Confederate Heritage Salutes Veterans

This is how they do it at Sea Raven Press, long known for its support of Confederate heritage correctness scholarship:

SRP 1.JPGOne million armed African American slaves supporting the Confederacy by taking up arms. That shows a certain ability in math as well as history. Where did they hide all these soldiers? General Lee wants to know.

And, by all means, honor the Confederate Battle Flag … like this:

SRP 2Of course, there are too many stars there, and the flag is shredded, but these are mere details.

And finally, we all know that Confederate heritage has nothing to do with present politics, right? Sure …


This is the sort of political correctness I’m sure some people who whine about it can get behind. Just ask Matthew Heimbach.


The Growing Vacuousness of Confederate Heritage

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s speculated about the decline and eventual disappearance of Confederate heritage commemorationsimplying that perhaps confining such ceremonies in time and place may prolong their existence by confining their expression to appropriate venues and occasions. As you might well imagine, some of Kevin’s most vocal critics (who also happen to be among his most loyal readers) offered their usual pitiful petulant protests. Fine, folks: just go raise another flag somewhere and claim victory.

Although I appreciate Kevin’s argument, I hold a different view (although I suspect that Kevin agrees with much of what I am about to say). I think that the real problem with Confederate heritage today is that it has less and less to do with the Confederacy or any sort of heritage and much more to do with serving as a vehicle through which people express their political views and cultural preferences. There are several themes sometimes associated with Confederate heritage that come through in these declarations, much as other themes woven throughout Confederate heritage reappear in the claims made by critics of Confederate heritage (think slavery, folks: there’s no Confederacy without it).

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Defeat in Danville

While most of the nation watched last night as voters in Indiana dealt a death blow to one presidential candidate’s campaign while keeping alive the fantasies of another, a few people focused on a city council election held in Danville, Virginia, best known as the last capital of the Confederacy. Running for reelection were three council members who had supported the removal of a Confederate outside the Sutherlin Mansion, otherwise known as the last Confederate White House, where Jefferson Davis learned of the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant.

The Virginia Flaggers were out in force on this one:

Flaggers Danville election

Well, the results are in, and the Flaggers are not happy. So much for #novotesforturncoats. Exactly why these three people are “turncoats” is another matter altogether, but never let reality get in the way of a snappy turn of praise … like “Restore the honor.”

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A Virginia Flagger Urges Assassination

Willie Earl Wells is a rather visible member of the Virginia Flaggers. He’s a favorite subject of the group’s photographer, Judy Smith.

Wells FB

Like many other people who like to run around in Confederate uniforms, Mr. Wells likes to pretend he belongs to the artillery branch. There are far more Confederate artillerists today than there were during the war, I guess.

So guess what Mr. Wells suggests ought to be done when it comes to the Confederate monument controversy in Louisville, Kentucky?

Wells Placed Sniper
Courtesy Restoring the Honor (link above)

We can’t wait for the Virginia Flaggers to disavow this threat of violence.

Confederate Heritage Advocates: Angry at a Black Man

After some discussion, the University of Louisville has decided to remove a Confederate statue on campus grounds. Professor Ricky L. Jones weighed in on the issue as part of the debate.

It appears that Confederate heritage groups did not like Professor Jones’s position. We’ll leave it to you to imagine why, especially in light of what they said should happen in this case.

Oh, those Virginia Flaggers … yearning for the days of lynch law to keep order.

Does Rommel Deserve a Statue?

During my travels through northwest Europe last year I came across some very interesting sites that sparked renewed thinking about how we as Americans have decided to deal with the commemoration and memorialization of the American Civil War. One cause for thought was the presence of German military cemeteries in France and elsewhere — for both world wars. Not far from where George S. Patton, Jr., is buried in Luxembourg, for example, one finds a German military cemetery containing dead from the Ardennes Offensive, while one can view the Aisne-Marne American military cemetery from a small nearby German cemetery when exploring Belleau Wood. At La Cambe Military Cemetery, some seven miles from Omaha Beach, some 21,000 German soldiers are buried.

In short, German dead are buried in enemy territory, and those areas are cause for contemplation and reflection. We talk a great deal about honoring military dead regardless of what they believed (even if we often debate exactly what it was that they believed). After all, they fought for what they believed, and for some people, that’s enough.

Statues, we are told, honor service and sacrifice. They are not political statements about the cause for which these men fought. I might disagree with that argument (most war memorials offer at least implicit explanation and affirmation about the cause of the conflict and related political statements), but let’s set that aside. What, then, should stand in the way of erecting a statue to Erwin Rommel as well as the German fighting man near Normandy? Anything? After all, if certain people are willing to remember the Confederate fighting man, complete with the erection of memorials and the raising of historically appropriate flags as symbols of the military effort of the Confederacy, should not the German fighting man and the generals who commanded them be afforded the same courtesy? If so, why? If not, why not, and what’s the difference (if any) between a discussion about honoring the service and sacrifice of World War I and II dead with one about Civil War dead?

You tell me.

On Al Arnold, Turner Hall, Jr., and “Black Confederates.”

There’s been some discussion here and elsewhere about Al Arnold’s tale about the tales of his ancestor, Turner Hall, Jr., and what exactly this all means for historians interested in the role played by enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. Andy Hall went to the trouble of reading the entire book, and he offered his reactions here. It’s a discerning response that looks carefully at the paucity of actual evidence to support Hall’s stories, which Arnold accepts at face value. Note that Arnold’s interpretation of Turner Hall’s story relies on a tremendous amount of speculation and inference that finds scant support in the historical record. As usual, plaudits to Andy for his usual skillful treatment of matters of evidence.

I also point readers to the very thoughtful post over at Alan Skerrett, Jr.’s Jubilo! The Emancipation Century. It’s a model of discerning reflection that balances respect and skepticism in a careful consideration of the evidence. Alan’s brought his usual high standards to this piece, and it shows.

Stories about African Americans’ willingness to serve the Confederate war effort serve many modern agendas. Arnold’s story, it turns out, is really about how Al Arnold dealt with a family story that he spent very little effort to verify. What we do know is that Turner Hall, Jr., told these stories about his past, and that white southerners embraced him for the telling, much as Confederate heritage advocates have embraced H. K. Edgerton, Karen Cooper, Anthony Hervey, Arlene Barnum, and now, it appears, Al Arnold, who seems more and more interested in telling the story of black support for the Confederacy. It’s interesting (and revealing) to research the life stories of Edgerton, Cooper, Hervey, and Barnum, all of who seems to have grown bitterly dissatisfied by black leaders and organizations such as the NAACP before veering right … and right into the arms of Confederate heritage advocates who welcome the chance to disassociate the Confederate cause slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Arnold’s personal quest seems to be just that: a personal quest. In the process, he’s become quite a popular speaker among certain people, as this list of events on his Facebook page suggests. He’s also become involved in the debate over the current Mississippi state flag, suggesting that this is no longer simply a matter of family history.

Truly, Al Arnold is following in the footsteps of Turner Hall, Jr.

Or course, Arnold’s rendering of Turner Hall’s life will be treated as fact in some reports by the uncritical, the unqualified, the unwary, and others who just like a good story. People who question it will be dismissed as haters. Arnold himself struggles with criticism, as a recent Twitter exchange with Kevin Levin revealed. Kevin, pointing to the story behind the banner that adorns Arnold’s Twitter account, asked him if he knew the truth behind the tampered image:

LevinArnold OneSimply put, to interpret Union soldiers as servants is a slam against the military service of American soldiers: an unkind critic would say that such a remark shows just how little respect Arnold has for some African Americans. At best, it’s a display of gross ignorance.

The exchange continued:

LevinArnold 2

Somehow I don’t think that citing the Lord in support of my methods is going to satisfy any critics of my work. Indeed, I know some very religious historians who would not dare to make such a claim.

LevinArnold 3

Given the tenor of this exchange, I doubt Mr. Arnold’s willing to engage in the sort of discussions that historians have when discussing evidence. Then again, this was never really about evidence, was it?

For some time the discussion about the service of enslaved and free African Americans in the Confederate armed forces has been one about historical fact and the consequences of those findings for larger interpretations of the war. That tends to be what historians do. However, students of Civil War memory might be better advised to turn to the modern day advocates of a story that places such service at the center of their narratives, and ask why that is. We may better understand Turner Hall, Jr., if we seek to understand Al Arnold.

Erasing History? Monuments and Memory

The year 2015 saw impassioned debates over whether to remove monuments to prominent Americans now deemed to be fatally flawed for one reason or another, as well as other monuments glorifying events now seen to be embarrassing or shameful, such as the monument in New Orleans commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. There have been impassioned debates for and against the removal or relocation of such monuments, with at least as much heat as light being generated.

One of the claims we hear by people opposed to the removal or relocation of such monuments is that to undertake such actions is to “erase” history. Apparently, the existence of a particular monument is an explanation of history that is timeless. Such a claim betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of history, the relationship between history and memory, and the role monuments play in marking and expressing historical memory.

First, let’s remember what history is … and what it is not. History is not the past: it is a reading of the past that inevitably is also an interpretation of it. That’s right … historical narrative, however expressed, is inherently interpretive, marked by what it includes, what it omits, what it values, and what it emphasizes. There is no such thing as “just the facts” history, nor is that history “objective.” After all, in determining what facts to include, you exclude others, and an honest historian will have to admit that some “facts” are simply not recoverable. Carol Reardon reminds us of this very simple premise in her fine book exploring the Confederate assault on the Union center along Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. What you call that charge is in itself an act of interpretation. Is it Pickett’s Charge, the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack, or Longstreet’s assault … or something else? As Reardon suggests, even simple questions defy easy answers. When did the Confederate artillery bombardment begin? How long did it last? How many cannon participated? What damage did it inflict? Try giving me a “just the facts” answer to any of those questions that goes beyond vague assertions and carefully qualified wording.

History is a creative act undertaken by human beings seeking to understand the past, both on its own terms and for the light it may shed on present issues … and often the questions asked by historians about the past reflect present concerns. This is evident when it comes to battlefield preservation and interpretation, for example. The Gettysburg battlefield is a narrative that’s an exercise in historical interpretation. You can see that in the monuments and markers that populate the battlefield, in the choices of what to preserve and how, and so on. Anyone who ventures there simply to learn the facts will be sorely disappointed, in part because it depends what facts one wants to learn. This became evident two decades ago when people began talking about the need to explain why there was a battle at all and what impact it had on the civilian population, black as well as white. Some people wanted to limit their understanding of “the facts” to the battle itself as an exercise in killing between two groups of organized armed men, as if it was simply a sporting contest. Yet the “sporting contest” analogy sells short one’s understanding of the importance of sporting events: a history of Super Bowl III that simply focused on the game that took place in the Orange Bowl on January 12, 1969, would be poor history when it comes to assessing the importance of that contest.

History is not erased: it is rewritten. Yes, it is revised, and it is revised all the time … because we learn more about what happened (look at the use of archaeology on battlefields such as Little Big Horn), because we have new questions to ask, because we test older interpretations that we now find wanting, and so on. Ranting about “revisionist” history misses the point that all history is revisionist (and people who rant about it do so because their particular understanding of history is now being challenged). There are interpretations fashioned by scholars who do their best to be fair and who employ evidence skillfully, and there are interpretations that are drowning in bias and incompetent displays of the the historian’s craft, so simply to say that all history is subjective simply doesn’t tell us much. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult than that.

And so we turn to monuments. Monuments reflect an interpretation of the past that in most cases meet the creators’ desire to remember a person or an organization or an event in a particular way. Take, for example, the equestrian statue of Winfield Scott Hancock on East Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. Why is it there, and not somewhere along Cemetery Ridge, where Hancock did much to contribute to Union victory? Why did the sculptor pose Hancock as he did? Answering those questions involve how people wanted in remember Hancock as well as how they wanted to interpret his service (in contrast, few people recall that Hancock is also featured on the Pennsylvania monument not far from his scenes of greatest service on July 2 and 3).

Or take the monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., facing each other across the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. The Jefferson Memorial was erected during a time of Democratic resurgence in American politics where Jefferson’s reputation was on the rise, and it celebrates him as a great Democrat as well as a great democrat. Other aspects of his life were slighted or ignored altogether, as Martin Luther King, Jr., might point out. Yet the same is also true of the King Memorial. Erected at a time when Americans chose to celebrate a certain version of King as enshrined in the “I Have a Dream” speech of August 1963, it has much less to say about the Vietnam war that King came to oppose, a war remembered a short walk northwards from his memorial. We want to remember people in a particular way, and that’s that. In the future, other people may disagree, and I have no more right to claim that my interpretation should prevail because it’s “history” and to challenge it is to “erase history” than someone else does to tell me that I can’t challenge what they choose to remember or how they want to remember it because to do so is to “erase history” or is an exercise in “political correctness.” Need I remind you that Stone Mountain and Birth of a Nation are also exercises in political correctness for their time, as are the inscriptions on the monuments erected by several southern states in honor of the service of their state’s Confederate forces at Gettysburg?

Note: ranting about “political correctness” is best read as “I can’t really deal with the merits of your interpretation, so I’ll deride it largely because it doesn’t reinforce my own preferences and prejudices.”

Monuments are primarily commemorations and expressions of historical memory. As such, they are time-bound, not timeless. They are much more about the people who erected and dedicated those monuments than about the people and events they commemorate. As times change, as values change, as perspectives change, and as people change, they will view those monuments differently. In some cases, they will come to question whether those events still need be commemorated, or whether they should be commemorated in the same way. The past does not get to tell the present what to think about the past, and to defend monuments largely because they make the defender feel comfortable about their understanding of history is problematic.  Recall the addition of Confederate flags to the Lee Chapel surrounding the Valentine sculpture. That act was a revision, a re-envisioning, and a repurposing for the people who decided to augment that space. So was the recent decision to remove those flags and to restore the space to its original condition. You can’t criticize one without criticizing the other.

I have no general rule on what to do that would cover all such cases. I do have general principles grounded in the belief that memorials are expressions of the time and people when they were erected, and that they may not reflect the prevailing sentiments of everyone, then or now. They are acts of memory; the story of such monumentation is the history of memory, not of the event or person itself. Removing or relocating such monuments does not erase the history of the event or the person being commemorated; it shows that the history of memory is always evolving. If you removed every single monument at Gettysburg, nothing about the battle itself would change, any more than destroying a battlefield eradicates the history of that battle, however much it may damage our ability to understand it or remember it. But it is time to have a more serious discussion about these matters, rather than the polarizing debate that comes with namecalling and simple-minded claims about what’s at stake of what a monument really represents. Nor is that discussion limited to scholars and historians, or outsiders who want to tell other people what to do at the same time they resent being told what to do. There are far more stakeholders and constituencies involved, and is worth remembering, for example, that if the people of New Orleans put up four monuments, subsequent generations have an equal right to discuss whether they should remain. The earth belongs to the living, Jefferson once said, and past generations do not have the right to bind future generations to comply with what those past generations chose to remember about the past and how they chose to remember it.