“Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude”

One hundred and fifty years ago Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and paved the way for ratification by the states. With a roll call and signatures roughly 240 years of slavery ended and yet as a nation we do nothing to publicly acknowledge this milestone. It’s striking given our collective embrace of a narrative that places the United States at the forefront of freedom. Even Steven Spielberg’s celebratory narrative about the build-up to this very moment in Lincoln has done little to increase awareness and interest. Why do we look beyond this moment?

I don’t have any firm answers, but the tension I often feel in my own teaching of this important event perhaps offers a few clues. On the one hand there is something quite remarkable about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. You would have been hard pressed to find Americans in 1861 predicting the end of slavery and that same year Congress passed a never-ratified amendment protecting slavery from future amendments. Lincoln backed it. Even in 1862 it is easy to imagine how a military victory might have resulted in a reunited Union with slavery largely intact. From this vantage point the end of slavery in 1865 appears to be nothing less than an achievement. Continue reading ““Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude””

Lee-Jackson Day is a Lost Cause

There are a number of observations that one can make about our nation’s Civil War memory as it has taken shape during the sesquicentennial and where it might be headed. The most obvious is that the public display of the Confederate flag is in full retreat in the South. There are numerous examples that I could sight to support this claim.

Increasingly, in the past few years, Lee-Jackson Day has fallen under increased suspicion in the South. Let’s face it, the holiday currently exists in many Southern states in name only. Public offices might be closed, but very few people formally acknowledge the day in any significant way. Even in Lexington, Virginia, where both Lee and Jackson are buried, it takes people from outside the community ‘to remind residents that it’s that time of year again. And in places where Lee-Jackson Day falls on Martin Luther King Day the latter almost always attracts more attention. Continue reading “Lee-Jackson Day is a Lost Cause”

“Point of Honor” Buries the Lost Cause For Good

The producers of Amazon’s new series, “Point of Honor,” set out to appeal to mainstream viewers who for whatever reason prefer their dramas to be set in the past. The history itself is almost incidental. “Point of Honor” plays with the time tested popular meme of the family caught in the middle of an unfolding national tragedy. Imagine the cast of “Dynasty” in 1861. At the center of this national tragedy is the Rhodes family of Lynchburg, Virginia. There is young John Rhodes, who is off at West Point, along with his sisters, Estella and Kate. The third sister, Lorelei, is married to the dashing Robert Sumner, who is also at West Point and from the North. Finally, we have the patriarch of the family Ralston Rhodes. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict where this is going.

The central focus of this pilot episode is to get the Rhodes family right on the issue of slavery. In an early scene set in the West Point chapel John Rhodes addresses his fellow cadets after hearing of the firing on Fort Sumter. The young cadet denounces the institution of slavery and pledges to free his family’s slaves, but commits to fighting for Virginia and the Confederacy. With that he walks out, along with his fellow cadets from the Deep South – apparently unaware that their states seceded months earlier. A few moments later Robert Sumner confronts his brother-in-law demanding to know how he can denounce slavery, but still fight for the Confederacy: “Read the Confederate Constitution. This war is all about slavery.”  John fires back that, “They write in ink. We write in blood.” And with that John establishes his good character by committing himself to remain untouched by the evils of slavery. Before departing John reminds Robert that through his marriage to Lorelia he will always be welcome unless that arrival is accompanied by invading Yankees. In that case Robert will be dealt with as such. Continue reading ““Point of Honor” Buries the Lost Cause For Good”

Will It Be a ‘Point of Honor’ to Respect the Past?

Of course, we should not pre-judge Amazon’s forthcoming Civil War drama called, “Point of Honor.” But let’s be honest, it is very likely going to be another in a long line of disasters.

At the start of the Civil War, a Virginia family, led by their West Point bred son, John Rhodes (played by Nathan Parsons, True Blood), makes the controversial decision to defend the South while freeing all of their slaves. At battle against his northern brethren and his best friend and brother-in-law Robert Sumner (played by Christopher O’Shea, Baby Daddy), John leaves his three strong-willed sisters at home to run the plantation that is now without a free labor source. The choice to protect the life they have always known and defend the moral high ground will pit the family against one another and test their strength, courage and love.

While full-scale Hollywood movies such as “Lincoln” and “Twelve Years a Slave” have left their mark, smaller productions have been less successful. Think of the failed Kickstarter campaigns organized by Ron Maxwell and the producers of “To Appomattox.” The need to distance central characters from the institution of slavery closely follows the narrative in “Field of Lost Shoes” as it does with the 1960s Hollywood movie, “Shenandoah.”

I look forward to seeing how “Point of Honor” pulls off explaining why a Virginia slaveowning family would free all their slaves at the beginning of the war.

“The Most Pernicious Idea” 150 Years Later

At the beginning of the Civil War neither side was willing to accept volunteers and/or draft African Americans into their respective armies. For the United States that process only began in fits and starts in 1862 before it commenced in earnest following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For the Confederacy it occurred in March 1865, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox and the end of the war.

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow Howell Cobb penned his famous letter to Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon regarding the controversy surrounding whether slaves should be allowed to join the army in exchange for their freedom.

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R.E. Lee, given as the authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor with which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong–but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. (emphasis mine)

Cobb’s letter is referenced most often in discussions about the central place of slavery and white supremacy within the Confederate experiment. Beyond any strictly historical discussion, however, we have a tendency to push the views expressed in it aside as expressing the philosophy of a failed nascent state. After all, the winning side eventually did embrace the service of roughly 200,000 former slaves and free blacks.

But whether we like it or not Confederate history is a part of American history. The views expressed by Cobb sit comfortably alongside images of the heroic attack of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the broader sweep of our long civil rights narrative. As late as 1948 this nation was still debating whether ‘white and black troops could be kept together.’

From our vantage point 150 years later, whether the United States recruited blacks into its army before the Confederacy is irrelevant. Each of us must embrace the legacy of the experiences of both sides, which ultimately represent two sides of the same coin.