Patrick Cleburne and Black Confederates Take Hollywood

[Hat-Tip to Lee White]

Back in 2008 I commented on a graphic novel that tells the story of Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom.  I expressed a number of concerns in that post and I appreciate the author of the novel for offering his own perspective.  Now it looks like that story is coming to the big screen.  Unfortunately, it looks like the misinformation and blatant abuse of history that is present in the graphic novel will make it into the movie.  Consider the web page on the history behind the subject.  It begins with the standard list of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the roles of blacks in the Confederate army as well as the views of some of the more prominent Confederate such as Forrest and Jackson.  Ed Bearrss is cited as having spoken out in support of the black Confederate narrative even though he has denied ever making such a claim.  And can someone tell me where Ervin Jordan describe this as a “cover up”?  I can’t seem to find it in his book, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong place.  You will also notice the doctored photograph of the Louisiana Native Guards at the top of the page.  Consider the following choice “facts” about black Confederates:

  • Many Black Confederates actually engaged in combat including the Battles of First Manassas, Chickamauga, Seven Days, Thompson’s Station, Franklin, and others.
  • Black Confederates were known to frequent veteran reunions years after the war and many posed proudly for photographs with Confederate Battle Flags.

Such a sloppy description of how free and enslaved black southerners functioned in the Confederate army raises more questions than anything approaching understanding of such a complex subject.  But it gets even worse.  Consider the brief description of Cleburne and his proposal:

On a cold winter night in January 1864, Patrick Cleburne put forth a controversial plan to the Confederate high command. It was a written proposal to free over 300,000 slaves and enlist them as soldiers in the Southern armies. He made few allies and many enemies, and from that moment on, his career would come to a dead halt. Cleburne was no ordinary commander. He had never lost a battle and was even called the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”. None of this would matter once his revolutionary views were made known to the Confederate government and President Davis.

Ironically, Black troops had already been serving as teamsters in the Confederate ranks for years, but what Cleburne proposed was not merely service, but official military enlistment. He even went as far as to imply that the entire plan would begin the steps toward the complete emancipation of all African Americans from slavery.

The movie presents Cleburne as having “fought two wars.  One with the North, the other with the South.”  Such a description makes it seem as if Cleburne was operating in a vacuum when his proposal surfaced.  Actually, the debate about arming slaves had started back in 1861 and Cleburne wasn’t even the first Confederate general to offer such a proposal.  More importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact that these proposals do not reflect a desire to end slavery in the South.  In fact, they tell us much more about the extent to which white Southerners would go to gain independence as a means to preserve the institution of slavery.  That fact tells us why most white southerners were not willing to arm slaves and free blacks.  You can expect that I am going to closely follow this story

As bad as all of this is what truly disappoints me is that one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is slated to play the role of Judah Benjamin.

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Join Me In Petersburg This Summer

I am pleased to announce that I will once again be participating in the annual Civil War seminar sponsored by The George Tyler Moore Center at Shepherd University.  In the summer of 2007 [here and here/photos] I took part in the center’s conference on Civil War Memory.  It was a wonderful experience and I couldn’t be happier to be joining Mark Snell and the rest of the staff this summer in Petersburg, Virginia.  This is the first year that the conference will take place away from its home base on the campus of Shepherd University.  The conference is being co-sponsored by Pamplin Park.  This year’s theme is, “Petersburg: In the Trenches with the Common Soldier” and it includes a first-rate line-up of scholars and two days of touring the various sites and battlefields in the Petersburg area.  Will Greene will be conducting all of the tours and lectures will be presented by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, and Walter Powell.  I am looking forward to the chance to finally meet Earl Hess.  In many ways he is responsible for my interest in Petersburg and the Crater specifically.  Back in 2003 I collected a broad range of archival materials for what became Prof. Hess’s third volume in his series on earthworks.  That material on Petersburg proved to be extremely helpful in shaping my own work on memory and the battle of the Crater.

My own lecture is titled, “Mahone’s Brigade and the Defense of Petersburg.”  While this talk is based on my extensive research of Mahone’s brigade at the Crater, I hope to present a broader picture of the unit throughout the summer and fall of 1864.  Over the past five years I’ve read scores of letters and diaries from these men and this will give me a chance to try out some ideas that fall outside the purview of my Crater project.  The exploration of the connection between the battlefield and home front is nothing new to historians, but often the discussion comes across as overly abstract.  The Petersburg Campaign, however, is one of the few moments during the Civil War where the battlefield and home front were indistinguishable.  For the men of Mahone’s Brigade Petersburg and the surrounding area was literally their home.  I am convinced that their close contact with a civilian population shaped the way these men responded to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater.  How else did close proximity to civilians and family shape the outlook of these men on the war?  Stay tuned.

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Confederate Soldiers Described as “Scavengers”

My Civil War Memory class has finally finished watching Shenandoah and students are now working on comparative reviews that incorporate their understanding of Gone With the WindShenandoah represents a sharp transition in popular memory of the war in the roughly twenty-five years since the premier of GWTW.  I want to wrap up this series of posts [see here and here] with just a few more thoughts that connect to the movie’s conscious attempt to steer clear of as much regional controversy as possible.  Apart from the battle scenes there is nothing that might alienate any one demographic.  As I noted in the first post, the movie ignores the issue of slavery apart from an early scene where Charlie Anderson declares it to be immoral.  The slave boy who befriends the youngest Anderson boy is freed by a black Union soldier, but he is encouraged to embrace his freedom by one of the Anderson daughters.  Toward the end of the movie a black woman, who is never identified as a slave, cares for Charlie Anderson’s granddaughter.

Most interesting, however, is that the only threats and violence that visit the Anderson family come from fellow white Southerners.  The Union army may have mistakenly taken the young boy prisoner, but there is a very understanding colonel who offers to help Anderson in his quest to find his son.  Agents of the Confederate government in Richmond attempt to confiscate the family’s animals while a Confederate colonel pushes Charlie Anderson to acknowledge his responsibility in the war by giving up his children to the army.  Late in the movie the eldest Anderson boy is accidentally shot by a 16-yr. old Confederate soldier.

But the most shocking scene is the murder of son Jacob and wife Ann who stayed on the family farm while the rest looked for the youngest Anderson boy.  The scene takes the audience by surprise and while Jacob’s brutal murder is captured by the camera, the death of his wife is left to the imagination.  Once the party returns to the home they are greeted by the doctor, who informs them of the murders.  Interestingly, the doctor refers to these men as “scavengers” even though they are clearly Confederate deserters.  Without intending to this scene, along with much of the rest of the movie challenges the Lost Cause assumption of a united Confederate populace.  It also touches on an aspect of the Civil War that we rarely discuss and that is the violence that was perpetrated between white Virginians, especially in the Shenandoah Valley, which was used by large numbers of Confederate soldiers who had deserted from the army.  It would be interesting to know whether moviegoers, especially in the Southern states, understood these men to be Confederate soldiers.

I know that my students thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have to say that it has moved up in my list of favorite Civil War movies.

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Tom Dugan’s Robert E. Lee

I am not a big fan of historical impersonators. More often than not their interpretations reflect a consensus view that simply reinforces deeply held beliefs. The goal seems to be more entertainment than education. Such is the case with Tom Dugan, who pulls off a pretty good Lost Cause-inspired interpretation of Lee.  Here is Lee the beleaguered slavemaster who wants nothing more than to see slavery end.  Even a cursory perusal of Lee’s letters or the recent biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor reveals a very different attitude regarding slavery and race.  A bit more disturbing is the Lee who never quite gets over the “high watermark of the rebellion” – even before it had become the high watermark.  Funny, that I am here reminded of Michael Fellman’s overly-psychological interpretation of Lee.  I would love to bring Dugan in to perform for my Civil War Memory class.  It would make for a wonderful discussion.

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Say Hello To My New Issue of North and South Magazine

My subscription to this magazine couldn’t run out soon enough. You can imagine my surprise when I read this in Keith Poulter’s “Editorial” column: “We switched printers with the last issue and failed to make clear that the magazines should continue to be mailed to subscribers in polybags.  As a result they were not bagged and a number (about a dozen) were damaged in the mail, necessitating their being replaced.  As subscribers will already have noticed, this issue was bagged and this will be the case with all future issues.”  I can report and as you can see, THIS ISSUE WAS NOT BAGGED!

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