Tag Archives: Confederate History Month

Historians Respond to Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation

Today I picked up the most recent issue of Civil War Times (August 2010) which includes my editorial on Governor Robert McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation.  I joined an impressive group that included William Marvel, Susannah Ural, Lesley Gordon, S. Waite Rawls III, Catherine Clinton, Harold Holzer, Harry Smeltzer, and Michael Fellman.  I enjoyed reading the other selections as well as Gary Gallagher’s essay on the controversy.  Readers of this blog won’t find anything new in my submission:

The response to Governor McDonnell’s proclamation reflects the extent to which white and black Americans no longer identify with a Civil War remembrance that fails to acknowledge the centrality of slavery and emancipation to the war in Virginia.  His subsequent apology ought to be understood in light of a dramatic shift in public perception that has taken place over the past few decades.  Changes to the racial profile of local and state governments in the wake of the Civil Rights movement has allowed black Americans to take part in public debate.

A tour of Virginia reveals a historical landscape dominated by monuments that celebrate the common soldier as well as the Confederacy’s political and military leaders.  In addition to remembering the past, these sites reflect the values and racial profile of the ruling party throughout much of the 20th century.  The original proclamation would have us continue to remember Virginia’s Civil War through this narrow lens. On the eve of the Sesquicentennial, Virginians demand a proclamation that commemorates a more accurate and richer past.  In doing so we ensure that 2011 will not be a repeat of 1961. (p. 44)

Apparently, representatives of Sons of Confederate Veterans were contacted, but chose not to contribute to this forum.  I’m not surprised.  Perhaps they were too busy worrying about stories such as the following, which I read about this morning.  Last week hundreds of eight graders from Burke County, North Carolina traveled to hear Rev. Herman White as part of the area’s Founders Day Festival.  The good reverend “asserted that slaves before “the War of Northern Aggression” had more rights than African Americans have today and disparaged the Gettysburg Address as “political garbage.”  You can read more about this travesty here, but I think the response by the local SCV is both incredibly disturbing and helpful in understanding their position on the governor’s proclamation:

The Waldensian Trail of Faith, a local nonprofit organization, sponsors the Valdese-Waldensian Founders Festival. The association’s president, State Sen. Jim Jacumin, said the Burke County Tigers, a Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) group, recommended — “raved” about — White as a speaker. Jacumin said, “We don’t research. That’s something we don’t do. We don’t have the money or the time to do that… It’s like a pastor who comes to your church and preaches, you don’t research him.” According to Tigers’ chaplain Larry Smalls’ introduction, White is the pastor of Archdale Church of God, has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in ministry and is working toward his doctorate. He said White is a state and national SCV Life Member and has been the SCV N.C. Division chaplain for six years.”  (White) is a purebred unreconstructed Southerner and not ashamed to say so,” Small said, “and Dixie burns in his heart.” Tigers’ adjutant Elgie McGalliard said the organization did not know specifically what White would speak about, but knew he focused on the history of the South.  “He’s a minister; he just talks what’s in his heart,” McGalliard said.

I guess it doesn’t matter that “what’s in his heart” is a lot of racist and historically inaccurate crap.  I would suggest that the above quote nicely encapsulates the SCV’s place on the landscape of Civil War remembrance.  It really is hard to imagine that people still think along these lines.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Governor McDonnell to Speak in Fredericksburg to Mark Memorial Day

Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell will mark Memorial Day with an address at the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, which contains the graves of roughly 15,000 Union soldiers.  Over at Mysteries and Conundrums, John Hennessy offers a brief history of the earliest Memorial Day observances, which were organized by the town’s African Americans.  This continued until the early 1880s when Confederate veterans accepted an invitation to take part with the stipulation that African Americans be excluded.

It’s worth asking, in light of April’s controversial Confederate History Month declaration, why the governor has chosen to mark this important day in a Union cemetery.  I am curious as to what he will say.  In fact, I think I may attend.  What do you think?

Edward Sebesta is Back and Without Focus

As he promised in January Ed Sebesta has petitioned President Obama to discontinue the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate statue at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day.  Actually, this petition goes much further than last year’s in requesting that the federal government “revoke the Sons of Confederate Veterans participation as a recognized charity in the Combined Federal Campaign, deny the SCV permission to host events for the United States Army, and prevent the SCV’s future involvement Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs in America’s high schools.”  In doing so Sebesta has moved away from focusing the nation’s attention on a specific public site in favor of a broader look at the neo-Confederate movement.  Unfortunately, any focus on the monument that Sebesta hoped to maintain is lost and I suspect that most people will not pay much attention to the SCV’s political activities and involvement in JROTC.  Before commenting further, I want to share what I wrote last year:

First, let me say that there is much in this new petition that I agree with.  The SCV promotes a Lost Cause inspired narrative of the Civil War that at times borders on racist.  You can indeed see this on the many chapter websites as well as their bookstore on the national site.  As far as I am concerned the fundamental problem for Sebesta is that President Obama made the right decision last year.  Rather than fuel the debate, which only worked to move interested parties further away from one another, the president sent an additional wreath to the African American Soldiers Monument in Washington, D.C.

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Confederates Were Traitors! How About You?

I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory.  As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law.  In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration.  This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors.  For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside  for now and take one step back.  Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble.  For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.

The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans.  It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation.  It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions.  In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.

OK…but were they traitors to their country?  In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American.  It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn.  Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history.  On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country.  I value its institutions and the rule of law.  I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy.  That’s right.  If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary.  Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well.  So, were Confederates traitors?  Yes!  As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?

This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence.   Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.

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”