Seven states have designated April, the month when the Civil War both began and ended, as Confederate Heritage Month. The official proclamation, signed by the governor of my own adopted home of Mississippi says, “it is important for all Americans to reflect on our nation’s past…and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and our opportunities which lie before us.” Harmless, right? Not really.
Some of the most passionate proponents of Confederate Heritage Month are the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Charles McMichael, the commander-in-chief of the SCV, has said, “There are some good things that you can learn, and we think there are more good than bad…The Confederacy has gotten a bad rap because we ended up on the losing side and therefore the wrong side of history.” The celebration of Confederate “heritage” represents another manifestation of the “Lost Cause” narrative of the Civil War. This story says the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history wasn’t about slavery but the constitutional rights of liberty and freedom. Lately, advocates of the Confederacy have emphasized it’s multi-cultural nature by attempting to demonstrate broad involvement from Jews, Latinos, and African Americans.
What is lost in the various attempts to remember the Civil War is the horrific reality of slavery and the terrible toll the war exacted upon the entire nation. So to commemorate Confederate Heritage Month, I decided to bring the past forward into the present by telling the stories that might get overlooked. I borrowed the idea of a daily post on the realities of slavery and antebellum society from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. Indeed, about half of my posts are direct re-posts from their Facebook page. My insights were greatly enhanced, however, when I visited the Old Courthouse Museum and a Civil War battleground in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
The Confederacy should be remembered. The men and women who fought and died are part of American history. But let us recall the past with honesty and integrity. The Civil War was the gory result of the entire nation’s complicity in race-based chattel slavery. It is a past we are still facing in the present.
JT = Jemar Tisby
WWIRR = William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation
JT: Get ready for 30 days of re-posts. #ConfederateHeritageMonth:
WWIRR: “Since the governor of Mississippi has seen fit to continue the policy of naming April “Confederate Heritage Month,” we will be participating each day in April by reminding ourselves of what the Confederacy was about and what is legacies are for our state today.
The Civil War and much of southern history has too often been mythologized such that some narratives of it are unrecognizable as actual history. Many of these myths serve modern-day political and social agendas which continue to exclude and marginalize populations that have too long been oppressed. Drawing on well-researched, scholarly monographs, for the next 30 days, we will seek to disrupt the myths about the Confederacy and the Civil War.
Our hope is that by engaging honestly with that history, painful though it may be, we can build a new, more inclusive, more just present and future for all of us.
JT: I appreciate this statement of civility and balance as we look at the disruptive truths of the past. #ConfederateHeritageMonth
WWIRR: The Civil War has bequeathed quite a legacy, some of it mythic, much of it tragic. We hope it is possible to learn from it. Not every southern soldier fought for slavery (indeed, many over time began to lament a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight as elites in the South pushed to protect their own interests). Not every union soldier fought because they believed in the equality of black folks (indeed there were riots in New York during the war to protest black soldiers).
And above it all were enslaved persons who showed by their efforts to gain their freedom from the moment slavery began that slavery and more important a belief in a hierarchy of human value are offensive to God and humanity.
We hope that it’s clear in the coming days that we grieve for all of these losses, because our mentor Rev. Will Campbell taught us that when one understands the nature of tragedy, one can never choose sides. We can stand for what is right without advocating for condemnation for those who are wrong.
We welcome all into the circle of humanity, sinners and saints and in the end, we are all some measure of both. We ask that you keep this frame in mind as we share moments from the war’s history that we believe are important to remember. We look at it steely-eyed and honestly, but also with compassion for all.
JT: What did Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens have to say about the Confederate states’ new government?
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Full speech here: “Cornerstone” Speech by Alexander Stephens, March 21, 1861
JT: After tying up a “a large negro named ‘White-Eyed Henry’, the author goes on to state “These men did not hate the negro…Every blow the white man struck the negro, later rebounded as blessing to him.”
via Jason Morgan Ward
WWIRR: “Hundley was anxious to attribute such conduct to only the greediest and cruelest masters. In fact, however, cracking whips and piercing cries were heard throughout the South. Robert E. Lee liked to think of himself as a humane owner. But he could react as fiercely as any other when his power and authority were challenged. In 1859, three of Lee’s slaves–Wesley Norris, his sister, and a cousin named Mary–attempted to escape from the Arlington plantation. Recaptured in Maryland, the unfortunate people were jailed there for two weeks and then delivered back into Lee’s hands. Promising to teach them a lesson they would not soon forget, Lee had them taken to the barn, stripped to the waist, and whipped between twenty and fifty times each on their bare flesh by a local constable named Dick Williams. As the punishment proceeded, Wesley Norris later related, Lee ‘stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to “lay it on well,” ‘ which he did.”
JT: The map linked in this post shows data from the 1860 Census, the last time the slave population in the South was counted. It shows the concentration of slaves in each county.
“In several river counties, more than 80% of the population lived in bondage, including 92.5% in Issaquena, the most enslaved county in the South. On the other hand, slavery was least concentrated in Jones County (12.8%), which famously resisted secession.”
“What was the enslaved population where you live? You can find out from this map, produced from the 1860 Census and republished in full by the New York Times:”
WWIRR: “Thomas Jefferson, who owned about two hundred slaves, . . . unhappily acknowledged in 1787, . . . that masters exercised ‘the most unremitting despotism’ over their slaves that gave free rein to ‘the most boisterous passions.’ Having and wielding that kind of despotic power, Jefferson continued, imbued masters with a deep-seated belief in their own inherent superiority and their natural right to impose their will upon others. That belief and the personal qualities it encouraged then passed from one generation to the next. When we dominate and abuse our slaves, he wrote, ‘our children see this,’ and they ‘cannot but be stamped by it.’ They are ‘nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny.”
from The Fall of the House of Dixie
JT: This one is brought to you by my dear friend and U.S. historian, Dr. Otis Westbrook Pickett
“It was during this time period, in April of 1894, almost a half century after the Civil War, that the Confederate emblem appeared for the first time on the Mississippi state flag. It was very clear what attaching this symbol to the state flag at this time meant: a return to white rule via violence, intimidation and disenfranchisement in order to regain an antebellum Southern “way of life” in which African-Americans were in their “proper” place.” Read the rest of the article here.
JT: One of the most heinous realities of slavery was rape-at-will by white masters abusing their black female slaves. For instance…
“Whether occurring by violent assault, threat or coercive persuasion, these encounters all amount to abuse, including forceable rape, by white men with virtually unlimited power over women of color. “The Custis family has a reputation for interracial dalliance,” Pryor writes, “and many of the mulatto servants had clearly descended from illicit ties.” People of mixed race represented roughly ten percent of the South’s population in the decade before the war; they accounted for over half the slaves and all the free persons of color living at Arlington listed in estate records and the census of 1860.”
Read the full article here.
JT: Far from generating any empathy based on their common plight as women in the antebellum south, white mistresses often persecuted their black female slaves.
“Professor Glymph makes a powerful argument about relationships between black and white women in the slaveholding South. She explores the systematic, often brutal, use of violence by women of the planter elite against enslaved women and demolishes the idea that some form of gender solidarity trumped race and class in plantation households.”
WWIRR: “The sale of slaves often cruelly separated parents from their babies and children, and spouses from each other.”
JT: #ConfederateHeritageMonth Day 12: Contrary to the widespread narrative that slavery and racism are southern problems, “Traces of the Trade” shows how the most prolific slave trading family was from New England
WWIRR: “In Traces of the Trade, Producer/Director Katrina Browne tells the story of her forefathers, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Given the myth that the South is solely responsible for slavery, viewers will be surprised to learn that Browne’s ancestors were Northerners. The film follows Browne and nine fellow family members on a remarkable journey which brings them face-to-face with the history and legacy of New England’s hidden enterprise.”
View clips from this powerful film that shows how intertwined slavery was in the North’s economy.
JT: The scars slavery made.
WWIRR: This type of torture evolved in the antebellum period from being considered “a necessary evil,” to a “positive good,” sanctioned by Christian leaders of the American South.
God forgive us. And make us better.
JT: On This Day: Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Ever since Lincoln’s death the next day, history has struggled to define his legacy. The paragraph below describes some of that conflict…
“At the time of his death Lincoln was a hero and friend to millions of African Americans. Other black leaders, like Douglass, had come to admire, respect, and even love Lincoln. They did not always agree with him. But they had also seen a remarkable change in a man who had once thought that blacks were inferior to whites and died believing that they should have the right to vote and that some, like Douglass, were his friends.”
WWIRR: “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.
Lyndon Johnson as reported by Bill Moyers in his essay “What a Real President Was Like: To Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society Meant Hope and Dignity”, Nov. 1988.”
JT: Black Union Soldiers Prove Their Valor at the Battle of Milliken’s Bend:
“On June 7, 1863, Confederates attacked the isolated river outpost in an attempt to relieve pressure on the besieged Confederate garrison at#Vicksburg. With their backs to the river and facing Confederates enraged at the sight of armed black soldiers, outnumbered Union soldiers fought hand to hand with determination, bravery and courage in repulsing the assault.
Previous to the battle, many Northern people had doubts that blacks would fight in battle. Milliken’s Bend reversed this belief and led to renewed recruitment efforts for other black Union soldiers to help gain freedom for all enslaved people.”
WWIRR: “It was the nearly universal determination of southern whites to keep blacks subordinate that ultimately proved to be the secessionists’ strongest card. Only slavery, they believed, could guarantee white supremacy. . .
Confederate congressman David Siler wrote. . . “We are opposed to negro equality.’ ‘To prevent this,’ he declared, and to avoid being ‘equalized with an inferior race,’ he as as well as his constituents were prepared to die fighing. ‘Every thing even life itself stands pledged to the cause,’ he affirmed.”
from The Fall of the House of Dixie
JT: This is a photo of an actual “Bill of Sale” for a slave. Among other details the slave was described as being:
–“bargained and sold” for $1,000
–“a copper colored Negro” who was “aged about twenty five years”
–She was deemed “sound in body and mind” and sold as a “slave for life”
–Her name was Amanda
JT: Chattel slavery meant that human beings were classified on the same level as furniture and cows.
“LAND and NEGROES at Administrator’s Sale
160 negroes now on said plantation consisting of men, women, and children. Also the crop of corn, and fodder, the plantation tools, household furniture, the stock of horses and mules…will be sold to the highest bidder.”
JT: Slavery produced heroes like Harriet Tubman who risked her life fighting for freedom. Over a century later her image will now grace the front of the $20 bill.
“Born in 1822 in Maryland, Tubman suffered a serious head injury as a girl, when an overseer hurled a scale counterweight at another slave, hitting Tubman. The injury caused lifelong seizures and hallucinations that the young woman would interpret as religious visions.”
“In 1849, she fled Maryland to Philadelphia. Soon after, Tubman began her exploits—acts of bravery that would make her a legend. She returned secretly to Maryland to begin escorting other slaves to freedom. She often traveled at night to avoid capture by reward-seeking trackers. During the course of 13 such missions, she led nearly 70 slaves out of bondage. Even after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required free states to return runaway slaves, Tubman continued to guide her charges along the Underground Railroad north to Canada, earning the nom de guerre ‘Moses.’ She would later recall with pride that she “never lost a passenger.'”
JT: The myth of “happy blacks” during slavery…
WWIRR: Of the myth of loyal slaves in support of the war: “Personal servants could develop an emotional bond to masters with whom they had grown up. But that was not the same thing as being reconciled to slavery. Many . . . men took the first opportunity to seek refuge with Union forces. One was the Mississippi slave named Ike who followed his master, Kit Gilmer, into the Confederate army. When Gilmer was shot in the leg in the fall of 1862, Ike picked him up, put him on a horse, and carried him to safety. But Ike then rode on to find and remain with the nearest Union infantry company.”
from The Fall of the House of Dixie
JT: That time Confederate forces were so desperate they considered arming black slaves…except they had to offer freedom as a reward and that kind of defeated the whole purpose… 😳
WWIRR: In 1865, their forces increasingly overrun, their resources depleted and supply lines cut off, the Confederate government began to consider what it heretofore thought unthinkable, the arming of black slaves. Jefferson Davis proposed and Robert E. Lee finally endorsed the idea publicly in February of 1865. But Davis’ proposal “seemed to fly in the face of southern white culture,”. . . and touched off a heated, prolonged, wide-ranging and very public debate.”
“To recruit black men into Confederate armies now, exclaimed Davis’s critics, would mean confessing that slavery was based on a lie.” . . . “Offering them liberty as a reward implicitly admitted that they longed for freedom.”
From The Fall of the House of Dixie
JT: “Every colored man he ever owned loved him.”–William Sanford, former slave of Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederacy)
Our memory of the confederacy must be a three-dimensional depiction, not an emotionally-soothing caricature of reality. Sometimes slaves had great affection for their white overlords. They often lived and died with the same family and experienced life in close proximity with the plantation owners. In some cases even slavery or slave-like conditions seemed better than losing any economic or social safety net by being a “free” Negro in the aftermath of the Civil War. This did not, however, mean they preferred slavery or didn’t yearn for freedom. While there are examples of slaves who didn’t deplore their condition or their masters, they are often the exception that proves the rule. Furthermore, the constant recitation of the message, “You are only fit to be a slave,” even starts to infect the mindset of those trapped in forced servitude for life.
JT: The “mammy figure”
The caricaturing and commodification of blackness and black bodies is concomitant with race-based chattel slavery. Portraying African Americans as cartoonish figures serves to diminish their humanity by making all black people predictable, childish, and happy in their state of forced servitude. Such representations reduce a person to a punchline. The United States continues to wrestle with how to accurately portray ethnic minorities whether African Americans or Native Americans. We need to restore the dignity of all people by refraining from cheap representations.
Today is “Confederate Memorial Day” in Mississippi. Many state employees had the day off. How exactly are African Americans and their allies in racial justice supposed to celebrate this day?
“OFFICERS AND EMPLOYEES OF THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI:
WHEREAS, the Legislature has designated the last Monday of April as the day for the observance of CONFEDERATE MEMORIAL DAY, and under the provisions of Section 3-3-7, Mississippi Code of 1972, is a legal holiday in the State of Mississippi;
THEREFORE, all officers and employees of the State of Mississippi are authorized and empowered, at the discretion of the executive head of the department or agency, to close their respective offices in observance of the holiday on
MONDAY, APRIL 25, 2016
GIVEN under my hand and seal of office at Jackson, Mississippi, this the 26th day of February, 2016.”
JT: Slavery as Seen by a Local Lady
“My first recollection is of pity for the Negroes and desire to help them. Even under the best owners, it was a hard, hard life:to toil six days out of seven, week after week, month after month, year after year, as long as life lasted; to be absolutely under the control of someone until the last breath was drawn; to win but the bare necessities of life, no hope of more, no matter how hard the work, how long the toil; and to know that nothing could change your lot. Obedience, revolt, submission, prayers – all were in vain.”– Kate Stone of Madison Parish, LA, across the river from Vicksburg; her family owned about 150 slaves
JT: Black Confederates
African Americans did indeed serve the confederacy during the Civil War, but most often they were brought in as servants by their slave owners. They were limited to support work like carrying equipment, cleaning clothes, building railroads, driving wagons, and burying the dead. White Confederates soon learned that taking their black servants too close to Union lines meant that their slaves would make a run for it to join the northerners and gain their freedom.
Bruce Levine, author of “The Fall of the House of Dixie” claims that over the past thirty years Confederate enthusiasts have perpetuated a myth that black soldiers fought in the tens of thousands for the Confederacy. But there is no evidence to support estimates of such large numbers of black participants in gray. The myth, Levine says, is designed to support another agenda.
“The claims among modern romanticizers of the Confederacy are intended to bolster more fundamental claims—that African Americans identified with the Confederacy, that slaves were content with being slaves, and that the war had nothing to do with slavery.”
JT: Slavery and Christianity
Religion was often used to justify slavery. By giving the antebellum racial caste system divine authority, slaveowners could accuse abolitionists and their allies not only of social subversion but of sin. Such abuse of the Bible couldn’t be further from the heart of the Christian message. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized the hypocrisy of Christians who supported slavery and claimed to be pious as well. He says as much in his autobiography…
“What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”–Frederick Douglass
JT: The Middle Passage
The Atlantic slave trade included a deadly journey from west Africa across the Atlantic to North America called the “Middle Passage.” Many African people perished along the way. Those who survived gained ghastly memories as a reward for their fortitude. One such survivor was Olaudah Equiano who wrote an autobiography describing his life as a slave. The following excerpt describes his experience of the middle passage.
“The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable; and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.”–Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa
JT: The Cost of Freedom
By the end of the Civil War an estimated 625,000-700,000 soldiers (some estimates are even higher) had lost their lives. Two percent of the entire population of the United States perished in the conflict. About 180,000 black soldiers, or 10 percent of all Union forces, served . More than 40 percent of dead soldiers were unidentified and that number is even higher for black soldiers. Scholars estimate that disease rather than battle killed 2/3 of soldiers. The Civil War remains the deadliest war in U.S. history.
The astronomically high price of freedom has unalterably shaped the national consciousness. For this reason it is right and proper to remember the high cost paid by both Union and Confederate forces. Both sides wept and felt the ache of loss. Yet at the start of the war about 4 million people were enslaved. This does not include the millions more who lived, suffered, and died under the “peculiar institution” of race-based chattel slavery. The debt of the dehumanization of an entire people group is still being paid to this day. May we never forget the painful lessons of the past and always work toward a more just and freer future.