Tag Archives: United Daughters of the Confederacy

Confederate Memorial Day As a “Line in the Sand”

UVA Confederate CemeteryI had a few hours to kill today so I decided to attend our annual UDC/SCV Memorial Day commemoration here in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The ceremony is held at the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.  It’s a wonderful little spot that includes your standard soldier monument as well as the graves of 1,097 Confederate soldiers from all over the Confederate South.  I decided to stand in the rear to take it all in.  These ceremonies are pretty standard.  They typically include the Pledge of Allegiance, a salute to the Confederate flag as well as old favorites such as “Dixie’s Land” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”  Who can resist the lovely Lost Cause imagery in “Carry Me Back”, especially when the lyrics were composed by a black man:

Carry Me back to old Virginny/There’s where the cotton and the corn and taters grow/There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime/There’s where this old darkey’s heart am longed to go/There’s where I labored so hard for old Massa/Day after day in the field of yellow corn

The prayers included typical references to the “Spirit of ’76″, “Died for states rights”, “overwhelming numbers”, and the SCV’s rallying charge of “unequivocal confidence in the righteousness of the cause.”  One reference, however, got me thinking.  One of the speakers remarked that the graves, along with the monument, reflect a “line in the sand between modern day evils” and a “strong moral code” that animated the men buried, and, I assume white Southern society before modernity set in.  If you look at the profile of the audience the reference makes perfect sense.  There were reenactors with the 19th Virginia in attendance as well as members of the UDC in period costume.  More to the point, it is safe to say that the average age of the audience (approximately 100) was somewhere between 55-60.

There are two problems with this view.  First, it’s self destructive.  To argue that modern society is void of morals or individuals who care about morality/ethics is a sure fire way of alienating a very large constituency.  Unfortunately, today I didn’t see people who wer defending a way of life.  I saw people who fear modernity, which is fine, but it also means that the sound system you’ve been using for the past 50 years may not work when needed.  Let’s face it, given the profile of the SCV/UDC it is not a stretch to suggest that their days are numbered.  Seriously, how many of these chapters will be left in 20 years?  The bigger problem is that their view of the past is much too simplistic and anachronistic.  This notion that white Southerners resisted many aspects of modernity simply does not hold up under close scrutiny.  Many Virginians eagerly embraced industry and other forms of technology as a way to improve their lives and reclaim their rightful position as the leader of the nation.  Even the wealthiest planters hoped to encourage farmers to adopt modern soil practices and, according to John Majewski, vigorously pushed the Virginia state government to become much more active in encouraging the subsidizing of railroads and agricultural societies.  My point is that these were not people who were trying to turn back the hands of time despite what is posted at the entrance to the Wilkes family plantation.

I enjoyed the hour long ceremony.  I got to catch up with my friend and fellow historian Rick Britton who spoke eloquently about the 19th Virginia.  And I was also pleased to hear that our local UDC chapter is working to raise money to place grave markers for all the soldiers buried in the cemetery.  It’s a worthy endeavor and they’ve already managed to place an additional 60 markers since the program began and include the two markers in the above image.

 

Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

 

Was That Really Necessary, Mr. Councilman?

dowdell1_thumb1I‘ve said before that the best place to display a Confederate flag is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  It’s always surprised me that given the divisive history of this symbol that more heritage have not come out in favor of such a position.  To suggest that it ought to be interpreted simply as “Heritage, Not Hate” is to ignore much of the history of the mid-twentieth century and its use throughout the period of “massive resistance.”  Since this is unlikely we are left with a cultural tug-of-war that is unlikely every to be resolved.  Ideally it would be nice if various constituencies were able to be a bit more empathetic with other perspectives as a reflection of the multiple ways in which symbols are understood.  The SCV must understand and come to terms with the racist history of this symbol while the NAACP and others must recognize that not everyone who flies a Confederate flag is a racist who yearns for a return to the past.

Perhaps Auburn Councilman, Arthur L. Dowdell should have remembered this little piece of advice as he plucked from the ground a grave site full of Confederate flags, which had been placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in recognition of Confederate Memorial Day.

Dowdell said in his years as councilman, he had never seen so many Confederate flags in one place.  “I’m going on the record that this will never happen again,” Dowdell said. “This will never happen again as long as I’m on the city council.”  Dowdell denied intentionally snapping the flag.  “It might have snapped itself,” he said. “If it did, so what? If I had my way, I would have broke them all up and stomped on them and burned them. That flag represents another country, another nation.”

I understand the frustration, but was this the best way to express it?  Are we really to believe that this was the first time Dowdell noticed Confederate flags in a cemetery located just across the street from where his children attend school?  Finally, we should ask what Dowdell accomplished by pulling those flags and apparently snapping them in two.  Unilike most of us, Mr. Dowdell enjoys a public forum in which he can express his concerns about the state of his community.  He has a responsibility to use it wisely in the name of all of the people he represents. Use it wisely and use it to open constructive dialog rather than breed mistrust and bitterness.

 

Calvin E. Johnson’s Neo-Confederate Fantasy Land

I get a kick out of the editorials and short essays by Calvin Johnson, which you can find at such places as Lew Rockwell and the Conservative Free Press.  Given the last few posts on the mythology of black Confederates I thought it might be nice to share another little story.  Yes, I am beating a dead horse, but if this blog can help to correct this skewed view of the past than my time on this site will be worthwhile.  In this essay, Johnson examines the history of the monument to Confederate soldiers, which is located on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.  The monument was organized by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to mark the graves of 267 Confederate soldiers.  Designed by Moses Ezekiel, it was unveiled in 1914 and included a dedication speech by President Woodrow Wilson.  Here is what Johnson has to say about the monument itself:

Around the start of the 20th century this country also honored the men who fought for the Confederacy. This site of men who fought for “Dixie” is located in section 16.  There is an inscription on the 32.5 foot high Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery that reads, “An Obedience To Duty As They Understood it; These Men Suffered All; Sacrificed All and Died”!  Some claim this Confederate Monument at Arlington may have been the first to honor Black Confederates. Carved on this monument is the depiction of a Black Confederate who is marching in step with the White soldiers. Also shown is a White Confederate who gives his child to a Black woman for safe keeping.[my emphasis]

What exactly is Johnson referring to?  The photographs below are close-ups of the freezes included around the perimeter of the monument.

You can see what appears to be a black man marching in rank with Confederate soldiers as a well as a female slave who is about to take charge of what must be her master’s children.  This is a wonderful example of why the study of memory is so important to our understanding of the Civil War.  To understand this statue and the choices of the sculptor we must understand the historical context in which it was dedicated.  Monuments and other public spaces dedicated to historic events are as much about the time in which they were build as they are about the event in question.  The year, 1914, places us right at the height of Jim Crow.  The images helped to justify the emphasis within Lost Cause narratives of loyal slaves and a war that was supposedly fought simply for states rights.  Wilson’s presence at the dedication is also important given his order at just this time to segregate federal office buildings along racial lines.  In other words, this is not simply a monument to commemorate the lives of Confederate soldiers, but part of an attempt to shape a certain version of the past that worked to minimize the theme of emancipation and distance the Confederate experiment from the preservation of slavery altogether.  The enforcement of white supremacy by legal means helped to ensure that African Americans would be unable to shape their own emancipationist legacy of the Civil War, which in turn helped to perpetuate the political monopoly that whites enjoyed through the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Calvin Johnson doesn’t really understand what he is looking at.

 

UDC Uses and Abuses the History of Slavery

In my last post on “black Confederates” I wondered whether the two women dressed in mourning attire were white.  Well, I have no doubt that the women in  these images are indeed white.  And…yes, they are decorating the grave of “Pvt. Henry Henderson, a black Confederate soldier.” This article is so poorly reported that it is impossible to know for sure the status of Henderson without going to the archives.  That said, I have an idea.  According to the article:

Henderson was born in 1849 in Davidson County, NC. He was 11 years old when he entered service with the Confederate States of America as a cook and servant to Colonel William F. Henderson, a medical doctor. Records show Henry was wounded during his service, but he continued to serve until the war’s end in 1865. He was discharged in Salem, NC, age 16.

As Peter Carmichael notes in his essay, Confederate officers often brought their slaves with them as camp servants as a reflection of their social status and for their services.  And many were even outfitted with uniforms.  After noting that 60-90,000 “black Confederates served” in the Confederate army the author notes that Henderson’s sons received their father’s one and only pension check from the state of Tennessee in 1926.  Of course, as many of you know the receipt of a pension check does not tell us much of anything about the status of black men in the Confederate army.  [Consider the case of Weary Clyburn and see a recent post by Robert Moore, here]

Like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy teach us nothing about the complex history of race relations in the Confederacy.  Henry Henderson deserves to have his story told as well as have his life recognized and honored by his descendants.  Based on the skimpy evidence provided in this article we should conclude that Henderson was a slave who happened to find himself with the army as a young boy.  That this boy was forced to join his master in the army at such a young age, and was eventually wounded, must be understood as an extension of a broader life story of coercion.  I often wonder what Henderson himself would say about such a spectacle.

The women in these images are not honoring a soldier, they are honoring a slave.