Category Archives: Lost Cause

Remembering Alabama’s Secession and “Lincoln bin laden”

You gotta love these commemorative events that on the surface seem to be about the Civil War, but are little more than forums for folks to complain about what they perceive to be our own oppressive government.  They always seem to bring together a true cast of characters.  In this case there is John Eidsmoe, Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law Emeritus at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, who goes on and on about the compact theory of government and states rights as an explanation for Alabama’s secession without ever mentioning slavery, as well as a woman who wears a t-shirt with Frederick Douglass, who she believes was an advocate for limited government.   All of them were brought together as a result of one Patricia Godwin who believes that the decision on the part of Confederate forces to fire on Fort Sumter was carried out because “Lin­coln bin laden had fortified the fort with arms and sup­plies.”  By the way, you won’t find one black person in the audience.  I guess they don’t remember secession as a crucial moment of freedom from an oppressive government.  The best part of this video is the end when a few of the participants are asked what would have happened if the southern states had never seceded.  Their responses are priceless.  I guess I just find it funny that people who believe in limited government would identify so closely with the Confederacy.  They must not know their history.

By the way, just in case you are interested in why the state of Alabama seceded, you will not find it in this video:

WHEREAS, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of President and Vice-President of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the Constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the northern section, is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security; therefore,

Be it declared and ordained by the people of the State of Alabama in Convention assembled , That the State of Alabama now withdraws, and is hereby withdrawn from the Union known as “the United States of America”, and henceforth ceases to be one of said United States, and is, and of right ought to be, a Sovereign and Independent State.

Were Slaves Soldiers?

I have enjoyed following the debate over at Richard Williams’s blog re: my handling of Earl Ijames’s research.  Much of the give and take relates to my decision to publicly request Ijames’s presentation as well as my decision to Cc: the director at the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.  I’m still not sure why the gang over there is making such a big deal of this given that there is nothing offensive about the letter.  It simply requests the materials in question and nothing more.  What I do find funny is that no one seems to have anything to say about Ijames’s response, which he decided to Cc. to that same director.  Anyway, I will leave this to the vultures to sort out.  I want to move on to something that I find much more interesting and that actually relates to history.

In a number of places Mr. Williams suggests that slaves in the Confederate army ought to be acknowledged as soldiers.  Here are a few quotes to consider:

And, as I’ve pointed out before, it is disingenuous to suggest that these men should not be honored for their service – as soldiers – simply because they may have been forced to serve – in whatever capacity. An analogy I’ve used before: During the Vietnam war, many who opposed it were drafted. Many no doubt would have fled to Canada or simply refused to go had it not been for the influence and pressure of family, society and the legal ramifications of refusing service. So they went with no emotional or intellectual support of their own for “the cause.” However, many of these same men, once on the field, bonded with their comrades and were exposed to the same dangers as those who volunteered. They served honorably. Should their service be discounted because they were drafted? I think the answer is clear.

I’ve not delved into Mr. Ijames’s specific research either. I do agree with Ijames’s contention, however, that blacks – whether slave or free – should have their service in the Confederate Army honored where appropriate and that there is nothing improper referring to these men as “soldiers.”

In the recent post about Nelson Winbush’s grandfather, I said, “Private Nelson was a slave.” I do not believe the term “soldier” and “slave” are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Williams arrives at this conclusion via analogy with soldiers in the Vietnam War.  The basic problem with his claim is to confuse two distinct meanings of “forced to serve.”  Americans who are drafted to go to war ought to be understood as a function of their legal standing as a citizen.  As citizens we are obligated to register for the draft and under certain circumstances may be forced to honor that obligation.  Again, the salient point is that draftees are citizens.  It is our status as free men which places us in this relationship to the government.  In contrast, slaves were not citizens of the United States or the Confederacy.  That this distinction even needs to be acknowledged is troubling.  In short, the analogy does not work.  Finally, it should be pointed out that USCTs were not citizens at the time of their service in the army, but it also must be remembered that they were not drafted either.  Many of them expressed the hope that their service would eventually lead to the rights of full citizenship.  That, of course, is another sad chapter in our history.

I am closer with Mr. Williams on the issue of honoring and commemorating those free and enslaved blacks who were present with the Confederate army.  If it can be demonstrated that a black man (regardless of status) enlisted or was drafted as a soldier than he should be honored as such.  I have never said otherwise.  That said, as historians distinctions should matter.  As I make my way through the letters of Capt. Winsmith from South Carolina (which I am editing for publication) I can’t help but be impressed with his commentary on his “servant” who accompanied him to camp.  Winsmith writes glowingly about this man as well as his various activities in camp and on the march.  This man actually procured a uniform by performing functions for other officers.  I have no doubt that this slave endured many of the same hardships along with the rest of the army and I have little doubt that he bonded with his master and others as well, even though I don’t have access to one word from this individual.  He eventually escaped to the Union navy off the coast of South Carolina in the summer of 1862.  That said, there is nothing that indicates that his owner or anyone else for that matter viewed this man as anything other than a slave.  Nothing about his relationship with his master or his experience changed his legal status.

These distinctions matter because as historians we are trying to better understand how the war affected the master-slave relationship and race relations generally.  As historians we should do our best, with the limited evidence available, to understand how the realities of war brought whites and blacks in the army closer together on occasion and further apart at other times.  However, in order to do so we must be sensitive to the distinction between soldier, slave, conscript and other designations.

It goes without saying that if we were to accept Mr. Williams’s analysis we would have a number of fundamental questions to grapple with.

  • What exactly was the Confederate government referring to when it explicitly denied slaves and free blacks the right to serve in the army?
  • How are we to understand the debate during the war over whether to arm slaves as soldiers?
  • What exactly was the Confederate government doing when it finally authorized the enlistment of a limited number of slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the war in 1865?

In other words, how did the Confederate government as well as the rest of the white South define a soldier during the war?  How would they respond to Mr. Williams’s analysis?

We Have a Responsibility to Take Care of the Past

That includes the North Carolina Museum of History and the Office of Archives and History.

Earl Ijames on Weary Clyburn:

Weary Clyburn was one of thousands of slaves who served in the Confederate Army, Ijames said. There’s no way to quantify the number of slaves who served. “But it’s in the thousands, easy.” People today often wonder why slaves fought for the Confederacy. Ijames said the only course they had to freedom was through the Confederate Army. “Why not go and defend what they know versus running away and going to the unknown,” Ijames said.

Mr. Ijames has a responsibility to explain these statements to the North Carolina Museum of History, Office of Archives and History as well as the rest of the historical community.

Mr. Ijames, Was Weary Clyburn a Soldier or a Slave?

One of the reasons why it is important for serious historians to publish in peer-reviewed journals is that it provides the community with stable reference points.  Scholarly publications are intended to add to our knowledge of the past by providing rich interpretation along with supporting documents that can be verified.  In this setting interpretation can be challenged and revised if necessary.  I find it troubling that in 15 years Mr. Ijames has yet to publish, but still considers himself to be an expert on the subject of “Colored Confederates” and is considered to be an expert by various constituencies.  No doubt, Mr. Ijames is aware that free and enslaved blacks functioned in various capacities in the Confederate army, but what I am interested in are his vague claims about those that supposedly served as soldiers.  His claims in various forums, including this one, are impossible to pin down which raises more questions than answers.  Consider his public statements about Weary Clyburn, who was the subject of a series of posts I did in 2008.  The SCV honored Clyburn with a headstone that designated him as a soldier in the Confederate army.  Mr. Ijames took part in the SCV’s public and well publicized ceremony for Clyburn, which you can see in this short video clip:

It can be safely assumed that Ijames’s comments as well as his participation in this event implies that he believes Clyburn served as a soldier.  Once he discovered my posts on the subject, along with commentary about his participation in the event, Ijames offered the following comment:

The term is “Colored Confederate”. I have always maintained that Weary Clyburn was ENSLAVED! He wasn’t even counted in the census, much less in a Confederate Regiment! You discount what he actually did, while hiding behind your rambling attacks on me!

So, we go from taking part in an event that commemorated Clyburn as a soldier in Co. E, 12th S.C. Volunteers to acknowledging that he was a slave.  Finally, in yesterday’s response to my open letter, Ijames said the following:

What’s more, you should be ashamed at the dishonor and discredit that you (et als) intend for Weary Clyburn, Co. E, 12th S.C. Volunteers, his daughter, and family.  You might be hearing from their lawyer.

What could this possibly mean other than to imply that I am “dishonoring” a soldier?  I should point out that there is nothing dishonorable about being a slave.  It is their stories that give continued meaning to our lives and a nation that strives towards freedom and equality.  There is also nothing dishonorable about speaking out when those in the historical community engage the past with such reckless abandon.

Mr. Ijames and a few others are wondering why I don’t accept his invitation to debate in some public forum.  As I’ve already pointed out the idea itself is absurd, but how can I debate someone who doesn’t seem to have the basic facts of his own story straight?

Earl Ijames Is At It Again

Looks like Earl Ijames is taking his “black Confederate” roadshow out once again.  We first met Mr. Ijames, who works as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, in the summer of 2008 in a series of posts I did on Weary Clyburn [and here].  In a comment contained in the second link Mr. Ijames introduced us to Private John Venable, who he believed served in Co. H, 21st NCST.  I assumed this was one of his ironclad examples given Mr. Ijames’s insistence that I acknowledge his findings.  With some help from archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History it didn’t take long for us to poke a sufficient number of holes in Ijames’s interpretation of the documents related to Venable.  Unfortunately, Mr. Ijames never responded to the findings and interpretation of his colleagues.

Well, it looks like none of this is enough to prevent Mr. Ijames from presenting his “findings” to the general public.  I wonder if he is going to reference “Pvt.” John Venable in his presentation to the Chatham County Historical Association on February 28:

Many people find it hard to believe that any African American, slave or free, would have willingly served on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, says that many did just that, and that their reasons for fighting were as varied and complex as those of white soldiers. These black soldiers, as well as the blacks who served the Union cause, will be the topic of Ijames’ presentation. Whatever their reasons for serving, Ijames says, these men deserve to be recognized for their valor. “It’s a miscarriage of justice for this many people to be just blotted out of history,” he believes. Ijames has spent some 15 years studying this interesting and controversial topic.

[Update] Here is a description of the presentation on the Chatham website:

Many people find it hard to believe that any African American, slave or free, would have willingly served on the side of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. But Earl Ijames, a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, says that hundreds did just that, and that their reasons for fighting were as varied and complex as those of white soldiers. These black soldiers, as well as the blacks who served the Union cause, will be the subject of Mr. Ijames’ talk on Sunday, February 28.

“The historically accurate term for the African Americans in the service of the Southern cause is ‘colored Confederates,’” Ijames says, and thousands of them went to war from Southern states, including North Carolina. Some were slaves sent in place of their masters, or were forced or volunteered to serve alongside them. Others were free blacks who offered their services. Whatever their reasons for serving, Ijames says, these men deserve to be recognized for their valor. “It’s a miscarriage of justice for this many people to be just blotted out of history,” he believes.

Ijames has spent some 15 years studying this interesting and controversial topic.  He will present some examples of people who served and discuss the historical evidence available to document them.  He will invite questions following the presentation.

The public is invited to attend the program to learn more about this fascinating and often ignored subject.

It’s difficult to believe that “many” African Americans served in the Confederate army given that the government expressly forbid it until close to the end of the war.  Given that fact, I would love to know what evidence Mr. Ijames has that would support his claim that the “service” of African Americans in the Confederate army has been “blotted out” of history.  I don’t expect much from organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans on this topic, but don’t people who are in positions like Mr. Ijames have a responsibility to be competent purveyors of the past?  Finally, I find it hilarious that Mr. Ijames would imply a conspiracy surrounding this subject and yet, as far as I can tell, in fifteen years he has never published his findings in a peer-reviewed journal.