Category Archives: Slavery

Searching For Black Confederates in Narrative

While a big chunk of my manuscript on the history and memory of camp servants/black Confederates is either completed as a rough draft or in outline form, I am still playing with the structure of the overall narrative. As it stands each chapter begins with a vignette that captures the theme of the chapter and includes its main argument. This is standard fare. The first chapter begins with Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander’s purchase of a servant in 1862 while the third chapter starts off with a detailed description of a Confederate veterans reunion that included former camp servants. As it stands, they work pretty well, but it is lacking in one important way. Continue reading

Open Notes, Open Book

Much of my book on the history and memory of the battle of the Crater was shared in some form on this blog. This site was used regularly to share my thinking about various questions and to solicit responses from readers. It worked out incredibly well. Consider this post from 2009 in which I first proposed thinking about the Crater as a slave rebellion. Reader feedback figured directly into how I thought about this concept, which eventually became the organizing theme of the first chapter of the book.

The other aspect of this sharing that I enjoyed was showcasing what I understand to be the process that goes into a historical study. I thought it would be helpful to give my blog audience and potential future book readers a behind-the-scenes tour of the challenges faced in writing history that leans more toward the analytical as opposed to a straightforward narrative. Continue reading

How Secure Was Slavery in the Union?

In this final installment of the New York Times’s Disunion column, Paul Finkelman surveys some of the significant ways the Civil War changed how Americans interpret the Constitution. Finkelman offers the following observation to illustrate the extent of the constitution’s protection of the institution of slavery.

Finally, it took two-thirds of Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states, and it took three-fourths of the states to ratify any amendment. Had the 15 slave states all remained in the Union, to this day, in 2015, it would be impossible to end slavery by constitutional amendment, since in a 50-state union, it takes just 13 states to block an amendment.

Keep that in mind next time you are told that slavery would have died a natural death had there not been a civil war.

Camp Servants and Confederate Exceptionalism

Over the past few weeks I’ve made steady progress on my new manuscript, which is now tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Enduring Myth. The first chapter on the history of Confederate camp servants serves as what I hope will be a solid foundation for the rest of the study. No historian has been more helpful to me in framing this chapter than Eugene Genovese, especially the short book, Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, which he co-authored with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.

The book offers a concise overview of those elements of slaveholding paternalism that the Genoveses have explored over the course of their career up to the moment of secession. They close with a brief analysis of the war years and even references a few examples of camp servants. This is where my study enters.

My goal in the first chapter is to outline the role that camp servants played in propping up the intellectual world of a slaveholding society. There is no denying that the mobilization of this specific group took place for reasons of necessity. In that sense they can be included among that much larger group of impressed slaves that supported the war effort on the state and federal levels. The critical difference, however, is that camp servants, in contrast with impressed slaves, were not nameless. They lived and worked in close proximity to whites beginning with their masters and likely interacted at times with members of the broader community. Continue reading

Melissa Harris-Perry Meet Henry Louis Gates

I don’t know too much about Melissa Harris-Perry or her show on MSNBC. The network is almost as worthless as FOX News, so what I have seen of her program has been little more than individual segments through various websites. All in all the show strikes me as an honest attempt to bring some thoughtfulness back to a major news network. I’ve especially enjoyed her segments on race and gender, which occupy a good deal of her attention.

Given this I wasn’t surprised that Harris-Perry took on the ongoing controversy surrounding Ben Affleck, Henry Louis Gates and the show, “Finding Your Roots.” Harris-Perry brought together a talented group of commentators including Tom Sugrue to discuss what Affleck’s request – that a reference to a slave-owning ancestor be left out of the show – tells us about the continued difficulty of coming to terms with this important history. Continue reading

A Confederate General and His Slave

Below is the first paragraph from a short essay that I recently wrote about Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander and his slave/camp servant, Charley. You can read the rest of it at the History News Network.

The Confederate rank and file said goodbye to many things in and around Appomattox Court House in the days following the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865. Three days following the formal surrender Lee’s men were separated from the weapons they carried over the previous four years through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The stacking of arms was the first stage in a painful realization that the cause for which they fought and sacrificed so much for was beyond reach. But of all the separations that took place, the most difficult were the final farewells amongst friends and comrades that took place either at Appomattox or along the roads those groups of men followed until each crossroads gradually brought each individual to a final destination.

The Buck Stops With Henry Louis Gates

Why didn’t Henry Louis Gates and the producers of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” just ask Ben Affleck’s mother whether she took part in the Freedom Summer of 1964? Over the weekend we went from editing out a section of Affleck’s episode to learning that a basic fact that tied his family’s narrative together is false. The drama of violence and the proximity of Affleck’s mother to the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner during that summer is nothing less than misleading and points to the possibility of there being more fundamental problems with how research is carried out on the show.

I understand that this show is about entertainment, but this doesn’t preclude the ability to apply sound practices of historical research. For many people Gates provides a window into that process. That is not an unreasonable assumption. Gates’s position as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard comes with a great deal of clout. This most recent revelation jeopardizes his reputation, that of his center and fellow faculty and Harvard University. Continue reading

More Trouble For Henry Louis Gates

This story just continues to get jucier with each passing day. The website Gawker now has the original script for Ben Affleck’s episode of “Finding Your Roots.” Henry Louis Gates has maintained that the decision to focus on another of Affleck’s ancestors had nothing to do with the actor’s request to steer clear of his slave-owning ancestor. The release of the script and the timing of the changes render that explanation as untenable.

0423toonwassermanGates clearly has more explaining to do. Given when the edits to the episode were made it now becomes more likely that additional staff members with the show were aware of Affleck’s request and understood why the changes were being made.

The integrity of the show and Gates’s reputation as a public intellectual have both been jeopardized.