Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Robert E. Lee’s “lack of a core of greatness”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on November 14, 2014

In this interview from the Civil War Monitor, well-known Civil War author Glenn LaFantasie further fleshes out his recent cover article from the magazine, “Broken Promise,” in which he argued that in his moment of national and professional crisis, Lee failed to measure up to his own role models, George Washington and his own father, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee.

I’m sure this will cause some heartburn in certain quarters.

Have a great weekend, everybody.



Beating a Dead Traveller

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 13, 2014

You had to know that Brandon Dorsey, the local Confederate Heritage™ guy in Lexington, would be all over the Washington and Lee flag business, calling for the university to “return the mausoleum to the ownership of the Lee Memorial Association.” I’m not sure who Dorsey is talking about, as the Lee Memorial Association that originally funded the mausoleum appears to have furled its banner decades ago. There’s a present-day Robert E. Lee Memorial Association that operates Stratford Hall, that was begun in New York state and adopted its current name when it moved to Virginia in the 1970s, but that’s (1) clearly not the same group as in the 1880s, and (2) is one that has no claim, legal or otherwise, to the site at W&L.

Dorsey, who calls W&L President Ken Ruscio “the nations [sic.] most notorious grave robber,” has a pretty abysmal track record as a coordinator of protests going back to the Lexington flag ordinance in 2011. That ordinance passed easily, despite Dorsey’s efforts to bring in dozens of people from out of town to tell the Lexington City Council how to run their little city; his campaign to oust Mayor Mimi Elrod, that also relied heavily on people not actually from Lexington, came to naught in 2012 when Elrod won re-election by a wider margin than before; the lawsuit against the city he encouraged in federal court was a complete bust, and his ongoing boycott of the city has had no observable effect on the local tourist economy.

He did successfully coordinate the installation of a fiberglass statue of Stonewall Jackson with a sword in one hand and a golden cross in the other, by the same sculptor who did the dinosaurs-eating-Yankees amusement park, so there’s that.

Interestingly, in making his call for W&L to turn over the mausoleum to a private organization that appears not to exist, Dorsey cites the wording of the original 1882 agreement transferring the mausoleum to the school:


That upon the completion of the mausoleum and its inauguration under the auspices of this Association the title to, and the care and custody of, both the mausoleum and the marble statue of General Lee shall be vested in the corporation of Washington and Lee University, upon the sacred trust that the mausoleum shall be preserved as a perpetual place of sepulture for the remains of Gen. R. E. Lee, and of Mrs. Lee, and of such other members of their family as it maybe the pleasure of the family to have interred there, and that the building and statue shall receive from the authorities of the University such care and attention from time to time as shall be needful for their preservation; and upon the further trust that neither the mausoleum, nor the ground upon which it is erected, nor the statue and appurtenances of the mausoleum, shall ever be in any way, or to any extent, liable for any claim against, or debt of said University, or be charged with any mortgage, deed of trust, or other encumbrance.


Dorsey doesn’t explain why this particular passage is important, perhaps because it isn’t.  Nothing Washington and Lee has done violates this agreement. They haven’t mortgaged the mausoleum, or put it up as collateral, or interfered with the interments of Lee and his family. They removed decorative flags that wouldn’t be added for almost another fifty years, as is their prerogative as owners of the Washington and Lee Chapel.

Everything I’ve read about Lee suggests to me that he abhorred flashy showmanship, and was more than a little uncomfortable with the fame and renown he achieved during his lifetime. As I said last week, he didn’t use his five years as president of Washington College to turn the school  into the Confederate shrine some people today want it to be, and I genuinely believe he would be embarrassed by the desire by some to make his and his family’s resting place a shrine of quasi-religious veneration, a sort of Confederate Lourdes or a Dixified version of the Kaaba. I certainly don’t believe he would have any patience with the hair-on-fire shriekers who use his memory as an excuse to engage in the most vile sort of threats, name-calling and accusation in defense of Confederate Heritage. The real, live Robert Edward Lee, a Virginia patrician first and last, wouldn’t have had those people in his front parlor.



On Washington and Lee

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on July 8, 2014

My colleague Kevin Levin has the rundown on the official response by Washington and Lee University over the presence of Confederate flags in the Lee Chapel. It’s a positive move, I think, that the current replica flags — how many visitors understood they are modern reproductions, dating only from 1995, I wonder? — that had no identification or explanation, will be replaced with actual historic flags, displayed in rotation  in correct environmental conditions and with appropriate labeling.

The usual suspects are responding in the usual way, of course, including making a threat of arson in response to the “dark students” whose complaint started this process. (Carl liked that one, BTW.)

TraditionsOne common whinge that we’ve heard for a while now is the W&L has somehow turned its back on the legacy of Robert E. Lee. That’s funny, since anyone with the slightest knowledge of the school knows otherwise. As it happens, my household has been fairly inundated lately with university recruiting materials, including multiple mailings from W&L. One of them is a short brochure called “Traditions of Honor.” When you open it, the very first lines begin,


In 1865, a young man from Tennessee approached his school’s president, Robert E. Lee, to ask for a copy of the rules. “We have no printed rules,” Lee replied kindly. “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.” More than a century later, the essence of that simple statement still holds true.


Robert E. Lee not only figures prominently in the school’s public image, but present-day Washington and Lee considers him and his reputation to be an effective recruiting tool.

Everything I’ve read about Robert E. Lee’s five-year tenure in Lexington — a longer period, it should be noted, than he wore a Confederate gray uniform — indicates that he gave everything he had to Washington College, with the intent of making it the best possible school he could. He did not, as far as I know, intend for it to become Confederate Candyland or a reliquary to the Lost Cause, as some seem to want it to be. The focus of the present-day Washington and Lee University is exactly where it should be, on Lee’s contributions and legacy to the school. I have no doubt whatever that, were he here today, like Jefferson before him Lee would be more proud of the university he helped build than anything else he did in his public life.





Soldiers All

Posted in African Americans, Education, Memory by Andy Hall on July 6, 2011

Recently I’ve gotten the sense that, among those who are pushing broad, generalized assertions about the involvement of African Americans in the Confederate war effort, there’s been a notable tendency to back off the specific claim that they were recognized as soldiers at the time, opting instead for much more vague terms like “black Southern loyalist” that, having no clear objective standard to begin with, can also neither be directly refuted. Such language is warm and fuzzy, but has the great advantage that it can be applied to almost anyone, based on almost anything. It also tells us as much about the speaker as it does about the subject.

Nonetheless, one of the more prominent advocates on the subject of BCS continues to twist herself in rhetorical knots to demonstrate retroactively that African American cooks, body servants, teamsters and so forth should actually be considered Confederate soldiers, regardless of how they were viewed at the time. She recently proposed definitions of “Black Confederate” and “Black Confederate Soldier:”

A “Black Confederate” is an African-American who is acknowledged as serving with the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

A “Black Confederate Soldier” is (1) an enlisted African-American in the Confederate States Army, (2) an African-American acknowledged by Confederate Officer(s) as engaged in military service, and/or (3) an African-American approved by the Confederate Board of Pension Examiners to receive a Confederate Pension for military service during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

There are multiple problems with these definitions. The first is that there’s no practical difference between “acknowledged as serving with the Confederate States Army” (Definition 1) and “acknowledged by Confederate Officer(s) as engaged in military service” (Definition 2). A Venn diagram of these would be an almost perfect circle. In this suggested scheme, “Black Confederate” and “Black Confederate Soldier” are entirely equivalent. Anyone should be able to see that, even without knowing anything more about the subject.

Second, she defines a soldier as anyone acknowledged “as having engaged in military service,” which falls back on the never-defined, all-encompassing word “service.” This is a common technique — see the discussion thread here — which sounds simple enough, but conflates a whole range of activities that, at the time, fell into clearly-defined realms.

Third, she’s still hopelessly muddled on the subject of pensions — who awarded them, and what they were awarded for, and what classes of pensions were awarded. Some states awarded pensions explicitly for former slaves/servants (e.g., Mississippi), while others did not. There was no single, central body called the “Confederate Board of Pension Examiners;” pension programs were set up by individual states, each with their own rules and procedures. Individual applications were usually reviewed and endorsed by local boards, which introduces all sorts of unknown variables in procedure and documentation. In at least some cases, the state verified applicants’ service records with the War Department — these materials were later transferred to the National Archives — and even this verification process appears to have resulted in at least one error of mis-identification. The famous Holt Collier, who probably comes as close as anyone to having actually been a Confederate combatant in practice, received three pension awards from Mississippi in his old age — first as a personal body servant, then as a soldier, then again as a servant. In short, pension records tell us very little about the applicants’ status forty, fifty, sixty years before. (The basic primer to understanding the process for awarding Confederate pensions — and their limitations — remains James G. Hollandsworth, Jr.’s manuscript, “Looking for Bob: Black Confederate Pensioners After the Civil War,” in the Journal of Mississippi History.)

This particular researcher has a long track record of glossing over distinctions between slaves and free African Americans, personal servants, cooks, and enlisted soldiers under arms. In the interest of reconciliation and reunion, she consistently rejects the hard realities of race, law and society in the mid-19th century, and insists that all Confederates, writ broad, saw themselves as standing on an equal footing. In an effort to draw an equivalency between African American men employed as cook in the Confederate army with those in the Union, she latches onto a single, three-word notation in the record of one Private Lott Allen of the 21st USCT :

On the left, Lot Allen enlisted with the Union Army 21st United States Colored Troops (USCT) Company A as an “on order cook.” [sic., “in duty cook”] On the right, William Dove enlisted with the Confederate States Army North Carolina 5th Cavalry Company D as a “cook.”  Both men contribute to United States Military history; and their soldier service records are each recorded in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Her statement about Private Allen is factually incorrect;  as his compiled service record from NARA (14MB PDF) makes clear, Lott Allen enlisted as a U.S. soldier and, being 42 years old, was immediately assigned to work as a cook because he couldn’t keep up as an infantryman. His disability discharge from June 1865 says so explicitly: “Since his enlistment to the present date he has been Company Cook and is too old a man to perform the duty of a soldier.” The regimental surgeon, John M. Hawks, goes on to explain that Allen is unable to perform the duties of a soldier because of “old age; its consequent disability and infirmities. He has never been able to drill, or to march with the company, or do any military or fatigue duty; and he is too careless and slovenly for a cook.” Private Lott Allen didn’t enlist as a cook; he enlisted as a soldier, couldn’t cut it, and (it seems) wasn’t very good as a cook, either.

Posting elsewhere, the researcher takes her assumption about Private Allen and spins it off into a grand, sweeping claim encompassing thousands or tens of thousands of others:

The question is: Were there cooks, teamsters, laborers in the Union Army United States Colored Troops? The answer is yes. As an example in the image of this post, Private Allen Lot [sic.], a soldier with the Union Army 21st United States Colored Troops, served as an “On [sic.] Duty Cook.” See Private Allen Lot’s Union Soldier Service Record (NARA Catalog ID 300398).

Therefore, with this preponderance of the evidence, African-Americans on Confederate Soldier Service Records (muster rolls) who are listed as cooks, teamsters, laborers, etc. should likewise be called soldiers. The sun rises and it shines on us all.

She takes a single notation that this man was assigned as a cook and then extrapolates that to argue that all “who are listed as cooks, teamsters, laborers, etc. should likewise be called soldiers.” She makes what is formally known as a “converse accident,” but is a simple and obvious logical fallacy: she reasons that this soldier was a cook; therefore all cooks were soldiers. (And teamsters, and laborers. . . .)

It’s hard to know whether this researcher bothered to look at all of Allen’s CSR or just didn’t understand it, but it really doesn’t matter. Either way she misrepresents Allen’s actual situation, and then uses that flawed example to make a sweeping rhetorical argument applied to tens of thousands of men in an entirely different army.

This is, sadly, typical of most of the “research” that goes into BCS advocacy; it’s a mile wide and a half-inch deep. It’s pulling out a word here, a line there, and announcing it as “proof” with little consideration of the full record, even when, as in this case, it’s readily available. It’s about adding names to a list, with little or no real understanding of the larger story, or the historical context of the claim being made. It’s just unbelievably superficial.

There’s no question that tens of thousands of African Americans went into the field with the Confederate army as cooks, personal servants, teamsters, laborers, and so on. Some were free; most were slaves. Some undoubtedly went willingly, but far more went with with some degree of coercion (legal, economic, physical) guiding their steps. Some saw combat, even though very, very few were officially in a combat role. There is a tremendous, untapped resource there for serious research. But they were not formally considered soldiers at the time, by either the Confederate or Union army. Robert E. Lee didn’t recognize these men as soldiers; he thought such pretensions made a fine joke. Howell Cobb didn’t recognize these men as soldiers. Kirby Smith didn’t see these men as soldiers. So why do some people today, like this researcher, devote so much effort to retroactively designate them so? Why is “proving” that point so much more important than telling their actual stories as individuals? Sure, this researcher finds Lott Allen and William Dove useful for making an analogy, but does she offer any additional information about them? (Hint: if you’ve read this far, you already know more about Lott Allen than you’re ever likely to find on the researcher’s site.)

I regret feeling obligated to make this post at all, and have no doubt it will be framed as a personal attack on this particular researcher’s character. It’s not; I’ve repeatedly said before, and still believe, that she is sincere and well-intentioned in her efforts. But it’s also clear that she doesn’t understand the materials she’s working with, and has no sense of her own limitations in that regard. But she is viewed as a among BCS advocates as a leading researcher on the subject, and maintains an extensive website dedicated to it. If she is to be respected and valued as a researcher, she needs to be subject to the same fact-checking on her research and methodology that the rest of us are; she doesn’t get a pass because she’s not professionally trained, or because she’s well-intentioned.

There’s a saying, much quoted by True Southrons™, that “history is written by the winners.” This reflects their sincere belief that their own preferred historical narrative is somehow suppressed by professional historians and censored in academic curricula. That’s wrong; history is history, regardless of who writes it. But the work they do needs to stand up to scrutiny, and most of it just doesn’t.

“The whole country, North and South, should thank Him for this step.”

Posted in Leadership by Andy Hall on December 28, 2010

A hundred fifty years (and a few days) ago, Major Robert Anderson quietly evacuated his command at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, to Fort Sumter, an unfinished installation in Charleston Harbor. In doing so, he ceded the indefensible Moultrie to the South Carolina secessionists, and set the stage for the “Sumter crisis” that would play out over the next several weeks.

In the wake of South Carolina’s secession on December 20, Anderson’s orders from the Secretary of War, dated December 21, were somewhat contradictory. In the two-page memo, he is first enjoined, if attacked, to “defend yourself to the last extremity.” Then, he is reminded that “it is neither expected nor desired that you should expose your own life or that of your men in a hopeless conflict in defense of the Forts. If they are invested or attacked by a force so superior that resistance would in you judgment be a useless waste of life it would be your duty to yield to necessity and make the best terms in your power.”

Even as the War Department sent those orders, a delegation from South Carolina was en route to Washington to demand the surrender of Moultrie and the other U.S. military installations around Charleston Harbor. Both sides expected the Buchanan administration to refuse, and both sides then expected Moultrie to be overrun by South Carolina militia called up in response to that state’s withdrawal from the Union. The outcome seemed pre-ordained.

What Anderson did on December 26, on his own initiative, was change the game from the way both Washington and the secessionists expected it eventually to play out. Between six and eight p.m., Anderson spiked Moultrie’s guns, burned their carriages, cut down the flagpole and transferred his entire command to Sumter. The next day, in response to an incredulous telegram from a War Department caught blindsided by his action, Anderson wired back:

The telegram is correct. I abandoned Fort Moultrie because I was certain that, if attacked, my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost. I spiked the guns and destroyed the carriages to keep the guns from being used against us. If attacked, the garrison would never have surrendered without a fight.

Anderson speaks here explicitly to his commitment to both the men of his command and to his mission as a soldier — had he waited for the expected assault on Moultrie, “my men must have been sacrificed and the command of the harbor lost.” In a letter to his wife, dated at the time for their arrival at Sumter, Anderson (like many of his contemporaries) credits God with guiding the wisdom of his action:

Fort Sumter, S. C.,
8 P. M., Dec. 26, 1860.

Thanks be to God. I give them with my whole heart for His having given me the will, and shewn me the way to bring my command to this Fort. I can now breathe freely. The whole force of S. Carolina would not venture to attack us. Our crossing was accomplished between six and eight o’clock. I am satisfied that there was no suspicion of what we were going to do. I have no doubt that the news of what I have done will be telegraphed to New York this night. We saw signal rockets thrown up all around just as our last boat came over. I have not time to write more—as I must make my report to the Ad. Genl. . . . Praise be to God for His merciful kindness to us. I think that the whole country North and South should thank Him for this step.

I like that last line, “I think that the whole country North and South should thank Him for this step.” I doubt either side did at the time, but I think Anderson was right — he thought (to use a bad, modern cliche) “outside the box” and pushed back the direct, armed conflict for more than three months.

In its ongoing Civil War series, “A House Divided,” the Washington Post asks several prominent historians whether evacuating Moultrie was Anderson’s best option. So far Joan Waugh, Frank J. Williams, and Scott Hartwig all agree: Major Anderson had no alternative, short of outright capitulation. Hartwig:

Anderson had 74 officers and men in two artillery companies at Ft. Moultrie, but after deducting the noncombatants – musicians, sick and those under arrest for various reasons – his effective strength was about half that. Moultrie’s purpose was for its guns to cover the channel leading from the open sea into Charleston harbor, not defend against an attack from the rear. The fort’s defenses were so vulnerable to land attack that no competent army officer would have considered attempting to defend it. Wind had blown sand up so high against the fort’s walls that cattle could climb up, walk through the embrasures and onto the parapet. Sand dunes east of the fort rose higher than the fort’s walls and provided excellent firing positions for an attacker. All of the buildings in the fort except for the fortifications were wood and easily burned. There were private houses on the east side of the fort and cottages on the west side, which could provide additional cover for an attacker. But a competent attacker did not need to assault the fort. Sitting on a peninsula of Sullivan’s Island it could easily be cut off and the garrison starved into surrender.

Following the December 20 secession of South Carolina, Anderson learned that preparations were underway to attack Moultrie if the negotiations between South Carolina’s commissioners and the Buchanan administration failed to secure its surrender. Anderson already knew that Buchanan probably would not surrender the fort so it was necessary to act quickly. Fort Sumter was the only defensible point available to Anderson and his small garrison. It could not be attacked by land and could be reinforced and resupplied by water. On the evening of December 26, in a cleverly planned and executed operation, the garrison made the transfer from Moultrie to Sumter without incident.

Though it infuriated the secessionists at the time, who thought they’d been played (they had), it seems clear now that Anderson’s move was the correct one, both politically and militarily. It held off direct, armed conflict, maintained a symbolic U.S. military presence at Charleston, and bought both sides more than three months’ time to reach a peaceful resolution to the dispute. In modern parlance, Anderson “dialed it back” by evacuating Moultrie and removing his men to Sumter. More to the point, it’s hard to see why Anderson would do anything else; although a pro-slavery Kentuckian and a former slaveholder himself, he saw his first allegiance to his assignment, and to his immediate command. Anderson couldn’t control events outside Moultrie’s walls, but he recognized that both Washington and the secessionists had effectively locked themselves into courses of action that would have destroyed his command and yielded any U.S. control over the harbor. In the absence of clear directives from Washington, he responded to them as a professional soldier should, with careful deliberation and planning, followed by decisive execution, in a way that gave the government — both governments — time and options to avert the looming crisis.

Robert E. Lee famously cast his lot with Virginia and the Confederacy, but that only came months later, when he felt his own, home state was threatened. Had Lee been in command at Moultrie in December 1860, I suspect he would have done exactly the same thing.


Ed. Note: The post has been extensively rewritten in response to a reader’s inquiry in the comments, below. Thanks to him for providing the impetus for this. Image: Evacuation of Fort Moultrie by W. R. Waud, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

John B. Gordon, “Faithful Servants,” and Veterans’ Reunions

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on November 14, 2010

Recently I came across a passage in General John B. Gordon’s Reminiscences of the Civil War (1903, pp. 382-84) that, while discussing the eleventh-hour decision of the Confederate government to enlist slaves as soldiers in the final weeks of the conflict, reveals a great deal about the nature of slaves’ other service in the Confederate army, and how they themselves sometimes presented themselves both during the war and decades later.

John Brown Gordon (1832-1904) was an attorney with no military experience when the war began, but he was elected captain of a company he raised, and by late 1862 had been promoted to the rank  of brigadier general. He quickly became famous for his bravery under fire, and was wounded numerous times.  He served throughout the war with the Army of Northern Virginia, eventually rising to the rank of major general (he claimed lieutenant general), and commanding the Second Corps of that army. Gordon saw action at most of the Army of Northern Virginia’s major engagements, including First Manassas, Malvern Hill, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the Siege of Petersburg. Gordon surrendered his command to another famous civilian-turned-general, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, in April 1865. After the war, he fought against Reconstruction policies — allegedly as a leader of the Klan — and later served as a U.S. senator and as governor of Georgia. In 1890 he was elected first Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, a post he held until his death.

In his memoir, Gordon describes the debate surrounding the proposed enlistment of slaves in the Confederate army in the closing weeks of the war:

Again, it was argued in favor of the proposition that the loyalty and proven devotion of the Southern negroes [sic.] to their owners would make them serviceable and reliable as fighters, while their inherited habits of obedience would make it easy to drill and discipline them. The fidelity of the race during the past years of the war, their refusal to strike for their freedom in any organized movement that would involve the peace and safety of the communities where they largely outnumbered the whites, and the innumerable instances of individual devotion to masters and their families, which have never been equaled in any servile race, were all considered as arguments for the enlistment of slaves as Confederate soldiers. Indeed, many of them who were with the army as body-servants repeatedly risked their lives in following their young masters and bringing them off the battlefield when wounded or dead. 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.

My emphasis. Like another dyed-in-the-wool, senior and well-connected Confederate general, Howell Cobb, Gordon discusses the proposal to enroll slaves as soldiers without making any mention of the supposedly-widespread practice of African Americans serving in exactly that capacity.

Far more important, though, is what he does say. Gordon’s description of enslaved body servants, and their ongoing attachment to the Confederacy, is essential. He notes that they “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.” This is a critical observation, and explains much of what is now taken as “evidence” of African American men serving as soldiers during the war. Advocates for the notion that large numbers of black men served as soldiers in the Confederate army routinely point to images of elderly African American men at veterans’ reunions and argue that those men wouldn’t have been present had they not been seen as co-equal soldiers themselves. As we’ve seen, the historical record, when available, can disprove that assumption. And now we have General John B. Gordon, Commander-in-Chief of the United Confederate Veterans, writing exactly the same thing about what he saw around him, as the popularity of veterans’ reunions reached its peak. Gordon clearly takes pride in the former slaves’ commitment to the memory of the Confederacy — again, “faithful servants” — but he never credits any greater wartime service to them. Indeed, Gordon continues with an anecdote mocking the idea of such men being considered soldiers:

General Lee used to tell with decided relish of the old negro (a cook of one of his officers) who called to see him at his headquarters. He was shown into the general’s presence, and, pulling off his hat, he said, “General Lee, I been wanting to see you a long time. I ‘m a soldier.”

“Ah? To what army do you belong—to the Union army or to the Southern army ?”

“Oh, general, I belong to your army.”

“Well, have you been shot ?”

“No, sir; I ain’t been shot yet.”

“How is that? Nearly all of our men get shot.”

“Why, general, I ain’t been shot ’cause I stays back whar de generals stay.”

This anecdote reinforces Gordon’s (and Lee’s) dismissal of the idea that the service of black men like the cook should be considered soldiers; what made the story amusing to both generals is that the man’s claim to status as a soldier was, to their thinking, preposterous on its face. To be sure, Gordon shows real affection for these old African American men who, in his view, remain loyal to the cause. Nonetheless, he can’t help but make gentle mockery of their pretensions to be soldiers. He never considered them to be soldiers in their own right, which is the point of heaping praise on them as “faithful servants.” Lee understood that, Gordon understood that, and Gordon counted on his readers in 1903 to understand that.

So why is that so hard to understand now?

Old Pete, “Slave Raids” and the Gettysburg Campaign

Posted in African Americans, Leadership by Andy Hall on July 1, 2010

One hundred forty-seven years ago today, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, writing through his adjutant, ordered General George Pickett to bring up his corps from the rear to reinforce the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia. The lead elements of the armies of Robert E. Lee and George Meade had come together outside a small Pennsylvania market town called Gettysburg. The clash there would become the most famous battle of the American Civil War, and would be popularly regarded as a critical turning point not just of that conflict, but in American history. More about Longstreet’s order shortly.

I was thinking about that when I recently read an essay by David G. Smith, “Race and Retaliation: The Capture of African Americans During the Gettysburg Campaign,” part of Virginia’s Civil War, edited by Peter Wallenstein and Bertram Wyatt-Brown. All but the last page and a few citations is available online through Google Books. It’s not a pleasant read.

During the Gettysburg Campaign, soldiers in the the Army of Northern Virginia systematically rounded up free Blacks and escaped slaves as they marched north into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Men, women and children were all swept up and brought along with the army as it moved north, and carried back into Virginia during the army’s retreat after the battle. While specific numbers cannot be known, Smith argues that the total may have been over a thousand African Americans. Once back in Confederate-held territory, they were returned to their former owners, sold at auction or imprisoned.

That part of the story is well-known. What makes Smith’s essay important is the way he provides additional, critical background to this horrible event, and reveals both its extent across the corps and divisions of Lee’s army, as well as the acquiescence to it, up and down the chain of command. The seizures were not, as is sometimes suggested, the result of individual soldiers or rouge troops acting on their own initiative, in defiance of their orders. The perpetrators were not, to use a more recent cliché, “a few bad apples.” The seizure of free Blacks and escaped slaves by the Army of Northern Virginia was widespread, systematic, and countenanced by officers up to the highest levels of command. This event, and others on a much smaller scale, were so much part of the army’s operation that Smith argues they can legitimately be considered a part of the army’s operational objective. Smith is blunt in his terminology for these activities; he calls them “slave raids.”

These ugly episodes did not spring up spontaneously; it was a violent and entirely predictable result of multiple factors that had been building for months or years. For a long time, there was growing resentment in Virginia over escaped slaves seeking refuge in Pennsylvania, where there was considerable sympathy for the abolitionist cause, and stops on the Underground Railroad. These tensions increased substantially after the outbreak of the war, as Virginia slaves learned that they could expect to be safe as soon as they reached Union territory, where they would be considered contraband. White Southerners’ resentment of this situation redoubled again in the fall of 1862, with the news that the Lincoln administration would issue the Emancipation Proclamation. This further encouraged slaves to flee to the North, and made it clear to slaveholders — had it not been clear before — that defeat would put an end to the “peculiar institution,” and upend the economy and culture that went with it.

A November 1862 Harper’s Weekly (New York) illustration showing Confederate officers driving slaves further south, to put them out of reach of the Federal armies in advance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The accompanying article told of two white men who escaped to Union lines and

upon being questioned closely, they admitted that they had just come from the James River; and finally owned up that they had been running off “niggers” having just taken a large gang, belonging to themselves and neighbors, southward in chains, to avoid losing them under the emancipation proclamation. I understand, from various sources, that the owners of this species of property, throughout this section of the State, are moving it off toward Richmond as fast as it can be spared from the plantation; and the slaveholders boast that there will not be a negro left in all this part of the State by the 1st of January next.

Against this backdrop, the organization of Federal units of Black soldiers, comprised of both escaped slaves and free men, was taken as an outrage. It struck a raw nerve, never far off in the Southern psyche: fear of a slave insurrection. The prospect of African American men in blue uniforms was taken as an extreme provocation, so much so that it was proposed in the Confederate congress — and endorsed by General Beauregard, the hero of Fort Sumter — that all Federals captured, black or white, should be summarily executed. This proposal was never adopted, but the Confederate congress did eventually pass, in May 1863, a proclamation instructing President Jefferson Davis to exercise “full and ample retaliation” against the North for arming black soldiers.

Finally, there was simple revenge. The Union army’s shelling of Fredericksburg several months before had been a particular sore point, that festered for months as the Confederate army went into winter quarters nearby. One officer, determined to fix the destruction there in his mind’s eye, made a special visit to that town one last time before setting out on the road north into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

So when Lee’s army finally marched north in June 1863, it was fully infused with the intent to exact “full and ample retaliation” on Union territory as it passed. Lee issued orders against the indiscriminate destruction of civilian property, but made no mention of seizing African Americans, whether free or former slaves. In his essay, Smith points out that diaries, letters and even official reports from every division in Lee’s army mention Confederates rounding up African Americans and holding them with the army. The practice was tolerated — if not actively encouraged — by officers at all levels of the army. Even Lieutenant General Longstreet, the most senior of Lee’s corps commanders and effectively the second-in-command of the Army of Northern Virginia, acknowledged the practice and accommodated it. In sending orders to General Pickett, whose corps was bringing up the rear of the army, Longstreet, writing through his adjutant, G. M. Sorrel, sent word on July 1 — the day the two armies first engaged each other — to move his troops toward Gettysburg. In closing he added, “the captured contrabands had better be brought along with you for further disposition.”

“Further disposition” here refers to imprisonment, auction, enslavement, and (often) severe punishment at the hands of a former-and-once-again master.

Those thirteen words closing words of Longstreet’s order are damning, in that they show full well that the seizure and abduction of African Americans was, if not official policy, widely tolerated and made allowance for, even at the highest levels of the Confederate command structure. Longstreet was second-in-command; while his order does not prove Lee knew and approved of this practice, it’s hard to imagine he was unaware of it, and there’s no evidence that he publicly objected to it, or made any effort to curtail it. My intent here is not to condemn Longstreet specifically — the de facto policy neither originated nor was actively encouraged by him — but to demonstrate that the forcible abduction of free African Americans and escaped slaves was known and tolerated, from the lowest private to the most senior generals.

There are many questions, many aspects, of the Civil War that are legitimate sources of controversy and dispute. There are questions that serious historians will argue about as long as anyone remembers this conflict, saying that this politician’s actions were justified by that event, or that general made the right decision because he didn’t know those troops were on the other side of the river. The abduction of free Blacks and escaped slaves from Maryland and Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign is not one of those events. It cannot be justified, or rationalized, or denied. It can only be ignored.

But it shouldn’t be.

Q. How Old was General Hood at Gettysburg?

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on June 26, 2010

A. Thirty-two.

Hood as portrayed by (l. to r.) Patrick Gorman in Gettysburg (1993) and Gods and Generals (2003), Levon Helm in In the Electric Mist (2009) and himself in real life (c. 1865).

Picking up a thread of an idea from David Woodbury at Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles, I’ve been thinking about how film and television typically portrays Civil War figures. Most often they’re depicted substantially older than they really were. I’m not necessarily speaking of the actor’s actual age versus character’s (because actors routinely play much younger characters), but more generally his apparent age — how he’s made to look. It’s easy to see why this would be the case. When an actor portraying a Civil War figures actually is about the right age for the character, it’s often jarring for the viewer, to whom it doesn’t “feel” right even if, in fact, it is. Matthew Broderick was 25 or 26 when he shot Glory; his character, Robert Gould Shaw, was exactly that age at the time of the events depicted in the film. Nonetheless, although the actor and the role were perfectly matched for age, it still didn’t “look right” for a lot of people, and probably harmed the overall public reception of the movie. People just couldn’t see someone that young, in that role. (Being known at the time primarily for his role as as Ferris Bueller didn’t help.)

But this just highlights something that we might easily forget — the vast majority of these men, from private to general, were very young by modern standards. At the beginning of the war, Ulysses S. Grant was 39. George Meade was 45. George McClellan was 36. George Pickett was 36. James Longstreet was 40, as was John George Walker. Stonewall Jackson was 37. William Tecumseh Sherman was 41, and so on. Robert E. Lee was 54, the “old man,” not just because of the senior position he held, but because he was, by the standard of the day, objectively and factually old.

There are lots of exceptions, of course — Albert Sidney Johnston was nearly 60 when he got plinked at Shiloh — but still it amazes me how young these men were when so much rested on their shoulders.

Update: Argghh! Dimitri Rotov has stolen a march on me on this very topic over at Civil War Bookshelf.

Bobby Lee Has Left the Building. . . .

Posted in Education, Memory by Andy Hall on June 24, 2010

The Associated Press asks its readers to be on the lookout for a figure of the general that was stolen — 35 years ago:

A bronze statue of the Confederate general was taken from the grounds of Midland Lee High in 1975, a decade after the class of 1965 gave the statue to the school.

With Midland Lee’s 50th anniversary approaching later this year, an event organizer hopes someone will return the statue. Maridell Fryar told the Odessa American that no one would be prosecuted; the statute of limitations on the theft has run out.

She says the statue swiping may have started a prank. She [is] hoping someone from the West Texas community will offer information that might recover the stolen Lee in time for the anniversary celebrations.

Just a little prank, right? Sure, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye a statue.

Fun Fact: The Associated Press was organized in 1846 by five New York dailies to share the cost of reporting on the Mexican War.

But Aren’t They All Dead?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 23, 2010

Cousin Katie‘s gonna haunt me for being flip about Confederate widows.

The new 2010 Texas GOP platform calls for (PDF, p. 6), among other things, “restoration of plaques honoring the Confederate Widow’s Pension Fund contribution that were removed from the Texas Supreme Court building.” That short sentence, of course, leaves out an embarrassing part of the backstory, and lies about another, much more important fact. First, the plaques were removed in 2000 by order of then-Governor George W. Bush, who is widely reported to be a Republican himself, and second, the bronze plaques do not “honor the Confederate Widow’s Pension Fund.” They are actually paeans to the Confederacy and Texas’s role in it, complete with the Confederate Battle Flag and national seal. They have nothing to do with Confederate widows; they’re classic Lost Cause memorials.

I honestly was, and still am, conflicted about the removal of these plaques  a decade ago. They’re offensive to many Texans, but I also dislike the idea of removing established monuments, even when they reflect sentiments that are badly, badly out of touch with current values and history. (Better, I think, to acknowledge that they are themselves artifacts of their time, and interpret them in that way in situ.) I also understand that these were located in not just a public building, but in the state friggin’  Supreme Court — you know, where all people are equal in the eyes of the law, and so on. That latter point, I think, raises the stakes in this dispute for all sides.

I would almost certainly be against the original removal of these plaques had they been as represented by the Texas GOP — “honoring the Confederate Widow’s Pension Fund contribution.” But that’s not what they are. They’re definitely better gone, and placed in a state history museum where they can be both preserved and interpreted as artifacts of their day. As it happens, there’s a pretty good one just up the street. But the question is no longer whether they should stay; the question is, should they be brought back?

And the answer is, “no.” Let them go, folks — we’ve all got more important things to deal with.

Bonus Fun Fact: The Texas Supreme Court Building is so fugly that the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society uses a picture of the Capitol on its website.