Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Remembering Civil War African American Soldiers and Sailors

I have read newspaper accounts about the lack of interest and resentment of African Americans about the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Many associate the Confederate flag as a symbol of the slave-South. Others see the flag as a badge worn by racists and hate groups. However, African Americans who associate the Sesquicentennial with racism miss two extremely important points.


The Civil War ended slavery as a tolerated practice in the United States. That should be an accomplishment honored by all Americans. There is nothing redeeming in that "peculiar institution." African Americans should look to the war as the first step on their road to freedom and equality. The Confederate flag should be a reminder of the oppression suffered by their ancestors over 150 years ago. It should serve to remind all Americans of the battles we have fought to bring democracy to the world --- whether at Antietam or in Afghanistan.

My second point is that many African Americans are unaware of the contributions made by Black soldiers to preserve the Union. We should honor these brave men who fought and died for their freedom. Over 186,000 African Americans comprised 163 units amounting to 10% of the Union Army. By the end of the Civil War, roughly 179,000 black men (10% of the Union Army) served as soldiers in the U.S. Army, and another 19,000 served in the Navy. The soldiers fought in segregated units designated as United States Colored Troops (USCT). More than 20% died during the conflict. Sixteen black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were recruited for the Union Army. Volunteers from South Carolina, Tennessee, and Massachusetts composed the first authorized black regiments. African American leaders like Frederick Douglas encouraged blacks to enlist. USCT fought in many of the war's most pivotal battles: Appomattox Court House, VA - April 9, 1865, Fort Blakely, AL - April 2-9, 1865, Crater, VA - July 30, 1864, Fort Fisher, NC - January 13-15, 1865, Fort Wagner, Morris Island - July 18-September 7, 1863, Nashville, TN - December 15-16, 1864, and Port Hudson, LA - May 21-July 9, 1863.

I hope that African Americans will embrace the heroism of these soldiers and sailors and honor them as we celebrate this 150th Anniversary. Let us recall the words of Frederick Douglas: "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship."

Please see The African American Soldier: The Fight for Respect to learn more.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Conspirator - Interesting Drama, Bad History

Robert Redford's The Conspirator isinteresting viewing for any student of the Civil War. Unfortunately, the movie, like most Hollywood portrayals of the Civil War, strays from the facts.


The story of the military trial of Mary Surratt reveals the radical Republicans at their post-war worse. Robin Wright is excellent as the wrongly accused Surratt, a Southern sympathizer, but not assassin. James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken plays the role of the reluctant defense lawyer who becomes Surratt's champion. Kevin Kline is a mean-spirited Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who oversees the Redford's kangaroo-court military tribunal. The movie provides a sober presentation of government and public attitudes in Washington after Lee's surrender.

The movie, produced by American Film Company, heightened my interest in learning more about the trial. Unfortunately, the more I read the more disappointed I became with the theatrical presentation. Liberties are certainly granted in storytelling, but the movie had some glaring differences with the historical record.

I discovered Trail of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators on the Famous American Trials web site. The site has transcripts from the trial, newspaper accounts, and biographies of the conspirators.

I started to compile a list of discrepancies between the movie and the historical record, when I discovered that Carrie Suntken's The Civil War Project's "The Conspirator vs. Facts." The web page lists an amazing number of differences. I would also refer readers to the Wikipedia account of the trail of Mary Surratt for other information. As with all Wikipedia information, I encourage you to visit the suggested reading and other sites as well.

Some of the major differences are as follows:

• The movie has only one lawyer defending Surratt, while she actually had three --- Reverdy Johnson, Frederick Aiken, and John Clampitt

• The movie has Frederick Aiken meeting with Anna Surratt at the boardinghouse, but, according to Suntken's research, Anna never returned to the house after her release and stayed with friends.

• The movie portrays Mary Surratt's daughter, Anna, as having a minor role in the events and not being allowed to visit her mother. Anna visited her mother on many occasions; she also spent a lot of time talking with Powell, as she was trying to convince him to help persuade the court that her mother was innocent. Anna Surratt pleaded repeatedly for her mother's life with Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, but he refused to consider clemency. She also attempted to see President Andrew Johnson several times to beg for mercy, but was not granted permission to see him.

• In the movie, the case against Mary Surratt is presented as very weak based on the testimony of two witnesses. In the actual trial, the prosecution presented a total of nine witnesses to build its case. Several witnesses corroborated Weichmann's and Lloyd's testimonies.

• Only two witnesses were called for the defense in the movie version. However, the record indicates that 31 people testified in the trial. Many witnesses were called at the end of the defense's case to testify to Mary Surratt's loyalty to the Union, her deep Christian faith, and her kindness. A number of Catholic priests were called to the stand to testify about Surratt's faith, good character, and incorruptibility. Portraying Surratt as a good Christian woman incapable of committing the crimes for which she was accused.

One issue that was not touched on during the movie was the widespread anti-Catholicism present in the United States in the mid nineteenth century. Protestant leaders became alarmed by the heavy influx of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. In the 1830s and 1840s, prominent Protestant leaders, such as Lyman Beecher and Horace Bushnell, attacked the Catholic Church as an enemy of republican values. Some scholars view the anti-Catholic rhetoric of Beecher and Bushnell as having contributed to anti-Irish and anti-Catholic mob violence.

Beecher's Plea for the West (1835) urged Protestants to exclude Catholics from western settlements. The Catholic Church's official silence on the subject of slavery also garnered the enmity of northern Protestants. Intolerance became more than an attitude on August 11, 1834, when a mob set fire to an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, MA.

The resulting "nativist" movement, which achieved prominence in the 1840s, was whipped into a frenzy of anti-Catholicism that led to mob violence, the burning of Catholic property, and the killing of Catholics. This violence was fed by claims that Catholics were destroying the culture of the United States. Irish Catholic immigrants were blamed for spreading violence and drunkenness.

These sentiments certainly created an atmosphere of prejudice toward Mary Surratt and probably contributed to her conviction and punishment.

Doug Linder, on the Trail of the Lincoln Assassination Conspirators web site, concludes:

"Over the years, critics have attacked the verdicts, sentences, and procedures of the 1865 Military Commission. These critics have called the sentences unduly harsh, and criticized the rule allowing the death penalty to be imposed with a two-thirds vote of Commission members. The hanging of Mary Surratt, the first woman ever executed by the United States, has been a particular focus of criticism. Critics also have complained about the standard of proof, the lack of opportunity for defense counsel to adequately prepare for the trial, the withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence, and the Commission's rule forbidding the prisoners from testifying on their own behalf. The critics have a point: The 1865 trial of the Lincoln conspirators did fall short of commonly accepted norms of procedure and the verdicts--by modern standards--seem harsh.

"There does seem little question, however, that four of the convicted conspirators participated--in ways either large or small--in Booth's plan to assassinate key federal officials. Lewis Powell clearly attempted to stab to death Secretary Seward. David Herold, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and Edman Spangler aided Booth's escape from Washington. Herold and Mudd provided aid to Booth with full knowledge of his crime--and Spangler most likely did as well."

So, how do we view Redford's movie? It is a thought-provoking piece about the politically charged atmosphere in Washington after the Lincoln assassination. The movie provides a preview of how the radical Republicans would treat the defeated Confederate states. In spite of its liberties with the historical record, it shows how vindictive the government was relative to the South, and, perhaps more importantly, how no one in government wanted to be considered as favoring or sympathizing with the enemy. The Conspirator contains some fine acting and is a worthy fictional, historical, courtroom drama.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The First Shots Fired at Fort Sumter

The nation's Civil War Sesquicentennial celebration started with a bang or more correctly a mortar firing this morning.  I've added links to several You-tube videos that captured the moment to the web page Fort Sumter, SC I

I made my annual pilgrimage to the local post office to mail my taxes.  I only hope that some small portion goes to preserving our national parks, monuments, and battlefields.  As I was leaving, I asked if there were any stamps commemorating the Sesquicentennial.  To my delight, the postal service has issued two stamps honoring the major battles at Fort Sumter and First Bull Run.  Information on the new issues can be found at 2011 Stamp Program Debuts and  Ft. Sumter National Park to host First-Day-of-Issue Ceremony for 1861 Civil War Sesquicentennial stamps.  The postmistress sold me the twelve-stamp package and told me that she was related to General Robert E. Lee.  I plan to keep my stamps safe and sound.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Confederate Flag Removed in Palestine, TX

On Monday evening April 5, 2011, the Confederate flag that was raised Friday over the Anderson County Courthouse in Palestine, Texas was taken down.  The flying of the flag had divided the community of Palestine.  Palestine Mayor Bob Herrington called an emergency meeting Monday night to request Anderson County officials to back down from flying the original version of the Confederate flag.

The intent of flying the flag was to honor 1,100 local men who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.  Ronnie Hatfield of the John H. Reagan Camp No. 2156, Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised an early version of the Confederate flag over the Anderson County Courthouse last Friday. Mr. Hatfield also proposed a resolution declaring the month of April as Confederate History and Heritage Month. “The purpose of our organization is to remember and honor the accomplishments of Confederate soldiers and tell their story to future Americans,” Hatfield said. “We are not affiliated with hate groups, nor do we promote bigotry of any kind.”

Unfortunately,  the Confederate flag is associated with the rebellion of Southern States which had its origins in maintaining the institution of slavery in the agricultural South. The use or misuse of the flag is also associated with numerous hate groups.  According to Wikipedia, "The display of the Confederate flag remains a highly controversial and emotional topic, generally because of disagreement over its symbolism. Some groups use the Southern Cross as one of the symbols associated with their organizations, including racist groups such as the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.  The flag is also sometimes used by separatist organizations such as the Aryan Nations."

The association of the historic association of the Confederate flag with slavery as well as its current use by racist groups upsets African Americans.  They discount the historic desire to honor Confederate veterans and see only the evils of slavery and hate crimes. 

The Palestine community realized that the flag has mixed messages. What was especially upsetting to African Americans in this community was that the flag was flown on government property.  In some minds this was a defacto recognition of the negative perceptions of the flag.  Mayor Herrington expressed his concern when he said "I don't pledge allegiance to the Confederate flag." Herrington added, "When you fly a flag on a government-owned piece of property that divides people, it destroys the concept of unity."

As to declaring the month of April as Confederate History and Heritage Month, I'd suggest that the city and county rephrase the declaration to read Civil War History and Heritage Month.  This would allow the community to celebratte both the Confederate veterans and ancestors of the black slaves who gained their freedom after the war. 

Watching over this issue is the statue of John Henry Reagan.  Reagan practiced law in Palestine and Buffalo, Texas.    He was elected a district judge in Palestine, serving from 1852 to 1857. Reagan was a moderate and a supporter of the Union, but resigned from Congress on January 15, 1861 and returned to his home state when it became clear that Texas would secede.  President Jefferson Davis picked Reagan to head the new Confederate States of America Post-office Department.  Another thought for the good folks of Anderson County would be to include a seminar on their hometown boy, who historian Ben H. Procter included Reagan in his list of the "four greatest Texans of the 19th century," along with Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and James Stephen Hogg.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Five Forks - "The Confederate Waterloo"

On April 1, 1865, Union forces under Major General Phillip Sheridan defeated a Confederate force lead by Major General George Pickett at Five Forks, VA.  The following morning, Lee informed President Davis that Petersburg and Richmond must be evacuated. Grant launched an all-out assault (the Third Battle of Petersburg) on the thinly manned Confederate entrenchments.


The events of the battle are illustrated nicely on the Petersburg National Battlefield site Five Forks. The National Park Service provides a downloadable brochure of the battlefield at Five Forks Battlefield.





Today the juncture of these five roads is marker by  few markers and a small museum.  The battlefield brochure guides visitors to a five stop driving tour.


You can learn more about the battle at the following sites: Five Forks, VA - Civil-War-Jouneys, Five Forks - National Park Service, Harper's Weekly - The Battle of Five Forks - Son of the South, and Decision at Five Forks - HistoryNet.