Thursday, October 3, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 163: Clifton Johnson, The Colored Cooper (#154)

Clifton Johnson, "The Colored Cooper" (1915) from The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

This is an interview with Joseph Lawson (born 1831), who is only identified as "The Colored Cooper" in Clifton Johnson's interview with him. Which is weird on one level--surely the guy's name should be in here somewhere?--but it seems to be the way Clifton Johnson identified his interviewees in his oral history of the Civil War, Battleground Adventures, with such titles as "The Slave Blacksmith" and "The Farmer's Son." Maybe Johnson wanted us to understand Lawson's position in society as a free black artisan and so gave us his race and occupation.

One of the big reasons why I like to talk about the Civil War and race is because of the school of congratulatory history that says that the South was simply fighting for rights in an abstract way; and that we can see this in the ways that black slaves loved their masters--or even (as the old lie goes) fought for the South. And this isn't just dead history, but connects up with the way that people today often talk about "states' rights" when what they really mean is they hold some principle higher than human health and happiness--at least, when it comes to other people's health and happiness. Do opponents of Roe v. Wade really care about states' rights or do they just not like abortion? Did defenders of DOMA really feel that the federal law should be more respected than states' rights or did they just find gay marriage to be icky? Etc.

So it gives me some pleasure when Lawson opens up his story of the battle of Fredericksburg with the note that, "As soon as the Yankees got hyar the slaves began to run away from their mistresses and masters."

But the rest of the piece is pretty much like most accounts of war from civilians caught in the crossfire: Lawson and his neighbors hid in the cellar to avoid the shelling; there are stories of narrow escape; and descriptions of the aftermath. For instance, Lawson gives the story of a doomed Federal attack that ended at a wall and how:
That wall still stands, and when there comes a rain they say the blood stains show on it even yet.
Which sounds like a mix between Civil War reportage and local color/Southern gothic fiction from the 1890s. There's actually quite a bit of war and violence here that Lawson sees and remarks on, as in his comparison of the dead men who look just like they're sleeping to the dead men who have been hit directly by shells and are scattered so finely over the battlefield that you'd never guess they once were living men. Still, by the time Johnson is gathering these oral histories, we can see how some of the story has been crafted, refined by the years, until we get some funny little remarks like--
We had rough times hyar. I don’t want any mo’ of that bumbarding in this world. I don’t want it in the next world either, if I’m ever able to git there.
--which were probably not what Lawson was thinking anytime in the 1860s, when the war was still fresh in his mind.

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