Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ain’t I a Human? – Dehumanization, Then & Now

In my previous post, I lamented the troubling legacies of the American Civil War that have been cropping up in recent headlines. In the intervening weeks since I wrote that post, a new scandal has broken into the headlines – a story which contains several parallels to the dehumanizing practice of slavery in the antebellum South and which originates from the same ideological cesspool…and yet no one in the Civil War community has uttered a word about it that I am aware of.

To Be Sold

The painting shown below was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Library of Virginia.

Slaves Waiting for Sale by Eyre Crowe (1861)
Entitled “Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia” the work depicts a slave auction on the eve of the American Civil War. It shows nine enslaved men and women – including three children – pensively awaiting the moment they will be put on an auction block for sale.

The viewer’s stomach churns in revulsion at the thought of this moment – that these people were dressed up only for exhibition, hoping that the fancy clothing might fetch a better price…that the children clutched tightly by their mothers might be sold to a different bidder, wrenching the family apart for years to come…maybe even forever.

Much of the injustice associated with buying and selling human beings is captured in this paining, and historians have done a fine job over the past half century to bring this tragic era of human history to light and to show that slavery was in no wise a benign institution – it was violence perpetrated against the human soul.


What cries out as so very wrong about the practice of slavery is, in part, its degradation and dehumanization of our fellow human beings. In his magisterial The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, David Brion Davis defines dehumanization as, “the eradication not of human identity but of those elements of humanity that evoke respect and empathy and convey a sense of dignity” (p.17).

Consider, then, the recent scandal concerning allegations that abortion provider Planned Parenthood has been harvesting body parts taken from aborted babies and selling them to medical research companies for profit. There has been quite a smoke screen attempting to cover the craven nature of what the recent undercover videos that exposed this illicit trade truly shows.

But I challenge you to reflect upon this snippet taken from one of the latest videos, in which Dr. Savita Ginde and her staff are picking through the severed pieces of a child. At one point a medical assistant cracks the child’s skull while Dr. Ginde laughs and says, “It’s a baby.” Shortly thereafter another assistant yells “It’s a boy!” when examining the eviscerated baby’s lower body.

This is the dehumanization of slavery on steroids. The aforementioned footage and mounds of other evidence (and plain common sense) shows that the abortion pushers at Planned Parenthood agree that they are killing what is clearly identifiable as human (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to profit from selling the body parts.) They simply strip the unborn child of any dignity or sense of worth – “life unworthy of life” as an ideological bedfellow of theirs would have put it – and rake in the profits, just like the slavers of old.

Calling All Historians

So where is the outcry from my colleagues?

As Prof. Jacquelyn Hall of UNC Chapel Hill said, “As a matter of civic duty and professional survival historians must unapologetically embrace opportunities to put the past in open dialogue with the pressing needs of the present.” 

Over the weekend Kevin Levin rightly praised John Hennessey for “fully embrac[ing] his responsibility to push park visitors to think about the tough questions related to how we think about and how we remember our Civil War. In a follow-up, Levin wrote “It’s an opportune moment for public historians, who focus on the Civil War Era and the history of race relations. Folks who have never thought about the American Civil War are giving it a good deal of thought.” 

And yet when it comes to this horrific scandal, mum’s the word.

It staggers me to see the amount of ink spilled over the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag and the unbridled zeal to take down monuments dedicated to those who fought to establish a slaveholding republic…with nary a word devoted to an indefensible practice that rivals the great human rights crises of the past.

In 1839, Theodore Dwight Weld wrote that the slaveholder did “not contemplate slaves as human beings, consequently [he] does not treat them as such; and with indifference sees them suffer privations and writhe under blows which, if inflicted upon whites, would fill him with horror and indignation.”

Today, many in our society are unmoved at the prospect of unborn children “suffering privations” and writhing in the womb as they are sliced to bits and sold at market to the highest bidder. Weld’s contemporaries relied upon Phrenology and other pseudoscience to justify their depredations just as Planned Parenthood hides behind junk science and deception to carry out its illegal trade.

The magnitude of this scandal exceeds traditional pro-choice/pro-life squabbles – it cuts right to the core and forces us to search our souls for an answer to the question of what makes us human.

Do we have intrinsic worth, or is some life more worthy of protection than other life – and how do we arbitrate between the two in the latter case?

If there is no absolute value to be placed on every human life, then there’s no logical reason why you can’t slaughter a child in utero and harvest its organs to finance your Lamborghini. 

And there’s no reason why you can’t own another person as well.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

We’ve Got a Long Way to Go: The Confederate Battle Flag, George Takei’s “Uncivil” Rant, & the Legacy of Race in America

Well, if ever anyone needed ammunition to bolster their arguments that the haunting legacies of slavery and the Civil War still impact our nation today, the past few weeks have provided an abundance of troubling evidence.

I, for one, was very troubled over the initial debate over the public display of the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the horrific hate crime in Charleston. To me, it seemed like the “rush to the colors” was not only misguided, but completely wrongheaded – when the bodies of the victims had not been properly memorialized or even buried some acted as if the main takeaway that Americans should be concerned with was whether or not future generations would learn the “real” history of the Confederacy.

Never mind the nine innocent victims who had been slaughtered and the hateful ideology that motivated the Confederate flag-waving killer.

Equally troubling were the recent remarks made by actor George Takei following the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
Oh my, indeed.

Takei, who has been a champion for gay rights and marriage equality for many years, was not content to celebrate this historic ruling. Instead, he launched into a diatribe against Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissenting opinion that was laced with racist imagery that should have no place in any civil discussion.

What Thomas said that got Takei so fired up was, in part:
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate…Human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved…The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
Reacting to that, Takei said of Justice Thomas:
He is a clown in blackface sitting on the Supreme Court. He gets me that angry. He doesn't belong there. And for him to say, slaves have dignity. I mean, doesn't he know that slaves were in chains? That they were whipped on the back. If he saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, you know, they were raped. And he says they had dignity as slaves…I mean, this man does not belong on the Supreme Court. He is an embarrassment. He is a disgrace to America.  
Takei’s reference to blackface harkens back to a disgusting theatrical tradition that propagated racist images and attitudes. Minstrel shows that employed blackface portrayed African Americans as inferior caricatures and blackface clowns were a popular means of reinforcing the “otherness” of black Americans.

Takei has since taken to Facebook to apologize for using this blatantly racist imagery (which he called "uncivil") and suggested that he “referred to [Justice Thomas] as a ‘clown in blackface’ to suggest that he had abdicated and abandoned his heritage.” It is interesting to note that most follow-up comments on his Facebook apology support what he originally said and claimed he had nothing to apologize for.

What Takei did not walk back in his apology were his remarks about slaves not having dignity. One can only give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he was unartfully stating that slavery stripped dignity from human beings. If humans do not have inherent dignity, then there is no moral law against enslaving them in the first place.

But this, of course, is clearly not what Justice Thomas was suggesting. His line of reasoning was the main underpinning of the abolition movement while Takei alluded to the language and customs used by the defenders of the Slavocracy.

Takei’s language is just as offensive as the proud display of the Confederate flag after the Charleston shooting. While I don’t think that he or the defenders of the Confederate flag are virulent racists, I do think that both display a disturbing lack of understanding and appreciation for the real history of slavery, race, and the legacy of the American Civil War.

We’ve got a long way to go. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Unknown Loyal Dead

Just around the corner from Mrs. Lee’s famed rose garden at Arlington house lays a nearly-forgotten monument that was the first Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Erected in 1866, this massive crypt houses the remains of 2,111 Union war dead that were removed from hastily dug mass graves on the battlefields stretching from Manassas to the Rappahannock River.
Tomb of the Civil War Unknowns.

On Decoration Day of 1871, Frederick Douglass was invited to come and consecrate this memorial.

His words, given below in their entirety, offer a valuable glimpse into how postwar Northerners viewed their Civil War.
Friends and Fellow Citizens: 
Tarry here for a moment. My words shall be few and simple. The solemn rites of this hour and place call for no lengthened speech. There is, in the very air of this resting-ground of the unknown dead a silent, subtle and all-pervading eloquence, far more touching, impressive, and thrilling than living lips have ever uttered. Into the measureless depths of every loyal soul it is now whispering lessons of all that is precious, priceless, holiest, and most enduring in human existence. 
Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable. 
Those unknown heroes whose whitened bones have been piously gathered here, and whose green graves we now strew with sweet and beautiful flowers, choice emblems alike of pure hearts and brave spirits, reached, in their glorious career that last highest point of nobleness beyond which human power cannot go. They died for their country.
No loftier tribute can be paid to the most illustrious of all the benefactors of mankind than we pay to these unrecognized soldiers when we write above their graves this shining epitaph.
When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1870.
We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice. 
I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict. 
If we ought to forget a war which has filled our land with widows and orphans; which has made stumps of men of the very flower of our youth; which has sent them on the journey of life armless, legless, maimed and mutilated; which has piled up a debt heavier than a mountain of gold, swept uncounted thousands of men into bloody graves and planted agony at a million hearthstones — I say, if this war is to be forgotten, I ask, in the name of all things sacred, what shall men remember? 
The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration. In the raging storm of fire and blood, in the fierce torrent of shot and shell, of sword and bayonet, whether on foot or on horse, unflinching courage marked the rebel not less than the loyal soldier. 
But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic. We must never forget that the loyal soldiers who rest beneath this sod flung themselves between the nation and the nation’s destroyers. If today we have a country not boiling in an agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

May 12, 1864: Death of a Legend

The following is an eyewitness account of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s death on May 12, 1864. Stuart’s adjutant, Maj. Henry McClellan, wrote to Flora Stuart to explain the circumstances of how he was wounded and the manner of his death. Flora had arrived at the home Dr. Charles Brewer on May 12th to find that Stuart had been dead for several hours and was greatly grieved to know that she had just missed a last chance to say goodbye to her beloved husband.
While yet in the ambulance Dr. Fontaine and Lieutenant Hullihen turned the general over on his side, in order that an examination of the wound might be made While this was in progress he spoke to Hullihen, addressing him by the pet name which he usually employed: -- 
“Honey-bun, how do I look in the face?” 
“General,” replied Hullihen, “you are looking right well. You will be all right.” 
“Well,” said he, “I don’t know how this will turn out; but if it is God’s will that I shall die I am ready.” 
In order to avoid the enemy, who how held full possession of the Brook turnpike, it was necessary for the ambulance to make a wide detour to reach Richmond, and it was some time after dark when the general arrived at the residence of his brother-in-law, Dr. Charles Brewer. The long ride gave him great suffering. On the morning of the 12th, after delivering General Fitz Lee’s message to General Bragg, I repaired to the bedside of my dying chief. He was calm and composed, in the full possession of his mind. Our conversation was, however, interrupted by paroxysms of suffering. He directed me to make the proper disposal of his official papers and to send his personal effects to his wife. He then said: --- 
“I wish you to take one of my horses and Venable the other. Which is the heavier rider?”
I replied that I thought Venable was. 
“Then,” said he, “let Venable have the gray horse, and you take the bay.” 
Soon he spoke again: “You will find in my hat a small Confederate flag, which a lady of Columbia, South Carolina, sent me, with the request that I wear it upon my horse in a battle and return to her. Send it to her.” 
I was at a loss how to interpret these instructions; for I had never seen any such decoration upon his hat. But upon examining it the flag was found within its lining, stained with the sweat of his brow; and among his papers I found the letter which had conveyed the request. 
Again he said: “My spurs which I have always word in battle I promised to give to Mrs. Lilly Lee, of Shepherdstown, Virginia. My sword I leave to my son.” 
While I sat by his side the sound of cannon outside the city was heard. He turned to me eagerly and inquired what it meant. I explained that Gracy’s brigade and other troops had moved out against the enemy’s rear on the Brook turnpike and that Fitz Lee would endeavor to oppose their advance at Meadow Bridge. He turned his eyes upward, and exclaimed earnestly, “God grant that they may be successful.” Then he turned his head
aside, he said with a sigh, --- 
“But I must be prepared for another world.” 
The thought of duty was always uppermost in his mind; and after listening to the distant cannonading for a few moments, he said: “Major, Fitz Lee may need you.” I understood his meaning, and pressed his hand in a last farewell. 
As I left his chamber President Davis entered. Taking the general’s hand, he asked: “General, how do you feel?” 
He replied: “Easy, but willing to die, if God and my country think I have fulfilled my destiny and done my duty.” 
The Reverend Mr. Peterkin visited him, and prayed with him. He requested Mr. Peterkin to sing “Rock of Ages,” and joined in the singing of the hymn. 
During the afternoon he asked Dr. Brewer whether it were not possible for him to survive the night. The doctor frankly told him that death was close at hand. He then said: 
“I am resigned if it be God’s will; but I would like to see my wife. But God’s will be done.” 
Again he said to Dr. Brewer: “I am going fast now; I am resigned. God’s will be done.” 
And thus he passed away.


Monday, May 11, 2015

“Bully for Gordon!” – Fighting at Ground Squirrel Church, May 11, 1864

While many people are familiar with the Battle of Yellow Tavern and the resultant mortal wounding of famed Confederate cavalry chieftain J.E.B. Stuart, the hotly contested fighting that centered around Goodall’s Tavern and Ground Squirrel Church in Hanover County on the same day has received scant attention. This rear guard action pitted Brig. Gen. James B. Gordon’s Tarheel Brigade against some of the finest horse soldiers in the Army of the Potomac.
Less famous than his cousin John B. Gordon,
James Gordon was an excellent cavalry officer.

As Phil Sheridan’s troopers rode steadily towards Richmond on May 10th, they reached the Ground Squirrel Bridge on the South Anna River, 18 miles below Beaver Dam Station, around 4:00 p.m. After crossing his entire force, Sheridan ordered the bridge burned and posted the 1st Maine Cavalry along the south bank of the river while the rest of the troopers cooked supper and bedded down for the night.

Meanwhile Stuart, who had been in hot pursuit with around 4,500 men since May 9th, decided to roll the dice and split his force – Gordon’s brigade was tasked with following Sheridan and harassing his rear guard while two of Fitzhugh Lee’s brigades under Brig. Gen. Williams C. Wickham and Brig. Gen. Lunsford L. Lomax would hurry east to Hanover Junction on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad and then descend the Telegraph Road to interdict the main Federal body along Mountain Road.

Shortly after sunrise on the 11th, Sheridan assembled his men and moved out, leaving Gen. David. McM. Gregg to picket the South Anna. Gregg was confident that he was untouchable because the bridge had been burned and he thought the river to be unfordable – thus when, Gordon’s troopers arrived on the scene he was unperturbed.
Map by Hal Jespersen

Gordon, however, knew that the safety of the Confederate capital could be at stake and had no time to worry about finding a safe spot to cross the river. The general simply picked a spot, yelled “Forward!” and plunged into the water, not knowing the depth. His men unhesitatingly followed. 

Once across, the steep bank caused great difficulty and according to a trooper in the 5th North Carolina Cavalry, “men were hurt trying to take their horses up that almost impossible bank.” Paul Means of the 5th realistically stated, “some were seriously hurt, but we were out there expecting to get hurt.”  

As soon as the Carolinians crossed the South Anna they ran into Gregg’s pickets. The 1st Maine Cavalry – purported to be the best cavalry unit in the entire army – was under orders to hold the crossing along with the 10th New York Cavalry while the rest of the column moved on.

After a few volleys from Gordon’s troopers, the Yankees broke for the rear, where they stampeded members of the 10th New York. N.D. Preston of that unit said “it was one of those unaccountable panics which sometimes seize bodies of men without cause.” One trooper who was desperate to get to safety grabbed the tail of a passing horse and allowed himself to be dragged to safety.

The Federals fell back to nearby Goodall’s Tavern, which was quickly turned into a formidable defensive position. The tavern and all of the outbuildings had sharpshooters in the windows ready to pick off Gordon’s men should they continue to advance.

The position appeared daunting, but Gordon decided to test the defenses and put the 1st North Carolina Cavalry in line and sent them up the Mountain Road, with the 5th North Carolina in support.

After an initial attempt to take the position, one Tarheel confessed, “We…could not dislodge them. The fight between the dismounted sharp-shooters lasted several hours.” Gordon quickly changed tactics, sending a mounted squadron of the 5th NC under Col. William H. Cheek around the right to flank the Federals, while he personally led the 1st NC in a frontal assault. The combat was brutal –“hand-to hand, saber to saber, in deadly close conflict,” said a trooper in the 5th NC – and the Federals were again pushed out of their position.

During this chaotic melee the Carolinians claimed that the bugler of the 1st North Carolina ripped the bugle out of the hands of the bugler for the 1st Maine and made the rest of his bugle calls on the captured trophy. Gregg, surveying the situation, exclaimed, “My God! Is the 1st Maine coming back?”

Ground Squirrel Church. Courtesy: Sandy Satterwhite
For a second time that day, the Federals fell back to a new position at Ground Squirrel Church, where they now had the luxury of artillery support.

A member of the 5th North Carolina later recalled:
One side or the other gives way quickly as did Sheridan's splendid soldiers before these two North Carolina regiments in those glorious charges and counter-charges at Ground Squirrel Church. We kept up the fight on their rear, pressing them hard continuously.
Gordon now threw everything he had into the fight, committing his reserves. These fresh troopers charged onto the field and drove away a mounted force of Yankee troopers who proved to be the last of the Federals, who were now heading south to catch up with the main body.

By the time the battle was over, the clash at Yellow Tavern had already begun. Gordon sent a courier to inform Stuart of the victory he had won, causing the general to bellow, “Bully for Gordon!” Reality settled back in with Stuart’s next words – “I wish he was here.”

Indeed, the fact that so many hard-fighting cavaliers were absent from the Yellow Tavern battlefield contributed to the shattering defeat suffered there. And as we all know, Stuart would fall mortally wounded, dying in Richmond on May 12th.

That same day Gen. Gordon was also mortally wounded at fighting along the Brook Pike outside of Richmond.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Virginia Time Travel Appearance

Look ma, I'm famous!

I recently sat down with the good folks at Virginia Time Travel to discuss a variety of subjects, to include Freedman’s Village, the Battle of New Market Heights, and this very blog.

If you’ve got a cool thirty minutes to kill, why not take a gander?

(NOTE: At one point in the interview I tripped over my tongue and said that two Federal Corps crossed the James at Deep Bottom – I was actually trying to refer to the Second Corps, which was the one and only infantry corps on Hancock’s first expedition north of the James.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Heartrending Letter from Freedman’s Village

Every once in a while in my research I find something that transcends the usual dry recitation of facts and events – something that leaps off of the page and eradicates the 150 year barrier that separates me from the people and events I am investigating.

A recent find that falls into that category is a letter housed in the collection of the Library of Georgia from a woman named Ann Butler who lived in Arlington’s Freedman’s Village.

Freedman's Village. Courtesy: LOC
The letter is unique in several respects. First of all, most of the primary source documents pertaining to the newly freed African Americans residing in Freedman’s Village were written by whites who worked in the village – teachers, administrators, soldiers, and missionaries. Any firsthand account from one of the actual residents is a rare find.

Second, the letter is written to her husband William, who was serving as a soldier in the 2nd United States Colored Infantry. The 2nd USCT was a unit recruited straight out of Arlington, which means we have a situation where a family comes into Freedman’s Village and the wife and children stay in the village to work and learn while the husband enlists in the U.S. Colored Troops. Again, this is a rare scenario to find any primary documents for.

Finally, as we will see, there is a surprise ending.

And now for the text of the letter itself – the following is a transcription of the original, which was written on January 30, 1865:
Jan 30 1865
Arlington Va
Freedmens Village
My dear Husband, 
I have waited and longed and longed and waited for a letter from you but seems all in vain why don’t you write to me and let me some thing from you. Not since October last have I heard one word from you is any thing the matter with you do write and let me know to relieve my anxious mind the children are all anxious to see you and hear from you William is living not very far from me he is waiting on an officer at Fort Woodbury and Matthew is waiting on an officer at fort smith near about 2 or 3 miles off, but I see him very often which is a great comfort to me as I cannot see you but I hope the time is not far off when I shall once more both see you and be separated no more until death which is unresistable while we see each other let us pray that harm may not overtake I feel it my especial duty and greatest comfort to pray for you at all times you must pray for me and the children Mary is living in Washington. She and all the rest send their best love to you their dear absent father. Now William when you receive this make no delay in writing but hast to answer this at once and tell me every[thing] concerning yourself and your where abouts. The smaller children go to school in the village every day they want to see how much they can learn by the time their Father come with spoils from the war. I will say no more not but will trust in the Lord for the safe keeping of us both and our little flock.
I remain as ever your devoted wife,
C. Ann Butler
Direct your letters as before Freedmens Village
Care Capt Larrs
Arlington Va

The immediacy of Butler’s living situation and obvious concern over her beloved husband leaps off of the page, and makes what follows next truly heartrending.

At the bottom of the letter is a note written in a different hand that reads in part:
This letter was taken out of a knapsack found close by a dead body on the Battlefield of the Natural Bridge near St Marks Fla March 6th 1865 … It is believed the Butler above named was killed at that fight.
One can only imagine the grief experienced by Ann and her children when that news was delivered to her.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending!

I recently looked at William Butler’s service record and, as it turns out, he was captured at the Battle of Natural Bridge – which explains why his knapsack was left on the field of battle.

William Butler's Parole. Courtesy: NARA
The end of the war brought about William’s release as a P.O.W. on April 28, 1865 and he was discharged from the army on May 20th at Annapolis, Maryland.

It must have been a joyful occasion when William, Ann, and their small children were reunited.