Civil War Narratives: Is There A Problem?

I read with great interest Dimitri’s response to a fellow blogger’s query about his recent comments about James McPherson, Doris K. Goodwin and the supposed perils of writing narrative history.  Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s entertaining and insightful blog knows that he is a voracious and careful reader of Civil War history.  As I understand it Dimitri’s concern about narrative history is its tendency on the part of authors to mislead readers by including historical assumptions that most people do not know to question or are not equipped to challenge.  That is clearly not his problem:

The narrator has wired a large board and set all the switches of controversy to
flow the storyline in a manageable direction. As a naive reader of Jean Smith [author of the biography Grant],
the switches were hidden from me and I went with the flow – with pleasure. But
as a deep reader in other areas, say the early war in the East, I can recognize
each choice the narrator makes to either highlight or suppress a controversy. I
become judgemental: is the subject being done justice by the author?

What Dimitri must mean by claiming to be a "deep reader" is his willingness to push through more demanding analytical studies where historical assumptions are explicit  rather than the implicitness of assumptions in the traditional narrative.  And once that happens it becomes difficult if not impossible to go back to the narrative approach within that particular area of interest.  I can relate to this view of things, but my problem is that even in areas that I am unfamiliar with I tend to look for the assumptions that are driving the narrative; that, however does not take away from the pleasure of reading it as I find the art of writing to be my main focus rather than simply the analytical framework underneath. 

Still, I find it difficult to explain the almost "pathological" obsession Dimitri has with James McPherson’s Battle Cry.  It clearly is for him the paradigm example of a bad narrative:

But the Centennial era material that McPherson aggregated in the late 1980s had
already been made stale then by 10 to 15 years of research and new discoveries.
It is now almost 20 years since this outdated-at-birth, never-revised nonfiction
was released. The book, delivering its pleasure, sets up a pathology part of
which is a standing invitation to immaturity.

For the life of me I can’t imagine what would be problematic if the only book someone read about the Civil War was McPherson’s Battle Cry.  There are two problems with this view.  First, the book was supposed to bring together scholarship from the past few decades; that was the idea behind the Oxford series.  The other problem is that Dimitri’s criticisms of the book never go beyond that narrow area of interest involving the war in the East and specifically George McClellan’s conduct of the war and his relationship with his other generals and Lincoln.  My guess is that if we could somehow revise Battle Cry by integrating scholarship by Thomas J. Rowland, Ethan Rafuse, and Joseph L. Harsh he would be just fine. 

What is even more disappointing is that Dimitri does not draw the relevant distinctions between McPherson and Smith, both of whom have engaged in very different kinds of scholarship.  Smith falls into the camp of competent historian with a narrative flair.  Don’t expect the kind of analytical flair that you would get from Grant studies by Brooks Simpson, but enjoy the read.  The problem is that if you only read Dimitri’s posts you would have to arrive at the conclusion that both individuals have built their careers on broad/popular narratives.  In the case of McPherson this would be a serious mistake.  In fact, most of his publishing career has been spent writing the kind of analytical pieces that Dimitri seems to have a preference for and yet I’ve never read on his blog anything about this.    My guess is that most of McPherson’s academic colleagues could care less about Battle Cry or even his smaller study of Antietam. 

In the end McPherson did succeed in bringing a very readable and sophisticated study of mid-nineteenth century America to a large number of readers.  Parts of it are outdated and a recent edition includes a new afterword where McPherson suggests places in the story that are in need of revising. 

So, is there really a problem?


Is A Museum The Right Place For Confederate Statues?

The University of Texas is debating what to do about statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  UT  President William Powers Jr. is now considering various options, including the rearranging of the statues on campus, providing information to visitors on the history of the statues, and finally the removal of the statues to the school’s museum.

“The whole range of options is on the table,” Powers said. “A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well.”

In his excellent study of the history of the Confederate battle flag John Coski argues that the best place for its display is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  I tend to agree with John, but I’ve never believed that his suggestion would be taken seriously by those who see the flag not as a historical object, but as a cultural symbol or as a means to identify with a certain heritage.   My guess is that those who see the flag as a vibrant and meaningful way to identify with a certain past will draw similar conclusions in reference to the UT statues.  The removal of the statues from the grounds to a museum sends the message that their preferred interpretation of the past is no longer valid or relevant.  The defensiveness that accompanies this typically brings out the rants about liberals and political correctness rather than a more serious consideration of how public objects are now being interpreted by parties that traditionally have had little or no say in how the past is remembered.

The photograph at the top is our statue of Robert E. Lee here in Charlottesville.  It’s a nice little park situated just off the Downtown Mall and across the street from the historical society.  A few blocks away stands a statue in honor of Stonewall Jackson (just above).  I would hate to see either one moved from their present locations, though I would understand if certain groups felt differently.  My attraction is more aesthetic than one that involves some kind of sympathetic identification or appreciation of their symbolism.  I tend to interpret memorials to the Civil War as a reflection of the values of those who chose to dedicate them – most of which were dedicated between 1880 and 1920.

A university, however, is different.  In this case I think the best place for the statues is in the school’s museum where they can be interpreted properly.  There visitors can learn when and under what circumstances the statues were commissioned and dedicated, which fits perfectly into a school’s mission to educate.  This one seems to me to be a no-brainer.


Thank You

A reader informed me that a fellow blogger is praying for me over comments made in the past couple weeks concerning the suggestion that we think of Stonewall Jackson as the paradigm example of the Christian warrior and friend of the  slaves.  I just wanted to take a minute to say thank you very much for the prayers as we all need the support once in awhile.  Perhaps one day I will see the light, but until then I ask for your patience and understanding as I continue to examine the possibility that slavery and friendship are not mutually exclusive concepts. 

Relevant Posts:
Christian Warrior 101 12/13
Religion and the Civil War 12/14
The Fundamentalists’ Civil War 12/17
Were Southern Slaveowners "Trapped"? 12/19
One Step Back 12/21
Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners? 12/22


Books On The Table

I just finished Jonathan Sarris’s new book A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (University of Virginia Press, 2006).  At just under 200 pages the book offers an incredibly concise analytical comparison between Lumpkin and Fannin counties in northwest Georgia.  Sarris compares the evolution of these two counties in the decades before the Civil War and into the postwar years.  Along the way he challenges long-standing assumptions about the experience of war in the mountain south.  Sarris places a great deal of emphasis on the development of these two counties before the war as a determining factor on how residents viewed slavery, secession, nationalism, desertion, and defeat.  The evolution of the Lumpkin and Fannnin counties, along with ongoing local dynamics, provides the prism through which the war is interpreted.  If you’ve read G. Ward Hubbs’s Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community (University of Georgia Press, 2003) you may want to read Sarris.  While Hubbs focuses more on the men in the ranks both studies illustrate how specific localities in the South were shaped by the demands and uncertainties of war.  I was particularly interested in the final chapter on memory.  Sarris explains why many continue to generalize about the mountain South as a bastion of unionism throughout the war.  Confederates and unionists competed with one another for control of how the war was to be remembered and this brought about some unusual bedfellows.  Most interesting was the decision of Confederate veterans to welcome Union veterans to their reunions rather than fellow residents who for one reason or another chose to remain loyal to the United States or joined their ranks by crossing into east Tennessee.  I highly recommend Sarris’s book as I learned a great deal.

I am currently reading Douglas L. Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (Knopf, 2006) who is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln which is in my mind the best recent study of the man.  Unlike Gabor Boritt’s recent study of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Wilson concentrates on how he wrote and developed his ideas.  In doing so we get a peek into the process by which Lincoln shaped his ideas.  Wilson begins with Lincoln’s farewell speech in Springfield and in subsequent chapters tackles the First Inaugural and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which I just finished.  With the flood of recent studies by Allen Guelzo, Gabor Boritt, Harold Holzer, and Ronald White I was worried that Wilson’s thunder would be drowned out.  Fortunately you will find that Wilson creates a nice niche for himself in sticking to how Lincoln utilized editorial advice and how he crafted his speeches.  Most recent studies comment on the precision of Lincoln’s thinking, but by taking the reader through various drafts Wilson is able to show the reader how he utilized language to achieve his political goals. 


The View From Outside

I ran across a fairly interesting editorial that recently appeared in the Japan Times.  The short piece was written by Hiroaki Sato who is a translator and essayist and has lived in New York City since the late 1960’s.  The focus of the essay is in reaction to the Atlantic Monthly’s recent ranking of the 100 greatest Americans.  What struck me was the sophistication of Sato’s understanding of American history, especially the Civil War and reconciliation.  Here is a bit from the editorial:

Worse, the aim of achieving racial justice rapidly lost its force
in the years following Lincoln’s assassination. So by about 1900, "national
conciliation" — between the whites in the North and the whites in the South —
was complete. The indispensable part of this process was the South’s
nullification, with the Supreme Court’s connivance, of the 13th Constitutional
Amendment that prohibits slavery.

It was as though white-dominated America took to heart Lincoln’s
famous statement to Horace Greeley, president of the New York Tribune, on Aug.
22, 1862: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not
either to save or to destroy slavery." In other words, emancipation was not the
real issue.

I was reminded of this regressive process recently when I read
the history of Berea College, in Kentucky, one of the many admirable educational
institutions in the United States. Started in 1855 by John Fee, who believed in
racial and sexual equality, the college had to give up accepting blacks in 1905
when the Kentucky legislature banned teaching blacks and whites together. Yes,
such things were done as late as 1905. And in Kentucky, that law was not changed
until 1950.

As a matter of fact, not long after I came here I began to notice
"Civil War buffs" — people apparently interested in the war between the North
and the South purely as a matter of military contests.
The Civil War buff
quality is discernible in The Atlantic’s list as well. It includes Robert E.
Lee, ranked 57th, because he "was a good general but a better symbol, embodying
conciliation in defeat." In the commentary that goes with the selection, editor
Ross Douthat adds another general of the South, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, as
someone who "might have won the war for (the Confederacy) had he lived past the
Battle of Chancellorsville." Lee and Jackson fought on the side of secession or
slavery, but that doesn’t matter.

While the terminology employed in reference to the thirteenth amendment is off I am struck by this individual’s grasp of how most Americans interpret their Civil War.  Perhaps to a foreigner the way Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War is distinct; my guess is that the sentence in bold is not meant as a compliment, but as a point of curiosity.  It would be interesting to know how he came by it. 


Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners?

Richard Williams’s new book Stonewall Jackson: Black Man’s Friend was reviewed yesterday in the Fredericksburg Free Lance Star.  I know some of you are sick of reading posts about this issue and I don’t gain any pleasure from writing about it, but it is important to respond to what many believe to be a legitimate approach to doing serious Civil War history.  If this book wasn’t shelved in the history sections of bookstores I probably wouldn’t say anything at all. 

The book does not engage in any serious historical analysis; there is little in terms of manuscript material and the author has absolutely no grasp of the secondary literature that is necessary to analyzing any southern slaveowner.  The author relies heavily on postwar material, but unfortunately doesn’t understand the first thing about how to handle these sources.  The methodology is as follows:  find as many pro-Jackson accounts as possible and ask as few questions as possible about why they were written.  As many of you know I ran into Jackson’s wartime servant at the 1903 Crater reenactment in Petersburg.  He was the only black man present and if you didn’t know anything about Jim Crow Virginia you wouldn’t know the first thing about how to handle this fact. My high school students have a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle postwar slave narratives. 

The review of the book doesn’t try to analyze Williams’s argument in any critical way, rather it simply reaffirms the approach and conclusion of the book’s author.  The lack of a historical agenda in both the book and the review is evidenced by the numerous use of moral/ethical concepts.  Since both Williams and the author of the review are interested primarily in affirming a moral picture of Jackson rather than a strictly historical one it is not worth commenting on.  Rather I want to pose a few questions that challenge their working assumptions.

What are those assumptions?  Let’s consider a few choice quotes from the review:

Williams begins this journey by painfully depicting the deplorable trials
faced by African-Americans as they were shipped from the slave-trading colonies
in Africa to the coastal cities of the United States. Along the way, we are
reminded of the horrible conditions and mistreatment faced by these prisoners,
and the author holds nothing back in the telling. He then presents the social,
political and financial aspects of slave trading and the history of its
institution and practice in 18th- and 19th-century America, as well as the
shared shame that fell equally on both the North and the South.

This provocative opening provides a solid foundation for the story that is to
come. Clearly the examples that follow, depicting the compassion and care given
by a percentage of Christian Southerners on behalf of a poor mistreated people,
need to be recognized in order to find something righteous beneath so much

Thomas Jackson’s efforts are certainly worthy of such recognition, as
contradictory, at times, as they may sound. Therefore, Williams continues to
focus his attention on Stonewall’s own path to sharing the message of salvation
while citing the positive influence that his fellow believers had, in turn, on

First, let’s forget for a moment that the reviewer is referring to Jackson and instead just imagine  a slaveowner who professes to be a good Christian.  Let me see if I understand this: the suffering that the author of the review is referring to is the result of people being enslaved, but somehow we are to believe that the effort to minimize their suffering is reflective of a good Christian.  Are we to expect that the individual enslaved ought to be grateful for the care that has been bestowed?  If the effort to minimize their suffering is to be applauded then what are we to make of those who worked to free the slaves?  Of course I am thinking about the abolitionists such as William L. Garrison and others.  We might also ask about old John Brown.  He also claimed to be a man of God.  How do we reconcile the tension here?  Does God both sanction Brown and Jackson and if so why?  How do we know if one was mistaken as to what God demanded in reference to slavery?  What is the moral content of a conclusion that both justifies immediate abolition and the attempt on the part of slaveowners to minimize the suffering of their own slaves?

As devout Christians, the Jackson family fervently believed that all people were
welcome at the Lord’s table regardless of their race or social stature.

I would love some clarification here.  How does one approach the "Lord’s table" as someone who is enslaved because of his/her race?  Perhaps it is the kind of table where the children sat during those family reunions.  But wait, it gets even better.  The following passages reflect some of the most distorted moral/ethical analysis that I’ve ever seen:

Although Jackson could not alter the social status of slaves, Williams tells
of how he committed himself to Christian decency and pledged to "assist the
souls of those held in bondage." He also adds that Jackson and his wife were
guilty of practicing civil disobedience by educating slaves.

Eventually the Sunday school grew beyond the allotted facilities and
ultimately blossomed into new churches for African-Americans. In this regard, we
can see how the evangelical white Christian slave owner had a positive influence
on the spiritual education of those held in captivity. As a result, many
ex-slaves became preachers themselves and were later responsible for some of the
largest religious revivals that followed the South’s surrender.

This is nothing less than a disturbed moral outlook.   This is the worst kind of utilitarianism I can imagine as we are being asked to evaluate behavior and ideas simply based on their consequences.  Correct me if I am wrong but Christian morality is not based on consequences: "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  The argument implies that since life as a slave could lead to wonderful results those results therefore reflect the moral character of the slaveowner. 

Just a few questions for the advocates of this ridiculous and dangerous moral view:

1. Given the moral character of Jackson as a slaveowner would it be wrong for a slave to run away in an attempt to gain his/her freedom? 
2. Would it be justified if an individual slave killed Jackson in order to gain his/her freedom?

If we answer yes to 1 or 2 than it seems as if we must assume that the actions of the slaveowner were immoral.  I assume we believe this regardless of the "positive influence" that would be gained by remaining Jackson’s property.

3. Since both Williams and the reviewer believe that Jackson was doing God’s work would it be justified today and if not then why? 

In closing I leave you with a few more remarks by the reviewer:

In the end, it is not that difficult to believe the notion of a Christian slave
showing compassion and mercy in fulfilling an obligation to "make
disciples of all nations
." This book reinforces the reasoning as to why a
Christian Confederate would go to such lengths to educate and enlighten slaves.
Simply put, Thomas Jackson did exactly what his Lord had told him to do. He
spread the Good News to everyone. His "students," in turn, accepted Jesus Christ
as their Lord and Savior and eagerly continued to spread this message as they
left the cotton fields and entered the mission field.

One final question: If slaves were able to accept God’s word, were worthy of mercy and education than why were they being enslaved?  This is nothing less than a confused moral outlook.  It is not only incoherent, it also forces us to sacrifice the central concepts that make up our ideas of moral goodness.