Shenandoah (1965)

Students in my Civil War Memory course finally finished watching Gone With the Wind.  With all of the discussion and analysis it took us two weeks to get through it.  It was well worth it and for the most part they really enjoyed it.  We are now transitioning to the Civil War Centennial and the movie, Shenandoah.  As part of their preparation for this movie I had students research the centennial and analyze newspaper articles from the period.  Today we discussed how both the civil rights movement and the Cold War influenced how Americans remembered and commemorated the war in the 1960s.  Having been released in January 1965, just six months after Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Shenandoah clearly reflects this broader cultural and racial shift.  In contrast with earlier films such as Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation this film does not glorify the plantation South.  This strong anti-Lost Cause theme emerges early in the film.  Consider the scene around the diner table.  Charlie Anderson is challenged by one of his sons who argues that the family can no longer ignore the war.  The father asks his sons if they desire to own slaves.  He then goes on to ask: “Now suppose you had a friend that owned slaves and suppose somebody was going to come and them them away from him.  Would you help him fight to keep them.”  One son insists that he would not and notes that, “I don’t see any reason to fight for something that I don’t believe is right and don’t think that a real friend would ask me to.”  The dinner table reflects the broader moral issues that Americans were struggling with at the time.  But even apart from the issue of civil rights the movie fits neatly into the ongoing ideological war with the Soviet Union.  There is a moral clarity that comes through in this scene that reinforced America’s sense of its own place as leader of the free world.

This anti-Lost Cause theme returns in the above scene when Charlie Anderson confronts a Confederate officer hoping to recruit the Anderson boys.  Somehow we are supposed to imagine that six strapping young Virginians were able to avoid conscription for two years.  Anderson defends the necessity of keeping his sons on the farm by insisting that his farm was built “without the sweat of one slave.”  The shift from GWTW is striking in Anderson’s refusal to make any sacrifice to slaveholding Virginia or the Confederacy.  This unwillingness to identify specifically with slavery removes it from the ongoing debate about civil rights.  I am confident that my students will enjoy this movie and I am looking forward to the class discussions.

Why I Don’t Celebrate Lee-Jackson Day

A number of readers took issue with last week’s post in which I reduced the celebration of Lee-Jackson Day, here in Virginia, to free parking.  I guess I could have provided some thoughtful analysis about the almost complete lack of interest in this particular day as a result of changing demographics as well as other factors.

So, since I didn’t make my own personal view sufficiently clear, let me do so now.  The reason I don’t celebrate Lee-Jackson Day is because I don’t celebrate the cause for which Lee and Jackson are remembered.  They are remembered for their service in an army that functioned as the military extension of a government that was committed to perpetuating slavery and white supremacy.  I find it simply impossible to distinguish between the individuals in question, including their many virtues, and the cause for which they attached themselves to.  Because I abhor slavery I am glad that the Confederate government, along with Lee and Jackson, failed and that our national sin of slavery was abolished.

I don’t think I’ve stated anything controversial here.  I do hope, however, that it clarifies things.

Where Were All the Black Confederates in the Summer of 1864?

Thanks to Brooks Simpson and Ken Noe for participation in my most recent post on black Confederates.  Their thorough comments in response to a reader who put forward what he believed to be evidence for black Confederate soldiers is a clinic on how to engage in serious historical analysis.  I can’t tell you what it means to me to have such respected professional historians as regular readers of this blog.  You would also do well to check out Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent post on the subject as well as the clever thought experiment over at Vast Public Indifference.

At one point in the discussion today Ken Noe offered the following:

I recently completed a project that required me to read the letters and diaries of 320 CS soldiers. They wrote a lot about slavery, slave labor in camp, their opposition to emancipation, and their mixed feelings about the 1865 Confederate Congressional debates over arming blacks. But not a one of them–not one–described black men fighting beside them as armed soldiers for the Confederacy. What I’d need are a lot of letters that did describe that. I’d also need evidence that the 1865 Confederate slavery debates never took place after all, because why debate the issue if black men were already soldiers in Confederate service? Finally, some official mention from the Confederate government before 1865 would help.

Before proceeding I want to mention that the project that Ken speaks of will be published shortly by the University of North Carolina Press and it promises to be a very interesting study.  All of Ken’s questions are relevant, but I was particularly struck by his emphasis on the lack of references to black Confederates from the men in his sample.  One would think that at some point a Confederate solider would acknowledge the presence of black soldiers rather than servants, teamsters, cooks, etc.  I don’t know one historian who has come across such a letter, though I assume that a few did serve or were able to pass as white soldiers.  Continue reading “Where Were All the Black Confederates in the Summer of 1864?”

How Much for the Black Confederate?

[Hat-tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates]

Looks like I missed a very interestingAntiques Roadshow last night.  A descendant of Andrew Chandler brought in the original famous photograph of his great-great-grandfather and slave, Silas Chandler.  The piece was assessed between $30,000-$40,000, by the very capable, Wes Cowan of History Detectives fame.  This is one of the more popular stories floating out there in the crazy world of black Confederates.  Silas Chandler is regularly touted as one of the best examples of a black Confederate who fought for the cause.  The standard “neo-Confederate” line can be found here [warning: turn the mute button off first] and you can even buy a Chandler Brothers t-shirt from Dixie Outfitters.  The transcript of the appraisal as well as a video can be accessed here.

I was a little disappointed with Cowan’s interpretation, though I guess it could have been much worse in different hands.  Cowan should have responded immediately to the following from his guest:

The gentleman on the right is Silas Chandler, his slave, or as we’ve always called him, manservant. Andrew Chandler fought with the 44th Mississippi Cavalry, as did Silas. They’re about the same age, joined the Confederate army when Andrew was 16, Silas was 17, and they fought in four battles together.

Silas did not fight with the 44th Mississippi.  He was a slave.  And Silas did not join the Confederate army when he was 17.  He was a slave.  Cowan correctly identifies Silas as enslaved, but then goes on to ask the following: “And Silas actually received a pension from the Confederate government for his service during the war, isn’t that correct?”  No, it’s not correct.  The Confederate government did not issue pensions; rather, veterans were able to apply for pensions from the states in which they lived following the war.  However, Cowan fails to mention that while some slaves did receive pensions this did not signify status as a soldier.  The viewer is left to wonder whether Silas was indeed a soldier. I know, it’s an excusable mistake, but in this case it makes all the difference.

We need to be careful when it comes to telling these stories.  We need to be sensitive to the military records when determining service as a soldier as opposed to simply throwing words such as “service”, “fought”, “joined” around loosely as is typically the case.  More importantly, we need to be careful about imposing our assumptions about the relationships between these men.  I am happy that the descendants of these two men are now close friends, but that has absolutely nothing at all to do with understanding the master-slave relationship through Andrew and Silas Chandler.  We need to take care of our history.

Remembering USCTs in Nashville

This is a very interesting video about a recent monument that was erected in Nashville’s National Cemetery to honor the 2,000 USCTs who are buried there.  The video includes reflections from black reenactors (including the individual who posed for the sculpture) who reflect on the importance of acknowledging the service of these men along with an interview with the sculptor.  I wonder whether the push to honor legitimate black soldiers in the United States army explains the recent ceremony in nearby Giles County, Tennessee honoring 18 “black Confederates.” You will remember that the VA denied these men markers after determining that they were slaves.