Dwight Pitcaithley on the Cause of the Civil War and Public History

Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to mention that I’ve just finished previewing a forthcoming episode of American Experience on Robert E. Lee.  The show will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. ET.  Back in 2007 I received a call from one of the producers to chat about their plans for the episode.  We talked for quite a bit and I had a chance to offer some suggestions on various interpretive threads as well as suggestions on who to contact for additional commentary as “talking heads.”  The producers were able to bring together an excellent line-up of scholars that includes Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Michael Fellman, Emory Thomas, Lesley Gordon, Ervin Jordan, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Joseph Glatthaar.  The folks at American Experience did a fine job.

The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission now has all of the panels from the recent conference in Norfolk available on their YouTube page.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through them.  While I enjoyed Dwight Pitcaithley’s presentation he never really got around to discussing the challenges of interpreting Civil War causation within the NPS.  He did, however, say something relevant to my recent post on my tendency to steer clear of referring to people as Neo-Confederates.  In response to a student’s inquiry into whether he teaches the “true history” of the war, Pitcaithley points out to his audience that it is important to remember that people who subscribe to various strands of Lost Cause thought “come by it honestly.”  It’s important to remember because it seems to me that by calling folks “Neo-Confederates” we assume an accusatory stance that implies a conscious denial of a more complete understanding of what the war was about.

9 comments… add one
  • Carole Emberton Nov 17, 2010 @ 4:03

    “These folks” are the ones that fly into a rage in the gift shop at Vicksburg Nat’l Battlefield Park because the public display in the visitor’s center dares to mentions slavery and asks the African-American attendant at the cash register why “you people have such a problem with the Civil War?” That’s just one instance I’ve witnessed personally. I don’t think there’s any real question about “how” this person came to think the way he does – it’s a well-established historical tradition. However, I don’t think it’s useful for academic historians to soft-peddle the issue either. A rose by any other name smells as sweet, after all. At the heart of all Lost Cause/Neo-Confederate narratives is a putrid racism. Maybe I’m reading this all wrong, but it seems to me you are afraid to call it what it is.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2010 @ 4:07

      Have you not taken any time to read this site beyond the post in question? Most of what I write is part of a larger project of exploring the broader implications of the Lost Cause view and the difficulties involved in approaching our collective memory of the war from different perspectives. You’ve chosen to generalize about a very complex subject and that is your choice. I’ve learned that such an approach doesn’t get me very far with the wide range of people who read this site and it certainly doesn’t help much in better understanding our collective memory of the war.

  • Carole Emberton Nov 17, 2010 @ 2:58

    So what if they “come by it honestly?” What does that mean, anyway? That their beliefs are sincere? Ok, but they’re still incredibly selective and driven by various political positions that, although they may be “honest,” are hardly innocuous. In my experience, these folks cannot be reasoned with, because their insistence that the Civil War was not about slavery comes from a place reason cannot penetrate.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2010 @ 3:47

      I think what Pitcaithley was suggesting is that folks who subscribe to the Lost Cause learned their history just like the rest of us. We tend to pick up on the values of our family and community and broader culture; the Lost Cause view has been quite pervasive throughout the country throughout much of the twentieth century. Who are “these folks”? You are making just the kind of mistake that I’ve struggled not to make and that is to generalize about something that has no clear boundaries. Finally, most Americans are highly selective when it comes to their preferred view of the past.

  • Eric Jacobson Nov 16, 2010 @ 19:15

    Excellent post and, I might add, the video subject is even superior. Outside the NPS world this is subject matter I and my staff deal with on a regular basis and the time is long overdue to move the general public in the direction of contemporary sources, historical integrity, and honesty. At the two sites in Franklin (Carnton and Carter House) personal tours are given to some 80,000 adults, seniors, and children per year. The interpretive challenges are immense yet worth every second. As for folks who come by their viewpoint(s) honestly, they can be talked to, reasoned with, and some even open their minds. Neo-Confederates….not so much. But that doesn’t stop me from tackling the latter head on. It happens pretty regularly. 🙂

  • Dan Wright Nov 16, 2010 @ 9:56

    David Blight uses “neo-Confederate” to describe organizations that adhere to the Lost Cause mythology.
    I think it’s a useful term in that sense.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2010 @ 10:00

      I noticed that as well. Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that it never should be used just that I tend to steer clear of it for the reason indicated.

  • Marianne Davis Nov 15, 2010 @ 16:39

    I take your point, but in the last few decades we have seen any number of terms go from acceptable to pejorative. My own father bristled when people called him a “Native American” but now on a college campus I cannot get away with saying he was “American Indian.” It is more the spirit of the speaker than the word, isn’t it?
    Having said that, let us not forget the strong strain of intellectual dishonesty and manipulation that we have long seen from some adherents to whatever you would prefer we call it. Their followers may come “by it honestly,” but do the leaders deserve such scrupulous care to nomenclature?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 15, 2010 @ 16:40


      You make a good point, but at the end of the day I strongly believe that the folks you describe are in the minority.

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