This last trimester I am working closely with a very talented senior, who is experimenting with historical fiction set during the Civil War. The story is set in Virginia and told through the eyes of a young Virginia girl. We decided that it might be helpful to base the story on some primary sources so today the two of us headed on over to the Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia. We decided to take a look at Sara Ann Graves Strickler’s wartime diary, which is incredibly rich. I’ve known about the diary for some time, but this was my first opportunity to read it for myself. It was a real treat having the opportunity to share that inexpressible joy that comes with holding an important piece of history. As I like to say, in those brief moments time collapses. We took turns reading random entries to one another and looking to see if Sara addressed specific events during the war. Diaries such as Sara’s get us up close to individual lives and force us to confront the contingency that defined their lives and many of the same hopes, dreams, and fears that animate our own. For my student that connection was reinforced in a shared interest in the French language and literature, the references of which were sprinkled throughout the diary.
On Friday I posted a couple of newspaper notices on the subject of black Confederates from Vicki Betts. Here is one more from a Memphis newspaper for your consideration.
MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [MEMPHIS, TN], May 14, 1861, p. 3, c. 2
Our Free Colored Men–What Shall Be Done With Them?–Editors Appeal: The proposition of the committee of safety, to enlist companies of our free colored men, is not relished by our citizens generally; and the question comes up, “what must be done with them?” Let me suggest to that committee that they confer with Major-General Pillow as to the policy of placing four or five of our free negroes in each company from Memphis, for cooking, washing, etc. That is their post, one of inferiority, not of citizen soldiers. They understand that sort of work better than any boys who are called to do battle. Let them be made useful in that way.
Yesterday’s post on the sparsely attended Jefferson Davis reenactment in Montgomery, Alabama generated a great deal of interest and comments. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which hosted the event, has crafted a narrative that imagines itself as uniquely qualified to set the terms of how Confederate soldiers and the war as a whole ought to be remembered and commemorated. They fashion themselves as engaged in a gallant defense of a history that is supposedly under assault by various individuals and organizations. The zeal for their cause is wrapped up in the assumption that their lineage is both a necessary and sufficient condition for their preferred view; this functions to create a battle of us v. them. The war being waged is against vague notions of political correctness, “carpetbaggers” the liberal media, and, of course, academics engaged in revisionist history.
The strategy works well enough to define the ideological boundaries of the organization; however, it also reveals its limitations as well. The SCV doesn’t simply bring together descendants of Confederate soldiers, it brings them together around a set of shared beliefs that have little do with remembering individual soldiers. I say this as an outsider, but I can’t help but notice how little time is actually devoted to remembering the Confederate soldier as a dynamic historical agent. Instead we are bombarded with Confederate history month proclamations and Nathan Bedford Forrest vanity tags. Where is the common soldier? When was the last time the intellectual arm of the SCV organized a conference around the history of Confederate soldiers as opposed to trying to justify secession and highlight the evil intent of Abraham Lincoln? Even more disturbing is the impression that membership implies a certain belief about the legitimacy of the Confederate experiment, whether it has to do with secession and/or treason. Finally, yesterday’s ceremony reinforced the impression that the organization is concerned as much with contemporary politics as it is with heritage/history.
I can’t help but wonder how many proud descendants of Confederate soldiers are being left out as a result. Where do Robert Moore, Will Stoutamire, and Andy Hall fit in? If the mission of the SCV is to honor and commemorate the Confederate soldier, why does it choose to take stances on issues that detract from this mission? Here is what I believe:
- You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe that secession was constitutional.
- You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe in states rights.
- You can honor your Confederate ancestor and believe that Lincoln was one of this nation’s greatest presidents.
- You can honor your Confederate ancestor without believing that Lee and Jackson are worthy of adulation.
- You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be thankful that the Confederacy lost the Civil War.
- You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be a member of the Democratic Party.
- You can honor your Confederate ancestor and read books published by university presses.
Continue with the list as you wish. My point is that none of that really matters in the end. What matters is the individual’s identification with an ancestor that he/she may or may not know much of anything about. The goal of the organization ought to be to help one another to better understand what this generation experienced. I suspect that Andy, Robert, and Will represent a large constituency of folks, who would embrace such an organization. So, why does the SCV only represent some Confederate descendants?
Update: I suspect that this is not the kind of coverage that the SCV is looking for. “They started at a fountain where slaves were once sold, past the church that Martin Luther King Jr. led during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended at the Capitol steps, where Alabama’s old and modern history often collide. It’s the spot where former Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed “segregation forever” in 1963 and where King concluded the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.”
“The pageant took place during the week of February 12, 1961. Attended by an estimated 50,000 people, it was a colorful affair complete with voodoo dancers and minstrels. The accompanying brochure bore witness to the business community’s support. One advertisement–for Montgomery Fair, former employer of the bus boycott heroine Rosa Parks–featured drawings of Civil War regalia and a southern belle and boasted that it had been central Alabama’s “leading department store” since 1868. Another, carrying a Rebel flag, proclaimed “Winn Dixie and Kwik-Chek Show Phenomenal Growth During a Century of Progress in Dixieland.” Spectators who paid up to five dollars a ticket watched a sixteen-segment performance by a home-grown cast numbering over a thousand. The two-hour pageant, a combination of the spoken word, music, and dancing, began with a salute to the Belle of the Confederacy an then took viewers through the major events of the secession crisis. In a section entitled “General Davis Speaks,” the audience heard an almost verbatim staging of the Confederate president’s inaugural in which he trumpeted the cause of states’ rights and the legitimacy of secession. On leaving the coliseum, spectators were greeted with a crashing fireworks display to mark the founding of the southern nation. A watching journalist pronounced the whole performance a genuine “spectacular,” though he did complain that in the inauguration scene Jefferson Davis had been portrayed “as a corn-pone politician at a Black Belt party rally.” (p. 81)
- On February 17, a large crowd gathered at Union station to welcome a local attorney who played the part of Jefferson Davis. Upon his arrival, Davis was escorted to the Exchange where he was met by the serving chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, J. Ed. Livingston.
- The following day a large parade was held along Dexter Ave. Carriages contained the sitting governors of Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi. For the reenactment of Davis’s swearing in, Alabama governor, John Patterson played secessionist governor A.B. Moore, city commissioners Lester B. Sullivan and Frank Parks acted the parts of the original reception committee, and state circuit judge Walter B. Jones played the role of Georgian Howell Cobb to administer the oath of office.
- That night 5,000 people attended an elaborate secession ball.
- Governor Patterson relayed shared the following assessment with Karl Betts: “…the Centennial observance here was most outstanding. The entire city really got in on the act, and I do not believe that I can recall more community spirit and interest in any other event.” A member of the chamber of commerce said that he had “never seen the people of Montgomery join in anything so wholeheartedly.” (p. 82)
The Washington Post reports the following:
“This Saturday, the 150th anniversary event will bear some similarities: Hundreds of men are expected to march through the heart of Montgomery. Some will parade in Confederate gray. Some will display the controversial battle flag. On the steps of the white-domed state Capitol, an ersatz Davis will place his hand on a Bible. A band will play “Dixie.” But so far, this year’s festivities are generating scant buy-in from city and state officials, and relatively little buzz among locals. Mayor Todd Strange said he probably won’t attend. Randy George, president of the Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t have the event on his to-do list. The office of Gov. Robert Bentley (R) – who, like Strange and George, is white – did not respond to a query on the matter. “I hadn’t even heard it was happening,” Rhonda Campbell, 43, the manager of a payday loan business near the parade route, said, echoing many residents interviewed last week.”
We’ll always have the Centennial.
Organizers of tomorrow’s “Heritage Rally” in Montgomery, Alabama are making every effort to accurately recreate Jefferson Davis’s swearing in ceremony. They have stipulated which flags can be carried as well as guidelines for proper period clothing. As in the case of the recent Secession Ball in Charleston, South Carolina, we are unlikely to hear anything about the importance of slavery and race, which will no doubt be made easier by the fact that Davis’s speech does not explicitly mention it. I do find it interesting that the February 1861 event did not include Confederate soldiers nor did it include the flags that will likely be visible from every point along the parade route.
What I find interesting is the close identification that is implied between the presence of Confederate reenactors from various units and, arguably, one of the most important political events of the period. After all, it’s the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who constantly remind us that the common soldier ought not to be understood in political terms. In other words, they fought for hearth and home, but they certainly did not fight to maintain slavery. What tomorrow’s march up Dexter Ave. represents – even if it is unintentional – is the fact that the Confederate army operated as the military arm of the Confederate government. The army itself was an integral part of a political entity. By default the soldiers in the ranks fought to protect and preserve a constitution that was crystal clear about the importance of slavery and white supremacy as a defining principle of the new nation.
This close connection between the soldier and state will be reinforced tomorrow by the thunderous roar of hundreds of enthusiastic Confederate reenactors. We should be thankful that the cause for which they will cheer tomorrow was ultimately unsuccessful.