Sons of Confederate Veterans are Not Educators (Part 2)

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.

8 thoughts on “Sons of Confederate Veterans are Not Educators (Part 2)

  1. Anonymous

    I am not an educator or historian. I do not deny that slavery played a role in the war between the states, but as bad as this might sound. I don’t think it was the major issue. Even Lincoln said if he could have preserved the union with slavery he would have. So what happened? Apparently slavery was not the decisive factor. The emancipation proclamation appears to be more of a war strategy than any thing else, and used politically as moral justification for the war. So that being said, yes slavery had a lot to do with the war. But it is my belief that the fight was more about a government’s control over states rights and economy than any kind of liberation. I am not trying to define which side was right or wrong, slavery is wrong. I just wish people would discuss the other issues that were of the first priority at that time not the consequence.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for the comment. You make a good point in noting that Lincoln set out to save the Union in 1861 and avoided the issue of slavery for a number of reasons. Of course, by 1863 the war had become a war over slavery owing to the military state of affairs, politics, and the actions of fugitive slaves in various parts of the South. The Emancipation Proclamation is indeed a military order which was issued to help save the Union. All of this being said, it is still important to distinguish between Lincoln’s private view of slavery (as opposed to his views on race) and his role as President of the United States.

    You are also correct in pointing out that secession was in large part about differences over the responsibilities and limits of the federal government. Those debates, however, did not take place in a vacuum. Throughout the antebellum period, and especially in the 1850s, the constitutional questions were about the expansion of slavery.

    One final point. I do not claim any authority on such matters beyond the large number of books and articles that I’ve read over the past 13 years. Historians have written quite a bit about the importance of slavery as a cause of secession and its role in shaping the war. An excellent place to start, if interested, is James McPherson’s _Battle Cry of Freedom_. Thanks for the comment.

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  3. Marc Ferguson

    The anonymous commenter above does not believe that slavery was the major issue of the Civil War. I wonder if by “issue” he/she means “cause”? Clearly the preservation of the Union was the primary “issue” initially for the North and Lincoln, though the destruction of slavery certainly became the second major war aim after January 1863. For the secessionists, and the Confederacy, the preservation of slavery was always THE issue, nothing else even comes close. If not, why did every one of the secession documents refer to the “slave-holding states,” (never the “tariff-opposing states”) and consistently cite perceived threats to slavery as the single substantive issue? Anyone confused about this question should consult William Freehling’s _Road to Disunion_ or Charles Dew’s _Apostles of Disunion_, just to name two of a myriad of books. At the outbreak of the war everyone was quite clear about disagreement over slavery being at the heart of the conflict. Some blamed the Southern plantation aristocracy, others blamed Northern anti-slavery agitation, but no one was deluded about the central role of the peculiar institution in bringing on the war. How else explain the fact that every attempt at compromise involved the protection of slavery, its extension or restriction, and the fugitive slave laws, and nothing else? Let’s be clear about this — secession was driven by the desire to preserve the institution of slavery: no conflict over slavery and its extension, no secession and therefore no war.

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  4. Anonymous

    I have heard that the union of the united state was voluntary. Is this true? If so why where states not aloud to secede?

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  5. Anonymous

    Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 was a masterful propaganda tactic, but in truth, it proclaimed free only those slaves outside the control of the Federal government–that is, only those in areas still controlled by the Confederacy. The legal end to slavery in the nation came in December 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, it declared: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

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  6. Kevin Levin

    I appreciate your enthusiasm, but please understand that I cannot respond to these types of comments. If you are sincerely interested in Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation I would suggest that you begin by reading David H. Donald’s excellent biography, _Lincoln_. Here is a link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Lincoln-David-Herbert-Donald/dp/068482535X/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1212528552&sr=8-1

    You should be able to find an even cheaper copy at a local used bookstore. Once you’ve read it I would be happy to respond to your comments on the subject.

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  7. Anonymous

    I do not understand. What type of comments are available for a response? I am sincerely interested.

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  8. Kevin Levin

    Your description of its application was accurate but I don’t understand it means to characterize it as propaganda. If you would like to comment on its purpose or why it only extended to certain locations than please make your point as clearly as possible. The document is incredibly complex as were the events that brought it about. I don’t get a sense of that from your comment. I suggested the book because I had the sense from previous comments that you haven’t spent much time reading about the war. This is not meant as a personal attack in any way, and I only suggested it because much of what I know is based on having read a great deal.

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