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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Alternative history isn't a fictional device. We live it every day.



This morning an NPR story featured a Richmond, Virginia parks historian explaining how the pantheon of Confederate war leaders along Monument Avenue was not just an effort to "create a memory" long after the war had been lost, but also remind the future citizens of Richmond who was in charge:


As the distinguished Delaware State University historian Steve Newton points out in this Facebook essay, history isn't just a matter of what gets kept, or erased, prospectively.

It's also about what has already been erased, and that those in power want to keep erased:

While Charlottesville grips the nation, along with contention over the responses from Washington, we have been treated to many passionate inanities. These include but are not limited to (a) assertions that those who support the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue want to erase or rewrite history, and (b) the counter-assertion that Lee (and all those he represents in his remembering) were simply traitors, and racists, and have no legitimate part in public honors.

This is NOT an essay that will suggest the ridiculous premise that "all sides are equally wrong," however that might be formulated. Instead, I wish to look at the question that has seemed to escape us: where, in Virginia, are the statues of General George Henry Thomas or Private "Obie" Evans? It is my contention that what is not--and has not--been present in the public memory of Virginia is the source of the problem.

Much has been made of the anguished decision by Robert E. Lee to reject Lincoln's (probably apocryphal) offer to lead the US Army to put down the rebellion by the Confederate States. His defenders (as well as knee-jerk apologists) will compare his actions to those of George Washington, and the best case for so doing was undoubtedly stated in historian Douglass Southhall Freeman's Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography of the man published in the 1930s. 

Freeman argued that Lee was in fact the spiritual heir of George Washington, a man to whom "duty" was regarded as the "sublimest word" in the English language, and a man who spent his postwar years campaigning as ardently for reconciliation as he had spent his years in the saddle attempting to establish a new nation. Freeman in fact offered Southerners a Lee that became the literary and social counterpoint to the Northern Lincoln.

(I wonder, sometimes, why no prominent statues of Lee show him in civilian garb as the President of Washington University, if that aspect of his character is so important to us?)

But another Virginian, George H. Thomas, a Major in Lee's own 2nd Cavalry Regiment, faced exactly the same choice in 1861, and decided that his conscience and his oath required him to remain faithful to the United States. He rose slowly through the ranks during the war (always dogged by the suspicion that, as a Virginian, he was potentially "disloyal"), yet became essential to the defeat of the rebellion on many fields--at Stone's River, at Chickamauga, at Chattanooga, at Atlanta, and at Nashville. On merit alone,George H. Thomas was arguably a better commander than William T. Sherman (who made a habit of damning him with faint praise). Without Thomas, while a Union victory in the war would still have happened, his absence would have undoubtedly prolonged the conflict by at least a year and at the cost of tens of thousands more lives.

George Thomas is memorialized by a grateful nation in Washington, with a prominent equestrian statue, but in Virginia he remains both a pariah and an invisible man. If we wish to speak of erasing history, then the public memory of the State of Virginia and its Orwellian elimination of General Thomas--the man who chose his nation over his state, and who accepted the vilification of his fellow citizens over the violation of his oath--is critical to the conversation. Virginia has chosen for over 150 years to erase his memory from public monumental discourse--the man who never owned slaves, who never went back on his word. It is a telling blow against the "erasing history" crowd that they don't even acknowledge that they have participated in the erasure of this prominent American patriot from Virginia. But for the Old Dominion, apparently, George Thomas was not politically correct enough to deserve a statue.

Nor was Private Obie Evans of the 30th US Colored Troops, one of tens of thousands of Black Virginians who risked their lives (in more ways that one) to escape from slavery and take up arms to free their mothers, wives, children, and siblings still held in chains in Virginia. I propose Obie Evans as a symbol of all those men because my good friend the scholar Yohuru Williams has painstakingly recreated his life and career from the faceless oblivion of so many Virginians who reached decisions quite different from those of Robert E. Lee. Evans, an escaped slave, enlisted in the Union Army in 1864, and received honorable and terrible wounds in the Battle of the Crater that summer, fighting not against some abstract right of Secession, or for higher tariffs on Southerners, but so that his brothers and sisters might not live and die in chains any more.

His is the story not just of 200,000 Black Civil War soldiers who risked death not only on the battlefield but summary execution or re-enslavement if captured, but also more than 150,000 white Southerners who chose to join the Union and not the Confederate Army as the proper execution of their patriotic duty.

But Obie Evans has no statute, nor does Virginia as a Commonwealth over the past decades seem to find anything amiss at failing to publicly remember its Black citizens who gave their lives that slavery might end. Obie Evans has no statue other than the tree in Smyrna, Delaware, where this patriot and war hero was lynched in 1866. If the partisans of the Lee statue's holy importance to American history, and who insist that we neither "rewrite" nor "erase" the critical aspects of our national story are intellectually honest, let us ask them why there are no statues of Black Southerners, Black Virginians, who offered themselves up to the jaws of war in defense of freedom dotting the parks of my (and their) home state?

The answer is that many Americans are apparently fine with erasing history in favor of "tradition" and "heritage." That explains, for example, why the erection of a statue of tennis great and civil rights activist Arthur Ashe on Richmond's Monument Avenue met such spirited opposition a few decades back. Ashe did not belong with the long line of white Confederates memorialized in Virginia's capital, they argued. He was not of the same caliber as the men who gave their all defending Secession (and slavery).

Nor are all those interested in protecting the sanctity of history interested in protecting ALL the history involved with Robert E. Lee, who was slave-owner, and according to the testimony of his slaves, not a particularly magnanimous one at that. He believed that to spare the lash was to spoil the darkie, and his slaves were well whipped by the overseers he employed in his absences, and under his own authority when he was at home.

As a General he turned a blind eye to the summary execution (murder) of hundreds if not thousands of US Colored Troops by his soldiers throughout the Fall of 1864 (called "Blackbird Shoots" by his men), and required captured Black soldiers to perform military labor under fire (a violation of the laws of war, even in Civil War times). Strangely--but maybe not so strangely--these facts are not even considered with respect to remembering Lee. When brought up, instead of being integrated into historical memory, they are explained away with tortured rationalizations that amount to "he was only following orders" or "he was a man of his time."

(But Lee was a complex man, who also stood at the communion rail at Grace Episcopal Church in Richmond in May 1865 to defend the right of a Black man to stand there beside him.)

The majority of white Virginia politicians ("redeemers") in the postwar years spent their time and the Commonwealth's fortunes in an attempt to win through legislation and public memory that which they had lost on the battlefield: a State based on white supremacy. If you were Black in Virginia after the war (now re-interpreted as having been about ANYTHING except slavery), you were disfranchised, subject to penal slavery for vagrancy, denied the right to integrated public accommodations, and denied the right to equal public schooling. About the only right you had was to pay taxes to support the State that enforced the Jim Crow realities of your life.

The erection of statues, the naming of schools, and the incorporation of overtly pro-Confederate public rituals all combined not to cause history to be remembered, but to venerate "tradition" and "heritage," and to exclude the memory of Black Virginians from the public square.

An anecdote: in 1985 I served as the NCOIC for the medical detachment supporting the summer OCS class for the Virginia Army National Guard. This was two weeks of physically and mentally intense training that was part of the process of turning twenty-something young men into combat-ready officers. It was a rigorous process, and as a senior NCO I then supported (and still support) that toughness. But let's look at one very real aspect of that training, and while we're looking, let's remember that in the Class of 1985 at least 50% of the Officer Candidates were Black Virginians.

Every night, candidates had to report to the Training Room for "counseling" by their young tactical officers. Said officers, with the full knowledge and consent of high command all the way up to the Course Commandant and the Adjutant General of Virginia, installed a nightly ritual for these candidates. They had placed large color posters of Stonewall Jackson, A. P. Hill, and Robert E. Lee in their Confederate uniforms on the walls of their office. As each candidate entered, he was required to march up to each poster, come to attention, salute, and say loudly, "Good evening, General, thank you for your service to our State and our Nation."

I want you to think about that--the cost of becoming an officer in the Virginia National Guard in the 1980s for a young Black man included mandatory obeisance to slave-owning Confederate officers who would have allowed their subordinates to kill them out of hand had they been captured on the battlefield.
Almost strangely, I'm not in sympathy with those who would tear down those Confederate icons from the public square (and, in all honesty, most were originally financed by private subscription, not tax dollars), even though I find the absence of Thomas and Evans in the same parks is what makes liars out of the people claiming simply to be defending history. I think we should use them to help us remember how "history" is too often perverted into the service of the State and the elites who control it.

Those marble statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, JEB Stuart, A. P. Hill, and others were specifically intended to not just to privilege the memories of a certain class of self-consciously white people over those of everyone else, but to erase all other histories in the process.

They didn't just erase the history of Black Southerners, they erased the history of white politicians like Alexander H. H. Stuart (who opposed secession and war). They erased the memories of tens of thousands of Virginians who opposed leaving the Union. They erased the memories of Virginia's brutal forced conscription of soldiers, and the seizure of crops, tools, and houses without any real payment, "for the war." They erased the fact that the overwhelming majority of white Virginians in the Southwest and Western parts of the State not only opposed the war, but enlisted in the Union Army in significantly greater numbers than in the Confederate Army.

This is not revisionist history--a favorite cry of the snowflake defenders of "tradition" and "heritage." It's the historical record that this politically dominant class of white Virginians established quite openly, and praised themselves for establishing in documents both public and private that historians have been aware of for years, but which the men with helmets, wooden staves, torches, and neo-Nazi shields shouting, "Blood and Soil!" (and their apologists) want to continue to keep out of school textbooks and the larger public memory.
That many activists want to remove the Lee statue and other Confederate icons is not motivated primarily by a desire to eliminate history, but from a desperate frustration that their own history has been erased already, and that too many people are determined to keep that erasure permanent.

If there were also, had always been, statues in Virginia celebrating the life of George Thomas or Obie Evans, the charges against them might be sustained.
If there were even one museum or monument to enslaved Virginians, or Virginians who remained loyal to the Union, for every ten that celebrate the exploits of slave-owning, White supremacist warriors, we might not be here today.

But there aren't, and so we are here today.

Sadly, most of the people serving as (often) unconscious apologists are the victims of that larger erasure of history. I was in the room when the original Virginia Standards of Learning were drafted for all of the Commonwealth's public schools. All students were required, by State-mandated standards, to know the accomplishments and importance of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and JEB Stuart. Slavery was not mentioned as even contributing to the cause of the Civil War, and there were no Black Virginians from the period 1861-1865 about whom students were required to learn.

I doubt I should have expected better from politicians and wealthy elites who chose with such ill grace to "celebrate" Martin Luther King Day by creating "Lee-Jackson-King Day" as if there were some defensible moral equivalency between the three.

In 1860 Black Virginians constituted 32% of the total population (550,000), although 99% of them were enslaved.

Today, Black Virginians constitute 19.4% of the total population (1.5 million), and 99% of their history continues to be erased from public memory.

That's what this is all about.

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