I noticed that Ann DeWitt has taken the time to respond to one of my recent posts about Entangled in Freedom [and here]. I will leave it to you to decipher her post. In addition, yesterday Hampton historian, Veronica Davis filed a lawsuit to halt the deletion of the controversial passage about black Confederates in the Virginia 4th grade history textbook. [Update: Brooks Simpson has included a link to Davis’s petition at Civil Warriors.] High profile African Americans, who have come to endorse this historical meme and for different reasons include H.K. Edgerton, Nelson Winbush and even Earl Ijames. One of my readers is convinced that Edgerton and other African Americans are being paid to promote this narrative. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I would suggest that such an explanation ignores an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon and our collective memory of the Civil War.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about what the identification of some African Americans tells us about the evolution of Civil War Memory and while I don’t have any firm answers it might be worth posting for further discussion. Perhaps the identification with this narrative by some African Americans can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with a Southern past. That should come as no surprise given the central role that they have played in its formation from the very beginning. At the same time that role has been decidedly influenced at different points in history by white Americans to buttress their own racial, cultural, and political agenda. One need look no further than the pervasiveness of an ideology of paternalism (in the context of slavery) during the antebellum period, the advent of the Lost Cause following the Civil War, and more recently a conscious effort to support white political control in the 1950s and 60s through the control of history textbooks.
For many African Americans it is the Civil Rights Movement that looms large as a place to find heroic stories, larger-than-life personalities, and even narratives of racial reconciliation. The Civil War, on the other hand, has been lost. As I’ve learned over the years many African American families pushed their history of slavery away either because it was too painful or the narrative had been reduced to one of degradation and misery. The past few decades has witnessed a dramatic shift in the way that slavery is interpreted as well as the reemergence of African American participation in the war itself – seen most clearly in the 1989 release of “Glory.” The movie’s success in its appeal to a mainstream white audience ought to be seen as an important milestone in the evolution of popular memory of the war that has come to acknowledge the central role of slavery and emancipation in the overall conflict. Continue reading “African Americans and Black Confederates”
Over the past few weeks I’ve used Ann DeWitt’s website as a case study of what is wrong with the current debate about black Confederates as well as the pitfalls of doing online research on this specific subject – a fact that was confirmed this past week.
This morning I was browsing the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Facebook page when I came across this response by G. Ashleigh Moody to a story about Carol Sheriff. Moody is the registrant for the Petersburg Express website, which includes a great deal of information concerning black Confederates. His response provides us with another useful case study of what is wrong with the popular debate about this subject as well as the dangers of researching this topic online:
What most college professors will probably not share with their students: As you will find documented here [Petersburg Express] are hundreds of Black Confederate SOLDIERS from Petersburg Virginia. documented from just one Virginia city. And William and Mary is “just down the road” from Petersburg! Amazing! …. These are the stories that bring people together, not the Neo-Yankee version of the South that we are having to endure today. We could do with a lot less “presentism”!
Well, Petersburg Express is just a click away so why don’t we take a little tour of what they have to say about black Confederates. The first thing you will notice is the claim made by Ed Bearrs that has already been challenged on this site. Beyond that this is a fairly typical black Confederate website. Notice the hodgepodge of primary source passages that contain absolutely no analysis or context as well as the photographs, which suffer from the same. Included are references to Richard “Dick” Poplar and Charles Tinsley. Even more disturbing are the links to that bastion of scholarship known as Dixie Outfitters and H.K. Edgerton’s, Southern Heritage 411. This is cut and paste history at its worst and done on a 4th grade level. Continue reading “G. Ashleigh Moody Meet Ann DeWitt”
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga. I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book. However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both. I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way. It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons. I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans. That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black. Let me explain.
As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory. Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race. My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative. As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups. We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves. I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America. Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country. We should never forget what it took to bring this about. And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. Continue reading “A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past”
It just continues to get more and more bizarre with each passing week. Ann DeWitt promised to continue to develop her Black Confederate Soldiers website and she does not disappoint. She recently added a section on the pension records of Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Nowhere does she inform her reader that these pensions were given to former slaves – a fact obscured by the black individual holding a Confederate flag. But wait, it gets much better. Check out DeWitt’s description of body servants:
So what is the definition of a body servant? A body servant is a gentleman’s gentleman. These African-American men, whether freedmen or slaves, dedicated their lives to the service of men who in some form or fashion shaped the United States of America. In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors Degree or equivalent level experience. Ask any salesman. You cannot secure an appointment with a senior executive without getting approval from his or her executive assistant.
I deplore slavery. However, my point is that these body servants did break ground in establishing the importance of the role in 21st century context. Body servants were trusted advisers and confidants to Confederate Generals such as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest to name a few. As an example, capitalist Nathan Bedford Forrest was the most revered as well as loathed Confederate General because Nathan Bedford Forrest in the end was respected by both black and white southern men who served under his leadership. Look at the official Confederate Tennessee Pension records. Forrest even had an “escort cavalry,” which in today’s terms we call an entourage. Even President Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, travels with a staff of 500 people.
Here is DeWitt’s page on Alabama’s pension records:
The African-Americans, who served during the American Civil War from Alabama, served as drummers, musicians, laborers, carpenters and teamsters to name a few. Alabama Department of Archives & History provides an Online Index with links to original pension applications. Please note that the Alabama Department of Archives & History does not document if these African-Americans fought for the Union or the Confederate States Army. Some southerners who served in the United States Army continued to fight for the Union. Which begs the question, did some slaves go to war with their southern masters to fight for the Union?
I admit that I had a long day today, but can someone explain what DeWitt is asking in these final two sentences? I am assuming that the men listed on this page functioned as servants to soldiers in the Confederate army.
If that wasn’t enough, H.K. Edgerton is referred to as a “Human Rights Defender.” And, finally we have this creative interpretation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Keep in mind that DeWitt intends this to be an educational site for teachers and students. O.K. that’s enough crazy for one day.
Some of you are, no doubt, familiar with the story out of North Carolina involving H.K. Edgerton and Councilman Cecil Bothwell, who refused to cite God in his oath of office. Apparently, the good state of North Carolina has a provision that outlaws atheists from public office. Please correct me if I have the details wrong. To be completely honest I don’t really care about the details. What I find hilarious is that H.K. and others have decided to make this an issue. Of course any provision along these lines violates the U.S. Constitution which explicitly rejects any religious test for public office. That seems reasonable enough to me. Anyway, I didn’t think much of it at the time until I came across this wonderful cartoon that appeared in one of the local newspapers in Asheville, North Carolina.