Confederates Were Traitors! How About You?

I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory.  As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law.  In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration.  This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors.  For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside  for now and take one step back.  Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble.  For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.

The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans.  It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation.  It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions.  In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.

OK…but were they traitors to their country?  In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American.  It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn.  Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history.  On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country.  I value its institutions and the rule of law.  I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy.  That’s right.  If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary.  Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well.  So, were Confederates traitors?  Yes!  As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?

This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence.   Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.

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Why I Don’t Live In the World of What Ifs

Last month I started reading Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South.  While I was excited at the beginning my enthusiasm quickly waned to the point where I haven’t picked it up in about 3 weeks.  Perhaps I will get back to it over the summer, but it doesn’t look good.  I’ve never been enthusiastic about counterfactuals in Civil War history.  I find very little entertainment in their consideration.  While I agree that there may be an epistemological pay off when handled carefully, I suspect that most conversations about counterfactuals in the Civil War are more about freezing time for some selfish purpose than about serious historical understanding about cause and effect.  There is no better example of this than William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….

Ulysses S. Grant also pointed out the problems with such an approach in his autobiography.  Here he reflects on the suggestion by some that Confederate Gen. A.S. Johnston’s death at Shiloh sealed their defeat. [Hat tip to Ta-Nehisi Coates]:

I do not question the personal courage of General Johnston, or his ability. But he did not win the distinction predicted for him by many of his friends. He did prove that as a general he was over-estimated. General Beauregard was next in rank to Johnston and succeeded to the command, which he retained to the close of the battle and during the subsequent retreat on Corinth, as well as in the siege of that place. His tactics have been severely criticised by Confederate writers, but I do not believe his fallen chief could have done any better under the circumstances. Some of these critics claim that Shiloh was won when Johnston fell, and that if he had not fallen the army under me would have been annihilated or captured.

Ifs defeated the Confederates at Shiloh. There is little doubt that we would have been disgracefully beaten IF all the shells and bullets fired by us had passed harmlessly over the enemy and IF all of theirs had taken effect. Commanding generals are liable to be killed during engagements; and the fact that when he was shot Johnston was leading a brigade to induce it to make a charge which had been repeatedly ordered, is evidence that there was neither the universal demoralization on our side nor the unbounded confidence on theirs which has been claimed. There was, in fact, no hour during the day when I doubted the eventual defeat of the enemy, although I was disappointed that reinforcements so near at hand did not arrive at an earlier hour.

While Grant was, no doubt, hoping to retain some credit for his victory at Shiloh he rightly points to the difficulty involved in identifying one single factor that explains a battle’s outcome.  It is worth noting that the most famous What Ifs are formulated from a perspective that lead to a Confederate victory.  Gettysburg, of course, looms large: What if Jackson had been at Gettysburg or Confederate General Ewell had advanced and taken Culp’s Hill on the evening of July 1, 1863.  We could just as easily formulate a counterfactual around a Union mistake or defeat to achieve the same end, but that doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it.  It’s as if the war was the Confederacy’s to win regardless of the broader sweep of events and the facts on the ground.  We are like children in the scene that Faulkner so eloquently sketches stretching the imagination to bring about a different outcome to a battle and possibly the war.

I don’t fantasize about Confederate victory.  I suspect that many people entertain these stories as a means to imagining the outcome that they wish had prevailed.  That fantasy may be quite common among Civil War enthusiasts, as Faulkner suggests, but it does not necessarily imply anything nefarious about the individual in question.

I have never been attracted to such stories and I suspect that this is why I am having trouble with the Turtledove book.  I guess I can’t imagine a Confederate victory without pondering the question of what would have happened to 4 million slaves as well as the rest of American history.  Since my understanding of the Civil War and its outcome is so wrapped up in the issue of slavery I don’t have the luxury of being able to distinguish between the two.  In the end I identify with the United States because it led to the end of slavery, even if the road to its eventual extinction was rocky and littered with moral landmines.  Without speculating much and given the goals of the Confederate government it is reasonable to conclude that a Confederate victory would have left millions of slaves in bondage.

The other difficulty that I have in playing with such counterfactuals has to do with my own sense of nationalism and love for country.  I find it strange to have to continually respond to critics who take me for some kind of “Lincoln lover” or partisan for the Union cause.  I am not descended from anyone who was alive in this country in the 1860s and as many of you know I came to an interest in the war relatively late.  In other words, there is nothing at stake for me in vindicating the cause of my ancestor or community.  Actually, it’s my own sense of connection to this country as a citizen that prevents me from playing around much with fantasies of Confederate victory.  My impatience with such counterfactuals has everything to do with my own identity as an American and a lingering belief that the right side won that war even if the moral principles dividing the two were not always transparent.  I’ve always found it kind of strange that people who go out of their way to declare their loyalty to this country find it so easy to imagine and even wish for a Confederate victory.  There is something contradictory about this.

That’s about it.  I’ll let you know if I ever finish the Turtledove book.

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Sorry For Ruining Your Visit

On Friday my wife and I headed up to Frederick, Maryland to catch a concert with Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman.  This was my first visit to Frederick in a number of years and I have to say that I was blown away by the development in the downtown area.  We did a little walking before grabbing a bite to eat and then made our way to the beautiful Weinberg Center theatre.

From there we headed to D.C. for the rest of the weekend.  Yesterday was a beautiful day for a long walk so we decided to head on over to Arlington National Cemetery.  We walked through most of the cemetery, including the area that was operated by the Freedman’s Bureau.  You can find a large number of USCT’s, civilians, and former slaves buried in Section 29.  From there we walked up to the Lee-Custis mansion and then made our way to the Confederate Monument.

My wife has never seen that monument so I did a bit of interpretation for her.  I pointed out a number of features, including the decision to represent both Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri with the rest of the former Confederate states as well as the images of loyal slaves and what appears to be a black Confederate soldiers.  It’s a wonderful representation of the Lost Cause at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  In addition to the monument I mentioned President Woodrow Wilson’s participation in the dedication of the monument as well as his decision to segregate federal office buildings in the capital city at around that time.  My wife and I talked quite a bit about our thoughts about the monument, which is what we normally do when confronted with such structures.  Our instincts are to question and try to understand.

There was one other couple looking at the monument and although we did not exchange words I could tell that they were visibly upset with our comments.  Perhaps they thought that this was simply a monument to the soldiers buried in a ring around the monument.  If I had to guess they probably believed that what I was saying was disrespectful to their memory and service to the Confederacy.

Anyway, sorry for ruining your visit, but I do hope you learned something about the site.

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Facebook Creates Strange Bedfellows

My Facebook profile page is recommending that I “friend” Bill Vallante. Perhaps I can convince him to become a “Fan” of Civil War Memory.

Who is “Wild” Bill Vallante?

Click here and here.

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Show Your Confederate Gay Pride

A number of you passed along this link for the “12 Funniest Items of Confederate Flag Memorabilia.”  While I got a kick out of the Confederate flag toilet paper and “sexy, fiery Confederate flag,” I have to say that the gay pride flag t-shirt takes the cake.  Actually, the blending of a symbol that has become so closely identified with conservative white men and even bikers, along with the colors of the gay community raises a number of questions.

  • Is it possible for gay men to openly express their pride in Confederate heritage?
  • Would the discovery of an individual’s sexuality threaten their standing as a legitimate member of the Confederate heritage community?
  • Were there any gay Confederate soldiers?
  • Were there any gay Confederate officers?
  • Were there any gay Confederate politicians?
  • What was the frequency of gay sexual encounters in Confederate ranks during the war and were those parties any less Confederate?
  • Were there any gay “Christian Warriors” in Confederate ranks? Could there be a gay Christian Warrior in Confederate ranks?  [After all, status as a slaveholder doesn't seem to be a problem for some.]

A few of these questions can be answered by consulting Tom Lowry’s book, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War while others are simply meant to provoke thought.

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