Category Archives: Religion

Update on Jefferson Davis’s Crown of Thorns

Pius_IXAfter last week’s post on the controversy surrounding whether the story of Jefferson Davis receiving a crown of thorns from Pope Pius IX was authentic, I received this additional information.

It looks like part of the problem has to do with commentary that is contained in Jefferson Davis: Private Letters 1823-1899, which was selected and edited by Hudson Strode (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).  As part of an introduction to two letters written in 1878 Strode wrote the following: “When the ex-President was in prison His Holiness had sent him a large photograph of himself with a crown of thorns woven by the papal fingers and an inscription in his own hand. The photograph and thorn crown may be seen today in Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans.”  The first letter was written by Varina for JD, but it is the second letter by JD that is worth considering here: “When our war had closed in the defeat of the South, and I was incarcerated with treatment the most needlessly rigorous, if not designedly cruel; … [more observations on the defamation, etc., JD endured] a voice came from afar to cheer and console me in my solitary captivity. The Holy Father sent me his likeness, and beneath it was written, by his own hand, the comforting invitation our Lord gives to all who are oppressed, in these words: ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ That the inscription was autographic was attested by Al. Cardinal Barnado, Dec. 1866 (under his seal).”  It seems strange that JD specifically mentions the Pope’s letter without also citing an object that was supposedly handmade specifically for him.

In addition, a list of “relics and documents” presented to Memorial Hall in New Orleans by Varina Davis attributes the crown of thorns to her. The following appeared in Confederate Veteran [July 1899]:

[F]amily Bible, given by Jefferson Davis to his wife Varina Jefferson Davis, with his written indorsement to that effect, and one from Mrs. Davis, presenting it to Memorial Hall; pciture of Pope Pius IX (framed), with an autograph and a Latin sentence inscribed on it by his holiness, bearing his seal, and certified to by Cardinal Barnabo Pref. (The Pope sent this picture to Jefferson Davis while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe.  Accompanying the picture is a crown of thorns, made by Mrs. Davis, that hung above it in Mr. Davis’s study[.]

Keep in mind that Varina Davis was still alive in 1899.  Do you believe that Varina would have allowed this attribution to go unanswered if it in fact was a mistake?  That’s it for now.  I will keep you updated if I hear anything more.

So It Was a Holy Cause After All

Pope Benedict and the Confederate FlagUpdate: I don’t mind having to admit a mistake every once in a while, but this time I really dropped the ball.  I thought I had confirmed this story with a sufficient number of SCV websites, but Karen Cox tells me that the entire story is apocryphal.  Ruth Ann Coski, who used to work at the Museum of the Confederacy, carried out the necessary research and discovered that the crown was made by Varina Davis.  It looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause is indeed just a myth, but I would still like to know why Pope Benedict is standing in front of a Confederate flag.

I had no idea that Pope Pius IX sent Jefferson Davis a hand-written note along with a crown of thorns during his brief imprisonment following the war.  The note included the following: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” and supposedly the crown was handwoven by the thorn. Robert E. Lee, pointing to his own portrait of Pius IX, is supposed to have told a visitor that he was “the only sovereign…in Europe who recognized our poor Confederacy.” The crown is located in a museum in New Orleans.  Apparently, Pope Benedict is continuing the Catholic Church’s tradition of sanctifying the Confederate cause.  So, it looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause wasn’t a myth after all.  I had no idea.

How Well Do You Know Robert E. Lee?

As part of a search for information on Robert E. Lee and Arlington House I came across teaching materials that I assume are to be used for home schooling purposes.  It includes a multiple choice test.  Let’s see how well you do and remember that some of the questions have more than one answer.  Good luck. Here is the link, which includes a “history” as well as the test.

1. _____ In Lee’s January 22, 1861 letter to his cousin, Martha Custis Williams, whom does he state can save us; and from what? (Circle one)
a. The Federal Government
b. The media; bad publicity
c. The Union; anarchy
d. God alone; folly, selfishness, short-sightedness and sin

2. _____ In his General Order; whom does Lee state is our only refuge and strength? (Circle one)
a. The Confederate Army
b. The cavalry
c. Stonewall Jackson
d. Almighty God

3. _____ According to Chaplain Jones of the Confederate Army, the result of this Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer was a work of grace among the troops, which widened and deepened, causing at least: (Consult your text and fill in the blanks)
a. 500 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
b. l,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
c. 5,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour
d. 15,000 professions of faith in Christ as a personal Saviour

4. _____ What results does Chaplain Jones state “eternity alone shall reveal” in terms of Robert E. Lee’s actions during this Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer? (Circle one)
a. Lack of interest and participation
b. Absence
c. Quiet influence and fervent prayer
d. Resignation and “moment of silence”

5. _____ Colonel Johnston was an intimate friend of Lee, and a distinguished faculty member of his college. In his eyewitness account of the General’s dying moments reflect Lee’s true character traits in action. They are: (Circle all correct answers)
a. Impatience
b. Anger
c. Reticence
d. Hatred
e. Self-contained composure
f. Obedience to proper authority
g. Boastfulness
h. Magnanimity
i. Bitterness
j) Christian meekness

Confederate Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Promise of a New Football Season

With the new college football season upon us it might be worthwhile to reflect on the cultural connections with the Civil War and defeat and the Lost Cause.  While the enthusiasm here in Charlottesville, Virginia probably doesn’t match the anticipation found elsewhere around the South [I lived in Alabama for two years.] the talk seems to be all about UVA’s prospects and even who will start at the quarterback position.  Apparently, this is a serious matter for many.  I’ve never been a big college football fan and I have even more trouble understanding how it is possible to get so excited about playing William and Mary as a season opener.  Perhaps UVA fans no all too well that the rest of the season is likely to be a real bummer.  For those of you who are college football fans and Civil War enthusiasts I offer you the following for your reading pleasure.  The first is a journal article, titled, “From Lost Cause to Third-and-Long: College Football and the Civil Religion of the South, which appeared in the Journal of Southern Religion.  Additional commentary can be found here and here.  And I almost forgot, GO TERPS!!!

From the Bain-Selbo essay:

A particularly moving moment occurs at the end of a game. In this video, we see such a moment after a hard-fought Mississippi loss to Alabama in the fall of 2005. While some fans leave the stadium, a large portion (particularly the student section near where the band sits) stays for a final playing of the medley. It begins slowly, mournfully (particularly appropriate after a tough loss)—the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” gently mixing together. One feels a sense of longing— longing for a past more ideal than real. Midway through, the tempo picks up, hands are clapping, and the parts that include the fans singing (particularly the chorus of “Dixie”) are louder and more boisterous. This all culminates with a yell, a hope, a declaration of defiance rising from all—”The South will rise again!”

“The War Between the States”: Homeschool Style

It’s true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by the number of black Confederates that are claimed to have loyally served.  As a teacher I think it is important to stay up to date on new textbooks and other classroom resources, so with that in mind I decided to contact the good people at American Vision to see about getting a review copy of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, which is authored by John J. Dwyer.  The book was published in 2005 and is endorsed by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell, Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston.  The book is marketed to Christian schools and families that homeschool their children.  It is illustrated throughout with the artwork of John Paul Strain and at 650 pages it is by far the longest textbook on the war that I’ve ever come across.

Not surprisingly, the endorsements claim that this book serves as an alternative to the standard interpretations that currently pervade public schools and colleges.  Of course, Dwyer never elaborates on what this interpretation includes or explores its supposed weaknesses, but than again this book was not written to raise questions and encourage curiosity.  Rather it was written to conform to a Christian outlook that uses the past to justify current political and moral beliefs.  Such an approach offers a convenient justification for parents and educators who believe that the secular world must be resisted in all its forms.  Dwyer believes that his text moves beyond the “politically correct” studies that are used in secondary schools and colleges and allows the reader to focus on “God’s almighty work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history.”  Such an approach doesn’t leave much room for questions about how the author constructs his interpretation since any challenge must necessarily be construed as a challenge to God’s vision.  I will leave the epistemological concerns aside for now rather than get bogged down into something that, as a historian, I could care less about.

The book includes no references to outside studies other than a few choice titles that are floated throughout the text such as Charles Adams’s In The Course of Human Events and other books by the Ludwig Von Mises crowd and assorted libertarians.  The curious reader is left to wonder what kinds of primary and secondary sources were used.  Obviously, I cannot review the entire book; rather, I will proceed in short segments that focus on a representative sample that should give you a sense of why the book is so popular as a homeschool/Christian text.

Consider the author’s treatment of black Confederates as an entry point into the overall quality of this text.  The student is prepped for this “analysis” with multiple sections focused on the life of slaves and their relationships with their masters.  Dwyer relies heavily on the WPA Slave Narratives as well as Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross.  The author acknowledges that historians have pointed out problems with using the WPA sources, but suggests that they reveal a wide range of experiences of slave life.  Indeed they do, but the author simply makes assertions that are to be accepted by the reader rather than demonstrating with examples.  Dwyer also never mentions the controversy surrounding Time on the Cross, including important critiques by Herbert Gutman and others.  Ignoring such problems allows the author to pick and choose from the texts to draw conclusions that confirm the crucial point that God is an ever present force in the lives of slaves and slaveowners.  “They (Fogel and Engerman) produced perhaps the most thorough examination of plantation records and first-hand accounts ever done,” writes Dwyer.  Just as disturbing is the way in which facts are presented without any context whatsoever.  In fleshing out the reality of slave life in the South the reader learns that “thousands of free Southern blacks owned other blacks as slaves, including one hundred twenty-five in Charleston, South Carolina, and over 3,000 in New Orleans.  No mention of the complexity of race in a city like New Orleans compared with the rest of the region and no references at the end of the chapter to allow students to read further.  I guess it’s all about faith.  There is a constant reminder throughout that historians today cannot be trusted and that their research is a product of nefarious motives.  The student learns quickly that the author’s goal is to rescue them from such treachery.

The author’s assessment of slavery is difficult to make sense of given the goal of reconciling a Christian world-view and a slaveholding society.  There is a palpable tension between acknowledging the reality of slavery and wanting to correct the harshest critiques of slave life.  In the hands of a reputable historian such a goal is not only laudable, but essential if we are to continue to uncover the complexity of slave life and race relations in the United States at different times.  This is not meant to ignore the harsh reality of slavery, but to acknowledge that it does not constitute the beginning and end of what we need to know.  Here is a revealing passage:

Slavery, though not an evil institution when practiced Biblically, was attended with evils as practiced in the South.  It was not in any way perfect or utopian.  In fact, as a Southern social institution, generally considered, it was evil.  Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between Biblical slavery and that practiced in the South.  These differences between the Biblical standard and Southern slavery make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South.

One could read this as suggesting that the “evils [of slavery] as practice in the South” was a matter of degree given its sanctioning in the Bible.  An “unqualified defense” may not be appropriate, but it certainly leaves room for one that is qualified.  For someone who is not a Christian, but who holds to very strong moral/ethical principles it is impossible for me to come to terms with such a distinction.  Dwyer takes full advantage of the opening provided in the above passage to present the “Unexpected Blessings” of slavery.  No surprise that it is the fact that the slaves were introduced to Christianity.  Of course, it implies that the original Africans had no religious identity, but that doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer since the goal of his commentary is to present slaves and slaveowners as some kind of organic whole that at least approached the Biblically sanctioned institution of slavery.   As far as I am concerned such a view reflects moral bankruptcy and deserves outright condemnation.  But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to question our “politically correct” narrative of slavery how about this one?:

No one needs lament the passing of slavery, and the editors of this volume emphatically do not.  But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished?  In many respects, the remedy applied has been far worse that the disease ever was.  Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2004.

Well, you can probably surmise that I will not be using this particular book in my Civil War survey course, but you can bet that I will break this out for my course on Civil War memory.  I was hoping to get to this book’s interpretation of black Confederates, but given the length of this post I will hold it for the next one.  It’s a doozy.  They even offer up a number of 40,000.