A Statement To My Readers

I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to the comments to my recent post, Jacksonian Paternalism in the Extreme that accuse me of being both anti-South and anti-Christian.  You can read the comments on your own.  Now I imagine that most of my regular readers see through these comments as a reflection of an overly simplistic and naive view of American history and historical methodology, but this does provide an opportunity to make a few points for the record. 

First, I am the first to admit that many of my posts could be and probably are interpreted as anti-Christian and anti-South.  And I think the reason for this is that for many Civil War enthusiasts the starting interpretive points revolve around the Lost Cause theory which postulates a unified white South around the fervent belief that specific leaders such as Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson represent the ideal Christian Warrior.  As I’ve stated on a number of occasions on this blog, one of my central goals has been to challenge this view of the war and the South.  The fundamental problem with the Lost Cause interpretation is its tendency to paint the South and the war with broad strokes whose original purpose was to soothe the pain of defeat in a post-emancipationist world.  In short, this is not history, but a rationalization to deal with the hard realities of defeat. 

Careful readers of this blog know that I am anything but unfriendly to the South.  The difficulty for many, however, is to see "the South" as anything but the "white South" — narrowly understood.  Not only is it a "white South" of Cavaliers but it tends to be reduced to the four years of the Civil War.  It’s as if everything beforehand was just a preview and what followed, a big unfortunate mistake.  The tendency is to dwell on those four years, which is dangerous.   More importantly, historians such as William Freehling and Ed Ayers have argued convincingly that there were "many Souths."  My job as a historian has been to try as best as I can to understand the many places and the ways in which various groups over time created their communities through constant interaction.  Once you dispense with this narrow understanding of what it means to study "the South" you will see that I am anything but anti-anything.  One final point: as far as I am concerned the most significant push to expand the boundaries of freedom in this country occurred in the South – the first as Fugitive slaves took it upon themselves to push Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and recruitment of U.S.C.T.’s and the second, one hundred years later during the Civil Rights Movement.  Isn’t that what our country is about? 

As to the second point that I am anti-Christian, all I can say is that religion is a complex topic so one should be careful to conclude anything without careful consideration.  My criticisms of Lee and Jackson as embodiments of the Lost Cause idea of Christian gentility should not be mistaken for any conclusions about my view of Christianity.  That I even have to make this explicit seems ludicrous.   I am fascinated by the historical Lee and Jackson and have read multiple scholarly monographs and articles about both.  The question of how their respective religious outlooks shaped their broader views is absolutely relevant and has been tackled by numerous historians.  My concern is in reducing these men and others down to an overly simplistic label that says more about our own agendas rather than anything historical.  This obsession with establishing the Christian virtues of Lee, Jackson and other reminds me of our current obsession with the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers. Liberals and Conservatives debate the hot issues like abortion and capital punishment by claiming some kind of ownership or monopoly about what the Founders believed and conclude with some statement of vindication.

I did not come to the study of the Civil War and the South until my mid-20′s.  I say this because I understand that many people who grew up with the Civil War in their backyard have much more of an emotional attachment to the events and people involved.  While I do celebrate certain aspects of American history I tend to be pretty unemotional about the war.  My guess is that many readers take my overly critical stance against the Lost Cause as evidence of some kind of approval for the North and Lincoln.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I admit that I admire Lincoln for a number of reasons and I am glad that the North won and slavery was abolished.  However, I do not read or research as someone who is rooting for a certain side.  I am currently reading a new study of the Copperheads who were incredibly criticial of Lincoln and the Republicans.  As far as I can tell my blood pressure has remained steady througout the reading.

As I suggested at the beginning, most of you do not need to be reminded of what is contained above.  For those of you who are new to Civil War Memory think of this post as an explicit overview of some of the themes that course throughout this blog.   

5 responses... add one

Kevin:

You are doing God’s work in my opinion by asking people to confront tough questions when they explore the nation’s past and to not settle for one dimensional, feel good stories of Confederate heroes that insult and demean the complex history of the South (Stonewall Jackson would get a huge laugh out the cavalier reference. Any serious student of Southern religion knows that the cavalier ideal had largely been discredited by the 1850s and that Jackson endorsed a Protestant gospel of social uplift, which in part explains his view of slavery). Your critics also forget that you have asked tough questions of Dimitri whose silly rants almost always deal with the Northern side of the war. Your readers and students are very fortunate to have someone who is intellectually fearless when it comes to the sacred cows of the Civil War. Those who write you off for your supposed liberal approach are obviously incapable of dealing with the content of your arguments and your invitation to engage in open debate.

Pete Carmichael

Kevin,

Let me get this straight – someone publishes a book called _Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend_, and you’re getting criticized for being skeptical? I mean, how much more “provocative” could a title be? And who really needs to read it to know that it’s garbage?

Pete and Sean, — I sometimes forget how defensive people can get when talking about some of these issues. What I find disappointing is that this last exchange could have easily gone in a different direction if the commenter had not started by insulting me. He could have asked a few questions or presented the alternative view in an intelligent manner. Well, I don’t think that’s possible now nor do I really want to hear from this individual again as this is not the first time that it’s happened. It is indeed a reflection of how little patience people have for serious dialogue.

“The fundamental problem with the Lost Cause interpretation is its tendency to paint the South and the war with broad strokes whose original purpose was to soothe the pain of defeat in a post-emancipationist world. In short, this is not history, but a rationalization to deal with the hard realities of defeat.”

In other words the so-called “Lost Cause Mythology.”

This stance assumes that myths exist -only- south of the Mason-Dixon line.

“My guess is that many readers take my overly critical stance against the Lost Cause as evidence of some kind of approval for the North and Lincoln.”

As I have not seen anything critical of the North…

Yes, I could come to that conclusion.

Tom, — Thanks for the comment. It’s safe to say that the popularity of the Lost Cause is due in part to its acceptance beyond the South. David Blight argues persuasively that the “emancipationist” legacy of the war was supplanted throughout much of the country by the Lost Cause view by the turn of the 20th century. As to your second comment, my tendency to focus on the South on this blog is more a reflection of my own research interests which center on postwar Virginia and memory of the battle of the Crater.

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