Two Important Slave Narratives Published

BlightDavid Blight’s latest book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped Freedom is now available.  From the jacket:

Slave narratives, some of the most powerful records of our past, are extremely rare, with only fifty-five post–Civil War narratives surviving. A mere handful are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group with the publication of A Slave No More, a major new addition to the canon of American history. Handed down through family and friends, these narratives tell gripping stories of escape: Through a combination of intelligence, daring, and sheer luck, the men reached the protection of the occupying Union troops. David W. Blight magnifies the drama and significance by prefacing the narratives with each man’s life history. Using a wealth of genealogical information, Blight has reconstructed their childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the north, where they reunited their families.

In the stories of Turnage and Washington, we find history at its most intimate, portals that offer a rich new answer to the question of how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. In A Slave No More, the untold stories of two ordinary men take their place at the heart of the American experience.

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Still the “Champion of Enslaved Men and Women”

There is a new and extended trailer for the upcoming film Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story.  Check this new clip out if you didn’t think it possible for an even more absurd treatment of this very important historical figure.  This time historians James I. Robertson and Col. Keith Gibson offer commentary.  Robertson touches on the "trauma of [Jackson] being given away" at an early age which is no doubt true.  He concludes that "family became far more important than a normal person" and this shaped a more "tender-hearted person" which is "not shown in battle."  Again, I see nothing wrong with such a comment.  Unfortunately, this then serves as a lead-in to the absurd claim made by Richard Williams that Jackson "was the champion of enslaved men and women" and the "proclaimer of good news." 

First, someone please point out to me the places in Robertson’s book where Jackson is interpreted as some kind of champion of the very people he owned.  The editor of this trailer did a wonderful job of interpreting Jackson and slavery along traditionally paternalistic lines.  Jackson valued and yearned for family and this must be evidence that his ownership of slaves was benign.  Actually, not only was it benign, but we are being asked to celebrate Jackson’s ownership of slaves. 

I know some of you are wondering why I keep harping on this and related issues.  Well, let me just say that I am a teacher and I care about what is both taught in the classroom and distributed for viewing in the general public.  In the end this kind of film is dangerous.  It perpetuates the same stereotypes that one can find in movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind.  What makes this worse is that we are at a point where we know so much more about the "peculiar institution".  But even if we ignore the scholarship the idea that anyone will seriously consider the possibility of celebrating slave ownership is perverse in the extreme. 

Do we really have to ask Mr. Williams whether he would be willing under any circumstances to exchange places with one of Jackson’s slaves to make this point?  Of course, I have not seen this film nor do I have any interest in doing so.  I’ve seen enough! 

Update: One of my readers was kind enough to inform me that responses to this piece have been posted.  See here and here.  I applaud Williams for at least making an attempt to respond even though he does not address the point of this post which is the idea that we can characterize any slaveholder as a "champion" of the very people enslaved.  The other guy seems to be just a bit unstable.

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I Also Don’t Get This

BenthamI am always surprised by the number of comments I get in response to certain posts.  I’ve written a number of lengthy posts which are hopefully thought provoking, but they typically don’t garner the same level of interest in terms of comments.  It’s the short goofy posts that tend to attract the most comments.  I guess that says it all in terms of the amount of time that people spend on individual blogs or about the length of the average attention span.  The last post on Little Sorrel attracted a number of comments that spanned the spectrum of humor and disgust.  I came across the story on one of my feeds and thought it funny that we have an urge to preserve the hide of Jackson’s Little Sorrell.  I find it curious – nothing more nothing less. 

Just in case some of you think I am simply using this as another opportunity to poke at our fascination with all things Confederate consider the case of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham.  From Wikipedia:

As requested in his will his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his "Auto-icon". Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith, it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-Icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-Icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as "present but not voting". Tradition holds that if the council’s vote on any motion is tied, the auto-icon always breaks the tie by voting in favor of the motion.

The Auto-Icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham’s head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.  [Note: You can see Bentham’s head between his feet in the picture.  I also find this odd.]

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I Don’t Get It

Stonewall Jackson’s horse has returned home.  Little Sorrel has returned to VMI’s museum after getting a makeover. Last month conservators gave Little Sorrel a bath and repaired his hide.  It was the first time he’d received a bath in 140 years.

Little Sorrel belonged to Stonewall Jackson.  The horse died in 1886, but his hide was preserved.  The Virginia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy organized the fundraising for the restoration. The group raised about $16,000 by selling Little Sorrel toys across the state.

Sorry, but I say BURY THE DAMN THING!

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Did Lincoln Free the Slaves?: Interpretation in the Classroom

This week my Lincoln class will focus on the summer of 1862 and the events that led Lincoln to issue his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, just five days following the battle of Antietam.  I want my students to tackle the question of how to explain emancipation and why historians disagree over Lincoln’s role specifically.  In addition to William Gienapp’s biography students will read an article by Ira Berlin titled "Who Freed the Slaves: Emancipation and its Meaning" which is included in a wonderful collection of essays edited by Brooks Simpson and David Blight titled Union and Emancipation: Essays on Politics and Race in the Civil War Era (Kent State University Press, 1997).  Finally, students will watch scenes from Ken Burns’s Civil War.  Their assignment will be to compare the three interpretations.  Gienapp presents a well rounded interpretation of how Lincoln responded to both political pressure and military events within the context of emancipation.  The Berlin article offers an interpretation that places the abolitionists as well as the slaves themselves at center stage and offers a corrective to our traditional top-down picture of Lincoln as the primary agent of emancipation.  I am going to emphasize and spend the most time on Burns who I believe offers a rather convoluted picture of emancipation.  I’ve said before that the worst thing a teacher can do is show Burns without any guide or activity that engages students.  My emphasis on Burns is in part preparation for a talk that I will give (assuming the panel is approved) on teaching the Civil War at the upcoming June meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians.  In addition, I am in the beginning stages of a book-length project with my former thesis advisor that will provide the most complete analysis of Burns’s documentary to date.  More on that at a later date.

I plan to begin the Burns documentary with Episode 3 and the sections "Saving the Union" (August 1862) through "A Higher Object" (September 1862).  Students will have part of the transcript available to follow along.  What is striking is the complete absence of any discussion on how the military situation for the Union is shaping policy on slavery.  The first section focuses on McClellan’s reappointment to command as well as the defeat of Union armies under the command of Gen. John Pope.  Shelby Foote makes a few appearances to talk about the camaraderie of men in arms as well as the human price of war.  The only mention of slavery before the section on Antietam is a reference to Horace Greely’s letter to Lincoln calling for the emancipation of slaves as well as Lincoln’s famous response.  In addition, British Prime Minister Palmerston hints at the possibilities of official recognition of slavery.  Burns then shifts to Lee’s invasion of Maryland as well as the battle of Antietam itself.  Following that section is the final chapter to be shown, titled "A Higher Object" which opens with an image of Ulysses S. Grant and his failed attempt at taking Vicksburg.  A short interview with historian Ed Bearrs follows:

The Confederacy was on the offensive over a thousand mile front. Mr. Gladstone, a power in the English cabinet, is saying, “Jeff Davis has made a navy. He’s made an army and what’s more important,” intimating that he’s made a nation. But, the invasion of Maryland fails. Lee is defeated, falls back. They lose at Perryville in Kentucky. They lose at Iuka and Corinth in Mississippi, and even Newtonia, Missouri. And the Confederate tide rolls back. Lincoln, as a result of Antietam, converted the war to a higher plane, again the master politician. He announces the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, it doesn’t free a single slave in revolt, frees only as a war measure and only frees a slaves in states where the Confederacy is in control. And it will take effect on the first day of January.

Bearrs is a bizarre choice to interview on this subject.  When you get beyond his mannerisms he offers a rather simplistic overview of Lincoln’s decision.  This is the extent of the analysis of what led to Lincoln’s decision to issue the proclamation.  Images of slave families follow as the viewer listens to  Sam Waterston recite a few choice lines from the document.  There is no attempt whatsoever to look at this moment from the perspective of African Americans and this will provide a nice point of contrast with Ira Berlin’s article.  The British perspective and decision not to recognize the Confederacy is given voice by the philosopher John Stuart Mill: "The triumph of the Confederacy would be a victory of the powers of evil which would give courage to the enemies of progress and damp the spirits of friends all over the civilized world. The American Civil War is destined to be a turning point, for good or evil, of the course of human affairs."  The only African American quoted comes at the end of Episode 3 as Burns wraps up, from various perspectives, the changes that have taken place throughout 1862.  No surprise that the individual in question here is Frederick Douglass: "We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree- “Free forever.” Oh, ye millions of free and loyal men who have earnestly sought to free your bleeding country from the dreadful ravages of revolution and anarchy, lift up now your voices with joy and thanksgiving for with freedom to the slave will come peace and safety to your country."

This alone would give the class plenty to analyze, but in fact Burns does not completely ignore the story of slaves or the perspective that they influenced events at the highest level of government.  Burns does this with a number of short interview clips with historian Barbara Fields who has worked with Ira Berlin on the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.  What makes this interesting for the purpose of analysis is the placement of those clips throughout the documentary.  I plan to collect these interviews as reference points for my students.  Here are a few examples:

Prologue to Episode 3: It could have been a very ugly filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all. And it was the battle for emancipation, and the people who pushed it forward – the slaves, the free black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens – it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher.

"The Beast": Episode 3: The slaves understood that that war was about slavery before it was a war. They made a nuisance for the army and they also made an issue that the army had to deal with. And if they army had to deal with it, the War Department had to deal with it. If the War Department had to deal with it, Congress had to deal with it. That means that every fugitive slave who made a nuisance of himself to the local commander eventually made a figure of himself to the Congress of the United States

"Oh! Be Joyful": Episode 4: The people most affected by the Emancipation Proclamation obviously did not receive it as news because they knew before Lincoln knew that the war was about emancipation and moreover they knew, as perhaps Lincoln did without fully realizing it, and certainly as many people today do not realize, that the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to get them their freedom. It said that they had a right to go and put their bodies on the line if they had the nerve to believe in it and many of them had the nerve to believe in it and many suffered for that.

Again, these clips are sprinkled throughout the documentary and should bring additional perspective to our discussion.  Students can think about why Bearrs was interviewed instead of Fields in the section immediately following Antietam as well as whether these passages are properly integrated into the overall narrative that Burns introduces.  Hopefully, the discussions will be informed and students will leave with a greater appreciation of the challenges involved in interpretation. 

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