Heritage v. History: Additional Thoughts

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.

9 comments… add one

  • Andrew Stegmaier Sep 9, 2007

    I agree everything you said explicitly in your post: If we aim to discover the truth about history, we must strive look at it with a fresh, unbiased eye. And this kind of clear vision is difficult even for even professional historians to achieve, not to mention the lay public.

    Having read many posts of this type on your blog, I fear, though that you may be saying something more. I continue to hope, though, that you weren’t implying that this vice is exclusively, or even primarily, held by people who express sympathy with an aspect of the Confederacy. Like an army, every intellectual cause has its champions and its foot-soldiers. It is most un-gentlemanly for you, a champion of the new revisionism, to spend so much time fighting the unrefined and less powerful enemies when so many more intellectually honest historians remain. As they say: “pick on someone your own size”!

  • Adam Zimmerli Sep 9, 2007

    Kevin,

    I think that the problem is not that you don’t have a “familial” relationship to the issue. In fact, I would argue that someone who has such a connection is considerably more likely to have their views distorted.

    I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories of WWII. I venerated him, and I didn’t really think about what his experiences in combat meant, or analyze the things he was telling me. I mean, on the one hand, I was young and was just happy to listen, and on the other hand, he never really talked much about the war. What I got was gleaned through the years, until he finally granted me an interview, and the whole picture changed.

    But, the major problem here is that he’s my grandfather, and as his loving grandson, who am I to criticize him or correct him? He might “remember” doing one thing with his unit on Okinawa, but a scholarly bit of research would prove that he was still in the hospital recovering from wounds, and he only “remembered” what his buddies told him about the event. But, again, who am I? I’m burdened by the familial connection, not freed by it.

    If we’re to reach for that unattainable though oft sought after complete objectivity or truth, we have to realize our biases and state them, like Dew does, so that it cannot be any question that there is this burden.

    No, I would say that the lack of a familial connection is a blessing. You don’t have an obligation to the past or to your relatives to present a certain subjective past that other historians or amateur historians would.

    Adam

  • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2007

    Excellent points Adam.

    Andrew, — Thanks for taking the time to write. You make some very good points and I agree wholeheartedly that what I am describing is not exclusive to those attracted to the Confederacy. The same can be said for any number of examples, including those who venerate Lincoln in a way that distorts or ignores the past. I focused on the Confederacy and the Lost Cause because my primary research intersts are connected to memory and culture.

  • Tim Lacy Sep 10, 2007

    First-rate post. Keep up the good work! If more people understood even the first paragraph of your reflection, we historians could move on to all kinds of other interesting questions in history. – TL

  • Cash Sep 10, 2007

    Excellent post, Kevin. May I suggest that in addition to Dew “understands what the scholarly study of history involves,” which is most certainly true, that there’s another, related component: he has intellectual integrity.

    Regards,
    Cash

  • Andrew Stegmaier Sep 10, 2007

    Aren’t anti-confederate sympathies just as part of our memory and culture–and thus a part of your area of study–as pro-confederate sympathies, especially today? Where are the posts that admonish less sophisticated versions of these opinions? I don’t mean merely to accuse you of bias, which is not really a crime, after all–I would honestly like to see what you think about the whole picture of civil war memory, not just of the lost cause clique.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 11, 2007

    Andrew, — Excellent question. As a way to get started it would be interestting to hear what you take to be the “anti-Confederate” view. I say this because it seems clear to me that the neo-Confederate view enjoys a coherent set of historical assumptions structured around the Lost Cause and often a set of political assumptions. So, where do we find this level (or something close to it) on the other side. Thanks again for the question.

  • Happy Dae Sep 11, 2007

    I agree that detachment from bias is important to the scholarly examination of any historical event. I also suspect that is nigh onto impossible for us, the human race. By examining an historical event or ideology, we already HAVE an agenda, don’t we? Kevin examines the Civil War, not the War of the Roses or the Spanish American War. Why THIS particular area of history? What agenda prompts this? And we who read his and others’ comments carry our own preconceptions into it, too.

    Scientists seems to agree that the simple act of observing a phenomenon affects it. I submit that we often bring a 21st century viewpoint to the mid-19th century conflict when we study the War of the Rebellion. We can smell the scent of the gunpowder, but we don’t feel the burn of the bullet. Reading about the septic conditions and illnesses suffered helps us understand, but we don’t vomit.

    Until Time Travel is possible, we will be distant observers at best. And that’s the best we can hope for. Still, I enjoy these studies, even with my own preconceptions of how it might have been.

    Happy Dae.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 11, 2007

    I have to say that I am not too concerned about our inability to see the past from a metaphysical position of objectivity – whatever that even means. Yes, we all have agendas, but that is not much of a problem if we continually remind ourselves of it and work to overcome it to the best of our ability. We do this by considering criticism and acknowledging multiple perspectives. Good researchers take their time in both trying to ask the right questions and in uncovering answers. Over time we learn more and understand better. It’s not a question of objectivity v. relativism.

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