Anticipating Richard Kirkland’s Big Day

This morning I was interviewed by Mike Zitz of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star concerning the Saturday premiere of “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” – a movie about Richard Kirkland.  I made it clear that I could not comment on the movie beyond the few videos previews and other assorted postings that I’ve read on the movie website.  We talked for about 30 minutes and I confined most of my thoughts to what this story tells us about how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War.  As far as I am concerned there isn’t much to talk about regarding the factual basis of the story since there are no wartime accounts.  If I remember correctly, the earliest account is dated around 1880.  I am going to hold off commenting further until the article is published on Thursday.

For now, consider this little video, which touches on some of the same themes in the Kirkland story.  In 1913 Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain received a letter from a veteran of the 15th Alabama concerning the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.

Here we have another story where in the heat of battle the compassion of a Confederate soldiers saved the life of his enemy.  Of course, there is no way to confirm this story.  In the end, however, the truth of the matter isn’t as interesting as what this tells us about how Americans chose to remember the war in 1913 – the same year as the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.  Let’s not ask how the soldier in question knew that the man he was writing to in 1913 was the same individual that he remembered in 1863.  I’m not even sure we can confirm that the author of the letter was, in fact, a veteran of the 15th Alabama.  Like I said, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that someone decided to write to Chamberlain 50 years after the battle and acknowledge an act of compassion.  What matters in reference to the Kirkland story is that someone decided to write a letter that highlighted the compassion of another soldier in the heat of battle.

God Is Definitely a Republican

This is a very strange history documentary hosted by Matthew and Laurie Crouch.  The show, including the over-the-top set is a cross between the 700 Club and Joel Osteen Ministries.  Mrs. Crouch is clearly playing the Tammy Fay Baker role, who along with her husband sit and nod in agreement.  Actually, she looks as if she is high as a kite.  David Barton offers a rather unusual analysis of Reconstruction that I will get to in a moment.  You can watch the entire series here – not that I recommend it.

Barton’s interpretation of Reconstruction basically comes down to pointing out that everything positive that happened relating to race relations and civil rights during Reconstruction and through the 1960s occurred because of the Republican Party.  The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan, overturned legislation passed during Reconstruction, and resisted the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.  There is a bit of truth in much of what Barton has to say about the importance of slavery, the role of black Republicans during Reconstruction as well as the role of the Democratic Party in overturning much of the post-war legislation.  However, Barton seems to think that the Republican Party of the 1860s and 70s is the same Republican Party of today.  According to Barton, the KKK was started by Democrats to “whack Republicans.”  Of course, Barton makes no mention of why blacks throughout much of the South transitioned to the Democratic Party in the 1930s, the Dixiecrat movement in 1948 or the fact that the president who pushed both landmark pieces of civil rights legislation was a Democrat.

Was the Civil War Punishment From God?

I got a kick out of reading Richard Williams’s response to my post.  I’m not going to respond to the content other than to say that my “policing” of the blogosphere extends no further than his own.  Sometimes I wonder whether he reads his own blog.

What I do want to comment on is a point made by Williams early on concerning the role of God in bringing about the Civil War:

I believe that God allowed the Civil War to occur due to the SIN OF SLAVERY and punished both sections of the Nation for their involvement in that evil.

The problem with any analysis of such a view hinges on how we interpret the word, “allowed”.  It could mean that God caused the Civil War as a way to punish the nation or it could suggest that God failed to intervene and allowed Americans on both sides to butcher one another as punishment.  Either way on this view African Americans were expendable as white America worked out its moral kinks with the full understanding and blessing of God.  That seems to be just a bit problematic.

If we stick to the second reading of ‘allowed’ we ought to be able to ask why God failed to intervene earlier in human affairs.  In other words, why did God allow the situation to spiral out of control to a point where Americans were willing to kill one another?  Why not intervene on the smallest of scales to prevent the introduction of slavery in the early 17th century?  [Come to think of it has God ever intervened in American history?]  It clearly would have lowered the overall suffering of scores of Africans and African Americans and it may have prevented the forming of a slave nation in 1787 and a civil war in 1861.  On this second reading it also looks like we must acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the Civil War.  In fact, it looks like we must indeed view the goals of the Confederacy as a Lost Cause given that God must have known that the war would end slavery since it was allowed to take place and God certainly would not have permitted bloodshed on such a scale to end with slavery intact.  So much for all those prayers from Confederates pleading for God to deliver a victory.  It was never going to happen.

We can also interpret ‘allowed’ along causal lines as described above.  Questions persist for this interpretation as well.  First, why did it take God so long to punish the nation for slavery?  Couldn’t such an act have been carried out before so many Africans had been kidnapped and brought to the United States, not to mention the rest of the western hemisphere?  And where does this leave African Americans?  I suspect that some in the black community may be wondering why so many of their ancestors had to be sacrificed just to teach white America a lesson between 1861 and 1865.  It also seems problematic that God waited to punish the nation after one entire section had abolished the institution.  Of course, we could focus on the extent to which the North was involved in this hideous practice as late as 1861, but there was plenty of time for God to punish the nation at a time when every state included the practice.

Of course, I could go on and on, but what’s the point.  Actually, I agree on a certain level with Williams that the war was punishment; however, we don’t need to bring in the mysterious workings of divine intervention or contemplate the moral profile of God to make the point.  The Civil War was the result of Americans’ inability to work through very difficult problems that plagued the nation from the beginning.  Americans at different times and places made decisions and these decisions had consequences.  By 1861 the nation was split regionally between slave and non-slave states.  “And then the war came.”

Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend (Continued)

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Update: Is Jackson’s dark complexion just an accident or is this an attempt to blur the racial line?

If you didn’t know any better one might think that Confederate leaders were at the forefront of the civil rights movement.  Case in point is the popular and misunderstood story of Stonewall Jackson’s black Sunday School which he established in Lexington, Virginia in 1855.  Most of the stories that you will come across Online or in non-academic books tend to wax poetic about the benefits of these classes for the areas free and enslaved blacks.  There is no shortage of stories of blacks praising Jackson or dedicating stained-glass windows long after his death and the end of the Civil War.  All of this is interesting, but rarely are we given anything that approaches analysis of how the school functioned in slaveholding Virginia in the period after Nat Turner’s insurrection.  Even James I. Robertson, who authored the most thorough biography of Jackson, fails to provide a sufficient analysis of the broader conditions that shaped Jackson’s Sunday School.  Robertson cites the widely held assumption that “the more uninformed a slave was about everything, the more docile he tended to be”, the Virginia code that forbade the teaching of slaves to read, and Jackson’s apparent defiance.  That’s about it. We are left with an image of a defiant Jackson who would not allow Virginia law to stand in his way of saving souls.  This view is pervasiveness throughout much of the popular literature.  Consider Rickey Pittman’s new book, Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School:

In autumn 1855, slaves and free black men, women, and children first made their way to the Lexington Presbyterian Church to attend Sunday school. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, stood as the superintendent of this school. Although it was illegal under Virginia law to teach blacks to read and write, Jackson believed all men, regardless of race, should have the opportunity to receive an education. To these students, Professor Jackson was a leader and mentor who taught them more than just reading and writing. He instilled in them the word of God. Even after he left to join the Civil War, he prayed for his students and sent them money for Bibles and hymnals. Through Jackson’s leadership, many of his Sunday-school students went on to become community leaders, ministers, and educators. This lesser-known tale of the Confederate leader shows young readers another side of the man known in battle as “Stonewall.”

Earlier I referenced Nat Turner and I did so because it is crucial to understanding this story.  Charles Irons does a magnificent job of analyzing the degree of cooperation between white and black evangelicals in Virginia through the early 1830s.  He notes that by 1830 there one-quarter of black Virginians (115,000) had been converted to evangelical Christianity and thousands more practiced outside of the church.  In addition, Turner’s claims that God had inspired him to rise up against the white population worked to reinforce growing concerns among white evangelicals as to their ability to safely monitor black gatherings. Irons is instructive here:

Gripped by fear and mistrust for several months, white Virginians struggled to adjust to the sobering fact that converted slaves could unleash such savagery.  Some, particularly nonslaveholders from the western portion of the commonwealth, suggested that only a general emancipation could save the state from racial Armageddon and pushed for a constitutional convention to consider such a measure.  Others, including some white evangelicals still shocked by August’s carnage, favored simply denying slaves the privilege of religious expression.  Stark choices: emancipation or an end to evangelization.  Within tow years, however, white evangelicals had found a way to move forward without either destroying black religion or freeing their slaves.  No single ideologue emerged to articulate the new policy of constant white supervision right away; politicians and churchgoers independently stumbled toward the formula of aggressive oversight and proselytization. (p. 143)

Within this context, Jackson’s school makes perfect sense, though it should be pointed out that a school had been established in Lexington as early as 1843.  While our popular perceptions paint Jackson as some kind of liberator who was ahead of the curve, Irons’s analysis provides us with a clearer understanding of how the school reinforced slavery and white supremacy in Lexington and the Shenandoah Valley.  Jackson admitted as much himself when he noted that God had placed the black race in a subordinate position.  Constant oversight allowed Jackson and the rest of the white population to continue to proselytize and at the same time monitor his black students’ understanding of themselves in relationship to God and the white community.  One can only wonder what Jackson would have said to a student who put forward the notion that slavery stood in contradiction to God’s law.

Let me point out that the goal here is not to demonize Jackson.  I have no problem with people who choose to celebrate Jackson’s work within the black community.  As historians, however, our job is to understand how churches functioned in a slaveholding society and how those institutions evolved in response to various challenges.  As much as we need to be sensitive to Jackson’s personal motivation we must never forget that he did not operate in a vacuum.

John J. Dwyer’s “War Between the States” in Video

Not too long ago I commented on a popular homeschooling textbook on the Civil War by John J. Dwyer, titled, The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War.  This is the video promo for that textbook.  It is a truly remarkable modern day Lost Cause inspired account of the war.  It essentially pits a God-fearing South against a Godless and barbaric North that accomplished nothing during the war except for the terrorizing and destroying of southern homes and farms.  A wonderful example of mental child abuse pure and simple.