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.

“Kevin the Carpetbagger”

I always get a kick out of the people who find my blogging to be offensive based on the fact that I am not native to the South.  A couple of days ago I noticed a comment on another blog, which referred to me as “Kevin the Carpetbagger”.  Of course, I am not offended by the label because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the region as well as a simple mind.  In his discussion of the economic, social, and cultural differences between the northern and southern sections of the states in the Deep South, Marc Egnal quotes John Calhoun:

Our State was first settled on the coast by emigrants principally from England, but with no inconsiderable intermixture of Huguenots from France.  The portion of the State along the falls of the rivers and back to the mountains had a very different origin and settlement.  Its settlement commenced long after, at a period, but little anterior to the war of the Revolution, and consisted principally of emigrants who followed the course of the mountains, from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia & North Carolina.  They had very little connection, or intercourse for a long time with the old settlement on the coast.

Such a view stands in sharp contrast with the static and monolithic view of the South that continues to hold sway for so many.  Unfortunately, these are the very same people who claim to defend the heritage of the South against what they perceive to be outside influence.  But what exactly are they defending?  Even Calhoun understood that the boundaries of the Southern states were porous and that diversity ruled when he penned these thoughts in 1846.  How many white Southerners today would have been deemed “carpetbaggers” by earlier generations?  Who, if anyone, has a monopoly on Southern identity?  How does one even go about demarcating such a boundary?  All of us who live in “the South” can trace our family histories back to a carpetbagger.  I am proud to join the long list of carpetbaggers who moved to the South at various points in the past.  We have a rich heritage indeed.

Richmond’s Civil War Memory

Tomorrow I am taking 32 students and three colleagues to Richmond to tour Civil War related sites.  Since the courses that I am teaching this trimester are focused on memory we are going to spend time exploring various statues that offer case studies on how different groups, and at different times, chose to remember the war.  It will also offer a unique opportunity to analyze and discuss the contested nature of memory and public spaces.  We’ve spent quite a bit of time in class discussing how to interpret monuments and public spaces, including the way in which they reflect the values of the individuals and organizations responsible for their placement as well as the profile of local government.  It’s another thing entirely to see these sites in their actual settings.

We will begin with Monument Avenue.  Since we spent 10 days discussing the evolution and ascendancy of Lee in memory we will start with the Lee statue.  From there we will stop at both the Stonewall Jackson and Arthur Ashe statues.  I want to use the Ashe statue to discuss the bitter public debate that took place in Richmond over its placement on Monument Avenue as well as its dedication in 1996.  Some of you may remember that both Arthur Ashe as well as his wife wanted the statue placed in front of the African American Sports Hall of Fame, located in a black neighborhood, rather than the “Avenue of Confederate Heroes”.  The city council, including Viola Baskerville, overruled the Ashe family insisting that the monument be placed in a more visible location where it could be seen by all Richmonders and visitors alike.

From there we head on over to the Tredegar Iron Works to view the Lincoln-Tad statue, which is another monument that caused a bit of an uproar when it was unveiled in 2003.  Both the Lincoln and Ashe statues reflect not only changes in the make-up of local city government in the post-civil rights South, buta broader understanding of who and what is deemed worthy of remembrance.   Anyone following the recent story of the SCV’s offer of a statue to the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar of Jefferson Davis holding hands with his biological son and a black boy who briefly stayed with the family in 1864-65 knows all too well that this is also contested ground.  I plan to discuss these recent developments in some detail.

Our final stop will be Hollywood Cemetery.  Our focus will be the way Hollywood was used by white Richmonders to commemorate their Civil War dead and give meaning to their Lost Cause.  Stops will include the section devoted to the Gettysburg dead as well as the Confederate memorial (pyramid structure) designed by Charles Dimmock and dedicated in 1869.  We will stop briefly by the Pickett gravesite where I will talk a bit about LaSalle Pickett and her postwar writings as well as the controversy surrounding the placement of her remains next to her husband not too long ago.  I also want to head over to President’s and Davis circle, which will give me plenty of time to talk about the beginnings of the cemetery in 1849, its early struggles, and how it functioned as the city of Richmond continued to expand in the years leading up to the war.  Along the way I will amaze my students with all of the dead people that I can point out and discuss intelligently.

It’s supposed to be sunny with a high of 48 degress.  We couldn’t ask for a better day.  Of course, I will post all of the pictures for your enjoyment.