Mainstream Media Tackles Confederate History Month = Fail

Thankfully the media circus is beginning to die down over last week’s Confederate History Month proclamation.  I ended up watching more of the “debate” on the major news channels than I care to admit.  It was downright painful to watch.  The most disappointing aspect of it all was the almost complete absence of any professional historians.  You would think that the major networks could have mustered up at least one legitimate historian.  The closest I saw was a half-way decent interview that Rachel Maddow conducted with Patricia Harris-Lacewell, who teaches politics and African American Studies at Princeton.  Unfortunately, the professor’s distinction between two southern pasts didn’t quite address all of the salient issues involved.

More often than not the audience was treated to the same talking heads who clearly do not understand the relevant history.  CNN’s Roland Martin had a field day with this issue, which included a lively debate with Brag Bowling.  No surprise that Bowling was at times inarticulate, but Martin’s comparison of Confederate soldiers with Nazis and suggestion that they were “domestic terrorists” shut the door on any chance of rational debate.  You can read Martin’s recent essay comparing Confederates with terrorists on the CNN site.  It is one of the most incoherent arguments that I’ve seen in a long time; I would love for someone to explain it to me.  Finally, check out Martin in this little clip with Republican adviser Mary Matalin, who retreats to the old saw that most white southerners were not slaveowners and that most northerners were not abolitionists.

Next, we head on over to Hardball where we find Pat Buchanan and Chris Matthews in full combat.  Neither of these guys is capable of doing much more than jabbing back and forth at one another and Buchanan’s constant referencing of the Founding Fathers as slaveowners makes little sense.  Also on MSNBC is something called the Dylan Rattigan Show.  I have no idea who he is nor can I identify the guests beyond their names.  Regardless, there is almost nothing worth repeating from this interview.  Finally, I share with you a real doozy of an interview with the chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Jeff Davis.  Davis does a fabulous job towing the SCV party line and we learn from the woman conducting the interview that there were 500,000 slaves in West Virginia.  Oh boy.

It’s hard to believe that with the resources available to these “news” outlets that this was the best they could do in communicating much needed information to the general public.  I am tired of hearing those cries about how little our students understand about this nation’s history.  If the rest of the nation’s understanding of the past is anything like what was presented as news on this issue over the past week than our children are the least of our problems.  In the end our mainstream news reflects our mainstream culture.

Was the Civil War Punishment From God?

I got a kick out of reading Richard Williams’s response to my post.  I’m not going to respond to the content other than to say that my “policing” of the blogosphere extends no further than his own.  Sometimes I wonder whether he reads his own blog.

What I do want to comment on is a point made by Williams early on concerning the role of God in bringing about the Civil War:

I believe that God allowed the Civil War to occur due to the SIN OF SLAVERY and punished both sections of the Nation for their involvement in that evil.

The problem with any analysis of such a view hinges on how we interpret the word, “allowed”.  It could mean that God caused the Civil War as a way to punish the nation or it could suggest that God failed to intervene and allowed Americans on both sides to butcher one another as punishment.  Either way on this view African Americans were expendable as white America worked out its moral kinks with the full understanding and blessing of God.  That seems to be just a bit problematic.

If we stick to the second reading of ‘allowed’ we ought to be able to ask why God failed to intervene earlier in human affairs.  In other words, why did God allow the situation to spiral out of control to a point where Americans were willing to kill one another?  Why not intervene on the smallest of scales to prevent the introduction of slavery in the early 17th century?  [Come to think of it has God ever intervened in American history?]  It clearly would have lowered the overall suffering of scores of Africans and African Americans and it may have prevented the forming of a slave nation in 1787 and a civil war in 1861.  On this second reading it also looks like we must acknowledge the centrality of slavery to the Civil War.  In fact, it looks like we must indeed view the goals of the Confederacy as a Lost Cause given that God must have known that the war would end slavery since it was allowed to take place and God certainly would not have permitted bloodshed on such a scale to end with slavery intact.  So much for all those prayers from Confederates pleading for God to deliver a victory.  It was never going to happen.

We can also interpret ‘allowed’ along causal lines as described above.  Questions persist for this interpretation as well.  First, why did it take God so long to punish the nation for slavery?  Couldn’t such an act have been carried out before so many Africans had been kidnapped and brought to the United States, not to mention the rest of the western hemisphere?  And where does this leave African Americans?  I suspect that some in the black community may be wondering why so many of their ancestors had to be sacrificed just to teach white America a lesson between 1861 and 1865.  It also seems problematic that God waited to punish the nation after one entire section had abolished the institution.  Of course, we could focus on the extent to which the North was involved in this hideous practice as late as 1861, but there was plenty of time for God to punish the nation at a time when every state included the practice.

Of course, I could go on and on, but what’s the point.  Actually, I agree on a certain level with Williams that the war was punishment; however, we don’t need to bring in the mysterious workings of divine intervention or contemplate the moral profile of God to make the point.  The Civil War was the result of Americans’ inability to work through very difficult problems that plagued the nation from the beginning.  Americans at different times and places made decisions and these decisions had consequences.  By 1861 the nation was split regionally between slave and non-slave states.  “And then the war came.”

“It Is a Sad Day Indeed For All Of Us Who Love the South”

Civil War memory is indeed a very strange landscape. Up until today I would have said that the once widely held view that slavery was benign and that the slaves themselves remained loyal throughout the war reflects its most absurd side.  However, the folks over at Richard Williams’s site have somehow managed to trump even that.

In response to a short post marking the anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Norther Virginia at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 one reader had this to say:

It is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South.  This was followed by a response from Williams: “Yeah, me too.”

Apparently, that caught the attention of my good friend and fellow historian, Mark Snell, who posted the following in response:

Why is it sad that the killing ended? Why is it a sad day that the institution of slavery was coming to an end? Why is it sad that this date signaled the beginning of a new era, one that would make the United States the strongest and richest country in the world–with some of the ex-Confederate states in the forefront of that economy today? Can someone explain this “sense of sadness” to me?

Williams offers the following response:

That’s a legitimate question, but please don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. No one laments the end of slavery – at least not anyone I know. That’s absurd. Moreover, it was Lee who did not want to see the killing continue. Grant is the one who seemed to be willing to continue to supply an endless supply of human cannon fodder.

The sense of sadness to which I’m referring was eloquently expressed by none other than General Grant:

“My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.”

First, no one put words into Williams’s mouth.  Mark was simply asking how anyone in their right mind could consider it to be a sad day given that it brought slavery that much closer to being finally extinguished. More to the point, it brought the slaughter to an end.  How could it possibly be a sad day?  Even stranger is the reference to Grant as somehow wishing to continue the violence.  Williams provides no evidence whatsoever for this ridiculous claim.  I guess somehow we are to believe that Grant had an easier time ordering young men into battle and to their deaths.  Of course, the only way one could get away with such a claim is if he ignored the entire Seven Days’ Campaign, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg – to name just a few. That’s not a criticism of Lee.  After all, they were both generals trying to win battles and bring about victory.

Mark offered a follow-up to Williams’s response, but unfortunately it was rejected without explanation.  It’s difficult to understand why:

I didn’t put words in anyone’s mouth. I simply asked some very legitimate questions, and I still haven’t gotten a legitimate response to them. The only reason Lee surrendered when he did was because he had no choice. He was cut off from retreat and had no chance of linking up with Joe Johnston. Your assertion that Grant wanted to continue to supply cannon fodder is illogical: if he wanted to continue the war, he could have refused Lee’s surrender. That makes about as much sense as saying that the South had a vast unused manpower pool–all those black Confederates–that could have been employed to further prosecute the war. Grant’s feeling of depression concerning his defeated foe is quite understandable. After all, weren’t they all Americans? But to use Grant’s memoirs to validate your point tells me nothing about Mr. Simons’ remark that today ‘is a sad day indeed for all of us who love the South,’ nor does it explain your apparent agreement with it. I love the South, and I’m sure a lot of black Southerners do too, but I doubt if they see today as a ‘sad day.’

Thanks for allowing me to comment.

Well, so much for all the silly accusations about how the “liberal elite” stifle the free exchange of ideas.  For the life of me I can’t think of a better example of pure nostalgic bullshit.

Barack Obama, Bob McDonnell, and Civil War Memory

This post originally ran in April 2007.  I thought it might be worth re-posting given the recent debate here in Virginia and throughout the country over Confederate History Month.  I am wondering whether we are witnessing a decisive shift in our collective memory of the war?  Is the governor’s apology an indication that it is no longer possible to use the Lost Cause for political gain?

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances? My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the “emancipationist legacy” of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the “emptiness” referred to in connection with “Confederate heritage” is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

We shall see.

Appomattox Court House, April 9, 1865

Most of us think of the significance of this day in 1865 as revolving around the soldiers who met for the final time at Appomattox Court House.  The images and stories of Lee and Grant in the McLean House and the famous salute between Gordon and Chamberlain, which may or may not have occurred according to William Marvel, color our imagination.  Here is another story from that day.

Fannie Berry was at Pamplin City, Virginia, as stray Rebel fugitives from the Army of Northern Virginia tried to fend off their pursuers.  “The Yankees and Rebels were fighting, and they were waving the bloody flag, and a Confederate soldier was up on a post, and they were shooting terribly.  Guns were firing everywhere.” when “all of a sudden” she heard the strains of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and looked up to see Union soldiers approaching.  “How far is it to the Rebels?” a soldier asked her.  But she was too afraid to reply, because, “if the Rebels knew that I told the soldier,” they would have killed her.  She told him she didn’t know, but when he asked again, Berry darted behind her master’s house and furtively pointed in the Rebels’ direction.

A regiment of black troops marched up, and according to Berry, as soon as the Rebels caught sight of them, they raised a white flag “as a token that Lee had surrendered.  Glory! Glory!” Berry exclaimed.  “Yes, child, the Negroes were free, and when they knew that they were free they –Oh! Baby!–began to sing: ‘Mary don’t you cook no more,/You are free, you are free./Rooster don’t you crow no more,/You are free, you are free…’ Such rejoicing and shouting you never heard in your life.”  For Samuel Spottford Clement, it seemed that at last God had heard the prayers that slaves had “sent up for three hundred years.” [From The Slaves' War by Andrew Ward, (p. 247)]

It is indeed an important day in American history.

[Image: Don Troiani's "The Last Salute" HAP]