Tag Archives: Megan Kate Nelson

Why Academics Avoid Berry Benson

(March 26, 2020) Together with his sixteen-year-old brother, Blackford, Berry Benson (1843-1923) enlisted in a South Carolina regiment three months before Fort Sumter when he was one-month shy of his eighteenth birthday. After Sumter the two served in Robert E. Lee’s army until war’s end. Both refused to participate in the Appomattox surrender and returned to their Augusta, Georgia home after learning that General Joseph Johnston had also surrendered in North Carolina. They were still armed with their rifles when they arrived. Berry missed Gettysburg because he was badly wounded at Chancellorsville but otherwise participated in all of Lee’s major campaigns. He was twice captured and twice escaped notorious prison camps; Point Lookout, Maryland and Elmira, New York.

Today’s academic historians would at least mention his Civil War Book memoir in passing because they could demean it as that of a slaveholder’s son—his dad owned two—and could ridicule it for providing Shelby Foote with one of the Mississippian’s “hackneyed anecdotes” in the 1991 PBS Civil War documentary, except for Berry’s postbellum social progressivism. For example, even though the dominant accountant for Augusta’s textile mills, Berry backed their underpaid workers in an 1899 labor dispute. One local newspaper identified Berry as “perhaps the most ardent sympathizer the strikers have.” He leveraged business connections to get some of the workers hired in Atlanta where the Georgia Railroad agreed to transport them for free. The striking union invited Berry on the arbitration panel that finally ended the strike.

Leo Frank

But it is Berry’s role in the 1914 Leo Frank Case that puts modern “progressive” academic historians on the horns of dilemma. If they condemn him, they may be criticized as antisemitic but if they praise him, they risk accusations of racism. Too many academics are accustomed to monopolizing such denunciations, which they dishonestly use to try and shame-into-silence anyone who challenges their interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Leo Frank was a Cornell-educated Jewish engineer who moved to Atlanta in 1908 when he was twenty-four years old. Two years later he married a local girl and in 1910 was elected President of Atlanta’s chapter of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization. When managing a local pencil factory in 1913, a thirteen-year-old girl worker was found raped and murdered in the basement. A month later Frank was charged with the murder and convicted after a twenty-five-day trial.

Berry followed the trial from Augusta with interest because one of his adult son Charles’s boyhood friends, William Smith, represented the black janitor who was a key prosecution witness. Notwithstanding that Smith had become an advocate of black rights partly under Berry’s mentorship, Berry doubted the handyman’s testimony. Jim Conley, the janitor, claimed that Frank paid him $200 in cash the very night of the murder as hush money and to assist in the body disposal. The “confession” earned him a light sentence.

As an accountant, Berry felt $200 was too much money for a factory manager to have on hand on a Saturday night. He travelled to Atlanta where he lodged with the Smith family and, together with Smith, questioned Conley the next day. After checking the books, Smith learned that the pencil factory had only $26 in cash on hand the night of the murder. Upon further investigation Berry learned that the murdered girl could not have arrived at the factory as early as Conley testified. He also discovered other exculpatory Frank evidence.

After returning to Augusta he corresponded with Frank. He also published a pamphlet at his own expense detailing “Five Arguments” that questioned the prosecution’s case. This put him in a newspaper duel with Tom Watson, a newspaperman and former congressman who was convinced of Frank’s guilt. Eventually Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life-imprisonment, expecting that he could pardon Frank when tempers cooled. In order to protect Frank, the governor ordered the prisoner removed to Milledgeville. Watson became enraged and published an article demanding an investigation. Consequently, a vigilante group formed in the girl’s hometown, caravanned to Milledgeville, broke into the jail and lynched Leo Frank on August 17, 1915.

Despite his doubts about Conley, the Berry Benson family lived in a racially integrated neighborhood and he experimented with regional mushrooms in search for a cheap food supply for Southern blacks. The intelligent Benson became a cryptography expert whose assistance with Spanish codes during the Spanish-American War was repeatedly turned down by Federal bureaucrats who repetitively replied to his letters by falsely assuming he was trying to sell them a code. In 1877 he served as the model for the common soldier that stands atop Augusta’s Confederate monument, which some academics target for destruction.

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The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

Why did Southerners Fight the Civil War?

(April 4, 2018) Eric Foner acolytes and similar historians equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for the Civil War, even while admitting they cannot explain why the North declined to let the South depart in peace. Anti-Southern “experts” like an interpretation that demonizes the typical Confederate soldier for fighting to defend slavery and ennobles the ordinary Yankee for fighting to end it. In short, it endorses the Evil Twin metaphor for the War that portrays the South as America’s “evil” twin and the North is her “good” twin.

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But objective historians realize the reasons for secession and the reasons the average Rebel soldier fought are not the same. William C. “Jack” Davis, for example, writes: “The widespread Northern myth that the Confederates went to the battlefield to perpetuate slavery is just that, a myth. Their letters and diaries, in the tens of thousands, reveal again and again that they fought and died because their Southern homeland was invaded and their natural instinct was to protect home and hearth.” Only about thirty percent of Southern families owned slaves and fewer than ten percent of individuals held title to them.

While Davis supports his opinion with letters and diaries, mere common sense implies how improbable it would have been for the typical Southerner to leave his family, risk his life, endure army-life hardships, and kill others who had done him no harm simply to protect slave property owned mostly by wealthy planters. Only a deluded historian propagandist could suggest that it was a prime motivation.

It’s more likely that the typical Southerner felt as Daniel Woodrell portray’s his main character’s motivation in his novel, Woe to Live On. The protagonist is a nineteen year old Bushwhacker named Jake Roedel. As the Civil War progresses his best friend becomes Daniel Holt, a slave. Like Roedel, Holt joined his white childhood friend to be with the Missouri Bushwhackers. Jake responds to a question from Holt about why the Rebels fight:

“[The Yankee] is the cut of man who if you say the sun is high, he will say, no, you are low. That is nothing in itself to war over. But then he will say, I believe my way, my life, and person have more loft to them than yours do, so be like me. . .The Rebel is not the man you want to say that to. He don’t care for it. . . The Rebel will fight you if you try to force him to your way. And it don’t matter too much what your way is, neither.”

Today’s experience among students of the Civil War suggests that Roedel’s viewpoint still applies. Most modern historians sympathize with the North and many will condemn anyone who challenges the Evil Twin metaphor. Such historians  believe that they “have more loft” and require that Southern historians be more like them. Megan Nelson, for example, urges that all Confederate monuments be destroyed and left as rubble to dishonor Southerners of the Civil War era as well as those born later who erected the monuments. Such condescensions cause Roedel’s explanation to resonate with many present-day Southerners. “We don’t care for” such haughtiness.

Roedel fought to protect his right to think for himself. He instinctively rebelled against those who proclaimed themselves as morally superior and presumed they had the right to tell him what he should think. He fought because he was a rebel.

Two Opposite Views on Confederate Monuments

(August 4, 2017) The current issue of Civil War Times contains an article in which a number of authors state their opinions about the future of Confederate monuments. Provided below are two contrasting examples.

First is the summation provided by Megan Kate Nelson who writes the regular “Stereoscope” column for Civil War Monitor.

I [Megan Kate Kelly] would like to propose that Confederate memorials should neither be retained nor removed: They should be destroyed, and their broken pieces left in situ.

On a scheduled day, a city government or university administration would invite citizens to approach a Confederate memorial, take up a cudgel, and swing away. The ruination of the memorial would be a group effort, a way for an entire community to convert a symbol of racism and white supremacy into a symbol of resistance against oppression.

Historians could put up a plaque next to the fragments, explaining the memorial’s history, from its dedication day to the moment of its obliteration. A series of photographs or a YouTube video could record the process of destruction. These textual explanations may be unnecessary, however. Ruins tend to convey their messages eloquently in and of themselves. In this case, the ruins of Confederate memorials in cities across the nation would suggest that while white supre-macists have often made claims to power in American history, those who oppose them can, and will, fight back.

Second is Robert K. Krick who is  Civil War historian whose interest is concentrated in the Eastern Theater.

We live in an age riven by shrill and intemperate voices, from all perspectives and on most topics. No sane person today would embrace, endorse, or tolerate slavery.

A casual observer, readily able to convince himself that he would have behaved similarly in the 1860s, can vault to high moral ground with the greatest of ease. Doing that gratifies the powerful self-righteous strain that runs through all of us, for better or worse. In fact, it leaps far ahead of the Federal politicians (Lincoln among them) who said emphatically that slavery was not the issue, and millions of Northern soldiers who fought, bled, and died in windrows to save the Union—but were noisily offended by mid-war emancipation.

It is impossible to imagine a United States in the current atmosphere that does not include zealots eager to obliterate any culture not precisely their own, destroying monuments in the fashion of Soviets after a purge, and antiquities in the manner of ISIS…On the other hand, a generous proportion of the country now, and always, eschews extremism, and embraces tolerance of others’ cultures and inheritances and beliefs. Such folk will be society’s salvation.

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