There doesn’t seem to be any let up in the number and range of Civil War memory studies published or soon to be published this year. As someone who has contributed to this body of scholarship you might expect that this brings a smile to my face and you would be correct. That said, I do think we need to be wary of a tendency that is at the center of this particular genre.
Implicit in the act or performance of historical memory is the assumption that the event or individual in question ought to be remembered. Historians of Civil War memory don’t simply focus their readers on a dead past they dig down to show why something was forgotten and why it ought to be remembered and perhaps even celebrated. We cast a moral lens on the generation that supposedly ignored or intentionally dismissed some aspect of the past and we make a moral claim on our own generation as to its importance.
I am reminded of this having just finished a brand new book on the subject that I need to review for one of the Civil War magazines. It’s a solid book and one that I will recommend, but it did raise for me the question of whether historians can go too far in making claims on our own sense of justice regarding the contentious ground between forgetting and remembering. I was certainly guilty of this in my early research on William Mahone. Not everything needs to be remembered or given a prominent place in our collective memory.
More importantly, not everything that is forgotten is a moral injustice. That’s tough for a historian of Civil War memory to appreciate especially if we assume a role as something akin to a moral crusader who sets out to bring moral balance to the historical universe. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I don’t mind admitting that I need to be much more attentive to this tendency in myself.
Thanks for taking the time to read yesterday’s post and for your comments. As I stated in my response this is a subject that I’ve written and lectured on extensively over the past five years. The popularity of the black Confederate narrative highlights both the extent to which history has become democratized and the increased use of the Internet as a research tool. Many people first learn about this subject through the print and/or online newspaper, which offers a non-critical and often flawed account of the complex history involved.
Today Cleveland.com [associated with the Cleveland Plain Dealer] is running a textbook example of how the myth of the Black Confederate soldier is spread. Start off with what appears to be an unusual story of two black individuals who play Confederate soldiers. Treat them as authorities in the relevant history and fail to do any preparation as a reporter that might allow you to ask a few penetrating questions about historical literacy and you’ve got yourself a nice little human interest story.
From the article:
Estimates of their number, varying from several hundred to more than 10,000, are debated among Civil War historians.
Jones, 51, of Youngstown, noted, “If we can honor the black Union soldiers who fought, we can honor the black Confederate soldiers who fought.”
Jones said that famed black abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted in 1861: “There are at present moment many Colored Men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but real soldiers, having musket on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down any loyal [Union] troops.”
Jones utilizes the biographies of past black Confederate soldiers Holt Collier and John Wilson Buckner for first-person portrayals. Collier was in the Battle of Shiloh, then served in a Texas cavalry unit. Buckner served with a South Carolina artillery unit and was wounded in the battle for Fort Wagner in 1863.
Given these few passages we can safely assume that their research involved little more than a scan of websites.
I give you the new president of the National Rifle Association. Let’s just put aside for a second that from all appearances this guy is just bat shit crazy. [Sorry, but that really does seem appropriate given the level of paranoia expressed in this video.] Jim Porter doesn’t need a weapon. He needs a diagnosis.
What I find interesting is Porter’s level of comfort in expressing his preferred interpretation of the Civil War in New York state. I suspect that very few people in this audience had any issue with his reference to a War of Northern Aggression and the close connection drawn between why the Confederacy fought the war and the reasons why it is necessary to arm and train the American populace in the use of firearms. In other words, this is a perfect example of politics trumping the extent to which regional identification still shapes Civil War memory.