A Black Confederate Without the Black Ancestor

Willie Levi Casey

I am making my way through a small collection of essays in Thomas Brown’s Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).  Fitz Brundage opens his essay on African American artists, who have interpreted the Civil War in recent years, with a reference to Willie Levi Casey.  You can see Casey in the image to the right and while I’ve seen it on a number of websites, up until now I didn’t know anything about his background.

While Casey is dressed to commemorate those black men who “served” in Confederate ranks and “support preserving Southern history and telling it the way it is,” his connection to the war does not end with a black individual at all.  Here is an excerpt from one news item that I found online:

Casey’s persona as a re-enactor is a free black cabinetmaker from eastern Tennessee, able to read and write, with a wife and a child at home. But he has a real-life link to the Confederacy as well–one he always vaguely knew about but pinned down only in recent years.  Casey grew up in Cross Anchor, S.C., in the 1960s and ’70s. It was an area full of Caseys, black and white.  He and his siblings knew they had a white great-grandfather, a man who had never married their American Indian/African-American great-grandmother even though they had six children together.  A family photo of the couple’s son Barney Casey shows a bulky man in overalls with lank gray hair and white skin. He’s Willie Casey’s grandfather.  Willie Casey was well into adulthood when he decided to research the white side of his family.  In the course of his genealogical effort he came across the Civil War record of one Pvt. Martin Luther Casey, a South Carolina soldier killed in 1862. That man was the older brother of Casey’s great-grandfather.  Being a collateral relative of a Civil War soldier qualified Casey for membership in the SCV.

Interestingly, websites maintained by H.K. Edgerton and J.R. Vogel conveniently overlook the fact that Casey’s ancestor is not black.

OK, so I readily admit that I am confused.  On the one hand Casey was accepted into the SCV based on his connection to the brother of his great-grandfather.  The living interpretation that he adopts for reenactments and other events, however, is based on a fictional character whose connection to history is tenuous at best.

I guess what I am having trouble understanding is that in his effort to ‘tell it the way it is’ he ignores what has to be a fascinating Civil War legacy in the story of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother.  Why doesn’t Casey do the necessary research to interpret the offspring of his great-grandparents?  That would go much further in challenging the public to expand their understanding of slavery and race relations at a critical point in American history. I am sure the SCV would be more than happy to accommodate such a living memory of one’s Civil War ancestors.

Instead, we are presented with nothing more than the same tired commentary that reinforces outdated tropes that paint the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights.

[Image Source: The Free Lance-Star]

The Society of Civil War Historians and the Sesquicentennial

This morning I voted online for the next president of The Society of Civil War Historians.  I’ve been a member for a few years now and even had the opportunity to address the organization back in 2008.  The SCWH recently established a new book prize, a new journal, as well as a biennial conference.  I think these are all positive steps, but nothing here reaches beyond the traditional activities of an academic organization.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but it is worth remembering that we are in the middle of the sesquicentennial.  I remember hearing rumblings from various folks in the SCWH at the first biennial meeting in Philadelphia that the organization would be active throughout the commemoration of the 150th.  So far, I’ve heard nothing.  It’s disappointing especially given the fact that so many members are engaged in a wide range of activities that involve the education of the general public.  I have no doubt that given the talent in the SCWH that it can take the lead on any number of projects.  Perhaps a partnership/collaboration with another organization is the way to go.

I wish the online ballots included vision statements from the candidates rather than the standard brief resumes that pretty much blend into one another.  They are all top notch scholars.  I am much more interested in the direction they want to steer the organization and whether they believe that this direction includes anything to mark the sesquicentennial and public education.

I will continue to look forward to each issue of the journal as well as the next conference, but it seems to me that this organization is capable of doing more, especially NOW.

Washington – Lincoln Day in Virginia

"Lincoln's Drive Through Richmond" by Dennis M. Carter

Update – 01/24: Yesterday the bill was stricken from the Senate’s calendarUpdate: Head on over to Robert Moore’s site for some thoughtful commentary on Lincoln’s connection to the Shenandoah Valley. Turns out that the Lincoln family’s roots are deep.

The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill that would designate the third Monday in February as Washington – Lincoln Day.

The third Monday in February – George Washington-Lincoln Day to honor George Washington (1732-1799), the first President of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), the Great Emancipator.

This makes perfect sense given the Lincoln’s family’s roots in Virginia as well as the importance that many Virginians attach to his entry into Richmond in April 1865 and the end of slavery.

Carter’s painting is on display at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar in Richmond through April 2012.

Moving the Civil War Sesquicentennial Beyond Facebook and Twitter

Over the past few days I’ve been putting together some thoughts for a panel on the Civil War sesquicentennial that I am taking part in this coming April at the annual meeting of the OAH in Milwaukee.  I shared my proposal a few months ago and am now trying to fill in some of the detail.  I am very interested in the implications of social media on how public historians in museums and other institutions have utilized these tools during the sesquicentennial.

As I suggested in my proposal, social media has fundamentally changed the commemorative landscape.  Whereas 50 years ago only a few institutions were positioned to shape a national Civil War remembrance the democratization of the web means that all of our voices can now be heard.  Most institutions have done a pretty good job of utilizing social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to disseminate information to the public, but what are they doing to engage their audience?  Social media is a 2-way street and I am not simply thinking of a Facebook page that allows for readers’ comments.

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Fellow Southerners!

Battle of Spotsylvania

It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s.  Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage.  Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself.  We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.

It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms.  Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth.  I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard.  While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.

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