Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Sanding Smooth the Rough Edges of History

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on February 22, 2011

Several folks have noted online that one of the Confederate reenactors at last Saturday’s Jeff Davis inaugural in Montgomery was an African American woman. Her name is Barbara Marthal, and she’s been active in Confederate heritage activities for years. She is a member of the Tennessee Order of the Black Rose, does public presentations on “black Confederates,” and last spring was married in a Confederacy-themed ceremony (PDF) hosted by the local SCV camp and ladies’ auxiliary. Her commitment to a particular, SCV-endorsed narrative about the war is unquestioned.

I mention Ms. Marthal because, in response to a story on the event at NPR, she posted a comment in which she cited the case of a Civil War relative of hers, Handy Davis Crudup, “who fought for and received a pension from the Confederacy. One hundred fifty years ago he would have cheered Mr. Davis.” The characterization of Mr. Crudup here is interesting, because Crudup’s Tennessee pension explicitly identifies him as a slave, accompanying Pvt. Richard T. Davis of the 7th Tennessee Infantry. This is a salient fact — indeed the most fundamental fact of his wartime experience — but rather than being clear about that, Ms. Marthal instead offers the somewhat ill-defined assertions that Crudup “fought for” the Confederacy, and  “would have cheered Mr. Davis.” In place of specific fact, the reader is offered vague assertion and speculation. As with Jefferson Davis in 1861 and his doppelganger in 2011, the mention of slavery is avoided in preference to grander language. I really don’t know how she figures to know Crudup’s likely response to Davis” original speech.

It may seem unfair to examine too closely a comment posted to a news story, but in this case it’s not a quickly dashed-off response. They’re Ms. Marthal’s own words, unfiltered by a reporter or editor. Ms. Marthal’s comment is carefully-worded and clear. It is written in defense of the ceremony in Montgomery, addressed to other NPR readers whose own comments are clearly not sympathetic to her view. And it does as good a job of that as it can. But at the same time it badly misleads the casual reader about Mr. Crudup’s actual wartime status, leaving the clear impression that the man was recognized as a soldier. (Another news story gets closer, saying that Crudup “fought as a slave.”)

Ms. Marthal is clearly committed to her Southern heritage, as she views it. She seems conscientious and sincere, but it’s unfortunate that someone who commits so much time and effort to getting history right, falls into the trap of offering vague-but-grand-sounding language rather than clear and specific wording. We don’t do our ancestors honor by being vague or misleading about who they were. It’s hard enough to try to know them at all; it does no honor to their memory to avoid the unpleasant realities of their lives. They lived those hard, ugly realities; is it too much for us even to acknowledge them directly?

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8 Responses

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  1. Dennis said, on February 23, 2011 at 2:04 am

    It is an absolute fact that many German Jews fought for NAZI Germany (nearly all were in the German Navy – a service that protected its members, even Jews – from the regular murder/slaughter.) That said, does this mean that Jews did support Hitler and the mass murder of fellow Jews? Please.

    Considering this, why does anyone care that a few slaves were forced through either personnel commitment or a strange sense of honor to fight on the side that murdered them, their children and wives, as well as raped and murdered these same woman and yes, even children? That a few slaves (and it was very few) did this does not in any way, or manner change the ugly fact that the South (supported by many Northerner’s who either got rich from slaves, too, or just hated Blacks) supported one of the greatest, most vile systems that has ever existed on Earth? and these same people (but not many of the common foot soldiers of the CSA) not only support this evil but would have continued and expanded this evil to as many areas/other people as possible – the CSA were evil like NAZI Germany and there is NO getting past this fact.

    These stories of Blacks fighting for the CSA are no more important than Jews that fought for Hitler – but I am VERY glad YOU have the energy and honesty to address these silly people who try and spin these minor and irrelavent tails into more. Thanks for the hard and great work!

    • Andy Hall said, on February 23, 2011 at 7:45 am

      Dennis:

      Thanks for commenting, but let’s please drop the Nazi analogies. They’re convenient and dramatic, but they don’t really inform the discussion, and in fact tend to shut it off entirely. All heat, no light.

      The experience of men like Handy Davis Crudup is something that historians have really only barely scratched the surface of. It’s very complicated stuff, that we don’t understand very well. (Note that most of the individuals now identified as “black Confederate soldiers” were personal body servants like Crudup, as opposed to men conscripted in gangs to work on fortifications, who were likely more numerous overall.) The narrative generally put forward about these men by the SCV is little changed from that of the “faithful slave” that’s been a cornerstone of of Lost Cause mythologizing for a century. It’s a caricature, a cartoon, that usually credits these men with little recognition as individuals. The patriotic, defending-home-and-hearth caricature has more appeal today than the shuffling, simple servant of previous decades, but it’s still a caricature that obscures the individuals involved. (To be clear, this same same caricature is routinely applied to white Confederate soldiers as well, commonly ascribed to one’s ancestors when, in fact, next to nothing is actually known about them.)

      I don’t think Ms. Marthal is a silly person — on the contrary, it’s clear to me that she takes this very seriously, and is sincere about what she does. I do think she and many others are taking the easier path in terms of analysis and interpretation, filling in gaps in the historical record of Handy Davis Crudup with noble generalities about what he “must have” thought and felt and believed. (This, too, is routine for the SCV and similar groups.) Unless his is a very unusual case, backed by contemporary sources, these are things we can only guess at. Retroactively projecting onto him (or any other historical figure) beliefs and motivations we cannot know is a psychological trick that assuages our own thoughts rather than clarify theirs.

      • Dennis said, on February 23, 2011 at 10:05 am

        Sorry for the final Nazi reference (was not necessary) and only after reading your post did I realize that it appears I am calling Ms. Marthal silly and I in no manner meant that slight to her and do apologize for that error.

        • Andy Hall said, on February 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm

          Thanks for following up. I’m sure Ms. Marthal and I would disagree on just about every aspect of the war, but I don’t doubt her sincerity or good intentions. Cheers.

  2. BorderRuffian said, on February 24, 2011 at 7:48 am

    The attempt to demonize the South with the “nazi” analogy is rather strange.

    How does the Confederacy rate with other regimes of the 19th century?

    The European empire builders and the rape of Africa?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_II_of_Belgium

    The United States slaughter of the plains indians?

    The British treatment of the Irish and Chinese?

    I could go on and on…

    • Andy Hall said, on February 24, 2011 at 7:53 am

      I think my commenter above is done using that analogy, and I hope others here are, too. It’s not one that is particularly useful, and only inflames the conversation. Let’s all move along.

  3. lunchcountersitin said, on February 24, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    I am a history hobbyist, as opposed to history scholar/academic. What I’ve found is that hobbyists tend to know a lot about particular people, or particular places, or particular events; while the scholar not only knows a lot of the details, but also, knows how to make details into dots that connect into a big picture.

    When I consider the case of the woman mentioned above, I wonder if she’s seeing the big picture? So many people think they know the map from just looking at one point on the road. But that’s not the way it works.

    She says, “One hundred fifty years ago (my ancestor) would have cheered Mr. Davis.” Since she has so much knowledge of what her relative believed and felt, I’d ask her:

    • Did her relative know where Jefferson Davis stood on the issue of black enslavement? Would he have cheered Davis out of knowledge of his policies, or out of submission to his master?

    • Did he like slavery? Did he want his children to be enslaved? Did he or did he not believe that the Confederacy was dedicated to the enslavement of blacks?

    • Did he cheer for the Emancipation Proclamation, and the hope of freedom it offered to the slaves?

    • What were his thoughts on coloreds from the South who fought for the Union?

    …and the mega question:

    • Would he have left his master and joined the Union army, if he thought it would lead to the release of his family from bondage?

    If she doesn’t know the answers to these questions, I think it’s somewhat presumptuous for her to say that her relative would have “cheered” Davis, or, to say she knows the spirit in which he would have done the cheering. I don’t know if those questions were ever considered, or if they even matter to her.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 24, 2011 at 7:36 pm

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t know what else she knows about her ancestor, apart from the pension record. She mentions that this man was part of her “extended” family, and that he’s someone she discovered relatively recently, so it sounds like there’s not a strong family oral tradition that shaped her vision of him. (As opposed to Richard Quarls’ great-granddaughter, who heard about him directly from her own grandmother, decades before the SCV showed up at her door.) Family oral traditions are often skewed or unreliable, but they nonetheless are part of the larger picture. It would be interesting to know what, if any, old family stories there are about Handy Davis Crudup.

      Your point about hobbyists v. academics is well taken, although some of the best-researched, most enjoyable stuff I’ve read has been written by people outside the academy. You’re spot-on, though, about hobbyists often being so focused on the detailed that they completely miss the big picture. That’s one thing that, I think, gives misinformation in this particular area of history such long legs; careful attention to small things gives a person credibility on big ones. The average person, with a somewhat-fuzzy recollection of his or her own high school history class, is unlikely to realize that the guy in a Richmond Pattern II shell jacket and hand-stitched brogans, rambling on about tariffs and ZOMG Marxist Lincoln, hasn’t the foggiest idea what he’s talking about.


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