Earlier today the Museum of the Confederacy held their symposium to determine 1863’s Person of the Year. Most of the choices were once again predictable, though a few are just downright odd to me. Robert Krick’s selection of Stonewall Jackson is neither surprising or interesting in any way. I want to hear more about why Jennifer Weber believes Clement Vallindigham is so important. Ed Ayers decided to change things up by giving a nod to the United States Colored Troops. That makes perfect sense to me. Here is the final tally.
Joe Glatthaar should have had it much easier by selecting Ulysses S. Grant, who is the logical choice. Jackson coming in a close second is just downright bizarre. And how the USCTs placed last even with a charismatic advocate like Ed Ayers is inexplicable to me. Oh well.
I am sure everyone had a fun time, which is ultimately what this is all about.
A number of my friends on Facebook are sharing a pic of the new release by Don Troiani. This new watercolor of a private in the 4th United States Colored Troop is, if I am not mistaken, Troiani’s first stand alone black soldier since his 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry print, which was done a number of years ago. I absolutely love it and I am very close to clicking the “Pay Now” button at my PayPal account. Than again, my birthday is coming up soon and my wife is always looking for that perfect gift that shows her undying love for me.
Before moving to Boston I owned a fairly large collection of framed Troiani prints. Unfortunately, I knew I wouldn’t have room in my new library/office and I couldn’t bear keeping them in the basement so I sold them. I still have a giclee edition of “Mahone’s Charge” which is featured on the cover of my book as well as two regimental prints.
It is hard not to see this new release as a direct result of the popularity of Spielberg’s Lincoln and the broader emphasis on the history of black Union soldiers during the Sesquicentennial. We shall see if it sells.
I recently accompanied a group of students to Washington, D.C. to take part in a mock Congress. With a few hours to kill I decided to take a stroll through the National Gallery of Art. Included in the collection is a reproduction of the Shaw Memorial, which is located on Beacon Street here in Boston. I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of students sitting with a museum teacher, who did a wonderful job of interpreting the monument and engaging the group. The kids talked about the history of Shaw and the 54th as well as the rich symbolism contained in Saint-Gaudens’s relief. At one point she asked the kids to share sounds that might be heard in such a scene. It made my day.
One of my responsibilities at the upcoming Future of Civil War History Conference at Gettysburg College is to moderate a panel on interpreting USCTs at historical sites. Panelists include Barbara Gannon, Emmanuel Dabney, Hari Jones, Joseph McGill, Jill Newmark, and Robert Sutton. The presenters have already submitted short essays on various issues that they believe are important to discuss. I’ve pretty much finished reading through them and am in the process of identifying challenges associated with the interpretation of USCTs as a point of departure for further discussion. Many of the papers reference the influence of the movie Glory on popular perception as well how we interpret the massacre of black soldiers on battlefields such as Fort Pillow and at the Crater. While I am particularly interested in how we frame the massacre of black soldiers the question of how we address instances where black soldiers executed Confederates has not been adequately addressed. Consider the following passage written by Park Ranger Emmanuel Dabney who does address this with visitors to the Petersburg National Battlefield.
One of the ironies I discuss with visitors is that the US Colored Troops capture Confederate earthworks which were primarily dug by slaves and free blacks. In discussing the troops assaulting these works, I read directly from a letter written by Henry M. Turner, chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Troops. Turner stated that the Black troops and the “the rebels were both crying out – ‘Fort Pillow!’ This seems to be the battle-cry on both sides.” He wrote of the men assaulting the position and the Confederates retreating which he humorously wrote that the Southerners went “out the rear of the forts with their coat-tails sticking straight out behind.” Immediately, he makes a powerful summary of how Confederate prisoners were treated as he penned, “Some few held up their hands and pleaded for mercy, but our boys thought that over Jordan would be the best place for them, and sent them there, with a very few exceptions.” I tell our audiences that while Chaplain Turner did not condone killing of Confederate prisoners it was done in retaliation to the Southern Congress’ May 1, 1863 legislation which stated that Black men found in the Union army’s ranks were slaves in insurrection and that the white officers leading them were inciting a servile insurrection. In both cases the Confederate legislators and the war department condoned the execution of USCTs as well as their white officers. I note that according to white Union soldiers, some of them that night stopped more Black troops from killing Confederate prisoners.
I suspect that these are very difficult stories for visitors to digest. They certainly don’t fit the overall narrative of those who have been influenced by the movie Glory as well as the Sesquicentennial’s emphasis on emancipation and the sacrifice of black soldiers. In this narrative battlefield massacres are central to a story of African American sacrifice for the Union and the eventual attainment of civil rights. Whether intentional or not our embrace of emancipation as the central theme of the Civil War affords black soldiers what might be described as a kind of moral immunity.
When USCTs are killing Confederates they are engaged in a fight for freedom and in those unfortunate moments when they are executed they are victims of an uncontrollable rage that has its roots in a society committed to maintaining slavery and white supremacy. How should we characterize incidents of black soldiers executing Confederates? I agree with Emmanuel that part of the explanation must reference legislation from the Confederate Congress, but that doesn’t constitute everything that we can learn from accounts such as the one cited above.
We have little difficulty coming to terms with white Union and Confederate rage on the battlefield and how it sometimes led to acts that fell beyond the rules of war. But what happens when the conduct of blacks on the battlefield takes a turn, however slight, toward something that resembles Nat Turner’s Rebellion? More to the point, what do we gain from looking more closely at these accounts when interacting with the general public and/or in the classroom and what are the risks involved?
Seriously, I am all for an honest debate about gun control and the Second Amendment, but this isn’t it. There is something incredibly disturbing behind the assumption that Martin Luther King, who gave his life advocating for peace and non-violence, would support something called Gun Appreciation Day. What is even more ridiculous, however, is the claim made by Larry Ward that if blacks had guns than “perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.”
I am not sure if Mr. Ward understands that he just made an argument for the strictest gun control legislation possible. Whites exercised a great amount of control – through legal and extra-legal means – to ensure that slaves were not able to arm themselves. They did so because they believed that such a scenario constituted a direct threat to their communities. It goes without saying that they were probably right about that.
Someone should remind Mr. Ward that the slaves eventually did find a way to arm themselves, however, I sincerely doubt that he is looking to see such a scenario play out once again.