Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The (Very) Posthumous Enlistment of “Private” Clark Lee

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on June 14, 2013

ClarkLeeKevin and Brooks have been all over the Georgia Civil War Commission, and particularly of its handling of the case of Clark Lee, “Chickamauga’s Black Confederate Soldier.” I won’t rehash all of that, but there are a few points to add.

First, kudos to Eric Jacobson, who noticed that the modern painting of Lee used by the commission on its marker (right) is almost laughably tailored to affirm Lee’s status as a soldier, including the military coat with trim and brass buttons, rifle, cartridge box belt, military-issue “CS” belt buckle, and revolver, all backed by a Confederate Battle Flag — even though the Army of the Tennessee didn’t adopt that flag until the appointment of General Joseph E. Johnston, well after the Battle of Chickamauga.

It’s probably also worth noting that the man in the painting looks a lot older than 15, the age the Georgia Civil War Commission says Lee was at the time of the battle.

As it turns out, several weeks ago the SCV and other heritage folks installed and dedicated a new headstone for Lee, explicitly (and posthumously) giving him the military rank of Private. The stone also states that Lee “fought at” Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, the Atlanta Campaign, and a host of other engagements by the Army of Tennessee. These are very specific claims, so it’s worth asking what the specific evidence for them is.

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E. Raymond Evans (center, with umbrella), author of The Life and Times of Clark Lee: Chickamauga’s Black Confederate Soldier, speaking at an SCV memorial service for Clark Lee in April 2013. From here.

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As is so often the case, there doesn’t appear to be any contemporary (1861-65) record of Lee’s service. There is no compiled service record (CSR) for him at the National Archives. Presumably the historical marker, the headstone, and a recent privately-published work on Clark Lee are all based on his 1921 application for a pension from the State of Tennessee, where he had moved in the years after the war. You can read Lee’s complete pension application here (29MB PDF). I cannot find a word in it that mentions or describes Clark Lee’s service under arms, or in combat. There is a general description of Lee’s wartime activities, but it’s quite different from what the Georgia Civil War Commission wants the rest of us to understand about him. I’ve put it below the jump because of some of the unpleasant themes expressed.

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“Slavery is the element of all value.”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 25, 2011

A while ago I took former SCV Virginia Division Commander Brag Bowling to task for his A House Divided essay, which repeated the hoary old trope that the Confederacy had been “forced” to open fire on Fort Sumter. Not surprisingly, he’s still pounding that particular drum. In response to a question about whether the South’s secession came about because of a small number of fire-eaters or was actually a movement with wide popularity, Bowling instead prefers to answer a different question that hadn’t been asked:

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina formally withdrew from the Union and was closely followed by Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Certainly an argument could be made that the fire eaters in those states did much to stir up secession sentiment. The “cotton states” seceded primarily for economic reasons and a fear that their economies would be disrupted by the ascension of Lincoln and the Republican Party to national governance.

This is arguably true, if by “economic reasons” Bowling means the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, and its expansion into the territories, the latter proposition which the Republican Party (i.e., the “Black Republicans”) had vowed to block.

But that’s not what Bowling is suggesting, of course. Is he correct, that those first several states secede because of generalized worries about tariffs and their economies? No, they didn’t; Southern political leaders were torqued about the possible loss of their property. More specifically, their property in slaves. How can we know this? Because they effing told us.

For the umpteenth time, South Carolina:

The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

John C. McGehee, President of the Florida Secession Convention:

In the formation of the government of our fathers, the Constitution of 1787, the institution of domestic slavery is recognized and the right of property in slaves is expressly guaranteed. The people of a portion of the States who were parties in the government were early opposed to the institution. The feeling of opposition to it has been cherished and fostered and inflamed until it has taken possession of the public mind at the North to such an extent that it overwhelms every other influence. It has seized the political power, and now threatens annihilation to slavery throughout the Union. At the South and with our people, of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property. This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and, driven on by an infuriated, fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige of right growing out of property in slaves.

Georgia:

The North demanded the application of the principle of prohibition of slavery to all of the territory acquired from Mexico and all other parts of the public domain then and in all future time. It was the announcement of her purpose to appropriate to herself all the public domain then owned and thereafter to be acquired by the United States. The claim itself was less arrogant and insulting than the reason with which she supported it. That reason was her fixed purpose to limit, restrain, and finally abolish slavery in the States where it exists. The South with great unanimity declared her purpose to resist the principle of prohibition to the last extremity. This particular question, in connection with a series of questions affecting the same subject, was finally disposed of by the defeat of prohibitory legislation.

The Presidential election of 1852 resulted in the total overthrow of the advocates of restriction and their party friends. Immediately after this result the anti-slavery portion of the defeated party resolved to unite all the elements in the North opposed to slavery an to stake their future political fortunes upon their hostility to slavery everywhere. This is the party two whom the people of the North have committed the Government. They raised their standard in 1856 and were barely defeated. They entered the Presidential contest again in 1860 and succeeded.

The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.

With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers.

The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.

Georgia goes on to argue that “because by [the Republicans’] declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union.” The phrase, “$3,000,000,000 of our property” refers to slaves.

E.S. Dargan, addressing the Alabama Secession Convention:

If pecuniary loss alone were involved in the abolition of slavery, I should hesitate long before I would give the vote I now intend to give. If the destruction of slavery entailed on us poverty alone, I could bear it, for I have seen poverty and felt its sting. But poverty, Mr. President, would be one of the least of the evils that would befall us from the abolition of African slavery. There are now in the slaveholding States over four millions of slaves; dissolve the relation of master and slave, and what, I ask, would become of that race? To remove them from amongst us is impossible. History gives us no account of the exodus of such a number of persons. We neither have a place to which to remove them, nor the means of such removal. They therefore must remain with us; and if the relation of master and slave be dissolved, and our slaves turned loose amongst us without restraint, they would either be destroyed by our own hands– the hands to which they look, and look with confidence, for protection– or we ourselves would become demoralized and degraded. The former result would take place, and we ourselves would become the executioners of our own slaves.

And my own state, Texas:

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented [in 1845] to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.

These passages are not the writings of some politically-correct textbook author, or a liberal academic, or a South-hating blogger caught in the trap of “present-ism”; they’re not some modern historian’s opinion, or analysis, or interpretation. They’re the words written and spoken at the time, by the men who voted to take their respective states out of the Union. These are the words they themselves chose to explain and justify their actions, to their peers and to posterity. These words are explicitly how they wanted succeeding generations to understand their actions.

We should take them at their word.

Bowling, of course, continues to play his one-note tin whistle, again (and always) placing full and utter responsibility for the war on the sixteenth president, while admitting no missteps or bad faith on anyone in gray:

Lincoln had made his choice to fight. There had been no casualties at Ft. Sumter. Things might still have been worked out peacefully. One must wonder if Lincoln had met with the peace negotiators and tried to negotiate the contentious issues dividing the country such as slavery and tariffs rather than by using coercion and military force, that the ensuing fratricidal war might have been avoided. It must be noted that Lincoln was still willing to legally permit slavery to exist even several years into the war. The war rightfully should be laid at Lincoln’s feet. Lincoln’s premeditated bad choice set in motion a series of events which would lead to the death of 600,000 American citizens and the total devastation of the South for over 100 years.

An online friend of mine, JimmyD,  summed up the secessionists’ situation nicely, saying “first they lost the election, then they lost their minds.” By April 1861 nothing other than complete capitulation on on the part of the Lincoln administration would have avoided a shooting war, and given the indignant lather the fire-eaters had worked the South into, it’s an open question whether even that would have sufficed. “Negotiation,” in those Confederates’ (and Bowling’s) view, meant “give us everything we want.”


A Northern cartoon c. 1862, mocking the terms on which the Confederate states might be persuaded to rejoin the Union. Jeff Davis (left), his coat pockets stuffed with pistols, chides Brother Jonathan, an early representation of the United States: “Well Jonathan, if you agree to bear all the expenses of the war, and on top of that let me impose on you the old burden of slavery, while I hold the chain and the whip, I’ll put up my weapons for a while and we’ll have the ‘Union as it was’ only a great deal more so.” Library of Congress.

Folks committed to the Southron Heritage™ movement are fond of pointing to things like Lincoln’s reluctant support of the Corwin Amendment to demonstrate the the new president was not, at that point, willing to commit to ending the institution of slavery; true enough. But they ignore that his support for that legislation is Exhibit A in his willingness even to go against his own, personal opposition to slavery to ensure what he saw at the time as a more important goal, to preserve the Union intact. That was the one line he would not cross, and the South knew it. As Lincoln himself would later recall, “both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

And the war came.

It’s slightly embarrassing to have to continually remind folks of these inconvenient truths; it’s far more embarrassing for the Washington Post, historically one of this country’s great newspapers, to give over electronic real estate to such revisionist foolishness.

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“Forced” to Fire the First Shot

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 12, 2011

One hundred fifty years ago, Captain George Sholter James of the South Carolina Artillery passed word to his subordinate, Lieutenant Henry Farley, to open fire on Fort Sumter, a half-mile away to the east, with a ten-inch mortar positioned at Fort Johnson. The concussion of that first shell would reverberate for the next four years.

I’m not very good about remembering or observing anniversaries. (My wife will confirm this.) And I probably wouldn’t write anything at all about the bombardment of Fort Sumter, but for a piece that appeared Monday in the Washington Post‘s Civil War sesquicentennial blog, A House Divided. The blog itself is a group blog, which publishes short pieces by a variety of historians, written in response to specific questions. For Monday’s installment, the question was, “by attempting to resupply Ft. Sumter, did President Lincoln purposely provoke the war?” The selected respondents this time were Dennis Frye, Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park; Craig Symonds, Professor Emeritus at the United States Naval Academy, Mike Musick, former Subject Area Expert for the U.S. Civil War with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.; Brag Bowling, director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute and past Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Sons of Confederate Veterans and past President of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable; John Marszalek, Giles Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Mississippi State University; and Lonnie Bunch, Founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Each of the authors has a slightly different take on the question, though most conclude that Lincoln’s efforts to resupply Sumter were explicitly not intended to provoke a shooting war. Bowling disagrees in an essay that is filled with common talking points about the Sumter crisis and Lincoln’s supposed Machiavellian plotting to “force” the Confederate artillerymen into firing the first shot. Bowling’s essay is a trimmed-down version of one he’d written a couple of weeks ago for  the Georgia Heritage Council website.

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North Carolina SCV Has Its Story; Is Sticking to It

Posted in Leadership, Memory, Technology by Andy Hall on March 27, 2011

A couple of folks have pointed me toward a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, about efforts in Virginia and North Carolina, tied to the Civil War Sesquicentennial, to compile a more accurate count of each of those states’ war-related deaths. So far, researchers in North Carolina are estimating that state’s count as being roughly 20% less than the usually-accepted estimate of 40,000, while the total number of deaths now documented for Virginia troops is more than double an early count of around 15,000. (Be sure also to check out the additional features.)

It’s not surprising at all to me that modern researchers are coming up with different numbers than various compilers did 100+ years ago. What does surprise me is the disinterest in, or outright hostility to, the idea of doing such work in the first place:

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War beginning in mid-April, that small number could spark a big controversy between two states with rivalries that date back to the great conflict. Some Civil War buffs in North Carolina have already accused Mr. Howard of attempting to diminish the state’s heroism and the hardship it suffered. “Records were a whole lot fresher 150 years ago,” says Thomas Smith Jr., commander of the North Carolina Sons of Confederate Veterans, who is suspicious of Mr. Howard’s new count.

“I don’t care if Virginia has two people more who died, or a hundred more,” says Michael Chapman, a 55-year-old videographer from Polkton, N.C., who used to head up the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp. He calls the recounts “irrelevant.”

I don’t buy the “fresher” argument at all. A written record is a written record, and remains as accurate or reliable (or not) over the passage of time. They don’t go stale; that’s why we archive them.

Certainly it’s possible that some records available a century and more ago have since been lost or destroyed, but against that we now have easy access to electronic records, digital copies, online newspapers, easy cross-referencing, and indexed census rolls, which earlier generations never had access to. In my view, the benefits of the latter far outweigh the limitations of the former. No count will be absolutely accurate, of course, but there’s no question that researchers now have far better capability to do the work than did their predecessors in the 1860s. Unless there’s something very fundamentally flawed with the modern researchers’ methodology — which is not alleged — their work should be able to get us closer to the real answer, to the extent that it’s knowable at all.

Michael Chapman has weighed in on his state’s sesquicentennial program before, and shown himself to be somewhat less than even-tempered on the subject. (You really have to read through the whole comments thread to get the full effect.) But still, progress is progress, and this time he didn’t refer to those who have differing views as Nazis, or compare North Carolina Unionists to al Qaeda sleeper cells. Baby steps, Michael, baby steps.

What I don’t quite get is that these two men, one a current state commander in the SCV, and the other former local camp commander, are both dismissive (if not openly hostile) to this effort to get a more accurate count of their state’s war dead. To me, that’s a no-brainer. And while they may or may not be speaking officially for the North Carolina SCV, they do seem to offer their roles in that group as their authority on the subject. Their objections seem not to be methodological, but to the idea of doing the work at all.

Why would that be, exactly? And would they be opposed to this work if it were showing more North Carolina casualties, rather than fewer?

Update: The lead researcher on the North Carolina project, Josh Howard, notes in the comments below that the Leonidas L. Polk SCV Camp of Garner, North Carolina, and one of its members, Charles Purser, have actually provided substantial assistance in the effort to obtain an accurate count of North Carolina’s war dead. Credit where it’s due.

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Image: Captain Jesse Sharpe Barnes, Co. F, 4th North Carolina Infantry, killed on May 31, 1862, at Seven Pines, Virginia. Library of Congress.

That’s Old School

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on March 16, 2011

A while back, Levin mentioned the new Civil War Sesquicentennial website sponsored by the state of North Carolina. It got some great initial reviews, there and elsewhere, particularly for its efforts at telling a more comprehensive story of the war, and in its inclusion of other voices not often included, and left completely out of the Civil War Centennial in 1961-65: those of women, Unionists, African Americans, and so on.

The post wasn’t especially notable, but the exchange of comments that followed was spectacular, largely due to one particular person identifying himself as Michael, who flew off into a rage of indignation at what he perceived as the lack of representation on the commission’s committee by the SCV (this was disputed by other commenters), and the inclusion of what he termed “traitors” (e.g., Union sympathizers, freed slaves enlisted in the USCT) in the story of North Carolina during the war. He analogized North Carolina’s Unionists to both Nazis and hidden al Qaeda terror cells. Michael’s overall point seemed be that, because North Carolina cast its lot with the Confederacy, that state’s sesquicentennial commemoration should reflect a pro-Confederate view, to the exclusion of all others. Michael even took the opportunity to chide Levin, “if you are so interested in the truth, then why would you not see what the Abbeville Institute is teaching.”

Fortunately for Levin and the rest of us, some of the folks associated with the Abbeville Institute have stepped bravely into the breach, and established an alternative website for the “North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial.” (The website is managed by the Cape Fear Historical Institute, whose Board of Directors provides three of the four members of the Academic Board, and whose executive director, Bernhard Thuersam, serves as Commission Chariman.) They’re not looking forward; they’re explicitly looking backward, to the way the centennial was celebrated fifty years ago. The face of the project, featured on the introduction page, is Clyde N. Wilson, one of the prime movers at Abbeville. From Professor Wilson’s introduction (spelling and grammar as in the original):

America in 2011 is a very different country than America in 1961. The long march of cultural Marxism  (political correctness) through American institutions, which began in the 1930’s, has achieved most of its objectives.   Schools at every level, media, clergy, government agencies, and politicians are now captive  to a false dogma of history as conflict between an evil past and the forces of revolution struggling  toward a glorious future (This is exactly the way that Karl Marx, who knew nothing about  America, described The War).

In regard to the War Between the States, the PC regime means that the demonisation of the South,  chronic throughout American history, has re-emerged with a vengeance. The War is a morality play of  good versus evil. Sspecifically of the freedom-loving forces of the North heroically and nobly vanquishing  Southern traitors fighting with no other motive than to preserve the evil institution of slavery. . . .

It is now established with Soviet party-line rigour that The War was “caused by” and “about” slavery and nothing but slavery.  This is not because the interpreters of history in 2011 are more knowledgable than  those of 1961. Quite the reverse is true. The new orthodoxy does not result from new knowledge.   It is a consequnece of a change in the national discourse because of the rise of PC and because of the  obsession of many Americans with race and victimology as the centerpiece of American history.  Being on  the self-righteous side is also, of course, a disguise for hatred and a desire to dominate others.

It is near certain that the PC version of The War will dominate the public space in the observance to come.  It is our opinion that history is far too important to be left to official “experts.”   It is OUR history.  History is about who we are. . . .

Our Confederate forefathers were not monsters, they were largely brave, honourable, and admirable people  who endured greater suffering and sacrifice than any other large group of Americans ever have, and in pursuit  of the American principle of self-government.  To share their experience with the people of today, all that is  needed is to present them in their own words, or in the words of scholars before the age of PC.  The purpose  of this Sesquicentennial Website is simply to present them as they were. That is all that is needed to  destroy the PC version of history for any honest student.

I love it when a screed goes on, paragraph after paragraph, about their opponents’ political correctness (Wilson mentions it six times in 752 words), “cultural Marxism,” “Soviet party-line rigour [sic.],” and “hatred and a desire to dominate others,” and in the same breath argue that it’s those same opponents who are the ones feeding off a sense of victimhood.

On the other hand, Michael must be thrilled.

Snark aside, I don’t doubt that lots of folks who buy into this narrative are e-mailing links to this page to their kids’ teachers right now, encouraging them to look to it for the “truth” about the war. But I also doubt many of them will be fooled.

Update: Third paragraph updated March 17 to acknowledge the Cape Fear Historical Institute as sponsors of the website.

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Image: Screen capture of the new “North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial website, showing the diversity of voices represented.

Sanding Smooth the Rough Edges of History

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on February 22, 2011

Several folks have noted online that one of the Confederate reenactors at last Saturday’s Jeff Davis inaugural in Montgomery was an African American woman. Her name is Barbara Marthal, and she’s been active in Confederate heritage activities for years. She is a member of the Tennessee Order of the Black Rose, does public presentations on “black Confederates,” and last spring was married in a Confederacy-themed ceremony (PDF) hosted by the local SCV camp and ladies’ auxiliary. Her commitment to a particular, SCV-endorsed narrative about the war is unquestioned.

I mention Ms. Marthal because, in response to a story on the event at NPR, she posted a comment in which she cited the case of a Civil War relative of hers, Handy Davis Crudup, “who fought for and received a pension from the Confederacy. One hundred fifty years ago he would have cheered Mr. Davis.” The characterization of Mr. Crudup here is interesting, because Crudup’s Tennessee pension explicitly identifies him as a slave, accompanying Pvt. Richard T. Davis of the 7th Tennessee Infantry. This is a salient fact — indeed the most fundamental fact of his wartime experience — but rather than being clear about that, Ms. Marthal instead offers the somewhat ill-defined assertions that Crudup “fought for” the Confederacy, and  “would have cheered Mr. Davis.” In place of specific fact, the reader is offered vague assertion and speculation. As with Jefferson Davis in 1861 and his doppelganger in 2011, the mention of slavery is avoided in preference to grander language. I really don’t know how she figures to know Crudup’s likely response to Davis” original speech.

It may seem unfair to examine too closely a comment posted to a news story, but in this case it’s not a quickly dashed-off response. They’re Ms. Marthal’s own words, unfiltered by a reporter or editor. Ms. Marthal’s comment is carefully-worded and clear. It is written in defense of the ceremony in Montgomery, addressed to other NPR readers whose own comments are clearly not sympathetic to her view. And it does as good a job of that as it can. But at the same time it badly misleads the casual reader about Mr. Crudup’s actual wartime status, leaving the clear impression that the man was recognized as a soldier. (Another news story gets closer, saying that Crudup “fought as a slave.”)

Ms. Marthal is clearly committed to her Southern heritage, as she views it. She seems conscientious and sincere, but it’s unfortunate that someone who commits so much time and effort to getting history right, falls into the trap of offering vague-but-grand-sounding language rather than clear and specific wording. We don’t do our ancestors honor by being vague or misleading about who they were. It’s hard enough to try to know them at all; it does no honor to their memory to avoid the unpleasant realities of their lives. They lived those hard, ugly realities; is it too much for us even to acknowledge them directly?

The Plywood Steps

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 19, 2011

Today the SCV will be sponsoring a sesquicentennial parade and reenactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. It will be interesting to see how many folks turn out for this event, and what sort of media coverage it gets.

I’ve never visited the Alabama State Capitol, but it nonetheless resonates with me because of a story told me many times by an old friend. In the summer of 1965 he was in high school, and lived with his family in Houston. The family’s social life revolved around church, where my friend’s father was music director and a deacon, and their vacations usually consisted of going to family reunions. This was not a lot fun for a teenager.

My friend prevailed upon his parents that summer to fore-go the usual family reunion, and instead take a long driving trip across the South, with particular attention to visiting Civil War sites. This was in the last year of the Civil War Centennial, and my friend already had a pretty big fascination with the subject.

Their visit to Montgomery came a few months after the famous Third Selma-to-Montgomery March, which had ended with a rally at the State Capitol, yards from the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in a century before. My friend remembered that event vividly, and was as interested to see the Capitol as much for that recent history as for its association with the Civil War. One thing he remembered clearly from watching coverage of the anticipated rally was that the capitol steps, at least some of them, had been covered with sheets of plywood. These formed a steep slope, and my friend hadn’t quite figured it out. Maybe, he thought, they’d been put out to allow people in wheelchairs to participate in the rally, but they seemed at too great an incline for that.

So when he actually visited the Alabama State Capitol a few months later, my friend made it a point to ask about the plywood. What was it for, he asked a state trooper on duty nearby. What was the purpose of the plywood covering the capitol steps?

“So the coloreds couldn’t desecrate them,” was the trooper’s answer.

Is it fair that I think of that story every time I see a mention of the Alabama State Capitol or Jeff Davis’ inauguration? Probably not, but the paths our minds take when we think about things, and how we feel about them, often isn’t fair. It just is.

My friend, a son of the South, continued his fascination with the war, and the Confederacy. By his own admission, he bought into the Lost Cause without hesitation, even tacking up an enormous Confederate Battle Flag in his college dorm room at a school that had only desegregated a few years previously. But looking back on his youth now, all these decades later, he sees that offhand comment by the Alabama state trooper at Montgomery, juxtaposed against Jeff Davis’ inauguration and the Selma-to-Montgomery March, to have been the first, crucial step in his questioning of the Lost Cause and developing a more mature, complex understanding of both the history of the war and the historical heritage of his own family. It was the beginning of a hard process of realization, and it took him a long time to understand the realities of those events, and ugly legacies of them that have come down to us, right to the present day.

Added: Scott MacKenzie, via Kevin Levin, attended today’s event (with a little cardboard “UNIONIST” sign) and has the pictures.

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Image: Inauguration of Jefferson Davis, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861. Library of Congress.

Quit Digging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quit digging, folks.

Oh, About that Black Confederate at Arlington. . . .

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on October 23, 2010

One of the oft-cited elements in discussion of Black Confederates is the inclusion of an African American figure (left) in the frieze encircling the Confederate Monument at Arlington National Cemetery. The monument, funded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and dedicated in 1914, includes around its base a bronze tableau of Confederate soldiers marching off to war, answering their nation’s call. The young black man, wearing a kepi, marches alongside a group of soldiers; the others are armed but the African American carries no visible weapon. Nonetheless, his presence among the soldiers is usually presented as prima facie evidence that African Americans, too, were enlisted as soldiers in the Confederate Army. He’s cited on multiple websites, such as here, here, here, here and here; a web search on the phrases “Black Confederate” and “Arlington” generates several thousand hits. This descripti0n, on the blog of the California Division of the SCV is typical:

Black Confederate soldier depicted marching in rank with white Confederate soldiers. This is taken from the Confederate monument at Arlington National Cemetery. Designed by Moses Ezekiel, a Jewish Confederate, and erected in 1914. Ezekiel depicted the Confederate Army as he himself witnessed. As such, it is perhaps the first monument honoring a black American soldier.

Sounds pretty convincing. Too bad it’s not, you know, true. As James W. Loewen and Edward H. Sebesta point out in their recent anthology, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, the booklet published by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the time of the monument’s dedication gives an entirely different identification. Going back to that original text, it is detailed and explicit:

But our sculptor, who is writing history in bronze, also pictures the South in another attitude, the South as she was in 1861-1865. For decades she had been contending for her constitutional rights, before popular assemblies, in Congress, and in the courts. Here in the forefront of the memorial she is depicted as a beautiful woman, sinking down almost helpless, still holding her shield with “The Constitution” written upon it, the full-panoplied Minerva, the Goddess of War and of Wisdom, compassionately upholding her. In the rear, and beyond the mountains, the Spirits of Avar are blowing their trumpets, turning them in every direction to call the sons and daughters of the South to the aid of their struggling mother. The Furies of War also appear in the background, one with the terrific hair of a Gordon, another in funereal drapery upholding a cinerary urn.

Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.

The artist had grown up, like Page, in that embattled old Virginia where “Marse Chan” was so often enacted.

And there is another story told here, illustrating the kindly relations that existed all over the South between the master and the slave — a story that can not be too often repeated to generations in which “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” survives and is still manufacturing false ideas as to the South and slavery in the “fifties.” The astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war to the wives and children of those who were absent in the army was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South. One leading purpose of the U. D. C. is to correct history. Ezekiel is here writing it for them, in characters that will tell their story to generation after generation. Still to the right of the young soldier and his body-servant is an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro “mammy.” Another child holds on to the skirts of “mammy” and is crying, perhaps without knowing why.

My emphasis. “Faithful negro [sic.] body servant” is not a soldier under arms. But it is consistent with the “loyal slave” meme  — or “astonishing fidelity,” as the monument’s description calls it — so central to the Lost Cause during those years; similar sentiments appeared on monuments throughout the South.

The comparison to “Marse Chan” further reinforces the theme. “Marse Chan” was a short story by Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922), that first appeared in Century Magazine in 1884. Nominally set in 1872, “Marse Chan” is told in flashback through the eyes of Sam, a young slave in antebellum Virginia who is assigned as body servant to his master’s son, Tom Channing. Tom grows up and, when the war comes, Sam follows his young master into the army, describing his assignment in the dialect-style of writing commonly used by white authors of the period when writing dialogue for black characters: “an’ I went wid Marse Chan an’ clean he boots, an’ look arfter de tent, an’ tek keer o’ him an’ de hosses.” A contemporary classic of Lost Cause fiction, “Marse Chan” was Page’s best-known work. It would have been familiar to those attending the dedication, who would have understood exactly how its protagonist was the literary parallel of the figure in bronze.

The figure on the monument doesn’t represent a soldier, but it wouldn’t matter much as historical documentation if it did; had the sculptor, Moses Ezekiel, depicted the man explicitly as a soldier, it would reveal only that thought it important to include as part of the story he wanted to present — not necessarily that such men were commonplace. Those claiming the figure as “evidence” of African American soldiers in Confederate ranks a half-century prior to the monument’s unveiling make the common era of assuming that the memorial represents history as it actually was. In fact, no memorial does that; rather, they reflect the story and impressions that their sponsors and artisans want to be remembered, and depict the past in a particular way. Some monuments are more objectively accurate than others, but none is without its bias.

The rush to point to the figure on the Arlington memorial is, sadly, typical of the “scholarship” that informs much of the advocacy for Black Confederates. It reflects a sort of grade-school literalism; there’s a black figure in among the soldiers, therefore this man was a soldier, therefore this is proof of African Americans in the ranks of the Confederate Army more generally. The truth, of course, is not quite so obvious, but revealing it requires taking time to go back to the primary sources and giving some consideration to the context of the time of the monument — 1914, that is, not 1861-65 — and the preferred interpretation of the monument’s sponsors, the UDC. Once you understand those things, and not before, you can start looking for meanings and evidence contained within.

_____________

Additional, October 28: Stan Cohen and Keith Gibson’s Moses Ezekiel: Civil War Soldier, Renowned Sculptor reveals no further information about his design process or his own views on the Confederate Monument at Arlington; it simply repeats the description in the official UDC booklet. Ezekiel also completed statues of Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia and of Stonewall Jackson on the parade ground at VMI. It’s beautiful little  book, highly recommended.


“I’m a Son of Confederate Veterans as well as a son of slavery.”

Posted in African Americans, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on June 23, 2010

Cary Clack, a columnist for San Antonio Life and a descendant of both a Confederate cavalry officer and a slave, attends an SCV meeting and finds it to be an odd, but not-entirely-unpleasant experience:

I’d written a column sarcastically dismissive of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. While proclaiming my pride in being a child of the South and Southwest, I took issue with McDonnell’s initial declaration of Confederate History Month — on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — which ignored slavery, and with Perry’s earlier suggestion of secession.

The Heritage of Honor page on the SCV website didn’t mention the word “slavery” either, but I saw that membership is open to “all male descendants of any veteran who served honorably in the Confederate armed services” and that I qualified.

I wrote, “I’m a Son of Confederate Veterans as well as a son of slavery” and expected an application.

I got one, as well as an invitation to attend the May meeting, from Russ Lane, the affable head of Alamo Camp #1325. I never doubted I’d go, just as I never doubted I would be treated kindly.

Including wives, there were about 30 people in the meeting that began with “the Pledge of Allegiance” to “the United States of America,” which heartened me to know I wasn’t in the presence of secessionists.

Mr. Clack’s take on the encounter is interesting, and doesn’t easily fit into preconceived notions. It’s complicated, that’s for sure, and I hope he continues to write on this particular journey of his. It’s challenging enough thinking about one’s Confederate ancestors, who marched and fought and sometimes died in the uniform of a nation established to preserve and expand the institution of slavery; I can’t even imagine how to begin approaching the knowledge that one of your ancestors considered another to be his personal property.