Secrets at Arlington

This past month I read Robert M. Poole’s On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery.  For the most part I found it an informative read, although here and there small factual mistakes marred the experience.  That said, Poole tells the story of Robert and Mary Lee’s attachment to Arlington as well as their decision to abandon it.  Many of the Custis/Lee slaves stayed there.  Some remained there after they secured their freedom.

In May 1865 William Syphax petitioned Andrew Johnson to secure title to over seventeen acres of land at Arlington.  Syphax argued that the land in question had been given to his mother, Maria Syphax, by George Washington Parke Custis, Mary Custis Lee’s father.  Maria Syphax had been Custis’s slave; it appears she may have been more than that as well, for Custis arranged for the emancipation of her children in 1826 as well as the eventual emancipation of William Syphax’s father Charles upon Custis’s death in 1857.  For Maria Syphax’s mother, Airrianna, one of Martha Washington’s servants, had a relationship with Custis that resulted in Maria’s birth.

A year later Andrew Johnson signed legislation recognizing William Syphax’s right to the land (one of the few cases on record where the seventeen president was involved in giving land to African Americans).

If we are to believe this (and there seems no reason to believe otherwise), Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law had at least one child by an enslaved African American woman, making Mary Custis Lee and Maria Syphax half sisters and Maria Syphax Lee’s half sister-in-law.  Nor was the Syphax family the only black family at Arlington that claimed mixed racial heritage, according to Poole.

We might keep the realities of life at Arlington in mind when we examine Robert E. Lee’s views on slavery.  No wonder he found the responsibilities foisted upon him by the terms of the Custis will “an unpleasant legacy.”

Finding the Real Robert E. Lee

Today is the 205th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee.

As I’ve said before, I find Lee to be a very interesting figure, and I plan to write a one-volume biography of him (after I address certain outstanding obligations).   At the same time, I’m well aware that Mary Chesnut once asked whether anyone could truly say they knew Lee, a man who often labored to conceal his inner thoughts and feelings from others.  Maybe part of the problem is that people are so eager to explore the inner Lee and discover the nature of his character that they don’t spend quite as much time on the outer Lee … as well as the intersection between the two.

But there’s another challenge worth pondering.  In writing about Lee, one is aware of the vast literature already available on the man and the general, with Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography continuing to hold pride of place, despite its flaws.  I suspect that one challenge facing a Lee biographer is to write about Lee and not his biographers.  I found this to be the case in spots with Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered (1991) as well as Thomas Connelly’s The Marble Man  (1977).  Both these books were as much about the Lee myth as anything else, and the image of Lee each historian fashioned was framed in contrast to the image being discredited.

If anything, what I’ve seen so far about Lee is how his views were more typical than one might assume.  I don’t find much exceptional about his views on slavery or the sectional crisis, for example.  He was no extremist, but it is evident that he placed primary blame for the debate over slavery upon northern abolitionist agitators, and that his views on the peculiar institution were a mixture of the necessary evil and positive good arguments used by many white Americans.  I also think he had a keen sense of the role of popular sentiment and support in waging war, and there’s something to suggest that Lee on the field of battle was a different person than Lee setting forth his strategic vision or mapping out plans of battle.  I don’t think he was as accepting of the verdict of arms as some might have it — to my mind he was making the best of a bad situation, but he still harbored resentments and opposed Reconstruction — and I think that on the whole his reputation benefited from his decision not to write either an autobiography or an account of the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia, because it is clear that he had decided opinions on the latter that would have thrust him into the middle of debates on the conduct of Confederate military operations.

Finally, I am not terribly interested in engaging in an evaluation of Lee against Ulysses S. Grant.  I’m not sure what purpose that would serve.  If anything, I think the two men had more in common than one might expect.  But I’ll leave that for another time.

Occidental Dissent Answers Connie Chastain

This makes for very interesting reading.

By the way, Mr. Wallace displays a Confederate Battle Flag on his blog.  It is my understanding that the people such as those who populate the gift that keeps on giving are determined to protest the appropriation of that flag by white supremacist groups.  So where’s the protest?  Does the lack of protest support Ms. Chastain’s argument about the ineffectiveness of the group?  Or does it document its lack of sincerity, especially in light of the willingness of members of the group to attack other people with whom they disagree?

Pass the popcorn, please.

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Many of you have heard about H. K. Edgerton, an African American heritage activist.  Some people celebrate him, some people ridicule him, some people attack him.  Frankly, I don’t care.  What Mr. Edgerton believes and what he wants to do is up to him, and, no, I have no problem with his charging fees to appear at various functions.  If someone’s willing to pay, that’s their business, and I’m sure they get what they pay for.

But there is something about Mr. Edgerton that causes me to scratch my head.  It’s this …

… and this …

… and this …

You see, H. K. Edgerton often portrays a Confederate artillery sergeant.

I’m unaware of any African Americans who actually served in the Confederate army as sergeants in the artillery.  Yes, I have heard one Confederate heritage enthusiast claim that there was an entire regiment of black Confederate cooks, but this is a little different.

Has anyone come across evidence of African Americans in Confederate military service with the rank of sergeant in the artillery?

Of course, one could point out that this is not the only uniform Mr. Edgerton uses, and they would be right.  Indeed, in the other images I’ve seen, I haven’t seen him give himself rank. Have you?

Moreover, one could argue that this is a case where Mr. Edgerton is in fact portraying a black slave (perhaps an officer’s servant) who appropriated the shell jacket in the aftermath of a battle in which its original wearer sacrificed all for the cause.  But I haven’t seen that case made.

Even Dixie Outfitters features Mr. Edgerton in his sergeant’s artillery shell jacket.  It also draws upon that image for a rather confused t-shirt image:

Here we have a black Confederate artillery non-commissioned officer marching as an infantryman.  Whatever.

So, what are we to make of this?

I confess I do not know.  But I know it could be worse.  Take this image of Mr. Edgerton … note any other non-standard issue items of apparel?

I thought you could.

The Lexington Controversy Considered

Well, this year’s Lee-Jackson Day has come and gone in Virginia, and people on cyberspace and the media have paid more attention to the efforts of several groups (although I’ve only seen the Sons of Confederate Veterans mentioned) to force Lexington to display various Confederate banners on city flagpoles.  And, folks, that is what this comes down to … forcing a local government to do as a minority (many who do not live in the area) wishes it to do.

According to one newspaper report, there were more “flaggers” (a mighty host of 300 … wait for the ensuing film) than spectators (some 100 in all).  I see nothing in these reports that suggests that flaggers were unable to enjoy their right of free speech and political protest.  I would venture that the Lexington City Council formed its current policy with previous court orders in mind, because various Confederate banners are no longer singled out: the only flags that can fly from city-owned flagpoles are the United States flag, the flag of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the flag of the city of Lexington.

You can see that there were plenty of Confederate flags on display in the photo essay for this article … and yes, there are even a few images of the beloved “flaggers” included.

I have no investment in this issue.  If Lexington’s residents want to fly various Confederate banners (there is no single “Confederate flag”), they can do so … just not on city-owned flagpoles.  Indeed, if anyone wants to display various Confederate banners in Lexington, they are free to do so … just not on city-owned flagpoles.  And if various Confederate heritage groups think this is a worthwhile investment of time, money, and energy (as opposed to, say, restoring Confederate monuments and preserving Confederate cemeteries), that’s their choice.  And if the city of Lexington wants to govern which flags will appear on its flagpoles, well, that’s fine, too.

I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this controversy.  However, now that it’s come and gone, there’s little reason to spend more time on it.

Update:  The flaggers called a “press conference” and got some press coverage after all.  Bravo!

The Sunday Question: CSA Strategic Options, September-October 1864

Many (although not all) historians see the fall of Atlanta as critical to the reelection hopes of Abraham Lincoln.  Yet over two months remained between that event and the election of 1864.  Given that the Confederate civil and military leadership understood the importance of that presidential contest, what could it have done to reverse the tide of public sentiment once more?  After all, the taking of Atlanta in itself was primarily a symbolic victory: the city had been taken out of the war for all intents and purposes, and Sherman’s failure to dispose of John Bell Hood’s army actually freed the Confederate high command to do something else (it would have been much harder for Robert E. Lee to detach himself from Richmond, for example, and let that city fall into Union hands … but Atlanta?).

So … what would you have done?  Why?  Or was it basically all over?

How Should the Confederate Flag(s) Be Displayed?

Although I have found the debate over the display of the Confederate flag on city property in Lexington, Virginia, to be of passing interest, frankly it’s not an important concern to me.  It seems to me obvious that people acting through their elected representatives can make lawful decisions about such maters, and that if the decisions made by one’s elected officials displease someone, they have recourse at the polls or through the courts.  Moreover, protest is an American right: although I find it ironic and amusing that people who say they want to be left alone and resent outsider intrusion then intrude as outsiders on other people with no intention of letting them alone, they have the right to protest (although they should acknowledge their hypocrisy if they are unwilling to revisit their own positions).

I don’t pretend to tell the good people of Lexington, Virginia, what to do in this matter.  Let the process for resolving these sorts of disputes go forward.  However, as an abstract matter, this affair brings forward for discussion various questions.

Would you favor the display of Confederate flags?  Under what circumstances?  Which Confederate flags do you find acceptable for display?  For some of you who are hostile to the display of that flag (or flags), are there any circumstances under which you would find it acceptable?  Do local and state governments have control over what flags should be displayed on public property and the conditions under which they can be displayed?  Is the same true for the federal government?  Is the Confederate Battle Flag the main source of contention, or is it any Confederate flag whatsoever?

It would be interesting to see people stake out positions as matters of principle without regard for specific situations.

Forcing Freedom: Fugitive Slaves

One of the debates that have embroiled historians in arguments over the last several decades is answering the question “who freed the slaves?”  Several historians assigned primary responsibility to Abraham Lincoln; others said that the enslaved should take center stage; and, recently, Gary Gallagher reminded us of the role played by the Union army, to which can be added the United States Congress and the friction of war itself as well as the actions of … wait for it … the Confederate government (and, some say, none other than Robert E. Lee himself).

To my mind the question is poorly framed.  If you want to know how emancipation and the destruction of slavery came about, it seems to me better to ask, “how did freedom come?”  Telling that story gives due credit to various actors and events in the drama.  That said, I believe it is true that the flow of enslaved blacks to Union lines did help force the issue.  This process was evident early in the war, as we know from the story of Benjamin Butler declaring escaped slaves contraband of war due to their use by Confederate forces (although that definition soon expanded).  Indeed, that tale sheds much light on how the Confederacy used slave labor and the role enslaved blacks played in the Confederate war effort … which some people mistakenly seize to claim that there were numerous enslaved black Confederate who voluntarily supported the Confederate war effort.

Studying Ulysses S. Grant’s early military career, I came across many stories of Union commanders asking what they should do with fugitive slaves who were seeking refugee within Union lines as blue armies surged southward.  The simple presence of these escapees from slavery should cast much doubt upon the “happy slave” narrative espoused in some quarters: no one willingly runs away from happiness.  That many of these slaves owed their proximity to Union lines to being used as laborers by the Confederate army reminds us how much the Confederacy depended on slave labor to wage war.  In many cases masters soon appeared seeking to reclaim their property: the ensuing discussion often revealed secessionists demanding that Union military authorities observe their constitutional rights, as if they still had any.  Loyal Unionist slaveholders presented a different argument and posed a more difficult problem, especially if their unionism seemed contingent on honoring their authority as slaveholders.  Finally, whatever decision Union officers made was a political decision, however much many of them sought to stay out of politics: the political consequences were simply too evident.

One notes the absence of a Confederate counterpart to this, with hordes of fugitive slaves seeking entrance into Confederate lines.  The reason might seem obvious, but it argues against the black Confederate myth with which we are so familiar.

Enslaved blacks seeking protection and freedom propelled the debate over emancipation forward.  No, they may not have themselves destroyed slavery, but their actions forced Union civil and military authorities to address an issue many of them at first wished to postpone.