Sorry For Ruining Your Visit

On Friday my wife and I headed up to Frederick, Maryland to catch a concert with Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman.  This was my first visit to Frederick in a number of years and I have to say that I was blown away by the development in the downtown area.  We did a little walking before grabbing a bite to eat and then made our way to the beautiful Weinberg Center theatre.

From there we headed to D.C. for the rest of the weekend.  Yesterday was a beautiful day for a long walk so we decided to head on over to Arlington National Cemetery.  We walked through most of the cemetery, including the area that was operated by the Freedman’s Bureau.  You can find a large number of USCT’s, civilians, and former slaves buried in Section 29.  From there we walked up to the Lee-Custis mansion and then made our way to the Confederate Monument.

My wife has never seen that monument so I did a bit of interpretation for her.  I pointed out a number of features, including the decision to represent both Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri with the rest of the former Confederate states as well as the images of loyal slaves and what appears to be a black Confederate soldiers.  It’s a wonderful representation of the Lost Cause at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  In addition to the monument I mentioned President Woodrow Wilson’s participation in the dedication of the monument as well as his decision to segregate federal office buildings in the capital city at around that time.  My wife and I talked quite a bit about our thoughts about the monument, which is what we normally do when confronted with such structures.  Our instincts are to question and try to understand.

There was one other couple looking at the monument and although we did not exchange words I could tell that they were visibly upset with our comments.  Perhaps they thought that this was simply a monument to the soldiers buried in a ring around the monument.  If I had to guess they probably believed that what I was saying was disrespectful to their memory and service to the Confederacy.

Anyway, sorry for ruining your visit, but I do hope you learned something about the site.

Upcoming Appearance by Earl Ijames

We haven’t heard from our favorite “colored Confederate” researcher in quite some time, but it looks like Earl Ijames will be taking part in an upcoming conference on United States Colored Troops in New Bern, North Carolina.  The conference is being sponsored by the New Bern Historical Society and runs from May 6-9.  The conference is free and open to the general public.  Interestingly, Mr. Ijames will speak as part of a session on “The Myth of Black Confederates”.  I have no idea why a session on this subject would be included in a conference on USCTs.  I would love to attend, but unfortunately, this is a pretty busy time of year for me at school.

It would be great if someone could attend and take notes and/or audio of his presentation.  We have notes and audio from Mr. Ijames’s last presentation in Savannah, Georgia in which you can read and listen to some of the most incoherent claims made about this complex and widely misunderstood subject.  With the help of numerous people we’ve been able to discredit much of Mr. Ijames’s research on a case-by-case basis on this site.  I am curious as to what he will say about Weary Clyburn and John Venable.  [For a sense of just how irresponsible Ijames can be, check out the contradictory claims made about Clyburn.]  Mr. Ijames is responsible for a number of dubious claims about this subject and has refused to publish anything based on his research even after over ten years working at both the North Carolina Department of Archives and History and North Carolina Museum of History.  I am hoping that someone will be able to attend.

Appealing to Slavery and Race When It is Convenient

In the wake of Governor McDonnell’s amendment to his Confederate History Month Proclamation, representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans did their best to convince America that slavery and race have little or nothing to do with understanding the war.  Actually, the SCV has no problem discussing these issues – in fact, they are obsessed with the subject – as long as they control the terms of the debate.  As a result we are introduced to thousands of loyal black Confederate slaves and other distortions designed to redirect the conversation away from the central role that slavery played in the Confederate experience.  A few days ago I suggested that the SCV’s preferred view of the past has been on the defensive for the past few years and is on a fast track to becoming completely irrelevant. The responses from SCV members that I received served to confirm this prediction.

Reading accounts of yesterday’s dedication ceremony of the Davis-Limber statue at Beauvoir points to the extent to which the SCV’s agenda has been minimized and forced to remain on ground that they maintain. The statue is a case study in SCV propaganda and outright bad history.  The SCV has never been interested in Limber’s story; rather, he functions (as do “black Confederates”) to steer any discussion of the war and the Confederacy away from race and slavery.  Here are a few choice quotes from the ceremony that make my point:

In the name of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of all the people of the south of all the people of good conscience and righteousness throughout the world, we dedicate this statue of Jefferson Davis.  That it may stand as eternal testament to a duty well done.  Well, in the south, we know it takes a family to raise a child, and that’s what Jefferson Davis was willing to do.  — Chuck McMichael

This really humanizes Jefferson Davis, tells a story which isn’t really told very often,” said Bowling. There are two young children standing next to Davis with arms linked. One of the children was rescued by Davis’ wife during the war.  Jim Limber, the black child being beaten up and pushed around by an older man, and she hopped out of the carriage and pushed him away and grabbed Jim Limber and took him home where he became a functional member of the Davis household. — Brag Bowling

As you can clearly see, this story has nothing at all to do with little Jim Limber.  It’s about an act that was performed, not by Jefferson Davis, but by his wife, Varina.  Why isn’t she featured in this statue?  What is truly disturbing, however, is how little we know about Limber as well as the very brief period of time he spent with the Davis family.  In William J. Cooper’s massive biography of Jefferson Davis we find not one reference to this boy, though the author spends a great deal of time discussing the Davis family.  Joan Cashin’s recent biography of Varina Davis does include a few brief references to Limber, but it raises more questions than answers.  She notes the incident in Richmond that led to Limber joining the household, but as to his place in the family Cashin suggests that he functioned as a “playmate” to the other children.  In fact, it looks like it was Davis’s biological children who took a liking to the boy and pressed the issue of whether he could stay.

If the SCV wishes to be taken seriously than they should have no problem pointing us to the primary sources that support the claims that were made yesterday and at countless other times.  [Oh…just in case you need to be reminded, Rickey Pittman’s book does not count as scholarship.]

I won’t hold my breadth because as I said this isn’t really about Jim Limber and, ultimately, it may not even be about the Davis family.  Tell em’ Mr. Bowling:

“It wasn’t about slavery. It was about freedom, and the Jefferson Davis statue symbolizes freedom”

What Did All This Talk About Black Confederates Get Me?

How about a book deal with Westholme Publishing.  That’s right, today I was approached by a representative who wanted to know if I might be interested in writing a book about “black Confederates” and historical memory.  We’re talking 80,000 words (roughly 350 pages) on the role of black Southerners in the Confederate army and a history of how narratives about those roles evolved throughout the postwar period.  I should point out that I have not signed a contract and I made it clear that I will do nothing until my Crater manuscript is finished and mailed to the publisher.  At this point I am hoping to put together a proposal for Westholme some time in June/July.  It should come as no surprise, however, that I am excited about starting this project.  To be honest, I’ve been thinking about just such a project for some time, but wasn’t sure whether I could find a home for it.

I am envisioning a book that takes a close look at the recent resurgence of interest in these stories and how they function in our popular culture and on the eve of the sesquicentennial.  As many of you know I’ve already written quite a bit about this subject on the blog.  While most of the issues to be addressed can be found somewhere in the Archives a book project will give me a chance to tighten up the arguments and hopefully contribute something that will be appealing to both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts.  Best of all, given the paucity of reliable books on the subject I have no doubt that it will fly off the shelves.  It should be a fun project.

[Photo from the 52nd Regimental String Band Scrapbook]