Category Archives: Southern History

A Few Thoughts for Ed Sebesta and James Loewen

Now that things have calmed down a bit re: the petition asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington, I thought it might be time to offer a few words of advice.  James Loewen recently offered some thoughts in the wake of the controversy.  He finds it difficult to understand the media’s coverage, including its emphasis on Bill Ayers and the overlooking of some of the top scholars in the field:

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, “Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day.”  Within the story, Ayers’s name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer’s name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta’s, not even McPherson’s, surely America’s pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for “Ayers Obama “Memorial Day” wreath yields 7,570 hits, while “McPherson Obama “Memorial Day” yields just 2,570.

Given the recent political fallout over President Obama’s tenuous connection with Ayers should we really be surprised that the media immediately picked up on and emphasized the inclusion of his name?  The ignoring of the other signers goes without saying.  Most interested parties in this debate could care less about what some scholar believes.  In fact, as I’ve learned over the course of writing this blog many people have an irrational distrust of academics and have probably never read anything by James McPherson, not to mention Manisha Sinha and others.  In the end most people’s memory of the war is fueled by stories and other popular cultural expressions and has almost nothing to do with anything that can remotely be characterized as scholarly.  [That's not to be taken as a criticism, but as an observation that may or may not be accurate.]

Loewen also seems a bit puzzled by the heated debate that followed on a number of websites.  Yes, the crazies came out in full force and even my name entered the mix, but anyone who follows these issues should have expected just that.  Part of the difficulty for Loewen is that he wants us to distinguish between two types of Confederate monuments.   “One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other,” according to Loewen, “glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).”  I may be wrong but I don’t think most people make this distinction.  The lone Confederate soldier in front of the court house is as much about a preferred interpretation of the cause of the war as the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  Likewise, the Davis statue can easily be interpreted and used as a setting for an SCV parade that wishes to honor their Confederate ancestors.  These are academic distinctions that mean little in the real world.

In preparation for next year Ed Sebesta has already set up a blog, which he will update as a new petition is organized – that’s right another petition.  Given the results this year it is appropriate to ask what good it will do to try it again.  Should we simply anticipate a differently worded petition with a new list of signatures?  More importantly, how will a new petition advance the debate and force us to look beyond what are deeply-held assumptions about our Civil War memory?   As far as I am concerned petitions such as this are non-starters.  I would encourage Sebesta and Loewen to rethink their overall approach.  I can’t tell you how many times one of my lesson plans has gone awry.  In those situations it is incumbent on the instructor to evaluate and make the necessary changes.

One of the positive results is that the petition led to the sending of a wreath to the African American Civil War monument in Washington.  Think of how many people now know that this monument exists, not to mention that our memory of the black experience in the Civil War remains largely hidden.  Why not work to bring more of this narrative to the public’s attention next year?  How about a well-publicized tour of the USCT section of Arlington next Memorial Day?

We all want to be activists, but we should never lose sight that we are educators first.

Earl Ijames’s Silence is Deafening

I have to admit that I am just a little surprised and disappointed that we haven’t heard from Earl Ijames in response to my most recent post.  If you remember, Mr. Ijames left a spirited comment in response to my critique of his position on so-called “black Confederates.”  One particular comment included a reference to one John W. Venable, who supposedly served in Co. H., 21st North Carolina.  As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, no additional references were given by Mr. Ijames to support the claim.  I must assume that while Mr. Ijames most likely believes that many cases can be debated that this particular example is an open and shut case.

Well, it looks like this is not the case at all.  My post of May 18 offered a detailed overview of a number of documents related to Venable’s connection to the Confederate army and it even included two updates.  All of this information was provided to me by two excellent archivists at the North Carolina Department of Archives and History.  At this point and taken together, the evidence clearly provides a sufficient reason to doubt that Venable served as a soldier in the 21st North Carolina.  Again, additional evidence may come to light and it may even be possible to interpret the available evidence in a way that connects Venable to this particular regiment, but what I find striking is that Mr. Ijames has not added his own voice to this discussion.  After all, Venable is his guy.  It looks like Mr. Ijames conducted another one of his “workshops” on the subject at the Greensboro Country Club on May 19.  I would love to know what he said about Venable and how he supported his preferred interpretation.  Did he do so having read my most recent post on the subject?  I welcome a comment from Mr. Ijames on this issue and I am even willing to feature it as a guest post.  It would no doubt be instructive for all of us.

Until then I want to leave you with one thought.  If this little discussion about Venable has helped with anything it is in reminding us of just how difficult it is to research and confirm the existence of legitimate black Confederate soldiers, as opposed to those who were present with the armies as slaves.  How many times has someone offered a piece of evidence and suggested that it alone demonstrates the presence of a soldier?  Research takes time; it involves knowing what to look for and, most importantly, how to interpret the documents.  For an example of this, take a look at the short essay in North and South Magazine by Thomas Lowry, which focuses on three case studies that involve claims made for the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  All of them begin with a primary source and all of them collapse with a little persistence and attempt to confirm and/or supplement the data.  I think the problem here is that if you want to find black Confederate soldiers you can.  The challenge is doing so in a way that can be analyzed and discussed in a public setting.  This is one of the reasons why it is so important to publish findings in in places that include a peer-review process.

As for Mr. Ijames, the ball is in your court.

Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

The UDC, Black Confederates, and the Manipulation of the Past

Thanks to Betty Baye for a brief, but thoughtful column about a recent phone conversation with a receptionist at the national headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia.  Apparently, Ms. Baye was invited to their national convention and decided to follow up to see if the organization included any African Americans.  The receptionist noted that somewhere between 60-93,000 blacks “served” in the Confederate army though “many” went to war as “body servants” with their masters.  Well, at least she didn’t suggest that they were soldiers, but one wonders what “many” is meant to denote or why we constantly fail to describe these men for what they were: slaves.

The author goes on to describe recent ceremonies conducted by the UDC and SCV to commemorate the “service” of black Confederate soldiers such as Creed, Cornelius, and Claiborne Holland.  I have no idea whether these men were enlisted as soldiers or just another case of sloppy research and poor analysis.  Of course a representative described their presence in the army as “patriots who loved our Southland and suffered in its defense.” Creed Holland’s great-great grandson called the occasion “a day of unification.”  Of course, I cannot say what primary sources were consulted to justify such a claim, though I am willing to wager that whatever the source it was not penned by any of the three men cited or even from the war years.  The author also cited the case of Henry Nenderson, but you can imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Kevin Levin, who regularly blogs about the Confederacy, upon seeing a photo of two white women dressed in mourning attire decorating Pvt. Henderson’s grave, wrote just last month that the women aren’t “honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave,” who was forced to join his master and who “must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy and similar groups, Levin argues, “teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy,” and, in fact, “are completely incapable of commemorating Henderson’s life because they fail to acknowledge him for what he was — a slave.” [Read my post on Henderson here.]

Some of you are no doubt tired of these posts on “black Confederates”, but I want to make it clear that I am not writing them for you.  My goal is to build up sufficient SEO weight to counter these ridiculous stories that hearken back to a naive Lost Cause narrative that emphasizes slave loyalty and, ultimately, the distancing of the Confederate experience from slavery.  The UDC has been distorting the history of slavery and the Civil War since the early twentieth century, but their increasing black membership is what is truly disappointing.  By involving the descendants of these men as soldiers with full military honors they are using these family members for their own aggrandizement.  No doubt, the family members involved simply want their ancestors to be remembered and to identify with a larger historical narrative.  If the UDC and SCV want to commemorate and remember the lives of these men than they should acknowledge them for what they were.  There is no shame in acknowledging these men as slaves.  In fact, in the case of Henry Henderson it only makes his life that much more worthy of remembrance.

I am going to conclude this post with Betty Baye’s own assessment:

When the black Hollands were memorialized, Virginia state Sen. Charles Hawkins, a Republican, said, “We need to come to grips with the ghosts of our past. … We need to understand this history if we are to grow and prosper.” Fine words. But some find it impossible to confront ghosts of beloved ancestors who engaged in the dirty business of buying, breeding and selling human beings — a business made no less dirty by speaking of it with gentle words; for example, calling a slave “servant,” a plantation a “farm,” and implying that slaves willingly, and knowingly, fought for a cause that, had it not been lost, would have perpetuated their bondage and spread the evil to yet more territories of a young nation. Rather, the United Daughters of the Confederacy comfort themselves with the words and imagery of Mary Nowlin Moon, who, in 1915, wrote of “a heritage so rich in honor and glory that it far surpasses any material wealth that could be mine.”  Few members today, I daresay, see any irony either in their group hosting a “silent auction” at its national convention.