From the Friday Oct. 1′st, 2010 issue of the Kansas City Star:
“Earlier this year, a mini-controversy erupted when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell endorsed April as “Confederate History Month” with a declaration that made no mention of slavery. McDonnell was met with a torrent of criticism. McDonnell expressed sincere regret, then edited the declaration to specifically name slavery as the Civil War’s primary cause. Last week, McDonnell went further, naming April “Civil War History Month,” and saying of his initial statement, “My major and unacceptable omission of slavery disappointed and hurt a lot of people — myself included.”
Politically, McDonnell and I line up on opposite ends of the spectrum. But I found his statements, both in April and last week, noteworthy because, in politics, forthright admissions of wrong are generally avoided. Moreover, I am a minor Civil War buff who has spent the last year visiting battlefields around the country — Shiloh, Fort Pillow and Petersburg, among others — many of which are still struggling to offer a broad, inclusive history of the Civil War.
Responding to McDonnell’s rejection of Confederate History Month, Brag Bowling, commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, offered insights into why that struggle rages. “Nobody’s ever been able to reason with me and tell me why we’re honoring Yankees in Virginia,” Bowling said. “The only northerners in Virginia were the ones that came to Virginia and killed thousands of Virginia citizens when they invaded.”
Bowling’s perspective is, at best, blinkered. Some 6,000 black Virginians fought for the Union — and, more accurately, their own freedom — during the Civil War. Most of the 180,000 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War were not “Yankees” but escaped slaves, freedmen either from the South or with roots in the South. They were not Yankee invaders, but Southerners. As was Union Gen. Winfield Scott of Virginia. As was Union Gen. George Henry Thomas of Virginia. As was the western half of Virginia, which formed a new state, rather than secede from the Union. But none of this meshes with Bowling’s comfortable rendition of history. And so, in the interest of that comfort, he erases what he does not like.
That malady of shrinking away from discomfort is at work in how we tell Civil War history at our battlefields. The South is doing better detailing a more complete story of the Civil War. Sometimes it verges on bizarre. At Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park in Western Tennessee, I was shocked to see a film that effusively praised Forrest while also praising the colored soldiers who fought against him.
At Shiloh, a park ranger beautifully narrated the biography of Andrew Jackson Smith. Born a slave, Smith fled when told that his “master” would be bringing him into the Confederate Army. Instead, Smith ran 25 miles through the rain and presented himself to Union forces. As a servant to Maj. John Warner, Smith was shot in the head at Shiloh but survived. He went on to fight for the Massachusetts 55th, holding aloft the regimental colors after the flag-bearer was cut down. In 1997 — some 60 years after Smith’s death — he was given the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton. There were no monuments for Smith, or any other black people, at Shiloh, much as there are no monuments for any of the United States Colored Troops at The Crater.
Through a concerted effort, neo-Confederates have left many of the battlefields of the South awash with the Lost Cause. Petersburg should be a mecca for African-Americans, but if you watch the film that’s shown in the visitor center, the sadness with which it regards the demise of a republic founded on white supremacy, you’d understand why it isn’t. You can’t talk about African-American history without talking about the Civil War, and yet the battlefields where that war raged are decidedly alien places for people like me.
In making April Civil War History Month in his state, Bob McDonnell has opened up the possibility of a more informed public discussion. But he has also taken a step toward giving a share of the Civil War back to the people for whom it was fought.”
The author of this article,
Dr. Lewis Steiner, a Union Sanitary Commission employee who lived through the Confederate occupation of Frederick, Maryland said, “Most of the Negroes … were manifestly an integral portion of the Southern Confederacy Army.” Erwin L. Jordan’s book “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia” cites eyewitness accounts of the Antietam campaign of “armed blacks in rebel columns bearing rifles, sabers, and knives and carrying knapsacks and haversacks.” After the Battle of Seven Pines in June 1862, Union soldiers said that “two black Confederate regiments not only fought but showed no mercy to the Yankee dead or wounded whom they mutilated, murdered and robbed.”
In April 1861, a Petersburg, Virginia newspaper proposed “three cheers for the patriotic free Negroes of Lynchburg” after 70 blacks offered “to act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them” in defense of Virginia. Erwin L. Jordan cites one case where a captured group of white slave owners and blacks were offered freedom if they would take an oath of allegiance to the United States. One free black indignantly replied, “I can’t take no such oaf as dat. I’m a secesh nigger.” A slave in the group upon learning that his master refused to take the oath said, “I can’t take no oath dat Massa won’t take.” A second slave said, “I ain’t going out here on no dishonorable terms.” One of the slave owners took the oath but his slave, who didn’t take the oath, returning to Virginia under a flag of truce, expressed disgust at his master’s disloyalty saying, “Massa had no principles.”
Horace Greeley, in pointing out some differences between the two warring armies said, “For more than two years, Negroes have been extensively employed in belligerent operations by the Confederacy. They have been embodied and drilled as rebel soldiers and had paraded with white troops at a time when this would not have been tolerated in the armies of the Union.” General Nathan Bedford Forrest had both slaves and freemen serving in units under his command. After the war, General Forrest said of the black men who served under him “(T)hese boys stayed with me … and better Confederates did not live.”
You can read the whole article by clicking on this link.