For Louisiana, Confederate History Month highlights a complex legacy
Apr. 5, 2013
SHREVEPORT — With April comes an annual dilemma in Louisiana: How do you reconcile the considerable Confederate and Civil War history commemorated in the state this month, and the tourism dollars rolling in as the conflict’s sesquicentennial unfolds, with the anguish of slavery and the consequences of the war that continue to this day?
It could be a topic this weekend in April, Confederate History Month, as back-to-back battle re-enactments mark the 149th anniversary of the 1864 battle of Pleasant Hill. The battle saw the Union army technically winning the battle by killing more of the enemy than it lost, but it was forced to abandon its dead and wounded and commissary train and scamper back to Alexandria and, eventually, New Orleans.
It followed by a day the clear-cut Confederate victory at Mansfield, fought April 8, 1864, one of the final Confederate victories of the conflict and the largest single battle fought west of the Mississippi River.
“This is a topic of never-ending interest,” says Chris Jay, spokesman for the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau. “There’s a seemingly endless stream of people who are interested in Civil War history. It’s something that people ask about at the front desk all the time.”
Shreveport historian and author Gary Joiner, who chairs the state’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, is co-writing a guide on the state’s part in the war. That started with the capture of New Orleans in 1862 and focused largely on control of the Mississippi War until 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln personally planned a campaign to capture Shreveport, which failed with the Mansfield and Pleasant Hill battles.
The guide, to come out this fall from University of Louisiana Press, “is for anyone in Louisiana or anyone coming to Louisiana who wants to follow the armies,” Joiner said. “It will list the places you can go, like museums or battlefields.
The text is written. … We’re working on the maps now. It’s something that’s sorely needed.”
Joiner also is planning a conference for next spring to focus on campaigns and people associated with the latter part of the war here.
“We’ll talk about how important 1864 was for Louisiana and Texas and Arkansas,” he said. “Things were going to hell in the East, but in this area, the events that were to shape our future history, even up to today, were set in motion or were set in place in 1864.
“We’re looking at tourism, and we’re looking at studying the history and trying to be as even-handed as possible. We’re not going to be ‘tripping through the daisies in the field’ and not looking at the carnage around it and the suffering. Dates and facts and figures are one thing, but the lessons learned are the key to it.”
Last year, the Shreveport branch of the NAACP was active in efforts to force removal of a Confederate flag from a monument outside of the Caddo Parish Courthouse, property that had been the site of the Louisiana Confederate government when it had been located here during the Civil war. Those efforts were ultimately successful.
But branch President Lloyd Thompson did not disparage the notion of a month marking Confederate heritage.
“Each culture has a right to celebrate their history,” he said. “That’s no more than right. I don’t have a problem if that’s what they’re doing to celebrate their culture. The NAACP celebrated 104 years this year, we’re doing 45 years today since Martin Luther King died. I don’t have a problem with us celebrating history. I have a problem with folks using any culture or any organization for hatred.”
Jay said the tourism body also has to balance the history and the emotion.
“Our job really isn’t to moderate people’s interests,” he said. “Our job is to help them get to the things they’re interested in. We want to make sure that if people are here looking for that history, they’re able to find it.”
But you can’t separate the history from the hurt it caused and the divisions that remain. It’s something that heritage groups, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, are acutely aware of.
Both groups have websites that include areas where people can report assaults on heritage that, for the SCV, include tracking when and how hate groups and others misuse the Confederate flag.
“America as a whole has become very apathetic and, you perhaps could say, turned off by the tone of politics these days, and they have lost sight of what they can do,” said Chuck McMichael, Shreveport educator and past national commander in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
He knows how tough a “sell” Confederate history can be. Even though the Trans-Mississippi Department, as this section of the organization is known, has led efforts to broaden membership by appeals to diversity and sharing information on the rich history of the state.
Because of its cultural and racial makeup, Louisiana had Creoles, Cajuns, Indians and even black volunteers in Confederate units. (The Confederate Army also had the war’s only Indian general officer, Stan Watie.) Direct and collateral descendants are eligible for membership, and the state and department units of the SCV have in recent years strengthened efforts to draw members from these avenues.
“It is a sensitive subject,” said state Rep. Roy Burrell, who has done family research that in recent years turned up a white branch that has Confederate connections. In that research and working in veterans issues, Burrell also worked closely with recently deceased local bagpiper Vernon Love, who was a member of the SCV.
“I really miss my friend Vernon,” Burrell said. “We had just started to connect on the research of the McWright side of my father’s family. It has their Scot-Irish roots as Irish exiles to an area called Lowland Scotland, relocated by King James I of England who was Catholic, and thought these Scot-Irish folks were too rowdy and independent. They later migrated to America after the potato famine. I plan to continue my research even without my friend.”
Another SCV member, the late historian and author Eric Brock, worked closely with local Civil Rights icon Dr. C.O. Simpkins. Simpkins had his house firebombed in the early 1960s and was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.
Simpkins and Brock collaborated to preserve and release a speech King delivered at Galilee Baptist Church in 1958, which has become an important part of Shreveport — and King — history.
Like Burrell, Simpkins also has a heritage and history that illustrates the complexity of local history. he has researched a line of his family from DeSoto Parish that has a Confederate officer in it.
“I have some Indian, I have some Mexican-Spanish, I’m a United Nations,” Simpkins said. “I’ve got everything. I can’t be unkind to nobody. Life has taught me that you’re a mixture of everything. DNA is going to find out that a whole lot of people got mixed blood.
“We lose so much time over trivial things. We’ve got more important things to talk about. Honor the dead, both the Union and the Confederate. They died for our country, they were citizens of the country and the war’s over. Let’s get on to the business of making this country what it should be.”
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