It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s. Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage. Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself. We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.
It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms. Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth. I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard. While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.
Unfortunately, our popular media continues to push an image of southerners as heavily invested in vindicating their Civil War ancestors as a part of a continued struggle over Civil War memory with the rest of the country. This usually comes in the form of a representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who is allowed to speak for all descendants. It’s a picture of white southerners that has little basis in reality. With this in mind I refer you to Gordon Rhea’s essay in the latest issue of North and South magazine. Rhea is one of the foremost experts of the war in Virginia in 1864.
The essay is based on a talk that Rhea gave in South Carolina as part of the state’s sesquicentennial observances in which he outlined the reasons for secession. The essay is informed by the latest scholarship, including Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War and George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War. For anyone familiar with the latest scholarship on the subject there is nothing controversial about the content of Rhea’s article. Of course, there will always be some people who suggest that Rhea is just another anti-southern historian that has abandoned the memory and rich heritage handed down by the men in the ranks. Rhea anticipates this move by emphasizing his own connection to Captain James David Rhea of the 3rd Tennessee regiment, who saw action at Fort Donelson, Franklin, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga.
Rhea appeals directly to his “fellow Southerners” that a personal connection to the past through an ancestor should not necessarily determine our own moral position nor does it constitute the beginning and end of an honest and mature investigation of the historical past. I will allow Rhea to speak for himself:
I admire Captain Rhea’s personal bravery and the suffering he endured, just as I respect the fighting qualities of the Army of Northern Virginia and its skillful leader. The sesqui – centennial, however, affords us Southerners an opportunity to look beyond the deeds of individual soldiers and the masterful battles waged by Confederate armies, and to dwell on a deeper issue. It is time that we modern Southerners acknowledge that Confederate soldiers were cogs in the military arm of the Confederate States of America, a government founded for the avowed purpose of preserving human slavery and fostering that institution’s propagation into new territories. While I respect Captain Rhea’s bravery, I cannot be proud of the cause that his nation represented and for which he risked his life. And I’m very glad that his side lost….
For too long, organizations claiming to speak for our Southern ancestors have promoted fantastical versions of history. To this day, the Sons of Confederate Veterans website announces that “the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution,” conveniently neglecting to mention that the right at stake was the liberty and freedom of White people to own Black people. The site also highlights Stephen D. Lee’s charge to the Sons of Confederate Veterans to vindicate “the cause for which we fought,” but fails to remind us that that the glorious cause involved state-enforced bondage for some four million people. We hear that Confederate symbols represent heritage, not hate. But how can we in good conscience celebrate a heritage whose self avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population?
Our ancestors were unapologetic about why they wanted to secede; it is up to us to take them at their word and to dispassionately form our own judgments about their actions. This is a discussion we Southerners need to have. The Sesquicentennial affords us an opportunity to insist on a fact-based dialogue about the wellsprings of secession, a dialogue based on what the participants said at the time, not what they and their apologists said later to justify their actions to posterity. We are a diverse people with a wide array of opinions. I am very happy that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, and I believe that the Confederacy’s stated goals and ideology should offend the sensibility of anyone living in our times. We ought to be able to look history squarely in the face and call it for what it was. Only by discarding the myths of the past can we move forward to an honest future.