“Christian Cavalier” 101

It never ceases to amaze me, but every year I get the same questions when my classes study the Civil War.  Yesterday it was, “Is it true that Grant was a butcher?”  Luckily I get to address that one head on today.  In one of my other classes a student asked if it was true that Confederates were more religious than their Northern opponents.  That I am asked these same questions every year reflects the attractiveness of these assumptions.  It doesn’t take much of an imagination to figure out why these ideas remain so popular.  To the left is painter John Paul Strain’s “Battlefield Prayer,” which includes Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, though it  looks more like a bad impersonation of James Longstreet by Tom Berringer.  Why all three, along with a “Johnny Clem-type” flag bearer, are in the woods alone praying is beyond me.  To the right is my all-time favorite.  This is a painting by Mort Kunstler that shows Lee and Jackson engaged in intense prayer along with two unknown children.  I guess it doesn’t matter who the kids are, but I’m not sure I would leave them in the hands of strangers – even if they are “Christian Cavaliers.”  You can also see these assumptions at work in a number of recent books written by people who have apparently no training in the process of writing history.  Here is an example:

J.E.B. Stuart, The Christian Cavalier: For non-believers, death is often considered the end of all things, but, to Christians, it represents a new beginning. Our time here on Earth is short compared to eternity in Heaven, and what we do with this time determines our reward in the afterlife. Unfortunately, many people today waste their precious time focusing on self-fulfillment. Sadly, few leave behind a meaningful legacy. A legacy is the memory of who we were and the ways in which we touched the lives of others. History has recorded countless men who served their time on Earth in such an inspirational way. Their legacy continues to live on, years and years after their death. Such is the story of J.E.B. Stuart: soldier, servant, and Southern hero. In the end, it was far more than the service record, personal items, horses, and other accoutrements that Stuart left behind. It was the deep spiritual roots and patriotism that he had instilled in his children and his men. These are the memories that have truly made his story unforgettable.

Captain R. E. Frayser, from Stuart’s staff recalled the impact that his beloved commander had on all who knew him when he wrote, “In this short period of thirty-one years, four months and twelve days, he won a glorious and imperishable name, and one that posterity will delight to cherish and honor.”

The emphasis is my own and I did so to highlight the broad strokes that typically accompany these kinds of “studies.”  Does this characterization of Stuart have any basis in the history?  According to Stuart biographer Emory Thomas the answer is no: “During his first year at Emory & Henry a campus religious revival swept James into the Methodist Church.  At home at Laurel Hill, James’s mother had been an Episcopalian, his father was probably Presbyterian; but apart from Elizabeth Stuart’s moral strictures, James had not had much religious education or background.  And even after his revival experience at Emory & Henry, his letters to family and friends contain few, if any, religious references. (p. 13)  Thomas goes on to mention that many of his military orders did contain references to “Divine Providence.”  I quote Thomas not to challenge the idea that Stuart was not a religious man, but to suggest that the subject is much more complicated than these so-called Christian authors admit.  The biggest problem for many of these studies is the failure to seriously consider the rich secondary literature that addresses the place of religion in nineteenth-century America.  During a recent visit to my local bookstore I noticed a couple copies of Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend by Richard Williams, which makes constant reference to his religion as evidence of his paternalism towards his slaves.  I spent a few minutes going through the bibliography and was not surprised by the almost complete absence of the relevant secondary literature that covers religion in the antebellum South.

The other problem is the failure to see the role of conditions in the postwar South that reinforced this belief in the myth of the Christian Cavalier.  This is very important because if you are not aware of the political, social, and economic conditions that shaped the way Americans – and in this case white Southerners – chose to remember their leaders than you will not be able to fully interpret the source material.  Historian Peter Carmichael makes this very clear in an essay on Turner Ashby, who many would argue fits neatly into this Christian Warrior category.  [To the right is John P. Strain's "Black Knight]

Until recently every generation of white southerners since the war has learned, like some catechism, that all Confederates were gallant and moral, that they fought for a Christian nation, and that they protected the honor of their women against barbaric Yankee hordes.  Those who strayed from this dogma often became social outcasts.  Postwar southerners, consequently, came to rely on chivalry as an explanatory device to give meaning to and understanding of the Confederate cause.  No matter how poor their region had become after the Civil War, or how repressive against black people,white southerners could tell themselves that they came from a noble breed….If postwar southerners had examined Ashby as a rural leader who engaged in brutal partisan warfare, they would have overthrown the cavalier tradition and the basic tenets of the Lost Cause.  Few people are capable of stepping outside their experience and critiquing the assumptions of their world.  Over time, however, it should be easier to move away from the mythical Ashby [not to mention Stuart, Jackson, Lee, etc.], to look at his military career within the social context of the Shenandoah Valley, and to see through the romantic haze of the past.  By doing so, one finds a much different war in Virginia, a place where white society was badly divided, where fighting was uncivilized, and where Confederate leaders lived not as saints but as regular people who possessed the virtues and faults of all humans. ["Turner Ashby's Appeal in The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 ed. Gary W. Gallagher (pp. 167-69; in addition to Carmichael's article, see Paul C. Anderson's excellent book, Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and Southern Mind]

I find these so-called Christian biographies to be dangerous because they perpetuate the kinds of myths that divide. The authors may not intend to do this, but the upshot is a reinforcement of stereotypes and divisions that have little if anything to do with history.  When is the last time you came across a book on the Christian virtues of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman?  I guess we’re satisfied to think of Grant in the voice of Jason Robards.  I know some of my readers are going to conclude that this is evidence of some kind of religious bias.  Well, it’s not.  I am fascinated by the history of nineteenth-century America and especially the South, and religion is an important component to understanding Americans on both sides of the Potomac.  It’s too important to leave to individuals with no real interest or training in the writing of history.  There are plenty of excellent studies that focus specifically on religion; they may not be as exciting as the colorful stories contained in many of these Christian biographies and they may not be personally inspiring.  That said, if you do need inspiration don’t go to the world of historical fantasy, perhaps you should browse the Self-Help section of your local bookstore.

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“Mr. Levin…I Don’t Get It…”

Today my AP class read and discussed the Gettysburg Address.  I gave them a little background about the battle and showed a couple photographs of the battlefield.  As I was describing the action – specifically the difficulties of attacking uphill – a bright and colorful female student stated the following in apparent frustration: "Mr. Levin, I’ve been to Gettysburg and I’ve walked the battlefield.  I don’t understand what the problem was…I mean that field is as flat as a pancake.  I don’t get it."  She was referring to the area specifically around the center of the battlefield.

Now that was a precious moment.

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Civil War Memory 101

Since this site has experienced a very sharp increase in the number of visitors over the last few weeks I thought it might be helpful to introduce the overall focus of this blog with a series of questions that I am preoccupied with.

Robert Penn Warren: “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

1. How have Americans at different times chosen to remember the Civil War and how has that collective memory been shaped by a need to forget certain aspects of the war?

2. What are the important lessons to be learned about our Civil War and how should those lessons be taught in our schools and other public spaces?

3. Why might it be important to step back and analyze the way nations have chosen to remember their history?

4. What is the relationship between history and political power?

5. What is it about the Civil War that explains its continued presence in our culture and its strong tug on our imaginations?

6. What was the Civil War’s most significant result?

7. What explains the continued popularity of Lost Cause themes throughout the country?

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Confederate Veterans And The Politics Of Memory

In the next few weeks I have to put together a brief presentation for a roundtable discussion on Civil War soldiers which will take place at the AHA in January.  The panel is made up of five co-authors from the recently released The View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers.  We have been instructed to prepare some brief comments about methodology and questions that need to be addressed for future research.  My contribution to the book is a chapter from my Crater manuscript which analyzes postwar debates between Virginia veterans of the battle and their former comrades from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolinians.  ["Is Not the Glory Enough To Give Us All a Share?: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the battle of the Crater"] The debates centered on which unit could take responsibility for the victory on July 30, 1864. Here is the central argument of the essay:

Over the past few years, historians
such as David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield have led the way
in explaining the process by which national reconciliation came to shape the
way the nation understood its Civil War at the turn of the twentieth
century.  In Blight’s view the veterans
on both sides of the Potomac chose to assign
the deepest meaning of the war to the heroism and valor of the soldiers on the
battlefield. The shared experiences of
soldierhood was a theme that could bring former enemies together peacefully on
old battlefields.  Such an analysis tells us much about the
general trend toward reconciliation. Debates
between one time enemies over the meaning of the war, however, masks the extent
to which former comrades in Confederate ranks continued to wrangle over
specific questions related to both defeat and victory on the battlefield.  Perhaps the best example of this can be found
in the postwar debates among the Confederate veterans of Virginia
and North Carolina over which state could
claim the deepest penetration of Union lines during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  The disagreement left lasting scars that
continue to fuel heated debates among the members of Confederate heritage
organizations from the two states.

Continued interest in the battle of the Crater easily approached the level of interest in Gettysburg if for no other reason than that the
battle constituted the last significant Confederate victory in Virginia before their surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.  The continuing sectional tension between
Confederate veterans over who would control the public memory of battles such
as Gettysburg and
the Crater solved the problem of which units would shake hands with their
former enemies as blue and grey reunions became more popular. More importantly, veterans utilized their
memories not only as a way to maintain pride in their individual units, but
with the former Confederate nation.  Strong feelings of nationalism could not be set aside even as the men in
the ranks returned home to rebuild and decide when or if to take the loyalty
oath to the Union. Recounting their
heroics on the battlefield allowed some veterans to begin to make the
psychological shift that involved redefining themselves as Americans.  The tendency for veterans to focus on
individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states
may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate
and American
.  For others, the
concentration on the past simply provided a means to avoid thinking about
defeat in a post-emancipation world. Regardless of the reasons, the steps taken
early on in the postwar years by Virginia’s veterans to celebrate and
commemorate their valor and sacrifice on battlefields such as the Crater only
served to isolate their former comrades from outside the Old Dominion and
to diminish their service and sacrifice for the Confederacy. (pp. 227-28)

The overall goal in this chapter is to demonstrate that Confederate soldiers utilized their memories of service for a number of different purposes throughout the postwar period.  The interesting aspect of this story, which I explore in a different chapter of the manuscript, is that Virginia veterans not only competed with fellow veterans from outside of the Commonwealth but with one another during the four years of Readjuster control under William Mahone.  Veterans of the Virginia brigade battled one another depending on their political affiliation (Readjuster v. Funder) and Mahone was caught in the middle.  Supporters of Mahone defended their former commander from attacks which challenged his own claims to the title of "Hero of the Crater" and his most vociferous critic was none other than Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who aligned himself with the Funders.  In other words, one way of challenging his politics was by attacking his war record.  And the problem for Mahone was that he worked hard throughout the first decade following the war to shape his war record to benefit both his business and poltical career.  Confederate veterans in Virginia were highly political and their memories were shaped by the controversy surrounding the Readjuster Movement.  I will share additional thoughts as I organize the presentation.

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A Plea To My Readers

I highly value the comments of my readers; however, I ask that you stop using the phrase ‘politically correct’ since I have no idea what it means.  It seems to be a quick way of stating some kind of disagreement, but as to its more specific content I admit to being clueless.  So I suggest that instead of referring to it you explain your position clearly and concisely. 

As many of you know I am very interested in questions relating to how public spaces have been used by various groups to maintain political control as well as control of the way we remember as a nation.  There is a very rich literature on this and I hope to add to it with my work on postwar commemorations and memory of the battle of the Crater. 

Feel free to voice your informed opinion, but if you expect me to respond make sure that you have an argument, and that means a set of assumptions followed by a conclusion.

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