I Don’t Like This Word

The University of Mississippi Press was kind enough to send along a review copy of James Loewen’s and Ed Sebesta’s new book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”.  It looks like an interesting collection of primary sources related to our collective memory of the cause of secession and the importance of slavery to the Civil War.  I look forward to delving into it more deeply in the coming weeks.  No doubt, I will take advantage of a few of these documents next trimester in my course on the Civil War and historical memory.

What I find troubling, however, is the title of this book.  I’ve learned quite a bit about the evolution and contours of our collective memory in the course of my reading and blogging.  One thing that struck me early won as the futility of lumping people together around vague labels.  Such an attempt is almost always ahistorical, but more importantly, it tends to function as a non-starter.  In other words, it tends to embolden certain folks and reinforce feelings of fear and suspicion.  If you peruse the first year of this blog’s archives you will notice that I casually employed the label ‘Neo-Confederate.’  In more recent years I’ve become much more careful with my choice of words and only on rare occasions will I reference Neo-Confederates.

Much of this ongoing dialog about Civil War memory has little to do with historical scholarship; rather, for many folks it is about “heritage,” “a sense of place,” and an emotional hold on certain narratives.  We can probably attribute the cover and title to the publisher, whose primary goal is to grab the attention of potential readers and sell books.  I just have to wonder whether such a combination will turn off readers even before cracking the cover.

46 thoughts on “I Don’t Like This Word

  1. Andy Hall

    Kevin, it’s an extremely useful book, and I suspect you will be using selections from it in your classes.

    I’m not crazy about the title, either, but for a different reason. As I dig deeper into older Lost Cause sources, I’m struck by how old the Southron Heritage rhetoric actually is — the same arguments, the same talking points, the same appeals to emotion and patriotism designed to push aside careful and deliberate review of the evidence — it’s the same stuff, with a few new twists (Black Confederates replacing faithful slaves; Lincoln’s supposed Marxism) for modern audiences. The book’s compound descriptor suggests that there’s a clear distinction between Confederates and Neo-Confederates, but I’m increasingly skeptical of that notion. There ain’t nothin’ “neo” in Neo-Confederates.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I tend to agree with you here. There is no sharp divide between a Lost Cause interpretation and a “Neo-Confederate” one. It’s a narrative that has always been influenced by changing social, racial, economic, and cultural pressures. I would also suggest that there has existed multiple narratives that we tend to reduce to one label. I’m looking forward to going through this collection.

      Reply
      1. Dick Stanley

        The book’s title, even the subhead, is ambiguous, especially couple with the battle flag. Neither tells you at a glance what the book’s about. They don’t even hint at the content, though I suppose no one would buy it without looking inside. But I’ve always thought Black Confederate was ambiguous as well. Why don’t they just say Black Confederate soldier and be done with it?

        Reply
  2. Jonathan Dresner

    Does the book actually address what you’d consider neo-confederates? I’m guessing not or you wouldn’t have raised the issue at this point. But what do you consider neo-confederates at this point?

    Reply
  3. Vince

    On a similar note, has else anyone noticed that three _Confederate Veteran_ volumes (1895,1912,1916) are full text searchable on Google Books?

    Here are two very different stories of “Black Confederates” both in the immediate service of a colonel in the Confederate army:

    1) Vol. 20, p. 43 (1912)
    http://books.google.com/books?id=ZEEOAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA159&dq=confederate+veteran+volume+24&hl=en&ei=cM7aTKOHG4PGlQf1waCICQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=confederate%20veteran%20volume%2024&f=false

    2) Vol. 24, p. 159 (1916)
    http://books.google.com/books?id=Bz3lAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA43&dq=%22guilford+christmas%22&hl=en&ei=QfzbTK_hOIKKlwegptmTCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=%22guilford%20christmas%22&f=false

    Reply
    1. Andy Hall

      Vince, did you catch that ad for a commemorative Klan booklet, published by the Mississippi Division of the UDC, to raise funds for a monument to Confederate veterans at Beauvoir, on the page following on that second link?

      Reply
      1. Vince

        I saw there seemed to be a bunch of Klan and “Birth of the Nation” material in the 1916 volume, but didn’t pay much attention to it. There seems to be significantly more racially-oriented material though in 1916 volume over the 1895 volume and 1912 volume (although there’s only one issue to search from that year).
        By the way, to correct a mistake, I switched the links and the references. The 1912 link actually links to the 1916 source, and the 1916 link actually takes you to the 1912 source.

        Reply
      1. Vince

        True, “faithful slave” is a more precise definition. I guess if we’re defining “Black Confederates” as free blacks who chose to fight for the Confederacy, then these examples don’t apply. As the “Black Confederate” narrative, though, seems to be more or less a mid-20th century mutation of the “faithful slave” narrative, I place them closely together in my mind.

        Plus, what sparked the interest was Richard William’s post (not up, as of now) on probable Black Confederates at Gettysburg in 1913 based on reunion footage in Ken Burns’ video. So, I’m curious* about the relationships between Black Confederates who appear in 1900s sources and their wartime experiences. Is there a pattern among who received attention–and what kind–from different Southern voices: Confederate Veteran, “reconstructed” Southerners, etc.?

        (* Curious = curious enough to spend ten minutes searching full-text Google Books.)

        Reply
        1. Andy Hall

          Plus, what sparked the interest was Richard William’s post (not up, as of now) on probable Black Confederates at Gettysburg in 1913 based on reunion footage in Ken Burns’ video.

          Vince, the presence of elderly African American men in photos (and film) of veterans’ reunions is frequently presented as “evidence” that these men were soldiers, co-equals of the white veterans. Conveniently, the men in these photographs are almost never fully identified by name and unit, making it impossible to check their actual wartime status. The assumption is that the white veterans would not have “allowed” the black me to attend had they not been peers. The truth is much more complex, and bound up in the tangled relationships between whites and former slaves in the South in the decades after the war. I’ve documented an example of former slave and body servant who attended numerous reunions of his masters’ old cavalry regiment. At a casual glance, he would seem to be just one more veteran, but when you dig down into the primary source documents — newspaper accounts, census records, and so on — it becomes clear that he was considered neither a soldier in 1863, nor a co-equal veteran in 1913.

          Reply
          1. Vince

            Andy, sorry, my phrase “probable Black Confederates” was poorly written. What I meant to say was: African-Americans attending reunions in the 1900s in Confederate uniforms or representing some connection to the Confederate armies in the 1860. The “probable” should not have referred to their status as “Black Confederates” in terms of Black Confederate fact finding, but instead to the probability that they represented a connection to the Confederate armies rather than being USCTs based on how they were dressed (i.e. a gray shell jacket). (Sorry for the confusion…too much math homework lately has messed up my ability to use words.)

            Reply
            1. Andy Hall

              No, I wasn’t criticizing. But the point needs to made that photos of old black men at Confederate reunions don’t actually “prove” much at all.

              The phrase “Black Confederates” is also a big part of the problem, that I’ve inadvertently enabled myself. It’s a slippery term, one that means different things to different people. That’s the biggest challenge in this discussion to overcome — the sloppy and interchangeable, poorly-defined terms that get thrown around. All involved would be better off with using more precise terminology.

              Reply
              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                You are absolutely right, Andy. That is why I favor Peter Carmichael’s usage of “Confederate Slave.” It more accurately captures the status of the vast majority of blacks who were present with the Confederate army.

                Reply
          2. Vince

            In light of these complex truths and tangled relationships, I think it would be interesting to see a comprehensive study (as much as possible given primary source limitations) of the relationships between African-Americans who participated in the war and white Civil War veterans, both North and South, with special attention given to the reunions from the 1890s through the 1930s. It seems like David Blight touched on it a little, but I’d be interested to see some topics from Race and Reunion expanded upon with a richer analysis of all these anecdotes to allow us to draw more precise conclusions. Am I missing any good sources that do this already?

            Reply
  4. Harry

    I just submitted a preview of this to ACW on Tuesday. I think the author had more to do with the title then did the publisher, considering his previous print and online work. That the authors may represent the opposite end of the spectrum doesn’t mean that what they present is not valid and worthwhile. But it does provide an opening for critics to shift the focus from the message to the messengers.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      From what I can tell it looks like an incredibly useful book. I hope my brief remarks were not interpreted as an attempt to dismiss it.

      Reply
  5. Matt McKeon

    The title should have been

    The “Confederate” and “NeoConfederate” Reader; The “Great Truth” About the “Lost Cause”

    Maybe quotation marks around “Reader” too.

    Reply
  6. Larry Cebula

    Maybe we need to work towards some definitions here. My understanding of neo-Confederate is that it means someone who advocates giving secession another try. That is obviously a pretty restrictive definition that would only take in a couple of cranks, and the governor of Texas.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Good question, Peter. I guess I feel much more at ease in picking out the various strands of the Lost Cause narrative as well as the various analytical models used to frame it (i.e., Gaines Foster v. Charles R. Wilson, etc.).

      Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I guess I feel much more at ease with the former. The latter term is almost always used in a judgmental way, which is what I was trying to get at in the post. I’m not judging writers, painters, event organizers, etc. when I refer to them as part of a Lost Cause tradition. It functions more as an analytical tool to connect individuals with a specific narrative. Hope that helps.

      Reply
      1. Peter

        I’m not so sure I buy your distinction. Neo-Confederate seems to connect people to the same “specific narrative” as much as Lost Cause does. Would there be any cases where you would object if I swapped out “neo-Confederate” and substituted “supporter of the Lost Cause?” I would wager that this would embolden and frighten the same folks in essentially the same way as the label of “neo-Confederate.”

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Peter,

          Perhaps it boils down to the way we employ these terms. I tend to refer to a Lost Cause narrative that has a history/historiography all of its own. On the other hand it seems we employ the term Neo-Confederate as a means to characterize an individual or group. While I suppose it could be used constructively, I find that at least in the blogosphere it is used to dismiss people.

          Reply
          1. EarthTone

            I avoid using the term “Neo-Confederate” because some people see it as a pejorative term, and react accordingly.

            I have used the term “Confederate partisan,” which seems more agreeable to everyone.

            I would also note that, I have read where after the war, Confederates (or ex-Confederates by then) themselves used the term “Lost Cause.” If they had titled the book “The Lost Cause Reader,” that might have been more acceptable, but still be useful for marketing purposes. But the water is under the bridge by now.

            I have the book, and I’ve found it very interesting. It is somewhat like (but not exactly like) Kenneth Stampp’s book THE CAUSES OF THE CIVIL WAR, in that various primary/contemporary-era documents are presented, thus enabling the reader to see what people were actually saying themselves.

            One item of interest for me was an account where CSA officers were explicitly given orders to show no quarter to colored troops, as the capture of (living) negroes was considered “unfortunate” (see p 203-205 of the book).

            Reply
              1. EarthTone

                Indeed, some comments from Pollard are cited in the book at page 249:

                “The author of the present work wrote a history of the recent war under the title of THE LOST CAUSE. The fitness of the title was singularly complimented, and the Words have since been permanently incorporated in the common language of the people.”

                - Edward Pollard, from the introduction to his book, THE LOST CAUSE REGAINED, 1868

                Reply
  7. Woodrowfan

    Gad, when I saw the book cover I immediately thought “Pelican Press” and thought it was another “The South Was Right!” That had to be a marketing decision…

    Reply
  8. Marianne Davis

    I agree, Woodrowfan, I have my copy now and the same thing struck me. Perhaps this is the best of all marketing worlds. The title appeals to one group, and the subtitle to another. As for the book, I just finished reading “A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union” from February, 1861. They complain heartily about the northern powers which “demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy.” I failed to find the word “tariff” anywhere, which makes me want to find a neo-Confederate to ask— Could it be that Texas seceded for the wrong reason?

    Reply
  9. Marianne Davis

    Yes, Andy, and I guess the fact that it was passed in March 1861 makes it a bit tougher to point to as a cause for things that happened in February, January, or even December of the previous year. With apologies, will no one rid me of these troublesome facts?

    Reply
  10. Craig

    You have to shuffle the deck a few times to make Lincoln a Marxist. It’s pretty easy to prove that Marx was a Lincolnist. What would Marx have called Das Kapital if the South had prevailed? The Lost Cause? Near as I can tell, the first English edition of Das Kapital wasn’t published until 1886, three years after Marx was dead.

    Reply
  11. Margaret D. Blough

    Marianne-And the fact that James Buchanan, not Abraham Lincoln, signed the Morrill Tariff into law hasn’t stopped those who want to try to blame a tariff that wasn’t in existence when secession began for secession.

    Reply
  12. Justin Howard

    I would suggest that you all need to actually learn the entire history of the Morrill Bill and not rest simply on the date of its passage. The Republican platform of 1860 was very pro-tarriff. You can not be so selective in your analysis.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      But what is your point? We all know that tariffs were part of the Republican platform. No one debates that.

      Reply
  13. Justin Howard

    My point is this blog maintains a constant dismissal of economists as having anything to offer in the discussion of the causes of the Civil War. I sense that there is confusion as to what an economist is compared to a mathematician. Money and power control dominate history. It is the driving force of all world events. Threaten economic stability and you get peoples attention.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I think economists sometimes run into problems when they delve into a history that they clearly have not taken steps to understand. We see this in the commentary of Walter Williams, who, for some reason feels a need to write about black Confederates. Clearly, he understands very little about this topic. And then we have Thomas DiLorenzo’s work on Lincoln, which is shoddy at best. I’ve never critiqued their work as economists since I am not trained in the field. On the other hand, I am trained as a historian and have every right to respond. Both men are conservatives, who seem gravitate to a position that Lincoln’s administration reflects some odious turn toward a centralized state. It is this commitment that leads them to dismiss the role that slavery played in the coming of secession and war.

      That said, I have absolutely nothing against economists. Finally, while I appreciate the comments I am going to steer this thread back to the subject of the post. You are free to comment on a post that more closely relates to your concerns. Thanks again for commenting.

      Reply
    2. Marianne Davis

      You are quite right that threatening economic stability gets people’s attention. Even economic systems that did not rely on money, like the gift and service system of feudalism, were subject to such dislocation. But only the SCV, so far, has ignored the facts of the Morrill tariff. It never would have passed had so many Democrats not left the Congress through secession. But this was not a new and unique attack on the Southern way of life. There had long been a U.S. tariff system which the elite South would have been happier without. But those tariff levels, taken on the whole, were somewhat lower in 1860 than they had been in 1850.
      Looking at the conflict strictly from an economic point of view, we must also be honest about sectional choices. These are generalizations, of course. Capitalism in the North drove the move toward industrialization and the production of finished goods. In the South, capital was plowed into more land and slaves and the production of cash crops, particularly cotton. That was an economically successful choice for several decades. But it depended more upon slave labor than upon low tariffs.
      I am not a historian, I spent thirty years as a bond trader. I think of everything in terms of economics. But I chose to look at original documents when trying to discern a state’s reasons for something as uniquely important as secession. The men in 1860-61 told us that they could not bear the loss of their slaves, and I think we have to take them at their words.

      Reply
  14. James W. Loewen

    Yes, the U.P. of MS chose the title, but it’s appropriate. We could hardly call people like Strom Thurmond (b.1902) or even Mildred Rutherford (b.1852) “Confederates” without literally being anachronistic, since they were born or came of age in a different and later era. Moreover, our selections show how neo-Confederate ideology morphs over time, while maintaining some continuity (your parallel between the Afro-Confederate soldier and “the loyal slave” is apt).

    Reply
  15. Pingback: A Noun is the Name of a Thing | Crossroads

Join the Conversation