Do a Google search for “Black Confederates” and “Ed Bearss” and you will get 675 hits. No surprise that many of the sites have been created by SCV chapters and others who believe that significant numbers of blacks fought as soldiers in the Confederate army. Just about all of these sites utilize all or part of the following quote that is attributed to Ed Bearrs, who served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994:
I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910.
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to locate the source of this quote and reliable sources have told me that Bearss has never said anything that would place him in the Black Confederate camp. While I was not able to find a source for the above quote, I did find this 14 minute video of Bearss that was done for Black History Month. [Note: You may need to sign in to view the video.]
In it Bearss is asked to discuss the role that blacks played in the Civil War. What is instructive is what he does not say. At no time does he suggest that there was any kind of conspiracy surrounding the recognition of black Confederates. And when he gets to commenting on the Louisiana Native Guard Bearss emphasizes that the first units raised for the defense of Louisiana were never accepted for service in the Confederate army. Again, decide for yourself, but there is nothing in this video that would suggest that Bearss believes anything close to what these websites attribute to him.
Back in 2008 I commented on a graphic novel that tells the story of Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom. I expressed a number of concerns in that post and I appreciate the author of the novel for offering his own perspective. Now it looks like that story is coming to the big screen. Unfortunately, it looks like the misinformation and blatant abuse of history that is present in the graphic novel will make it into the movie. Consider the web page on the history behind the subject. It begins with the standard list of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the roles of blacks in the Confederate army as well as the views of some of the more prominent Confederate such as Forrest and Jackson. Ed Bearrss is cited as having spoken out in support of the black Confederate narrative even though he has denied ever making such a claim. And can someone tell me where Ervin Jordan describe this as a “cover up”? I can’t seem to find it in his book, but perhaps I am looking in the wrong place. You will also notice the doctored photograph of the Louisiana Native Guards at the top of the page. Consider the following choice “facts” about black Confederates:
Many Black Confederates actually engaged in combat including the Battles of First Manassas, Chickamauga, Seven Days, Thompson’s Station, Franklin, and others.
Black Confederates were known to frequent veteran reunions years after the war and many posed proudly for photographs with Confederate Battle Flags.
Such a sloppy description of how free and enslaved black southerners functioned in the Confederate army raises more questions than anything approaching understanding of such a complex subject. But it gets even worse. Consider the brief description of Cleburne and his proposal:
On a cold winter night in January 1864, Patrick Cleburne put forth a controversial plan to the Confederate high command. It was a written proposal to free over 300,000 slaves and enlist them as soldiers in the Southern armies. He made few allies and many enemies, and from that moment on, his career would come to a dead halt. Cleburne was no ordinary commander. He had never lost a battle and was even called the “Stonewall Jackson of the West”. None of this would matter once his revolutionary views were made known to the Confederate government and President Davis.
Ironically, Black troops had already been serving as teamsters in the Confederate ranks for years, but what Cleburne proposed was not merely service, but official military enlistment. He even went as far as to imply that the entire plan would begin the steps toward the complete emancipation of all African Americans from slavery.
The movie presents Cleburne as having “fought two wars. One with the North, the other with the South.” Such a description makes it seem as if Cleburne was operating in a vacuum when his proposal surfaced. Actually, the debate about arming slaves had started back in 1861 and Cleburne wasn’t even the first Confederate general to offer such a proposal. More importantly, we must not lose sight of the fact that these proposals do not reflect a desire to end slavery in the South. In fact, they tell us much more about the extent to which white Southerners would go to gain independence as a means to preserve the institution of slavery. That fact tells us why most white southerners were not willing to arm slaves and free blacks. You can expect that I am going to closely follow this story
I am not a big fan of historical impersonators. More often than not their interpretations reflect a consensus view that simply reinforces deeply held beliefs. The goal seems to be more entertainment than education. Such is the case with Tom Dugan, who pulls off a pretty good Lost Cause-inspired interpretation of Lee. Here is Lee the beleaguered slavemaster who wants nothing more than to see slavery end. Even a cursory perusal of Lee’s letters or the recent biography by Elizabeth Brown Pryor reveals a very different attitude regarding slavery and race. A bit more disturbing is the Lee who never quite gets over the “high watermark of the rebellion” – even before it had become the high watermark. Funny, that I am here reminded of Michael Fellman’s overly-psychological interpretation of Lee. I would love to bring Dugan in to perform for my Civil War Memory class. It would make for a wonderful discussion.
I don’t know much about the few white Southerners who left the country following the war owing to the widespread physical destruction, military occupation as well as the consequences of emancipation. Here is at least one title that looks worthwhile. Actually, the more I watched the more I thought of this story as a reflection of Brazilian memory rather than what we would assume to be a Civil War/Confederate memory. These scenes seem to have all of the trappings of our popular memory of the war as seen in Gone With the Wind and your standard reenactment rather than anything having to do specifically with the men and women who chose to leave the United States. At one point one of the interviewees suggests that his ancestors would be pleased to learn that they continue to keep the memory of the Confederacy alive. Perhaps, but the fact that they chose to leave suggests that they were trying not only to distance themselves physically from their homes, buy psychologically as well. I get the sense that remembrance of their Confederate past is a once a year event. Just a thought.
Shenandoah is a watershed movie for a number of reasons in my view. As I mentioned in my last post, the movie steers clear of many of the traditional Lost Cause themes that can be found in earlier movies. What I continue to be struck by, however, is the avoidance of any reference to what the war is about. It is true that Charlie Anderson emphasizes the importance of slavery in one of the earlier scenes, but that particular discussion is disconnected from what comes after. In the wedding scene where Sam marries Jenny the young officer is forced to immediately depart for the war. As he says goodbye to his new bride she asks if he understands what the war is about. Sam’s inability to offer any sort of response gives the scene a tragic quality as the young couple is split along with their future in doubt. Another scene set on the Anderson porch also offers an opportunity to discuss the war. Charlie steps outside with the doctor who has just delivered a child and asks him how he feels about the fact that Virginia is losing the war. The doctor shares that one son is buried in Pennsylvania, another is home with tuberculosis, and a third is off riding with General Forrest. In this scene the war is reduced to the personal loss and sadness experienced by the doctor. The attention to cause and justification that is present in earlier movies is replaced by innocent scenes such as this one where Charlie Anderson offers Sam advice on how interpret the behavior of women. No one seems to know what the war is about.
Later in the movie Charlie Anderson visits the family grave site that at one time only included his wife, but now includes his own children who he so desperately tried to shield from the war. He admits, “There is nothing much I can tell you about this war…” The scene once again steers clear of anything divisive about the war by blaming the politicians and allows the audience to embrace the emotional loss that accompanies all wars.
There are two additional scenes that I want to mention. The first is a wonderful scene that includes “Federal agents” who have come to the Anderson farm to confiscate their horses. This scene follows the strong anti-state theme that was mentioned in yesterday’s post. What I find interesting is that the individuals in question are never identified as representatives of the Confederate government, though the government did indeed follow a policy of confiscation throughout much of the war. Was this a conscious effort not to alienate any particular segment of the viewing population and maintain the neutral stance of Charlie Anderson? I don’t know.
The most interesting scene thus far is the emancipation moment involving the young slave boy. The viewer is not exposed to any working slaves other than one moment early on outside of the church. Slaves are seen as drivers, including the slave boy who is friends with the youngest Anderson boy. In a remarkable scene that takes place following a brief skirmish the two boys are confronted by Union soldiers, two of whom are black. [Note: Black Union soldiers did not serve in the Shenandoah Valley.] The young Anderson boy is taken prisoner owing to his kepi which he discovered in a stream earlier in the movie. He asks the young slave to run home to inform his father of what has happened. In that moment one of the black soldiers informs him that he does not have to do so because he is now free. It’s an incredibly brief moment, but crucial nevertheless.
Only after learning of his son’s capture does the war finally matter to Charlie Anderson: “Now it concerns us.”