Category Archives: Public History

Another Black Confederate? (Part 1 of 9)

There is something profoundly disturbing about the concerted effort on the part of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to distort the past so as to assuage their deepest insecurities.  A quick perusal of their websites and the uninformed are left believing that the Confederacy was anti-slavery and that free blacks and slaves were some of their most loyal citizens.  Of course, such a view is possible only in an interpretive world that is isolated from the rest of American history and absent of any serious historical analysis.  Such is the case when it comes to their obsession with black Confederates.

Today one of my readers passed on a story out of North Carolina. This Friday the James M. Miller Camp, 2116 will hold a ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn who is buried in Monroe.  A number of his descendants will be in attendance and a headstone will be dedicated.  Here is just one announcement for the event:

On Friday July 18th, 2008,  Weary Clyburn will be honored at the General Convention of the SCV at 11:50 am and then at 3:30 pm a headstone will be dedicated to him in Monroe, NC. Weary was a loyal “Colored Confederate Soldier” who served his unit with distinction and valor. He ran away from the plantation to join his childhood friend Frank Clyburn who was an officer in the 12th SC Volunteers. He later saved saved his commanders life on two different occasions, and stories have it that Weary did service for General Lee. The ceremony will be attended by his daughter and many of his descendants. We’re asking for help from any and all SCV members and reenactors who would like to pay tribute to this man who served his country with honor. We would especially like to see a large amount of soldiers representing the “Colored Confederates” of that time. This event will be a very positive event for the SCV as we strive to honor the memories of all of our Confederate Brothers.

Here is another announcement:

How do you measure loyalty and friendship? Mr. Weary Clyburn is an example of both and more. Weary Clyburn was a childhood friend of Frank Clyburn, growing up on the Clyburn plantation, hunting and fishing together. Weary was a slave belonging to Frank’s father. That scene was not uncommon in the South as the “Gone with the Wind” plantations were far and few between, compared to the smaller working farms where smaller numbers of slaves worked along side the farmers that owned them. In many cases, the sense of community between the two was closer then the communities of modern times. When Frank joined the Confederate Army, he was sent to Columbia, SC for training. A short time later, Weary shows up in Columbia telling Captain Clyburn that he wishes to join him. He joined his friend out of a sense of loyalty and friendship. Through the years of the war, Weary served along side Frank in Co. E, 12th South Carolina Infantry. Weary was reported to have carried the wounded Frank Clyburn off the battlefield, on two different occasions saving his life. According to Ms. Mattie Clyburn Rice, a living daughter of Weary Clyburn, he also served General Robert E. Lee towards the end of the war. Like many men during the war Weary, a slave, chose to be part of the Confederate Army. Weary lived out the later parts of his life and raising a family in Union County, North Carolina and is buried in an un-marked grave in Monroe.

Please don’t be fooled by the language of honor and memory that are standard fair for these SCV-sponsored events.  This is not about history in any shape or form.  In fact, if you were to do even a cursory study of the level of analysis that typically accompanies these stories on the Internet you will see that these people actually have no interest in historical truth.  Just take a minute and think about the language that is used in these announcements.  We are to believe that the relationship between slave and slaveowner is “closer then the communities of modern times.”  There is no analysis whatsoever of what it meant for Clyburn to “serve” in Confederate ranks, though we know that this was in fact illegal and contradictory to the Confederacy’s very existence.  Finally, we have a slave who ran away from his owner because he “wished to join” his boyhood friend.  It’s laughable.

It’s bad enough that the SCV has little respect or even understanding of what is involved in serious historical scholarship, but what makes it worse is their lack of respect for the memory of Weary Clyburn.  Again, don’t be fooled they have no interest in telling his story or the lives of other so-called black Confederates.  In just about every case that I’ve come across there is no account from the individual in question and yet the SCV feels justified in assuming what motivated them to “serve.”  In the end all they manage to do is distort and demean their memory.  To put it in strict Kantian terms, they treat historical lives as a means to their own ends.

The bigger picture is always worth remembering in these cases.  I ask again that if we are to assume that large numbers of slaves and free blacks volunteered out of sense of loyalty and served in Confederate ranks than how do we explain Jim Crow?  How could the Southern states have passed laws that disfranchised the largest percentage of black southerners given their loyal service to the Confederacy?  Someone please explain this to me.

Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9


Why Did R.E. Lee Have to Be Born So Far Out of the Way?

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As I mentioned earlier, Michaela and I stopped off at Stratford Hall for a quick tour of the plantation on our way home from vacation.  We arrived at 3pm which gave us little time to stroll around the grounds before the start of the final tour of the day at 4pm.  We were only able to spend a few minutes in the museum but I noticed a wide range of exhibits that covered both the Lee family and the history of the estate following its sale in the 1820s and through the establishment of the R.E. Lee Memorial Foundation and later the R.E. Lee Memorial Association.  The grounds are quite beautiful and on a clear day you can see the Potomac River from the house.  The tour itself, however, was a bit of a disappointment.  Visitors are taken through the various rooms and vivid descriptions of various objects are shared as well as short overview of the more prominent members of the Lee family, but there is a minimum amount of information shared concerning life at the plantation.   While our guide did a competent job there was very little analysis to give visitors a deeper understanding of how plantations functioned on the Northern Neck.  At one point she commented that the building of the house was a team effort between the Lee’s and their slaves.  I’m not sure this is the most accurate way of describing the relationship between slaves and the family that owned them. I should point out that there is an ongoing effort to piece together a more complete story of Stratford Hall which is somewhat hampered by a lack of documentary evidence.

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That said, I liked the fact that the tour did not focus on R.E. Lee alone; after all, Stratford Hall served as his home only for a brief period of time.  This makes for an interesting challenge.  On the one hand most people, including yours truly, travel to the plantation because of R.E. Lee, yet the property has little to do with him.  On a somewhat related note, I noticed in the gift shop that while you could purchase an America flag there were no Confederate flags for sale other than a few items such as the hat that I am pictured wearing.  My wife suggested that it would have been inappropriate to sell such an item given that the house has nothing to do with Confederate history.  What do you think?

Interestingly, at one point our guide commented on the changing face of the Stratford Hall staff.  She jokingly said that a few years ago the directors all had white hair, while in recent years they are much younger.  I had to laugh when I heard this as I just met the new Executive Director, Paul C. Reber, at the recent meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians.  Paul discussed the challenges of doing public history in the 21st century.  Later that day I had a chance to talk with Paul and it is clear to me that a number of changes concerning interpretation at Stratford Hall are forthcoming.  Paul has some very interesting ideas about exhibits and interpretation.  One of the more interesting opportunities for interpretation at Stratford concerns the infamous cradle, which until recently was thought to be the R.E. Lee’s.  The object was reason enough for many to visit Stratford Hall given its supposed iconic value.  When it was discovered that the cradle could not possibly be Lee’s the family that loaned it to Stratford requested to have it returned.  Paul suggested that it would be interesting to do an exhibit on the history of the object throughout its different phases from sacred to ordinary object.  I agree.

What I find most interesting about the history of the site is the story surrounding Mary Field Lanier who helped create the R.E. Lee Memorial Association in 1929.  The organization assumed ownership of the property to turn it into an “ENDURING TESTIMONIAL TO THE STAINLESS LIFE AND GLORIOUS SERVICES OF OUR DEPARTED GENERAL.” Lanier was the President of the William Alexander, Jr. Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Greenwich, Connecticut, which I also find interesting.  There is a library at Stratford Hall and I’ve already inquired into the possibility of doing some research on the subject, perhaps for next summer. 

Of course, Stratford Hall is a bit out of the way, but if you happen to be on the Northern Neck of Virginia do yourself a favor and visit this beautiful site.


American Civil War Center to Make Decision About Davis-Limber Statue in August

The most recent news suggests that the American Civil War Center at Tredegar will make a decision about the proposed monument to Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in August.  I will keep you up-to-date as best I can, but my guess is that this statue doesn't have a chance.  See previous posts, here and here.  The SCV's problem is that they are dealing with serious historians who also understand historical memory.


Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber: A Response to Richard Williams

Fellow Civil War blogger and author, Richard Williams, seems bewildered by some of the responses to the proposed statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber by the SCV in Richmond.  [Read the article here.] It's impossible to know which academics he is referring to, but no doubt he read my earlier post on the subject, which included a number of objections.  Williams's objections are all over the place and for the most part make little sense.  First, let's dispense with his whining about the legality of the Lincoln-Tad statue.  Williams is indeed correct in pointing out that the organization responsible for the statue is having some difficulties with the IRS and have recently lost their status as a tax-exempt organization.  I'm not sure why this is important, but let's admit it and move on.

Second, Williams refers to the Museum of the Confederacy's year-long program to commemorate the life of Jefferson Davis.  No doubt, the MOC should be engaged in such programs and I only wish that other organizations were able to muster the resources and interest to mark the bicentennial of Davis's birth.  That said, it is not the case that the MOC is "celebrating" Davis's life as Williams points out.  Anyone who visits the MOC knows all too well that their mission is to present exhibits and public presentations which reflect the best in Civil War scholarship.  Their line-up for a recent symposium on Davis's life included, William Cooper, Joan Cashin, William C. Davis, and Donald Collins.  I've read all of their books on Davis and Mrs. Davis and I can state with confidence that they are not engaged in celebrating.  Again, it is hard to know what this has to do with a proposed monument to Davis at Tredegar.  Finally, Williams suggests that Gary Casteel, who has been hired to sculpt the statue, is a sufficient reason to approve the final product.  Williams is "confident [that Casteel] will produce a beautiful and historically accurate statue.

Not once does Williams comment on the design.  I have absolutely no problem with another statue of Davis in Richmond; the question, however, is whether this particular design, which acknowledges Davis's relationship with Jim Limber, is appropriate.  [Background on this story can be found here.]  I am willing to grant that everything in that story is true, though Davis scholars have noted that some of the details are sketchy. 

The question that I would like Williams to address is whether he believes that a statue depicting Davis holding hands with his adopted black child reflects his broader views on race.  I understand that race relations were incredibly complex in the antebellum and wartime South, and it is important to understand the context and background for this particular decision on the part of the Davis family.  I wonder, however, whether this is the best way to proceed since so little has been written about this incident.  What do you think Mr. Williams?  More to the point: What message does Williams believe that visitors with little background in American history will walk away with?  Does Williams and the SCV believe that this statue reflects Davis's overall beliefs about race?  Will visitors know that Davis was a large slaveowner, president of a government whose expressed purpose was the preservation of slavery, and that he remained committed to a racial hierarchy to the end of his life?  Does the SCV plan to include some kind of plaque that will assist visitors in their attempt to understand this statue?

As I stated in the earlier post, it is easy to see what is behind this particular statue.  The SCV is engaged in a conscious effort to distort the history of the South and the Confederacy to a point where issues of slavery and race are moved to the background.  Their world is inhabited by friendly slaveowners and loyal black slaves and soldiers.  This self-gratifying view of the past comes at a heavy price, however. 

One wonders what Jim Limber or one of Davis's own slaves would think of such a statue.  Unfortunately, in the hazy world of the SCV such questions have little weight.


Lee and Grant: An Exhibit

I will discuss my day on the Petersburg-Richmond battlefields yesterday at some point soon, but for now I want to encourage those of you in the Richmond area to see the Lee and Grant exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society.  It has got to be one of the most visually stimulating Civil War exhibits that I’ve seen in some time.  The narrative takes Lee and Grant from their antebellum years through the Civil War and into the postwar years and reconciliation.  The text is informative and places the various images and artifacts, including their uniforms, in their proper context.

After closing at the VHS on March 31, 2008, Lee and Grant
travels to the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis (May 17,
2008–September 7, 2008); the New-York Historical Society in New York
City (October 17, 2008–March 29, 2009); the Museum of Southern History
in Houston (May 23, 2009–September 20, 2009); and the Atlanta History
Center (November 7, 2009–February 28, 2010).

Do yourself a favor and see it before it leaves the VHS and if you are in any of these other areas set aside a few hours to see it.  I would also encourage purchasing the exhibit book.