I‘ve been thinking about the recent press release by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the eve of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry. If you remember, they have chosen to commemorate the death of Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be black and working at the local train station at the time of the raid. There are a number of things that are disturbing here. Referencing Shepherd as an “unfortunate black citizen” reflects the most basic misunderstanding of black civil rights history since the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks could not be citizens. Unfortunately, that is about par for the course when it comes to getting the basic facts right in the SCV.
What is more disturbing, however, is the blatant way in which the SCV distorts black history to serve their own agenda. Notice that at no point in their announcement did they even mention why John Brown was in Harpers Ferry. They do mention his “nefarious scheme”, but it would be helpful if the public was told what that scheme involved: How about nothing less than the freeing of the slaves. Now please don’t misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that we should not engage in serious debate about the ethics of Brown’s life and actions in Kansas and Virginia. The problem here is that the SCV has set up the parameters of debate in a way that serves their own purposes of distancing slavery from Confederate and Southern History. More to the point, why honor Heyward Shepherd at all? It is unfortunate that he was caught in the cross-fire, but does that in and of itself constitute a sufficient reason to honor him or give him his own day? Would the SCV have taken these steps if Shepherd happened to be a white baggage handler?
The bigger problem is the choice of which black man to honor. If you were just to rely on the SCV’s press release you might think that the only black individual in Harpers Ferry was Shepherd. And here is where the intentional distortion of the past occurs. There were five black with Brown at Harpers Ferry: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave. How do these men fit into the SCV’s understanding of this event? Why aren’t they being honored as opposed to Shepherd. I think I have an idea. Notice in the press release that Shepherd is characterized as a “faithful employee.” What possible reason could the SCV have in characterizing an employee as faithful? Of course, anyone familiar with the historiography of Southern history knows that that one word, ‘faithful’, resonates throughout the Lost Cause literature, which characterizes slavery as populated by faithful and obedient slaves.
This morning I came across an excellent video on the black legacy of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. The documentary did not focus on Brown, but on the five blacks who accompanied him: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, Shields Green, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Osborn Perry Anderson.
Although I skipped around a bit I am pretty sure that you will not find Shepherd’s name mentioned (perhaps a brief reference) in this 48 minute video. The importance of the Harpers Ferry Raid in the local black community is to be found in the actions of the five men mentioned above. The distance between the SCV’s preferred memory of Brown and Harpers Ferry and the history of black Americans in the area couldn’t be wider. As you will see in the video, for example, Heyward Shepherd’s death, however tragic and unfortunate, does not explain the rise of Storer College and its rich history of education and black civic activism.
The Army of Northern Virginia of the Sons of Confederate Veterans will kick off the Sesquicentennial of the War Between the States on Saturday, October 3, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, by holding their annual meeting beginning at 10:30 at the Block house (John Brown’s Fort). The purpose of the meeting is to announce that October 16 will be known as HAYWARD SHEPHERD DAY, honoring the unfortunate black citizen who met his death as John Brown’s first victim 150 years ago. Hayward, a faithful employee and Baggage Master of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was murdered in furtherance of John Brown’s nefarious scheme to capture the arsenal in that famous city. The SCV will honor Hayward Shepherd by placing a wreath at the 1931 marker honoring him across from the Engine House where Brown’s raid ended. Mr. Richard Hines, a well known historian from Alexandria, Virginia, will discuss the real John Brown.
Many today try to whitewash Brown’s crimes and call him a martyr. Mr. Hines will discuss Brown’s true motivations and his association with a group of famous Northern abolitionists (the Secret 6) who financed his plot and encouraged him to murder and commit crimes against his fellow Americans. The public is welcome to come see the wreath laying and hear Mr. Hines speak. [my emphasis]
Hines is a former managing editor for Southern Partisan. The SCV’s interest in Hayward Shepherd goes back to a joint project with the UDC to erect a statue commemorating Shepherd in 1931. [See here, here, and here] In choosing to begin their commemoration of the Civil War with this event the SCV has solidified its place as defenders of a Lost Cause that was lost long ago.
For those of you with a more serious interest in Civil War history check out the following events/links here, here, and here.
This past weekend the city of Ringgold, Georgia unveiled a Civil War statue dedicated to General Patrick Cleburne. The connection to Ringgold seems tenuous at best as he was there only once in his life and only for a few hours at that. Cleburne took charge of an effective rear guard action at Ringgold Gap against elements of Joe Hooker’s Corps in the wake of the Confederate defeat at Missionary Ridge outside of Chattanooga in November 1864. Let’s face it, Cleburne has always been an appealing Confederate military figure. A number of biographies have recently been published, including Craig Symonds’s The Stonewall of the West: Patrick Cleburne & the Civil War (University of Kentucky Press, 1997). In addition, a graphic novel was recently published. Cleburne has also bee painted by a host of Civil War artists. He’s got the cool sobriquet, “Stonewall” which conjures up images of Jackson and he’s also got the whole Irish immigrant thing in his favor. Clearly, he was a charismatic and talented division commander. Better yet, he died in a blaze of glory in a forlorn assault at Franklin, Tennessee on November 30, 1864. But still, one could ask, why Cleburne?
No doubt, part of the appeal of Cleburne is his controversial, but widely misunderstood, proposal to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom. At first glance, such a proposal singles out Cleburne as something of a progressive minded white Southerner who seems to be on the right side of history fighting for a government pledged to the maintenance of slavery and a society built on white supremacy. The problem that most fail to understand about Cleburne and others who supported some version of the plan is that they were not, in any way, pushing for the abolition of slavery. In fact, one way to understand Cleburne’s proposal is as a means of preserving the institution of slavery. [Once again, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s treatment of this debate in Confederate Emancipation (Oxford University Press, 2006). The debate that raged throughout much of 1864 (and even earlier in the war) challenged some of the most basic assumptions of a slave holding society. While Cleburne – and eventually Robert E. Lee himself – called for enlistment of slaves in exchange for freedom others believed that it was possible to compel slaves to fight for the Confederacy. Cleburne and Lee understood, however, that slaves would make poor soldiers, but that observation no doubt was reinforced by their experience maintaining a cohesive fighting force. They also had to deal with the growing evidence of large numbers of runaway slaves, some of whom were returning with the Union army by 1864. How many white Southerners had difficulty coming to terms with the very idea that slaves desired to be free? Didn’t part of the justification for slavery itself assume that slaves had achieved a kind of freedom through the paternalistic embrace of the master?
When I reflect on Cleburne’s proposal I can’t help but be impressed with the desperation of a division commander who clearly perceives the military challenges standing in the way of Confederate victory. The recruitment of former slaves into the Union army reinforced the need for drastic action. But that is how this plan must be undestood. It was not a step toward emancipation, but as a means to achieve military victory. That the Confederacy did not begin recruiting slaves into the army until it was too late suggests not only the controversial nature of the plan, but perhaps also how little Cleburne understood of his adopted “country”.