From Mother Jones:
It’s time for Ken Burns to dust off his Steenbeck. Rick Perry has decided to ease Texas into some kind of secessionist revolt. This was bravely put forth on the historic GOP Tea Bagging Day. So in “The Civil War 2.0″ Ken can cast Perry as Jeff Davis, struggling mightily to represent his people, trying to maintain their way of life (through their winter of longing for the glory days of Bush) against the tyrannical onslaught of Yankee oppressors (led by Kay Bailey Hutchison as Lincoln). Cannon and rifles are ready and soon explode in a fusillade of tea! The war objective? Hard to tell, but there’s a governor’s race coming up. Here’s the latest poll: U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has said she plans to run for governor in 2010, leads Perry 56 percent to 31 percent among likely Republican voters, according to a poll released Tuesday by Raleigh, N.C.-based Public Policy Polling.
One of the more interesting memory studies from 2008 was Caroline Janney’s Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (University of North Carolina Press). The book examines the history of the LMAs, the creation of Confederate cemeteries and the early evolution of the Lost Cause. If you do not have the time to read the book check out Janney’s recent Clinton School of Public Service address. It covers the broad outline of the book.
Peter Carmichael was kind enough to take the time to add a few thoughts to a post of his that I recently republished. His comment is fair and balanced in its critique of the way various groups have approached this complex topic, which is why I decided to feature it in a new post.
In all the debate that the Confederate slave subject generates on this blog and elsewhere, I am still mystified by the failure of some to appreciate a fundamental fact that applies to every African American who existed in a Southern army—he was a slave and thus denied the ability to have free will in exercising his political loyalty. All the acts of bravery and fidelity on the part of slaves in battle and camp cannot overturn this basic and defining fact. Once we recognize this hard reality we will be better prepared to subdue our emotion and begin to consider the complicated ways in which slaves and whites coexisted in the army. To suggest that a slave who purchased a gray uniform was somehow committed to the Southern cause or loyal to his master overlooks the fact that there wasn’t a blue one at the Sutler’s store for him to purchase. Even if he was able to secure one, he sure as hell wouldn’t have been allowed to wear it in the Confederate ranks. What choices and political options were available to slaves is what we should be focusing on in this debate, for we cannot consider any act of “devotion” without also considering at the same time what punishments awaited a black man who failed to do his “duty” to the master class.
For those who are emphatic that Confederate slaves were both brave and loyal in their service to the Southern cause I would like for them to explain the implications of this argument. When I am in a charitable mood, I would like to believe that those who cherish the idea of the loyal Confederate slave do so as a way to protect their ancestors from being demonized by Americans who see history as a morality play. I understand their insecurities, but if they really want Americans to take their Southern ancestors on the historical terms of the antebellum South then they will have to abandon the notion that they are a minority group that is under siege from the political left–in doing so they will take the first step to seeing the past as a search for complexities and not for universal truths that can be used to assail PC radicals. Too many Americans have the insatiable need to see themselves as a minority group under attack. This perspective fosters a strange way of seeing the world in which the “persecuted” feel that they are the true owners of truth because the rest of the world has conspired against them. This position is intellectually debilitating and it is a paranoia that pervades both political extremes, not just the right. Those of us who are baffled by the folks who go to sleep every night believing that Confederate armies were composed of slaves who wanted to die for their masters and the Southern cause deserve our serious engagement, not our ridicule. We cannot make fun of their ceremonies, even if we think they are doing injustice to the complexities of the past. We have to find a way to create a dialogue.
I have no doubt that some slaves felt a strong sense of attachment to their masters and maybe even to the outfits that they served, but this “attachment” was forged as part of a slave system that was based, at the most fundamental level, on coercion. Let’s stop getting so misty-eyed over those slaves who served with white soldiers as a band of brothers and let’s also stop denouncing anyone who sincerely wants to understand the intimate relationship that existed between slaves and their masters. We are missing the complexities of this relationship in the army and its broader impact on soldier relations, the home front, and the political ideology of the Confederacy.
I get a kick out of the editorials and short essays by Calvin Johnson, which you can find at such places as Lew Rockwell and the Conservative Free Press. Given the last few posts on the mythology of black Confederates I thought it might be nice to share another little story. Yes, I am beating a dead horse, but if this blog can help to correct this skewed view of the past than my time on this site will be worthwhile. In this essay, Johnson examines the history of the monument to Confederate soldiers, which is located on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery. The monument was organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to mark the graves of 267 Confederate soldiers. Designed by Moses Ezekiel, it was unveiled in 1914 and included a dedication speech by President Woodrow Wilson. Here is what Johnson has to say about the monument itself:
Around the start of the 20th century this country also honored the men who fought for the Confederacy. This site of men who fought for “Dixie” is located in section 16. There is an inscription on the 32.5 foot high Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery that reads, “An Obedience To Duty As They Understood it; These Men Suffered All; Sacrificed All and Died”! Some claim this Confederate Monument at Arlington may have been the first to honor Black Confederates. Carved on this monument is the depiction of a Black Confederate who is marching in step with the White soldiers. Also shown is a White Confederate who gives his child to a Black woman for safe keeping.[my emphasis]
What exactly is Johnson referring to? The photographs below are close-ups of the freezes included around the perimeter of the monument.
You can see what appears to be a black man marching in rank with Confederate soldiers as a well as a female slave who is about to take charge of what must be her master’s children. This is a wonderful example of why the study of memory is so important to our understanding of the Civil War. To understand this statue and the choices of the sculptor we must understand the historical context in which it was dedicated. Monuments and other public spaces dedicated to historic events are as much about the time in which they were build as they are about the event in question. The year, 1914, places us right at the height of Jim Crow. The images helped to justify the emphasis within Lost Cause narratives of loyal slaves and a war that was supposedly fought simply for states rights. Wilson’s presence at the dedication is also important given his order at just this time to segregate federal office buildings along racial lines. In other words, this is not simply a monument to commemorate the lives of Confederate soldiers, but part of an attempt to shape a certain version of the past that worked to minimize the theme of emancipation and distance the Confederate experiment from the preservation of slavery altogether. The enforcement of white supremacy by legal means helped to ensure that African Americans would be unable to shape their own emancipationist legacy of the Civil War, which in turn helped to perpetuate the political monopoly that whites enjoyed through the 1960s.
Unfortunately, Calvin Johnson doesn’t really understand what he is looking at.
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.