Yesterday, I linked to two videos that feature Civil War historians discussing various issues related to the Civil War and historical memory. In the second video, the panel was asked to share what they take to be one of the most popular misconceptions of the war. While Emory Thomas and James I. Robertson highlight the tendency among some to downplay the importance of race and slavery in the war, Professor William Scarborough offers the following curious assessment:
There is a misconception about how harsh slavery was. I mean it was not akin to the Nazi Concentration Camps at all. It wasn’t great, that’s for sure but it was a lot more flexible than a lot of people think today. Now I am a conservative, a neo-Confederate so that’s my point of view.
I have no idea what one’s identification as a conservative has to do with a question about the history of slavery and its brutality so I am going to steer clear of it. Scarborough’s identification as a “neo-Confederate” is baffling given that those who group themselves around such a label or are identified as such steadfastly resist coming to terms with its importance to the coming of the war and if they do discuss it it comes wrapped in the old “loyal slave” or black Confederate narrative. Yes, historians have clearly shown over the past few decades that slavery was flexible in any number of ways depending on where you look and at what time. What’s is truly baffling is that Scarborough himself has contributed to this literature on slavery and has even highlighted its brutality. One of the most interesting studies that I’ve read about slavery is his, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-nineteenth-century South (Louisiana State University Press, 2003). It’s a thick book, but well worth your time.
Scarborough opens up chapter 5, “Toiling For Old ‘Massa'”, with the following:
Whether they toiled in the miasmic rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country or in the broiling heat of the cotton and cane fields in the Southwest, the African American slaves of the antebellum South earned handsome profits for their owners but often at the expense of human suffering almost without parallel in modern times. It should be remembered, however, that the condition of laboring people generally in the nineteenth century was little short of deplorable. It was that condition that impelled Karl Marx to launch his midcentury assault against the exploitation of labor by capital in the rapidly industrializing nations of the Western world. Indeed, with respect to the material conditions of life–food, clothing, shelter, and hours of labor–the chattel slaves of the South did not fare badly compared to their working class counterparts elsewhere on the planet. Rather, it was the absolute denial of freedom that set them apart from other workers and often made their lot unbearable. Slavery rendered them impotent to protect the integrity of their families and frequently exposed them to the erratic behavior of insensitive owners.
While some may have trouble swallowing Scarborough’s placing of slavery within the broader context of nineteenth century labor he still makes the point about the brutality of slavery, which, at its core involved the denial of freedom and the treating another individual as a means to an end. Unfortunately, I don’t think such a paragraph and the book as a whole qualifies Prof. Scarborough for “Neo-Confederate” status. This is historical scholarship at its best. No “Gone With the Wind” fantasies in this book.
I know “Neo-Confederates”. You sir, are no “Neo-Confederate”.
The upcoming Secession Ball scheduled for Saturday in Charleston is certainly getting a great deal of attention from the mainstream media. I’ve spent my fair share of time perusing through coverage from local newspapers in Charleston to national coverage as well as the blogosphere and other social media sites. What stands out to me, however, is the amount of critical coverage of the event. The criticisms are coming from all sides, but what is most impressive are the critiques from both black and white folks who identify deeply with the history and culture of the South. There never was a monolithic view of the history of the South; the difference is now it has an opportunity to emerge and compete for attention. These are people who have as much claim to the past as anyone and they are voicing outrage with the idea of celebrating an event that was carried out in defense of a social, political, and economic system built on slavery and which led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans. I have no access to any kind of statistical data that would give us a sense of the percentage of Americans who do not see this as worthy of celebration and I don’t think it really is important. What is apparent is a fundamental shift in the way that Americans – regardless of race and region – are now coming to view the Civil War since the Centennial celebrations of the early 1960s. You would be hard pressed to find anything reflective of this current shift in perception during the Centennial. Again, that’s not to suggest that it wasn’t present, just that it did not surface in any sort of way that posed a challenge to the status quo, which was clearly a deeply rooted collective memory built around the Lost Cause.
While I have no doubt that the good people who attend the Secession Ball will enjoy themselves thoroughly, it should be clear to everyone that this broader view of the war will continue to be on the defensive for the foreseeable future. Consider these recent setbacks:
- A Fourth Grade Virginia textbook that includes a reference to black Confederates has been identified as out of place based on the author’s research strategy and current scholarship on the subject.
- A series of videos slated to appear on the History Channel that outline a Lost Cause view of secession and war has been canceled. You know you are in trouble when you are banned from a channel that runs continuous loops of UFOs, reruns of Pawn Stars, and Hitlers last days in the bunker.
- Courts have almost unanimously upheld the decisions of a number of school districts to ban images of the Confederate flag from school property.
- Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell apologized for a Confederate History Month Proclamation that ignored slavery and went on to correct it by issuing a new proclamation declaring next April Civil War History in Virginia Month.
- The Museum of the Confederacy removed a black Confederate doll from its website and the National Park Service removed literature referencing the same after being notified of the problem.
As much time as we spend on the staying power of the Lost Cause it is important to put it in perspective. What I see around me is a vibrant Civil War Sesquicentennial community that includes plenty of institutions that are organizing conferences, exhibits, and other educational opportunities for their respective communities. Best yet, they are taking full advantage of the latest Civil War scholarship. It really is a breath of fresh air.
Try not to get too caught up in all this silliness.
This really is the best possible time to host a blog on the Civil War and historical memory. If the next four years follows the past year we are in for a wild ride. At the same time there is something rather depressing about the level of discourse surrounding many of these high profile events. Consider the upcoming Secession Ball, scheduled for next Saturday in Charleston South Carolina. The event marks a specific event in the history of South Carolina and the nation. While organizers trot out the standard arguments distancing their event from the role that slavery played in helping to bring about the very event that is being celebrated the NAACP is working hard to distort and butcher their own version of the past.
NAACP State President Lonnie Randolph had this to say about the upcoming gala:
“There is nothing to celebrate about killing a million people. South Carolina still lives under the rule of the Confederacy today,” Randolph said. He compared the Secession Ball to celebrating Sept. 11, Adolf Hitler, or the American Indian massacre at Wounded Knee. “We want some consistency. We want South Carolina — and America — to be consistent in the way it treats and honors all its citizens.” Randolph said the argument that secession was about states’ rights misrepresents the facts of slavery. “The state wanted to right to buy and sell people. Tell the whole truth,” he said. He spoke at a news conference at the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where he was surrounded by area leaders of the organization and ministers. Handouts at the meeting encouraged attendance at the march and mass meeting with the admonition: “A Call for Unity: Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism.”
Participants will watch segments of “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that portrayed Ku Klux Klan members as heroes…. “The states wanted the right to sell human cargo,” he said [Randolph], adding the public would not tolerate similar disrespect of other minority groups – a Holocaust celebration or an event celebrating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “The reason this can take place so easily is we’re still suffering the effects of the Confederacy in this state,” Randolph said.
The NAACP is not going to win any converts by pushing a narrative of the war that is heavy on emotion and rhetoric and short on historical content.
Here is what I would do to protest this event. Station both black and white residents of Charleston in different sections of the city and at a scheduled time, during the Secession Ball, have them read the actual document that was approved by South Carolina’s secession convention. You could organize literally hundreds of people for this. I think it would be quite powerful to see South Carolinians take ownership of what South Carolinians in 1860. As Larry Wilmer noted the other night on the Jon Stewart Show, highlighting the role of slavery in this event is not “politically correct, it’s correct correct.” And that’s it.
Let the documents speak for themselves.
As many of you know I am in the beginning stages of a book-length project on the subject of black Confederates. While much of my blogging has centered on countering the nonsense coming out of certain camps concerning numbers and vague references to “loyalty” and “reconciliation” my real interest in this subject is firmly grounded in the war itself. I am particularly interested in how the Confederate war effort shaped the master-slave relationship. As I type this I am staring at rows upon rows of books that explore slave life and culture during the antebellum period. I’ve learned a great deal from these books. However, what I want to better understand is how the exigencies of war shaped the institution during its final few years, particularly in an environment away from what both parties had grown accustomed to.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time re-reading the John C. Winsmith letters, which I’ve finished transcribing and hope to publish at some point soon. You can read about Winsmith in an earlier post, which includes one of the roughly 250 letters that he wrote over the course of the war. Winsmith’s letters, which detail his relationship with his personal servant, Spencer, presents historians with a rich spectrum of experiences that deserve closer study. One gets a sense of how close proximity between master and slave drew both closer. At the same time the eventual outcome of this story raises profound questions about the extent to which the two truly understood one another.
At no point does Winsmith refer to Spencer as a soldier and at no point in this collection of letters does he refer to black Confederate soldiers. Reading these letters one gets the sense that Winsmith would have been horrified to learn of black men serving as soldiers. I’ve written quite a bit about these references, but I am curious as to what you see.
Sullivan’s Island, April 26, 1861
I have been doing very well in my quarters here in the Moultrie House, having a comfortable room [etc]. Spencer has proved himself an excellent cook and our mess cannot listen to the talk of his leaving: he was a little home-sick for the first few days, but is now anxious to remain; and believe he is making more money than any of us: he has become washer [?] and is adept at every sort of duty. The time that I do not require his attention, I give him for himself.
April 29, 1861
Spencer has had a cold, but is now better. He sends howdye to Peg and the other negroes. He was very glad to get those nice things from home, and they were so much better than what we have been having. Continue reading “John C. Winsmith’s Black Confederate”