On Cross Burnings and Stone Mountain

Recently I came across this image featured on a Confederate heritage Facebook site:
CSA BF cross
The cross, of course, is a powerful image, especially on a week such as this one on the Christian calendar. Then again, so is this:
cross burning 1989 Stone MountainThe practice of cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan is a case of life imitating art. The Reconstruction KKK did not practice cross burning. Rather, the idea first appeared in Thomas Dixon’s 1905 book about the Reconstruction KKK, The Clansman:
Dixon fiery crossDixon’s book was made even popular a decade later with the release of the film Birth of a Nation:
Birth burning cross
Later that year, when Leo Frank was captured and accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a group of viligantes, modeling themselves on the Reconstruction KKK, seized Frank from prison and lynched him on August 17, 1915. Several months later, on November 25, 1915, these self-styled “Knights of Mary Phagan” met atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, where they burned a cross to mark the refounding of the KKK. The practice soon became a trademark of the KKK, which, unlike its Reconstruction namesake, became a national organization, so cross-burning was not limited to the South.

Nevertheless, it would be Stone Mountain where the first cross burning by the KKK took place. Present at the event was the grandson of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The man who owned Stone Mountain, Samuel Venable, soon granted the KKK access to the mountain, which became a popular site for cross burnings.

This video was reportedly taken at Stone Mountain, Georgia (as opposed to the state park) in 2009:

In 1916 the effort to mark the face of Stone Mountain with a massive carving of Confederate leaders commenced. The original design looked like this:
Stone Mountain original designAfter some delays, in 1923 fundraising began in earnest to mark Stone Mountain as a focal point of Confederate heritage; the federal government assisted the effort by minting a Stone Mountain half dollar in 1924:
Lee Jackson Stone Mountain coin
However, it was the United Daughters of the Confederacy that took the lead in providing for the memorial, although the Klan had input into the design as well. The original sculptor, Gutzon Birglum, better known for his work on Mount Rushmore (as well as the statue of Phil Sheridan at Washington’s Sheridan Circle), was a Klansman, but that proved insufficient motivation, and he quit the project in 1925. After three more years the project ground to a halt, and not until 1964 did work resume. By that time the state of Georgia had purchased the site, ejecting the KKK from further involvement.

In 1970 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp featuring the monument:
Stone Mt StampOne wonders whether today’s visitors to Stone Mountain realize the site’s history, especially the role that the KKK played in making the site a modern-day Confederate shrine … including these recent visitors:

Karen Cooper and Susan Hathaway

Karen Cooper and Susan Hathaway

Billy Bearden

Billy Bearden

Lost Cause Historical Practice

Some people claim that the term “Lost Cause Myth” and “Lost Cause Historiography” are inventions devised by certain “anti-southern” folks who are also usually described as “left-wing academics.” One example of such a complaint can be found here.

And yet that very example suggests why there’s something to the understanding of the “Lost Cause Myth” as an exercise in avoidance and amnesia as practiced by certain people. Look, for example, as this quote from Grant’s Memoirs about his meeting with Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865:
OVB Appomattox Grant

Now let’s look at what Grant actually said:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

(emphasis added)

I wonder why that was omitted.

UPDATE: The blogger in question rather begrudgingly admitted his mistake in a non-apology apology. However, using his own standards for editing quotes, I’ve rendered his admission as follows: “So, yes, I did omit much of this particular quote…. I should have included an ellipsis to indicate this was not a complete quote. That was admittedly sloppy on my part.”

That’s better.

Lincoln on Slavery, Presidential Power, and the Constitution

On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote the following letter to Albert G. Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor, recounting the contents of a conversation he had days earlier with Hodges, Governor Thomas Bramlette, and former senator Archibald Dixon. You can see the original here.

Executive Mansion, Washington, April 4, 1864


A. G. Hodges, Esq
Frankfort, Ky.


My dear Sir: You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and Senator Dixon. It was about as follows:


“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation—of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together.

When, early in the war, Gen. Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When a little later, Gen. Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, Gen. Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter. In choosing it, I hoped for greater gain than loss; but of this, I was not entirely confident. More than a year of trial now shows no loss by it in our foreign relations, none in our home popular sentiment, none in our white military force,—no loss by it any how or any where. On the contrary, it shows a gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen, and laborers. These are palpable facts, about which, as facts, there can be no cavilling. We have the men; and we could not have had them without the measure.


["]And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth.['']


I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.


Yours truly

A. Lincoln

The letter gives a fairly good idea of where Lincoln’s thinking was by 1864 when it came to assessing the constitutionality of the measures he had taken to strike at slavery.


More Textbook Controversies

Here we go again: yet more allegations the textbooks for schoolchildren contain inaccurate statements. You can read about this here and here: the case often mentioned was discussed briefly on this blog, and more extensively elsewhere.

It’s disappointing to hear the following declaration:

Will we hear objections from the progressive historians who are so quick to jump on other issues? I doubt it. This bad history fits their agenda – indoctrination.

Now, it may be that I’m not a “progressive historian,” whatever that term means in this context (for me, when I hear the term, I think back to an interesting book by Richard Hofstadter on Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles A. Beard, and Vernon Louis Parrington). Also, if there’s an agenda floating around, I haven’t received the memo, so maybe that should tell me I’m not in that club, any way.

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Lincoln Privately Urges Limited Black Suffrage in Louisiana

On March 13, 1864, Lincoln wrote newly-elected governor Michael Hahn of Louisiana to urge him to work toward the enfranchisement of some African Americans in his state. Note that the president wished to keep his preferences private.


Executive Mansion, Washington, March 13. 1864.

Hon. Michael Hahn

My dear Sir:

I congratulate you on having fixed your name in history as the first-free-state Governor of Louisiana. Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in—as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. But this is only a suggestion, not to the public, but to you alone.

Yours truly

A. Lincoln

Sebastain Page on Lincoln and Colonization

Sebastian Page, who with Philip Magness wrote a recent study on Lincoln and colonization that stressed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, left a rather lengthy comment on this blog. Posting it there, I’ve also decided to post it as a separate blog post to call attention to it.

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Olustee Aftermath

As readers of this blog may recall, there’s been quite a discussion about a proposal to erect a monument to United States soldiers at Olustee, site of a battle on February 20, 1864. While some of the debate over this monument may have to do with the precise location of the monument, the louder debate concerns whether any such monument should be erected at all.

Olustee is not a well-known battle. One of the more interesting facts concerning the clash is that the famed 54th Massachusetts of Battery/Fort Wagner fame participated in it. It’s also worth reflecting on the aftermath of the battle. As one Confederate cavalryman from Georgia recalled years later:

In passing over the field, and the road ran centering through it, my attention was first attracted to the bodies of the yankees, invariably stripped, shoes first and clothing next. Their white bodies looked ghastly enough, but I particularly notice that firing seemed to be going on in every direction, until the reports sounded almost frequent enough to resemble the work of skirmishers.

A young officer was standing in the road in front of me and I asked him, “What is the meaning of all this firing I hear going on”. His reply to me was, “Shooting niggers Sir. “I have tried to make the boys desist but I can’t control them”. I made some answer in effect that it seemed horrible to kill the wounded devils, and he again answered, “That’s so Sir, but one young fellow over yonder told me the niggers killed his brother after being wounded, at Fort Pillow, and he was twenty three years old, that he had already killed nineteen and needed only four more to make the matter even, so I told him to go ahead and finis the job”. I rode on but the firing continued.

The next morning I had occasion to go over the battle field again quite early, before the burial squads began their work, when the results of the shooting of the previous night became quite apparent. Negroes, and plenty of them, whom I had seen lying all over the field wounded, and as far as I could see, many of them moving around from palace to place, now without a motion, all were dead. If a negro had a shot in the shin another was sure to be in the head.

A very few prisoners were taken, and but a few at the prison pen. One ugly big black buck was interrogated as to how it happened that he had come back to fight his old master, and upon his giving some very insolent reply, his interragater drew back his musket, and with the butt gave him a blow that killed him instantly. A very few of the wounded were placed on the surgeons operating table-their legs fairly flew off, but whether they were at all seriously wounded I have always had my doubt.

I wonder whether anyone designing signage at the battlefield would like to include this information.

You can learn more about the battle here. One letter will draw especial notice, for it is from the man who supposedly first blew “Taps,” served at Gettysburg with Strong Vincent, and was now an officer in the 8th USCT … Oliver W. Norton.

Republicans and the Fifteenth Amendment

A few weeks ago I posted several entries having to do with the Republicans, black rights, and northern racism.  Basically, I’m arguing that a solid majority of Republicans came to advocate equal rights for African Americans both in the South and in the North, but that they discovered that basing their appeal on equality before the law did not fare well with the northern electorate.  The vast majority of Democrats opposed black equality, and so did some conservative Republicans, many of whom were slowly finding their way back into Democratic ranks with the conclusion of the Civil War.

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Was Secession Constitutional?

One of the questions sure to spark a sharp debate is the question of whether secession was constitutional at the time of the secession crisis of 1860-61.  Yes, I know there’s an argument on whether secession’s constitutional today, but, frankly, that’s a different argument, given a few events such as Texas v. White (1869).  To this day, however, people flatly declare that secession is or is not constitutional, followed by comments that suggest that they question the sanity if not the intelligence of anyone who holds a contrary view.

As a historian, what’s important to me is that Americans in 1860-61 disagreed over whether secession was constitutional.  Some people said yes, some people said no.  There had been much discussion of this issue ever since the framing of the Constitution itself, and no one emerged with an argument that was satisfactory to all.  Continue reading