The Burden of Southern History

This is the first guest post in a series of reviews written by students who are currently enrolled in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar at West Virginia University.  Students will contribute 300-500 word reviews of Civil War classics.  Click here for more information on this series.  This review of Woodward’s classic collection of essays was written by Ashley M. Whitehead.  Comments are strongly encouraged.  Read other posts in this series.

Debates concerning the origins and nature of southern distinctiveness have occurred since the antebellum era.  Southerners themselves initially cited their region’s political system, which was deeply rooted in the “peculiar institution” of slavery and state-based government, as the South’s most distinctive feature.  Historians and southerners writing after the Civil War, including proponents of the Lost Cause, argued that the South’s “innocence, traditionalism, virtuousness, and purity” separated the South from a more modern, “aggressive,” and industrialized North—a proposition that held sway up through the middle of the twentieth century.

However, as C. Vann Woodward notes in his seminal work, The Burden of Southern History, northerners were equally complicit in fostering such views of “southern distinctiveness.”  Woodward argues that, beginning with the Lost Cause and sectional reconciliation era of the 1880s, northerners joined the South in celebrations of its regional culture and that they further embraced the idea of southern distinctiveness by portraying the South as a haven and refuge from the disconcerting corruption and rapid modernization of the post-war North.

During the early and mid-twentieth century, Woodward writes, the notion of southern distinctiveness acquired new meaning as Americans began to embrace and promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” on a truly global scale.  This so-called “national myth” portrayed America as a global leader that had never known defeat and whose foundations rested upon an eternal commitment to liberty and morality.  Woodward argues that, in order to justify this “national myth,” Americans used the South as its scapegoat for its previous moral and political failures, including slavery, civil war, and periodic economic troubles.  By “dumping” its historical and moral burdens on the South, Americans thus were able to purge their own (perceived) triumphant national history of its historical baggage; such efforts, in turn, resulted in the increasing differentiation between “mainstream” America and the South and in the perpetuation of the myth of southern distinctiveness.  Therefore Woodward argues, in reality, the South is not as inherently unique as we, as a nation, have come to believe; rather, it is the South’s experiences—of defeat and of an imagined separatism—that have made it seem so distinct.

Woodward’s numerous later additions to his original version of The Burden of Southern History provide insightful commentary on how and why our more recent perceptions of the South have changed over time.  Woodward writes that, in light of the devastating Vietnam War era, Americans have come to see the South as somehow “less distinct,” and its experiences of failure, moral dilemmas, and economic/political troubles as “more American.”  Woodward’s observation is astute, as it reflects the influence that contemporary political issues and national identity crises play in our history as a whole, and our view of the South in particular:  The idea of southern distinctiveness surged when America’s burdens became viewed as strictly “the South’s burdens.” Similarly, the South became less distinct and “more American,” (or America, more “southern”) when America began to experience the same “burdens” that previously had been associated strictly with southern history.

Woodward’s  brilliant analysis of the South’s history, identity and place in American memory shows that southern history is “messy,” ironic, paradoxical, and a complex mix of “lived” experience, myth, and imagination. Woodward writes that truth and meaning from the emotionally-charged historical debates over the South’s contested history is perhaps best found in the work of the poet or an author such as William Faulkner who might better understand the relationship of myth and reality.   Woodward proves himself more than worthy as a conveyor of such truth and meaning.  Indeed, Woodward serves as a sort of poet-historian who understands, far better than most writers, the burden of the past on the present, and vice versa.

Future historians might enrich Woodward’s analysis of the nation’s original literary consciousness of the South through further engagement with literature produced in or about the South in both the antebellum and post-bellum years.  Such studies would help to clarify the depth and regional breadth of nineteenth-century popular opinion concerning the cultural distinctiveness of the South.  Additional scholarship on the differences between geographical and ideological conceptions of “the South” also would help to clarify what, exactly, historians—and the American public—mean when they refer to “the South” and would help to explain how and why those definitions have evolved over time. Finally, historians would contribute significantly to our understanding of the close relationship of history, memory and the perpetuation of what Woodward has called “historical burden” by continuing to evaluate how and why current events and cultural trends have further altered (or not altered) our present-day perceptions of the South.

A Quick Word About the Future of Civil War History

As many of you know I recently shared an announcement concerning the decision on the part of the Society For Civil War Historians to end their 2-year relationship with Kent State and Civil War History in favor of a new journal to be sponsored by the University of North Carolina Press.  I want to make it clear that I am confident that Civil War History will have little difficulty organizing a new editorial staff to take over the journal.  I speak for many in the field when I say that CWH has been indispensable in furthering our understanding of the period and I have every expectation that it will continue to do so.

Will Underwood, who is the director of Kent State University Press, sent along the following comment:

As the publisher of Civil War History, we naturally regret the surprise decision of the Society of Civil War Historians to sever its ties with our journal in favor of another. However, the addition to the field of a second journal can only benefit study of the Civil War era.

For more than 50 years Civil War History has served the field by bringing to scholars, institutions, and the interested public the best in provocative and groundbreaking Civil War era scholarship. It will continue to do so for as long as the study of America’s greatest national crisis endures.

As Mr. Underwood noted, the journal has been in continuous publication for five decades.  All but two of those years have been without a relationship with an academic organization.  It goes without saying that the journal will continue.  In fact, I am looking forward to seeing who takes over and how that shapes its particular focus.

Acquisitions, 02/25/10

Victoria E. Bynum, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Sam Davis Elliott, Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator (Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

Steven Hahn, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Graham R. G. Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

C.S. Manegold, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North (Princeton University Press, 2010).

Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, & the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (Oxford University Press, 1995).

Stephen C. Neff, Justice in Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2010).

“It Ain’t Right and It Ain’t Wrong. It Just Is”

Another trimester of my Civil War Memory class has come to an end.  This is my second go around with this particular elective and overall I am pleased with the results.  This trimester I decided to focus the course on Civil War films.  We viewed five full-length movies and numerous small videos that span the spectrum from NPS and American Experience documentaries to YouTube videos.  I am confident that my students both enjoyed and profited from the course.

Yesterday we finished viewing the movie, Ride With the Devil, which attempts to capture the chaos of the “Border Wars” in Missouri and Kansas.  The movie follows a small band of “Bushwhackers”, including Tobey Maguire (Jake Rodell or “Dutchy”), Skeet Ulrich (Jack Bull Chiles), and Simon Baker (George Clyde), along with Jewel (Sue Lee) who plays a young widower.  The movie does a pretty good job of exploring the confusion of the guerilla war along with the intersection of ethnicity and shifting loyalties.  One of the highlights of the movie is an excellent recreation of William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas.

My favorite character has got to be Daniel Holt, who is a former slave but remains loyal to his former master’s son, George Clyde.  Holt’s character goes through the most dramatic transformation throughout the movie, but it is a subtle transformation.  You hear very little from Holt at the beginning of the movie.  His character sticks close to George and is routinely referred to as “George Clyde’s Nigger.”  As the movie progresses Holt emerges from the shadows as a result of George’s leave from the group and his evolving relationship with Rodell.  At one point Holt shares his full name with Rodell as well as his own personal story, including his mother’s sale to Texas.  One of the most important scenes for this character comes during the Lawrence Raid where Holt confronts a large pile of free blacks who were murdered by the very men he was fighting with.  On the trip back to Missouri from Kansas and the loss of George Clyde in battle Holt experiences his first real taste of freedom.  A bit later, Holt shares with Rodell that he will never be known as “someone else’s Nigger.”

The changes in Holt’s character take place slowly, but gradually and sets up the viewer for the final scene in the movie.  The final sequence follows Rodell, Jewel, and Holt west to start new lives.  Rodell confronts Pitt Mathieson one final time in what many anticipate will be a shootout.  After allowing Mathieson to take his leave on a suicide run into town Rodell sums up his war experience: “It ain’t right and it ain’t wrong.  It just is.”  In the final scene Holt take his leave from Rodell for one final time.  After tipping his hat to a sleeping Sue Lee and baby the two men say goodbye with a poignant gesture.  Holt rides off alone and free and in contrast with Rodell’s previous comment finally adds a morally redeeming quality to the movie.  The movie ultimately becomes a story of freedom and emancipation.

The scene is punctuated by Holt taking control of his horse and doffing his hat.  No doubt, I am making too much of it, but it reminds me of some of the most popular images of Civil War generals.  At that moment Holt embodies the glory that has traditionally been attached to these men.

Earl Ijames’s Silence is Deafening (Part 2)

As many of you know fellow blogger and historian, Brooks Simpson, graciously offered Civil Warriors as a forum for Earl Ijames to share his research on “Colored Confederates”.  I agreed to the online debate with Mr. Ijames as it would allow all of us to consider his research and analysis.  Prof. Simpson also offered to organize a session at an upcoming academic conference on the subject, which would have opened up the discussion to the wider academic community.  Unfortunately, Mr. Ijames has not responded to the offer even after challenging me to “debate” him in public.  I can’t say that I am surprised.  It is important for the North Carolina Museum of History and North Carolina Office of Archives and History to understand that I will continue to pursue this matter until they take action.  Legitimate questions have been raised and Mr. Ijames is either unwilling or incapable of addressing these concerns in a way that conforms to accepted scholarly practice.  Continued silence on the part of Deputy Secretary Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow and others must be interpreted as tacit endorsement of Mr. Ijames’s research and his handling of this matter.

Thanks again to Brooks Simpson for offering to organize and host an online debate.  I am reposting his update here for your consideration:

It looks as if Earl Ijames has declined to participate in a discussion about his findings concerning black Confederate military service.  His response to me indicated that he did not want to share his findings in an online medium: it also indicated that he was a bit uncertain as to what that entailed.  I explained to him that perhaps it would be just as well to appear at a professional conference, but he did not reply to that idea.

I’m a bit puzzled by all this.  Scholars routinely share conference papers, with footnotes indicating sources, for their colleagues to examine.  They also do not stay away from serious professional conferences attended by their peers.  It’s one thing to give a talk at the local historical society: it’s quite another to speak at a meeting of the Southern Historical Association.

The task before Mr. Ijames was a simple one.  He could have posted a paper outlining his findings and displaying his evidence, or he could have done the same thing at a professional conference.  I would have preferred the former, because the audience would be much broader, and that audience would break down the usual divide some bloggers and others harp on all the time.  Mr. Ijames was not unwilling to debate Kevin Levin at a forum of his own choosing, but those forums did not lend themselves to the analysis of evidence.

It also struck me as interesting that several people who chose to comment on this invitation in various blogs, including one since taken down, were eager for Mr. Levin to accept Mr. Ijames’s offer to debate, but raised all sorts of questions when Mr. Levin welcomed the opportunity to discuss this matter in an online forum, where the results would be more transparent and widely circulated.  Indeed, a few of them declared that an invitation to discuss the matter in an open forum where all could view the proceedings was in fact an effort to prevent such discussion.  I will add that Mr. Ijames did not express such reservations as to whether he was being lured into a discussion in a biased forum: he expressed no concerns to me on that score.  The people who expressed those reservations have in various forums already expressed their opinions on this issue, although most of them are reluctant to do so under their own name.

I don’t see the problem with an open discussion of this question.   I understand Mr. Ijames’s reservations, although I don’t think they are reasonable: they seem to be based upon a notion of blogs as a strange new world with which he’s uncomfortable.  As for those who failed to raise any ojections when Mr. Ijames proposed forums of his own choice but who were eager to raise objections to having a discussion in the clear light of day on a blog, well, you’ll have to tell me why they were scared to discuss this issue out in the open and why they attempted to subvert free and open discussion.  I suspect Mr. Levin will not hesitate to remind them of this in the future.