Wednesday, February 23, 2011

From West Point to Fort Sumter

Starting on February 24, 2011, I will be presenting a four-session class entitled "From West Point to Fort Sumter."  This class traces the development of eight Civil War generals from their enrollment at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point to the start of the conflict at Fort Sumter.  On the Union side the class will profile U.S. Grant, George B. McClellan, William T. Sherman, and Philip H. Sheridan.  From the Confederacy, the class will highlight the development of Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, Thomas Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart. 

The class will cover the training they received at West Point and those instructors who shaped their early education.  After graduation these future leaders gained valuable experience under Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott in the Mexican War.  After the war, many were forced by their economic situation to leave the army and seek civilian jobs.  The outbreak of war at Fort Sumter allowed  them to obtain high-ranking positions in the Union and Confederate armies.

Please visit From West Point to Fort Sumter to learn more about this class.  For those of you in the vicinity of Plano, TX, please visit SAIL at Collin College to register.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nathan Bedford Forrest License Plate

Mississippi Govenor Haley Barbour announced that he would not "denounce" a proposal by the Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans for a state-issued license plate that would honor Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.  However, the Govenor does not think that Mississippi legislators will approve the license plate honoring Forrest who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

This is another chapter in the controversial life of General Forrest.  Forrest was a slave trader and shrewd businessman, He was one of the richest men in the South and had a personal fortune of over $1.5 million. Forrest joined the Confederate army as a private and was promoted during the war to Lieutenant General. 

He was a brilliant leader and an early advocate of mobile warfare. Forrest achieved fame at Fort Donelson, Fallen Timbers, First Murfreesboro, Shiloh,  Parker's Crossroads, Brice's Crossroads, and Chickamauga.

At the Battle of Fort Pillow, Forrest's troops massacred  surrendering U.S.C.T. in what one historian described as "intentional murder."  This event plagued Forrest for the rest of his life as he strived to defend his actions.

Often overlooked among General Forrest's accomplishments are his farewell instructions to his troops.  He said, "You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens.  Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be, and will be, magnanimous."  Forrest could have easily instructed his men to wage a guerrila war against the Union, but he choose the higher road.

Forrest did join the KKK in 1866-67 and later became one of its leaders. He was involved in Klan violence toward African Americans and white Republicans.  He became disillusioned with the Klan and  reported in 1875 that his setiments on race now differed from the Klan.

The question about tributes to General Forrest have focused on his involvement in the KKK.  Was the proposed tribute for his generalship during the Civil War or for his post-war racism?  The question applies to more than Forrest.  Are we honoring the services of Confederate war veterans or the political and social attitudes of the slave-based Southern economy?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

African Americans and the Sesquicentennial

Dana Shoaf interviewed James Robertson, professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in the April 2011 issue of the Civil War Times. The interview touched on problems the Centennial Commission encountered during the 1961-65 celebration.

Robertson gave the following response to Shoaf's question, "How did African Americans react to the commission's efforts?"

"It was just one of those tragic coincidences of history that the Centennial and the civil rights movement came at the same time --- and that produced friction, understandable friction, certainly."

"We tried as hard as we could. We were not as successful as we would have liked to have been. I think that many black Americans wanted to be involved with the Centennial, but their leaders said otherwise."

Eric Wittenberg, published an entry in his blog entitled "An African American's perspective on the Sesquicentennial." He reproduced an editorial by Harold Jackson of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Jackson urged Americans to "Commemorate, don't celebrate Civil War's 150th." Jackson fells that we should honor those to who "fought to preserve the Union and end slavery." Mr. Wittenberg counters that to say the war was not about slavery alone, and that the Confederate soldiers fought to defend their states and pursue a vision of states rights."

First of all, the war was initiated for economic reasons. The end of slavery meant the loss of wealth to the richest men in the South. I will not dwell on this here and refer you to the web page, Causes of the Civil War, where you can read my arguments.

The issue of states rights was a common theme after the war. The abrogation of the Civil Rights Amendments with the passage of Jim Crow laws illustrates that many former Confederate states wanted to maintain de facto-slavery in the form of economic and political disenfranchisement. Southerners were not convinced that African Americans should be treated as equals. That struggle for equality continues today.

Unfortunately, the celebration of the Civil War 150th anniversary brings reminders to the African American community of slavery and the 150 year struggle for human rights. They see the commemorative activities as a reminiscences by some Southerners about the "good old days." They miss the pivotal role that African Americans played in winning the war, ending slavery, and preserving the Union.

The Civil War should be remembered as a history lesson. We should honor the sacrifices of the Americans who lost their lives in this terrible war. Soldiers fought in this war, like all wars, to save their lives and those of the men fighting with them. African American leaders should celebrate the war as the beginning of the ongoing struggle for equality and make sure that activities in their community remember the horrors of slavery and the honor of those who fought to stop it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Texas Declaration of Causes

On February 2, 1861 a Texas convention of delegates issued an ordinance of secession. In the statewide election on the secession ordinance, Texans voted to secede from the Union by a 76% majority.

You might think that in 2011, Texas secession would be a topic reserved to historians. Unfortunately, Texas governor and not-a-Presidential-candidate, Rick Perry raised the specter of Texas independence in a April 2009 speech to a Tea Party meeting in Austin.