The Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans Want You to Know that “Confederates of Color” Existed

Photo Credit: Civil War Memory
Photo Credit: Civil War Memory

Back in August Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory wrote a short blog post about the Missouri Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He mentioned that the MO SCV paid to have two billboards put up–one “near Kansas City” and one “outside St. Louis”–with three men posing in Civil War outfits, a Confederate flag in the background, a listing of the organization’s website, and a very strange question: “75,000 Confederates of Color?” I read Kevin’s post and subsequent comments while having a good laugh but didn’t think much about it after that.

Well, I just happened to have found the billboard “outside St. Louis” yesterday while driving on Interstate 70. It is located in High Hill, a tiny town of 200 people about an hour west of St. Louis, and can be seen when going eastbound towards St. Louis.

In recent years there has been a push within some quarters of the Civil War history world to suggest that there were thousands–if not tens of thousands–of African American men who voluntarily chose to serve in the Confederate military during the war. I’ve chosen to stay out of this particular conversation because I think Levin and a number of other Civil War bloggers have done a fine job of covering the topic. Kevin’s also got a forthcoming book on the myth of Black Confederates that I look forward to reading when it comes out. But what I do know is that historians generally acknowledge that a small number of blacks may have served in the Confederate military following the Confederate Congress’s passing of General Order No. 14 on March 13, 1865, a month before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The act gave President Jefferson Davis the authority to “ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men . . . to perform military service.” But the idea that tens of thousands of African Americans slaves, much less 75,000 of them, voluntarily chose to fight for the Confederacy is simply wrong and without evidence. Suffice to say it would have been literally impossible for most enslaved African American males to voluntarily choose to fight for a government dedicated to their continued enslavement.

There are many reasons to explain the rise of this phenomenon. One is a simple misreading of so-called “Black Confederate Pensions” that some former camp servants received after the war. Since the United States government did not award pensions to former Confederate veterans in the years after the war, former Confederate states took it upon themselves to establish a pension system for former soldiers. But some of these pensions dollars also went to former black camp servants who could prove that they had rendered some sort of service for the Confederacy, be that building earthworks, cooking and cleaning, or attending to the needs of a white enlisted soldier. These pension records are sometimes misinterpreted to suggest that Black men were enlisted in the Confederate military and treated as soldiers at the time when in fact they were not. For example, our old friend George Purvis once attempted to argue on this blog that he could find “10,000 names and numbers [phone numbers???] of Negroes” based on his own misreading of these pension records, and, in an odd extension of this argument, suggested that it was actually black soldiers in the United States military who were forced to serve! In other situations I suppose the black Confederate argument emerges as a way of arguing that the war had nothing to do with slavery or, as seems to be the case of the Missouri SCV, to promote a preferred narrative of the war and boost membership in and awareness of the organization.

If the motivation of the SCV in raising these billboards is to promote awareness and support of the organization, why does the statement “75,000 Confederates of Color” end with a question mark? While High Hill gets tens of thousands of drivers on a daily basis driving through on Interstate 70, why is the sign located there and not closer to the St. Louis regional area, where upwards of three million people live and commute daily? And while we know that numerous Indian tribes and a smattering of other racial groups in small numbers supported the Confederacy during the war, how does the Missouri SCV come to conclude that the correct number of people of color who served in the Confederate military is 75,000? Why not 10,000, 100,000, or four million? Where is the evidence for this claim?

But, you may say, herein lies the power of effective advertising! The billboard is provocative and challenges you to learn more by visiting the MOSCV.ORG website, where you can find the answer to this question. Fair point.

Well, I did just that today, and in the course of researching every nook and cranny of this website I can pass along to you that there is not a single resource on it to substantiate the claim that there were 75,000 “Confederates of Color” in the Confederate military during the Civil War. The lone piece of evidence the Missouri SCV offers is a 1903 newspaper article from the Confederate Veteran about one “Uncle” George McDonald, who is identified as “a colored Confederate veteran” but whose military assignment and regimental unit go unmentioned. There are no other primary source documents or references to reliable historical scholarship on the topic of “Confederates of Color” listed anywhere on the site.

Since there wasn’t much else on the Missouri SCV’s website about this topic, I opened up the most recent newsletter to see if there was any mention of the billboards there. Nope. There was news about recent Confederate flag rallies throughout the state, including one in the St. Louis area that I didn’t realize was organized by the Missouri SCV when I wrote this blog post about it last year. And there was a rather interesting editorial that included the following commentary:

As I am sure ya’ll are aware, our heritage is under attack from every angle imaginable. Our enemy our opportunists and they do not rest; NOR SHOULD WE. Even within our borders of our sovereign MISSOURAH, the flags of our ancestors have been removed from the sacred grounds of their final resting places and monuments to their memory are moved or relocated. The very sight or mention of anything Confederate sends college students scurrying for their “safe zones.” In St. Louis, the politically correct liberal bastion of insanity, the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park has been deemed unfit for common public view by the historically incompetent Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis. Mayor Slay wants the memorial out of Forest Park. His actions are tantamount to what ISIS is doing worldwide as they spread their version of hate.

Whoa, Nelly!

Is this approach really the best one for making your point and convincing others of your arguments? To be sure, I’m not interested in making blanket generalizations about the views and opinions of the Missouri SCV as a whole, but we learn a few things about the editors of their publications in this commentary. Obviously there is a tinge of contemporary politics underlying the SCV, particularly the belief that liberals can’t handle dissenting opinions (although this screed makes you wonder if these newsletter editors can handle dissenting opinions without going off the rails) and that places that lean liberal are bastions of “insanity.” Most interesting is the implied proclamation (to me at least) that a true Missourian supports Confederate heritage and proudly calls this state “Missourah” while the city of St. Louis is some sort of otherized foreign entity whose residents don’t represent that values of the state as a whole. What’s equally odd about all of this is how the SCV boldly proclaims on its homepage that it has taken steps to “[educate] the public about the ethnic diversity that existed in the Confederate ranks,” yet these newsletter editors have no qualms saying such nasty things about St. Louis, a place where, you know, many PEOPLE OF COLOR live.

(Also, just to clarify, Mayor Slay did not call for the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park to be removed, only that it was “time for a reappraisal” and a broader conversation within the St. Louis community about the merits of the monument remaining in Forest Park. Mayor Slay’s committee looked into finding an institution willing to take the monument without success and it remains in Forest Park today).

It’s never a dull day here in Missouri.

Cheers

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Why Did The Confederate Constitution Ban the International Slave Trade?

"Three Scenes From the Slave Trade in the USA," The Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
“Three Scenes From the Slave Trade in the USA,” The Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last year I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant and a number of claims on social media alleging him to have owned slaves during the Civil War. Using primary sources in Grant’s own writing I demonstrated that these claims were completely false, and that a number of statements alleged to have come from Grant were actually made up quotes by people with too much time on their hands. The only enslaved person known to have been owned by Grant was William Jones, whom Grant freed in St. Louis in 1859. I wondered aloud if these claims intending to paint Grant as a slaveholding Union general spoke to a larger desire to portray the Civil War as a conflict that had little to do with slavery as a cause of the war. After all, how could the war be about slavery if the savior of the Union was a slaveholder? Moreover, I argued–and the credit for this argument goes to historian Brooks Simpson–that Grant’s views one way or the other towards slavery were irrelevant for understanding the causes of the Civil War since Grant had no political role in the coming of the war or the decision of eleven states to secede from the Union. He was a clerk for his father’s leather good store in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the war, far removed from the political crisis emerging in Washington, D.C. with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The other day I received three comments from a person eager to contest that essay, and one of his arguments (which had nothing to do with the subject at hand but is nonetheless revealing) seems to suggest that the Confederate Constitution could have been seen as calling for the eventual end of slavery in the Confederacy because it banned the international slave trade. Again, it wasn’t all about slavery! This claim is an interesting one and worth exploring further. Does it have any merit?

The U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 9.1 that the international slave trade would be closed in 1808, but that Congress could not prohibit the trade until that time. The Confederate Constitution was in most regards almost an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution also bans the international slave trade within the Confederate states. There are two significant changes in Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution, however. One is that while the U.S. Constitution only vaguely refers to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the Confederate Constitution clearly stipulates that the subjects under consideration were “Negroes of the African race from any foreign country.” The other extremely significant change is that the Confederate Constitution did not call for a complete ban on the international importation of slaves. An additional clause stipulates that slaves from “the slaveholding states or territories of the United States of America” (which were now considered part of a foreign country) could still be imported into the Confederate states. The Confederate Constitution, in other words, still allowed for the importation of enslaved people from the border slaves states and Western territories like New Mexico that had not yet seceded from the Union.

This is when the date of the Confederate Constitution’s ratification comes into play. That constitution was adopted on March 11, 1861, roughly one month before the firing of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. At that time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, and eight border slaves states remained in the Union: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Banning the international slave trade was one method by which the Confederacy aimed to convince these states to secede, especially in the case of Virginia, whose economy by 1860 largely revolved around the interstate slave trade and the shipping of slaves to the South and West. By allowing the slave trade to continue between the U.S. and the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution allowed the uncertain border slave states a chance to continue selling their slaves to the Confederate states in the short-term while they debated their next step. In the long-term, after these border slave states had ostensibly left the Union and joined forces with the Confederacy, their continued financial interests in the slave trade would not be challenged by international trade with slaveholding countries in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Removing all protections for the domestic slave trade and embracing a “free trade” approach ran the risk of lowering the price of slave labor and putting border state slave traders out of business. There was also an international motivation for banning most of the international slave trade. The Confederacy attempted to make a pitch for support from European countries like England and France that had already banned slavery by demonstrating that they were willing to ban parts of the slave trade, even though they really had no desire of ending slavery as a whole any time soon.

Through these examples we can clearly see that the Confederacy’s banning of most of the international slave trade in its Constitution was not done in the hope of eventually abolishing slavery in the Confederacy, but to strengthen its domestic slave trade while hopefully winning points with England and France.

It’s also worth mentioning that a good number of Confederate supporters–although probably not the majority–supported the idea of re-opening the slave trade precisely because they knew it would help lower the cost of slave labor. James Paisley Hendrix, Jr.’s 1969 article in Louisiana History shows that support for a reopening of the trade increased greatly in the 1850s, and that a Southern convention in 1859 passed a resolution saying as much. The New Orleans Delta reflected these desires when they wrote an editorial in support of opening the trade, arguing that “We would re-open the African slave trade [so] that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more Negroes . . . Our true purpose is to diffuse the slave population as much as possible, and thus secure in the whole community the motives of self-interest for its support.”

So yeah, slavery had something to do with all of this.

Cheers

Bad Historical Thinking: “History is Written By the Victors”

One of the most unfortunate and widely-accepted ideas about historical thinking is that “history is written by the victors.” This talking point asserts that the truth of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or a factual understanding of the past, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the “winning” side of history; the “winners” have the power to shape historical narratives through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, and a range of other mediums. To be sure, these mediums are powerful venues for establishing political ideologies and shaping personal assumptions about the way the world works. And it’s definitely true that governmental or “official” entities can and do exploit this power to achieve their own ends. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of “official cultural expressions” that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities who seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo” (13). In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.

It is a mistake, however, to assume that only the “winners” of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day goals. This is especially the case in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners.

(I know that “Winners” is a vague and ill-defined term in this context, but I will set aside any long-winded attempt at a definition for this post).

There may be no stronger example of “losers” writing widely accepted historical narratives than those who have advocated for the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War. The central argument of the Lost Cause, of course, is that the Confederacy was morally and constitutionally right in their efforts to secede from the United States. But loss is central to Lost Cause theory in that many of its advocates argue that the Confederacy was doomed from the very beginning of the war since United States forces had superior resources and military forces to overwhelm them. Although the historical reality demonstrates that there were several instances during the war when it appeared the Confederacy was on the brink of victory, the narrative power of young men patriotically putting their lives on the line for a doomed yet noble cause still appeals to a great number of Americans today.

In the years after the Civil War, Lost Cause advocates grabbed their pens and their pocketbooks in an effort to win the memory battle over the meaning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. In 1866 Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established The Land We Love, a magazine that glorified Southern literature, agrarianism, and provided a platform for Confederate veterans to publish their reminiscences of battle. From 1884 to 1887 the popular Century Magazine published its famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, which included lengthy articles from both United States and Confederate military leaders about the war. Former Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote autobiographies and histories of the Confederacy that reflected their version of events. Many history textbooks in schools throughout the country, but especially those in former Confederate states, taught a Lost Cause version of the war that glorified the Confederacy. Later on a number of motion picture films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind further extended the Lost Cause’s reach. And for roughly fifty years (1880-1930) countless millions of dollars were spent through both donations and public tax revenues to support the erection of monuments glorifying the Confederacy all across the South (and elsewhere, I’m sure).

All of these expressions of memory and historical interpretation were readily accepted by many if not most white Americans all over the country after the war. The “Losers” succeeded in writing a history that gained popular acceptance in American society. And the Lost Cause interpretation of the war is readily available for those looking to study it today. Anyone can go online and read Davis, Stephens, and many other Lost Cause materials on Google Books or HathiTrust. Anyone can find the Declarations of Secession written by the various Southern states that chose to explain their reasoning for embracing disunion.

History is written by everybody, not just the “winners.” It’s true that there have been times in history when “official narratives” aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of those in power. But the bigger point that is equally true is that historical counter-narratives always exist to subvert “victors” history, both orally and in print. “History is written by the victors” is a lazy argument that is usually deployed in the absence of historical evidence to defend claims about the past. This is why it was so ironic to me when I heard the complaint that “history is written by the victors” when the city of New Orleans decided to take down their Confederate statues in December. Clearly that’s not a true statement once you see how former Confederates and their supporters succeeded in shaping NOLA’s commemorative landscape for more than 150 years following the end of the Civil War.

Cheers

Confederate Secession Was Not a Moment of “Insanity”

The historian Sean Wilentz wrote an op-ed for the New York Times a while back asking if the United States Constitution recognized slavery in national law prior to the Civil War. Wilentz answers “No,” and other academic historians have responded with a flurry of blog posts, articles, and tweets. There are too many to link here, but thankfully Al Mackey has already done the work of collecting most of the worthy responses on his website. The latest response to Wilentz comes from Daniel W. Crofts at the History News Network, and Dr. Crofts’ response now provokes a response from me.

Crofts focuses his essay on a second contention from Wilentz: that disagreements over the meaning of the Constitution were “the rock that split the Union in 1860-61.” Crofts counters this argument by asserting that constitutional disagreements between Northerners and Southerners only played a small role in explaining the outbreak of Civil War. Instead, he contends, the very act of Confederate secession itself was responsible for the start of the war. Most Unionists who actively supported a forceful response to secession did so not because of their anti-slavery convictions (if they had any), but because they viewed the idea of a state or states unilaterally leaving the country because their preferred candidate lost an election was a direct affront to the principles of popular government and republican rule of law. Secession set a bad precedent and imperiled the future of the United States, and these concerns largely explain the motivations underlying Unionists’ military response to the Confederacy following the firing of Fort Sumter.

While I think there’s a certain risk in arguing that secession was responsible for the war’s outbreak without also understanding how political disagreements over slavery and the constitution made secession a viable option to future Confederates in 1860-61, I believe Crofts is correct in this argument. It also lines up nicely with similar arguments made by Gary Gallagher in his book The Union War, a book I consider to be one of the finest works of scholarship published during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

I believe Crofts takes his thesis too far, however, by embracing a common argument about secession–most recently made elsewhere by Jon Grinspan–that I call the Confederate Insanity Plea. To wit:

Blind to abundant historical evidence that war had the potential to disrupt slavery, secessionists sleepwalked heedlessly into catastrophe. The Republican Party posed no danger to slavery. But war did. Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, observed retrospectively that white Southerners had fallen victim to collective “insanity.” Had they stayed in the Union, they might have kept slavery “for many years to come.” No party or public feeling in the North “could ever have hoped” to touch it.

This conclusion strikes me as odd – just as odd as Wilentz’s assertion that the majority of Unionists enlisted in the U.S. military to defend an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution. Of course the Republican party posted a danger to slavery. How else do you explain the coming of Confederate secession in the first place?

Although Crofts apparently also takes issue with James Oakes‘ explanation for the coming of war, I agree with Oakes. The leading Southern advocates for disunion considered secession a better option for protecting their slave property than living under a Republican government opposed to the further westward expansion of slavery. It made no difference to them that Lincoln had never advocated the complete and immediate abolition of slavery or embraced the support of radical abolitionists during his candidacy. It made no difference to them that Republicans took pains to disavow any intentions of abolishing slavery where it already existed. And it made no difference that Republicans had previously expressed their wish to maintain their Union with slaveholders. To the Fire Eaters these distinctions were meaningless because the Republicans, by preventing the westward expansion of slavery, had hoped to establish a “Cordon of Freedom” that would limit slavery’s growth and, in due time, hasten its eventual demise. Whether a Northerner proclaimed himself a Republican or an abolitionist was meaningless to secession advocates because the end goal for both was the same: the eventual end of slavery in the United States.

Although his scholarship in now dated, Allan Nevins succinctly captured one fundamental issue for secessionists about the Republicans: “Was the Negro to be allowed, as a result of the shift of power signalized by Lincoln’s election, to take the first step toward an ultimate position of general economic, political, and social equality with the white man? Or was he to be held immobile in a degraded, servile position?” (470-471)

The first state to secede following the 1860 election was South Carolina, and their Declaration of Secession clearly views the Republican party as a threat to slavery:

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 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.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

To simply attribute the concerns of leading secessionists to the machinations of “insanity” is flawed. The insanity argument is an exercise in excuse-making that denies agency to leading Confederates in the choice for disunion, and it minimizes the importance of their own words in Declarations of Secession such as the one above. Secession was not the result of insane reasoning but deliberate, calculated thinking that matured over years of sectional conflict over slavery and the nature of the Union. Actions occur only when you first perceive that action is necessary, and whether or not secessionist perceptions of the Republican party were truly accurate is not so important as understanding that those perceptions led to calculated actions with deadly consequences.

Finally, while scholars today looking back in hindsight can agree with Crofts by seeing secession’s failure as hastening slavery’s destruction, we might choose to qualify that statement by stressing that few people at the outbreak of the war could have predicted that such an outcome would enact so much change in four years. Secession did not automatically guarantee slavery’s demise because the end results of secession could have played out in any number of ways. A successful Confederate effort would have perpetuated slavery indefinitely, and even an unsuccessful effort could have maintained slavery; had George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign of 1862 succeeded in ending the rebellion, slavery could have arguably continued where it already existed and been protected under the Lincoln administration (see Glenn David Brasher’s recent work on African Americans and the Peninsula Campaign for further discussion). Changing circumstances on the battlefield and the ever-evolving views of the Republican party towards slavery, however, contributed to the institution’s destruction. That the Lincoln administration eventually embraced emancipation as a war aim and passed the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery, both with the popular support of loyal Unionists, must also be considered as crucial factors in the end of slavery in addition to the act of secession itself.

So, to recap, repeat, and TL,DR: Crofts is correct in asserting that the act of secession motivated Unionists to enlist in the U.S. military in 1861 more so than any sort of antislavery conviction or constitutional interpretation, but I think he errs in dismissing Confederate secession as an act of insanity and asserting that the Republican party posed no threat to slavery because they had promised to protect it where it had already existed.

Cheers

Confederates At the Bridge

This past Saturday I attended a very nice wedding in Southern Illinois. The drive to the ceremony was like any other adventure through the Land of Lincoln (boring!), but a couple attractions along Interstates 70 and 64 caught my attention and prompt me to write yet another (and hopefully the last one for a while) post on Confederate iconography in American society today.

I started my drive in St. Charles county, Missouri, and within minutes of getting onto Interstate 70 I noticed a demonstration on a bridge above the highway with roughly fifteen men waving just about every Confederate flag that existed during the Civil War, from the “Stars and Bars” to the Battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and everything in between. The purpose of this demonstration was unclear; there were no signs identifying the group or a message stating their purpose. For this reason it’s hard to speculate this group’s motivations, but I have traveled on this road for nearly my entire life and have never seen such a demonstration before. You can’t help but wonder if the vocal backlash against Confederate iconography in the wake of the Charleston Massacre in June has something to do with it.

I continued my drive and eventually crossed over into Illinois on Interstate 64. As I neared Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County I observed yet another demonstration that included the waving of a Confederate flag! This time the group had a number of signs explicitly stating their message:

“IMPEACH OBAMA!”

“ISLAM IS NOT A REAL RELIGION!”

This time there were two flags being waved. One was an American flag. The other was a Confederate flag conveniently displayed right next to the Obama sign.

Waving an American flag makes sense in this context, even if you disagree with the message. Historically all sorts of political groups from the Second Ku Klux Klan to the Communist Party USA have used the American flag to symbolize their beliefs and give them validity. The fact that libertarians, conservatives, liberals, socialists, and communists find meaning in the American flag is a testament to the fluidity (and ambiguity) of our nation’s fundamental principles. By flying the red, white, and blue, the demonstrators at this bridge wished to appropriate the American flag’s symbolism to reflect their own values and ideological views. They wanted to show drivers that they are true American Patriots who care deeply about the state of their nation, which they believe is now imperiled because of the President.

But why fly a Confederate flag alongside the American flag and a sign calling for Obama’s impeachment? Why not fly just the American flag or, if necessary, a “Don’t Tread on Me” Sign? Would these demonstrators whip out a Confederate flag if they were protesting the actions of Presidents Reagan, Bush, or Clinton? These people believe they are losing their freedoms, and in a way the Confederate flag’s use has always symbolized the perceived loss of freedom. But given the Confederate flag’s long history as a symbol of opposition to Civil Rights legislation and racial equality, one can easily conclude that the flag was also there because the demonstrators’ dislike for our nation’s first black President stems at least in part from their racism. There is also something to be said about their mistaken belief that he is a practicing Muslim, but that’s a different topic for another day.

In the wake of the Charleston Massacre the economist Thomas Sowell was quick to warn against “trying to make up for the past with present-day benefits” from the welfare state. He expressed a desire to see the country repudiate racism, find a path towards national racial reconciliation, and come to terms with the results of the Civil War. Sowell, however, did not direct this message to the wavers of Confederate flags. He instead directed it to who he describes as “professional race hustlers” like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the Black Lives Matter Movement (which, ironically, has had a very limited public association with either Sharpton or Jackson). In Sowell’s rendering these hustlers are bent on perpetuating a new civil war within the country and destroying its history by renaming every memorial and landmark that is scared in our collective memory. And in a strange leap of logic, he concludes that the result of a victorious Black Lives Matter movement “could ultimately accomplish [Dylann Roof’s] dream of racial polarization and violence.”

There is certainly room for debate about the tactics and methods of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Veteran Civil Rights Activists from the 1960s don’t even agree about the effectiveness of the movement’s approach so far. And Sowell’s desire for national reconciliation and racial healing is a sentiment I share. But his hyperbolic warnings to the “race hustlers” lose their substance when white modern-day Confederates without an ounce of reconciliation in their souls go to interstate bridges on Saturday mornings to wave the symbols of a failed government whose cornerstone foundation was based on white supremacy. Are the people peacefully demonstrating at Black Lives Matter protests the actual race hustlers bent on perpetuating a state of war, or is it the people flying the Confederate flag under the ambiguous cloak of “heritage” who are the actual race hustlers still bent on fighting the Civil War?

It should go without saying that everyone has the right to freely express themselves and wave as many Confederate flags as they want at their homes or at bridges on top of busy interstates. Likewise, I have had my own criticisms of President Obama and don’t approach this discussion as an apologetic defender of his administration. It would be nice, however, if the people so proudly waving this flag could be a little more self-reflective about the history of their beloved symbol and its divisive nature. I wish people would care about the betterment of their communities and a more just society for all Americans as much as they care about their Confederate flags.

Cheers

Final Thoughts on Paul Kennerley’s “White Mansions”

Last week I wrote two separate essays here and here on the British songwriter Paul Kennerley’s 1978 country music concept album White Mansions. I originally intended to stop with two posts, but alas, I have a few more final thoughts to add about this album.

I think the cultural historian Christian McWirther’s description of White Mansions in the comments section of my last post really gets to the heart of my own feelings about it: he suggested that the album “flirted with a more complicated view of the Confederacy but inevitably defaulted to a Lost Cause narrative.” That’s a perfect description in my view. For example, the song “No One Would Believe A Summer Could Be So Cold” highlights a vocal secessionist’s changing attitudes towards the Civil War and his role in it. Whereas Matthew’s ideological passion for Confederate secession and the preservation of his “way of life” sustain him in the beginning of the conflict, his words by 1863 suggest that all of the talk surrounding valor, glory, and heroism are meaningless to him upon the sight and smell of dead, rotting bodies around him. Matthew doesn’t explicitly question his earlier political views in the song, but it’s clear that he is physically and emotionally affected by the consequences of war. I also like how Kennerley acknowledges in numerous songs at the beginning of the album that the defense and expansion of slavery was a central motivation for Confederate secession, a point that is not always appreciated by listeners of White Mansions today, as we will soon see.

The lyrics towards the end of the album, however, fall into predictable Lost Cause talking points by suggesting that the Confederacy never had a chance of achieving victory because of the Union’s superior manpower and resources; that General William Sherman’s men were the sole perpetrators of violence and destruction during the March to the Sea; that the United States government and military were wholly responsible for bringing on and perpetuating a violent war of aggression; and that the postwar Reconstruction years were marked by oppressive misrule of the South by hateful Northern carpetbaggers and their black allies. Although historians like W.E.B. Du Bois and Kenneth Stampp had already published marginally popular studies challenging this traditional Reconstruction narrative by the time White Mansions was released, the story of “Carpetbagger and Negro misrule” remained the consensus view in the 1970s and was uncritically embraced in this album. Later revisionist works by Eric Foner, Thomas Holt, Steven Hahn, and Brooks Simpson in the 1980s and 1990s further questioned the accuracy of this consensus view, but it still remains popular today in some quarters.

Time and space are also important factors for placing White Mansions within the cultural context of 1970s and 80s music. White Mansions was released at the same time Confederate iconography and identity more explicitly embedded itself within popular music. From Lynyrd Synyrd hanging the Confederate flag on their stage during concerts, to Tom Petty’s album Southern Accents, to Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” and Confederate Flag guitar, this period of rock music saw many instances in which Confederate identity was appropriated to symbolize rebellion and independence in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. While this identity never fully shed its complicated past of slavery, secession, and resistance to Civil Rights, the 1970s and 80s saw new meanings attached to that identity and a general acceptance of its expression through popular music. White Mansions never reached the popularity level of a Skynrd album or other concept albums by bands like The Who and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but it is nevertheless reflective of those cultural forces at play in popular music. And it is hard to imagine a concept album like White Mansions–an album that explores and even celebrates white Confederate identity–gaining much popularity or enjoying commercial success without controversy today.

Paul Kennerley’s British background is also significant because it speaks to the popularity of the Lost Cause throughout the world. I would love to learn about the books Kennerley relied on to inform his interpretation of Civil War history when composing White Mansions. I would guess it probably wasn’t too different than the sorts of books students were reading in American history classrooms and buying at National Park gift shops at the time. Kennerley’s background also reminds me of a recent feature in Vice of a Brazilian town called Americana that was settled by Confederate defectors 150 years ago and where an annual festival called the “Fraternidade Descendência Americana” celebrating the Confederacy continues today.

Finally, I take note of YouTube’s role in perpetuating the memory of White Mansions, which now also acts as a gathering place for users to express their pride in Confederate identity and share their memories of listening to the album during their youth. On a video of the entire album commenters remarked that:

“I have not heard this record since about 1982. It is a pleasure to find an ‘old friend.”

“This is one of my favorite albums. Beautiful and haunting.”

“I’m too excited, I just ordered it off of Amazon. Can’t wait. I first heard this album in the early 80s with my brother. I had the cassette.”

And on another video of the song “The Southland’s Bleeding” (sung by Waylon Jennings and nearing 100,000 views today) YouTube users over the past month have left a range of comments expressing love for the Confederacy and concerns about efforts to “erase” Confederate history:

“Still fighting to honor the Confederate army and Dixie-land in 2015. But the Liberals want to erase them and (us) from history. Southern pride.”

“The southland is bleeding again this week. God help the south.”

“I live in ‘enemy territory’, but I still run up my beloved ‘Stars and Bars’ and bring it in every night. Down with the eagle, up with the cross!”

“Today some folks object to the Southern flag. This flag isn’t about race. This flag is about state’s rights.  California has rights concerning immigration that the feds wont touch. Our states  have rights that the feds wont touc” [sic]

“The Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, the Southern Cross, or St. Andrews Southern Cross did in no way have anything to do with slavery or what started the Civil War. It signified to the Confederate Soldier their opposition to what was considered an illegal levying of unfair and overburdening taxation by the Federal government on the Southern States and the products they produced.”

That people would take the time to find songs from White Mansions on YouTube and then comment on those songs demonstrates the ways YouTube has become a cultural medium for expressing historical memories and prideful statements about personal identity. It also shows how people seamlessly weave their understanding of history into their interpretation of current events. Whether or not these comments are accurate from a historical perspective is one question scholars can and should address when analyzing public memories, but the fact that people go through the trouble of expressing themselves this way in the first place is another question worth examining more closely.

Cheers

White Mansions: Singing Songs About the Confederacy

In my last post I discussed the British songwriter Paul Kennerley’s 1978 concept album White Mansions, which aims to tell a story about the experiences of white Southerners who supported the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Kennerley creates four composite characters in White Mansions (along with a very minor appearance from Rodena Preston, who portrays “The Slaves” in a blandly predictable one-minute interlude) who are supposed to represent various perspectives of people who actually experienced the war firsthand. I provided a brief introduction to each character in that last post. We will now dig further into each character’s role in White Mansions. This essay is a bit long, so bear with me.

Polly Ann Stafford (portrayed by Jessi Colter)

Polly stays out of any political discussions about the nation’s impending civil war, but she senses that “the Old South” is going to change. In “Story to Tell” she sings to a white-haired planter (the symbol of the established planter class) her prediction that he will not live to see these changes. “They want to change your way of life/a life you thought was right/all you’ve held dear since birth, they’ll rearrange/but I don’t think you’re going to live to see the change.” “They,” of course, is President Abraham Lincoln’s new administration in Washington, D.C. Even though Lincoln proclaims in his First Inaugural Address an intention not to touch slavery where it already existed, his refusal to allow the extension of slavery into new western territories undergirds his true desire to see slavery eventually abolished throughout the entire country. Polly and the planter class believe his election will represent the undoing of their freedoms.

Polly’s two other appearances on White Mansions use horses as a metaphor to sing about love, companionship, and kindness. “The Last Dance & The Kentucky Racehorse” is a cheeky song in which Polly and her sweetheart Matthew sing of their enduring love, but it’s also reflective of the Victorian-style letters soldiers and loved ones wrote to each other during the war, replete with flowery language and uncensored emotions. “For the time you’ll be away from me/all the days that lie ahead/dear heart, please keep the memories/we share like we share my bed. Although I won’t have your helping hand/or keep your sweet company/darling when you’re fighting this war/please think a little bit about me.”

In “The Union Mare & The Confederate Grey,” Polly and “The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings) hear of dead Union and Confederate soldiers lying together on the battlefield while their horses grazed side-by-side during the aftermath of a horrible (which one specifically is a mystery to listeners). The two lament this scene and wonder aloud what could have been if both sides would have avoided war: “How happy we’d be if we acted way of the Union mare and the Confederate grey.” From this point on, however, Polly suddenly disappears from the story. Her work as a nurse at Confederate hospital makes her sick and eventually kills her, an unintended victim of the war.

Matthew J. Fuller (portrayed by John Dillon)

Matthew’s status as the son of a wealthy Georgia planter leads him to a vocal position in favor of secession in order to preserve slavery. He enthusiastically joins the Confederacy and outlines his reasoning in “Join Around the Flag”:

the State’s called its sons to its side, boys

they’re hoisting up the ‘Stars and the Bars’

we must all prepare to fight

for a cause we feel is right

and join Jeff Davis from near and far

they can’t understand our way of life boys

they don’t want slaves in the new territories

the knowledge that they lack

is there’s no cotton if there’s no blacks

and that gives us the reason to secede

since Abe got elected there ain’t no choice, boys

we showed ’em what we meant when Sumter fell

and if they to try to take us back

or come and free the blacks

the good Lord knows we’re going to give ’em hell

Matthew’s initial enthusiasm for a break with the Lincoln government and a lust for bloodshed quickly evaporates, however. Matthew doesn’t explicitly harbor second thoughts about his role in encouraging secession, but one can easily conclude in “No One Would Believe a Summer Could Be So Cold” that Matthew starts regretting his enlistment in the Confederate military. He abandons Polly’s love and admits that after being wounded at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek he “grabbed some love from the whores in town.” He acknowledges that “I start to forget just why we’re here” and laments the Confederacy’s major losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863. And, in some of the most moving lyrics in White Mansions, he states that “they tell you stories of valor and glory/but they ain’t near the fact/heroes look bad when all they had/bin eaten by worms and rats/I hear dying men calling with gangrene crawling/through their flesh and bones/I’ve seen thousands pleading as they lie bleeding/ain’t it time to go back home.”

Matthew’s pride is too strong, however, and he pushes on to serve through the end of the war. In “Bring Up the Twelve Pounders” he calls for more artillery but is reminded by “the ghosts of the Confederate dead” that the war is over and that he must go home. Finally, in “Bad Man” he states his intention to enact revenge for the death of his sweetheart Polly (who he had previously cheated on during the war). Matthew boasts that “this war taught me how to kill” and that he is “going to make them bleed/they’ll pay in time/they’re damned unjust/with their twisted laws/they want to take my life.” Even though Matthew began doubting the cause during the war, he emerges in the war’s aftermath as an unreconstructed rebel without regret for his role in precipitating the conflict. He expresses no doubts about the righteousness of his cause and lays the blame for the war entirely on the Lincoln government, which he believes used superior resources and men to defeat, humiliate, and subjugate an honorable people. Matthew’s initial postwar memories in White Mansions, therefore, symbolize the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War that became so prevalent throughout the country in the war’s aftermath.

Caleb Stone (portrayed by Steve Cash)

Caleb Stone has ragged clothes, poor teeth, long hair, no property or slaves, and a Confederate flag in hand. He describes himself as “White Trash” and happily embraces that title. In a song by the same name Caleb proclaims that he’ll join the Confederate military because he has nothing better to do: “I guess I’ll volunteer for the war against the blue/’cause there ain’t nothing better down here to do that’s much better/I’ll break some blue bones before this thing is through. They call me white trash but I’m a fighting man/I’ll sure do the best I can/I may be bad and have a foul mouth/but I’m ready – to defend the South.” In contrast to Matthew’s highly ideological reasoning for joining the war, Caleb joins up simply because he loves the South and has nothing better to do, not because he wants to defend slavery or the planter class. We will later see that in reality such a distinction cannot be not easily made.

After the initial success of 1861 battles at First Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek, Caleb feels like the Confederacy’s soldiers are vastly superior to their counterparts in blue. “They got many more men than us/got the arms but not the guts,” he proclaims, and he believes that “pretty soon they’ll give in.” In “Southern Boys” he boasts that the “sweet spirit of Dixie” is the reason the Confederacy is winning: its soldiers are stronger both mentally and physically, and this strength will prevail against any sort of resources the Union throws against it. Caleb’s confidence in ultimate victory for the Confederacy reflects a different perspective than the one put forth by Polly, who believed that the South was doomed to lose from the start (a point also embraced in Lost Cause mythology).

Caleb then disappears from White Mansions until the end of the war, when we hear of his remarkable transformation into a God-fearing man of Christ. Whereas Matthew is vindictive, violent, and broken by his wartime experience, Caleb seems to have been saved by it. He admits in “The King Has Called Me Home” that “I’ve bin burning up my body with drinking/and I can’t leave them women alone” but also proudly proclaims that “I’ve found salvation, the King has called me home/I know where I’m going now, the King has called me home.” Where he actually goes from this point remains a mystery for listeners, but it appears that the war has given a Caleb a new birth of freedom and a sense of redemption. The war has changed him for the better.

“The Drifter” (portrayed by Waylon Jennings)

“The Drifter” stays away from the battlefield and instead comments on the happenings of war from afar. In “Dixie, Hold On,” he simultaneously warms of the good and bad consequences of seceding from the United States. He starts off with a cautionary tone:

to stand alone and cut America in two

means everything’s lost, the constitution’s fallen through

to leave the Union is to weaken what is strong

you think it right, they think it morally wrong

but you’ll fall – oh, oh, oh Dixie you’ll fall

King Cotton, your reign is shadowed with pain

and burning emotion

you need slaves to keep alive

but the North could help you survive

your misguided notion

By the end of the song, however, The Drifter concludes for unknown reasons that secession is actually the correct path for the South: “oh, oh Dixie, you are bold and strong/you could have ’em beat before too long/you have a birthright, a lifestyle to defend/you must hold on, until the very end/hold on – oh, oh Dixie, hold on.” The Drifter invests his stock into the Confederacy’s fortune.

The Drifter, like Caleb, reappears in the narrative towards the end of war. But like Polly, The Drifter now concludes that there was no realistic chance of winning the war. In “The Southland’s Bleeding” (one of the more popular songs from White Mansions) he pleads, “let’s stop this fighting while we can/it takes a brave man, but to end this killing/it takes a braver man. You know there ain’t no real chance/for us to win this/there won’t be no victory dance at the finish/it’s just – Southern pride/it’s just – stubborn blindness.” For the Drifter the end of the war meant swallowing any Confederate pride and accepting the consequences of a losing war. Any resistance to the reality of the situation was a product of blindly foolish Southern pride in his mind.

The Drifter then concludes White Mansions with a melodramatic elegy for the now-dead nation: “you had courage and you had pride,” the Drifter wails, “but the Union could never see your side.” “The states are bleeding, they’re wounded and marred/Mister Lincoln isn’t here to lend a hand/now he’s gone – and bitter hate rules the land.” Through this song another popular myth of the Lost Cause emerges – that vengeful Northerners were now ready to oppress the South through undemocratic legislation and the destruction of the Southern social hierarchy by giving African Americans their freedom and the right of male suffrage. The “bitter hate” would be a painful pill to swallow. Dixie was done.

The Clincher

The climax of White Mansions, in my opinion, is the song “They Laid Waste To Our Land,” with group vocals that include Matthew, Caleb, and The Drifter. The unified singing of these three men is a symbolic uniting of their experiences and perspectives in support of the Confederate war effort. Matthew’s status as the son of a wealthy planter gave him a strong incentive to fight for the Confederacy; Caleb didn’t own slaves or land and claimed that he had no real motivation to join the Confederacy, but he cherished his placement above enslaved blacks in the social hierarchy and benefited from not having to compete with slaves on the wage labor market. The Drifter was an aged Mexican war veteran that was highly respected in his community, and he ultimately believed that his allegiance to his local community and state outweighed his allegiance to a United States government he had once fought for. All had a vested interest in slavery as a social and economic system. All had a vested interest in preserving the status quo. All supported the Confederate war effort, and all made a deliberate risk when choosing to support secession, regardless of their original motivations.

The singers in “They Laid Waste To Our Land” take no responsibility for their choices and once again echo a popular Lost Cause talking point by claiming that the United States military went too far in its prosecution of the war. There were certainly times throughout the conflict when that was the case, but their particular focus on General Sherman’s March to the Sea without also accounting for the damage wrought by Confederate General John Bell Hood’s men is a one-sided distortion of what actually happened during the march. Again, for these men the responsibility for the war’s destruction lies entirely with the United States.

they laid waste to our land, they took it from our hand

from Atlanta to Savannah, they scorched our earth

they stole our corn and wheat, they left no food to eat

they slaughtered all the cattle, took the things of worth

well, we got women and children too

just the same as you

ain’t it enough just to know that you got us beat

the hatred will never cease, even now that there’s peace

the feelings will run as deep as the scars we bear

this ain’t cloth we wear it’s a rag, we’re at the mercy of the carpetbag

what you call justice is plain unfair

how the hell can you ever claim

it’s bin worth all of the pain

just to have us live together under one flag

they laid waste to our land, they took it from our hand

I’ll finish this series of posts on White Mansions with some concluding thoughts in my next post.

Cheers