What Does This Have To Do With Confederate Heritage?

Update: You can watch the public debate in its entirety, including Karen Cooper’s public address in its entirety following the opening remarks and two speakers. It really is quite a performance. Susan Hathaway follows Cooper. Hathaway frames her argument around the importance of honoring veterans. I find it interesting that neither speaker mentions references their association with the Virginia Flaggers. The speaker that followed Hathaway, however, does identify himself as a Flagger and even goes as far as to threaten the city council.

I’ve always been interested in how our beliefs about the past are weaved through our understanding of the present. All of us are influenced by our personal values and assumptions concerning a wide range of issues from politics to personal background. It is with this in mind that I find Confederate heritage groups such as the Virginia Flaggers to be so interesting and, at times, worthy of our attention.

Last night my old home of Charlottesville, Virginia held a community meeting to discuss whether the annual recognition of Lee-Jackson Day ought to continue. I wish I could have been there to listen and even participate. Charlottesville was a wonderful place to teach the Civil War and Civil War memory. The city includes a wonderful Confederate cemetery adjacent to the UVA campus and the downtown area features two parks named in honor of Lee and Jackson. Both include impressive equestrian monuments. Continue reading “What Does This Have To Do With Confederate Heritage?”

Lee-Jackson Day is a Lost Cause

There are a number of observations that one can make about our nation’s Civil War memory as it has taken shape during the sesquicentennial and where it might be headed. The most obvious is that the public display of the Confederate flag is in full retreat in the South. There are numerous examples that I could sight to support this claim.

Increasingly, in the past few years, Lee-Jackson Day has fallen under increased suspicion in the South. Let’s face it, the holiday currently exists in many Southern states in name only. Public offices might be closed, but very few people formally acknowledge the day in any significant way. Even in Lexington, Virginia, where both Lee and Jackson are buried, it takes people from outside the community ‘to remind residents that it’s that time of year again. And in places where Lee-Jackson Day falls on Martin Luther King Day the latter almost always attracts more attention. Continue reading “Lee-Jackson Day is a Lost Cause”

“The Most Pernicious Idea” 150 Years Later

At the beginning of the Civil War neither side was willing to accept volunteers and/or draft African Americans into their respective armies. For the United States that process only began in fits and starts in 1862 before it commenced in earnest following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For the Confederacy it occurred in March 1865, just weeks before the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox and the end of the war.

One hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow Howell Cobb penned his famous letter to Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon regarding the controversy surrounding whether slaves should be allowed to join the army in exchange for their freedom.

I think that the proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R.E. Lee, given as the authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor with which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves will make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong–but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. (emphasis mine)

Cobb’s letter is referenced most often in discussions about the central place of slavery and white supremacy within the Confederate experiment. Beyond any strictly historical discussion, however, we have a tendency to push the views expressed in it aside as expressing the philosophy of a failed nascent state. After all, the winning side eventually did embrace the service of roughly 200,000 former slaves and free blacks.

But whether we like it or not Confederate history is a part of American history. The views expressed by Cobb sit comfortably alongside images of the heroic attack of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the broader sweep of our long civil rights narrative. As late as 1948 this nation was still debating whether ‘white and black troops could be kept together.’

From our vantage point 150 years later, whether the United States recruited blacks into its army before the Confederacy is irrelevant. Each of us must embrace the legacy of the experiences of both sides, which ultimately represent two sides of the same coin.

Phi Delta Theta’s Confederate Heritage

Phi Delta ThetaI pledged a fraternity in college and did a number of stupid things that to this day surprise me as to the level of irresponsibility achieved. Such occurrences are inevitable when you put a bunch of young men together in a house away from home. But this story out of the University of Pennsylvania ought not to be brushed off as simply one of those moments of youthful exuberance and irresponsibility. Continue reading “Phi Delta Theta’s Confederate Heritage”

“It Is a Surrender Of the Entire Slavery Question”

black confederate, SCVOn March 24, 1865, Robert Toombs wrote a letter to a friend in Virginia expressing his frustration with Jefferson Davis and the recently passed legislation that allowed the Confederate government to recruit freed slaves into the army. Toombs’s arguments closely aligns with public statements made by Howell Cobb and James A. Seddon. Continue reading ““It Is a Surrender Of the Entire Slavery Question””