Category Archives: Southern History

Happy Anniversary

On this day in 1862 United States forces under the command of General George B. McClellan and Confederate forces under the command of General Robert E. Lee fought to a standstill along Antietam Creek outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland.  McClellan failed to take advantage of an opportunity to destroy his enemy and perhaps end the war while Lee's performance capped off a brilliant string of victories, which moved the focus of combat from the gates of Richmond to U.S. territory.  In doing so, Lee arguably saved the Confederacy from imminent collapse. 

Fifty years ago this week Virginia Governor Lindsay Almond ordered Charlottesville's public schools to close their doors rather than follow a court order to integrate their classrooms.  Both Venable and Lane schools closed and hundreds of local children were without a public school classroom
for five months, until those schools reopened on February 4, 1959.  Parents mobilized and formed The Charlottesville Education Foundation and promptly opened two all-white schools, one of which they named Robert E. Lee Elementary.

On September 19 at 4pm there will be a "Massive Resistance" remembrance on the east end of the Downtown Mall by the Free Speech Wall.  Organizers plan on including music and a wreath to honor the Jefferson and Burley students who
attempted to integrate white schools here in Charlottesville.

Corinth Contraband Camp

Somehow this story fell under my radar screen.  Both the Siege and Battle of Corinth Commission and National Park Service are in the process of preserving and interpreting the Corinth Contraband Camp.   Between 2,500 and 6,000 slaves  made their way to the camp before it was abandoned by the Union army in 1864.  The preservation plan includes seven life-size bronze sculptures, a small cabin, and interpretive signage.  The site is already open to visitors, however, the statues are still in production with plans for the first to be unveiled in November.

This is an excellent example of how our national narrative of the war continues to evolve in the post- Civil Rights Era.  It's hard to imagine such a site being maintained without the necessary political leverage from those whose memories of the war deviate from the Lost Cause tradition – a tradition that was reinforced in public spaces throughout the twentieth century by legalized white supremacy.  For additional reading, see Kirk Savage's Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves (Princeton University Press, 1999).

Southern Heritage for Me

I like to think that this blog occupies a unique position in our Civil War community.  I've tried over the past three years to share thoughtful observations about the intersection of historical scholarship, memory, and public history as well as my own continued journey to better understand the complexity of this relationship.  No doubt, I am often perceived as an outsider whose purpose is to denigrate the people of the South and Southern Heritage.  The outright attacks and/or suspicion, however, have only added to my curiosity about the blurred relationship between history and memory as well as the importance that people and certain organizations place on maintaining and defending certain views of the past.   Although I haven't come away yet with any firm conclusions, many of my posts do reflect a certain amount of concern when myth trumps or overshadows serious historical scholarship and an acknowledgment of the complexity of the past.  I see this in the debates over the display of the Confederate flag, the commitment to honor black Confederates such as Weary Clyburn for their "service" to the Confederacy, as well as the overly simplistic characterizations of Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as the standard bearers for moral and Christian perfection.  It's not surprise that my interest in distinguishing between myth and history as they relate to all three examples would engender a heightened defensiveness, but it also betrays a commitment to the view that there is only one way to identify with the history of the South or what we call Southern Heritage.

I've been helped tremendously by the thoughtful commentary of Robert Moore, whose Cenantua's Blog is in my mind the most interesting of the recent additions to the Civil War blogging community.  His site is a must read for those of you interested in issues related to memory.  [On the question of Southern/Confederate identity see his three most recent posts, here, here, and here.]  What I find most helpful is Robert's ability to maintain a very careful balance between his affection and need to find meaning in a family history that has deep Southern/Civil War roots with a respect for a strict observance of standards of historical analysis and research.  Consider Robert's recent post about the offering of books by a Southern Heritage organization:

Considering the books made available by this organization, through
their website, a precedence is being set. One might say that everything
there is “pro-Southern,” but that wouldn’t really be true. Therefore,
is everything there “pro-Confederate?” Maybe, but not
necessarily. Isn’t a Confederate veteran a Confederate veteran, whether
he enlisted, was conscripted, deserted, stuck-it-out to the end, etc.?
Yet, if he did not agree with the “Cause” and did whatever he could not
to be a part of it, even after being forced into the ranks, would not
calling him a “Confederate Veteran be a misrepresentation of the man
and that in which he really believed? Might calling this person a
“Confederate Veteran” be contrary to the way that same person wanted to
be remembered? Anyway, everything on the list of books must be ”pro”….
some line of thought. But again, is it representative of ”Southern
perspective?”

Apparently, this takes us back to the earlier discussion of the
definition of “Southern perspective.” If it is indeed, all-inclusive
and representative of the Southern people as a whole, then the use of
the phrase is misleading, for what we are seeing in the list of
available books is not all-inclusive of the Southern people. There is
nothing about Southern Unionists, Confederate deserters, free blacks
who were forced to help the Confederacy, disaffected Confederates,
etc., etc., etc.

So, in the end, in the manner in which the phrase ”Southern
perspective” is used, there is a problem and that problem is that there
is the distinct absence of one word… “balanced.” If the word “balanced”
and the actual commitment to being balanced remains absent from
“telling the ”Southern perspective,” then saying that a person or
organization is telling the “Southern perspective” would be a lie.

By "lie" I assume that Robert is referring to the tendency among certain people of reducing the idea of a Southern perspective to that of a white or Confederate perspective and heritage.  I agree with Robert that there are multiple, perhaps an infinite number of Southern perspectives that can be identified and that are equally legitimate as modes of identification and remembrance.  The interesting question, however, is when those modes of remembrance distort the past and serve to fuel our own contemporary values, interests, and insecurities.  In other words, at what point do we leave the realm of history and enter the world of mythology and story-telling, and is it possible to achieve a healthy balance between the two?  The problem, of course, is that the questioning of certain perspectives is often viewed as a threat rather than as an honest attempt to better understand the complexity of the object of remembrance.   When is the last time you saw the above-mentioned distinctions on an SCV website?   On the other hand, they seem to exist comfortably within Robert's identification and attempt to find meaning in his own family's past.

Perhaps, what we have at work is a confusion surrounding the use of language.  Perhaps, what  folks ought to refer to is not a Southern heritage, strictly and exclusively defined, but my Southern heritage, or our Southern heritage.  This at least makes it easier to understand and appreciate the nature of the attacks against me.  It's not that I am challenging or questioning Southern heritage, it's that I am looking into or questioning one among any number of ways of remembering the past. 

Thanks for blogging, Robert.

Taking Religion Seriously

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Over the past two years I've read a number of books that address various aspects of religion before, during, and after the Civil War.  I don't mean the popular titles that pluck out spirituals to make us feel good or stories that reinforce our overly simplistic assumptions about Christian Warriors and God-Loving Southerners v. the atheist North.  A few notable titles on my short list include Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation, and Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering, to name just three. 

I just picked up and am looking forward to starting Charles F. Irons's The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).  I've read a number of his essays published in various collections, but I am looking forward to reading what I must assume stems from his dissertation, which was written here at the University of Virginia.  Here is the jacket description:

"In the colonial and antebellum South, black and white evangelicals
frequently prayed, sang, and worshipped together. Even though white
evangelicals claimed spiritual fellowship with those of African
descent, they nonetheless emerged as the most effective defenders of
race-based slavery.As Charles Irons persuasively argues, white
evangelicals' ideas about slavery grew directly out of their
interactions with black evangelicals. Set in Virginia, the largest
slaveholding state and the hearth of the southern evangelical movement,
this book draws from church records, denominational newspapers, slave
narratives, and private letters and diaries to illuminate the dynamic
relationship between whites and blacks within the evangelical fold.
Irons reveals that when whites theorized about their moral
responsibilities toward slaves, they thought first of their
relationships with bondmen in their own churches. Thus, African
American evangelicals inadvertently shaped the nature of the proslavery
argument. When they chose which churches to join, used the procedures
set up for church discipline, rejected colonization, or built
quasi-independent congregations, for example, black churchgoers spurred
their white coreligionists to further develop the religious defense of
slavery.