Category Archives: Southern History

Let the Documents Speak For Themselves

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.”

and

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is not going to win any converts by pushing a narrative of the war that is heavy on emotion and rhetoric and short on historical content.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.

John C. Winsmith’s Black Confederate

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

African Americans and Black Confederates

I noticed that Ann DeWitt has taken the time to respond to one of my recent posts about Entangled in Freedom [and here].  I will leave it to you to decipher her post.  In addition, yesterday Hampton historian, Veronica Davis filed a lawsuit to halt the deletion of the controversial passage about black Confederates in the Virginia 4th grade history textbook.  [Update: Brooks Simpson has included a link to Davis's petition at Civil Warriors.]  High profile African Americans, who have come to endorse this historical meme and for different reasons include H.K. Edgerton, Nelson Winbush and even Earl Ijames.  One of my readers is convinced that Edgerton and other African Americans are being paid to promote this narrative.  I couldn’t disagree more.  In fact, I would suggest that such an explanation ignores an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon and our collective memory of the Civil War.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what the identification of some African Americans tells us about the evolution of Civil War Memory and while I don’t have any firm answers it might be worth posting for further discussion.  Perhaps the identification with this narrative by some African Americans can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with a Southern past.  That should come as no surprise given the central role that they have played in its formation from the very beginning.  At the same time that role has been decidedly influenced at different points in history by white Americans to buttress their own racial, cultural, and political agenda.  One need look no further than the pervasiveness of an ideology of paternalism (in the context of slavery) during the antebellum period, the advent of the Lost Cause following the Civil War, and more recently a conscious effort to support white political control in the 1950s and 60s through the control of history textbooks.

For many African Americans it is the Civil Rights Movement that looms large as a place to find heroic stories, larger-than-life personalities, and even narratives of racial reconciliation.  The Civil War, on the other hand, has been lost.  As I’ve learned over the years many African American families pushed their history of slavery away either because it was too painful or the narrative had been reduced to one of degradation and misery.  The past few decades has witnessed a dramatic shift in the way that slavery is interpreted as well as the reemergence of African American participation in the war itself – seen most clearly in the 1989 release of “Glory.”  The movie’s success in its appeal to a mainstream white audience ought to be seen as an important milestone in the evolution of popular memory of the war that has come to acknowledge the central role of slavery and emancipation in the overall conflict. Continue reading

Black Confederates Didn’t Exist in 1914

The other day Andy Hall challenged the common assumption that the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery contains a black Confederate soldier.  I encourage you to read Andy’s thoughtful analysis.  You will find images of this monument on countless websites along with colorful interpretations that seem to confirm the existence of these men.  While Andy cites the California Division of the SCV’s website, I am going to return to G. Ashleigh Moody’s response over at the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s Facebook Page.  Apparently, he wasn’t pleased with my initial post, but this will give me the opportunity to quote him in full.  Here is what he has to say about the Confederate monument:

One of the most “telling” monuments to the South and including Black Confederates and other Black Southerners is this 1912 (pre-PC) Confederate Memorial towers 32 and 1/2 feet and is said to be the tallest bronze sculpture at Arlington National Cemetery.  On top is a figure of a woman, with olive leaves covering her head, representing the South. She also holds a laurel wreath in her left hand, remembering the Sons of Dixie. On the side of the monument is also a life size depiction of a Black Confederate marching in step with white soldiers, and among other life size depictions, a Black woman receiving a baby as a father going off to war. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!

If it is a black Confederate soldier it would be news to Moses Ezekiel as well as the folks who gathered to dedicate the monument in 1914.  Consider the original, published history of the monument by Hilary A. Herbert:

But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.

And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U. D. C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.

It’s ironic that Mr. Moody accuses others of falling into the trap of presentism.  His assertion is a textbook example of just such a move: reading into the past through a lens defined by our own assumptions and values.  The problem here is that black Confederates did not exist in 1914.  You will not find a reference to black Confederate soldiers in any of the public addresses given at the monument’s commemoration nor will you find them in newspaper coverage of the event.  While there may be a few scattered references to black Confederate soldiers at this time, I have yet to come across one.  And I suspect that the reason they don’t exist is that white Americans have no use for it. Continue reading

Black Confederates on the Retreat?

I think it’s safe to say that all of us were disappointed by the news in the Washington Post today about the fourth grade textbook that includes a reference to thousands of slaves serving as soldiers in Confederate ranks.  A broader look at Virginia textbooks on the history of slavery may push us further down the road of disillusionment.  Consider Virginia: History, Government, Geography by Francis B. Simkins, Spotswood H. Jones, and Sidman P. Poole, which was used in Virginia schools through the late 1970s.  Here is an excerpt and accompanying image from the chapter on slavery:

A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. . . The house servants became almost as much a part of the planter’s family circle as its white members. . . The Negroes were always present at family weddings. They were allowed to look on at dances and other entertainments . . . A strong tie existed between slave and master because each was dependent on the other. . . The slave system demanded that the master care for the slave in childhood, in sickness, and in old age. The regard that master and slaves had for each other made plantation life happy and prosperous.  Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those for whom they worked. . . But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to these arguments.

That’s as bad as it gets, but today is a day to be optimistic about the future. [For those of you interested in the decision on the part of Virginia's state legislature to rewrite history textbooks in response to the Civil Rights Movement, see Adam W. Dean's recent essay in the VMHB.] It’s almost impossible to imagine the swift correction that we witnessed today in a prominent newspaper in response to the above text and image during its tenure in Virginia’s classrooms.  In fact, today was quite encouraging. Continue reading