“A Thoughtful Well-Meaning Confederate Apologist”

I recently discovered an excellent blog written by a graduate student in history who is very interested in issues related to the Lost Cause, public history, and memory.  One particular post on Michael Hardy’s blog, North Carolina and the Civil War, really caught my attention.  The writer applauds Hardy for his sincere interest in researching his Confederate ancestors who fought in the war, but expresses concern over his failure to acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the war on a number of different levels.  There are very few references to race and slavery and the few that do reference it buy into the myth of loyal slaves and black Confederates.  The writer concludes with the following:

All of this is a lot of lead up to say something very simple: MH is not a wild-eyed crazy person. It is easy to dismiss people
who say insane things, but the myth of the Lost Cause does not always
come wrapped in the Stars and Bars. From what I have read on his blog, H is a considerate, well-intentioned person who is interested in
research, history, and honoring his forebears. Still, he is not at all
interested in slavery and posts information about black Confederates on
his blog without commenting on the history of this debate.

The
problem is that H’s vision of the Confederacy is a gentler, more
reasonable version of the insidious Lost Cause ideology. When our focus
is on honoring the men who fought and died, no doubt bravely, without
ever really grappling with what they were fighting for, we don’t learn
anything. When we implicitly deny the horror of slavery and the
continual betrayal of African-Americans during and after the war, we
are setting ourselves up to accept racist fantasies in the present.
When we fawn over Southern leaders like Lee and Jackson as models of
American manhood, what we are really doing is yearning for a white,
Christian, patriarchal past in which women and slaves knew their places
and real men were subordinate only to God
.

I realize that
everyone has interests and doesn’t necessarily have time to explore all
of the problems that attend those interests. I don’t have a problem
with MH if he wants to write primarily about military
history. Still, his blog is a reminder of how the soft power of the
Lost Cause myth continues to inhabit our mental landscapes.

I should say at the outset that while I don’t link to H’s blog I do on occasion read and enjoy it.  He has an impressive list of books to his credit and I am sure they earn positive reviews. 

My guess is that the above description can be applied to most people who claim to be interested in their "heritage."  Those who write have a tendency to be led by an emotional need to see the past in a certain way whether it is in writing about "friendly" slaveowners or perfectly moral Confederate Christian Warriors.  The problem, as the writer above notes, is that the need to identify on a
personal level lends itself to distorting the past in a way which makes
it more palatable.  Their work tends to be void of serious historical analysis and/or an understanding of historiography.  For the most part they are harmless.  They fail to see history as an ongoing dialog between interpretations and tend to label those historians they disagree with as "liberal", "revisionist", etc., but as I’ve stated many times before this has more to do with their own agenda than anything having to do with history.

As one of my friends who works in the field suggested at a recent conference, the more extreme examples of this distortion can be likened to a "Confederate Taliban."  What he had in mind are those organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others who actively work to control the historical landscape and maintain its overly narrow and historically inaccurate depiction of the past.  They see the past as static and any revision -  be it subtraction or addition -  is interpreted as a sacrilege as if any one group has the right to decide how public spaces ought to be utilized for remembering our collective past.  Worse yet, they assume that they alone have a monopoly on how the Confederacy ought to be remembered as if the waving of Confederate flags constitutes some type of membership in an exclusive club.  They resist the changing of the names of buildings such as schools as well as additions to the public landscape in the form of a statue of Lincoln and his son and Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. 

I tend to think that most people are driven by what the writer describes as the "soft power of the Lost Cause myth."  They yearn to identify with a personal past and need that past to be honorable and one worth remembering.  That past must be instructive on some moral level or provide an alternative to our own present troubles/concerns all of which can be empathized with.  But at what place does this "soft power" shift into something more hideous be it in the form of racism and the distortion of the past? 

11 comments… add one

  • matthew mckeon May 18, 2008

    “Confederate Taliban”

    Could that be considered a wee bit over the top? Isn’t the urge to make the past a patriotic inspiration and to “marblize” leading figures as flawless heros an urge that goes beyond the neo Confederates?

  • Kevin Levin May 18, 2008

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t think it is simply meant to describe a desire to transform the landscape along patriotic or whiggish lines, but an attempt to control it for personal and political reasons. I would argue that most heritage folks do not fall into the “Taliban” category. They are not actively engaged in shaping the past to exclude others, but reinforcing their own personal need to identify with a self-proclaimed glorious past. My problem with the SCV and others is that they take it one step forward, by implying that there is only one correct version of the past and they’ve got it. In addition, they regularly invoke contemporary issues as integral to their positions on how public spaces ought to be utilized.

  • Larry Cebula May 18, 2008

    I have been using the phrase American Taliban for the religious right. I am pretty sure Confederate Taliban violates my copyright.

    I would not be as generous to Hardy as you are above. This sort of willful misrepresentation of the past can cause real mischief in the contemporary world. And it is impossible that Hardy does not know any better.

  • Kevin Levin May 18, 2008

    Larry, — I am not in a position to infer anything about what Hardy is or isn’t knowledgeable about when it comes to the role of slavery in the war itself. I think the perspective at work here is a function of the fact that slavery has for so long been ignored as an integral aspect of the war. In that sense Hardy is hardly (haha) alone in this regard. I do get a sense that his focus is on the life of the common soldier, specifically in North Carolina and I would venture to guess that given the content of his blog he says very little about the relationship between the common soldier and slavery. Now, I could infer (assuming I am correct) that Hardy is intentionally ignoring the issue for malicious reasons or that he has been conditioned to see the war in a traditional manner. I assume the latter.

    Now, it seems to me that a more serious historian who stays on top of scholarship would have to acknowledge the voluminous literature that has been published in the past two decades on the connection of slavery and the common soldiers. Joe Glatthaar’s and Chandra Manning’s latest studies are an ideal place to start and for North Carolina in particular I recommend:

    John Barrett’s _The Civil War In North Carolina_ (UNC Pres)

    Richard Reid’s _Freedom For Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era_ (UNC Press) which analyzes those black North Carolinians who fought in the Union army.

    William L. Barney, _The Making of a Confederate: Walter Lenoir’s Civil War_ (Oxford University Press)

    What we can say is that at this point to ignore slavery even in the context of a strict unit history or military study is to ignore salient issues. That, of course is problematic, but I am not willing to ascribe intent to deceive or worse to those who fail to address it.

  • Lori Stokes May 18, 2008

    I think it’s hard to be too severe on people who distort history, no matter how harmless their intentions may seem. I agree completely with Kevin–turning people who fought for slavery into iconic American heroes is not only repulsive but inaccurate. I had dirt-poor ancestors who fought for the south, but despite the fact that they enslaved no one and probably hated the wealthy who did, they still fought for slavery and there’s no way around that. Accepting this fact is the first step toward healing the wounds of slavery.

  • Kevin Levin May 18, 2008

    Lori, — Thanks for the comment. As to your second point I agree although I hope one day we are able to take the conversation from the over simplified issue of ownership to slaves to the ways in which non-slaveowners benefited from living in a slave society. As I tried to point out in my post I believe there are differences in the way the past is distorted.

    On the one hand there are people who simply do not know enough about history, which in turn limits or distorts the specific subject under discussion. One example is the work of Richard Williams who is not a trained historian, but writes about Stonewall Jackson and his relationship with his slaves and free blacks. The analysis is shoddy at best and he knows little about the relevant historiography. This is in contrast with those who intentionally go about distorting the past such as in the case of the photoshopping of the image of the black Louisiana Native Guard or the public ceremonies honoring the service of thousands of loyal black Confederates. These are distinctions worth acknowledging. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Eric Wittenberg May 18, 2008

    Kevin,

    I’ve only read one of Michael’s books. I gave him some material on the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry for his book on the Battle of Hanover Court House, and I think that his book is well-done. It’s fair and balanced, and the only real criticism of it I have is that he attempts to make Hanover Court House more important than it really was within the context of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862.

    Hanover Court House was a Confederate defeat, by the way, and Michael doesn’t try to spin it any other way.

    Consequently, I don’t have a real problem with that book, anyway. I can’t speak for the rest of his work.

    Eric

  • Kevin Levin May 19, 2008

    Eric, — And I have no reason to doubt it as you are in a better position to judge such matters. I wonder, however, in his conception of the Confederate soldier whether race and slavery plays any type of role in understanding their motivation and endurance. I say this in light of the many recent studies on just this subject.

  • Mark Edwards May 19, 2008

    I do believe that “Confederate Taliban” is over the top. Lost Cause Mythology abounds due to the fact that a lot of people skew their thoughts and comments toward a particular or popular point of view. That thought usually runs along the lines of brave Confederate soldiers fought heroically to defend a cause that they believed was right. Also since slavery and racism is still a very contentious issue among the “African American” population, that most people do not acknowledge it or avoid it to avoid being labeled a racist.

  • Kevin Levin May 19, 2008

    Mark, — Thanks for taking the time to write. Let me be clear that as stated in the post I don’t think most people fall within the parameters of the “Confederate Taliban.” I reserve it to those folks who actively work to reshape the past in order to satisfy some kind of external political or racial agenda. Most Americans are woefully ignorant of the history of race and slavery in this country and our national memory of the Civil War has up until recently been geared to white people and void of troubling issues such as race. That is given voice in the overly simplistic claims that Confederate soldiers were only fighting for hearth and home and constitutional principles.

  • Kevin,
    I can’t help noting how very relevant these various posts are to the ideas I struggle with in my novel, HALLAM’S WAR (www.unbridledbooks.com), which was reviewed by Ron Charles in the Washington Post on Tuesday, May 20 under the headline, “A Master of Justification”.

    My heart sank when I read the first line of the review: “A nice slaveholder is a persistent and troubling figure in literature about the antebellum South”, thinking he was about to characterize my book that way. Happily, he does not. He goes on to a lengthy, serious and careful review, mostly complimentary but ending with quibbles about things that irritated him. Which was fine–though I wish he’d emphasized what he called my “dramatic and moving” description of Hugh Hallam at Shiloh without then complaining that too many other battles took place offstage. I will end with this one quote he uses from the book:

    “Early in the novel,” Ron Charles writes, “at a sale that will determine much of the story, Hugh catches the gaze of a badly beaten slave: ‘In that moment,” Rosen writes, ‘Hallam saw clearly what he would never forget: saw a man like himself, near his own age, born into the same century in the same part of the world; a man with an inner life as private and complex as his own.” But, of course, Hugh lives in a culture designed to smother such insights.”

    That’s what the rest of the book is about.

    Elisabeth (Betsy) Payne Rosen

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