Civil War Memory Starts With the Children

Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant.  All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks.  If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook.  Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery.  Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s.  Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.

Here are a few selections:

On Slavery

  • “The Africans were used to a hot climate,” Oliphant wrote. “They made fine workers under the Carolina sun.”
  • “Africans were brought from a worse life to a better one. As slaves, they were trained in the ways of civilization. Above all, the landowners argued, the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country.”
  • “Most masters treated their slaves kindly … the law required the master to feed his slaves, clothe them properly, and care for them when they were sick.”
  • “Most slaves were treated well, if only because it was to the planter’s interest to have them healthy and contented.” That there were so few slave uprisings in South Carolina “speaks well for both whites and Negroes,” she writes.

On the Civil War

  • The Negroes for the most part stayed on the plantations or farms … The relationship between the whites and Negroes on the plantations was at this time very friendly. Most of the slaves had proved their affection and loyalty to their masters … For more than four years the women and children had remained on the land with only the Negroes to protect them.”

On Reconstruction

  • “For the following eight years South Carolina was governed largely by a ruthless band of thieves.” Carpetbaggers “took advantage of the ignorance and lack of experience of the Negroes … Those who did not vote Republican were threatened and mistreated. Moreover, the Republicans had the encouragement of Congress and the backing of federal troops.”
  • “The new legislature was made up chiefly of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and Negroes under their influence … Many members of the legislature could neither read nor write.”
  • “The sight of the mounted klansmen in their white robes was enough to terrorize the Negroes. When the courts did not punish Negroes who were supposed to have committed crimes, the Klan punished them.”

It’s a textbook that Mildred Rutherford and the United Daughters of the Confederacy would have embraced.

This weekend’s commemorative activities in Charleston are about much more than Robert Smalls and the city’s collective past.  Public events such as the dedication of a marker to Smalls and other educational events are a statement of a community’s values and its commitment to moving forward on the racial front.  More specifically, such events constitute a set of expectations of- and confidence in the community’s next generation.

[Click here for more information about the image used in this post.]

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

15 comments… add one
  • Mary Ellen Maatman May 9, 2012 @ 11:37

    Thanks for flagging this article. UDC-influenced textbooks are of particular interest to me. I’m sad to see the text was used into the 1980s. At least some of the comments at the full article’s site seem to me to reflect the text’s continuing influence on its now-adult youthful readers.

  • Brad May 9, 2012 @ 10:12

    I’m not surprised that South Carolina had a textbook like that at one time but that it was used up until the 1980s. It just shows that the battle for freedom (of all kinds) continued or continues up to the present day. There was an interesting article in the most recent edition of Civil War History about Viriginia’s efforts to develop appropriate textbooks on Virginia history.

  • Dwight T. Pitcaithley May 9, 2012 @ 10:07

    I wonder if Texas Hero Stories includes the story of Milton Holland. Holland was born a slave near Austin, but was emancipated by his white father, Byrd Holland, who set up Milton his brother on land in Ohio just before the war. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Milton enlisted in the USCT and was eventually awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in action outside Richmond. The only Texan to be awarded the CMH during the Civil War, he survived the war and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

    The Handbook of Texas claims him as a Texan, but most Texans have never heard of him. The Texas Historical Commission’s publication “Texas in the Civil War: Stories of Sacrifice, Valor and Hope,” oddly includes no mention of Holland. Clearly he deserves mention in any book on Texas heroes especially those who fought during the Civil War.

    • Andy Hall May 9, 2012 @ 11:40

      “I wonder if Texas Hero Stories includes the story of Milton Holland.”

      That whirring sound is Cou’n Katie spinning like a lathe in her grave. 😉

      Milton Holland was also first cousin to James Kemp Holland, rather ludicrously claimed to have been a “black Confederate” colonel in the Confederate army.

      No, Texas hasn’t done much to claim or honor Milton Holland, but then I don’t think he made too much claim to Texas, either. His brother William, by contrast, came back to Texas after the war and served in the Texas House after Reconstruction, where he sponsored the legislation that established Prairie View A&M University, and was the founder of the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth, now part of the Texas School of the Deaf. Amazing story, also not included in Daffan’s book.

    • Margaret D. Blough May 10, 2012 @ 9:22

      “That there were so few slave uprisings in South Carolina “speaks well for both whites and Negroes,” she [Oliphant] writes.” That’s an interesting way of glossing over the 1739 Stono slave revolt.

  • Andy Hall May 9, 2012 @ 7:33

    In that same period, one of the schoolbooks used here was Texas Hero Stories by Katie Daffan, who was (at various times) President of the Texas UDC, Secretary of the Hood’s Texas Brigade Association, and Superintendent of the Confederate Women’s Home in Austin. The book is not a narrative history, but a series of short biographies and essays. She wraps it up in the end with the chapter, “The Sibyl’s Story,” a turgid sort of reflection on Texas history as seen through the the lens of classical mythology. In that chapter, she wrote,

    These same Texans who are enjoying a well-earned rest in their quiet homes, are called away. In large numbers they leave, men and boys, marching under the flag which we call the ” Stars and Bars” for Texas is now in a new government, the “Confederacy,” and these same Texans who fought for their rights at San Jacinto, who fought side by side with their fellow Americans in Mexico’s capital, know how to fight for their adored Southland, and for four long years many a battlefield was hallowed with the blood of Texas soldiers.

    Then we silently turn to pictures of sad-faced women and little children, deserted homes and homes with funeral crepe upon the door where a father or a son lies dead, and over the long, winding roads and pathways we see the broken-hearted, desolate soldier slowly returning to his Texas home.

    We see the Texan as a “Clansman,” protecting his own home and that of his neighbor from the hideous crimes of the “reconstruction ” days after this war, and then, in spite of every hardship, and the cruelest disappointments, we see these soldiers rising above difficulties and trials, and the remaining pages of the Sibyl’s book exhibit in glowing color and illuminated page what has been the work of the Texans since the war, and how the Texan is a soldier in time of peace.

    Daffan’s depiction of the loyal and patriotic Texan as a “Clansman” is exactly what it sounds like, as her own father, to whom she dedicated the book, was a member of the Klan during the Reconstruction era, a fact that was noted with pride in his memorial book (also organized and written by Katie). In the entire text of Texas Hero Stories, there are only a handful of mentions of slaves or slavery, in passim. Katie published another book, Woman in History, in that same period, which profiles more than two dozen female figures from history, not one of whom, I believe, ever set foot in North America. I’m not sure Woman in History was ever used as a textbook, but Texas Hero Stories certainly was, and it’s a very narrow view of history indeed. I’m not really sure what’s worse — the “happy and grateful slave” narrative of The History of South Carolina, or ignoring the subject altogether as Daffan does.

  • Charles Bowery May 9, 2012 @ 6:20

    Those scalawags will get you every time. They are worse than mountebanks and blackguards.

  • Pat Young May 9, 2012 @ 6:16

    I read the editorial. Depressing to see how long black kids had to study this crap for.

    • Kevin Levin May 9, 2012 @ 6:25

      It is depressing to think that any kid would be exposed to such nonsense.

      • Pat Young May 9, 2012 @ 6:41

        Maybe, but the black kids were essentially being “educated” to yearn for a time when they would not have been free. I guess that some of them simply turned off to education as a pack of lies.

        • Kevin Levin May 9, 2012 @ 6:47

          No doubt and the white kids for a time when the races new their place. I guess what I am saying is that all of them were manipulated.

          • Pat Young May 9, 2012 @ 7:00

            I certainly agree. But I doubt many white kids dropped out of school when they went through this sort of indoctrination. The school district I live in and grew up in is 93 percent non-white, and I remember my black friends really turned off when they had to learn what they called “white man’s history”, none of which went so far as the South Carolina junk. As a white kid, I might feel sympathy for the African Americans in class and resentment at being manipulated, but I didn’t feel excluded.

            I would also guess that generations of South Carolinian whites grew up with this stuff, believed it uncritically, felt empowered by it to run the state according to it’s ideological lights, and died cursing Lincoln for the harm he did to “their blacks”.

      • Margaret D. Blough May 10, 2012 @ 9:15

        Some of the comments are even more depressing.

  • Scott A. MacKenzie May 9, 2012 @ 5:44

    I’d refocus this one bit. Memory starts locally, and dissemminates from there on to children as well as the rest of the population.

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