Celebrating Lee

I apologize for the numerous posts about Robert E. Lee our perceptions of Robert E. Lee.  In addition to having to rewrite parts of the Crater manuscript this summer I am collecting material for two upcoming conferences on Lee – one at UVa in October and the other I will announce soon.  This news item out of Charleston detailing a dinner honoring Lee is simply too good to pass over.  Here are a few excerpts from the article with a bit of my own commentary:

Much is said this evening about Lee, the South’s beau ideal. His military prowess might be summed up by one, terrible tally: In one single, bloody month of 1864, from May 12 to June 12, from the aftermath of The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Union casualties under U.S. Grant, no mean general himself, would total 60,000. That number was equal to Lee’s entire remaining force at that point.

But in the end, it is neither the victorious nor defeated Lee that explains his aura, but the passionate dispassion of the man, his Greek proportion. What sweeps us away is the Lee who could look down from Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, watch the federals below being obliterated by his guns, take in the sweep of the carnage he himself had engineered, and say: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

To be completely honest, I’ve never really understood this statement by Lee.  Is Lee emphasizing the horrors of battle or his own attraction to it or both?  He worries that observers/participants may become “too fond of it” which suggests that the level of attraction is directly related to the level of violence.  Does such a statement imply a seductive quality for Lee and others?  If so, what is that quality for Lee?

Lee never wrote his memoirs. He may have been the only Civil War general, great or small, important or un-, who didn’t tell his self-absorbed, self-justifying tale for a handsome price. He had no price. He was not for sale. What he had was a code. And he embodied it. Great in victory, he was greater in defeat. Through it all, he remained the same Lee. What Epictetus the Stoic wrote, Lee lived.

Lee never wrote a memoir or history because he died too soon.  So much for the comparison with the Stoics.

Much is said about Robert E. Lee this magical night. Each aspect of his character is extolled. Thank goodness he is present only in spirit; how embarrassed he would have been at such goings-on. One by one, his qualities are praised: honor, civility, compassion, dignity, courage, equanimity . . . and yet they cannot be separated, for he was all of a piece, whole.

Eat your heart out Douglas S. Freeman!  One wonders if Lee would even recognize himself if present.

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“This is sacred ground. It is a neutral place, no race, color, religion should be mentioned here.”

That was the response of one visitor to the question of whether the themes of race and slavery ought to be introduced at Arlington House, Robert E. Lee National Memorial.  Another visitor suggested that slavery should be taught "only in schools."  I don’t need to remind my readers that Arlington House was a working plantation up to the Civil War.  It is a remarkable response and arguably the clearest reflection of the difficulty that many Americans continue to have when confronted by such issues. 

I came across these responses while reading an informative essay titled "Presenting Race and Slavery at Historic Sites" written by Kevin Strait and completed as part of a cooperative research project between the National Park Service and Center for the Study of Public Culture and Public History at the George Washington University.  Strait conducted numerous interviews with NPS personnel as well as visitors to Arlington House.  His paper has given me a great deal to think about as I continue to arrange for interviews to help me gauge perceptions of the Civil War in Petersburg’s black community as well as their connection/identification with the NPS and the battle of the Crater. 

Strait’s interview results suggest that we are still far from figuring out not so much why slavery is important to the understanding of specific historic sites, but how to frame the issues in a way that does not leave people feeling defensive.  This visitor’s idea of "sacred" or "neutral" ground points to the crux of the problem, which is one of personal identification.   The difficulty is in distinguishing between the modern problem of race, or our difficulty in discussing those related issues, with the historical dimensions of slavery.  The visitor has appropriated this particular site in a way that identifies it with R. E. Lee or the Lee family without acknowledging a crucial historical element that detracts from that perspective.  Any discussion of slavery would immediately raise uncomfortable personal questions for the visitor and result in a defensive posture.  Ira Berlin spells this out clearly in his contribution to the Rally on the High Ground/NPS conference:

Thus we create a selective history: The Mayflower is me, the slave ship Brooks is them; freedom fighters at Valley Forge is me, freedom fighters at Southampton is them; freedom is me; slavery is them.  Even as we make slavery a surrogate for race, it becomes tangled in the old, familiar emotional briar patch.  Discussions of slavery become muted by fears of embarrassment both personal and political, and this is not simply a matter of good manners.  More than 130 years since slavery’s demise, the question of slavery still sits on tender and sensitive grounds–so sensitive that some Americans cannot even say the word.  For some it is "servants," or "servitude," a recognition of subordination but an obscuration of the slave’s unique status as property…

Berlin touches on the central issue which is an inability on the part of many Americans to distinguish between discussions of race and the history of slavery.  Visitors to our nation’s historic sites are uncomfortable with discussions of slavery because they automatically translate a historical narrative into one that is present minded and fraught with all of the politicization and anxieties that characterize our debates about race in America.  This need not be the case, but it is unclear to me how to go about addressing the problem. 

Questions about contemporary issues of race are indeed sensitive, but as a historian I find it fairly easy to distinguish my interest in the history of race and slavery with its long-term consequences that we continue to struggle with.  Those questions are important, but I do not consider myself an expert (not even competent for that matter) to seriously debate such issues.  I suspect that most historians who focus on the historical contours of race and slavery do so without being influenced by their own political agenda.  This is not to say that those concerns never enter the mind of the historian only that the primary goal is to understand the past and not the present to whatever extent possible. 

Let’s face it, historians are partly to blame for the politicization of history.  Sean Wilentz and Eric Foner have recently come out strongly against George W. Bush in popular magazines.  I am not judging their motivations or the appropriateness of their doing so, but we shouldn’t be surprised that more and more people judge historical studies along the narrow lines of politics rather than based on the strengths of the interpretation.  Is it any surprise that there has been such a strong reaction on the part of certain groups to ongoing changes at NPS sites?  The visitors identification of Arlington as "neutral" is a plea – from his point-of-view – to keep politics out.  We need to get this visitor to see historically rather than politically. 

The role of slavery at Arlington House does not violate "sacred" soil or its supposed "neutrality"; in fact it can only enhance and deepen our understanding of the site.    To use Berlin’s line of thought, we cannot say that Lee’s Arlington belongs to white America while the slave quarters belong to the story of black Americans.  Instead, we need to come to terms with the obvious point that the stories are one and the same.  The history of Arlington, including its white and black residents are interconnected and any attempt to divorce the two, while it may make some visitors more comfortable, can only distort the historical picture. 

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Where I Won’t Be On July 1-3

I’ve only attended one reenactment in my time and have no plans to do so again in the future.  My interest in Civil War history does not extend to watching people dress up to “recreate” battles.  I do love, however, the way in which these events are marketed.  Consider this one for the yearly reenactment of Gettysburg which takes place a few miles from the actual site.

Witnessing a battle re-enactment changes forever the way visitors view Gettysburg history – even if they’ve visited the Gettysburg National Military Park before. The event is replete with booming cannons, the taste of kicked-up dust and dirt, and the acrid smell of spent ammunition mixed with sweat-soaked wool uniforms. Thick, gray smoke sometimes obscures the view.  And that’s all experienced from sitting on the sidelines in the comfort of a chair.

That may be so, but does this change in view get us any closer to understanding the realities of battle or is this simply a matter of having your emotions manipulated?

Some re-enactors, among them descendants of Civil War veterans, give speeches about their ancestors and their family histories. The response is generally emotional, with the re-enactor often receiving a standing ovation.

The generals tell about some of the deadly mistakes they made and how saddened they were by fighting their comrades. Many Union and Confederate officers had attended West Point and fought together in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

Bring plenty of tissues.

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How Black Southerners May Have Helped Create the Image of “Black Confederates”

Every so often I receive an email from a reader who has finished going through one of my more popular posts on Black Confederates.  Responses take a specific form and usually involve an individual account or two to demonstrate the presence of blacks in Confederate ranks.  Often the messages include images of old black men in Confederate uniform.  The stories are typically from the postwar period and almost always fail to include any references.  I suspect that just about every email received has been written by a white person, which is interesting to me on on a certain level.

Regardless of the story’s content there is never any attempt to try to explain or question why it was written other than as a clear attempt on the part of the author to demonstrate loyalty.  I never respond to these emails in large part because there are only so many hours in the day; it would be more accurate to say that the authors of these emails are probably not really interested in what I have to say anyway.  I’ve said before and it is worth repeating that in the context of the debate over so-called black Confederates the biggest problem is the lack of any serious historical scholarship on the subject.  Most of the people who argue or debate these issues have little ability in interpreting historical sources.  This is especially the case when handling postwar sources.  Stories or images that seem to point to the presence of blacks in Confederate ranks are taken as sufficient proof in individual cases.  As many of you know these same people debate the numbers; some say a few hundred and some even go beyond 50,000.

It would be one thing if simple service in the ranks was the goal of those who push this silly line of argument, but that would be incomplete without the interpretive push of demonstrating that service somehow meant loyalty or allegiance to the Confederate cause.  The real goal is to distance the Confederate experience from slavery and race, which was in fact part of the agenda of the Lost Cause movement by the turn of the century.

The problem is that black Southerners understood this all too well, and in the same way that they manipulated slaveowners during the antebellum period to advance their interests (ala Genovese) they did so late in the century as a way to maintain or preserve the last vestiges of civil rights and other freedoms gained during Reconstruction.  The image of the loyal slave and/or black Confederate may have been used by black Southerners as a survival tool as states like Virginia revised their constitutions and began passing Jim Crow laws, which would eventually disfranchise the largest percentages of black Southerners.   One of the best examples of this can be seen in the career of Giles B. Jackson, a black attorney who lived in Richmond, Virginia.

Giles B. Jackson was born a slave in Goochland County in 1853 and moved to Richmond after the war.  Following the war Jackson worked as a servant for John Stewart of Brook Hill who was the father-in-law of Joseph Bryan, the editor of the Richmond Dispatch.  Stewart’s wife taught Jackson to read, which eventually led to a position in a white law firm, probably as a clerk or servant.  William H. Beveridge, who was a supporter of William Mahone and the Readjusters, recognized his abilities and took Jackson on as a student; this led to his admittance to the Richmond bar in 1887.  Jackson proved to be a talented and successful lawyer whose connections were extensive in the Richmond area.  He served as an attorney for the True Reformers and organized the Negro Exhibit at the 1807 Jamestown Exhibit.

Jackson’s private papers and public speeches reflect a keen awareness of how to gain favor with powerful white Richmonders at a time when blacks were losing the political ground gained during the Readjuster years.  Stories that highlighted black loyalty to the Confederacy and peaceful race relations were Jackson’s way of resisting this change for as long as possible.  Jackson’s account of the origin of Jackson Ward in Richmond is a perfect example: According to Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant was so pleased to find a “white folks’ nigger” (as he described himself) that the famous Union general named the ward for him.  He also told of being Fitzhugh Lee’s body servant during the Civil War and of tending Robert E. Lee’s horse.  Given his age during the war this is very unlikely.  Other prominent black Richmonders such as John Mitchell Jr. thought they understood why Jackson told these stories.  Mitchell and others, however, refused to play this game and instead took a stronger stance against the political changes taking place within the Commonwealth by the early twentieth century.

We need to understand how these stories functioned at the turn of the century.  Were they straightforward attempts on the part of black Southerners to link themselves to the memory of the Confederacy – a cause that they themselves served with pride?  Perhaps they were or perhaps we need to take one step back and try to understand these accounts within the changing political and racial boundaries that shaped the postwar South.

One final comment.  The challenge for those who claim such strong support for the Confederacy from black Southerners is to demonstrate why black Americans have become so alienated from our Civil War culture today.  Individuals like H.K. Edgerton parading through the South with a Confederate flag doesn’t tell us much of anything.  Again, most of these stories about so-called black Confederates are told by whites and this  needs to be explained.   I have suggested that these stories probably tell us more about the steps that black Americans took throughout the postwar period to preserve the freedoms gained as a result of the Civil War in a society that increasingly came to be defined once again around a white racial hierarchy.

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Positive Feedback

I was killing time yesterday and decided to follow one of the links on my sitemeter back to its origin.  It took me to one of those Civil War discussion forums where I was surprised to find that my blog has been the subject of some debate.  Who would have thought that my blog would prove to be divisive in this day and age?  Anyway, I quickly scanned the entries and came across two wonderful passage about my site by the same author:

This blog never misses an opportunity to ridicule the South. "Myths" exist only south of the Mason-Dixon line. It is extremely biased.

This blog is invariably anti-South. The writer never passes up an opportunity to ridicule. It verges not only on bias but bigotry. Many of these Northern "academics" are the same. Having a degree is certainly no indication of truth or fairness.

I know I’ve said it before, but it bares repeating that nothing discussed on this site is meant to be taken personally.  In fact, I find it bizarre that given my interest in the past that anyone would identify themselves as a target of my postings or published work.  Of course I don’t take these kinds of reactions seriously, especially because I don’t identify myself in any way along the lines in which I am sometimes characterized.  I don’t see myself as "anti-South" especially given that most of my personal heroes are Southerners, and I’ve never viewed myself as a "Northerner" or "liberal" or as an "academic." 

Fun Stuff.

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