The Civil War may be long over, but the spirit of rebellion is hard to extinguish even in something as innocent as a girls’ summer camp. Southern Belle is an insider’s look at the 1861 Athenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South rises again. Every summer, young women from around the world eagerly sign up to become that iconic and romantic image of southern identity: the southern belle, replete with hoop skirt, hat and gloves, singing the region’s anthem, “Dixie.” However, the camp can only achieve this version of Southern femininity by whitewashing the past. The teachers, all of whom work for no compensation, hope to instill genteel manners and build pride in southern heritage. To accomplish this, they have carefully selected the time period so they can share the “truth” with the next generation about why the South seceded from the Union. For them, the Civil War had little to do with slavery and everything to do with states’ rights and unfair taxation.
The PBS show, History Detectives, has completed filming an episode on Silas Chandler in West Point, Mississippi. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I would be taking part in this show, but I recently learned that producers decided to take the story in a different direction and would not need my assistance. I was a bit disappointed, but ultimately I just hope they get the story right. Well, I have it on good authority that not only did they correct the mistakes made on the Antiques Road Show episode, but that investigators uncovered additional material that puts the nail in the coffin of the story that the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others have spread on their websites and other materials for years. The show is scheduled to air in July or August.
Rapper 50 Cent and MTV recently revealed a clip from his upcoming Rock Doc titled “50 Cent: The Origin of Me,” which features 50 Cent traveling to Edgefield, South Carolina, in search of his roots. In one clip, the rapper encounters an elderly woman, who explains the significance of the Confederate Flag to 50 Cent, who appears visibly irritated with the conversation. “People really don’t understand what’s going on at that period of time,” the elderly woman told 50 Cent. “Black citizens in this country really needs to study the history, because it’s just as much the black ancestry as it is the White ancestry.” Despite 50′s explanation for the Confederate flag being seen as racist and why it offends many people, the woman acted as though there were no valid reasons for taking offense to it, saying that it has to do with black ancestry as well as white ancestry. “She’s offering her truth- what‚ she’s accepted as the truth based on information given to her, but I don’t agree with it,” 50 Cent said.
I recently re-read Philip D. Dillard’s essay, “What Price Must We Pay for Victory?: View on Arming Slaves from Lynchburg, Virginia and Galveston, Texas, which appeared in a collection of essays honoring the career of Emory Thomas. Dillard argues that the slave enlistment debate was shaped by a localities proximity to Union military threats. While Lynchburg was forced to deal with a Union advance in the Shenandoah Valley by late 1864, Galveston remained relatively isolated from the threat of war. Dillard reminds us that sentiment in connection with the enlistment debate was shaped directly by the perceived threat to slavery. Residents of Lynchburg eventually came to grudgingly endorse a resolution supporting enlistment while Galveston’s location allowed its residents to consider the threat to slavery and the racial hierarchy in isolation from the threat of war.
One editorial in the Galveston News authored by “Pelican Private” who was stationed in the Galveston defenses caught my attention:
The discussion is untimely and fraught with evil; it engenders panic when there is no danger. Shall we sell slavery, the legacy of our fathers–a legacy halloed by the best blood of the Caucassian race–to purchase independence: Go to the red fields of Manassas, Sharpsburg and Shiloh…and tell their whitened bones that you are so base, so low, so abject that you are ready to abandon the cause for which they fell.
I have no idea whether this individual was a slaveholder, but I don’t think it matters. What I find interesting in the account is the difficulty involved in imagining slaves as soldiers. While the residents of Lynchburg eventually endorsed such an idea we ought not to make the mistake of assuming that supporters eagerly embraced the measure. In fact, that it came so late in the war suggests just how committed white southerners were to a slave society. It also reflects their commitment to the concept of the citizen-soldier. White southerners were obligated to serve their nation because of their status as free men. Slaves were not simply property, they were not citizens of the country. Pelican’s editorial must be understood, in part, as a plea to maintain the status of all white men.
This is an interesting little report on the commemorative events surrounding the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter. A number of people are interviewed, but what I find so interesting is the difference in tone between NPS interpreter, Michael Allen and the Kennedy brothers (aka the Civil War’s Statler and Waldorf), who identify themselves as “Southern Historians.” I just love that reference. It has nothing to do with regional identification because if it did they would have to include hundreds of historians who were all born and raised in the South. I live in the South. Am I a Southern Historian in their eyes? You get my point. No, that identification marks a certain way of looking at the history of the South and its tone is overly defensive and presentist – a perspective that I suspect does not reflect the views of most white and black southerners. The language used reflects very little interest in the nineteenth century itself. Just listen to these two describe the federal government as tariff and money obsessed and intent on going around the world to oppress innocent people at the point of a bloody bayonet.
You certainly leave with a sense of their emotional connection to the issue, but it’s not much of an explanation.
The bigger problem here is that the media’s insistence on interviewing people like the Kennedy brothers reinforces the assumption that this is the Southern view of the war. They may be entertaining and they may refer to themselves as Southern historians, but they do not speak for the South.