Race on Ice (and in the Stands)

Last night the Washington Capitals defeated the Boston Bruins 2-1 in overtime to win their first round Stanley Cup series.  Joel Ward scored the overtime winner, banging in a rebound past Tim Thomas.

I thought that the goal might prove controversial given the contact between Washington forward Mike Knuble and Thomas: it seemed to me that the collision between the two left Thomas unable to do much to stop Ward’s shot.  A few people agreed, but there was nothing said about that on the broadcast.  Nor was there anything said about the fact that Joel Ward is of African descent.

At least, not on the air.  In cyberspace, where everyone becomes brave behind a keyboard, not everyone let Ward’s race go unnoticed.  Several Bruins fans were so upset that they went ballistic … and raciston Twitter.  That’s right … Twitter.

(Anyone who thinks that I overlook racism in the North will have to revise that claim.)

The owner of the Capitals denounced the taunts; so did Bruins management in a blunt if brief statement.  Ward dismissed the comments: “We won, and we are moving on. People are going to say what they want to say.”

Of course, in the response to the racist outburst by some Bruins fans (and, one speculates, some non-Bruins fans), some other people began to lash back at Bruins fans, period.  There was some justice in this, as a good number of Bruins fans (joined by other fans) had derided Vancouver Canucks hockey fans at the conclusion of last year’s Stanley Cup finals, when some Canucks fans (joined, one suspects, by people who couldn’t care less about hockey) rioted and looted through their home city in the aftermath of their Game Seven defeat in the Finals (a riot that was something to follow on Twitter as well).  So turnabout seemed to be fair play if nothing else.  It took some time for folks to understand that a few bad apples don’t necessarily spoil the whole bunch, although they sure don’t help sell the product.  One Yahoo Sports columnist made that point rather well in a column.  Others seemed torn between the temptation to retaliate and the realization that it may be best to ignore such bigotry.  Another commentator made more complex and to my mind problematic points.

We see the same thing all the time when discussing southern “heritage” advocates.   I’ve anticipated the point made by the Yahoo columnist, Harrison Mooney, and do what I can to make sure that when I’m writing about some Confederate heritage activists, I’m focusing on certain individuals, not everyone who is seeking ways to recognize what they define as Confederate heritage (enough with conflating this with southern heritage).  Those people I criticize would like you to believe otherwise in an effort to play the victim and gain sympathy in some quarters–thus all this tripe about Dixie-bashing and evilizing the South and similar garbage that reflects their own attitude formed by fear, bitterness, and hatred (along with a strong dose of ignorance and stupidity).  But SCV members chat with me all the time, and they know better.  That said, it also behooves those very people who deplore the association of Confederate heritage with such people to make public their disgust with such folks when their language smacks of racism, bigotry, and/or violent threats.

Me?  I admit I thought along racial lines when Ward scored against Thomas (although that came later, when I was reflecting on what had happened: to me it was first and foremost a hockey play, period, and these thoughts did not come until I was becoming bored by Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick jabbering away on a postgame show).  After all, Thomas had snubbed President Barack Obama by not accompanying his team to the White House earlier this year in the traditional US Stanley Cup championship team meets president ceremony (a tradition started by the New York Islanders during the Reagan administration).  His grounds were explicitly political.  Washington fans had not forgotten.  So I wondered whether people would note that a black man representing Washington achieved a form of payback by beating Thomas … especially one wearing #42.  That would be even more ironic given that it was the Bruins who were the first team to have a player of African descent play for them when Willie O’Ree joined the club back in 1958.  Nah, I thought, that’s just the overactive mind of a historian who happens to be a hockey fan (or a hockey fan who happens to be a historian) … no one else would see it this way (it’s been a long term complaint that the president has not appeared at a Capitals game).  Apparently some did (at least partially, although I don’t think I’ve seen mention of Ward’s jersey number).  As for the rest, no, I didn’t anticipate it.  Sometimes my desire to think better of people obscures a sadder reality about some of them.  Maybe that’s why skeptics are never disappointed, only surprised.

Surrender at Bennett Place

People observe the anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, all the time.  It’s not unusual to hear people say that Lee’s surrender to Grant ended the Civil War … although, of course, it didn’t.  Neither did the negotiations that ended with the formal surrender of the Confederate forces under Joseph E. Johnston’s command to William T. Sherman on April 26, 1865, at what is now called Bennett Place in North Carolina, just outside of Durham.

The document signed on April 26th was actually the second document signed by Sherman and Johnston.  The first, signed April 18th, sparked a great deal of controversy.  In it William T. Sherman, the man who supposedly abhorred politics, went far beyond his authority to frame a document which read more like a peace settlement.  He did so following a discussion with Johnston; the Union general also reportedly offended Confederate Secretary of War (and major general) John C. Breckenridge by refusing to offer him a nip from his bottle (note that it was Sherman, not Grant, who was partaking on the day of a surrender negotiation).   Moreover, apparently we should call Bennett Place Bennitt Place, since the family name appears to have been Bennitt.

Sherman’s original terms were approved by Jefferson Davis … but not by the president Sherman needed to impress, Andrew Johnson.  News of the terms arrived in Washington the very day that the funeral train bearing the body of Abraham Lincoln departed the nation’s capital for Springfield.  It was left to Ulysses S. Grant to steer a middle course between rejection and an effort to defame Sherman as a lunatic or a traitor led by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.  Grant made his way to North Carolina, and one sees in the text of the second and final terms a document that closely resembles the one Grant prepared for Lee weeks earlier.  It is noteworthy that Johnston defied the wishes of his president in agreeing to the revised document.

The negotiations between Sherman and Johnston reveal just how complicated issues of war and peace might get.  For months politicians had failed to reach a final settlement, leaving it to the commanders in the field to work things out.  Grant had a far better political ear than did Sherman, whose contempt for professional politicians, the press, and public opinion often landed him in hot water, and never more so than in the spring of 1865.  Aware that he was not “fully empowered” to frame his initial agreement, Sherman nevertheless plunged ahead, and it is worthwhile to read the actual document in order to understand how far he had gone beyond the proper scope of military authority.

And yet, when one looks carefully at the agreement … would its implementation have been all that different from how white southerners implemented Andrew Johnson’s policy in 1865?  Oh, sure, there are differences in the details … but would there have been all that much difference in the result?