The dodgy world of Southern history
Popular histories about the Confederate States of America can be dodgy, as a recent controversy over a school textbook approved for Virginia fourth-graders shows.
In her book "Our Virginia: Past and Present," author Joy Masoff claims that thousands of Southern blacks fought for the Confederacy, including two entirely black battalions under the command of the famous Virginia Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.
Masoff, who is not a trained historian, says she got the information from a Web site. It can be traced to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group open exclusively to males who can show that their ancestors fought for the Confederacy.
Disputes like this used to be fairly common some years ago, and it is surprising that they continue to crop up. Many serious historians note that very few African Americans fought for the Confederacy, although some slaves were used as forced labor to build fortifications or as valets to Southern officers.
Critics say that assertions such as Masoff's ought be strongly opposed because they are designed to give the Southern cause -- maintaining slavery -- credibility. Groups that tend to romanticize the traditional white Southerners' view of the conflict counter that a lot of honest history gets lost in politically correct versions that have been taught in schools for decades.
I am not a Southern by background but have lived a good part of my life in the South. One still cannot escape what some whites wish could have been.
I now live near Richmond, whose beautiful Monument Avenue is marked by traffic circles guarded by giant statues of Jackson, Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Some 100,000 Confederate veterans attended the unveiling of Lee's statue on May 29, 1890. Granted, the real history of these men can be a bit gray (no pun intended). Jackson, for instance, broke state law by illegally teaching black children to read and write at Sunday school classes when he was at Virginia Military Institute before the war, according to a biography by noted historian James I. Robertson Jr.
My first newspaper job was at a small daily in eastern North Carolina where my family lived. I worked there summers when I was in college. It was a pleasant little town with the usual characters waxing eloquent about moonlight and magnolia.
I had a month off one college winter and needed a study project for school. So, I went to the newspaper and proposed a Civil War history of the town based on a diary of a Union Navy officer I had found in the local library.
In 1862, Lincoln sent Union gunboats to a number of small river ports in the Carolinas to keep Southerners from getting war materials. This was the case in my little town. But when I read the diary, my eyes opened wide.
According to the author's account, the town's elders paddled out in a rowboat to greet their Northern captors with open arms. They were merchants who found that the Southern cause was bad for business, and they were treated to an elegant dinner with wine aboard one of the Yankee gunboats.
Naturally, when my series was printed, it was not well received. One of my critics was a self-styled historian who would fit right in with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I'm not saying my history was spot on -- I was 20 years old at the time -- but the experience taught me that anything written about so painful a period has to be undertaken with great care.
You would think that anyone with a hand in the contents of a grade-school textbook would understand that. Cribbing material off a Web site posted by a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is suspect at best.
| October 21, 2010; 4:20 PM ET
Categories: Confederate flag, HotTopic, Local blog network, Va. Politics, Virginia, education, history, media, military, parks, race, schools
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