Remembering Alabama’s Secession and “Lincoln bin laden”

You gotta love these commemorative events that on the surface seem to be about the Civil War, but are little more than forums for folks to complain about what they perceive to be our own oppressive government.  They always seem to bring together a true cast of characters.  In this case there is John Eidsmoe, Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law Emeritus at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, who goes on and on about the compact theory of government and states rights as an explanation for Alabama’s secession without ever mentioning slavery, as well as a woman who wears a t-shirt with Frederick Douglass, who she believes was an advocate for limited government.   All of them were brought together as a result of one Patricia Godwin who believes that the decision on the part of Confederate forces to fire on Fort Sumter was carried out because “Lin­coln bin laden had fortified the fort with arms and sup­plies.”  By the way, you won’t find one black person in the audience.  I guess they don’t remember secession as a crucial moment of freedom from an oppressive government.  The best part of this video is the end when a few of the participants are asked what would have happened if the southern states had never seceded.  Their responses are priceless.  I guess I just find it funny that people who believe in limited government would identify so closely with the Confederacy.  They must not know their history.

By the way, just in case you are interested in why the state of Alabama seceded, you will not find it in this video:

WHEREAS, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of President and Vice-President of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the Constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the northern section, is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security; therefore,

Be it declared and ordained by the people of the State of Alabama in Convention assembled , That the State of Alabama now withdraws, and is hereby withdrawn from the Union known as “the United States of America”, and henceforth ceases to be one of said United States, and is, and of right ought to be, a Sovereign and Independent State.

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The North Carolina Museum of History’s Loose Cannon

I hope everyone who had a chance to listen to Earl Ijames’s presentation last night on “colored Confederates” had a good time.  Unfortunately, I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to attend one of his talks in person, but I have learned quite a bit about his research and interpretation from various news items in which he is quoted.  While I agreed to take part in a public forum with Mr. Ijames at an upcoming academic conference it does not look like it will happen.  To be honest, I am much more interested in having Mr. Ijames present his work in a peer reviewed journal so that it can be judged by the historical community as a whole.  We are unlikely to see that any time soon as well.  In the mean time I will continue to share what I consider to be some of the more outlandish claims that Mr. Ijames has made over the past few years in various public settings.

The following news item takes us back to a presentation given by Mr. Ijames in November 2008 as part of the Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum Legacy Lectures Series.   According to the article, Ijames said the following:

“There are people out there who have made their careers out of saying that there was no such thing as colored Confederate soldiers,” said Earl Ijames, curator at the North Carolina Museum of History. “As a historian, I want the records and facts to speak for themselves.”…. “As a state archivist and as a curator, I have had access to a lot of documents and records that proves a part of our history, on one hand is controversial and has been deliberately swept over, and on another hand, we still have vestiges in this state that are alive and kicking.”

Mr. Ijames needs to provide examples of who these people are that intentionally denied this history.  If this claim makes any sense at all Mr. Ijames should be able to cite at least one example for public scrutiny.  As bad as that is consider his claims about this history.

Confederate pensions were initially for soldiers who were injured in war and could not work. In 1927, the law was written to allow ditch diggers of color to receive pensions, but not Black Confederate soldiers. As the law evolved, pensions could be administered to soldiers who were too old to work, then to widows of soldiers from the Civil War. “I found just fewer than 200 colored Confederate pension applications, but many people did not know of the pension claim. There were many colored soldiers who served but were not documented on rosters.”

This claim about pension records has already been addressed here, here, and here.  Pension claims do not indicate service as a soldier.  Enough already!

Records that Ijames came across indicated that in 1862, a Confederate steamer was captured by the Union navy and 29 Black servants were taken as prisoners of war. “Now, I just find it hard to believe that there were 29 servants on a small steamer. I believe that some of those servants were actually soldiers but the Confederacy did not want the Union to know they had Blacks in the army,” Ijames said.

This is truly a remarkable claim for a historian to make.  So, the evidence that Ijames has available suggests that the men in question were slaves, but he believes they were soldiers because he believes the Confederacy was trying to keep their real identity a secret.  I would love to know what evidence Mr. Ijames has that would support such a claim.  This wouldn’t even be acceptable as an argument from one of my high school students.  Do I really need to debate someone who feels comfortable making this kind of claim?

As I stated before, I would have no problem if we were talking about a private individual; however, Mr. Ijames is an employee of a public institution.  The North Carolina Museum of History and Office of Archives and History have a responsibility here.  Are we in the historical community supposed to believe that Earl Ijames speaks for the museum and the rest of the public historical community in North Carolina?  Is this the level of scholarship that they expect from their employees and is this the level of scholarship that we would find in other historical areas?  I find it impossible to believe that I am the first historian to raise questions concerning Mr. Ijames’s “research.” No doubt, I am the first historian with a blog to do so and I will continue to make public these ridiculous claims until action is taken.  None of this would be necessary if after 15 years of research something was made public in the form of a peer reviewed essay.

Until then one must assume that the North Carolina Museum of History has a loose cannon on their hands.

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David Blight on Why the Civil War Matters

There is nothing too surprising about this short interview with Prof. David Blight, but I thought it would be a nice way to end the work week.  Teachers may find this useful as a way of introducing basic questions of historical memory with students.  Blight touches on how Americans remember the Civil War, race, the Civil War Centennial and Sesquicentennial, and Barack Obama’s place in this narrative.

Check out Blight’s Yale lectures on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Civil War memory.

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Peer Review and the Problem of Black Confederate Studies

In my ongoing series of posts concerning the public presentations by Earl Ijames about “colored Confederates” I have consistently emphasized the importance of publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  I maintain that only through the careful scrutiny of our ideas and conclusions are we able to better judge the veracity of the research and the difficult process of interpretation and analysis.  The peer review process functions as a quality control mechanism and allows historians to critique the work of others from the safety of anonymity.  Most academic journals and university presses have some kind of system of oversight in place and I have experienced it firsthand on a number of occasions, both from the writer’s side as well as from the reviewer’s side as a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (2008-2010).  If there is one area of Civil War history that desperately needs oversight it is “black Confederate” studies.

Since describing it and emphasizing why it is so important is difficult to do I thought it might be helpful to provide you with an example.  I first experienced this process back in 2004 while attending graduate school at the University of Richmond.  Even before I started the program I had an interest in William Mahone and the Readjuster Movement and had hoped that I would have a chance to explore his public career in a research seminar course and perhaps as a thesis topic.  I eventually wrote an essay on Mahone and went on to expand my focus to include the battle of the Crater as a thesis topic.  My adviser suggested that I submit the Mahone essay to the VMHB for consideration, which I did.  I had published a few essays, magazine articles, and book reviews, but this was my first attempt at a peer-reviewed publication so I didn’t really know what to expect.  Within about 6 months I received an email that included a letter from the journal editor and three anonymous reviews of my essay.  The editor indicated that while the reviewers believed there was some merit to the essay and thesis they would be unable to publish as is.  He suggested that I review the comments and revise the piece.  I have to say that it took me a few days to pick my ego up off the floor and get back to work, but I did.  I took just about every suggestion offered and within about 9 months I had a revised essay.  What I learned was invaluable, both about the process of writing a serious work of history as well as my topic.  I learned that thinking through complex questions is a group activity.  There must be room for honest and sometimes blunt feedback.  The result is that I have a much better grasp of Mahone and his postwar years because I benefited from the critique of three professional historians who are experts in some aspect of post-Civil War Virginia politics.

I am happy to say that my revised essay was accepted for publication by the VMHB [vol. 113, no. 4 (2005)] and even went on to win the Rachal Prize for best essay in 2005.  Given that it’s been close to 5 years since its publication I feel comfortable sharing one of the three reviews.  This is one of the nicer reviews.

[click to continue…]

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Civil War Memory in the College Classroom

It has been a real pleasure learning of a number of college level courses that use Civil War Memory in some capacity.  In a few weeks I head up to Shepherd University to talk with students in Professor Mark Snell’s seminar, “The American Civil War in Memory and Remembrance”.  It turns out that students are assigned my blog as regular reading so it should be quite an experience to learn about what they think of some of the issues that I write about as well as the role of blogging as a form of remembrance.

The other day I came across a link to an online syllabus for a course on Public HistoryCivil War Memory can be found under Week 6, which focuses on slavery and public history.  I’m not exactly sure where this course is being taught, but it looks to be quite interesting and I would love to know how the blog is being used.  What kinds of questions are being discussed in class and what do students think of blogs as a public history tool?  I highly recommend spending some time with the links on the syllabus, which include some dynamite history blogs and other assorted websites.

I have no way of knowing for how long I will continue blogging, but at some point I will have to give some serious thought to its preservation.  My own view is that Civil War Memory can be understood from a number of different perspectives that connect to broader issues of historical memory and public history.  On the one hand this site represents my own ongoing dialog about how I understand history as well as historical memory.  Take one step back and the blog itself can be viewed as an expression of Civil War memory at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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