Declension Narratives in Civil War History

I've said it before, but it bears repeating, that one of my favorite blogs is Tim Burke's Easily Distracted.  The other day he posted some interesting thoughts about declension narratives in history, their attractiveness, and potential shortcomings:

I seriously hate declension narratives. Anything that starts out with, “Once upon a time, there was a golden age, and then the barbarians came and wrecked it all…” gets me going for my guns. Even when it’s a reasonable enough story, because now and again there’s something to claims of degeneration, failure and loss. The problem is that even the reasonable arguments drift quickly into the borderlands of exaggeration and from there often just go ahead and boldly march into being a big lie.

As I read through the post it hit me that Civil War/Southern History is rife with declension narratives; in fact, it could be argued that much of our popular memory of the antebellum South and of the war itself falls within its parameters.  Arguably, one can find the most egregious examples of declension within traditional interpretations of the antebellum South whose greatest expression can be found in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.  Stories of peaceful southern farms and happy slaves overseen by paternalistic slaveowners continue to dominate our collective memory of the antebellum South as well as a perspective on the war itself that is celebratory rather than skeptical; we don't treat the experiences of WWI soldiers as we do our Civil War soldiers.  The Civil War is best understood, as the argument goes, as standing on the precipice of modernism with the final year of the war in Virginia set aside as an indication of what is to come in the modern era.  We can also see declension at work along the fault line of those who view Lee as part of the last generation of heroic warriors as opposed to a modern general.  In both cases there is an implicit assumption of loss and decline that is salient.  Burke concludes with the following:

I think this is a generic kind of fallacy that slips into declensionist stories, and not just conservative ones, a misrembering and compression of the details and messiness of history as we have lived it. I’m not going to be so much of a prig for accuracy as to argue that fantasies about the past don’t sometimes have a constructive, healthy relationship to transformations of the present. The general problem with delusions about decline, however, is that they mislead us into thinking that we are trying to restore some past covenant or arrangement when what we are really trying to do is create something that has yet to exist. On that confusion, both bad and good projects often run aground, but not before they do a lot of collateral damage in the process.

Burke is correct in pointing out that narratives of decline and loss tend to be based on an overly simplistic reading of the past; in short, these stories seem to be more about our own needs rather than an honest attempt at coming to some kind of historical understanding.  For example, check out Brian Lamb's interview with Thomas DiLorenzo this past Sunday on Q&A.  It is almost impossible not to emphasize DiLorenzo's own misgivings about the current size of the federal government and his contention that it is overly intrusive as factors in explaining his understanding of Lincoln and the history of the government during the course of the war.  Listening to him make claims about antebellum politics it is apparent that he has not read critical studies by Michael Holt, William Gienapp, and William Cooper.  The declensionist streak in DiLorenzo's work sets up an antebellum political world that never existed, but ultimately makes it possible to point the finger at one moment, even one individual, who pushed over the first domino and set the ball of corruption in motion. 

Although the oversimplication of the past is something to be concerned about, the declensionist pull does the most damage in its tendency to push the past further away thus rendering it more difficult to identify with.  After all, if there was indeed a fall from grace the people who lived long ago must be of a different kind altogether.  As a result, our response tends to be veneration rather than understanding and this is where, as I see it, the "collateral damage" sets in.  The worst damage is done by those who see themselves in this lost age when a careful reading of the relevant evidence suggests otherwise.  Burke may be correct that "fantasies about the past" can lead to transformation in the present.  Within the context of the Civil War, however, most of those fantasies are wrapped around myths about slavery and race and have a tendency to alienate entire groups and reinforce political fault lines rather than serve a common good.

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4 thoughts on “Declension Narratives in Civil War History

  1. Kevin Levin

    I don’t mind that Lamb decided to interview DiLorenzo, I just wish he had asked more probing questions. What exactly is the “Church of Lincoln” and why on Earth does he not have a problem with the David Donald’s scholarship, but he does with James McPherson, Harry Jaffa and others. DiLorenzo claims to have read much of the recent scholarship, but he sure doesn’t show it in his books.

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  2. John Maass

    What is the evidence that Lew Rockwell’s site is racist? It is to be sure libertarian, and pro-market, but in the VERY FEW times I have seen the site, i did not see anything racist. I could be wrong, so please let me know if I missed it. Just because he isn’t PC or far left doesn’t mean he is racist.

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