A few of you have asked if I could put together an overview of the many posts that I’ve done on the subject of black Confederates. This is a start and it’s something that I will come back to to update and expand. This will hopefully answer common questions that new readers have about my own position on this subject as well as provide a reliable list of resources for further reading. You can find a link to this post in the navigation menu at the top of the page.
Regular readers of this blog are all too familiar with the frequency of posts on the hot topic of black Confederates. It is safe to say that the largest number of posts on this blog have been devoted to the subject and collectively constitute what I hope is a helpful resource for those who are trying to wade through the morass that defines this divisive topic and public debate. With so much attention focused on this subject it may be difficult for readers to know where to begin. This page is meant to serve as a road map to help readers to better understand the evolution of my own thought about this subject as well as advice on where to go for credible information and what to avoid. I should point out that my writing on this subject is not meant or intended as an authoritative or final word on the subject. I’ve used this blog to ask questions and to offer some of my own ideas about various aspects of the subject and on how others have approached the subject.
You will find a wide range of posts on this issue, but all of them revolve around a basic assumption that this subject is part of a broader discussion of slavery and race relations during the Civil War. Most of the posts on this site can be found under a category heading, titled, “black Confederates.” [Keep in mind that you are reading them in the reverse order in which they were published.] I suggest that you begin with my two earliest posts on the subject in which I begin to sketch out my own interest in the subject in response to the publication of Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation [Part 1 and Part 2 and here]. One of the biggest problems is the lack of any consensus on language and how to describe the presence of free and enslaved blacks in Confederate armies. In my view we must begin by assuming that blacks were not soldiers based both on the refusal on the part of the Confederate government as well as the almost complete lack of wartime evidence (enlistment papers/muster rolls, etc.)
[Part 1, Part 2, and John Hennessy's assessment of the evidence]
Not too long ago I featured a guest post by Michael Schaffner on the subject of Richard Kirkland. Mr. Schaffner did extensive research on Online sources related to the Kirkland story which left him with a number of questions re: the veracity of the story. I thought it was well documented so I decided to feature it on Civil War Memory. I’ve also written a bit about our fascination with the Kirkland story. In the end, while I’ve expressed skepticism about the story based on the available evidence I am much more interested in our continued attraction to this particular story. It’s a wonderful case study for understanding how we, as a nation, have chosen to remember our Civil War.
Former National Park Service historian, Mac Wycoff, has done extensive research on the story and has written up his findings for a series of posts at Mysteries and Conundrums. This is a must read for those of you who are interested in this story. I suggest that if you have comments that you leave them with Mac’s post so that he can address them directly. Finally, let me just reiterate that my goal in writing about Kirkland has never been to “debunk” or use the story to “attack” the South. Such a suggestion is silly and not really worth acknowledging. I use this site to ask questions. If you are uncomfortable with the questions that I ask than you really need to find yourself another blog.
A brief analysis of this cartoon is available here.
Like many of you I’ve been closely following the heated controversy surrounding the plans to locate the Cordoba Institute within a few blocks of “Ground Zero” in Manhattan. While I have an opinion about this I’ve tried my best to maintain a safe distance from the debate in order to take in the broader picture. Admittedly, such a step is difficult for me to maintain since I lost my cousin on 9-11. Alisha Levin was 34 yrs. old and worked as a Human Resources manager for Fuji Bank in the South Tower. She left a message on her parent’s answering machine to say that she was safe just after the first tower was hit.
For those of us interested in the emotion that often accompanies questions about how to commemorate historical landscapes this recent debate is instructive. The lines between different historical memories are already well entrenched. The many interest groups who lay claim to the site of 9-11 are also easily delineated. Various stakeholders in this contest have already voiced positions on the architecture of the proposed new complex as well as a planned memorial for the site. That an Islamic Center located 2-blocks from Ground Zer0 – as opposed to the schlock that has been sold on the actual site for some time – can generate such a response is also instructive. It should come as no surprise that the debate has been defined by such passion given the nature of the attack, the scale of the destruction, and the death toll. In my view every American has a stake in how the landscape is shaped in the coming years regardless of the legal and constitutional questions involved.
At the same time it is clear that the strong passions of those who claim ownership of this site are a function of different factors. The families are moved by the memories and loss of loved ones; others are clearly using this issue for political purposes; and, a third group is driven as much by fear of Islam as they are by a sense of national loss and a desire to assign blame. Of course, the spectrum of interested parties is much broader. How our collective memory of this site will shift in the coming decades is anyone’s guess. After all, it was probably difficult to imagine reunions between Japanese and American veterans of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The passage of time shifts our focus as subsequent generations become more removed from the emotions of those who lived through the event. With time we are able to explore aspects of a remembered past in a way that cushions still latent emotions. At some point those emotions are more a result of choice than a direct connection to the generation that directly experienced some aspect of the event. Even for those who experienced the event itself or as an extension of one of the victims the passage of time leaves the rememberer in a very different place.
This controversy has also reinforced my own understanding of the way in which certain people lay claim to our Civil War past. You don’t have to look far for the passions that stir our personal and intellectual connections to the Civil War in reference to a public space or document. I experience it first hand on this blog in the form of comments and private emails that express bitterness over something I’ve written. Of course, I do my best to parse out the content from the emotion, and while I am interested in both I give much more attention to the former. It would be a mistake to judge the emotion as right or wrong, but I do question its legitimacy. I don’t believe that the emotion attached to people’s Civil War memory today ought to be understood as a moral claim on the historical event in the way that competing memories of 9-11 continue to do so. The difference for me is the relative remoteness of the rememberer. I find it difficult to pinpoint the psychological difference between the two examples, but I have a sense of what is going on here. On the one hand the events of 9-11 are part of our lived history. It’s a history that for many of us has left a void in the structure of our immediate families; even for those removed from the personal tragedy of the story it continues to give meaning to our lives and to the way we view the nation and rest of the world. I simply fail to see how such a dynamic holds for descendants of Civil War soldiers (Union and Confederate) and the rest of the general population. We may feel connected to some aspect of the war, but the overly moralistic tone and claims to an exclusive ownership of the past or even some aspect of the past is in my view completely unjustified. It’s what I understand when I hear: “Get over it.” Perhaps a better way of putting it is: “Get over yourself.”