Category Archives: My Favorites

Black Confederate Movement “Demented”

This weekend the University of Virginia’s Miller Center will begin airing their “Our American Forum” interview with Gary Gallagher on public TV stations across the country. The Center has uploaded a few preview clips, but I thought this clip in which Gary describes the black Confederate movement as “demented” was worth sharing. I’ve always appreciated Gary’s ability to cut to the chase in his own colorful way. I certainly agree with his assessment.

ALERT: The National Parks Are Closed

For those of you who are looking for reasonable answers to some very straightforward questions click here. And while you are at it, here is a thoughtful post about how we should think about federal employees. It turns out they really aren’t the enemy.

National Park ServiceThere appears to be no let up in the wild reports of abuse of innocent Americans who want nothing more than to enjoy our beautiful National Parks. A report which appeared in a Newburyport newspaper takes the cake. A group of senior citizens found themselves in Yellowstone National Park on October 1 and according to Pat Vaillancourt, at one point, under “armed guard.” You can read more of the story. Vaillancourt’s account of the group’s ordeal .

“We’ve become a country of fear, guns and control,” said Vaillancourt, who grew up in Lawrence. “It was like they brought out the armed forces. Nobody was saying, ‘we’re sorry,’ it was all like — ” as she clenched her fist and banged it against her forearm.

The bus stopped along a road when a large herd of bison passed nearby, and seniors filed out to take photos. Almost immediately, an armed ranger came by and ordered them to get back in, saying they couldn’t “recreate.” The tour guide, who had paid a $300 fee the day before to bring the group into the park, argued that the seniors weren’t “recreating,” just taking photos. “She responded and said, ‘Sir, you are recreating,’ and her tone became very aggressive,” Vaillancourt said.

And finally.

“They looked like Hulk Hogans, armed. They told us you can’t go outside,” she said. “Some of the Asians who were on the tour said, ‘Oh my God, are we under arrest?’ They felt like they were criminals.”

First, what was this tour doing in Yellowstone to begin with on October 1? It’s not like the federal shutdown happened without any warning. It was widely reported that in the event of a shutdown the National Parks would be closed. Why is no one inquiring into the organization and management of this tour?

It is unfortunate that tourists are being inconvenienced and in a number of cases made to feel uncomfortable, but no one seems to understand what closed means. How about looking at this from the perspective of the few NPS employees who have been left to manage very large sites such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Consider all of the potential problems apart from those caused by stranded visitors and those who have taken it upon themselves to cross barricades. They have been placed in a very difficult position so if you happen to find yourself on federal property that has been closed don’t expect to receive the same warm welcome as if it is business as usual. CLOSED MEANS CLOSED.

Black Confederates Didn’t Exist in 1914

The other day Andy Hall challenged the common assumption that the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery contains a black Confederate soldier.  I encourage you to read Andy’s thoughtful analysis.  You will find images of this monument on countless websites along with colorful interpretations that seem to confirm the existence of these men.  While Andy cites the California Division of the SCV’s website, I am going to return to G. Ashleigh Moody’s response over at the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s Facebook Page.  Apparently, he wasn’t pleased with my initial post, but this will give me the opportunity to quote him in full.  Here is what he has to say about the Confederate monument:

One of the most “telling” monuments to the South and including Black Confederates and other Black Southerners is this 1912 (pre-PC) Confederate Memorial towers 32 and 1/2 feet and is said to be the tallest bronze sculpture at Arlington National Cemetery.  On top is a figure of a woman, with olive leaves covering her head, representing the South. She also holds a laurel wreath in her left hand, remembering the Sons of Dixie. On the side of the monument is also a life size depiction of a Black Confederate marching in step with white soldiers, and among other life size depictions, a Black woman receiving a baby as a father going off to war. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!

If it is a black Confederate soldier it would be news to Moses Ezekiel as well as the folks who gathered to dedicate the monument in 1914.  Consider the original, published history of the monument by Hilary A. Herbert:

But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.

And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U. D. C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.

It’s ironic that Mr. Moody accuses others of falling into the trap of presentism.  His assertion is a textbook example of just such a move: reading into the past through a lens defined by our own assumptions and values.  The problem here is that black Confederates did not exist in 1914.  You will not find a reference to black Confederate soldiers in any of the public addresses given at the monument’s commemoration nor will you find them in newspaper coverage of the event.  While there may be a few scattered references to black Confederate soldiers at this time, I have yet to come across one.  And I suspect that the reason they don’t exist is that white Americans have no use for it. Continue reading

Teaching Confederate History Month

A great way to introduce students to the subject of historical memory is to discuss the recent controversy surrounding Confederate History Month here in Virginia.  Ideally, such a lesson would come at the conclusion of a unit on the Civil War, which would allow students to reference previous class discussions as well as any documents that were interpreted.  I was already in the process of putting together a little lesson plan for a TAH workshop that I am taking part in next week when I came across a teacher who had already organized just such a lesson.

Hopefully, the class will have integrated documents that give voice to a wide range of perspectives from the Civil War Era, which must serve as a foundation for any understanding of a proclamation about this event.  I plan on providing my teachers with copies of the Governor McDonnell’s original proclamation:

Confederate History Month Proclamation

WHEREAS,  April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and

WHEREAS, Virginia has long recognized her Confederate history, the numerous civil war battlefields that mark every  region of the state, the leaders and individuals in the Army, Navy and at home who fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth in a time very different than ours today; and

WHEREAS,  it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s  shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and

WHEREAS, Confederate historical sites such as the White House of the Confederacy are open for people to visit in Richmond today; and

WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace, following the instruction of General Robert E. Lee of Virginia, who wrote that, “…all should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of war and to restore the blessings of peace.”; and

WHEREAS,   this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live, and this study and remembrance takes on particular importance as the Commonwealth prepares to welcome the nation and the world to visit Virginia for the Sesquicentennial Anniversary of the Civil War, a four-year period in which the exploration of our history can benefit all;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH in our COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA, and I call this observance to the attention of all our citizens.

as well as the revised version and finally his most recent statement issued at the recent conference on race and slavery at Norfolk.   I am hoping to engage the workshop’s participants in a discussion about how they can use these documents in the classroom.  A quick online search will bring up a wide range of commentary.  I plan on using some video from YouTube as well as the recent issue of CWTs that included a number of brief responses by historians and bloggers.

The lesson should impress students with the extent to which Americans are still divided over the scope of the Civil War as well as its outcome and meaning.  More importantly, it raises a number of important questions that students can consider and debate:

  • What, if anything, should we expect of our public officials when it comes to issuing proclamations about the past?  Do we need such statements and, if so, why?
  • What did McDonnell’s original proclamation reflect about his particular and/or what he believed important for Virginians to remember?
  • Did the governor’s original proclamation accurately reflect the material covered in class on the Civil War here in Virginia?
  • Were the criticisms of the governor justified?  If so, why?  Were those who supported the governor’s original proclamation justified?  If so, why?
  • Was the governor’s revised proclamation an improvement?
  • What does the governor’s most recent statement reflect about the evolution of his own thinking on how the Civil War ought to be remembered and commemorated?

Finally, students will write their own Civil War proclamation.  In addition to the formal statement students should be asked to reflect on specific references made in their proclamation.  References to specific events, individuals, and concepts must be explained.  Finally, students should reflect on the intended consequences of their proclamation.  I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the idea.  Most of the students who are currently taking my Civil War course will also be in my second trimester course on Civil War memory.  This will be their first assignment and I promise to let you know how it goes and I may even try to share some of their work.

Black Confederates For Kids

I don’t have much sympathy for adults who buy into the black Confederate meme.  In the end, it is simply a reflection of their gullibility, lack of basic historical knowledge relating to the Civil War and an inability to properly interpret primary sources.  On the other hand and as a teacher, I am disgusted when children are brought into the picture.  They become the victims of the stupidity of others.  Consider this little gem of a book, titled, Entangled in Freedom: A Civil War Novel, which is slated for release in January 2011.  The book is authored by Kevin M. Weeks, who is known for The Street Life Series.  Here is a short description:

Entangled in Freedom, the first novel in this young adult fiction book series, takes a closer look at the life experiences of African-Americans in the Deep South during the War Between the States. Young adult readers follow main character Isaac Green through the dirt roads of Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia to Cumberland Gap where Isaac serves with the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers C.S.A. Historical accounts are derived from 19th century official government records as well as real life family narratives of co-author, Ann DeWitt.

These two names should ring a bell.  Not too long ago I shared a new website on black Confederates that was created by Ann DeWitt.  It’s unfortunate that Ms. DeWitt did not take proper care of her family’s narrative.  Sometimes simply repeating family stories does not honor the memory of one’s ancestors, especially if those stories are inaccurate.

Is the Richard Kirkland Story True?

The following guest post by Michael Schaffner examines the wartime evidence for the Kirkland story.  It is a thoroughly researched essay and is well worth your time.  I should point out that Mr. Schaffner did not set out to write a piece debunking this particular story.  Like many of us he was curious about the origin and veracity of Civil War stories.

In 1965, a group comprising among others the states of South Carolina and Virginia, Collateral Descendents of Richard Kirkland, and the Richard Rowland Kirkland Memorial Foundation, erected a statue at Fredericksburg to the memory of Sergeant Kirkland of the Second South Carolina Volunteers.  The inscription reads, “At the risk of his life, this American soldier of sublime compassion, brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg.  The fighting men on both sides of the line called him ‘The Angel of Marye’s Heights.’”

The exact deed for which Kirkland received this accolade was first and most extensively described by J. B. Kershaw, commander of the brigade in which Kirkland served, in a letter to the Charleston News and Courier dated January 2, 1880.

In brief (see Appendix A for the entire letter), after providing some background on Kirkland’s family, Kershaw describes the scene on December 14 at his head quarters in the Stevens’ house by the sunken road and stone wall at the foot of Marye’s Heights.  The previous day, a series of failed Union assaults had left thousands of casualties.  As Kershaw surveys the carnage he is interrupted by a sergeant in his brigade, who asks permission to carry water to the wounded Union soldiers, whose cries have moved him since the previous evening.  Due to the danger from a day-long “murderous skirmish” with Syke’s regulars, Kershaw only reluctantly approves the young man’s request.  Even then he refuses Kirkland permission to show a white flag or handkerchief to lessen the danger.  Despite this, Kirkland goes over the wall and gives water to the nearest wounded Yankee, pillows his head on his knapsack, spreads his overcoat over him, replaces his empty canteen with a full one, and goes on to the next.  The firing ceases as his purpose becomes clear.  Other wounded soldiers cry out to him and for “an hour and a half” Kirkland continues “until he relieved all the wounded on that part of the field.” Continue reading

Was the Battle of the Crater the Last Slave Insurrection in the Western Hemisphere?

I‘ve decided to begin my Crater manuscript with the forced post-battle march of roughly 1,500 black and white Union soldiers through the streets of Petersburg before being sent to prisons further south or, in the case of many USCTs, back into bondage.  The scene perfectly captures the central theme of my study, which is the evolution of the memory of the battle and specifically the participation of a division of USCTs.  However, even apart from the memory aspect of the battle, by beginning here we also place the event itself in a much different light.  For most military historians the battle represents the culmination of bloody fighting that defined the “Overland Campaign” and the June offensives outside of Petersburg.  It is also the last decisive Confederate victory in the East.  But there is much more to this story than a massive explosion and fierce fighting in a closely defined space.

For the men in the Army of Northern Virginia this was their first experience fighting USCTs on a large scale and it occurred in a battle to defend an important rail center and civilian population in Petersburg.  Apart from the successful defense of Richmond in the spring and summer of 1862 this was the only other time where Confederates could characterize their actions in such terms.  The salient difference this time around, however, was that Confederates and white Southerners no longer looked on the “Yankee” army as simply an enemy that needed to be destroyed, but as the extension of a government that had inaugurated servile insurrection.  If we stick closely to the letters and diaries written by Confederates than we must come to terms with their experience of having to put down a slave rebellion.  I want to get beyond some of the more entrenched interpretive categories, which dominate the discussion that simply highlight the defense of slavery as a motivating factor or explanan for the men in the army as well as the remaining civilians of Petersburg.  It’s their experiences that I am trying desperately to understand.  How do we understand the rage that animated Confederate soldiers both during and after the battle that led to the slaughter of an unknown number of USCTs?  I don’t mean to downplay the sense of horror surrounding the scale of the explosion that caught an entire brigade off-guard and which created a landscape unlike anything experienced before or the emotional demands placed on soldiers in battle.  There would be something significant to explain regardless of an explosion along with the intensity of fighting and it has everything to do with how white Southerners experienced race as well as their place and responsibilities within a slave society based on white supremacy.

It seems to me that to interpret this battle along these lines forces us to look beyond the war entirely.  If the Crater is to be understood as a slave insurrection than we need to better understand how white Southerners had already come to experience both the threat and fact of rebellion.  Relevant events include John Brown’s failed raid, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, as well as both Gabriel’s and Denmark Vesey’s attempted insurrections.  We should also not forget that news traveled far and wide throughout the western hemisphere during the antebellum period.  Americans (especially slaveholders) paid careful attention to news coming out of the Caribbean and would have helped to reinforce assumptions about how best to prevent and understand slave rebellions.

While our tendency in certain circles is to address the role of slavery in Confederate ranks by noting that most soldiers did not directly own slaves it is important to remember that the maintenance of slavery in much of the South involved all white Southerners.  Beyond the social structure itself, which placed all white men above black slaves and free blacks, whites played a number of important roles in the direct maintenance of slavery.  The best example were the slave patrols, which were commonly made up of non-slaveowners.  Such a role would have given white non-slaveowners a clear sense of their obligations not just in the maintenance of the institution, but in the protection of a broad segment of white southern society.  [Can we see the ANV at the Crater functioning as a large slave patrol?]  Again, it is important to remember that the ANV was protecting a civilian population in Petersburg throughout the campaign; these men would have interacted with civilians as they were rotated in and out of the earthworks.

For Confederates and white Southerners their understanding of the motivation of USCTs would have been framed by long-standing assumptions about black inferiority as well as the perceived role of abolitionists in stirring up what many believed to be loyal and docile servants.   Once again, a broader “Atlantic World” perspective is helpful.  One of the most influential accounts of slave rebellion was Bryan Edwards’s Historical Survey of the French Colony of St. Domingo.  Edwards was a West Indian planter, Member of Parliament, and historian and was located in Jamaica when the rebellion in Saint-Domingue broke out.  Edwards’s account placed the blame for the insurrection squarely on the French abolitionists and by doing so set the stage for understanding South Carolina’s attempt to ban abolitionist literature during the tariff crisis and how slaveowners explained Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which followed closely on the heels of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator (January 1831).  White Virginians worked desperately to frame an explanation that placed blame on outside forces rather than their own slave population, which they believed to be content.  The failed attempt at Harper’s Ferry arguably confirmed the worst fears of white southerners regarding the ultimate goals of northern agitators.

Confederate letters and diaries from the Crater confirm this long-standing tendency to blame abolitionists and other instigators rather than acknowledge any desire for freedom on the part of the slaves themselves.  Many believed that black soldiers were drunk and cajoled by conniving northern politicians and ruthless abolitionist officers.  Sources also indicate that Confederates viewed white Union soldiers as well as officers in USCT units as willing accomplices.  Some Union officers ripped their rank and unit identifications from their uniforms for fear of being treated as leading a slave rebellion.

One of the most obvious ways in which the thinking about slave rebellions can prove helpful is in reference to the post-battle slaughter of captured black soldiers.  According to historian Bryce Suderow, captured black soldiers were executed on three separate occasions, the largest number occurring after the battle.  The exact number is difficult to nail down, but it is not a stretch to suggest that anywhere between 200 – 300+ USCTs were executed.  I’ve tended to explain this mass execution as a function of Confederate rage at having to engage blacks in close fighting.  No doubt this is true, but we should not ignore the catalyst for that rage that extends beyond the battlefield.  An 1816 rebellion on the island of Barbados resulted in the execution of roughly 200 slaves and in Demerera (1823) another 200 slaves were executed following a failed rebellion.  Interestingly, roughly 200 slaves were either publicly tortured or executed following Turner’s Rebellion in 1831.  Such violent responses served a number of purposes, most notably it sent a strong message to the slave community of who was in control, that such behavior would not be tolerated, and that such actions had no hope of succeeding.  A direct and brutal response would also work to drain any remaining enthusiasm for rebellion.  If we apply this framework to the Crater we can move beyond the mere fact of rage and better discern the intended consequences of the scale of the violence meted out to black soldiers.  It is important to note that these men were responsible for the defense of a civilian population and any remaining slaves in the area.  A strong message would have been sent to the region’s (and beyond) black population that any attempt in following in the footsteps of these soldiers would be dealt with in the harshest of terms.

And this brings us finally to the interracial parade of Union prisoners through the streets of Petersburg the day after the battle.  First and foremost, the parade – ordered by A.P. Hill – represented control and submissiveness to the residents who lined the streets and verandas “in holiday attire.”  What I mean to suggest is that the army demonstrated its ability to continue to defend the residents of the city from the Union army as well as captured black soldier.  Once through the city most of the prisoners were sent to prison camps further south while some of the black prisoners ended up being returned to slavery.  While the interspersing of Union prisoners served to humiliate white soldiers it also worked as a gentle reminder of just what was at stake given the introduction of black soldiers into the Union army.  The parade was a controlled example of miscegenation and it was acknowledged as such by local residents.  One onlooker yelled, “See the white and nigger equality soldiers”, while another asserted, “Yanks and niggers sleep in the same bed.”  This latter comment is quite telling.  How much of a jump is it from seeing white men forced into close proximity with blacks to imagining some of the worst case scenarios following a successful slave rebellion?  Of course, there is death, but there is also the long-standing fear of white women being raped by “savage” blacks.

I should point out that I am not suggesting that Confederates who took part in the battle or even most white Southerners who read about the battle second hand thought of it as a slave rebellion or had visions of Nat Turner and John Brown in mind.  What I am suggesting, however, is that over time white Southerners had become attunded to seeing their slave society in a way that was reinforced by a a concern for its continued maintenance and a clear record of what happens when that hierarchical structure is threatened.  Understanding the Crater as a slave rebellion offers a number of interpretive entry points into the experiences of Confederate soldiers that I hope to explore in more detail in the coming weeks.  It also connects our understanding of the Civil War to the broader “Atlantic World” and reinforces my suspicion that at least one Civil War battlefield has something in common with the battlefields of Barbados, Haiti, Demerera, Southampton and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

Commemorating Fredericksburg

Today I am giving the keynote address as part of a ceremony commemorating the 146th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Thanks to my friend and fellow historian John Hennessy for inviting me to take part on this important day. I can’t say this was the easiest presentation to write, but I am fairly comfortable with the final version. As always, your critical comments are appreciated.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.

I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.

Continue reading