Reenacting History: Secession and Slavery

Last month the decision of some white South Carolinians to hold a “secession ball” to celebrate the events of December 20, 2010 drew much commentary (none of it having to do with the fact that it took attention away from my daughter Rebecca’s nineteenth birthday).  I declined to join in the discussion on this blog, largely because I thought it was covered elsewhere and that the arguments were fairly predictable (and sometimes misrepresented, as in the response to some of Kevin Levin’s observations about the event).   More recently, some folks decided to reenact a slave auction in St. Louis, Missouri.  That drew far less media attention, although it was not ignored here and here and here (with video).

If you look for coverage of both of these events using the Google news search engine, you’ll discover that the secession ball drew far more attention than did the slave auction.  I wonder why that is.  Is that because it’s easier to ridicule white southerners than it is to look straight at the ugly horrors of slavery itself?  After all, this auction happened in Union-controlled territory.  Is it because the debates over the secession ball are, in fact, more predictable?  You know how it is.  Find a white southerner who supports the ball and who does so by shoving slavery to the side (sometimes with comments that it was a bad thing, but that’s not what it’s all about) … something one could not do at the slave auction.  Find other people who are outraged at holding the ball for any number of reasons.  Find yet more people who shake their heads sadly at what happened.  Find the clips and post links to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  Search out Fox, MSNBC, and CNN for more commentary. You know the drill.

Many white southerners looked askance at the secession ball.  Indeed, you can see white South Carolinians struggling with the memory of the Civil War, and it’s simply wrong to reduce white southerners to some simplistic stereotype that makes other people feel good or smug about themselves.  When it comes to the slave auction reenactment, however, I see several bloggers (here and here, too) discussing it … and that’s all.  Yet here was an event planned by black Americans as well as white Americans who wanted us not to forget but to remember what it was all about.

Much has been made of how African Americans are going to approach the sesquicentennial.  Well, here’s evidence of how some African Americans will approach it … much as, some 150 years ago, blacks helped remind white Americans of what was at stake during four years of war.  So, on the eve of Black History Month, let’s remember Dred Scott, Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, the 54th Massachusetts, Robert Smalls, and countless others, as well as the blacks who sought freedom and fought for liberty as well as union.  In a time when so much energy is spent on discussing Black Confederates, let’s remember what far more blacks were doing, and as we look for a handful of blacks in gray, let’s not overlook the thousands who wore blue.

During the next four years, what will we reenact?  Parades?  Sham battles?  Or will we look for a broader coverage of events … including the execution of thirty-eight Dakota in Minnesota days before the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, or the impact of Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling Jews from his command?  If we are going to reenact Pickett’s charge, will we also reenact Fort Wagner … or Fort Pillow?

If memory’s all about what we forget as well as what we remember, what are we going to choose to remember … and what are we going to overlook?  Choices, choices.  As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., today, maybe we’d better spend a little time thinking about these issues.

10 thoughts on “Reenacting History: Secession and Slavery

  1. Lyle Smith January 17, 2011 / 7:07 pm

    If I had the money, I’d try and build a number of monuments to black soldiers who served in the Federal armies from Louisiana. One up at Milliken’s Bend and then one down in New Orleans, preferably right next to a Confederate soldier’s monument… where a lot of the soldiers came from.

    I’d push for James Longstreet getting a small plaque or something near Liberty Place in New Orleans as well.

    The slave who was kidnapped by U.S. Grant’s men just south of Port Gibson, Mississippi probably deserves something too. The man got Grant and Sherman around Pemberton’s left flank and into his rear, just by pointing out a location along the Mississippi river that was dry and free of Secesh. Grant’s own Henry Harrison.

    • Bob Huddleston January 17, 2011 / 9:16 pm

      Kidnapped? I always understood that contrabands were willing and helpful to the Yankees. In the case of Vicksburg, Grabau (pp 507-508) talks about the “mysteries” of the campaign, including how often “intelligent contrabands” showed up with information, useful information, on roads, troops movements, material that was important and needed for the Army — and how these folk were able toget to headquarters so quickly. Grabau speculates that they were part of a still secret intelligent operation. I suspect that the “intelligent contrabands” did not want their part known after the war. That said, a statue to them would b a good idea.

      • Lyle Smith January 18, 2011 / 6:48 pm

        Very true about the contraband, but from what I’ve read this one man was “kidnapped”. When trying to outflank the fortification at Port Gibson Grant gave orders to a subordinate to go fetch a slave from a nearby plantation with knowledge of the area; to point out a spot where his divisions could safely cross the River to the Mississippi side. The secondary source I read used the word kidnapped or kidnap, I think. And they did find a slave, who did point out a spot, and Grant’s army crossed the River at the spot the slave pointed out..

      • Bob Huddleston January 19, 2011 / 4:59 pm

        Who Went After the Intelligent Contraband?
        To the Editor: The evening before Grant landed in Mississippi, the night after the gunboats attacked Grand Gulf, I was sent over into Mississippi with a squad of men in a rowboat after an “intelligent contraband” at the hour of midnight with instructions to take him, if found, to Gen. Grant’s headquarters. Private Fred Winters, Co. A, 3d Ill. Cav., was one of the squad. The other men were from the Thirteenth Corps. Will they send me their names and address? This information, so obtained, led Gen. Grant to land at Bruinsburg and gain the victory at Bayou Pierre. The “intelligent contraband” we took to Gen. Grant’s headquarters at about 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. R.H. Ballanger, Captain, Co. A, 3r Ill. Cav., Kankakee, Ill.

        National Tribune, July 1, 1886, p. 3

      • Lyle Smith January 19, 2011 / 7:05 pm

        Yeah, that was it. They “took” him. 🙂

      • Lyle Smith January 19, 2011 / 7:14 pm

        No, but that’s a very interesting theory. I’ve never of heard of it before. I’m a greenhorn in Civil War history though. A secondary source aficionado at the moment.

    • Bob Huddleston January 19, 2011 / 8:34 pm

      How would they know that a random slave was an “intelligent contraband”? And why take a random slave to the commanding general? How could they be certain a random slave would know anything about the terrain? The ease with which Intelligent Contrabands showed up in Union lines and quickly were taken up the chain of command — and then provided accurate terrain information as well as the location of the enemy troops — is why Grabau argues that there was a well-developed underground of slaves recruited and waiting for the Yankees. “Take” could mean kidnapped but is more likely to mean when you find this particular person, bring him to USG ASAP. You might enjoy William B. Feis,”The War of Spies and Supplies” in Woodworth, ed., _Grant’s Lieutenants From Cairo to Vicksburg_. BTW, this is surely the worse nightmare of the Rebels: the tame docile Uncle Sambos were not only waiting for liberation but actively plotting with the Yankees!

      • Lyle January 19, 2011 / 9:03 pm

        There were obviously slaves who were smart and knew the area in which they lived. It probably wasn’t that difficult to find a slave along the river, where a ton of plantations were, and therefore a lot of slaves, who knew where a riverboat could land… and also knew the Confederates weren’t nearby.

        I don’t discredit the notion of black spies or that this particular man was a spy (there were for sure black spies… Pinkerton had black spies, I think), but for the information Grant was wanting, any nearby slave probably would have done.

        I’ve read where local slaves freely provided infomation to the Confederates at times. And spies they weren’t.

        … I’m glad you made your point though, because I hadn’t ever thought about the possibility of the guy being part of a spy ring. That’d be cool too and more comparable to Longstreet’s Harrison.

  2. Daniel Sauerwein January 17, 2011 / 8:38 pm

    I heard about the reenacting of the slave auction from my dad the other day, otherwise I would have blogged on this myself. Good post.

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