Philip Schwarz on R.E. Lee and Visibility

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who also happens to be a historian.  The two of us are scheduled to take part in a conference devoted to Robert E. Lee which will take place at the University of Virginia in the fall.  I am also tentatively scheduled to take part in a conference on Lee in South Carolina in November – more information once it is confirmed.  For this latter conference I was asked to explore African-American perceptions of Lee, which I enthusiastically accepted.  As we talked over lunch I suggested some possible ways to start the paper; my idea was to look into the unveiling of the Lee statue in Richmond by exploring the black newspaper, the Richmond Planet.  The overall goal of the paper as I am now conceiving of it is to use Lee as a window into black perceptions of the Civil War more generally. 

My friend suggested that I think about using the famous incident involving Lee in June 1865 and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond.  While Dr. Charles Minnegerode was preparing to administer communion a black man approached leaving the congregation in a state of shock.  Lee supposedly remained perfectly calm and proceeded to receive communion next to this black individual.  The incident supposedly reflects Lee’s humility and moral superiority at a time when most white Southerners were still dealing with the psychological effects of emancipation and defeat.  I realized that this was the perfect example.  My friend suggested that I look into the sources behind the story to see if it could even be verified, but I was more interested in shifting the perspective just a bit.  As I thought about the story I asked if anyone had looked at it from the perspective of the black man.  What was he doing in this particular church and what do his actions symbolize at this volatile moment?  It was a rhetorical question since I assumed that no one had looked at the story from this perspective.  Regardless, I at least believed that the story would provide a perfect thread from the war to more recent interpretive questions surrounding the apparent lack of interest in the Civil War among black Americans.  More importantly, the lack of attention on this black individual could serve as a metaphor for the overall tendency to ignore issues of race and slavery in our popular perceptions of the Civil War.  [Check out this earlier post on the attempt to address slavery at Lee’s Arlington.]

The first thing I did when I arrived home was to look for information online.  One of the first sites to be listed was a talk presented by historian Philip Schwarz at Stratford Hall back in 2000.  It turns out that this talk addressed just the kind of questions that I was now excited to investigate.  Schwarz analyzes the evidence for the story which includes a newspaper article published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1905 and an article which appeared in the Confederate Veteran a few months later – both written by one Col. T. L. Broun of Charleston, West Virginia.  The article explores Broun’s background, and more importantly, the fact that the two pieces were written as Virginia instituted Jim Crow legislation following the passage of a new constitution.  Schwarz reminds the reader that what we are reading is Broun’s interpretation of Lee’s actions forty years earlier.  We have nothing that helps us understand how Lee himself viewed the presence of this individual:

And what about Lee’s conduct? So many people tell the story of Lee’s response to the black man’s action as conciliatory and accepting. Perhaps it was, but does Broun? Listen to Broun’s language: Lee, “ignoring the action and presence of the negro,” and with a “lofty conception of duty . . . under such provoking and irritating circumstances” walked to the chancel rail. “By this action of Gen. Lee,” Broun continued, “the services were conducted as if the negro had not been present. It was a grand exhibition of superiority shown by a true Christian and great soldier under the most trying and offensive circumstances.”

What I find so interesting is that Broun does not appear to be interested in Lee’s motivation or the black man.  There is no indication that Broun ever interviewed Lee (assuming the incident even took place) and there is no need to discuss the matter with a black man when it is assumed that his actions were reflective of an effort to “inaugurate the ‘new régime’ to offend and humiliate” the worshipers.  I think Schwarz is onto something when he suggests that the remembered incident took place when white supremacy was in doubt, but the act of remembering took place once that superiority was ensured through Jim Crow legislation.  In short, Broun was using this story as a way of justifying and celebrating Virginia’s recent turn towards legal segregation. 

Schwarz’s article is well worth your time.  It has given me plenty to think about as I collect material for this project.

How Many Black Confederates Were There?

The latest issue of North and South magazine (Vol. 10, No. 2) includes a short article on so-called black Confederates by Bruce Levine.  I’ve blogged about Levine’s work on black Confederates, including his recent study Confederate Emancipation, which is the most thorough analysis of the issue to date.  There is nothing new in this particular piece, but it does include a reference to Robert K. Krick’s unpublished article on the number of black Confederates based on an analysis of 100,000 service records.  According to Krick only 20 – 30 non-white soldiers could be discerned.  If we take this as a representative sample than assuming a total Confederate army of around 900,000 we arrive, according to Levine, at a total number of 270 black Confederates – far fewer than the thousands claimed by some.

Editor Keith Poulter writes in the editorial that he hopes his magazine can put an end to the question of “whether there were substantial numbers of blacks enlisted in the Confederate army.”  That’s a tall order and one that I suspect will go unfulfilled.  After all, this debate for those who push this silliness is really not about history at all, but about a need to distance the Confederate experience from issues of slavery and race.  If large numbers of blacks voluntarily served in the ranks than it is becomes difficult to argue that the Confederate government was founded with the goal of preserving slavery.  The argument in support of black Confederates is a matter of faith and no amount of evidence will be sufficient to convince otherwise.

Who Is James I. Robertson?

In response to Saturday’s short post John Maass inquired about historian James I. Robertson.  Here is his comment:

I have always puzzled over Robertson’s role in the academic world. In fact, even though he teaches at a university, he really does not fit in the mold of “academic,” that is to say, he doesn’t go to many or any academic conferences, has no real record producing graduate students of note, etc. Seems like he carved out a niche for himself long ago as the guardian of Confederate mythology, and has never been taken to task by his academic fellows. I’m not saying he was wrong to do so, I just have always found it curious.

I found John’s suggestion that Robertson is best characterized as a “guardian of Confederate mythology” to be worth pursuing.  A few quick points before proceeding.  It is important to keep in mind that Virginia Tech, where Robertson teaches, only has an M.A. program; a number of their students have entered top-notch PhD programs and onto successful careers in the field.  Robertson is responsible for a number of them.  I too have never seen Robertson at an academic conference, but I would never hold that against anyone as I often find myself second-guessing a decision to travel to one of those dog and pony shows.

No doubt John speaks for many in his characterization of Robertson.  I’ve speculated on this blog as to why Robertson was so enthusiastic about Ron Maxwell’s Lost Cause-inspired Gods and Generals or his more recent endorsement of a book about Stonewall Jackson’s relationship with his slaves and local black population.  In the case of the former I’ve never come across a statement from Robertson re: his involvement and/or a rationale for his enthusiasm for the movie.  [If you have a reference feel free to pass it on.]  I was much more disturbed by Robertson’s decision to write a preface for a book that characterizes the relationship between Jackson and his slaves as one of friendship.  It smacks of the very same paternalistic arguments that the slaveowners themselves used as well as later historians such as U.B. Phillips and others in the Dunning School.

Others have characterized his award-winning biography of Stonewall Jackson as overly wedded to the Lost Cause tradition.  I actually have little to say about this.  Robertson published the book with a popular press and my sense is that there is enough there to satisfy the demands and interests of the academic world as well as the general reader with a more traditional bent.  There are sections that I find frustrating and troubling, but in the end I learned a great deal about Jackson.  Actually, I much prefer his biography of A.P. Hill (Random House, 1987).

The perception of Robertson as someone who aligns himself too closely with neo-Confederate types stands in sharp contrast to his role as second executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission.  Robertson was brought in, along with Alan Nevins as chairman, to salvage the centennial following an inauspicious beginning which emphasized entertainment over education and scholarship.   More importantly, the national commission had all but ignored issues of race and emancipation as an integral component of commemoration.  Robert Cook details Robertson’s participation during the Centennial in his new book, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965.

It is important to remember that Robertson worked as a doctoral student under the direction of Bell I. Wiley.  Wiley was involved in the the planning of the centennial from the beginning and pushed vigorously for organizers to focus on education and for it to deal with issues of race.  His suggestions initially fell on deaf ears, but his promotion of Robertson to replace Betts served in part as a vindication of his own agenda.  Robertson was ideal for the position, according to Cook.  He was enthusiastic in his support of activities for the commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation, but Robertson also hoped to keep attention focused on the past rather than on the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.  In this sense, Robertson’s southern credentials proved to be ideal as he was both able to encourage a more inclusive commemoration program as well as assuage the concerns of southern state commissions which had expressed concern about the national commission’s political agenda from the beginning.  Unfortunately, by the time Robertson and Nevins took control of the national commission interest throughout the country was declining, in large part because of the Civil Rights Movement.

Robertson has done more to bring the Civil War to the general pubic than anyone in recent years.  His books are read by both academics and more casual readers and his Virginia Center for Civil War Studies does an excellent job of educating high school teachers.  I honestly don’t know how to explain the relationship between Robertson and the various neo-Confederate groups that he spends so much time with.  Given all that he has accomplished, however, I’m not sure I really even care.

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.