One of the most common criticisms that I receive (most of them in the form of private emails) is that my view of the past is distorted by a lack of a familial connection. I guess this means that because my roots do not go back to the Civil War South I have no justification for making claims about certain topics of the war. Rarely do these people explain which South I would need to trace my family history back to, but that’s another story. It’s an interesting claim and one that abounds in Civil War circles. I usually ask what it is that gives any historical claim or belief legitimacy simply because it comes from the mouth of someone with a specific lineage, but my questions are usually met by a befuddled look. Such is the anti-intellectual strain that runs through popular interest in the war.
I interpret this stance as a sign of a defensive posture; it reflects an unwillingness to look beyond shared stories and betrays an unwillingness to question the most basic assumptions about what we believe about the past. What is so striking, however, is the failure to grasp that there is no connection whatsoever between the background of a particular person and the content of one’s belief about the war and specifically the Confederacy. Think about it for a moment. I know people who grew up in the North who moved South at some point and firmly hold to a set of beliefs indistinguishable from the white Southerner who defends the standard Lost Cause myths. At least one prominent historian of the Confederacy that I am friends with loves to remind his audiences of his fascination with the Lost Cause at a very early age while growing up out west. At the same time I know plenty of academic historians who grew up in the deepest parts of the South and who now write books that most heritage folks would assume were written by one of those yankee-liberal professors from New England. This interesting dynamic suggests that regional origin and/or family history has little if nothing to do with whether you hold to a traditional Lost Cause view of the war. Consider the case of historian Charles Dew for a moment. Dew introduces his study of secession Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001) with a little personal history that is very relevant for our purposes. I am going to quote Dew at length:
Although I have taught at a New England college for the past twenty-three years, I am a son of the South. My ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy, and my father was named Jack, not John, because of his father’s reverence for Stonewall Jackson. On my fourteenth birthday I was given a .22-caliber rifle and D.S. Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants. I devoured all three volumes of Freeman’s classic history of the Army of Northern Virginia and the rifle was my constant companion during those seemingly endless summer days in Florida when plinking at cans and dreaming of Civil War battles constituted a significant part of my boyhood activities. When I went off to high school in Virginia, I packed a Confederate battle flag in my suitcase and hung it proudly in my dorm room. My grandmother, whom I loved dearly, was a card-carrying member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
I did not think much about secession and the causes of the war back then. My focus was on the battlefield and Lee’s valiant men, who had fought so hard and so long before finally yielding to overwhelming numbers. But if anyone asked me what the war was all about, I had a ready answer for them. I knew from listening to adult conversations about The War, as it was called, and from my limited reading on the subject that the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only; states’ rights. As I recall, my principal written source for this view was a small paperback entitled Confederate Youth’s Primer, a gift from one of my father’s law partners. It was crystal clear to me that the Southern states had left the Union to defend their just and sovereign rights–rights the North was determined to deny my region and my ancestors. Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee, and neither class deserved to be taken seriously.
All this is a roundabout introduction to a point I wish to make at the outset: despite my scholarly training and years spent trying to practice the historian’s craft, I found this in many ways a difficult and painful book to write. Even though I am far removed–both in time and attitude–from my boyhood dreaming about Confederate glory, I am still hit with a profound sadness when I read over the material on which this study is based. (pp. 1-2)
So, what are we to make of Dew’s revelation? We could write him off as someone who has betrayed "the cause" or was negatively influenced by living so long outside of the South, but that would tell us more about ourselves than with Dew himself. The fact that Dew tells us a story about his childhood, however, is instructive and perhaps sheds light on the nature of the attraction to these stories.
The answer as to why Dew no longer needs to believe or holds to certain views about secession, slavery, and the Confederacy in general is because he understands what the scholarly study of history involves. It first involves putting aside or challenging your personal view of the past. To argue that some kind of familial connection with the past must shape one’s analytical view defeats the very purpose of history. History provides an opportunity to see yourself and the rest of the world from a perspective apart from the luck that defines each of our lives. I didn’t choose where, when, or to whom I was born to so why must that dictate how I begin and end my quest to better understand my environment?
The reason these traditional stories of Confederate perfection in the form of Lee and Jackson or the irrelevancy of slavery to secession and war remain so attractive is because the people who are attracted to them need to believe. These stories provide some level of comfort, perhaps in the form of a shield from the modern world or even some kind of political justification. Whatever it is it has little to do with a serious or scholarly interest in the past. I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not meant as a way to single out white Southerners or any other particular group. As I stated before these stories have as much appeal outside the South as they do in it. And if we are to take Dew at his word those stories never completely lose their appeal.
I’ve said before that my only understanding of the Civil War comes from limited work in the archives and a voracious appetite for scholarly studies. There is very little emotional connection with the war for me so I am pretty much immune from personal attacks about my background or lack of a connection to the "Old South." I read and consider and then read some more and along the way I try to figure out how to ask the right question – nothing more, nothing less.