today on the radio discussing the subject of black Confederates. The hour went by fairly quickly and with the commercials the interview probably lasted about 45 minutes. Ben Fordney posed some interesting questions and there were also a few phone calls. I tried my best to keep the focus on why these stories are so prevalent as opposed to debating the evidence. The fundamental problem is that there is so little evidence and very little interest in serious analysis by those who push this topic. The fact that there is no agreement on numbers suggests how little we know, but the more difficult problem is that overly simplistic language that is employed in trying to prove large numbers of black Confederates.
Towards the end of the show an elderly women read from a pamphlet from some Confederate heritage group that explained secession by referencing high tariffs and Lincoln’s failure to end slavery at the beginning of the war. What I find so interesting is that what appears on the surface to be a point that has nothing at all to do with the subject at hand it actually has everything to do with it. The agenda of proponents of black Confederates, either explicitly or implicitly, is to minimize the importance of slavery and race to the Confederate experiment and the war as a whole. If you can show that secession was not about slavery or that Lincoln was a racist than somehow that demonstrates that the Confederate government was not established to protect the institution of slavery. If that doesn’t work that go for the line that black Southerners were loyal to the Confederate government and fought to maintain it. It has little to do with an interest in uncovering historical truth. I forgot to make the obvious point that the advocates of this story are just about all white. Why don’t we have substantial numbers of black Americans acknowledging the existence of large numbers of loyal black Confederate soldiers? Are we to believe that they are intentionally ignoring this little piece of history? Could it be that there weren’t any beyond the small number (perhaps 20-25) that Robert Krick uncovered in his analysis of 100,000 service records?
At the end Fordney concluded that this is a topic that will remain divisive and widely debated and he is no doubt correct about this. I made it a point to quickly interject that this is in fact not a hotly debated topic within the professional historical community. In my last class today I made it a point to emphasize the importance of asking the right questions when thinking about the past. We could use a little of that here.
One of the most common criticisms that I receive (most of them in the form of private emails) is that my view of the past is distorted by a lack of a familial connection. I guess this means that because my roots do not go back to the Civil War South I have no justification for making claims about certain topics of the war. Rarely do these people explain which South I would need to trace my family history back to, but that’s another story. It’s an interesting claim and one that abounds in Civil War circles. I usually ask what it is that gives any historical claim or belief legitimacy simply because it comes from the mouth of someone with a specific lineage, but my questions are usually met by a befuddled look. Such is the anti-intellectual strain that runs through popular interest in the war.
I interpret this stance as a sign of a defensive posture; it reflects an unwillingness to look beyond shared stories and betrays an unwillingness to question the most basic assumptions about what we believe about the past. What is so striking, however, is the failure to grasp that there is no connection whatsoever between the background of a particular person and the content of one’s belief about the war and specifically the Confederacy. Think about it for a moment. I know people who grew up in the North who moved South at some point and firmly hold to a set of beliefs indistinguishable from the white Southerner who defends the standard Lost Cause myths. At least one prominent historian of the Confederacy that I am friends with loves to remind his audiences of his fascination with the Lost Cause at a very early age while growing up out west. At the same time I know plenty of academic historians who grew up in the deepest parts of the South and who now write books that most heritage folks would assume were written by one of those yankee-liberal professors from New England. This interesting dynamic suggests that regional origin and/or family history has little if nothing to do with whether you hold to a traditional Lost Cause view of the war. Consider the case of historian Charles Dew for a moment. Dew introduces his study of secession Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001) with a little personal history that is very relevant for our purposes. I am going to quote Dew at length:
Although I have taught at a New England college for the past twenty-three years, I am a son of the South. My ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy, and my father was named Jack, not John, because of his father’s reverence for Stonewall Jackson. On my fourteenth birthday I was given a .22-caliber rifle and D.S. Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants. I devoured all three volumes of Freeman’s classic history of the Army of Northern Virginia and the rifle was my constant companion during those seemingly endless summer days in Florida when plinking at cans and dreaming of Civil War battles constituted a significant part of my boyhood activities. When I went off to high school in Virginia, I packed a Confederate battle flag in my suitcase and hung it proudly in my dorm room. My grandmother, whom I loved dearly, was a card-carrying member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
I did not think much about secession and the causes of the war back then. My focus was on the battlefield and Lee’s valiant men, who had fought so hard and so long before finally yielding to overwhelming numbers. But if anyone asked me what the war was all about, I had a ready answer for them. I knew from listening to adult conversations about The War, as it was called, and from my limited reading on the subject that the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only; states’ rights. As I recall, my principal written source for this view was a small paperback entitled Confederate Youth’s Primer, a gift from one of my father’s law partners. It was crystal clear to me that the Southern states had left the Union to defend their just and sovereign rights–rights the North was determined to deny my region and my ancestors. Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee, and neither class deserved to be taken seriously.
All this is a roundabout introduction to a point I wish to make at the outset: despite my scholarly training and years spent trying to practice the historian’s craft, I found this in many ways a difficult and painful book to write. Even though I am far removed–both in time and attitude–from my boyhood dreaming about Confederate glory, I am still hit with a profound sadness when I read over the material on which this study is based. (pp. 1-2)
So, what are we to make of Dew’s revelation? We could write him off as someone who has betrayed "the cause" or was negatively influenced by living so long outside of the South, but that would tell us more about ourselves than with Dew himself. The fact that Dew tells us a story about his childhood, however, is instructive and perhaps sheds light on the nature of the attraction to these stories.
The answer as to why Dew no longer needs to believe or holds to certain views about secession, slavery, and the Confederacy in general is because he understands what the scholarly study of history involves. It first involves putting aside or challenging your personal view of the past. To argue that some kind of familial connection with the past must shape one’s analytical view defeats the very purpose of history. History provides an opportunity to see yourself and the rest of the world from a perspective apart from the luck that defines each of our lives. I didn’t choose where, when, or to whom I was born to so why must that dictate how I begin and end my quest to better understand my environment?
The reason these traditional stories of Confederate perfection in the form of Lee and Jackson or the irrelevancy of slavery to secession and war remain so attractive is because the people who are attracted to them need to believe. These stories provide some level of comfort, perhaps in the form of a shield from the modern world or even some kind of political justification. Whatever it is it has little to do with a serious or scholarly interest in the past. I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not meant as a way to single out white Southerners or any other particular group. As I stated before these stories have as much appeal outside the South as they do in it. And if we are to take Dew at his word those stories never completely lose their appeal.
I’ve said before that my only understanding of the Civil War comes from limited work in the archives and a voracious appetite for scholarly studies. There is very little emotional connection with the war for me so I am pretty much immune from personal attacks about my background or lack of a connection to the "Old South." I read and consider and then read some more and along the way I try to figure out how to ask the right question – nothing more, nothing less.
Yesterday Michaela and I drove down to the Cold Harbor-Gaines’s Mill battlefields for a little hike. Some of you may find this surprising, but I’ve never been there before. It was a nice day so it seemed like the right thing to do. We walked along the trails for the 1864 battle of Cold Harbor and followed the signs over at Gaines’s Mill for the 1862 battle. I don’t spend time obsessing over troops movements or try to find the exact positions of various units. As long as I have a general sense of what I am looking at than all is well. I have to admit that I was very impressed with the earthworks at Cold Harbor. Some of them are quite well preserved and if you exercise a little imagination you can almost see the men in their positions. I took a bunch of photographs which you can check out over at my flickr page. Unfortunately some of them didn’t turn out well.
Speaking of earthworks I just received my advanced copy of Earl J. Hess’s Trench Warfare Under Grand & Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (UNC Press, 2007). I assume it’s as good as the first volume. A few summers ago I collected a great deal of archival material for Hess, most of which I assume will be utilized for the third and final volume in this series. The notice has a September 24 release date, but UNC Press usually releases before so keep an eye out.
This week my Lincoln class focused on his formative years. We read through the first chapter in William Gienapp’s biography and read Douglas L. Wilson’s essay “Young Man Lincoln” which is included in Gabor Boritt’s The Lincoln Enigma: The Changing Faces of an American Icon. One of the skills that I focus on in my electives is critical writing and thesis analysis. I want my students to be able to read a text critically and be able to evaluate and summarize an author’s thesis. To achieve this end I have them read relatively short essays and write a 2-3 page thesis summary. While I try to assign creative projects to my classes there is nothing more important than being able to write a short analytical essay. It may not be the most exciting assignment, but the skill can be applied to any of the classes they will take in college. I can’t tell you how many students have come back to thank me for making this a major component in my classes.
The trick is to find interesting essays that will engage students and when it comes to Lincoln’s early life there is nobody more engaging than Douglas Wilson. He is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln which is in my mind one of the most important books ever written about Lincoln. Wilson provides a philosophical/psychological framework that is ideal for classroom discussion. He begins with Erik Erikson’s observation that “we gain a better understanding of the mature person by studying the events of his childhood and youth.” That understanding comes from acknowledging the problem of hindsight. According to Wilson, Lincoln’s formative years are best understood only after his later political career is removed from the picture so as to better appreciate the contingency that defined his early life. In other words, we must appreciate the “struggles” of his early years in a way that is not influenced by the fact that he eventually became president. We don’t want to read inevitability into the picture. We also want to be watchful, according to Wilson, of not exaggerating Lincoln’s formative years as a story of overcoming impossible odds. Wilson distinguishes between struggles and hardships and opts for the former concept as his framework. Lincoln struggled with various issues, including depression, a belief in fatalism, and fear of “madness” but these do not necessarily constitute hardships. Wilson wants his reader to see Lincoln as one among many who struggled on the frontier to make something of himself. How Lincoln managed to do this is addressed by the posing of two questions: (1) Who am I? and (2) What am I to do? As for the first one Wilson cites three characteristics, including his “tenderheartedness”, a deep-seated ambition, and independent thought. As for the second question Wilson points to both the practice of law and politics. It was Lincoln’s firm belief that he must leave his mark in history, according to Wilson, that allowed him to work through many of the well-known low points or moments of depression up through the mid-1840s.
As you might imagine the psychological thrust of this article is perfect for high school students. One of my students came by my office to talk about the article and he remarked at one point that he could relate to the kinds of issues that Lincoln struggled with. That was a nice moment. During class today the students did a great job grappling with Wilson’s main points. They questioned whether it was necessary to try to perceive Lincoln’s early years from a vantage point that ignored his later life or whether it even made sense to do so. We spent a great deal of time trying to make sense of Wilson’s distinction between struggles and hardships. One of the students asked whether there is a fine line between the two. It was interesting to watch them pose questions about Wilson’s argument. At first their questions were coupled with the expectation that I would offer some magical insight or answer. I usually just nod my head and look for someone to respond; after some time they seem to get the message that I don’t have any answers to these questions. Hopefully what they are learning is that the questions are worth considering without the expectation of a firm answer on my part. Best of all the questions suggest that they are already learning how to analyze a historian’s argument. Next week we look at an article on Lincoln’s marriage by Jean H. Baker.
If the class is this motivated so early in the semester I can hardly wait until we get to questions about his handling of the war and emancipation. Hopefully I will be able to bring in Michael Holt, William Miller, and William Freehling at some point.