What Would An Obama Presidency Mean to Civil War Memory?

One of my readers responded to yesterday’s post on the forthcoming Civil War Centennial study by firing off a private email.  Though the email was relatively brief this reader gave me a great deal to think about in connection with how the Civil War will be remembered in a few short years during the sesquicentennial.  For this reader "the [centennial] observance was a celebration in plastic soldiers and cool pictorials in
Life Magazine, any political considerations were far above my buzz-cut
little head."  Indeed, little has changed  within the more popular audiences that attend reenactments, Civil War Roundtables, and read the popular magazines.  This stands in sharp contrast with the direction of recent scholarship of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and black history generally. 

What I failed to consider, which was pointed out in the email, is the possibility that the 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 seems obvious that an Obama presidency could radically reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of the American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen – and I assume this will emerge in Cook’s study – 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 has the potential of becoming overly celebratory; however, my interest is in the way the nation’s focus would be shifted.

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.

This post is not meant in any way as a justification for a vote for Barak Obama.  The election of a black president would be an important milestone for this country, but in our attempt to understand how we as a nation arrived at this point it also has the potential of radically shifting the way we think about our collective past.

Thanks reader.


News Coverage

It’s much too early to draw any firm conclusions about what happened on Monday at Virginia Tech.  It is enough if we keep the students and families touched by this horrific incident in our thoughts.  Here at my school we are dealing with a slightly different problem.  We have a large contingent of students from Korea who are struggling with a sense of responsibility for what happened.  Perhaps part of this is cultural, but I have to think that the news coverage of this incident is exacerbating the problem.  The news is constantly referencing the shooter’s nationality.  I have to ask what this has to do with what happened.  Wouldn’t it be sufficient to note that he was a student at Virginia Tech?  After all, colleges and universities are international communities.  It would be unfortunate if the constant referencing of the shooter’s nationality was a way of distancing or minimizing the emotions of ownership or responsibility for what happened; in other words, it allows us to say that at least he wasn’t American.

Check out the post over at Hugo Schwyzer.


New Study of the Civil War Centennial

This is a book that I’ve been looking forward to for some time.  Little has been published about the Civil War Centennial celebrations and even less on its continued influence on the way we remember.  Much of what has been published has in fact been written by Robert Cook who is the author of the present study.  Two essay come to mind, including a recent Journal of Southern History article and another which appeared in the edited collection, Legacy of Disunion by Susan Mary-Grant and Peter J. Parish.  Here is the description for Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 (forthcoming June 2007):

In 1957, Congress voted to set up the United States Civil War Centennial Commission. A federally funded agency within the Department of the Interior, the commission’s charge was to oversee preparations to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the central event in the Republic’s history. Politicians hoped that a formal program of activities to mark the centennial of the Civil War would both bolster American patriotism at the height of the cold war and increase tourism in the South. Almost overnight, however, the patriotic pageant that organizers envisioned was transformed into a struggle over the Civil War’s historical memory and the injustices of Jim Crow. In Troubled Commemoration, Robert J. Cook recounts the planning, organization, and ultimate failure of this controversial event and reveals how the broad-based public history extravaganza was derailed by its appearance during the decisive phase of the civil rights movement.

Cook shows how the centennial provoked widespread alarm among many African Americans, white liberals, and cold warriors because the national commission failed to prevent southern whites from commemorating the Civil War in a racially exclusive fashion. The public outcry followed embarrassing attempts to mark secession, the attack on Fort Sumter, and the South’s victory at First Manassas, and prompted backlash against the celebration, causing the emotional scars left by the war to resurface. Cook convincingly demonstrates that both segregationists and their opponents used the controversy that surrounded the commemoration to their own advantage. Southern whites initially embraced the centennial as a weapon in their fight to save racial segregation, while African Americans and liberal whites tried to transform the event into a celebration of black emancipation.

Forced to quickly reorganize the commission, the Kennedy administration replaced the conservative leadership team with historians, including Allan Nevins and a young James I. Robertson, Jr., who labored to rescue the centennial by promoting a more soberly considered view of the nation’s past. Though the commemoration survived, Cook illustrates that white southerners quickly lost interest in the event as it began to coincide with the years of Confederate defeat, and the original vision of celebrating America’s triumph over division and strife was lost.

The first comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Civil War Centennial, Troubled Commemoration masterfully depicts the episode as an essential window into the political, social, and cultural conflicts of America in the 1960s and confirms that it has much to tell us about the development of the modern South.

It would have been nice to have this book as I finished up my project on memory and the Crater.  Click here for excerpts from pamphlets published by the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission.  While there were plans at the beginning of the centennial to commemorate the battle of the Crater on July 30, 1964 enthusiasm clearly dropped off owing to the Civil Rights Movement and interpretive divisions within various centennial committees.

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Eric Foner Reviews Freehlings Road To Disunion

The latest issue of the New York Times Book Review includes a short review of William Freehling’s latest study by Eric Foner.  Foner basically summarizes Freehling’s argument, but unfortunately never really penetrates the surface of what is a sophisticated and well-argued book.  More to the point I thought that Foner nitpicked at some of Freehling’s references.  At one point he criticizes Freehling’s emphasis on the role of individual decisions as a salient factor in understanding the triumph of Lower South secessionists over their more conservative brothers in the Upper South:

There is no question that “Secessionists Triumphant” is peopled by a colorful cast of characters, from William L. Yancey, a hotheaded secessionist who tried to inspire Southerners with a sense of nationhood, to James Henry Hammond, a South Carolina planter who preyed on his female slaves. But Freehling’s fondness for individual stories puts undue emphasis on psychological explanations, with words like “frustration” and “rage” sprinkling the text. Moreover, the attempt to assume a popular literary style often seems forced. (Was the pro-slavery theorist George Fitzhugh really dealing in “sound bites”?)

It’s difficult to know why Foner is so troubled by psychological explanations given that Freehling’s book is the result of a great deal of time spent thinking about the motivations and emotional states of these important historical actors.  There are indeed a handful of such references, but I don’t find that they overly detract from the other points made which buttress his central claims.  Perhaps that is not what is bothering Foner:

I think it’s time to declare a moratorium on scholars’ denigrating other scholars for failing to achieve popularity. As Freehling’s own extensive footnotes demonstrate, those much-maligned specialized studies are the building blocks of historical knowledge. Nor is his dismissal of what he calls “multicultural social history” in favor of the study of politics persuasive. Surely, the task of the historian is to integrate the two.

If I remember correctly, Freehling makes a point in one of the early footnotes for professional historians to write for a general audience, which involves a change of style.  Again, I think Foner is nitpicking here.  Freehling does not suggest that the more specialized studies have no place, but that professional historians have resisted taking the opportunity to write books that are readable, but do not sacrifice scholarship, for a general audience.  Freehling does not want historians to write to achieve popularity, but to educate a wide audience.  Finally, I believe that Freehling is trying to resurrect a traditional style of political history that has tended in recent years to take a backseat to social history.  Perhaps in trying to emphasize the importance of individual decisions within the highest seats of government there is a danger of painting a picture that does give short thrift to the kinds of forces at work from the bottom-up that exercise influence.  In highlighting those political decisions, however, it may be worth the price.

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Order vs. Democracy

You never know how a planned class discussion will go or the direction it will take.  Today my survey courses explored some primary sources which lay out American foreign policy in the late 1940s.  I asked my students to think about the challenges that emerged by the end of WWII and how those challenges sent the United States down a very different path compared with its response to WWI.  I show clips from videos about the Red Scare and HUAC meetings along with images of hydrogen bombs and the classic "Duck and Cover."  In class today we read through Harry Truman’s 1947 address (Truman Doctrine/Containment) to Congress in which he asks for $400,000 400 million dollars to be used to help the nations of Turkey and Greece deal with civil war and the "threat" of communism.  It’s a fairly easy document for students to interpret and it beautifully sets up this country’s foreign policy for the next 50 years.  We talked about this along with the question of what responsibilities the United States was faced with in the aftermath of WWII.  In short, students had to think about what kind of world the United States was attempting to bring about through its actions? 

As we went through the document we came across the following line: "I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes."  One of my students was struck by the last few words and asked for an explanation.  I asked the class which word stood out and they suggested the word "order."  What is an orderly political process?  A few of the students suggested that it is a democratic system, but than another student suggested that it may not involve democracy.  What a wonderful teaching moment, and one that I did not want to slip away.  With the relationship between order and political systems in mind I asked the class to reflect on the war in Iraq as a case study.  We agreed that one of the goals of the Bush administration was to bring democracy to the country, but that at this point it was unlikely that such a lofty goal is still possible.  I then asked the class to think about what they would be willing to comprise for.  Would they settle for a nation that was without the kinds of political opportunities – the hallmarks of democracy – that we take for granted in exchange for "order" and stability.  Would this be satisfactory narrowly understood in terms of what is best for our foreign policy.  We can imagine a country that is stable without the kinds of violence that have grown all too common, but that maintains "friendly" relations with the United States.  One student asked whether both the Iraqi people and the United States would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power.  Is order along with authoritarian violence rather than a democracy sufficient from this perspective?  I tend not to answer these types of questions for fear that I may influence their thinking, but I was surprised by how many students agreed with this assessment.  I wanted the class to consider the possibility that American security may have to do with external conditions that go beyond concerns for freedom and democracy.  It’s not meant as an indictment, but as a comment on the history of America’s foreign relations. 

American foreign policy is incredibly complex following WWII.  It straddles both a concern for democracy and freedom on the one hand along with very practical decisions that highlight "order" and stability over human rights.  We didn’t come to any firm conclusions in connection with all of this, but it is nice to know that the class will be able to consider different moments of American interventionism during the Cold War within a wide context that considers a range of factors.