We’ll Always Have the Centennial

Update: I suspect that this is not the kind of coverage that the SCV is looking for. “They started at a fountain where slaves were once sold, past the church that Martin Luther King Jr. led during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ended at the Capitol steps, where Alabama’s old and modern history often collide. It’s the spot where former Gov. George C. Wallace proclaimed “segregation forever” in 1963 and where King concluded the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.”

Centennial Commemoration of Jefferson Davis's Swearing In Ceremony

From Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (Making the Modern South)by Robert J. Cook:

“The pageant took place during the week of February 12, 1961.  Attended by an estimated 50,000 people, it was a colorful affair complete with voodoo dancers and minstrels.  The accompanying brochure bore witness to the business community’s support.  One advertisement–for Montgomery Fair, former employer of the bus boycott heroine Rosa Parks–featured drawings of Civil War regalia and a southern belle and boasted that it had been central Alabama’s “leading department store” since 1868.  Another, carrying a Rebel flag, proclaimed “Winn Dixie and Kwik-Chek Show Phenomenal Growth During a Century of Progress in Dixieland.”  Spectators who paid up to five dollars a ticket watched a sixteen-segment performance by a home-grown cast numbering over a thousand.  The two-hour pageant, a combination of the spoken word, music, and dancing, began with a salute to the Belle of the Confederacy an then took viewers through the major events of the secession crisis. In a section entitled “General Davis Speaks,” the audience heard an almost verbatim staging of the Confederate president’s inaugural in which he trumpeted the cause of states’ rights and the legitimacy of secession.  On leaving the coliseum, spectators were greeted with a crashing fireworks display to mark the founding of the southern nation.  A watching journalist pronounced the whole performance a genuine “spectacular,” though he did complain that in the inauguration scene Jefferson Davis had been portrayed “as a corn-pone politician at a Black Belt party rally.” (p. 81)

  • On February 17, a large crowd gathered at Union station to welcome a local attorney who played the part of Jefferson Davis.  Upon his arrival, Davis was escorted to the Exchange where he was met by the serving chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, J. Ed. Livingston.
  • The following day a large parade was held along Dexter Ave.  Carriages contained the sitting governors of Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi.  For the reenactment of Davis’s swearing in, Alabama governor, John Patterson played secessionist governor A.B. Moore, city commissioners Lester B. Sullivan and Frank Parks acted the parts of the original reception committee, and state circuit judge Walter B. Jones played the role of Georgian Howell Cobb to administer the oath of office.
  • That night 5,000 people attended an elaborate secession ball.
  • Governor Patterson relayed shared the following assessment with Karl Betts: “…the Centennial observance here was most outstanding.  The entire city really got in on the act, and I do not believe that I can recall more community spirit and interest in any other event.”  A member of the chamber of commerce said that he had “never seen the people of Montgomery join in anything so wholeheartedly.” (p. 82)

The Washington Post reports the following:

“This Saturday, the 150th anniversary event will bear some similarities: Hundreds of men are expected to march through the heart of Montgomery. Some will parade in Confederate gray. Some will display the controversial battle flag. On the steps of the white-domed state Capitol, an ersatz Davis will place his hand on a Bible. A band will play “Dixie.”  But so far, this year’s festivities are generating scant buy-in from city and state officials, and relatively little buzz among locals.  Mayor Todd Strange said he probably won’t attend. Randy George, president of the Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t have the event on his to-do list. The office of Gov. Robert Bentley (R) – who, like Strange and George, is white – did not respond to a query on the matter.  “I hadn’t even heard it was happening,” Rhonda Campbell, 43, the manager of a payday loan business near the parade route, said, echoing many residents interviewed last week.”

We’ll always have the Centennial.

Celebrating the Soldier and Not the Cause?

Organizers of tomorrow’s “Heritage Rally” in Montgomery, Alabama are making every effort to accurately recreate Jefferson Davis’s swearing in ceremony.  They have stipulated which flags can be carried as well as guidelines for proper period clothing.  As in the case of the recent Secession Ball in Charleston, South Carolina, we are unlikely to hear anything about the importance of slavery and race, which will no doubt be made easier by the fact that Davis’s speech does not explicitly mention it.  I do find it interesting that the February 1861 event did not include Confederate soldiers nor did it include the flags that will likely be visible from every point along the parade route.

What I find interesting is the close identification that is implied between the presence of Confederate reenactors from various units and, arguably, one of the most important political events of the period.  After all, it’s the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who constantly remind us that the common soldier ought not to be understood in political terms.  In other words, they fought for hearth and home, but they certainly did not fight to maintain slavery.  What tomorrow’s march up Dexter Ave. represents – even if it is unintentional – is the fact that the Confederate army operated as the military arm of the Confederate government.  The army itself was an integral part of a political entity.  By default the soldiers in the ranks fought to protect and preserve a constitution that was crystal clear about the importance of slavery and white supremacy as a defining principle of the new nation.

This close connection between the soldier and state will be reinforced tomorrow by the thunderous roar of hundreds of enthusiastic Confederate reenactors.  We should be thankful that the cause for which they will cheer tomorrow was ultimately unsuccessful.

The Heart of the Confederacy

I am quite curious to see what the turnout will be this weekend in Montgomery, Alabama for the sesquicentennial commemoration of Jefferson Davis’s oath of office. According to Thomas Strain Jr. of Tanner, a member of the national board of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “We are trying to present a historical account of what happened 150 years ago.” They are hoping to have hundreds of reenactors march up Dexter Ave. toward the state Capitol. Strain doesn’t perceive this reenactment to be at all controversial. Fortunately, Mr. Strain doesn’t get to decide what is and isn’t controversial. This commemoration cannot simply mark a discrete moment in the past independently of the events that took place in that city in more recent years. In this case that includes a history of civil rights protest by the very citizens of Montgomery – descendants of people that would have remained enslaved had the Confederate experiment in rebellion been successful. Because of this, Saturday’s commemoration will look nothing like the Montgomery of 1937 and that is something that we should all be thankful for.

Jefferson Davis → Franklin Roosevelt → Barack Obama

Glad to see that everyone had some fun with the Clyde Wilson quiz.  While the list as a whole serves as a case study of how not to frame historical questions, the one I have the most trouble with comes at the very end.  Of course, it is true that President Obama is most commonly compared with Abraham Lincoln.  Obama himself encouraged these comparisons from the beginning when he announced his candidacy for the presidency on the steps of the old statehouse in Springfield, Illinois.  However, if I were a libertarian, paleoconservative, or just plain old neo-conservative I would object to such a comparison.  If it’s the amount of government oversight and intrusiveness that is being measured than I would argue that the proper comparison is with Jefferson Davis.

I just came across a wonderful passage in Stephanie McCurry’s new book that I thought I might share with you.  I’ve made similar points in the past:

The ensuing expansion of state capacity and intrusiveness of the policies adopted by the C.S.A. can hardly be exaggerated.  Historians have been consistently struck, by the irony for sure–this was a republic erected on the principles of states rights, after all–but also by the sheer scale of the state-building project undertaken.  It has been called a “revolutionary experience,” even an example of “state socialism.”  In terms of central state structure and policies, and especially mobilization of national material and human resources, the C.S.A. was far more statist and modern than their counterpart in the Union, almost futuristic” in its assumption of central state power.  Indeed, so “well organized and powerful” was the Confederacy, one historian has argued, that the United States would not see a central government with comparable authority until the emergence of the New Deal. (p. 153)

Continue reading “Jefferson Davis → Franklin Roosevelt → Barack Obama”

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”