Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet Ann Banks' Confederates in My Closet blog brought to you by History News Network. Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( How I got into This For decades I harbored in the back of my office closet an archive I inherited from my father’s Alabama kin.  Wills bequeathing family oil portraits; yellowed newspaper clippings about antebellum homes-turned-museums; hand-drawn genealogical charts, held together with rusty paper clips, tracing my connection to high-profile Confederates from Gen. George Pickett to L.P. Walker, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy. I nicknamed this trove “The Pile” and for years I kept it in quarantine.  If these bits and pieces told a story, I wasn’t ready to hear it. 

The idea that facing history is a path to justice has been advanced by Black thinkers from James Baldwin to Ta-Nehisi Coates to Bryan Stevenson. For a long while I resisted it, at least when it came to my own family.  For a long while I believed that the Civil War was over.  I knew it had a huge fan base – from the hobbyists who reenact favorite battles to history buffs who debate the fine points of military strategy. When I encountered members of these fervent and possessed subcultures on the Internet, I always felt like I was walking along the edge of a tar pit.   I didn’t want to get too close.

Then, after the 2016 election, the Civil War came for me, and there was nothing quaint about it.  As a reinvigorated white supremacy began sweeping the country, I knew it was time to take the Confederates out of the closet.

For many white Americans the murder of George Floyd was the moment when they could no longer look away from the pervasive racism all around them.  It stirred widespread protests and has led to everything from the toppling of bronze Confederate generals to the stripping of Confederate names from American military bases.  These blows against the continuing veneration of the Confederacy inspired me to hope that such actions were only the beginning.

That optimism was severely jolted on January 6th, when rioters brandished the Confederate battle flag -- that most potent of racist symbols -- in the halls of the United States Capitol they had just trashed.  Defeated and delusional, these marauders summoned thoughts of their predecessors, the true believers after the Civil War, for whom it was an article of faith that the South would rise again.

The pro-Confederate Lost Cause narrative was a wildly successful propaganda campaign to portray the South as the War’s moral victors.  This white supremacist myth has flourished for more than 150 years, one family story at a time. In Confederates in My Closet, I challenge those stories in my own family – and in myself.   These are stories of a past that is not past. The contested history they evoke underlies the political battles we are living through right now. Facing this history is one path to a more just society. That is what I hope.


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
How I got into This, part 2 - a personal note I’m descended from Southerners only on my father’s side of the family -- though that side includes some high-profile Confederate skeletons (Gen. George Pickett, most famously.)   I don’t remember my father professing affection for the Deep South way of life – he left it for a career in the military.  The U.S. Army was the culture I grew up in.  Col. Banks didn't care if my sister and I knew all the words to “Dixie” (though we did) but we had better be able to sing “The Artillery Song” upon command.   So, although the Army posts where we lived  were mostly in the South, we were never explicitly  indoctrinated in the creed of the Lost Cause, with its fierce nostalgia for the antebellum “way of life.”  Yet looking back, I am shocked at how much of it we breathed in anyway.  Valued heirlooms, dyed-in-the-wool Southern aunts, and, of course, stories.

A foot-tall stack of paper — The Pile — sat waiting for me in my office closet for many years.  These documents are the family archives and they came down to me along with my grandmother’s silver.  For the longest time I was allergic to these papers. They scared me, really and past they tied me to didn’t feel like mine.  When you reinvent yourself every three years, as Army kids can and must do, forbears lack importance.  Your status is defined by your daddy’s rank; no one knows or cares who your people are.   

So The Pile remained untouched over the years for a reason -- or for many reasons.   But after 2016, I could no longer ignore it.  I began to poke at the archive tentatively, pulling out a few pages to examine. 

Right away I extracted: 

A 1963 newspaper story about an event that took place in 1791, headlined “Col. Alston Shot Dead in Bed in Georgia.” 

An advertising circular announcing “Your only invitation to own a numbered, authentic and authorized exact replica of the Great Seal of the Confederacy in sterling silver,” including an invitation to become a charter member of The Society of the Confederacy.  

A hand-written document, its pages held together with rusty paper clips detailing the disposition of Pickett family portraits: “Clarice to Lizzie Banks and Eliza the following portraits:  I William Raiford Pickett; II Francis Dickson Pickett; III Eliza Goddard Whitman.” 

A pair of newspaper feature stories about historic houses owned by ancestors that have been turned into museums, one in Montgomery, Alabama; another a Revolutionary War era plantation in Moore County, North Carolina.  

Three pages in tiny print titled “More about Banks lineage,” from which I learned for the first time that my father was the fourth Richard Griffin Banks, and that his great-grandfather was a Confederate surgeon.  Looking up that Dr. Banks in census records, I learned that in 1840 his Virginia household had included 7 slaves.  

There are many kinds of not knowing.  There is knowing and then forgetting.   There is knowing but failing to imagine.  And then there is just looking away.  These were all ways I did not know the stories that make up my paternal family history, populated with slaveholders and Confederate generals.  The stories have been there all along, waiting for me to be willing to know them.


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
The Cult of the Lost Cause and the Invention of General Pickett George Pickett – Major General George E. Pickett – was our family’s marquee Confederate relation, distant cousin though he was.  Every schoolchild in America has heard of him, thanks to the ill-fated infantry charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.  For a long time what I knew about him was pretty much what everyone learned in 8th grade: Pickett’s failed charge, on July 3rd, 1863, was the turning point, the moment when the Confederates started to lose.    

The War, that is.  In the peacetime that followed, victory went to the South.   Defeated in battle, the Confederates and their descendants proved themselves unequaled in myth-making, casting their catastrophe at Gettysburg as an exhibition of individual gallantry and high glory, undertaken in a great but lost cause.  

These propagandists maintained (and still maintain) that the Civil War was never about upholding slavery. Instead, in this counter-narrative, the Confederate rebels were waging an honorable fight to protect and preserve the Southern way of life against Northern aggression.  In the national imagination, Pickett’s Charge became the touchstone for all that was brave and noble and unflinching about the Confederate spirit.

How did this happen?  Aren’t the victors supposed to write the history books?  Yes, but after the Rebel army surrendered at Appomattox, another more formidable force took the field.  It was composed largely of women. The Ladies Memorial Associations of the immediate postwar period morphed into the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894. 

The  objective of the “Daughters” was to promote a whitewashed – and white supremacist – interpretation of “the late unpleasantness.” Their weapons were reunions, speeches, monuments, medal-awarding, proclamations, quasi-religious rituals such as wreath-laying ceremonies and, especially, promoting textbooks whose purpose was to teach the “true history” of the antebellum South to future generations. 


The United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters, in Richmond, Virginia, was set on fire and covered in graffiti during the protests in late May, 2020.


The playbook for these activities originated with the honorary president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy – none other than General Pickett’s third wife, the indefatigable LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett.  Like Pickett himself, Sallie was a child of Virginia aristocracy, and after his death, she devoted her lengthy widowhood to glorifying her late husband’s reputation, and to propagating the myth of the Lost Cause. She insisted on his heroism, patriotism and historical importance – once describing Pickett’s Charge as “one of those deeds of arms that are immortal with its imperishable glory, overshadowing all other events in martial history . . .”


George & LaSalle Pickett


After her husband died, Sallie succeeded in reinventing herself as a professional Confederate widow, a popular writer, speaker and champion of the Old South. She attended veteran reunions, parades and monument dedications, signing autographs and becoming so popular that she was known as Mother Pickett. 

In lectures to Northern audiences, Sallie told many a story of happy and contented slaves.  As she once insisted:  “There was no word held in more reverential love and fear by the faithful Southern slave than the one word ‘Master.’ (Kunno Sperits and Others, 1900)   On stage she famously performed what she insisted was “phonetically  genuine” slave dialect, carefully recorded by herself. 

The stories she told about her husband were no more credible than the slave dialect.  As one writer observed, Sallie Pickett’s postbellum career as a writer and Lost Cause icon “was marked by a curious admixture of charlatanry and self-delusion.”  She faked an entire set of wartime correspondence from her husband, and published it in The Heart of a Soldier, as Revealed in the Intimate Letters of General George E. Pickett, CSA.  She even forged a letter from Abraham Lincoln singing the General’s praises. 

Sallie Pickett was also hiding another secret. Her husband had lived with a Native American woman and had a son by him. With her counterfeit archives and her tireless proselytizing, she built a framework on which later popularizers of the Civil War could drape their sanitized portrayals.  


Historian Gary W. Gallagher established that Sallie Pickett invented these letters from her husband.

And so they have.  Sallie Pickett’s tall tales of the Lost Cause live on in some of the most popular modern accounts of the Civil War.  Her fabricated letters from her husband are still in print and are still widely cited.  Shockingly, they have served as a primary source for mainstream presentations of the Civil War – everything from Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Killer Angels, to the book’s movie adaptation Gettysburg, to Ken Burns’ epic public television documentary, The Civil War. (The Public Television website accompanying the Civil War documentary asserts, without attribution, that Pickett accepted a commission in the Confederate Army “despite his personal dislike of slavery.”)



Just as Sallie Pickett would have wished, Michael Shaara depicts General Pickett as the archetypal Southern cavalier.  (It came as no surprise to learn that the Pickett Society has erected a bench in Shaara’s  honor at Gettysburg.)  The novel lays it on thick.  I remember listening to the audio version and feeling beguiled by Shaara’s descriptions of Pickett’s “lusty exuberance.”

The general is “gaudy and lovable, longhaired, perfumed,” as he rides “bronze curled and lovely, regal and gorgeous on a stately mount.”  From a distance he looks “like a French king, all curls and feathers.”  Hopping out of the saddle sets his “ringlets aflutter.”  Oh those curls!   William Faulkner fell for them even before Shaara took notice.  In a famous passage of Intruder in the Dust, Faulkner describes Pickett with his “long oiled curls” in the moments just before the charge.



Shortly after this moment, following orders from Robert E. Lee, the flamboyant general sent his men across an open field straight into a hellish cannonade and volleys of rifle fire from the waiting Union forces.  Half of Pickett’s men were killed, wounded or captured on the spot.  Following the battle, Pickett wrote a bitter, finger-pointing after-action report that Lee then suppressed on the grounds of maintaining morale. 

A little more than six months later, the despondent Pickett, now in command of troops in North Carolina, ordered the hanging of 22 captured Union soldiers, POWs who were accused of having deserted from the Confederate Army.  After the war, he narrowly escaped a war crimes trial when Ulysses S. Grant wrote an equivocal but ultimately effective letter in his support.

Pickett was no longer the “permanent boy,” (as Michael Shaara describes him). He retreated to Norfolk, Virginia, where he tried to support his family selling insurance.  He died at age 50 of a liver abscess, a defeated man.  Sallie Pickett, who was only 32 at the time of his death, set out to rehabilitate her late husband’s reputation, casting him as the embodiment of all that was moral and superior about the Old South. 

She had more than 50 years in which to do it – and that turned out to be plenty of time.  We are still living with the bitter consequences of her revisionist narrative today.  

As for the Daughters of the Confederacy, they are still much in the news. Starting in the 1890s, their campaign to glorify the mystique of the Lost Cause has involved erecting some 700 Confederate memorials, including the statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback that occasioned the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, 2017.   

At that time, the Daughters of the Confederacy released a statement expressing their dismay that hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own:  “We are descendants of Confederate soldiers, sailors and patriots.  Our members are the ones who have spent 123 years honoring their memory with various activities in the fields of education, history and charity, promoting patriotism and good citizenship.  Our members are the ones who, like our statues, have stayed quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy.”

Contrary to the Daughters’ press release, the Confederate statues do speak, loudly enough to send a message of white supremacy to all who pass by.  As Mayor Mitch Landrieu observed in his powerful speech on the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans, “there is a difference. . . between remembrance of history and the reverence of it.”  The Cult of the Lost Cause, he said, “had one goal and one goal only: through monuments and through other means to rewrite history, to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
The Mystery of the Great Seal

A number of unsolved mysteries surround my father’s copy of the Great Seal of the Confederacy.


This is the story I remember being told as a  child:  At the time of the Civil War, there was cast in solid gold a Great Seal of the Confederate States of America.  Toward the end of the war, to keep the seal from falling into the hands of Yankees, it was buried somewhere in Virginia.  Somehow its location was lost and the Great Seal has never yet been found (though many holes have been dug in search of it.)  At the time it was cast, however, four smaller replicas of the seal were made, also of gold. One of these replicas was handed down in my family until it came to my father.

This is the first version.

Our family did possess a copy of the Confederate seal; it had pride of place on our coffee table as we moved from one Army post to the next. I have extracted it from the Pile and it presently resides on my desk. The seal itself is a little more than 3 inches across, embossed with the image of George Washington on horseback, surrounded by a wreath made of wheat, sugar cane and other produce of the South. Along the base of the seal is the motto of the Confederate States: “Deo Vindice.”

If you ever doubt that the passions that inflamed the Confederacy are still alive, try Googling the translation of “Deo Vindice.” Google Translate renders it literally as “vengeful god.” Wikipedia suggests a few variations – while noting dryly that “the translation is open to some interpretation.”

A classics professor explains on his blog why he comes down on the side of "God as punisher.” The professor is then administered a sound thrashing by a Son of Confederate Veterans who demonstrates an impressive (to me, anyway) command of Latin grammar. He references a construction “known as the ‘ablative absolute’ to everyone who has ever studied even basic Latin” and, pursuing a circuitous route through a forest of Latin tenses and conjugations, concludes that the correct translation is “With God as [our] Champion.”

I have separated the seal from its protective glass bubble and frame; it’s now a naked disk. When I turn it over there on the back side is evidence of another story, another mystery: four black dots, unmistakably cigarette burns. This happened at one of my parents’ parties, when, I was told, a guest mistook the seal for an ashtray. This explanation is a little hard to credit since my parents had ashtrays the size of birdbaths on every surface. On the other hand, these were hard-drinking Army people, so who knows? I was in high school and by this time had come to detest the family Confederate relic. When I learned of its desecration, my reaction was to smirk.


Cigarette burns on the back of the seal.


Years later I began to come across shreds of information that cast doubt on the origin of our heirloom. (Of course I could have been, and probably was, misremembering the family story, given its fairytale-like details.) The original Great Seal of the Confederacy was made not of gold, but of silver. And according to the account of a Mrs. Bromwell, it was not buried somewhere in Virginia; she smuggled it out of Richmond under the nose of the Yankees, hidden in her bustle.

About those four rare and precious copies of the seal, one of which has come down to me? Looking into this, I encounter the name of Colonel John T. Pickett (not even a distant relation of my family Picketts as far as I can tell). After the Civil War, he became a dealer in Confederate “curios and records.” Twice he tried to hustle four trunks of Confederate states records to the federal government for the asking price of a half-million dollars.

In 1872, John Pickett published a self-pitying statement in the New York Times, declaring himself still loyal to the Lost Cause and complaining that “the conqueror stripped me of every dollar, consigning my children to the verge of want and degradation and consigning me to insignificance and endless toil.”

The Colonel also got his hands on the Great Seal itself and ordered up 1,000 electroplate copies in gold, silver and copper. These were to be sold across the South as souvenirs, the proceeds intended to go to widows and orphans.

So, my seal: not so rare, after all.

This is the second version.

It is the version I am prepared to believe. It suits my debunking temperament; it strikes another blow against the loathed heirloom; and in my mind it undercuts my family’s special connection to the Confederacy, if the seal is merely a plated-tin souvenir sold by the hundreds.

However, I also have in my possession, extracted from The Pile, a newspaper clipping that bears witness to yet another version of the story of the seal. It is a half-page article cut from the Gainesville Daily Sun in 1951. The headline: “Local Man owns rare Confederate medallion presented to his father by President Jefferson Davis.” Written by the Society Editor, the story begins, “A gold replica of the original seal of the Confederate States of America is here in Gainesville.” According to the article, this copy of the seal is one of “three or four such medallions in existence.”

Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, presented the seal at a reunion of Confederate veterans to one C.J. Harris, who served in the Civil War under General Longstreet. It came down in the Harris family to a Charlie J. Harris, the man who was interviewed by the society editor. (In another apocryphal story, a man named James Jones, who was enslaved by Jefferson Davis, claimed Davis gave him the seal and instructed him to bury it, which he did, taking the secret of its location with him to the grave.)

If the story in the Gainesville Sun is true, there are several reasons to think that it might refer to my copy of the seal: my Aunt May was a Harris, she lived in Florida, and I believe she might have been the one who gave my father the seal. Also someone in my family kept a copy of the article, so it must have had some personal meaning. Against this theory is the absence in my ancestor files of any of the supporting documents Mr. Harris told the reporter he possessed.

This version of the story should be easy enough to check. I could go straight to a dealer in Confederate memorabilia to have the seal appraised. Instead I call Robert Hancock, the Director of Collections at the Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia. He confirms for me that the original of the seal is not buried in some forgotten spot in the sandy loam around Richmond, but is part of the Museum collections, where it has been on continuous display for over a hundred years.

The only copies he knows of are the souvenir replicas Col. Pickett had made in 1873. He doesn’t know how many are still in existence, but more than four. “Every year,” he says, “I get three or four calls from people who say they have the Great Seal of the Confederacy. I tell them, ‘No, you have a copy of a copy of the Great Seal.” He suspects, as I do, that those Confederate widows and orphans never saw a penny of the proceeds. He has no clue about the advertising circular I found in the Pile peddling replicas of the Seal – nor has he ever heard of an organization called The Society of the Confederacy.

After this conversation, I’m happy to have a few more inaccurate details scraped away from the family story.  But in the end I decide that it doesn’t make any difference whether the seal on my desk is one of four or one of a thousand; or whether it’s made of solid gold, plated-tin or marzipan – it nevertheless stands for the same hateful beliefs.


This 1951 Gainesville Sun story tells another story about the Seal.

There lurks another, more uncomfortable question about the family heirloom.  Why did my father keep it prominently on display all those years?  It couldn't have been just to mollify my Aunt May, staunch Daughter of the Confederacy though she was.  The seal remained on our coffee table even when Aunt May was three states away.

I never knew my father to express support of the Confederacy; the opposite, in fact. In joining the Army he’d distanced himself from his Alabama roots and the closed society of the Old South.  Yet he obviously treasured our Civil War relic.  Why?  What did it mean to him? We were nomads, in the way of Army families, and we, his children, didn’t belong anywhere.  But he did.  Through our many moves, did he cherish owning a valuable reminder of his ancestors?  Did he like looking at the seal and remembering that he was descended from Rebel generals and plantation aristocrats?

For me, that is the real mystery of the seal.



Read more about this topic on the Confederates In My Closet website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
John Brown’s Body Who taught me “John Brown’s Body?”  I don’t remember but I loved to sing it.  I had no idea who John Brown was or what the song was about but I was drawn to it partly for it macabre ghoulishness – a body moldering in the grave! – and partly because it was forbidden around my house.  When my Aunt May was coming to visit – and it seemed she was always coming to visit – I was not to sing that song.  Or even to hum it.   This wasn’t the only thing I was supposed to remember when Aunt May came over.

May was my father’s much older half-sister – the picture of a Southern dowager.  She had powdery pink cheeks and swirl of white hair piled on top of her head, every strand sprayed firmly in place.  With her strong gardenia perfume and her swooping Tidewater accent, she filled every room she entered.  She had strict notions of decorum that I did not care to have applied to me. I always hoped to escape her notice and mostly I succeeded.  But my father was constantly on the lookout lest my behavior offend her.  

It’s not surprising that May would likely have been affronted to hear a member of her family singing “John Brown’s Body.”  The song was written to commemorate Brown’s famous raid  at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on a mission to take over the U.S. Arsenal and initiate a slave revolt.



The raid failed, as it was bound to.  Brown was captured by the U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, and hanged by the state of Virginia in 1859.  On the day of his hanging, he wrote, “I . . . am, now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”* Three years later the country was at war and the Union Army was marching through the streets of Boston singing “John Brown’s Body” – by then something of an abolitionist anthem.   

What to think about John Brown?  There’s no question that his audacious invasion of Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution helped ignite the Civil War.  Yet his raid was underprepared and beyond foolhardy and numbers of his followers of both races lost their lives.  One of the dead was his own son.  Reading Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz’s book about John Brown, I started taking down the adjectives Horwitz uses to describe his subject:  domineering, grandiose, zealous, obstinate, righteous, fanatical, blustering, unflinching, brazen, unbending, outrageous, outlandish.


John Brown’s raid was the focus of Tony Horwitz’s 2011 book, Midnight Rising.


All those qualities and more are given their due in The Good Lord Bird, James McBride’s brilliant comic novel about John Brown, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2013.  Narrated by a child follower of Brown’s, a cross-dressing 12-year-old boy named Onion, The Good Lord Bird takes a dire episode in American history, one that’s generally treated with extreme solemnity, and milks it for its droll aspects, based on the off-center perceptions of a minor player.  

I love Onion:  he’s an anti-heroic character who sees all that is nuts about John Brown and his messianic crusade, and who skewers his self-appointed sainthood.  But in the end  McBride and Onion give John Brown his due as someone who did influence the national story in the right direction.  (A mini-series based on The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown was broadcast on Showtime in the fall.)

Would I have supported John Brown’s plans had I been in one of the abolitionist audiences during his pre-Harpers Ferry fund-raising swing through the North? Probably I would have agreed with Frederic Douglass, who, as McBride describes it, admired Brown but thought his plans to launch raids to free slaves would do the cause more harm than good.


James McBride’s comic novel about John Brown won the National Book Award for fiction in 2014.


In addition to writing novels, James McBride is also a jazz musician, and on his book tour he was accompanied by The Good Lord Bird Band, a quintet that performed spirituals and classic gospel songs. At the close of McBride’s reading at the New York Public Library, the quintet broke into a dirge-like rendition of “John Brown’s Body.”  As the audience slowly filed out of the Celeste Bartos Forum, I and many around me, were in tears.  As I was again, listening to actor David Strathairn perform John Brown’s last speech.


Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
John Brown and Frederick Douglass: Maybe the White Abolitionist Should Have Listened to the Black Abolitionist In a rave review of the dramatic series The Good Lord Bird, the New York Times proclaimed in its headline “the necessity of John Brown.”   As a muse, John Brown is having a moment.  The militant white abolitionist already has a string of successes behind him, having inspired acclaimed literary works from Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter to Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising to James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird.

With the Showtime series, a new genre has been added to the catalogue…



Showtime has adapted The Good Lord Bird into a 7-part series starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown.  Hawke, who also produced the series, gives an electrifying performance. He is easily up to the scenery-chewing challenge of portraying Brown’s messianic crusade to end slavery.  James McBride was a producer of the series and the screen adaptation adheres closely to his conception of the events leading up to the doomed 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry.  On its face a dire episode in American history, in McBride’s audacious imagining it is funny.


Confronted head on, John Brown can be hard to take.  In Midnight Rising, biographer Tony Horwitz wears out his thesaurus describing his subject:  domineering, grandiose, zealous, obstinate, righteous, fanatical, blustering, unflinching, brazen, unbending, outrageous, outlandish. James McBride avoids this adjectival pile-up by inventing an irresistible foil for Brown.  The story is told through the mistrusting eyes of a child follower of Brown’s, a cross-dressing 12-year-old escaped slave named Onion.  Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays Onion, is a master of droll sidelong glances that telegraph his bemused skepticism of the Old Man. Onion is wary of Brown’s maniacal fervor and takes a dubious view of his self-proclaimed sainthood.  Yet in the end Onion pays Brown tribute as someone who influenced events in the right direction.


Onion’s judgment is the judgment of history. John Brown’s invasion of Harpers Ferry was underprepared and failed and as it was bound to. He was captured by Colonel Robert E. Lee, and hanged by the state of Virginia in 1859.  On the day of his hanging, he wrote, “[I] am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” Three years later the country was at war and the Union Army was marching through the streets of Boston singing “John Brown’s Body” – by then an abolitionist anthem.   

It's indisputable that Brown’s execution helped ignite the Civil War and hastened the freeing of slaves. 

But in a little-remarked irony of history, the execution had a major unintended consequence.  At the foot of the scaffold on that December day in 1859 was another grandiose zealot bent on changing history.  John Wilkes Booth, however, was on the wrong side of that history. A Shakespearean actor, Booth believed that slavery was a blessing rather than a sin.  “I have been through the whole South,” he wrote in an unfinished speech, “and have marked the happiness of master & of man.”

Although Booth despised John Brown’s anti-slavery cause, he envied him his fame and heroic stature, calling him “the grandest character of this century.”  He was so obsessed with Brown that he succeeded in getting himself attached to the militia unit sent to maintain order at the hanging.   As he proudly noted, “I may say I helped to hang John Brown.”

History happens the way it happens and counter-factual musings are generally beside the point.  Yet in this case, it’s hard not to wish that one thing had been different.  As the series portrays, before John Brown’s raid he paid a visit to his friend, the eminent Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to enlist his aid with the Harpers Ferry plan.

Instead, Douglass, portrayed in the series by Daveed Diggs, tried to talk Brown out if it.  He believed that in the long run the raid would harm the cause. So was John Brown necessary?  Should the white abolitionist have listened to the Black abolitionist?  Five years after John Brown’s hanging, John Wilkes Booth wrote himself into history by assassinating the President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was an act for which our country is still paying a heavy price.


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
A White Supremacist Reformed by History


I first encountered Ty Seidule when I stumbled onto a video lecture he posted in 2015, in which he asserted that slavery was not merely a cause of the Civil War, it was the cause.  While this has long been the consensus view of historians, the video garnered 30 million views and sparked such vitriolic hate mail as to warrant alerting the FBI.

Why so much rage?  At the time, Seidule was a colonel in the U.S. Army and he delivered his video remarks wearing full dress blue uniform, bedecked with 30 years’ worth of medals.  Even more provocative, the video carried his job title:  chairman of the history department at the United States Military Academy, West Point. As a professional historian, Seidule buttressed his argument with statistics and charts and by the time he stopped talking there was absolutely no wiggle room.  “The evidence is clear and overwhelming,” he said: the Civil War was about slavery.  

The story of the video and the bitter reaction it provoked provides the opening scene of his new book, Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause  (Before writing his book, Seidule retired from the Army as a one-star general.)

Ty Seidule has the perfect pedigree of a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist: a son of Virginia, he grew up worshipping Robert E. Lee, “the sainted figure of the white South.”  His education, first at a segregated private school and then at Washington and Lee University, only spurred his motivation to become “an educated Christian Virginia gentleman.”  He was baptized in the myth of the Lost Cause, that enduring pro-Confederate propaganda campaign that became the ideological foundation for white supremacy and Jim Crow.

In Robert E. Lee and Me, Seidule weds his historian’s training and a convert’s zeal to catalogue in specific detail how and why his former beliefs were wrong.  “It pains me to write that I believed something so grotesque and immoral but it is worse to lie.”  As he describes it, he freed himself from his racist conditioning by years of study in the archives. “The history changed me,” he writes.  “The facts changed me.”  “I felt angry that I had grown up surrounded by the trappings of white supremacy and I had never realized it.”  He is self-conscious enough to question whether he, as a white man, has a right to this anger.  Yet he insists, “The damage done to everyone who grew up in the racial hierarchy is real.”

Seidule jumps into the issue of Civil War memorials with gusto and again leaves no wiggle room:  the Confederate generals whose images are sculpted in marble or whose names bedeck Army bases?  They were traitors who don’t deserve the honor, which in any case is always more about current politics than about veneration of the past. 

Seidule believes that the cure for racism starts with a more honest engagement with history.   He is encouraged that we are finally having a national dialogue about what the Confederacy and the Lost Cause myth mean.  “The only way to prevent a racist future is to foster an understanding of our racist past,” he says.

In addition to reading Me and Robert E. Lee, I’ve also listened online to several of Seidule’s lectures and television appearances.  I especially want to salute his fierce gift for calling things what they are.  “The names we use matter,” he believes.  “Accurate language can help destroy the lies of the Lost Cause.”

So, plantations?  In Seidule’s book they are “slave labor farms.”  

The Union Army?  No, that obfuscates the difference between the sides.  It’s more accurate to call it The United States Army and the men who fought to save their country U.S. Army soldiers.

The Confederate battle flag?  The flag of treason.

General Robert E. Lee?  “He wasn’t a general in my Army.  In my Army he was a colonel.”  (It was the Confederates who ranked Lee as general.) 

Given Dr. Seidule’s belief that naming matters, it is fitting that he has recently been appointed to the federal commission to choose new names for the ten Army bases named after Confederate generals.  Two of these bases I lived on as a child and another (Ft. Pickett) is named for an ancestor.  I am eager to see what he and his fellow commissioners come up with.  


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
The Seductions and Confusions of Genealogical Research For a long time, I thought that researching family history was a dubious pastime. Also one fraught with peril, when undertaken for the purposes of ancestor-glorification and ego-gratification.  Should you have a forebear by whom you set great store – for example, as my Aunt May did by Philip Alston, you may well learn many disreputable things about him, of which owning slaves is only one.

That didn’t stop May from pursuing pedigrees on my behalf.  I remember being told as a teenager that she had filled out a chart in my name, detailing a lineage that would qualify me to join not only the Daughters of the American Revolution but also the Daughters of the Confederacy.  This was not how I pictured my future and I told my father, none too politely, to forget it.

Yet somehow this document survived – I found it among the other papers in the Pile. Labeled D.A.R. ANCESTRAL CHART, it diagrams a branch of my father’s family, starting with his name, Richard Griffin Banks, and working backwards in time through a Major Edwin Banks and a Dr. Richard G. Banks. 

This wasn’t the kind of rabbit hole I had any intention of going down.  Until for some reason it was.  Richard Griffin Banks is an unusual name.  Maybe I wasn’t ready to track my father on a genealogy website, but why not just Google him and see what I found?  Several hours later I was following the Internet trail of a Confederate Army Surgeon named Richard Griffin Banks.  Could this be my father’s great-grandfather,  the Dr. Richard G. Banks from the Ancestral Chart?

As my morning slipped away, I pursued Dr. Banks through 38 entries in my search results.  I learned that he was a trustee of a public school in Hampton.  I learned that at one point he became embroiled in a dispute involving a school budget which caused him to be assaulted with “horse whip and pistol” by C.J.D. Pryor, a teacher at the school. 

At that point I clawed my way out of the ancestry rabbit hole for the time being – but not before taking note of a line in the Richard Griffin Banks entry on the “Deceased Banks . . .” website:  “Unclear why he was born before the marriage date of parents.”  

What started as an idle pastime – Googling my father’s name – produced several surprises. It was of no particular consequence to learn that my great great grandfather may have been born out of wedlock.  But I was shocked to come across the information that he had owned 7 slaves.  It wasn’t surprising that my planter ancestors would have been slaveholders, but this great great grandfather was a doctor.  I didn’t know — though I have since learned — that households owning small numbers of slaves were not unusual; nearly half of the Southerners who owned slaves held fewer than five.  

According to a website compiling “All Deceased Banks & Bankses Persons of European Origin in the U.S. . .” Dr. Banks’ Hampton, Virginia, house was burned down during the Civil War and the family was forced to flee, saving only a pair of silver candlesticks.  This colorful detail comes from the records of a Mrs. James Banks and may or may not be apocryphal. (And if it IS true, what became of those candlesticks?)

I take note of the qualifying “of European Origin” in the webpage title.  In the 1840 census, Dr. Banks’s household consisted of “1 white male, 1 white female, and 7 slaves.”  In 1840, enslaved men and women were not listed by surname. But if they were eventually assigned the last name of Banks, as was common, it must have seemed important to the compiler of the genealogy to exclude them from the white Bankses.  



Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
The Bloody Handkerchief

The inscriptions read, “Eliza to Corinne Pickett” and “L.P.Walker to Eliza.”


Leroy Pope Walker first claimed my attention not from The Pile of documents in my closet but from my silverware drawer, where his name is engraved on a silver serving spoon: “L.P. Walker to Eliza.”  It kept company in the drawer with another serving spoon, this one engraved “Corinne to Eliza.”  I knew these were family names, but that was all.

I was getting ready to trace this path of my family history when my husband offered to take on some of the research.  I showed him the names on my spoons, and then left to go out for the evening.  By the time I returned, Peter had found the answer.  He’d typed L.P. Walker into the Google search box and up had popped an entry in Wikipedia.  L.P. Walker, it turns out, was Leroy Pope Walker, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy.  I was stunned.  This was the man who ordered the bombardment of Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, starting the Civil War.  I couldn’t remember ever having heard his name.   How the hell did he end up in my silverware drawer? 



Walker’s wife was Eliza Dickson Pickett, of “L.P. Walker to Eliza” on my spoon.  This Eliza was a first cousin of the Eliza on the other spoon, my great-grandmother Eliza Ward Pickett – the mother-in-law of my beloved paternal grandmother Blanche.  Looking back, I imagine Granny probably told me the provenance of the silver I was to inherit.  I just hadn’t paid much attention.  That was the past.  My life was about the future.    

The two Elizas now nestled together in my silverware drawer were near contemporaries. Both were married to men of consequence in Alabama who were on opposite sides of the burning question of the day: whether their state should stay in the Union or secede.  

Eliza Ward Pickett’s husband, my father’s paternal grandfather Edwin Banks, was strongly for staying in the Union.  L.P. Walker, married to Eliza Dixon Pickett, was an ardent Secessionist.  He was from a wealthy and influential planter family near what is now Huntsville.  As a lawyer active in politics, Leroy chaired the Alabama delegation to the 1860 Democratic National Convention where he helped lead a pro-slavery walk-out.  After Abraham Lincoln was elected, Walker joined the Confederate cabinet.

L.P. Walker was not Jefferson Davis’s first choice for Secretary of War: he was offered the job only after two other candidates had passed it up. Davis soon had reason to regret that Walker had said yes.  Among his many blunders upon taking office, he gave a speech in which he famously prophesied not only that the South would win, but also that the Civil War would be over so quickly that he’d be able to sop up any blood that was spilled with his handkerchief.  

He made an equally reckless declaration while the bombardment of Fort Sumter was underway:  "No man can tell where the war this day commenced will end, but I will prophesy that the flag which now flaunts the breeze here will float over the dome of the old Capitol at Washington before the first of May." 


The flag that survived the bombardment of Ft. Sumter.


Walker proved no better at administration than he was at prediction. He clashed with President Davis and soon quit as Secretary of War before he was fired.  As a consolation, he was commissioned as a brigadier general, but his military career went no better than his stint in as Secretary and he resigned his commission abruptly in 1862.  

It was beyond unnerving to realize that I’d  harbored the Confederate Secretary of War in a silverware drawer for so many years.  “Touching our food!” my daughter said. Just so.  Touching our food.  As James Baldwin wrote in his brilliant essay “White Man’s Guilt:” “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

This connection to the past was more intimate than any of the documents in The Pile.  A piece of paper might represent something; a spoon is something  I had regarded my inherited serving spoons through a dreamy haze, appreciating the inscriptions because they hinted at ancestral mysteries – precisely because I didn't know the stories behind them.  But once you know things, you can’t unknow them.  All you can do is learn more.


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 


Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
L.P. Walker:  The Historic Markers, the Play, the Cemetery Walk

This engraving of the Confederate Cabinet was published in Harpers’Weekly — Leroy Walker highlighted in yellow.


Southerners are nothing if not conscious of their history, and the career of my distant cousin-by-marriage, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy, is well documented on the Internet.  Tracing the life behind the inscription on my serving spoon, I raced ahead with a combination of fascination and dread – jumping from lily pad to lily pad, from secondary source to facsimile document. He did not have a good war, that much was clear. But I also discovered that in post-war Alabama he played his part in what I believe is the greatest feat of the Confederate South:  turning the losers into winners.  

He was influential in the so-called Bourbon Democrats, Southern conservatives who worked to end Reconstruction and restore power to the white-supremacist elite.  (According to the Dictionary of Alabama, the term Bourbon refers not to the South’s – and my family’s – preferred beverage, but to France’s Bourbon Dynasty, after the Revolution — those who “have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”)

Reading about Leroy’s life, I was beginning to see him as a case of Upward Failure, Confederate version.  This career path, open only to those of the right gender, race and economic status, ensures that incompetent performance need not hinder a rising job trajectory.  In 1875, for example, Leroy presided over an Alabama Constitutional Convention that favored agrarian over industrial interests, putting the state on the path to becoming one of the poorest in the nation, as it remains today. It seems he was no better as a peacetime visionary than he had been as a wartime cabinet secretary or brigadier general. 

Walker did have a late-in-life triumph in 1883, when he defended a Confederate soldier turned celebrity bank and train robber: Frank James, brother of Jesse James.  The trial pitted the South against the North all over again.  Walker’s opposing counsel, William H. Smith, had not only served in the Union Army, he’d marched across the South with General Sherman. 

Following that, he’d served a term as Alabama’s Governor during Reconstruction.  None of this endeared him to a jury made up mostly of former Confederate soldiers; it didn’t take them long to decide that the witnesses who identified Frank James as one of the robbers were lying. By all accounts, Leroy Pope Walker’s summation for the defense was brilliant and Frank James walked out of the Huntsville courthouse a free man.

Walker died two years later but his legacy lives on:  in historic markers around Huntsville; in a local theater group’s production based on the Frank James trial; in the inclusion of a Leroy Walker re-enactor in a Halloween event known as the Maple Hill Cemetery stroll.  

This annual affair features enthusiastic citizens on parade costumed as departed Huntsville notables.  Since 1822, when Leroy’s father sold the land for the cemetery to the town, Maple Hill has been the last resting place for Huntsville’s elite –including five Alabama governors and five Alabama US Senators.  In 2012, the cemetery successfully petitioned the Department of the Interior to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, describing itself as “the only burial place for white Huntsville until 1965.”  


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
My Great Grandfather, Stephen Douglas, and the Seductions of Non-intervention

Also among my belongings is a gold-framed tintype photo, of the kind made by itinerant photographers around the time of the Civil War.  Etsy offered one for sale recently for $18, and in the days before Etsy, when I used to frequent funky antique shops, the tintype I have is the just sort of thing I might have bought as an item of décor.  Only I inherited it. And now am I finally taking in that the man in the photo is my own great grandfather, Edwin Alexander Banks.   

I recognize him: take away the Confederate uniform, add a white Hemingway-esque beard, and I can see he is a twin image of my dad, Col. Richard Griffin Banks, USA, Retired.  Edwin Banks was married to Eliza Ward Pickett, the woman I think of as “the other Eliza,” memorialized on my silver serving spoon inscribed “Corrine to Eliza Pickett.”  

I knew nothing about Edwin until recently, when I learned from the 1860 census that he claimed his profession as “editor.”  He was only 21 but, despite his youth, had partnered with 45-year-old Col. J.J. Seibels in publishing a Montgomery newspaper called The Confederation.  They took a strong stand on the most pressing issue of the day: whether the South should stay in the Union or secede.

The Confederation’s stance was ultra-Unionist, equating secession with treason.  This did not mean it was anti-slavery. According to the 1860 Montgomery slave census, Edwin and Eliza enslaved two people: a 17-year-old mulatto and a 20-year-old mulatto.  Their names are not listed.  

With the 1860 Presidential election looming, Col. Seibels wrote to Stephen Douglas, the Democratic candidate from Illinois who was running against Abraham Lincoln, urging him to make a campaign swing through the South.  Trailing Lincoln in the Northern states and John Breckinridge, a breakaway pro-slavery Democrat, in the Southern states, Douglas had no hope of winning.

But Seibels argued he could still make a last-ditch effort to promote the cause of the Union in the South.  Douglas agreed and, endorsed by The Confederation, appeared in Montgomery just days before the election.  He held forth on the steps of the Alabama statehouse for four hours, reassuring his listeners that slaveholders had nothing to fear from the Federal government.  It is not a stretch to imagine that in the audience that day was John Wilkes Booth, in town to play Richard III, his first leading part as a Shakespearean actor. (For more on this subject, see “Maybe the White Abolitionist Should Have Listened to the Black Abolitionist” and “How to Change History.”)

So close to the election, Stephen Douglas’s speech got little attention outside Montgomery, although The Confederation published a transcript of it.   I summarize it below because I believe it persuasively illustrates that the Civil War was fought not over self-determination; not over states’ rights; not over heritage. It was fought over slavery.  Others can parse whether the moral or the economic aspects of slavery were paramount; I will leave this as an unqualified declarative sentence: The Civil War was about slavery.   So successful have the Lost Cause apologists been at clouding this truth that it is actively contested even now.

Douglas hoped to find a compromise between North and South and it was brave of him to venture into the heart of secession country. But throughout the speech, he pays homage to state’s rights and self-determination as a way to reassure his audience that in the United States they will be able to keep their slaves, no matter what. 



Let me sum up his main points:

1. Yes, of course you can keep your slaves. 

“ . . . your title to your slave property is expressly recognized by the Federal Constitution as existing under your own laws, where no power on earth but yourselves can interfere with.” 


“The true doctrine of the Constitution, the great fundamental principle of free government … is that every people on earth shall be allowed to make their own laws, establish their own institutions, manage their own affairs, take care of their own negroes and mind their own business.”

2.  If your slaves run away and are caught – no matter where – of course they will be returned to you:  

“ . . . the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 . . . declares that any person held to service or labor in either of the States of this Union, or in any organized Territory, under the laws thereof, escaping, shall be delivered up.”

3. No need to treat your slaves humanely.  Just because the workday in some Eastern factories may now be limited to 10 hours, there is no reason for that to prevail in the slave states.  

“ . . .Get up a protective law for your property and what is your property worth?  Whenever you permit Congress to touch your slave property you have lost its value.” 

4.  Don’t worry about the Territories becoming free states.

“As the law now stands . . . slaves are to be held in the Territories the same as in the States . . .under the laws thereof, beyond the reach of Congress to interfere.”

5.  Abolitionists are terrible people and they are only making things worse for slaves by pushing slaveholders toward greater cruelty.

“ . . . have they not forced the master to draw the cord tighter, and to observe a degree of rigor in the treatment of their slaves which their own feelings would like to ameliorate, if the Abolitionists would permit them to live in safety, under a milder rule?” 

Douglas’s pandering in Montgomery was to no avail.  Lincoln won the election and within months, the Deep South states started seceding from the Union just as Douglas had feared.  

But that wasn’t the last of his Montgomery statehouse address.  It had a rebirth in November 1939, some 80 years after it first ran in my great-grandfather’s newspaper, when the Journal of Southern History found occasion to republish it.  The text was accompanied by an introduction that included a rather startling observation by authors David R. Barbee and Milledge L. Bonham:  “Today the reader may find the speech very convincing . . .”  

Why would Douglas’s 1860 speech be germane to readers in 1939?  And why very convincing?   Because, as Stephen Douglas had made clear on that distant November afternoon, he believed strongly in the idea of non-interference between sovereign states.  Such views were a comfortable fit with American isolationist policy in the year when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany.  Douglas’s words provided great cover:  If bad things are happening elsewhere and it isn’t your business, look away.

There is a postscript to my great grandfather’s story.  Edwin Banks was a Unionist but when the Civil War began, he joined the Confederate Army.  He served in various postings around the South, finally being sent to New Orleans.  There he remained until 1867, and there he died of yellow fever at age 29.  

The War had been over for three years by then, but in a sense it killed Edwin Banks.  During the War, Union forces occupying New Orleans had instituted strict sanitary regulations that had kept yellow fever at bay.  From 1860 to 1865 there was a total of 20 yellow fever deaths in New Orleans. But in 1866 all-white governments were in power in the South, and local health authorities had regained control of the Mississippi riverfront and relaxed these precautions.  

The following year brought an epidemic in which yellow fever killed more than 3,000 residents.  As a local physician remarked, “We … have occasion to mingle some thanks among the many curses” that New Orleaneans had heaped on the Union occupation.”*   

* See Yellow Fever, Race, and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, by Urmi Engineer Willoughby


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 


Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
How to Change History

John Wilkes Booth escaping Ford’s Theater after shooting President Lincoln.


It’s more than likely that in the audience in Montgomery on the day Stephen Douglas spoke on the statehouse steps was John Wilkes Booth.   Booth would have cheered Douglas, as he put before the citizens of Montgomery the case for remaining in the Union.  The actor had arrived in town a week earlier to make his debut as a leading man, in the title role of Richard III.

Booth believed that slavery was a blessing rather than a sin.  “I have been through the whole South,” he wrote in an unfinished speech, “and have marked the happiness of master & of man.” True, he had seen “the Black man whipped, but only when he deserved much more than he received.”  













John Wilkes Booth believed that slavery was a blessing but he opposed secession.


Nevertheless, Booth was strongly opposed to secession, believing that “the whole union is our country and no particular state.”  According to his manager, his public utterances on behalf of the Union “were so unguarded” as to put his life in jeopardy.  

A year earlier, Booth had attached himself to the Virginia Militia detachment sent to maintain order and stand guard at the scaffold where John Brown was hanged.  “I may say I helped to hang John Brown,” he later wrote proudly.  Although Booth despised Brown’s anti-slavery cause, he envied him his fame and heroic stature, calling him “the grandest character of this century.”   If John Brown’s execution hastened the freeing of the slaves by igniting the Civil War, it also very likely inspired John Wilkes Booth in another history-changing act five years later, the assassination of the President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  



Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, Terry Alford

John Wilkes Booth:  Day by Day, Arthur F Loux


Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
The Book and the Spoon

The tattered copy of Pickett’s History of Alabama I inherited.


My method, if you can call something so haphazard a method, has been to start with a document from The Pile, or an artifact within the walls of my apartment, and follow it until it leads to a story.   Sometimes unexpected connections reveal themselves, as between a tattered two-volume history of Alabama, published in 1851, and the “LP Walker to Eliza” silver serving spoon passed down to me.   Leroy Pope Walker was the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy.  Eliza was Eliza Dickson Pickett, Leroy’s wife as well as the niece of Albert James Pickett, usually referred to as “Alabama’s first historian.”  He is the author of the tattered volumes.  

A.J. Pickett is also my great great grandfather.   

I inherited a first edition of his opus, History of Alabama: And Incidentally of Georgia and Mississippi, from the Earliest Period.  The black, leather-bound volumes have the title stamped on the cover in gold but they are so musty that I can’t open them without triggering an allergy attack.  Since the  yellowed pages are separating from the binding, I’ve read the History only on my computer screen.

Unlike most of the ancestors I have come across in The Pile, I actually remember hearing about Albert Pickett growing up.  My parents were great readers and I suspect that because he wrote books, he engendered a certain amount of family pride.  

I half-expected that I might also feel more of a connection to him – more than to, say, his distant cousin George Pickett, the Confederate general.   Knowing nothing about Albert James Pickett, I’d vaguely imagined that, as an author, he’d led a life of the mind, at some distance from the brutal realities of plantation slavery.  

I soon learned how hopelessly naïve this was.  A.J. Pickett was a major slaveholder who inherited one Alabama plantation and married into another.  Johanna Nicol Shields, an historian of the South (and also coincidentally a friend of one of my oldest friends), has written extensively about A.J. in her book, Freedom in a Slave Society



Shields paints a distressing picture of A.J. Pickett, starting with his treatment of his niece Eliza, portraying him as a scheming uncle who conspired to hinder the girl’s educational opportunities and to gain a measure of control over her fortune.

When Eliza Dickson Pickett’s father died in 1837, shortly after her mother, he left her, at age 7, an orphan in possession of a plantation.   Before his death, he had expressed a wish for Eliza to be educated in New England, where his wife’s sister lived.  But Uncle Albert would have none of it.   Although Eliza’s aging grandfather became her legal guardian, A.J. Pickett had the major say in managing her affairs.  

First, he stalled, claiming “Little Dick” was too young to be sent away.  Later he expressed his true sentiments in a letter to a family friend, confiding his fear that by going north, little Eliza would be subject to ideological contamination by abolitionists. 

In the North,  he said, “a large majority of the people . . . would desire to see our throats and those of our wives and children cut by our own slaves.” Eliza being rich, he also fretted that in New England she might become the target of fortune hunters.  Her plantation was in Alabama, and that was where she should eventually marry.  

So against the wishes of Eliza’s deceased father and her northern aunt, Albert contrived to have her schooled nearby in the home of family friends, where she would not be exposed to antislavery ideas.   His success in steering Eliza’s course was rewarded when, at age 18, she married the prominent Huntsville widower Leroy Pope Walker.  

From Albert Pickett’s perspective, this was an excellent dynastic match.  It came at a price.  The Walker family demanded a dowry-like settlement based on Eliza’s fortune.  But because she was married off before her grandfather died, Albert himself stood to inherit a larger portion of the family estate -- a prospect he crowed about in a letter to his wife. 

When I learned of A.J.’s interference in his niece’s fate, I was outraged on behalf of “Little Dick,” the Eliza of my spoon.  Did she ever come to find out the role her uncle had played in refusing to send her to live with her mother’s sister in Connecticut?  Did she wish to marry Leroy Walker, a hatchet-faced widower 24 years her senior, or was the match promoted as an expedient one for the fortunes of her extended family?  

Eliza’s wealth did not survive the Civil War.  Her plantation was seized and the cotton stored there was sold, with the proceeds going to the U.S. government.  In 1906, Eliza and L.P.’s son brought an action before Congress to be reimbursed $11,205 for the 180 bales of cotton.  The son maintained that his father had been granted a special pardon by President Andrew Johnson and that his mother had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States.  But The Congressional court denied the claim, finding that “Leroy P. Walker and Eliza D. Walker were not loyal to the Government of the United States throughout the late Civil War.” And in any case, the court said, the statute of limitations on such claims had run out.   

A.J.’s wealth was another story. He died in 1858 and in 1860 his estate held a just-in-time sale of many of his assets. What his meant for his heirs I don’t yet know but it is an area for further investigation.


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
“Mild Domestic Slavery” A. J. Pickett may have been an author and historian with a house in Montgomery but he was equally a slaveholder with two plantations under his control.  The institution of slavery was essential to his life and to his work.   By the time he was 30, my great great grandfather enslaved more than 80 men, women and children.  Some of this wealth came from marrying Sarah Smith Harris, who inherited a plantation of her own.  Pickett appreciated her as his junior partner in slave management, as is clear from letters the couple exchanged while A.J. was away. Sarah described how she had taken action because the slaves did not have adequate meat.  He replied that he was “glad you sent the bacon to the negroes for if I had been at home I would have done exactly as you did.” 

My great great grandfather believed that slavery, as practiced in the American South, was a benign and necessary institution, and he reviled those who would undo it.  He sounded this note again and again in his writing career, as I discovered from searching out his earliest publications in pamphlets and newspaper opinion pieces.  Although his History is mainly concerned with the early settlement of the region and the conquest of indigenous Indian tribes, Pickett takes time out to excoriate the French and the English for their hypocrisy in denouncing Southern slavery. 

Their own ancestors, he argued, had been guilty of much worse.  He went on to say that not only was slavery in the South benign, it was also essential.  The steamy climate was “so  destructive to the constitutions of the whites” that the land  “could never have been successfully brought into cultivation without African labor.”

Abolitionists were the enemy: “criminals and offenders against the peace and dignity of the South,” he called them in an early essay.  He feared the spread of inflammatory ideas meant to incite slaves to revolt.

In one pamphlet he criticized slave traders from the North whose slaves, he claimed, were glutting the market.   He preferred home-grown slaves, who were “more obedient and had more pride of character than those who were the subjects of barter and had changed masters three or four times.”  With the domestic variety he favored, “there grew between master and slave an affectionate attachment promoted by long years of acquaintance from childhood to old age.”

He had still more to say about slavery in Eight Days in New Orleans, his impressions from a brief trip to the Crescent City in February 1847. Amid his astonishments at the way Catholicism was practiced and his aggrieved description of a rained-out Mardi Gras parade, he takes aim at a favorite target in a bitter diatribe against English abolitionists.   

The English had introduced yellow fever to Louisiana in a cargo of slaves, Pickett contends. “And now,” he adds, “these philanthropists  would be willing to see our nation exterminated, and our throats cut, because we are pursuing a system of mild domestic slavery, when they imposed it upon us in the most heartless and aggravated form, by kidnapping and robbery!!!”  (exclamation points his.)

Mild domestic slavery!  That cruel oxymoron gave me a glimpse into the workings of my ancestor’s mind – how he justified owning human beings.


My great great grandfather defended the institution of slavery as being necessary to the South

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
The Burden of the Pile

Karen Orozco Gutierrez and I in Autauga, site of the Pickett plantation where Milton Howard, Karen’s great grandfather was enslaved by my great great grandfather.. We are standing in front of an historical marker for Albert J. Pickett.


For years the papers I’d inherited gathered dust in my closet, shut away, easy to ignore. Occasionally it would cross my mind that I should take them out and go through them   – possibly sometime after I had finished alphabetizing my library, organizing my box of snapshots and culling my work files. 

Eventually, very tentatively, I started to explore The Pile, with its complement of genealogical charts, wills disposing of family portraits and newspaper clippings about plantation houses turned museums, I began to feel it as a weight, pressing down on me. There were many things I didn't want to know.  There were ancestors who were slaveholders, and who had been ardent defenders of plantation slavery.  Horrible as this was, it had all happened long ago and far away.  Really, did any of it have to do with me? 

I concluded that it did.   Like it or not, the burden of The Pile was mine.  As I cautiously went on sifting through it, I also went to the Internet.  Searching for my great great grandfather’s name eventually brought me to AfriGeneas, a website devoted to helping African Americans trace the histories of their enslaved ancestors.  There I found a probate record of the slaves A.J. Pickett had inherited from his father: 40 individuals identified by first name and market value.  

 And on Afrigeneas, I encountered  Karen Orozco Gutierrez.  On the website message board, she’d posted a note searching for anyone who might have information on an Alabama planter named Albert James Pickett.  On his plantation, she believed,  her great grandfather, Milton, had been enslaved.  When I wrote to her, identifying myself as A.J. Pickett’s great great-granddaughter, she immediately emailed me a response. 

 She didn’t want to overwhelm me, she wrote, but she had information about her ancestor and his relationship to mine. Her ancestors’ freedom and their history had been stolen from them.  As I learned Karen’s story,  I came to understand that while I might experience The Pile as a burden, it was also an emblem of my privilege.  


Karen and I at the Montgomery County Probate Archives, where we searched for information on Milton Howard, Karen’s great grandfather.


Karen and her family members had devoted years to research – poring over bills of sale and census documents and pension records. Based on this and on Milton’s own testimony, they had painstakingly constructed a provisional timeline of his life.  She shared with me what they had learned so far:  Milton and his family had been free people of color living in Muscatine County,  Iowa.   Around 1850, when he was a child the entire family was kidnapped by slavers, taken down the Mississippi on a steamboat, and sold, probably in New Orleans, to a family of Alabama planters named Pickett. 

 Milton and his family were victims of what has been called the Reverse Underground Railroad.  In the decades before the Civil War, traffickers and slave traders kidnapped thousands of free African Americans in the North and sold them “down the river” into slavery.   That is how Milton, born in Davenport, Iowa, came to spend most of his childhood enslaved on one of A.J. Pickett’s plantations in Alabama. 

Before the Civil War broke out, Milton later told an interviewer, he escaped, and made his way back to Iowa.  After a few years, he joined the Union Army.  He never returned to the South.    

Following this thread of my great-great-grandfather’s story led me to a living person and to pain that has persisted into the present. It felt very different from scrutinizing a piece of paper.

In his famous 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates skillfully builds his argument on specific cases, person by person, loss by loss.*   Milton’s story, as related by Karen,  is its own case history of what might have been:  “Milton was born free,” she wrote to me, “so his mother must have been free, too. Had the family not been kidnapped, their lives would have been very different”

Injustice and abuse are abstract words, but there is nothing abstract about the kidnapping and enslaving of a child and the possible futures it precludes.  “Existential violence” is Coates’ term for this.  He has written that among other things, slavery meant “the constant threat of having a portion, or the whole, of your family consigned to oblivion.”

After writing to each other for months, Karen and I traveled to Montgomery together to search for Milton in the Probate archives there. Against all odds, Karen was able to locate a document that consigned Milton into a trust on behalf of Sarah Pickett, A.J.’s wife. I wrote an account of our trip, “Daring to Face the Past” that was published in the September, 2020, issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Some time after our return Karen and I joined a webinar to talk about our connection through slavery.

More recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones made the case for reparations in the New York Times Magazine.


The document that consigned Milton into trust.


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 


Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
A White Man Friendly to the Freedom of All Men

Lincoln’s deathbed, as envisioned by painter Alonzo Chappel.  For a key to the painting, please scroll down to the final image below.


Reckoning with the ancestors on my father’s side of the family has been exhausting.  I opened that Pandora’s Box and out flew: the colonizers, the slaveholders, the rebel generals, the high-ranking Confederate officials.   I’ve mined this family history for truths that challenge the Lost Cause narrative, the pro-Confederate ideology that fuels white supremacy. The long-reaching consequences of that creed empowered the insurrectionists of Jan. 6th, 2021, so this has seemed worth doing.


Yet after a prolonged stint of burrowing through 19th-century Alabama archives – examining census forms itemizing human property, wills bequeathing that property, descriptions of opulent slave-built mansions – I wanted a break.  I was ready to spend time with someone from my family who’d been on the right side of history, a white man “friendly to the freedom of all men,” as Frederick Douglass said of Abraham Lincoln.

I had one such ancestor that I knew of: my Ohioan great-great-granduncle David Kellogg Cartter.  According to family lore, he had played a minor-yet-not-insignificant role at two fateful moments in the life of Abraham Lincoln:  the day Lincoln was nominated for President of the United States and the day he was murdered.


David Kellogg Cartter in an undated photograph.


David Kellogg Cartter’s first moment in the history books came at the 1860 Republican Convention where, as head of the Ohio delegation, he broke a deadlock.  Through two rounds of balloting, neither Lincoln nor New York Senator William Seward nor Ohio Governor Salmon Chase had been able to muster a majority of votes.


The Wigwam, a two-story Chicago convention hall, was the site of the 1860 Republican Convention, where David Kellogg Cartter cast the deciding votes to nominate Abraham Lincoln as the presidential candidate of the Republican party. 


A reporter on the scene described what happened next: “The crowded pine-board hall fell silent after the man from the Ohio delegation stood up.”  That would be my granduncle Cartter.  Another witness recalled that he “sprang upon a chair.”  Seizing the delegates’ attention, he declared in a loud voice punctuated by his stutter that Ohio wanted to switch four of its votes “from Mr. Chase to Abraham Lincoln.”  (The reporter judged the speech impediment entirely appropriate, considering the splintered politics of the Ohio delegation.) 

Stutter or not, it was done. A minute later, the Convention burst into “storms of cheers,” as Cartter later told a Washington reporter. By defecting from the abolitionist Salmon Chase in favor of compromise candidate Lincoln, David Kellogg Cartter influenced all that came after.

Cartter’s second cameo in the history books occurred in similarly dramatic but far sadder circumstances.   On the evening Lincoln was shot, Cartter, now chief justice of the District of Columbia court system, joined with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to rush to the boarding house where the President lay dying. The two officials spent the better part of the night in the parlor, interviewing eyewitnesses to the crime.  

When I began my research, the bare outlines of these two stories were all I knew of David Kellogg Cartter.  Yet as I learned more, a dazzling and flamboyant figure sprang to life – brilliant, brash, profane, contradictory, notorious for his scathing wit and colorful invective.

I looked forward to tracing his unlikely trajectory from New York printer’s apprentice to Ohio lawyer; from Democratic congressman to committed anti-slavery activist and member of the radical wing of the Republican party.  Lincoln, after being elected President, appointed him first an ambassador and ultimately a judge.   In private life, Cartter was an inventor, and held a patent on a tent-like frame that could suspend a blanket over the bed of a burn victim, something like a chafing dish cover, warming and protecting the body without touching it.  

As always, I started my research by going to the Pile, the family archive I inherited.  The first item I found was a clipping from the Miami Herald, headlined “Ohio Vote Shift to Lincoln got GOP Rolling in 1860.”  The story ran on May 18th, 1960 – 100 years after the event it recounted.  The yellowed newspaper had been cut out with pinking shears, which leads me to suspect that it was my father wielding the scissors, as my mother did not countenance using her sewing shears to cut paper.


David Kellogg Cartter played a pivotal role in Lincoln’s nomination; the jagged edge of this clipping is from my mother’s pinking shears.


The same reporter who described Cartter’s decisive moment at the convention also wrote a vivid physical description:  “He is a large man with rather striking features, a shock of bristling black hair, large and shining eyes and is terribly marked with the smallpox.”   In pictures the judge strongly resembles his great-great-nephew, my dad Richard Banks: same bulbous nose, ungovernable hair, shining eyes.

So how did this devoted anti-slavery activist end up sharing the family tree with the plantation-owning, pro-slavery polemicist, A.J. Pickett?  The common thread is my grandmother Blanche; her father was Judge Cartter’s nephew and namesake, who as a young man moved from Ohio to Alabama.  There he raised his family; there his daughter Blanche met and married one of A.J. Pickett’s grandsons and settled in Montgomery.  My grandmother never knew her great-uncle; he died the year she was born.  But she grew up hearing about the ancestor who bore the same name as her father – and from whom she learned to be fussy about having it spelled correctly.  “Anybody wishing to see the jurist in fury had only to omit the extra “t” in the spelling of his name,” wrote one journalist. When I was given Cartter as my middle name, my grandmother became the prime enforcer of the double-T spelling.

Exploring David Kellogg Cartter’s public life led me deep into the thicket of abolitionist politics in Washington D.C. during the years of Lincoln’s presidency.  I found uncanny resonances with our own era.  As historian Heather Cox Richardson has written, “We are today in a struggle no less dangerous to our democracy than that of the 1860s.”   It was no accident, she observed, that the January 6th insurrectionists proudly waved the Confederate battle flag.


During the January 6th insurrection, a photographer captured this image of a rioter carrying the Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol. 

The oil portrait on the wall is of Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts abolitionist who was nearly beaten to death in 1856 for his anti-slavery views. 

Credit: Mike Theiler/Reuters.


When I read Cartter’s declaration from 150 years ago that “liberty and despotism could not travel hand in hand,” I looked forward to adding his voice to my prosecutor’s brief.  To the degree that history may be repeating itself, I wanted to embrace my anti-slavery ancestor, to enlist him in my campaign against these latter-day adherents of the Lost Cause.

Abolitionists were a contentious and divided bunch.  For men of David Kellogg Cartter’s era, anti-slavery did not necessarily mean pro-equality.   Some believed that to end white supremacy the Union itself needed to be dissolved. Others wanted to end slavery at home, with the thought of transporting freed slaves elsewhere, a solution known as colonization. (This was one of Lincoln’s positions early on, though later he abandoned the idea.) Still others, including most of the Radical Republicans, envisioned a society in which Black men had full participation as citizens. 

In search of more information on David Kellogg Cartter’s beliefs, I dug back into his years in Congress. From 1849 to 1853, he served two terms as a Democratic Congressman from Ohio.  Soon after, Cartter joined the many disaffected Democrats who abandoned the party over the issue of slavery and joined the newly formed Republicans.  

Helped by a diligent research librarian at the National Archives, I found my way to an 1852 Congressional debate in which Cartter spoke.  The issue before the House was the enforcement the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  This controversial law allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people anywhere the United States, even in states where slavery itself had been outlawed.

In the course of the debate, Cartter declared that he and his fellow abolitionists “would not be dancing attendance upon slaveholders,” even in the face of threats of disunion.  If withering mockery had been sufficient to defeat the “odious” law, it would not have survived David Kellogg Cartter’s testimony.   Among his choice words for “every gentleman here from the South:” “Palpable sophistry.”  “Self-evident absurdity.”  And, my favorite: “My ear is sickened with the ceaseless clamor.”

I found further reporting of Cartter’s views in the Cleveland Leader, an abolitionist newspaper from 1854, as Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise, enabling slavery to spread into Western territories. “Mr. Cartter has avowed that his purpose in life is to strike down the slave power and its allies.   Everywhere and on all occasions he has boldly avowed the necessity of defeating the present national administration, at once the slave and puppet of the oligarchs.” (Cartter’s declaration was later reprinted in a 1941 issue of The Historian, a copy of which I found in the Pile.)

I guessed from such rhetoric that David Kellogg Cartter’s anti-slavery views were toward the radical end of the spectrum.  Yet the evidence was contradictory, and I devoutly wished for a professional historian at my elbow to help evaluate some of what I was finding.  Was David Kellogg Cartter truly a friend of John Brown’s and did Brown appeal to him for legal counsel following the 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry?  Yes he was and yes he did, according to “Mr. Lincoln’s White House,” a website maintained by the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, part of the New York Historical Society.

In light of this, it wasn’t surprising that the moderate Lincoln was not David Kellogg Cartter’s first choice to run for President the following year – Lincoln who, on the subject of slavery, said contradictory and sometimes expedient things.  As has been frequently observed, there were many Lincolns, both sequentially and on occasion simultaneously.  He believed that slavery was a moral evil, and he also believed that if its western expansion were blocked, over time it would simply wither away.  This position left plenty of room to the left of him, and there were abolitionists of every stripe to fill it, David Kellogg Cartter and his political circle included.  

Once Cartter had helped Lincoln secure the nomination, he was not averse to the patronage that came his way.  The grateful President offered him anything but a cabinet post.  Cartter chose the ambassadorship to Bolivia because, he told a reporter, he had “always wanted to see the Andes.”   I don’t know the motivation behind this rather flip response, but in any case, he returned to Cleveland from La Paz in less than a year, having received word that his older son had died of typhoid while serving in the Union Army.  Distraught though he was, he still supported his younger son’s joining the fight, which, he said, was “not to acquire liberty, but to protect it.” 

Upon Cartter’s return to Cleveland from Bolivia, the President offered him another job, one that brought him back to the nation’s capital.   It was early 1863 and among the many stresses confronting Lincoln in wartime Washington was a local court system populated with judges whose loyalty to the Union was questionable.  He asked Cartter to assume the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court of Washington DC. This was a brand-new court that Congress created with Lincoln’s support to replace the District’s existing civil and criminal courts. 

So out went the local judges, one of whom was described as “sweltering with treason.” In came four justices hand-picked by Lincoln, led by my granduncle.  Cartter fit the job description, as he had “positive and strong convictions in accord with the policies of the administration on all questions then disturbing the country.”  (Early Days of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, Job Barnard, 1919).

A 1938 article in the American Bar Association Journal gave a rather overheated account of the sweeping away of the prior courts. “Lincoln and the Courts of the District of Columbia” set the tone with a long and attention-grabbing subhead: “The Story of How Congress Acted during the Civil War to Get Rid of Obnoxious Jurists on Circuit Court of the District of Columbia Who Were Suspected of Sympathy with the Enemy – Bill Abolishing Court and Creating Entirely New Tribunal Jammed through Both Houses of Congress . .   .”  


A headline in a 1930s bar association journal recounts how the Washington, D.C. courts were purged of Confederate sympathizers.


The author, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial writer named F. Lauriston Bullard, described Cartter as a personal friend of Lincoln’s “who had proved himself a masterly strategist at the Chicago Convention of 1860.”  Bullard characterized the new Chief Justice in contradictory terms.  Cartter, he wrote, was “a character,” generally considered “able, courageous, loyal to both the Union and to the law.” On the other hand, Bullard quoted several government officials who had commented unfavorably on my granduncle.  Lincoln’s Attorney General Edward Bates called him “an ill-bred vulgarian and a truculent ignoramus.”  According to another member of Lincoln’s circle, he was a man of “vigorous as well as vulgar intellect” and “coarse and strong-minded.”


U.S. Stamp News, David Kellogg Cartter’s portrait appeared on an 1875 revenue stamp issued for 16 oz. packages of snuff. 

According to U.S. Stamp News, he was one of a miscellaneous collection of men with government connections whose pictures adorned such stamps.


The study of history is full of land mines, especially when undertaken for the purpose of lionizing ancestors.  I knew that David Kellogg Cartter detested the Fugitive Slave Act and had campaigned against its enforcement when he was in Congress.  Yet by the time he assumed the judgeship in 1863, his view had fallen in line with the President’s: that for the states where the Fugitive Slave Act was still the law, it must be enforced.  Lincoln’s recently issued Emancipation Proclamation had freed the slaves only in states that were in rebellion against the Union, and not in border states like Maryland.  From Lauriston Bullard’s article I learned what this meant in concrete terms in my ancestor’s jurisdiction.  “In the first year of the existence of the court,” Bullard wrote, “fifteen slaves in all were sent back to their owners.”   One of that number was “an attractive Negro youth, one Andrew Hall, who had been arrested as a fugitive slave,” and who had filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  Judge Cartter argued against it and it was denied.  (Slavery wasn’t outlawed in Maryland until 1864, the following year.)

Despite his status-quo rulings regarding runaway slaves, Cartter was deep in the fold of the Radical Republicans, the activist faction of the party.  These Republicans brought to politics the moral sensibility of abolitionists, as historian Eric Foner has written, insisting that “slavery and the rights of blacks must take precedence over other political questions.”

According to a chronicle of the scene in wartime Washington, Cartter’s appointment as Chief Justice “opened opportunities [for him] to promote the extremist tendencies of the Radicals.”  In a notorious case in 1863, he did just that, putting his thumb on the scale in favor of one of the most radical of abolitionists.  Adam Gurowski was an exiled Polish nobleman who had made his way to Washington to lend support to the abolitionist cause.  Soon his opposition to slavery “built up to a fanatical crescendo,” according to his rather unsympathetic biographer.


Emigre abolitionist gadfly Adam Gurowski.


Gurowski managed to get hired in a minor position by the State Department, serving as a translator from 1861 to 1863.   He then published a tell-all memoir that was so blistering in its criticism of members of Lincoln’s administration that he ended up getting sued for libel.  The case came before Justice Cartter, who wasted no time steering the trial to an acquittal.  His verdict was based on the absurd ruling that there was no evidence to prove that Gurowski had actually written the memoir published under his name.  The fact that his name appeared on the title page was of zero significance, according to Justice Cartter.  After all, he argued, anyone could get anything set in Roman characters. (This legal travesty beckoned me down a tempting detour. Who could resist trailing after the strange and quirky Adam Gurowski, as he swanned around the Capitol in his billowing cape and blue tinted glasses?  Gurowski favored immediate total abolition and did his best to antagonize everyone.   Well, not absolutely everyone – not his drinking buddy Walt Whitman, who found him “no doubt very crazy but also very sane.”)


Gurowski’s  memoir was so blistering in its criticism of members of Lincoln’s administration that he was sued for libel. 

The case ended up in David Kellogg Cartter’s court – where Gurowski was promptly acquitted.


In Washington, David Kellog Cartter joined a rotating cast of influential Radical Republicans who met almost daily at the brownstone of Zachariah Chandler, the Michigan senator who’d helped fund the Underground Railroad.  These raucous activists included Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens and Salmon Chase, whose presidential prospects Cartter had dashed.  Cartter appears to have been something of a ringleader.  To summon a gathering, he would announce to his fellow Radicals, “Well, let’s go and swear at Lincoln a while.”  

The Radical Republicans had a complicated relationship with the President – both adversarial and cooperative. In 1864, Lincoln appointed Salmon Chase as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Still, the Radicals did not entirely trust Lincoln.  They feared he would compromise with slaveholders and be too lenient toward the South.   Zachariah Chandler called him “as unstable as water.” 

As the tide of the war turned, the Radicals wanted to ensure that Confederates would never again hold power, and they lobbied to bring Lincoln closer to their way of thinking.  In fact, his views did change as tens of thousands of former slaves and free Blacks joined the Union military.  And it can never be known what course Lincoln would have taken in the nearly four years remaining in his second term of office.  

Less than a month after his inauguration a band of Confederates plotted to murder Lincoln and other high Union officials. On the night of April 14th, five days following the Confederate surrender, the conspirators launched a killing spree. 

As word spread that Lincoln was shot, no one knew whether or how many other public figures were also targeted.  Cartter and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were advised as a precaution to avoid the boarding house on 10th Street where the President had been taken.  Ignoring this, they summoned a carriage to the scene.  When the driver saw the chaos near the address and refused to continue, Cartter took the reins himself.  As doctors tried desperately to save Lincoln’s life, Cartter and Stanton set up in a room across the hall to take statements from eyewitnesses to the shooting.  They worked until 1:30am.   In the meantime, dozens of Washington dignitaries visited the bedside of the unconscious President to pay respects. By 7:30 the next morning, Lincoln was dead.  At 10 o’clock, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President by Salmon Chase.


The boarding-house bedroom where Lincoln died.


Not four hours later, Judge Cartter attended a small meeting of his fellow Radical Republicans.   Astonishingly, the dominant sentiment seems to have been less one of grief than anger at the President.  One of those present was Indiana Senator George Washington Julian, who had declared early in his career that “hostility of slavery was the controlling principle of my politics.” Describing the gathering, he wrote in his diary:  “[The  Radicals’] hostility toward Lincoln’s policy of conciliation and contempt for his weakness were undisguised; and the universal feeling among radical men here is that his death is a godsend.” (Senator Julian remarked in his diary: “I like the radicalism of the members of this caucus, but have not in a long time heard so much profanity.”  There is little doubt who he was referring to – David Kellogg Cartter was known for his cursing.)

If Lincoln was not resolute enough for the Radicals’ liking, they appeared to have no such doubts about Vice President Andrew Johnson, who had vigorously opposed Confederates in Tennessee while serving as military governor there. In an epic misjudgment, these abolitionists believed Johnson would be their president.  The rest is the sad history of betrayed ideals and broken promises, and of Black citizens condemned to another century of slavery in all but name.

When I started keeping company with David Kellogg Cartter, who maintained that his life’s purpose was to strike down slavery, I had the notion that his case might be set against the wrongs I encountered when I took the Confederates out of the closet.   Yet weighing against any such mitigation was Andrew Hall, the enslaved man who escaped from a Maryland plantation, made his way to my granduncle’s court in Washington, and petitioned for his freedom.  He was returned to his owner after the court denied the petition, Chief Justice David Kellogg Cartter presiding.


After Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, he was carried across the street to a boarding house where he died the next morning.  Dignitaries and family members paid their respects throughout the night, a scene recreated by painter Alonzo Chappel in a monumental canvas that now hangs in a Chicago museum.  Chappel crowds all 48 notable people who attended Lincoln’s death into a single scene by stretching the small bedroom to several times its historic size. 

To paint the faces, the artist worked from portraits of many of the visitors by the great Civil War photographer Matthew Brady.  My granduncle David Kellogg Cartter appears (no.42) at far right. As Chief Justice of the District of Columbia courts, he spent hours that night in a room across the hall, interviewing witnesses to the assassination.



“David Kellogg Cartter” Ruth Gertrude Curran, Ohio History Journal, 1933.

Mr. Lincoln’s White House, the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.

“Lincoln and the Courts of the District of Columbia”  F. Lauriston Bullard, American Bar Association Journal, 1938

New York Times, Opinionator, “Whale in a Tank,” 12/5/2012

Eric Foner, Reconstruction:  America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863 - 1877


Read more about Ann's Confederates In My Closet on her website. 


Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
The Unrightable Wrong

A young Glen David Andrews with friends, back row, left.


Should descendants of slave-holders feel ashamed? This is the issue raised by Glen David Andrews, a Black trombonist from New Orleans.  I’d come to know Glen David when a filmmaker friend and I were considering making a documentary about him.  That project came to nothing, but I still follow him on Facebook, where he has been outspoken on many issues and not shy about schooling those he thinks need correction.


Last year Glen David took on Wynton Marsalis, the New Orleans jazz trumpeter, now the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Marsalis had stirred up controversy by telling the Washington Post that rap and hip hop were a “pipeline of filth,” and “more damaging to African Americans than the statue of Robert E. Lee.”  Marsalis had been among those prominent citizens of New Orleans calling for the removal of Confederate statues, but that did not get him off the hook with Glen David.  

He had serious problems with Marsalis’s comments, which he expressed in an open letter on Facebook. After pointing out that rappers are not the first Black artists to perform vulgar material (Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey), he got to his main point about Confederate statues.  Why, he asks, are there monuments to “these guys who wanted to divide the country, keep human beings in chains where they were beaten, families divided, women were raped by master or whomever wanted her that night, men were castrated, beaten until they died, hung – this is what these statues represent.

“I have been to Germany nearly 20 times since 1994 I have never not one time seen a statue or memorial to Hitler or any of his Generals, so I ask the question why do we have them in America?  [The] worst part is when I hear ‘that's our heritage’ or ‘that's my ancestors.’ Then I say you should be ashamed to say I'm proud my great great great grandfather was a murder, rapist slave owner because that's what they were.”

I had been thinking about this same thing myself, and when I saw Glen David’s post, I responded: “Some of my ancestors were slaveholders and I am ashamed of them.”  He wrote back:  “Thanks for stating what I believe is how most of these people’s descendants feel.” 


Protesters in New Orleans for and against the removal of Confederate statues.


That is generous, although I’m not sure it’s true. But the issue of opposing racial injustice is more complicated than deploring slaveholding ancestors or tearing down Confederate statues. I believe that every white person in this country should be ashamed of the treatment of African-Americans, past and present. That is why I support reparations.  But are those of us with Confederates in the closet more in need of expiation?  Do we bear an extra portion of blame?  

The harms of slavery still resonate today.  Some believe that life experiences alter gene expression and that trauma leaves its genetic fingerprint on subsequent generations.  This is controversial but even without invoking science, it is clear that the racist ideology of the Lost Cause continues to do its terrible work. 

Guilt has no utility unless it moves the guilt-stricken to action.  While the wrong of owning human property cannot be righted, I do believe that those of us whose ancestors were slaveholders have a special obligation to work to dismantle the system of racism. It is an evil with our name on it.


“Take them all down.”

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
Tate Reeves's Stealth Announcement of Confederate History Month



It is already half-way through April and you may have missed the news that Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves has declared this month Confederate Heritage Month.  He did not make a public announcement of this proclamation, as he did his ringing declaration denouncing genocide – you know, the kind that happens in places like Darfur.  The Confederate Heritage endorsement must have been signed in the dark of night at an undisclosed location in invisible ink.  But the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which were behind the original declaration, put it on their website, where the alert Mississippi Free Press picked it up.  Gov. Reeves was not eager to comment on the issue, though he claimed in a statement to that he was merely following precedent.  Also, he allowed, he signed the proclamation “because he believes we can all learn from our history.” 

Not if Gov. Reeves can help it.  In what has been a busy month for the Mississippi governor, he also signed a bill outlawing the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools, which, he claimed, “only aims to humiliate and indoctrinate.”  I believe he is referring to white people here.  None of this is surprising but it’s a mistake to dismiss it as business as usual.

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0
One Step Forward, More Steps Back on Acknowledging the Past in Louisiana

The recently unveiled monument to the victims and survivors of the Colfax Massacre



The front page headlines of the April 16th New Orleans Times-Picayune tell a horrifying and all-too-familiar story. 


In bold type, on the upper left-hand side of the page:  “‘We must acknowledge the atrocities’.” 


On the right-hand side: “Louisiana GOP wants to ban college study of racism.” 


The atrocity referred to is the Colfax Massacre, an 1873 slaughter of as many as 150 newly-enfranchised Black men for the crime of voting. It was the bloodiest such massacre in the post-Reconstruction South. I first learned about the Colfax Massacre from a photo of a shocking Jim Crow era historical marker in front of the town courthouse:  

“On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which

three white men and 150 negroes were slain.

This event on April 13th, 1873, marked

the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”


Marker to the Colfax "Riot" and white supremacist victory erected in 1951


Erected in 1951, the marker stood on the grounds of the courthouse until it was finally taken down in 2021.  Many of the town’s Black citizens had tried to have the memorial to Louisiana’s racist violence removed, including Avery Hamilton, a local pastor, who was a descendant of one of the first men killed in the massacre.  


For years his efforts went nowhere.  Then he was joined by Dean Woods, a white insurance executive, who had discovered though genealogical research that he was descended from one of the instigators of the “riot.”  “It really knocked me back,” he told a reporter, “to discover that I had an ancestor who was involved in this on the wrong side of history.”


He and Hamilton together founded the Colfax Memorial Association, which raised funds for a memorial for the Black victims of the slaughter.  It was unveiled this month, on April 15th, 2023, a hundred years after the event.  A photo on the front page of the Times-Picayune shows the two men shaking hands in front of the new granite monument.  At the unveiling, Hamilton said, “As we stand here today, we must acknowledge the atrocities that were committed against the Black citizens of Colfax.”


Historian Charles Lane, who wrote The Day Freedom Died, a book about the massacre, told the Times-Picayune that “It’s very important that people have a place to refer to an item in the public space that embodies the truth.  People can take whatever positions they want to take, but we have to talk about it on the basis of truth.” 


Truth is exactly what the Louisiana GOP opposes. On the same Times-Picayune front page containing the story about Colfax massacre, the paper reports that Republican party officials want to outlaw truth, on the grounds that it is “too divisive.”  The party has asked state lawmakers to forbid the study of racism at colleges and universities, arguing against “classes examining ‘inglorious aspects’ of United States history.  The Times-Picayune goes on to note that the resolution at the GOP meeting “passed by voice vote with no discernable dissent.”


The National Endowment for the Humanities has funded Louisiana Public Broadcasting for a feature-length film on the Colfax Massacre.  The documentary  will examine “Reconstruction-era violence between southern whites and African Americans and its legal and social legacy.”   If the GOP has its way, the film will never see the inside of Louisiana classrooms.

Fri, 01 Dec 2023 18:58:17 +0000 0