Category Archives: Southern History

Young Robert E. Lee’s Cherubs

I don’t normally share reader mail, but this struck me as worth posting.  It’s been a few years since I last visited Stratford Hall and while I had a pleasant visit I too was struck by the emphasis on the cherubs.

Today I visited Stratford Hall.  The Great House obviously demonstrates the Lee family’s tremendous wealth during the eighteenth-century, and, while I was generally impressed with the interpretation of the plantation, I was a bit disappointed that there is not a more significant effort to interpret the slave life enforced and endured at Stratford Hall.

The docent pointed out the cherubs in the nursery’s fireplace that young four-year-old Robert E. Lee said good-bye to when he and his family moved to Alexandria.  Apparently, as the story goes, young Robert recognized the gravity of his family’s move and that he would not see his cherubs anymore.

What struck me with this story is how it conveys his sense of childhood innocence, which of course we should expect from a small child. Sheltered from the world around him, he had become attached to these cherubs set into the fireplace’s iron backing.  He regarded them as something real, something deserving of a farewell, all the while his family enslaved dozens of African Americans and denied them the opportunity of any similar sense of childhood bliss.  Did young Robert ever hear the crack of a whip or the crying horror of a slave being sold away from his family?  We’ll never know perhaps.  But if he did, his family and possibly even black servant protectors shielded him from the oppression outside and away from the Great House and its more immediate and stately environs.

I have young children who have neither experienced nor have come to understand the ugliness that the world perpetuates and endures. For this, I am thankful beyond expression.  I often wonder what they will grow up to become, to believe and to defend as worthwhile. Young Robert grew up to defend a slaveocracy- an institution that represented everything opposed and contradictory to those cherubs in the fireplace.  Acknowledging our history, even its ugliness, helps to strive to do better for the next generation.

More Entertainment For White Folks

On June 30 the Anderson County UDC dedicated a marker to Wade Childs, who accompanied his owner as a body servant in Orr’s Rifles.  Andy Hall recently took this one apart, not that it takes much time and effort to uncover these cases of so-called black Confederate soldiers.  This one is an absolute mess.  There is no question that Childs was a slave, but not surprisingly there is no indication of this on the marker.  The only thing missing from this little ceremony is H.K. Edgerton prancing about in one of his Dixie Outfitters t-shirts.

I am sure the African-American community in Anderson County appreciates their hard work of acknowledging one of the many horrors of slavery. Wait, where is the black community? [note strong New Jersey sarcasm. :-)]

Union County, NC Commemorates Its Slaves…

only, you wouldn’t know that by reading the marker.

The 48-inch by 29-inch marker reads: “In Memory of Union County’s Confederate Pensioners of Color,” then lists their names: Wilson Ashcraft; Ned Byrd; Wary Clyburn; Wyatt Cunningham; George Cureton; Hamp Cuthbertson; Mose Fraser; Lewis McGill; Aaron Perry; and Jeff Sanders.

And it includes this wording: “In Honor Of Courage & Service By All African Americans During The War Between The States (1861-65).”

How embarrassing for the people of this community.  More here and here.

A 1950s View of the Southern Plantation System

[Cross-Posted at the Atlantic]

The following documentary fits neatly into the culture of 1950s America. Southern plantations were depicted as scenes of peaceful coexistence between master and slaves before the Civil War and through the era of Jim Crow. According to this narrative, slave labor led naturally to sharecropping, and both arrangements provided the two parties with an equal benefit within an organic community. One can hear echoes of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War, which played down the evils of slavery and the coming of emancipation and freedom.

Today, if we visit a social gathering in the south, we’ll see some of these things. The gentle manners and courtesy. The separation of society into distinct groups. And the relationship of that society to the land, which supplies its wealth. These are some of the things the plantation system has contributed to southern life.

The nation’s collective memory of its Southern past, which included no hint of any racial or class tension, reinforced America’s self-proclaimed status as leader of the free world at the height of the Cold War. Within a few years, this view would be shattered by bus boycotts, Freedom Riders, and lunch-counter sit-ins. As a result, by the end of the 1960s, a new interpretation of the Antebellum South began to emerge, one that attempted to deal more honestly with some of the tougher questions related to slavery and race.

Celebrating Revisionist History

“[T]he enemy of Civil War history is everything people think they know about the conflict.” — Ed Ayers.

Thanks to everyone for the emails and comments about my most recent op-ed in the New York Times Disunion column.  Yesterday I took some time to catch up on some old posts.  What I value most about the Disunion site is its continued emphasis on introducing top-notch scholarship to a broad general audience.  Anyone who follows this column from its beginning through to 2015 will surely walk away with a firm grounding in Civil War history.  A few readers have suggested that the best articles ought to be collected in book form or in some other format and I couldn’t agree more.  They make for ideal high school level readings.

One of the best reasons as to why this site is so important can be found in William Thomas’s recent essay on how Southern railroads utilized slave labor.  I’ve mentioned Will’s book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, a number of times and even included it in my “best of 2011″ list.  Thomas’s research expands our understanding of how slave labor was utilized beyond the fields, its profitability, and its place within Americans’ understanding of their own exceptional place on the world stage.  In short, it reminds us of why revisionist history is so important to our understanding of the past.  Consider the following responses from a few readers:

In addition to the ownership by corporations, which I knew but had no idea it was apparently so extensive, it is astonishing (and appalling) that slaves could be used as collateral for loans. Thanks for another interesting and informative article in this series.

Wow, mention of corporation-owned slaves is just not in our school textbooks. How was their existance different than the agricultural/farm slaves? The Ballton’s experience would make for a fascinating film. truth can be stranger than fiction.

Wait a minute, does this mean that a substantial percentage of slaves were owned by corporations? All my life I have never heard of slaves owned by anyone but individuals. By families. What was it like to be owned by a corporation? Were the enslaved on average treated the same, better, or worse? Are there any corporate equivalents to the stories of slaves who chose to take care of their owners possessions when Union troops appeared?

I love the sense of surprise that comes through in their responses.  For most people history is made up of a set of stories, some of which are more closely guarded than others or are more popular within a certain community.   Depending on when and how these stories are learned can determine the response to the introduction of new information.  In the case of the Civil War era many people want nothing more than to hear the same stories told well.  In this case the reaction to new interpretations is often accompanied by a defensive or dismissive posture.

If we can manage to step back, however, from our own personal investment in certain stories we can appreciate and even celebrate the introduction of new information and how it effects our understanding of the past.  It has the potential to challenge some of our most deeply engrained assumptions about what happened and why and new questions arise that beg for further research.  In this case this brief column forces readers to step away from their popular images of slavery from “Gone With the Wind” or their high school textbooks and further assumptions about the master – slave relationship as well as the future of slavery in 1861.  This is revisionist history at its best.