CIVIL WAR MEMORY
The Online Home of Kevin M. Levin
This is an old interview with Shelby Foote, but this clip was uploaded to YouTube earlier today.
At stake here is control of the “moral high road.” By denying Confederate heroism, northerners hoped and do hope for a chance to lay claim to the side of “right.” In reality, I don’t think either side can legitimately do that. The South fought for slavery, but that does not mean that the North fought exclusively against slavery and for black rights. This truth can be seen in the fact that black soldiers were paid less than white soldiers. It is reflected in the bodies of African Americans hanging from lamp poles during the NYC draft riots. If nowhere else, it is evident in reconstruction when northerners turned their backs on the plight of African American civil rights not to return to the topic for another 100 years.
Both sides had dirty hands with which to compromise with.
Can Northerners and Southerners who fought to preserve the Union lay claim to a moral high ground?
Sherman fought to preserve the union but he did so using total war. In a letter to Halleck he said “we will remove & destroy every obstacle, if need be take every life, every acre of land, every particle of property, every thing that to us seems proper, and we will not cease till the end is attained…I would…make them so sick & tired of war that Generations would pass before they would ever again appeal to it.”
I’m not sure “take every life” is a moral high ground type of phrase. Like I said, just because the South was fighting for slavery and the North defeated them does not mean that the North was automatically on the just side.
There were atrocities committed on both sides. There is no sugar coating that this was an incredibly violent and costly civil war, but I for one believe that Lincoln was justified in putting down the rebellion for the sake of the preservation of our system of government. In short, I am glad the Confederacy was defeated.
I’m not sure “take every life” is a moral high ground type of phrase.
I agree, but I am focusing on the preservation of the Union, which I believe does have moral worth.
Bryce, your focus on slavery and black rights as the position of “moral high ground” for the North forgets that the preservation of the Union was all by itself a sacred cause for Unionists. After all, the Union represented popular government. If the Confederacy could simply reject the results of a constitutionally-sanctioned election and secede, then there’s no such thing as popular government–no such thing as democracy. So, yes, I would argue that the North held the moral high ground BEFORE the summer of 1862 and the Emancipation Proclamation. And I don’t believe that this automatically negates the bravery of Confederate soldiers, many of whom reacted the way they did because they believed their home country was being invaded.
Obviously, there are a number issues here, but I should point out that the issue about Disney and the history of slavery is a reference to Disney’s aborted “Disney’s America” project which was to be built near the Manassas battlefield. It would appear that Mr. Foote greatly misunderstood the opposition to the project, particularly regarding the history of slavery. I don’t believe anyone articulated an argument that the history of slavery should not be examined or remembered, it was specifically Disney’s approach to it, that visitors to the park will truly “experience what it was like to be a slave.” Also, the commercialization of the history of slavery angered some as well as the threat the projected appeared to pose to the actually historical battlefields and sites.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I do not believe that “the Jews” ever contracted with Disney to produce “Disney’s Holocaust Adventure” where you’d really get to “experience the Warsaw Ghetto and being gassed to death at Treblinka.” So, I don’t get Foote’s strange perspective here. I think his grasp of history might be better than his grasp of contemporary debates about memory and how it should be accessed.
Perhaps the reason Black people “don’t want to be reminded of their history” as opposed to Jews and the Holocaust is because you can’t compare the tragedies.
Foote makes an utterly ridiculous comparison between Disney’s amusement/history park and a Holocaust museum. Beyond that I don’t accept is sweeping assumption that African Americans have no interest in remembering their history. They may not choose to remember Foote’s preferred narrative, but that is something else altogether.
Apart from Shelby Foote’s uncritical endorsement of a Disney slave experience, he also uses mythological Hebrew slavery in Egypt as a valid comparison, with a straight face. Does he assume that the listener is unable to distinguish ancient tribal legend from recent documented history? Or is he, as a historian, the equivalent of a creationist? It wouldn’t matter so much if people weren’t still prepared to kill each other over such nonsense, but they do. In fact, at the badly-educated, populist, global level, the future has rarely been so bleak.
Perhaps Foote had the picture that Disney would present the slavery experience based on Gone with the Wind. Followed by Birth of a Nation. What a ride.
This is quite a look into Civil War “memory” indeed. It reminds me of a friend I have here in Franklin who lived through segregation as a young boy. Shelby says blacks don’t want to deal with our confront “their” history, i.e. they don’t want to deal with slavery. My friend (who happens to be black) gave me a careful insight several years back. He said it isn’t slavery, or the war, that solely made him disinterested. Oh sure, he heard all about the gallantry of Confederate soldiers and the righteousness of the “cause” and how terrible the Yankees were. But what really struck home with my friend is that in the early 1960s he and his family still had to sit upstairs at the movie theater and that he saw battle flags on wide display as the fight against integration reached its crescendo. And every person jerking around a battle flag in those days was a WHITE person, and more often that not, quite upset and vocal about it.
So Shelby, as good a storyteller as he was, never seems to have understood this simple fact, which is not at all isolated. I have heard this sentiment echoed now hundreds of times through the years, and I have heard it because I chose to listen.
Eric, it sounds like your friend is more insulted by how certain southerners chose to remember the war rather than the war itself.
Seems to me that Foote’s compromise is a slippery slope. Where is the line between recognizing southern bravery and glorifying those who fought for slavery?
Bryce, I would say your analysis is spot on.
Excellent commentary by Foote, and very profound. And as he properly observes, the compromise, and its attendant truce, no longer obtains. Accordingly, both sides, for example, now make and apply charges of racism against the respective 19th century civil societies, but do so in a contemporaneous context. Of course this often seems hopelessly obfuscating and futile, but it is, nevertheless, a better, more honest, and more illuminating approach to the study of the war.
Again, there’s lots going on in this brief video excerpt, but I’d like to just to touch on the issue of the “Illinois Senator” who opposed the Senate’s renewal of a design patent for the UDC’s stationary with a the Confederate National Flag . . .
Foote declares the existence of this “Great Compromise” (as if some law was actually passed) and at the same time criticizes African Americans for not taking a greater interest in the history of slavery, yet he appears to overlook that this “compromise” was made among whites and included the forgetting, if you will, of slavery as the cause of the war. He also fails to mention that that the Senator in question, Senator Moseley-Braun, was not only African American, but only the SECOND African American Senator since the end of Reconstruction, Eighteen-freaking-Seventy-Seven (and the first in more than a decade and the ONLY Black Senator at the time). 1993 was probably the first time there was a Senator with a different perspective on the floor of the Senate when that particular patent came up for renewal.
Ironically, he notes that the nation needed the distance of some 100 years for his own work to be accepted, but as that distance continues to grow I expect our perspectives to evolve further particularly as people who were not included in the “Great Compromise” gain greater chances for being heard.
I was thinking some more about this blog entry. Really, about Shelby Foote himself and some of the things he said on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” series. I don’t think there’s any question that Foote is a very important part of that documentary. But I’ve come to believe some of the statements he made in that 1990 TV show, seen and enjoyed by millions of people, are just plain wrong.
1. “The South never had a chance to win that war.” I always thought he made this comment just to piss off some of his Southern neighbors. As I recall, this statement was prefaced by him saying that the North fought with one hand tied behind its back and , if things got really difficult, all the North would have done is bring the other hand out to crush the South. But I think the South had several chances to win the war. It had chances to gain foreign recognition and it had chances to win the war on the battlefield. And I don’t just mean winning at Gettysburg. The South had to convince the Northern civilian population that the war wasn’t worth fighting anymore. As far as the North fighting “one-handed,” I think there is some truth to that but the North eventually had to draft soldiers. I think the North also had to use Black soldiers: if not for the need of military manpower, I think certainly for the need to keep them out of the hands of the Confederacy. I don’t think there’s any question most Northerners felt the hard hand of war.
2. Foote claimed there were “practically no bayonet wounds in the Civil War.” This may be true but I think it fails to understand what a powerful weapon the bayonet was… to the soldier wielding it as well as the one who was its target. Remember, the best soldiers could only fire three aimed shots in a minute. The “Grand Assault” (think Marye’s Heights and Pickett’s Charge) was a big part of Civil War battles. It may sound strange to say this but I think the bayonet was more a part of those charges than the bullet was.
I think Foote functioned more as a personality than as serious scholar. Foote received way more exposure on that series than any other commentator and I suspect the reasons go beyond the content of what he said. I have no problem with that given that the documentary is not a work of scholarship. He made a number of claims that are problematic beginning with secession itself.
Shelby Foote was 10 times the author, historian, gentleman and scholar than you can ever hope to be Kevin, but keep on daydreaming.
You might be right. All I can do is continue to learn and push myself to understand better. Thanks for the comment.
“I think Foote functioned more as a personality than as serious scholar… I have no problem with that given that the documentary is not a work of scholarship.”
With all due respect Kevin, maybe you should. So many people will get their understanding of the Civil War Era from watching that program, or even TV entertainment programs like North & South.
The best part of Ken Burns’ Civil War series is the use of the actual words of the people of the war. But I remember last year trying to recommend a good source for someone to learn about the war and I hesitated to recommend this program. I think I did anyway. As you know, it is a very valuable program and a lot can be learned from it. But I think it is just one more source that a lot has to be “unlearned” from.
The sad thing about being a historian is when your answers to people’s very eager questions asking “What about (this)?” “Is (that) true? “Did (that) really happen?” start off with a twisted mouth, a squinty-eyed look, maybe a head bob and an answer that begins with “Well…”
With all due respect Kevin, maybe you should.
We’ve had this discussion on this site more than once before. There are problems with it, but all in all it is a thoughtful documentary that over the years has led to further reading for many. As I’ve said before, there are countless medical and law shows on television night after night, but no one worries about whether they accurately reflect these worlds.
Coming to this late, but if the objection is the name ‘ Disney’ being attributed to it, with all that name normally entails, and with the commercialization of it, that doesn’t necessarily pinpoint the true intent Disney sought to realize, or the potential impact it could have had. The tone of the thing is of paramount importance, and even Disney can get that tone right.
A Museum of this kind is essential in order to teach rising generations the lessons of our forefathers. They need to know that this is how we once thought, and felt, and acted, and they desperately need to know how that thinking changed. How those actions changed, and why. They need this clear and fresh so they do not fall into the same traps themselves.
I think the objection to a typical ‘Disney’ brand adventure is justified, but I think Foote is arguing that any experience like this could have played a powerful hand in pricking the collective conscience of the world so that the lessons learned in blood are not lost to time.
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