Reading Edward Ball’s, Slaves in the Family, when it was first published in 1998 was a transformative experience. The book was as much about the history of the master-slave relationship as it was about the author’s struggle to come to terms with his connection to this past. It spawned a genre of books about authors coming to terms with their slave-owning ancestors and, in some cases, the journey to re-connect with the descendants of the slaves they once owned. None of these books (at least the ones that I read) was ever quite as good as Ball’s.
Today in The New York Times Ball writes about the sesquicentennial anniversary of the arrival of the Union army and the end of slavery on his family’s plantation outside of Charleston, South Carolina. The editorial begins with such promise as he describes the entrance of Colonel James Beecher (brother of the famous slave narrative author) into the house and the announcement made by a regiment of USCTs to the slaves that they are now “free as birds.” Ball plays with the meaning of the moment by referencing these men as both “invaders” and “liberators.” Continue reading →
One hundred and fifty years ago today the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry entered Charleston, South Carolina. Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle offer a vivid description of this moment in the latest New York Times Disunion column. It’s an incredibly powerful scene and one that is beautifully captured in the pages of Harpers Weekly.
Funny, but in all of the historical tours that I have taken with history teachers and student groups, I have never heard this scene referenced. How is it that such a joyous scene that celebrates freedom, located at the very core of the slaveholding South, is not fully embraced? The truth is that from a certain perspective this scene is just a little unsettling. From the vantage point of 1861 these men were never meant to be. The men, women and children welcoming them to their home and celebrating their freedom was not a foregone conclusion just a few years previous. As we all know, the war could have ended without anything in this scene coming to pass. Continue reading →
Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.
Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.
On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. Continue reading →
One hundred and fifty years ago Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and paved the way for ratification by the states. With a roll call and signatures roughly 240 years of slavery ended and yet as a nation we do nothing to publicly acknowledge this milestone. It’s striking given our collective embrace of a narrative that places the United States at the forefront of freedom. Even Steven Spielberg’s celebratory narrative about the build-up to this very moment in Lincoln has done little to increase awareness and interest. Why do we look beyond this moment?
I don’t have any firm answers, but the tension I often feel in my own teaching of this important event perhaps offers a few clues. On the one hand there is something quite remarkable about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. You would have been hard pressed to find Americans in 1861 predicting the end of slavery and that same year Congress passed a never-ratified amendment protecting slavery from future amendments. Lincoln backed it. Even in 1862 it is easy to imagine how a military victory might have resulted in a reunited Union with slavery largely intact. From this vantage point the end of slavery in 1865 appears to be nothing less than an achievement. Continue reading →
Anyone who has followed this blog for any amount of time likely has a sense of the importance that I attach to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. It is, by far, the most popular topic on this site. Over the years I have had to deal with a wide range of reactions from fellow historians. There are those who have supported my efforts, those who look on in confusion and those who betray an air of condescension – as if I have descended into a circus show. In the last few months I have written very little about this subject. There have been a couple of stories out of North Carolina, but other than that the media attention has died down.
In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.
First, why is this specific debate not worthy of the attention of academic historians specifically? To say that academics do not have the “power to suppress this myth” is not only a non-starter (since academics can’t suppress any narrative that has gained cultural cache) it also fails to consider the positive impact that historians can and have had on this debate. Continue reading →