Book Review of
Of Times and Race: Essays Inspired by John F. Marszalek
Ed. Michael B. Ballard and Mark R. Cheathem.
Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. 176 pp., hardback, $55.00.
by Bernard von Bothmer
Review published in Civil War History (December 2014)
Of Times and Race: Essays Inspired by John F. Marszalek was written in honor of the William L. Giles Distinguished Professor History Emeritus at Mississippi State University. The authors received their Ph.D.’s under Marszalek, whom they admiringly refer to in their preface as “the cheerful assassin” (p. ix).
Mark. R. Cheathem begins this volume with the debt-plagued life of planter, businessman, civic leader, diplomat, politician and 1856 American Party vice-presidential nominee Andrew Jackson Donelson. His uncle, President Jackson, who raised him after his father’s death, was “the model that Donelson would try to emulate” (p. 7) regarding slavery, central to his life-long ambitions. Through Donelson’s various life-struggles we gain insight into American expansion; white justification of slavery; the secession movement; slave life; and how the war impacted the southern planter class.
Thomas D. Cockrell’s chapter studies Mississippi unionists, many of whom feared losing their slaves should the North prevail in the war but who, especially outspoken clergymen, also feared for their safety from their fellow citizens, and thus often “chose to remain silent or reluctantly gave in” (p. 34). Some unionists joined the northern army (including 25,000 African-Americans); others became spies. Their lack of unity frustrated Lincoln’s dream of using them effectively.
Stephen S. Michot examines African-American fighters, some of whom were slaveholders, in the Lafourche region of Louisiana, “perhaps the first official … black union troops in a Civil War military operation” (p. 59) (preceding the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth celebrated in Glory). Michot describes the abuse, and danger, they endured from their fellow white soldiers. Blacks “experienced a range of bondage and freedom over the span of the Civil war,” and “witnessed the war as both civilian and soldier” (p. 66).
The relationship between Union soldiers and southern African-Americans at Vicksburg was complex, Michael B. Ballard explains, and “certainly evolved, but with many nuances” (p. 69). Each initially viewed the other with bewilderment. Union soldiers, fighting primarily to save the Union, were not pleased with the Emancipation Proclamation, though many were appalled by the poor condition of southern blacks and the actions of slaveholders, who often classified their half-black children as slaves. Yet Union soldier “violent bigotry” (p. 81) predominated—military leaders even “re-enslaved blacks to harvest cotton” (p. 76)—and thus “emancipation did not mean freedom” (p. 86).
Moving to the twentieth century, Horace Nash’s research on New Mexico’s black boxers around World War One, many of whom were veterans, shows the potential of athletics to soothe racial divisions. Competing in front of large interracial crowds, black athletic achievements became a source of pride to the minority community. Timothy B. Smith recounts the struggles of some of the 30,000 African-American World War One veterans who, as a result of the “bonus Army,” joined the CCC during the 1930s. He examines black life at Shiloh National Military Park at two segregated camps, where blacks worked (to the dismay of local residents) and endured “the racism that existed in … many New Deal agencies” (p. 122).
Revisionist historians Francis Butler Simkins and Robert Hilliard Woody’s challenge to the Dunning School is the subject of James Scott Humphreys’ research. South Carolina During Reconstruction, which won a major prize from the AHA in 1932, recounted the many progressive success of the post-war era, especially in education, black religious culture, and voting policies, but also emphasized the period’s corruption, inefficiencies, and what they saw as the decline in black health. Though the book “revealed hints of the Dunning school,” it was groundbreaking in its objectivity and in demonstrating how revolutionary Reconstruction was. In “Confronting Race in American History,” Edna Greene Medford concludes with an eloquent overview of African-American history and a thoughtful summary of the entries, works that “confirm the complexity of race as a central factor in our history” (p. 157).
This remarkably thoughtful book has much to teach a new generation of American historians of the Civil War, and would be a welcome addition to any course syllabus.