You probably won’t be surprised that I have a fairly large file of saved emails from readers who believe that what animates my blogging and research is an intense hatred of Southern/Confederate heritage. One day I am going to go through and write something up about their content. Many of these emails conform to a certain theme that involves claims about what motivated or didn’t motivate their ancestor during the Civil War. It’s a mantra that over the years I’ve accepted as reflective of a relatively small, but passionate community.
The absurdity of this position was reinforced this past weekend for me in front of two audiences. On Friday evening I spoke to The Union Club of Boston and earlier today I spoke to the annual meeting of The Department of Massachusetts, Sons of Union Veterans. Both gatherings were held to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. I chose to test an essay that I am close to completing on Northern soldiers’ racial attitudes following the battle of the Crater. Of course, I could have chosen an easier or more celebratory topic given the occasion, but I just can’t give that kind of talk. My attitude is, if we are going to gather to commemorate the war than let’s take on something challenging.
Without going into detail, I did not paint the most flattering portrait of Union soldiers in the summer of 1864. The language was a bit of a shock earlier on for both groups. What stood out to me, however, was how folks didn’t respond. No one got defensive. No one approached me with deeply emotional personal accounts of ancestors that were meant to challenge my broader understanding of the topic. No one insisted that their ancestor wasn’t racist. Not one person insisted that their ancestor fought to end slavery. There were plenty of people, especially today, who were emotionally and intellectually invested in the history and heritage of the Civil War.
Both audiences had every reason to be just as defensive as the people who care enough to write such colorful emails about their Confederate ancestors. It was a nice change of pace and I thank everyone who attended.