By Dr. James W. Loewen / 02.06.2018
Organization of American Historians
On January 31, 2018, the Florida Senate voted to replace Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with educator Mary McLeod Bethune in the United States Capitol. Smith’s removal is certain. The Alachua County (Florida) Public School District has also stripped Smith’s name from their administrative building, formerly Kirby Smith Elementary School. Since the Senate vote was unanimous, we can assume the substitution of Bethune in the Capitol will be made.
The United States gains by the exchange. The Capitol loses a war criminal and gets a humanitarian who founded a college and played a major role in what we might call “the long Civil Rights Movement.”
Probably you already know about Bethune. Ironically, she already has a statue in Washington, D.C., just twelve blocks east of the Capitol in Lincoln Park. In this essay, I want briefly to suggest that Smith should never have been honored. His selection disgraced Florida and speaks volumes about the sorry state of race relations in the United States in 1922.
From January, 1863, to war’s end, Edmund Kirby Smith was in charge of all Confederate forces west of the Mississippi River. After taking Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, five days later, the United States controlled the river. After that, Smith operated largely on his own. His forces comprised the national Confederate government in the trans-Mississippi. What Smith did or approved amounted to Confederate policy in Texas, Arkansas, the parts of Louisiana under Confederate control, and most of Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Smith did not set pretty policy.
In June, 1863, in a skirmish connected with the battle at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, troops under the command Confederate general Richard Taylor captured fifty black soldiers. Milliken’s Bend was perhaps the first major battle in which black troops had participated. Here is how Taylor reported to Smith: “A very large number of the negroes were killed and wounded, and, unfortunately, some 50, with 2 of their white officers, captured. I respectfully ask instructions as to the disposition of these prisoners.”
In his own report to the Confederate War Department, Smith used the same word, “unfortunately”: “Unfortunately such captures were made by some of Major-General Taylor’s subordinates.”
Smith went on: “I have heard unofficially that the last Congress did not adopt any retaliatory legislation on the subject of armed negroes and their officers, but left the President to dispose of this delicate and important question. In the absence of any legislation and of any orders except those referred to in the inclosed letters, I saw no other proper and legal course for me to pursue except the one I adopted.”
What exactly had Smith told Taylor to do?
“I have been unofficially informed that some of your troops have captured negroes in arms. I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers.”
“Giving no quarter” means killing all black POWs at once. This is of course a war crime. POWs by definition are no longer enemy combatants and are not to be murdered. There are reasons for this policy, not least the fact that soldiers know they might not always be victorious and do not want to be murdered if captured in a future battle. Even Hitler’s forces did not kill black or Jewish soldiers when they captured them during World War II.
“If they are taken, however,” Smith went on, they are to be turned over to civilian authorities “to be tried for crimes against the State.” Another letter, this one by S.S. Anderson, Assistant Adjutant-General to Smith, makes clear that this policy amounts to a sure death sentence. However, it carries a veneer of law. This was important, because the United States was insisting that all its soldiers be treated alike, regardless of race. “Should negroes thus taken be executed by the military authorities capturing them it would certainly provoke retaliation,” Anderson noted. Indeed, General U.S. Grant, commander of the Vicksburg campaign of which this battle was a part, as well as his boss, President Lincoln, threatened to execute Confederate POWs if the Confederacy continued to execute black POWs. Having civilians do this work, however, would guarantee that “no exceptions can be taken,” Anderson wrote.
It turned out that Smith’s policy was not confined to the wild and woolly trans-Mississippi west. It comported with Confederate national policy. Even before Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” took effect on January 1, 1863, providing for the recruitment of black troops, African Americans had been volunteering for military service. In November. 1862, Confederate raiders seized four African Americans in U.S. uniforms on a South Carolina island and asked Richmond what to do with them. President Davis and his secretary of war approved their “summary execution.” After the “Emancipation Proclamation,” Davis sent a “Message to the Confederate Congress” proposing to: “deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the Unites States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation, that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.”
That penalty was of course death.
Later Confederate war crimes, such as the murder of black POWs after the Battle of Poison Springs in Arkansas and the Fort Pillow massacre in West Tennessee, were in keeping with this tradition established by Smith and Davis.
After Smith comes down, the rest of the Confederates in the Capitol should go, too. They include Mississippi’s James Z. George; Wade Hampton of South Carolina; Alexander Stephens of Georgia, Vice-President of the Confederacy; and the arch conspirator of them all, war criminal Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.
Perhaps a case can be made for Alabama’s Joseph Wheeler and North Carolina’s Zebulon Vance. That would depend upon whether they were chosen because of or despite their Confederate credentials. But South Carolina cannot rehabilitate John C. Calhoun, the theorist justifying slavery and secession. His bust needs to find another resting place, one that does not intrinsically connote honor and praise.
 See Brendan Farrington, “Fla. Moves to Replace Confederate Statue in US Capitol,” AP, 1/31/2018. All quotations by or about Smith and Davis are from Loewen and Sebesta, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader, with Edward H. Sebesta, co-editor (Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2010), 198-205.