25 July 2008

In Response to Professor Peter S. Carmichael

The following comments are in response to an invitation by Professor Peter S. Carmichael, who teaches history at West Virginia University. The invitation originated from this post. Pete suggested I comment on this post which he wrote for the Civil War Memory blog regarding African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army. Kevin Levin, host at CWM, also encouraged me to comment. My comments to Professor Carmichael's post are below:

First, full disclosure: I am here by invitation of Messrs Carmichael and Levin. I sincerely appreciate their courtesy in asking for my comments and thoughts on Professor Carmichael’s post regarding African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army. I must admit, however, that I feel like a lamb who’s been invited over for supper at the local lion’s den. I want to point out that my comments are only in response to what Pete originally wrote (with one exception), and not to the various comments that have since followed that post. None of my comments, though at times pointed, are intended to be insulting or disrespectful in any way to either Pete or Kevin.

The invitation to comment came, in part, due to a rather testy post on my blog in which I took certain Civil War historians and academics to task for their attitude toward non-academics (like me) who also study and write about the (May I be so bold?), War Between the States, a.k.a. the Civil War.

It is both Pete’s and Kevin’s stated desire to open a dialogue, as Kevin noted, “between various camps within the Civil War community.” Though I am in no way an expert on African-Americans who served in the Confederate Army and while I am less than optimistic about the outcome of any exchange, I am willing to try to bring something constructive to the discussion at hand. If nothing else, perhaps my comments will allow some of my academic friends to release some long pent up endorphins.

Regarding your piece Pete, I found some in it with which I agreed and some with which I did not agree, or did not completely understand the point you were trying to make. It was certainly well written and raises some valid questions. But some of the things you stated are so obvious I’m not quite sure why you wrote them. I think many academics feel the need to constantly remind Southerners and Civil War “buffs” that slavery was evil and that 19th century Americans held prejudiced views on race. Moreover, I believe many academics (not necessarily you) often assume that just because someone belongs to the SCV, or writes admiringly of Lee or Jackson, or reenacts, or points out that African-Americans did serve in the Confederate Army—in various capacities and for various reasons—that they believe slavery really wasn’t “all that bad” or that “slavery had nothing to do with the war” or that they are a “neo-Confederate” (codespeak for slavery apologist). I actually read one blogger who has accused everyone from George Bush, to Bill Clinton, to the Boy Scouts of being “neo-Confederates.” Of course, you could also throw in Dr. Walter Williams, who recently served as chair of the economics department at George Mason University, as well as Virginia Democratic Senator James Webb; who have both written positive comments regarding the Confederacy, Confederate soldiers, and the Confederate Battle flag. Quite an eclectic group, would you not agree?

That particular line of discussion is based on false assumptions and stereotypes and leads to much of the disconnect and mistrust among the various “camps.” I, too, would like to move beyond that if we can. I don’t need convincing that slavery was evil. I don’t need convincing that 19th century Americans, North as well as South, held views that by 21st century standards were racist. (At the same time, let’s remember that 19th century Americans were just that, 19th century Americans.)

And one more item before I get into the meat of some of your comments Pete; in one of your follow up posts, you mention “they” and then follow with a comment that the “psychological” perspectives of “they” (in regards to the subject at hand) need to be looked into. That is “s-o-o-o academia” (if not condescending) and sounds like something that would come from Dr. Phil. You probably lost a lot of folks with that one comment. I’m sure it makes those to whom you are referring feel like you believe they have some type of mental disorder and that you want to psychoanalyze their every syllable. I should warn you: if you start probing into the minds of Southern Civil War enthusiasts you will most assuredly find some nuts—if that’s what you’re looking for—but you will also most assuredly end up one yourself. I can promise you that. I would suggest historians leave that line of work to the psychiatric professionals who have less to risk.

I will not attempt to address every single point of your original post, but I’ll try to hit the highlights. First, I do believe that there were both Confederate slaves and black Confederates. I am certainly one who agrees there were far more of the former than the latter, but there were both. Those who have wildly exaggerated the numbers of black Confederates have done nothing but call into question the whole notion. But I do not accept the premise of your blanket definition of “black Confederates.” This is complicated and while some would fit your definition, others would not. Regarding your comment about patriotism and the slaves, I believe that, too, needs to be explored a little more. I, as well as many Americans, would define patriotism as a love of a country and its people. Nationalism would be a love for the government, in this case, the Confederate government and what it stood for in the minds of the slaves. The slaves certainly did not love “their” government, but I have no doubt many loved their country and, yes, in many cases its white inhabitants. In that sense, they were patriotic. I think it is important to make a distinction between the two and acknowledge that they were patriotic in that context. Admittedly, the lines become blurred and further complicate the issue.

I would also strongly disagree with your conclusion that, “The presence of coercion in slavery, moreover, creates an insurmountable challenge for those who want to describe slaves as Confederate heroes.” A hero is defined, simply, as “a man distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, and strength.” Neptune certainly fits that description. His heroism should not be diminished simply because he was a slave and his heroic deed (putting his life at great risk) involved retrieving the body of his dead, white master. If anything, in my mind, that makes his heroism all the more “exceptional.” He is but one example. I do not see that as an “insurmountable challenge.”

Furthermore I think your suggestion that, “Fearing punishment for failing to bring home his master might have motivated Neptune”, defies logic. Certainly Neptune would not have preferred being shot to being “punished”—even if that punishment involved physical abuse.

I agree with the anecdotal evidence you present regarding the “Ebony Idols” article and that it reveals that many of the white Confederates viewed the blacks within their ranks as “pets” and that the intent of the article was mocking, demeaning, and meant to keep these men “in their place.” I could, of course, present anecdotal evidence of my own regarding the bravery and honorable service of black Confederates (or Confederate slaves) that garnered the admiration and respect of the white Confederate soldiers with whom they served. Neptune serves as one of those examples, as does Stonewall Jackson’s body servant, Jim Lewis, who I’ve written about. There are others.

In reference to Sam describing “bullets as ‘singing’ around [his] head ‘like mosquitoes in a big cypress swamp’” I don’t find anything of relevance there. Many white soldiers made very similar analogies when describing battlefield experiences. I don’t think that advances your argument in any way. Perhaps I’m missing something?

You write: “While Confederate slaves successfully challenged popular conceptions of what it meant to be a black man, these ‘victories’ did not earn them the public recognition they sought…” I wholeheartedly agree. As Ervin Jordan has noted: “Only in the reminiscences of ex-Confederates are body servants given any sort of appreciation.” Virginia did not even pass legislation awarding pensions to blacks who had served in the Confederate Army until 1924. Which is a good reason, I believe, to honor them now in ways that does not demean their service, i.e. placing a simple headstone where they are buried noting that service, writing of their bravery and service in honest terms for the fact that many of these men faced the dangers of battle and risked death. Regardless of all the reasons they were there, I find it difficult to believe most would not want some recognition of their service.

While it is an inadequate analogy, the African-Americans who served during WWII were subjected to segregation, racism, and prejudices by the very country they were fighting for, yet they deserved and eventually got the recognition they earned, though some only very recently.

You wrote in referring to the slave who was able to purchase fine clothes that, “The slave’s fine clothing signified to Pender that he was losing control, and that his slave was challenging the established order, for plantation slaves were always issued the coarsest dress. The sight of a slave wearing French shirts constituted an insubordinate act to Pender.” There must be more to that story than what you write. If not, I think it’s quite a leap to the conclusion you draw. At best, conjecture.

You wrote: “Lost Cause writers and neo-Confederates today have emphasized companionship between white and black as proof of slaveholder benevolence and slave fidelity. While professional historians have successfully demolished this ridiculous interpretation . . .”

I’m really confused on that point. Are you disavowing what you wrote in your review of "Within the Plantation Household" by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese which appeared in the October 2007 edition of Civil War Times when you noted:

“No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence of mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .” You continue that sentence with the fact that Ms. Fox-Genovese “reminds us that such feelings were expressed in a system that bought and sold African-Americans.” I understand that, but the closeness did, despite the evils of slavery, exist. You seem to be denying this in the quote from your post, after affirming it in the CWT piece.

You have further laudatory remarks about her book which seem to contradict what you wrote in the blog post: “Contextualizing these expressions of animosity as well as love and respect are essential if we want to understand the broader patterns of thought and action in the old South. [I agree.] Fox-Genovese provides a rich analysis of these fascinating confrontations between slave and master without losing her critical eye or her amazing capacity for empathy. Like no other historian before or since, she has explained how white and black Southerners could retain their own sense of humanity while living in the inhumane world of chattel slavery.”

Again, these comments appear to me to affirm what you dismiss in the post. What have I missed here or have you now come to a different conclusion? This is an honest question.

And then some final thoughts on your last paragraph:

“But for those who can put politics aside, who do not need to invent a mythical Confederate army of black and white brothers, and who do not need to demonize the white South for slavery, Neptune’s account might bring an end to this tiresome morality play. The combatants over this issue today, I might add, love to perform this play because it keeps the focus on them and not on the historical actors. If we put the spotlight on Neptune, however, his story reveals how little we know about the many and varied moments of emotional and physical intimacy that existed between males slave and their male owners. We must explore these complex encounters, which promise to reveal new insights into the master-slave relationship, African American manliness, and class divisions within the slave community as well as Confederate society as a whole.”

I could not agree with you more here, though the reference to “insights” into “manliness and class divisions” sounds too much like trendy fads in historiography which bore me to death (more Dr. Phil). Your main points in this paragraph are, nonetheless, right on; especially your remarks about the two extreme points of view and the need to keep the focus on the “historical actors.”

One final question to those interested in this topic. Have any of you actually had any contact or conversations with any descendants of African-Americans who served in the Confederacy and who believe their ancestors served honorably and deserve recognition?

Thanks again for the opportunity to comment. Normal programming will now resume. :)

(End of post.)

1 comment:

Kevin M. Levin said...

Richard, -- Great idea to post your comment here. I just wanted to take a moment to invite your readers to take part in the discussion at Civil War Memory if they are so inclined. The comments are lengthy, but given the thoughtfulness of your entry it is likely to invite additional contributions.

Kevin at Civil War Memory