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.

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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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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.

What’s a Historian to Do?

In a continuing conversation over at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory, a commenter offers the following observation:

Indeed, as more people turn to the internet for information, the more these black Confederate sites have an impact. Obviously we can’t control the content of these sites (nor should we), so the question becomes if it’s worth fighting them. So it’s important to understand who it is that goes to these sites, and what it is they pick up from it (how many people that see it believe it? and to what degree?), and most importantly to your point about education: how many of these people who visit such sites are even open to education? Or do they have a conclusion in mind already and only find what they already believe (which means they will find a forum to do that through, no matter what, online or not)? These questions require evaluation as suggested by Professor Orr, in order to answer the question of whether it’s worth rebutting these sites (i.e. are their audiences even open to our interpretation? and thus, is it worth our resources? or are we better off spending those resources elsewhere?) — which gets precisely to the heart of your question: “it’s a fair question to ask as to whether they are passing up opportunities to educate others through online sources and conceding the field to this so-called ‘fringe.’ ” Is it worth the fight?

A larger point (and not speaking directly to your point, but related): in my opinion, the more we argue with them on their terms, the more we create that there is a “debate” and legitimize their position, and the more we lose the fight, because unfortunately the people who want to believe this black Confederate stuff would accuse us of ignoring evidence, etc. This is always their accusation, no matter how strong your argument is. Thus, my new approach is this: ok, fine, so 10 zillion African Americans fought for the Confederacy, but really that’s irrelevant to why the Confederate States of America was established as a nation (i.e. to protect the institution of slavery), if we look at any/all of its foundational documents. In other words, it is impossible to be accused of ignoring their evidence, because I am acknowledging their evidence, and then refocusing the question to the heart of the matter (since I think the number of black Confederates is irrelevant to why the CSA was established). Unfortunately, I think by arguing on the numbers of black Confederates, we argue on their terms (i.e. implicitly acknowledging the number of black Confederates who enlisted is connected to the question about how important slavery was to the Confederacy). I think the answer is irrelevant: whether 0 black Confederates, 10 of them, or a million of them, what does not change is this: all the forming documents of the CSA explicitly state why the CSA is formed. Period. This has absolutely nothing to do (and cannot be changed) with the number of black Confederates that “fought for” the Confederacy. Thus, I think it’s time we don’t get sucked into the neo-Confederate Red Herring paradigm of the importance/relevancy of the number of black Confederates, but it’s time we simply point out the CSA’s foundational documents.

I find this position problematic, and it frames the choices as either/or.  Either you contest the evidence someone offers (because you can demonstrate it’s false) or you set that aside and say, “so what?”

Readers of this blog already know that I have long ago raised the “so what?” argument, so I see nothing original in that.  But I think that simply going directly to “so what?” while leaving the evidence uncontested as the approach is simply wrong-headed.  Moreover, isn’t simply accepting the evidence as true a way to legitimize the evidence offered?  I’m very careful to say when I offer “so what” that the evidence is very much contested, but, for the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate it as entered into the record.

Inherent in this commenter’s claim is an accusation: replying to certain people gives them legitimacy and recognition, while ignoring it will leave it to die.  I’ve raised this question before, and there is a counterargument.  The notion that people who contest the claims concerning black Confederates are responsible for the fact that there is an argument (and one that some people speculate may distract professional Civil War historians from getting their own messages across) seems to me mistaken in its import, and I could with equal justice raise it about any issue.

I truly doubt that battling proponents of what’s becoming known in some circles as the myth of Black Confederates will cause many of them to change their minds.  As Andy Hall has argued, it’s an article of faith with them: good old “BorderRuffian”, for example, has left open the notion that one need not have served in the military to be a veteran (how do those of you who are veterans feel about that denigration of your service?).  But there are other audiences, other publics, other consumers of online information.  If we don’t contest the factual basis of these claims, the NPS finds itself supporting historical falsehoods; Virginia’s fourth graders are fed inaccurate history; and people turning to the internet for information will find fraud presented as fact, with nothing to contest it.

Contesting both the narrative and the supposed evidence adduced in support of these claims is what historians do all the time.  Should we let photographic forgeries and false claims go uncontested?  Would that be a good rule for historians to follow, period?  I don’t think so.  Oh, I don’t think we should spend every waking hour in a vigilant reactive mode, and I’ve seen idiots suggest, for example, that not contesting everything that falls out of the mouths of political candidates serves as a tacit endorsement of that candidate.

The commenter on Kevin’s blog later offered this observation:

Moreover, you are missing the big picture if you get sucked into arguing over numbers with them. These people argue for black Confederates why? What is their larger point? Their larger point is to say that slavery was not important to the CSA. Thus, while you are busy arguing on their terms on their paradigm and creating a forum of debate so these people are heard (instead of letting them just talk to each other), I would rather get to the heart of the matter and point out the irrefutable official CSA documentation that explicitly states why the CSA was formed. To me, that undermines their larger point, and thus defeats their argument.

Put another way, the “number” of black Confederates is simply the means to an end — the end/goal being that the CSA was not a nation fighting for preserving the institution slavery. So, I like to go for the goal, because once again, they will simply say to you that you are denying their evidence and put you in some liberal conspiracy or something — but if you acknowledge them and calm them down, and then show your own evidence in return (evidence that gets to the heart of the matter), you will defeat their argument another way.

Again, I’ve already raised the same point before, but I think this tactic is miscast as an act of persuasion directed at the person who believes in the Black Confederate story as an article of faith.  You may come away from this confrontation believing that you have defeated an argument, but how so?  Certainly the person with whom you are arguing doesn’t make that admission if that person is already committed to a position.  The only way any of that matters is when an audience eager to learn and open to discussion wants to weight the merits of various arguments, and one way to undermine the Black Confederate narrative is to undermine its evidence and logic (for example, if there were so many Black Confederates, why was not mention made of them in the debates over enlisting blacks in the winter of 1864-65?  Are you really going to tell me Robert E. Lee was not aware of their existence?). If one confines oneself simply to saying so what, then one’s given away a lot of history, and the presenter of the Black Confederate tale will simply dismiss you as “politically correct” and walk away, declaring that you had nothing … NOTHING … to say about their evidence, leaving the audience to scratch their heads.  Counter evidence, logic, and implications, and then you may be getting somewhere, or at least that’s what I think.  

What do you think?

Constructing the Other’s Sense of History

One of the things I find most interesting about discussions about Civil War history is the tendency of some participants to construct accounts of what they believe “the other side” thinks.  This exercise in strawman architecture often serves as a prelude to the speaker’s decision to reveal truth.  It’s essential for the flow of the argument that claims must be made about what “the other side” believes in order to knock it down.  It helps if one either neglects evidence altogether or is extremely selective in crafting an account of what ‘the other side” believes.

This practice is not limited to discussions on various forums, although those forums usually see the most simplistic renderings of the practice.  One of my favorites is the claim that certain people believe the North fought the Civil War to free the slaves.  Any time you hear this claim, you can expect a response that shows that such was not the case.  Historians often do the same thing in setting up their own books by presenting a simplified version of the present state of scholarship, a presentation designed to show that there’s a problem which only this new study can address and resolve.  And sometimes people go a little to far in setting up these strawmen.  I recall reviewing a book about the Mugwumps in which the author singled me out, claiming that I so despised Henry Adams that I had called him a “pompous little ass”; I reminded the author in the published review that it was Henry’s own brother, Charles Jr., who so characterized his brother.


It is with this in mind that I offer to you the following claim and solicit your reaction.

America may well be the only country in the world to have experienced full-scale modern warfare upon its territory but then, as a matter of national identity, to have failed to establish a coherent narrative explanation.

In my opinion, this is flat wrong. There is a “coherent narrative“.

Here is the dominant “coherent narrative“.

The story of the American nation is the story of a struggle between the True America and the Evil Other (the South).

The True Nation had to compromise with the Evil Other in order to establish American independence at all.  Finally the Evil Other became so hateful and aggressive that the True Nation had to defend itself in the Civil War.  If it had not, popular self-government would have disappeared entirely from the earth.  

The True Nation won, but out of a misguided mercy, failed adequately to force the Evil Other to convert to True Americanism during the Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Nevertheless True America was strong enough afterwards to control the US national institutions.

The unregenerate Evil Other South, however, has never given up its perversity, and continues to live out its Nazi-like ways.

That’s it. It’s pretty close to the way Lincoln described the war …


Someone’s Missing …

I’m sure many of you have seen the following commercial, celebrating the leadership of the United States Army:

Note who’s not there.

If memory is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering, it is also as much about excluding as it is about including.  So where’s Ulysses S. Grant?  Where’s William T. Sherman?  Where’s Joshua L. Chamberlain?

Okay, when it comes to Chamberlain, I jest … although one could argue that as a citizen soldier, he stands there with Theodore Roosevelt.

Look, I can accept that perhaps a picture of Winfield Scott would not cut it given the message, and viewers would not even know who Zachary Taylor or John J. Pershing might be.  But it was under Ulysses S. Grant that the United States Army first raised Regular Army units that recruited black soldiers on a deliberate basis, and I would place Grant above MacArthur when it comes to embodying how we believe the military should function in American society.

Oh, I’m pretty sure I know why the US Army is tiptoeing around its Civil War heritage.  However, let’s remember this: Ulysses S. Grant was general in chief of the armies of the United States, and the nation’s first four-star general (at a time when people have retroactively awarded additional rank, it would seem that Grant might be awarded another star).  Why doesn’t the US Army want to cite him as a leader of whom it could be proud?

Black Confederates and Birthers

If you’ve glanced at today’s headlines, you’ll notice that President Barack Obama has released documentation that would seem to put to rest, once and for all, the question of where he was born (and thus his constitutional eligibility to hold the office he occupies).  At a time when it would seem incumbent on all responsible political leaders to address the challenges confronting the United States, the resurgence of chatter about the president’s place of birth from some folks who do not always impress me as serious about political discussion or the state of the nation threatened once more to serve as an irritating distraction, a nuisance to the president, and not necessarily welcome news to those Republicans who realize how poorly the birther claim plays among voters that the Grand Old Party must attract in order to mount a serious challenge to Obama’s reelection bid.

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What if the Confederacy Had Won? A Counterfactual Contemplation

One of the more interesting counterfactual exercises open to people interested in the era of the American Civil War is what would have happened had the Confederacy prevailed.  It is worth thinking about. Part of such a counterfactual exercise would be to define the moment at which the Confederacy prevailed in securing its independence, because what follows depends on when that moment occurs.  For example, the story’s far different if the United States decided to accept Confederate independence in March 1861 than if Confederate independence is secured as the result of war-weariness and a negotiated peace four years later.  The story would differ if you chose the Confederate counteroffensive of 1862 or the summer and fall of 1863.  So, if you are going to ask, “What if the Confederacy had won?”, first you must determine when you would have that event happen.

That said, I wonder whether in the long term the Confederacy would have welcomed the consequences of independence.  Continue reading

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