Category Archives: Public History

Black North Carolinians Plan to Erect Faithful Slave Marker

A group of historians and other concerned citizens recently lobbied the commissioners of Union County to “recogniz[e] the contributions of 10 black Confederate pensioners, known as colored troops during the Civil War.”  We’ve seen all this before and it doesn’t look like anything will steer certain folks away from making this all too common mistake regarding the conditions under which black Southerners were given pensions after the Civil War.  The assumption seems to be that a pension indicates that a given individual served as a soldier in the Confederate army.  [For some reliable commentary on pensions please read James Hollandsworth, Jr., Robert Moore, and the Library of Virginia.] The group wants to install a small monument to these ten individuals in front of the old courthouse in Monroe.

The most disappointing aspect of this story is to read the words of the descendants of these men who were forced to endure the horrors of war as property, ultimately without any choice in the matter.

Aaron Perry of Charlotte is the great-grandson of one of the pensioners, also named Aaron Perry, a Union County slave who fought with the North Carolina 37th Company D. Although the Confederate States lost, their story should be remembered.  “I think it’s a great thing,” said the younger Perry, 72. “It’s been a long time ago, so I’m not going to overlook that. What’s so bad about it? They’re honoring these 10 North Carolina soldiers for being helpful to their country, even if it was under slavery.  “They lost that war, but my great grandfather helped rebuild the camp at Fort Fisher,” Perry said. “He played his part, even though he was under slavery and somebody else’s command. When you enlist in the service, you’re taking orders from somebody.”

Notice how Mr. Perry completely collapses the distinction between status as a slave and citizen.  In what way was the Confederacy “their country” given the constitution’s provisions that specifically protect the institution of slavery?  Even worse is the failure to distinguish between having to take orders within a military command – a responsibility that under certain conditions is conferred on citizens – and status as a slave which views the individual as an extension of his master’s will.  What could be clearer?

Of course, it should come as no surprise that Earl Ijames is involved in this nonsense.  Ijames works as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History, which is part of the NC Department of Archives and History.  I guess Ijames couldn’t resist referencing Weary Clyburn, who happens to be his favorite “Colored Confederate.”  Unfortunately, Ijames isn’t even sure whether Clyburn was a slave or a free man at the time of the Civil War.

Between Perry and Ijames we get a sense of the quality of “research” and thought that seems to be behind this project.  I am sad to say that in 2010 we have two African American men, who are essentially hoping to erect a monument to faithful slaves of the Confederacy.  What could be more pathetic?

Watch Out For This Kid

Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher.  Over the course of this past year I’ve been working on an independent study that focuses on how the Civil War has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville, Virginia with Joseph Wolf, who is one of my students.  We met on a weekly basis to discuss various secondary sources that included books by David Blight, Kirk Savage, Thomas Brown, David Goldfield, John Neff, and Gary Gallagher, to name just a few.  In addition, Joseph and I explored the roles of the local chapters of the SCV and UDC and read through a number of their publications.  Joseph’s main focus was to analyze the equestrian statues at Lee and Jackson parks along with our two soldier monuments, located at the courthouse and Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.

As part of his project Joseph presented his research today during lunchtime to a packed classroom of teachers and students.  He did a fabulous job of explaining the role of Charlottesville during the Civil War, the evolution of the Lost Cause, and the conditions that led to the four monuments.  Best of all, Joseph did an outstanding job of analyzing the monuments for the audience as well as fielding their questions.  It’s been an absolute pleasure working with this student.  As a sophomore Joseph took my elective on Lincoln and as a junior he took my survey course in American history along with my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War memory.

I have to say, however, that as much as I enjoyed sharing my passion for the Civil War with this student the subject matter is secondary compared with the interpretive skills that were learned and the seriousness that comes with an appreciation of the complexity of the past.  It was a pleasure to be able to sit their with everyone else and watch Joseph as he educated the audience.  He was in command.

Joseph has decided to continue his education at the University of South Carolina where he will major in history.  Luckily for Joseph, Thomas Brown teaches in the History Department.  It’s safe to say that Joseph will graduate high school with an understanding of the Civil War that rivals, if not surpasses, students who are about to graduate from college.  I wish Joseph all the best in his future endeavors.  Keep an eye out for this kid.

[Image: Unveiling of Jackson Statue at Jackson Park in Charlottesville, Virginia]

Confederates Were Traitors! How About You?

I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory.  As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law.  In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration.  This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors.  For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside  for now and take one step back.  Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble.  For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.

The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans.  It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation.  It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions.  In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.

OK…but were they traitors to their country?  In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American.  It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn.  Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history.  On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country.  I value its institutions and the rule of law.  I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy.  That’s right.  If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary.  Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well.  So, were Confederates traitors?  Yes!  As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?

This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence.   Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.

Sorry For Ruining Your Visit

On Friday my wife and I headed up to Frederick, Maryland to catch a concert with Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman.  This was my first visit to Frederick in a number of years and I have to say that I was blown away by the development in the downtown area.  We did a little walking before grabbing a bite to eat and then made our way to the beautiful Weinberg Center theatre.

From there we headed to D.C. for the rest of the weekend.  Yesterday was a beautiful day for a long walk so we decided to head on over to Arlington National Cemetery.  We walked through most of the cemetery, including the area that was operated by the Freedman’s Bureau.  You can find a large number of USCT’s, civilians, and former slaves buried in Section 29.  From there we walked up to the Lee-Custis mansion and then made our way to the Confederate Monument.

My wife has never seen that monument so I did a bit of interpretation for her.  I pointed out a number of features, including the decision to represent both Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri with the rest of the former Confederate states as well as the images of loyal slaves and what appears to be a black Confederate soldiers.  It’s a wonderful representation of the Lost Cause at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  In addition to the monument I mentioned President Woodrow Wilson’s participation in the dedication of the monument as well as his decision to segregate federal office buildings in the capital city at around that time.  My wife and I talked quite a bit about our thoughts about the monument, which is what we normally do when confronted with such structures.  Our instincts are to question and try to understand.

There was one other couple looking at the monument and although we did not exchange words I could tell that they were visibly upset with our comments.  Perhaps they thought that this was simply a monument to the soldiers buried in a ring around the monument.  If I had to guess they probably believed that what I was saying was disrespectful to their memory and service to the Confederacy.

Anyway, sorry for ruining your visit, but I do hope you learned something about the site.

“Team of Rivals”: The Museum Exhibit?

By now many of you have seen the short video featuring Doris Kearns Goodwin and her introduction to an upcoming Lincoln exhibit titled, “Team of Rivals.”  The exhibit will open in October at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois.  The goal of the exhibit looks interesting:

This exhibition takes you inside the highest levels of the United States government as Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet struggle with the momentous issue of war. Restricted to the information they possessed at the time, you will confront the perplexities and options they faced during the first weeks of Lincoln’s presidency — and decide for yourself if they made the right choices…

Following the approach so skillfully employed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her critically acclaimed book Team of Rivals, the exhibition uses the experiences of Lincoln’s closest advisors to illuminate Lincoln’s leadership. A combination of compelling artifacts, images, and audio/visual presentations introduces you to the powerful personalities who advised the President and brings to life those fateful days when a divided nation teetered on the brink… then toppled into the dark abyss of civil war… [emphasis in the original]

My question or concern has more to do with the explicit connection with Goodwin and the title of her book.  I should point out that I have very little understanding of how exhibitions are put together beyond my brief work with the staff at Monticello.

It’s not surprising to me that Goodwin would be involved in an exhibit that features the decisions made by Lincoln and his cabinet on the eve of war and given the popularity of her book it seems appropriate that she would serve as a “personal guide” through the exhibit.  That said, for some reason I have trouble with the title of the exhibit; it smacks of crass commericialism and leaves the visitor with the impression that the exhibit is the result of one individual.  More troubling is that the visitor is likely to believe that the exhibit is based on Goodwin’s interpretation and conclusions.  Of course, I have no way of answering such questions.  I must assume that the exhibit is the result of a collaboration between historians, curators, and archivists.  Did Goodwin have overarching control and influence that would justify such a title?  Again, I have no way of knowing.  I would be very interested to know the extent of Goodwin’s involvement in the development of this exhibit.

Is there any precedent for this?  Does anyone else have similar concerns or are my worries completely off base?  What do you think?