Maurice Bessinger (1930-2014) was a well-known South Carolina restaurateur, equally famous for his mustard-based barbecue sauce and infamous for his life-long defense of chattel bondage as having been ordained by God. (“God gave slaves to whites.”) He was an unrepentant segregationist who, even after being forced to open his restaurants to African Americans by the federal courts in the late 1960s, continued to distribute pamphlets defending slavery and generally making black folks as uncomfortable as possible about stopping there. And of course, he put up a big ol’ Confederate Battle Flag outside each restaurant, just to make sure folks got the message. One of the first things his grown children did when they took over the business in the early 2010s was to quickly and quietly remove those flags.
But Bessinger had a few tricks left. In at least a couple of cases, he deeded over to local Confederate Heritage™ groups tiny, tiny plots of land adjacent to his restaurants on which they could put up a marker and flagpole. One of these was in Orangeburg, where the SCV’s Rivers Bridge Camp #842 flies a Battle Flag outside of what had once been one of Bessinger’s restaurants, but is now home to the Edisto River Creamery. (See it on the Orangeburg County tax map here.) The business owner, Tommy Daras, bought the property in 2014 and ever since has been getting complaints about the flag. On Wednesday, there was a confrontation between Daras and members of the Rivers Bridge Camp, who prevented Daras from hauling down the flag himself:
After about an hour stand-off, SCV members left the restaurant and the flag remained up.
Restaurant owner Tommy Daras said he would most likely contact his lawyer and find out how to proceed.
“I want to do the civil thing,” he said. “I don’t want any violence.”
Daras said he and his wife have been receiving complaints and threats about the flag since they purchased the restaurant in 2014. . . .
Daras says after conducting some more research, he realized that he in fact has the title to the deed to the property, not the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“I am clean on doing something,” Daras said.
Buzz Braxton of Rivers Bridge Camp #842 SCV and flag keeper at the site said the site belongs to the SCV. He says tax records prove it. He said the matter will be taken to court.
“This is our property,” Braxton said.
We’ll see what happens, but a quick skim of Orangeburg County tax records suggests that Braxton is correct — the Rivers Bridge Camp has been paying taxes on that tiny plot of land for years, between $10 and $11 annually. While I don’t know what Daras’ deed says, it’s going to be hard for him to argue that he owns property that someone else has been paying the taxes on for at least a decade.
What a mess. Somewhere, I’m sure, Maurice Bessinger is laughing — when he’s not busy looking for some ice water.
Some of you will have heard about the latest kerfuffle in Lexington concerning the observance of Lee-Jackson Day next January. It seems that a local community group, CARE Rockbridge, pulled a cheeky maneuver and obtained a parade permit months ago for the date and route that had been previously used by local Confederate Heritage™ folks to march through town carrying Confederate flags. CARE Rockbridge was able to do this because they applied for a permit, which is issued by the City of Lexington on a first-come, first-served basis.
Naturally the heritage folks are a little bent out of shape about this — which was sort of the point, duh! — but they haven’t done themselves any favors with their rhetoric in complaining about it. Local SCV leader Brandon Dorsey, who is always good for an inflammatory quote, hinted at litigation over it:
The Lexington City Council is asking to be sued. First, the city deliberately granted a permit for another organization to usurp the usual time and place of the Lee-Jackson Day parade.
Then his Confederate confederate, “Doc” Wilmore, whinged that CARE Rockbridge was “underhanded” in, you know, filing paperwork with the city:
An anti-racism group has obtained a parade permit for Jan. 14 — taking the date and route that traditionally has been claimed by a local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. . . .
“I think it was kind of underhanded the way they slipped it in like that,” said W.B. “Doc” Wilmore, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member who usually handles bookings for the group’s Lee-Jackson Day events.
I get it that Dorsey and Wilmore think CARE Rockbridge stole a march on them, because they did exactly that. What’s more interesting is the (barely) unspoken assumption that the City of Lexington should have shown the SCV special consideration by holding that date open for them to apply for at their leisure, in preference to another group that actually got off the couch and applied for the permit. That belief — that the local city government should give special consideration to their private organization over another — is just ludicrous.
And while there’s been plenty of vitriol directed against CARE Rockbridge by the heritage folks, I haven’t seen even the slightest hint of criticism of Dorsey, Wilmore, or the other local organizers of this event who let this one slip by them.
So now the SCV will be marching of January 21 in Lexington which, as it happens, is actually Jackson’s birthday. My suggestion to them is to quit carping about those ol’ meanies at CARE Rockbridge, get on with it, and start planning (and preparing parade permit requests) for Lee-Jackson Day 2018. I don’t recall Lee spending a lot of time complaining about how “underhanded” the Yankees were when they turned him back at Sharpsburg or Gettysburg; Dorsey and Wilmore should take a lesson from the men they purport to honor.
Hank Trent is a researcher specializing in the antebellum period that I’ve come to know through his contributions at Civil War Talk. (He posts there under a different name.) Hank’s posts and comments are invariably deeply-informed and articulate, and he both makes and understands subtle, nuanced interpretations of historical subjects. He gets it, that what we call “history” is made up collectively by people, and people are complicated, conflicted, noble and hypocritical, sometimes all at once. There are many smart and knowledgeable folks who post over at CWT, but I make it a point to read all of Hank’s posts and comments because I know he will have something useful to say. He always does.
So I was happy to see him announce the pending publication of his new book,The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, a White Slave Trader Married to a Free Woman of Color by LSU Press, due out in March 2017. It’s available for pre-order now. If the title is provocative, so is the story:
Historians have long discussed the interracial families of prominent slave dealers in Richmond, Virginia, and elsewhere, yet, until now, the story of slave trader Bacon Tait remained untold. Among the most prominent and wealthy citizens of Richmond, Bacon Tait embarked upon a striking and unexpected double life: that of a white slave trader married to a free black woman. In The Secret Life of Bacon Tait, Hank Trent tells Tait’s complete story for the first time, reconstructing the hidden aspects of his strange and often paradoxical life through meticulous research in lawsuits, newspapers, deeds, and other original records.
Active and ambitious in a career notorious even among slave owners for its viciousness, Bacon Tait nevertheless married a free woman of color, Courtney Fountain, whose extended family were involved in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. As Trent reveals, Bacon Tait maintained his domestic sphere as a loving husband and father in a mixed-race family in the North while running a successful and ruthless slave-trading business in the South. Though he possessed legal control over thousands of other black women at different times, Trent argues that Tait remained loyal to his wife, avoiding the predatory sexual practices of many slave traders. No less remarkably, Courtney Tait and their four children received the benefits of Tait’s wealth while remaining close to her family of origin, many of whom spoke out against the practice of slavery and even fought in the Civil War on the side of the Union.
In a fascinating display of historical detective work, Trent illuminates the worlds Bacon Tait and his family inhabited, from the complex partnerships and rivalries among slave traders to the anxieties surrounding free black populations in Courtney and Bacon Tait’s adopted city of Salem, Massachusetts. Tait’s double life illuminates the complex interplay of control, manipulation, love, hate, denigration, and respect among interracial families, all within the larger context of a society that revolved around the enslavement of black Americans by white traders.
Typically, Hank worried that the title may not precisely reflect the complexity of Bacon Tait’s relationship with Courtney Fountain:
I discussed [with the editor] whether “married” was correct for the title, because even though the Taits signed legal papers as Mr. and Mrs. or wife, and presented themselves as married to neighbors and the census taker, they legally weren’t married, and there wasn’t even a common law marriage provision in Massachusetts at the time.
The editor said he thought that was enough, but I still worry…
Be at ease, Hank. I expect this book to be on many, many bookshelves for years to come.
Following up on last week’s post about the visit of the schooner yacht America, I was able to get some photos of her under sail this weekend. (There’s a lot of other shipping in there, too; it was, as they say, a “target-rich environment.”) Nothing spectacular, but there are a few decent ones in the mix. You can view them here and here.
After this past year, is it surprising that people are taking selfies to celebrate after they vote?
Sorry for the short notice on this one, folks, but tomorrow through Sunday, October 27-30, a sailing replica of the famous schooner yacht America will be visiting the Texas Seaport Museum here for both tours and short sailing excursions. As some of you will likely know, America was used briefly as a blockade runner during the first months of the Civil War, but was scuttled, raised and put into service with the U.S. Navy with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and later was used as a training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy. At one point, she was even owned and raced by Ben Butler (yes, that one), who reportedly maintained her in good shaped and sailing trim. Not all of her owners did, though, and she was eventually broken up and burned in the 1940s.
GHF’s Texas Seaport Museum will play host to another legendary ship in October as the Schooner AMERICA makes a stop in Galveston from Thursday, October 27 through Sunday, October 30 from 10am – 5pm daily (last ticket is sold at 4 pm). During their stay, the public is invited to tour the ship each morning and even take a rare journey onboard during special afternoon sail-aways. Viewing tickets are $18 per person, available at Texas Seaport Museum, and allow access to both AMERICA and the 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA and are available at the Texas Seaport Museum. Sail-away tickets are $85 per person for adults and $42.50 for children 17 and under.
AMERICA will be available for tours on:
Thursday, October 27 : 10 am – 1:30 pm
Friday, October 28 : 9 am – 12 pm
Saturday, October 29 : 9 am – 11:30 am
Sunday, October 30 : 9 am – 11:30 am
AMERICA will be available for sail aways on:
Thursday, October 27 : 2:30 & 5 pm
Friday, October 28 : 1 & 3:30 pm
Saturday, October 29 : 12:30 & 3 pm
Sunday, October 30 : 12:30 & 3 pm
ABOUT THE SCHOONER AMERICA
Additionally, GHF will host a special happy hour, complete with sunset cannon fire, for the ship featuring seasonal craft beers from Saint Arnold Brewing Company. Held on Friday, October 28 from 6-8 p.m., tickets are $30 per person and include complimentary beer.
The original AMERICA put yachting on the map and, without exaggerating, is the world’s most famous racing yacht. In 1851, a boat named ‘AMERICA’ won the ‘Royal Yacht Squadrons’ 100 Guinea Cup given to the winner of a race around the Isle of Wight. It is said that the margin was so great that watching AMERICA sail past the royal yacht, Queen Victoria famously asked “Who came second?” “Your majesty, there is no second” was the reply. The winners, members of the New York Yacht Club, donated the trophy to the Club, to be held as a ‘challenge’ trophy. Thus was born the America’s Cup, named after the boat, not the country.
Her later career was equally as colorful. Conveyor of secret agents, Confederate blockade runner, Union warship, Naval Academy training vessel, and pride and joy of a famous Civil War general and politician. By her end in 1945, she was one of the most honored vessels in the United States. While the original was destroyed during World War II, this AMERICA is a near perfect replica built in 1995 at a cost of more than $6 million. Now, AMERICA has been selected as the ambassador for the America’s Cup Tour, visiting sites along the west coast, Mexico, U.S. gulf and east coast, and the Caribbean.
Should be fun. Maybe I’ll see y’all down there.
Image: Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
A while back I posted about a relative of mine who served as a Confederate soldier during the war, and later became involved in the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. I’ve also posted about postwar racial strife in Texas in the area around Richmond, west of Houston (here and here). One of the very important strengths of the recent film, Free State of Jones, is that gives serious attention to the struggles of the Reconstruction era, instead of simply ending the story in 1865. That’s how people in the 1860s actually lived their lives, moving from one period to another, without the benefit of a tidy wrap-up of the plot when the soldiers came home from the war. One period of hardship transitioned into another.
With that in mind, I’d like to direct readers to a new series of posts over at This Cruel War, giving Freedmen’s accounts of Klan activity in Texas during the postwar years. Kudos to Eric for compiling and posting these.
Congratulations to my friend and colleague Kevin Levin, who has inked a deal for his upcoming book, Searching for Black Confederates, with the University of North Carolina Press. As most all of you know, this has been an ongoing focus of Kevin’s research for years, and it’s good to see it now coming to fruition. The manuscript is scheduled for completion in August 2017, so I think we should see the finished product late next year or early in 2018.
Until now the discussion of black Confederate soldiers, such as it is, has existed almost entirely in the popular media and on the Internet. Academic historians have mostly ignored the topic, in part because they don’t perceive it as a significant question (the historical record is clear enough, for those who care to examine it), and probably because they don’t especially want to get subjected to the sort of vitriolic bile that gets directed at folks who call BS on what has becme a central, foundational belief of the True Southron™ folks. Kevin’s UNC Press book may encourage academic historians to wade into the fray, and in my view, it’s about damned time. While academic historians don’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, distracted by every flitty whim of popular culture that comes along, the black Confederate narrative has gotten enough traction over the last two decades that it warrants attention by the discipline.
It will be interesting to see what happens once Kevin’s book hits the stands. Will some proud Southron — Gary Adams, maybe, or H. K. Edgerton — respond as an actual historian would, and publish a similarly deeply-researched, analytical, peer-reviewed work through a competing university press? Or will they continue whingeing and fluffing each other on Facebook about how mean the politically-correct Yankees are being to them?
I’m pretty sure I know the answer.
“The First Texas Navy, 1835-1837”
by James P. Bevill
Nov. 3, 2016, 7:00 pm – 9:00 p.m.
Admission and Parking: Free
Rosenberg Library (Wortham Auditorium)
2310 Sealy Street (at 23rd)
Galveston, Texas 77550
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.
This is the story of those four ships, and the role which was played by McKinney & Williams, the Allen Brothers, Captains’ Hawkins, Hurd, Thompson and Brown – and the significant contributions these aggressive men made on the high seas in the fight for Texas independence. Despite their heroic deeds, the navy soon found itself drowning in a sea of red ink, crippling the effectiveness of the fighting force as the flow of funds needed to maintain a strong military was quickly exhausted. This remarkable story of the first Texas Navy is triumphant, tragic and highly entertaining. It’s not to be missed. (Approximately 35 minutes).
James P. Bevill is a Senior Vice President for Wealth Management in the River Oaks office of UBS Financial Services. He is the author of The Paper Republic: The Struggle for Money, Credit and Independence in the Republic of Texas, a non-fiction work on the social and economic history of Texas from the colonial period through the annexation by the United States in 1846. He served as guest curator for the TNA-sponsored exhibit “Broadsides in the Gulf” at the Texas Seaport Museum and “On the Run” at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston.
His book was named as the 2010 winner of the Summerfield G. Roberts literary award by the Sons of the Republic of Texas, and as the Best Specialized book on U.S. Paper Money by the Numismatic Literary Guild at the ANA World’s Fair on Money in Boston.
Small stories that don’t warrant full posts of their own:
- Over at Emerging Civil War, Dwight Hughes has a great post up about U.S Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and his Assistant Secretary, Gustavus Fox, calling them “the dynamic duo of the deep and shallow.” It’s an apt appellation; what they accomplished together, each complimenting the other’s strengths, is remarkable.
- It looks as though the legal fight over the Confederate flag at Sutherlin Mansion in Danville has come to an end. The site was host to Jefferson Davis’ government for several days in April 1865, after he
skedaddled fromevacuated Richmond. The mansion is now home to the Danville Museum of Fine Arts & History, that began pushing to remove the flag displayed on the grounds two years ago. After the city council voted to remove the flag in August 2015, a local group backed by the Virginia Flaggers and other Confederate Heritage™ folks filed a lawsuit in state court, arguing that removal of the flag violated state law. A district court disagreed, the state supreme court declined to hear an appeal of the case this past June, in what the Flaggers called “a small setback.” The plaintiffs asked for a reconsideration by the full court, which has now also been declined. Expect more nuisance flags to be set up by the Flaggers around Danville in the coming months because, unlike swaying public opinion or changing institutional policy, that’s something they’re actually good at.
- I hate to suggest that anything good can come out of something like Hurricane Matthew, but Saturday afternoon center of the storm swept along the North Carolina coast, over Cape Fear and the site of the recently discovered wreck of the blockade runner Agnes E. Fry. It will be interesting to see if the storm scoured the site, exposing more of the wreck than was previously visible. That’s how the wreck of Will o’ the Wisp was located and identified here at Galveston after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
- Hurricane Matthew did expose some Civil War-period artillery ammunition (above) at Folly Beach, South Carolina, near Charleston. Pretty cool.
- Nate Parker’s new film about Nat Turner’s rebellion, Birth of a Nation, was always going to be controversial by virtue of its subject matter. And it didn’t help that Parker had once been tried (and acquitted) for sexually assaulting a student when he was in college, who subsequently committed suicide. But according to reviews by historians collected by my colleague Michael Lynch, the movie is also pretty much crap as far as history goes, too.
- Speaking of the Virginia Flaggers, I have no idea what this meme of theirs is supposed to accomplish. How many of their supporters actually plan on voting for the Clinton/Kaine ticket next month? I’m guessing you could count them on one hand, even after playing with illegal fireworks. The Flaggers like to argue that this person is not a Virginian, or that person is not a Virginian, but it’s worth noting that Tim Kaine was (1) elected to the Richmond City Council, (2) elected mayor of Richmond, (3) elected governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and (4) elected to represent that state in the U.S. Senate. How many of the “real” Virginians among the Flaggers have ever done any of those things, much less all of them?
- And finally, Historians
Got any more? Put ’em in the comments.
Update, October 10: Over at To the Sound of the Guns, Craig Swain offers more thoughts on the shells found at Folly Beach. Some early news reports referred to them as being Confederate munitions, but that ain’t necessarily so:
This site appears to be on the northern end of Folly Island. Several Federal batteries stood in that area, guarding Lighthouse Inlet (and in July 1863, were used to support landings on Morris Island). Archaeological surveys of the area have documented well some of the battery locations (as the gentleman in the video notes, the location was known by locals as a place where fortifications stood). Hopefully this find will add to that knowledge. Given the location, on eroded beach, it appears sufficient effort was made to document that context. Perhaps this will spur further archaeological examinations in the area.