Air Date: 061209
Subject: Charles B. Dew, Civil War Author
Books: Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War & Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge & Ironmaker to the Confederacy : Joseph Reid Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works
Guest: Professor Charles B. Dew, Williams College
Summary: Professor Charles B. Dew of Williams College discusses the topics of his Civil War books, including the always controversial issues of slavery and secession.
Brett’s Summary: Gerry mentioned this is the second to last show for the spring lineup.
Professor Dew teaches a course on the Civil War and Reconstruction as a senior level seminar which requires work with primary documents. He also was associated with David Herbert Donald, Gerry’s mentor and friend, at Johns Hopkins. Dew’s dissertation was on the Tredegar Iron Works during and after the Civil War. This led to his book Bond of Iron, which explores the master-slave relationship at Buffalo Forge near Lexington, Virginia. Dew was fascinated by the large number of slave laborers at the Tredegar Iron Works. He obviously wonders about the wisdom of using slaves to work on ordinance and munitions for the Confederacy. One is reminded of the Nazis using Jewish slave labor during World War II. The same opportunity for sabotage existed in both cases. Slaves were able to do extra work and get paid for this extra work. One slave even had an account at a local bank according to Dew. Interestingly, the slaves also had some say in who oversaw their work. If they complained to their masters, there was a real opportunity to get a new, hopefully kinder, overseer for the work the next year.
Apostles of Disunion was discussed in the second segment. Gerry and Charles opened with the false impression that slave families were always broken up in slavery. Quite the opposite has proven true, but Charles points out that slavery was first and foremost a system based on coercion. Talk next turn to secession, and the reasons for it. Dew looked at the speeches, letters and other writings of Secession Commissioners elected by the Southern states to see why these men thought the South should secede. He wanted to find out who these men were and what they were about. They were supposed to explain why their states were seceding and to convince other not-yet-seceded states to follow suit. He found that States Rights had very little to do with secession and almost always had everything to do with slavery. These men believed the institution of slavery was doomed with a Republican president and a Republican-led congress. They worried about the destruction of white supremacy, large scale slave rebellions leading to a race war, and miscegenation. They believed the only way to prevent these dire events would be to secede. Gerry asked Charles about the tariff, and he responded that these men hardly mentioned the tariff as a reason to secede. Gerry pointed out that after the war Confederate leaders mentioned numerous reasons for secession, and downplayed slavery as a cause. Dew believes this was intentional spin. He points to an early war Jefferson Davis speech to the Confederate Congress where slavery was “front and center” and also to Alexander Stephens’ infamous “Cornerstone Speech.” Stephens claimed he was badly misquoted in that speech, but Dew found him to be curiously similarly misquoted when he gave the same speech several days earlier in Atlanta, Georgia. It is clear to Dew that Stephens was engaging in purposeful revisionism. Dew’s ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy, and he grew up in the South. In the book, he urges other White Southerners to confront the issue of slavery rather than trying to sweep it under the rug. He also wants to point out that while slavery was the primary cause of the war, it does not mean that this was the reason all Southern individuals enlisted to fight in the war. Gerry calls Dew’s book the “smoking gun” of secession, and believes it is a fascinating book.
At the start of the third segment, Gerry asked Charles if he is doing any new projects. Dew indicated he is doing a book with each chapter focusing on a primary document involving slavery, entitled Voices from the Slave South. Another document deals with Thomas Jefferson’s estate and the sale of some of his slaves. Gerry points out large changes in regards to how we study slavery and its impact on American history. Gerry points out the resistance to embracing slavery as playing a large role in our country’s past. Dew says the failure to face slavery is the great failure of the Founding Fathers.
Gerry ended the hour with the “Civil War time machine”, an on again, off again feature of Civil War Talk Radio. He asked Professor Dew who he would want to talk to if he could go back to the Civil War for an hour. His response was Abraham Lincoln. He finds Lincoln fascinating and calls him “a remarkable figure”, and would have liked to have been in the room as Lincoln was composing his second Inaugural Address.
Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.
In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.
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