Not Everyone Is Upset With Me

Wow…these posts on Confederate slaves really do excite the masses. I really do love the excitement and outrage that it causes within certain groups since it tends to highlight the anti-intellectual streak that runs through our Civil War community.  You would think that with all the time that a few readers are spending on this site that they could have uncovered an entire regiment of black Confederate soldiers.  Anyway, I received this very short, but encouraging email from one of my readers this morning.

Your Thinking About the Civil War Sesquicentennial postings have been one of the better overviews of the causes of the war that I have read anywhere.  Maybe you can get it put in print as a sort of Causes of the Civil War for Dummies.  Also thanks for indulging me; I grew up in a Rural Ole South County seat Town and many of the things on your Blog have enlightened me and some have enraged me.  I recognize we are working from different world views and philosophies yet we are share a common goal of Historical Truth.   Thanks for the Blog and have a great weekend.

[You are very welcome.  It's always nice to be reminded that the overwhelming majority of my readers are considerate, open-minded, and appreciative of what I do.  As always, thanks.]

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The UDC, Black Confederates, and the Manipulation of the Past

Thanks to Betty Baye for a brief, but thoughtful column about a recent phone conversation with a receptionist at the national headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.  Apparently, Ms. Baye was invited to their national convention and decided to follow up to see if the organization included any African Americans.  The receptionist noted that somewhere between 60-93,000 blacks “served” in the Confederate army though “many” went to war as “body servants” with their masters.  Well, at least she didn’t suggest that they were soldiers, but one wonders what “many” is meant to denote or why we constantly fail to describe these men for what they were: slaves.

The author goes on to describe recent ceremonies conducted by the UDC and SCV to commemorate the “service” of black Confederate soldiers such as Creed, Cornelius, and Claiborne Holland.  I have no idea whether these men were enlisted as soldiers or just another case of sloppy research and poor analysis.  Of course a representative described their presence in the army as “patriots who loved our Southland and suffered in its defense.” Creed Holland’s great-great grandson called the occasion “a day of unification.”  Of course, I cannot say what primary sources were consulted to justify such a claim, though I am willing to wager that whatever the source it was not penned by any of the three men cited or even from the war years.  The author also cited the case of Henry Nenderson, but you can imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Kevin Levin, who regularly blogs about the Confederacy, upon seeing a photo of two white women dressed in mourning attire decorating Pvt. Henderson’s grave, wrote just last month that the women aren’t “honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave,” who was forced to join his master and who “must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar groups, Levin argues, “teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy,” and, in fact, “are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson’s life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was — a slave.” [Read my post on Henderson here.]

Some of you are no doubt tired of these posts on “black Confederates”, but I want to make it clear that I am not writing them for you.  My goal is to build up sufficient SEO weight to counter these ridiculous stories that hearken back to a naive Lost Cause narrative that emphasizes slave loyalty and, ultimately, the distancing of the Confederate experience from slavery.  The UDC has been distorting the history of slavery and the Civil War since the early twentieth century, but their increasing black membership is what is truly disappointing.  By involving the descendants of these men as soldiers with full military honors they are using these family members for their own aggrandizement.  No doubt, the family members involved simply want their ancestors to be remembered and to identify with a larger historical narrative.  If the UDC and SCV want to commemorate and remember the lives of these men than they should acknowledge them for what they were.  There is no shame in acknowledging these men as slaves.  In fact, in the case of Henry Henderson it only makes his life that much more worthy of remembrance.

I am going to conclude this post with Betty Baye’s own assessment:

When the black Hollands were memorialized, Virginia state Sen. Charles Hawkins, a Republican, said, “We need to come to grips with the ghosts of our past. … We need to understand this history if we are to grow and prosper.” Fine words. But some find it impossible to confront ghosts of beloved ancestors who engaged in the dirty business of buying, breeding and selling human beings — a business made no less dirty by speaking of it with gentle words; for example, calling a slave “servant,” a plantation a “farm,” and implying that slaves willingly, and knowingly, fought for a cause that, had it not been lost, would have perpetuated their bondage and spread the evil to yet more territories of a young nation. Rather, the United Daughters of the Confederacy comfort themselves with the words and imagery of Mary Nowlin Moon, who, in 1915, wrote of “a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine.”  Few members today, I daresay, see any irony either in their group hosting a “silent auction” at its national convention.

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Wrong Cover

State of JonesA couple of days ago a representative of Random House contacted me to see if I might be interested in reviewing a forthcoming book, titled, The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded From the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer.  It’s one of the more interesting stories out of Mississippi and is the subject of an excellent book by fellow blogger and historian, Victoria Bynum.  I’m not overly excited about reading another book on the subject, but I do like John Stauffer’s work so I decided give it a look.  It arrived today, and, hopefully I will have the time to read it over the summer.  What struck me upon opening the package, however, is the cover, which shows both the United States and the Confederate States flags prominently displayed.

I can’t help but think that this is a great example of how the marketing to a general audience hasn’t quite kept up to pace with scholarship on the Confederacy and the South during the Civil War.  After all, this isn’t an example of North v. South or United States v. Confederacy, but an internal conflict within the state of Mississippi.  This story reveals a war that challenges our traditional assumptions and tired cliches that assume a monolithic Confederacy and a region committed to “Southern Independence”.

The two flags may fit neatly into our collective memory of the war, but perhaps an image of a fractured Confederate flag might be more appropriate.  Perhaps something even more exotic?  What kind of cover would you design for this book?

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My Library

This is my first attempt at using my new HD video camera. I’m going to continue to play around with iMovie to improve the overall quality. Perhaps I will try uploading to Vimeo to get a comparison.  A number of other bloggers have experimented quite effectively with video blogging and have given me a number of ideas. Stay tuned…

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Earl Ijames’s “Colored Confederates”

It looks like Earl Ijames is at it again.  You may remember this past summer that Ijames – a curator at the N.C. Museum of History – was involved in a grave site dedication for Weary Clyburn, who supposedly served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  I covered this story closely and offered a number of reasons to doubt these claims as I have for most of these silly stories about black Confederate soldiers.  Today it is being reported that Ijames will tell Clyburn’s story to 1,500 people later this week at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference in Raleigh.  The problem is that there is no evidence that Clyburn served in the 12th South Carolina Volunteers, though that should not stop Ijames from making the claim.

The available evidence suggests that Clyburn was a slave who went to war with Capt. Frank Clyburn (12th S.C.) and was the legal property of his father.  In the most recent issue of North and South Magazine (June 2009) historians Thomas Lowry and Rev. Alex H. Ledoux offer a few observations about the difficulties of researching “black Confederates.”  One of the examples they cite is Clyburn.  According to the two there is no listing for Clyburn in Broadfoot’s Roster and there is no record of him whatsoever in the National Archives – even under alternate spellings.  [In fact, every case they cite begins with the usual evidence and ends with no record of service.]  Clyburn did apply for a pension, but this is of no help in determining his status in the army, though without any official military records it points to the obvious.  Though not Ijames’s exact words, it is safe to assume that the reporter captured his overall view:

“The historically accurate term is ‘colored Confederates,’” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were freed blacks who offered their services.

Notice the lack of clarity in distinguishing between those who volunteered or were forced to accompany an officer.  They are treated as if they all deserve to be interpreted and remembered along similar lines – a complete lack of historic understanding.  How many free blacks openly served in Confederate ranks given the fact that the Confederate government did not allow it and that men in individual units were committed to running non-whites out of the army.

It isn’t clear whether Clyburn went to war just because his friend had gone; or he thought, as some soldiers did, that no matter who won, slaves would be set free; or he believed he could raise his stature by serving; or he fought because the South was the only homeland he had ever known and he was willing to die to protect it.

At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the available evidence doesn’t point to some of the more extravagant (or even modest) claims about thousands of loyal black Confederate soldiers.  Why is there such scant evidence?  Because they were slaves.  Look for their names in the private records of individual slaveholders and businesses, though we should always keep in mind that the vast majority have been forever lost owing to their status.  As I’ve said before, the most disturbing aspect of these stories is the deception of the general public as well as the families who are curious about their history.  History is a dangerous thing when you don’t know how to do it.

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