Glenn W. LaFantasie on William C. Oates and Memory

I just picked up Glenn W. LaFantasie’s new biography Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates (Oxford University Press, 2006).  Oxford has released a number of first-rate studies over the past year, including Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation, J. Matthew Gallman’s America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Dickinson and David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World.

I have only had a chance to read the Introduction to LaFantasie’s study, but it looks to be a very interesting study.  No doubt all of you are familiar with Oates who served as Colonel of the 15th Alabama and fought at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 against the better known Joshua L. Chamberlain.  Oates was wounded six times during the war, including the loss of his arm.  Following the war he went on to serve seven terms in the U.S. Congress and one as Governor of Alabama.  Interstingly enough, in 1901 he argued for black suffrage rights at the Alabama Constitutional Convention.  LaFantasie spends a great deal of time on Oates’s postwar career, including his attempt to reconcile his belief in the tenets of the Lost Cause and the role of public memory in shaping his preferred narrative of the war and his private memories which were crowded with the horror of battle.  LaFantasie seems to have a great deal to say about this tension:

Oates participated more buoyantly in the concoction of a patriotic and public memory that honored the Confederacy’s righteous cause and its stand against Northern political domination, sectional aggression, and military invasion.  While he balked at celebrating the leadership of Jefferson Davis, whom he held in extremely low regard, or mindlessly praising Lee for every order the general issued on the field of battle, he did become an enthusiastic believer in and promulgator of the Lost Cause and all its tenets.  By doing so, he succeeded in temporarily sublimating his very worst memories of the war and substituting in their place the more glorious recollections of a mythical romantic war fought bravely by the finest sons of the South against the most rapacious devils of Yankeedom.  In the end, though, the terrible memories always seeped through, like ink stains through paper, as they did so often and so poignantly in his book [The War Between the Union and the Confederacy (1905)] and in his private letters.  Memory for William Oates was both public and private.  But it required great energy, which he repeatedly expended, to keep the private memories from view.

Later LaFantasie makes the important point that the difficulty concealing the content of one’s private memories suuggests that sectional reconciliation and reunion was not as straightforward as has been suggested by some historians.  This point has been forcefully made by John Neff in his recent book Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation (University of Kansas, 2005). 

I am learning to appreciate this distinction between public and private memory as I continue my research on the Crater.  A perfect example of this can be seen in the 1903 Crater reenactment which took place on the battlefield in Petersburg.  While the public witnessed a reenactment and speeches that made no reference to the presence of black soldiers in the battle, the veterans of Mahone’ brigade who took pen to paper continued to emphasize this salient feature of so many wartime letters and diary entries.  William Stewart, who commanded the 61st Virginia, collected upwards of 50 personal accounts that were included in a scrapbook and is now part of the collection at the Museum of the Confederacy.  It is hard to know whether this volume was meant for publication.  The accounts are so rich in detail especially in their focus on the emotions that were unleashed once they realized that the attacking columns included U.S.C.T.  And yet public ceremonies in which these men participated in were void of racial overtones. 

I look forward to reading this, though I will probably not get to it for some time.  On a different note entirely, I highly recommend Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative LegacyFukuyama is an excellent writer and provides both a long and short-term analysis behind recent foreign policy decisions.  It is relatively short and easy to read.  He is one of those writers who has the ability to make you feel intelligent about an issue that seems incredibly complex. 

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Civil War Talk Radio

I had a great time being interviewed by Professor Gerry Prokopowicz on Civil War Talk Radio – listen for yourself.  Although he was suffering from bad allergies he managed to stay focused and asked some very good questions.  We talked a bit about teaching in the first segment, but concentrated on the Crater in the last two.  I would have liked to have talked a bit more specifically about memory and the Crater, but we did hit on a number of important themes.  As I mentioned at the end of the interview, it was a real honor being asked to take part in the show.  I just hope I didn’t come across as a bumbling idiot. 

Thanks again Gerry.

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National Park Service Interprets Civilian Life in Fredericksburg

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will premiere a new film which examines the experiences of civilians – both free and slave.  The film, titled "Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free, will run tomorrow night at the Fredericksburg Baptist Church on Princess Anne Street and has a running time of 30 minutes.  At some point I will make my way to see it.  Park Service historian John Hennessy took the lead on writing the script and here is what he had to say about the movie:

"The default history of Fredericksburg is the experience of the white population. Literally half the population here had a very different experience and view," said the script’s writer, John Hennessy, who is chief historian for Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.While many white residents saw the arrival of Union forces as a disaster, he said, slaves saw it as a chance for freedom. Hennessy said the film isn’t aimed at taking sides. "We don’t try to assert the primacy of one experience over another."

While I agree with Hennessy here it is troubling that he has to justify a film that acknowledges divergent civilian perspectives by noting that the script does not imply any kind of hierarchy of experiences.  It clearly reflects the assumptions and interests of those who will view this movie.  Click here for the Richmond Times-Dispatch article.

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Florida Bans “Revisionist History”

Looks like we no longer have to worry about those revisionist historians corrupting the minds of the young in Florida.  From the Los Angeles Times article:

And just last week, in an unprecedented move, the president’s brother approved a law barring revisionist history in Florida public schools. "The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth," declares Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed."

Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all that changed. American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty. The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.  There’s just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It’s wrong.

Continue reading if you have the stamina (Hat-tip to Cliopatra).  I wonder what the commission charged with judging what counts as factual or revisionist will look like?  This is laughable, but disturbing.

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Civil War Talk Radio

Just a quick reminder that I will be appearing tomorrow on Civil War Talk Radio.  I am looking forward to the interview with Prof. Gerry Prokopowicsz.  We will no doubt talk about the Crater, teaching the Civil War, and blogging.  The show airs at 12:00pm – 1 Pacific Time.  Of course, if you miss it I will provide the link on my site. 

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Blacks in Gray or “Enough is Enough”

I have to admit that I thought the publication of Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War would generate a more intelligent discussion of this controversial and confusing issue.  Those hopes were certainly misplaced.  This debate, specifically points to the wide gulf between the goals of those interested in preserving a certain vision of the war and those who apply a more critical methodology to the evidence that is typically used to prove the willing participation of Southern blacks in various Confederate armies.  Aspects of this debate remind me of the debates surrounding U.F.O.’s and Alien Abduction.  It is much more interesting to analyze the messenger than the evidence provided, including his/her geographic, and economic/social background.  Those who believe in the veracity of these stories tend to collect individual accounts regardless of the origin of the stories, the accumulation of which is supposed to be considered a sufficient condition for drawing a specific conclusion.    So it is in the debate over Black-Confederates.

Bruce Levine does two things in his article, “In Search of a Usable Past: Neo-Confederates and Black Confederates” which is included in the edited volume Slavery and Public History.  (See two earlier posts on this book – here and here.)  First, he sketches the reasons behind the continued claims of Black Confederates and later provides a short overview of the actual debate that took place in the Confederacy (from the beginning of the war) over whether to recruit blacks into the army.  Those interested in a more complete account of the actual debate should read Confederate Emancipation.

What I like about the structure of Levine’s article is his decision not to take on Neo-Confederate claims of Black Confederates directly.  And the reason is because it is unproductive to do so.  Consider the standard approach to this debate.  Individual stories are cited as evidence of a certain conclusion, but there is almost always no critical discussion of the origin of the source or whether the account really implies only one conclusion.  For an example, check out the discussion on this topic over at Civil War Talk Forum.  (This is a great example of why I usually steer clear of on-line discussion groups.)  You will find the same lack of critical analysis in books that purport to demonstrate broad commitment to the Confederacy such as Black Southerners in Gray by H.C. Blackerby, The South Was Right! by James and Walther Kennedy and the edited collection Black Confederates. All of these books have been released by partisan presses which suggests that they did not go through any serious editing or review that is regularly carried out in more mainstream and university publishers.  These debates lack any attempt at analysis, but this is exactly what is missing from the debate.  Just consider the spectrum of supposed numbers of Black Confederates that were to have served: they range from 1,000 to 100,000.  More depressing, however, is the sloppiness that lay just behind this debate.  Finally, even if we can establish a certain number of blacks who “supported” the Confederacy one way or another we still need to know what this means.  Of course it does not necessarily follow that they were considered as officially serving in a Confederate army since we know that the final authorization did not take place until March 1865.  More on this later.

Levine sketches out the reasons behind these claims.  They all fall under the broader concern of those who wish to  vindicate the Confederacy and honor their own southern ancestors:

1. “Insisting on a massive black presence in southern armies aims to strengthen that assertion by demonstrating that African Americans identified with and were loyal to the Confederacy.  The southern war effort thereby comes to appear as the cause not merely of slave owners, nor even of southern whites more generally, but all southerners, white as black, free as well as slave.”  (190)  The point is important here.  The emphasis on loyal black southerners masks the further question of the extent of white loyalty to the Confederacy which is widely debated among academic historians. As we all know, not all Southern slave states joined the Confederacy.

2. “Painting the Confederate army as a sea of both white and black faces it is hoped, will convey a very different impression of the war’s significance.  Recruiting a sprinkling of black members to modern Confederate heritage or reenactor groups is useful in the same way.  ‘Obviously we’d like to have more black or minority members,’ Ben C. Sewell III then executive director of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told one reporter,  ‘because the fact that we have minorities and welcome them deflects some of the criticism we seem to get’ when championing the official public veneration of Confederate symbols.'”  I still find it difficult to understand why blacks today align themselves with Southern Heritage organizations.  Consider the reasons provided by H.K. Edgerton.

3. “The claim of a massive black presence in southern armies is meant to accomplish something else as well: to demonstrate once and for all that the Confederacy did not stand and did not fight for slavery.  After all, the neo-Confederates ask, would so many blacks have so enthusiastically supported a war effort that was defined by such a goal?”  For many neo-Confederates this is a wonderful example of the split between the preservation of memory and critical historical analysis.  I will not belabor the point here except to suggest that scholarship over the past 30 years has demonstrated (and continues to show) the complex ways in which slavery shaped the nation and especially the South in the years leading up to and through the Civil War.  Perhaps what is needed is a distinction between why any one individual fought in the war and the reasons behind secession and the creation of the Confederate States of America. (190)

4. “The Black Confederates campaign also aims to reinforce a particular view of the postwar Reconstruction years.  Just as abolitionists are to blame for slavery’s survival into the 1860’s, so the North bears responsibility for subsequent conflicts between southern whites and blacks–and even for legalized segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror.” (193)

I would like to see proponents of the Black Confederate interpretation to address two issues.  The first is one that Levine raises and the second stems from my research on the Crater.  Levine clearly demonstrates the difficulties that General Patrick Cleburne and others who attempted to convince the government to recruit (on a limited basis) blacks into Confederate armies.  Almost no one, including Jefferson Davis, believed that this was a good idea.  In fact many argued that it would be a fatal blow to the Confederacy, including Howell Cobb who concluded that “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.”  I refer the reader to Levine’s chapters on this subject.  His analysis of the debate from December 1863, when Cleburne first proposed the idea, to the end of the war is well documented and provides a thorough analysis.

The other issue that I would like to see addressed is the reaction of Confederate soldiers to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater.  As I’ve shown in a number of publications (check out my recent article, “The Earth Seemed to Tremble” in America’s Civil War [May 2006]) white Southerners were not simply outraged that the Federal commanders had unleashed U.S.C.T.’s on the battlefield.  They were just as concerned about what it meant – nothing less than a leveling of their society.  Many soldiers understood and wrote clearly about their fears of what losing the war would mean to the racial hierarchy of the South.  It is not surprising then that during the postwar years, and increasingly during the Jim Crow era, white Southerners would distance themselves from the memory of black Federal soldiers in their public commemorations of the Crater.

Previous posts: Black Confederates, Black Confederates – Part 2, Eric Foner on Black Confederates, Black Confederates, Part 3, Blight on Levine.

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