So Simple Even My Students Understand It

[An attempt to connect some ideas that are currently floating around in my head into one coherent post.]

Today I took a small group of students up to Chancellorsville.  We spent about 4 hours driving to different locations and had lunch on the battlefield.  Our stops included the Zoan Church, Chancellor House, and the spot where Lee and Jackson met for the final time.  We followed Jackson’s flank march and ended up back at the Visitor’s Center where we followed Jackson’s reconnaissance and fatal shots.  Following lunch we drove over to Hazel Grove where I discussed the action on May 3.  The Park Service has done quite a bit since the last time I visited the battlefield.  The trees around Fairview have been cut, which provides an excellent view from Hazel Grove and makes it very easy to interpret the ground along with its significance to the fighting.  At the Chancellor House I noticed two new markers by the remnants of the foundation.  One focuses on the Chancellor slaves and the other on the Chancellor women who were forced to take refuge in their basement for much of the battle.  I mentioned that the two markers reflected an attempt on the part of the Park Service to broaden their interpretations of the military to include issues of race, slavery, and civilian life.  At one point I mentioned that this was a divisive debate and that many believe that the Park Service should stick to coverage of the movement of troops and other issues strictly related to battles and campaigns.  As we walked back to the bus one of my students inquired why this was so controversial.  If I remember correctly the student said: "Isn’t it true that civilians and slaves were often caught up in the confusion of battle?"  Leave it to a student to reduce an emotionally-charged debate down to the essentials.

Speaking of civilians I’ve read a few reviews of "Sherman’s March" and am not surprised to find that there are people who will continue to take issue with the "destructiveness" of his campaign and the image of the Union army as engaged in plunder and rape.  I don’t mind that people still find a reason to get emotional about it all, but I refuse to consider it as having anything to do with history.  As I toured the battlefield today I thought a bit about our tendency to understand Georgia’s civilian population as a white civilian population.  Apparently, Georgia’s blacks do not count in many peoples attempts to understand Sherman’s movements.  The two groups experienced that march very differently, which must be acknowledged by historians in writing about the campaign.  This acknowledgment is not a moral judgment, but the result of a responsibility to tell as complete a story as possible.  What I find so fascinating is the tendency of many to identify with people who lived during the Civil War.  Yes, there are people who have ancestors who fought on both sides, but even here I wonder whether such a close identification is useful in and of itself as a means to greater understanding.  I say this as someone who has no personal connection to the war nor as someone who was raised on stories of the war or groomed on battlefields during my formative years.  I didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.   

What I mean to say is that I have absolutely no interest in any type of moral vindication for either side.  I am pleased that slavery ended as a result of the war, but I have no interest in any moral identification with the men on the battlefield or with the civilian leaders in Richmond and Washington, D.C.  As a historian my primary interest is in better understanding why events transpired from as many perspectives as possible.  I am not psychologically wedded to any assumptions about the relative goodness of Southerners vs. Northerners, but I am fascinated by people who do.  You can see it in people’s expressions when they leave the realm of history to another place that is more about their own personally constructed ideas about what happened and what it means that it happened.  While I admit to finding the language and tone worth dissection it is not from the perspective of a historian, but as someone who is interested in the ways we become emotionally invested in our ideas of the past. 

Sherman’s march brings this out in a visceral kind of way.  Most people find a need to reduce his decisions down to an overly simplistic condemnation as if Sherman was the first and last general to bring war to civilians.  Interestingly we tend not to have these types of discussions when it comes to the bombings of German and Japanese cities during WWII.  The Civil War was not WWII but the kind of war fought was similar if not much more severe.  Allied planes bombed many cities into rubble which collapsed any neat/traditional distinction between military and civilian targets.  The latter, one could argue, were targeted to bring about military ends.  Within this broader context Sherman’s campaign was mild at best.  His army destroyed infrastructure and lived off the land to survive and this served to drain the will to continue to fight from many on the home front.   Please don’t write  me to share the personal hardship stories of ancestors or to try to convince me of some vague "moral monster" label that you believe ought to be applied to Sherman.  I am not interested.  I have nothing at stake in the way I perceive Sherman as a moral being.  I don’t get goose bumps from certain images or from my own self-perceptions of the general.  Again, I am interested in historical questions surrounding the campaign.  How can the campaign be understood as a logical extension of Union war policy?  Did it succeed?  How did Sherman and his men relate to the civilian population – both black and white?

To those of you who have watched "Sherman’s March on the History Channel I would ask you to think about any strong reactions you may have.  Are your reactions the result of careful review of recent published works, including biographies of Sherman as well as studies of the campaign?  Or is it an extension of deep-seated feelings that have more to do with the luck of family and geography than with a genuine interest in the past?

5 comments… add one
  • swp Apr 26, 2007 @ 9:47

    My father was from a Southern Ga Civil War family. His family wrote books and in some cases devoted their lives to explaining the South. I really hated it and tried my best to block any word on the subject from memory. But, I guess the thing I think people miss is how much people wanted the war to end. For so many years following the war the tension in the impoverished South was on the edge of violence. My ancestor who was an editor of a major newpaper, never recorded his own political opinion. They talked about the death.

    My father was the fifth generation of a lineage of males who’s father was lost in a war by the age of 9 (they were loyalists during the American Revolution). He felt his culture it was silenced and all words published about the war were from the north. Even the Thirty Year War (Mom’s side of the family), drove Germans to the Carolinas and heartland where they fought in these wars (but no one in her family died).

    I’m reading about the Civil War now because I wonder if war was the best solution. I don’t actually know much though. Why not pressure England to quit trading with the South since they had made slavery illegal in England? Why did they build Southern Warship? How much did the north play in continuing the role of slavery in controlling Black riots in New Orleans, or the Trail of Tears. Since Whites were outnumbered in the South I think Blacks eventually would have taken control. Although I suspect they would have legislated the same oppression they had been taught.

    I’ve been left with the feeling that wars are murder and murder is immoral. When people fantasize about political actions as though they are games of winners and losers, I feel very sad. It’s all about the flag waving and then death that lasts for centuries.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 24, 2007 @ 16:13

    Bruce, — Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful post. I agree with much of what you said and encourage you to consult some of the titles that I referenced in my review of the movie. Pay careful attention to Grimsley and Glatthaar’s books. You are correct in pointing to Schlesinger as an example of someone who never lost sight of the moral dimension of history. I was definitely not suggesting that we should not pay attention to morality, but that an emotional/moral conclusion should not be driving the historical cart. In other words, careful study should inform our moral judgments and not the other way around.

    Thanks again.

  • Bruce Miller Apr 24, 2007 @ 13:52

    Kevin, I had a couple of thoughts on this. One is that despite the focus of generations of white Southerners complaining about the terrible, horrible Sherman’s march through Georgia, Sherman’s real innovation in warfare was his focus on attacking economically vital facilities like factories and railroad lines, which yielded the famous “Sherman neckties” (tracks twisted into knots). Although pre-industrial age armies were known to cause plenty of destruction – the massive carnage and destruction of the Thirty Years War went way beyond even that of the Civil War or any other until the bloodbath we know as the First World War – industrial age warfare depended more immediately on the economic foundations of the home country and on then-high-tech transportation facilities like railroads than pre-industrial armies did. And since large plantations were a major pillar of the Southern economy, physically laying them waste was part of that approach.

    In his marches through Georgia, and his less publicized march through South Carolina of a similar kind, Sherman was striking at what today we would call “strategic” targets, facilities that were significant in aiding the enemy war effort. I don’t have enough specific knowledge about the Georgia or South Carolina marches to have any detailed judgment about how well he maintained military discipline among his men, although I have the strong impression that he did so pretty well.

    It is a subject I want to look at more closely at some point, because in our day of air power and its lavish use in wars, the whole concept of hitting “strategic targets” is a very problematic one. I know that at some level, part of the point of the Georgia and South Carolina campaigns was psychological, to convince the Confederate Army that they had no hope of winning militarily. But I wonder to what extent Sherman was trying to do that via the civilian population, hoping they would bring pressure for surrender, and how well that worked. Because despite the faith of air power advocates since before the Wright brothers took flight that targeting the morale of the enemy’s civilian population will break the other side’s “will”, there is little evidence that it works in practice, and much evidence that it stiffens the enemy population’s determination to fight. So I’m curious as to how that may have played out in the case of Sherman’s Georgia and South Carolina campaigns.

    I recall a conversation as I had in Mississippi as a teenager about the use of air power on civilian targets in Vietnam. One adult said, “Well, they [the Yankees] did it to us [Southerners of a century before] in the Civil War, why shouldn’t we [contemporary Americans] do it to them [the Vietnamese]?” A bizarre case of Southern white lore about the ruthlessness and amorality of Sherman serving as the justification for arguably ruthless and amoral air warfare against people whose ancestors had nothing at all to do with the American Civil War.

    While I agree with you about the need to understand various perspectives in looking at historical events, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a historian (even us part-time and amateur ones) should have “no interest in any type of moral vindication for either side”. I just came across a 1949 essay by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., on the Civil War in which he argued that there are some things that are so basic that historians are in fact obligated to take a moral position on them. He used the case of the Holocaust as an example, although I believe he referred to Nazi Germany in a more general way. We could add the Armenian genocide, the horrors of Rwanda or the Balkans in the 1990s, the burning of witches in early-modern Europe (and America), and others. As he put it then, if there is anything that we can say with certainty was morally wrong, then chattel slavery is surely one of them.

    But I would also say that, in general, history is a very poor source for people looking for saintly inspiration or moral lessons. Especially because I think we learn those moral lessons very poorly.

    Also, in addition to moral considerations in the broadest, humanitarian sense, there is also the fact that the outcome of the Civil War has been a very determining factor in the development of American democracy. To the extent that equality before the law and even the general rule of law prevailed (in practice, slaveowners had operated beyond the law in relation to their slaves), then American democracy as we understand its basic elements today did prevail. While that’s a factual and analytical judgment rather than “moral”, I’m not sure how any supporters of democracy could entirely separate a value judgment from that reality.

  • Kevin Levin Apr 24, 2007 @ 10:16

    Chris, — I can’t tell you how nice it is to hear from a fellow high school teacher in the trenches. I once gave a talk on the reaction of Confederates to the inclusion of USCTs at the battle of the Crater and watched as people literally got up and walked out. So, at least they stayed for your Q&A. I should say that that experience only happened once, but I do understand where you are coming from. The cries of “revision” or “liberal” are unfortunately the tools of those who have read little and understand even less.

    Keep up the good work and always hold your ground by forcing the individual to stick to historiography and legitimate argument.

  • Chris Paysinger Apr 24, 2007 @ 9:01

    I’m pretty amazed at how much of a visceral reaction people still have about the Civil War. I can’t imagine not being abe to separate personal feelings from historiography. I recently spoke to a local group about my Master’s thesis topic that deals with Union war policy and the small North Alabama town in which I live. During the question and answer session, more time was spent asking about the potential liberal leanings of my profs vs. my findings.
    They were also more concerned about the “causes” of the war rather than the topic. For me it’s frustrating that I sometimes feel that I have to be cafeful and take into account my audience when discussing the Civil War. Even in my high school class, I have parents who get upset that I “stress” the role slavery played in the move to secession. Just a diatribe….

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