This morning, Kevin Levin called on public historians to do their jobs. He is wondering what folks are doing to “help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.”
I especially like the idea of public historians acting in their own neighborhoods. So here is what I am doing. I live very near the famous Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You’ll note that I have posted about this cemetery several times over the past years concerning its many Civil War connections, both to history and popular culture.
Right at the entry off of Santa Monica Boulevard is a somewhat unassuming memorial to the Confederate soldiers who, after serving their cause, relocated to the west coast and lived out their lives in the great City of Angels. I know that some who regularly visit this monument would hope that Confederate commemorative efforts on the grounds go unnoticed. A representative from the United Daughters of the Confederacy once told me, and I am not making this up, that the neighborhood had “gotten a little dark…if you know what I mean” and that Confederate ceremonies could be asking for trouble. Well, I did know what she meant but in all honesty, I suspect that most people who live in this primarily Latino part of town don’t give a shit about your monument.
But…the location of the monument is right smack in the middle of a heavily trafficked area swarming with tourists looking for Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Dee Dee Ramone, Vampira, and about a zillion other celebrity graves.
Until lately I would have thought nothing of it. But with the controversies surrounding Confederate symbols and monuments very present in the media, I think it time that tourists, not suspecting that they will happen upon a monument to the Confederacy in Hollywood, get a little contextual history.
I have written to the office staff at Hollywood Forever asking how we might proceed with a small interpretive plaque. As I have mentioned, I think these, coupled with QR codes linking to some sort of site with historical information, would be very helpful in parsing through the more contentious elements of Civil War memory. I will keep you posted on what happens.
I will note one last thing. In this cemetery, you will find a recently erected commemorative stone honoring Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind and the very first black person to ever win an academy award. She died of breast cancer in the early 1950s and wanted to be buried at Hollywood Forever. But she is buried elsewhere in Los Angeles. In the 1950s, Hollywood Forever was a white only cemetery. So, it seems that at one point the cemetery director thought it fine and dandy to honor those who fought against the United States, but not black Americans. Go figure.
On July 3rd – just a few short weeks ago, I took part in the Gettysburg Sacred Trust Talks and Book Signing Event in, as the event title might suggest, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I offered a few words as part of a panel discussion and question and answer session concerning Civil War veterans and how they told their story of the war.
I really enjoyed the event and being in Gettysburg during the anniversary of the battle was something to behold. Suffice it to say, the Civil War tourist industry is alive and well. Just try and find a parking spot on Steinwehr Avenue and tell me something different.
If you couldn’t make it to the talk – the video is below. It’s a little over a hour, but worth the time spent watching. I would especially pay attention to the engaging questions posed by the audience. It’s just like being there!
Commemoration of The Confederate States of America, in all its modern and historical incarnations, is under attack. The rebellion’s association with slavery has led some to question why we honor anything at all Confederate. Those with ancestral (or otherwise supportive) connections to the Confederacy – have found themselves on the defensive – citing a “heritage” that is worthy of celebration. They claim that their Confederate soldier ancestors fought with honor, in many cases died with honor, and in all cases deserve respect. They maintain that their Confederate kin were not a bloodthirsty pack of slave-mongering ideologues, so why should we treat them as such? Much of this has fallen on deaf ears.
I wonder… can we divorce our Confederate ancestors – the common soldiers – from a national cause explicitly and undeniably linked to racial oppression and the preservation of slavery?
Considering my recent attacks on Confederate heritage ambiguity, my answer might surprise you. Perhaps we can. But certain acknowledgements must apply.
Let’s examine my own Confederate ancestor as an example. I know of many on both sides of my family who shouldered muskets for the Confederate cause. I am most familiar with one Andrew Jackson Holbert, my maternal great great great great grandfather. Holbert was a yeoman farmer from Lawrence County, Alabama. He enlisted in the 16th Alabama Infantry when it formed in August, 1861. Holbert saw service in Kentucky and Tennessee and was wounded in action at Shiloh early in the battle on the morning of April 6, 1862. Family lore suggests he suffered a chest wound, stuck a purple (purple!! A taste for flashy accessories must run in the family) handkerchief in the bullet hole, then walked home to northern Alabama to recuperate. Once recovered, he reenlisted and fought out the remainder of the war as a private in the 27th Alabama Infantry. I am not sure when he rejoined the army but I know he was present at the Greensboro, North Carolina surrender in April 1865.
And that’s all I know. I have no idea why he joined the army or why he fought. No record exists (of which I am aware) that mentions his opinion on any motivational matter at all. I also know that northern Alabama was hotly divided on the secession issue and that while slaves were present in Lawrence County, they were certainly not ubiquitous . Finally, I know that he was literate. He could have joined the army for any number of reasons, and in fact, he might have been conscripted into the 27th, perhaps having seen too much of war at Shiloh to justify volunteering for further service.
So the truth – I do not know Holbert’s thoughts on slavery, secession or defending any cause. Being literate, he most certainly read about and was aware of the bitterly contested issues of the day, but that does not really tell us much. He could have enlisted because members of his family encouraged him to do so, he could have been swept up in a martial spirit and joined his community, he could have been upset about an invasion of his sister states and the probable invasion of his own, he might have wanted to embark on a great adventure, he might have thought that he was defending his rights (in the abstract, I suppose) against Federal tyranny. The list of reasons goes on and on and on (and on).
Holbert fought and risked his life for some cause he must have deemed important, and (again in the abstract sense) this is a virtuous deed. One might commemorate that virtue…free from association with the Cause (with a capital C). But only because we cannot be sure what his motivations for fighting really were. Innocent until proven guilty, right…? Though it is clear that he stood up to be counted when no one was confused about the issues of war, suspicion of motivation alone is not a hanging offense.
The motivational forces that compelled Holbert into the army could have been one or more of the above listed themes. These themes recur with enough frequency in the writings of Confederate soldiers to merit attention. And fighting with the explicit intention of preserving slavery might not have been one of them, though I would not be surprised to learn that he was perfectly comfortable with the institution. This I believe was typical of those who served in the Confederate ranks. Generally speaking, we don’t know exactly why most individual soldiers served – we can only examine motivational forces thematically. Of course there are exceptions to this – some were quite specific. But nearly a million men served in gray. How could we possibly claim to know and illustrate with tangible evidence precisely why each individual fought?
And as such, we cannot point accusatory fingers at every individual.
My contention with the heritage crowd is not so much with their specific ancestor(s), but with their failure to acknowledge the ideological underpinnings of that miscarried national experiment known to history as the Confederate States of America. My issue with their steadfast devotion to Confederate symbols, indelibly associated with the Confederate nation, are not so much about linking individual common soldiers to any specific cause, but with the symbols’ association with a national ideology wedded to slavery.
Confederates might have exhibited great gallantry under fire (or not). They might have cared not a bit about slaves (or maybe they did). They might have fought to defend their firesides (or maybe they were just bored at home). In most cases we don’t really know much at all.
What we do irrefutably know is that eleven southern states seceded from the Union and waged a war for independence to preserve the institution of slavery. Anyone who drew a sword, squeezed a trigger, or pulled a lanyard for the Confederacy ultimately contributed to that aim. Without disunion and without war, there would have been no Confederate soldiers to fight and thus none to honor (or not honor, as it were). Why won’t Confederate apologists acknowledge this? Why do they not include this rather salient feature in their narrow vision of southern “heritage?” Let’s put the fundamentals on the table, sans all the Lost Cause mythology denying or dismissing the slavery issue, then we can talk about how to best honor our ancestors. When you claim “heritage not hate,” well…you are missing the point.
Yesterday I took an admittedly snarky couple of jabs at Ben Jones, former Georgia state legislator and actor who portrayed Cooter on The Dukes of Hazzard. In it, I questioned Jones’s and the SCV’s vague assertions of state rights and heritage in connection with the Confederate Battle Flag and asked if I might have a few specifics. Really, I just wondered why – though I am certain that Confederate soldiers served under arms for many reasons and that they exhibited any number of virtues – descendants of these soldiers always seem to leave slavery and the the reasons for secession out of the heritage story.
I received two comments from one Mr. Michael Fisher, which I provide below (n.b. grammar and syntax are left in the original)
Wow all that crap you are spewing you must know exactly what happened in the Civil War. Me personally I think you’re freaking full of it. That crap they taught you in school is lies. So what you are saying is this country went to war with itself to stop slavery. Okay then explain to me 1 thing. Why did the North not relinquish there slaves before the war, during the war, but instead wait till somewhere about 3 years after the war. I mean really the North think they can have their way but insist the SOUTH cannot. Or how bout this in the 1800’s the South covered 70 percent of all the income in the United States at that time and the North threw another 40 Percent tariff on the South because the North was greedy and wanted more that’s what we went to war over. You see the South was the first to free all slaves in the South where you yanks kept them till after the war. PROVE ME WRONG I DARE YOU.
A few hours later…
Oh arguments pretty thin huh. Sure don’t see the one I put up there this morning. Got no come back for it nor does it fit your lying ass agenda right. Just one sided history. And you want it to be yours.
I was away from my desk much of the day, so I promised Mr. Fisher that I would respond once I returned to the convenience of my study. I trust he has not grown impatient.
I have never once claimed that the country went to war with itself to stop slavery. Slaves were protected constitutionally as property. Abraham Lincoln knew it and so did most everyone else. What I have said is that people in the slave states perceived a growing threat from elements outside of the South, namely the tiny abolitionist crusade and the much larger free labor movement, championed by the Republican party. Their perception was that a growing anti-slavery (white southerners often conflated free labor and abolition) sentiment in the North aimed to come after slavery eventually. The election of Lincoln suggested this to white southerners in profound ways – and thus they motioned to secede from the Union with the explicitly articulated intention to preserve the institution of slavery. Eleven of those states carried out this motion – and in their secession documents you can read why they did it. Hint: it was to protect slavery. I can’t see how you can dispute this…it’s crystal clear.
The loyal states sent soldiers to war to preserve the Union. They fought, not so much to free slaves (until it became apparent that freedom would help the Union cause) as they did to suppress a rebellion initiated to preserve slavery. I hope you can see the difference here. Suffice it to say: no slavery, no war.
Now on to your points about slavery in the North. In 1861 there were four slave states that remained loyal to the Union. The US Constitution protects citizens’ property in many ways. So there you have it. However, the Republican party did take steps to amend the Constitution to address specifically and be rid of slavery across the whole nation. We call that the 13th amendment. It passed both houses in January 1865 and was ratified by the states in December.
Regarding the tariff you mentioned – there were a number of protective tariffs that spurred political debate from the nullification crisis in the early 1830s through the Morrill Tariff in March, 1861. I am not sure to which you refer – please be specific and we can talk. I am not really clear on your numbers, however. It would help if you provide citations so we are both working from the same documents.
I am equally confused about the South being the first to free all slaves. I double checked the Confederate constitution and sure enough it says in Article I, section 9: “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” Also, in Article IV section 2: “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.” It seems to me that slaves were around for good…so long as the Rebs won the fight, which of course, they didn’t.
Finally, I’m not a Yankee. I’m from Alabama.
So I hope this answered your questions. I am not forwarding any agenda that I can see – just reading from the historical documents.
They say it’s about heritage, they say it’s a soldiers’ flag, they say it’s about free speech. They are right. And from where I sit, no one with any sense is trying to deny the would-be Confederates any of this. While the flag came down from a government building – as it should – anyone who wants to wave it can, freely and without legal repercussions.
But these flag wavers are missing the point by a Confederate mile. Just yesterday – Rebel apologists staged a “rally” of sorts in Gettysburg and marched brandishing their banners along Baltimore Street and Steinwehr Avenue, in protest of the recent removal of the Battle Flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.
They are trying so very very very hard to distance their ancestors from the Confederacy’s not so glorious past – or trying to deny altogether that their past lacks any glory. If you follow the comments on the Gettysburg Museum of History Facebook page (where I found this image above) you will note that flag supporters bring up the usual arguments. Most Confederates didn’t own slaves, soldiers fought to protect their homes, slavery existed in the United States, etc, etc.
Again – all true. Except that they are leaving out a fairly significant detail. Secession only happened to perpetuate oppression – to protect an institution that white southerners feared was in danger. The bid for Confederate independence – the Cause, if you like – was to ensure that slavery didn’t go anywhere. The ONLY way that one can deny this today is by ignoring the evidence, which apparently is a pretty fashionable thing to do among apologists.
Now, no one wants to associate their ancestors with a horrible thing, which is understandable. But all of you who are pointing fingers and accusing the “liberal agenda” (whatever that is) of erasing history might want to stop and consider this: like it or not – your ancestors who fought under that flag fought for oppression – no matter their individual reasons for enlisting. It was the national cause. Call it heritage if you must, but that is the fact. Just be sure to remember that little tidbit of history when you wave your flags.