This video just came across my YouTube feed and it’s a winner. This one features Edgerton addressing a group of kids at the 8th Annual Confederate Heritage Youth Day in Clover, S.C. this past weekend. This has got to be one of H.K.’s most incoherent presentations. At times I can’t tell what he is talking about. One kid looks horrified and the others just look amused and/or perplexed.
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.
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]
Today the city council in Lexington, Virginia will vote on a controversial ordinance that would ban display of Confederate flags on Main Street. As many of you know, Lexington is the burial place of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and the home of the Virginia Military Institute. The city is steeped in Confederate history. The local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is staging a parade to encourage the city to strike down the ordinance. To help out they are bringing in some heavy guns, including everyone’s favorite black Confederate, H.K. Edgerton. Edgerton started out early this morning outside of Lexington on a roughly ten mile hike in uniform and waving his Confederate flag. I’m sure he created quite a spectacle and I have no doubt that his address in front of the city council later tonight will cause quite a stir.
It looks like H.K. will not be performing as part of the Guyandotte Civil War Days, scheduled for Nov. 1-6 near Huntington, West Virginia. Apparently, Edgerton spoke last year at the event, but this year organizers were denied matching funds by the state’s Civil War sesquicentennial committee. That was sufficient to cancel his appearance.
Of course, one wonders why he was invited in the first place. He certainly is entertaining. His speeches have been fine tuned to garner a strong emotional response from those who have a strong need to see an African American man dressed in Confederate uniform, who fervently believes that large numbers of blacks fought in the army and that that the black population as a whole maintained the strongest ties to the Confederate cause and their masters through to the end of the war. In the trailer that I posted yesterday, H.K. calls for Lincoln to be disinterred so he can be placed on trial for war crimes.
In response to my last post in which I suggested that public historians have reason to feel good about the seismic interpretive shifts that can be seen in our museum’s and other historical institutions John Hennessy offers the following:
As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declaration of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do. [my emphasis]
I think John is absolutely right and this is an issue that came up a few times during the conference in Raleigh, but it didn’t receive nearly enough attention. My paper attempted to sketch some of the challenges that the National Park Service in Petersburg face in attracting African Americans and the local community to the battlefield. I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans. I’m not even sure how one would go about this. At the same time and given their location within a predominantly black community I do believe that the NPS does have a responsibility to be sensitive to the extent to which decisions made within its own institution and beyond served to alienate African Americans from a landscape that figured prominently in a narrative that traced the transition from slavery to freedom.
It is clear to me that public historians need to spend much more time coming to terms with the myriad ways in which Americans approach their past. With all of the attention being paid to how little Americans supposedly know about the past, it would be much more helpful to try to better understand why so many of us feel drawn to the past. [One useful source is Roy Rozensweig's and Thelen's, The Presence of the Past.] A new YouTube video interview of H.K. Edgerton by the Sons of Confederate Veterans points to just how important this is if we hope to offer an interpretation of the past that responds to the needs of various consumers of history. I’ve written extensively about H.K. and while I find him to be quite entertaining it would be a big mistake to dismiss him without considering his core message. I find it very difficult to follow much of his thinking about slavery, Reconstruction, the Klan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in this video. Frankly, I don’t get the sense that H.K. has read much history at all.