Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

A Little Knowledge. . . .

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 21, 2013

Over at Mid-South Flaggers, the admin there has been doing a little independent research on Confederate pensions from Washington County, Mississippi, and is disturbed by what he’s found — or rather, what he’s not found:

Blank

Just a few records from Washington County MS. I find it telling that the word “slave” does not appear on any of this paperwork, NOR is that word on ANY paperwork of the period. AND in searching for pensioner records with just names, one will not find a difference in black or white…lists of names only.
 
Things were NOT the way we have been told. We have been lied to.
 
I’m not happy about it.

Blank

He’s right; the word “slave” does not appear on the documents he’s looking at. Instead, they’re referred to as “servants,” and there are thirteen of them listed on the page he posted to illustrate his findings:

Blank

WashingtonCountyMississppi

Blank

True, an example servant’s pension application he posted requires applicants to identify “the name of the party whom you served,” and the military unit “in which your owner served,” but it doesn’t use the word slave, and that’s what matters, right? :wink:

Yes, Mid-South Flagger, you’ve been lied to. Just not by who you think.

______________

GeneralStarsGray

Advertisements

End of the Southern Strategy?

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 29, 2011

Politico has the story:

Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor and likely 2012 Republican presidential aspirant, has recently made a series of missteps involving race and the Civil Rights Movement. He seemed unclear about basic historical points.

But he has now made a forthright declaration about the events swirling around what some Southerners still call the War of Northern Aggression. “Slavery was the primary, central, cause of secession,” Barbour told me Friday. “The Civil War was necessary to bring about the abolition of slavery,” he continued. “Abolishing slavery was morally imperative and necessary, and it’s regrettable that it took the Civil War to do it. But it did.”

Now, saying slavery was the cause of the South’s Lost Cause hardly qualifies as breaking news — it sounds more like “olds.” But for a Republican governor of Mississippi to say what most Americans consider obvious truth is news. Big news.

Given that Barbour has managed over the last few months to step directly from cow pie to cow pie on the issue of the South and race, it’s interesting to see him make a statement that is both explicit and succinct, and seemingly not open to nuance or backpedaling. I don’t think this statement will help him much on the national scene, but we’ll see. He’s already catching hell from in some quarters over his statement that he’d veto a license plate honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest; this won’t help.

Update: That didn’t take long. The League of the South has branded Barbour a “quisling” for this statement, which it further described as “despicable.”

____________________

Slavery in Mexico: “nature’s God intended that it should be.”

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

The Civil War day-by-day blog Seven Score and Ten has another great catch today — they seem to do a lot of that — from the Oxford Mercury [Mississippi] on the significance of Texas’ secession to the prospects for the expansion of the “peculiar institution” into Mexico:

Standing immediately between us and Mexico, her refusal to join us would have retarded the ultimate and inevitable conquest of that country.  But now five years will not have elapsed before at least all the north-western States of Mexico will be States of the Confederacy.  And the conquest of the whole of that country is only a question of time.  The introduction of African slave labor into Mexico is the one thing necessary to make it what nature and nature’s God intended that it should be.

That’s Manifest Destiny, the Slaveholder’s Edition.

But secession was all about tariffs, right?

_________________


Hey, Mississippi SCV: This is How It’s Done

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on February 16, 2011

There didn’t seem to be much else to be said about the Mississippi SCV’s Nathan Bedford Forrest commemorative license plate proposal, but Robert Moore suggested Wednesday that a better choice would be to put a generic Confederate soldier on it. This seems appropriate for several reasons, among others that there are a helluva lot more SCV members (and well as Mississippians generally) related to rank-and-file soldiers than there are descendants of cavalry generals. Such a plate might also serve as a point to generate constructive conversations with the public, including:

“Who was that man in the uniform?”

“What made-up the Confederate soldier, who, in turn, became the Confederate veteran?”

“How was the individual man part of the Confederate story?”

“Was he willing, unwilling?”

“Was he enthusiastic for ‘the cause’… for ‘a cause’?”

And so on. One of Robert’s commenters suggested the plates feature some of Don Troiani’s uniform studies. It’s a capital idea.

The SCV could issue five plates, one for each year of the war, each celebrating a “common man” (or woman) from the conflict. An early-war infantryman for 2011 (below). A civilian woman from Vicksburg in 2013. A former slave in the USCT for 2015. (Well, maybe that last one wouldn’t go over so well with the SCV. But it would sure work for a state-sponsored plate.) There are lots of other possibilities.

It’s colorful, it carries a bit of history, and it certainly comes closer to reflecting the Civil War experience of typical Mississippians better than one bearing the picture of a millionaire slave trader from Memphis. Granted, it doesn’t have quite the in-your-face impact of a big-ass flag out on the interstate, but sometimes less is more, ya know?

_________________________

Image: Soldier of the 17th Mississippi Infantry, Company I, Pettus Rifles by Don Troiani.

“to distance oneself and one’s ‘tribe’ from atrocity and indelible shame”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 27, 2010

Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf highlights a reader’s e-mail that seeks to explain Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour’s praise of the Citizen’s Council in his hometown of Yazoo, Mississippi, during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. (Within 24 hours, Barbour had issued a whiplash-inducing refutation of his previous comments, describing council as “indefensible.”) The Citizen’s Council (originally known as the White Citizens’ Council) was a white supremacist organization that, while stopping just short of advocating violence, worked to isolate and intimidate African Americans and others working in pursuit of voting rights, fair housing rules, and school desegregation (left). (The first known chapter of the White Citizen’s Council was organized in Mississippi in July 1954, less than two months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down by the Supreme Court.) While Barbour sought to portray the virulently-segregationist Citizen’s Council as an opponent of the Ku Klux Klan the two organization were, in fact, working toward the same goal by different means, and even had overlapping membership; this was evident even at the time, when the Citizen’s Council was variously known as “the uptown Klan” or “the country club Klan.” Local councils were, in effect, a more reputable alternative to the Klan, and included in their membership many local political leaders and businessmen, which enabled the councils to legitimize their discriminatory practices and wield a range of economic and legal tools to intimidate their opponents.

The reader writes:

As a Southerner born in the late 1960s, I’ve always struggled to understand what happened in the civil rights era back home. To be precise, I’ve struggled to grasp how my people — white people — understood events.  I’m from an extremely minor part of the Deep South, so insignificant that to my knowledge, it hasn’t been accounted for in the major histories of the era. The thing is, you can’t really ask older white folks what happened. If they’re willing to talk about it at all — which most aren’t, a reticence that may come from a reasonable certainty that they will be judged unfavorably by their children and grandchildren — it’s usually in a defensive, dismissive way. When Haley Barbour said the other day that he doesn’t remember things being all that bad in Yazoo City, where he grew up, I heard the voice of my parents’ generation. How many times in childhood did I overhear those people talking about how decently “we” treated “our nigras.” It may be hard for people not raised in this culture to understand it when I say that this kind of thing was not said with conscious malice (though it was obviously malicious in its content, not only because it constituted a denial of history, but shows the lingering sense of white paternalism and indeed ownership of black folks). When I was younger, I used to think this was evil, uncut. I don’t think that anymore. I think it instead speaks to the human capacity to distance oneself and one’s “tribe” from atrocity and indelible shame. . . .

My point, re: Barbour’s controversial remarks, is that I am neither surprised by them, nor do I hold him in as much contempt for them as many pundits seem to. I don’t mean to defend his remarks, but for me, I can place them in context. I don’t think he’s bullshitting, frankly. I think he’s wrong, absolutely; but I’d bet money that Haley Barbour is just like his contemporaries in my hometown, including my parents: they have genuinely convinced themselves that things were Just Fine Here, because it’s a way of dealing with extremely painful history without having to deal with it. And it’s a way of being able to look on all the nice older folks you grew up loving and respecting without having to reckon with the fact that they did horrible things to their black neighbors, either actively or by standing passively by. I remember what a shock it was to me as a teenager who was starting to read about the Civil Rights movement, to look upon the faces of older white people in church, men and women I had grown up loving and respecting, and to know (because I had been told) that that kindly gentleman there had been a Klansman back in the day, and that this one in the third pew on the right had participated in a lynch mob decades earlier. You think: “These are not the kind of people who do things like that.” But they did! Yet it’s easy to follow this emotional logic: “I wouldn’t be friendly with people guilty of such moral horrors, but obviously I am friends with these people (and even love and respect them) — therefore, things couldn’t have been as bad as the history books say, at least not here.”

It’s worth reading the whole thing. This writer’s perspective rings very true, and in some ways reflects my own experience. I also think it goes far to explain the willful blindness of the Southron Heritage™ movement, that vigorously denies, minimizes or rejects any historical interpretation that suggests a moral censure on the Confederacy, either collectively or on individual soldiers. It’s exactly the same mindset; Haley Barbour’s re-imagining of the 1960s is the same sort of rationalization modern-day Confederate apologists apply to the 1860s. They will acknowledge the evil of slavery in the abstract, but (1) quickly assert that their particular ancestors didn’t own slaves, and so have no personal connection to it (or responsibility for it), and (2) attempt to deflect or diffuse censure for the “peculiar institution” by pointing to New England’s historic involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, the mistreatment of immigrants and others in Northern factories, the role of Africans themselves in the slave trade in Africa, and so on. Above all, they will contort themselves into knots to claim secession and the war was about anything — tariffs, some vague philosophical argument for states’ rights, anything — other than what the secessionists themselves explicitly said it was.

Neither will modern-day Confederate apologists acknowledge any responsibility — not even a shared responsibility, much less being a prime mover — in the war itself. That, too, was all the North’s fault; it is a matter of faith that the armed conflict that followed South Carolina’s secession was “forced” or “tricked” on the South by Lincoln — even though the shooting actually started almost two months before he took office. The twists of logic here are remarkable as well; I saw it recently asserted that Major Anderson’s evacuation of his command to the still-unfinished Fort Sumter, a few days after South Carolina’s secession, was “the first act of aggression,” even though he did so to avoid a direct, military confrontation with the armed secessionists and, in the process, ceded to them the complete, well-stocked coastal battery of Fort Moultrie, the South’s first military “victory.” (While the notion that Lincoln “forced” or “tricked” the South into firing on Fort Sumter may seem to mitigate the South’s responsibility for it, and all that followed, it’s also an insult to those Southern military and political leaders behind it — Ruffin, Beauregard, Pickens, Wigfall, et al. — because it credits them with neither the ability to recognize they were being “tricked” by a supposedly bumpkin, backwoods lawyer from Illinois, nor for having the free will and agency to refuse to walk into that devil Lincoln’s “trap.” Seriously — the Sumter “crisis” played out over more than three months, so it’s not like anyone involved didn’t have time to think about the consequences of his chosen course of action. But I digress. . . .)

Friedersdorf’s correspondent goes on to argue that “one way to deal with one’s personal, or communal guilt, in the face of collective moral collapse, is to claim victimhood, displacing the blame onto others and renouncing one’s moral agency.” This, too, is readily apparent in the Southron Heritage™ movement; they wallow in being the victim. A hundred fifty years ago they were the innocent victims of radical abolitionists, the Black Republicans, “Beast” Butler and William Tecumseh Sherman; now they’re the innocent victims of politically-correct bloggers, weak-kneed politicians, liberal academics and “racist” organizations like the NAACP. The tenacity with which they cling to this victimhood is made all the more stark by their assertion, in almost the same breath, of their ancestors’ uniquely-Southern combination of courage, rugged individuality, determination and strength. They were strong, but nonetheless remain perpetually defeated; they were morally righteous, but removed themselves from the Union to protect the institution of slavery; they stand for the rights of the states and the individual, but revere a national government that claimed its own supremacy over the member states and imposed on its citizens the heavy hand of the national government sooner than did the Union. It’s victimology of the highest order, one that gains its resilience more from emotion and resentment than logic or historical evidence.

As a Southerner, and a descendant of Confederate soldiers, of slaveholders and at least one elected official who supported secession, I understand the gut-level desire to distance oneself and one’s ancestors from the undeniable sins of the past, and to take comfort from the notion that while someone, somewhere was guilty of those things, my relatives weren’t. But it’s a comforting self-delusion; as Ta-Nehisi Coates once observed, it’s like the abandoned child who imagines his absent parent is actually an astronaut, off on some exciting, secret mission to outer space. It’s comforting, maybe psychologically necessary, but a lie just the same. It’s not history — either collective or individual — which is often very ugly, and involves people doing things, saying things, and fighting for things their descendants really would rather not be forced to acknowledge. It’s a hard thing, but we have to do it. As I’ve said before, were owe it to those men and women to acknowledge and recognize them as they were, not as we’d like them to have been. To acknowledge with candor their failings, limitations and misdeeds is difficult, but to my thinking, it’s preferable to creating an alternate fantasy. That’s no way to honor one’s ancestors.

______________________________

Image: Cartoon from the December 1955 issue of The Citizens’ Council, Jackson, Mississippi, via here.

Confederate Reunions: Simple Images, Complex Realities

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

About a year ago the blog Confederate Digest posted an image from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, showing participants at what was billed as the “Last Confederate Reunion,” held at Montgomery, Alabama in September 1944. The African American man at center is identified, from the archives’ catalog description, as Dr. R. A. Gwynne of Birmingham, Alabama. No additional information about Dr. Gwynne is provided, and there seems to be an unspoken assertion that his presence is evidence of his service as a soldier, and there is an implicit assumption that he was viewed at the time as a co-equal peer of the white veterans. But as with Crock Davis and the Eighth Texas Cavalry, the reality is more complex, and reflects the social and cultural minefield of both the antebellum and Jim Crow South.

As it happens, the Alabama archive website also includes a copy of the issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly (Vol. 06, No. 01, Spring Issue 1944) containing a detailed description of the event. The attendees are described thus:

Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate Veterans, Homer L. Atkinson, of Petersburg, Va., was unable to attend on account of illness. The first Veteran to arrive was Brigadier-General W. M. Buck, of Muscogee, Oklahoma, who has already reached the age of 93 but is remarkably active and came from Muscogee to Montgomery unescorted. The Georgia delegation was sent through the courtesy of Governor Ellis Arnall in a beautiful car escorted by the Georgia State Highway Patrol in charge of Corp. Paul Smith. In the delegation were Col. W. H. Culpepper, 96 years of age and Gen. W. L. Bowling, 97. Other Veterans present were: Gen. J. W. Moore, of Selma, 93 years of age, who was elected at the close of the Reunion to be Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans; J. D. Ford, Marshall, Texas, 95 years of age; W. W. Alexander, Rock Hill, S. C., 98; Gen. William Banks, Houston, Texas, 98; J. A. Davidson, Troy, 100 years of age. All Veterans except Gen. Buch were accompanied by attendants.

There’s no mention of Dr. Gwynne, only the seven white veterans. There follows a long description of the various activities at the reunion, speeches, musical performances and so on (“Mrs. Thomas wore a Scarlett O’Hara dress and received vociferous applause when she sang ‘Shortenin’ Bread'”), and then, tacked on at the end of the piece, is a brief note:

In the group of seven Veterans [sic., eight men total, seven white and one black] that posed for a photograph was one Negro man slave 90 years of age who served in the war as a body guard to his master. This man, Dr. R. A. Gwynne, lives in Birmingham where he is a well known character.

This, along with the caption accompanying the photo, is the only mention of Dr. Gwynne in the account of the reunion. It seems clear from the context that Dr. Gwynne was, even in 1944, considered separate and apart from the white veterans. He’s almost literally an afterthought. As I said, we’ve seen this before.

In the comments section of the original post, blogger Corey Meyer pointed out — with more than a little snark — that Dr. Gwynne’s seated position may indicate his status was considered different than that of the others in the photo. The blog host fired back with speculation that Dr. Gwynne may have had an infirmity that kept him from standing, suggested that Meyer was arguing that Dr. Gwynne was somehow forced to participate in the reunion “against his will,” and repeated the standard tropes about the “indisputable fact that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” Another commenter, well-known on Confederate heritage sites, chimed in with some gratuitous name-calling directed against Meyer.

This is, sadly, the way online “discussions” about “black Confederates” generally go — lots of sarcasm, rancor and name-calling, with little or no attention paid to the individual subject, and no acknowledgment or understanding of the larger context of the periods under discussion, either the 1860s or early 20th century South. In this case, Dr. Gwynne gets completely overlooked, because his only role here is to serve as a convenient example of the “thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” (Entirely disregarded is the fact that, if Dr. Gwynne was indeed 90 years old in September 1944, he could not have been more than eleven at the end of the Civil War, a child even by 19th century standards.)

This, too, is entirely typical of the way images of old African American men at Confederate reunions are used as “evidence” of those men having been considered soldiers. Most of the time, these images are splashed out on a website without any further explanation and without full identification of the men involved, the units they were affiliated with, or even the date and location of the reunion. This 1944 example is better in that the man in question is identified, but the intended point is still the same — that Dr. Gwynne’s presence is proof “that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” It’s not; it’s only evidence that Dr. Gwynne attended the event, and posed for a photo with the white veterans. The photos says nothing conclusive about his status during the war, how he was viewed by those same white veterans, or what his motivations or beliefs were when, as an enslaved child, he was taken off to war to serve as a “body guard” to an unknown master.

I haven’t been able to find much on Dr. Gwynne in the usual online sources for contemporary newspapers, census records and the like. I suspect that he may have been a clergyman, rather than a physician, but I don’t know. I’ll keep looking. It remains an open question how much, and in what role, Dr. Gwynne participated in the reunion festivities; we know that in Crock Davis’ case thirty years previous, he was silent spectator at the veterans’ business meeting, and did not eat at the same banquet table with the white veterans. Did a similar, Jim Crow standard apply to Dr. Gwynne at the “Last Confederate Reunion” in Jackson in 1944, or to other Confederate reunions across the South in the decades previous? It sure seems like a mistake to assume that it didn’t, or that views on race and social position of black servants held by the white soldiers of 1861-65 had completely disappeared in the intervening decades.

No serious historian has ever, to my knowledge, questioned that black men, most of the them former slaves and personal servants, participated in Confederate reunions from the 1890s onward. It would be surprising if at least some men didn’t, given the social pressures of the time and the pervasiveness of the “faithful slave” meme that helped define the Lost Cause. John Brown Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, described it at the time, observing that “these faithful servants at that time boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war. One of them, who attends nearly all the reunions, can, after a lapse of nearly forty years, repeat from memory the roll call of the company to which his master belonged.” The great Southern historian Bell Irvin Wiley, writing just a few years before the “Last Confederate Reunion,” devoted an entire chapter of his classic Southern Negroes, 1861-1865 to black body servants and their complex and (often distinctly unfaithful) relationship with their masters. It’s a very complex business, as Wiley relates, but even he noted that “even now [1938], gray-haired Negroes, dressed in ‘Confederate Gray,’ are among the most honored veterans in attendance at soldier’s reunions.” They were honored by white Confederate veterans explicitly because they embodied the “faithful slave” meme that was central to the way the Confederacy was consistently portrayed by most Southerners at the time, and by some right up to today. I don’t doubt that Dr. Gwynne (and Crock Davis, and Bill Yopp and. . . .) gladly took part in these events, and took a measure of pride in their involvement in the war. But at the same time, their professed pride in the Confederate cause served a larger purpose for white Southerners, and (knowingly or not) those black men took on a role carefully crafted as part of the Lost Cause tradition, that of the loyal slave, still faithful to both his master and to the cause, decades later. They were honored and valued because they did this, as much as for their service to their masters decades before.

People are complicated, and often their true motivations and beliefs are impossible to know. But we do a real disservice to the past to use the sort of historical shorthand offered in the case of Dr. Gwynne or dozens of other unnamed black men photographed at Confederate reunions, that their presence is prima facie evidence of the their having been soldiers, and accepted as co-equal peers by the white veterans. That is, to borrow a line commonly used as a cudgel by Southern heritage groups on those who disagree with them, a singularly bad case of “presentism,” using fragments of the historical record to make the case for an entirely modern and self-serving interpretation. The actual contemporary evidence, when available, suggests otherwise. It does not honor these men to present them as something they were not, nor does it credit the research skill or integrity of the person making the claim.

The Irresistible Appeal of Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 28, 2010


Photo by
JimmyWayne, via Creative Commons License.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin highlights photos by Robert Pomerenk of an exhibit on “Blacks Who Wore Gray” at the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. The display features an original document, the 1914 pension application for former slave Ephram Roberson — the document explicitly asks for “the number of the regiment. . . in which your owner served” — but is otherwise composed of nothing but printouts of various quotes and well-known photographs of African American men in the field with Confederate troops, or (decades later) participating in reunion activities. At least one of the latter photos is credited to the neoconfederate publication Southern Partisan. The “Chandler Boys” are included, of course, though no one else whose image is displayed in the exhibit is fully identified by name and unit. One old African American man is listed only as “Uncle Lewis,” and others are not identified at all.

In terms of presenting or explaining history, the exhibit is a hopeless mess. Its organization — there actually is no organization or structure to it — is exactly the same as many Black Confederate websites, which amount to nothing more than a hodgepodge of quotes and images, unconnected either to each other or to any larger context, that make reference to African Americans in connection with Confederate troops. Like the typical Black Confederate website, there’s no distinction at all made between men who went to war as slaves and those who might have been free; one wonders if those who compile and present this material before the public have any real sense of the most basic elements of the “peculiar institution.” Several of the men shown in the Old Court House exhibit are explicitly identified as servants; there is no recognition — or at least public acknowledgment — that these men were almost certainly slaves, and had no say in whether they went off to war with their masters or not. There’s virtually no information offered about these men that would allow the visitor to get any sort of understanding of these men’s lives, either in the 1860s or in the early 20th century, as old men. There’s no attempt to flesh out their stories, to understand the details of their experiences either during the war, or after; instead, one is left with random quotes from Nathan Bedford Forrest and paeans “to the faithful slaves, who loyal to a sacred trust, toiled for the support of the Army, with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children, during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America.” These men were soldiers, we’re asked to believe, volunteering and fighting for their homes and way of life, but they are never allowed to speak for themselves — the only ones allowed to speak on their behalf are white, and even then only to praise their loyalty and fidelity to the Confederacy.

This effort does nothing to honor these men as men. It is simply an extension of the time-honored “faithful slave” narrative, updated to make it more palatable to a modern audience. The Old Court House Museum differs from other efforts to push the case for Black Confederates only in that they actually go so far as to describe them explicitly as “faithful slaves.”

This exhibit would do far more to further the case for Black Confederates as a group if it proved the case of even a single man — Ephram Roberson, perhaps — and really provided in-depth coverage and explication of his life and role during the war and after, and proved his case as a soldier. Show us his service records, if such exist. Show us his listing in the census. Show us his property records, if there are any, or his obituary. If he was a slave, did he talk to the WPA in the 1930s? Are there contemporaneous letters or diaries from his fellow soldiers that describe his service? Track down his descendants living today and interview them. That is how history is done, through dogged research and building a case from the ground up.

But none of that is present at the Old Court House. There is no discussion of these mens’ supposed military service in the larger context of the war, no discussion of the actions they each fought in, and — most significantly — no firsthand accounts by white soldiers within those same units of their African American comrades’ service. What the Old Court House exhibit (and a hundred others on the web and in print) does is just the opposite; it takes a dozen or fifty or a hundred different, unconnected and disparate snapshots and claims that they form a larger, coherent picture. They don’t. They’re like items pulled from a dozen different families’ albums, scattered and mixed into a single pile on the floor; they do not, can not, tell anything approaching a single, cohesive story, no matter how many times they’re rearranged, e-mailed or Xeroxed.

I want to give the Old Court House Museum a pass on this exhibit, which contributes nothing at all to the making the case for Black Confederates. I began my professional career in small, local history museums not unlike this one. I spent six years, starting as an undergrad and continuing after graduation, part- and full-time, researching, writing, designing and setting up exhibits on local history. After that, I spent two years in grad school getting a masters in the field. I’m trained as a museum professional, though I haven’t worked in one for years. So I don’t walk into any museum as a purely blank slate. I even visited the Old Court House Museum once, years ago, although at the time I paid more attention to the steamboat material on display. And while I don’t know much about the specific resources available to the Old Court House — their administration and staff page is blank — I’ve got a good idea of what their situation is like, and it ain’t pretty. Small history museums like the Old Court House often get little or no direct support from local government, apart from in-kind provision of space and utilities; they have minimal paid staff, and cannot afford to hire people with significant experience or training in the field; they get by hand-to-mouth, year after year, trying to squeak by on a few thousand visitors paying a couple of bucks for admission. They are eager to give space to almost any group or person with a new or provocative idea for an exhibit, particularly if it fits well with the museum’s own preferred image of itself and the community it documents. And, as an organization dependent on the good will of the local business community — think of the chamber of commerce crowd — they’re heavily and inevitably influenced by the wishes of a small number of local patrons who may not know the first thing about history, but have very strong ideas about what they do and do not want showcased in their local museum. You’re welcome to make your own speculation who those folks are in Vicksburg.

Vicksburg looms large in the memory of the Civil War; it has been argued that the Vicksburg campaign, which cemented effective Union control of the Mississippi, was the true turning point of the war. But among the moonlight-and-magnolias image the community likes to present to tourists, it’s easy to forget that Vicksburg remains a small, poor town in a small, poor state. Fewer than 25,000 people live there; they are, on the whole, older and less-educated than the rest of the country. The median household income in Vicksburg is a little over half that of the rest of the United States; one in four families live below the poverty level, compared to one in ten nationally. Three-fifths of Vicksburg’s population is African American, a proportion that is exactly the reverse of Mississippi as a whole. Like many cities in the South, it has an ugly postwar history of racial violence and intimidation.

One might assume that the presence of the Vicksburg National Military Park would reinforce the efforts of local museums like the Old Court House; in fact, I think presence of a major Civil War site in town actually (and inadvertently) undermines the efforts of the local museum in developing a strong historical interpretive program of its own, in two ways. First, the national military park is the heavy hitter in terms of history; those in the area who have the educational background or experience are naturally drawn to the park, whether to work as administrators, guides or volunteers. Second, with the National Park Service providing a solid, but conventional, interpretation of the city’s role in the Civil War, the Old Court House Museum would naturally be drawn into serving as an “alternative” museum, presenting material and ideas that, for whatever reason, the NPS won’t touch. That’s where Black Confederates come in.

The idea of Black Confederates has a ready-made appeal. The contribution of African Americans to military service in this country has often been overlooked by both historians and popular culture. On its face, demanding recognition for African American soldiers who fought for the Confederacy sounds not unlike recognizing the achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II or the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry — both groups of African American soldiers who had to fight bigotry and doubt even to win the chance to prove themselves against the enemy. The notion of the existence of Black Confederates, while seeming contradict everything most people remember from school about the South, the war and the institution of slavery, also carries with it a certain conspiratorial appeal as well — this is the secret that Northern history books don’t want you to know. Who wouldn’t want to get let in on something like that? Recognizing African Americans serving in butternut uniforms seems like the right and just thing to do; conversely, those who express skepticism (or reject the notion outright) are easily portrayed as being motivated by elitism, prejudice or other ulterior motives to keep these mens’ service quiet, as has supposedly been done these last hundred and fifty years. They want to deny African Americans in the South their heritage. The Black Confederate narrative has a strong element of conspiracy about it, attributed to those who reject it, and like all good conspiracy theories this one is self-affirming: of course they deny these men’s existence, just like they always have. But we know better, don’t we?

I don’t know how many subscribers to the narrative of African Americans in the Confederate ranks are genuinely sincere but ill-informed and unable to recognize an historiographical con game when it’s foisted on them, and how many are willfully, cynically, spinning a line of “evidence” that they know to be composed of smoke and mirrors. As I said before, I want to give the Old Court House Museum a pass on this exhibit, because I know (or think I do) how vulnerable they are to the whims of a few well-heeled patrons, and how poorly-positioned they are to push back. But it’s hard to give them that pass. They may not know better, but they damn surely ought to.