Category Archives: Civil War Culture

Everything is Bigger in Texas

Even the number of black Confederate soldiers.  How many?  Norris White Jr. speculates that 50,000 men “served” in the Confederate army from Texas, though he has only “documented” 7,500.  Mr. Norris came across evidence of these black Confederates while working on an M.A. thesis on Buffalo soldiers in the history department at Stephen F. Austin University.  Along the way we get the same tired and confused statements that reveal very little, if any, understanding of the broader historiography and an inability to acknowledge crucial distinctions.

This is embarrassing on a number of levels.  The article itself is poorly written.  The history department at Stephen F. Austin is referenced in a way that I suspect it would correct if it had the opportunity, and Mr. Norris is clearly misinformed about the subject of how blacks were utilized for the Confederate war effort.  Let’s take a closer look.

“Their voices have been omitted from the pages of history,” White said.

This is simply not true.  There is an incredibly rich body of scholarship that explores the various roles performed by blacks in the Confederate army.

Much attention has been given in movies such as “Glory” and in books and articles written by prominent U.S. military and Civil War era historians to the exploits and heroics of black soldiers serving in the Union forces, White said, but he added that “very little observance, if any, has been given to their counterparts in the Confederate Army.”

This is a common claim made by folks who become fixated on black Confederates.  The United States army utilized black soldiers so there must have been a “counterpart” in the Confederate army as well.  What is lost in this move are the salient differences between the debates in the United States and Confederacy that led to their use as soldiers – in 1863 for the former and in the final weeks of the war in 1865 for the latter.  Even more to the point, it fails to acknowledge in any way the place of slavery in the Confederacy.

He found that black Texans served in the Confederate Army in many diverse capacities, such as infantrymen on the battlefield, personal body servants, teamsters or laborers.

This is where Mr. Norris and many others reveal their inadequacies as serious historians.  I have no idea how many black “infantrymen” or black enlisted soldiers were discovered, but body servants, teamsters, and laborers did not “serve” as soldiers.  These distinctions are absolutely crucial if one is to have any hope of making sense of this subject and it is completely lost on Mr. Norris.

Primary sources, White said, are “100 percent irrefutable evidence — letters, diaries, pension applications, photographs, newspaper accounts, county commission records and other evidence that give primary insight” that blacks were in the Confederate Army.  For example, White found a Texas historical marker in Wise County that states Randolph Vesey was a respected Negro citizen and homeowner who served during the Civil War as body servant and voluntary battle aid to General W.L. Cabel of the Confederate Army.

First, I am not sure how the discovery of a marker is the kind of example that you want to highlight after supposedly traveling “30,000″ miles across the state searching through archives.  Randolph Vesey was surely not  a “counterpart” to any USCT.  One was free, the other enslaved.  That a graduate student in history will complete his studies not understanding this fundamental point is truly disturbing.

What I find sad is that even after all of this supposed research conducted by Mr. Norris, all we get here are the same old claims that are commonly found to have been cut and pasted from one black Confederate website to another.  There is nothing new here or anything that points to any serious thinking about this topic.  In fact, there is nothing in this article that you haven’t read hundreds of times in similar articles and countless websites.

How is it that all these people are making the very same discovery couched in the very same language?

 

Taking Civil War Historians to Court

Here is a little levity to end the work week.  This little exchange from the Southern Heritage Preservation FB Group is worth a good laugh, but it’s also a reminder that many people simply do not understand the first thing about what is involved in historical research.  The scholarship that historians produce is not the result of a process, but simply a reflection of personal bias and nefarious motives.  It’s a wonderful reminder of why education matters.

Perhaps Dimitri Rotov will offer his legal services as prosecuting attorney.

 

Civil War Memory at Ole Miss

Thanks to everyone who left a comment on the student video about some of the challenges surrounding the place of Confederate memory at the University of Mississippi.  I wanted to share the following comment from Boyd Harris, who is a PhD student in history at Ole Miss:

Thank you for posting this video, Kevin. I am a third year PhD student at the University of Mississippi. Needless to say, this is not the first time I have seen this video. The legacy of slavery, the war, and racism is very apparent on the campus landscape. We have a Confederate cemetery (right behind the basketball stadium) and several statues and markers commemorating the Civil War. The Lyceum (the oldest building on campus) has visible bullet holes from the 1962 riot, when James Meredith needed the National Guard to just register for classes. Even the name “Ole Miss,” which was created in the early 20th century and is a variation on what slaves called the mistress of the plantation denotes the South’s racialized past.

But let me tell you about the students. A lot of the conversation about this video has dealt with Hannah Loy’s views. Have I met people like that here? You bet, but they are in a quickly growing minority. Teaching the American history surveys (History 105/106) has provided me with ample opportunity to observe discussions about slavery, racism, and the Civil War. What amazes me every semester is the eagerness of the students to talk about these complex and difficult topics. The students bring their own observations and biases to the conversation, but more importantly, they also bring a desire to gain further knowledge about their past. I never have to prod my students to discuss these issues. I mostly take on the role of moderator in order to ensure an open and safe environment for these discussions.

I wish I could say that we change everyone’s mind, but of course that is not true. What I can say, however, is that I am seeing progress at the University of Mississippi. In the past two years I have seen Colonel Reb discontinued as the mascot and James Silver honored at the university that shunned him fifty years ago. This year the William Winters’ Institute for Racial Reconciliation will operate a tent in the Grove on game weekends. The goal is to challenge the long held view of African Americans that the Grove is a Whites-only space. Progress will be slow, after all this is Mississippi, but I have witnessed first hand the possibility of change at the University.

Boyd’s comment reminds us of the importance of the generational divide that shapes how Americans remember the Civil War.  The standard narrative can be found in this recent news article that described the sesquicentennial in Mississippi as “angst-filled.”  No doubt, you can find a great deal of strong emotions there, but we should not lose sight of the fact that young Americans are much more open to talking about some of the more difficult questions in an open and honest manner.  I saw this first-hand as a history teacher in Virginia.

 

The South Will Rise Again

This short film follows two students at the University of Mississippi in the wake of the decision to discontinue the playing of “The South Will Rise Again” at the end of football games.  It offers some insight into the racial and generational divide at the university over the continuation of some of its more controversial traditions.