Last week I briefly commented on a news story about an SCV living history demonstration that took place at a Middle School. In the story one of the SCV members made the absurd claim that slavery had nothing to do with secession. As a result I concluded that teachers ought to be wary of the SCV and not assume that they are qualified to interact within a classroom environment. I stand by that claim, but I wanted to take a few minutes to clarify my position.
I think it is important to keep in mind that membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans is in no way based on one’s educational background. Membership is granted based on the establishment of “either lineal or collateral family lines and kinship to a veteran must be documented genealogically.” In other words, knowledge of history is not a prerequisite for joining this organization; rather, it the desire to honor one’s ancestor(s) that is the driving force. I tend to view the act of honoring one’s ancestors and the study of history as related, but distinct enterprises. The SCV falls squarely on the side of the former with minimal attention to the latter. Consider the opening paragraph of their self-description:
The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution. The tenacity with which Confederate soldiers fought underscored their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. These attributes are the underpinning of our democratic society and represent the foundation on which this nation was built.
Notice the emphasis on value statements as opposed to a very brief and overly simplistic claim regarding why Confederate soldiers fought. Later on it is noted that, “The SCV works in conjunction with other historical groups to preserve Confederate history…. The SCV rejects any group whose actions tarnish or distort the image of the Confederate soldier or his reasons for fighting. The message is crystal clear. The SCV has a preferred interpretation of why Confederate soldiers fought and any interpretation that deviates from that interpretation is rejected. There is no room for analysis or debate based on available primary sources. The SCV’s defensiveness about its preferred view of the past comes across in their asking members to report so-called Heritage Violations:
Any attack upon our Confederate Heritage, or the flags, monuments, and symbols which represent it, can be termed a Heritage Violation. If you become aware of a heritage violation, what do you do? How is the best way to respond?
No attempt is made to define what constitutes a Heritage Violation although you can find examples; not surprisingly, they seem to have little to do with strictly historical matters.
As history educators it is our job to impress upon our students the importance of asking questions and challenging one another in hopes of learning more and understanding better. The SCV, as an organization, seems to have little interest in the fundamental goals of a history education and of the process of historical inquiry.
The SCV’s own history presents an additional problem for it to be considered an educational institution. As we all know its history and its approach to the past can be traced back to the United Confederate Veterans. The UCV was also not concerned primarily with historical scholarship but with vindicating their own cause. Whether or not this was a laudable endeavor is not the point, but what is important is that they were not interested in objectively examining the history of the Confederate soldier. This is not meant as a criticism, although the extent to which the UCV was able to shape our collective memory of the war is problematic. The SCV essentially inherited the UCV’s charge and its narrow view of Confederate soldiers and the Civil War in general.
In short, from a historian’s perspective the SCV is an institution lost in the past. As a result, they can make very little sense of the immense amount of scholarship that has emerged over the past few decades, which specifically addresses the life of the Civil War soldier. The major stumbling blocks are well known such as the importance of race and slavery to any understanding of the Confederate experience. From an informed history educator’s perspective the SCV is arguing for the equivalent of the “World is Flat” thesis (and I don’t mean the Thomas Friedman version). A fellow blogger criticized me in response to last week’s post for generalizing about the SCV based on one interview. The criticism might have some merit if it wasn’t for the fact that this was one example among many where SCV members dismiss such claims with the back of their hands.
There is nothing on their website that qualifies as historical scholarship. Click on their link to Education Committee Papers and you will find pages on black Confederates and even Hispanic Confederates. No other organization has done more to perpetuate the mythology of black Confederates, and the overwhelming majority of websites are the work of individual Camps. The commitment to perpetuating this myth render this organization incapable of understanding and being able to explain the ways in which slavery shaped the evolution of the war. Based on these pages alone a history educator would be justified in keeping their distance from the SCV.
The Civil War is arguably the most important event in this nation’s history after the American Revolution. Teaching the history of the war involves a number of challenges given its complexity. The role of race and slavery, which are crucial components in understanding the war must not be left to an organization which has a deep aversion to such issues. History educators have an ethical responsibility to ensure that both their printed sources and outside visitors are reliable.