Thinking Critically About the Civil War

I enjoyed reading Brooks Simpson’s plea over at Civil Warriors for historians and enthusiasts to continually challenge the way we think about the Civil War.

One of the characteristics of much (although not all) writing on the American Civil War is the tendency to rehash the same old arguments and repeat the same old narrative lines. To be sure, novelty for novelty’s sake is not always a good idea, in that the outrageous and the outlandish often become mere distractions. But in a career marked by reading and writing, it is interesting how at time we spend so little time thinking … and I mean thinking long, hard, and deep about what we do and how we do it. I fear that at times we’ve lost the ability to look at sources with fresh eyes, to read them or look at them freed of as much baggage as we bring to our work.

I agree. All too often an argument purporting to uncover some new turning point is presented as some significant paradigm shift. My guess is that Civil War history is particularly prone to this problem as there is a wider range of historical imagination, analytical ability, and literary skill mixed in on the bookstore shelves. Unfortunately, the kind of thinking that Simpson is calling for is all too often labeled as “liberal” or “revisionist” within certain circles who refuse to step out of their little shells. Such accusations point to the continued divide between the kinds of questions that professional historians as opposed to more casual enthusiasts bring to the table. As I’ve suggested in numerous posts, most Civil War enthusiasts are really not that interested in challenging their preconceived assumptions. There is a certain investment in the tired old stories that continue to attract readers.

The other strand of Simpson’s post emphasizes the importance of taking a “look at sources with fresh eyes.” In my own work on Civil War memory I spend a great deal of time trying to interpret postwar sources as a product of reunion, postwar political debates, and other factors. Of course this is clearly a walk on the slippery rocks, but is absolutely essential as a way to understand how and why certain individuals and organizations remembered the war. For the opening chapter of my Crater manuscript I steer clear entirely of postwar sources. I did this to draw a clearer contrast between what soldiers said about the battle in the days and weeks following the battle as opposed to what some of the same people stated decades later. I can’t tell you how many times my work has been attacked by individuals and groups whose evidence for a competing interpretation is rooted in postwar sources. All too often I come across (typically on internet sites) Neo-Confederate rants about the nature of slavery, emancipation, and black Union soldiers that are based on Confederate Veteran, The Southern Historical Society Papers and other postwar sources. There seems to be little sense that these sources need to be interpreted and cannot be used unquestionably.

I encourage Simpson to push the virtues of historical revisionism in future posts.

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