What Do We Really Know About Our Ancestors?

I have admitted more than once that I don’t have any direct ties to the Civil War generation and no doubt it shapes, to a certain extent, the way I approach this particular period in American history.  In contrast I am struck by the level of intimacy that so many claim when talking or writing about an ancestor that fought in the Civil War.  Of course, living and teaching here in Virginia and blogging mainly about the history and memory of the American South influences the kinds of stories that I come across.  At times I don the hat of a historian and ask follow-up questions about evidence, but more often than not I listen to the story as an expression of how the individual in question chooses to engage and remember the past.  Often times I find that the stories reflect a set of cultural values or work to comfort the individual storyteller and family members.

Recently, I viewed two episodes of the NBC Show, “Who Do You Think You Are,” which follows celebrities as they research their pasts.  It’s essentially a rip-off of Henry Louis Gates’s successful PBS series.  The two episodes followed Matthew Broderick and Spike Lee and both related directly to the Civil War and slavery.  I will leave it to you to watch if interested, but what struck me in both shows was that when push comes to shove we know very little about our ancestors.  Most of us do not have family records on hand such as letters or other legal documents.  Websites like Ancestry.com have clearly grown in popularity, but I suspect that the number of users is relatively small.

But if that doesn’t make the point I’ll go even further and suggest that most of us don’t even really know our own family members that are currently living.  How many of us really know the histories of our parents and grandparents?  I am talking about something that gets us beyond the basic narrative outline.  Barring a family member’s early death we could get at some of these questions if we were truly interested.  A couple of years ago my grandmother gave me a collection of letters written between her and my grandfather from the 1940s that you can see in the above photograph.  My grandfather’s auxiliary hats are included along with some wonderful vintage birthday and Mother’s Day cards.  It’s an incredible collection, but I do feel just a little uncomfortable about prying into my grandmother’s personal life.  Many of these letters were written while the two of them were separated by the war and a few of them date to their courtship.  I’ve talked with my grandmother on occasion about the Great Depression and other events, but I still admit to knowing relatively little about her life.

This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them.  You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter.  Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought.  You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree.  Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.

The other thing that stood out in the two programs was the difficulty that both men experienced when confronted with a past that they had not anticipated or even understood as possible.  How many of our own claims about our ancestors would go up in flames when confronted with some solid historical evidence?  Would we be surprised?  Is it possible that we might have no idea of how to assess or make sense of their lives?  Perhaps the lesson here is that if we are going to “bear witness” to the lives of our ancestors we should first be willing to take a few steps in their direction.

God Is Definitely a Republican

This is a very strange history documentary hosted by Matthew and Laurie Crouch.  The show, including the over-the-top set is a cross between the 700 Club and Joel Osteen Ministries.  Mrs. Crouch is clearly playing the Tammy Fay Baker role, who along with her husband sit and nod in agreement.  Actually, she looks as if she is high as a kite.  David Barton offers a rather unusual analysis of Reconstruction that I will get to in a moment.  You can watch the entire series here – not that I recommend it.

Barton’s interpretation of Reconstruction basically comes down to pointing out that everything positive that happened relating to race relations and civil rights during Reconstruction and through the 1960s occurred because of the Republican Party.  The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan, overturned legislation passed during Reconstruction, and resisted the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.  There is a bit of truth in much of what Barton has to say about the importance of slavery, the role of black Republicans during Reconstruction as well as the role of the Democratic Party in overturning much of the post-war legislation.  However, Barton seems to think that the Republican Party of the 1860s and 70s is the same Republican Party of today.  According to Barton, the KKK was started by Democrats to “whack Republicans.”  Of course, Barton makes no mention of why blacks throughout much of the South transitioned to the Democratic Party in the 1930s, the Dixiecrat movement in 1948 or the fact that the president who pushed both landmark pieces of civil rights legislation was a Democrat.

Thank You Pelican Press

I am slowly gathering materials for my next book project on “black Confederates” that I agreed to write for Westholme Publishing.  A few weeks ago I ordered the two volumes on the subject published by Pelican Press, which includes Black Southerners in Confederate Armies and Black Confederates – both edited by Charles Kelly and J.H. Segars.  In addition to these two books I also have on hand James Brewer’s study of Virginia military laborers, Ervin Jordan’s study of slaves and free blacks in Virginia, and Bruce Levine’s excellent analysis of the debate to arm slaves in the Confederacy.  Of course, there will be plenty of additional material utilized for this study, but there are very few decent book-length treatments of this particular subject.

Given the quality of books published by Pelican I have to say that these two books will be extremely helpful, but I suspect not for the reasons intended by the editors.  Both books include a wide range of primary documents, including newspaper accounts, pension files, cartoons, service records, photographs, and historical markers.  There is very little commentary and what is included is entirely useless as historical analysis, but very helpful when it comes to understanding how the subject has been remembered.  These books can be found as references on many neo-Confederate websites and SCV sites that focus on this subject.  What is so striking, however, is that even a cursory glance at the information provided in these two books reflects and incredibly complex and fascinating subject and yet most people can’t seem to get beyond the Lost Cause language of “loyalty” and “devotion” along with the common refrain of numbers and claims of cover-ups.  I’ve never seen primary sources so poorly interpreted and under utilized for their historical value.

Both Pelican books include references to Silas Chandler.  A few days ago I received an email from a descendant of Silas Chandler, who has agreed to provide me with archival material that she has collected over the years.  Better yet, this individual has agreed to co-author an article with me on Silas for one of the Civil War magazines.  This will give me the opportunity to explore questions and issues that will be addressed in much more detail in the book-length project.  It will be quite satisfying to be able to use the Pelican books for their primary sources on Chandler and at the same time demonstrate just how shallow and, at times, inaccurate the information provided is.

Are You A Casual Reader?

Wayne Hsieh shared a short review of his new book written by Richard Hatcher III.  Hatcher offered the following refrain at the end of his review:

While an interesting book, “West Pointers” has been written in a format that will appeal specifically to an academic military readership. This is not for the casual reader, but for one who is interested in and has a working knowledge of the subject.

I find it funny that Hatcher said the same thing about a collection of essays on Civil War soldiers that I contributed to back in 2007.  It’s no big deal, but it is worth asking who and what exactly is a “casual reader”?  I would love to know if Hatcher considers his own excellent study of Wilson’s Creek to be appropriate for casual readers.  What follows is a slightly reworked version of my earlier response to Hatcher.

First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this book will only appeal to a select group of readers.  That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review a book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you.  I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.

Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book.  Given the number of notable Civil War soldiers who graduated West Point and the myriad ways in which the institution figures in our popular memory of the war, wouldn’t a wide audience do well to deepen their understanding?  I read the book and it was a fairly easy read and quite interesting to boot.  While I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, Hsieh offers a very interesting perspective on how the history and culture of West Point shaped the evolution and outcome of the Civil War.  To suggest that only fellow academics will find this book to be of interest implies that there is no room or reason for the general reader to further his/her understanding.  I do not write only for fellow academics.  Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.

A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible.  God knows we desperately need it.