The Civil War is a Strange Place

While attending the SHA in Richmond last weekend I took in three panels on various topics connected to the Civil War and the nineteenth-century South.  Panels ranged from discussions of Unionist activity in North Carolina to the marketing of Confederate nationalism to northern tourists throughout the postwar period. 

If you can actually sit through three 20-minute presentations than you can hopefully look forward to spirited exchanges between panelists and commentator along with the audience.  Not once did I hear someone ask where a panelist was from, whether he had a Union or Confederate ancestor or their political persuasion.  In addition, I don’t remember at any time hearing a question regarding an individual’s "loyalties"; no one asked whether a speaker was "anti-South", "anti-North" or anti – pro anything.  In short, no one asked anything personal as an explanation as to why one’s individual research project led to a certain set of conclusions.  I assume the panelists included liberals, conservatives, northerners, as well as southerners.  Some of them no doubt can trace their family histories back to certain places in the north as well as south and so on and so forth.  Now, why is it that the blogosphere is filled with these types of questions, accusations, and suspicions? 

I think the question can be explained in large part as a failure to come to terms with what the discipline of historical research involves.  That’s not an accusation, but it is telling that those who utter such claims do not seem to have any formal training in the field.  They fail to see the process of history as a conversation that takes place over time in monographs, journals, and other venues rather than a slugfest between people debating or placing significance on where your great-great grandfather lived or whether you teach in a northern institution of higher learning.  Historians work to better understand the past by challenging one another’s questions, assumptions, evidence, and conclusions drawn from a certain body of evidence.  It’s not meant to be a conversation over blame, vindication or anything else that may fall into a normative category. 

My publications and on-going research projects have nothing at all to do with a need to vindicate or vilify any one region of the country.  I have no idea what it even means to be engaged in such a project.  The terms that are thrown around such as Confederate heritage, Union heritage, anti-South, pro-North, etc. mean very little to me and do not in any way enter into my interest in American history.  The terms themselves reflect an overly simplistic way of thinking and fail in any way to track anything historically salient.  The idea that one can be pro- or anti-South assumes that the South is some kind of monolithic entity or uniform throughout.  These references have no historical validity whatsoever, but unfortunately, those who consistently refer to such things have read very little or are caught up in an overly personal attachment to some conclusion that can only be defended in such a way.  Closely related are the attempts to prop up or tear down certain individuals from the Civil War as if this has anything to do with serious scholarship.  What is even more disturbing is the implicit assumption that white southerners must hold to a certain set of beliefs simply because of their background while white northerners necessarily hold distinct views.  This is a true mark of absurdity, but in the blogosphere and the Civil War community generally its business as usual. 

History is an intellectual discipline that involves careful study and sophisticated dialog.  It demands that we put aside our emotional baggage to whatever extent possible, not to attain some vague notion of philosophical objectivity, but to keep ourselves open to learning more and understanding better. 

10 comments… add one
  • J.R. Clark Nov 9, 2007

    The Lost Cause is a civic religion to neo-Confederates. “Robert E. Lee said it, I believe it, and that settles it” sums up their attitude to history.

  • John Walsh Nov 9, 2007

    Well put!

  • Larry Cebula Nov 9, 2007

    Well said indeed.

    I am a historian of the American West and American Indians. We have our battles and agendas and obstinate misguided amateurs, but it is as nothing compared to your field. This is exactly what draws me to your blog, Kevin. When I see one of your posts on Dixie Dawn or “black confederates” I sometimes shake my head or perhaps say “WTF is wrong with these people?” At some fundamental level I do not understand the dynamics, and I suspect that if I can figure it out I will learn something very important about my country and my profession.

  • Tim Lacy Nov 9, 2007

    As per the comments above, great piece.

    Many issues are involved in this post apart from objective scholarship and Southern heritage.

    I believe the overarching issue is identity. What is so dissatisfying about modern life that some must identify with—err cling to—shibboleths about the past? What’s wrong with identifying with the new South, today’s South? Aren’t their other ways to rebel against the problems of the modern South?

    It seems clear to me also that some occasionally confuse admirable Southern/American Victorian cultural mores (i.e. niceties, politeness) ~with~ the degraded structure of society in general. In identifying with one past, they can’t separate that from the other?

    It also appears to me, sometimes, that the drive to identify with Southern heritage is anti-intellectualism, pure and simple. They simply don’t want to examine the suppositions of the past society they FEEL (per the paragraph above) holds traits they admire. This anti-intellectualism manifests in a kind of historical nationalism. I suppose it’s not unlike the fact that some Russians today pine for the order given by Stalin and other corrupt communists.

    Enough of my musings. Great post. – TL

  • Kevin Levin Nov 9, 2007

    Tim, — You make a great point. Why is it that “heritage” folks are overly obsessed with the war years? Something there needs to be explained. Why don’t they focus just as much with the colonial period or “New South.” A few weeks ago I listened to a talk that praised R.E. Lee for his outspokenness on the issue of black education while president at W&L. Now how is it that we can praise someone for his words when we have William Mahone and the Readjusters who brought about the sharpest increase in the number of black teachers and students between 1879 and 1883. Why isn’t William Mahone an object of interest within the heritage communities?

    What I find so interesting is the extent to which these people actually believe they know these historic individuals. They feel as if the are in some kind of long distance relationship. Your point regarding the Victorian culture is well taken.

  • Dawn Freeman Nov 12, 2007

    Since I am not a historian but am used as an example here, I will comment and maybe shed some light on what the “common southern man” is thinking.

    “Heritage Folks” are obsessed with the war years because they feel their ancestors got the shaft, and they feel they personally are still getting the shaft today. They don’t focus on the other time periods because they are not being “blamed” for for those wars. No most of them have not picked up a book and read or studied and they won’t as long as they continue to feel threatened by the statements of those who call themselves educated. For example take a look at the comment above posted by Larry Cebula, if you were “heritage folk” and read that comment would you be willing to listen to what you call reason?

    Heritage Folks are defensive, they have been raised that way. Its not about a history lesson for them its a way of life, and they’re not going to pick up a book and understand the development of that way of life unless it has a confederate flag on it because they are put in a defensive position. If you want them to learn, if you want to teach them, then try some good ‘ole southern hospitality, be nice. If that doesn’t work and the they are still beyond your reach and obsessive then you can toss them aside, but you shouldn’t lump everyone into one category We are not all “radicals” Even if they remotely agreed with your reason you will never gain them because you ‘talked smack” if you will, for them you made it personal. Thats how they see it, therefore your battle is lost.

    Thank you Kevin
    Most respectfully,
    Dixie Dawn

  • Kevin Levin Nov 12, 2007

    Dear Dawn, — Thanks for the comment. You said:

    “”Heritage Folks” are obsessed with the war years because they feel their ancestors got the shaft, and they feel they personally are still getting the shaft today. They don’t focus on the other time periods because they are not being “blamed” for for those wars.”

    The obvious response to this is that that is what happens in war – one side loses. From a broader perspective, however, one could argue that white southerners did in fact win on a literary level. After all, we tend to remember Confederate rather than Union heroes and most people still believe that states rights and not slavery was the central cause of secession. Our collective memory continues to pivot on the tenets of Lost Cause ideology. Before moving on let me just say that many white southerners benefited from the effects of the war. The state of South Carolina instituted public schools after the war as a result of black participation as well as Virginia in the 1880s. There were a number of changes as a result of increased political involvement on the part of white and black southerners following the war. I think we need to be careful here and not impose our own preconceptions on the past.

    As for being blamed today I think this is an exageration. I’ve never seen a poll that suggests that white southerners feel as if they are being blamed for anything. It is easy to feel this way if one spends an inordinate amount of time on SCV and other such websites. I suspect most people in the north as well as the south could care less about such debates. That said, I think it is important to define our terms. Are we only including white southerners in your reference to “Heritage folks”? What about black southerners? Over the last 20 years we’ve seen a mass movement of black Americans back to the south for any number of reasons, but many admit it is to feel closer to family roots. They are clearly not feeling defensive.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  • J.R. Clark Nov 12, 2007

    “‘Heritage Folks’ are obsessed with the war years because they feel their ancestors got the shaft, and they feel they personally are still getting the shaft today.”

    Here’s the neo-Confederate ideology in a nutshell: Our ancestors lost their wealth (in enslaved black people) and their power (obtained by the labor of enslaved black people and justified by an ideology of white supremacy) as a result of losing the Civil War.

    We (meaning neo-Confederates) were entitled to inherit that wealth and power from our ancestors but the outcome of the Civil War denied us our heritage.

  • Dawn Freeman Nov 12, 2007

    Let me try to re-phrase what I was trying to say. Its an emotional bond for most of them. Its not about education, its a way of life, I am speaking in terms of the common man if you will. We were raised up with a strong emotional bond to our heritage that is unique, almost like a religion. When we read comments such as “neo confederate” we immediately take the defensive and history becomes all to “apparent”. In their minds why should they pick up a book when they were all written by Yankees who slander their heritage, thats why the garbage sells and you have such a hard time getting historical facts into their hands. This is just how I see it being a common person myself.

    Kevin I am finding your entries and links very interesting, thank you for allowing me to read them.
    Dixie Dawn

  • Cash Nov 12, 2007

    Kevin,

    I hope folks won’t [and I affirm that you are not] simply dismiss Miss Dawn’s post. I think it’s a key point in “history vs. heritage.” “Heritage” is a personal connection to past people and events, most often seen through ancestors, whether biological or ideological. As it is a personal connection, it all too often becomes a personal battle over how the history is to be remembered. This is what we’ve seen with “Anonymous Jim.” I think also conceptions of personal honor get involved, so a “heritage type” [for lack of a better term] may deny slavery as the overwhelming reason for the war because slavery has been discredited worldwide and has become a dishonorable position. But taxes and the freedom to enjoy self-determination are still honorable positions, even if historically incorrect and logically inconsistent. They are something a modern descendant can be proud of in making that personal connection. The focus is on the Civil War primarily because of the need to redefine it in honorable terms. It’s human nature to want to think the best of one’s family members and to point with pride to what they accomplished. In my opinion, most of the “heritage types” honestly believe the position they’ve taken, so they’re not dishonest people. They do believe “the south” has been and is being unfairly maligned.

    Regards,
    Cash

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