Are You a Pro-Union Scholar?

James I. Robertson is one of the most visible and respected of our Civil War historians.  I’ve read all of his books, and his biography of “Stonewall” Jackson is rightly considered a major accomplishment in the field of biography.  That said, I still find his participation in and continued support of the movie Gods and Generals to be somewhat amusing  Here is an interview with Robertson from Planet Blacksburg, which included a response that caught my attention since I have no idea what point he was trying to make:

Q: Are there a lot of scholars that are very Pro-Union or Pro-Confederate?

Robertson:
The majority are Pro-Union.  The overwhelming majority [of scholars] are Pro-Union, yes.  We southerners are in the minority.

Very strange response indeed.

12 responses... add one

“Very strange response indeed” How so?

PS I have some of Robertson’s books, and my grandmother sat in on one of his CW classes at VA Tech.

It’s a “strange response” because, among other reasons, the comment altogether abandons the idea of historical objectivity. It would be one thing to criticize other historians for having a bias, but Robertson here admits to his own.

Hi Craig, — You hit the nail on the head. Robertson reduces interpretation down to geography without any explanation at all. It is a rather silly argument (if it can be considered an argument at all) implying determinism. Worse than that it implies that professional historians have some kind of allegiance when it comes to thinking about the past rather than a desire to know why something happenend. We don’t need a philosophical notion of objectivity to understand that. Just read the introduction to Charles Dew’s _Apostles of Disunion_.

Let’s not put too much stock in a media interview. If I had a dollar for every time I was misquoted or had my comments taken out of context, I could retire and start my own blog (just kidding, Kev). I, too, was an advisor for _Gods and Generals_, but most of my suggested revisions were not incorporated. (Craig Symonds, Keith Gibson, Ed Bearrs, Will Greene, and others also were advisors.) Remember, the movie is fiction based on SOME fact, but it’s still fiction. Hollywood producers and directors, no matter how hard they try to be historically accurate, usually fall short. Ron Maxwell was trying to please too many constituencies with _Gods_, and the result was disappointing. In an attempt to make the battle scenes accurate and reduce the number of overweight re-enactors (something for which Maxwell was severely criticized in _Gettysburg_), I think he just got lost in the details and forgot about the “big picture.” He did cut a scene that showed happy Confederate “servants” singing around a camp fire, as well as a scene that had Stonewall and Jim discussing the merits of arming the slaves (in Dec. 1862!). The problem with films like this (_Pearl Harbor_ is another example) is that it is sometimes the only “history” consumed by the general public, and it’s taken as the gospel truth. C’est la guerre . . . .

Hi Mark, — Nice to hear from you. I assume that you are referring to his comments re: G&G and not to what I quote in my post. Is there any evidence that the above-mentioned passage has been taken out of context?

As to G&Gs I don’t have much to say other than that it was an appauling movie regardless of the fact that it was based on a poor work of historical fiction. I’ve read plenty of interviews with Maxwell where he has commented in response to criticism of the content of the movie in an incredibly defensive manner – stands in sharp contrast with Ken Burns. We should remember that the movie is based on fiction, but as you point out this is where many American learn history. Gone With the Wind probably had more influenec on how Americans think about slavery than any other source.

Thanks for commenting Mark.

I still find it a very strange comment. Robertson equates being a southerner in 2007 to being “pro-Confederate.” Not every southerner was pro-Confederate in 1862; to suggest such a correspondence 145 years later is extremely strange.

What exactly does “pro-Confederate” mean in 2007?

There seems to be a level of discomfort from the use of “pro-Confederate”, probably because in today’s context many believe it implies racism or is the equivalent of being pro-slavery. But I think what Robertson means by “we southerners” may be euphemistically called pro-southern, which may mean that he represents a group who can put the CW and its social implications into a historical context that is more fair and balanced to all parties North AND South. In Robertson’s words, “you can’t look at the past through the lenses of the present”.

And I’m quite skeptical of most anyone who can truly be objective in teaching history given the nature of the discipline, the self-selection, any pre-conceived ideas, family heritage, racial makeup, etc. Reminds me of something from Thoreau, for example, are you a historian, or are you a man who practices the study of history? The latter reflects a much more complex and multi-dimensional view of a person.

Kevin,

Let me stand up for my former prof here. :)

I’d say Prof. Robertson is sympathetic to the confederate soldiers, though I don’t think he’s all that sympathetic to the confederacy. That’s pretty obvious if we look at his body of work and listen to his lectures. He’s understandably proud to be a Southerner, but from being in his class many years ago, hearing him over the years, and from reading his books I don’t believe he’s one of those who “roots” for either side or tries to justify the confederacy. I remember hearing him speak of Lincoln in almost reverent terms, and he’s almost as sympathetic to Billy Yanks as he is to Johnny Rebs.

I think too much is being made of what seems to me to be an offhand comment.

Regards,
Cash

Cash, — I definitely don’t want to make too much over this. I thought it was an interesting comment and decided to point it out. Thanks for the comment.

This Robertson quote illustrates to me one of the effects produced by the proliferation of pseudohistory and pseudoscience: it gets people accustomed to treating fact and opinion as interchangeable.

As far as viewpoint, it’s hard for me to see in these days when (American) flag-waving is so popular, how any American would want to admit to being anything but pro-Union in terms of *evaluating and analyzing* issues related to the Civil War. How could anyone from any country who supports democracy and the rule of law not retrospectively sympathize with the Union cause in that war?

But facts do exist independent of our opinions of them. And the factual task of the historian involves, among other things, asking appropriate questions and evaluating evidence to see what actually happened.

That’s where the Lost Cause tradition has done so much damage to honest history writing. Their insistence that slavery had nothing to do with the war has led to all sorts of comma-dancing to get around such inconveniences as that the political crises leading up to the war had slavery at their center, or that Southern leaders were saying as explicitly as they could say it that the Confederacy was fighting to preserve those sacred institutions (as they liked to call them) of slavery and white supremacy.

The Lost Cause hero-worship has also taken a toll on writing about men like Stonewall Jackson and (of course!) Robert E. Lee. Reality-based historians have quite a job cutting through the ideological weeds to get at the story in many cases.

Bruce writes, “it’s hard for me to see in these days when (American) flag-waving is so popular, how any American would want to admit to being anything but pro-Union in terms of *evaluating and analyzing* issues related to the Civil War. How could anyone from any country who supports democracy and the rule of law not retrospectively sympathize with the Union cause in that war?”

I’m not going to address all of the biases in these comments, but in reality, it is southerners that are far more self-sacrificing and patriotic when it comes to putting their country before themselves: http://southernstudies.org/facingsouth/2005/08/institute-report-southerners-most.asp

I mean, come on, Tennessee is called “The Volunteer State” for goodness sake.

This goes way beyond the purpose of this post, but I do see many argue that the South should defer decision-making authority to others because of their history. This is primarily due to the South not being on board with their political agenda.

I’m not sure how Jim gets from my statement wondering how anyone could reconcile present-day sympathy for the Confederacy with present-day notions of American patriotism, to an article about how many Southerners serve in the armed forces. Last I heard, people joining the service pledge to support the United States and the Constitution, not the memory of the Confederate State of America.

But the question would apply to anyone (any American anyway) evaluating the Civil War as a political event. I’m not sure what their military service record would have to do with that. Unless there’s some study I’ve never heard of saying that veterans are generally more or less sympathetic to a Lost Cause view of the Civil War than everyone else. I’m not even sure how you could do a survey like that in a way that the results would mean anything.

That Institute for Southern Studies paper to which Jim refers is not about the Civil War or soldiers’ views of history at all.

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