Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“Those who voted against secession. . . thought they were doing right”

Posted in Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 19, 2011

In February 1861, Texas voters went to the polls to vote on secession from the Union. The measure passed overwhelmingly, with 46,153 votes in favor, and 14,747 votes against.

One hundred fifty years ago today, on March 19, 1861, this item appeared in the Galveston Civilian and Gazette Weekly:

New converts are proverbially overzealous and intolerant. A majority of the secessionists in Texas have become such within the past few months. While many of them are puzzling their wits for test oaths and means of punishing the non-conformists and luke-warm, and freely apply the epithet of traitor, and would gladly apply the punishment due to treason, to persons who voted as they themselves would have done a few months since, the Marshall Republican, which was a secession paper in 1859 and has continued so ever since, says:

Now that the election is over, we hope the friends of secession will exercise moderation and good feeling towards those who voted against the Ordinance. It is not only their duty to do so, but the highest considerations of patriotism enjoin it. We want union among ourselves, and we can achieve that desirable end in no other way than by conciliation, and the examples of these fraternal feelings, which one Southern man ought to express for another. It should be borne in mind, that all men cannot think alike. Those who voted against secession, no doubt thought they were doing right; and now that this act has been consummated, will give their [steadfast?] efforts to sustain the rights, honor and interests of the State. To all such as these we tender the right hand of fellowship. Let us bury all past dissensions, forget everything leading to alienation, and stand together as a band of brothers.

Beneath the flowery language of patriotism and allusions to Shakespeare, there’s no tolerance for dissent or remaining loyalty to the Union in this passage. None. Past mistakes can be forgiven — “those who voted against secession, no doubt thought they were doing right” — but there is no room going forward for any such lingering sentiment. The tone of this communication may be loftier than those of the Committees of Safety, but the message is the same: dissent will not be tolerated.


Image: Unidentified member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, Marshall, Texas, c. 1861, Lawrence T. Jones III Texas photography collection at Southern Methodist University. The Knights were a secretive organization created in 1854, proposed to establish a slaveholding empire encompassing the southern United States, the West Indies, Mexico, and parts of Central America.

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Grant’s Poisoned Chalice

Posted in Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 17, 2011

Bloggers really are a shameless bunch, snatching an idea from one of their colleagues, and running off on a new tangent with it.

Keith Harris, who blogs at Cosmic America, got the ball rolling this time by posting a video clip of Grant author Joan Waugh, discussing the persistent rumors of drunkenness that swirled around Grant throughout the war and after. Waugh’s own position on the subject is not entirely clear, but she describes the sort of “default” position taken by many historians — that his drinking didn’t interfere with his abilities “when it counted,” — and follows up by explaining that she admonishes her students to be “mature about judging our presidents and other leaders,” recognizing their human foibles, and asking rhetorically whether Lincoln, after suffering through a series of failed Union generals, would “appoint a raging drunk to lead the Union army?”

Professor Brooks D. Simpson, himself a Grant biographer, takes strong exception to the notion that Grant only drank when nothing much was going on. He outlines three specific occasions when Grant had what appears to have had serious alcohol-related incidents when engaged in active military operations, one of which — a fall from his horse at New Orleans in October 1863 — put him effectively out of action for weeks. “When you are a general in command of an army,” Simpson writes, “something important is always going on, and it would be bad business for a general to assume a lull in the fighting to relax before being surprised. Think Shiloh.”

Simpson doesn’t discuss Grant’s drinking at Chattanooga, but it was attested by Ambrose Bierce, at the time a staff officer under General William Babcock Hazen. Bierce thought well of Grant, but as Simpson himself noted in a 2007 piece for the Ambrose Bierce Project, the writer chafed mightily at the fatuous accolades and near-deification of the man that followed Grant’s death in July 1885. Among the things that stirred Bierce’s ire — and it didn’t take much, truly — were the general’s eulogists who built complex rationalizations around his imbibing or, worse, averred he never touched the bottle. A few months after Grant’s passing, Bierce set out his own, utterly unapologetic perspective on the subject:

For my part, I know of nothing in great military or civic abilities incompatible with a love of strong drink, nor any reason to suppose that a true patriot may not have the misfortune to be dissipated. Alexander the Great was a drunkard, and died of it. Webster was as often drunk as sober. The instances are numberless. When the nation’s admiration of Grant, who was really an admirable soldier, shall have accomplished its fermentation and purged itself of toadyism, men of taste will not be ashamed to set it before their guests at a feast of reason. . . .

My own observation – take it for what it is worth – is that it was some time afterward. As late as the battle of Mission[ary] Ridge (November 25,1863) it was my privilege to be close to him for six or seven hours, on Orchard Knob – him and his staff and a variable group of other general and staff officers, including Thomas, Granger, Sheridan, Wood and Hazen. They looked upon the wine when it was red, these tall fellows – they bit glass. The poisoned chalice went about and about. Some of them did not kiss the dragon; my recollection is that Grant commonly did. I don’t think he took enough to comfort the enemy- not more than I did myself from another bottle but I was all the time afraid he would, which was ungenerous, for he did not appear at all afraid I would. This confidence touched me deeply.

Many times since then I have read with pleasure and approval the warmest praises of Grant’s total abstinence from some of the gentlemen then and there present.

Such virtues as we have
Our piety doth grace the gods withal.

These gentlemen were themselves total abstainers from the truth.

One wonders whether, 125 years after his death, the fermentation of Grant’s legacy in this regard is even yet accomplished. Not quite yet, for some.


Bierce excerpt from David J. Klooster and Russell Duncan, eds., Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce (University of Massachusetts, 2002). Image: Chromolithograph of a painting by Thure de Thulstrup, “Battle of Chattanooga” (depicting the Battle of Missionary Ridge) of the Chattanooga Campaign. Library of Congress.

George Hatton’s Long Road

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 9, 2011

(This material originally appeared in January as a guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. It originated with Coates posting a wartime letter of Hatton’s, and quickly became an exercise among followers of the blog in crowd-sourcing historical/genealogical research about Hatton himself. Special thanks goes to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton’s life. First installment here. Second installment here.)

St. Paul United Methodist Church in Paris, Kentucky. Lexington District, Kentucky Annual Conference, United Methodist Church

After the 1872 presidential election, in which he’d been one of Horace Greeley’s most prominent African American supporters, Hatton remained active in veterans affairs and as a speaker at reunions and gatherings. He was also rising in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Sometime in the 1870s he relocated with his family to Paris, Kentucky, where he led the St. Paul M. E. Church, a congregation that still exists. It is believed to be the oldest African American Methodist church in Kentucky, the building having been constructed sometime between 1870 and 1876. By the 1880 Census, George and Frances had a daughter Mary, age 11.

Though he was a long way from his old homes in Maryland and Washington, D.C., the old soldier remained a leader in his new community. A local black man, William Giles, was charged with shooting and attempting to kill another man. The case was heard and dismissed by the local court, but soon after Giles found himself re-indicted and put on the docket to be tried by the circuit court. A group of black citizens, led by George Hatton, protested this move on the grounds that the indicting grand jury contained no black members, saying this violated the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The circuit judge overruled their objection, but allowed the case to be transferred to federal court, where Giles and his supporters believed he would get a fairer hearing. This event led to the formation of one of Kentucky’s early civil rights organizations, the Bourbon County Protective Union of Color, with Reverend Hatton as its first president.

There is, however, evidence that late in the decade Rev. Hatton fell into a decline, possibly as a result of alcoholism. The Maysville, Kentucky Evening Bulletin noted in March 1892 that “Rev. G.W. Hatton, the colored preacher and politician who entertained Maysville Republicans several times during the campaign of 1888, is in custody at Louisville charged with grand larceny. He seems to have “fallen from grace.” He was fined $20 not long since for trying to kiss an old white woman, and the Courier-Journal says he has been in court on several occasions of late charged with drunkenness.” Hatton’s fall continued, as mentioned in another Evening Bulletin notice two years later, in the fall of 1894:

George W. Hatton, the colored preacher and politician, attempted suicide at Winchester this week by taking morphine. His church had dismissed him and he was despondent. The Republicans of this district ought to have given him a job to help Judge Pugh out. They had him here a few years ago, making speeches for Major Burchett.

The outcome of these court cases is not known. But despite his personal struggles, Hatton continued to campaign for candidates and important legislation, and his skills as an orator remained intact. An 1892 article from the Indianapolis, Indiana Freeman, under the title, “The Negro Tariff Reformers,” gives a glimpse of Hatton’s stump speech style:

George W. Hatton made the speech of the evening. He is from Paris, Ky, and has a voice that had no trouble being heard. His talk was spiced with humorous anecdotes and stories which frequently raised his audience to frantic applause. He drew a comparison for the two parties as follows: “The Republican party, if it never does another thing for our race, pulled us out of the cabin and said, ‘G’long up the road.’ The Democratic party yelled: ‘Stop that air, nigger,’ and they’ve been yelling it ever since.”

When he concluded the audience sang “John Brown’s Body Lies a-Mouldering in the Grave,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and others until the speaking resumed.

From the mid-1890s forward, there are very few references for George Hatton. In a July 1892 listing of employees of the Treasury Department, Hatton is listed as being employed at the Lousiville Customs House as a janitor, with an $800 annual salary.

It appears that George and Frances Hatton returned to Maryland sometime after 1894. George would have been well into his fifties by this time. But he still remained active in politics; an 1898 notice in the Washington Bee newspaper listed Hatton among the speakers at a Republican rally in Forestville, Maryland, which had been his home almost forty years previously.

There is a notation in a 1902 Daughters of the American Revolution magazine that one of that organization’s officers was approached by “an old colored man” named George W. Hatton, of Rosecroft on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who donated to the group a small set of very old newspapers dating to the period around 1800. According the note, the man “had heard much of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and said he had had in his possession when a slave and for forty-nine years some old newspapers which he wished, out of patriotism, to present. Of course, your committee realized his sole dependence for support was his pension. Therefore, there was slight embarrassment in accepting his gift until Mrs. Jay Osborne Moss, of Sandusky. Ohio, by a most generous donation to the old soldier, made these papers our property.” (This quote is the only reference I’ve found to Hatton having been enslaved, and it may be an assumption on the part of the writer.) Perhaps as a result of this encounter, Hatton was granted an increase in his pension by Congress that same year, to $24 per month. A similar bill (HR13832) was introduced in Congress in 1914, although the final status of that bill is not clear. It appears that Hatton died that year, as Frances applied for a widow’s pension on June 15, 1914.

In George W. Hatton’s story, we can see something of the arc followed by many African Americans through the Civil War and the decades that followed. Certainly Hatton had exceptional qualities of physical courage, as when he dared the Washington police to shoot him in front of the recruiting office in 1863, along with moral courage, and a remarkable gift of language and rhetoric that few in his day had, regardless of their education or background. He had his weaknesses, as well. His years spanned violent and politically churning times — the most turbulent in our history, in fact — and made himself a a part of them. He didn’t just live through those days of secession, Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow; in his own way, he helped shape them.

Solider. City councilman. Political campaigner. Clergyman. Civil rights leader. He lived a life.

The Other Speech on Decoration Day

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Media by Andy Hall on March 6, 2011

In my last post on George Hatton, I included a newspaper account of his participation in a Decoration Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The story noted that Hatton made “a short but eloquent address” that has, apparently, been lost. Sharp-eyed readers may have also noticed that, buried in the text of the article, was a passing reference to the presence there of one Frederick Douglass. You may have heard of him.

Oddly, the newspaper makes no reference to the speech Douglass gave that day, at the memorial to the Unknown Union Dead (above), which must surely rank as one of the most compelling of its type ever offered there. It’s a short address, worth reproducing in full.

The Unknown Loyal Dead

Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, on Decoration Day, May 30, 1871

Friends and Fellow Citizens:

Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence.

Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable.

Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.

No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.

When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember?

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier.

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

The remarkable thing about this text is how well it resonates, how well it presages the ongoing arguments about how we remember the war even today, almost a century and a half after the guns fell silent. Douglass’ admonition — “we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic” — must necessarily ring as true today as it did then. This is what Confederate apologists do not, can not, accept: that regardless of their ancestors’ courage and sacrifice, and regardless of their individual beliefs and motivations, at the end of the day they fought for a nation founded on a terrible premise. To honor our ancestors demands that first we see them as they were, not as we’d wish they’d been.


Text of Douglass speech from Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Image: Monument to the Unknown Dead f the Civil War,  Arlington National Cemetery. Library of Congress.

Hatton Enters Politics

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 4, 2011

(This material originally appeared in January as a guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. It originated with Coates posting a wartime letter of Hatton’s, and quickly became an exercise among followers of the blog in crowd-sourcing historical/genealogical research about Hatton himself. Special thanks goes to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton’s life. First installment here.)

After the war, George W. Hatton appears to have returned to Washington, D.C., where his father Henry was living. In the years after the war he married a woman named Frances. The two of them were living in Washington’s 4th Ward at the time of the 1870 U.S. Census, he employed at the Globe newspaper, and Frances (age 25) “keeping house.” As early as 1867 he was approached to serve on the D.C. council, but declined. In 1869, Hatton did serve on the “Common Council” for the District of Columbia. At the time, D.C. had three levels of governance: (1) the mayor and city department heads, (2) aldermen, and (3) the common council. This one term seems to be to only period he held public office, but he remained very active in Republican politics and was a speaker at veterans’ reunions. On Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) in 1871, he was part of a delegation of men and women who made the trek across the Potomac to the grounds of Arlington House, to hold a commemoration ceremony for the African American troops who had died during the war and were buried there on the grounds. What they found was recounted in the New Orleans Semi-Weekly Louisianan, June 15, 1871:


While services were in progress at the tomb of the “Unknown” Comrade Charles Guthridge, John S. Brent, and Beverly Tucker, of Thomas R. Hawkins Post, No. 14 G.A.R., followed by Greene’s Brass Band, Colonel Perry Carson’s Pioneer Corps of the 17th District, Butler Zouaves, under the command of Charles B. Fisher, and a large number of colored persons proceeded to the cemetery on the colored soldiers to the north of the mansion, and on arriving there they found no stand erected, no orator or speaker selected, not a single flag placed on high, not even a paper flag at the head boards of these loyal but ignored dead, not even a drop of water to quench the thirst of the humble patriots after their toilsome march from the beautifully decorated grand stand above to this barren neglected spot below. At 2 ½ o’clock P.M., no flowers or other articles coming for decorative purposes, messengers were dispatched to the officers of the day for them; they in time returned with a half dozen (perhaps more) rosettes, and a basket of flower leaves. Deep was the indignation and disappointment of the people. A volley of musketry was fired over the graves by Col. Fisher’s company. An indignation meeting was improvised, Col. Fisher acting president. A short but eloquent address was made by George Hatton, who was followed by F. G. Barbadoes, who concluded his remarks by offering the following resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:

Resolved, that the colored citizens of the District of Columbia hereby respectfully request the proper authorities to remove the remains of all loyal soldiers now interred at the north end of the Arlington cemetery, among paupers and rebels, to the main body of the grounds at the earliest possible moment.

Resolved, that the following named gentlemen are hereby created a committee to proffer our request and to take such further action in the matter as may be deemed necessary to a successful accomplishment of our wishes: Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, Rev. Dr. Anderson, William J. Wilson, Col. Charles B. Fisher, William Wormley, Perry Carson, Dr. A. T. Augusta, F. G. Barbadoes.

If any event in the whole history of our connection with the late war embodied more features of disgraceful neglect, or exhibited more clearly the necessity of protecting ourselves from insult, than this behavior at Arlington heights, we at least acknowledge ignorance of it.

We say again that no good, but only harm can result from keeping up the recollection of the bitter strife and bloodshed between North and South, and worse still, in furnishing occasion to white Unionists of proving their hypocrisy towards the negro in the very presence of our dead.

Note that William Wormley would be the same Billy Wormley who, with George Hatton, defied the Washinton police to shoot outside the USCT recruiting office eight years previously. The black soldiers’ graves were never moved; rather, the boundaries of Arlington were gradually expanded to encompass them, in what is now known as Section 27. Most of the graves, originally marked with simple wooden boards, were subsequently marked with proper headstones, though many are listed as “unknown.” In addition to the black Union soldiers interred there, roughly 3,800 civilians, mostly freedmen, lie there as well, many under stones with the simple, but profoundly important, designation of “citizen.” The remains of Confederate prisoners buried there were removed in the early 1900s to a new plot on the western edge of the cemetery complex, where the Confederate Monument would be dedicated in 1914.

An early view of the National Cemetery at Arlington, 1867. The area north of the Arlington House where slaves, freedmen, USCTs and Confederate prisoners were buried was not maintained at the time as part of the soldiers’ cemetery, and looked far different than the neat, ordered rows shown here. Although the USCT burial ground was eventually incorporated into the National Cemetery as Section 27, it continues to be a source of dispute and controversy. Library of Congress.

Hatton got heavily involved in the 1872 presidential campaign, where he traveled in the South, primarily in North Carolina, as a “colored canvasser” on behalf of Horace Greely, the Liberal Republican candidate and publisher of the New York Tribune, a longtime supporter of the Republican Party and one of the leading anti-slavery journalists of previous years. Greeley’s “reform” platform called for an end to Reconstruction and a return of all local governance functions to the Southern states. Greeley’s campaign was supported by many Southern whites, as well, anxious to be relieved of Federal occupation. The campaign was a disaster. Greeley captured just under 44% of the popular vote against the incumbent, Grant. Greeley was in failing health both physically and mentally, however, and slipped into a rapid decline. He died just a few weeks after the election, before the electoral votes were counted.

In a brutal Thomas Nast cartoon published just before the 1872 presidential election, former abolitionist editor Horace Greeley (right) steps over the bodies of murdered African Americans to shake hands with the South, represented here as a former Confederate, who is himself standing on a trampled U.S. flag and hiding a pistol behind his back. In the background, a white mob attacks freedmen who try vainly to defend themselves.

Hatton’s work as a canvasser was both arduous and dangerous, and he became one of Greeley’s most visible campaigners. The Boston Journal, which supported Grant, noted Hatton as “one of the few colored men who support Mr. Greeley. . . [who] is described as a noisy Washington ward politician of no very high order.” But that same month, August 1872, the Times Picayune published an account by Hatton and his fellow Liberal Republican canvassers, W. M. Saunders and Walter Sorrell, of campaigning in North Carolina for Greeley that spoke to the very real dangers of campaigning:

We found on our arrival in North Carolina that the more ignorant of the colored men were massed under the control of the office-holders and the emissaries of Gen. Grant, and were laboring under the delusion that their salvation depended entirely on the re-election of Gen. Grant. There is, however, a very respectable minority of the colored people, heads of families and intelligent men of the race, who are anxious to know the past records of the respective candidates for the Presidency. Upon this class we had no difficulty making an impression. They listened to our speeches with interest, accepted our campaign documents. . . . Among the common mass of negroes [sic.], we found absolute ignorance of the past record of Mr. Greeley, Senator Sumner, or any of the lifelong friends of the race. Where there was knowledge exhibited, it was held in abeyance by the Radial leaders by means of intimidation, terrorism and assurances that Mr. Greeley’s election would effect their own re-enslavement.

The direction of the campaign by the leaders of the Grant Republicans was exceedingly unscrupulous. We were astounded and mortified to find that a number of intelligent colored men were misleading the masses. These men are actuated solely by mercenary motives, all of them being in the employment of the Administration party. . . . few of the degraded blacks, under the instigation of emissaries from Washington and the Customs-House at Baltimore, used every means to prevent the colored men from giving us a hearings, as well as to excite the people to riot. Mr. Hatton, who attended the ratification meeting at the Metropolitan Hall, Raleigh, on the evening of July 10, was immediately pointed out by the speaker as one of the “three black Ku-Klux” who had come down to mislead the people. The speaker advised the crowd after the adjournment of the meeting to wait upon them, and quietly advised them to go to their homes if they had any, and if not to attach them to the nearest tree with a rope or chain around their necks. Mr. Hatton was obliged to leave the place under the escort of the sheriff.

Metropolitan Hall, Raleigh, North Carolina, in the early 20th century. It was here on the evening of July 10, 1872 that Hatton, canvassing for the Liberal Republican presidential candidate Horace Greeley, was called out by one of the speakers as a “black Ku-Klux” and forced to leave town with a sheriff’s escort. North Carolina State Archives.

Hatton’s commitment to a presidential platform that would end Reconstruction (and the federal protections of African Americans that went with it) and return Southern states to local control is curious. But it may be hinted at in the observation that he and his fellow Greeley canvassers “found absolute ignorance of the past record of Mr. Greeley, Senator Sumner, or any of the lifelong friends of the race.” As a free man of color in a border state, one who (though young) was not only literate but eloquent in his own written prose, Hatton was likely familiar with the reputation and positions of prominent supporters of abolition like Greeley, Sumner and Douglass, and may have read their written works, as well. Hatton’s own Civil War letters (previous post) fairly rumble with the rhetoric of abolitionist oratory, and it may be that Hatton’s commitment to the 1872 campaign had less to do with Greeley’s dubious policy positions than with a longstanding admiration of Greeley himself.

To be continued. . . .


Sergeant George W. Hatton, 1st U.S.C.T.

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 2, 2011

(This material originally appeared in January as a guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. It originated with Coates posting Hatton’s letter of May 10, 1864, and quickly became an exercise among followers of the blog in crowd-sourcing historical/genealogical research about Hatton himself. Special thanks goes to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton’s life.)

From the Christian Recorder newspaper, May 28, 1864:

Camp of the 1st U.S. Colored Troops,
Wilson’s landing, Charles City Co.,
May 10th 1864.

Mr. Editor:

You are aware that Wilson’s Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations.

But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place.

While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton [sic., Clopton], a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.F.V’s; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure.

On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by.

After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race.

Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror.

Yours Truly,


G.W.H. was George W. Hatton, a 22-year-old soldier from Maryland. He was born in Prince Georges County in about 1842. I think he was born free, although another, second-hand source from decades later describes him as having been a slave at some point.

George first appears in the 1860 U.S. Census he appears in the household of Henry Hatton, a 50-year-old blacksmith, and his wife Margaret (50). They hold $900 in real property and $150 in personal property, and live near Long Old Fields, Maryland. Both Henry and Margaret can read and write. Living with them are their children: Martha, 21 Henry, 18, occupied as a farmhand George, 17, occupied as a farmhand Sarah, 14 Susan, 9 Josephine, 4 Also living with the Hattons is one Henry Brent, age 75. All the Hattons are listed as “mulatto.”

At some point between 1860 and 1863, it appears that the Hattons moved from Maryland into the District of Columbia. George W. Hatton enlisted for a term of three years in the 1st U.S. Colored Troops on June 8, 1863, becoming one of the first men to enlist in the newly-created USCT units. Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin tell the story in Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America:

In the nation’s capital, too, Negroes were under attack. But the victims were men enlisting to fight, and their attackers were not Confederate soldiers. The first colored man in the Washington enlistment line was Catto’s friend Billy Wormley. Almost at once, whites in the street, including policemen, began shouting threats at the sight of colored men being issued guns and uniforms. A man in the enlistment line shouted back. George W. Hatton dared the police to shoot him if they needed to kill a Negro for enlisting. Wormely said the same. The police glared, but no one fired.

Guards at Mason’s Island inspect passes at the ferry leading across the Potomac to Georgetown, in the distance. The island, where Hatton’s regiment was formed, was a convenient site for units raised in the capital — close to the city, but somewhat isolated from it. The island was also connected to the Virginia shore by a short causeway, and then by the Aqueduct Bridge to Georgetown and Washington. Library of Congress.

Hatton joined the unit at Mason’s Island (now Theodore Roosevelt Island) in the Potomac River that same day. He enlisted with the rank of sergeant, presumably due to his ability to read and write — and possibly also as a result of his behavior outside the recruiting office. His service record describes him at enlistment as five-foot-six, a “dark mulatto,” black hair and eyes, with “front tooth out.” On October 19, 1863, Hatton was granted a two-week furlough for illness, to return on November 3. He may have gotten an extension, as his record indicates he returned to duty on November 21. A later entry in his record indicates his pay was “to be stopped [for the loss of] 1 knapsack & 1 pr Govt. Coatstraps.” In the spring his pay was stopped again for three separate pair of shoulder scales (50 cents each), and on May 20, 1864 — ten days after writing the letter TNC posted — he was promoted to first sergeant.

First U.S Colored Troops on parade. Library of Congress.

The whipping of William Henry Clopton (1810-1876) that Hatton wrote about became a relatively well-known incident in the war. Clopton was the owner of Selwood in Charles City County, Virginia, and had developed a reputation for cruelty that set him apart from other slaveholders in the region. The Union general commanding, Edward A Wild, was a physician in civilian life with a strong abolitionist bent. He described the event:

[Clopton] has acquired a notoriety as the most cruel Slave Master in this region, but in my presence he put on the character of a Sniveling Saint. I found half a dozen women among our [slave] refugees, whom he had often whipped unmercifully – I laid him bare and placed a whip into the hands of the Women, three of Whom took turns in settling some old scores on their master’s back. A black man, whom he had abused, finished the administration of Poetical justice. . . . I wish that his back had been as deeply scarred as those of the women, but I abstained and left it to them.

Clopton’s descendants are still unhappy about that.

General Wild’s USCTs liberating slaves in North Carolina. Harper’s Weekly, 1864.

George W. Hatton was absent sick in hospital for a time in the late spring. By the time he returned to his regiment, he was anxious to be in the thick of the fight, and chafing that senior white officers were still reluctant to try the USCTs in hard combat. On June 13, he mailed off another letter to the Christian Recorder:

Since I wrote to you last, our regiment has been in several engagements; the first, at Wilson’s Landing, on the 24th of May last, and the heroism displayed by the gallant boys of the 1st, needs no comment, for they have won for themselves unfading laurels, to be stamped on the pages of history. The next, was in front of Petersburg, Va., on the 9th of the present month; it was not what might be termed a general engagement, though it was quite a brisk skirmish, the boys were in hope they were going into the doomed city; but an order soon came for them to fall back. I suppose the General in charge found the odds too great against his small force, which was composed of the 5th Ohio, colored, 6th U.S., colored, and the 1st U.S. colored cavalry. The casualties were small, not worth mentioning in our letters. When marching to the field of battle, by the side of my captain, who is one of the brave sons of old Massachusetts, I feel that I am a man, fighting for a Government that recognizes me as such; but, behold, when I call my wandering mind to view facts, and the ground upon which I stand, I find that the leaders of the Government are still keeping us far behind the times. I appeal to the leaders of this great Republic to know the reason why they hesitate to give us our God-given rights. I do not expect to have all the enjoyments of home, but, undoubtedly, would not have any objection to being put on an equal footing with my brother white soldier. We responded to the call of the Government at the time when her very metropolis was threatened with conflagration, willing to stand by her until the very last drop of blood be drained from our veins, on the promise of being treated as white soldiers, but, ah, I have been a soldier for more than a year, for the small sum of seven dollars per month. I want to know if the star spangled banner represents such unjust deeds.

He didn’t have long to wait. Two days after posting his letter, First Sergeant Hatton was wounded during the Union assaults on Confederate lines at Petersburg. As part of the 3rd Division of the XVIII Corps, the 1st USCT helped to capture a small segment of the Confederate line, but the overall attack was a failure due to disorganization and late reinforcement of Union forces, and the two sides settled into a long siege.

An amputation at Fortress Monroe. Probably a staged photograph, but illustrating the procedure. Library of Congress.

Service records show that Hatton received a “G.S.W. [gunshot wound] Left Knee.” There is no record of an amputation, but clearly the wound was serious and caused lasting impairment. He was several months in various hospitals, where he discovered that the discrimination he’d experienced as a recruit carried over into the medical wards, as well. He was transferred to the military hospital at Fortress Monroe a few days after being wounded, and upon his arrival wrote to his father Henry, to come and take him home to Washington where he could recover with his family. The scene that followed, he wrote the Christian Recorder, was more hurtful to him than the wound to his knee:

My father complied with my request, and arrived at Fortress Monroe on the 30th. I was overjoyed to see him. Today, he departed with a hung-down head, leaving me with an aching heart. I must here state the cause of my trouble. It is as follows:

On my father’s arrival at the hospital he stated the object of his visit to the doctor in charge, who, very short and snappish, referred him to Dr. White, one of the head surgeons. Father immediately proceeded to Dr. White’s office, where he expected to receive a little satisfaction, but to his heart-rending surprise, received none. After making every exertion in his power to get a furlough, he failed in so doing, without receiving the slightest shadow of satisfaction.

All of this I was willing to stand, as I had discharged my duty as a soldier from the first of May, 1863, up to the time I was wounded, for the low United States’ degrading sum of $7 per month, that no man but the poor, down-trodden, uneducated, patriotic black man would be willing to fight for. Yes, I stand all this; but the great wound I received at the hospital was this: A white man, whose name I did not learn, came from Washington with my father for the same purpose, to see his son and carry him home. His success needs no comment; let it suffice to say that he was white, and he carried his son home.

Such deception as that I thought was crucified at the battle of Fort Wagner; buried at Milliken’s Bend; rose the third day, and descended into everlasting forgetfulness in the Appomattox River at the battle of Petersburg.

Mr. Editor, when, oh! when can one of my color, and in my Position, at this time, find a comforter? When will my people be a nation? I fear, never on the American soil; though we may crush this cursed rebellion.

Hatton’s service record through the end of the war shows several alternate periods of being present for duty and absent in hospital. In August 1864, two months after his injury, he was transferred to the Summit House General Hospital in Philadelphia, where his wound was treated with “cold water dressing.” He was returned to duty in late November. Hatton was eventually discharged for disability on June 16, 1865, while with his regiment in North Carolina, with the notation that “he is entitled to transportation from place of discharge to place of enlistment.” He applied for (and apparently received) a disability pension on August 24, 1865. One interesting entry in Hatton’s service record is the note that “back pay at rate of $10 per month due soldier as Sergt from date of enlistment to Feby 29.64.” This notation reflects the differential pay given to white and black Union soldiers up to that date. Congress eventually corrected the inequity, but only back to January 1, 1864 for freedmen; soldiers like Hatton, who’d been free at the outbreak of the war, received back pay all the way to the date of their enlistment.

To be continued. . . .


Did “that Devil Forrest” Go to Heaven? Does it Matter?

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on February 14, 2011

Nathan Bedford Forrest may not be “more popular than Jesus” (you know, like the Beatles), but he’s a damn sight more popular these days than James Longstreet, John Bell Hood or Joe Johnston, officers who all commanded larger units in the field and who, by most standards, played a more important role in the Confederacy’s conduct of the war. There’s no question that, in the eyes of today’s True Southrons™, Nathan Bedford Forrest is a favorite. He’s frequently featured in the secular trinity of Confederate heroes, alongside Lee and Jackson. And like those two, in the ultimate present-day apotheosis of Confederate fame, Forrest now rates his own page of t-shirts at Dixie Outfitters.

It’s a good time to be Nathan Bedford Forrest.

I was thinking about this surge of interest in the old cavalryman recently while reading the recent Pelican Press volume, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Redemption, by Shane E. Kastler. The concept of this book intrigued me immediately for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a fan of anyone who, with solid research and compelling narrative, can overturn the conventional interpretation of the subject, to counter what “everyone knows” about that person or event. There are few characters in the Civil War whose reputations could better use a reexamination than Nathan Bedford Forrest’s. His prewar activities as a slave trader, his military reputation scarred by the massacre of black troops at Fort Pillow, his postwar involvement in the Klan, all combine to present a picture of a man who, despite his acknowledged brilliance as a cavalry officer, sums up to be a pretty odious excuse for a complicated human being. Civil War blogger Harry Smeltzer had a thumbnail review in of the book in a recent issue of America’s Civil War, and his summary of the book is concise:

Kastler is dealing with matters of faith here — consequently, there are more “must have beens” and “probablys” than students of history are used to. For instance, the author states that “so many near death experiences had to have had a spiritual effect upon him.” Such a claim is difficult to substantiate with a standard documentary citation, but I suppose it takes a little faith on the reader’s part. How well the author argues the case for Forrest’s forgiveness in the final chapter will no doubt depend on one’s interpretation.

Harry’s correct, but he’s being too nice by half. The documentation in Kastler’s work is sparse. In the last four historical chapters — the last chapter is Kastler’s own rumination on Forrest and the nature of redemption — the author provides a total of 28 citations over 48 pages. Almost all of these are to well-known secondary works on Forrest, not primary sources, and most of them are only offered when Kastler includes a direct quote.

The other appeal to me of this book is the very personal reason that, as a lapsed Baptist myself, I like the concept of redemption. There’s no sin, and no sinner, who is beyond redemption and salvation, if his repentance is sincere. Although I no longer think of myself as an especially religious person, it’s a little piece I still carry with me from that little country church I was baptized in almost forty years ago.

I suspect that similar notions were part of Kastler’s decision to tackle this particular subject. Kastler clearly writes to specific audience, and recognizes that his thesis will not be universally accepted. In the final chapter of the book, a musing on Forrest’s later years in the context of the Baptist doctrine of redemption, Kastler (an ordained Baptist preacher himself) takes a preemptive swipe at his critics, asserting that “the only thing more disturbing than an unrepentant sinner is the pompous rejection of one who does repent.” But Kastler does not, can not, make a definitive case for Forrest’s true repentance and redemption. No one can; the only mortal who truly knew died in 1877. Kastler’s theology is spot-on, as it should be, but no one can know another’s heart.

More broadly, this focus on Forrest’s (and other Confederates’) religiosity strikes me as unseemly, something akin to a spiritual voyeurism. Religious belief is a hugely personal thing, and should be. After all, the core tenet of Protestantism holds that the individual makes his or her own compact with the Lord, and Jesus himself expressed disdain for the “hypocrites” who make a big show of their piety for others’ consumption. It seems in keeping with that principle that Christians are well-advised not to scrutinize too closely — to judge, to use a Biblical term — the depths or sincerity of others’ beliefs.

At the end of the day, though, whether or not Forrest, in his heart of hearts, really got himself right with God doesn’t much change historians’ understanding of him. We know his words and his actions. We know the line of business Forrest & Maples engaged in on Adams Street in Memphis before the war; we know what happened (or didn’t happen) at Fort Pillow, and we know the words Forrest spoke to the Pole-Bearers Association Jubilee in 1875. There is ample grist here for the student of history; trying to peer into Forrest’s soul to read what was written on his heart must forever be a futile exercise.

Kastler’s volume certainly has a market; it will be a popular work for that subset of Civil War readers who view the Confederate cause as a fundamentally Christian one, and who seek evidence of great religious conviction in the South’s heroes — even if that conviction came to the fore long after the guns fell silent. Such readers will find great comfort in Kastler’s book, but the reader looking for a detailed and fully-documented account of Forrest’s later years might need to keep looking.


Added: As this was originally written, I “buried the lede” on this piece. My intent was to say that Forrest’s alleged late-in-life conversion doesn’t change the historical record. I’m certain that the “redemption” meme is popular specifically because it allows Forrest’s admirers to set aside much of his long and ugly history when it comes to race and slavery, and feel good about him. Even when it tiptoes into Forrest’s pre-war history, the Southron Heritage machine completely avoids the subject of his slave-trading, opting instead for picturing Forrest in a romantic idyll — literally. It’s a highly-selective appreciation of his history, and it’s wrong.

The Lege Thinks About Secession

Posted in Leadership by Andy Hall on January 25, 2011

The secession crisis of the winter of 1860-61 didn’t pop up overnight; it was a long time a-building, and it moved forward with what, to many at the time, must have seemed a slow, inexorable process. But there were many points along that way where the key issues at hand, including the right of secession and the validity of nullification, were discussed, dissected, and debated.

During the Eighth Texas Legislature (1859-61), increasing tensions between the states and the federal government were becoming increasingly distracting. Inevitably, the Texas House of Representatives dealt with this in the way every legislative body does, by forming a committee. The House Committee on Federal Relations ended up with a stack of motions, reports and correspondence to deal with. One of these was a letter to Texas Governor Sam Houston from his counterpart in South Carolina, William Henry Gist, accompanied by resolutions from that state’s House of Representatives and Senate, reasserting South Carolina’s “right to secede whenever she may think it expedient to do so” and calling on other Southern states to reciprocate with similar resolutions of their own.

Governor Gist’s message was handed off to the House Committee on Federal Relations, which reviewed it for several weeks. Finally, in an evening session on February 8, 1860, in the closing days of the legislative session, the committee returned to the House membership two reports (34MB PDF, beginning p. 634), one expressing the views of the majority of the committee, and other a “minority report,” prepared by committee members who dissented from the majority view. The majority report called for emphatic support for South Carolina, and embraced secession as an option:

The “preamble and resolutions” passed by the Legislature of the State of South Carolina, and submitted for our consideration, have been deliberated upon by the committee on Federal Relations, and your committee respectfully submit to the House for its action the following resolutions:

1st. Resolved, That the State of Texas declare, that “whenever one section of the Union presumes upon its strength for the oppression of the other then will our Constitution be a mockery, and it would not matter how soon the Union was severed into a thousand atoms, and scattered to the four winds.”

2d. Resolved, “If the principles” of confederation upon which the American Union “was consummated, are disregarded,” there will be for Texas neither honor nor interest in the Union; if the mighty, in the face of written law, can place with impunity an iron yoke upon the neck of the weak, Texas will be at no loss how to act or where to go before the blow aimed at her vitals is inflicted. “In a spirit of good faith” Texas “entered the Federal fold. By that spirit she will continue to be influenced to make her the victim of Federal wrong. As she will violate no Federal right, so will she submit to no violation of her rights by Federal authority.”

3rd. Resolved, That the Legislature of Texas assure South Carolina and all her sister States, that “she will not submit to the degradation threatened by the Black Republican party, for sooner than subject herself to “ignominy ensuing from sectional dictation, she would prefer restoration to that independence which she once enjoyed. Sorrowing for the mistake which she has committed in sacrificing her independence upon the altar of her patriotism, she would,” if there were none others to act with her, “unfurl again the banner of the lone star [sic.], and re-enter upon a national career, where if no glory awaited her, she would at least be free from a subjection by might, to wrong and to shame.”

4th. Resolved, That we pledge ourselves to any one or more of the States to co-operate with them, should it become necessary, to resist Federal wrong, and claim that it is not only our right, but imperative duty, at all times to aid any member of this confederacy, in protection of property, in preserving the lives of women and children, and in resisting fanaticism and treason.

Sec.__. And that the Governor is hereby requested to transmit a copy of the above preamble and resolutions to the Governor of South Carolina, and to the Executive of various States of the Union, and to our Representatives and Senators in Congress.

M. S. Munson, One of the Committee

The minority report, naturally, rejected both secession and nullification:

1st. That the Constitution of the United States is the fundamental basis of our Federal Union; that the laws and treaties made in pursuance thereof, are with the Constitution itself, the supreme law of the land, by which the Judges in every State are bound; anything in the Constitution or laws of our State to the contrary notwithstanding; that the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States are conclusive and binding upon every citizen. And obedience to the Constitution, Laws and authorities of the Federal Government, is the only condition upon which the Union can be maintained.

2d. That none of the alleged evils which have ever, or are now disturbing the harmony of the confederacy are ascribable to the legitimate operations of the Federal Government, but are justly chargeable to the disloyalty of those, who in obstructing the laws and authorities are themselves designedly or undesignedly enemies of the Union, and so far from considering these troubles a pretext for unfriendly demonstrations against it, we regard them as a fit occasion for summoning every patriot to its defence against all assaults, front whatever quarter, or on whatever pretence.

3rd. That a dissolution of the Union would cure no evil — repel no aggression — right no wrong — diminish no alarm — indemnify no damage; but on the contrary, would be the source of unnumbered evils. If wrongs are inflicted they can better be righted in the Union than out of it. And it behooves those who have been faithful to the Constitution to maintain the government, and not surrender to the enemies of the Constitution.

4th. That we dissent from the doctrine that a State has a right to secede from the Union at its pleasure.

5th. That we in like manner dissent from the doctrine of Nullification.

6th. That we deem it inexpedient to send deputies to a convention of the shareholding States, as invited to do by South Carolina.

7th. That in our opinion there is no sufficient cause to justify us in taking the incipient steps for a dissolution of the Union

8th. That the Governor be requested to cause a copy of these resolutions, under the seal of the State, to be transmitted to the Governor of South Carolina, and to each of the Governors of the other States.

John H. Manly, One of the Committee

The House ordered 200 copies of the two resolutions printed, and placed consideration of them on the schedule twice more. Both times consideration of the two resolutions was set aside in favor of more immediate legislation, and they died with the adjournment of the Legislature on February 13, 1860.

There’s nothing really new in either of these reports; the rhetoric, particularly in the pro-secession majority report, is familiar to anyone who’s looked at the secession crisis. What’s striking to me — but again, not really surprising — is the difference in tone. The majority report frames its argument on language that’s both grandiose and inflammatory: “severed into a thousand atoms, and scattered to the four winds,” “fanaticism and treason,” “an iron yoke upon the neck of the weak,” “unfurl again the banner of the lone star,” and so on. Its appeal is almost purely emotional and impulsive, heavily skewed toward the listener’s affective domain.

The minority report, by comparison, is almost wholly cognitive; it appeals to a much more deliberative and (in my view) rational way of thinking. It rejects the validity of secession or nullification, and argues against rash and irrevocable action: “a dissolution of the Union would cure no evil — repel no aggression — right no wrong — diminish no alarm — indemnify no damage; but on the contrary, would be the source of unnumbered evils. If wrongs are inflicted they can better be righted in the Union than out of it.” The tone is measured, almost quiet: “no sufficient cause” and so forth. Rhetorically it’s weak — very weak. Phrases like “we deem it expedient” just don’t raise the ire of the listener.

In the end, of course, secession won out and Texas herself would leave the Union almost exactly a year later. But it’s interesting to see how, in the runup to that momentus act, each side framed its argument.


Quit Digging

Posted in Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on January 17, 2011

Last spring, the then-new governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell (left), issued a Confederate History Month proclamation that had been prepared and urged on him by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The proclamation, unlike others that had preceded it, omitted any reference to the institution of slavery as a factor in the coming of the war. Criticism of the proclamation was swift and loud, and Governor McDonnell quickly withdrew the first one and replaced it with another, one that recognized the role slavery played in the war and referred to the practice as an “abomination.” Perhaps more important, McDonnell later announced that, in 2011, Confederate History Month will be replaced with a wider-reaching, more inclusive effort, dubbed Civil War in Virginia Month.

Now Brag Bowling, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, has announced that the SCV will hold a press conference Tuesday “to outline the ‘ongoing failures’ ” of the governor “to deal with a variety of history and heritage issues in Virginia.” B. Frank Earnest, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, went further:

The Civil War was a defining moment in our history and, as we enter its sesquicentennial year, it is fitting we honor the memories of the men and women on both sides whose sacrifices are part of our heritage. However, to put it candidly, under Governor Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s history has become political football.

We call on Governor McDonnell to remember that he is the governor of all Virginians, that he honor the memory of those who died in defense of our commonwealth, and that he rethink … his position and honor the forthcoming petition which will begin today.

The SCV will also use the press conference to call out former Governor George Allen (of “macaca” infamy), a likely 2012 Senate candidate, for distancing himself from them while serving in the Senate. Allen’s actions have been a sore point for Bowling and Earnest for years, as noted in this 2006 Washington Post story:

“What I was slow to appreciate and wish I had understood much sooner,” Allen told a black audience last month, “is that [the Confederate Battle Flag] . . . is, for black Americans, an emblem of hate and terror, an emblem of intolerance and intimidation.”

“He’s apologizing to others, certainly he should apologize to us as well,” said B. Frank Earnest Sr., the Virginia commander of the confederate group at a news conference. “We’re all aware, ourselves included, of the statements that got him into this. The infamous macaca statement. He’s using our flag to wipe the muck from his shoes that he’s now stepped in.”

Over the years, Allen has been a darling of the confederate group. As governor, he designated April as Confederate History Month. He has displayed the battle flag in his home as part of what he said is a flag collection. And his high school yearbook picture shows him wearing a Confederate flag pin.

But the senator has been distancing himself from those symbols as he pursues reelection and considers a bid for the presidency in 2008.

In the past several years, he has co-sponsored legislation condemning the lynching of blacks and has promised to work on similar legislation apologizing for slavery. He recently said of the Confederate flag that “the symbols you use matter because of how others may take them.”

Allen’s recent statements didn’t sit well with the SCV. They accused him yesterday of trying to appeal to liberal voters with his new position.

“The denunciation of the flag to score political points is anathema to our organization,” said Brag Bowling, a former past commander of the group.

I have no idea how Bowling and Earnest can argue that Bob McDonnell “is the governor of all Virginians,” while at the same time being opposed to his decision to expand his state’s commemoration of the war to encompass all Virginians — descendants of Confederate veterans, Virginians loyal to the Union, enslaved African Americans, free blacks, and the millions of modern-day Virginians who have no Civil War connection to that state at all. Nor do I see why they want to go after George Allen, unless their long-simmering disdain for the man outweighs their presumed desire to oust the incumbent, Jim Webb (D). Tuesday’s press conference sounds less like a well-considered statement of policy than the latest tantrum of an increasingly insular group, one focused so closely on its own resentments and perceived insults that it’s lost touch with the wider, general public it seeks to reach out to.

Quit digging, folks.

A New President, and an Ambivalent Abolitionist

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on December 29, 2010

The fire-eaters across the South saw the election of Abraham Lincoln as the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Although the Republicans were careful not to challenge the institution where it already existed, for many in the South, the new administration was seen as a harbinger all the slaveholding class’ worst fears — economic turmoil, political upheaval and collapse of a carefully-crafted legal and social structure centered on race. The fire-eaters worked themselves up into a fury, convincing themselves and many of their contemporaries that Lincoln himself was a radical abolitionist, bent on nothing less than the complete and utter eradication of slavery and establishing full social and racial equality between blacks and whites.

Actual abolitionists knew better, and were largely ambivalent about Lincoln’s candidacy in 1860. Some supported it, reluctantly, as the best practical alternative, while others held a convention that summer to nominate their own presidential candidate as a show of protest. Frederick Douglass eventually came to embrace Lincoln as an ally, but even after the election, Douglass still considered the Republicans a sort of least-bad option, and expressed concern that the Republicans’ tolerance of slavery where it already existed would undermine, and possibly destroy, the movement to eliminate slavery everywhere in the country:

Nevertheless, this very victory threatens and may be the death of the modern Abolition movement, and finally bring back the country to the same, or a worse state, than Benj. Lundy and Wm. Lloyd Garrison found it thirty years ago. The Republican party does not propose to abolish slavery anywhere, and is decidedly opposed to Abolition agitation. It is not even, by the confession of its President elect, in favor of the repeal of that thrice-accursed and flagrantly unconstitutional Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850. It is plain to see, that once in power, the policy of the party will be only to seem a little less yielding to the demands of slavery than the Democratic or Fusion party, and thus render ineffective and pointless the whole Abolition movement of the North. The safety of our movement will be found only by a return to all the agencies and appliances, such as writing, publishing, organizing, lecturing, holding meetings, with the earnest aim not to prevent the extension of slavery, but to abolish the system altogether.

It was as true one hundred fifty years ago as it is today; we have an unfortunate tendency to reduce those movements and political figures we oppose to simplistic caricatures, and to assume that all those actors share similar motivations and goals. They don’t, and sometimes they don’t even fully trust each other.


Update: Though Douglass worried about the victory of Lincoln and the Republicans, he welcomed South Carolina’s secession, bringing with it as it did a constitutional crisis that, in his view, must ultimately decide the matter of slavery. As historian David Blight points out in a new editorial in the New York Times, “Cup of Wrath and Fire,” Douglass “heaped scorn on the Palmetto State’s rash act, but he also relished it as an opportunity. He all but thanked the secessionists for ‘preferring to be a large piece of nothing, to being any longer a small piece of something.'”