Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners?

Richard Williams’s new book Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend was reviewed yesterday in the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star.  I know some of you are sick of reading posts about this issue and I don’t gain any pleasure from writing about it, but it is important to respond to what many believe to be a legitimate approach to doing serious Civil War history.  If this book wasn’t shelved in the history sections of bookstores I probably wouldn’t say anything at all. 

The book does not engage in any serious historical analysis; there is little in terms of manuscript material and the author has absolutely no grasp of the secondary literature that is necessary to analyzing any southern slaveowner.  The author relies heavily on postwar material, but unfortunately doesn’t understand the first thing about how to handle these sources.  The methodology is as follows:  find as many pro-Jackson accounts as possible and ask as few questions as possible about why they were written.  As many of you know I ran into Jackson’s wartime servant at the 1903 Crater reenactment in Petersburg.  He was the only black man present and if you didn’t know anything about Jim Crow Virginia you wouldn’t know the first thing about how to handle this fact. My high school students have a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle postwar slave narratives. 

The review of the book doesn’t try to analyze Williams’s argument in any critical way, rather it simply reaffirms the approach and conclusion of the book’s author.  The lack of a historical agenda in both the book and the review is evidenced by the numerous use of moral/ethical concepts.  Since both Williams and the author of the review are interested primarily in affirming a moral picture of Jackson rather than a strictly historical one it is not worth commenting on.  Rather I want to pose a few questions that challenge their working assumptions.

What are those assumptions?  Let’s consider a few choice quotes from the review:

Williams begins this journey by painfully depicting the deplorable trials
faced by African-Americans as they were shipped from the slave-trading colonies
in Africa to the coastal cities of the United States. Along the way, we are
reminded of the horrible conditions and mistreatment faced by these prisoners,
and the author holds nothing back in the telling. He then presents the social,
political and financial aspects of slave trading and the history of its
institution and practice in 18th- and 19th-century America, as well as the
shared shame that fell equally on both the North and the South.

This provocative opening provides a solid foundation for the story that is to
come. Clearly the examples that follow, depicting the compassion and care given
by a percentage of Christian Southerners on behalf of a poor mistreated people,
need to be recognized in order to find something righteous beneath so much

Thomas Jackson’s efforts are certainly worthy of such recognition, as
contradictory, at times, as they may sound. Therefore, Williams continues to
focus his attention on Stonewall’s own path to sharing the message of salvation
while citing the positive influence that his fellow believers had, in turn, on

First, let’s forget for a moment that the reviewer is referring to Jackson and instead just imagine  a slaveowner who professes to be a good Christian.  Let me see if I understand this: the suffering that the author of the review is referring to is the result of people being enslaved, but somehow we are to believe that the effort to minimize their suffering is reflective of a good Christian.  Are we to expect that the individual enslaved ought to be grateful for the care that has been bestowed?  If the effort to minimize their suffering is to be applauded then what are we to make of those who worked to free the slaves?  Of course I am thinking about the abolitionists such as William L. Garrison and others.  We might also ask about old John Brown.  He also claimed to be a man of God.  How do we reconcile the tension here?  Does God both sanction Brown and Jackson and if so why?  How do we know if one was mistaken as to what God demanded in reference to slavery?  What is the moral content of a conclusion that both justifies immediate abolition and the attempt on the part of slaveowners to minimize the suffering of their own slaves?

As devout Christians, the Jackson family fervently believed that all people were
welcome at the Lord’s table regardless of their race or social stature.

I would love some clarification here.  How does one approach the "Lord’s table" as someone who is enslaved because of his/her race?  Perhaps it is the kind of table where the children sat during those family reunions.  But wait, it gets even better.  The following passages reflect some of the most distorted moral/ethical analysis that I’ve ever seen:

Although Jackson could not alter the social status of slaves, Williams tells
of how he committed himself to Christian decency and pledged to "assist the
souls of those held in bondage." He also adds that Jackson and his wife were
guilty of practicing civil disobedience by educating slaves.

Eventually the Sunday school grew beyond the allotted facilities and
ultimately blossomed into new churches for African-Americans. In this regard, we
can see how the evangelical white Christian slave owner had a positive influence
on the spiritual education of those held in captivity. As a result, many
ex-slaves became preachers themselves and were later responsible for some of the
largest religious revivals that followed the South’s surrender.

This is nothing less than a disturbed moral outlook.   This is the worst kind of utilitarianism I can imagine as we are being asked to evaluate behavior and ideas simply based on their consequences.  Correct me if I am wrong but Christian morality is not based on consequences: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  The argument implies that since life as a slave could lead to wonderful results those results therefore reflect the moral character of the slaveowner. 

Just a few questions for the advocates of this ridiculous and dangerous moral view:

1. Given the moral character of Jackson as a slaveowner would it be wrong for a slave to run away in an attempt to gain his/her freedom? 
2. Would it be justified if an individual slave killed Jackson in order to gain his/her freedom?

If we answer yes to 1 or 2 than it seems as if we must assume that the actions of the slaveowner were immoral.  I assume we believe this regardless of the "positive influence" that would be gained by remaining Jackson’s property.

3. Since both Williams and the reviewer believe that Jackson was doing God’s work would it be justified today and if not then why? 

In closing I leave you with a few more remarks by the reviewer:

In the end, it is not that difficult to believe the notion of a Christian slave
showing compassion and mercy in fulfilling an obligation to "make
disciples of all nations
." This book reinforces the reasoning as to why a
Christian Confederate would go to such lengths to educate and enlighten slaves.
Simply put, Thomas Jackson did exactly what his Lord had told him to do. He
spread the Good News to everyone. His "students," in turn, accepted Jesus Christ
as their Lord and Savior and eagerly continued to spread this message as they
left the cotton fields and entered the mission field.

One final question: If slaves were able to accept God’s word, were worthy of mercy and education than why were they being enslaved?  This is nothing less than a confused moral outlook.  It is not only incoherent, it also forces us to sacrifice the central concepts that make up our ideas of moral goodness. 


Another Flag Incident: You Can Guess Which Flag

Looks like the David School in Floyd County, Kentucky has decided to boycott a game with Allen Central High School over their fans waving of the Confederate flag during the game.  The David School basketball team includes one black player.  Ned Pillersdorf, the David School’s athletic director and boys basketball coach said that when the black player was taking a foul shot the fans made it a point "waving the Confederate flag at him."

Allen Central Principal Lorena Hall and her students have defended their
Confederate emblems, saying they symbolize strength, independence and pride.

"It has nothing to do with racism," Hall said in a recent interview with The
Associated Press. "It’s a part of us." She declined to comment Thursday.

Principal Hall is probably right, but should it matter to her that another team finds the waving of the flag to be offensive?  Where are the Souther heritage folks on this one?  Check out the photo of the two kids holding the school flag.  Exactly which Confederate unit carried this particular flag into battle and isn’t this image offensive to people who believe the flag to be sacred?

Check out the shoulder sleeve and shoulder loop insignias that are available for the school’s JROTC.  I’m going to have to order me a pair for Christmas.


A Loss For Gettysburg

All of you have no doubt heard that the Pennsylvania Gaming Board turned down a request to build a casino a short distance from the battlefield.  Resistance against the plan was well organized and included a wide range of interest groups.  They have every reason to rejoice.  Let me say up front that I am pleased with the decision.  Like many of you I worry about the continued development that threatens many of our Civil War battlefields.  At the same time I like to think that I am sensitive to the fact that most people could care less about history and therefore have different priorities. 

While I never supported the idea of a casino during the debate I tried to maintain a perspective that acknowledged the historical balance between preserving public places and commercial interests.  In connection to Gettysburg these choices have never been mutually exclusive.  The battle was used to attract tourists and their dollars from the beginning.  [The history of this is analyzed by the late Jim Weeks in Gettysburg: Memory, Market, And An American Shrine (Princeton University Press, 2003)]  From the PUP website:

Gettysburg entered the market not with recent interest in the Civil War nor
even with twentieth-century tourism but immediately after the battle. Founded by
a modern industrial society with the capacity to deliver uniform images to
millions, Gettysburg, from the very beginning, reflected the nation’s marketing
trends as much as its patriotism. Gettysburg’s pilgrims–be they veterans,
families on vacation, or Civil War reenactors–have always been modern consumers
escaping from the world of work and responsibility even as they commemorate. And
it is precisely this commodification of sacred ground, this tension between
commerce and commemoration, that animates Gettysburg’s popularity.

Gettysburg continues to be a current rather than a past event, a site that
reveals more about ourselves as Americans than the battle it remembers.
Gettysburg is, as it has been since its famous battle, both a cash cow and a
revered symbol of our most deeply held values.

As a result of my research on the Crater I now have a better appreciation of how the Petersburg battlefields were used as a marketing tool by real estate firms and other interest groups  to attract people and businesses to the area.  Their efforts were widely supported by local residents and city officials.  We need to remember this as we celebrate this victory.  From around the blogosphere:

Yes!!! Thanks for posting this . . . we hadn’t heard. I’ll tell my teenaged sons
now. We’d visited Gettysburg earlier this year and they were both adamant that
we would not shop anywhere that had a pro-gambling issue sign posted.

While I’m being blunt, may I suggest that David LeVan and folks of his ilk find
some other place to attempt to soil.  LeVan, the owner of the “Gettysburg
Battlefield Harley-Davidson” was the power and money behind the casino attempt. 
Perhaps it would be better if LeVan sells his businesses and just gets out of
Gettysburg altogether.  Maybe he can go north and get a casino built on Plymouth

My point is that not everyone in Gettysburg should be expected to support preservation efforts.  And we don’t need to point the finger at them as if they violated some sacred trust.  If you understand the history of the Gettysburg battlefield you would see that there never was one.     Again, let’s celebrate this decision, but let’s not forget that this latest challenge is part of a rich history of consumerism and preservation.  They are both tied together. 

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An Embarassment From My Congressional District

Look like  Congressman Virgil Goode – who unfortunately happens to be my representative – has decided to make a complete ass out of himself.  Earlier this month he issued a statement to his constituents in reaction to the decision of Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison to take his oath of office on the Koran.  Here is just part of his statement:

The Muslim representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that
district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode
position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office
and demanding the use of the Koran.

I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United
States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are
necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of
America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.

It actually gets much worse, but unfortunately I can’t find the full text.  Given that we’ve been living with the politics of fear for the last six years I guess we should not be surprised by someone taking it to the next level.  The problem is that this guy is one of our highest elected public officials.  I can’t think of a more irresponsible thing to say.  What the hell does immigration have to do with Islam?  As someone from Goode’s district I am absolutely embarassed and I call on him to apologize.  He does not speak for the thousands of decent people that live in central Virginia.  This guy is a real national security risk.

This is one of those moments where it is essential for good people to stand up


One Step Back

In response to my recent post which asked whether slaveholders were "trapped" by slavery an anonymous reader offered an emotional, but important observation about the way Americans view themselves in relationship to the rest of the world.  I assume that this reader was not born in the United States:

Lee was not bad. NO, having slaves and coming up with the idea that the
bible sanctions that is WRONG and BAD, especially in 1865. Maybe Lee
did not know that all slavery mentioned in the bible was based mostly
on the ancient idea of servitude which so MODERNLY allowed slaves to
earn their freedom over time. We are way into the Industrial Revolution
in Europe in the 1860s, 76 years past the French Revolution, Bismarck
is about to install social laws that provide health care for the public
and free education in Germany and he is preparingn to restrict child
Americans see themselves so isolated.
I am willing to give
Jefferson a small break, but we are past the Enlightement and way into
the Romantic notion of individualism and individual rights? Beethoven
died in 1827 mourning the fact that not ALL PEOPLE can yet elect their
government in Europe. MAYBE just MAYBE Lee might have even heard of
Marx (1818-1883) and Engels. How can anybody argue that they were just
thinking it is right and were therefore good men nonetheless.
Is that
what happens today: we don’t listen to what the world thinks because we
are right and are good men?

Yeah, of course compared to child
labor in Great Britain slave holders look swell even in 1865, but for
some brain activity’s sake how can somebody argue that there is still
any justification for slavery in 1865????   

This writer reminds us that every so often it is useful and necessary to pull our heads out of the sand.  When Americans do talk about slavery we tend to think about its eventual abolition internally.  Some suggest that if the Civil War had not occurred slavery would have died a natural death, and the evangelicals somehow manage to justify slaveholding by arguing that the individuals in question believed that God would have ended it on her schedule.  In other words, who were the slaveholders to question?  There is a kind of bunker mentality in all of this and I suspect that it has much to do with an inability or unwillingness to place American history within a comparative context. 

As a teacher I plead guilty to contributing to this mindset.  My survey courses do not really touch on world affairs until the United States enters the world stage.  Most textbooks are rather narrow in this respect.  One of the questions often asked by students is whether Europeans followed the Civil War.  They want to know what others thought of events in the states and in this regard there is a great deal to tell.  [This gives me an opportunity to recommend a fabulous collection of letters written by German-Americans to relatives back in Europe during the Civil War.  Walter D. Kamphoeffner and Wolfgang Helbick, Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)].  What we don’t hear nearly enough about is whether Americans followed events elsewhere.  Think about what this broader perspective does to our self-congratulatory or apologist dialog  about emancipation and the "march of freedom" throughout our history.  The United States is nowhere close to the top of the list of nations that abolished slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I am of course ignoring gradual abolition in the North for the sake of argument here.  Here is a partial list: Sweden and Finland (1335), Portugal (1761), England and Wales (1772), Haiti, (1791), Upper Canada (1793), France and its colonies (1794-1802), Chile (1823), Argentina (1813), Mexico (1829), British Empire (1833), Denmark (1848), Peru (1851), Romania (1858), Netherlands (1863), and finally the United States of America (1865). 

I guess the evangelical has to conclude that those involved in the abolition of slavery elsewhere did not listen closely enough to God.  My point for now is that while Americans want to know that others cared about what was happening here we are not that interested in knowing to what extent the favor was returned.  It’s easier to see Americans as isolated rather than part of a broader story of freedom where the United States was not always in the lead – and in the case of abolition not even close.  One final thought: I don’t think the reader is criticizing Lee per se, rather the reader  is struck by the lengths we will go to to preserve an image of certain historical figures which involves excusing a certain belief or action. 

Thanks reader.