Category Archives: Southern History

John Christopher Winsmith Rejects Secession and Embraces the Republican Party

Winsmith Letter CoverJohn Christopher Winsmith was what historian Jason Phillips refers to as a “diehard rebel.” Throughout the war, Winsmith never wavered in his enthusiasm for the cause.  He believed that it was incumbent on everyone in the Confederacy to make the necessary sacrifices in the army and on the home front.  In letters that routinely characterized the Lincoln and the Yankee army as “invaders” and “abolitionists” it is clear that Winsmith viewed the struggle as a war to protect slavery.  Winsmith’s father, who served in the state legislature in 1860, introduced the following resolution immediately after Lincoln’s election to the presidency:

That this General Assembly is satisfied that Abram Lincoln has already been elected President of the United States, and that said election has been based upon principles of open and avowed hostility to the social organization and peculiar interests of the slave holding states of this Confederacy.

The father fully supported the war effort by purchasing Confederate bonds as well as his sons efforts to earn promotion.

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Beyond the Civil War and Reconstruction With Jonathan Holloway

Many of you have viewed the Open Yale Course on the Civil War and Reconstruction taught by David Blight.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to take a survey course with one of the nation’s most respected Civil War scholars.  I am currently making my way through Professor Jonathan Holloway’s course, African American History: From Emancipation to the Present.  Below is the first lecture.  [Interested in the American Revolution? Check out Joanne Freeman's course.]

Dixie College’s Confederate Identity Crisis

Like many of you I’ve been following this story out of Utah at Dixie College.  It seems that the school is going through a bit of an identity crisis as its status shifts from college to university.  Already a statue of a Confederate soldier has been relocated off campus grounds, but it is the debate over a change of name that has caused the most controversy.  At first I didn’t think much of this story as I thought the school’s name and even the Confederate statue constituted a loose identification with a Confederate past.  Chalk it up to Ole Miss wannabes.

Boy was I wrong.

Until a few weeks ago, Brody Mikesell, like most of his fellow Dixie students, saw no problem with the name. But he began leafing through old yearbooks, called “The Confederate,” after another student pointed out troubling photos, some as late as the early 1990s. White students sing in black face, dress as Confederate soldiers, stage slave auctions and affectionately display the Confederate battle standard.

Some as late as the 1990s?  In the official school yearbook?

The clincher for Mikesell was a parade float called “Gone With the Plow.” In a photo dating from the late 1960s, a man with his skin painted black pushes a plow while a white student, formally dressed with a top hat, holds what appear to be reins or a whip.

Troubling enough, but consider the following from business professor and former chairman of the school’s board of trustees Shan Gubler:

A 1981 graduate, Gubler once carried the Confederate battle standard on campus, never considering that many regard the flag as a racist symbol. Now, thanks to the yearbook photos, “we have printed ourselves into a corner,” Gubler said, because they affirm the perception that Dixie name is a nod to Southern racism.

I hate to break it to you professor, but this is much more than just a “nod” to racism.  The fact that there is a history of these images in the official school yearbook suggests that a certain culture was well embedded as late as the early 1990s and that it was sanctioned or at least tolerated by the school’s administration and faculty.  This is an open and shut case.  If the school wants to be taken seriously as a university it at least should do what is necessary to bring its outward appearance more in line with what we hope goes on inside its classrooms.

Should Byron Thomas Join the Sons of Confederate Veterans?

Byron Thomas made a name for himself not too long ago by hanging a Confederate flag in his dorm window at the University of South Carolina – Beaufort.  Since then he has utilized YouTube to promote his own vision of a post-racial society.  Some of it is worth watching and some of it is not.  Today Byron discusses the discovery of an ancestor, who he believes fought as a soldier in the Confederate army.

I really want to join the Sons of Confederate Veterans because Benjamin Thomas a Black Confederate just might be my ancestor and I want to honor him. Benjamin Thomas got a state pension from the state of South Carolina, so he definitely isn’t no make believe character. I really want to join, because I’ve been to some SCV meetings and I love what they stand for. They DON”T SUPPORT/STAND FOR any form of racism. They are no where near a racist group.I just want to honor my past ancestor that fought for the south, that’s all. America I want to join, but I’m not sure my family will like it, so can yall help me out!!! Kill People with Kindness and May God Bless America.

You get the sense that Byron hasn’t done much research at all on his ancestor.  The direct answer to his question is obviously, yes, he should honor his ancestor.  The only question that remains – assuming the relation is substantiated – is whether Benjamin Thomas will be honored for who and what he was during the Civil War.

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‘The Best Servant By Far’

My latest column at The New York Times’s Disunion page is now available.  The essay briefly explores the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his body servant, Spencer.  The Winsmith letters are housed at the Museum of the Confederacy and offer an incredibly rich account of the war from a Confederate officer in the slaveholding class.  I still plan at some point to publish the letters and/or write a biography of Winsmith.

This is my third column for the Disunion page.  The first explored the challenges of using the Internet to do history and the second examined how I use battlefields to teach Civil War history.  Hope you enjoy it.