Category Archives: Southern History

Please Accept Our Statue

0_61_statue_320The Sons of Confederate Veterans is still trying to find a home for their statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber.  The statue, which cost $100,000, was originally planned for the grounds at Tredegar in Richmond next to the statue of Lincoln and his son Tad.  The American Civil War Museum accepted the statue, but made no promises as to whether it would be displayed and how.  Apparently, the SCV doesn’t know the first thing about how museums operate.  Now they are offering the statue to the state of Mississippi.  Good luck boys, but in this political climate my guess is that you don’t have a chance.  My offer still stands to use it in my classroom as an interpretive piece to help my students better understand the continued influence of the Lost Cause.  What do you say? We will take very good care of it.

Between the statue, their big ass Confederate flags flying over Southern highways, and their endorsement of a NASCAR driver, the SCV has demonstrated their commitment to wasting money and their inability to take Southern heritage seriously.

 

“Looking for Lincoln”

abraham-lincoln-statueI am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website.  I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content.  The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use.  My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful.  I was very impressed with the documentary.  Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man.  Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life.  From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.

A few moments stand out.  I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation.  I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery.  His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln.  I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.

Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper.  Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship.  I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge.  Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.

Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention.  At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln.  They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc.  It’s all so boring and uninformative.  Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog.  Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate.  It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering.  Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery.  After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.”  I couldn’t agree more.

All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience.  The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.

 

North Carolina SCV Honors Black Confederates or Confederate Slaves?

ffusctre[Hat-Tip to Marc Ferguson (Nicholson is second from left)]

Mark was kind enough to tip me to an upcoming ceremony planned in Boardman, North Carolina to honor two supposedly black Confederates [History.com Message Board].  Apparently, this is the way the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 794, “The Columbus County Volunteers” honors black history month.  The two men to be honored are Sandy Oliver and Joshua Nichols.  No information is given about these men so it is impossible to say anything about their status during the war or the units they supposedly “served” in.

There is a great deal of misinformation included in the announcement, which is circulating on a number of message boards.  Let’s start with the keynote speaker.  According to the message boards Marvin Nicholson is a retired black educator from South Carolina and has been reenacting for about 13 years.  Actually, he is from New Jersey.  The uninformed would assume that Mr. Nicholson reenacts black Confederates.  I did a quick search which took me to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources where Nicholson recently took part in a program on African Americans in the Civil War.  What the message boards do not point out is that Nicholson reenacts Union soldiers and focuses mainly on free black North Carolinians who eventually ended up in Union ranks.   There is no indication that he has researched or knows anything about the complexity surrounding the presence of African Americans in Confederate ranks.  In fact, Nicholson admits that when he retired from the New Jersey public schools he knew nothing about the role of African Americans in the Civil War.  We can only hope that he was not a history teacher.

Another thing that makes me suspicious is the way the author of the message board entry cites Nicholson’s suggestions for further reading.  The list of books was taken from the NCDCR website, which I referenced above.  As you will notice the references have nothing to do with anything related to black Confederates.  As to the books referenced, they include John Hope Franklin’s The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (UNC Press) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  Franklin’s book is must reading for those of you interested in the history of African Americans in antebellum North Carolina, and it may help to better understand their situation at the outset of the war, but it does not address directly their eventual involvement in the war itself.  I’m not even going to touch the Zinn issue.

If the author of the original message board post is a member of the local SCV chapter than we are in for a real treat as we get closer to the weekend.  No doubt, we will see increased attention from the local press as well as other forms of window dressing.  It’s been a few months since the Weary Clyburn fiasco so I guess it was about time.  I will keep you posted.

Update: A preliminary search by a reader with access to the North Carolina archive reveals that neither man received a pension.  I am told that Boardman County is on the border with South Carolina so the two may have served in units in that state.

 

The Pervasiveness of Reconstruction Mythology

Yesterday I caught an interesting program on C-SPAN’s “In-Depth” which featured Frank J. Williams and Howard University historian, Edna C. Medford discussing Lincoln’s legacy.  I don’t remember how it came up, but at one point early on in the broadcast the two guests discussed Reconstruction and the political in-roads made by African Americans in southern state legislatures.  Williams made it a point to emphasize that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write or had no training for the demands of political governance.  This is a very sensitive point that was emphasized by white Southern “Redeemers” who worked vigorously to overturn Reconstruction governments and reimpose white supremacy.  Recent scholarship has successfully challenged this important narrative thread of the Lost Cause.  Historians such as Eric Foner have documented the wide range of legislation that benefited both poor black as well as white Southerners.  On the other hand there it is indisputable that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write.

Professor Medford immediately countered by pointing out that white men had been voting, regardless of their capacity to read and/or write, since the 1830s.  By the 1830s qualifications such as property had been overturned as the country continued to push west and in turn challenged traditional notions of privilege.  Most white men were eligible to vote and just about all presidential electors were chosen directly by the people.  With this in mind it is curious to me that we continue to feel the need to point out that blacks were illiterate at a time when literacy ceased to be a factor in determining the suffrage as well as the right to run for office.  We tend to think of the expansion of the franchise in the 1830s as an important step in the evolution of American democracy so why do we continue to feel a need to point out that recently-freed slaves could not read or write?

 

Mississippi Embraces Grant

aleqm5hyycivpxkwzzz89tv1wmodbj7q-wAfew months ago I reported that Mississippi State University is slated to become the new home to the Ulysses S. Grant Papers after 50 years at Southern Illinois University under the direction of John Y. Simon.  Simon’s recent death raised the question of who would continue the massive project of publishing Grant’s papers until historian John Marszalek agreed to take on the responsibility.  This is good news for all Americans interested in Civil War history regardless of where you live.  The most recent AP article covers old ground, but at some point stories such as this need to begin to move away from the obligatory Sons of Confederate Veterans quote.  In this particular piece it comes at the very end:

Still, Grant’s return to the South doesn’t thrill Cecil Fayard Jr., the Mississippi-based leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  “U.S. Grant is not beloved in the state of Mississippi. Southern folks remember well his brutal and bloody tactics of war, and the South will never forget the siege of Vicksburg,” he said.

Why should we care what Cecil Fayard thinks of one of the most important academic projects in the field of Civil War history?  How many members of the SCV are there in Mississippi anyway?  Do they speak for Mississippians?  I seriously doubt it.  There is nothing offensive about an institution of higher learning taking on such a project; in fact, this is exactly why they exist.

It is becoming clearer that the SCV thrives on sensationalism – the only trick left in their book.   One need look no further than their silly little antics in Tampa, Florida where the local SCV chapter has managed to raise another one of their “big ass” flags outside of the city just in time for the Super Bowl. [This is the same group that cut up the first one for profit, and I believe both flags were made in China.]  Marion Lambert says that they are educating the public, but as the Tipsy Historian points out you will be hard pressed to find anything educational on SCV websites concerning the complex history of the flag:

Basically, there is absolutely no thought, content, consideration, or insight behind what they are doing with this ridiculous flag. The SCV Florida chapter is behaving like a screaming child looking for attention by pressing the buttons it knows will get a response. Moreover, the glaring lack of discussion on these sites makes this organization look absolutely foolish.

I know plenty of elementary school teachers and they tell me that the best way to handle children who are acting out and looking for attention is to ignore them.  Good advice.