This is the second in my series of “Best of” posts that will be shared throughout November in recognition of the four-year anniversary of this blog. The following post appeared on March 23, 2006 and is titled “Why the Civil War Matters”. This post was formally presented at my school as part of the 2006 Virginia Festival of the Book and is one of my favorite pieces of writing.
Americans were exuberant in 1961 at the prospect of the upcoming Civil War Centennial celebrations. It was a chance to unfurl Confederate battle flags and ponder the character and heroism of such iconic figures as Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Families could watch as re-enactors brought to life memorable battles such as First Manassas and Gettysburg where lessons could be taught about the common bonds of bravery and patriotism that animated the men on both sides. There would be no enemies on the battlefields of the 1960’s.
This post was published last year at this time and since my students are preparing essays on the subject I thought I might offer it once again.
Today my Civil War classes finished watching the movie Glory, which is still my all-time favorite Civil War movie. Students enjoy the movie in part because of the heroic story of the unit and the performances by Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick. The movie does a very good job of addressing the discrimination faced by the 54th Massachusetts as well as their heroic performance at Battery Wagner in July 1863. Like all historical movies Glory gets certain things right and certain things wrong. One of the themes that the movie captures is the slow progress that Col. Robert G. Shaw experienced in learning to more closely empathize with his men as well as the gradual changes that took place among white Union soldiers as they questioned their own racial outlook in response to the battlefield prowess of black regiments like the 54th. This is an issue that my students recently read about in an article by Chandra Manning. As for problems, well, they abound throughout the movie such as the profile of the regiment, which is presented primarily as a unit of fugitive slaves. Most of the men were free blacks from Massachusetts. Other problems include the time frame for the raising and training of the regiment which began in 1863 rather than 1862 as well as the failure to acknowledge Shaw’s marriage at any point in the movie.
I‘ve been thinking about the recent press release by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the eve of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry. If you remember, they have chosen to commemorate the death of Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be black and working at the local train station at the time of the raid. There are a number of things that are disturbing here. Referencing Shepherd as an “unfortunate black citizen” reflects the most basic misunderstanding of black civil rights history since the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks could not be citizens. Unfortunately, that is about par for the course when it comes to getting the basic facts right in the SCV.
What is more disturbing, however, is the blatant way in which the SCV distorts black history to serve their own agenda. Notice that at no point in their announcement did they even mention why John Brown was in Harpers Ferry. They do mention his “nefarious scheme”, but it would be helpful if the public was told what that scheme involved: How about nothing less than the freeing of the slaves. Now please don’t misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that we should not engage in serious debate about the ethics of Brown’s life and actions in Kansas and Virginia. The problem here is that the SCV has set up the parameters of debate in a way that serves their own purposes of distancing slavery from Confederate and Southern History. More to the point, why honor Heyward Shepherd at all? It is unfortunate that he was caught in the cross-fire, but does that in and of itself constitute a sufficient reason to honor him or give him his own day? Would the SCV have taken these steps if Shepherd happened to be a white baggage handler?
The bigger problem is the choice of which black man to honor. If you were just to rely on the SCV’s press release you might think that the only black individual in Harpers Ferry was Shepherd. And here is where the intentional distortion of the past occurs. There were five black with Brown at Harpers Ferry: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave. How do these men fit into the SCV’s understanding of this event? Why aren’t they being honored as opposed to Shepherd. I think I have an idea. Notice in the press release that Shepherd is characterized as a “faithful employee.” What possible reason could the SCV have in characterizing an employee as faithful? Of course, anyone familiar with the historiography of Southern history knows that that one word, ‘faithful’, resonates throughout the Lost Cause literature, which characterizes slavery as populated by faithful and obedient slaves.
This morning I came across an excellent video on the black legacy of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. The documentary did not focus on Brown, but on the five blacks who accompanied him: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, Shields Green, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Osborn Perry Anderson.
Although I skipped around a bit I am pretty sure that you will not find Shepherd’s name mentioned (perhaps a brief reference) in this 48 minute video. The importance of the Harpers Ferry Raid in the local black community is to be found in the actions of the five men mentioned above. The distance between the SCV’s preferred memory of Brown and Harpers Ferry and the history of black Americans in the area couldn’t be wider. As you will see in the video, for example, Heyward Shepherd’s death, however tragic and unfortunate, does not explain the rise of Storer College and its rich history of education and black civic activism.
There has been quite a bit of coverage of Georgia’s recent resolution marking April as Confederate Heritage and History Month. What has gone largely unnoticed, however, are the changes that have been made between the initial proposal and the final version.
To amend Chapter 4 of Title 1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to holidays and observances, so as to create Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for legislative findings; to encourage observances and celebrations of Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for statutory construction; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.
To amend Chapter 4 of Title 1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to holidays and observances, so as to create Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for legislative findings; to encourage observances and celebrations of Confederate Heritage and History Month; to provide for statutory construction; to amend Article 3 of Chapter 3 of Title 50, relating to other state symbols, so as to provide that the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum shall be an official state historical civil rights museum; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.