I recently discovered an excellent blog written by a graduate student in history who is very interested in issues related to the Lost Cause, public history, and memory. One particular post on Michael Hardy’s blog, North Carolina and the Civil War, really caught my attention. The writer applauds Hardy for his sincere interest in researching his Confederate ancestors who fought in the war, but expresses concern over his failure to acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the war on a number of different levels. There are very few references to race and slavery and the few that do reference it buy into the myth of loyal slaves and black Confederates. The writer concludes with the following:
The members of the Urquhart-Gillette Camp No. 1471, Sons of Confederate Veterans in Southampton County, Virginia hope to raise enough money to purchase the boyhood home of William Mahone, which is currently on the market. Mahone’s family moved into the home following “Turner’s Rebellion” in 1831 and established a tavern a fairly successful tavern. While I applaud the SCV for taking on this cause there is something just slightly humorous about their decision to utilize Mahone’s home for your standard SCV/UDC events:
The group holds monthly meetings in a private restaurant room in Franklin, and [Tommy] Simmons said Mahone’s Tavern would provide a meeting place and activity center for the local SCV camp, as well as for the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other
community historic and civic groups.
As many of you know I’ve spent considerable time reading and writing about William Mahone’s postwar career, and while he was involved in various kinds of commemorative events his goal was almost always to further his business and political interests. Mahone led a veterans organization made up of men from his Virginia brigade and he authorized biographies as a means to attract interest in his plan for railroad consolidation. His forays into the past usually resulted in controversy owing to his abrasive personality and political convictions. The point is that Mahone did not languish in the Lost Cause or weep over the death of the Confederacy; rather, he was optimistic about the future and confident that he could bring Virginia into the modern age. Such a goal stands in sharp contrast to our memory of white Southerners in the postwar period who stood up defiantly against the modernizing tendencies that they so valiantly fought against for four years.
Most interesting, of course, is Mahone’s politics and position on issues of race. One has to wonder what Mr. Simmons has envisioned when he references using the home as a “meeting place and activity center.” How many members of this particular chapter of the SCV are aware of Mahone’s leadership of the Readjuster Party from 1879 to 1883 which was the most successful bi-racial third party in the postwar South? Do they know that Mahone was considered to be a “Judas” by much of the state and even the men he led into battle for bringing about a political coalition with black Virginians that led to important advances within the public sphere? Black Virginians attended public schools in the largest numbers and served in local governments around the state, while Mahone served as senator in Washington and voted with the Republican Party:
In 1858 occurred the raid of John Brown and the raid of Mahone and the Readjusters in 1879, though less bloody was more dangerous than that of John Brown. Both raids occurred in Va, and the negro was in both cases the instrument relied on to destroy the old order of things. [George Bagby’s pamphlet, John Brown and William Mahone: An Historical Parallel, Foreshadowing Civil Trouble]
The Revolution gave us but one Arnold, during the whole seven years of its course, while the Confederate war failed to yield a single one on either side until after it had been fought out.” Though many of Virginia’s native sons “held out long and well. . . at last some of them succumbed, and are now found, Arnold-like, leading their old enemy against their old friends and associates. [The Richmond State, 1881]
Reconstruction came late to Virginia and it came not at the hands of so-called “Carpetbaggers” but at the hands of one of the most successful Confederate generals. As a result, white Virginians consciously erased Mahone and the Readjusters from their public memory well into the twentieth century.
Again, I wish the SCV all the best in raising the necessary funds to purchase the property, but I am not at all confident that Mahone would want them in his home.
You can find additional cartoons by this illustrator at birthofanotion.com. If you haven’t already done so I highly recommend reading Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over, which is now in paperback. In addition, I recently finished reading Joe Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army. Both studies analyze the role of slavery and race during the war and particularly the way it shaped Confederates and white Southerners. Glatthaar’s book is a first-rate synthesis of recent Civil War historiography without getting bogged down in an analysis of those studies. Check out the interview with Glatthaar at Civil War Book Review.
Jackson County, Alabama recently passed a proclamation declaring April as Confederate Heritage and History Month. You gotta love the wording of this one:
The proclamation states that its purpose is to recognize Montgomery’s role as the birthplace of the Confederacy and that “upon the conclusion of the war, many of these same leaders and citizens worked tirelessly to reunite and rebuild this country and forge reconciliation.” Also, “our recognition of Confederate history also recognizes that slavery was one of the causes of the war, an issue in the war, was ended by the war and slavery is hereby condemned.“
The proclamation states that “the knowledge of the role of the Confederate States of America in the history of our state and nation is vital to understanding who we are and what we are” and that its purpose is to “honor our past and from it draw the courage, strength and wisdom to reconcile ourselves and go forward into the future together as Alabamians and Americans.“
I wonder if black Alabamians in the postwar-South would agree that the state’s leaders struggled to “reunite” and “rebuild” this country through a process of “reconciliation.” And can you believe that slavery was mentioned in a proclamation of this sort? Don’t get too excited, however. Claiming that slavery was “one of the causes” really means that it was no more or less important than the tariff. That said, I agree wholeheartedly with the first quote in the second paragraph, though I suspect not for the same reasons that the author[s] intended.
One of my readers passed on an interesting story that fits perfectly into my series of posts on so-called black Confederates. Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia is scheduled to declare March 5 to be “Bill Yopp Day”; the ceremony will include descendants of Yopp as well as state legislators and a number of “notable historians.” Unfortunately, there is no indication as to which historians have been included. For what it is worth the author of an upcoming work of historical fiction based on Yopp’s life has been invited. I’ve never heard of Yopp so I find this story and especially the plans to commemorate what many take to be a legitimate black Confederate to be quite interesting. The event is being advertised as part of the month-long commemoration of Confederate history. Who was Bill Yopp and why is he being commemorated? The only information I could find online comes from various Southern Heritage sites, which tend to repeat the same themes and include very little in the form of serious research. Check out the following sites:
Apparently, there are a number of newspaper articles from the turn of the century which indicate that Yopps “served” as a drummer in a regiment with his master and helped to secure Confederate pensions for the state’s veterans at the turn of the century. Yopp is apparently the only black man in the state buried in a Confederate cemetery.
What I find interesting is the decision to commemorate Yopp’s life during March rather than February which is Black History Month. The timing suggests that Yopp’s significance is to be understood in terms of how white Georgians have chosen to remember his life. Is it possible that it would have been more difficult to celebrate the Confederate connection of a black American during the month of February? It seems to me that if black and white southerners are committed to demonstrating the loyalty of large numbers of slaves to the Confederacy than they should be comfortable acknowledging this as part of Black History Month.
Beyond the newspaper articles that are available does anyone know if Yopp’s life has been analyzed by a legitimate historian? I suspect that the answer is no, but will wait to hear otherwise. If I am right I would suggest that someone take up this topic. It would make for a great case study of Civil War memory and may shed light on the postwar construction of black Confederates. Perhaps I will do it myself.
Short Additional Thought
One of the striking features of the numerous websites where you will find examples of so-called black Confederates is how little information is actually included concerning their individual lives. The value that is placed on the lives of these men is purely instrumental in terms of the extent to which they support an agenda whose goal it is to remove any discussion of race and slavery from the analysis of the history of the Confederacy and the Civil War. Their lives are reduced to their supposed “service” and “loyalty” to the Confederate cause and their masters. No attempt is made to come to terms with their lives as individuals as rooted in their own local experiences. Their presence in the army is taken for granted rather than as something that needs to be explained. In short, these men are stripped of their humanity and agency because the individuals who write about them have no use for the totality of their experiences.
A short survey of SCV websites and other organizations read as if their content were “xeroxed” (or cut and pasted) from one site to another. This stands in sharp contrast to the recent historiography of slavery which is deeply rooted in both time and place and in working to highlight the individual experiences of slaves to the extent that the available evidence permits.