Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet blog brought to you by History News Network. Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 (http://framework.zend.com) https://hnn.us/blog/author/51 How I got into This For decades I harbored in the back of my office closet an archive I inherited from my father’s Alabama kin.  Wills bequeathing family oil portraits; yellowed newspaper clippings about antebellum homes-turned-museums; hand-drawn genealogical charts, held together with rusty paper clips, tracing my connection to high-profile Confederates from Gen. George Pickett to L.P. Walker, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy. I nicknamed this trove “The Pile” and for years I kept it in quarantine.  If these bits and pieces told a story, I wasn’t ready to hear it. 

The idea that facing history is a path to justice has been advanced by Black thinkers from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Bryan Stevenson. For a long while I resisted it, at least when it came to my own family.  For a long while I believed that the Civil War was over.  I knew it had a huge fan base – from the hobbyists who reenact favorite battles to history buffs who debate the fine points of military strategy. When I encountered members of these fervent and possessed subcultures on the Internet, I always felt like I was walking along the edge of a tar pit.   I didn’t want to get too close.

Then, after the 2016 election, the Civil War came for me, and there was nothing quaint about it.  As a reinvigorated white supremacy began sweeping the country, I knew it was time to take the Confederates out of the closet.

For many white Americans the murder of George Floyd was the moment when they could no longer look away from the pervasive racism all around them.  It stirred widespread protests and has led to everything from the toppling of bronze Confederate generals to the stripping of Confederate names from American military bases.  These blows against the continuing veneration of the Confederacy inspired me to hope that such actions were only the beginning.

That optimism was severely jolted on January 6th, when rioters brandished the Confederate battle flag -- that most potent of racist symbols -- in the halls of the United States Capitol they had just trashed.  Defeated and delusional, these marauders summoned thoughts of their predecessors, the true believers after the Civil War, for whom it was an article of faith that the South would rise again.

The pro-Confederate Lost Cause narrative was a wildly successful propaganda campaign to portray the South as the War’s moral victors.  This white supremacist myth has flourished for more than 150 years, one family story at a time. In Confederates in My Closet, I challenge those stories in my own family – and in myself.   These are stories of a past that is not past. The contested history they evoke underlies the political battles we are living through right now. Facing this history is one path to a more just society. That is what I hope.

 

Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154453 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154453 0
How I got into This, part 2 - a personal note I’m descended from Southerners only on my father’s side of the family -- though that side includes some high-profile Confederate skeletons (Gen. George Pickett, most famously.)   I don’t remember my father professing affection for the Deep South way of life – he left it for a career in the military.  The U.S. Army was the culture I grew up in.  Col. Banks didn't care if my sister and I knew all the words to “Dixie” (though we did) but we had better be able to sing “The Artillery Song” upon command.   So, although the Army posts where we lived  were mostly in the South, we were never explicitly  indoctrinated in the creed of the Lost Cause, with its fierce nostalgia for the antebellum “way of life.”  Yet looking back, I am shocked at how much of it we breathed in anyway.  Valued heirlooms, dyed-in-the-wool Southern aunts, and, of course, stories.

A foot-tall stack of paper — The Pile — sat waiting for me in my office closet for many years.  These documents are the family archives and they came down to me along with my grandmother’s silver.  For the longest time I was allergic to these papers. They scared me, really and past they tied me to didn’t feel like mine.  When you reinvent yourself every three years, as Army kids can and must do, forbears lack importance.  Your status is defined by your daddy’s rank; no one knows or cares who your people are.   

So The Pile remained untouched over the years for a reason -- or for many reasons.   But after 2016, I could no longer ignore it.  I began to poke at the archive tentatively, pulling out a few pages to examine. 

Right away I extracted: 

A 1963 newspaper story about an event that took place in 1791, headlined “Col. Alston Shot Dead in Bed in Georgia.” 

An advertising circular announcing “Your only invitation to own a numbered, authentic and authorized exact replica of the Great Seal of the Confederacy in sterling silver,” including an invitation to become a charter member of The Society of the Confederacy.  

A hand-written document, its pages held together with rusty paper clips detailing the disposition of Pickett family portraits: “Clarice to Lizzie Banks and Eliza the following portraits:  I William Raiford Pickett; II Francis Dickson Pickett; III Eliza Goddard Whitman.” 

A pair of newspaper feature stories about historic houses owned by ancestors that have been turned into museums, one in Montgomery, Alabama; another a Revolutionary War era plantation in Moore County, North Carolina.  

Three pages in tiny print titled “More about Banks lineage,” from which I learned for the first time that my father was the fourth Richard Griffin Banks, and that his great-grandfather was a Confederate surgeon.  Looking up that Dr. Banks in census records, I learned that in 1840 his Virginia household had included 7 slaves.  

There are many kinds of not knowing.  There is knowing and then forgetting.   There is knowing but failing to imagine.  And then there is just looking away.  These were all ways I did not know the stories that make up my paternal family history, populated with slaveholders and Confederate generals.  The stories have been there all along, waiting for me to be willing to know them.

 

Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154456 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154456 0
The Cult of the Lost Cause and the Invention of General Pickett George Pickett – Major General George E. Pickett – was our family’s marquee Confederate relation, distant cousin though he was.  Every schoolchild in America has heard of him, thanks to the ill-fated infantry charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.  For a long time what I knew about him was pretty much what everyone learned in 8th grade: Pickett’s failed charge, on July 3rd, 1863, was the turning point, the moment when the Confederates started to lose.    

The War, that is.  In the peacetime that followed, victory went to the South.   Defeated in battle, the Confederates and their descendants proved themselves unequaled in myth-making, casting their catastrophe at Gettysburg as an exhibition of individual gallantry and high glory, undertaken in a great but lost cause.  

These propagandists maintained (and still maintain) that the Civil War was never about upholding slavery. Instead, in this counter-narrative, the Confederate rebels were waging an honorable fight to protect and preserve the Southern way of life against Northern aggression.  In the national imagination, Pickett’s Charge became the touchstone for all that was brave and noble and unflinching about the Confederate spirit.

How did this happen?  Aren’t the victors supposed to write the history books?  Yes, but after the Rebel army surrendered at Appomattox, another more formidable force took the field.  It was composed largely of women. The Ladies Memorial Associations of the immediate postwar period morphed into the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894. 

The  objective of the “Daughters” was to promote a whitewashed – and white supremacist – interpretation of “the late unpleasantness.” Their weapons were reunions, speeches, monuments, medal-awarding, proclamations, quasi-religious rituals such as wreath-laying ceremonies and, especially, promoting textbooks whose purpose was to teach the “true history” of the antebellum South to future generations. 

 

The United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters, in Richmond, Virginia, was set on fire and covered in graffiti during the protests in late May, 2020.

 

The playbook for these activities originated with the honorary president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy – none other than General Pickett’s third wife, the indefatigable LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett.  Like Pickett himself, Sallie was a child of Virginia aristocracy, and after his death, she devoted her lengthy widowhood to glorifying her late husband’s reputation, and to propagating the myth of the Lost Cause. She insisted on his heroism, patriotism and historical importance – once describing Pickett’s Charge as “one of those deeds of arms that are immortal with its imperishable glory, overshadowing all other events in martial history . . .”

 

George & LaSalle Pickett

 

After her husband died, Sallie succeeded in reinventing herself as a professional Confederate widow, a popular writer, speaker and champion of the Old South. She attended veteran reunions, parades and monument dedications, signing autographs and becoming so popular that she was known as Mother Pickett. 

In lectures to Northern audiences, Sallie told many a story of happy and contented slaves.  As she once insisted:  “There was no word held in more reverential love and fear by the faithful Southern slave than the one word ‘Master.’ (Kunno Sperits and Others, 1900)   On stage she famously performed what she insisted was “phonetically  genuine” slave dialect, carefully recorded by herself. 

The stories she told about her husband were no more credible than the slave dialect.  As one writer observed, Sallie Pickett’s postbellum career as a writer and Lost Cause icon “was marked by a curious admixture of charlatanry and self-delusion.”  She faked an entire set of wartime correspondence from her husband, and published it in The Heart of a Soldier, as Revealed in the Intimate Letters of General George E. Pickett, CSA.  She even forged a letter from Abraham Lincoln singing the General’s praises. 

Sallie Pickett was also hiding another secret. Her husband had lived with a Native American woman and had a son by him. With her counterfeit archives and her tireless proselytizing, she built a framework on which later popularizers of the Civil War could drape their sanitized portrayals.  

 

Historian Gary W. Gallagher established that Sallie Pickett invented these letters from her husband.

And so they have.  Sallie Pickett’s tall tales of the Lost Cause live on in some of the most popular modern accounts of the Civil War.  Her fabricated letters from her husband are still in print and are still widely cited.  Shockingly, they have served as a primary source for mainstream presentations of the Civil War – everything from Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Killer Angels, to the book’s movie adaptation Gettysburg, to Ken Burns’ epic public television documentary, The Civil War. (The Public Television website accompanying the Civil War documentary asserts, without attribution, that Pickett accepted a commission in the Confederate Army “despite his personal dislike of slavery.”)

 

 

Just as Sallie Pickett would have wished, Michael Shaara depicts General Pickett as the archetypal Southern cavalier.  (It came as no surprise to learn that the Pickett Society has erected a bench in Shaara’s  honor at Gettysburg.)  The novel lays it on thick.  I remember listening to the audio version and feeling beguiled by Shaara’s descriptions of Pickett’s “lusty exuberance.”

The general is “gaudy and lovable, longhaired, perfumed,” as he rides “bronze curled and lovely, regal and gorgeous on a stately mount.”  From a distance he looks “like a French king, all curls and feathers.”  Hopping out of the saddle sets his “ringlets aflutter.”  Oh those curls!   William Faulkner fell for them even before Shaara took notice.  In a famous passage of Intruder in the Dust, Faulkner describes Pickett with his “long oiled curls” in the moments just before the charge.

 

 

Shortly after this moment, following orders from Robert E. Lee, the flamboyant general sent his men across an open field straight into a hellish cannonade and volleys of rifle fire from the waiting Union forces.  Half of Pickett’s men were killed, wounded or captured on the spot.  Following the battle, Pickett wrote a bitter, finger-pointing after-action report that Lee then suppressed on the grounds of maintaining morale. 

A little more than six months later, the despondent Pickett, now in command of troops in North Carolina, ordered the hanging of 22 captured Union soldiers, POWs who were accused of having deserted from the Confederate Army.  After the war, he narrowly escaped a war crimes trial when Ulysses S. Grant wrote an equivocal but ultimately effective letter in his support.

Pickett was no longer the “permanent boy,” (as Michael Shaara describes him). He retreated to Norfolk, Virginia, where he tried to support his family selling insurance.  He died at age 50 of a liver abscess, a defeated man.  Sallie Pickett, who was only 32 at the time of his death, set out to rehabilitate her late husband’s reputation, casting him as the embodiment of all that was moral and superior about the Old South. 

She had more than 50 years in which to do it – and that turned out to be plenty of time.  We are still living with the bitter consequences of her revisionist narrative today.  

As for the Daughters of the Confederacy, they are still much in the news. Starting in the 1890s, their campaign to glorify the mystique of the Lost Cause has involved erecting some 700 Confederate memorials, including the statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback that occasioned the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, 2017.   

At that time, the Daughters of the Confederacy released a statement expressing their dismay that hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own:  “We are descendants of Confederate soldiers, sailors and patriots.  Our members are the ones who have spent 123 years honoring their memory with various activities in the fields of education, history and charity, promoting patriotism and good citizenship.  Our members are the ones who, like our statues, have stayed quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy.”

Contrary to the Daughters’ press release, the Confederate statues do speak, loudly enough to send a message of white supremacy to all who pass by.  As Mayor Mitch Landrieu observed in his powerful speech on the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, “there is a difference. . . between remembrance of history and the reverence of it.”  The Cult of the Lost Cause, he said, “had one goal and one goal only: through monuments and through other means to rewrite history, to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.

 

Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154458 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154458 0
The Mystery of the Great Seal

A number of unsolved mysteries surround my father’s copy of the Great Seal of the Confederacy.

 

This is the story I remember being told as a  child:  At the time of the Civil War, there was cast in solid gold a Great Seal of the Confederate States of America.  Toward the end of the war, to keep the seal from falling into the hands of Yankees, it was buried somewhere in Virginia.  Somehow its location was lost and the Great Seal has never yet been found (though many holes have been dug in search of it.)  At the time it was cast, however, four smaller replicas of the seal were made, also of gold. One of these replicas was handed down in my family until it came to my father.

This is the first version.

Our family did possess a copy of the Confederate seal; it had pride of place on our coffee table as we moved from one Army post to the next. I have extracted it from the Pile and it presently resides on my desk. The seal itself is a little more than 3 inches across, embossed with the image of George Washington on horseback, surrounded by a wreath made of wheat, sugar cane and other produce of the South. Along the base of the seal is the motto of the Confederate States: “Deo Vindice.”

If you ever doubt that the passions that inflamed the Confederacy are still alive, try Googling the translation of “Deo Vindice.” Google Translate renders it literally as “vengeful god.” Wikipedia suggests a few variations – while noting dryly that “the translation is open to some interpretation.”

A classics professor explains on his blog why he comes down on the side of "God as punisher.” The professor is then administered a sound thrashing by a Son of Confederate Veterans who demonstrates an impressive (to me, anyway) command of Latin grammar. He references a construction “known as the ‘ablative absolute’ to everyone who has ever studied even basic Latin” and, pursuing a circuitous route through a forest of Latin tenses and conjugations, concludes that the correct translation is “With God as [our] Champion.”

I have separated the seal from its protective glass bubble and frame; it’s now a naked disk. When I turn it over there on the back side is evidence of another story, another mystery: four black dots, unmistakably cigarette burns. This happened at one of my parents’ parties, when, I was told, a guest mistook the seal for an ashtray. This explanation is a little hard to credit since my parents had ashtrays the size of birdbaths on every surface. On the other hand, these were hard-drinking Army people, so who knows? I was in high school and by this time had come to detest the family Confederate relic. When I learned of its desecration, my reaction was to smirk.

 

Cigarette burns on the back of the seal.

 

Years later I began to come across shreds of information that cast doubt on the origin of our heirloom. (Of course I could have been, and probably was, misremembering the family story, given its fairytale-like details.) The original Great Seal of the Confederacy was made not of gold, but of silver. And according to the account of a Mrs. Bromwell, it was not buried somewhere in Virginia; she smuggled it out of Richmond under the nose of the Yankees, hidden in her bustle.

About those four rare and precious copies of the seal, one of which has come down to me? Looking into this, I encounter the name of Colonel John T. Pickett (not even a distant relation of my family Picketts as far as I can tell). After the Civil War, he became a dealer in Confederate “curios and records.” Twice he tried to hustle four trunks of Confederate states records to the federal government for the asking price of a half-million dollars.

In 1872, John Pickett published a self-pitying statement in the New York Times, declaring himself still loyal to the Lost Cause and complaining that “the conqueror stripped me of every dollar, consigning my children to the verge of want and degradation and consigning me to insignificance and endless toil.”

The Colonel also got his hands on the Great Seal itself and ordered up 1,000 electroplate copies in gold, silver and copper. These were to be sold across the South as souvenirs, the proceeds intended to go to widows and orphans.

So, my seal: not so rare, after all.

This is the second version.

It is the version I am prepared to believe. It suits my debunking temperament; it strikes another blow against the loathed heirloom; and in my mind it undercuts my family’s special connection to the Confederacy, if the seal is merely a plated-tin souvenir sold by the hundreds.

However, I also have in my possession, extracted from The Pile, a newspaper clipping that bears witness to yet another version of the story of the seal. It is a half-page article cut from the Gainesville Daily Sun in 1951. The headline: “Local Man owns rare Confederate medallion presented to his father by President Jefferson Davis.” Written by the Society Editor, the story begins, “A gold replica of the original seal of the Confederate States of America is here in Gainesville.” According to the article, this copy of the seal is one of “three or four such medallions in existence.”

Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, presented the seal at a reunion of Confederate veterans to one C.J. Harris, who served in the Civil War under General Longstreet. It came down in the Harris family to a Charlie J. Harris, the man who was interviewed by the society editor. (In another apocryphal story, a man named James Jones, who was enslaved by Jefferson Davis, claimed Davis gave him the seal and instructed him to bury it, which he did, taking the secret of its location with him to the grave.)

If the story in the Gainesville Sun is true, there are several reasons to think that it might refer to my copy of the seal: my Aunt May was a Harris, she lived in Florida, and I believe she might have been the one who gave my father the seal. Also someone in my family kept a copy of the article, so it must have had some personal meaning. Against this theory is the absence in my ancestor files of any of the supporting documents Mr. Harris told the reporter he possessed.

This version of the story should be easy enough to check. I could go straight to a dealer in Confederate memorabilia to have the seal appraised. Instead I call Robert Hancock, the Director of Collections at the Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. He confirms for me that the original of the seal is not buried in some forgotten spot in the sandy loam around Richmond, but is part of the Museum collections, where it has been on continuous display for over a hundred years.

The only copies he knows of are the souvenir replicas Col. Pickett had made in 1873. He doesn’t know how many are still in existence, but more than four. “Every year,” he says, “I get three or four calls from people who say they have the Great Seal of the Confederacy. I tell them, ‘No, you have a copy of a copy of the Great Seal.” He suspects, as I do, that those Confederate widows and orphans never saw a penny of the proceeds. He has no clue about the advertising circular I found in the Pile peddling replicas of the Seal – nor has he ever heard of an organization called The Society of the Confederacy.

After this conversation, I’m happy to have a few more inaccurate details scraped away from the family story.  But in the end I decide that it doesn’t make any difference whether the seal on my desk is one of four or one of a thousand; or whether it’s made of solid gold, plated-tin or marzipan – it nevertheless stands for the same hateful beliefs.

 

This 1951 Gainesville Sun story tells another story about the Seal.

There lurks another, more uncomfortable question about the family heirloom.  Why did my father keep it prominently on display all those years?  It couldn't have been just to mollify my Aunt May, staunch Daughter of the Confederacy though she was.  The seal remained on our coffee table even when Aunt May was three states away.

I never knew my father to express support of the Confederacy; the opposite, in fact. In joining the Army he’d distanced himself from his Alabama roots and the closed society of the Old South.  Yet he obviously treasured our Civil War relic.  Why?  What did it mean to him? We were nomads, in the way of Army families, and we, his children, didn’t belong anywhere.  But he did.  Through our many moves, did he cherish owning a valuable reminder of his ancestors?  Did he like looking at the seal and remembering that he was descended from Rebel generals and plantation aristocrats?

For me, that is the real mystery of the seal.

 

 

Read more about this topic on the Confederates In My Closet website. 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154460 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154460 0
John Brown’s Body Who taught me “John Brown’s Body?”  I don’t remember but I loved to sing it.  I had no idea who John Brown was or what the song was about but I was drawn to it partly for it macabre ghoulishness – a body moldering in the grave! – and partly because it was forbidden around my house.  When my Aunt May was coming to visit – and it seemed she was always coming to visit – I was not to sing that song.  Or even to hum it.   This wasn’t the only thing I was supposed to remember when Aunt May came over.

May was my father’s much older half-sister – the picture of a Southern dowager.  She had powdery pink cheeks and swirl of white hair piled on top of her head, every strand sprayed firmly in place.  With her strong gardenia perfume and her swooping Tidewater accent, she filled every room she entered.  She had strict notions of decorum that I did not care to have applied to me. I always hoped to escape her notice and mostly I succeeded.  But my father was constantly on the lookout lest my behavior offend her.  

It’s not surprising that May would likely have been affronted to hear a member of her family singing “John Brown’s Body.”  The song was written to commemorate Brown’s famous raid  at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on a mission to take over the U.S. Arsenal and initiate a slave revolt.

 

 

The raid failed, as it was bound to.  Brown was captured by the U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, and hanged by the state of Virginia in 1859.  On the day of his hanging, he wrote, “I . . . am, now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”* Three years later the country was at war and the Union Army was marching through the streets of Boston singing “John Brown’s Body” – by then something of an abolitionist anthem.   

What to think about John Brown?  There’s no question that his audacious invasion of Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution helped ignite the Civil War.  Yet his raid was underprepared and beyond foolhardy and numbers of his followers of both races lost their lives.  One of the dead was his own son.  Reading Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz’s book about John Brown, I started taking down the adjectives Horwitz uses to describe his subject:  domineering, grandiose, zealous, obstinate, righteous, fanatical, blustering, unflinching, brazen, unbending, outrageous, outlandish.

 

John Brown’s raid was the focus of Tony Horwitz’s 2011 book, Midnight Rising.

 

All those qualities and more are given their due in The Good Lord Bird, James McBride’s brilliant comic novel about John Brown, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2013.  Narrated by a child follower of Brown’s, a cross-dressing 12-year-old boy named Onion, The Good Lord Bird takes a dire episode in American history, one that’s generally treated with extreme solemnity, and milks it for its droll aspects, based on the off-center perceptions of a minor player.  

I love Onion:  he’s an anti-heroic character who sees all that is nuts about John Brown and his messianic crusade, and who skewers his self-appointed sainthood.  But in the end  McBride and Onion give John Brown his due as someone who did influence the national story in the right direction.  (A mini-series based on The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown was broadcast on Showtime in the fall.)

Would I have supported John Brown’s plans had I been in one of the abolitionist audiences during his pre-Harpers Ferry fund-raising swing through the North? Probably I would have agreed with Frederic Douglass, who, as McBride describes it, admired Brown but thought his plans to launch raids to free slaves would do the cause more harm than good.

 

James McBride’s comic novel about John Brown won the National Book Award for fiction in 2014.

 

In addition to writing novels, James McBride is also a jazz musician, and on his book tour he was accompanied by The Good Lord Bird Band, a quintet that performed spirituals and classic gospel songs. At the close of McBride’s reading at the New York Public Library, the quintet broke into a dirge-like rendition of “John Brown’s Body.”  As the audience slowly filed out of the Celeste Bartos Forum, I and many around me, were in tears.  As I was again, listening to actor David Strathairn perform John Brown’s last speech.

 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154471 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154471 0
John Brown and Frederick Douglass: Maybe the White Abolitionist Should Have Listened to the Black Abolitionist In a rave review of the dramatic series The Good Lord Bird, the New York Times proclaimed in its headline “the necessity of John Brown.”   As a muse, John Brown is having a moment.  The militant white abolitionist already has a string of successes behind him, having inspired acclaimed literary works from Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter to Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising to James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird.

With the Showtime series, a new genre has been added to the catalogue…

 

 

Showtime has adapted The Good Lord Bird into a 7-part series starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown.  Hawke, who also produced the series, gives an electrifying performance. He is easily up to the scenery-chewing challenge of portraying Brown’s messianic crusade to end slavery.  James McBride was a producer of the series and the screen adaptation adheres closely to his conception of the events leading up to the doomed 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry.  On its face a dire episode in American history, in McBride’s audacious imagining it is funny.

 

Confronted head on, John Brown can be hard to take.  In Midnight Rising, biographer Tony Horwitz wears out his thesaurus describing his subject:  domineering, grandiose, zealous, obstinate, righteous, fanatical, blustering, unflinching, brazen, unbending, outrageous, outlandish. James McBride avoids this adjectival pile-up by inventing an irresistible foil for Brown.  The story is told through the mistrusting eyes of a child follower of Brown’s, a cross-dressing 12-year-old escaped slave named Onion.  Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays Onion, is a master of droll sidelong glances that telegraph his bemused skepticism of the Old Man. Onion is wary of Brown’s maniacal fervor and takes a dubious view of his self-proclaimed sainthood.  Yet in the end Onion pays Brown tribute as someone who influenced events in the right direction.

 

Onion’s judgment is the judgment of history. John Brown’s invasion of Harpers Ferry was underprepared and failed and as it was bound to. He was captured by Colonel Robert E. Lee, and hanged by the state of Virginia in 1859.  On the day of his hanging, he wrote, “[I] am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” Three years later the country was at war and the Union Army was marching through the streets of Boston singing “John Brown’s Body” – by then an abolitionist anthem.   

It's indisputable that Brown’s execution helped ignite the Civil War and hastened the freeing of slaves. 

But in a little-remarked irony of history, the execution had a major unintended consequence.  At the foot of the scaffold on that December day in 1859 was another grandiose zealot bent on changing history.  John Wilkes Booth, however, was on the wrong side of that history. A Shakespearean actor, Booth believed that slavery was a blessing rather than a sin.  “I have been through the whole South,” he wrote in an unfinished speech, “and have marked the happiness of master & of man.”

Although Booth despised John Brown’s anti-slavery cause, he envied him his fame and heroic stature, calling him “the grandest character of this century.”  He was so obsessed with Brown that he succeeded in getting himself attached to the militia unit sent to maintain order at the hanging.   As he proudly noted, “I may say I helped to hang John Brown.”

History happens the way it happens and counter-factual musings are generally beside the point.  Yet in this case, it’s hard not to wish that one thing had been different.  As the series portrays, before John Brown’s raid he paid a visit to his friend, the eminent Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to enlist his aid with the Harpers Ferry plan.

Instead, Douglass, portrayed in the series by Daveed Diggs, tried to talk Brown out if it.  He believed that in the long run the raid would harm the cause. So was John Brown necessary?  Should the white abolitionist have listened to the Black abolitionist?  Five years after John Brown’s hanging, John Wilkes Booth wrote himself into history by assassinating the President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was an act for which our country is still paying a heavy price.

 

Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154480 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154480 0
A White Supremacist Reformed by History

 

I first encountered Ty Seidule when I stumbled onto a video lecture he posted in 2015, in which he asserted that slavery was not merely a cause of the Civil War, it was the cause.  While this has long been the consensus view of historians, the video garnered 30 million views and sparked such vitriolic hate mail as to warrant alerting the FBI.

Why so much rage?  At the time, Seidule was a colonel in the U.S. Army and he delivered his video remarks wearing full dress blue uniform, bedecked with 30 years’ worth of medals.  Even more provocative, the video carried his job title:  chairman of the history department at the United States Military Academy, West Point. As a professional historian, Seidule buttressed his argument with statistics and charts and by the time he stopped talking there was absolutely no wiggle room.  “The evidence is clear and overwhelming,” he said: the Civil War was about slavery.  

The story of the video and the bitter reaction it provoked provides the opening scene of his new book, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause  (Before writing his book, Seidule retired from the Army as a one-star general.)

Ty Seidule has the perfect pedigree of a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist: a son of Virginia, he grew up worshipping Robert E. Lee, “the sainted figure of the white South.”  His education, first at a segregated private school and then at Washington and Lee University, only spurred his motivation to become “an educated Christian Virginia gentleman.”  He was baptized in the myth of the Lost Cause, that enduring pro-Confederate propaganda campaign that became the ideological foundation for white supremacy and Jim Crow.

In Robert E. Lee and Me, Seidule weds his historian’s training and a convert’s zeal to catalogue in specific detail how and why his former beliefs were wrong.  “It pains me to write that I believed something so grotesque and immoral but it is worse to lie.”  As he describes it, he freed himself from his racist conditioning by years of study in the archives. “The history changed me,” he writes.  “The facts changed me.”  “I felt angry that I had grown up surrounded by the trappings of white supremacy and I had never realized it.”  He is self-conscious enough to question whether he, as a white man, has a right to this anger.  Yet he insists, “The damage done to everyone who grew up in the racial hierarchy is real.”

Seidule jumps into the issue of Civil War memorials with gusto and again leaves no wiggle room:  the Confederate generals whose images are sculpted in marble or whose names bedeck Army bases?  They were traitors who don’t deserve the honor, which in any case is always more about current politics than about veneration of the past. 

Seidule believes that the cure for racism starts with a more honest engagement with history.   He is encouraged that we are finally having a national dialogue about what the Confederacy and the Lost Cause myth mean.  “The only way to prevent a racist future is to foster an understanding of our racist past,” he says.

In addition to reading Me and Robert E. Lee, I’ve also listened online to several of Seidule’s lectures and television appearances.  I especially want to salute his fierce gift for calling things what they are.  “The names we use matter,” he believes.  “Accurate language can help destroy the lies of the Lost Cause.”

So, plantations?  In Seidule’s book they are “slave labor farms.”  

The Union Army?  No, that obfuscates the difference between the sides.  It’s more accurate to call it The United States Army and the men who fought to save their country U.S. Army soldiers.

The Confederate battle flag?  The flag of treason.

General Robert E. Lee?  “He wasn’t a general in my Army.  In my Army he was a colonel.”  (It was the Confederates who ranked Lee as general.) 

Given Dr. Seidule’s belief that naming matters, it is fitting that he has recently been appointed to the federal commission to choose new names for the ten Army bases named after Confederate generals.  Two of these bases I lived on as a child and another (Ft. Pickett) is named for an ancestor.  I am eager to see what he and his fellow commissioners come up with.  

 

Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154484 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154484 0
The Seductions and Confusions of Genealogical Research For a long time, I thought that researching family history was a dubious pastime. Also one fraught with peril, when undertaken for the purposes of ancestor-glorification and ego-gratification.  Should you have a forebear by whom you set great store – for example, as my Aunt May did by Philip Alston, you may well learn many disreputable things about him, of which owning slaves is only one.

That didn’t stop May from pursuing pedigrees on my behalf.  I remember being told as a teenager that she had filled out a chart in my name, detailing a lineage that would qualify me to join not only the Daughters of the American Revolution but also the Daughters of the Confederacy.  This was not how I pictured my future and I told my father, none too politely, to forget it.

Yet somehow this document survived – I found it among the other papers in the Pile. Labeled D.A.R. ANCESTRAL CHART, it diagrams a branch of my father’s family, starting with his name, Richard Griffin Banks, and working backwards in time through a Major Edwin Banks and a Dr. Richard G. Banks. 

This wasn’t the kind of rabbit hole I had any intention of going down.  Until for some reason it was.  Richard Griffin Banks is an unusual name.  Maybe I wasn’t ready to track my father on a genealogy website, but why not just Google him and see what I found?  Several hours later I was following the Internet trail of a Confederate Army Surgeon named Richard Griffin Banks.  Could this be my father’s great-grandfather,  the Dr. Richard G. Banks from the Ancestral Chart?

As my morning slipped away, I pursued Dr. Banks through 38 entries in my search results.  I learned that he was a trustee of a public school in Hampton.  I learned that at one point he became embroiled in a dispute involving a school budget which caused him to be assaulted with “horse whip and pistol” by C.J.D. Pryor, a teacher at the school. 

At that point I clawed my way out of the ancestry rabbit hole for the time being – but not before taking note of a line in the Richard Griffin Banks entry on the “Deceased Banks . . .” website:  “Unclear why he was born before the marriage date of parents.”  

What started as an idle pastime – Googling my father’s name – produced several surprises. It was of no particular consequence to learn that my great great grandfather may have been born out of wedlock.  But I was shocked to come across the information that he had owned 7 slaves.  It wasn’t surprising that my planter ancestors would have been slaveholders, but this great great grandfather was a doctor.  I didn’t know — though I have since learned — that households owning small numbers of slaves were not unusual; nearly half of the Southerners who owned slaves held fewer than five.  

According to a website compiling “All Deceased Banks & Bankses Persons of European Origin in the U.S. . .” Dr. Banks’ Hampton, Virginia, house was burned down during the Civil War and the family was forced to flee, saving only a pair of silver candlesticks.  This colorful detail comes from the records of a Mrs. James Banks and may or may not be apocryphal. (And if it IS true, what became of those candlesticks?)

I take note of the qualifying “of European Origin” in the webpage title.  In the 1840 census, Dr. Banks’s household consisted of “1 white male, 1 white female, and 7 slaves.”  In 1840, enslaved men and women were not listed by surname. But if they were eventually assigned the last name of Banks, as was common, it must have seemed important to the compiler of the genealogy to exclude them from the white Bankses.  

 

 

Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

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Thu, 15 Apr 2021 23:12:38 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154487 https://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/154487 0