Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Myth of Black Confederates

Kevin at the excellent Civil War Memory posts the text from this Alabama historical marker:

Location: Located on Alabama Highway 165, eight miles south of Phenix
City, Alabama, at Fort Mitchell.
Marker Dedication or Erection Date: 1890
Near here was the home of Confederate Brigadier General James Cantey who
arrived in 1849 to operate a plantation owned by his father. Prior to
coming to Russell County he had practiced law at his birthplace, Camden,
South Carolina, and had represented his district in the State
Legislature thee for two terms. Cantey fought in the Mexican War and
received near mortal wounds. He was left among the dead but was rescued
by his body servant whose plans were to bear him home for burial. The
slave's detection of a faint sign of life caused heroic action that
revived his master. For this deed the servant was offered his freedom,
which was refused.

The Southern attempt to define their slaves as loyal, despite any evidence, is one of the most bizarre facets of the reconciliation period of the late 19th century. Of course, it worked for a long time--the historical establishment essentially bought the Southern version of the war through World War II, popular culture produced Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, and American politicians ensured that the segregationist order would remain staunch.

Much of this false history remains powerful in the South. The textbooks have rejected it. No reputable historian could say that blacks wanted to remain in slavery or volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. The treason in defense of slavery advocates howl that this is because historians are biased leftists, but the real reason is that there is no evidence to support such a statement. Oh, the TIDOS-lovers might find a single person or something. Hell, maybe there were like 5. But then there are the other several million.

Should such a sign be taken down? Yes. These issues of how to deal with Civil War memory are tough. As much as part of me wants to ban the Confederate flag and equate it with the Nazi flag, I know that it would cause more damage than it would solve. I think the Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis statues have great historical value and are superb teaching tools. We shouldn't want to forget the Confederate past, we should want to attack it mercilessly. On the other hand, the smaller forms of commemoration have no value that I can think of. Should there be Robert E. Lee High Schools? No. What purpose does that serve? Similarly, abusrdist historical markers like this have no reason to exist. It's not as if the general public is stopping at these markers, but they still serve a neo-Confederate project that I detest.