The vast majority of black Confederate accounts on the Internet follow a well-worn narrative. First, we are somehow to believe that servants/slaves volunteered to accompany their owners to war and in doing so solidified a bond of friendship and a commitment to the achievement of Confederate independence. Many of these postwar accounts offer rich descriptions of servants who rush onto a battlefield to rescue their wounded master or secure the dead body for the long trip home. These stories were and continue to be told by whites as a way to minimize the horrors of slavery and as a vindication of the Confederate cause. African Americans almost never come out from under the shadow of white storytellers. To put it another way, African Americans remain an extension of the white storyteller’s will or as part of his chosen memory of the past. It should come as no surprise then that many of these accounts paint a picture of peaceful relations between former master and slave following the end of the war. We see this clearly in the case of Silas and Andrew Chandler. Even Andrew Chandler Battiale, who appeared on the Antiques Road Show for an appraisal of the famous tintype suggested such a relationship: “The men grew up together; they worked the fields together, and continued to live closely throughout the rest of their lives.”
Every once in a while you will read about free blacks petitioning local or state government to become a slave. In the wrong hands such accounts reflect a lingering Lost Cause view that slavery was benign. Why else would a free black individual choose bondage? Many of these requests were made in the late antebellum period following John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Many southern states, especially in the Deep South, worried about the effects of the raid on their black populations, both free and enslaved. In addition to worrying about the ramifications of the Brown raid memories of Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection were easily recalled. Visitors from the North were suspected of inciting blacks and were often forced to leave. The smallest acts of violence and arson by blacks were met with swift and brutal punishment to prevent what many perceived to be the beginning of a more general uprising. In many localities this response included a severe crackdown on the movement and rights of free blacks. Free blacks already occupied a precarious position in the South, but the increased focus on their movement may help to explain why some chose slavery over freedom.
If I were heading back into the classroom to teach my course on the Civil War and historical memory I would begin by showing this video from the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. If you haven’t seen it you are missing one of the more innovative exhibits to emerge early on for the Civil War 150th. The choice of Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” is the perfect accompaniment for this collage of images that covers both the short- and long-term consequences of the Civil War.
Teachers can use this video to explore how images, text, and music come together to form a historical narrative. Encourage students to critique the video by pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Which images are out of place or missing? What other musical choices could be utilized as well as choice of text?
This is a question that Howard N. Meyer posed in the November 1961 issue of Negro Digest. It’s a thought-provoking essay that anticipates a burgeoning black counter-memory that emerged in the pages of popular magazines by 1965. It also provides a helpful reference point to gauge the evolution of Civil War memory over the past few decades. Here are a few choice quotes:
One is first tempted to say that the commission’s plans have been marked by a kind of equal treatment: reverence as much for the Stars and Bars as for the Stars and Stripes, honor as much for Jefferson Davis as for Abraham Lincoln; tributes for the Boys in Gray as for the Boys in Blue; equality, that is, for all except the Negro.
Chairman Grant is eighty years old, and apparently still accepts the ideology that prevailed during his turn-of-the-century youth: that North-South reconciliation is more important than human rights for the Negro.
What will the Civil War Centennial be like? It will last four years. Battles will be re-enacted, many on a huge scale. Colorful ceremonies will be held, exhibitions of war trophies and mementos organized. There will be memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies…
The success of Southern apologists meant not merely that the Confederate side of the war was hygenized and glamorized. The cause of the North was correspondingly demeaned.
One does not have to deny the tragedy of blasted homes and lives to say that the Old South depended on an iniquitous social system that could not be tolerated in America. It does not serve America well, in the world of 1961, to ignore the evil and iniquity of slavery in marking the Centennial of the conflict.
When the firing on Fort Sumter was re-enacted, in a setting of live oaks and magnolias, who was there to remind the play-actors, in ever so small a voice, that the original shot was, after all, treason?