The book of essays pulled from the New York Times’s Disunion column has been out for a couple of weeks now. It’s a pretty hefty volume that includes over 100 essays on the period between 1861 and the beginning of 1863. My only complaint is that the table of contents does not list individual essays, which makes it difficult to locate specific topics. Included is my recent piece on the relationship between John Winsmith and his camp servant Spencer. I was also asked to contribute an essay specifically for the book on how it might be used in the classroom. That essay will be included in the e-book version, which is being marketed specifically to history teachers. You can read the essay for yourself below, but it goes without saying that I highly recommend it, especially if you teach American history and/or the Civil War.
If your high school history class was anything like mine, your instructor relied almost entirely on an unwieldy textbook, with an even more unwieldy narrative – written as if intended to alienate as many students as possible from the serious study of the past. Historical understanding involved little more than the memorization of facts, employed in an essay that closely reflected the textbook and your instructor’s lecture.
Step into a history classroom today, and much of what you see and hear will surprise you. Instructors have access to a wealth of primary and secondary sources, along with new digital tools, all of which have fundamentally changed what it means to study history. Continue reading
Following the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4, 1863 a New York Times correspondent reported on the confiscation of Confederate camp servants and their enlistment into the Union army in full view of their former masters. Continue reading
As we all know one of the most misunderstood aspects of the debate surrounding the existence of black Confederate soldiers is the existence of pensions that were given by former Confederate states to qualified black citizens at various points during the postwar period. For the uninformed or those working primarily from a narrow agenda the existence of these pensions is proof positive of the existence of black soldiers and the fantasy of a multiracial army. The pensions have been used on numerous occasions by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage types to justify new grave markers and other monuments to these men. I am not interested in returning to this debate. My position is clear.
What I am interested in doing is posing a few questions about these pensions, which is the subject of chapter 3 in my manuscript on the history of camp servants and the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My goal is to use the pension records and other sources to explore how white Southerners chose to remember the Civil War and specifically the role of camp servants at the turn of the century. The questions posed clearly assume that the applicant was present as a non-combatant; in other words they are not classed as soldiers. Regardless of the state the vast majority of black pensioners were servants and cooks. What is even more revealing is that pension applications make no inquiry as to whether the individual in question was wounded on the battlefield. This does not mean that such information never made it onto an application, but that it did not change the status of the applicant. This is a crucial point given the emphasis that black Confederate advocates place on battlefield prowess. Again, it apparently made no difference to how white Southerners viewed these men during the postwar period. Continue reading
Bonus material compliments of The Onion. [H/T to Bjorn Skaptason]
A number of my Civil War peeps on Facebook are passing around a Comedy Central skit about the Civil War, which I posted here a few years back. To return the favor I give you another classic from Saturday Night Live. Not surprisingly, I love the reference to the camp servant, who makes it into the picture. “He’s been a big help.” Enjoy.
Lucy Nichols at a reunion of the 23rd Indiana, circa. 1890s
I had one of those moments this morning when reading the work of another historian opened my eyes to ways to deepen my own thinking about a particular subject. Much of what I’ve written about in the first chapter of my black Confederates book explores the relationship between individual camp servants and their masters. It offers a survey of the wide range of relationships and how they evolved owing to the exigencies of war. The second chapter examines the presence of former camp servants at Confederate veterans reunions as well as the issuance of pensions by individual southern states to blacks for the vital roles they played during the war. I’ve been struggling with how I can link these two chapters conceptually. Despite claims to the contrary, individual relationships usually did not continue after the war along the lines of the loyal slave narrative. That said, we do need to make sense of the presence of camp servants at these reunions. Continue reading