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”

Was It Something I Said?

Apparently a number of my recent posts about Confederate History Month are making the rounds among members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  This happens every once in a while and I end up having to deal with a sharp increase in silly comments and other personal insults.  For the most part I am receiving the standard responses that rehash the same tired points about historical revisionism and a belief that their way of life and history are under siege.  It’s impossible to respond to these claims, but I do find them instructive on a number of levels.  You can have a look through the last few posts to decide for yourself.

I do want to make a few points clear.  First and foremost, I don’t believe for a second that the members of the SCV have any kind of privileged status when it comes to commemorating and remembering the lives and service of Confederate soldiers.  The accident of lineage is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for properly and accurately reflecting on the lives of these men as well as the event that played such a prominent role in their lives.  While the SCV may wish to view the recent public backlash against Confederate History Month as a personal affront to their beliefs and on the lives of their ancestors there is no one group or individual that controls the past.  As I’ve stated already, the response to Gov. Robert McDonnell’s proclamation had little to do with attacking the SCV; rather it was an assertion that the content of that document does not represent the views of a growing segment of the population.  Nor does it represent good history.  We would do well to remember that we are all foreigners in that place called history.

Yes, I have been quite critical of the SCV over the past few weeks, and at other points in the past, as have others.  I will continue to point out dubious historical claims such as those contained in their Confederate History Month proclamations as well as other issues from the Davis-Limber controversy to the ridiculous stories of loyal Confederate slaves.  My perspective on all of this stems from my work as a historian, educator, resident of the great state of Virginia, and as an American who cares about how we as a nation remember the past.  That is my pass and that is all I need.  I don’t need to be related directly to anyone connected to the Civil War to have a right to voice my beliefs/concerns and I will continue to do so.

Virginia Delegates Commemorate Confederate History Month…

but probably not in the way that the Sons of Confederate Veterans intended.

Today members of the Virginia Assembly in Richmond wore arm bands to commemorate the sacrifices of Virginia’s slaves.  From the Virginia Politics Blog:

The move was prompted by McDonnell’s proclamation declaring April Confederate History Month. When first issued, the proclamation did not include reference to slavery. McDonnell has subsequently apologized repeatedly for what he called a “major omission” and amended the proclamation to include reference to slavery as an abomination and the cause of the Civil War.

“This is why I can celebrate Confederate History Month,” said Del. Jeion A. Ward (D-Hampton). “I am celebrating the thousands of African slaves brought to this Commonwealth for forced labor and in spite of societal restrictions and countless tribulations, they became some of the most learned men of all time. Yes, they found a way out of no way.”

“I celebrate because they endured unimaginable pain and suffering… I celebrate those who escaped slavery only to return to help others escape, like Harriet Tubman and her underground railroad. She made 13 missions to help rescue other slaves. It is for her I celebrate. I celebrate them all because finally they were able to find a way out of now way. So today I and some of my colleagues wear this black ribbon as a symbol of our profound sadness for the horrors our ancestor faced and had to endure under the institution of slavery. But we also join in are celebrating with you because they finally found a way out.”

At Ward’s motion, the House of Delegates also agreed that they will adjourn today “in the honor and memory of the thousands of slaves who played an important role in the building of the wealth of the commonwealth and for those who called Virginia their home.” The House regularly adjourns in memory of prominent Americans or Virginians. The House agreed it will also today adjourn in memory of civil rights leader Dorothy Height.

SCV Camp in Harrisonburg, Virginia Issues Proclamation

Update: Robert Moore deconstructs the SCV’s proclamation in Rockingham County and Brooks Simpson offers his own response at Civil Warriors.

It looks like the Col. D.H. Lee Martz Camp #10-Sons of Confederate Veterans is not going to allow Gov. Bob McDonnell’s amendment to his Confederate History Month proclamation stop them from grossly distorting the past.  On Saturday the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record included a full-page advertisement from the SCV.  One of my readers was kind enough to mail me a clipping from the paper.  I’m just over the mountains in Albemarle County and this is the first I’ve heard of it.  I love the loyal slave reference toward the end.  What an incredible waste of money.

Town of DAYTON -Town of GROTTOES -Town of MT. CRAWFORD – Town of ELKTON

Whereas: April is the month in which the Confederate States of America began and ended a four year struggle for states’ rights, individual freedom, and local government control, and

Whereas: April is the month in which the Commonwealth of Virginia, after struggling politically to remain with Honor within the Union of States, but being forced by Lincoln’s call for the Militia of the States, upheld her rights as specified in her Constitution, and her ratification of the Constitution of these United States, with the overwhelming support of her citizens by vote, withdrew from the Union on 17 April 1861, and

Whereas: Rockingham County supported the War through the actions of her citizens, numbering some 23,500, both in the military and on the home front – some 3000 men served in the various military organizations raised throughout the County, out of a military aged population of only 4,163, and at least 225 men and boys paid the ultimate sacrifice in response to Duty, Home, and Country; millions of dollars of agriculture were supplied in support of the war effort in Virginia, millions more were destroyed by invading troops during the 1864 Valley Campaign; numerous civilians, both white and black, free and slave, provided support, comfort, and aid to the war effort; three battles of the 1862 Valley Campaign were fought in the County – Harrisonburg, Cross Keys and Port Republic, and

Whereas: Virginia has long cherished her Confederate History and the great leaders, such as General Robert Edward Lee, General Thomas Jonathan Jackson, and General Turner Ashby, and the people of Rockingham County have long cherished her Confederate History and the memory of the men who served in the 10th Regiment Virginia Volunteer Infantry (Bridgewater Greys, Chrisman’s Infantry, Harrisonburg Valley Guards, Mauck’s Company, Peaked Mountain Grays, Riverton Invincibles, Rockingham Rifles), Rockingham Confederates, Harrisonburg Cavalry, Rockingham Cavalry, Letcher Brock’s Gap Rifles, Valley Rangers, Chipley’s Cavalry Company, Sipe’s Cavalry Company, Patterson’s Cavalry Company, Mt. Crawford Cavalry, 58th Regiment Virginia Militia, Rockingham Reserves, and various home guard organizations, who made sacrifices on behalf of the Confederate Cause, and

Whereas: It is vital that Virginians reflect upon the Commonwealth’s past, and honor and respect the devotion of the Confederate citizens, soldiers and civilians, both white and black, free and slave, to the cause of Southern Independence, now

Therefore, we hereby proclaim the month of April 2010 as “Confederate History and Heritage Month” in Rockingham County and encourage our citizens to become more knowledgeable of the role Virginia and the Confederate States of America played in the history of our country.

Proposed and forwarded by
Col. D.H. Lee Martz Camp No. 10-Sons of Confederate Veterans
PO Box 2001, Harrisonburg, 22803

Will the Sons of Confederate Veterans Have Any Impact on the Sesquicentennial?

I may be speaking too soon, but it looks like the influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans on how we remember the Civil War will be minimal as we make our way through the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Today we learn that plans to place a monument to South Carolina’s decision to leave the Union in December 1860 at the Riverfront Park in Charleston have been scrapped.  There is now talk about placing the monument at a site related to the Hunley.  The monument celebrates this event by completely ignoring the issue that propelled South Carolina out of the Union: slavery.  This weekend the SCV will finally unveil their Davis-Limber statue at Beauvoir.  The decision to locate the statue at Davis’s home came after their decision to pull out of an agreement with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar in Richmond.  Following this move the organization unsuccessfully petitioned the state of Mississippi to accept the statue.  Finally, as we all know the recent decision here in Virginia to set aside April as Confederate History Month was a public relations disaster for the SCV.

Where does this leave the SCV?  As I said up front it may be too early to tell, but their Lost Cause inspired view of the past is clearly on the defensive and bound to be minimized even further.  I guess the only question is how will the organization respond?  The SCV has a role to play in the next few years, but if they hope to have an impact they are going to have to acknowledge that the general public’s understanding of the Civil War has evolved to one that is much more inclusive and open to addressing some of the tough issues at the center of our civil war experience.