It looks like Gary Casteel’s statue of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his biological son and “adopted” son, Jim Limber, has found a new home at Beauvoir. You may remember that this statue was commissioned by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in hopes that it would be placed next to the Lincoln statue at the Tredegar Iron Works. That deal fell through and left the organization scrambling for alternative sites. At one point they even asked the state of Mississippi to accept it.
Since the SCV meant to “educate” the public about Jefferson Davis and race relations during the Civil War with this statue, it is hard not to see this new home as reflecting nothing less than a complete and utter public relations failure. The reason the statue ended up here has nothing to do with political correctness or any other catch-phrase that is currently en vogue. It has to do with the fact that the statue has little to do with solid history and has everything to do with the current SCV propaganda machine which would have the general public see the Confederacy as part of some sort of civil rights movement. I’ve written quite a bit about this particular story over the past year if interested.
I am working to finish up an essay on Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House for a collection of essays on Southern Tourism edited by Karen Cox. The tentative title is, “The Robert E. Lee Memorial: A Conflict of Interpretation”. My research on this subject has taken a couple of turns since I agreed to be a contributor to the project. It started out with a focus on slavery, but I am now looking more broadly at how various parties debated over how to interpret the home as part of Arlington National Cemetery. Much of my focus is on the 1920s and 1930s and the long-term consequences of what took place during that time. What follows is a very rough introduction to the essay that hopefully provides a taste of where I am going with this. Comments are welcome, especially those that are critical.
Yesterday I received a comment from a reader in response to one of my posts on black Confederates or what I am now calling, Confederate slaves. I am not highlighting this comment to necessarily embarrass this particular reader, but to point out the quality or level of sophistication of the vast majority of comments and emails that I receive from people who continue to push this line of thought. In this case the reader included a link to an image of two armed black men from the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly that you see here. The short editorial that accompanied the image includes the title, “Rebel Negro Pickets”, and reads as follows:
So much has been said about the wickedness of using the negroes on our side in the present war, that we have thought it worth while to reproduce on this page a sketch sent us from Fredericksburg by our artist, Mr. Theodore R. Davis, which is a faithful representation of what was seen by one of our officers through his field-glass, while on outpost duty at that place. As the picture shows, it represents two full-blooded negroes, fully armed, and serving as pickets in the rebel army. It has long been known to military men that the insurgents affect no scruples about the employment of their slaves in any capacity in which they may be found useful. Yet there are people here at the North who affect to be horrified at the enrollment of negroes into regiments. Let us hope that the President will not be deterred by any squeamish scruples of the kind from garrisoning the Southern forts with fighting men of any color that can be obtained.
Following the link, the commenter suggests simply that, “Black Confederate troops are a fact and not fiction….” Granted that this is an extreme example, but it is an excellent example of the biggest problem when it comes to this issue. There is a glaring inability on the part of many to engage in even the most rudimentary historical analysis. In this case there is no attempt to interpret the newspaper in which the image and commentary were included. No questions are asked about the source of the observation. How does the writer know that the two men were on picket duty? There is no evidence that Davis believed that what he saw were two black soldiers on picket duty. I have to assume that the author of the comment believes that in referring to the two black men as black Confederates he is implying their service as soldiers in the Confederate army. The problem is that even the commentary accompanying the image in Harper’s attempts to push black recruitment in the Union army based on the fact that Confederates were already utilizing their slave labor to support their military.
As serious historians we are supposed to ask questions of the available evidence. A healthy dose of skepticism is always necessary when wading through complex questions. However, in the case of black Confederates I am constantly amazed at the sloppiness that passes for serious thought. If it’s not the unquestioning acceptance of a supposed first-hand account it’s a postwar photograph of a Confederate veteran along with a black man who also happens to be wearing a uniform or a pension file that lists a black man as a member of a specific unit.
Finally, I find it strange and a reflection of just how distorted our memory of the Civil War has become that we would look at this particular image and be inclined to interpret the presence of blacks with the Confederate army as something positive. When I look at this image it reinforces the horror of slavery itself. Consider how many black families were split apart and then consider the number of slaves that were forced to travel with the army and engage in activities that put their own lives at risk in a cause that if successful would have guaranteed their future enslavement.
I‘ve been thinking about the recent press release by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the eve of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry. If you remember, they have chosen to commemorate the death of Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be black and working at the local train station at the time of the raid. There are a number of things that are disturbing here. Referencing Shepherd as an “unfortunate black citizen” reflects the most basic misunderstanding of black civil rights history since the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks could not be citizens. Unfortunately, that is about par for the course when it comes to getting the basic facts right in the SCV.
What is more disturbing, however, is the blatant way in which the SCV distorts black history to serve their own agenda. Notice that at no point in their announcement did they even mention why John Brown was in Harpers Ferry. They do mention his “nefarious scheme”, but it would be helpful if the public was told what that scheme involved: How about nothing less than the freeing of the slaves. Now please don’t misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that we should not engage in serious debate about the ethics of Brown’s life and actions in Kansas and Virginia. The problem here is that the SCV has set up the parameters of debate in a way that serves their own purposes of distancing slavery from Confederate and Southern History. More to the point, why honor Heyward Shepherd at all? It is unfortunate that he was caught in the cross-fire, but does that in and of itself constitute a sufficient reason to honor him or give him his own day? Would the SCV have taken these steps if Shepherd happened to be a white baggage handler?
The bigger problem is the choice of which black man to honor. If you were just to rely on the SCV’s press release you might think that the only black individual in Harpers Ferry was Shepherd. And here is where the intentional distortion of the past occurs. There were five black with Brown at Harpers Ferry: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave. How do these men fit into the SCV’s understanding of this event? Why aren’t they being honored as opposed to Shepherd. I think I have an idea. Notice in the press release that Shepherd is characterized as a “faithful employee.” What possible reason could the SCV have in characterizing an employee as faithful? Of course, anyone familiar with the historiography of Southern history knows that that one word, ‘faithful’, resonates throughout the Lost Cause literature, which characterizes slavery as populated by faithful and obedient slaves.
This morning I came across an excellent video on the black legacy of John Brown and Harpers Ferry. The documentary did not focus on Brown, but on the five blacks who accompanied him: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, Shields Green, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Osborn Perry Anderson.
Although I skipped around a bit I am pretty sure that you will not find Shepherd’s name mentioned (perhaps a brief reference) in this 48 minute video. The importance of the Harpers Ferry Raid in the local black community is to be found in the actions of the five men mentioned above. The distance between the SCV’s preferred memory of Brown and Harpers Ferry and the history of black Americans in the area couldn’t be wider. As you will see in the video, for example, Heyward Shepherd’s death, however tragic and unfortunate, does not explain the rise of Storer College and its rich history of education and black civic activism.