It’s always entertaining to watch folks get worked up about the pride they feel when defending those brave white Southerners, who in 1860-61 were doing nothing more than standing up against an evil federal government that had stepped beyond its constitutional authority. For many, it’s nothing less than an act of patriotism that may have to be carried out again if we are not careful. In this interpretation of American history, the American Civil War ushered in a new era of corrupt government. Lincoln fits perfectly into the role of arch villain, not simply for ordering the total destruction of the Confederacy, but for his blatant disregard of the Constitution. The act of secession and the war itself constituted the final stand against this blatant disregard for the Constitution.
What is interesting, of course, is that these very same people fail to extend their argument further. Why not continue to defend these salient constitutional issues within the history of the Confederacy itself? After all, a closer look at the historical record may reveal an even more defiant stand against the encroachments on states’ and individual rights in the Confederacy as opposed to the United States between 1861 and 1865. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to add to the argument that the 1860s represented a fundamental shift in our assumptions about the proper relationship between the states and the federal government?
A cursory glance at the historical record suggests that Southern slaveholders are begging to be embraced as defending their rights against what they perceived to be a corrupt government. Throughout the war they stood up against every attempt on the part of the Confederate government to impress their slaves for military purposes. They did so not only because they knew there would be a good chance that their slaves would run away, but that the legislation constituted a direct threat to their individual rights as property holders. Stephanie McCurry does a brilliant job of explaining all of this in her book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. If we understand the direct connection between states’ right and slaveholders’ rights we can more easily view the slaveholding class as engaged in a broader struggle to protect their individual rights, first against the United States and, within a short period of time, the Confederate States of America.
Charlottesville's Civil War Soldier at Courthouse Square
This week I will be working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a Teaching American History workshop on the Civil War and historical memory. This time around I am teamed up with historian, W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina, who will take care of the morning session with a lecture that provides an overview of some of the major themes of postwar narratives of the Civil War. My job is to provide teachers with a foundation of content and skills that can inform the way they teach history.
I have a two-hour slot in which to work so my plan is to divide the time between two activities. During the first hour I am going to introduce the group to documents related to the recent debate in Virginia surrounding Confederate History Month. No doubt most of these teachers will be familiar with the controversy, but this activity should give them a chance to think further about many of the points made in Brundage’s opening lecture. I recently completed a lesson in my Civil War Memory class in which we analyzed the very same documents; the lesson concluded with students writing their own proclamation. The results were quite interesting and perhaps at some point I will share a few excerpts.
The next lesson will explore the question of who won the Civil War through a close reading of a collection of primary sources. I teach the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the same unit and I try to provide as smooth a transition between the two as possible. In other words, I want my students to see the period following 1865 as an extension of a war that raised fundamental questions about the place of African Americans within this nation. In doing so, we move beyond the overly simplistic image of Appomattox as a symbol of reunion and even reconciliation. The challenge of how the nation would be reconstructed raises the obvious question of whose vision of reconstruction would prevail and within what particular time frame. I ask my students to think about these questions to reinforce the importance of acknowledging perspective and the open-ended nature of certain historical questions. Here is a taste of the kinds of documents that we will explore together. Continue reading
The other day I mentioned that a professor at Rice University used a few of my old posts on black Confederates as a way to focus his students on how Americans remember the war. I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful comments of the students, many of which suggest that proponents of this particular narrative have a broader goal of embracing Confederate history – heritage without having to deal with the tough problems of race and slavery. I think there is some truth to this, but I wouldn’t propose it as anything approaching a generalization or even as a sufficient condition.
In response to these comments, Professor McDaniel offered the following question and I have to say that I am struggling with it:
Second, many of you suggested that remembering the Civil War in a particular way fills certain needs people have–to absolve themselves or their ancestors of guilt, for example, or distance themselves from racism. This made me wonder (and some of you alluded to this): if remembering the Civil War as a conflict that was not meets certain psychological or cultural needs for the people doing the remembering, how does depicting the Civil War as a conflict that was about slavery, or even a war to end slavery, influence the identities or satisfy the needs of people who remember it that way?
It seems like an appropriate question given the slave auction reenactment that took place this morning on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. Here is a very interesting interview with Angela desilva, who took part in the reenactment. [Click here for some powerful photographs from the event.] She offers a very personal response to Professor McDaniel’s question, but one that must acknowledge from a distance given my lack of any ancestral connection with slavery.
So, what needs does remembering a war to end slavery satisfy? That’s a tough question and one that I don’t think I can answer right now. I am tempted to suggest that it satisfies my need to know what happened and why, but that sounds shallow and could easily be suggested by those who minimize or reject the importance of slavery. I’m sure others will opine that my radical liberal beliefs have left me feeling guilty or that such an interpretation fits into my view of the United States as fundamentally flawed. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not it.
Perhaps it relates to my Jewish upbringing. Although I am no longer a practicing Jew I do believe that my strong belief that we have an obligation to remember flows from my experience in Hebrew School during my formative years. It goes without saying that the Holocaust looms large in the lives of most Jews. But this doesn’t fully satisfy either. After all, I can remember the harsh reality of slavery without focusing on the Civil War. In other words, I still don’t know what needs of mine are satisfied by remembering a war to end slavery.
What about you?
Thanks once again to Vicki Betts for passing along documents related to the controversial issue of black Confederates. This latest gem is a letter from John C. Breckinridge’s cousin (Matilda Breckinridge Bowyer, of Fincastle, VA) recommending her son to recruit black soldiers, dated March 26, 1865. What is so striking, however, is how unremarkable it is. The document fits perfectly within the narrative accepted by professional Civil War historians and serious students of the war. Not until March 1865 did the Confederate government authorize the enlistment of a limited number of slaves into the Confederate army. There is nothing unusual about a mother with close ties to high political office, who attempts to advance her sons career following the passage of new legislation.
It is also worth commenting on what this letter fails to acknowledge. At no point does Matilda Breckenridge acknowledge that slaves were already serving in Confederate units. Nor does she suggest that her son had any experience with or prior understanding of the recruitment of slaves as soldiers. In fact, I have never seen a letter written by a Confederate civilian, soldier or politician that points to the presence of a significant number of slaves serving as soldier in the Confederate army.
Tomorrow my American Studies classes will begin to discuss Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, but I still look forward to every opportunity to revisit this book. At some point I would like to teach an elective on the history of the nineteenth-century through a close examination of Douglass’s life. As I was making my way through chapter 3 [pp. 20-21] I came across one of my favorite passages in which Douglass explores the complexity of the master-slave relationship. In it he explains what appears to be the language of the loyal and contented slave.
It is partly in consequence of such facts, that slaves, when inquired of as to their condition and the character of their masters, almost universally say they are contented, and that their masters are kind. The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition. The frequency of this has had the effect to establish among the slaves the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head. They suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it, and in so doing prove themselves a part of the human family. If they have anything to say of their masters, it is generally in their masters’ favor, especially when speaking to an untried man. I have been frequently asked, when a slave, if I had a kind master, and do not remember ever to have given a negative answer; nor did I, in pursuing this course, consider myself as uttering what was absolutely false; for I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us. Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately. It was so on our plantation. When Colonel Lloyd’s slaves met the slaves of Jacob Jepson, they seldom parted without a quarrel about their masters; Colonel Lloyd’s slaves contending that he was the richest, and Mr. Jepson’s slaves that he was the smartest, and most of a man. Colonel Lloyd’s slaves would boast his ability to buy and sell Jacob Jepson. Mr. Jepson’s slaves would boast his ability to whip Colonel Lloyd. These quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue. They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves. It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed!