Edward Sebesta is Back and Without Focus

As he promised in January Ed Sebesta has petitioned President Obama to discontinue the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate statue at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.  Actually, this petition goes much further than last year’s in requesting that the federal government “revoke the Sons of Confederate Veterans participation as a recognized charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, deny the SCV permission to host events for the United States Army, and prevent the SCV’s future involvement Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs in America’s high schools.”  In doing so Sebesta has moved away from focusing the nation’s attention on a specific public site in favor of a broader look at the neo-Confederate movement.  Unfortunately, any focus on the monument that Sebesta hoped to maintain is lost and I suspect that most people will not pay much attention to the SCV’s political activities and involvement in JROTC.  Before commenting further, I want to share what I wrote last year:

First, let me say that there is much in this new petition that I agree with.  The SCV promotes a Lost Cause inspired narrative of the Civil War that at times borders on racist.  You can indeed see this on the many chapter websites as well as their bookstore on the national site.  As far as I am concerned the fundamental problem for Sebesta is that President Obama made the right decision last year.  Rather than fuel the debate, which only worked to move interested parties further away from one another, the president sent an additional wreath to the African American Soldiers Monument in Washington, D.C.

Continue reading “Edward Sebesta is Back and Without Focus”

Hey Clyde Wilson, I Don’t Believe You!

I know that Professor Clyde Wilson is widely known for his involvement with a number of institutions associated with the neo-Confederate movement such as the League of the South, but this guy was trained as an undergraduate and graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina.  He wrote his dissertation at UNC and went on to write a couple of pretty respectable books, including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew.  Wilson is best known academically for his work on editing the John Calhoun Papers.  I guess what I am getting at is that behind what I can only describe as a commitment to expressing a conservative world view through these organizations there is a well-trained historian.

I have no problem with Wilson wanting to express his political views, but it is incredibly disturbing to see him sacrificing his integrity as a historian to do so?  Consider the following quiz that has been attributed to Wilson at the Confederate Digest site.  [Update: I didn’t notice but the source is Lew Rockwell.]

  • What American President launched a massive invasion of another country that posed no threat, and without a declaration of war?
  • What President raised a huge army at his own will without the approval of Congress?
  • What President started a war of choice in violation of every principle of Christian just war teaching?
  • What President said that he had to violate the Constitution in order to save it?
  • What President declared the elected legislatures of thirteen States to be “combinations” of criminals that he had to suppress?
  • What President said he was indifferent to slavery but would use any force necessary to collect taxes?
  • What President sent combat troops from the battlefield to bombard and occupy New York City?
  • What President sent the Army to arrest in the middle of the night thousands of private citizens for expressing their opinions? And held them incommunicado in military prisons with total denial of due process of law? And had his soldiers destroy newspaper plants?
  • What President was the first ruler in the civilized world to make medicine a contraband of war?
  • What President signed for his cronies special licenses to purchase valuable cotton from an enemy country even though he had forbidden such trade and punished other people for the same practice?
  • What President refused medical care and food to his own soldiers held by the enemy country?
  • What President presided over the bombardment and house-by-house destruction of cities and towns that were undefended and not military targets?
  • What President’s forces deliberately targeted women and children and destroyed their housing, food supply, and private belongings?
  • What President’s occupying forces engaged in imprisonment, torture, and execution of civilians and seizing them as hostages?
  • Under what President did the Army have the largest number of criminals, mercenaries, and foreigners?
  • Who was the first American President to plot the assassination of an opposing head of state?
  • Who had the least affiliation with Christianity of any American President and blamed God for starting the war over which he presided?
  • What President voted for and praised a law which forbade black people from settling in his State?
  • What President said that all black people should be expelled from the United States because they could never be full-fledged citizens?
  • What President was the first to force citizens to accept as legal money pieces of paper unbacked by gold or silver?
  • Who was the first President to institute an income tax?
  • Who was the first President to pile up a national debt too vast to be paid off in a generation?
  • Who is considered almost universally as the greatest American President, indeed as the greatest American of all times and as a world hero of democracy?
  • What predecessor is President Obama most often compared to?

Of course, the answer to all of these questions is Abraham Lincoln.  Again, I have no problem with Wilson wanting to express his political views.  Honestly, I could care less about his broader world view.  What I don’t believe is that these questions accurately reflect his understanding of Lincoln and the broader issues related to the Civil War.  The questions are simply too childish and uninformed to be an honest reflection of Wilson’s understanding of the relevant history.  In short, I don’t believe you, Clyde Wilson.

Black North Carolinians Plan to Erect Faithful Slave Marker

A group of historians and other concerned citizens recently lobbied the commissioners of Union County to “recogniz[e] the contributions of 10 black Confederate pensioners, known as colored troops during the Civil War.”  We’ve seen all this before and it doesn’t look like anything will steer certain folks away from making this all too common mistake regarding the conditions under which black Southerners were given pensions after the Civil War.  The assumption seems to be that a pension indicates that a given individual served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  [For some reliable commentary on pensions please read James Hollandsworth, Jr., Robert Moore, and the Library of Virginia.] The group wants to install a small monument to these ten individuals in front of the old courthouse in Monroe.

The most disappointing aspect of this story is to read the words of the descendants of these men who were forced to endure the horrors of war as property, ultimately without any choice in the matter.

Aaron Perry of Charlotte is the great-grandson of one of the pensioners, also named Aaron Perry, a Union County slave who fought with the North Carolina 37th Company D. Although the Confederate States lost, their story should be remembered.  “I think it’s a great thing,” said the younger Perry, 72. “It’s been a long time ago, so I’m not going to overlook that. What’s so bad about it? They’re honoring these 10 North Carolina soldiers for being helpful to their country, even if it was under slavery.  “They lost that war, but my great grandfather helped rebuild the camp at Fort Fisher,” Perry said. “He played his part, even though he was under slavery and somebody else’s command. When you enlist in the service, you’re taking orders from somebody.”

Notice how Mr. Perry completely collapses the distinction between status as a slave and citizen.  In what way was the Confederacy “their country” given the constitution’s provisions that specifically protect the institution of slavery?  Even worse is the failure to distinguish between having to take orders within a military command – a responsibility that under certain conditions is conferred on citizens – and status as a slave which views the individual as an extension of his master’s will.  What could be clearer?

Of course, it should come as no surprise that Earl Ijames is involved in this nonsense.  Ijames works as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, which is part of the NC Department of Archives and History.  I guess Ijames couldn’t resist referencing Weary Clyburn, who happens to be his favorite “Colored Confederate.”  Unfortunately, Ijames isn’t even sure whether Clyburn was a slave or a free man at the time of the Civil War.

Between Perry and Ijames we get a sense of the quality of “research” and thought that seems to be behind this project.  I am sad to say that in 2010 we have two African American men, who are essentially hoping to erect a monument to faithful slaves of the Confederacy.  What could be more pathetic?

Watch Out For This Kid

Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher.  Over the course of this past year I’ve been working on an independent study that focuses on how the Civil War has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville, Virginia with Joseph Wolf, who is one of my students.  We met on a weekly basis to discuss various secondary sources that included books by David Blight, Kirk Savage, Thomas Brown, David Goldfield, John Neff, and Gary Gallagher, to name just a few.  In addition, Joseph and I explored the roles of the local chapters of the SCV and UDC and read through a number of their publications.  Joseph’s main focus was to analyze the equestrian statues at Lee and Jackson parks along with our two soldier monuments, located at the courthouse and Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.

As part of his project Joseph presented his research today during lunchtime to a packed classroom of teachers and students.  He did a fabulous job of explaining the role of Charlottesville during the Civil War, the evolution of the Lost Cause, and the conditions that led to the four monuments.  Best of all, Joseph did an outstanding job of analyzing the monuments for the audience as well as fielding their questions.  It’s been an absolute pleasure working with this student.  As a sophomore Joseph took my elective on Lincoln and as a junior he took my survey course in American history along with my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War memory.

I have to say, however, that as much as I enjoyed sharing my passion for the Civil War with this student the subject matter is secondary compared with the interpretive skills that were learned and the seriousness that comes with an appreciation of the complexity of the past.  It was a pleasure to be able to sit their with everyone else and watch Joseph as he educated the audience.  He was in command.

Joseph has decided to continue his education at the University of South Carolina where he will major in history.  Luckily for Joseph, Thomas Brown teaches in the History Department.  It’s safe to say that Joseph will graduate high school with an understanding of the Civil War that rivals, if not surpasses, students who are about to graduate from college.  I wish Joseph all the best in his future endeavors.  Keep an eye out for this kid.

[Image: Unveiling of Jackson Statue at Jackson Park in Charlottesville, Virginia]

Thank You Pelican Press

I am slowly gathering materials for my next book project on “black Confederates” that I agreed to write for Westholme Publishing.  A few weeks ago I ordered the two volumes on the subject published by Pelican Press, which includes Black Southerners in Confederate Armies and Black Confederates – both edited by Charles Kelly and J.H. Segars.  In addition to these two books I also have on hand James Brewer’s study of Virginia military laborers, Ervin Jordan’s study of slaves and free blacks in Virginia, and Bruce Levine’s excellent analysis of the debate to arm slaves in the Confederacy.  Of course, there will be plenty of additional material utilized for this study, but there are very few decent book-length treatments of this particular subject.

Given the quality of books published by Pelican I have to say that these two books will be extremely helpful, but I suspect not for the reasons intended by the editors.  Both books include a wide range of primary documents, including newspaper accounts, pension files, cartoons, service records, photographs, and historical markers.  There is very little commentary and what is included is entirely useless as historical analysis, but very helpful when it comes to understanding how the subject has been remembered.  These books can be found as references on many neo-Confederate websites and SCV sites that focus on this subject.  What is so striking, however, is that even a cursory glance at the information provided in these two books reflects and incredibly complex and fascinating subject and yet most people can’t seem to get beyond the Lost Cause language of “loyalty” and “devotion” along with the common refrain of numbers and claims of cover-ups.  I’ve never seen primary sources so poorly interpreted and under utilized for their historical value.

Both Pelican books include references to Silas Chandler.  A few days ago I received an email from a descendant of Silas Chandler, who has agreed to provide me with archival material that she has collected over the years.  Better yet, this individual has agreed to co-author an article with me on Silas for one of the Civil War magazines.  This will give me the opportunity to explore questions and issues that will be addressed in much more detail in the book-length project.  It will be quite satisfying to be able to use the Pelican books for their primary sources on Chandler and at the same time demonstrate just how shallow and, at times, inaccurate the information provided is.