Category Archives: Civil War Culture

The Last Black Confederate Surrenders

I’m not sure how I missed this story, but it looks like H.K. Edgerton has given up his crusade to teach Americans about the loyalty of black Southerners to the Confederate cause.  In the years leading up to his April 2007 decision to furl the flag Edgerton had become a popular fixture at various Southern Heritage rallies.  He is best known for his trek in full Confederate uniform, along with his trusty Confederate flag, from Asheville, NC to Austin, TX.  I’ve blogged about Edgerton in the past and what I take to be the proper context for interpreting his “mission.”  In short, I think Edgerton has been influenced by an overly narrow memory of Southern history that reduces everything down to the Civil War and highlights the centrality of whites at the expense of black Southerners.  Check out this YouTube video of Edgerton in action.  I couldn’t help but think that this is a guy who wants to belong and identify with a past; unfortunately, he is unable to identify with anything beyond a bunch of guys parading as dead Confederate chieftains.  How sad.

So why is Edgerton furling his flag?  Turns out he has been accused of fraud:

Elijah Coleman, a prominent activist in the Georgia SCV, wrote a widely distributed E-mail in early March accusing Edgerton of selling hundreds of SCV-provided battle flags at a NASCAR event and pocketing the funds. Coleman also claimed that Edgerton was demanding huge sums for a new car, even after he was offered one costing $3,000.

“I began to see a new H. K. obsessed with money as he spoke of everyone ripping him off on past visits by him to Florida and other states. Money was the main thing on his mind,” wrote Coleman. “I realized he was now in the heritage fight only for the money.”

The article does not include any admission of guilt on the part of Edgerton, only that he has refrained from engaging in any public appearances.  Edgerton seems to be proudest about his “H.K. Edgerton t-shirt” which is produced by Dixie Outfitters and included in its “Modern Confederate Hero Line.”  I think that about sums it up.

Remembering the 54th Massachusetts

Yesterday felt like a marathon.  I left Charlottesville at 7am for Washington, D.C. to interview three members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Co. B) along with the Director of the African-American Civil War Memorial Foundation and Museum.  The three gentlemen in the picture are all founding members of the reenacting unit, two of whom appeared in the movie Glory [left to right Jerry Brown, Ben Hawley, and Mel Reid].  We talked for about 2 1/2 hours and probably could have continued for another couple of hours.  I learned a great deal about their experiences as black Civil War reenactors along with the challenges involved and their commitment to correcting/challenging the historical record and our collective memory.  My interview with museum director Frank Smith, Jr. took me through the rest of the day and before I could look up it was 4pm.  Luckily my wife sent me off with a muffin as that was the only thing I had eaten until dinner at 5:30pm in Bethesda.  It was a long and draining day, but the drive home gave me plenty of time to process much of what I heard.

I have a great deal of transcribing to do today.  Tomorrow it’s back down to Petersburg to interview Chris Calkins along with a few other employees of the Petersburg National Battlefield Park.

Is the Title of This Magazine a Misnomer?

I’ve seen Civil War Historian on the newsstand and recently came across its website while conducting a search.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the subject of the publication, but the title seems strange.  Given the goal of the magazine perhaps Civil War Living Historian would have been more appropriate:

Civil War Historian magazine was founded to promote knowledge of Civil War-era life in America. Civil War Historian accomplishes its goal by producing a high-quality publication that supports those who reenact the lives of Americans who lived in this era. The nature of the publication is both informative and entertaining. Civil War Historian contains after-action reports of reenactments, reprints of period publications, and historical research articles, all of which are supported by exceptional color images and artistic page design. Civil War Historian’s guiding principle and belief are the need to protect, preserve, and share accurate information about this momentous period in our history.

The pieces related to reenacting are quite interesting and I suspect are very useful for those in the field, but those that examine the history of the war are the weakest and don’t stack up to magazines such as North and South and Civil War Times Illustrated.  I have no intention of getting into another drawn out discussion about semantics, but the title and the magazine’s content minimizes and distorts what is involved in writing and researching history.  Sometimes distinctions do matter.

Moving Beyond the Question of Black Confederates

One of this blog’s readers fired off an email the other day in response to my interview with Richard Stewart.  The content of the email was in response to some remarks made by Stewart about the “service” of black Southerners in Confederate ranks.  Here is just a brief segment from the email:

I was wondering if Mr. Stewart’s comments in regards to black Confederates affected your perspective on the subject at all?….If so, how has this affected your own interpretations in regards to ‘highly-debated’ subjects such as black Confederates? In other words – have you gone ‘the other way’ at all by accepting things that may have been previously rejected by yourself? I’m just curious.

Given previous posts on this subject I think this is a reasonable question.  When I was in graduate school in philosophy my professors encouraged me to think long and hard about the content and form of the question to be posed.  It makes sense as the quality of any potential answer is directly related to the sophistication of the question posed.  We need a little of this in the context of the “debate” about black Confederates.  The question has been played out and anyone with a modicum of analytical ability should be able to acknowledge it.  So, what is needed?

We need to understand the complex and changing relationship between Southern whites and blacks throughout the war.  We need local studies that help us piece together the influence of region, economy, geography, demographics, along with the changing nature of the war itself.  Most importantly, we need to move away from the overly naive language of loyalty and faithfulness to a perspective that considers the myriad ways in which the lives of blacks and whites intersected and the various factors that motivated Southern blacks to make the decisions they made.  Notice that the author of the email frames the question as a mutually exclusive choice of going one way or the other.  If we frame the question in terms of a mutually exclusive choice than our responses will be confined in terms of both range and depth.

I am currently reading through A. Wilson Greene’s new study of Petersburg in preparation for a review which will appear in the journal Civil War History.  One of the things that I like about the book is that Greene spends a great deal of time analyzing how the war shaped the region’s black population.  In doing so he steers clear of making generalizations about their loyalty.  Part of the problem is that historians have very little to work with in terms of cataloging the motivations behind different decisions.  And unfortunately many of the people engaged in this debate, especially those arguing in the affirmative, are interested in reaffirming their own insecurities about the Confederate past.  In other words, the presence of black Confederates provides sufficient evidence that secession and the Confederate war effort had nothing to do with an attempt to uphold or maintain the “peculiar institution.”

If we are serious about better understanding race relations before, during, and following the war we have to be willing to pose more sophisticated questions.  I actually don’t find anything necessarily morally repugnant to the idea of black Confederates (whatever it might in fact mean), but in the end the arguments are flimsy at best.  Consider the typical approach to the positive claim which can be seen here on a web page from the Petersburg Express.  That the authors of this web page believe this suffices as an argument for the existence of substantial numbers of black Confederates is laughable at best.  There is no analysis of evidence or any attempt at providing background or context for the printed sources or images.  The evidence shows what the authors choose to see, which maybe the case for anyone engaged in interpretation; however, there must at least be an attempt to discount competing interpretations and that is rarely present in such accounts.

Again, the interesting question is not whether black Southerners were loyal to the Confederacy or “served” in its ranks in substantial numbers.  What we need to know is how enslaved and free blacks responded to the war, and we need to understand this apart from what makes us feel comfortable because in the end it’s not about us.