Kevin reminds us that today, January 8, is the sesquicentennial of Howell Cobb’s famous letter to the Secretary of War, James Seddon, rejecting the notion of enlisting slaves as Confederate soldiers. Under the circumstances, it’s worth revisiting this old post of mine from October 2010.
Lots of folks are familiar with Howell Cobb’s famous line, offered in response to the Confederacy’s efforts to enlist African American slaves as soldiers in the closing days of the war: “if slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” It was part of a letter sent to Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon, in January 1865:
The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong — but they won’t make soldiers. As a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier. Better by far to yield to the demands of England and France and abolish slavery and thereby purchase their aid, than resort to this policy, which leads as certainly to ruin and subjugation as it is adopted; you want more soldiers, and hence the proposition to take negroes into the Army. Before resorting to it, at least try every reasonable mode of getting white soldiers. I do not entertain a doubt that you can, by the volunteering policy, get more men into the service than you can arm. I have more fears about arms than about men, For Heaven’s sake, try it before you fill with gloom and despondency the hearts of many of our truest and most devoted men, by resort to the suicidal policy of arming our slaves.
No great surprise here; earnest and vituperative opposition to the enlistment of slaves in Confederate service was widespread, even as the concussion of Federal artillery rattled the panes in the windows of the capitol in Richmond. What’s passing strange, as Molly Ivins used to say, is that Howell Cobb is a central figure in one of the canonical sources in Black Confederate “scholarship,” the description of the capture of Frederick, Maryland in 1862, published by Dr. Lewis H. Steiner of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In his account of the capture and occupation of the town, Steiner makes mention of
Over 3,000 Negroes must be included in this number [of Confederate troops]. These were clad in all kinds of uniforms, not only in cast-off or captured United States uniforms, but in coats with Southern buttons, State buttons, etc. These were shabby, but not shabbier or seedier than those worn by white men in the rebel ranks. Most of the Negroes had arms, rifles, muskets, sabers, bowie-knives, dirks, etc. . . and were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederate Army.
This passage is often repeated without critique or analysis, and offered as eyewitness evidence of the widespread use of African American soldiers by the Confederate Army. Indeed, Steiner’s figure is sometimes extrapolation to derrive an estimate of black soldiers in the whole of the Confederate Army, to number in the tens of thousands. But, as history blogger Aporetic points out, Steiner’s observation is included in a larger work that mocks the Confederates generally, is full of obvious exaggerations and caricatures, and is clearly written — like Frederick Douglass’ well-known evocation of Black Confederates “with bullets in their pockets” — to rally support in the North to the Union cause. It is propaganda. Most important, Steiner’s account of Black Confederates under arms is entirely unsupported by other eyewitnesses to this event, North or South. Aporetic goes on to point out the apparent incongruity of Steiner’s description of this horde being led by none other than Howell Cobb:
A drunken, bloated blackguard on horseback, for instance, with the badge of a Major General on his collar, understood to be one Howell Cobb, formerly Secretary of the United States Treasury, on passing the house of a prominent sympathizer with the rebellion, removed his hat in answer to the waving of handkerchiefs, and reining his horse up, called on “his boys” to give three cheers. “Three more, my boys!” and “three more!” Then, looking at the silent crowd of Union men on the pavement, he shook his fist at them, saying, “Oh, you d—d long-faced Yankees! Ladies, take down their names and I will attend to them personally when I return.” In view of the fact that this was addressed to a crowd of unarmed citizens, in the presence of a large body of armed soldiery flushed with success, the prudence — to say nothing of the bravery — of these remarks, may be judged of by any man of common sense.
The Black Confederate crowd doesn’t usually include this second passage describing the same event, or explain Cobb’s apparent profound amnesia when it comes to the employment of African Americans in Confederate ranks. How is it, one wonders, that the same Howell Cobb who supposedly led thousands of black Confederate soldiers into Frederick in 1862 found the very notion of enlisting African Americans into the Confederate military a “most pernicious idea” just twenty-seven months later? How is it that the general who called on his black troops to give three cheers, then “three more, my boys!” came to believe that “the day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution?” How is it that the commander of successful black soldiers felt that “as a class they are wanting in every qualification of a soldier?” But set aside Dr. Steiner’s propogandist account for the moment; it’s unreliable and unsupported by other sources. Events at Frederick aside, how is that Howell Cobb, in January 1865, was unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans soldiers supposedly serving in Confederate ranks across the South? Howell Cobb’s Confederate bona fides are unimpeachable, and throughout the war he was irrevocably tied in to both political and military affairs. In his career he was, in turn, a five-term U.S. Representative from Gerogia, Speaker of the U.S. House Representatives, Governor of Georgia, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress, and Major General in the Confederate Army. He was a leader of the secession movement, and was elected president of the Montgomery convention that drafted a constitution for the new Confederacy. For a brief period in 1861, between the establishment of the Confederate States and the election of Jefferson Davis as its president, Speaker Cobb served as the new nation’s effective head of state. In his military career, Cobb held commands in the Army of Northern Virginia and the District of Georgia and Florida. He scouted and recommended a site for a prisoner-of-war camp that eventually became known as Andersonville; his Georgia Reserve Corps fought against Sherman in his infamous “March to the Sea.” Cobb commanded Confederate forces in a doomed defense of Columbus, Georgia in the last major land battle of the war, on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1865, the day after Abraham Lincoln died in Washington, D.C. Perhaps more than any other man, Howell Cobb’s career followed the fortunes of Confederacy — civil, political and military — from beginning to end. And yet, after almost four years of war and almost three years of commanding large formations of Confederate troops in the field, in January 1865 Howell Cobb seemingly remained unaware of the thousands, or tens of thousands, of African Americans now claimed to have been serving in Southern ranks throughout the war. It is passing strange, is it not?
You knew this was coming sooner or later:
Yes, it’s satire. But just barely.
In the spring of 1880, former President and Union General Ulysses S. Grant made a visit to Texas. Fanned by unprecedented press speculation and coverage, huge crowds and celebrities turned out to greet Grant everywhere he went. This was particularly true of the general’s visit to Galveston, at that time the largest and most prosperous city in Texas. Where did Grant go and what did he do? What did he say? And most importantly, what did he eat? Respected historian Ed Cotham answers these questions and more as he chronicles the extensive newspaper coverage of Grant’s historic visit to the island city in his newest presentation for the Menard Summer Lecture Series.
Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m.
Menard Campus, 3302 Avenue O
Admission is $10 for Galveston Historical Foundation members, $12 for non-members.
_____________Image: Morgan Line steamship Harlan, that carried the Grants from Clinton, Texas to Galveston and on to New Orleans in 1880. Museum of Fines Arts Houston/Bayou Bend Collection.
On Wednesday, June 5, I’ll be giving my talk, “For-Profit Patriots: Blockade Running on the Texas Coast” at the Woodlands Civil War Round Table in Conroe, north of Houston. My talk will be at 7 p.m. at the Windsor Hill Club House, 1 East Windsor Hills Circle. Visitors are welcome, although everyone attending must be 18 or older due to the rules of the community. As before, there will be particular emphasis on two vessels wrecked here in 1865, Will o’ the Wisp and Denbigh. The official blurb:
“Patriotism, avarice and daring”? Did I write that? Gack, what turgid over-selling!
Anyway, it should be fun and informative. Hope to see you there!
___________Image: Me with nautical archaeologist Amy Borgens on the Will o’ the Wisp wreck site, July 2009.
The Galveston Historical Foundation has announced its lineup for the 2013 Menard Summer Lecture Series:
June 9 – Grant Comes To Galveston
Presented by Edward T. Cotham, Jr. In the spring of 1880, former President and Union General Ulysses S. Grant made a visit to Texas. Fanned by unprecedented press speculation and coverage, huge crowds and celebrities turned out to greet Grant everywhere he went. This was particularly true of the general’s visit to Galveston, at that time the largest and most prosperous city in Texas. Where did Grant go and what did he do? What did he say? And most importantly, what did he eat? Respected historian Ed Cotham answers these questions and more as he chronicles the extensive newspaper coverage of Grant’s historic visit to the island city in his newest presentation for the Menard Summer Lecture Series. June 23 – The Galveston-Houston Packet; Steamships on Buffalo Bayou Presented by Andrew W. Hall Before the railroad, before the Interurban, before the scourge of construction detours on the Gulf Freeway, Galveston and Houston were first linked by steamboat. The water link between the two cities helped establish both towns as the fastest-growing, booming communities in the state of Texas during the 19th century. The tale, largely overlooked until now, is one of cut-throat competition, horrific accidents, hard-fought battles and more. Join Galveston author Andy Hall, to explore some of this forgotten history. July 14 – Historic Tales of the Texas Republic, A Glimpse of Texas Past
Presented by Jeffery Robenalt
Though the Republic of Texas existed as a sovereign nation for just nine years, the legacy lives on in the names that distinguish the landscape of the Lone Star State. Austin, Houston, Travis, Lamar, Seguin, Burnet, Bowie, Zavala and Crockett- these historical giants, often at odds, fought through their differences to achieve independence from Mexico and established a republic destined to become the twenty-eighth state in the Union. Author Jeffrey Robenalt chronicles the fight to define and defend the Republic of Texas, from revolutionary beginnings to annexation. August 4 – The First Texas Navy, 1835-1837 Presented by James P. Bevill This powerful presentation takes place in the throes of the Texas Revolution, as the provisional government of Texas scrambled to put together a naval force to wreak havoc upon the Mexican supply lines. Having first resorted to the use of privateers (state sponsored pirates), Texas was able to borrow money in New Orleans in early 1836, to secure the warships Liberty, Invincible, Independence and the Brutus. Author and historian James Bevill tells the story of those four ships and the significant contributions of men made on the high seas in the fight for Texas independence. This remarkable story is triumphant and tragic, and an entertaining finale to the 2013 Menard Summer Lecture Series.
Each talk takes place on Sunday afternoon at 2 pm, at Menard Hall, 33rd Street and Avenue O in Galveston. Tickets are $12 for each talk, or $40 for the series. Hope to see you there.
Corey flags this remarkable exchange between Glenn Beck and David Barton:
“[Passage of the 13th Amendment] was slam-dunk, big-time. I mean, it was an eighty percent vote going through Congress.”
What a mendacious jackass. The movie focuses on passage of the amendment in the House of Representatives, where (as in the Senate) passage requires a two-thirds majority. The measure had indeed passed the Senate handily, but that occurred before the time frame of the film, and was never really in doubt. The hurdle was getting it through the House and, as shown in the movie, it only barely passed there, on a vote of 119 to 56. Flip three “aye” votes to “nay,” out of a total of 175 cast, and the count becomes 116 to 59, and the amendment would have failed. When the outcome of a vote turns on less than 2% of the votes cast, it’s not a “slam dunk.”
Beck and Barton both claim to be Constitutional scholars, and are counting on their listeners to be unaware of (1) the central plot of the movie, (2) the actual number of votes cast in each chamber of Congress, and (3) the two-thirds requirement for passage of any constitutional amendment.
Texas is a big place, but even so it’s not big enough safely to contain black hole of rank dishonesty that forms when Glenn Beck and David Barton get together in the same room, talking about American history.
Lord help us. At least Glenn Beck’s Nazi Tourettes seems to have gone into remission, and we can all be thankful for that.
Big news came out Monday in the investigation of the remains of the Confederate submersible Hunley, arguably the most important scientific finding of the project to date. Archaeologists revealed that the cleaned an conserved remains of the iron spar that carried the boat’s 135 lb. (61kg) torpedo still had attached remnants of the explosive device’s copper casing, peeled back by the force of the explosion (above). This is a tremendously important finding, because it shows that the little “fish boat” was close, very close, the blast that sank her opponent, U.S.S. Housatonic. How close?
Here’s why. Hunley was originally intended to tow a floating mine (then called a “torpedo”) behind her, and run under the target ship. If all went according to plan, the mine would be pulled into the side of the enemy vessel and detonate — on the opposite side from where Hunley was.
Unfortunately, this worked better in theory than in practice. In testing, they found that the towing line was prone to getting fouled in the boat’s propeller and rudder mechanism. Hunley’s ability to dive and run completely submerged — in order to pass underneath the target vessel — was problematic, as well, as shown by two prior, fatal sinking of the boat. (Not for nothing was it known as the “peripatetic coffin.”) Clearly, they had to find a method to deliver the mine to its target that gave them precise control, which in turn meant planting the mine against the target ahead of the boat, not towing it along behind.
Hunley Project Chief Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen. Charleston Post & Courier.
For years, it’s been generally accepted that Hunley‘s mine was detachable and fitted with a spike or barb, that would be rammed into the target’s hull. Once that was fixed in place, the submersible would back off for a safe distance, and detonate the mine using a lanyard, in the same way that period artillery pieces were fired. Up to today, this was the accepted scenario of how the attack was supposed to have been carried out. The physical evidence revealed in Charleston on Monday, however, suggests that experience gained in another attack on a blockading warship caused a critical change in those plans:
After the towline got fouled in the Hunley’s rudder and propeller during a test run in Charleston Harbor, engineers decided to refit the sub with a spar similar to the ones used by ironclads, picket boats and Davids, which were low-profile stealth boats. The engineering quickly evolved through trial and error. In October 1863, a David attacked the USS New Ironsides outside Charleston Harbor, ramming a torpedo into its flank. The blast didn’t sink the ship, but did serious damage. The explosion also threw a plume of water into the air, some of which extinguished the fire powering the David’s steam engine. Jacobsen said that attack prompted Confederate engineers to refine their method of attack. If the main thrust of the blast was up, the mines would have limited success hitting the side of a ship. They would do more damage if they were planted under the ships. The Hunley was equipped with an adjustable spar that could be raised or lowered. The torpedo was fixed on the spar at an angle, so that when the spar was lowered for an attack, the torpedo was sitting dead horizontal. Jacobsen knows this because of a detailed drawing of the “torpedo used to sink the Housatonic” that survives in the papers of Confederate officials in Charleston during the war. But until Hunley scientists found the remains of that exact torpedo, they couldn’t be sure those drawings were accurate. The torpedo, like the Hunley, had been upgraded through trial and error. Because triggers and detonators on these torpedoes were woefully unreliable, the Hunley’s torpedo had three triggers, any one of which would blow the charge. And, because the David’s 65-pound torpedo did not sink the Ironsides, the Hunley’s torpedo was packed with more than double the gunpowder — 135 pounds.
As a result, the scientists now believe, George Dixon and his crew set out on the evening of February 17, 1864, with the intention of placing the mine not in the enemy ship’s side, but under the hull, anticipating that most of the blast would be directed upward, ripping apart that part of the vessel. This interpretation in supported by witnesses aboard Housatonic, who first sighted Hunley a couple of hundred yards off their port bow, then watched as the submersible passed across their bow, then came around to strike their ship well aft on the starboard side, where the contour of the hull sweeps in and up toward the stern.
That sort of attack, if were planned that way as the researchers now believe, almost certainly doomed Hunley and her crew. Nonetheless, neither the project’s chief archaeologist, Maria Jacobsen, nor South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Glenn McConnell, who’s led the fund-raising for the project since its inception, believe Dixon and his crew expected theirs to be a suicide mission. “They were pressed for time, they were pressed for resources, but nothing indicates this was a suicide mission,” Jacobsen said. “They just had to get the job done.”
Detail of a painting, “Charleston Bay and City,” by Conrad Wise Chapman, showing a Confederate ironclad with a spar torpedo (show in raised position) very similar to that used aboard Hunley. Museum of the Confederacy.
Lots of questions about what happened that night remain, including ones underscored by Monday’s announcement about the spar torpedo. Though the crew probably had little idea of how the concussion from the detonation of the mine would have carried underwater, the force must have been tremendous. While the hull of the boat itself remains covered for now with cement-like concretions of sand and shell, when these are removed beginning next year, Jacobsen and her team will be looking closely for effects of the blast, in the form of popped rivets and opened seams between the iron plates. It would not take many of these to sink a boat like Hunley, that had precious little buoyancy to begin with, even under ideal conditions. If her crew were incapacitated as well, Hunley could easily have drifted, slowly filling with water, until she settled on the bottom some distance away.
We likely never will know all the details of what happened that night in February 1864, but the work of Jacobsen and her team at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where Hunley is being studied and preserved, are getting us closer and giving us a better understanding of those events.
In the meantime, I’ve updated the spar on my old digital model of H. L. Hunley. There’s a spool on the starboard side of the boat, next to the forward hatch. Until it was assumed that this was for unspooling the lanyard used to detonate the mine; now I think it may have led through a block on the upper boom, to raise and lower the spar. That’s how I’ve depicted it here:
Finally, a few good Hunley links for those interested in learning more:Michael Crisafulli’s Hunley reconstruction:
http://www.vernianera.com/Hunley/ Michael likely knows more about the construction and operation of the Hunley than anyone not directly affiliated with the project. Great stuff for the technically-minded. (Michael also can give you a guided tour of Jules Verne’s Nautilus, as well.) NPS Housatonic Site Assessment
http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/maritime/housatonic.pdf NPS Hunley Site Assessment:
JSTOR, the online database of academic journals and publishing, recently announced an expansion of its “Register and Read” program, which had previously been available in a trial version that included only a few dozen journals. Register and Read will allow users who sign up to access up to three articles from 1,200 journals, every two weeks. Articles can be read online, but a smaller number will be available for download, for an additional fee.
For those used to using the regular JSTOR through an institution, or through an individual membership, these are fairly — no, very — severe limitations. But I can also see that for folks who have no access otherwise, who need a specific article or two, this new program might be very useful. Prospective users can download an Excel file listing the included journals here.
I’ve known and worked with a lot of academics in widely-divergent disciplines over the years, and I suspect they have mixed feelings about this move. Like everyone else who writes, whether it’s on a blog, or history, or fiction, or haiku, they all want more people to read their stuff, period. That’s all to the good.
On the other hand, the business model for academic journals is shaky already, heavily subsidized by universities paying tremendously-high subscription fees, and by charges dumped off on individual authors themselves (page fees, image reproduction fees, etc.) Making these same articles available to a wider audience, even on a small scale like the Register-and-Read program, isn’t going to make that situation any better, and may make it slightly worse.
It will be interesting to see what comes out of this.
Apologies for being so very late on this one , y’all.
On Saturday, November 3, the Texas Historical Commission, in conjunction with the Galveston Historical Foundation and the Galveston County Historical Commission, will co-host a Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Workshop at the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Historic Menard Campus from 9 a.m. to noon, followed by a tour of the historic Menard House. This workshop is the last of five held across the state over the past two years, made possible by two grants from the Society of the Order of the Southern Cross.
Scheduled speakers include:
- Linda McBee on Civil War Veterans Buried in Galveston Cemeteries
- Helen Mooty of the Galveston County Historical Museum on the recent restoration and re-dedication of the 1911 Galveston Confederate Memorial
- Dwayne Jones, Executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, on plans for the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Galveston in January 2013
- William McWhorter of the Texas Historical Commission on Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark
- Amy Borgens, State Marine Archaeologist with the Texas Historical Commission, on USS Westfield, a Civil War-era shipwreck in Galveston Bay
- Edward T. Cotham, Jr., author of Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston and Sabine Pass: The Confederacy’s Thermopylae, on Galveston during the Civil War
- William McWhorter on the proposed 2015 Juneteenth official Texas historical marker
After these sessions, complimentary tour of the Menard House, one of the oldest structures on the island, will be offered by Historical Foundation staff.
This workshop is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Please call 512.463.5833 to register.
Location: Menard Hall 3302 Avenue O Galveston, Texas 77550 (click for map)
The THC established a Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Initiative in 2010 with the goal of increasing public knowledge of agency programs that interpret and preserve Civil War sites and topics across the state, such as Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark near Brownsville. In doing so, the THC highlights the history of Texas’ premier role in a seminal event in American history. Galveston historical organizations will provide attendees with a selection of presentations on recent Civil War history projects in the community, and upcoming programming for next year’s Sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 2013.
Image: Texas Civil War Museum
John Bell Hood is one of the most controversial Confederate generals of the war, particularly for his performance after losing a leg at Chickamauga. The disastrous Confederate losses by Hood’s Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Franklin, at the end of November 1864, and its defeat at Nashville two weeks later, effectively destroyed it as a fighting force in the West. Much of the blame for this is usually laid squarely at the feet — er, foot — of John Bell Hood.
Now, via Kraig McNutt and the Battle of Franklin Blog, the discovery of a large collection of Hood documents, previously unknown to historians, promises to open up new insights into the general’s record and provide answers to long-standing questions.
The Battle of Franklin Trust Chief Operating Officer Eric A. Jacobson announced today at Carnton Plantation the discovery of several hundred documents, letter and orders of Confederate General John Bell Hood. While conducting research for an upcoming book on the general, West Virginia’s Sam Hood, a collateral descendent and student of the career of Hood, was invited to inspect a collection of the general’s papers, held by a descendent in Pennsylvania. In making the announcement, Sam Hood said, “I felt like the guy who found the Titanic, except for the fact everyone knew the Titanic was out there somewhere, while I had no clue that some of the stuff I found even existed.” Sam Hood added, “General Hood is certainly no stranger to controversy. During his colorful military career and with historians ever since, he has remained a controversial and tragic figure of the Civil War. Long noted for the loss of Atlanta and what some consider reckless behavior at the November 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin after a lost opportunity for possible victory at Spring Hill, he has often been the subject of ridicule and blame for the demise of the Confederacy in the West. Eric Jacobson, who has viewed a portion of the collection said, “This is one of the most significant Civil War discoveries in recent history. These documents also tell us as much by what they don’t say. One major example is the discovery of Hood’s medical journal, kept by his doctor, John T. Darby, during the war. There is no mention of the use of painkillers or laudanum by Hood at Spring Hill or any other time. Hood was much more multifaceted than how he has been portrayed by some as a simple minded and poorly equipped commander.” Jacobson has been one of only a few contemporary Army of Tennessee historians to give Hood the benefit of fatigue, fog of war and failures of subordinates as part of the breakdown of the Army of Tennessee in late 1864. Some of the items found include recommendations for promotion, handwritten by Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet. Also uncovered was wartime correspondence between Hood and General R. E. Lee, Braxton Bragg, Louis T. Wigfall, and other senior commanders as well as his four general officer commission papers with signatures. Roughly seventy post-war letters from other Civil War notables were also discovered, mostly concerning the controversy with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and used to compose Hood’s memoir Advance & Retreat. Hood added, “This is just the tip of the iceberg on the expansive collection.” “I spent three days photocopying and inventorying,” added Hood. “I held in my hands documents signed by Jefferson Davis, Longstreet, Jackson and Lee.”
Seems to me that if Sam Hood, the general’s descendant who’s writing a biography of his ancestor, is smart he’ll start taking pre-orders for that book of his right now.