A Response To Edward Sebesta

Back in September I responded to the first part of a multi-post essay by Edward Sebesta concerning the Museum of the Confederacy.  A few weeks back Sebesta responded on his blog.  I admit that characterizing Sebesta’s essay as a “rant” was a poor choice of words, but I maintain that it is a poorly researched essay.  The fundamental problem with his essay can be seen in a NYTs review of the museum by Edward Rothstein:

But if there is any success in the reconciliation of regional history and national history, it will not come easily. The Museum of the Confederacy embodies the conflict in its very origins; its artifacts were accumulated in the midst of grief. The museum’s first solicitation for donations, in 1892, four years before its opening, is telling: “The glory, the hardships, the heroism of the war were a noble heritage for our children. To keep green such memories and to commemorate such virtues, it is our purpose to gather together and preserve in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy the sacred relics of those glorious days. We appeal to our sisters throughout the South to help us secure these invaluable mementoes before it’s too late.”

That heritage casts a long shadow over the institution. When I visited in 2008, slavery still seemed an inconsequential part of Southern history. And Southern suffering loomed large.

But changes have been taking place. Several tendentious text panels (in one, Lincoln was portrayed as having manipulated the South into starting the war) have been removed. And gradually, under the presidency of S. Waite Rawls III, the museum, while keeping its name, has been expanding its ambitions, trying to turn its specialization into a strength instead of a burden.

Satellite museums are being planned at other Civil War sites in Virginia. The museum’s scholarly resources are being promoted, and nostalgic trappings are being shed. Some of the institution’s tours focus on traditional subjects like Confederate foreign policy, but others examine relationships between free and enslaved blacks in Civil War Richmond, or discuss the lives of servants in the Confederate White House.

Rothstein nails in four paragraphs what Sebesta is no closer to understanding in a 4-part essay and that is that any evaluation of the MOC must be sensitive to its unique history, first as shrine to the Confederacy and more recently as a museum.  Admittedly, the line between a shrine and a museum is blurry and what lessons one walks away with will depend on a whole host of factors.  What is difficult to dispute, however, is that the MOC has undergone significant changes over the past few decades and that its evolution continues right through the sesquicentennial.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Sebesta has ever visited the MOC or that he has taken the time to interview some of the people mentioned such as John Coski and Waite Rawls III.  I have no doubt that Sebesta would have learned quite a bit by sitting down with the museum staff to learn about how they work to satisfy the expectations of various segments of its broader community.  In addition, while Sebesta is fond of quoting his favorite “neo-Confederate” sources he never comes to terms with the fact that the scholarly community has embraced the MOC.  The museum’s reflection of recent scholarship can be seen in both the books that they give prizes to as well as the quality of recent exhibits.

As I said in my initial post, a study of the MOC as it relates to public history and historical memory would make for a fascinating dissertation and/or book.  However, such a careful study is impossible to undertake when your paramount goal is to uncover “neo-Confederates” at every turn.

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16 comments… add one
  • Dudley Bokoski Dec 9, 2011 @ 16:42

    I was too general in using the term “Unionist” without explanation. I meant it in the way historians often tend to find a niche in terms of what they choose to right about. The blogs of yours I’ve read over the past few months focus on the positive aspects of the Union war effort in contrast to the “Lost Cause” narrative.

    In retrospect, I think the remark I made about not finding positive statements regarding Confederate leaders or soldiers in your blog was a bit unfair. A simple explanation is you work a different side of the street than the “battles and leaders” school of Civil War history and what is or isn’t written here reflects your interests. I wasn’t implying a skewing of facts to fit a bias, but I can see on more careful reading where it could have come off that way.

    I wouldn’t argue my own interests as representative of all southerners. I was trying to express that given our cultural DNA, white southerners tend to be more focused on battles and leaders. I would agree that is changing, and the expansion of the narrative to include more voices and viewpoints is a positive thing. History competes for the interest of young people with so many other disciplines and interests I sometimes wonder if the bigger question is not which narratives will prevail but whether twenty-five years down the road there will be very many people who care.

    In any case, I have greatly enjoyed reading the blog. I read it for the same reasons, as a conservative, I read the New York Times daily. The writing and research are interesting and it does a person good to read things which make you question what you think you know or expand the points of view you’re exposed to. That’s not always a pleasing experience, but in many ways it is a necessary one.

  • Dudley Bokoski Dec 8, 2011 @ 16:38

    Read some of Mr. Sebesta’s essay. It is no commentary against any of the points he makes to say it is difficult to read because there appears to be such anger behind it. And that raises a point. There is the concept of righteous anger and as he sincerely believes the points he makes are made with justice behind them, perhaps that is no fault.

    The question in viewing Southern history and the Civil War, and one you appear to have a keen interest in, is how are we to view that period and specifically how does the fact of studying Southern military history and viewing leaders or common soldiers in a positive perspective mesh with the righteous anger Mr. Sebesta and others feel because of the inhumanity of slavery.

    And there we end up with a question of perspective and degree. On the one hand you have persons like myself (a Southerner) who are fascinated by the war and study it primarily from a military perspective. We don’t question slavery was wrong, don’t long for a bygone era, but then again we also aren’t as interested in cultural perspectives. We tend to find positive personal characteristics in figures from both sides and judge actions based on the times they lived in and retroactively using today’s evolved perspectives.

    Mr. Sebesta would be at the other end, taking an absolutest viewpoint. I would not be surprised if he would favor there not being a MOC at all. He might think (not presuming to speak for him) that you have to draw a clearly defined line and remove from our historical memory any positive reference to anyone who fought for the South. And, to give him his due, he does make valid points regarding the great difficulty of reconciling images of persons who were virtuous in their personal relationships within their race and held repugnant views outside them.

    The MOC, and your blog are between those views. You write from a Unionist perspective with reluctance to make positive statements about Southern icons or even the common Southern soldier. The MOC tries to keep a foot in both camps and is moving over time closer to a modernist interpretation.

    What we can hope, but perhaps not expect, is to view all our perspectives with some degree of tolerance realizing historical narrative will never appear to same to any two people because people come from different backgrounds, regions, belief systems, and ancestry. If a great outcome of the Civil War was to forge a national identity, then we should hold out the hope we can accept and learn from each other’s perspectives.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2011 @ 16:48

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree that there is a great deal of emotion behind Sebesta’s, but I don’t necessarily have a problem with that as long as the analysis holds and in this case it clearly does not. I appreciate your attempt to delineate between different perspectives, but it seems to me you come up short. You identify as a “Southerner” which is your right, but so do many others who would probably disagree with your working assumptions. You describe me as embodying a “Unionist” perspective, but again I don’t quite know what you mean. More to the point, you say:

      You write from a Unionist perspective with reluctance to make positive statements about Southern icons or even the common Southern soldier.

      Perhaps you could give me an example of this claim from the blog. My primary interest is to better understand the period in question and not to approach the history as a morality play. Of course, there are decisions that I support and those that I don’t, but that isn’t very interesting. I think the trick is to apply as much empathy to our reflection as possible.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  • James Harrigan Dec 6, 2011 @ 7:55

    Kevin, your bottom line and Rothstein’s seem a bit different. From Rothstein’s article, I get the impression that the MOC is still a place I don’t want to support by visiting (just as I avoided the Yakusuni Shrine when I visited Tokyo). But you seem to think that the MOC has evolved sufficiently to be worth at least a little respect. Care to comment?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2011 @ 8:13

      Hi James,

      I am not sure where Rothstein stands on visiting the MOC and I am not sure I care. I quoted him because he offers the kind of sketch, including important distinctions that Sebesta fails to grasp in a much more detailed review. Unfortunately, even Rothstein’s picture of the MOC is skewed in a number of ways. Let me be clear that I FULLY SUPPORT the mission of the MOC. I have good friends who work there who are respected scholars in the field and who care a great deal about reaching out the surrounding community. I’ve used their online sources in my classroom and I’ve taken students to the museum on more than one occasion. If I had the financial means I would still be a member.

      • James Harrigan Dec 6, 2011 @ 11:00

        that’s a strong endorsement, Kevin, thanks. I’m not sure I could stomach all the Lost Cause nostalgia, but if I do go it will be with a clear conscience (and maybe an Abraham Lincoln t-shirt…).

        • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2011 @ 11:01

          I am confident you will be well rewarded by a visit to the MOC.

        • Andy Hall Dec 6, 2011 @ 11:25

          If it helps, there are a considerable number of True Southrons who consider the MoC to be “a yankee infested cesspool for and on the behalf of politically correct Marxists.” So there’s that.

          • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2011 @ 11:50

            Sebesta and Loewen include John Coski in their acknowledgments, which can be found in a post at Anti-Neo-Confederate: “The editors would like to thank the following readers for comments and suggestions that were of extraordinary value: John Coski, John Dittmer, James O. Horton, Dwight Pitcaithley, Gregory Urwin, David Williams, and an anonymous reviewer.” Sebesta is quick to note, however, that, “John Coski is at the Museum of the Confederacy but was a great help on sources for the book.” http://newtknight.blogspot.com/2010/05/university-of-mississippi-publishes.html

            If I am not mistaken, John Coski reviewed one of Sebesta’s edited books and actually gave it a positive review.

            Finally, I find it hard to believe that Sebesta is not aware of how many “neo-Confederates” feel about the MOC.

          • James Harrigan Dec 6, 2011 @ 12:02

            sounds like my kind of place, Andy!

  • Bart Dec 6, 2011 @ 7:02

    Oh, I think you got it right when you characterized it as a “rant” the first time. And I’d gladly extend the same language to his most recent rant. He called you a “white paternalist” for no other reason than you don’t share his bizarre views.

    Mr. Sebesta seems to be a very disturbed and angry individual, and on top of it he can’t compose a coherent sentence to save his life. I still can’t comprehend why anyone would ever take him seriously for anything more than working the cash register at Burger King.

    • Andy Hall Dec 6, 2011 @ 7:24

      Sebesta’s done some very worthwhile stuff, particularly in archiving online copies of the old segregationist/white supremacist Citizen Council newsletters, something that many heritage-not-hate folks today would be quite happy to see go down the memory hole. But yeah, he’s so shrill that often his histrionics put off the very people would otherwise be reaching. He is, in many ways, his own worst enemy.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 6, 2011 @ 7:28

        I don’t not know about this project so thanks for the link. Sebesta’s taxonomy for describing various individuals and groups in the Civil War community is much too narrow and this often leads him astray.

  • Scott Manning Dec 6, 2011 @ 6:03

    The guy could at least spell your name right!

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