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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: III. “The Myth of the Myth of the Lost Cause” (continued)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

III. “The Myth of the Myth of the Lost Cause” (continued)

“The Slaves Set Themselves Free!”

By Bill Vallante

I honestly don’t remember who it was that invented this bit of melodrama but I do suspect that many “Myth of the Lost Cause Mythologists” have jumped on this bandwagon because it is what they think that most people these days would like to hear, because it is an easy story to tell, and because it’s entertaining. I believe it was Avary O. Craven who said that in depth discussions of economics and political intrigues as causes of the war do not have the appeal or “the entertainment value” that “harrowing tales of runaway slaves” have. I guess then that our mythologists have opted for entertainment over reality. Maybe instead of holding expensive Sesquicentennial Celebrations or writing books they should instead start their own Sesquicentennial “Reality Show” and sandwich it between “ Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”?

The “Myth of the Lost Cause Mythologists” tell us that the slaves endured unimaginable cruelties, and that often they sought refuge by fleeing northward on the Underground Railroad, a “railroad” whose legend has grown so much in scope in recent years that it now appears to have been larger than Amtrack. I for one would love to know how many people actually ran away to the north or to Canada and how much of what is in books on this subject these days is pure hype......or .....perhaps see some research into how so many people who don't know their rear end from their elbow and who have never been more than 5 miles from home and who are so superstitious that the darkness inspires absolute terror in them (Read the WPA Slave Narratives if you don’t believe me), can so expertly pick out the north star and navigate by it in the pitch black darkness, for a thousand miles or more?

Our mythologists also tell us that Massa Linkhorn emancipated the slaves after some sort of moral awakening late in 1862 and that taking the high moral ground is one of the things that helped the Union win the war. Many in England didn’t quite see it that way. In 1862, one English publication issued the following commentary regarding the Emancipation Proclamation:

“…But as time went on, and the issues of the war came out more clearly, this spring of Northern sympathies began to fail. It soon became apparent that the grievance of the South went very far beyond the mere refusal to allow slaves to be held in the territories of the United States, and it became still more clear that whatever the North was fighting for, it was not for the emancipation of the Negro. It was impossible to believe that the North was crusading for abolition, in the face of the President’s reiterated denials, and of the inhuman treatment which Negroes were constantly receiving at Northern hands. If anything was wanting to confirm their skepticism, it has been supplied. Emancipation to be a military resource of his extreme necessity, shows how little he cared for it as a philanthropist. He values it not for the freedom it may confer, but for the carnage that it may cause.” [16]

Our mythologists tell us that those slaves who could not flee worked to sabotage the Confederacy’s war effort and that they welcomed the Union army with open arms and that whenever possible they flocked in huge numbers to swell the ranks of that army to fight for their freedom.

Seemingly ignored is the fact that while an estimated half a million slaves did, either of their own accord or because they were forced to, leave their homes and go to the Union armies, that over 3 million stayed right where they were and indeed, some of them lent strong support to the land of their birth. The WPA Slave Narratives are full of such stories but the “Myth of the Lost Cause Mythologists” tell us we cannot believe the stories in the Narratives because those interviewed were senile or were afraid of telling the truth to the mostly white interviewers. It does not prevent our mythologists however, from picking out select stories from those narratives where those interviewed said they were abused or that they strongly supported the Union. I guess the formula for determining credibility is that if a former slave said positive things about the South, then he was suffering from dementia or feeling intimidated. If he spoke for the North or had negative things to say about slavery, he was not. How convenient!

You won’t hear our mythologists citing any narratives like:

“I had two uncles. Jipp and Charlie Clark in Stonewall's company. They would never talk much about him after his death. It hurts them too much, for Stonewall's men loved him so much. Jeff Davis was a great man, too.” (The Federal Writer’s Project; “The Slave Narratives,” Jeff Charley Harvey, South Carolina)

or, “We wa'n't beaten, we was starved out! Sometimes we had perched corn to eat and sometimes we didn't have a bite o' nothin', because the Union mens come and tuk all de food for theirselves….” (The Federal Writer’s Project; “The Slave Narratives,” Gus Brown, Alabama)

or, "After the War many soldiers came to my mistress, Mrs. Blakely, trying to make her free me. I told them I was free but I did not want to go anywhere, that I wanted to stay in the only home that I had ever known. In a way that placed me in a wrong attitude. I was pointed out as different. Sometimes I was threatened for not leaving but I stayed on.” (The Federal Writer’s Project; “The Slave Narratives,” Aunt Adeline, Arkansas)

or, "Slavery wus better den it is now. Shore it wus. I don't know much 'bout de war but my first life in Virginia wus better den it is now. I never did have any mean white folks. De Lord made me lucky in dat way.” (The Federal Writer’s Project; “The Slave Narratives,” Amy Penny, North Carolina)

You won’t hear the mythologists talking about Dick Poplar - a free black man from Petersburg who joined the 13th Va. Cavalry and who elected to spend 19 months in Point Lookout rather than take the oath of allegiance to the United States? [17]

Nor will you hear about the free black woman who Union General Milroy tossed out of Winchester because she refused to remove a black corsage from her dress after Stonewall Jackson died. [18]

And you won’t hear body servant Washington Wills, say in a letter to his master, “I will do whatever I can to help my struggling country…” [19]

You won’t hear anything about the Yankee lieutenant in Sherman’s army (or countless others like him) who said, “The….nig***s, as a general thing, preferred to stay at home, particularly after they found out that we wanted only the able-bodied men, and to tell the truth, the youngest and best looking women. Sometimes we took them off by way of repaying influential secessionist. But a part of these we soon managed to lose, sometimes in crossing rivers, sometimes in other ways.” (Thomas J. Myers, Lieutenant, U.S.A., February 26, 1865)

And while you will find many monuments, plaques and celebrations honoring the United States Colored Troops and celebrating their “Glory,” you won’t find much in the way of a realistic description of life as it really existed for these people. You won’t hear much about the fact that not all of the 189,000 men of the United States Colored Troops were freedom fighting volunteers. Many of those from the North were conscripted. Others were paid bounties for their service. Others, slaves “liberated” from their owners and in some cases carried off by Yankee troops, were forced to enlist and in some cases threatened with being shot if they did not. Still others, runaways in most cases, took the opportunity to join something that would at least give them the necessities of life, i.e., clothing, shelter, food and medical care, even if joining that “something” meant they could get killed! The alternative in those days, you see, was to starve or die of malnutrition or exposure. It was a matter of simple survival. Let’s see…where in the anything that I’ve seen on this subject have I heard anything remotely resembling this? I haven’t!

For sure you will not hear the words of Liney Chambers of Arkansas, who told a WPA interviewer, “What the Yankees didn't take they wasted and set fire to it…. They done one more thing too. They put any colored man in the front where he would get killed first and they stayed sorter behind in the back lines…….. When they come along they try to get the colored men to go with them and that's the way they got treated.”

And you won’t hear a peep from those Sesquicentennial planners, about Jefferson Davis and his wife rescuing and adopting an abused free black child named Jim Limber in February 1864. Little Jim lived in the Confederate White House until the end of the war. He played with, ate with and slept with the Davis children, and he functioned as a part of that family. As I recall, the Sons of Confederate Veterans commissioned a sculptor to make a statue of Davis and the child, and then offered it to the Tredegar Museum. Tredegar officials acted like they were being offered a case of bubonic plague.

When you get down to it, our “Myth of the Lost Cause Mythologists” really haven’t done much in regard to telling an accurate history of the black man in this period. They’ve simply destroyed the “Gone With the Wind” myth and replaced it with another myth - “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Since none of us were alive at the time of the war and since none of us saw it first hand, we are left to wonder where the truth lies, and indeed, what the truth really is. There are many versions of the truth and I submit, that as in most cases like it, the real truth lies somewhere in between the two most extreme versions of it, and that it is a pity that few of us will ever get to see or hear it. There is no truth in what the “Myth of the Lost Cause Mythologists” are doing. There is only a question - whose myth are we going to go with and why?

(to be continued)


[16] “The Quarterly Review,” “The Confederate Struggle,” London, July – October, 1862, vol. 112, pp. 535 – 564


[18] “War Crimes Against Southern Civilians,” by Walter Brian Cisco, Pelican Publishing Co., 2007

[19] “Rebel Boast - First at Bethel, Last at Appomattox,” by Manly Wade Wellman
Originally Published 1956 by Henry Hold and Company, New York
Reprinted 2000 by Blue Gray Books


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