Category Archives: Lost Cause

Is A Museum The Right Place For Confederate Statues?

The University of Texas is debating what to do about statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  UT  President William Powers Jr. is now considering various options, including the rearranging of the statues on campus, providing information to visitors on the history of the statues, and finally the removal of the statues to the school’s museum.

“The whole range of options is on the table,” Powers said. “A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well.”

In his excellent study of the history of the Confederate battle flag John Coski argues that the best place for its display is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  I tend to agree with John, but I’ve never believed that his suggestion would be taken seriously by those who see the flag not as a historical object, but as a cultural symbol or as a means to identify with a certain heritage.   My guess is that those who see the flag as a vibrant and meaningful way to identify with a certain past will draw similar conclusions in reference to the UT statues.  The removal of the statues from the grounds to a museum sends the message that their preferred interpretation of the past is no longer valid or relevant.  The defensiveness that accompanies this typically brings out the rants about liberals and political correctness rather than a more serious consideration of how public objects are now being interpreted by parties that traditionally have had little or no say in how the past is remembered.

The photograph at the top is our statue of Robert E. Lee here in Charlottesville.  It’s a nice little park situated just off the Downtown Mall and across the street from the historical society.  A few blocks away stands a statue in honor of Stonewall Jackson (just above).  I would hate to see either one moved from their present locations, though I would understand if certain groups felt differently.  My attraction is more aesthetic than one that involves some kind of sympathetic identification or appreciation of their symbolism.  I tend to interpret memorials to the Civil War as a reflection of the values of those who chose to dedicate them – most of which were dedicated between 1880 and 1920.

A university, however, is different.  In this case I think the best place for the statues is in the school’s museum where they can be interpreted properly.  There visitors can learn when and under what circumstances the statues were commissioned and dedicated, which fits perfectly into a school’s mission to educate.  This one seems to me to be a no-brainer.

The View From Outside

I ran across a fairly interesting editorial that recently appeared in the Japan Times.  The short piece was written by Hiroaki Sato who is a translator and essayist and has lived in New York City since the late 1960′s.  The focus of the essay is in reaction to the Atlantic Monthly’s recent ranking of the 100 greatest Americans.  What struck me was the sophistication of Sato’s understanding of American history, especially the Civil War and reconciliation.  Here is a bit from the editorial:

Worse, the aim of achieving racial justice rapidly lost its force
in the years following Lincoln’s assassination. So by about 1900, "national
conciliation" — between the whites in the North and the whites in the South –
was complete. The indispensable part of this process was the South’s
nullification, with the Supreme Court’s connivance, of the 13th Constitutional
Amendment that prohibits slavery.

It was as though white-dominated America took to heart Lincoln’s
famous statement to Horace Greeley, president of the New York Tribune, on Aug.
22, 1862: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not
either to save or to destroy slavery." In other words, emancipation was not the
real issue.

I was reminded of this regressive process recently when I read
the history of Berea College, in Kentucky, one of the many admirable educational
institutions in the United States. Started in 1855 by John Fee, who believed in
racial and sexual equality, the college had to give up accepting blacks in 1905
when the Kentucky legislature banned teaching blacks and whites together. Yes,
such things were done as late as 1905. And in Kentucky, that law was not changed
until 1950.

As a matter of fact, not long after I came here I began to notice
"Civil War buffs" — people apparently interested in the war between the North
and the South purely as a matter of military contests.
The Civil War buff
quality is discernible in The Atlantic’s list as well. It includes Robert E.
Lee, ranked 57th, because he "was a good general but a better symbol, embodying
conciliation in defeat." In the commentary that goes with the selection, editor
Ross Douthat adds another general of the South, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, as
someone who "might have won the war for (the Confederacy) had he lived past the
Battle of Chancellorsville." Lee and Jackson fought on the side of secession or
slavery, but that doesn’t matter.

While the terminology employed in reference to the thirteenth amendment is off I am struck by this individual’s grasp of how most Americans interpret their Civil War.  Perhaps to a foreigner the way Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War is distinct; my guess is that the sentence in bold is not meant as a compliment, but as a point of curiosity.  It would be interesting to know how he came by it. 

Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners?

Richard Williams’s new book Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend was reviewed yesterday in the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star.  I know some of you are sick of reading posts about this issue and I don’t gain any pleasure from writing about it, but it is important to respond to what many believe to be a legitimate approach to doing serious Civil War history.  If this book wasn’t shelved in the history sections of bookstores I probably wouldn’t say anything at all. 

The book does not engage in any serious historical analysis; there is little in terms of manuscript material and the author has absolutely no grasp of the secondary literature that is necessary to analyzing any southern slaveowner.  The author relies heavily on postwar material, but unfortunately doesn’t understand the first thing about how to handle these sources.  The methodology is as follows:  find as many pro-Jackson accounts as possible and ask as few questions as possible about why they were written.  As many of you know I ran into Jackson’s wartime servant at the 1903 Crater reenactment in Petersburg.  He was the only black man present and if you didn’t know anything about Jim Crow Virginia you wouldn’t know the first thing about how to handle this fact. My high school students have a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle postwar slave narratives. 

The review of the book doesn’t try to analyze Williams’s argument in any critical way, rather it simply reaffirms the approach and conclusion of the book’s author.  The lack of a historical agenda in both the book and the review is evidenced by the numerous use of moral/ethical concepts.  Since both Williams and the author of the review are interested primarily in affirming a moral picture of Jackson rather than a strictly historical one it is not worth commenting on.  Rather I want to pose a few questions that challenge their working assumptions.

What are those assumptions?  Let’s consider a few choice quotes from the review:

Williams begins this journey by painfully depicting the deplorable trials
faced by African-Americans as they were shipped from the slave-trading colonies
in Africa to the coastal cities of the United States. Along the way, we are
reminded of the horrible conditions and mistreatment faced by these prisoners,
and the author holds nothing back in the telling. He then presents the social,
political and financial aspects of slave trading and the history of its
institution and practice in 18th- and 19th-century America, as well as the
shared shame that fell equally on both the North and the South.

This provocative opening provides a solid foundation for the story that is to
come. Clearly the examples that follow, depicting the compassion and care given
by a percentage of Christian Southerners on behalf of a poor mistreated people,
need to be recognized in order to find something righteous beneath so much

Thomas Jackson’s efforts are certainly worthy of such recognition, as
contradictory, at times, as they may sound. Therefore, Williams continues to
focus his attention on Stonewall’s own path to sharing the message of salvation
while citing the positive influence that his fellow believers had, in turn, on

First, let’s forget for a moment that the reviewer is referring to Jackson and instead just imagine  a slaveowner who professes to be a good Christian.  Let me see if I understand this: the suffering that the author of the review is referring to is the result of people being enslaved, but somehow we are to believe that the effort to minimize their suffering is reflective of a good Christian.  Are we to expect that the individual enslaved ought to be grateful for the care that has been bestowed?  If the effort to minimize their suffering is to be applauded then what are we to make of those who worked to free the slaves?  Of course I am thinking about the abolitionists such as William L. Garrison and others.  We might also ask about old John Brown.  He also claimed to be a man of God.  How do we reconcile the tension here?  Does God both sanction Brown and Jackson and if so why?  How do we know if one was mistaken as to what God demanded in reference to slavery?  What is the moral content of a conclusion that both justifies immediate abolition and the attempt on the part of slaveowners to minimize the suffering of their own slaves?

As devout Christians, the Jackson family fervently believed that all people were
welcome at the Lord’s table regardless of their race or social stature.

I would love some clarification here.  How does one approach the "Lord’s table" as someone who is enslaved because of his/her race?  Perhaps it is the kind of table where the children sat during those family reunions.  But wait, it gets even better.  The following passages reflect some of the most distorted moral/ethical analysis that I’ve ever seen:

Although Jackson could not alter the social status of slaves, Williams tells
of how he committed himself to Christian decency and pledged to "assist the
souls of those held in bondage." He also adds that Jackson and his wife were
guilty of practicing civil disobedience by educating slaves.

Eventually the Sunday school grew beyond the allotted facilities and
ultimately blossomed into new churches for African-Americans. In this regard, we
can see how the evangelical white Christian slave owner had a positive influence
on the spiritual education of those held in captivity. As a result, many
ex-slaves became preachers themselves and were later responsible for some of the
largest religious revivals that followed the South’s surrender.

This is nothing less than a disturbed moral outlook.   This is the worst kind of utilitarianism I can imagine as we are being asked to evaluate behavior and ideas simply based on their consequences.  Correct me if I am wrong but Christian morality is not based on consequences: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  The argument implies that since life as a slave could lead to wonderful results those results therefore reflect the moral character of the slaveowner. 

Just a few questions for the advocates of this ridiculous and dangerous moral view:

1. Given the moral character of Jackson as a slaveowner would it be wrong for a slave to run away in an attempt to gain his/her freedom? 
2. Would it be justified if an individual slave killed Jackson in order to gain his/her freedom?

If we answer yes to 1 or 2 than it seems as if we must assume that the actions of the slaveowner were immoral.  I assume we believe this regardless of the "positive influence" that would be gained by remaining Jackson’s property.

3. Since both Williams and the reviewer believe that Jackson was doing God’s work would it be justified today and if not then why? 

In closing I leave you with a few more remarks by the reviewer:

In the end, it is not that difficult to believe the notion of a Christian slave
showing compassion and mercy in fulfilling an obligation to "make
disciples of all nations
." This book reinforces the reasoning as to why a
Christian Confederate would go to such lengths to educate and enlighten slaves.
Simply put, Thomas Jackson did exactly what his Lord had told him to do. He
spread the Good News to everyone. His "students," in turn, accepted Jesus Christ
as their Lord and Savior and eagerly continued to spread this message as they
left the cotton fields and entered the mission field.

One final question: If slaves were able to accept God’s word, were worthy of mercy and education than why were they being enslaved?  This is nothing less than a confused moral outlook.  It is not only incoherent, it also forces us to sacrifice the central concepts that make up our ideas of moral goodness. 

Another Flag Incident: You Can Guess Which Flag

Looks like the David School in Floyd County, Kentucky has decided to boycott a game with Allen Central High School over their fans waving of the Confederate flag during the game.  The David School basketball team includes one black player.  Ned Pillersdorf, the David School’s athletic director and boys basketball coach said that when the black player was taking a foul shot the fans made it a point "waving the Confederate flag at him."

Allen Central Principal Lorena Hall and her students have defended their
Confederate emblems, saying they symbolize strength, independence and pride.

"It has nothing to do with racism," Hall said in a recent interview with The
Associated Press. "It’s a part of us." She declined to comment Thursday.

Principal Hall is probably right, but should it matter to her that another team finds the waving of the flag to be offensive?  Where are the Souther heritage folks on this one?  Check out the photo of the two kids holding the school flag.  Exactly which Confederate unit carried this particular flag into battle and isn’t this image offensive to people who believe the flag to be sacred?

Check out the shoulder sleeve and shoulder loop insignias that are available for the school’s JROTC.  I’m going to have to order me a pair for Christmas.

Were Southern Slaveholders “Trapped”?

It’s always interesting to watch the way the comments evolve in response to specific posts.  In a recent post I made the mistake of mentioning Robert E. Lee, which led to a lengthy discussion in the comments section about his relationship to slavery.  I was struck by a comment from one reader who characterized men like Lee and other Southerners as "trapped" by slavery.  Here is his comment:

We will agree to disagree. It was a complicated relationship. Evil, for certain. But one in which whites felt they were trapped; trapped by their own ancestors’ doing, of course, but nonetheless trapped. Northerners had already built their industrial economy on the capital earned via the slave trade and did not have the same economic interest in slavery by the mid 19th century. It was convenient for them to condemn Southerners since they could do so from the security of an economy built upon the backs of slaves sold to Southerners. I maintain that Lee, like Jefferson and many other Virginians, hated the institution and would have preferred it "go away." Accusing Lee of doing what was "fashionable" reveals, I believe, a lack of understanding of the man’s true character. If reputation and "fashion" were his concerns, he would have chosen to ride to victory at Lincoln’s offer rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Lee was first, a man of principle, not fashion.

I worry about this characterization of slaveholders.  If they were "trapped" or unable to acknowledge an alternative then what are we to make of Southern ambassadors discussed by Charles Dew in Apostles of Disunion or Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech"?  These are people who have thought carefully about what it would mean if a system of white racial hierarchy were to cease to exist.  In that speech he acknowledges that Jefferson and the rest of the boys believed "that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically." [I discussed this speech with my survey classes today.]  My point is that to characterize Stephens and others as trapped is to ignore the fact that they were indeed aware of alternatives, but for the obvious reasons believed them to be reflective of Northern "fanaticism." 

There is a tension between the scholarship of Gordon Wood who is fond of pointing out that to criticize the Founders for not following through and abolishing slavery is to accuse them of failing to arrive at a conclusion that they could not identify.  I think Wood has a point here; we don’t want to engage in presentism, rather we want to identify as much as possible with the limits of their intellectual world.  The problem is that there is a growing body of literature that highlights the extent to which white Southerners did voluntarily emancipate their slaves following the Revolution.  The best book on this subject is Melvin Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790′s Through the Civil War.  The book won a number of awards, including the Bancroft Prize.  From the review in The Washington Post:

Now comes Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox, whose dissonances are likely to shake the usual orthodoxies. In colonial Virginia and across the upper South, slavery always had eminent critics, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other great Virginians. Among their intellectual heirs was young Richard Randolph of Prince Edward County, a member of one of the state’s distinguished families who had enjoyed a Northern education at Columbia and Princeton. When he died in 1796, Randolph instructed his executors in a will that Ely calls "a ringing abolitionist manifesto" to free his slaves and settle them on family lands. Some two decades passed before his testamentary wishes were executed, but executed they were, in the face of some difficulty, by his faithful widow, Judith. Former slave families were installed on Randolph properties along the Appomattox River in a settlement called Israel Hill, a promised land. The community endured well into the 20th century until oral memory faded — it was studied late in the 19th century by a young W. E. B. DuBois — and many of its members achieved substantial economic independence. They became boatmen, hauling goods between Farmville and Petersburg, tobacco workers in early packing factories, farmers, woodworkers and other craftsmen.

Along with Ely’s book I also recommend Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves.  I am not suggesting that we use Randolph and Carter as our standard by which to judge the actions of all slaveholders, but we need to understand that slaveholders believed in their "peculiar institution" and were willing to fight a war to protect it. 

The idea that slaveholders were trapped perhaps makes it easier to distance their actions – especially in the case of Lee, Jackson, and the rest of the Confederate pantheon – from slavery.  Referencing Northerners drives home the image of slaveholders as trapped.  Of course Northern involvement in slavery is essential to understanding its continued hold on the South and the nation, but that seems to me to have little to do with how white Southerners identified and worked to protect their slave-holding society.