Southern Heritage for Me

I like to think that this blog occupies a unique position in our Civil War community.  I've tried over the past three years to share thoughtful observations about the intersection of historical scholarship, memory, and public history as well as my own continued journey to better understand the complexity of this relationship.  No doubt, I am often perceived as an outsider whose purpose is to denigrate the people of the South and Southern Heritage.  The outright attacks and/or suspicion, however, have only added to my curiosity about the blurred relationship between history and memory as well as the importance that people and certain organizations place on maintaining and defending certain views of the past.   Although I haven't come away yet with any firm conclusions, many of my posts do reflect a certain amount of concern when myth trumps or overshadows serious historical scholarship and an acknowledgment of the complexity of the past.  I see this in the debates over the display of the Confederate flag, the commitment to honor black Confederates such as Weary Clyburn for their "service" to the Confederacy, as well as the overly simplistic characterizations of Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as the standard bearers for moral and Christian perfection.  It's not surprise that my interest in distinguishing between myth and history as they relate to all three examples would engender a heightened defensiveness, but it also betrays a commitment to the view that there is only one way to identify with the history of the South or what we call Southern Heritage.

I've been helped tremendously by the thoughtful commentary of Robert Moore, whose Cenantua's Blog is in my mind the most interesting of the recent additions to the Civil War blogging community.  His site is a must read for those of you interested in issues related to memory.  [On the question of Southern/Confederate identity see his three most recent posts, here, here, and here.]  What I find most helpful is Robert's ability to maintain a very careful balance between his affection and need to find meaning in a family history that has deep Southern/Civil War roots with a respect for a strict observance of standards of historical analysis and research.  Consider Robert's recent post about the offering of books by a Southern Heritage organization:

Considering the books made available by this organization, through
their website, a precedence is being set. One might say that everything
there is “pro-Southern,” but that wouldn’t really be true. Therefore,
is everything there “pro-Confederate?” Maybe, but not
necessarily. Isn’t a Confederate veteran a Confederate veteran, whether
he enlisted, was conscripted, deserted, stuck-it-out to the end, etc.?
Yet, if he did not agree with the “Cause” and did whatever he could not
to be a part of it, even after being forced into the ranks, would not
calling him a “Confederate Veteran be a misrepresentation of the man
and that in which he really believed? Might calling this person a
“Confederate Veteran” be contrary to the way that same person wanted to
be remembered? Anyway, everything on the list of books must be ”pro”….
some line of thought. But again, is it representative of ”Southern
perspective?”

Apparently, this takes us back to the earlier discussion of the
definition of “Southern perspective.” If it is indeed, all-inclusive
and representative of the Southern people as a whole, then the use of
the phrase is misleading, for what we are seeing in the list of
available books is not all-inclusive of the Southern people. There is
nothing about Southern Unionists, Confederate deserters, free blacks
who were forced to help the Confederacy, disaffected Confederates,
etc., etc., etc.

So, in the end, in the manner in which the phrase ”Southern
perspective” is used, there is a problem and that problem is that there
is the distinct absence of one word… “balanced.” If the word “balanced”
and the actual commitment to being balanced remains absent from
“telling the ”Southern perspective,” then saying that a person or
organization is telling the “Southern perspective” would be a lie.

By "lie" I assume that Robert is referring to the tendency among certain people of reducing the idea of a Southern perspective to that of a white or Confederate perspective and heritage.  I agree with Robert that there are multiple, perhaps an infinite number of Southern perspectives that can be identified and that are equally legitimate as modes of identification and remembrance.  The interesting question, however, is when those modes of remembrance distort the past and serve to fuel our own contemporary values, interests, and insecurities.  In other words, at what point do we leave the realm of history and enter the world of mythology and story-telling, and is it possible to achieve a healthy balance between the two?  The problem, of course, is that the questioning of certain perspectives is often viewed as a threat rather than as an honest attempt to better understand the complexity of the object of remembrance.   When is the last time you saw the above-mentioned distinctions on an SCV website?   On the other hand, they seem to exist comfortably within Robert's identification and attempt to find meaning in his own family's past.

Perhaps, what we have at work is a confusion surrounding the use of language.  Perhaps, what  folks ought to refer to is not a Southern heritage, strictly and exclusively defined, but my Southern heritage, or our Southern heritage.  This at least makes it easier to understand and appreciate the nature of the attacks against me.  It's not that I am challenging or questioning Southern heritage, it's that I am looking into or questioning one among any number of ways of remembering the past. 

Thanks for blogging, Robert.

8 thoughts on “Southern Heritage for Me

  1. Sherree

    You are not an outsider, Kevin. You are a true “gentleman”, trying to understand a very difficult past, just as we all are. Thanks again for maintaining this blog. We are all “kin folk” as my late mother’s best friend said, when she, my mother, and I watched “Roots” together and hoped for the future. “Kunta Kinte, kin folks,” she said at that time (was it really over thirty years ago?) putting my white hand in her black one. That is history–individual men and women doing the best they can within a world filled with many forces beyond their control, yet still believing, and still acting, and still hoping, and sometimes actually winning! Yes, I was an English major, not a history major. What can I say? May the force be with you!

    Reply
  2. Kevin Levin

    Robert, — You are very welcome. I just realized that we are almost neighbors. Perhaps at some point we should get together for a bite to eat.

    Sherree, — I appreciate the compliment Sherree. I guess all I meant was that I have no direct Southern roots outside of being from South Jersey. That said, New Jersey still had 18 slaves listed on the 1860 census.

    Reply
  3. chris

    Kevin,

    Have you ever read Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s book “Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life”? You may already be familiar with it, but if not, it’s worth a look. They study the variety of ways ordinary Americans engage with the past and offer insights that may be useful for you.

    Reply
  4. Jimmy L. Shirley Jr.

    This may be the wrong starting point, but here I am and here I go.
    With everything going on in the country in the past twenty years, from unemployment, corporate welfare, individual welfare, high crime rates especially among Black men, ever rising home prices (where in saner times, even thirty years ago, a very nice home should cost $50,000 to $75,000 now costs upwards of $500,000), jobs/careers being taken overseas, etc., etc. With really important, very life changing issues like these not only left unsolved but getting worse everyday, why is Southern history and heritage deemed so ultra/very important to squash, to attack, to fund new authors who will take great delight in slandering all our Southern/Confederate heroes, while at the same time, justify and actually make it seem as RIGHT the crimes that the Federal government and its military branch committed against the Southern civilians and the Confederate armed forces?

    For example, now we have an author of a new book making the claim that only one rape occurred during his “march to the sea”. Yet, reported accounts are out there. Here is one:
    ==========================================================================================
    DAILY CONSTITUTIONALIST [AUGUSTA, GA], July 22, 1864, p. 4, c. 1
    Horrible Atrocities Near Island No. 10.—Mrs. Mary Beckham, in a letter published in the Atlanta Appeal, furnishes a lengthy narrative of the treatment of her family by Lincoln ’s murderers. After giving an account of the robberies and insults heaped upon herself and family by Adjutant Gen. Gwynne, and Capt. Thomas, of the negro troops, she makes the following statement:

    “On Tuesday morning about 9 o’clock, August 4th, 1863, twelve armed negro soldiers came to the house, there being no one there except my husband, father-in-law, Benjamin Beckham, and four of my children, and some of our family negroes. They rushed on my husband and tied him, took off his watch and pin, and rifled his pockets. They then tied my father-in-law, and dragged them to the river, (it being about thirty yards.) They killed my husband on top of the bank by shooting him in the head. They then cut off his shoulder-blade and rolled his body into the river, his clothes looked as if there had been a great struggle.

    They then took the old gentleman, stabbed him three times, once in the heart, and cut one of his ears off. After throwing his body into the river, they proceeded back to the house, where two of them had been guarding my dear little children. They spoke to my eldest daughter, Laura, aged fourteen years, telling her to get up and follow her old daddy, at the same time presenting a pistol to her temple. The children then were driven to the waters edge, where their father and grandfather had been murdered, and then they were put to death in the most cruel manner.

    The youngest, Richard aged two and a half years, was thrown into the water alive. Laura jumped in and attempted to rescue him, and whilst in the water, waist deep, begging for mercy, she was knocked on the head by the butt end of a gun, entirely separating her forehead, and then stabbed in the side. Kate Ida, eleven years of age, was then disposed of. She was beaten with guns until her head and shoulders were perfectly soft; her body was bruised all over. Caroline, seven years of age was shot through the head, and so disfigured that she did not look like a human. After they had murdered them all and thrown their bodies into the river, they returned to the house, taking everything valuable and all the clothing they could carry.”

    DAILY CONSTITUTIONALIST [AUGUSTA, GA], September 11, 1864, p. 1, c. 2

    Gen. Sherman.—Some weeks ago a Southern lady traveled some distance on the same boat with Gen. Sherman, and availed herself of several occasions to speak to him about the war.

    She describes his manner while speaking on this subject as perfectly furious. He declared frequently in her presence that the purpose of the war was to root out the present white race of the South—that the war would be pushed to the utmost verge of extermination—that he wanted to see the Southern people utterly destroyed, either by the sword or by starvation—and what was more, he would see it. Source: http://www.namsouth.com/viewtopic.php?t=1784
    ==========================================================================================
    Now, granted I copy/pasted from a website, but I did cite the source, who in turn included where it came from. So, when we have a he said/he said situation in this country, unless we WERE THERE to be a witness, who do we believe? But, more importantly, why is Southern/Confederate history so much of a perceived threat that it must be absolutely exterminated from the land, erased from memory. WHY?!

    Reply
  5. Kevin Levin

    Mr. Shirley, — Thanks for taking the time to write. I appreciate your passion and interest in the history of the South and the Civil War. We clearly have something in common. Where I think we do diverge, however, is in your starting point. My interest in the past has very little to do with contemporary political/economic/social issues.

    We also probably would disagree that “Southern Heritage” is under attack since I don’t believe that any one individual or group has a monopoly on defining both what it includes and the time frame. For most people SH includes the four years of the war and tends to focus on specific individuals such as Lee, Jackson, Forrest, etc. I tend to see it in much broader terms and defined by a wide spectrum of interested parties who have very different stories and approaches to the study and memory of the past.

    I assume you are referring to Noah A. Trudeau’s recent publication on Sherman’s March. Let me point out that I have not read the book, though the publisher did send me an advanced copy. That said, I would suggest that you are conflating a personal attack with serious scholarship. Trudeau is a respected historian who has published widely on the war. It is hard for me to believe that what he is up to is engaging in an attack rather than serious history. May I suggest that the right way to approach any book is to read it and critique its central claims based on the evidence utilized. Your two newspaper articles are interesting and relevant; however, I fail to see the point. One article does not even fall into the confines of Sherman’s March and the other simply points out his views on the South. No one denies that Sherman believed in “hard war” as a means to subjugate the South. Clearly, there has been a re-evaluation of Sherman’s March, but as far as I am concerned that is always to be welcomed. Again, it’s not personal.

    Thanks again for taking the time to write.

    Reply

Join the Conversation