Update: I totally called it. The Confederate flag was intended to honor the men of the 54th Massachusetts and was not a pro-Confederate statement.
Late last night a Confederate flag was discovered displayed on the Shaw Memorial on Beacon Street across the street from the Massachusetts State House. The flag remained displayed for a couple of hours before police arrived. While it is unknown who placed the flag on the monument or for what purpose it does not appear to be a pro-Confederate flag message. The flag is clearly dangling from Colonel Shaw’s sword. It certainly does make for a powerful image.
Most people know the story of the 54th Massachusetts from the movie “Glory”. The movie’s narrative ends with the regiment’s failed assault at Battery Wagner, outside of Charleston, South Carolina in July 1863. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the crucial role the regiment – along with its sister regiment, the 55th Mass. – played during the immediate postwar period. Both regiments were stationed in South Carolina from April through August 1865. Their responsibilities included managing relationships between former slaves and owners to ensure the arrival of a new crop and safeguarding government buildings and supplies. Most importantly, the two regiments played a vital role in protecting former slaves from their former masters who hoped to rebuild white supremacy on a new foundation. Continue reading
Last week I attended the Civil War Institute’s annual conference at Gettysburg College. At the end of the first evening Peter Carmichael sat down for a conversation with James McPherson. Pete chose to open with questions about the recent shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and about its implications for how we think about the Civil War and our nation’s long painful history of race. I don’t know if McPherson was entirely comfortable with the questions and I certainly didn’t anticipate such a move on Pete’s part, but I couldn’t be more pleased that he did. It is one of the things that makes CWI such a unique experience.
Pete understands that historians have an obligation to weigh in during moments of national crisis, especially when those moments are tangled up in our collective past. The conversation served as a reminder that when it comes to our civil war it is often difficult to delineate between the present and the past. And even when we can pinpoint that past, coming to terms with its complexity can be a daunting task. In the wake of the Charleston shootings Americans sought out some of our best historians to help untangle the past from the present and provide some sense of meaning. Continue reading
I’ve been writing about this subject for much too long to be surprised by the emergence of the black Confederate narrative by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in response to last Wednesday’s shooting in Charleston. Black Confederate soldiers have been coming to the SCV’s and other Confederate heritage supporters rescue since the late 1970s, following the release of the popular mini-series, “Roots.”
This particular incident is unfortunately tailor-made for this myth. In a statement released by the South Carolina Division, SCV they maintain that neither the Confederate flag nor the history of the Confederacy has anything to do with the reasons behind Dylan Roof’s actions.
Historical fact shows there were Black Confederate soldiers. These brave men fought in the trenches beside their White brothers, all under the Confederate Battle Flag. This same Flag stands as a memorial to these soldiers on the grounds of the SC Statehouse today. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a historical honor society, does not delineate which Confederate soldier we will remember or honor. We cherish and revere the memory of all Confederate veterans. None of them, Black or White, shall be forgotten.
The historical record suggests that Confederate soldiers never acknowledged the existence of black comrades in arms during the war, though thousands of slaves performed a wide range of functions in the armies and elsewhere. They certainly didn’t acknowledge their presence while massacring black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow or the Crater and there were no signs of black soldiers while rounding up hundreds of fugitive and escaped slaves during the Gettysburg Campaign in the summer of 1863. Continue reading
In the wake of 9-11 very few Americans shuddered at the idea of trying to explain why terrorists flew planes into buildings. It was not enough to say simply that they ‘hated us’. We wanted to know why. In the months that followed the mainstream media and commentators of all stripes looked into the immediate and remote past to try to understand why such a horrific event occurred. There were few, if any outcries that this somehow disrespected the memories of the victims. In fact, many considered it a fitting tribute as well as a necessity – even as a matter of national security. That was certainly the case for me as I both mourned the loss of my cousin, who was killed in the South Tower, and struggled to understand the relevant history.
We can do the same for the nine men and women whose lives were cut short last week in such a brutal and senseless fashion. It’s not enough to say that Dylan Roof hated just as it was not enough in the case of the 9-11 terrorists. Roof hated for a certain reason and he told us in explicit language. His hate was built, in large part, around a certain understanding of the past and wrapped in the iconography of the Confederacy. As a nation we have a responsibility to come to terms with all of this.
We honor the victims by grappling with these very thorny issues and asking the tough questions that all too often hide behind platitudes and a self-serving politics. Let’s keep going.
Later this afternoon South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley will announce her support for the removal of the Confederate flag from the state house grounds in Columbia. Lindsey Graham will also make the same announcement after his earlier and even expected waffling. Additional calls for its removal have come from other state politicians as well as the president of the University of South Carolina.
It should come as no surprise that I applaud this move and even consider it a courageous decision. Republicans and other conservative voices will have to deal with the fallout from their constituents who continue to identify with the flag.
But make no mistake: It is the right decision. Continue reading
In the wake of the horrible shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday evening there is a growing chorus calling for the removal of the Confederate from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. A petition is now circulating, which includes 215,000 signatures calling for the flag’s removal and State Representative, Norman Brannon, a Republican announced that he will introduce a bill to make it a reality.
Beyond South Carolina, Mitt Romney called for its removal. In an interview Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts offered the tired response that this is a local issue that the citizens of South Carolina need to decide. True enough, but that does not give anyone – least of all a sitting governor – the right to push the issue aside. This is the time for good people to be counted. We are past the point of trying to assuage constituencies for political reasons with vague platitudes. Continue reading
… in a church that was founded by Denmark Vesey.
… just a few miles from the opening salvo of a rebellion intended to establish a slaveholding republic.
… just up the road from Columbia, where a Confederate flag still flies on the capitol grounds
… – a street named after one of the intellectual architects of white supremacy.
One hundred and fifty years ago today the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry entered Charleston, South Carolina. Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle offer a vivid description of this moment in the latest New York Times Disunion column. It’s an incredibly powerful scene and one that is beautifully captured in the pages of Harpers Weekly.
Funny, but in all of the historical tours that I have taken with history teachers and student groups, I have never heard this scene referenced. How is it that such a joyous scene that celebrates freedom, located at the very core of the slaveholding South, is not fully embraced? The truth is that from a certain perspective this scene is just a little unsettling. From the vantage point of 1861 these men were never meant to be. The men, women and children welcoming them to their home and celebrating their freedom was not a foregone conclusion just a few years previous. As we all know, the war could have ended without anything in this scene coming to pass. Continue reading