It’s reasonable to wonder how the public discourse might have been different had James Loewen and Edward Sebesta bypassed the ridiculous idea of petitioning the president not to place a wreath a the Confederate monument at Arlington and instead add a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in downtown Washington. Two things would have been accomplished. On the one hand their letter would have raised awareness of the history of the Arlington Monument and its symbolism and it would have highlighted an aspect of the Civil War that continues to fly under most people’s radar screen when it comes to our memory of the Civil War. Instead Loewen and Sebesta provided just one more forum for the crazies who spend their days clogging up message boards with their reactionary neo-Confederate hogwash. Just look at the comments section at HNN.
Luckily President Obama followed his instincts and/or good counsel and sent an additional wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial. Such a suggestion from Loewen and Sebesta would have diffused most of the outrage and perhaps would have served to educate that many more people.
Finally, it’s not clear where Obama got the idea to add a wreath. I’ve read a few references to Kirk Savage’s recent piece in the Washington Post, but that came out after my blog post and link to Caitlin Hopkins at Vast Public Indifference who suggested doing just that.
A historian friend of mine recently decided that he needs to add another 22 ft of shelf space to his library. To achieve this he decided to unload some back issues of the old Civil War magazine and asked if I was interested. Of course, I jumped at the offer and within a short period of time I found myself with issues going back to the mid-1980s. I don’t remember the magazine when it was known as Civil War Quarterly, but I am quite impressed with the quality of the writing. One issue in particular stood out, which featured an article on Lee at Gettysburg by Kent Masterson Brown and a painting of Lee that I have never seen before [Jan-Feb 1993]. The painting is titled, “Forever Marching” and was done by Ed Murin. I tried to find some information about Murin, but came up short. Since I couldn’t find an image Online I took one with my camera which you can see here.
I’ve never seen anything quite like this image of Lee. I would place it on the extreme opposite end of those silly prints of Lee reading to a child or praying with Jackson. [How about the jigsaw puzzle version?] As far as I can tell the closest image to Murin’s is L.M.D. Guillaume’s “Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville.” Lee appears bloodthirsty as he sends his men into battle and over what appears to be the graves of their comrades. What I find so striking is Lee’s eyes, which seem utterly lifeless.
Is this what James Longstreet meant when he noted in his memoir that at Gettysburg “Lee’s blood was up”? And is this a side of Lee that we would rather not be reminded of?
I had a few hours to kill today so I decided to attend our annual UDC/SCV Memorial Day commemoration here in Charlottesville, Virginia. The ceremony is held at the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia. It’s a wonderful little spot that includes your standard soldier monument as well as the graves of 1,097 Confederate soldiers from all over the Confederate South. I decided to stand in the rear to take it all in. These ceremonies are pretty standard. They typically include the Pledge of Allegiance, a salute to the Confederate flag as well as old favorites such as “Dixie’s Land” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” Who can resist the lovely Lost Cause imagery in “Carry Me Back”, especially when the lyrics were composed by a black man:
Carry Me back to old Virginny/There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow/There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime/There’s where this old darkey’s heart am longed to go/There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa/Day after day in the field of yellow corn
The prayers included typical references to the “Spirit of ’76″, “Died for states rights”, “overwhelming numbers”, and the SCV’s rallying charge of “unequivocal confidence in the righteousness of the cause.” One reference, however, got me thinking. One of the speakers remarked that the graves, along with the monument, reflect a “line in the sand between modern day evils” and a “strong moral code” that animated the men buried, and, I assume white Southern society before modernity set in. If you look at the profile of the audience the reference makes perfect sense. There were reenactors with the 19th Virginia in attendance as well as members of the UDC in period costume. More to the point, it is safe to say that the average age of the audience (approximately 100) was somewhere between 55-60.
There are two problems with this view. First, it’s self destructive. To argue that modern society is void of morals or individuals who care about morality/ethics is a sure fire way of alienating a very large constituency. Unfortunately, today I didn’t see people who wer defending a way of life. I saw people who fear modernity, which is fine, but it also means that the sound system you’ve been using for the past 50 years may not work when needed. Let’s face it, given the profile of the SCV/UDC it is not a stretch to suggest that their days are numbered. Seriously, how many of these chapters will be left in 20 years? The bigger problem is that their view of the past is much too simplistic and anachronistic. This notion that white Southerners resisted many aspects of modernity simply does not hold up under close scrutiny. Many Virginians eagerly embraced industry and other forms of technology as a way to improve their lives and reclaim their rightful position as the leader of the nation. Even the wealthiest planters hoped to encourage farmers to adopt modern soil practices and, according to John Majewski, vigorously pushed the Virginia state government to become much more active in encouraging the subsidizing of railroads and agricultural societies. My point is that these were not people who were trying to turn back the hands of time despite what is posted at the entrance to the Wilkes family plantation.
I enjoyed the hour long ceremony. I got to catch up with my friend and fellow historian Rick Britton who spoke eloquently about the 19th Virginia. And I was also pleased to hear that our local UDC chapter is working to raise money to place grave markers for all the soldiers buried in the cemetery. It’s a worthy endeavor and they’ve already managed to place an additional 60 markers since the program began and include the two markers in the above image.
There has been some Online chatter about the future of LSU Press. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that the state is planning major budget cuts for the school, which may lead to the dismantling of the press. For those of us who are serious about Civil War and Southern history this would be a major blow. LSU is one of the top publishers in both of these fields and is responsible for some of the most important studies of the past few decades. My guess is that the publisher will survive the budget woes, but it may have to cut back on the number of titles. Let’s hope the quality doesn’t suffer.
On the other hand I just received the latest catalog (Fall/Winter 2009) from UNC Press. They are slated to release a healthy selection of new titles in both fields. Forthcoming titles include Joan Waugh’s long-awaited study of Grant as well as Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh’s study of West Pointers (his UVA dissertation). You can also look forward to books by Howard Jones, William L. Shea, Michael Perman, William Blair ed., and Judith Giesberg. Most of these titles can be found in Gary Gallagher’s Civil War America series.
On a completely different note I just accepted an invitation for next Wednesday to talk to a Cub Scout troop about the Civil War. I am going to see if we can meet at the Confederate cemetery at UVA, which would make for the perfect setting.
I have to admit that I am just a little surprised and disappointed that we haven’t heard from Earl Ijames in response to my most recent post. If you remember, Mr. Ijames left a spirited comment in response to my critique of his position on so-called “black Confederates.” One particular comment included a reference to one John W. Venable, who supposedly served in Co. H., 21st North Carolina. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, no additional references were given by Mr. Ijames to support the claim. I must assume that while Mr. Ijames most likely believes that many cases can be debated that this particular example is an open and shut case.
Well, it looks like this is not the case at all. My post of May 18 offered a detailed overview of a number of documents related to Venable’s connection to the Confederate army and it even included two updates. All of this information was provided to me by two excellent archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History. At this point and taken together, the evidence clearly provides a sufficient reason to doubt that Venable served as a soldier in the 21st North Carolina. Again, additional evidence may come to light and it may even be possible to interpret the available evidence in a way that connects Venable to this particular regiment, but what I find striking is that Mr. Ijames has not added his own voice to this discussion. After all, Venable is his guy. It looks like Mr. Ijames conducted another one of his “workshops” on the subject at the Greensboro Country Club on May 19. I would love to know what he said about Venable and how he supported his preferred interpretation. Did he do so having read my most recent post on the subject? I welcome a comment from Mr. Ijames on this issue and I am even willing to feature it as a guest post. It would no doubt be instructive for all of us.
Until then I want to leave you with one thought. If this little discussion about Venable has helped with anything it is in reminding us of just how difficult it is to research and confirm the existence of legitimate black Confederate soldiers, as opposed to those who were present with the armies as slaves. How many times has someone offered a piece of evidence and suggested that it alone demonstrates the presence of a soldier? Research takes time; it involves knowing what to look for and, most importantly, how to interpret the documents. For an example of this, take a look at the short essay in North and South Magazine by Thomas Lowry, which focuses on three case studies that involve claims made for the existence of black Confederate soldiers. All of them begin with a primary source and all of them collapse with a little persistence and attempt to confirm and/or supplement the data. I think the problem here is that if you want to find black Confederate soldiers you can. The challenge is doing so in a way that can be analyzed and discussed in a public setting. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to publish findings in in places that include a peer-review process.
As for Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.