Category Archives: Slavery

Hardball Strikes Out on Secession

First of all, apologies to South Carolina for the ridiculous national coverage of tonight’s Secession Gala in Charleston.  The coverage reinforces a number of assumptions about regional identification and race that are likely a thing of the past.  Tonight’s episode of Hardball with Chris Matthews is a perfect example of this coverage, which somehow managed to surpass the nuttiness of a recent episode of the Ed Show that featured Al Sharpton.  Matthews decided to interview Thomas Hiter of the SCV and columnist, Eugene Robinson.  All three were equally appalling.  Robinson decided to describe the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter as an “act of terrorism.”  Hiter did the usual dance around the issue of slavery and Matthews through out the hardball question of the night: “Was John Brown a good guy or bad guy?”  As far as I can tell none of these guys understands the history of secession and the Civil War.  To give you a sense of how bad this is, I actually think that Hiter won more points on the history.  And just think how easy it would be to find two guests, who could actually engage in an intellectual discussion.

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Are Americans Divided Over the Civil War?

According to our mainstream media, which thrives on conflict, Americans are hopelessly divided over the Civil War.  Open up a newspaper and you can find scores of articles with titles such as, “After 150 Years, the Civil War Still Divides the United States,” and “150 Years Later, State’s Secession Still Stirs, Still Divides.”  Turn on cable news and you will find the various talking heads arguing the same tired script that tugs more at the viewer’s emotions rather than their intellect.  Consider a recent episode of the Ed Schultz Show, featuring the always lively, Al Sharpton.  Spend enough time in these places and you might even come to believe this alluring cultural meme.

Now, I don’t doubt for a moment that Americans disagree over fundamental questions about the history of the Civil War as well as how it ought to be commemorated.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with or even interesting about that alone.  What I am questioning is the way it divides Americans.  It’s the “Still” in this little narrative that troubles me since it implies little to no change in the overall contours of where the nation is in terms of its collective memory.  As far as I can tell Americans are not sharply divided over these questions in terms of their regional identification, political affiliation or connection to the Civil War generation itself.  In short, we are not living in a “House Divided” and to push such a narrative is facile at best.

The ongoing controversy about how secession ought to be remembered in South Carolina along with tomorrow’s Secession Ball illustrates this quite well.  What I am struck by is the level of agreement over how this bit of history is being commemorated.  While the mainstream media is enjoying highlighting the racial aspect of this divide by noting the scheduled protest of the NAACP at every turn, if we look closer we see a very different story.  Charleston Mayor, Joseph Riley, has been outspoken in his belief that the celebration is “unfortunate” and “the opposite of unifying.”  The state’s major newspapers have all struck a similar tone:

There is room for disagreement over whether we can fairly judge the morality of the secessionists by the standards of 2010. There is room to debate whether the men who fought for the Confederacy believed they were simply fighting to defend their state, without regard to why their state needed defending, or to what role slavery played in the social order. There might even be room to debate what motivated other states to leave the Union.  But those are debates that need to be had honestly, based on what really happened 150 years ago. Pretending that anything other than slavery played a significant role in South Carolina’s secession is not honest, as the secessionists themselves made a point of telling the world with such abundant clarity.

Spend enough time watching interviews that include representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and you might assume that everyone with Confederate ancestry is united around a certain view of the war.  Not so fast.  Consider native southerner, Edward Ball:

I can testify about the South under oath. I was born and raised there, and 12 men in my family fought for the Confederacy; two of them were killed. And since I was a boy, the answer I’ve heard to this question, from Virginia to Louisiana (from whites, never from blacks), is this: “The War Between the States was about states’ rights. It was not about slavery.”

I’ve heard it from women and from men, from sober people and from people liquored up on anti-Washington talk. The North wouldn’t let us govern ourselves, they say, and Congress laid on tariffs that hurt the South. So we rebelled. Secession and the Civil War, in other words, were about small government, limited federal powers and states’ rights.  But a look through the declaration of causes written by South Carolina and four of the 10 states that followed it out of the Union — which, taken together, paint a kind of self-portrait of the Confederacy — reveals a different story. From Georgia to Texas, each state said the reason it was getting out was that the awful Northern states were threatening to do away with slavery.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial is already shaping up to stand in sharp contrast with the divisiveness and narrow scope of the Centennial celebrations – a period that ought to be understood in terms of both a regional and racial divide.  Perhaps the most profound change can be found on an institutional level.  Consider the recent and upcoming events sponsored by the Lowcountry Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission not to mention the overall focus on and acknowledgment that slavery was central to understanding secession and war by every other state sesquicentennial commission.  The documents central to South Carolina’s decision to secede are now in the hands of people who have been educated during one of the most vibrant periods of Civil War/Southern historiography.  After displaying the Ordinance documents to a UDC sponsored memorial event, Eric Emerson, executive director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, expressed his hope “that people will develop ‘a deeper level of understanding’ of secession and war that goes beyond the nostalgia and gets at the heart of one of the most turbulent and talked about periods in South Carolina history.”  None of this fits neatly into the “America Divided” meme.

We can continue to get lathered up by focusing on Secession Balls and interviews with the usual suspects, who profit one way or another from promoting this “America Divided” narrative or we can step back and acknowledge the vast shift that has taken place in our society that has the potential to bring us even closer together.

We are not living in the 1860s and we are not even living in the 1960s.  Look Away, Look Away…

“Now, I am a Conservative, a Neo-Confederate so That’s My Point of View” – William Scarborough,

Yesterday, I linked to two videos that feature Civil War historians discussing various issues related to the Civil War and historical memory.  In the second video, the panel was asked to share what they take to be one of the most popular misconceptions of the war.  While Emory Thomas and James I. Robertson highlight the tendency among some to downplay the importance of race and slavery in the war, Professor William Scarborough offers the following curious assessment:

There is a misconception about how harsh slavery was.  I mean it was not akin to the Nazi Concentration Camps at all.  It wasn’t great, that’s for sure but it was a lot more flexible than a lot of people think today.  Now I am a conservative, a neo-Confederate so that’s my point of view.

I have no idea what one’s identification as a conservative has to do with a question about the history of slavery and its brutality so I am going to steer clear of it.  Scarborough’s identification as a “neo-Confederate” is baffling given that those who group themselves around such a label or are identified as such steadfastly resist coming to terms with its importance to the coming of the war and if they do discuss it it comes wrapped in the old “loyal slave” or black Confederate narrative.  Yes, historians have clearly shown over the past few decades that slavery was flexible in any number of ways depending on where you look and at what time.  What’s is truly baffling is that Scarborough himself has contributed to this literature on slavery and has even highlighted its brutality.  One of the most interesting studies that I’ve read about slavery is his, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-nineteenth-century South (Louisiana State University Press, 2003).  It’s a thick book, but well worth your time.

Scarborough opens up chapter 5, “Toiling For Old ‘Massa’”, with the following:

Whether they toiled in the miasmic rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country or in the broiling heat of the cotton and cane fields in the Southwest, the African American slaves of the antebellum South earned handsome profits for their owners but often at the expense of human suffering almost without parallel in modern times.  It should be remembered, however, that the condition of laboring people generally in the nineteenth century was little short of deplorable.  It was that condition that impelled Karl Marx to launch his midcentury assault against the exploitation of labor by capital in the rapidly industrializing nations of the Western world.  Indeed, with respect to the material conditions of life–food, clothing, shelter, and hours of labor–the chattel slaves of the South did not fare badly compared to their working class counterparts elsewhere on the planet.  Rather, it was the absolute denial of freedom that set them apart from other workers and often made their lot unbearable.  Slavery rendered them impotent to protect the integrity of their families and frequently exposed them to the erratic behavior of insensitive owners.

While some may have trouble swallowing Scarborough’s placing of slavery within the broader context of nineteenth century labor he still makes the point about the brutality of slavery, which, at its core involved the denial of freedom and the treating another individual as a means to an end.  Unfortunately, I don’t think such a paragraph and the book as a whole qualifies Prof. Scarborough for “Neo-Confederate” status.  This is historical scholarship at its best.  No “Gone With the Wind” fantasies in this book.

I know “Neo-Confederates”.  You sir, are no “Neo-Confederate”.