Category Archives: Civil War Culture

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.

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!

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.

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?

Dixie College to Change Mascot

Dixie2At first I thought this was some kind of joke, but it turns out there is a real school with the name Dixie College.  Better yet, it’s not in the south, but in UtahDixie  of all places.  Wait, it gets better.  Their mascot is the "Rebel" and school officials are now concerned that this "nickname is [being] linked with the Confederate flag" by the general public.  If they consider the mascot to be problematic what are they going to do about the name of the school itself?  And if they do change the name of the school altogether, what are they going to do with all of their Dixie chicks?  Where will they go?