” also would help to clarify what, exactly, historians—and the American public—mean when they refer to “the South” and would help to explain how and why those definitions have evolved over time. Finally, historians would contribute significantly to our understanding of the close relationship of history, memory and the perpetuation of what Woodward has called “historical burden” by continuing to evaluate how and why current events and cultural trends have further altered (or not altered) our present-day perceptions of the South.

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