A Few Thoughts for Ed Sebesta and James Loewen

Now that things have calmed down a bit re: the petition asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington, I thought it might be time to offer a few words of advice.  James Loewen recently offered some thoughts in the wake of the controversy.  He finds it difficult to understand the media’s coverage, including its emphasis on Bill Ayers and the overlooking of some of the top scholars in the field:

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, “Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day.”  Within the story, Ayers’s name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer’s name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta’s, not even McPherson’s, surely America’s pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for “Ayers Obama “Memorial Day” wreath yields 7,570 hits, while “McPherson Obama “Memorial Day” yields just 2,570.

Given the recent political fallout over President Obama’s tenuous connection with Ayers should we really be surprised that the media immediately picked up on and emphasized the inclusion of his name?  The ignoring of the other signers goes without saying.  Most interested parties in this debate could care less about what some scholar believes.  In fact, as I’ve learned over the course of writing this blog many people have an irrational distrust of academics and have probably never read anything by James McPherson, not to mention Manisha Sinha and others.  In the end most people’s memory of the war is fueled by stories and other popular cultural expressions and has almost nothing to do with anything that can remotely be characterized as scholarly.  [That’s not to be taken as a criticism, but as an observation that may or may not be accurate.]

Loewen also seems a bit puzzled by the heated debate that followed on a number of websites.  Yes, the crazies came out in full force and even my name entered the mix, but anyone who follows these issues should have expected just that.  Part of the difficulty for Loewen is that he wants us to distinguish between two types of Confederate monuments.   “One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other,” according to Loewen, “glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).”  I may be wrong but I don’t think most people make this distinction.  The lone Confederate soldier in front of the court house is as much about a preferred interpretation of the cause of the war as the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  Likewise, the Davis statue can easily be interpreted and used as a setting for an SCV parade that wishes to honor their Confederate ancestors.  These are academic distinctions that mean little in the real world.

In preparation for next year Ed Sebesta has already set up a blog, which he will update as a new petition is organized – that’s right another petition.  Given the results this year it is appropriate to ask what good it will do to try it again.  Should we simply anticipate a differently worded petition with a new list of signatures?  More importantly, how will a new petition advance the debate and force us to look beyond what are deeply-held assumptions about our Civil War memory?   As far as I am concerned petitions such as this are non-starters.  I would encourage Sebesta and Loewen to rethink their overall approach.  I can’t tell you how many times one of my lesson plans has gone awry.  In those situations it is incumbent on the instructor to evaluate and make the necessary changes.

One of the positive results is that the petition led to the sending of a wreath to the African American Civil War monument in Washington.  Think of how many people now know that this monument exists, not to mention that our memory of the black experience in the Civil War remains largely hidden.  Why not work to bring more of this narrative to the public’s attention next year?  How about a well-publicized tour of the USCT section of Arlington next Memorial Day?

We all want to be activists, but we should never lose sight that we are educators first.

Obama Honors All Veterans

2885804491_7c6d87cf5cIt’s reasonable to wonder how the public discourse might have been different had James Loewen and Edward Sebesta bypassed the ridiculous idea of petitioning the president not to place a wreath a the Confederate monument at Arlington and instead add a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in downtown Washington.  Two things would have been accomplished.  On the one hand their letter would have raised awareness of the history of the Arlington Monument and its symbolism and it would have highlighted an aspect of the Civil War that continues to fly under most people’s radar screen when it comes to our memory of the Civil War.  Instead Loewen and Sebesta provided just one more forum for the crazies who spend their days clogging up message boards with their reactionary neo-Confederate hogwash.  Just look at the comments section at HNN.

Luckily President Obama followed his instincts and/or good counsel and sent an additional wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial.  Such a suggestion from Loewen and Sebesta would have diffused most of the outrage and perhaps would have served to educate that many more people.

Finally, it’s not clear where Obama got the idea to add a wreath.  I’ve read a few references to Kirk Savage’s recent piece in the Washington Post, but that came out after my blog post and link to Caitlin Hopkins at Vast Public Indifference who suggested doing just that.

Earl Ijames’s Silence is Deafening

I have to admit that I am just a little surprised and disappointed that we haven’t heard from Earl Ijames in response to my most recent post.  If you remember, Mr. Ijames left a spirited comment in response to my critique of his position on so-called “black Confederates.”  One particular comment included a reference to one John W. Venable, who supposedly served in Co. H., 21st North Carolina.  As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, no additional references were given by Mr. Ijames to support the claim.  I must assume that while Mr. Ijames most likely believes that many cases can be debated that this particular example is an open and shut case.

Well, it looks like this is not the case at all.  My post of May 18 offered a detailed overview of a number of documents related to Venable’s connection to the Confederate army and it even included two updates.  All of this information was provided to me by two excellent archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  At this point and taken together, the evidence clearly provides a sufficient reason to doubt that Venable served as a soldier in the 21st North Carolina.  Again, additional evidence may come to light and it may even be possible to interpret the available evidence in a way that connects Venable to this particular regiment, but what I find striking is that Mr. Ijames has not added his own voice to this discussion.  After all, Venable is his guy.  It looks like Mr. Ijames conducted another one of his “workshops” on the subject at the Greensboro Country Club on May 19.  I would love to know what he said about Venable and how he supported his preferred interpretation.  Did he do so having read my most recent post on the subject?  I welcome a comment from Mr. Ijames on this issue and I am even willing to feature it as a guest post.  It would no doubt be instructive for all of us.

Until then I want to leave you with one thought.  If this little discussion about Venable has helped with anything it is in reminding us of just how difficult it is to research and confirm the existence of legitimate black Confederate soldiers, as opposed to those who were present with the armies as slaves.  How many times has someone offered a piece of evidence and suggested that it alone demonstrates the presence of a soldier?  Research takes time; it involves knowing what to look for and, most importantly, how to interpret the documents.  For an example of this, take a look at the short essay in North and South Magazine by Thomas Lowry, which focuses on three case studies that involve claims made for the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  All of them begin with a primary source and all of them collapse with a little persistence and attempt to confirm and/or supplement the data.  I think the problem here is that if you want to find black Confederate soldiers you can.  The challenge is doing so in a way that can be analyzed and discussed in a public setting.  This is one of the reasons why it is so important to publish findings in in places that include a peer-review process.

As for Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.

Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

Was John Venable a Black Confederate Soldier?

Update as of 5/20: My contact at the NCDAH checked the Adjutant General’s “Roll of Honor” and did not find John W. Venable listed. This was a list (in no way complete) of soldiers serving in NC regiments compiled between 1862 and 1863 or ’64.

Update as of 5/19: So here is where we stand.  First time John Venable is listed in the census he is a free black in his dad’s household – Jeff (which I take it is Jefferson) Venable who is a blacksmith in 1850 and again in 1860 in Surry County.  in 1870, John is listed as head of household and a farmer – his brother is a blacksmith however and they are in Yadkin County.  Ten years later John is listed as head and a blacksmith and living in Yadkin.  Being in Yadkin explains the affidavit from Sawyer who was in Yadkin (explains as in makes sense geographically).

We still have a number of questions that need to be answered.  How do we reconcile the clerk’s statement – no law for this – with the Sawyer affidavit?  My contact at the NCDAH has this to say:

On the one hand the Clerk was obviously wrong in that John Venable, as far as we can track him, is free and not enslaved.  But lets look at the clerk – C M McKaughan in 1920 he is 42 – so born after slavery.  He may have no concept of what a free black man was.  It’s weak but nonetheless plausible, I think.  It might be his only defense – born in a post-slave world, of age at Jim Crow, does he know of such a thing as a free black.  Thus when confronted with a colored woman applying for a pension he thinks “slave” and dismisses the application.  I think it says nothing one way or the other about service – only about what the clerk knew or understood of days before his birth.

Sawyers statement is problematic as well in that we can not substantiate the claim.  The problem is that no records exist that list a John Venable, mullato, as a soldier.  Moore’s Roster includes no listing.  So, what can we reasonably conclude at this point?  For one thing, the clerk is obviously wrong.  The man John Venable (middle initial is H) who has a wife Sarah is a mulatto and is a free person of color in 1850 and 1860.  Sawyers’ statement stands alone and can not be substantiated, which means that we cannot conclude based on the available evidence that John Venable was a black Confederate soldier.

Let me be clear that I am not saying once and for all that John Venable was not a black Confederate soldier, just that the available evidence does not permit us to draw that conclusion.  Perhaps Mr. Ijames has additional documentation in this case.  If so, I urge him to bring it to our attention.  Unfortunately, this is how many of these cases end up.  Primary sources are collected and a conclusion is drawn without corroborating it with other evidence and without giving attention to the obvious, that documents must be interpreted carefully and that often there is more than one legitimate interpretation.  This should be a lesson to all of us.

————-

In one of his comments Earl Ijames referenced the name of Pvt. John Venable of the 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H as evidence of a legitimate black Confederate soldier.  There was no explanation attached except for the following: “Colored. Enlisted on June 5, 1861.”  Without any additional information it was impossible for me to respond or take part in the kind of discussion that serious historians ought to entertain – until now.  If Mr. Ijames is unable or unwilling to bring about that kind of discourse than I will with a little help from my friends in the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  I now have four documents related to Venable’s status in the Confederate army and quite a number of questions.

The documents include John Venable’s widow’s pension application. Unfortunately, I could not upload the second page of the pension application, but it does say, “disallowed no law for this” at the bottom.  The 1927 pension law that included former slaves made no provisions for their widows. The second document refers to him as a “good soldier” and the last document refers to Sarah as the “widow of a slave.”  According to my contact, John W. Venable shows up on the 1880 census in Surry County NC.  The census indicates that he was living with his wife Sarah, a daughter, and his occupation is listed as blacksmith. Venable could not be found in NC in the 1870 census and there appears to be no death certificate.

The published troop roster for 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H., lists a John W. Venable (no rank) and says this about his service: “Colored. Enlisted on June 5, 1861. No further records.” In compiling the roster for that company, the editors did consult some muster rolls. My contact spoke to one of the current editors (he was not around when they did the 21st Reg. volume) who suggested that if Venable had been found on one of the muster rolls, his entry in the published book would have indicated him present on that date.  There is a John Sawyers listed in 21st Regiment NCST, Co. H in the published roster, likely the fellow who provided the affidavit.

Here is where it gets very interesting.  There is no Compiled Service Record for John W. Venable on the NARA microfilm.  In addition, there are two other Venables listed in the published roster for Co. H. (A common name in that part of NC and the adjoining area of VA). My contact found them on the 1860 census, both of their families seemed to be on small farms.  The next move will be to look at the slave census and see if either of them had slaves.

This is why we have an obligation to ask questions and those who make claims have an obligation to back them up – nothing more, nothing less.  I don’t know whether this man was a soldier since we now have too many unanswered questions given the frequency of the name in the unit and the fact that there is no service record for John W. Venable.  As soon as I hear something more I will pass it on.