Category Archives: Lost Cause

Black Virginians Interpret the Civil War Centennial: Follow Up

I’ve collected quite a number of news articles over the past two days from the Richmond Afro-American newspaper.  As I mentioned the other day I am looking for sources that will give me a sense of the extent to which the black community in the Richmond-Petersburg area interpreted and/or followed the Civil War Centennial.   The Centennial was set up in a way that made it unlikely that black Americans would take an interest.  Both Karl Betts, who served as the first executive director and Ulysses S. Grant III, who served as the first chairman of the Civil War Centennial Commission envisionws the four-year event as an opportunity to celebrate regionally neutral values and at the same time work to buttress the nation’s Cold War propaganda.  Owing to their political and racial convictions neither Grant nor Betts had any interest in highlighting the themes of slavery, emancipation or the service of USCTs.  Coming from a career in publicity and advertising Betts viewed the Centennial as a way to stimulate travel by marketing Civil War history for mass consumption.  Reenactments and other entertaining events were the order of the day.  Early on Betts and Grant kept at arms distance fellow commission members such as Bell Wiley and others who hoped to educate the public and address some of the more controversial issues.

Looking back it almost seems naive to think that the issues of race and emancipation could be kept out of the proceedings given the way events transpired following the Supreme Court’s desegregation order in 1955.  Many southern state commission chapters remained wary of a federally mandated national commission, but they were encouraged by the likes of Betts and Grant who promised not to impose restrictions on the way the centennial was remembered in the individual states.  The editorial cartoons that I collected highlight the fact that black Americans viewed Civil War memory through the events that were transpiring daily in much of the South.  Consider the image of Kennedy with Lincoln in the background.

Shortly following Kennedy’s inauguration the first crack in the Centennial Commission’s vision took place as it prepared for its fourth annual national assembly which was to be located in Charleston, South Carolina in April 1961.  The meeting was scheduled to correspond with a local commemoration of the firing on Fort Sumter.  The incident involved Madaline Williams who was a black delegate from New Jersey.  The meeting was scheduled to take place at the Francis Marion Hotel; hotel management was not willing to accommodate Williams given the city’s Jim Crow laws.  Within a matter of weeks a number of northern delegations joined New Jersey in boycotting the meeting.  The situation was finally resolved after one of Kennedy’s advisers arranged for the meeting to take place on a military base outside of Charleston.  Three months later the Third Battle of Bull Run/Manassas took place in Virginia.  The response of the media to reports of the audience screaming in approval of the route of the “Yankees” along with the scandal in Charleston did not bode well for Grant and Betts.  As a result both were under pressure to resign.  The image to the right is one of only a few news items that directly commented on the work of the Centennial Commission. By the end of the summer both Betts and Grant had resigned and were replaced by Allen Nevins, who served as CWCC chairman and James I. Robertson who served as executive director.  Both worked to emphasize educational programs rather than the more popular forms of commemorations such as reenactments.  They also strived to do justice to the war as a moment of emancipation and freedom for the slaves.  Both Robertson and Nevins seem to have understood that the Centennial had to address  these themes given the way the Civil Rights Movement was evolving.  From what I can tell black Americans did not follow Centennial events closely, but they understood that it was there.  They were much more concerned with what was taking place in the present.  That said, the fact that these events were taking place 100 years after the Civil War did not go unnoticed.  Confederate symbolism can be found in a number of cartoons.  I did find a few articles that described the service of USCTs; interestingly, one article described them as “tan” soldiers in the Afro-American.  In addition, I found a few editorials that commented on the state of school textbooks and the need for more attention to black history.  It’s as if the past and the present were interwoven with no clear distinction between the two.  Images contain cannons, Confederate flags, and disgruntled or defiant Confederate generals.

By far the largest number of images and other commentary can be found starting in September 1962  and through the summer of 1963.  Of course, we are talking about news items that comment on Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and the fundamental change that it brought about on January 1, 1863.  The Afro-American ran a special issue commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation on March 16, 1963, which can be seen to the right.  Look closely and you will see articles on “Colored troops”, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln.  At the bottom are two scenes, one which depicts the fall of Richmond and the other which shows news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaching the slaves.  I should point out that opinion in the Afro-American was anything but uniform when it comes to the commemoration of Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator.”  This should not be surprising as the ongoing struggle in the 1960s reflects clearly on the fact that basic civil rights had yet to be attained by the nation’s black population.  The image to the left does an effective job of referencing the past in order to highlight just what was at stake in the years leading up to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.  Notice the caption at the bottom which says: “The Centennial Celebration is not the time for rejoicing.  Rather, we must rededicate ourselves to the achievement of our goal — First Class Citizenship for All Negro Americans.”  There is one line cut off which reads in bold print: “1 PAY YOUR POLL TAX 2. REGISTER 3. VOTE.”

At first I was surprised that I didn’t find anything that referenced the commemoration of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  There were events staged at Gettysburg to acknowledge the occasion in July 1963; however, as I scanned through the newspaper I realized that there were far more important events transpiring that deserved attention.  The Gettysburg commemoration fell right in the middle of the Birmingham protests and the March on Washington in August 1963.  In the end there may not have been a need to acknowledge this speech.  Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation perhaps proved sufficient in situating the Civil Rights Movement withing a historical context.

Between scanning the pages of the Afro-American and reading Robert Cook’s fine study of the Civil War Centennial I am getting a clearer sense of how black Americans maintained a coherent counter-memory of the war through the 1960s.  Civil War Sesquicentennial planners would do well to study the Centennial celebrations.


Representative Tommy Benton of Georgia Lectures on Black Confederates

This video is from the Georgia state assembly on April 20, 2007.  I assume that it is part of the overall discussion concerning a state proclamation that would acknowledge and apologize for the state’s role in slavery.  Rep. Benton estimates that 65,000 blacks fought for the Confederacy.  He compares their service with the large numbers of blacks who fought with the colonies against Britain during the Revolution.  At one point he makes the claim that blacks would never have thought about joining ranks with the British.  I guess he never heard of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation.  Anyway, enjoy the silliness.


Celebrating Lee

I apologize for the numerous posts about Robert E. Lee our perceptions of Robert E. Lee.  In addition to having to rewrite parts of the Crater manuscript this summer I am collecting material for two upcoming conferences on Lee – one at UVa in October and the other I will announce soon.  This news item out of Charleston detailing a dinner honoring Lee is simply too good to pass over.  Here are a few excerpts from the article with a bit of my own commentary:

Much is said this evening about Lee, the South’s beau ideal. His military prowess might be summed up by one, terrible tally: In one single, bloody month of 1864, from May 12 to June 12, from the aftermath of The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Union casualties under U.S. Grant, no mean general himself, would total 60,000. That number was equal to Lee’s entire remaining force at that point.

But in the end, it is neither the victorious nor defeated Lee that explains his aura, but the passionate dispassion of the man, his Greek proportion. What sweeps us away is the Lee who could look down from Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, watch the federals below being obliterated by his guns, take in the sweep of the carnage he himself had engineered, and say: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”

To be completely honest, I’ve never really understood this statement by Lee.  Is Lee emphasizing the horrors of battle or his own attraction to it or both?  He worries that observers/participants may become “too fond of it” which suggests that the level of attraction is directly related to the level of violence.  Does such a statement imply a seductive quality for Lee and others?  If so, what is that quality for Lee?

Lee never wrote his memoirs. He may have been the only Civil War general, great or small, important or un-, who didn’t tell his self-absorbed, self-justifying tale for a handsome price. He had no price. He was not for sale. What he had was a code. And he embodied it. Great in victory, he was greater in defeat. Through it all, he remained the same Lee. What Epictetus the Stoic wrote, Lee lived.

Lee never wrote a memoir or history because he died too soon.  So much for the comparison with the Stoics.

Much is said about Robert E. Lee this magical night. Each aspect of his character is extolled. Thank goodness he is present only in spirit; how embarrassed he would have been at such goings-on. One by one, his qualities are praised: honor, civility, compassion, dignity, courage, equanimity . . . and yet they cannot be separated, for he was all of a piece, whole.

Eat your heart out Douglas S. Freeman!  One wonders if Lee would even recognize himself if present.


How Black Southerners May Have Helped Create the Image of “Black Confederates”

Every so often I receive an email from a reader who has finished going through one of my more popular posts on Black Confederates.  Responses take a specific form and usually involve an individual account or two to demonstrate the presence of blacks in Confederate ranks.  Often the messages include images of old black men in Confederate uniform.  The stories are typically from the postwar period and almost always fail to include any references.  I suspect that just about every email received has been written by a white person, which is interesting to me on on a certain level.

Regardless of the story’s content there is never any attempt to try to explain or question why it was written other than as a clear attempt on the part of the author to demonstrate loyalty.  I never respond to these emails in large part because there are only so many hours in the day; it would be more accurate to say that the authors of these emails are probably not really interested in what I have to say anyway.  I’ve said before and it is worth repeating that in the context of the debate over so-called black Confederates the biggest problem is the lack of any serious historical scholarship on the subject.  Most of the people who argue or debate these issues have little ability in interpreting historical sources.  This is especially the case when handling postwar sources.  Stories or images that seem to point to the presence of blacks in Confederate ranks are taken as sufficient proof in individual cases.  As many of you know these same people debate the numbers; some say a few hundred and some even go beyond 50,000.

It would be one thing if simple service in the ranks was the goal of those who push this silly line of argument, but that would be incomplete without the interpretive push of demonstrating that service somehow meant loyalty or allegiance to the Confederate cause.  The real goal is to distance the Confederate experience from slavery and race, which was in fact part of the agenda of the Lost Cause movement by the turn of the century.

The problem is that black Southerners understood this all too well, and in the same way that they manipulated slaveowners during the antebellum period to advance their interests (ala Genovese) they did so late in the century as a way to maintain or preserve the last vestiges of civil rights and other freedoms gained during Reconstruction.  The image of the loyal slave and/or black Confederate may have been used by black Southerners as a survival tool as states like Virginia revised their constitutions and began passing Jim Crow laws, which would eventually disfranchise the largest percentages of black Southerners.   One of the best examples of this can be seen in the career of Giles B. Jackson, a black attorney who lived in Richmond, Virginia.

Giles B. Jackson was born a slave in Goochland County in 1853 and moved to Richmond after the war.  Following the war Jackson worked as a servant for John Stewart of Brook Hill who was the father-in-law of Joseph Bryan, the editor of the Richmond Dispatch.  Stewart’s wife taught Jackson to read, which eventually led to a position in a white law firm, probably as a clerk or servant.  William H. Beveridge, who was a supporter of William Mahone and the Readjusters, recognized his abilities and took Jackson on as a student; this led to his admittance to the Richmond bar in 1887.  Jackson proved to be a talented and successful lawyer whose connections were extensive in the Richmond area.  He served as an attorney for the True Reformers and organized the Negro Exhibit at the 1807 Jamestown Exhibit.

Jackson’s private papers and public speeches reflect a keen awareness of how to gain favor with powerful white Richmonders at a time when blacks were losing the political ground gained during the Readjuster years.  Stories that highlighted black loyalty to the Confederacy and peaceful race relations were Jackson’s way of resisting this change for as long as possible.  Jackson’s account of the origin of Jackson Ward in Richmond is a perfect example: According to Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant was so pleased to find a “white folks’ nigger” (as he described himself) that the famous Union general named the ward for him.  He also told of being Fitzhugh Lee’s body servant during the Civil War and of tending Robert E. Lee’s horse.  Given his age during the war this is very unlikely.  Other prominent black Richmonders such as John Mitchell Jr. thought they understood why Jackson told these stories.  Mitchell and others, however, refused to play this game and instead took a stronger stance against the political changes taking place within the Commonwealth by the early twentieth century.

We need to understand how these stories functioned at the turn of the century.  Were they straightforward attempts on the part of black Southerners to link themselves to the memory of the Confederacy – a cause that they themselves served with pride?  Perhaps they were or perhaps we need to take one step back and try to understand these accounts within the changing political and racial boundaries that shaped the postwar South.

One final comment.  The challenge for those who claim such strong support for the Confederacy from black Southerners is to demonstrate why black Americans have become so alienated from our Civil War culture today.  Individuals like H.K. Edgerton parading through the South with a Confederate flag doesn’t tell us much of anything.  Again, most of these stories about so-called black Confederates are told by whites and this  needs to be explained.   I have suggested that these stories probably tell us more about the steps that black Americans took throughout the postwar period to preserve the freedoms gained as a result of the Civil War in a society that increasingly came to be defined once again around a white racial hierarchy.


Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000.  The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations.  I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday.  I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews.  One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond.  If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case.  I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg. 

Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section.  I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing.  The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous. 

Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress.  So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people.  At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context.  That is much broader than left and right obliques.  An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service.  Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred.  So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites.  Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation.  I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements.  In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly.  This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields.  And why is that?  I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain.  They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context. 

By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race.  He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.