The University of Mississippi Press was kind enough to send along a review copy of James Loewen’s and Ed Sebesta’s new book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”. It looks like an interesting collection of primary sources related to our collective memory of the cause of secession and the importance of slavery to the Civil War. I look forward to delving into it more deeply in the coming weeks. No doubt, I will take advantage of a few of these documents next trimester in my course on the Civil War and historical memory.
What I find troubling, however, is the title of this book. I’ve learned quite a bit about the evolution and contours of our collective memory in the course of my reading and blogging. One thing that struck me early won as the futility of lumping people together around vague labels. Such an attempt is almost always ahistorical, but more importantly, it tends to function as a non-starter. In other words, it tends to embolden certain folks and reinforce feelings of fear and suspicion. If you peruse the first year of this blog’s archives you will notice that I casually employed the label ‘Neo-Confederate.’ In more recent years I’ve become much more careful with my choice of words and only on rare occasions will I reference Neo-Confederates.
Much of this ongoing dialog about Civil War memory has little to do with historical scholarship; rather, for many folks it is about “heritage,” “a sense of place,” and an emotional hold on certain narratives. We can probably attribute the cover and title to the publisher, whose primary goal is to grab the attention of potential readers and sell books. I just have to wonder whether such a combination will turn off readers even before cracking the cover.
Until five years ago I didn’t know that I had a Civil War ancestor. Most of what I know about that ancestor I learned on my own by way of the internet. I spent the first five decades of my life blissfully ignorant of the myriad ways in which that conflict shaped my life. I don’t remember anything about the Centennial celebration. I lived on the west coast from 1961 until 1965 and beyond in a state that didn’t become a state until fifteen years after the war had ended. The Civil War was simply not relevant to me. Then in 1970 I moved to Houston before my senior year in high school.
I was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and started school in Topeka, five years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Topeka, Board of Education. There weren’t any black kids in the schools I attended. The only black kid I ever met in Topeka was named George. His father worked with my dad at the V.A. hospital. We lived in a barracks called Sunnyside on the hospital grounds. My first memory of Halloween was trick or treating with George in the barracks. We both dressed as pirates. Continue reading
Sutherland offered a rather gloomy view of the Sesquicentennial in comparison with the excitement that clearly animated him as a child during the Centennial. Even with all of the media attention surrounding this commemoration I tend to share his skepticism, but our agreement ends with the assessment itself. Sutherland seems to believe that the lack of- or waning interest in the Civil War can be attributed to a failure of our generation. At one point he commented on the seeming lack of interest in history among our students as well as the increased distraction attributed to the Internet. I cringe when I hear such uninformed analysis that adds to our tendency to blame everything on our kids. Sutherland acknowledges that much of the early excitement during the Centennial was a function of the narrow focus on battlefield heroics and larger than life personalities that were completely cut off from any concern about broader issues of race and slavery. At the same time, however, he seems to continue to grasp at the child whose imagination was spurred to action by American Heritage with its glossy maps and images. At one point Sutherland asked whether whether the nation will take the time to commemorate the Civil War Bicentennial.
One of the first posts that I wrote on this blog was a brief reflection on the graying of our Civil War Roundtables, which flourished in the period following the Centennial. It’s safe to say that their days are numbered. The Centennial clearly had an influence on a generation of white Americans, but let’s not jump too quickly to a conclusion that sets them aside as some kind of “Greatest Generation.” We would do well to understand the broader cultural and political forces that shaped the Centennial narrative and we should also remember their proximity to the war itself. In the early 1960s there were plenty of people who had grown up listening to the stories of the veterans themselves. That closeness matters. We should also keep in mind the long-term consequences of the Vietnam War on our understanding of the nature of war and government. Perhaps the excitement that Sutherland continues to recall about his childhood is a product of a unique moment in American history that is impossible to repeat.
I suspect that we won’t see the kind of resurgence of interest in the Civil War that we did in the 1960s and perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps that kind of excitement wasn’t so good four our collective understanding of the war. We should be thinking more critically about what the Civil War means to this generation and at this specific point in time. And in 50 years I hope the nation does the same from its unique perspective and place in time.
Those of you who are sincerely interested in the subject of how the Confederacy utilized its large black population during the war should begin with this presentation by Professor Bruce Levine from the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial Conference at Norfolk State University. The approach of throwing out random accounts without any analysis/interpretation gets us nowhere. We need serious research and Levine has given us a thorough analysis of the public debate that took place throughout the Confederate South over whether to arm its slaves. I highly recommend that you begin your reading with his book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War. Levine’s presentation is hardly controversial among scholars. Any attempt to throw out a random account, as is the norm in this debate, must come to terms with the broader narrative that clearly demonstrates that Confederate military and civilian officials stood squarely against enlisting its slave population with few exceptions.
I’ve already shared and commented on Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s address at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial conference at Norfolk State University. Here is the address in its entirety. It really is a remarkable address and serves as an excellent window into discussions about historical memory. It’s nice to see that the governor’s understanding of the war and how we should go about commemorating it mirrors the hard work of the state’s Sesquicentennial Committee. Additional clips from the conference will be made available via YouTube.