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Our Confederate Ancestors

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Unidentified Confederate soldier

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.

With compliments,


A Few Thoughts On Spangler’s Spring, Gettysburg, and the Business of Reconciliation

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 5.29.37 PMI was going through some files today and found a folder filed under “great stuff that did not make it into the book” (yes…that is really the title of the folder). In this folder was a wealth of information on the legend of Spangler’s Spring – at Gettysburg – and how it works as a part of a very old business…making sure that reconciliation is the story that park visitors get. I know that these days things are changing at Gettysburg in terms of interpretation – but this file dates back to 2005.  At any rate – here’s the skinny from waaaaaaay back then.

Located near Culp’s hill on the Gettysburg battlefield in Adams County, Pennsylvania, Spangler’s Spring serves as a popular tourist attraction for millions of annual visitors. Along with many notable sites at the Gettysburg National Military Park, including the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, The Eternal Light Peace Memorial, Little Round Top, and Devil’s Den, the relatively diminutive Spangler’s Spring monument ranks among the most frequently visited.  In early July 1863, the Confederate and Union armies converged on the Gettysburg area to fight the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. On the first day of battle, July 1st, the Union XII Corp occupied the meadow that included the spring and constructed earthworks on a knoll north of the spring site. Although most soldiers in the XII Corps were subsequently placed farther east on the Federal line of battle, and the immediate area was occupied by few Union soldiers, artillery placed on a nearby hill overlooked the meadow and worked as an effective daytime deterrent during against advancing Confederates. After nightfall on July 2nd, Confederate units from Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina under the Command of Brigadier General George Steuart advanced under the cover of darkness toward the near abandoned earthworks. Within moments, the Confederates made contact with northern skirmishers and Union reinforcements were deployed to check the Confederates’ forward movement. Although Rebel soldiers initially repulsed the Yankee counterattack and occupied the ground, shortly before sunrise the next morning Union troops from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania proceeded to retake the meadow. Casualties were heavy on both sides – for some regiments as much as fifty percent. Suffice to say, over the course of three days, the area surrounding this tiny spring was hotly contested ground.

Shortly after the battle, a legend began to develop regarding Spangler’s Spring. It had been a well-known watering hole for both residents and their animals for years. Naturally, during the battle, it served a similar purpose. Union troops had used the spring to quench their thirst before being moved to other parts of the line; Confederates had filled their canteens there before finally being pushed back by counterattacking Federals. Although this area witnessed undeniably brutal fighting, a persistent legend suggests enemies came together here in a moment of peace. According to widely circulated stories, soldiers called a temporary truce and came together to drink and exchange cordial greetings. While the use of the spring by opposing armies was well documented, there is no contemporary testimony that proves any peaceful episode ever transpired. Yet the story is nevertheless significant. As the legend grew and became entrenched in Gettysburg folklore, it became symbolic of the broader movement for national reconciliation and an enduring testament to the camaraderie of American soldiers of all sections.

The exact origin of the spring story is difficult to pinpoint. Numerous personal accounts had circulated before the first large scale Blue-Gray Reunion at Gettysburg took place. One of the earliest published depictions of the spring story appears in an 1870 New York Times article, and suggests the spring was were northern and southern soldiers “enjoyed themselves in a rational manner.” Also, while the story was passed around through the ranks of veterans’ organizations and written about regularly in the early twentieth century, it is nearly impossible to determine the degree to which the story was accepted as truth.

Whether veterans accepted the stories or wrote them off to reconciliationist folly, the events of 1913 solidified reconciliation in the eyes of much of the public and the spring story flourished. By the 1920s and 1930s, articles specifically perpetuating the legend appeared with great frequency in the press, particularly during important anniversary dates. The sixtieth anniversary of the battle saw former enemies celebrating reconciliation at the spring with “ a special luncheon for 500 veterans” designed to recreate the legend for the old soldiers in attendance. “The old veterans appeared in a reminiscent mood,” suggested another reporter, “wearers of the Blue and the Gray gathered at Spangler’s Spring, which had refreshed them during a temporary lull in the fighting three score years ago. They marched about the spring, arm in arm in high glee, to the tune of ‘When Johnnie Comes Marching Home.’”

Others suggested a trip to Gettysburg could add to one’s sense of patriotism and illustrated sectional ties as part of the national spirit through the spring story. “Spangler’s Spring,” one reporter pointed out, was “where the wounded of both sides gathered in amity on the night of the second day of the fight.” Although this story somewhat varies from older versions that failed to mention injured soldiers, it nevertheless supports the idea of a unified national culture through the bonding of former enemies. This overarching concern with nationalism and patriotic observance that infused editorials celebrating the significance of the battlefield as a shrine to sectional reconciliation appeared frequently around the time of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the battle. Articles that featured recreations of heroic battlefield actions, where the last surviving veterans, many over 100 years of age, donned their old uniforms and re-formed once threatening ranks, included as a particular point of interest the camaraderie of soldiers. The spring story once again reinforced ideas that northerners and southerners alike were essentially Americans at heart and, given the chance, would prefer peace and reconciliation to sectional difference and hostility. The “greatest battle of the Civil War” was also remembered as a time where “both sides filled their canteens” during a peaceful moment.

Today, tourists can enlist the services of a personal licensed battlefield guide to learn the story of the spring. Many of these national park employees and other amateur guides hired through the Gettysburg Civic Center support the reconciliationist version of the battle, illustrating the courage and determination of the fighting man while at the same time supporting the idea that all Americans, northern and southern, share the same national culture. Robert E. Lee is particularly venerated by many of these guides as having joined the seceding Confederacy only reluctantly, vowing to never draw his sword against his native state of Virginia. Guides are often quick to point out that Lee worked harder than anyone to reunify the country during the postwar years. Reconciliation stories form an important part of many tour guides’ park interpretations. Some, especially if it suits the requests of a paying customer, highlight episodes of peace both during and after the battle including the 1913 Blue-Gray reunion, the lighting of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial in 1938, and, of course, the legend of Spangler’s Spring.  While similar to GNMP officials, the Gettysburg Civic Center recognizes the spring story as merely legend. Still, Civic Center representatives play a role in the story’s persistence. Guides, recommended through the Civic Center, are hired who specifically convey, for a fee, the legend and reconciliationist interpretations of the significance of Spangler’s Spring.

It is no surprise that books, postcards, magazines, and newspaper articles featured numerous photographs of veterans, dignitaries, and tourists from both North and South standing next to the spring. This is particularly evident when events geared to foster reconciliation took place at the battlefield. Like many other tales and legends, it did not take long for this story to materialize in venues where commercial profit was the primary objective. Today, this has multiplied exponentially. Entire industries, from souvenir shops to ghost tours, have developed along reconciliatory lines and incorporated the spring legend into their moneymaking ventures.  The persistence of the spring legend, despite the fact that most understand it to be false, illustrates the power of folklore when linked to the marketplace. The very fact that the spring story stands out among so many tales of fraternization among wartime enemies rests firmly on Gettysburg’s significance in the national narrative and its viability as a center for consumer culture. Gettysburg is a shrine not only to patriotism, reconciliation, and the virtues of soldiers, but to the marketplace.

So – go see for yourself. I would love to know what YOU think!

With compliments,


Angelenos – Mark Your Calenders!

Screen shot 2014-01-23 at 10.48.42 AMResidents or anyone within striking distance of Los Angeles should make the time on Saturday, February 8, to head out to the Autry National Center of the American West. Between 2:00 and 4:00 you will be treated to an array of brief talks on how the West changed the Civil War. This “Lightning Round” features historians Megan Kate Nelson, Greg Downs, Virginia Scharff, Josh Paddison, Bill Deverell, Steve Hahn, Steve Aron, Marni Sandweiss, Jim Jewell, Fay Yarbrough, Dianne Mutti Burke, Lance Blyth, and Nick Guyatt. Further programming will follow in spring 2015, with the exhibit — and Adam Arenson’s essay on John Gast’s American Progress as a Liberal Republican/Reconstruction image will center a (public) discussion on Tuesday February 11. Sheesh…that’s a lot of historian for the price of admission. You can buy tickets HERE.

See you at the Autry,


What is Your First Memory of Historical Significance?

Screen shot 2014-01-08 at 5.49.48 PMSo today I step away from Civil War and California history and my usual rants about the effectiveness of social media to address memory – specifically, our lived memory.

I’ll throw in my personal memory of some – shall we say – more recent history. The date was August 8, 1974 – I was only seven but I remember clearly as if it were yesterday….Nixon addressing the nation and resigning the presidency, effective the following day at noon. What I remember most were not the details of the scandal leading up to this broadcast, but simply the term “Watergate” and how it had been dominating the media for what seemed like (to a seven-year-old) forever. What I do remember is venting my frustration to my grandmother, the person with whom I usually watched television, explaining (in an Alabama accent that I have long since lost) that “Watergate was the only thing on TV anymore.” She, a Nixon supporter, had to agree.

In those days, my favorite shows were Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World of Disney. I had had enough of Watergate, especially when it preempted my programs. These days, I do not own a TV. And to be honest, I have not really trusted a politician since.

So….tell me, what is your first memory of a historical event? How has that shaped your view of the world?

You can watch the Nixon resignation speech below – just for fun.

With compliments,