Something to Think About

Hopefully I will have some time later today to comment on Peter Carmichael’s keynote address which was delivered yesterday as part of a 1-day symposium on R.E. Lee sponsored by the Lee Chapel in Lexington.  Pete touched on a number of issues that I’ve commented on in recent months. 

In the meantime consider a point made by Aaron Sheehan-Dean that relates to his forthcoming study, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (University of North Carolina Press).  A comment was made during the Q&A which suggested the average age of the Confederate soldier was 19 years old.  Aaron has done statistical analysis of soldiers in Virginia which points to an average age of 24; he went on to characterize the ANV as an army of husbands and fathers.  If we are thinking about motivation along generational lines than this little bit of information has the potential to refocus our attention on a number of important questions.


“The Historical Legacy of Robert E. Lee”

Today I travel to Lexington for a 1-day symposium on Robert E. Lee sponsored by the Lee Chapel.  I will share my thoughts later today if time permits.

"We can scarcely take up a newspaper that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee…. It would seem from this that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian." — Frederick Douglass

The truth is, Lee lived an all too human existence, fraught with dilemmas and decisions that would challenge the sturdiest soul.  He handled some of these situations well, others with disastrous errors.  Never did he turn away, however, and even his sharpest critics never questioned his steadfastness.  This is where our sympathy with him lies; here and in the heart-rending way that he strove, but failed, to achieve his dreams–number two at West Point by fractions of a point; perennially disrupted in the home life he coveted; denied professional recognition until he stood on the very brink of national disaster; defeated when he had so confidently felt the capacity for victory.  Through all this he was brave and tenacious, and set no limits on what he would give or try to accomplish.  Yet Lee, who could be as self-serving as any of us, was not intrinsically more virtuous than others.  He simply harnessed his fine points–notably persistence and self-control–to overcome failings within and around him.  The greatest honor we can give Lee is to admire him for who he actually was, rather than as an imaginary creature, which only insults him by implying that the reality was inadequate. — Elizabeth B. Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (pp. 470-71)


Florida’s Black Confederates

There is something very disturbing and sad about the way stories of black Confederates are reported in the news.  I suspect that much of it has to do with the fact that those reporting these stories have very little understanding of the history behind their subject.  This seems to be the case in this story reported by the St. Petersburg Times about Nelson Winbush’s memories of his “black Confederate” grandfather.  We read about how unusual it is for a black American to adhere to a narrative that is usually associated with white Southerners and are asked to suspend disbelief and acknowledge the bravery of a man who subscribes to “a different version than mainstream America.”  Why not, after all here we have a decent man who wants nothing more than to acknowledge his family history and a grandfather who apparently had a profound impact on Winbush’s life.

The problem is that by hovering at the surface of this personal attachment we fail to consider the ways in which Winbush’s identification with the past has been shaped by the past itself.  In other words, we fail to acknowledge the ways in which the story of black Confederates was used to distance the Confederate experience from race and slavery.  Consider Winbush’s own evidence, which includes possession of his grandfather’s pension papers and obituary from 1934 along with personal stories handed down through the family. Never far from the personal is the standard interpretation of the causes of the “War Between the States”:

Winbush believes the South seceded because the federal government taxed it disproportionately. It was a matter of states’ rights, not slavery, which was going extinct as the United States became more industrialized, he says. He denies that President Lincoln freed the slaves, explaining that the Emancipation Proclamation affected only the Confederate states, which were no longer under his authority.

“It was an exercise in rhetoric, that’s all,” Winbush says.

And what about those family stories?

Slowly, in his deep, rough voice, Winbush tells the story of a young slave from a Tennessee plantation named Louis Napoleon Nelson, who went to war with the sons of his master. “They grew up together,” Winbush says. At first his grandfather cooked and looked out for the others, but later he saw action, fighting with a rifle under the command of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and plantation owner.

At Shiloh, a two-day battle in 1862 in which more than 23,000 American men were killed or wounded, the Confederate Army needed a chaplain. Louis Nelson couldn’t read or write, but he had memorized the King James Bible. He stayed on as chaplain for the next four campaigns, leading services for both Confederate and Union soldiers, before they headed back to the battlefield. He also foraged for food. One time, he killed a mule, cut out a quarter and hauled it back to his comrades. “When you don’t have anything else, mule meat tastes pretty good,” he would tell his grandson.

Some topics even the loquacious grandfather considered off limits. He wouldn’t talk about the Union siege of Vicksburg, a bloody battle that captured an important Mississippi River port and effectively split the South. Nearly 20,000 people died. After the war, he lived as a free man on the James Oldham plantation for 12 more years. Then he became a plasterer, traveling the South to work on houses. Over the years, he went to 39 Confederate reunions, wearing a woolly gray uniform that Winbush still has.In photos, he stands next to two white men who accompanied him to soldiers’ reunions until they were old men. Through the sepia gleams a dignity earned on the battlefield. “When he came back, that was storytelling time,” Winbush says. His grandfather died in 1934. The local paper ran an obituary that called him a “darky.” Winbush is proud that his grandfather’s death was marked at all.

There is a fascinating story in all of this; unfortunately, Winbush doesn’t have a sophisticated enough background to understand it.  The story of his grandfather is a story shaped by white Americans, which evolved as a means to satisfy both political and racial agendas.  Does Winbush know to ask whether his grandfather was brandishing that rifle with Forrest at Fort Pillow?  What does Winbush envision when he mentions that his grandfather “went to war” with the son of his owner?

There is a very interesting article in today’s New York Times about Japanese history textbooks which fail to acknowledge that “Okinawans had been coerced by Imperial troops into committing mass suicide” during the invasion of the island by Americans during WWII.  The protests by tens of thousands of people point to the importance of telling the truth about the past even if it brings the most painful of memories to the surface in both the family and nation.  With the story of Nelson Winbush and his grandfather we can see first-hand what happens when that advice is ignored.


A Nice Day for a Drive

Today Michaela and I took a little day trip along Skyline Drive.  It’s still early for a change in the foliage, but we decided to go anyway.  We ate lunch at the Big Meadows Lodge and then took a little hike.  We saw a number of deer, one of which came within 5-feet of Michaela before crossing a road.  We also checked out the Visitors Center and there history exhibit.  My knowledge of the history of the Shenandoah National Park is minimal so I took advantage of the exhibit.  I was struck by one exhibit which outlined segregation in the Park.  Even in an isolated place such as the Shenandoah Valley authorities felt it necessary to keep the races separated.  On the drive home the absurdity of it all hit me.  People travel to this site to experience multiple species co-existing in their natural habitats and our own species fails miserably at it. Additional pics here.


Quick Follow-Up To “Perfect Christmas Gift”

I am very lucky to have married a woman much smarter than me.  Michaela and I were talking about that ridiculous collectible showing a Union soldier having his leg sawed off and she suggested that only within the context of the Civil War would this type of thing be acceptable.  Perhaps she is wrong, but can you imagine such a scene involving a soldier from WWII or Vietnam?  What does this tell us about the way we identify with the Civil War?

Other suggestions for Civil War miniatures:

My suggestions included "Execution of Confederate Soldier for Desertion" and "Union Soldier Relieving Himself While on March"

Others suggestions: "[H]eadless Union/Confederate soldier with a canonball suspended behind the body/corpose, as well as the head going another way"  [Perhaps we could use the image of the young Confederate soldier who had his head severed at Malvern Hill.  We could call it "Innocence Lost".]

"Sultana" boat for bathtub fun!(one use only)

Any other suggestions?