Kevin Levin on John Stauffer and Black Confederates

Kevin Levin took a break from the Yankees-Red Sox series to make his way over to Harvard University, where he heard John Stauffer’s presentation on black Confederates.  You can read his observations here.

I have to say that I’m a little disappointed that Stauffer did not do a little more research on the examples he cited, for they have been discussed before, on the very blogs he cites.  Generally speaking, people actually read what they cite (and even quote) and glean what information they can from what’s already out there.  To leave the impression that one’s surveyed what’s out there (and I’d include the fine work of Andy Hall in Dead Confederates as of prime importance) and then fail to wrestle with it does not seem to me to be sound research practice.  Perhaps this is a case of the promotional material promising more than Stauffer was prepared to deliver … except guess who usually prepares the promotional material?

I’ll be interested to see whether more comes of this initial foray, or if a text or video of these remarks will appear anywhere.

My Favorite Confederates I: John Singleton Mosby

When I was an undergraduate student ay the University of Virginia, I spent a lot of time in Alderman Library. It was a rich repository of material, and I also enjoyed exploring the building.  There was a representation of William Faulkner’s office, for example: Faulkner had been the university’s writer in residence years before. I also enjoyed the reading rooms, especially a rather posh one on the east wing.

One of the things I enjoyed looking at was a portrait of John Singleton Mosby.  Mosby, who grew up in Albemarle County, was a student at UVA before the Civil War; most people are aware of his career as the namesake of Mosby’s Confederacy.  Looking over Mosby’s military career, he was more irritant than anything else, although his activities did inhibit Union efforts to consider overland approaches in Virginia supplied by rail.  Had he succeeded in capturing Ulysses S. Grant in the spring of 1864 on one of Grant;’s travels between the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac and Washington, he might have made a more significant contribution to the outcome of the war.  However, much like Nathan Bedford Forrest, Mosby’s antics and importance are exaggerated by his devoted admirers; however, while I think the Confederacy failed to take advantage of Forrest’s talents as an independent commander as part of a more integrated defensive strategy in the West, I think Mosby accomplished a fair amount given the resources at his disposal, and that should be enough.

But it was not Mosby’s wartime career that I found attractive: it was his postwar career.  Like many former Confederates, he engaged in the usual war of words about who in gray was responsible for Confederate defeat; but, unlike many of his former comrades, he also did what he could to assist Reconstruction, to the extent that he worked with none other than President Grant to try to steer a middle course, especially in Virginia.  Mosby even became a Republican in the process.  This did not come without cost.  As he later remarked, “There was more vindictiveness shown to me by the Virginia people for my voting for Grant than the North showed to me for fighting four years against him.”  Had white southerners instead followed Mosby’s lead, Reconstruction might have been a more constructive experience for all concerned.  Unlike other Confederates, Mosby was honest as to why he fought, and what the Confederacy was all about: “I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery—a soldier fights for his country—right or wrong—he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in.”

That’s a Confederate I can believe in, and a man whose postwar actions deserve at least as much attention as his wartime efforts.

Note:  Here’s the text of Mosby’s letter about why he fought:

June 4th 1907

Dear Sam:

I suppose you are now back in Staunton. I wrote you about my disgust at reading the Reunion speeches: It has since been increased by reading Christians report. I am certainly glad I wasn’t there. According to Christian the Virginia people were the abolitionists & the Northern people were pro-slavery. He says slavery was “a patriarchal” institution – So were polygamy & circumcision. Ask Hugh is he has been circumcised. Christian quotes what the Old Virginians – said against slavery.  True; but why didn’t he quote what the modern Virginians said [struck: about] [inserted: in] favor of it – Mason, Hunter, Wise &c. Why didn’t [struck: t] he state that a Virginia Senator (Mason) was the author of the Fugitive Slave law – & why didn’t he quote The Virginia Code (1860) [strikeout] that made it a crime to speak against slavery, or to teach a negro to read the Lord’s prayer.  Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age.  If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her [2] Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. The truth is the modern Virginians departed from the teachings of the Father’s. John C. Calhoun’s last speech had a bitter attack on Mr Jefferson for his amendment to the Ordinance of `87 prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory. [struck: Jo.] Calhoun was in a dying condition – was too weak to read it – So James M. Mason, a Virginia Senator, read it in the Senate about two weeks before Calhoun’s death – Mch. 1850.  Mason & Hunter not only voted against The admission of California (1850) as a free state but offered a protest against [inserted: it] wh. the Senate refused to record on its Journal Nor in the Convention wh. Gen. Taylor had called to from a Constitution for California, there were 52 Northern & 50 Southern men – but it was unanimous against slavery — But the Virginia Senator, with Ron Tucker & Co. were opposed to giving [inserted: local] self-government to California. Ask Sam Yost to give Christian a skinning. I am not [strikeout] ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country – right or wrong – he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights in.
The South was my country. Yours Truly Jno: S. Mosby

John Stauffer Enters the Black Confederate Fray

It seems that another academic historian is about to enter the fray on the subject of black Confederates.  Tomorrow John Stauffer, Professor of English and American Literature and Language and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, will speak on “Black Confederates in History and Myth.”  Kevin Levin, who alerted me to this presentation, has blogged about it and will be present.  Here’s the abstract for the talk:

“Black Confederates” is one of the most controversial ideas of the Civil War era and American memory more generally. Today, neo-Confederates claim that thousands of blacks loyally fought as soldiers for the South and that hundreds of thousands more served the Confederacy as laborers. These claims have become a staple among Southern heritage groups and are taught in some Southern schools. Their function is to purge the Confederacy from its association with slavery and redeem the white South from guilt over its past. In this they have been partly successful: according to a recent poll, 70% of white Southerners continue to believe that the Confederacy was motivated by states rights rather than slavery.

Academic historians, in reaction to these claims, have totally dismissed the idea that more than a handful of African Americans could have served as Confederate soldiers. To suggest otherwise, they say, is to engage in “a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit” in the use of evidence.

But according to African Americans themselves, writing during the war, thousands of blacks did fight as soldiers for the South. In my presentation, I assess and contextualize the sources, examine case studies of blacks fighting for the Confederacy, and explain how and why it happened and how Northern black leaders understood this phenomenon. Along the way I reveal the richly diverse ways in which blacks acted on their understandings of freedom.

Gee, a pattern of distortion, deception, and deceit … where have I heard that before?

I’ll be curious to hear Kevin’s report on the lecture.  In the meantime, I’ll note that once more blogging historians have sparked a discussion by perfectly respectable scholars on an issue of such interest that they even talk about it at Harvard.

And they might even be wrong.


You Tube for Authors

Over at Civil Warriors Ethan Rafuse has posted a video by Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, author of West Pointers in the Civil War: The Old Army in War and Peace, in which Wayne responds to a line in Ethan’s review of Wayne’s book in The Journal of Military History.  As before, when you click on Civil Warriors you get a warning that it is an attack site, although to the best of my knowledge it is not (I can think of a few blogs where that would be appropriate in a different way).

After I watched Wayne’s response to the review, I noticed that it was one of four videos he’s offered: you can access them all here.  It appears that Wayne’s a Dodgers fan … lfnb%$woi!*ne[opbn}v

… excuse me, but it’s really hard to type when one’s laughing uncontrollably.

Watch Wayne’s videos, and then tell me what you think of this method of an author discussing a book as opposed to, say, the old tried and true methods of eleven years ago, namely … this.


Engaging Confederates

This week I am going to offer a short series of posts on a handful of prominent Confederates whose life stories I find engaging.  I’ll explain why that is so as well.  All of the subjects made a name for themselves in Virginia.  I’m not sure why that is, but while I find several of the Union commanders in both East and West interesting figures of study, the same does not hold true for the Confederates.  In some cases I find their non-military careers as interesting as their military service in gray.

I was exposed to several second- and third- tier Confederates at close range when I worked in the archives at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate.  My job was to organize collections (or reorganize them) and to prepare a user’s guide for the collection.  Among the collections I processed were those of James L. Kemper and John W. Daniel.  A prewar lawyer and politician who became speaker of the Virginia House in 1861, Kemper served as a brigade commander with the Army of Northern Virginia and led one of George Pickett’s three brigades forward at Gettysburg, where, although badly wounded, he was the only brigade commander to survive.  The collection included rather graphic letters about Kemper’s wartime service, including some blood stains from the Gettysburg wound.  After the war Kemper became involved in Reconstruction politics, becoming governor in 1874; during his term in office there was talk that if Ulysses S. Grant ran for a third term, Kemper might join him as a running mate.  That would have been interesting (and it was not simply an idle proposal, as I learned).

Daniel was in many ways my firsthand introduction to the internal warfare among Confederates as to what happened during the war.  I came to his collection on the heels of reading Tom Connelly’s The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (1977), a book that does not always get its due in the recounting of the origins of memory studies, although its place in Lee historiography is more secure.  Although Daniel had a prominent postwar career in Virginia politics, as a young staff officer he watched as Jubal Early and John B. Gordon fought each other as well as the Yankees, and in Daniel’s papers there is a wealth of material looking to set the record straight about such battles as Cedar Creek (which was curious, for Daniel’s service on Early’s staff ceased when he went down with a wound at the Wilderness).  After the war Daniel went into politics, eventually serving as United States senator, but he never forgot his Confederate service.

To work with the papers of both men was quite an opportunity.  Since I was charged with organizing them and describing their contents, I wanted to make sure I did a through job of examining the collections, as you might well imagine.  Doubtless I also found somewhat reassuring the notion that while Virginia’s Confederates were dedicated to restoring the old order, they seemed to lack the vicious edge one sometimes encountered elsewhere, although perhaps that was due in part to the relatively smooth path Virginia followed to redemption.  All in all, it was an interesting introduction to Confederate history firsthand in a town better known for its association with Mr. Jefferson.

The Sunday Question: Confederate Strategy in the East

Should the Confederacy have remained on the strategic defensive and foregone invasions across the Potomac, limiting itself to countering enemy moves, or should it have followed the more aggressive approach of Robert E. Lee?  Should it have followed the advice of James Longstreet and used operational maneuver to force the Army of the Potomac to launch attacks at places of Lee’s choosing?  In short, how should the Confederacy have waged war in the East?

Irene as Retribution?

So suggests this rather curiously executed You Tube video, featuring someone who must be a failed American Idol contestant.  Note that it highlights the role of the North in the transAtlantic slave trade.

I think this video serves as retribution on several levels.  It also serves as a point of departure to discuss the role of weather in affecting Civil War operations, including the Mud March, the rain on July 4 at Gettysburg, and the storm that resulted in the sinking of the USS Monitor.  What other examples can you think of?


Kevin Levin: Traitor and Enemy

I am glad to see that Kevin Levin’s finally come clean and revealed that he’s a “pro-southern blogger.”

I knew it all the time.  Anyone from New Jersey, that northern slave state, can’t be relied upon, especially when they come from south Jersey.  He’s rooted for the wrong teams for years, having cheered the Phillies in 2009 … and now he’s supporting the Boston Red Sox, a sign of his ability to shift sympathies at a moment’s notice.  And, of course, he was an anti-southern blogger in the South, and now a pro-southern blogger in the North, a sure sign of his absolute contrarian sensibilities.

Readers of Crossroads know that I will always be a New Yorker and a Yankee, as well as a fan of the New York Yankees.  At least you’ll always know where I stand.  October can’t come soon enough.

I’m waiting for Kevin to jump on the bandwagon of the Boston Bruins and retroactively claim his support for the 2011 Stanley Cup champions, in part because that may spark renewed rioting in Vancouver.  That’s still one Stanley Cup less in my lifetime than the 1980-83 New York Islanders, who trounced the Bruins twice in the playoffs en route to their four-in-a-row Cup dynasty.  Next up for Kevin: a New England Patriots jersey … I’ll send him a Super Bowl 42 patch for it.

And to think that I actually count Boston as one of my favorite cities …

All this and his own action figure and trading card … grrrr.