Sonny Scroggins and … Black Confederates

One C. E. “Sonny” Scroggins of Kansas doesn’t want you to get mad about the flying of the Confederate battle flag. Or so we learn from multiple Confederate heritage sites who have latched on to this story.

You’ll find the usual tale of blacks fighting for both sides here, as well as a good deal of “the North did it too.”

Mind you, he has pushed for people to remember the service of black Union soldiers, especially from Kansas.

Sonny Scroggins is an active activist, it seems. But I don’t think the Confederate heritage activists who rush to embrace him right now would be happy with this.

Then again, one might want to check what they intended to do with the proceeds of a 1998 fund-raising venture. Ever wonder why those black soldiers rested in an unmarked grave? Ever learn what happened at Poison Springs?

A New Scholarly Resource … Kinda

Those of you interested in the history of the American South, especially as certain white southerners like to remember it, are encouraged to visit this website, sponsored by the Society of Independent Southern Historians.

You might find this introduction informative.

If only the truth can set you free, then that perhaps explains why slavery lasted so long in the South … and why a few Confederate heritage advocates want to remind you that slavery wasn’t all bad.

July 17, 1864: Hood Replaces Johnston

If you believe that the fall of Atlanta in September 1864 guaranteed Abraham Lincoln’s reelection, and in turn you also believe that John Bell Hood’s performance during his first seven weeks as commander of the Army of Tennessee crippled Confederate efforts to hold on to Atlanta or to frustrate William T. Sherman’s offensive operations, then today’s an important anniversary.

Simply put, was Jefferson Davis right to replace Johnston? Was he right to replace Johnston with Hood? How do you evaluate Hood’s performance as an army commander over the following seven weeks?

You may want to read this insightful essay on Hood by Eric Jacobson.

The Leigh Explanation of Civil War Causation

Yesterday I offered readers of this blog Phil Leigh’s attempt at offering an interpretation of the coming of the Civil War. As several readers noted, Al Mackey made some telling points that call into question certain aspects of Leigh’s interpretation of the Lincoln administration’s position on slavery. I choose therefore to offer several other observations.

Continue reading

Another Explanation of the Coming of the Civil War

Here’s Phil Leigh’s take on Civil War causation:

Fifty years ago the master narrative of the Civil War Centennial failed to synchronize with the momentous 1960s Civil Rights movement. It minimized the roles of slavery and race. Instead the War was characterized as a unifying ordeal in which both sides fought heroically for their sense of “right”, thereby becoming reconciled through mutual sacrifice. Slavery was considered only one of several causes of the War.

Thereafter, most historians began rejecting the Centennial interpretation. Yale professor David Blight explains that historians who came of age during the 1920s economic boom, ensuing crash, and Great Depression were chiefly responsible for shaping the twentieth century understanding of the War’s causes – until the 1960s. Such historians “tended to see the world through the frame of the Great Depression” and interpreted sectional differences as more important than differing ideologies on slavery per se.

His signature example was Charles Beard who “saw the South and North as essentially two economies . . . [U]ltimately the Civil War, in Beard’s view, wasn’t really about any particular ideology . . . it was two economic systems living together in . . . the same nation, and coming into conflict with one another in insolvable ways; forces meeting at a crossroads and they had to clash. Beard is laden with inevitability, as any great economic determinist usually is.”

If Blight correctly reasons the accepted causes of the Civil War fifty years ago were distorted because the Great Depression personally affected influential authors, it is reasonable to examine whether the Civil Rights movement similarly impacted Sesquicentennial historians. Princeton’s James McPherson is a good place to start. He won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, which was his historical interpretation of disunion and the War. His influence is evident from the book’s massive popularity as a text in American colleges. Moreover, he’s repeatedly confessed that the 1960s Civil Rights movement molded his study of the War. The affect was evident as early as his dissertation selection:

…[T]he selection of a dissertation topic was one of the most difficult experiences during my four years at Johns Hopkins from 1958–1962. . . . My adviser…encouraged me to write . . . on Alabama Reconstruction. . . [T]he Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and I knew that as a Yankee (born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota) I might be less than welcome in Alabama. The prospect…left me considerably less than ecstatic. . . Meanwhile, I had become fascinated with the abolitionists… My empathy with these civil rights activists generated more excitement than…Alabama.

Additionally, McPherson echoes Blight’s criticism of Beard by writing “As Beard viewed it, slavery and emancipation were almost incidental to the real causes and consequences of the war. The sectional conflict arose from the contending economic interests.” On the eve of the Sesquicentennial McPherson opined that Beard’s once popular economic-centric explanation had been nearly universally rejected by contemporary historians, who define slavery as the overarching cause: “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of serious historians of the Civil War would agree on…what the war was about . . . which was the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slave states over issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery.”

After winning the Pulitzer, McPherson steadily attracted followers. While nearly all emphasize slavery as the reason for the secession of the cotton states, they generally fail to explain why the North declined to let the South depart peacefully. After all, if the South quietly left the Union, slavery would cease in the United States. It was precisely what prominent abolitionists frequently advocated prior to the War. Examples include William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Beecher, Samuel Howe, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Clark, Gerrit Smith, Joshua Giddings, and even Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner who would become a leading war hawk. For years Garrison described the constitutional Union as “a covenant with death and agreement with hell.”

Moreover, Lincoln continually rejected emancipation for the first seventeen months of the War. During the first year, he overruled Generals Hunter and Fremont when each attempted to emancipate slaves in their districts. As late as August 1862, he famously replied in a letter to publisher Horace Greely’s call to free the slaves, “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” In short, “preserving the Union” was really a slogan to avoid the consequence of disunion. The reasons are chiefly linked to economics, not abolitionism.

A surviving independent Confederacy would undoubtedly employ much lower tariffs than the United States. In his inaugural address President Jefferson Davis stated, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is . . . [in] our interest, and that of [our trading partners], that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.” Similarly Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin later offered France a special tariff exemption “for a certain defined period” in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

A low Confederate tariff presented the remaining states of the Union with two consequences. First, the federal government would lose the great majority of its tax revenue. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Additionally, the Confederacy’s low duties would encourage Northern-bound European imports to enter in the South, where they could be smuggled across the Ohio River into Midwestern states to evade US duties. Tariff compliance would nearly vanish, thereby inducing a collapse in federal tax revenue. Second, given the Confederacy’s lower tariffs its residents would likely buy more manufactured goods from Europe rather than from the Northern states, where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

It was quickly realized that such concerns were not mere abstractions. In March 1861 New Yorkers were panicked to read a dispatch from St. Louis in a Manhattan newspaper: “Every day…our importers are receiving, by way of New Orleans very considerable quantities of goods, duty free…If this thing is to become permanent, there will be an entire revolution in the course of trade and New York will suffer terribly.” Cincinnati also reported that goods were arriving from New Orleans tariff-free. Three months earlier the Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws, not the coercion of the [Rebel] state[s] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” Historian Charles Adams explains:

“If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburg, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.”

States northwest of the Ohio River had additional economic reasons to fear dissolution of the Union. Specifically, they were apprehensive that the Confederacy would jeopardize free trade to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The concern was sufficiently acute that some Midwesterners toyed with the notion of forming a Northwest Confederacy of states to be allied with the Southern Confederacy. Although the Davis government promised that the river would be open to free trade, many Midwesterners regarded such assurances as mere paper guarantees. They remained worried that the Confederacy may impose fees and import duties at some future date.

Finally, after the opening guns at Fort Sumter many Northern capitalists reasoned that a war would be good for business. Wall Street looked at disunion as a menace to their investments. Government bond quotations dipped with every incident of federal indecision. But the demand for war goods was correctly expected to lift the economy. Since hostilities would block much of the Mississippi River trade, eastern merchants reasoned that they could monopolize commerce with the Midwest. Manufacturers would get many profitable military supply contracts. The Midwestern states would supply Union armies with provender. Such conclusions proved to be valid. From 1860 to 1865, the gross national product increased from $4.3 billion to $9.9 billion, which translates to an 18 percent compounded annual growth rate. Since the economy in the South was shrinking, the rate applicable to the Northern states was probably well above 20 percent annually.

Critics of the Centennial storyline have successfully placed slavery and race at the center of the Sesquicentennial narrative. Some have over compensated to a point where blacklisted historians are attacked as “neo-confederates.” For example, Gary Gallagher felt compelled to explain, “Don’t dismiss me as a ‘neo-Confederate’…As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any… special pleading…[and] not a single ancestor fought in the war.”

Those who worry that the moonlight and magnolias version of Civil War history holds much public influence fear a ghost. By capturing a 71% share of the TV audience the race-centered narrative of the “Roots” miniseries has surely been as influential as the countervailing account provided by “Gone With the Wind.” It has been 37 years since “Roots” shifted Hollywood’s Civil War perspective. By comparison, the interval between “Gone With the Wind” and “Roots” was 38 years. It’s time to give up the ghost.

Continue reading

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

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A Dust-Up Over Lincoln and Colonization

For some time most Lincoln scholars have taken for granted the notion that the sixteenth president abandoned his notions about colonization with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. One Lincoln scholar, Mark Neely, took great pains to dismiss an account by Benjamin F. Butler that detailed Lincoln’s continuing interest in colonization as late as April 1865.

Philip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page have asserted that Lincoln continued to press for colonization after he issued the proclamation. Magness went so far as to challenge Neely’s treatment of Butler’s account, leaving the door open to the possibility that Lincoln did meet with Butler in a conversation where the subject of colonization might have come up. Magness also pursued the issue of James Mitchell’s role in Lincoln’s post-proclamation activities.

I found Magness’s work to be provocative, and I invited him to speak at the 2013 Benjamin P. Thomas Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Association. At about the same time, Allen Guelzo offered a review of Magness and Page’s book to which Magness has taken exception. Basically, Guelzo dismisses a good deal of the book’s argument, while Magness suggests that certain documents whose existence are questioned by Guelzo do indeed exist.

As Magness has charged Guelzo with “professional misconduct” in offering a “willfully mendacious portrayal” of Magness and Page’s findings, this disagreement does not promise to fade away quickly. One hopes that those fireworks do not distract from the more important implication of Magness and Page’s work: that while Lincoln may have gone silent in public about colonization, he remained committed to it as an option (if no longer the only one) behind the scenes.