Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later

My abbreviated course on the Civil War has hit the ground running in the last two weeks. This time around I am using Louis Masur’s brief history of the war and Reconstruction and so far it is working out well. I tend to look for a concise narrative that I can supplement in various ways. For their first supplemental reading I had students read an essay by Charles Dew based on his book, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War.

It’s an ideal reading for high school students. The argument is concise, easy to follow, and the subject matter couldn’t be more conducive to a seminar discussion. And we did, indeed, have a dynamite discussion earlier today. Students thought that Dew’s commissioners helped to answer an important question regarding why the Deep South states interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat. At the same time they struggled with the content of their speeches and editorials. As they discussed the article further I realized that the difficulty has to do with how history students tend to think about the institution of slavery. They think about it primarily in abstract terms with an understanding that life could be incredibly violent and sad. Few survey classes have the time to dig into the complexity of the master-slave relationship or examine the day-to-day lives of slaves. What they miss, unfortunately, is the extent to which slavery was intertwined with assumptions concerning race. Continue reading “Why Charles Dew’s Secessionist Commissioners Matter 150 Years Later”

“The Most Pernicious Idea” 150 Years Later

At the beginning of the Civil War neither side was willing to accept volunteers and/or draft African Americans into their respective armies. For the United States that process only began in fits and starts in 1862 before it commenced in earnest following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For the Confederacy it occurred in March 1865, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox and the end of the war.

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow Howell Cobb penned his famous letter to Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon regarding the controversy surrounding whether slaves should be allowed to join the army in exchange for their freedom.

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R.E. Lee, given as the authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor with which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong–but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. (emphasis mine)

Cobb’s letter is referenced most often in discussions about the central place of slavery and white supremacy within the Confederate experiment. Beyond any strictly historical discussion, however, we have a tendency to push the views expressed in it aside as expressing the philosophy of a failed nascent state. After all, the winning side eventually did embrace the service of roughly 200,000 former slaves and free blacks.

But whether we like it or not Confederate history is a part of American history. The views expressed by Cobb sit comfortably alongside images of the heroic attack of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the broader sweep of our long civil rights narrative. As late as 1948 this nation was still debating whether ‘white and black troops could be kept together.’

From our vantage point 150 years later, whether the United States recruited blacks into its army before the Confederacy is irrelevant. Each of us must embrace the legacy of the experiences of both sides, which ultimately represent two sides of the same coin.

A View of Emancipation From South of the Border

Emancipation MapOver the past few weeks my survey courses have been examining the political debates over the expansion of slavery in the United States as well as the experience of the slaves themselves. As part of the introduction to my Civil War unit today I tried to emphasize just how unexpected the end of slavery was in this country. Few Americans could have anticipated its abrupt end in 1860 given the continued rise in the value of slaves, the amount of wealth slave labor generated, and the extent to which it had become infused in American society.

I also shared with my students that some historians, including William Freehling, have speculated that without a war slavery could have continued into the twentieth century. This last point took them for a loop. They were unable to imagine the United States in the twentieth century with slaves. One student suggested that the system of slave labor always appeared incompatible with a modern economy. A few other students simply had trouble with the idea of the leader of the free world still holding onto slavery.

At that moment I decided to photocopy a short excerpt from Ed Baptist’s new book, which I will share tomorrow, but in the meantime I asked students to consider the image below. I wanted them to understand that even in 1865 (the year slavery ended) the United States was far from the leader of the free world. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I found this image, but it certainly left an impression on my students.

We will continue the discussion tomorrow.

Did Slavery Doom the Confederacy?

In this brief video clip Eric Foner talks with one of his graduate students about the crucial role slavery played in the formation and defeat of the Confederacy. Included is a reference to the debate surrounding the recruitment of slaves into the army. The reference to McCurry is Stephanie McCurry’s, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. This looks to be part of Foner’s ongoing MOOC course.

[Uploaded to YouTube on November 22, 2014]

“Every 3.6 Minutes”

I’ve always struggled with the way I teach the history of slavery to high school students. Pushing my students toward what I hope is a meaningful overview of slavery’s evolution and eventual demise inevitably overshadows change over time, regional differences, and even runs the risk of minimizing the horror of slavery itself. This last category is especially difficult to convey. Continue reading ““Every 3.6 Minutes””