Another Research Turn: A Father-Son Story

I wanted to share a quick update about my current research project, which has taken a pretty drastic turn. It was only a few months ago that I outlined a project about Port Royal that grew out of another project about Robert Gould Shaw. The ongoing pandemic has forced me to shift my attention owing to the inability to travel to various research repositories in South Carolina.

I don’t anticipate being able to travel to do research for at least 9 months, perhaps even longer.

Because of this I have decided to return to a project on Confederate captain John Christopher Winsmith. That name should be familiar to many of you. Over the years I have written about him on this blog and he is referenced numerous times in Searching for Black Confederates.

I first came across the roughly 250 letters that comprise this collection back in 2005 at the Museum of the Confederacy. I had always planned to either edit the letters for publication or write a biography. It’s an incredibly rich collection that addresses a wide range of subjects. Fifteen years later I’ve decided to go with trying my hands at writing a biography.

Winsmith was a diehard Confederate, who after the war joined the Republican Party, along with his father John Winsmith. The father called for disunion as early as the 1840s and introduced the first resolution calling for South Carolina’s secession following Lincoln’s election. His alignment with the Republican Party after the war led to an incident on his property in which he was confronted by the Ku Klux Klan and shot seven times. He survived.

A few months before his death in 1877 Christopher addressed a meeting of Republicans, in his home town of Spartanburg, in which he denounced the former Confederacy and his own part in it.

That story is worth telling in and of itself, but what clinched it for me is recently coming into possession of extensive documentation that focuses mainly on Christopher’s father. The collection was accumulated by a former resident of Spartanburg, who now lives out on the West Coast. Unfortunately, he has reached an age where he can no longer devote the time necessary to complete the project and as a result has decided to pass on the materials on to me.

It’s not every day that someone hands you extensive research files and notes.

After reading through the wartime letters again, along with the additional materials about the father, I realized that there is a compelling story to tell about a father-son relationship through war and Reconstruction.

I will eventually need to make a research trip, but between the wartime letters and additional materials about the father I have everything I need to start writing. This project has consumed my attention over the past few weeks and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

I promised myself that when I moved to Boston I would research something local related to the Civil War, but the history of the Confederacy and the South keeps pulling me back. Why fight it.

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

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11 comments… add one
  • Msb Sep 3, 2020 @ 11:21

    Sounds fascinating, and I’d love to read the result.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 3, 2020 @ 11:28

      Thanks for the positive response.

  • zcrockett53 Sep 2, 2020 @ 9:15

    How exciting! And very timely for those of us old Southerners taught the Lost Cause with our mother’s milk, and trying to unlearn it.

  • Allison Thomas Sep 2, 2020 @ 7:07

    Right now, I think looking at those who broke from the pack is particularly. How did they become “white allies”? An in-depth look at this would be interesting. There are new books today looking at authoritarianism (Anne Appelbaum) which are also interesting on this subject.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2020 @ 7:22

      Thanks for the suggestion. I read Anne Applebaum’s recent feature piece at the Atlantic.

  • David T. Dixon Sep 2, 2020 @ 6:15

    Kevin: I think Walter’s comments bear closer attention. When I read that someone was “a die hard Confederate” who.along with his father, joined the post-war Republican Party, that raises alarm bells. Was Alexander Hamilton Stevens, VP of the CSA, a die hard Confederate? Hardly. He was an outspoken Union man and very reluctant Confederate. My current project, also on pandemic hold, is a study of the influence on emotions on allegiance, using a biographical subject (and his peers) as the case study. If you are lucky enough to have personal family letters, I suggest you dig deeply into the complex emotions behind these decisions of allegiance and follow them through the course of the war to see if your subject expressed dissent as the situation changed and his emotional state changed. Michel Woods, Steve Berry, James broomhall and others have done some pioneering work in this regard. Just a hunch, but I think there may be much more of a complex story here than you might imagine.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2020 @ 6:27

      Hi David,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I agree that this is a complex story. I am not in any way trying to minimize the complexity of this story based on the evidence I have already reviewed. In fact, describing an individual as a diehard Confederate, in my view, leaves room for dissent and questioning. I am familiar with all three scholars and have already benefited from their insights.

  • Walter D Kamphoefner Sep 2, 2020 @ 5:05

    So has Lost Cause Political Correctness suppressed the memory of John Christopher Winsmith, as it largely did with James Longstreet and John Mosby?
    It’s worth pointing out that there never was a solid (white) South. Every Confederate state except South Carolina produced at least one regiment of white Union troops. About 20% of Southern whites voted Republican in 1872, and they constituted about 20% of the Republican vote in the South. There are more than a dozen counties in former Confederate states that have never voted anything but Republican in every presidential election since–highly ironic when one considers what the Republican Party has become.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2020 @ 5:10

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Most certainly the Lost Cause was successful in minimizing wartime dissent and the scope of Republican Party politics during Reconstruction and beyond. Historians who specialize in this period are certainly aware of the points you raise, but in the midst of the current focus on Confederate monuments and the public debate about the legacy of the Civil War I think this is a story worth telling.

  • Mike Sep 2, 2020 @ 4:49

    The Winsmith story is really interesting, I’m already looking forward to reading your book.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2020 @ 5:07

      Thanks for the positive response.

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