Peter Carmichael on Civil War Talk Radio

I thoroughly enjoyed Friday’s interview with UNC-Greensboro historian Peter S. Carmichael.  Check out the interview, and more importantly, read The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunionit’s well worth the time.  I wanted to take a few minutes to comment on a few points made during the interview.  Carmichael touched on a number of issues in connection with his latest research, including his thoughts about battlefield interpretation and on the way the “last generation” forces us to rethink our assumptions about how we remember the Civil War and the postwar period.

At one point Carmichael touched on a point regarding the tendency for more traditional military narratives to ignore the ideological/political convictions of the soldiers on the field.  The question that prompted this comment asked about the experiences of Carmichael’s sample on the battlefield and their reputation as committed Confederates which in some cases bordered on the fanatical.  The traditional study can help us but little in understanding how men experienced the war since they tend to be seen as mindless chess pieces that are manipulated by their commanders.  Carmichael made the point by noting that the battlefield is a “site where you see the most extreme form of political action.”  For the men that comprise his study their battlefield experiences were a “consequence of their world view.”  Carmichael qualified this by giving a nod to the work of Bell I. Wiley who laid the foundation for our analytical studies of soldier life.  While Wiley tended to ignore the role of ideology as a motivator his research remains valuable to understanding the “material reality” of the common soldier.  I was pleased to hear that Carmichael is preparing the volume on Civil War soldiers for the Littlefield Series which is scheduled for release during the sesquicentennial.  He plans to provide both a historiographical overview of the field of soldier studies as well as a comparative account of Union and Confederate soldiers.  [Speaking of soldiers Chandra Manning is scheduled to be interviewed on Civil War Talk Radio in the next few weeks and her long-awaited study is also set for publication with Knopf in the near future.]

I was especially interested in Carmichael’s comments on the postwar years and memory.  He prefaced his comments by telling a short story about John W. Daniel who in 1867 spoke to a group of women at Manassas and told them to forget about the past.   Daniel’s comments serve to remind us that our own perceptions, which tend to be wrapped up in the blanket of Lost Cause ideology, was not by any means universally subscribed to by white southerners.  We tend to generalize about the different regions, and the most common move is to compare the industrial-capitalistic North with white Southerners who were defending the values of a traditional agricultural and peaceful society.  Carmichael’s young Virginians stand in sharp contrast with this overly simplistic image as they were pushing for a more progressive and expansive economy in the years leading up to the war.  That they continued to do so following the war did not represent any kind of betrayal, but a continuation of what they had assumed would further the interests of the Commonwealth before the fighting had started.  Of course they wanted all of this within a slave-holding society; the point is that what appears to be a mutually exclusive set of values is more a function of how we choose to remember and interpret the Southern past.  Is it any surprise that the way we remember certain iconic figures such as R. E. Lee – who of course is the paradigm example of this traditional picture of the South – is so grounded in an interpretation that stands in sharp contrast with our generalizations about the North in the nineteenth century.  And any attempt at questioning this is deemed to be “P.C” or “revisionist” or whatever – rather than the result of serious historical inquiry.  It is curious to me why some people simply assume such a defensive attitude in dealing with historians that question or suggest that our popular images of the past may not hold up under close scrutiny.  It reminds me of an out-of-control child screaming at the top of his lungs.

Carmichael reminds us that postwar Southern society was a “society up for grabs.”  While our popular memory assumes a society that struggled against the tide of modernism, capitalism, and black political power historians in recent years have uncovered a much more complex region.  Reconstruction was not a disaster for the white South; in fact we now know that increased black political action led to the first state schools in some parts of the South and other pieces of legislation that were impossible during the antebellum years when the elite slaveholding class governed.  In other words, not all white Southerners were on the same page after the war.  There is no better example of this than the four years of Readjuster control under the leadership of former Confederate Major General William Mahone.  The Readjusters increased black political office-holding which in turn led to an increase in the number of black students in the public schools as well as black teachers.  Mahone was despised by many white Virginians for threatening white supremacy and he was seen as a hero by both black and white Virginians.  While their control of the state government only lasted four years it is incredible to think that most Virginians no nothing about it.  The reason why we don’t remember is because we prefer to think of the white South as unified around a certain set of political assumptions.  In my research on Mahone and the Readjusters I went through scores of history texts that were used in the Virginia schools between 1900 and 1940 and could barely find a word about this important political movement.

The study of how American have chosen to remember the Civil War is not a conspiracy concocted by liberal-minded/revisionist/Eastern elite/Yankee historians who are bent on destroying all that is “good and pure” about the South.  [As I mentioned in a recent post most of these historians were born and bred in the South and educated in the South.]  One of the points that I am trying to make here is that there was never a time after the war when white Southerners were in agreement over how to remember the war.  The above-mentioned story about John Daniel reminds us that plenty of people were willing to give the back of their hand to the memorialization of the past and William Mahone was content to use the past to help with his own business and political interests.  White Southerners have been challenging the Lost Cause history of the war from the beginning.

Serious research is full of surprises; unfortunately, those surprises are sometimes perceived in a way that gives little weight or reflects little interest in how those conclusions were arrived at.  As someone who was born in New Jersey and came to the serious study of history in his mid-20’s I am fascinated by the complexity of Southern history.  My hope is to understand it better.

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