Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields...": Altamont and the American Civil War

Yup, more on this flag...

A couple weeks ago, I put up a post about a flag flying at Manassas during the Sesquicentennial commemoration. It elicited a nice response from a friend of mine, Robby, who hails from the great state of North Carolina. Robby loves to play devil's advocate, so I'm always happy to wade further into a friendly conversation:

...When a historian is unable to understand the southern affinity for the men who fought the war, almost to a person you see the slavery straw man emerge. This action is akin to politicians playing the race card, an easy way out of a confusing and hyper complex situation. In the end, most will not understand the paradoxical nature of southern feelings about the war and its outcome. They will denigrate flags, passion, and the oft-mentioned heritage as hallmarks of a society still stuck in the throes of antebellum histrionics. This is a gross simplification cast as philosophical enlightenment that is in reality a lack of such. Group think feeds group think in the end.

OK, so here's the gist - slavery is at the core of the Confederate cause. It lies somewhere wedged in there wherever you look. It is the fundamental difference between the United States Constitution and the Constitution drawn up in Montgomery in 1861. It is Stephens' "Cornerstone." I take J.S. Mosby at his word in 1907 when he said: "The South went to war on account of slavery." Slavery is the heart of the Confederacy's philosophical reason for being.

Now, it is right that where it gets sticky is in the individual motivations. But here's my deal on that: that uniform is a real sticking point. The uniform of an enforcement officer, military or civilian, is a symbol. Put on a uniform and you are representing something. When a police officer puts on his uniform, he is no longer a citizen; he becomes the voice of the municipality he serves. When a soldier dons his uniform in a war zone like Afghanistan, he becomes the emissary and voice of the United States or Great Britain or wherever he is from. By donning that uniform, he either tacitly admits to agreeing with the policies of his nation or vows to hold his tongue to some greater or lesser extent while that uniform is on his back.

The Rolling Stones perform Sympathy for the Devil
at Altamont in 1969.
I liken it to putting on a Rolling Stones t-shirt. That set of lips and that tongue have a lot of baggage which donning that shirt conveys. That symbol says, at its base, "Goats Head Soup is a damned good album." But when you put on that shirt, you need to realize that somewhere, sometime, you are going to have to make peace with Altamont. If you put on that shirt entirely ignorant of the Hell's Angels and knives and pool cues, you nonetheless are making some minute statement about that violence by wearing those lips. By wearing the shirt you still telegraph a message. That means that if I were to ask you, "what do you think of Altamont?" the question would be both fair and germane.

The Confederate uniform, that grey or butternut tunic and pants that men wore; that Confederate (1st, 2nd, 3rd... take your pick) National Flag they carried; that rifle issued from the gates of the armories at Fayetteville or Richmond: all were potent symbols of a nation. Anyone carrying those hard iron symbols, wearing those wool symbols on their backs or marching under their symbolic cotton folds was becoming a voice of a nation through their action, regardless of their individual beliefs. Just as when seeing a set of lips on a t-shirt, it is a fair question to ask, "what do you think of Altamont?" when you see a historical figure in a gray uniform, it is a fair question to ask of them, "what did they think of slavery?" They have already opened themselves to the topic and started making a statement by their decision to put on that wool coat.

The Tongue and Lips first appeared on the album
Sticky Fingers, which featured the hit single Brown Sugar,
itself publicly debuted at Altamont in 1969.
When someone walks in front of me sporting a t-shirt with the classic Rolling Stones emblem emblazoned across their chest, I can ask them. They can answer. Soldiers of 150 years ago are another story. We need to use the evidence they gave us to give voice to their rotten throats and mouldering mouths. In the case of the flag of the 4th Alabama, we have a tangible symbol which the men left behind. They chose to represent themselves with that symbol, which helps to answer that simple question, "what do you think of slavery?" They have writ large their answer with a cotton bale and boll. They say with that flag that they valued the crops it yielded. They say with that flag that they valued the wealth and prosperity the institution brought their communities. They say with that flag that they valued slavery. They say with that flag that their cause was the property, "sold in a market down in New Orleans." It was why they fought.

So, what do I think of Altamont? That was some screwed up stuff, man. It never should have happened. It's really tough for me to listen to Under My Thumb now. The Stones' music isn't inherently violent. But the Angels and the crowd in 1969 were spoiling for a fight. Nothing could have stopped it, not even the entreaties of the Jester prancing across the stage. Altamont was an irrepressible conflict.


  1. I am not sure I see the connection between the Stones at Altamont and rebels soldiers and slavery. Is Altamont the cornerstone of the identity of the Rolling Stones the way slavery was for the Rebellion?

    Speaking of rebellions, did you know that George Lucas worked as a cameraman at Altamont for the great documentary _Gimme Shelter_?

  2. @Matt - not necessarily the cornerstone of the Stones, but certainly one of a couple cornerstones of youth culture which help redefine its meaning for the next decade. After the penultimate peaceful conglomeration of the 1960s youth culture that was Woodstock that August, Altamont is a bellweather, signaling the far more violent spite that characterized the anti-war movement and broader youth culture of the early 1970s (in my estimation).

    And cameraman one year, director of Robert Duvall two years later? That's a revolution. ;-) I hadn't realized how meteoric his rise was.

  3. How did I know that little Alec would come to the fore? Might as well throw some Charles Dew in there too. But in a way they help with part of my point. While Mosby may know that the Montgomery - Richmond govt went to war over slavery as a flashpoint issue, it does NOT explain motivations of the men we discuss on the fields. Why did Joe Byers or William Patterson sign up? What motivated both to charge toward cemetery ridge on July 3? What motivated them to live like rats in the trenches of Petersburg, long after the war was hopeless for their cause?

    Over simplification of history into good and bad is egregious and is anathema to the profession, yet that is what I see happening. The uniform and the flag are not blanket symbols except in the narrowest of minds, meaning those who do not know better or refuse to look deeper.

    Casting a moral argument is a dangerous practice. Casting all Confederates as immoral and those who study them as "lost causers" is failing to deal with the history in any meaningful way. In fact I would be willing to state that doing so is little less atrocious than the vitriol that the neo-Confederates spew.

    If history were simple then everyone would know it and if history were a simple morality tale then there would be no room for interpretation. A sad world indeed.

  4. There are two other intertwined issues I wish to address but my iPad is dying. Will return this evening to fight the good fight...

  5. John you say that these men have spoken through the letters and documents they left. we should remember that for each doc there are hundreds if not thousands of which nothing is left. For each Mosby or Stephens there are thousands of Byers and Pattersons.

    In this post slavery becomes the straw man by virtue of the absoluteness of the statement. It is cast as an either or choice with no room for interpretation. All bad or all good. Simple and clean. No room for further study. The premise fits a preconceived idea and anything else is following a false prophet.

    If the goal is to bring people to an understanding of the war, does it do us any good to vilify for the sake of some moral catharsis? Does it provide a comprehensive overview and or understanding? Or does it continue the divide in another era?

    In discussions like this I am often reminded of two things that seemingly are divergent. One is the Dunning School and how at one time that line of reasoning dominated Civil War historians. We now give it little credence, much like those in the distant future will give the dominate historical perspective from our time the same small footnote and wax about our lack of sophistication. The second is historicism/presentism. We often judge the past through the lens of the present and thus get a distorted view upon which we cast blame, guilt, and error. The past would not be the past if the actors of history believed what we do today.

  6. Historians are products of their time and place and there is no way around it, but to see slavery as central to causing the War is far from presentist. Most US soldiers were anything but racial egalitarians, yet in defeating the rebellion they helped free four million persons. Most rebel soldiers did not own slaves, yet they were fighting for a regime that sought to perpetuate slavery. Even if we take the post-War Stephens or Davis at face value and accept their argument that the conflict was more about divergent interpretations of the Constitution than it was about slavery, every man who took up arms against the government and served under the various rebel flags was guilty of treason. The fact that the Dunning interpretation held sway for so long, that monuments have been erected to a failed rebellion and the continued desire by some to pay homage to the losing side are some of the main reasons why I will never tire of studying, interpreting and teaching about the War and its legacy.

  7. Matt slavery is w/o a doubt the central issue in causing the war. No way around it. I actually accept the treason argument as being logical, though I'd argue many of it's merits, but the idea of the individual soldiers fighting for slavery is a presentist idea rooted in the 1960's. Undoubtedly there were many who did, but many more that did not. Even if in some logical quirk their society was a slave society, and it was, was that all they fought for?

    We revere the Revolution yet American victory left hundreds of thousands in slavery. The men who fought that conflict were traitors by the definitions we state above. Was Dan Morgan or Nathaneal Greene the previous generation's Thomas Jackson or RE Lee? Were they fighting to defend the status quo? Did they see encroaching govt as an evil? Of course the reprehensible institution was not forefront but many of the other ideas were. And in the end while we can look at this from the 21st century, in the mid 19th century the moral backlash was sectionalized and relatively new. When a group demands wholesale change and paints you and your neighbors as wrong, evil, etc, it inspires a powerful response. The avg southern soldier had some permutation of all of this in his heart just like the avg Revolution soldier did. I shall always denounce slavery In powerful tones, but shall not denounce the men who fought on those far flung fields. They did what they felt was correct, much like Sherman and Sheridan who made war on civilians- a situation in which they could be considered war criminals if we follow current sensibilities.

  8. Very interesting topic and loved reading the post as well as the comments to it. I won't ramble on in an effort to seem intellectual since I'd probably end up repeating everything already said, but I will say that this struck me on a personal level less so than an historical one. John, you know what I'm talking about. This certainly had me relating/connecting to the issue - being a federal employee, whenever I put on my ranger uniform, I am a representative of the federal government. I don't always agree with the policies, regulations, and procedures of that federal government I'm representing - John, you hear me complain often. But I still wear that ill-fitting and unflattering uniform (at least they're working on a new female uniform standard!), I still go to work everyday, I still do what I'm told, and I still take pride in the job that I do. Granted, I'm not constantly testing my morals like perhaps some of the Confederate soldiers were, but I can understand the concept and it's given me new insight.

    Definitely had me looking at things a different way for a while. I always love a good provoking question. Thank you John.

  9. Vanessa this is the fun part of history. We get to argue, fuss, and stomp, and in the end hopefully come to a deeper understanding. Very stimulating to say the least.

  10. Vanessa - your comments about wearing the uniform and representing the federal government really struck me. I try to use this idea every time I talk about Civil War soldiers(to some degree of varying success). What you said though, that no matter how much you complain about such and such at work, you still take pride in your work and go to work everyday really got me thinking. I'm guessing the reason you put up with all the B.S. is because you still believe in the U.S. government as a whole, and believe they do more good than bad.
    How can we apply that same line of thinking to Confederate soldiers? At some point in time, you have to come to terms with the fact, that everyone, by putting on that uniform, was fighting for slavery. Same way you carry all the baggage of the United States every time you put on your federal uniform.

  11. What I find interesting is that when we pull the books out of storage, somehow there's always a different perspective that comes to light no mattere how many times you've read a passage about something. That's just reflective of our own lives at that point.

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