Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Patrick Cleburne and Black Confederates Take Hollywood

[Hat-Tip to Lee White]

Back in 2008 I commented on a graphic novel that tells the story of Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom.  I expressed a number of concerns in that post and I appreciate the author of the novel for offering his own perspective.  Now it looks like that story is coming to the big screen.  Unfortunately, it looks like the misinformation and blatant abuse of history that is present in the graphic novel will make it into the movie.  Consider the web page on the history behind the subject.  It begins with the standard list of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the roles of blacks in the Confederate army as well as the views of some of the more prominent Confederate such as Forrest and Jackson.  Ed Bearrss is cited as having spoken out in support of the black Confederate narrative even though he has denied ever making such a claim.  And can someone tell me where Ervin Jordan describe this as a “cover up”?  I can’t seem to find it in his book, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong place.  You will also notice the doctored photograph of the Louisiana Native Guards at the top of the page.  Consider the following choice “facts” about black Confederates:

  • Many Black Confederates actually engaged in combat including the Battles of First Manassas, Chickamauga, Seven Days, Thompson’s Station, Franklin, and others.
  • Black Confederates were known to frequent veteran reunions years after the war and many posed proudly for photographs with Confederate Battle Flags.

Such a sloppy description of how free and enslaved black southerners functioned in the Confederate army raises more questions than anything approaching understanding of such a complex subject.  But it gets even worse.  Consider the brief description of Cleburne and his proposal:

On a cold winter night in January 1864, Patrick Cleburne put forth a controversial plan to the Confederate high command. It was a written proposal to free over 300,000 slaves and enlist them as soldiers in the Southern armies. He made few allies and many enemies, and from that moment on, his career would come to a dead halt. Cleburne was no ordinary commander. He had never lost a battle and was even called the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”. None of this would matter once his revolutionary views were made known to the Confederate government and President Davis.

Ironically, Black troops had already been serving as teamsters in the Confederate ranks for years, but what Cleburne proposed was not merely service, but official military enlistment. He even went as far as to imply that the entire plan would begin the steps toward the complete emancipation of all African Americans from slavery.

The movie presents Cleburne as having “fought two wars.  One with the North, the other with the South.”  Such a description makes it seem as if Cleburne was operating in a vacuum when his proposal surfaced.  Actually, the debate about arming slaves had started back in 1861 and Cleburne wasn’t even the first Confederate general to offer such a proposal.  More importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact that these proposals do not reflect a desire to end slavery in the South.  In fact, they tell us much more about the extent to which white Southerners would go to gain independence as a means to preserve the institution of slavery.  That fact tells us why most white southerners were not willing to arm slaves and free blacks.  You can expect that I am going to closely follow this story

As bad as all of this is what truly disappoints me is that one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is slated to play the role of Judah Benjamin.

Join Me In Petersburg This Summer

I am pleased to announce that I will once again be participating in the annual Civil War seminar sponsored by The George Tyler Moore Center at Shepherd University.  In the summer of 2007 [here and here/photos] I took part in the center’s conference on Civil War Memory.  It was a wonderful experience and I couldn’t be happier to be joining Mark Snell and the rest of the staff this summer in Petersburg, Virginia.  This is the first year that the conference will take place away from its home base on the campus of Shepherd University.  The conference is being co-sponsored by Pamplin Park.  This year’s theme is, “Petersburg: In the Trenches with the Common Soldier” and it includes a first-rate line-up of scholars and two days of touring the various sites and battlefields in the Petersburg area.  Will Greene will be conducting all of the tours and lectures will be presented by Earl Hess, Christopher Stowe, Dennis Brandt, and Walter Powell.  I am looking forward to the chance to finally meet Earl Hess.  In many ways he is responsible for my interest in Petersburg and the Crater specifically.  Back in 2003 I collected a broad range of archival materials for what became Prof. Hess’s third volume in his series on earthworks.  That material on Petersburg proved to be extremely helpful in shaping my own work on memory and the battle of the Crater.

My own lecture is titled, “Mahone’s Brigade and the Defense of Petersburg.”  While this talk is based on my extensive research of Mahone’s brigade at the Crater, I hope to present a broader picture of the unit throughout the summer and fall of 1864.  Over the past five years I’ve read scores of letters and diaries from these men and this will give me a chance to try out some ideas that fall outside the purview of my Crater project.  The exploration of the connection between the battlefield and home front is nothing new to historians, but often the discussion comes across as overly abstract.  The Petersburg Campaign, however, is one of the few moments during the Civil War where the battlefield and home front were indistinguishable.  For the men of Mahone’s Brigade Petersburg and the surrounding area was literally their home.  I am convinced that their close contact with a civilian population shaped the way these men responded to the presence of black Union soldiers at the Crater.  How else did close proximity to civilians and family shape the outlook of these men on the war?  Stay tuned.

Tom Dugan’s Robert E. Lee

I am not a big fan of historical impersonators. More often than not their interpretations reflect a consensus view that simply reinforces deeply held beliefs. The goal seems to be more entertainment than education. Such is the case with Tom Dugan, who pulls off a pretty good Lost Cause-inspired interpretation of Lee.  Here is Lee the beleaguered slavemaster who wants nothing more than to see slavery end.  Even a cursory perusal of Lee’s letters or the recent biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor reveals a very different attitude regarding slavery and race.  A bit more disturbing is the Lee who never quite gets over the “high watermark of the rebellion” – even before it had become the high watermark.  Funny, that I am here reminded of Michael Fellman’s overly-psychological interpretation of Lee.  I would love to bring Dugan in to perform for my Civil War Memory class.  It would make for a wonderful discussion.

Executing Deserters in Civil War Times Magazine

On this cold and dreary January day I was pleasantly surprised to find complimentary copies of the latest issue of Civil War Times waiting for me when I arrived home.  This latest issue includes my article on Confederate executions.  The goal of the essay is to explore how Confederate soldiers, along with civilians, responded to these events throughout the war.  This is a condensed version of a much longer essay that I wrote for a graduate seminar back in 2004.  Since it’s not one of the more hot-button topics I thought it would make for an interesting magazine article.  I also wrote a 500-word sidebar on an execution that took place in Stonewall Jackson’s command in August 1862.  Since I didn’t get a chance to do so in the essay I want to acknowledge two sources that were extremely helpful with this shorter piece on Jackson.  The first is John Hennessy’s classic, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas and the other is Peter Carmichael’s excellent essay on the execution that appeared in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 111 [2003]).  Dana Shoaf did an excellent job editing the essay and I absolutely love the layout in the print version.  I also very much appreciate Dana’s enthusiasm when I first submitted the piece.  He has done an outstanding job since taking over as editor.  Luckily, if you can’t afford the print version you can read it Online.  I hope you enjoy it.  Comments are welcome if you manage to read through it.

Where Were All the Black Confederates in the Summer of 1864?

Thanks to Brooks Simpson and Ken Noe for participation in my most recent post on black Confederates.  Their thorough comments in response to a reader who put forward what he believed to be evidence for black Confederate soldiers is a clinic on how to engage in serious historical analysis.  I can’t tell you what it means to me to have such respected professional historians as regular readers of this blog.  You would also do well to check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent post on the subject as well as the clever thought experiment over at Vast Public Indifference.

At one point in the discussion today Ken Noe offered the following:

I recently completed a project that required me to read the letters and diaries of 320 CS soldiers. They wrote a lot about slavery, slave labor in camp, their opposition to emancipation, and their mixed feelings about the 1865 Confederate Congressional debates over arming blacks. But not a one of them–not one–described black men fighting beside them as armed soldiers for the Confederacy. What I’d need are a lot of letters that did describe that. I’d also need evidence that the 1865 Confederate slavery debates never took place after all, because why debate the issue if black men were already soldiers in Confederate service? Finally, some official mention from the Confederate government before 1865 would help.

Before proceeding I want to mention that the project that Ken speaks of will be published shortly by the University of North Carolina Press and it promises to be a very interesting study.  All of Ken’s questions are relevant, but I was particularly struck by his emphasis on the lack of references to black Confederates from the men in his sample.  One would think that at some point a Confederate solider would acknowledge the presence of black soldiers rather than servants, teamsters, cooks, etc.  I don’t know one historian who has come across such a letter, though I assume that a few did serve or were able to pass as white soldiers.  Continue reading