Update on Vicksburg’s Black Confederates

Update: This is what happens when you try to write a post when you are not feeling well. I called my contact again and now can confirm that the museum is 63 years old, while the exhibit was done within the last few years. Sorry about that.

Yesterday I shared photographs of an exhibit on black Confederates at the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today I had a chance to talk with a curator at the museum about the exhibit. I appreciate his willingness to answer my questions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much about the exhibit itself given that it has been on display for 63 years. That, of course, explains the emphasis on faithful slaves. Andy Hall correctly surmises that this probably has as much to do with a limited budget as it does with a flawed interpretation of the Confederacy and slavery.

I asked about how it was possible that slaves were enlisted as soldiers given the Confederate government’s position, but all he could say was that these men were loyal to their owners and accepted by their comrades.  For further reading it was suggested that I check out Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan.  I’ve never heard of this book before, but I will definitely take a look at it at some point.  Given my initial assumption that the exhibit was much more recent, it is interesting to note that many of the most common images and accounts that can be found today Online were being used in the 1940s.  That definitely changes my perspective on the history of when these accounts first surfaced.  I want to know, for example, when the image of the Chandler Boys first came to be used as an example of loyal black Confederate soldiers, etc.

The problem with this exhibit can be reduced to its title.  Calling it “Blacks Who Wore Gray” clouds the distinction between slave and soldier.  Rather, it should be titled, “Slaves Who Wore Gray.”

What’s a Few Thousand Here or There?

Numbers play an important role in the Lost Cause view of the Civil War and the Petersburg Campaign in particular.  The image of the Army of Northern Virginia as hopelessly outnumbered and hanging on by a thread continues to exercise a strong hold for many.  There is something attractive about a narrative that pits a half-starved Army against an enemy that we believe must win owing to their unlimited resources.  There is a certain truth to this, but like most of the Lost Cause interpretation it quickly shades into a distorted view of the situation.  On Saturday evening one of Prof. Mark Snell’s former students, who is now working as a living historian for the Gettysburg Foundation, put on an excellent presentation that covered the state of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1864.  He suggested that during this period the army was fairly well supplied with clothing, which stands in sharp contrast with images of half-naked soldiers in the trenches.  In addition, it turns out that although the men in the trenches faced hardship, Lee’s soldiers were not starving.  Of course, much of this is borne out in the most recent literature on the campaign.

Back to the numbers.  Throughout our tour of the Petersburg Battlefields this weekend Will Greene made it a point to emphasize that the earthworks had worked to minimize the sheer advantage that the Federals enjoyed in terms of numbers.  They would need at least a 3 to 1 advantage when storming Confederate earthworks.  Such a view explains Grant’s tactics of continually pushing to extend the Confederate line in a series of offensive thrusts throughout the late Fall and early Spring of 1864-65.  Of course, one way to bypass any attempt at careful analysis of the balance of power is to simply exaggerate the numbers beyond any recognition of reality.  This was done early on in the case of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

It can also be seen at the Five Forks battlefield on a marker that was dedicated during the Centennial by the Dinwiddie Civil War Centennial Commission.  Well, at least they got they number of Confederates under Pickett’s command about right, but 50,000 Federals is way off the deep end.  Philip Sheridan had around 21,000 men at Five Forks.  Perhaps Dinwiddie County’s Sesquicentennial Commission can spray paint the right number on the anniversary of the battle in 2015.

Black Confederates in the Old Courthouse

Special thanks to Robert Pomerenk, who took these photos of an exhibit on black Confederates in the Old Courthouse in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  It looks like a relatively old exhibit that was done with a very limited budget.  A quick perusal of these photos suggests that very little research went into this exhibit.  You will see the standard images as well as primary source accounts with absolutely no analysis whatsoever.  The exhibit is framed around the following assumption:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves, who loyal to the sacred trust, toiled for support of the Army, with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children, during the struggles for the principles of our Confederate States of America.

I’ve suggested that this debate ought to be understood as an extension of the central Lost Cause theme that assumes that slaves were faithful and had no interest in freedom.  This is one of the best examples of that point.  Yes, a book on this subject is desperately needed.

Summer Camp With the Sons of Confederate Veterans

What do you do for your child after a full year of indoctrination in the public school system where they are taught that the Confederacy was evil and the war was about slavery?  You send them to Summer Camp with the SCV for a “true” history of the war.  According to an advertisement:

There is no question that the youth of today must run a terrible gantlet, and that many are struck down along the way by one or more of the politically correct influences which flourish in our schools…. Sometimes these youth are from the best homes with strong families and religious training. With even the most conscientious parenting, though, oftentimes (sic) in high school or college, even these best and brightest finally succumb to the liberal, politically correct view of history. This summer you can help turn the tide.

In addition to learning how to fire a cannon and parade/dance in period dress, campers learn lessons in the “Theology of the South During the War.”  Unfortunately, I don’t think the kids will be reading Eugene Genovese’s The Mind of the Master Class or Michael OBrien’s Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860.  Rather, it looks like much of the time will be spent undoing the damage of being taught that slavery was somehow central to understanding what the war was about.  Perhaps the course will be taught by none other than H.K. Edgerton.

Specifically, the teens are exposed to the group’s contention that the Civil War was not about slavery, James said. Too many people have bought into that notion, he said, and wrongly exalt then-President Abraham Lincoln as wanting to end slavery.  Lincoln was “a bigger racist than I ever knew,” James said.  The truth is that the South was fighting for independence and the North was fighting to preserve the Union, James said. Slavery played into the tensions, he said, calling the practice “morally unacceptable.”  But painting the war as being primarily about slavery falsely gives the North the “moral high ground” and makes it seem as if Confederate soldiers were fighting to maintain slavery, James said. He said slavery eventually would have ended on its own, as it has in other countries.  “To attribute the war to something that wasn’t the cause isn’t right,” James said. “We try to tell it like it is.”

Rather than offer summer camp, I would suggest that the SCV organize their own schools.  This way children will be completely removed from the dangers posed by our public schools.

Let’s see, what would that curriculum look like?  For starters, Biology would be replaced with the course Stonewall Jackson taught at VMI.

Nikki Haley’s Civil War Memory (when the SCV asks)

Update: The interviews were conducted by the Palmetto Patriots with all the candidates and are available on the organization’s website.  A wide range of issues were covered.  McMaster discusses the flag in Part 2 at 2:55.  Bauer comments on the flag in Part 2 at 4:50 after one of the interviewers admits that there is some crossover between the SCV and Palmetto Patriots.  Barrett is a member of an SCV camp and in Part 1 at 2:25 pledged to defend the Confederate flag against “cultural genocide.”  One of the interviewers also encouraged Barrett to resist calls to remove the statue of Ben Tillman from the statehouse.  There is nothing surprising in any of this.

This is a wonderful example of a behind-the scenes-look at the way in which Civil War/Confederate heritage continues to shape politics.  I’m not sure Nikki Haley, who recently won the Republican Gubernatorial Primary in South Carolina, knows anything about the American Civil War, but she is clearly being put through the ringer by an unknown group.  I suspect that the interviewers are with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but I can’t be sure.  Haley reduces the war to a matter of “tradition vs. change” and is clearly doing her best not to offend.  Around the 5 minute mark one of the interviewers demands to know Haley’s position on the ongoing debate about the Confederate flag and reminds her of their work to remove Governor Beasley for proposing to remove the flag from atop the statehouse.

I’m not sure if I am more upset about the complete lack of historical understanding by everyone in this video or that this is an issue that demands serious attention by our candidates for public office.