A Michigan High School’s Black Confederate Mural

As if our national love affair with Confederate imagery couldn’t get any more bizarre, a high school in Michigan is having trouble dealing with its historically inaccurate namesake.  What exactly do I mean?  Lee High School has adopted various aspects of Confederate symbolism over the years, including a dedication to R.E. Lee in the 1936 yearbook, and in the 1960′s the battle flag appeared as part of the marching band’s uniform, and another much larger battle flag graced the school’s hallway wall.  According to the principal the school’s name has nothing to do with the Confederate general:

According to Britten’s research, the school took its name from the street on
which it stands. It was renamed Lee Street from State Street in 1914, possibly
because the first family to live there was named Leyla. The district was named
for the high school and the Godfrey School that preceded it.

Wait, the story gets better.

The board and the high school sports boosters commissioned former student Arturo
Araujo to paint the Lee High School Rebel mascot on a gym wall.  The board
of education threatened to withhold payment because the artist painted the
Confederate Rebel with a dark skinned face, unlike the sketch he provided when
he was hired.

Here is the artist’s justification of his work:

I was shooting to represent the whole student body," says artist Arturo Araujo.
"75 percent colored, 25 percent caucasion. That was the whole idea of painting
the mural. So the whole school is represented by it’s mascot.

Don’t you just love the idea of a multi-cultural Confederate rebel?  I hope they don’t remove this mural, though I am just a bit concerned that those who are pushing the black Confederate story will use this as just another piece of evidence.  I can hear it now: "You see, even some Yankees in Michigan have acknowledged the existence of the black Confederate.  What more evidence do you need?"

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William Lowndes Yancey: Unionist?

Compared with years past I’ve seriously cut down on writing book reviews.  I base my decision, in large part, on the word count that the publication is willing to allow.  Unless I can say something beyond simply summarizing the content of the book it doesn’t seem worth doing.  In addition to the edited collection of essays honoring Emory Thomas, which I just finished, I am also reviewing Eric H. Walther’s new biography, William Lowndes Yancey: The Coming of the Civil War for the journal Louisiana History.  I just started, but I’ve learned a great deal; he is much more complicated than I thought.  Yancey lost his father early on and was raised by his mother and step-father Nathan Beeman who was a minister and abolitionist.  Turns out that his father was incredibly abusive to his mother – going so far as to nail her inside a closet.  Yancey lived in Massachusetts and attended Williams College. 

Between living in New England and his step-father, Yancey developed into an ardent Unionist, which he continued to embrace even after settling back in Greenville, South Carolina following the infamous Tariff Debates.  One of his first public speeches focused on the controversial test oath policy which would require state officials to take an oath of allegiance to disobey federal authorities in the event of another national conflict.  Here is a section from his speech:

Listen, not then, my countrymen, to the voice which whispers, (for as yet, it dares not raise itself above a whisper) that Americans, who have been knit together by so many cords of affection, can no longer be mutual worshipers at the shrine of freedom–no longer can exist together, citizens of the same Republic. . . . And yet, it has become a common thing to hear the Union spoken of as a disagreeable league.  Designing men have, indeed, effectually destroyed, in the minds of but too many in our State, the charm which has, until of late, invested our Federal Union.  But can any one view the course taken by some of the most talented and influential men in our State and country, for the last few years, and not see the evident tendency of their proceedings to be disunion and a Southern Confederacy?

Unlike Calhoun and others who were radicalized by the Tariff Debates it would take time for Yancey to reach their conclusions.  It will be interesting to read on to see exactly how that happened.  As many of you know, by the early 1850′s Yancey had moved to the states’ rights position.  He went on and joined the group that split the Democratic Party in their 1860 national nominating convention, introduced Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, served as the Confederacy’s first diplomatic commissioner to England and France, and finally as senator from Alabama.  He died in 1863. 

I will post additional Yancey nuggets along the way. 

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Thinking About Confederate Identity and Nationalism

I spent yesterday finishing a review of Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas which is edited by Leslie Gordon and John Inscoe for Civil War Book Review.  I will post the essay when it is published, but wanted to share some thoughts that did not find a place in the review.  The collection is exceptionally strong.  Questions of identity and nationalism connect in various ways to my current research projects so I jumped at the chance to review this book. A free copy with a value of around $50 was another incentive.  Taken as a whole the essays reflect both a step in a new direction and a reaffirmation of Thomas’s scholarship as understood in his major works, The Confederacy As A Revolutionary Experience  and The Confederate Nation

What I mean to suggest here is that over the past few years historians have become seduced by the question of nationalism.  Thomas brought the ideas of change and conflict to the study of the Confederacy.  He examined the ways in which the uncertainties of war challenged and shaped the way white Southerners identified with the Confederacy.  This stands in sharp contrast to recent studies which purport to identify whether Southerners managed to create a robust nationalist ideology or whether they managed to create a nation.  The question typically arises in the context of discussions about how to explain Confederate defeat.  The seduction involves reading back into the past from a point where Confederate defeat is a given with the goal of uncovering the salient condition(s) that explains that defeat.  Problems with this approach abound.  First, it is unclear what a sufficient nationalist ideology even looks like, not to mention that it begs the question of whether the satisfaction of that condition would or could have brought about Southern independence.  Second, it is extremely difficult to weigh competing explanations for defeat by appealing to some missing or insufficient factor.  In other words how do you compare the relative worth of different claims as to what’s missing from a successful formula?  The broader problem is that the approach steers clear of the obvious point that the Confederacy came close to victory on a number of occasions.  And if the experiment had proven successful we would not be debating various internal weaknesses.  The North suffered from some of the same problems in addition to the challenge (recently examined by Mark Neely) of a two-party system.  If the North had lost the war these historians would be arguing for the same conclusions, but in reference to Lincoln’s Administration and the North.

The "lack of will" thesis can be found in older studies such as Richard Beringer’s et. al Why the South Lost the War and in Paul Escott’s After Secession.  More recent studies include William Davis’s Look Away! and I recently reviewed David Eicher’s explanation for Confederate defeat in Dixie Betrayed, which I found to be seriously lacking.  Mark Weitz argues that the calls from loved ones on the home front lured Confederates away from the ranks in his study of desertion, More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army.  The overall problem is that this approach ignores the complexity surrounding the way that white Southerners juggled the demands of war and their connection to both state and national governments.  In the case of Mark Weitz’s study, the fact that Confederates deserted does not necessarily imply an insufficient will to fight.  It could mean any number of things.  Thomas’s own scholarship and the content of the essays collected in his festschrift attest to constantly shifting identifications, morale, and the importance of local conditions.   The essays suggest that the focus has shifted away from the question of whether the white Southern experience reflected the creation and maintenance of a nationalist ideology to the more empirical question of how Southerners identified with the cause.  The cultural examination, with its emphasis on description rather than conceptual analysis, leaves plenty of room to acknowledge the contingencies of wartime experience and the numerous challenges that white Southerners faced as they thought about their identities as members of a family, local community, state, and nation. In short, it was never all or nothing.

My review of the book will provide plenty of examples to flesh out some of these ideas.  Stay tuned.

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Renaming Public Spaces

Looks like another local conflict is looming in Birmingham over a proposal to rename a public park.  The proposal calls for changing the name of Caldwell Park – named to honor a Confederate general and slaveowner – to recognize the contributions of former City Councilwoman Nina Miglionico, a social progressive who was appointed in 1963 and served for twenty years. 

William Stewart, University of Alabama political science professor emeritus,
said conflict persists in the South where tributes to Confederate soldiers and
segregationists abound.  "These were established at a time when the electorate was overwhelmingly
white and people didn’t have to be sensitive to African-American feelings to the
naming of facilities after the people who fought to keep them in slavery,"
Stewart said.

On the other hand, according to D’Linell Finley, professor of political science at Auburn University:

At some point even though the city may be overwhelmingly black, there is a
realization that Confederate history is a part of our past too," Finley said.
"Don’t make it a loss of one history for the other.

Just one question for Professor Finley: Why do we have to frame this debate along mutually exclusive lines?  Seems to me that there is plenty of opportunity to balance the way in which a city chooses to remember its collective past.  More importantly, given the monopoly that white Southerners have enjoyed in regard to public spaces, there is obviously a deep need to do so.

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H-Net Review

Rufus Robbins. _Through Ordinary Eyes: The Civil War Correspondence
of Rufus Robbins, Private, 7th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers_.
Edited by Ella Jane Bruen and Brian M. Fitzgibbons. Lincoln and
London: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. xi + 220 pp.
Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 (paper), ISBN
0-8032-9006-3.

Reviewed for H-CivWar by Kevin M. Levin, History Department, St. Anne’s-Belfield School, Charlottesville, Virginia

A Private’s Civil War

The growing number of published letters and diaries by Civil War soldiers over the last ten years reflects increased attention on the part of historians and suggests that their experiences are now central to understanding key questions of the war.  Civil War soldiers are no longer vague actors who followed the commands of superiors and marched blindly into battle, but complex actors worthy of serious analysis.  Historians have offered accounts of Civil War
soldiers’ ideological convictions, the role of unit cohesion, and the influence of loved ones back home as factors to understanding what motivated so many to remain in the ranks even after years of bloody fighting.  The daily minutiae of camp life has been uncovered, and the hard realities of marching and battle have also been described in detail and broken down into coherent chapters as if the soldiers themselves experienced the war in this way.[1]

_Through Ordinary Eyes_ brings together the correspondence of Rufus Robbins along with his brothers, sisters, and parents.  Compared with the experiences found in other published accounts, readers will find few descriptions of the battlefield and its horrors or references to key figures of the war.  This, however, is not a shortcoming, but serves to remind the reader that the lives of these men were not confined to the battlefield, but included a broad spectrum of experiences that were deemed to be worthy of communicating to loved ones back home.  The Robbins family hailed from South Abington,
Massachusetts and subscribed to the Universalist faith.  Robbins, a cobbler and farmer, enlisted at the age of thirty-one; his letters home cover the period between June 1861 and February 1863.

Robbins’s letters offer vivid descriptions of camp life, including picket duty, entrenchments, target practice, and fatigue duty.  Readers interested in the types of food consumed by Civil War soldiers will find a great deal to chew on in Robbins’s account. Rufus enticed his brother Henry by predicting, “if you could see my nice fried pork and white mealy potatoes mashed up on my plate with a little gravy on them and the sauce sweetened a very little, you would
say it was good enough for anyone” (p. 168).  The correspondence presents a contrast between references to peaceful scenes of muskmelons, apple orchards, and singing birds on the one hand and brief references to the horrors of the battlefield.

The reader soon realizes that Robbins was a simple man caught up in an event that defined his generation.  On occasion one wonders whether Robbins was aware of the important cause for which he volunteered, because he spent an inordinate amount of time reporting on things that may seem to us as mundane.  Robbins did on occasion reflect on the meaning of the war and whether his time in the army constituted a worthy cause.  In response to his sister and father who approved of his service, Robbins noted that “I am engaged in a good cause” (p. 70).  Individual letters also point to the constant
struggle between a belief in the cause and the longing for home and loved ones:  “I think of home often, but not with regret that I left it, for there is need of me here” (p. 132).

Robbins’s life was cut short in early 1863 after contracting chronic diarrhea and suffering through numerous transfers from hospital to hospital owing to a doctor’s refusal to issue a discharge.  Perhaps sensing that his time was short, Robbins shared some final thoughts with his family:  “Last night … I dreamt I was at home and I was out under the trees and they looked _so beautiful_.  When I got awake it was toward morning, and I longed so to be there to walk under the trees and look up into the beautiful moon and one bright star was shining for me…. Tell [mother], _I have no doubts_ about the future.  It is all bright for me, and no fear of dying, for I feel that God will make it easy for me” (p. 191).  Robbins’s words–like so many other Civil War soldiers–have a way of reducing the roughly 140 years to a single point, thus bringing home the ordinariness of emotion that is universally understood.  _Through Ordinary Eyes_ is a worthy addition to the growing list of published primary sources from the Civil War.

Note

[1].  For an overview of this literature, see Reid Mitchell, “Not the General but the Soldier,” in _Writing the Civil War:  The Quest to Understand_, ed. James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper Jr. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), pp. 81-95.

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