Category Archives: Slavery

A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga.  I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book.  However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both.  I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way.  It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons.  I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans.  That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black.  Let me explain.

As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory.  Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race.  My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative.  As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups.  We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America.  Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country.  We should never forget what it took to bring this about.  And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. Continue reading

Entangled in Nonsense, Fantasy, and Really Bad History

Here is another selection from Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Week’s Entangled in Freedom, which tells the story of a black Confederate soldier by the name of Isaac.  In this scene Isaac and his master, Abraham Green, have just arrived at the camp of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers.  The soldiers in camp are surprised to see a black man, but decide to make him their chaplain after they learn that Isaac has memorized the Bible.  But wait, it gets better.  This scene takes place as an officer in the 42nd explains to the men why Isaac and Abraham have both been given permission to stay in the officer’s quarters.

“You are putting me in a very strange predicament,” said Sergeant Major Hart.  Facing the crowd Sergeant Major Hart said, “Soldiers, let me introduce to you Sergeant Major Abraham Green and Chaplain Isaac who hail from Oxford, Georgia.  Because we are tight on space here at this training camp, I have invited both to stay in the officer’s quarters.”

“Permission to speak Sergeant Major,” said a First Sergeant at the front of the crowd.”  I am First Sergeant Russell.  This is the war of the Confederate States of America.  Only one-tenth of the people in the state own slaves…and for the most part that’s the planters.  As for the men in my tent, we don’t own any slaves.  Have you read the latest Harper’s Weekly newspaper?” he asked pulling out a torn sheet.

“What does an article have to do with where Sergeant Major Green and Isaac sleep?”

“Let me read to you an article from Harper’s Weekly newspaper.”  Lifting the newspaper clipping and shouting to the top of his authoritative voice for the seventy-six men of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E to hear, he said, “The correspondent of the New York Herald, in one of its latest numbers, reports that the rebels had a regiment of mounted black men armed with sabers at Manassas, and that some five hundred Union prisoners taken at Bull Run were escorted to their filthy prison by a regiment of black men.”

The 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E cheered.  Master Green winked at me and smiled.  Sergeant Major Hart asked, “What’s your point?

First Sergeant Russell said, “If these black rebels can fight for the honor of the Confederacy, I don’t see why our chaplain can’t be living amongst the soldiers.  After the prayer, we in Company E took a vote, we want Chaplain Isaac to be assigned to our company and be assigned to my tent.”

Listening to this news was baffling to me.  Learning from the First Sergeant, I asked, “Permission to speak, sir.”  Yes, Chaplain Isaac.”  Did I just hear that there are black rebels riding horses for the Confederacy?”

“Well, Harper’s Weekly states that the New York Herald newspaper gave that report.”

“Did I also hear that a regiment of black rebels took 500 Union soldiers to a Confederate prison?

“I am with you, Chaplain Isaac.  I heard the same thing.”

Master Green said, “This can’t be true.  Jeff Davis has not given the order for black soldiers to fight in the Confederacy.”

Sergeant Major Hart said, “Sounds like your courthouse and other courthouses in the south are enlisting black rebels just the same.  Look at this.  The enlistment on this report just says Isaac Green.  No one would ever know from this paper that Isaac is a black rebel.”

Master Green said, “I’ll be.  I agreed for Isaac to be a chaplain because I didn’t think he could fight.  Isaac is the best rider in Newton County.  If you boys want to win this war, I suggest that Isaac be assigned to the mounted cavalry because we need skilled riders to travel the rugged terrains at Cumberland Gap.”

First Sergeant Russell added, “Yeah, but we can’t force Chaplain Isaac to fight because look at this.”  The soldier pulled out another clipping from Harper’s Weekly.  “This shows a picture of a Confederate captain pointing a gun and making two slaves load a cannon.”

Master Green said, “That’s propaganda.  No one wants to believe that there are some areas in the south w[h]ere whites and blacks get along fine.  I’m not saying it’s perfect for Isaac.  I am saying that loyalty delivers a great prize.”

First Sergeant Russell said, “Regardless, in the 42nd Regiment, we have to work together, and every man has to want to fight in this battle.  What do you say Chaplain Isaac?” (pp. 46-47)

Yes, a truly remarkable and disturbing excerpt.  Notice that DeWitt and Weeks offer their own explanation as to how black men ended up as enlisted soldiers in the Confederate army.  First, local courthouses were clearly formally enlisting them all over the South without any knowledge on the part of the Confederate government.  More importantly, they can always point out that lack of any racial identification on the enlistment papers if asked to provide evidence for the presence of black soldiers.

It’s pretty clear to me after reading the first 50 pages of this book that DeWitt and Weeks are interested in using this story and their limited understanding of the broader history of this subject to foster reconciliation between the races.  If it can be shown that the most divisive period in America’s racial past  included a great deal of interracial cooperation than perhaps we can do so today.  Reconciliation and understanding between the races is certainly a worthy goal, but you can’t get there by distorting the past and that is all they are doing in this book.

Making Room For a Richer History

From Governor Robert McDonnell’s recent announcement:

This proclamation will encapsulate all of our history. It will remember all Virginians-free and enslaved; Union and Confederate. It will be written for all Virginians.

While we cannot fully put to paper the definitive collective memory of this period, we are going to at least ensure that all voices are heard in the attempt.

One of the things that I strive to do in my classroom is to give my students a sense of the complexity of the past.  I want them to struggle with competing voices from the past as well as our continuing struggle as historians to make sense of it all.  One of the aspects of Gov. McDonnell’s recent speech that I truly appreciate is that it aligns his office, and the influence that accompanies it, with this worthy goal.  Over the next few years we need to figure out how to challenge the boundaries of our own personal narratives of the past.  If we claim to be serious students of the Civil War as well as educators then we need to find ways to bring these stories to the public and help to forge a richer collective past.

Here are two examples that I came across today in my reading.  The first is an 1856 editorial written by University of North Carolina Professor, Benjamin Hendrick:

Opposition to slavery extension is neither a Northern nor a Southern sectional ism.  It originated with the great Southern statesmen of the Revolution.  Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Madison, Randolph were all opposed to slavery in the abstract, and were all opposed to admitting it into new territory.  One of the early acts of the patriots of the Revolution was to pass the ordinance of ’87′ by which slavery was excluded from all the territories we then possessed.  This was going farther than the Republicans of the present day claim.  Many of these great men were slaveholders; but they did not let self interest blind them to the evils of the system.

Hendrick reminds us that while the antebellum South was committed to maintaining a slave society there were voices that continued to reflect antislavery sentiment.

Today in the Boston Globe there is an excellent article on the history of slavery in New England:

As the nation prepares to mark the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War in 2011, with commemorations that reinforce the North/South divide, researchers are offering uncomfortable answers to that question, unearthing more and more of the hidden stories of New England slavery — its brutality, its staying power, and its silent presence in the very places that have become synonymous with freedom. With the markers of slavery forgotten even as they lurk beneath our feet — from graveyards to historic homes, from Lexington and Concord to the halls of Harvard University — historians say it is time to radically rewrite America’s slavery story to include its buried history in New England.

As a teacher, historian, and proud citizen of Virginia I consider the governor’s words to be our marching orders to ensure that the Sesquicentennial gets as close to the “definitive collective memory of this period” as possible.  Thank you, governor.

Confederate History Month to Civil War in Virginia Month

Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this year’s Virginia Sesquicentennial conference on Race and Slavery at Norfolk State University owing to a school visit by former First Lady, Laura Bush.  For those of you looking for some excellent commentary on today’s proceedings I urge you to head over to Jimmy Price’s blog, The Sable Arm.  I am sure at some point the conference proceedings will be made available, but one of the highlights has to be Governor McDonnell’s opening remarks in which he announced that he will not “move forward with a proclamation to claim April 2011 as ‘Confederate History Month.’  Instead, he will proclaim next year’s observation as ‘Civil War in Virginia Month’ as a way to settle longstanding disputes within the Commonwealth over its history as the former capitol of the Confederacy during the Civil War.”  The governor’s remarks were spot on and I especially appreciate the following:

In the century and a half since the armistice was executed at Appomattox, few states have undergone as many changes, or witnessed such stunning growth and progress, as our Commonwealth. Our borders have been fixed for 147 years; but our culture, community, and breadth of opportunity have been incredibly dynamic. These changes have made Virginia a stronger and better place.

But they have also made our collective “memory” — how our diverse society remembers and processes the events in its collective history — much more complicated.  In earlier times, Virginia’s dominant culture was defined by relatively few, and basic civil rights were excluded for many. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that culture, and both were present in abundance, as in any human enterprise – there was a common lens through which to view history. Those in power wrote a single, narrow narrative. It left out many people, along with their powerful stories.  And so, while talking about our history has become more complicated today, we can all agree it has also become a much richer conversation.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the governor’s decision as well as his incredibly thoughtful address.

Black Confederate Resources

A few of you have asked if I could put together an overview of the many posts that I’ve done on the subject of black Confederates.  This is a start and it’s something that I will come back to to update and expand.  This will hopefully answer common questions that new readers have about my own position on this subject as well as provide a reliable list of resources for further reading.  You can find a link to this post in the navigation menu at the top of the page.

Overview

Regular readers of this blog are all too familiar with the frequency of posts on the hot topic of black Confederates.  It is safe to say that the largest number of posts on this blog have been devoted to the subject and collectively constitute what I hope is a helpful resource for those who are trying to wade through the morass that defines this divisive topic and public debate.  With so much attention focused on this subject it may be difficult for readers to know where to begin.  This page is meant to serve as a road map to help readers to better understand the evolution of my own thought about this subject as well as advice on where to go for credible information and what to avoid.  I should point out that my writing on this subject is not meant or intended as an authoritative or final word on the subject.  I’ve used this blog to ask questions and to offer some of my own ideas about various aspects of the subject and on how others have approached the subject.

Content

You will find a wide range of posts on this issue, but all of them revolve around a basic assumption that this subject is part of a broader discussion of slavery and race relations during the Civil War.  Most of the posts on this site can be found under a category heading, titled, “black Confederates.” [Keep in mind that you are reading them in the reverse order in which they were published.]  I suggest that you begin with my two earliest posts on the subject in which I begin to sketch out my own interest in the subject in response to the publication of Bruce Levine’s book, Confederate Emancipation [Part 1 and Part 2 and here].  One of the biggest problems is the lack of any consensus on language and how to describe the presence of free and enslaved blacks in Confederate armies.  In my view we must begin by assuming that blacks were not soldiers based both on the refusal on the part of the Confederate government as well as the almost complete lack of wartime evidence (enlistment papers/muster rolls, etc.)

Continue reading