Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

Ann Banks is author of the website "Confederates in My Closet" where she writes about race, history and her family. Her work has been published in the Smithsonian, the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and The Nation. First Person America, her anthology of oral histories from the Federal Writers Project was published by Knopf and Norton and she co-produced a National Public Radio series on the subject.

  • The Bloody Handkerchief

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    Leroy Pope Walker first claimed my attention not from The Pile of documents in my closet but from my silverware drawer, where his name is engraved on a silver serving spoon: “L.P. Walker to Eliza.”  It kept company in the drawer with another serving spoon, this one engraved “Corinne to Eliza.”  I knew these were family names, but that was all.

  • The Seductions and Confusions of Genealogical Research

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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.

  • A White Supremacist Reformed by History

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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. 

  • John Brown and Frederick Douglass: Maybe the White Abolitionist Should Have Listened to the Black Abolitionist

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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.

  • John Brown’s Body

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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.

  • The Mystery of the Great Seal

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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.)

  • The Cult of the Lost Cause and the Invention of General Pickett

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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. 

  • How I got into This, part 2 - a personal note

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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.

  • How I got into This

    by Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet

    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.