Last night I caught Bob Krick’s SCV talk "Lee and Historians in the Age of the Anti-Hero" on CSPAN. I blogged about this talk a few weeks back, but only had a newspaper article to work with. Viewing the talk in its entirety, however, did not add much to my previous observations.
I actually enjoyed listening to Krick. He’s got a great sense of humor and is clearly a well-read individual beyond the confines of Civil War history. He started off on just the right note, by commenting on the ways in which memory often comes to distort the past. In the context of memory of the Civil War Krick outlined the general view made popular by David Blight and others, which highlights the impact that reconciliation and reunion had on popular perceptions of the war. He referenced this view as a point of departure in noting that not all postwar observations were distortions or exaggerations.
Krick’s central observation is that historian’s claims that Lee’s reputation was constructed during the postwar era are reflective of a general trend of conspiracy theories and "anti-Confederate" writings. Now if there ever was a strawman argument this is it. Before proceeding I should note that Krick frames the issue correctly: the question is not whether one ought to view Lee as an icon, but whether people at the time did. Krick quotes from three texts to make this point, including Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan, and Michael Fellman. Only three historians are referenced in the entire talk, which doesn’t make for much of a historiographical analysis. At one point he suggests that these writers are mainly academics, but of course, Nolan is an attorney. Later in the talk he quotes approvingly from Charles Roland’s short text on Lee and he is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Kentucky so clearly not all academics are problematic on his view. On the other hand, Krick’s criticisms of Fellman’s study of Lee focus not on his central question but on the author’s use of psychological categories such as "manic depression." While I agree that psycho-history can be misused it is not clear to me that Fellman is anti-Lee or anti-anything. He may be wrong about his claims, but Krick has little interest in critiquing those claims. Vague generalizations and mischievous minds seem to be the order of the day.
The problem as I see it for Krick is that while his conspiratorial claims about recent Lee literature barely include anything constructive his preferred approach to history is one that many historians have come to appreciate. Krick believes that the way to approach Lee is by looking at the way he was perceived at the time and not after the war. He quotes from E. Porter Alexander and a civilian who I am believe is Catherine Edmundson. Here Krick is on solid ground and on target as an implicit response to Nolan and Connelly. The problem here is that Krick doesn’t cite one historian writing today who has adopted such an approach and there are many. He presents himself as a lone cavalier out to save the reputations of the great Confederate chieftain. To drive the point home Krick asserts that only Lee has been the victim of such attacks while Lincoln and Grant have been largely untouched. This last point is patently absurd as anyone who follows Lincoln historiography knows. In fact, if ever there was a "historian" whose conclusions followed from an agenda and little understanding of how to conduct research about Lincoln it is none other than Thomas DiLorenzo who was one of the panelists at this conference.
Krick is right about one thing that is there is a great deal of bad Civil War history out there. However, basing one’s observations on bookss published 15 to 30 years ago does not help us understand more recent historiographical trends in the field. I understand that Krick’s next book on weather in Virginia during the Civil War is due out soon with the University of Alabama Press. No one has a better grasp of Confederate military sources, so as always, I look forward to his next book.