The Terror of Being Black at Gettysburg

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While in Gettysburg last week for the CWI I led a dinner discussion about the effects of the campaign on the region’s black population. We discussed two chapters in Margaret Creighton’s book, The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. It was a really nice discussion so I decided to write up a little something for the History News Network. It’s also encouraging to see that others have touched on it as well on blogs and in newspaper editorials. The stories are powerful, but more importantly, it forces us to step back from our tendency to interpret the battle in isolation from the broader picture. We often get caught up in the details of the unfolding drama and lose sight of the fact that the movement of armies and place of battle mattered to ordinary people in profound ways. Anyway, most of you who read this blog are likely familiar with this story, but if I can offer a slightly different view of the campaign and battle for those new to this history than it will have been worth writing.

On Wednesday July 3, thousands of visitors will congregate near the “copse of trees” on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg to commemorate the 150th anniversary of “Pickett’s Charge.” From this position they will be able to imagine the roughly 13,000 Confederates in tight formation, who crossed the deadly field in the face of long-range artillery. Once across the Emmitsburg Road visitors should have little trouble envisioning the deadly effects of short-range canister and the deafening sound of Union rifles. Some will contemplate the tragedy of a war that pitted Americans v. Americans while others will hold tight to thoughts of what might have been before accepting that the charge constituted a decisive Confederate defeat. [Read the rest of the article at HNN]

Elbert Guillory Gets Right With Lincoln and the Republican Party

It’s always interesting to watch politicians distort the past for their own purposes.  This week Elbert Guillory decided to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. As he explains in this short video, he did so based on his understanding of the broad political history of race. Why he only recently came to some of these realizations goes unmentioned, but here are a few highlights. According to Guillory “the Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an abolitionist movement.” It was the Republican Party that gave blacks rights of citizenship during Reconstruction. Democrats have always been on the wrong side of the history of race. Most importantly, “they were the party of Jim Crow.” Guillory praises Dwight D. Eisenhower as the champion of the Civil Rights act of 1957.” Somehow he forgot that it was a Democrat from Texas who pushed for the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.

Ultimately, Guillory’s break with the Democrats is based on a rejection of the notion that only big government can improve the lives of Americans.  But isn’t much of the history of freedom for African Americans the result of government intervention? Setting aside the important role that blacks played in securing their own freedom didn’t the government intervene directly during the Civil War to free slaves? Finally, wasn’t Reconstruction itself the most extreme example of government intervention during the postwar period before the 1930s? Wasn’t it Southern Democrats who wanted to be left to sort out their affairs without federal intrusion. Continue reading “Elbert Guillory Gets Right With Lincoln and the Republican Party”

“No Hired Hessians or Negroes in the Southern Army”

In 1909 Philip K. Fall, Commander of the Dick Dowling Camp in Houston, welcomed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to their annual meeting. His brief welcome acknowledged the UDC’s crucial role in preserving and protecting the memory of the men who fought under the Confederate flag. Fall’s address also reflects the “limits of reconciliation” between North and South at the beginning of the twentieth century by framing the conflict as a defensive war against radical abolitionists fighting to carry out John Brown’s final mission. In the process Fall also shares a little nugget that is lost on those who depict the Confederate army as a racially integrated institution filled with loyal black soldiers.

Being notified only a day since, that our comrade was called away on an important matter and could not represent Dick Dowling Camp, the duty devolves upon me to greet you, on behalf of our Camp. Such short time leaves me ill prepared to do the occasion justice, but I know our good women will accept the will for the deed. The veterans of Houston welcome you, one and all, and we shall prove your humble and loving servants during your stay with us. Command us whenever necessary. As the years pass by we feel more and more the benefits accruing from your loving and valiant struggle in our behalf. Had you not thrown down the gauntlet and assumed the offensive for the old soldiers of the Confederacy, their names would have gone down in a partisan Northern history as rebels and traitors; who tried to disrupt what they call the greatest and best government on earth, when in fact, they in arbitrary, puritanical spirit, brought about the disruption, causing a war such as the world has never known, hiring nearly a million Hessians and nearly two hundred thousand Africans, to slaughter their brethren of the South. Nothing but a civil war could have ever satisfied the John Brown stripe of abolitionists, especially after their leader John Brown was hung.

The war was not the worst feature of the sixties. The myriads of carpet-baggers that flocked like buzzards, all eager to filch from the already impoverished and heartbroken whites, as well as from the poor deluded ex-slaves, what little was left, proved to be a carnival of misery, which can never be blotted from the memory of any who experienced the miserable rule of those Northern birds….

This is a statement of facts, which cannot be controverted. What few of the Southern veterans that yet live, glory in the fact that their noble women are now their protectors, as were they of the women in the long, long, ago. No soldier in the past or present ever received the homage of their women, as do those of Dixie Land. There were no hired Hessians or negroes in the Southern army. All fought for a principle they knew to be right and thousands upon thousands gave up their lives in defense of truth.

Fall is not suggesting that there were no blacks present in the army. Confederate soldiers encountered them performing myriad roles in camp, on the march, and on a wide range of military projects. What Fall is saying is something very different. He is remembering a war of white citizen soldiers defending their homes and a new nation from radical abolitionists and their immigrant and black hirelings. Fall is drawing a sharp distinction between what he believed constituted two very different societies. To suggest that blacks fought as soldiers would be to place the Confederacy on the same moral level as the United States. Fall is sharing his understanding of Confederate Exceptionalism.

It’s a memory of the war that was no doubt filtered through a concern that many Americans expressed at the time over the effects of continued immigration on the cultural and political identity of the nation.

Look, if there were black Confederate soldiers in the army, individuals like Fall would have said so.

Georgia Historical Society Interprets Cleburne’s Plan

Thanks to Eric Jacobson of the Battle of Franklin Trust for sending along this image of the GHS’s new marker interpreting Patrick Cleburne’s plan to arm slaves for the Confederate army. This should give you some things to think about as you compare this marker with that of the Georgia Historical Commission’s which I posted earlier today. I shared a short video of the marker’s dedication back in 2011. Given my criticisms re: the GHC’s text you can probably surmise which one I prefer. How about you? What goes into an effective historical marker?

cleburne marker, black confederates

Eric also pointed out in a comment re: the marker to Clark Lee (previous post) that the text is verbatim to what is on the Find-a-Grave website. It would be interesting to know which came first. No doubt there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. :-)

The Georgia Civil War Commission’s Black Confederates

Update: Once again, thanks to Andy Hall for doing the leg work of looking into the documentation behind the claim that Clark Lee was a Confederate soldier. No surprise by what he did not find to support such a claim nor that what is available points to a very different picture of Lee’s presence in the the army.

I have no doubt that the Georgia Civil War Commission has done some excellent work in the area of battlefield preservation, but this is the kind of website that troubles me as both a historian and especially as a teacher. Check out the following two panels that the commission has unveiled in recent years.  The list of members does not include anyone prominent in the field of Civil War history and given what I have to share with you I am not surprised one bit to find Charles Kelley Barrow’s name on this list. Barrow is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and has been a vocal advocate of the black Confederate narrative over the years.

The first panel tells the story of Confederate General Patrick Cleburne’s plan to enlist slaves into the army.

Cleburne black Confederate

It is clear that not much thought went into this text. No mention is made that not only was Cleburne’s plan immediately rejected by President Davis and others, he was ordered not to discuss it further. Also conveniently left out is any sense of just how controversial this plan was throughout the Confederacy as it was debated in the army, on the home front and in Richmond at the very end of the war as a means to stave off defeat. Continue reading “The Georgia Civil War Commission’s Black Confederates”