Celebrating Revisionist History

“[T]he enemy of Civil War history is everything people think they know about the conflict.” — Ed Ayers.

Thanks to everyone for the emails and comments about my most recent op-ed in the New York Times Disunion column.  Yesterday I took some time to catch up on some old posts.  What I value most about the Disunion site is its continued emphasis on introducing top-notch scholarship to a broad general audience.  Anyone who follows this column from its beginning through to 2015 will surely walk away with a firm grounding in Civil War history.  A few readers have suggested that the best articles ought to be collected in book form or in some other format and I couldn’t agree more.  They make for ideal high school level readings.

One of the best reasons as to why this site is so important can be found in William Thomas’s recent essay on how Southern railroads utilized slave labor.  I’ve mentioned Will’s book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, a number of times and even included it in my “best of 2011″ list.  Thomas’s research expands our understanding of how slave labor was utilized beyond the fields, its profitability, and its place within Americans’ understanding of their own exceptional place on the world stage.  In short, it reminds us of why revisionist history is so important to our understanding of the past.  Consider the following responses from a few readers:

In addition to the ownership by corporations, which I knew but had no idea it was apparently so extensive, it is astonishing (and appalling) that slaves could be used as collateral for loans. Thanks for another interesting and informative article in this series.

Wow, mention of corporation-owned slaves is just not in our school textbooks. How was their existance different than the agricultural/farm slaves? The Ballton’s experience would make for a fascinating film. truth can be stranger than fiction.

Wait a minute, does this mean that a substantial percentage of slaves were owned by corporations? All my life I have never heard of slaves owned by anyone but individuals. By families. What was it like to be owned by a corporation? Were the enslaved on average treated the same, better, or worse? Are there any corporate equivalents to the stories of slaves who chose to take care of their owners possessions when Union troops appeared?

I love the sense of surprise that comes through in their responses.  For most people history is made up of a set of stories, some of which are more closely guarded than others or are more popular within a certain community.   Depending on when and how these stories are learned can determine the response to the introduction of new information.  In the case of the Civil War era many people want nothing more than to hear the same stories told well.  In this case the reaction to new interpretations is often accompanied by a defensive or dismissive posture.

If we can manage to step back, however, from our own personal investment in certain stories we can appreciate and even celebrate the introduction of new information and how it effects our understanding of the past.  It has the potential to challenge some of our most deeply engrained assumptions about what happened and why and new questions arise that beg for further research.  In this case this brief column forces readers to step away from their popular images of slavery from “Gone With the Wind” or their high school textbooks and further assumptions about the master – slave relationship as well as the future of slavery in 1861.  This is revisionist history at its best.

10 thoughts on “Celebrating Revisionist History

  1. Pat Young

    I’ve heard the Civil War called the “American Illyad” and sometimes it is presented the way we read that ancient epic. I recall being at a Civil War Round Table presentation and the speaker said that at the particular battle he was describing “Handcock was Magnificent” and “Sickles was devious” as though he were Homer inserting stock phrases into his poem to describe Hector or Achilles. The audience cooed as the well-recognized descriptions were uttered.

    Familiarity has its comforts.

    What we forget is that the Greeks experienced the epic not as a written text, final and sacred, but as an evolving oral work that was added to (and redacted) over generations. Revisionism is nothing new and it helped keep the story of Troy popular for centuries before it was ever written down.

    Reply
    1. Mike Musick

      The late Michael C. C. Adams, in a wonderful book review in a scholarly journal, once compared much Civil War history to a Viking celebration in the ancestral hall, in which grizzled warriors quaffed horns of mead, in between recitations of the heroic deeds of their mighty men of yore.

      Reply
  2. Bob Pollock

    The Disunion article is interesting, though I haven’t read the book. Regarding the comments you highlighted, however, I think it is important to remember that there were very few corporations before the Civil War as we know them today. I’m reading David Montgomery’s 1967 work, “Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862-1872,” in which he wrote:

    “Except for those in the textile industry, American manufacturing firms were seldom limited liability corporations in the 1860′s. Indeed the spread of this form of business organization was one of the important innovations of the era. Prior to the Civil War only enterprises ‘clothed with a public interest’ – specifically, banking and transportation – had commonly been legally incorporated. In other words, the privileges of limited liability were traditionally considered as belonging to quasi-public undertakings. Manufacturing and mining were the realms of private enterprise in the narrowest sense of the term – the domains of the individual entrepeneur. The typical firm was so small that in 1869 the average number of wage earners per establishment was 8.15. But large or small, it was operated by one man or by partners.”

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Good point, Bob, but I am looking at this from a big-picture perspective. What I see going on in their responses is that “whow moment” of realizing that their images of slavery do not tell the whole story.

      Reply
  3. John Buchanan

    Kevin,

    I am sure you knew this, but it was common practice for slaves to also be contracted out for much industrial work. Many slaves worked at Tredagar in Richmond and at many foundries and forges throughout the Confederacy. Much of the work of the Bureau of Mining and Nitre (collecting guano from chicken coops for nitrates for gunpowder) was done by slave labor.

    It was the exact use of the slave labor in what we would refer to as war industries which freed up more of the white male workforce to mobilize for military service which allowed Confederate field armies to survive so long despite the great inbalance in populations North and South.

    Reply
  4. Craig L.

    Are you familiar with a science fiction novel by Samuel Delaney called Dhalgren? It was written in 1974 and is considered a classic of the genre and one of the more complex, difficult and in some ways disturbing works of American fiction ever written. The setting of the novel seems in many ways mythical, a town or city called Bellona, allegedly in the midwest. I first read it about ten years ago. It started making more sense to me two or three years ago when I learned that Bellona was the name of a foundry on the James River near Richmond that manufactured antebellum cannons known as Dhalgrens, named after their inventor. The author is African-American, descended from a family of Harlem undertakers and influenced growing up by aunts who were an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance.

    Reply
  5. London John

    An example of slaveowning by a body rather than an individual: Archbishop John Hughes of New York worked as a slavedriver in Maryland before his late vocation. The slaves he drove belonged to a convent, ie to an order of nuns or a chapter of the order.

    Reply

Join the Conversation