Hey SCV, Welcome to 2009

I am pleased to see that the Sons of Confederate Veterans have given a thumbs-up to the recent PBS Lincoln documentary, “Looking For Lincoln”, narrated by Henry Louis Gates.  The reviewer takes pride in the way in which the SCV is portrayed as well as the emphasis on the challenging of various “Lincoln myths.”

For the first time in memory, almost all the coverage was positive. In the rare worst case it was neutral and not negative. Our flags and symbols were prominent. If every one of us went out flagging for a whole day we couldn’t have nearly shown our colors to as many as the millions watching.   Our people were shown were well dressed, with attractive personalities and articulate messages including delegates in the scenes at the reunion.

The reviewer is no doubt correct to note that the SCV was allowed to state their position on Lincoln, but this should not be confused with any tacit endorsement of that position by the producers or even Gates himself.  The goal of the documentary was to survey the way various groups, and at different times, have remembered and commemorated Lincoln.  It was not Gates’s purpose to criticize any one interpretation.

More interesting is their assessment of how the documentary handled what the SCV assumes to be a deeply ingrained set of Lincoln myths.  The SCV and other heritage organizations have been outspoken in blaming academics for not addressing these myths:

The bottom line is the program attacked the Lincoln myth and presented so many of the negatives in Lincoln’s life that have been avoided by historians for years. This includes some who appeared on the program and now exposed by having to admit there is a Lincoln “myth”. They also chide each other for not viewing history in light of the times, rather than viewing it, as they often do, as if the events were today.

The program further gives us an opportunity to see to it that it is and used by schools throughout the country to help overcome the problem of children being misled on the life of Lincoln and the causes of the War Between the States. Is also serves as an introduction to the Sons of Confederate Veterans by the SCV being portrayed in a favorable light. Dr. Gates has assured me he wholeheartedly endorses this idea. In his case, he has convinced me he is interested in the truth as defined in the program, though he continues as a devoted Lincoln fan, blemishes and all.

This is a bizarre thing to say given that Henry L. Gates as well as others featured on the program, including Allen Guelzo, David Blight, Harold Holzer, and James O. Horton are all academics and have been arguing for a more sophisticated interpretation of Lincoln for well over twenty years.  Unless you’ve had your head in the sand academic historians have challenged every aspect of the Lincoln myth out there, especially his position on slavery and race.  Actually, the more you think about this passage the more confusing it is.  I am not aware of any high school history textbooks that fail to follow the outline of Gates’s documentary.  In other words, most texts distinguish between Lincoln’s views on race and slavery and do a pretty good job of explaining the complex set of conditions that led to the Emancipation Proclamation – the very core of Lincoln mythology, according to the SCV.

I think what this reflects is how far removed the SCV – as an organization – is from a mature understanding of Lincoln/Civil War historiography.  They think that “Looking for Lincoln” somehow reflects a new direction in scholarship when all it really is is an entertaining/educational overview of what most historians have come to believe about Lincoln.  The straightforward historical interpretation of Lincoln that emerges is a synthesis of the last twenty-five years of scholarship.  Maybe if the SCV took the time to get beyond their meaningless generalizations regarding professional historians and took the time to read their books they would see this.  Welcome to 2009.

11 thoughts on “Hey SCV, Welcome to 2009

  1. Sherree Tannen

    “For the record, it should go without saying that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and that there was not one moment of grace or beauty spent in the life of a slave, outside of the grace and beauty that lived within the soul of each black man and women who was a slave, and who knew that some day he or she would be free. Why are we even talking about this in the year 2009?”

    Hi Kevin,

    Oh lol, indeed! If I may so obnoxious as to quote myself, you just answered my question. My favorite person in the documentary was “Confederate Rose”, who seemed to me to be fully aware of the irony involved in her participation in the event as the new “Southern belle”. I am getting that “I am in an episode of the Twilight Zone” surreal feeling again. How many revisions of an original revision can take place on one old worn out story?

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  2. Samuel P. Wheeler

    Excellent post Kevin!

    These folks have many assumptions about the “dreadful” state of high school education, “liberal” university professors, and the “cult” of Lincoln scholarship. However, when was the last time these folks stepped inside a high school classroom or leafed through a high school text, listened to a college professor lecture on a subject like the Emancipation Proclamation, or actually (dare I say!) read a recent book written by one of these “suspect” Lincoln scholars?

    When I pose such questions, I usually receive a shrug, followed by another round of faulty assumptions.

    Anyway, keep up the good work in the classroom and in the blogosphere!

    Sam.

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  3. Kevin Levin Post author

    Samuel,

    The answer is obvious: most of the people who make such ridiculous claims have never set foot in a classroom or read the studies that they criticize. The blog that I linked to in the last post on Civil War art is a perfect example. Hope your speaking engagements went well. Good time to be a Lincoln scholar.

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  4. Charles

    Samuel,
    In my public school classroom my students read the Emancipation Proclamation and they learn for themselves that it didn’t free any slaves. They also learn of his violations of the US Constitution(the first 3 in April 1861). His approval of the removal of women and children from New Manchester and Roswell Mills, the ordering of the largest hanging of Native Americans in Us History and his war against the idea of “Government of the People, by the People and for the People” I will agree with Kevin, “Good time to be a Lincoln scholar”

    What do King George III and Lincoln have in common? Both were Tyrants

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  5. Kevin Levin Post author

    Charles,

    Thanks for taking the time to write. It’s always nice to hear from a fellow teacher. It’s nice to hear that you emphasize the execution of Sioux Indians, which is often overlooked when teaching the Civil War and the history of Native Americans. I may be wrong, but it is still the largest mass execution by the federal government.

    I was wondering how you teach the question of whether Lincoln violated the Constitution given that this question is a matter of perspective. Clearly, Congress and the courts never took decisive measures against Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties. Do you teach this view as if it is historical fact? Given your last comment it sounds like you use your classroom as a pulpit and that is unfortunate to see.

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  6. ken Noe

    Keith Poulter, much discussed on the net lately, estimated that on 1/1/63 the Proclamation immediately freed 20,000 “contrabands” within U. S. lines on the Carolina coast. Edward Steers has suggested perhaps twice that number. By the end of the war, over 110,000 black soldiers were in uniform directly through the proclamation, while Louis Gerteis points to over a million freed slaves within Union lines in 1865, all granted freedom through the proclamation. As Allen Guelzo points out, it’s hard to separate esapees to Union lines from others, yet the signal point is that wherever the Union army advanced after 1/1/63, the proclamation was in effect and any slaves encountered were freed. Thus the much-repeated notion that the Proclamation didn’t free anyone simply doesn’t hold water unless you freeze it in time onLincoln’s desk on New Year’s Day 1863.

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  7. Kevin Levin Post author

    Thanks Ken. Of course, this argument that the Proclamation didn’t free any slaves is overly simplistic and in the hands of Charles is clearly being used to push his own personal agenda in the classroom.

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  8. Bob Pollock

    The statement that Lincoln ordered the largest hanging of Native Americans in US history is simplistic as well. There were over three hundred condemned to execution and Lincoln personally intervened, looked at every case individually, and stayed the execution of all but 39, with an additional man’s sentence suspended when new evidence cast doubt on his guilt. You can always look at the glass half empty or half full. Here is a link to a website related to this topic.

    http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dakota/dakota.html

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  9. Sherree Tannen

    There is no doubt that without Lincoln the institution of slavery would have persisted indefinitely. Also, I agree that the labeling of Lincoln as a “tyrant” reveals a definite bias that everyone here recognizes, and a bias that does not belong anywhere, particularly not in a classroom. The Dakota conflict bears more examination, however, as do policies toward Indigenous men and women before, during, and after the Civil War in general. There is an article referenced on a site sponsored by Minnesota public radio about Jane Gray Swisshelm, entitled, “A Woman of Contradictions”. Swisshelm, who was from Pittsburgh and settled in Minnesota, became the editor of a newspaper. She was an abolitionist and a feminist. She also advocated a sort of peaceful coexistence of white settlers and the Indigenous men and women whom those white settlers had dispossessed of their land. After the Dakota conflict, Swisshelm became a strong advocate of extermination of the Dakota. There are some who are now calling for the removal of a plaque that commemorates her. Others believe the plaque should remain, but be amended. Then, of course, there was the Sand Creek massacre of the Cheyenne that occurred on November 29, 1864. The plaque that commemorates the Sand Creek massacre reads “Sand Creek Battle”, to the best of my knowledge. The Sand Creek massacre was most definitely a massacre and not a battle. In studying attitudes toward race during the Civil War, it seems that attitudes toward Indigenous men and women by Northerners, Southerners, and the settlers of the Mid West and the West cannot be ignored, if a true assessment is to be reached. In addition, the small amount of information that I have accessed so far concerning the Ebenezer Creek tragedy in Georgia is appalling. In this instance, if you were a newly freed slave in America, with enemies like the white Southerners who murdered in cold blood old men, women, and children, and with friends like white Northerners who left those old men, women, and children to either drown or be slaughtered, you were a man or woman without a country, and a child without sanctuary, as the title of the book that depicts a later less than shining moment in American history (lynching) so aptly indicates. All of this has nothing to do with defending or upholding the lost cause myth. It has to do with telling the truth. The lost cause myth is just that, a myth. Our conversation does not have to revolve around it, or in response to it, and does not, for the most part. Thanks, Kevin, I will send links to a couple of sites in another comment.

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