Harriet Tubman on the $20

by Fred Ray on April 27, 2016 · 4 comments

As you’ve probably heard, Harriet Tubman is slated to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This has led to a sort-of debate. I say sort-of, since the issue was decided by the Washington bureaucrats and not the people, whom no one thought to ask. Liberals have hailed the inclusion of a black woman, while some conservatives have praised her as a “gun-totin’ Republican woman.” While I certainly respect Tubman’s achievements, I do have some objections to her place on the currency, which I suppose come from the old-fashioned idea that the bills ought to honor historically important people.

While it’s certainly true that Tubman, as a conductor on the Underground Railway, did free a number of slaves (she claimed “thousands,” the actual number has been put at about 70), functioned effectively as a Union spy, and even led a raid to free slaves, she was at best a minor figure in the Civil War, American history, and even in the history of abolition. She certainly put her life and freedom on the line numerous times – but so did a lot of other people. Thus it’s hard to escape the idea that this is simply an exercise in identity politics. There were many others who did the same thing, and more effectively. For example, the most effective African-American spy was probably Mary Bowser, a former slave of Richmond socialite and Union spy Elizabeth van Lew. Bowser, who has been almost forgotten, operated in the heart of the Confederacy as the housekeeper for Jefferson Davis. As part of van Lew’s extensive spy ring, she and her spymaster furnished invaluable information to the Union.

Andrew Jackson, however, was (and is) a giant of American history. He was a successful general who defeated the world’s best army at New Orleans with a greatly inferior rag-tag force, and someone who as president changed the body politic forever by wresting power from the Eastern elite and giving it to the people. Not only that, he forced South Carolina to back down in the 1832 Nullification crisis. He is the only president who has an “age” named after him, and the United States was a different place after him.

Alas, Old Hickory has come under a cloud lately, for in the age of identity he has a number of things going against him. For starters, he is white, male, and a Southerner. As if that weren’t enough, he was a slaveowner. What seems to be the biggest strike against him, though, is the Indian removals. He has been reviled as an Indian hater and even a practitioner of genocide. If he did hate Indians, however, he had a rather strange way of showing it. Jackson adopted an orphaned Creek Indian boy, Lyncoya, and treated him as his own son. He removed the Indians not because he hated them, because he honestly thought it was the best solution to a difficult problem.

All this is of a piece with the ideas of the radical historians of the 60s and 70s, which have entered the mainstream. It is one thing to recognize people in American history who have been forgotten and overlooked, especially women and persons of color, who often got written out of it. However the new historians went much further and instead placed these marginal figures at center stage to the virtual exclusion of traditional figures. This has resulted in a very skewed history where people like Tubman have in effect displaced genuine epoch makers like Jackson.

Probably the best example is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which treats our history entirely as one of the poor, dispossessed, and marginalized. Naturally the US does not come out very well when looked at this way, but nevertheless it’s often used as a textbook and reference. Thus do we have students who think that Crispus Attucks was one of the central figures of the American Revolution, but can’t name any of the Founding Fathers; and who know all about Harriet Tubman and Soujourner Truth but have no idea who Lee and Grant were, although they might have a vague idea that some guy named Lincoln had something to do with it, but didn’t he own slaves?

You get the idea. Unfortunately you can expect to see more of it.

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The excitement of battle quickly died down, to be followed by the unending drudgery of drill, picket, and fatigue details of all sorts. Blackford was taken ill and went home to recuperate, then returned, still very weak, when he heard a battle might be imminent. There was an action at Ball’s Bluff on October 20th (which the Confederates won handily), but no major battle.

His regiment staged an election, elevating Allen C. Jones to colonel. Blackford’s letter contains a pithy observation of the new commander, and laments the loss of Major John T. Morgan. The latter was an excellent officer, who returned home to raise his own regiment (the 51st Partisan Rangers), and served with distinction in the western theater, where he was eventually promoted to brigadier general.  Blackford also struggles with his feeling of obligation to his own company, the Barbour Greys, and his desire for promotion. General Rodes was in favor of elevating Blackford to higher leadership positions, but initially he resisted the idea.

 

Head Quarters 3rd Brigade 1st Division A.P.
Union Mills 21st Nov. 1861

“Within hearing distance of the enemy’s guns”

…. I never told you, and do not now wish it alluded to for private reason, that Gen. Rodes offered me a place on his staff. I had long ago made up my mind not to go on a staff, the life is not military tho’ extremely pleasant. I wish to become acquainted with my profession in all its details, and that can’t be done on the Staff, tho’ t’would be immensely pleasant to be housed with such pleasant companions this winter. The relations between a general and his “family” are very pleasant and intimate, but as I said one can’t learn the trade in that manner.

I have already mentioned the circumstances in which I found our regiment, namely that the officers (some of them) had petitioned for the right of an election for a new Col., wh. was granted by the Gov. of Ala., and of course disgusted all military men, such a practice being conveniently calculated to demoralize an army. The Major & Lt. Col. had sent in their resignations—the latter however seeing his chance very good for election to what he was entitled to by promotion, decided to with draw his resignation, & take his chance. The major refused to do so tho’ his election was almost certain. The election took place yesterday and to my joy resulted in the election of our Lt. Col. (Jones) to the Colonelcy, this showing that the men understood the principle involved, and appreciated it.

Col. Jones is not at all qualified for the office, being a jolly old millionaire & and an elegant gentleman withal, but knowing as little of the tactics, as a “hog does of a holiday” as we used to say at the University. Maj. [John T.] Morgan is one of the best officers in the service, and we are all very much grieved, I particularly, that he refuses to take his chance for the Lt. Colonelcy. He has applied for a Leave of Absence, if it be granted he is going to Lynchburg, and will bear a letter of introduction to you. Please treat him with marked attention; you will find him an elegant gentleman; he stands very high at the bar in Ala. and his moral standing is enough (I have heard) to elevate the standing of our regiment. He has always been a great friend of mine. Could you entertain him in our house?

I have been repeatedly requested by the men to run for the Lt. Colonelcy, or the Majority. Gen. Rodes & the officers of the regiment tell me I would get either without any trouble, there would be no opposition to me for the majority. I cannot however reconcile it to my conscience to leave my company now they are absolutely helpless, and tho’ I don’t intend that it shall always be in my way for promotion, I cannot leave then now. Gen. Rodes concurs in my views and I have given my final answer to the men. The temptation of being a Lt. Col. was strong but I can soon do better probably, tis easy enough for one to rise in this Army if he will learn his duty and do it. ….

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Blackford’s baptism of fire at Manassas

by Fred Ray March 24, 2016

For Blackford, the deciding moment came with the secession of Virginia on April 17, 1861. Like many other Southern Unionists like John Mosby, Jubal Early, and Robert E. Lee, Blackford threw in his lot with the new Confederacy, taking his company, the Barbour Greys, to Richmond. There they were assigned to the 5th Alabama Infantry. […]

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Eugene Blackford letter excerpt March 11, 1861

by Fred Ray March 13, 2016

Once secession of the Lower South was a fact, the seceded states immediately began attempting to expel Federal garrisons and claim United States installations. This was successful except for a few points, most notably Ft. Pickens at Pensacola and Ft. Sumter at Charleston. Alabama and Mississippi both sent troops to assist the taking of Ft. […]

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Eugene Blackford letter excerpt January 14, 1861

by Fred Ray March 3, 2016

In this letter home to his father, Blackford seems to understand better than the politicians what is coming. Although opposing secession, he also opposes coercion by the Federal government. Ere this I suppose you have received the intelligence that Alabama has seceded, and that I am for the first time in my life without the […]

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Eugene Blackford letter excerpt January 5, 1861

by Fred Ray February 28, 2016

I will be periodically posting excerpts from Eugene Blackford’s letters in the next few months, all of which are included in Volume I of my upcoming book (which may still be ordered at a prepublication discount). This letter finds Blackford, a Virginian, in the small town of Clayton, Alabama (near Eufaula) working as a school […]

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The Turner Rifle

by Fred Ray February 17, 2016

I was recently fortunate to acquire a Turner rifle. Thomas Turner (1834-1890) was a 19th Century gunsmith who lived and worked in Birmingham, then the center of the gun trade. He was “a prolific manufacturer of Volunteer rifles in the 1859-1862 period. His small-bore (.451) rifles were very popular into the mid 1860s, rivaled only […]

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