Southern Heritage Meets Southern History

bildeIt’s such a breadth of fresh air to read this story in light of the recent attempts by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups to distort the past by honoring slaves as Confederate soldiers.  Finally, a story where the historical record justifies the placing of a marker acknowledging the military service of Amos McKinney, a former slave who served voluntarily in the 1st Alabama Cavalry USV.  McKinney’s granddaughter, Johnnie McKinney Lester, remarked that her grandfather “would be so proud of all of this.”  Well, we have no way of knowing what he might think, but at least this recognition reflects the historical record and doesn’t have to distort the past (as in the case of so-called “black Confederates”, which ignores the fact of coercion) to satisfy our own emotional need to remember and commemorate our past.

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What I Am Not Saying About the Crater

I am putting the finishing stages on my essay which examines events that transpired at the conclusion of the fighting at the Crater.  In a recent post I suggested that one way to interpret the response of Confederates to the presence of black Union soldiers was along the lines of a slave rebellion.  That post generated a great deal of feedback, much of it critical and greatly appreciated.  I also ended up having an interesting exchange with a good friend and fellow historian on Facebook which was quite helpful.  [That's right, you can engage in intellectual exchanges on FB.] This individual suggested that it was a mistake for me to argue that the Crater was a slave rebellion since the men who fought in Union ranks were not slaves.  There was also the concern expressed that by characterizing it as such I would minimize, if not distort, the significance of their participation.

In the strictest sense I am not arguing that the Crater was a slave rebellion.  An entire division of free blacks and former slaves donned the uniform of the United States of America.  Indeed, there is a real risk of losing sight of this crucial fact if I were simply to reduce their presence to that of slaves.  The recruitment and service of these individuals comprises an important place in the broader narrative of this country’s history of freedom and race relations.  The last thing that I would ever want to do is contribute to the collective amnesia and misunderstanding that has for far too long characterized our memory of USCTs.

What I am arguing is that the massacre of USCTs by Confederates along with their wartime accounts must be understood within the broader context of the history of slave rebellions (real and imagined) that stretched back to the beginning of the nineteenth-century.  As I’ve stated before, all too often the actions of Confederates in response to the presence of USCTs has been reduced to one of uncontrolled rage.  Others have given a nod to the role that race played in their actions and written accounts, but have failed to fully explain their particular form.  After all, race/racism can shape our actions and thoughts in any number of ways.  Why did it lead to a massacre and how can we explain the convergence of thought in the accounts written by Confederates who took part in the battle or who learned of it later?

At the root of my argument is the assumption that collective violence cannot be reduced to an undefined rage that is left disconnected from broader cultural, social, and political practices.  In short, violence often serves to maintain a certain way of life.  The swift and often violent responses to rumors and actual rebellions helped to shape the perceptions of white southerners throughout the antebellum period and helped to unite them around the shared goal of maintaining a slave society based on white supremacy.  Such violence not only helped to maintain the stability of the region, but reinforced shared assumptions about why insurrections occurred at all and who was to blame.  Swift and violent responses became sanctioned and provided a visual reassurance that steps were being taken to prevent future insurrections.

I am convinced that the interracial parade that took place the following day in Petersburg along with the detailed reports of the massacres found in letters and newspapers served to reassure white southerners on the home front and even functioned so as to allow them to “witness” the violence and aftermath through the eyes of loved ones at the front.  It was imperative that those on the home front understand the dangers that black soldiers represented to their way of life.  Newspaper accounts suggest that many viewed the response of Lee’s men at the Crater as they had come to view the necessity of swift action against rebellious slaves before the war.  This was socially and culturally sanctioned violence that took place in the aftermath of the Crater.  Consider this editorial from a Richmond paper, which I posted last week:

We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.

Notice the choice of words: “Butcher every negro,” and not every black soldier.  Indeed, white southerners did not view these men as soldiers; rather, their cultural framework reduced blacks to slaves and armed blacks to a direct threat to their security and place in a strictly-defined social order.  I’ve found Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (UNC Press, 2009) to be quite helpful in fleshing out the extent to which violence functioned to maintain a collective identity as well as a strictly defined political, social, and racial hierarchy.  “But even the violence and those deaths were themselves representations,” writes Wood, “conveying messages about racial hierarchy and the frightening consequences of transgressing that hierarchy.”  In a way the response of white southerners at the Crater provides a bridge between the violent response to slave insurrections during the antebellum period and lynchings during the Jim Crow period.

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Trouble in the State of Jones

State of Jones historian and blogger, Vikki Bynum, is in the middle of a lengthy review [Part 1 - Part 2] of Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer’s new book, The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded From the Confederacy.  If I remember correctly, the book is going to be turned into a Hollywood movie at some point soon.  I am about half-way through it and while I’ve enjoyed it thus far it is clear from reading Vikki’s review that there are serious problems that I do not have the background to pick out.  For instance, despite the book’s subtitle there is no evidence that a declaration of secession was ever issued.  More problematic is the claim that Newt Knight served at Vicksburg.  Other problems abound, accoring to Bynum.  Given Vikki’s research into the State of Jones there is no one more qualified to judge the overall quality of this study.  I highly recommend her book.

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A Holy War Against Wiley Sword?

sc00175ec3[Hat-Tip to David Woodbury]

This is one of those jaw-dropping stories that makes you wonder about the collective mental stability of our little Civil War community.  Apparently, the John Bell Hood Society is troubled by historian Wiley Sword’s characterization of Hood’s personal, intellectual, and battlefield skills.  To share this disgust the organization decided to take out an ad in Civil War News, which includes a link to a site where you can read their detailed critique harangue against Sword.  They accuse Sword of “engaging in an unholy Jihad against Gen. Hood, filtering from historical records any and all documented evidence that does not support his biased, agenda-based premise.”

I will leave it to you to read through their objections to Sword, but what I find disturbing is their overall tone.  Their choice of language reflects a misunderstanding of what is involved in historical analysis and ultimately reflects poorly on the members of the organization and renders their position as highly suspect.  They have every right to challenge a historical interpretation and anyone who is a serious student of history ought to welcome it.  Ultimately, any objection stands or falls based on whether it exposes an obvious oversight or mistake made during the research and writing process or offers a reasonable alternative interpretation of the same evidence.  Again, you will have to read through their response to Sword and judge for yourself.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this kind of language, but as someone who is constantly attacked and even threatened on occasion, I call on the publisher of Civil War News to pull this ad from their next issue if it is slated to appear.  There should be no toleration for this kind of incendiary language.

This attack against Sword is reminiscent of a similar response to Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, which was first published in 1991.  A quick swing through the website of the John Bell Society reveals a group of worshippers rather than serious students of history and no doubt helps to explain the religious overtone of their response against Sword.  I guess this is what happens to people who are exposed to the study of history at an early age along the lines outlined by John J. Dwyer.  They no longer see history as a discipline that is continually in flux and open to revision as opposed to a holy text that must be defended against all sinners and non-believers.

Update: As a way of making my point here, I encourage all of you to read Victoria Bynum’s review of a new book on the State of Jones. It is an excellent example of what a critical review looks like without resorting to hyperbole and insult.

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John J. Dwyer’s Black Confederates

It should come as no surprise that Dwyer would emphasize the loyal service of tens of thousands of “black Confederates” – or what he describes as “Forgotten Blacks in Gray” -  given his analysis of slavery.  The author emphasizes this long-standing myth throughout the text and offers his usual service of vague generalizations, meaningless definitions, and a complete lack of any primary and secondary source references.  I will not bore you with the kind of nonsense that I’ve pointed out over and over, but instead will point out a few of the more ridiculous claims made by Dwyer.  First, I should note that Dwyer does note that the Confederate government did not authorize the use of black men as soldiers until the final months of the war, but that does not prevent him from suggesting that 40,000 blacks served in combat roles at some point during the war.  No attempt is made to demonstrate how he arrived at this number.  Even better is Dwyer’s estimation that somewhere between 50-100,000 blacks “served in the Southern military” as body servants, teamsters, and cooks for quartermasters and engineers, in commissaries, and as constructions workers.  Of course, no mention of the fact that many of these men would have “served” as slaves in these and other capacities.  Dwyer includes a number of accounts from various sources purporting to reinforce these figures, though as I pointed out there are no references as to where these sources can be found.  He even quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 observation of blacks with “muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets”.  There is an air of legitimacy through the use of brief quotes by supposed experts on the subject such as Walter Williams, who teaches economics at George Mason University and to my knowledge has never done serious research on the subject.

Why, according to Dwyer, was there “such widespread support…among black southerners for the Confederacy”?

  • “Some slaves supported the Confederate cause from a sense of adventure, much more exciting than their usual activities.”
  • “…like their white counterparts, to preserve their homes and family, and the way of life they had always known.”
  • “Story after story from every corner of the South recalls the wartime love of blacks and whites, who had grown up together, for one another.”

My personal favorites

  • “They felt threatened by the Northern invasion and the aims of the abolitionists, whom they saw as a threat to their wealth and social advancement.  Large numbers of these blacks enlisted in the Confederate armies.  Sometimes they raised their own units, one of which required each man to own at least $25,000 in assets to join.  They knew a Northern victory would bring economic and social ruin to them–and it did.”
  • “They loved the South and were delighted to be identified with its cause, which they understood to be freedom.  They viewed the North as a bully seeking to force its will on others who wished to live as they pleased.”

Dwyer includes story after story of slaves refusing their freedom and rarely maintains any kind of consistency in maintaining a distinction between free and enslaved blacks.  The sections include a number of photographs of so-called soldiers, a list of individual black Confederates, and passage after passage without any historical context.  No doubt, it’s probably enough to embarrass even Earl Ijames.

It’s hard to know what to say beyond the obvious.  The most disturbing aspect of all of this is that Dwyer’s narrative “is His Story, God Almighty’s work…”  That means that the student/reader cannot must not question any piece of information presented in this book.  To question it would be to question God’s divine plan and vision for his children.  The entire book is set up to discourage further inquiry, which is why there is no indication whatsoever that many of the isues related to the war have been and continue to be debated among serious scholars.  The few historians that are presented end up being used in a morality play by Dwyer.  Either they have signed on to the correct interpretation or they must be understood as a threat.   As a history teacher who emphasizes the importance of learning to think historically, it pains me to imagine children being taught history as some kind of sacred text that must be accepted on faith.

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