One of my favorite places to take students in Charlottesville was the University of Virginia’s Confederate Cemetery. It was a short walk and it allowed me to talk about wartime hospitals as well as postwar mourning and the evolution of the Lost Cause. I encouraged my students to look at and think about the headstones and to pick up trash. The men were buried in long trenches and when the cemetery was dedicated there were no individual headstones. That gradually changed and in recent years the local SCV has organized to order new markers from the federal government. The project continues, in part, with the financial support of the federal government. It’s a program that I contributed to on more than once occasion while in Charlottesville. Continue reading
Jimmy Price notes that reenactments of engagements in which black soldiers participated have already taken place, though on a smaller scale. Even in these cases, however, it is not at all clear as to how the racial element was choreographed/interpreted. He also questions whether the general public would only “stomach” reenactments in which African Americans proved victorious. I don’t know.
A number of you have questioned whether a sufficient number of Confederate reenactors could be organized to reenact battles in which blacks took part. Does this video of the 2012 re-dedication of the Florida Division, UDC’s monument on the Olustee battlefield help?
One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised. Perhaps there is a natural tendency to do so in such a setting. Then there is the question of how they should discuss these issues. Perhaps a select few could do a competent job of explaining these issues in character, but whatever benefits are gained from such a presentation its limitations are pretty clear.
I guess what I am saying is that most people need significant interpretive scaffolding before being exposed to such a reenactment and the wide range of emotions that would no doubt surface.
In 1909 Philip K. Fall, Commander of the Dick Dowling Camp in Houston, welcomed the United Daughters of the Confederacy to their annual meeting. His brief welcome acknowledged the UDC’s crucial role in preserving and protecting the memory of the men who fought under the Confederate flag. Fall’s address also reflects the “limits of reconciliation” between North and South at the beginning of the twentieth century by framing the conflict as a defensive war against radical abolitionists fighting to carry out John Brown’s final mission. In the process Fall also shares a little nugget that is lost on those who depict the Confederate army as a racially integrated institution filled with loyal black soldiers.
Being notified only a day since, that our comrade was called away on an important matter and could not represent Dick Dowling Camp, the duty devolves upon me to greet you, on behalf of our Camp. Such short time leaves me ill prepared to do the occasion justice, but I know our good women will accept the will for the deed. The veterans of Houston welcome you, one and all, and we shall prove your humble and loving servants during your stay with us. Command us whenever necessary. As the years pass by we feel more and more the benefits accruing from your loving and valiant struggle in our behalf. Had you not thrown down the gauntlet and assumed the offensive for the old soldiers of the Confederacy, their names would have gone down in a partisan Northern history as rebels and traitors; who tried to disrupt what they call the greatest and best government on earth, when in fact, they in arbitrary, puritanical spirit, brought about the disruption, causing a war such as the world has never known, hiring nearly a million Hessians and nearly two hundred thousand Africans, to slaughter their brethren of the South. Nothing but a civil war could have ever satisfied the John Brown stripe of abolitionists, especially after their leader John Brown was hung.
The war was not the worst feature of the sixties. The myriads of carpet-baggers that flocked like buzzards, all eager to filch from the already impoverished and heartbroken whites, as well as from the poor deluded ex-slaves, what little was left, proved to be a carnival of misery, which can never be blotted from the memory of any who experienced the miserable rule of those Northern birds….
This is a statement of facts, which cannot be controverted. What few of the Southern veterans that yet live, glory in the fact that their noble women are now their protectors, as were they of the women in the long, long, ago. No soldier in the past or present ever received the homage of their women, as do those of Dixie Land. There were no hired Hessians or negroes in the Southern army. All fought for a principle they knew to be right and thousands upon thousands gave up their lives in defense of truth.
Fall is not suggesting that there were no blacks present in the army. Confederate soldiers encountered them performing myriad roles in camp, on the march, and on a wide range of military projects. What Fall is saying is something very different. He is remembering a war of white citizen soldiers defending their homes and a new nation from radical abolitionists and their immigrant and black hirelings. Fall is drawing a sharp distinction between what he believed constituted two very different societies. To suggest that blacks fought as soldiers would be to place the Confederacy on the same moral level as the United States. Fall is sharing his understanding of Confederate Exceptionalism.
It’s a memory of the war that was no doubt filtered through a concern that many Americans expressed at the time over the effects of continued immigration on the cultural and political identity of the nation.
Look, if there were black Confederate soldiers in the army, individuals like Fall would have said so.
Update: Leave it to Ta-Nehisi Coates to remind us of just how silly this project actually is.
Anti-Neo-Confederate crusader Edward Sebesta is best known for his push to petition President Obama to cease sending a wreath to the Confederate memorial at Arlington as well as his claim that the Museum of the Confederacy is mired in Lost Cause nostalgia. Now Sebesta and Euan Hague are hoping to rid juries of racial bias by identifying Confederate/Lost Cause bias among potential jurors. Continue reading
My editor at the Atlantic asked me to revise a recent post on the DNC and the Confederate flag. You can read it below or at the Atlantic. I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects. What I find funny is that the posts I’ve written for the Atlantic that could be construed as Union bashing or whatever the equivalent is this side of the Mason-Dixon Line rarely receive any kind of condemnation. Funny how that works. Click here for the rest of the my Atlantic columns.
Next month’s Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation’s first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region’s progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.
Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that “remnants of the Old South linger in our region — and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.” Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents “heritage, not hate.” (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland’s story puts it, “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.”)