A Holy War Against Wiley Sword?

sc00175ec3[Hat-Tip to David Woodbury]

This is one of those jaw-dropping stories that makes you wonder about the collective mental stability of our little Civil War community.  Apparently, the John Bell Hood Society is troubled by historian Wiley Sword’s characterization of Hood’s personal, intellectual, and battlefield skills.  To share this disgust the organization decided to take out an ad in Civil War News, which includes a link to a site where you can read their detailed critique harangue against Sword.  They accuse Sword of “engaging in an unholy Jihad against Gen. Hood, filtering from historical records any and all documented evidence that does not support his biased, agenda-based premise.”

I will leave it to you to read through their objections to Sword, but what I find disturbing is their overall tone.  Their choice of language reflects a misunderstanding of what is involved in historical analysis and ultimately reflects poorly on the members of the organization and renders their position as highly suspect.  They have every right to challenge a historical interpretation and anyone who is a serious student of history ought to welcome it.  Ultimately, any objection stands or falls based on whether it exposes an obvious oversight or mistake made during the research and writing process or offers a reasonable alternative interpretation of the same evidence.  Again, you will have to read through their response to Sword and judge for yourself.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this kind of language, but as someone who is constantly attacked and even threatened on occasion, I call on the publisher of Civil War News to pull this ad from their next issue if it is slated to appear.  There should be no toleration for this kind of incendiary language.

This attack against Sword is reminiscent of a similar response to Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, which was first published in 1991.  A quick swing through the website of the John Bell Society reveals a group of worshippers rather than serious students of history and no doubt helps to explain the religious overtone of their response against Sword.  I guess this is what happens to people who are exposed to the study of history at an early age along the lines outlined by John J. Dwyer.  They no longer see history as a discipline that is continually in flux and open to revision as opposed to a holy text that must be defended against all sinners and non-believers.

Update: As a way of making my point here, I encourage all of you to read Victoria Bynum’s review of a new book on the State of Jones. It is an excellent example of what a critical review looks like without resorting to hyperbole and insult.


John J. Dwyer’s Black Confederates

It should come as no surprise that Dwyer would emphasize the loyal service of tens of thousands of “black Confederates” – or what he describes as “Forgotten Blacks in Gray” -  given his analysis of slavery.  The author emphasizes this long-standing myth throughout the text and offers his usual service of vague generalizations, meaningless definitions, and a complete lack of any primary and secondary source references.  I will not bore you with the kind of nonsense that I’ve pointed out over and over, but instead will point out a few of the more ridiculous claims made by Dwyer.  First, I should note that Dwyer does note that the Confederate government did not authorize the use of black men as soldiers until the final months of the war, but that does not prevent him from suggesting that 40,000 blacks served in combat roles at some point during the war.  No attempt is made to demonstrate how he arrived at this number.  Even better is Dwyer’s estimation that somewhere between 50-100,000 blacks “served in the Southern military” as body servants, teamsters, and cooks for quartermasters and engineers, in commissaries, and as constructions workers.  Of course, no mention of the fact that many of these men would have “served” as slaves in these and other capacities.  Dwyer includes a number of accounts from various sources purporting to reinforce these figures, though as I pointed out there are no references as to where these sources can be found.  He even quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 observation of blacks with “muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets”.  There is an air of legitimacy through the use of brief quotes by supposed experts on the subject such as Walter Williams, who teaches economics at George Mason University and to my knowledge has never done serious research on the subject.

Why, according to Dwyer, was there “such widespread support…among black southerners for the Confederacy”?

  • “Some slaves supported the Confederate cause from a sense of adventure, much more exciting than their usual activities.”
  • “…like their white counterparts, to preserve their homes and family, and the way of life they had always known.”
  • “Story after story from every corner of the South recalls the wartime love of blacks and whites, who had grown up together, for one another.”

My personal favorites

  • “They felt threatened by the Northern invasion and the aims of the abolitionists, whom they saw as a threat to their wealth and social advancement.  Large numbers of these blacks enlisted in the Confederate armies.  Sometimes they raised their own units, one of which required each man to own at least $25,000 in assets to join.  They knew a Northern victory would bring economic and social ruin to them–and it did.”
  • “They loved the South and were delighted to be identified with its cause, which they understood to be freedom.  They viewed the North as a bully seeking to force its will on others who wished to live as they pleased.”

Dwyer includes story after story of slaves refusing their freedom and rarely maintains any kind of consistency in maintaining a distinction between free and enslaved blacks.  The sections include a number of photographs of so-called soldiers, a list of individual black Confederates, and passage after passage without any historical context.  No doubt, it’s probably enough to embarrass even Earl Ijames.

It’s hard to know what to say beyond the obvious.  The most disturbing aspect of all of this is that Dwyer’s narrative “is His Story, God Almighty’s work…”  That means that the student/reader cannot must not question any piece of information presented in this book.  To question it would be to question God’s divine plan and vision for his children.  The entire book is set up to discourage further inquiry, which is why there is no indication whatsoever that many of the isues related to the war have been and continue to be debated among serious scholars.  The few historians that are presented end up being used in a morality play by Dwyer.  Either they have signed on to the correct interpretation or they must be understood as a threat.   As a history teacher who emphasizes the importance of learning to think historically, it pains me to imagine children being taught history as some kind of sacred text that must be accepted on faith.


“The War Between the States”: Homeschool Style

It’s true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by the number of black Confederates that are claimed to have loyally served.  As a teacher I think it is important to stay up to date on new textbooks and other classroom resources, so with that in mind I decided to contact the good people at American Vision to see about getting a review copy of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, which is authored by John J. Dwyer.  The book was published in 2005 and is endorsed by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell, Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston.  The book is marketed to Christian schools and families that homeschool their children.  It is illustrated throughout with the artwork of John Paul Strain and at 650 pages it is by far the longest textbook on the war that I’ve ever come across.

Not surprisingly, the endorsements claim that this book serves as an alternative to the standard interpretations that currently pervade public schools and colleges.  Of course, Dwyer never elaborates on what this interpretation includes or explores its supposed weaknesses, but than again this book was not written to raise questions and encourage curiosity.  Rather it was written to conform to a Christian outlook that uses the past to justify current political and moral beliefs.  Such an approach offers a convenient justification for parents and educators who believe that the secular world must be resisted in all its forms.  Dwyer believes that his text moves beyond the “politically correct” studies that are used in secondary schools and colleges and allows the reader to focus on “God’s almighty work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history.”  Such an approach doesn’t leave much room for questions about how the author constructs his interpretation since any challenge must necessarily be construed as a challenge to God’s vision.  I will leave the epistemological concerns aside for now rather than get bogged down into something that, as a historian, I could care less about.

The book includes no references to outside studies other than a few choice titles that are floated throughout the text such as Charles Adams’s In The Course of Human Events and other books by the Ludwig Von Mises crowd and assorted libertarians.  The curious reader is left to wonder what kinds of primary and secondary sources were used.  Obviously, I cannot review the entire book; rather, I will proceed in short segments that focus on a representative sample that should give you a sense of why the book is so popular as a homeschool/Christian text.

Consider the author’s treatment of black Confederates as an entry point into the overall quality of this text.  The student is prepped for this “analysis” with multiple sections focused on the life of slaves and their relationships with their masters.  Dwyer relies heavily on the WPA Slave Narratives as well as Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross.  The author acknowledges that historians have pointed out problems with using the WPA sources, but suggests that they reveal a wide range of experiences of slave life.  Indeed they do, but the author simply makes assertions that are to be accepted by the reader rather than demonstrating with examples.  Dwyer also never mentions the controversy surrounding Time on the Cross, including important critiques by Herbert Gutman and others.  Ignoring such problems allows the author to pick and choose from the texts to draw conclusions that confirm the crucial point that God is an ever present force in the lives of slaves and slaveowners.  “They (Fogel and Engerman) produced perhaps the most thorough examination of plantation records and first-hand accounts ever done,” writes Dwyer.  Just as disturbing is the way in which facts are presented without any context whatsoever.  In fleshing out the reality of slave life in the South the reader learns that “thousands of free Southern blacks owned other blacks as slaves, including one hundred twenty-five in Charleston, South Carolina, and over 3,000 in New Orleans.  No mention of the complexity of race in a city like New Orleans compared with the rest of the region and no references at the end of the chapter to allow students to read further.  I guess it’s all about faith.  There is a constant reminder throughout that historians today cannot be trusted and that their research is a product of nefarious motives.  The student learns quickly that the author’s goal is to rescue them from such treachery.

The author’s assessment of slavery is difficult to make sense of given the goal of reconciling a Christian world-view and a slaveholding society.  There is a palpable tension between acknowledging the reality of slavery and wanting to correct the harshest critiques of slave life.  In the hands of a reputable historian such a goal is not only laudable, but essential if we are to continue to uncover the complexity of slave life and race relations in the United States at different times.  This is not meant to ignore the harsh reality of slavery, but to acknowledge that it does not constitute the beginning and end of what we need to know.  Here is a revealing passage:

Slavery, though not an evil institution when practiced Biblically, was attended with evils as practiced in the South.  It was not in any way perfect or utopian.  In fact, as a Southern social institution, generally considered, it was evil.  Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between Biblical slavery and that practiced in the South.  These differences between the Biblical standard and Southern slavery make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South.

One could read this as suggesting that the “evils [of slavery] as practice in the South” was a matter of degree given its sanctioning in the Bible.  An “unqualified defense” may not be appropriate, but it certainly leaves room for one that is qualified.  For someone who is not a Christian, but who holds to very strong moral/ethical principles it is impossible for me to come to terms with such a distinction.  Dwyer takes full advantage of the opening provided in the above passage to present the “Unexpected Blessings” of slavery.  No surprise that it is the fact that the slaves were introduced to Christianity.  Of course, it implies that the original Africans had no religious identity, but that doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer since the goal of his commentary is to present slaves and slaveowners as some kind of organic whole that at least approached the Biblically sanctioned institution of slavery.   As far as I am concerned such a view reflects moral bankruptcy and deserves outright condemnation.  But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to question our “politically correct” narrative of slavery how about this one?:

No one needs lament the passing of slavery, and the editors of this volume emphatically do not.  But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished?  In many respects, the remedy applied has been far worse that the disease ever was.  Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2004.

Well, you can probably surmise that I will not be using this particular book in my Civil War survey course, but you can bet that I will break this out for my course on Civil War memory.  I was hoping to get to this book’s interpretation of black Confederates, but given the length of this post I will hold it for the next one.  It’s a doozy.  They even offer up a number of 40,000.


They Died at Gettysburg For Our Entertainment

Wish I could be part of the festivities up in Gettysburg this week.  Well, not really.  I read in the newspaper that this year’s reenactment promises to be the “biggest and best so far.” That must mean that there will be more people involved, more noise, and more smoke; it promises to be an entertaining show.  Maybe for next year, instead of going for the biggest and best, organizers can work on making it more realistic.  You want to get me to Gettysburg in early July than give me real suffering.  I’m not asking for much, just something that reflects a reenactor’s sincere interest in wanting to better understand the horror of battle.  Perhaps a blow to the head with the but of a rifle or a minor flesh wound caused by a bee bee that could be extracted with period medical tools.  Now that would point to a sincere commitment to experiencing the past through the other-regarding emotions of empathy and sympathy.

There is precedent for this.  Consider the yearly reenactments of Jesus’s crucifixion that take place in the Philippines.

There is something admirable in their willingness to endure such a severe amount of pain in order to fully embrace what they interpret to be the significance of Jesus’s sacrifice.  For many it is the only way to fully embrace both the historical event of the crucifixion as well as its spiritual import.  By extension one wonders how the experience of the crowd is shaped in comparison with a less realistic reenactment of the crucifixion.  Are they able to identify more closely with the nature of the event being portrayed?  Of course, I am not suggesting that Civil War reenactors try to bring a bit more of the reality of the battlefield to their performance.  What it does bring home for me, however, is how little suffering and sacrifice comes through in reenactments.  Though I’ve only been to a few reenactments I’ve never felt anything close to a feeling of sorrow or even admiration for what the soldiers endured during the Civil War.  It’s always been entertaining and fun for me, in part because I know the reenactor is not suffering in any way, and because of that I’ve always felt just a little uneasy about attending such events.

Have a Happy Gettysburg!


What’s Up With the “M”?

800px-Mahone_MausoleumToday was the perfect day to drive to Petersburg and hang out at the Crater.  I try to get down there at least once a year to recharge the batteries and find those special places where I can lose myself in the past for a few moments.  This trip I decided to walk off the field itself into the wooded areas along the edge of the battlefield.  I walked a few hundred yards along the Confederate right where the 46th and 34th Virginia were located.  The Federal attack managed to occupy about 200 yards along this portion of the battlefield, but what is striking when you walk this area is the incline that they would have had to manage.  In short, it would not have been an easy area to defend given the disorganization in Federal ranks and decisiveness of the Confederate counterattacks beginning at roughly 9am.  Along the Confederate left one is also struck by the uneven terrain and the difficulty that the Ninth Corps would have had in securing the area that was defended primarily by brigades from North Carolina under the command of Col. Lee M. McAfee.  I also explored one of the two “covered ways” that the Ninth Corps used for its attack as well as numerous smaller traverses.  Finally, I followed the “covered way” used by Mahone’s division for their counterattack.  If you walk about 100 yards beyond the crater you will come to a depression where the wood line is extended out.  Find an entrance into the woods and you can walk a few yards before the ground levels out.  It’s of course impossible to know what the area looked like on July 30 given that the battlefield functioned as a golf course in the early twentieth century.  I actually spent so much time exploring the area beyond the perimeter of the field that I almost forgot to make a quick trip around the crater itself.  Along the way I ran into a very nice couple who were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.  I asked if they had any questions and ended up giving them a fairly detailed account of the battle and a bit about what happened on the site after the war.  They were very grateful.

From there I went to Blandford Cemetery which I like to call, “Lost Cause Central”.  I absolutely love walking Blandford.  It’s a beautiful spot and you can usually walk it with very few people around.  I did my usual route, which took me to the Confederate section and William Mahone’s mausoleum.  It’s a very curious resting place.  You can’t really see it in this photograph, but the only indication that this is Mahone’s gravesite is the “M” that is situated inside the star above the door.  Mahone was larger than life and in my mind the most important Virginia politician of the nineteenth century after Thomas Jefferson.  The structure itself is an imposing one and perhaps fitting given Mahone’s importance, but one wonders why there is nothing more than a letter to identify its occupant.  You might say that an “M” is all that would have been needed in this case, much like the simplicity of “Grant” on the monument in Washington, D.C.  Or it could reflect the bitterness and anger that befell Mahone owing to his foray into politics and leadership of the Readjuster Party, which controlled Virginia state politics for four years.

Mahone’s obituaries reflect a deep mistrust from around Virginia that followed him until his death in October 1895.  Much of what I found tried to focus on his military career, but in the end could not fail to notice what many deemed to be the actions of a traitor.  The Richmond Times Dispatch offered a dispassionate overview of Mahone’s military and political career and listed numerous regret notices from Virginia politicians and “resolutions of regret” from local Confederate veterans organizations, including the A. P. Hill Camp, Gray’s Veterans, and the R. E. Lee Camp.  The Norfolk Landmark reported to its readers that Mahone’s death “removes one of the most conspicuous figures in the public life of this State since the war.”  After describing his accomplishments on the battlefield, the paper concluded that Mahone “combined with signal strategic ability a personal bravery and self command” and “enjoyed the confidence and esteem of General Lee.”  Virginia “loses one of her most distinguished sons,” suggested the Portsmouth Star and “as an organizer of forces, he was unquestionably one of the greatest minds of the age.”  North of Richmond, the Fredericksburg Free Lance described Mahone as a “Confederate general who displayed great ability and achieved marked success.”  Even while offering favorable accounts of Mahone, the same newspapers could not resist commenting on his controversial political career.   Another newspaper urged its readers to remember Mahone’s political legacy: “The name of Virginia was dragged in a mire of reproach and became a by-word and a mockery.  From the effects of that political delirium we are just recovering.”  And the Fredericksburg Free Lance predicted that Mahone’s death “will probably bring about the entire union and thorough cooperation of the divided and disorganized Republican party of Virginia.”  Finally, one eulogist noted that, “Few public men have ever had such a loss of friends as Mahone.”

Could the placement of the “M” somehow have been the result of an unspoken compromise between the Mahone family and the community?  Mahone’s remains would be interred at Blandford, but keep the visual reminder to a minimum.  When it comes to trying to understand and/or debate how to remember the Civil War generation there is a tendency to simplify in a way that ignores the complexity of the lives being remembered.   The categories employed tend to be more about how we feel or how we choose to identify with the past.  What I find so interesting about Mahone is that he serves to remind us that not even his own generation could agree on how he ought to be remembered.

To wrap up my trip I met my friend, Emmanuel Dabney, for lunch in Petersburg.  Emmanuel works as an interpreter for the NPS at Petersburg and is currently working on an M.A. in public history.  He is incredibly passionate about historic preservation and hopes to make a career in the NPS.  I predict that Emmanuel is going to be a real force in the preservation world.