Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

FILE -- The Confederate battle flag flies near the South Carolina State Capitol building in Columbia in this file framegrab.

Over the past few days it has been stated repeatedly that the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds because it’s a racist symbol – no matter what its advocates claim – because “perception is reality.”

Certainly the Confederate battle flag was misappropriated in the 1950s and ‘60s by groups opposed to the Civil Rights movement. That these groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, also made ample use of the Stars and Stripes, seems to be of small concern to those who would like to see the Confederate flag placed in a museum.

While there’s plenty of room for debate about the role of the Confederate flag in public life, if the basis for one’s arguments includes “perception is reality,” then one is starting from a position of weakness.

History has shown that the idea that perception can be both erroneous and damaging.

Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enforced in part because blacks were perceived by many as being inferior to whites. Most ex-slaves, thanks to law and/or custom, had never been taught to read or write. They were therefore perceived as being less intelligent than whites, even though the playing field was never close to being level.

This perception continues to hold currency even today among some, who mistakenly believe that blacks as a group don’t have the capacity to keep pace with whites and some other ethnic groups, while overlooking the fact that in many areas where African-Americans make up a significant percentage of the population substandard schooling and a history of state indifference to education are the real culprits.

Along those same lines, blacks were perceived well into the 20th century as lacking the educational skills necessary for college. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, only about 10,000 American blacks – one in 1,000 – were college educated, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Today, more than 4.5 million blacks hold a four-year college degree.

Consider also that blacks who volunteered or were drafted into the US military were discriminated against for many decades because of the perception that they were suited only for “heavy lifting” rather than positions that relied on brainpower.

At the outset of the Civil War, neither free blacks nor escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. The prevailing view among Union officers was that the black man lacked mental ability, discipline and courage, and could never be trained to fight like the white soldier. It would take the better part of two years before white military leaders, desperate for troops, consented to the use of black soldiers, enabling this error to be disproved.

Up into World War I, black troops were often given thankless tasks that white soldiers sought to avoid and racial segregation in the US military remained in place until after World War II.

During the latter conflict, the Navy assigned most who did enlist to mess duty and the Marines barred blacks entirely until 1942. The military as a whole held to the “perception” that blacks weren’t as good at “soldiering” as whites.

Continue reading

The odd case of the Confederates who came in from the cold

prisoners

It’s not unheard of for the soldiers of defeated nations to continue fighting on, sometimes for years or even decades.

Usually, as in the case of Japanese troops who held out in the Pacific following World War II, such men are isolated and completely cut off from the rest of the world. They’re either unaware the war is over, or unwilling to accept the conflict’s conclusion.

Sometimes, however, reports of such incidents raise red flags.

Consider a story that first appeared in the Petersburg (Va.) Index on Aug. 15, 1866, and was reprinted in other publications, including the Chicago Tribune, in the following days.

Under the headline “The Last of the Rebel Army,” and the subhead, “Four Rebel Soldiers Surrender – They Have Just Found Out the War is Over,” the Index detailed a report that four Confederate soldiers had just turned themselves in to Federal authorities on Aug. 14, 1866, nearly 1-1/2 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox and nearly 15 months after the last Confederate army had capitulated.

According to the report, Anthony Monkas, Thomas Wells and James Brinberter, all of Co. E, 52nd Georgia Infantry Regiment, and Allan Tewksbury of the 43rd Louisiana Infantry Regiment, all members of the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered after holding out along the Appomattox River since the first half of 1865.

According to the story, Tewksbury told Federal authorities that following the Confederate evacuation of Petersburg in the spring of 1865 he and his contingent stopped on the Appomattox, about seven miles above the city, to rest.

Realizing they were cut off, they made a vow to hold their ground and “never go home or give up until the Confederacy was completely annihilated,” according to the article in the Chicago Tribune.

They fashioned an abode on the banks of the river and lived off fish and game, and roasted ears of corn taken from nearby fields, along with the occasional pig they captured.

In the summer of 1866, “… hearing from an old negro man that the Confederacy was undoubtedly ‘gone up,’ they concluded to quit their barbarian life and surrender,” according to the report.

Continue reading

Why one 19th century SC paper urged readers to vote for blacks

Orangeburg County Courthouse

There is no doubt that judging the past by present standards is often poor practice with regard to history.

While many actions of the past were wrong then and remain wrong today, others that we consider egregious today weren’t so clear cut when they occurred.

And sometimes there are cases where historical figures do, more or less, the right thing, but for the wrong reason.

As the mid-term election of 1886 rolled around, Reconstruction in South Carolina had been over for a full decade. However, Democrats, who had “redeemed” the state from Radical Republicans 10 years earlier, weren’t taking any chances. Elections were still spirited affairs, rather than the perfunctory events that they would later become once Democrats had fully consolidated their hold on power in the state.

In 1886, South Carolina had one black congressman, Civil War hero Robert Smalls, and would send two more to Washington before the end of the century. All were Republicans.

While anti-black sentiment among whites in the state had not yet hardened into what it would become under Gov. Ben Tillman’s racially divisive policy, ex-slaves and their descendants were undoubtedly considered second class citizens by both white elites and non-elites.

Still, as the 1886 election neared, at least one South Carolina newspaper urged voters to put prejudice aside and vote a straight-Democrat ticket, even though the ballot contained two black candidates.

The Orangeburg Times and Democrat wrote in a Sept. 30, 1886, editorial that democrats needed to place party first:

We hear a great many men say that they will not vote for a negro for office if put on the Democratic ticket. Without stopping to discuss the propriety of the action of the convention in deciding to put two negros on the ticket, we emphatically say that it is the duty of the Democrats of the County to vote for the entire ticket as nominated by the primary, negro and all. The very life of the party itself depends upon its purity and a strict enforcement of the rules and regulations, and a rigid and uncompromising discipline. One who obeys the party mandates, and supports the nominated ticket, regardless of his personal objections or animosities for those who compose it, deserve party confidence and can alone be trusted to keep up and preserve the organization. When the action of the party convention is rebelled against, and the ticket scratched or openly opposed, it will not be long before the party itself will go to pieces. Our advice to all Democrats is to vote the ticket straight, whether the ticket as a whole suits their views or not. In this way alone can the unity and ascendancy of the Democratic party be maintained.

The piece was signed by J.L. Sims, editor and owner of the publication.

It should be noted that 19th century American newspapers were often mouthpieces for one political party or the other. That the Times and Democrat urged its readers to vote a straight Democrat ticket likely wasn’t unusual.

Any credit Sims might have gotten for urging readers to vote for the two blacks on the Democratic ballot was greatly diminished by his second sentence, in which he essentially calls into question the S.C. Democratic Convention’s decision to include two African-American candidates on the ticket.

It’s unclear who the two candidates in question were or how they fared in the Nov. 2, 1886, election.

What is clear from South Carolina history is that as time went on and segregation became entrenched in all aspects of life, there would be little reason for editors such as Sims to urge voters to cast ballots for blacks on the Democratic ticket.

The powers that be made certain such episodes didn’t happen again.

(Top: Old postcard showing Orangeburg (SC) County Courthouse, built in 1875. It served the county until 1928.)

Doctor’s role in reviving SC rice industry highlighted

carolina gold rice

Dr. Richard Schulze Sr. had predatory rather than culinary goals in mind when he planted Carolina Gold rice in the mid-1980s.

The Savannah eye surgeon was looking to attract ducks to his Turnbridge Plantation in Hardeeville, SC, about 30 miles northeast of Hilton Head, for hunting, according to the Savannah Morning News.

The birds didn’t much cotton to the long-grain rice, but chefs and rice connoisseurs shortly began to take notice.

Today, Carolina Gold rice is essentially the basis for the U.S. rice industry, no mean feat considering that virtually no one had grown rice in the South Carolina Lowcountry in the previous 60 years before Schulze’s efforts.

Initially, Schulze started by planting regular rice on his plantation. He then decided to switch to Carolina Gold, known as the Cadillac of rice for its taste and quality. The lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia was known for its high-quality Carolina Gold rice prior to 1900, particularly before the War Between the States.

“Well, I figured if we’re going to do rice, why not get the original stuff,” he told the Morning News.

Schulze requested Carolina Gold from the USA Rice Council, and was redirected to a rice research scientist with the US Department of Agriculture in Texas.

He was able to secure 14 pounds of Carolina Gold seed, which he planted in 1986.

Schulze faced the additional obstacle of hulling the seed. Sending rice out of state for milling and then having it sent back was impractical.

Continue reading

Last Union officer killed in Civil War shot by 14-year-old boy

boykin-mill-monument

The purported last Union officer killed in the War Between the States was a product of Harvard, shot down by a 14-year-old member of the Confederate home guard more than a week after Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.

Edward Lewis Stevens, Harvard Class of 1863, had enlisted as a private in the 44th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment on Sept. 12, 1862. The Brighton, Mass., native was 20 years old when he joined up.

He was later commissioned an officer in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the first official African-American units and the subject of the 1989 film Glory.

Stevens was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the 54th in April 1864, nearly a year after the regiment had attempted to take Fort Wagner near Charleston, SC, where Col. Robert Gould Shaw and 280 other members of the unit were killed, wounded or listed as missing in action.

Stevens was promoted to 1st lieutenant in December 1864 and as the war would down, the 54th and other Federal troops found themselves back in South Carolina.

The 54th Massachusetts arrived in South Carolina on April 1, 1865, landing at Georgetown, between Charleston and Wilmington, NC, from Savannah, Ga.

The unit was one of six infantry regiments operating under Maj. Gen. Edward E. Potter, with the 54th contributing 700 officers and enlisted men to Potter’s 2,700-man force.

By April 18, 1865, Potter was in Camden, a medium-sized affluent community a little more than 100 miles northeast of Georgetown. That morning, Potter left Camden and headed south. They had traveled 10 miles on the Stateburg Road and encountered no opposition until they reached a fortified Confederate position at Boykin’s Mill.

Boykin’s Mill was little more than a grist mill, church and small collection of homes, but its defense were enhanced by the presence of a millpond, along with streams and a swamp.

Continue reading

Manassas: Erecting monuments to the dead 150 years ago

Manassas monument a

Among the more curious aspects of the Manassas National Battlefield Park is the presence of one of the first monuments erected in recognition of men who died during the War Between the States.

Located just behind the Henry House is a 20-foot-tall obelisk, topped by a granite block and a 200-pound artillery shell. The block obelisk sits on three levels of granite which extend out and feature three smaller granite blocks at each corner, all topped by 200-pound artillery shells (see above).

On one face of the marker written in decidedly simplistic lettering are the words “In Memory of the Patriots who fell at Bull Run July 21, 1861”.

Designed by 2nd Lt. James McCallum of the 16th Battery, Massachusetts Light Artillery, and built by men from the 5th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery, the monument was dedicated on June 11, 1865, two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, a month after Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured in Georgia and two weeks before the last significant Southern force, under Brig. Gen. Stand Watie, laid down its arms.

On the same day, Federal forces erected a second monument nearby to Union soldiers who fell during the Battle of Second Manassas (or Second Bull Run), fought Aug. 28-30, 1862.

Several thousand Union soldiers were on hand for the unveiling of the monuments in June 1865, including Maj. Gen. Henry W. Benham, Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman, Maj. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, Brig. Gen. John F. Farnsworth, Brig. Gen. William Gamble, Brig. Gen. John P. Slough and Brig. Gen. Orlando B. Willcox.

While the monuments were erected before the war was officially over, they weren’t the first to be raised on the Manassas battlefield.

Continue reading

Georgetown County Courthouse an antebellum ornament

georgetown-court-house

As South Carolina’s third-oldest city, Georgetown bristles with history, from the famed Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church to the Old Market Building to Mansfield Plantation.

It’s fitting then that critical Georgetown County matters are still settled in a nearly 200-year-old courthouse that was designed by the state’s most famous architect.

The Georgetown County Courthouse, drawn up by South Carolina native Robert Mills, the man who also designed the Washington Monument, was built in 1823-1824 for approximately $12,000.

Designed in a Classical Revival style, the structure replaced a previous courthouse that had been damaged by two destructive hurricanes.

Until about four years ago, the structure had continued to serve as the judicial hub for the county, despite being outdated in a number of respects.

Mrs. Cotton Boll, a South Carolina attorney, recalled being involved in a case in the antiquated edifice approximately eight years ago in the middle of a sweltering summer day when the judge stopped the proceedings in order to remove his robe. Fortunately, he was appropriately clothed beneath his judicial garb.

For the past few years, the courthouse has been undergoing an extensive renovation, receiving new carpet and paint throughout, having its ceiling and ductwork replaced, being rewired, and having its heating and cooling system updated.

Robert Mills, famed 19th century architect.

Robert Mills, famed 19th century architect.

While the county’s courts have been relocated to a new judicial center, County Council will still meet in the venerable building, as will aspects of the county’s public services department.

Mills (1781-1855) left his mark not only across South Carolina, but all along the East Coast.

Besides designing the Washington Monument, he also assisted James Hoban with the construction of the White House.

Mills also drew up plans for the Department of Treasury building, the US Patent Office Building and the General Post Office in Washington, and courthouses in at least 18 South Carolina counties, several of which survive.

Other Mills’ structures can be found in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, New Bedford and Newburyport, Mass., and Richmond, Va., where he designed the White House of the Confederacy, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis lived during the War Between the States.