Phil Leigh’s upset. Having had his essay on the Memphis Riots shredded in this blog, he complains that I’ve failed “to address the central question of whether black suffrage in the South was more important to Radical Republicans as a matter of morality or as a tool to sustain the Party’s political power.”
Generally speaking, that’s not the central question people choose to explore when they discuss the wholesale slaughter of African Americans, including US Army veterans, by an out-of-control white supremacist mob egged on by local leaders. But Mr. Leigh would rather not tell you whether white southerners who opposed Reconstruction killed African Americans for political advantage or simply because they were vile racists. After all, in his mind it was the murderers who were the victims, not the murdered.
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 reportsby 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:
Simply 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:
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.
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.
Last night I received the following e-mail from Al Arnold:
Men, thanks for the attention to my ancestor, Turner Hall Jr. I do appreciate the “grain” of truth that you claim I hold to. Yet, I have made no claim to having a full kernel of truth. You are so correct that my ancestor was NOT a SOLDIER. No where in my book do I make that claim. I do explain that use of the word in the context of his story but in no way seek to elevate him beyond his status of a flunkie, slave or orderly. I don’t even take the official term of an orderly and apply it to him. So, as long as you know that I am perfectly find with him being a slave and if there was a term lower than that it would satisfy me well. As I take way more pleasure in a humble disposition than one of high and lofty elevations. I do appreciate your attention to this matter but wanted to make sure that I at least give you my input as you deal with the grains of this story. Again, thank you very much for your attention and know that it is ok as I have made no claim of him being a soldier. That is totally not the point of my book.
Note that my original post said nothing about Turner Hall, Jr.’s actual status.
Thus, if Mr. Arnold did not use the term “orderly,” who did?
I suspect that Mr. Arnold learned of my interest in his book through one of the regular readers of this newsgroup, upon whom I can depend to share what appears here with his friends and associates:
I have no response to claims that Mr. Sanford is in fact a mole planted by me to humiliate Confederate heritage advocates.
The issue of proof remains unanswered. I am eager to see what documentation and other evidence Mr. Arnold has in his possession to support his rendering of the life of his ancestor, Turner Hall, Jr. I am especially interested in how a slave from Mississippi was owned by a Tennessean before making his way over to Virginia. That should be one astonishing tale.
Professor Walter Williams is an economist who teaches at George Mason University. He has frequently written on the subject of black Confederates, and he took the opportunity recently to do so yet again.
Dr. Williams is quite fond of the notion that large numbers of enslaved African Americans voluntarily and willingly served as soldiers in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. He is also quite fond of recycling the same material time and time again in support of that claim.
Click here to read a short piece from 2000. Then click here to read a piece from earlier this year. That piece just appeared again here.
You may notice that Dr. Williams claims that the death of Anthony Hervey, an African American who shared Dr. Williams’s views on black Confederate soldiers, “was in no small part caused by the gross level of ignorance, organized deceit and anger about the War of 1861. Much of the ignorance stems from the fact that most Americans believe the war was initiated to free slaves, when in truth, freeing slaves was little more than an afterthought. I want to lay out a few quotations and ask what you make of them.”
Well, since Dr. Williams thinks this is a matter of life or death, I think it fair to respond to his request that I say what I make of his quotations.
First, Dr. Williams quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 statement: “There are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels.”
Well, I believe several people have already said a great deal about that quote. Surely Andy Hall did, here and here. So have I. So what do I make of this quote? Not much. Douglass picked up on various rumors in the press to make the case that since blacks were in the Confederate army, the Union army ought to follow suit. The press reports and the research done on them suggest that reports of a significant presence of black Confederate soldiers on the battlefield was, to put it kindly, highly exaggerated.
Dr. Williams then quotes New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley to the same effect in 1862. Of course, Greeley said a lot of things, and some of them were true. But I don’t know what we are to make of an assertion without any supporting evidence. What Ta-Nehisi Coates saidseems to me to be sufficient.
Dr Williams then cites Dr. Lewis Steiner’s comment about 3,000 blacks among the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia as it marched through Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862. We’ve discussed that document here.
Then we have a short report about blacks in Petersburg volunteering to help out. We’ve seen that recycled as well. What do we make of it? Good question. What happened to these men?
Finally, Dr. Williams reminds us that “Dr. Leonard Haynes, a black professor at Southern University, stated, ‘When you eliminate the black Confederate soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.’” Unfortunately, we don’t know where he got that quote, or whether the professor said it at all.
At least the professor has dropped one of his claims. He once told us that “General Ulysses Grant’s slaves had to await for the Thirteenth Amendment for freedom. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, General Grant said, ‘Good help is so hard to come by these days.'” I wonder why he no longer cites this. Perhaps this is because the evidence against this is rather overwhelming?
Nevertheless, all this is rather important to Dr. Williams. As he declares, “Black civil rights activists, their white liberal supporters and historically ignorant Americans who attack the Confederate flag have committed a deep, despicable dishonor to our patriotic Southern black ancestors who marched, fought and died not to protect slavery but to protect their homeland from Northern aggression.”
Now, I understand that Dr. Williams is an economist, which may help explain why he finds evidence so challenging. That’s because he makes claims that are not supported by the very evidence he cites, and because he fails to take a critical look at the evidence he cites. But this does not deter him from repeating himself, as if that alone makes for a persuasive argument. Then again, he isn’t alone. Professor John Stauffer of Harvard University falls prey to the same shortcoming, and he claims to be a historian. You’ll recall that Stauffer and a colleague performed a scholarly hit-and-run last year, making claims and pointing fingers, only to slink away silently when challenged.
Perhaps Dr. Williams is different. Let’s see whether that’s the case. He freely shares his e-mail address at the end of his pieces. Here it is: firstname.lastname@example.org. Write him. Share this post with him. Ask him what he makes of it. Let’s see what he says. After all, he wanted to lay out a few questions and ask what readers made of them.
Remember, Dr. Williams says that someone lost his life in large part because of ignorance. We can’t have that, can we? Enlighten him.
At Dead Confederates Andy Hall recently highlighted another fumbling of Confederate heritage by its most impassioned advocates. This time the effort betrays an ignorance of American art as well as Civil War history.
Here’s the post, which appeared on the Facebook group “Defending the Heritage”:
I’m sure this post came from the heart. And I’m sure many people actually understand the emotions that drives certain people’s passion for the Confederacy. And I’m sure that someone believes this is all somehow a deprivation of civil rights (Confederate heritage advocates are experts on the issue of depriving people of their civil rights).
But it’s just wrong.
This is not a painting of long-suffering Confederates by an unknown artist. Rather, it’s Winslow Homer’s 1871 painting of Union soldiers in camp, supposedly based on Homer’s observations in the spring of 1862 during the Yorktown campaign.
The painting itself betrays a refashioning of history: although the barrel in the foreground displays a corps badge, those badges were not introduced until later, first by Phil Kearny for his men, followed by a more widespread systematic employment starting in 1863. A closer look at the soldiers (as well as the row of horses in the background) betrays that they are cavalrymen. Moreover, the sketch upon which the painting is based would have to have been made in late April or early May 1862, for the 61st New York, the regiment supposedly related to the corps insignia in question, was transferred to the Peninsula at that time, just before the siege of Yorktown ended (Homer included the regiment and its former commander, Francis C. Barlow, in another well-known painting). While a sketch of the mule survives, one might venture that other efforts to date and place the scene portrayed by the painting are at best suggestive but problematic, and that the trifoil on the barrel is really what one nowadays calls an “Easter egg.”
Perhaps the MMA will have a Civil War art expert examine the painting more carefully.
Homer knew how to paint haggard and hungry Confederates, but he did not do so here. But we must remember that it’s not the only time Confederate heritage advocates have mishandled images in service of their cause, and frankly this is not nearly the most serious case.
In the last few days, several Confederate heritage sites have been passing around a post from our good friend George Purvis, the head of his one man band known as Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education … SHAPE, in other words. Here’s what Mr. Purvis has found: Continue reading →
One of the most interesting things about being a historian of the era of the American Civil War is that you encounter so many people who present themselves as knowledgeable about the war, the scholarship about the war, and the people who write about history. Sometimes those folks even present themselves as knowledgeable about both your skills as a scholar and your motivations.
Today I introduce a new feature at Crossroads: “Keeping It Honest.” The title (which may be subject to change) is adapted from a feature on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, although I’ve replaced the “them” with “it.” I’m still toying around with other labels.
This week, we look at a quote from Ed Bearss, who served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994. The following statement is often attributed to him:
I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910.