Celebrating Confederate Heritage in Bloomington, Indiana

I wonder if the Confederate Heritage folks will rally around Thomas Buhls, who earlier today tried to celebrate Confederate heritage in Indiana with a sign that read, “CELEBRATE YOUR WHITE HERITAGE.”  I have no idea whether Mr. Buhls is a native southerner, but of course that shouldn’t matter much.  Confederate heritage transcends race, gender, and region.  Like Hunter Wallace, Buhls seems to embrace a narrative of the Confederacy that actually conforms to its history.  That’s right, the Confederacy was organized as a slaveholding republic built on white supremacy that was forced to fight for its independence and failed.  Buhls and Wallace are much closer to the views of Alexander Stephens and other pro-Confederate nationalists than most heritage types today who water down and distort this history and fantasize that the Confederacy was some kind of experiment in civil rights.  While I find their embrace of white supremacy to be utterly appalling, at least it is grounded in something that reflects Confederate history.

Do You Trust Those Lost Causers?

Union Army Entering Petersburg, April 3, 1865

I recently offered some brief thoughts about Robert K. Krick’s concerns about historians, who are supposedly weary of Confederate memoirs.  While I focused my remarks on a specific claim made by Krick about how historians interpret Robert E. Lee’s wartime popularity, his broader point about postwar accounts is worth a brief mention as well.

The wholesale tendency to dismiss Confederate accounts is inexcusable, Krick said. He blasted critics who hold that  Confederate memoirs are full of historical errors.  “Most of them were trying to tell the truth,” he said of veterans who penned recollections of their wartime experiences.

It goes without saying, that I can’t think of one historian who dismisses out of hand an entire collection of sources simply on the grounds that they were written after the fact.  This is just another straw man argument.  That said, I do agree with Krick that veterans were motivated to tell a truthful story about their wartime experiences.  That, however, does not mean that their accounts were not influenced by other factors as well.  I assume that most of you will agree that it is the historians responsibility to interrogate all sources for their veracity.

In my own research on the Crater and historical memory I found it helpful to think about individual accounts as reflecting what he/she believed to be meaningful to record rather than what was believed to be truthful.  In the case of Confederate accounts, for example, the presence of black soldiers was a salient aspect of the battle that was included in the overwhelming number of letters and diaries.  That clearly changed during the postwar years and I do my best to explain why.

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Scalawags and Stink Faces

The first videos from Appomattox are being posted on the YouTube page of the Virginia Flaggers.  In this short video members describe visitors and representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as “scalawags” and “stink faces.”  How very classy.  Apparently, the SCV’s General Executive Committee issued a resolution requesting that all members boycott participating in the opening ceremonies.  A few chose to participate.  What I don’t understand is why the SCV didn’t encourage more to attend: more units, more flags.  In fact, by the looks of it the MOC did nothing to prevent visitors from carrying Confederate flags on the grounds.

This protest reminds me of the situation in Lexington.  In both cases no one is being prevented from waving a Confederate flag.

Trayvon Martin and Civil War Memory

Outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last month in Sanford, Florida can now be seen in the form of graffiti on Civil War monuments in New Orleans.  It should come as no surprise.  Monuments to both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were spray painted with the names of Martin and two other local African American men, who recently died as a result of violent clashes with city police.  The spray painted names are themselves a form of memory, but the use of the Davis and Lee monuments add meaning that go far beyond confronting random graffiti on the side of a building.

Irregardless of whether the graffiti can be traced to the black community, the act itself serves to remind the surrounding community that this violence is perceived to be racial in nature.  The use of these particular monuments not only points to the history of racial tension in the community, but to the institutions themselves that were responsible for creating these public spaces and largely responsible for legally enforcing inequities within the public sector.  The damage to these structures reflects a sense of alienation from the community and a rejection of the community’s values as represented in these monuments.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the decision to deface these particular monuments reflects the extent to which memory of the Civil War has been eclipsed or shaped by our collective memory of the civil rights movement.  It is likely that the perpetrators of this act know very little about Davis and Lee, but they know enough to connect them to the history of race in the United States during the past 150 years.  That is clearly a recent development.  The appropriation of the meaning of these sites as stamped with a history of racial injustice is itself an attack on the values and preferred Civil War memory of previous generations.

It is unlikely that the monuments will be cleaned in time for the “Final Four” showdown this weekend.  That’s OK for at least one person:

Pastor Shawn Anglim of First Grace United Methodist Church has a different take on the graffiti that has focused on the controversy surrounding the meanings.“Right now, it’s a need for conversation. And whether done in proper way or not, maybe it’s OK it’s up for a week or so. And it gets some people talking a little bit,” Anglim said.

If only we knew how to talk about such things.