I’ve taken a great deal of heat for much of my commentary on how Civil War battlefield preservation is typically framed for public consumption. The most recent example can be found here. This morning I read John Hennessy’s description of a recent NPS event that marked the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. Some background for the event:
The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996. We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.
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Matt Isham has published a thoughtful post in which he assesses the black Confederate controversy over at A People’s Contest. While I appreciate Matt’s positive assessment of the attention that I’ve given the subject over the past few years, his critique misses the mark. Consider the following:
Of course, the person who has done yeoman work on this issue is Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory. He has challenged black Confederate mythmakers with vigor and gusto for several years now and shows no signs of slowing down, as he will be publishing a book on this subject soon (find his latest post on the topic here). Levin consistently has pointed out the basic historical illiteracy of the mythmakers, particularly their inability to understand how 19th century Americans conceived of citizens, slaves, and the citizen-soldier.
This, of course, is all well and good, especially the heavy lifting Mr. Levin has done on this issue. After all, it is one of the most important aspects of our mission as educators to expose the public to the fraudulent nature of such myths as the black Confederate story. I wonder, however, if historians are not in danger of sinking down into the mire of this debate by continuing to pay attention to every continued claim from the mythmakers and supporters and every rebuttal in the blogs and the news media. To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on this, but I feel as though this debate is beginning to yield diminishing returns. Surely, the public has been educated about the debate and the shortcomings of the black Confederate thesis. Carrying on the debate with members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other true believers yields nothing, for they are resolved to support their position regardless of whatever evidence and logical analysis is marshaled to expose the fallacy of their belief.
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A recent post over at Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads has got me thinking about the tragic nature of the Civil War. Brooks offers the following in response to two recent editorials by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Cohen:
Was it an awful war? Sure. Was it tragic? In some ways, yes, but not necessarily in the ways in which Coates contests the term. It was tragic that white Americans could not bring themselves to realize the promise of their own revolutionary and Revolutionary rhetoric. It was tragic that in the end they could not bring an end to slavery short of secession and war. Doubtless Coates would agree that Reconstruction was a regrettable tragedy that illustrated the same shortcomings. In short, even as the destruction of slavery is cause for celebration, that it had to come to that through war is cause for reflection and contemplation. Moreover, if we continue to concentrate on the story of the destruction of slavery and the achievement of emancipation as a wartime phenomenon, we risk losing sight of the fact that what freedom meant remained undefined and incomplete, and that during Reconstruction, a truly tragic era, white Americans once more fell short of realizing the ideals which they claimed to cherish, leaving a legacy with which we still wrestle.
I tend to agree with Brooks’s assessment, but I wonder if this characterization of the tragic nature of the war reflects the continued hold that the “War to End Slavery Narrative” exercises over our collective memory. Yes, I am reflecting on this in the wake of having finished reading Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War. In other words, our definition of what makes the war tragic reflects the value that we have come to place on emancipation and slavery, which may not match up so easily with how the citizens of the United States in the 1860s viewed the meaning of the war.
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Thanks to a reader for passing along the Prince William County/Manassas, Virginia Tourism Guide for 2010-11. I have no idea what went into the decision to feature a young black male in what appears to be a Confederate uniform. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing historically inaccurate about such a representation, though he is probably too young to be a body servant. The more important issue has to do with the intended message behind this image. I would love to know if anyone on the editorial team is aware of the recent textbook controversy involving claims of thousands of black Confederates serving under Stonewall Jackson’s command.
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I trust that after this post no one will accuse me of dismissing any and all evidence for the existence of black Confederate soldiers. Better yet, I give you at least one black Confederate general. The interesting question is whether the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others will accept him as one of their own. From The Boston Globe:
Randall Lee Gibson, an urbane, Yale-educated Confederate general, mocked black people as “the most degraded of all races of men.’’ Later, as a US senator from Louisiana, he helped broker the end of Reconstruction, freeing the South to harass and lynch blacks virtually at will…. In the 20th century, his orphaned son, Preston, was raised by an aunt and her husband, who had been a justice on the US Supreme Court that legitimated racial segregation in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson…. What Senator Gibson did not know was that his great-grandfather Gideon Gibson was a free man of color, and a substantial landowner and slaveholder, who led the “Regulators’’ to a successful back-country revolt in Colonial South Carolina. To his peers, the author contends, Gideon Gibson was neither black nor white but merely rich and respected. His marriage to a white woman further blanched his progeny, and their relocation to Mississippi and Louisiana allowed the family’s African-American past to fade away altogether.
The following passage comes from a review of a new book that explores the complex web of racial identity through the experiences of three families that straddled the the racial divide. Gibson’s life is also the focus of a recent biography by Mary Gorton McBride, titled, Randall Lee Gibson of Louisiana: Confederate General and New South Reformer (Louisiana State University Press, 2007). In 1876 Gibson was attacked by former Republican governor James Madison Wells, who accused him of being “colored” in the pages of the New York Times. Gibson followed up by consulting with two historians in Mississippi concerning his family history. Apparently neither Gibson nor his siblings had any knowledge of their black ancestors, but what is more interesting is that the accusations apparently had no impact on how he viewed himself or on society’s acceptance of Gibson as a “white” leader.
So, was/is General Randall Lee Gibson a black Confederate?