“Prize money” is a concept very familiar to maritime history buffs, or those who’ve read a lot of Forester or O’Brian. The idea was simply to provide a monetary incentive to naval personnel not just to destroy, but to capture intact, enemy vessels that could be either used as warships by their captors, or sold at auction to private owners. (Several ACW blockade runners went through this cycle several times.) A captured ship would be put through a legal proceeding — a “prize court” — and if “condemned,” it would be sold and (after deductions for expenses related to the appraisal, court costs and sale), the proceeds divided up among the crew of ships participating in the seizure of the vessel. The lion’s share of the money would be shared by the captain and officers of the capturing ship, on the assumption that they were more responsible for the capture than individual sailors; a successful cruise might set up a lucky naval captain for life, financially, while a sailor or ordinary seaman would collect enough for a wild evening of eating, drinking, and other, uh, forms of shoreside entertainment.
Prize money isn’t mentioned much in popular accounts of the ACW at sea, but it was nonetheless an important element in the minds of sailors in the Union blockading squadrons at the time. The Federals used a relatively complex formula at the time for apportioning prize money. After deductions for expenses, one-half of the money went straight to the government. Five percent went to the commander of the regional blockading squadron (in this case, the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron), and a further 1% went to the local squadron commander. These shares combine to account for 56% of the value of the prize.
The remaining 44% was divided among the officers and crew of the capturing vessel(s). This amount was split into 20 equal shares, with the captain taking 3 shares, the officers and midshipmen taking 10 shares, and the enlisted men dividing up the remaining 7 shares between them. Clear as mud, right? Here’s a made-up example to show how it worked:
Say a Union gunboat off Charleston, U.S.S. Hypothetical, captured a Confederate ship. Hypothetical has 1 captain, 10 officers and snotties, and 70 enlisted men in her crew. After deductions for the adjudication of the prize, the captured Confederate ship has a value of $10,000. With me so far? Here’s how that scenario would break out in terms of prize monies:
You can see immediately that a lucky and industrious ship’s captain could amass a substantial amount of money quickly, and a senior admiral on a prize-rich station – say, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, off Cape Fear and Wilmington, North Carolina – could become wealthy indeed. The disparity of prize money distribution between the senior officers and ordinary seamen (who, after all, were exposed to most of the same risks) was a perennial complaint around mess tables in navies on both sides of the Atlantic:
A British cartoon from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The officer asks the praying sailor if he’s afraid of the enemy. “Afraid? No!,” the sailor replies, “I was only praying that the enemy’s shot may be distributed in the same proportion as the prize money, the greatest part among the officers!”
Anyway, that’s how prize money was supposed to work in the Union navy during the Civil War. The case of Planter and her makeshift crew, though, had some unusual wrinkles. First, the Confederate steamer was not really captured in action, but rather simply ran out to the nearest Union warship (in this case, U.S.S. Onward), and surrendered. More important, Planter’s makeshift crew were not U.S. naval personnel, and so not eligible for prize money under normal circumstances. Samuel F. Du Pont (left, 1803-65), the flag officer commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, wasn’t sure how to handle the question of prize money in this case, but passed the question along to Washington. “I do not know whether. . . the vessel will be considered a prize,” Du Pont wrote in his report of the incident to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “but, if so, I respectfully submit to the Department the claims of this man Robert [Smalls] and his associates.”
Welles may or may not have sorted out the legal complexities of the case for himself, but he hardly had time to consider it regardless. On May 19, 1862 – just six days after Planter’s daring run out of Charleston – Senator James W. Grimes of Iowa (right, 1816-72), a member of the Naval Committee, introduced legislation authorizing the Welles to have the steamer and its gear appraised, and half the values awarded to “Robert Small [sic.] and his associates who assisted in rescuing [Planter] from the enemies of the Government.” The legislation further instructed Welles to, at his discretion, invest the monies in U.S. securities and pay Smalls and his companions the interest “annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay him or his heirs the principal sum.” In the House of Representatives, the Senate bill was held up briefly on procedural grounds by the infamous Copperhead, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, but it passed a week later on May 26, 1862, by a vote of 121 to 9, with Vallandigham in the latter group. The bill was formally enrolled the next day, and signed by the president on May 30, just over two weeks after Smalls’ escape. The full act read:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Secretary of the Navy be, and he is hereby, authorized to cause the steam transport boat Planter, recently in the rebel service in the harbor of Charleston, and all of the arms, munitions, tackle, and other property on board of her at the time of her delivery to the Federal authorities, to be appraised by a board of competent officers, and when the value thereof shall be thus ascertained to cause an equitable apportionment of one-half of such value so ascertained as aforesaid to be made between Robert Small[s] and his associates who assisted in rescuing her from the enemies of the Government. Section 2. And be it further enacted, That the Secretary of the Navy may, if he deems it expedient, cause the sum of money allotted to each individual under the preceding section of this act to be invested in United States securities for the benefit of such individual, the interest to be paid to him or to his heirs annually until such time as the Secretary of the Navy may deem it expedient to pay to him or his heirs the principal sum as aforesaid.
The provision for Planter’s prize monies to be invested in securities and held indefinitely at the discretion of the Secretary of the Navy is, as far as I know, virtually unknown when it comes to regular U.S. naval personnel. To be sure, as with anything associated with governmental bureaucracy and accounting, delays, lost paperwork, and missing approvals were routine, and it was common for seamen and officers to wait many months, or even years, to receive the prize monies they’d earned during the war. (I once researched a case in which a Union officer’s claim against a civilian ship went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he lost in late 1867. Or rather, his estate lost; the officer himself had died more than two years before.) But once prize money was cleared to be awarded, it was distributed. There’s little doubt that this case was handled as it was because the recipients were African Americans, former slaves, who were assumed to be unable to trusted to handle large sums of money wisely. It was well-intentioned, but patronizing and ultimately an insulting rationalization that kept Robert Smalls and his crew from receiving direct compensation for their actions for a long time, if ever.
Welles forwarded the text of the new legislation to Flag Officer Du Pont on June 6, along with instructions to have the captured steamboat appraised. In due course, Planter was inspected and assessed to be worth $9,000; the four loose guns, intended by the Confederates for the new battery being built on pilings in the middle of Charleston Harbor, were valued at an additional $168, for a total of $9,168. That number is strikingly low for a nearly-new steamboat in good operating condition, loaded with munitions; I may discuss that in another post. Regardless, under the legislation passed in May 1862, Smalls and his crew were entitled to half that amount, or $4,584. Du Pont ultimately divided the monies as follows:
How much was their prize money worth, in modern terms? An historical economist might say, “quite a bit” or “a lot.” In fact, there’s no single, direct answer to that question. There are a variety of formulae and indices used by economists to track the value of currency over time, and they give widely (and wildly) different results. Even in a single category, tracking income and wealth, the modern equivalent of the prize money awarded the crew of Planter varies between a low of around $106,000 to as high as $12M. The equivalent using unskilled labor as a basis of comparison pegs the modern equivalent at around $737,000, which seems very roughly in the ballpark to me.
Did Robert Smalls, William Morrison and the others ever see any of the principal of the money they’d been awarded by Congress? I’d like to say they eventually did, but if fact I don’t know. For certain, there would be plenty of people, in government and out, to whom the idea of turning over a large sum of money to freedmen and –women would be an anathema, and there were plenty of ways for them to rationalize cheating Smalls and the others of their hard-earned reward. (Think about the corrupt recruit depot quartermaster in the film Glory.) I hope they did eventually receive their prize money, along with the interest it had accrued.
 Rodman L. Underwood, Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2003), 35.
 S. F. Du Pont to Gideon Welles, “Abduction of the Confederate steamer Planter from Charleston, S. C., May 13, 1862.” May 14, 1862. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies, Series I, Vol. 12, 821.
 Congressional Globe, Senate, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, May 19, 1862, 2186-87; ibid., 2363; ibid., 2392; Statutes at Large, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, 904.
 Gideon Welles to S. F. Du Pont, “Letter from the Secretary of the Navy to Flag-Officer Du Pont, U. S. Navy, transmitting copy of an act of Congress in the case of Robert Smalls and others.” ORN, Series I, Vol. 12, 823.
Images: Top, escape of the steamer Planter by R. G. Skerrett, from the ORN. Images of Planter’s crew adapted from “Heroes in Ebony–The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 21m 1862, via Library of Congress. Gridiron’s name is given elsewhere as “Gradine”; I’ve adopted the spelling used in official naval correspondence.
In my post about Robert Smalls and the “abduction” of the Confederate steamer Planter the other day, I overlooked the last two grafs of the Harper’s Weekly story which, line-for-line, may be the most interesting of the piece:
Our correspondent sends us a drawing of an infernal machine [i.e., a mine], drawn by one of the negro hands of the Planter named Morrison. This chattel, Morrison, gives the following account of himself:
Belonged to Emile Poinchignon [Poincignen]; by trade a tinsmith and plumber; has lived all his life in Charleston; was drum-major of the first regiment of the Fourth Brigade South Carolina Militia, and paraded on the 25th of last month; has a wife and two children in Montgomery, Alabama, whom he expects to see when the war is over. I asked him how he learned to read and write. Answer: “I stole it in the night, Sir.”
Okay, okay. Calling William Morrison a “black Confederate” seems pretty silly under the circumstances. But William Morrison must, in some ways, capture all the complexities of of the situation of many African American men in the Confederacy during the war. Through his trade as a craftsman, Morrison probably enjoyed better circumstances than the majority of enslaved persons in the South, but he remained bound by the system. He suffered from a long, distant absence from his wife and children — no doubt an involuntary one. He learned to read and write not through the efforts of a kind and paternal master, but secretly, though his own initiative — “I stole it in the night.” And when he saw the opportunity to steal himself from his master, he didn’t just run off, but did so in a way that would cause the largest possible damage and embarrassment on the Confederacy, in a way that would (not coincidentally) assure his own death if recaptured. And finally, when he did reach the Federal blockading fleet, he shared with them intelligence about Charleston’s harbor defenses: a mine that, by virtue of his skills as a tinsmith and plumber, he may have actually helped assemble with his own hands.
William Morrison was neither a “happy Negro,” nor a “faithful slave.” Next time someone points to a vague reference to an African American musician or otherwise connected to the Confederate military, and then waxes eloquent about that as evidence of black Confederates fighting for home and hearth against the Yankee invader, etc., etc., ask them about William Morrison of the steamboat Planter.________________
Image: Detail of the print, “Heroes in Ebony — The captors of the Rebel steamer Planter, Robert Small, W. Morrison, A. Gradine and John Small.” Library of Congress.
Today is the sesquicentennial of one of the most audacious acts of the Civil War, when Robert Smalls, an enslaved African American trained as a harbor pilot, took his vessel out the Union blockading fleet off Charleston. It’s already been mentioned several places, with due credit to Smalls and his comrades. As Union Admiral David Dixon Porter put it in his naval history of the war, “this required the greatest heroism, for had he been caught while leaving the wharf, or stopped by the forts, he would have paid the penalty with his life.” More on Smalls and Charleston here.
So given the coverage Smalls’ actions will get — and rightly so — I thought it would be interesting to see the coverage from the other side, from the perspective of Confederate Charleston. Here, from the Charleston Mercury, May 14, 1862:
DISGUSTING TREACHERY AND NEGLIGENCE Yesterday, at daylight, the steamer Planter, in the absence of her officers, was taken by four or five of her colored crew from her berth at Southern Wharf, to the enemy’s fleet. She is a high pressure cotton boat, of light draught, formerly plying on the Pee Dee River, but latterly chartered by the Government, with her officers and crew, from Mr. Ferguson, her owner, and used as a transport and guard boat about the harbor of Charleston. Her armament was a 32-pounder and a 24-pound howitzer. The evening previous she had taken aboard four guns for one of the newly erected works, either that on Morris Island or Fort Timber, viz., a 42-pounder rifled and banded, an 8-inch columbiad, both of which had been struck at the reduction of Ft. Sumter, and 8-inch seacoast howitzer, and a 32-pounder. These guns were to have gone to their destinations early in the morning, and been mounted yesterday. Three sentinels were stationed in sight of her, and a detail of twenty men were within hail for the relief of the post. Between half-past three and four o’clock the Planter steamed up and cast loose, the sentinels having no suspicion of foul play, and thinking she was going about her business. At quarter past four o’clock she passed Fort Sumter, blowing her whistle, and plainly seen. She was reported by the Corporal of the Guard as the guard boat, to the Officer of the Day, Captain Flemming, one of the best and most reliable officers of the garrison. The fort is only called on to recognize authorized boats passing, taking for granted that they have their officers aboard. This was done as usual. The run to Morris Island goes a long way out past the fort, and then turns. The Planter on this trip did not turn. The officers of the Planter were [Charles J.] Relyea, Captain; Smith, Mate; and Pitcher, Engineer. They have been arrested, and will, we learn, be tried by court-martial for disobedience of a standing general order, that the officers and crews of all light draught steamers in the employment of the Government will remain on board day and night. The result of this negligence may be only the loss of the guns and of the boat, desirable for transportation. But things of this kind are sometimes of incalculable injury. The lives and property of this whole community are at stake, and might be jeopardized by event apparently as trifling as this. It ism therefore, due to the Service and to the Cause, that this breach of discipline, however innocent in intention on the part of the officers, should be dealt with as it deserves. Without strict discipline, no military operations can succeed.
Note that the black men who stole the boat get only a passing mention; virtually the entire piece focuses on the incompetence and negligence on the part of Confederate authorities in letting them get away with it. There’s no surprise expressed that Smalls and his companions would attempt to take the boat, so much as shock that they were able to pull it off. The newspaper story makes no hint of a betrayed assumption of loyalty on the part Planter‘s enslaved crew members to either their owners, or to the Confederate cause.
The newspaper got the name of the ship’s mate wrong; he was not “Smith,” but John Smith Hancock. He, Engineer S. Z. Pitcher, and Captain Relyea, went to trial; Relyea and Hancock were both found guilty. Relyea was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment and a $500 fine, which if he did not pay would be commuted into a sentence of two additional months. Hancock was sentenced to one month in prison and a $100 fine. Engineer Pitcher argued “in bar of trial” that the charges were vague and insufficient, and after careful deliberation the charges against him were voided.
In his review of the court martial, however, Major General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina and Georgia, overturned the convictions of Relyea and Hancock, noting that Planter‘s owner, Ferguson, “seems to have been entirely deficient as to the deportment of his subordinates.” Pemberton found that while Relyea and Hancock were in violation of general orders, “it is not clearly shown that General Order No. 5, referred to in the specification of the charges, had ever been properly communicated to Captain Relyea, or Hancock, the mate, nor do any measures appear to have been taken by their superiors to force an habitual compliance with the requirements of those orders” (Charleston Mercury, August 1, 1862). Relyea and Hancock were released.
I’ve read online that Captain Relyea was lost at sea between Charleston and Nassau in 1864, suggesting that he got involved in blockade running. Not sure if that’s true, but he left behind a spectacular, gold-headed cane of his that was sold twice last year at auction.
You’ve got to appreciate the candor of J. Michael Hill, founder, president, and self-described “big chief” of the League of the South; he leaves no one in doubt about what really matters to him:
Majority rule only works where there is already a consensus of sorts on the fundamental issues within a particular society. For instance, in a Christian nation that enjoys a high degree of homogeneity in its racial and ethnic make-up, language, institutions, and inherited culture, most matters up for a vote are largely superficial policy issues. They don’t tamper with the agreed-upon foundations of the society. However, in a multicultural and multiracial polyglot Empire such as ours is today, the concept of majority rule is often fraught with dire (and even deadly) consequences for the losers, especially if the winners bear a grudge. As I write in 2012, there are projections that these United States—and our beloved Southland–will have a white minority by 2040 (or before, depending on immigration policy). Simply put, that will mean the end of society as we know it. You and Bill Clinton may be OK with this, but I’m not. Who stands to lose by this devil’s bargain? The descendants of America’s founding stock will be the losers. As a native white Southerner, I’m primarily concerned about the future of the South. Our ancestors bequeathed us a republican society based on Christian moral principles, the English language, racial (and some degree of ethnic) homogeneity, and British legal and political institutions. All this will be gone with the wind if we don’t stand as united white Southerners against the unholy leftist trinity of “tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism.”
To be sure, this line of argument is nothing new coming from Hill; this essay dates back to 2007 (at least), with only a few slight edits. It’s not a gaffe, a one-off, but rather suggestive of a thought-out, stable perspective on Hill’s part. It’s policy, and an idea he’s expressed before:
We are already at war—we just don’t know it. One instance: Immigration. This is not just a matter of policy. It’s a matter of our very survival as white men and women of European Christian stock on this land we call the South. It is a zero sum game—we win or they win. There is no middle ground for compromise. Losing means that my grandchildren will grow up in a third world country. Multiculturalism and diversity means “we” cease to exist as a viable and prosperous people.
You have to wonder what Hill sees as the role and voice for African Americans and others is in his vision of an independent South is; some of those folks undoubtedly have families that trace back as far as Hill’s does, regardless of how they came to be there. (And note, as Will Rogers used to say, “some of them were there to meet the boat.”) What is their voice, their political agency in the “Free South” Hill and the League of the South envision? Sure, there will always be a place for highly-paid entertainers, fluffing people like Hill and assuring them how grateful black folks ought to be for helping them when the Supreme Court forced Jim Crow on the South, but what about everybody else?
Honesty can be invigorating, even when it’s unpleasant — like getting a cold bucket of water dumped on you. For all the discussion of abstract concepts like liberty and freedom, Hill’s core concern is, explicitly, about maintaining and preserving white power — political, cultural and social. His candor should be welcomed; it’s always good to know exactly where he and the League of the South stand, and what they stand for.
In 1932 a U.S. Army cavalry officer, Major George S. Patton, Jr., submitted a term paper to the Army War College on the likely characteristics of the next major war, and how the military should prepare for that event. As part of the background to his analysis, Major Patton gave brief synopses of previous wars going back to Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty, and the broad lessons to be derived from them. This is what Patton wrote about the American Civil War:
In the Civil War both sides used identical organizations and tactics.Lesson. — Identical methods produce long wars. Up until the Summer of 1863 a regular force on either side would have had decisive results. After that date both sides were professional in everything but discipline. NOTE. — In 1864, Lee wrote a long order on the necessity of securing discipline. (HENDERSON) The initial successes of the South were largely due to the fact that the superior enthusiasm — emotional urge — replaced discipline. In the North this enthusiasm was less marked, especially in the eastern armies.
The reference Patton cites appears to be this passage in G. F. R. Henderson’s Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War:
That [Lee's] circular [on discipline] was considered necessary after the troops had been nearly four years under arms establishes beyond all question that the discipline of the Confederate army was not that of the regular troops with whom General Lee had served under the Stars and Stripes; but it is not to be understood that he attributed the deficiencies of his soldiers to any spirit of resistance on their part to the demands of subordination. Elsewhere he says, “The greatest difficulty I find is in causing orders and regulations to be obeyed. This arises not from a spirit of disobedience, but from ignorance.” And here, with his usual perspicacity, he goes straight to the root of the evil. When the men in the ranks understand all that discipline involves, safety, health, efficiency, victory, it is easily maintained; and it is because experience and tradition have taught them this that veteran armies are so amenable to control. “Soldiers,” says Sir Charles Napier, “must obey in all things. They may and do laugh at foolish orders, but they nevertheless obey, not because they are blindly obedient, but because they know that to disobey is to break the backbone of their profession.” Such knowledge, however, is long in coming, even to the regular, and it may be questioned whether it ever really came home to the Confederates. In fact, the Southern soldier, ignorant, at the outset, of what may be accomplished by discipline, never quite got rid of the belief that the enthusiasm of the individual, his goodwill and his native courage, was a more than sufficient substitute. ‘The spirit which animates our soldiers,’ wrote Lee, ‘ and the natural courage with which they are so liberally endowed, have led to a reliance upon those good qualities, to the neglect of measures which would increase their efficiency and contribute to their safety.” Yet the soldier was hardly to blame. Neither he nor his regimental officers had any previous knowledge of war when they were suddenly launched against the enemy, and there was no time to instil into them the habits of discipline. There was no regular army to set them an example ; no historic force whose traditions they would unconsciously have adopted; the exigencies of the service forbade the retention of the men in camps of instruction, and trained instructors could not be spared from more important duties. Such ignorance, however, as that which prevailed in the Southern ranks is not always excusable. It would be well if those who pose as the friends of the private soldier, as his protectors from injustice, realised the mischief they may do by injudicious sympathy. The process of being broken to discipline is undoubtedly galling to the instincts of free men, and it is beyond question that among a multitude of superiors, some will be found who are neither just nor considerate. Instances of hardship must inevitably occur. But men and officers-for discipline presses as hardly on the officers as on the men-must obey, no matter at what cost to their feelings, for obedience to orders, instant and unhesitating, is not only the life-blood of armies but the security of States; and the doctrine that under any conditions whatever deliberate disobedience can be justified is treason to the commonwealth.
That the Confederate armies matched off to war in 1861 with great enthusiasm is undoubted, as was the widespread belief that one Confederate soldier could whip five, ten, twenty Yankees. But Patton makes the point that both the Union and Confederate armies, being overwhelmingly composed of non-professionals, always lacked that final ingredient that marked professional armies, that of unbending discipline. (Lee may have bemoaned the lack of discipline, but was himself known to be a soft touch.)
In his paper, Patton suggests a drop-off in Confederate enthusiasm from mid-1863 on, but Henderson goes further, making the argument that when the enthusiasm that had marked the Confederate effort during the first two years of the war began to fail, after two hard years of war and twin defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the Union was just finally taking hold of a cause that would carry them to victory. Henderson writes:
Enthusiasm in the [Union's] cause was fast diminishing when Lincoln, purely on his own initiative, proclaimed emancipation, and, investing the war with the dignity of a crusade, inspired the soldier with a new incentive, and appealed to a feeling which had not yet been stirred. Many Northerners had not thought it worth while to fight for the re-establishment of the Union on the basis of the Constitution. If slavery was to be permitted to continue they preferred separation; and these men were farmers and agriculturists, the class which furnished the best soldiers, men of American birth, for the most part abolitionists, and ready to fight for the principle they had so much at heart. It is true that the effect of the edict was not at once apparent. It was not received everywhere with acclamation. The army had small sympathy with the coloured race, and the political opponents of the President accused him vehemently of unconstitutional action. Their denunciations, however, missed the mark. The letter of the Constitution, as Mr. Lincoln clearly saw, had ceased to be regarded, at least by the great bulk of the people, with superstitious reverence. They had learned to think more of great principles than of political expedients; and if the defence of their hereditary rights had welded the South into a nation, the assertion of a still nobler principle, the liberty of man, placed the North on a higher plane, enlisted the sympathy of Europe, and completed the isolation of the Confederacy.
It’s worth recalling that, though he was born in California, Major Patton was a Virginian by family history, a former cadet of the Virginia Military Institute, and the namesake of his grandfather, a Confederate officer mortally wounded at the Third Battle of Winchester. When Patton was a child, one of his father’s closest friends, and a frequent visitor to the Patton household, was John S. Mosby, one of the most famous cavarlymen of the war. Patton’s “Confed cred,” as it were, is unassailable, and his admiration for the soldiers of the Confederacy is unquestioned. But at the same time, neither he nor his source, Henderson, fall into the ideology of the Lost Cause, that the South was simply overwhelmed by force of numbers, its nobility and morale intact. Rather, they argue that a lack of discipline, in both armies, was temporarily offset by gung-ho enthusiasm and esprit, that finally came to full flower in the Union army — “investing the war with the dignity of a crusade” — just as it began to falter in the Confederate ranks.
Are they right?
(H/t to Tom Ricks’ fantastic Best Defense blog.)
Image: Colonel George S. Patton, Jr., between the World Wars. Fort George G. Meade Museum.
Tuesday morning NPR had an interesting segment on David Hebert Donald’s Lincoln, the first in a new series of interviews that discuss presidents from the past in the context of the 2012 presidential campaign. Participating in the discussion were three other prominent Lincoln biographers, Eric Foner (right), Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Andy Ferguson. As you might guess, with those panelists the discussion was less about Donald’s work than it was about those three making the key points they wanted to make — which is just fine with me. You can listen to the piece here, or read the transcript here.
I particularly liked this exchange between the interviewer, Steve Inskeep, and Eric Foner, whose book on Lincoln and the question of slavery, The Fiery Trial, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History:
INSKEEP: If it were up to you, each of you, if you were presidential speechwriters, how would you want candidates to think of Lincoln, deploy Lincoln when they’re talking about him today? FONER: You know, I would love to see a candidate – I don’t care which party we’re talking about – forthrightly say: I have changed my mind about this. That’s what Lincoln did during the Civil War. He changed his mind over and over again. He didn’t change his core beliefs. Lincoln was a flip-flopper, if you want to use the terminology of modern politics. But we don’t seem to allow our politicians to do that anymore. INSKEEP: Andrew Ferguson, you’re smiling. FERGUSON: It’s partly because politicians won’t let their speechwriters talk that way. I don’t think that Dr. Foner should wait for a phone call from any political campaign because… FONER: I’m not holding my breath.
I get what Foner’s saying, but he does his own scholarship a serious disservice by labeling Lincoln “a flip-flopper.” Lincoln knew his own mind, and was from early adulthood (if not earlier) opposed to slavery, personally. That never changed. But neither was it a priority for him as a public official, either. He was not, regardless of how he was depicted by the fire-eaters in the run-up to the 1860 election, a secret abolitionist bent on overturning the institution where it already existed. He himself held attitudes and spoke in terms that would be deeply offensive today. He told an occasional “darkey” joke. He explained once that, in his view, whites and African Americans could not peaceably live together. He considered any number of schemes in considering the “Negro problem,” including voluntary recolonization to Africa. (Colonization was an idea, one should note, that long pre-dated Lincoln and long survived him, as well.)
Confederate apologists often point to these ugly examples and say, “Lincoln believed so-and-so, ” or “Lincoln said such-and-such.” They do this reflexively, as a means of deflecting criticism of slavery in the the South. Such mentions of Lincoln are often narrowly true, but they miss the larger, and much more important, truth that lies at the core of Foner’s (and many others’) work, which is that Lincoln himself changed and grew over time. The president who told “darkey” jokes also had Frederick Douglass as a visitor to the White House in 1863, the first African American to enter that building not as a servant or laborer, but as a guest. The president who’d said he would be willing not to free a single slave if it would preserve the Union also asked Douglass, in the summer of 1864, to use his contacts to get as many slaves into Union lines as he could before that fall’s presidential election, which Lincoln fully expected to lose. The chief executive who had toyed with the idea of re-colonizing former slaves back to Africa publicly suggested, just days before his death, that suffrage should be extended to at least some freedmen, specifically those who’d served in the Union army.
I personally don’t have a lot of use for political flip-floppers, whose deeply-held convictions change according to the latest Rasmussen polls. But neither do I have a lot of use for those who are unwilling to learn, to grow, and to change their minds when the circumstances warrant. That latter group are the ideologues, and while they may shape the debate over public policy, they end up accomplishing very little themselves. Successful leaders are those who are able to distinguish between what they would prefer and what they can accomplish, and push hard for the latter. Idealism has its role, but pragmatism gets the job done. The perfect, the saying goes, must not be the enemy of the good.
Presidents don’t have the luxury of being all-or-nothing ideologues: not in 2012, or in 1862. They are expected to lead, but can only lead where the country — or at least a large part of the country — is willing to follow. Wholesale emancipation — regardless of how much Lincoln might or might not have wanted it at the time — was never a possibility in 1861. It was not a priority for Lincoln, nor was it a priority for the rest of the country. But by the third year of the conflict, it was an established war aim for the Union. Lincoln understood, as well, that his Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime expedient, a stop-gap measure that would not likely hold up once the conflict ended, so he backed the 13th Amendment, passed by the House of Representatives and Senate weeks before his own death.
Flip-floppers chose the positions they do because they believe those position will make them popular. And they do, for a time, before the public catches on to the fact that they’re being played. There are many words that might describe Lincoln during his presidency, but “widely popular” isn’t generally one of them. He might not have won the presidency in the first place had not some Southern states, including my own, kept him off the ballot altogether in 1860; he only took 55% of the popular vote in 1864, when an ultimate Union victory was clearly visible on the horizon. Lincoln probably would have been a far more popular and successful politician in his own day if he had paid more attention to public opinion, and chosen more popular positions. He would have had a much easier time of it, but American history would look very, very different. And not in a good way.
There’s a hoary anecdote among museum staffers – invariably told as one personally witnessed by the speaker – about a tired parent, dragging an even-more-tired kid through the galleries. At one point the parents stops, turns, and snaps at the child, “how are we going to see the whole museum if you keep stopping to look at things?”
I thought about that anecdote recently watching the reaction to the brief installation (now removed) at the Museum of the Confederacy’s new annex at Appomattox of an image of the cross-dressing entertainer RuPaul in a sequined dress patterned after the Confederate Battle Flag. Over at Simpson’s Crossroads blog, Jackie Haddock was in full pearl-clutching mode, demanding to know “what were small children to make of this?” When I replied that it was extremely doubtful that many small children would even recognize RuPaul, much less know enough about him to find the image confusing/offensive/troubling, Haddock replied, “for the record in order to learn whom Ru Paul was I had to do a google search.“
Nothing puts the faux in faux outrage like having to go digging around the Internet to sort out why you’re supposed to be outraged in the first place. I’m furious about this, and if you’ll just give me a minute I’ll be able to tell you why! What a joke.
There are a couple of points worth making here. The first is that nothing the MoC does, short of full-out hagiography of the Confederacy and its heroes, would ever satisfy the small-but-loud group of critics who’ve been carping about the institution for years. If it weren’t RuPaul, it would be something else. They would be unhappy to discover a mention that Lee owned slaves, or that there’s a section devoted to Lincoln’s visit to Richmond a few days before his death. If the flag display out front that’s caused so much heartburn, was to feature (say) Union and Confederate national flags of April 1865 flying side-by-side, they’d be bitching about the presence of the “Yankee rag.” Outrage is what these folks do. Fish gotta swim.
The second thing is that, because they’re always looking for a new excuse to take righteous offense, they’re also easily trolled. This latter point causes me to think that, with this RuPaul thing, MoC Director Waite Rawls may have intentionally yanked the Southrons’ chain.
Sure, it may be exactly as he told Martha Boltz the other day, that it was an idea they’d been kicking around to emphasize the outrageous ways the flag has been used, and then removed it within hours when they received complaints. But it could equally have been Rawls and his staff never intended for it to be up more than a few hours regardless.
I’ve never met Waite Rawls, nor corresponded with him. But it’s clear that he’s not a stupid man, nor one to be intimidated easily. Given the ridiculous vitriol that man’s received — everything from being called “traitor” and “scalawag” to having Southrons urge their comrades to “get in ‘these peoples’ face and spit and spit again” and hint (repeatedly) that he should be lynched — I’d be surprised if Rawls didn’t also have a pretty cynical sense of humor about the fools who carry on like that. He’d have to. Given the unwarranted crap he’s had to put up with in recent years from people who should be working to support that institution, Waite Rawls is entitled to have a little fun at their expense. I’d like to think that’s what happened here, and wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it did. Well played, sir.
I hope to visit the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox sometime soon. I kinda wish I’d been there to see the RuPaul picture, too — not for the sake of the picture itself, but to watch visitors’ reactions. It must have been fabulous.
The hot new topic this week in Confederate Heritage™ is an incident that happened last Saturday in Richmond, where the Virginia Flaggers, a group that protests perceived slights to the Confederate flag, was put off the property of the national headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, with the assistance of local law enforcement. You can watch a video of part of that encounter, above.
The video went viral on the Internet machine, as the kids say these days, among Confederate Heritage groups, spurred on by posts by folks like Billy Bearden and Mark Vogl. It prompted the vitriolic hyperbole one has learned to expect from such quarters, including comments like these, posted at the Southern War Room:
the guardians embrace treason
The South has been betrayed by her very daughters, the United Daughters of the Confederacy!
Sucking the breast of the PC crowd!
Well for me, they have Sold Their Soul To The Devil, they are Traitors Of The Highest Measure…
Maybe we could convince the UDC chapters to secede from the National Chapter.
If it sleeps with the enemy, acts like enemy, talks like the enemy…. It IS the enemy!
The SCV National & your camp…. Should have their hands around the necks of those that don’t up-hold the charge.
And of course, there’s the casual, sort-of-joking-but-maybe-not-really reference to lynching:
Well, we all knew what the founders did to treasonous leaders……..there was usually rope involved. The founding fathers would roll in they’re graves if they could see what we’ve allowed. Please understand I’m talking about federal leaders…..but some of our UDC are giving in to liberals and their ideas.
While Bearden, who argues that the UDC leadership are trying to “sell out their birthright!!,” claims to have witnessed the incident himself, he leaves no hint that Saturday’s confrontation has been one brewing for months, and one that went entirely according to script, at least from the perspective of the Flaggers. In fact, none of the righteous outrage over this incident acknowledges that was a long time coming, and in fact was set up by the Virginia Flaggers themselves — or at least one of the group’s leaders — knowing full well that they would be removed from the property by the police.
On Wednesday, UDC President-General Martha Rogers Van Schaick posted a lengthy response to the allegations being made by the Flaggers, including a detailed chronology of the UDC’s interactions with Susan Hathaway of the Virginia Flaggers, going back to late 2011. Van Schaick’s account makes it clear that the UDC had repeatedly declined to participate in, endorse or host any of the Flagger’s activities. Hathaway subsequently acknlowledged that “the account in the the statement today by Mrs. Van Schaick, with a few minor exceptions, is accurate, and in fact, is almost exactly as has been previously reported.” But she didn’t specify what her “few minor exceptions” were, so we’re left with is President General Van Schaick’s account as the only detailed description of the events leading up to Saturday. It’s long, but worth reading in detail:
On December 14, 2011, an email was received from Ms. Susan Hathaway by the UDC Office Manager requesting that the VA Flaggers be allowed to use two flag poles outside the UDC Memorial Building to fly one Confederate Battle Flag on each. The email was forwarded to me for action.
On December 26, 2011, I responded to Ms. Hathaway advising that Pelham Chapel is not a UDC memorial and that our involvement in this issue could be construed as a ‘political activity’ that would possibly put our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status at risk. I further advised that our Bylaws prevent our involvement in ‘political activity’ and for that reason; the UDC was unable to allow the use of the flag poles located on the front of our UDC Memorial Building. I reminded her that the First National Flag flies daily in front of the UDC Memorial Building in perpetual honor of our Confederate ancestors.
On Wednesday afternoon, March 7, 2012, Ms. Hathaway came to our building and asked to speak with me. Mrs. Lucy Steele, Chairman of the Memorial Building Board of Trustees (who was in the building on other business) and I met with Ms. Hathaway. The request was that they be allowed to ‘gather’ on the front of our property. She was advised that we would not allow that.
The request was then made to allow them to ‘gather’ on the back corner of our property. Mrs. Steele pointed out that the property at the back corner belonged to VMFA but that we did not have a problem with it but she would have to seek approval from VMFA.
Ms. Hathaway then asked if the “No Trespassing” signs that had been posted recently were because of them and if they gathered on our property would the police be called. She was told that, as with any trespasser, we would call the police.
We explained to Ms. Hathaway that there have been instances of people sleeping under the bushes around the building. Recently during a work day, a man was seen crouching between the bushes and the building with binoculars which raised questions as to his intentions. The police were called at that time. “No Trespassing” signs were placed on our property in an effort to protect not only our building but our employees as they come and go, often times during early morning and evening hours.
On Saturday, March 10, 2012, during our Annual Spring Board Meeting, the VA Flaggers gathered on the sidewalk in front of the UDC Memorial Building. A short time later, they were observed leaning and perched on the cannons ignoring signs stating do not climb on the cannons. They then moved from the cannons to the steps leading to our building for a group photo. At this point, Mrs. Steele went out to ask them to move from the steps to the sidewalk – some moved immediately. Others remained on the steps. During this time, the Richmond City Police were called.
Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not the presence of the Virginia Flaggers on their property threatened the UDC’s tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) status. But whether on not the UDC had a good reason to reject the Flaggers is immaterial; they’re a private organization and they chose to do so. The bottom line remains: the UDC had (1) repeatedly denied the Flaggers authorization to use the UDC headquarters property, (2) explained that any such activity by the Flaggers would be considered trespassing, and (3) stated that such a circumstance would be handled according to the UDC’s usual practice, which is to call the Richmond Police Department. According to Van Schaick, Ms. Hathaway was told this in person at the UDC headquarters by herself and the Chairman of the Memorial Building Board of Trustees, Lucy Steele, on the Wednesday preceding the rally.
So, of course, the Flaggers went anyway. And the UDC did exactly what it said it would, which is to order them off the site and call the po-po. And then the Flaggers — without mentioning any of the events or discussions that had gone before — tossed it up on YouTube and various Southron social media sites. Dodging bullets…FROM BEHIND! The guardians embrace treason!
It was a set-up, staged and orchestrated to make the Virginia Flaggers look like victims of PC oppression. It’s ludicrous. Oh, there are victims here, but they ain’t the Virginia Flaggers; they are President General Van Schaick, Chairman Steele, and other members of the UDC leadership who’ve made clear their unwillingness to get dragged into the dispute over the Pelham Chapel next door, and for their troubles have now been framed by the self-appointed Defenders of Southron Heritage™ as traitors to the memory of their Confederate ancestors, and made the target of “jokes” about lynching.
I haven’t posted much about the Virginia Flaggers, because until recently I was ambivalent about them. I like the idea of peaceful protest; in general, it’s a healthy thing. It’s small-d democracy in action. While I think the Flaggers are wrong about Lexington, I’ve also thought they had a legitimate case to make for the Pelham Chapel.
But they’ve also proved to be mendacious and dishonest in promoting their efforts, eager to depict themselves as victims, and constantly trying to stir the pot. Take this video from last fall on their YouTube channel, for example, titled “Black woman attacked for carrying Confederate Flag.” What “attack” are they referring to? The passerby on the street engages another Flagger, Karen Cooper, in a discussion about their protest. There’s no shouting, no name-calling; no one gets all in anyone else’s face — where’s the “attack,” exactly? It’s dishonest, self-serving navel-gazing, in which the True Southrons™ are always the victims. “Attacked,” really?
Then there’s this video, “Va Flagger Tossed off State Property at VMFA for Carrying “That” Flag! 2-18-2012,” where Flagger Jimmy Jones is set up to confront a security guard at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the main target of the Flaggers. The video is shot from a distance, but — by remarkable and fortuitous coincidence — Jones is wearing a mic to catch the dialogue with the guard. Perhaps the Flaggers were looking to record the security guard saying something incendiary, but the best they got was him saying, “because I said so.” Now there’s an outrage for you!
And now we have this foolishness with the UDC. Hathaway claims she wasn’t looking to pick a fight with the UDC, and I doubt she’ll get one — if for no other reason, because the leadership of the UDC has consistently sought to avoid getting dragged into the rough-and-tumble over display of the Confederate Battle Flag, as is their right. The UDC had made their position very clear, well in advance. So why deliberately force a confrontation? Perhaps posing in front of the UDC headquarters was perceived as a win-win; if the UDC did nothing, the image might imply UDC support of the Flaggers; if the UDC had them removed from the premises (as warned, and as actually happened), the Daughters could be depicted as the unreasonable aggressors in the incident, arbitrarily bringing down the boot heel of the PC police (literally, police) on innocent protesters, just out to display their pride in their Confederate heritage. And of course, that latter narrative is exactly how the Flaggers ended up depicting it. It’s a spiteful, manipulative and cynical approach, but it works, at least for folks who aren’t paying attention.
Of course, that narrative only works when listener doesn’t know the long backstory of the discussions and communication that went on before last Saturday. President General Van Schaick managed to put the lie to that narrative when she provided the actual context of Saturday’s event, a context that Hathaway acknowledged is “with a few minor exceptions. . . accurate.” If the Virginia Flaggers — or rather, the leadership of the Virginia Flaggers — set out to make the UDC look bad, they only ended up making themselves look shrill and desperate. Somehow, I think the United Daughters of the Confederacy will survive.
If the Virginia Flaggers, and the larger Confederate heritage movement, really believed themselves to be under siege, they’d be trying to build alliances with others, not seek conflict with them. They’d look to find common ground with folks like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Museum of the Confederacy, and all the rest. But they don’t because, at some deeper level, folks like Martha Van Schaick, Waite Rawls and the rest are more useful as exaggerated, cartoon-like enemies, a common foe against whom the true believers can unite in shared resentment and carefully-stoked outrage. Even in the short time I’ve observed it, it’s clear that the Confederate heritage movement defines itself as much or more by whom they oppose, as by what they believe. It’s an ever-tightening spiral of anger and bile, and it won’t result in any positive outcome; it puts off people more than it attracts. It’s an approach that unites them, but also increasingly isolates them from the rest of American society — Southerners, Civil War buffs, the general public, everybody — and that’s a dead-end road. These folks may feel like they’re circling the wagons, but increasingly it looks like they’re circling the drain.
One area that the advocates of black Confederate soldiers (BCS) are mostly silent on is the stated attitudes and opinions of actual Confederate leaders who lived and fought through the war of 1861-65. Those views comprise a hard, bitter lump of historical reality that must surely cause indigestion for BCS advocates, given that the “Confed cred” of those men is unassailable. We’ve seen, for example, how both Howell Cobb and his fellow Georgian, Governor Joseph Brown, viewed the prospect of arming slaves with revulsion, and saw it as a betrayal of everything the Confederacy stood for. We’ve seen how Kirby Smith asserted that the Confederacy should “go to the grave before we enlist the negro [sic.].” And we’ve seen how, according to John Brown Gordon, even the venerable Robert E. Lee himself liked to humor his colleagues with an anecdote mocking the pretensions of an African American cook to being a soldier. It’s ugly, unpleasant stuff, but it’s right there, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Stephen Dill Lee (right, 1833-1908) was a Confederate general — the youngest of the South’s lieutenant generals, in fact — who after the war went on to a varied career as an author, a legislator, and educator. He was very active in Confederate veterans’ organizations, and succeeded Gordon as Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans. In many ways, S. D. Lee was the public face of Confederate veterans, both in the North and the South. S. D. Lee is remembered today particularly for his charge to the Sons of Confederate veterans, given as part of a speech in New Orleans in 1906. Lee’s charge has been used ever since as the guiding principle of the organization, and features prominently in SCV publications, both in print and online. (Read it here, at the bottom of the page.) Indeed, the quasi-academic arm of the SCV, the Stephen Dill Lee Institute, is named in his honor.
The SCV has, of course, spent a great deal of time and effort in recent years pushing the BCS meme. While lots of folks endorse or promote the idea that there were large numbers of African Americans formally enlisted and armed in the Confederate ranks, the SCV is (through its state divisions and local camps) by far the largest single proponent of the idea. Much of this is simply based on careless research or misunderstood documents, but it also results in cases of over-reach that should be genuinely embarrassing to the group, including retroactive assignment of name and rank to men who never claimed such, or the creation of an entire faux cemetery of black Confederates, without a single actual interment there.
So it comes with considerable irony to learn that around the same time the SCV was founded, S. D. Lee was telling reporters at a Confederate reunion what he thought of as a funny anecdote, complete with cartoonish African American “dialect,” that relies on ugly racial stereotypes about African Americans’ courage under fire and instinct for self-preservation for its “humor.” From the Idaho Statesman, January 25, 1896 (warning: offensive language and themes follow):
There’s been speculation brewing for a while now whether Governor Perry would take a position on the proposed Texas license plate promoting the SCV (right). On Wednesday, he gave his answer:
The Republican presidential hopeful was in Florida for a fundraiser and told Bay News 9′s “Political Connections” and the St. Petersburg Times that, “we don’t need to be opening old wounds.”
The plates have been requested by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit Perry has supported over the years. They show the group’s logo, which is derived from the Confederate battle flag. . . .
But [rejecting the proposed license plate] was a departure from Perry’s past opposition to NAACP-led efforts to remove two plaques with Confederate symbols from the Texas Supreme Court building in Austin 11 years ago.
Then lieutenant governor Perry wrote to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in a March 2000 letter obtained by The Associated Press that, “although this is an emotional issue, I want you to know that I oppose efforts to remove Confederate monuments, plaques, and memorials from public property.”
“I believe that Texans should remember the past and learn from it,” Perry wrote in the letter, obtained through an open records request.
One of the 11-inch by 20-inch bronze plaques featured the seal of the Confederacy, and the other the image of the battle flag and quotations from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. They were eventually removed in coordination with the office of then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Perry had waffled on the license plate question previously, simply saying its was a matter for the board to decide. That body will meet next month and may vote on the issue then. Last time it came up, a few months ago, the vote was 4 to 4, with one member absent. My thoughts on the license plate here.
I don’t think this helps Perry much, politically; it really is a no-win deal. His rhetoric in the past has pretty well established him (fairly or not) as a states-rights, secession-leanin’ sort of guy in his opponents’ eyes. To them, he’s already a caricature, and rejecting a license plate with the Confederate flag on it isn’t going to change that. On the other hand, certain folks have gone to great lengths to denounce Southern pols who, once deemed friendly to Confederate heritage issues, are seen to have become apostates in their pursuit of higher office.
Will Rick Perry be the next target of Brag Bowling’s ire?
Update: Thursday’s print editions of the Houston Chronicle put this story on the front page, above the fold, all the way across. You know, the headline you see looking through the window of a newspaper vending box. This seems like a pretty small story in the larger scheme of things, but I guess it sells papers.