Still Fighting the Civil War in South Carolina


Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts teach in the Department of History at California State University, Fresno. They are writing a book about slavery and public memory in Charleston, South Carolina. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

Monday evening is shaping up to be quite a night in Charleston.  Confederate enthusiasts are throwing a grand ball there to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the state's secession from the Union.  Hundreds of people, many decked out in hoop skirts and militia uniforms, will drink mint juleps and dance the night away.  Jeff Antley, who has organized the Secession Gala, states that the event "has nothing to do with slavery."  He proposes that it is a commemoration of South Carolinians who "stood up for their self-government and their rights under law." 

But local members of the NAACP disagree, and they've got professional historians on their side:  It is an undeniable fact that South Carolinians seceded to protect their right to own slaves.  "This is nothing more than a celebration of slavery," observes Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP chapter.  He'll lead a downtown march and a candlelight vigil outside the municipal auditorium where the ball is to be held.

Candlelight vigils and costumed waltzes get headlines, but Monday night will be just one more showdown in another civil war, one that has raged in Charleston since 1865.

When the city fell to the Union army that year, local freedpeople staged public demonstrations to mark slavery's end.  Huge crowds of former slaves paraded through city streets, even conducting a mock slave auction and displaying a hearse that proclaimed, "Slavery Is Dead."  African Americans in Charleston also built a cemetery for Union soldiers who had died as prisoners of war, and they came by the thousands to its dedication. 

Meanwhile, white Charlestonians worked to memorialize slavery's most vocal champion, John C. Calhoun, who had died in 1850.  In 1887, after a thirty-year campaign, they installed a monument to Calhoun in Marion Square, the park at the very heart of the city.

Rendered powerless by Jim Crow laws in the 1880s and '90s, the city's black residents could do nothing to prevent the memorialization of the man who had worked hard to keep them in chains.  So for decades they subjected the monument to an informal campaign of ridicule and defacement.  Even after the original statue was replaced by a second, which stood atop an enormous column, it continued to be vandalized. 

More recently, controversy has swirled around an effort to erect a monument to Denmark Vesey, a free black executed for plotting a slave rebellion in the city in 1822.  Local black activists first proposed the tribute in the 1990s so that the city would acknowledge the centrality of slavery to its past.  They also hoped the Vesey Monument would force Charlestonians to confront the reality that slaves were unhappy, so much so that they might violently rebel.

Resistance to the monument has been formidable.  Local whites have offered the standard litany of excuses about the marginal role, and benign nature, of slavery.  Ground on the memorial was finally broken in February 2010, but only after opponents had prevented the statue's placement in Marion Square.  The Denmark Vesey Memorial will stand in Hampton Park, far from the Calhoun Monument, far from the city's historic district, far from the eyes of millions of tourists.

Calhoun's likeness, standing just a block away from where revelers will celebrate secession Monday night, embodies white Charleston's preferred method of dealing with its slave past:  denial.  Dedicated to a man who called Southern slavery "a positive good," the monument honors Calhoun's commitment to truth, justice, and the Constitution.  It says nothing about slavery.

Despite the efforts of black Charlestonians and their white allies, slavery has been confined to the margins of the city's public memory.  The upcoming NAACP protest against the Secession Gala is a bid to bring it front-and-center.

The shelling of Fort Sumter opened a long and painful civil war.  Let's hope that this latest exchange of salvos—another confrontation with repercussions far beyond Charleston—will instigate a different sort of civil process.  The nation must attend to the pain of its history and the pain that the denial of that history continues to inflict.  For after the band stops playing and the gala ball comes to a close, one fact will remain:  Charleston's protracted civil war is our own.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

Related Links

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 12/25/2010

Not only can't you spell, you can't read: I didn't say that I wasn't an historian, just that I wasn't an American historian.

Your sources are typical of the genre: guesswork, uncritical use of seemingly useful sources, nearly complete ignorance of the actual context of slavery and Confederate governance and military practice. I highly recommend Kevin Levin's Black Confederate Resource Page as a starting place for, well, starting over.

Mike R Bav - 12/24/2010

"It has been estimated that over 65,000 Southern blacks were in the Confederate ranks." (Sorry, Jonathon, but that is NOT single digits - it's more like FIVE DIGITS.)

Dr. Leonard Haynes, an African-American professor at Southern University, stated, “When you eliminate the black Confederate soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.”

Also - white slaves: http://www.revisionisthistory.org/forgottenslaves.html


You are right: you are OBVIOUSLY not a historian.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/21/2010

why did African-Americans fight on the side of the Confederate Army?

They didn't, at least not beyond single digits.

Even President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that his goal in prosecuting the war was NOT ending slavery, but rather preserving the Federal Union.

But the goal of every secessionist state was preserving and extending slavery.

his Emancipation Proclamation freed not a single slave and was promulgated with the sole purpose of undermining the Confederacy, NOT manumitting African-Americans.

Not right away, but it also was in response to pressure from Union troops who did believe in freeing slaves whereever they found them.

There WAS black-on-black slavery.

But not a lot of black-on-white or white-on-white slavery. So it is about race. The numbers were not terribly large, either, and many cases involved freed slaves "owning" family members that they'd purchased from previous owners.

Northerners owned slaves

And participated in the slave trade. Until they didn't, and when the crisis came, Northern slaves were freed quickly and without significant resistance.

And I'm not even an American historian.

Mike R Bav - 12/21/2010

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts unequivocally believe that the Civil War was fought over slavery.

How, then, does these so-called "historians" explain the fact that Northerners, including New Yorkers, owned slaves as well?

Obviously, neither of these "historians" reads any books - or tolerates any opinions - that happen to disagree with their leftist ideology. This would explain why neither of them has come across Ervin Jordan's "Black Confederates."

If the Civil War was about slavery, then why did African-Americans fight on the side of the Confederate Army? No one has yet explained or accounted for this fact, for the simple reason that it is inexplicable unless one moves on from dogmatic beliefs and examines historical truths.

Even President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that his goal in prosecuting the war was NOT ending slavery, but rather preserving the Federal Union. So much for the idiotic notion that Lincoln was an abolitionist; to the contrary, he was a racist who did not consider African-Americans to be his equals and, at one point, called for them to be repatriated to the continent of Africa.

But, of course, leftists will blindly latch on to Lincoln as their hero, even though it is an established fact that his Emancipation Proclamation freed not a single slave and was promulgated with the sole purpose of undermining the Confederacy, NOT manumitting African-Americans.

Which brings me to my last argument, another point that leftist revisionist historians fail to consider: African-Americans owned slaves, too. And a good deal of them, too.

There WAS black-on-black slavery. To deny that fact is to deny history, which leftists like Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are quite fond of doing - just as they are fond of blaming that sin on others.

They pounce on the slighetst speck in the eyes of those who disagree with them, but neglect to see the boulder in their own eyes. Perhaps it is that boulder that prevents them from realizing that (a) a great deal of African-Americans owned slaves, (b) Northerners owned slaves(c) African-Americans fought on the side of the Confederacy, and (d) Lincoln was a racist tyrant and NOT an abolitionist.

This article fails to account for or explain any of these four important and undeniable facts. But, hey, that's the way it is with Civil War revisionist historians. They just omit the facts which they find inconvenient to their argument. Pretend they don't exist, and maybe readers will forget. Well, this reader didn't - and this reader is sick and tired of revisionist history by America-hating morons.

Thank G-d, the horrid institution of slavery is long past us. Leftists would do well to stop harping on it as an excuse for affirmative action policies.

And if you ARE going to talk about history, then at least have the intellectual integrity to mention ALL the facts, not just those convenient to your argument. I found four omissions. Heaven knows how many others there are.

Read "Black Confederates," if - of course - you know how to read material that simply does not regurgitate your views. As a fair historian, you should learn to consider the positions of those who disagree with you - instead of dismissing and discrediing them as "racists" or "bigots."

I know, I know: Playing the race card is the last resort of a liberal, especially when the facts are not on his side.

I am not a racist because I understand that in the real world, skin color does not matter. Facts do.

And for all your whining, the facts simply don't match up.