A Statement To My Readers

I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to the comments to my recent post, Jacksonian Paternalism in the Extreme that accuse me of being both anti-South and anti-Christian.  You can read the comments on your own.  Now I imagine that most of my regular readers see through these comments as a reflection of an overly simplistic and naive view of American history and historical methodology, but this does provide an opportunity to make a few points for the record. 

First, I am the first to admit that many of my posts could be and probably are interpreted as anti-Christian and anti-South.  And I think the reason for this is that for many Civil War enthusiasts the starting interpretive points revolve around the Lost Cause theory which postulates a unified white South around the fervent belief that specific leaders such as Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson represent the ideal Christian Warrior.  As I’ve stated on a number of occasions on this blog, one of my central goals has been to challenge this view of the war and the South.  The fundamental problem with the Lost Cause interpretation is its tendency to paint the South and the war with broad strokes whose original purpose was to soothe the pain of defeat in a post-emancipationist world.  In short, this is not history, but a rationalization to deal with the hard realities of defeat. 

Careful readers of this blog know that I am anything but unfriendly to the South.  The difficulty for many, however, is to see "the South" as anything but the "white South" — narrowly understood.  Not only is it a "white South" of Cavaliers but it tends to be reduced to the four years of the Civil War.  It’s as if everything beforehand was just a preview and what followed, a big unfortunate mistake.  The tendency is to dwell on those four years, which is dangerous.   More importantly, historians such as William Freehling and Ed Ayers have argued convincingly that there were "many Souths."  My job as a historian has been to try as best as I can to understand the many places and the ways in which various groups over time created their communities through constant interaction.  Once you dispense with this narrow understanding of what it means to study "the South" you will see that I am anything but anti-anything.  One final point: as far as I am concerned the most significant push to expand the boundaries of freedom in this country occurred in the South – the first as Fugitive slaves took it upon themselves to push Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and recruitment of U.S.C.T.’s and the second, one hundred years later during the Civil Rights Movement.  Isn’t that what our country is about? 

As to the second point that I am anti-Christian, all I can say is that religion is a complex topic so one should be careful to conclude anything without careful consideration.  My criticisms of Lee and Jackson as embodiments of the Lost Cause idea of Christian gentility should not be mistaken for any conclusions about my view of Christianity.  That I even have to make this explicit seems ludicrous.   I am fascinated by the historical Lee and Jackson and have read multiple scholarly monographs and articles about both.  The question of how their respective religious outlooks shaped their broader views is absolutely relevant and has been tackled by numerous historians.  My concern is in reducing these men and others down to an overly simplistic label that says more about our own agendas rather than anything historical.  This obsession with establishing the Christian virtues of Lee, Jackson and other reminds me of our current obsession with the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers. Liberals and Conservatives debate the hot issues like abortion and capital punishment by claiming some kind of ownership or monopoly about what the Founders believed and conclude with some statement of vindication.

I did not come to the study of the Civil War and the South until my mid-20′s.  I say this because I understand that many people who grew up with the Civil War in their backyard have much more of an emotional attachment to the events and people involved.  While I do celebrate certain aspects of American history I tend to be pretty unemotional about the war.  My guess is that many readers take my overly critical stance against the Lost Cause as evidence of some kind of approval for the North and Lincoln.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I admit that I admire Lincoln for a number of reasons and I am glad that the North won and slavery was abolished.  However, I do not read or research as someone who is rooting for a certain side.  I am currently reading a new study of the Copperheads who were incredibly criticial of Lincoln and the Republicans.  As far as I can tell my blood pressure has remained steady througout the reading.

As I suggested at the beginning, most of you do not need to be reminded of what is contained above.  For those of you who are new to Civil War Memory think of this post as an explicit overview of some of the themes that course throughout this blog.   


American Civil War Center Opens To The Public

Yesterday the American Civil War Center at Tredegar opened its new exhibits to the public.  If I wasn’t dealing with a severe head cold I would have taken the drive down to Richmond.  Here is a review from the Richmond-Times Disapatch.

Ellis Billups didn’t like what he read about the Civil War in his fourth-grade history books.  “You never learned about any of the ugly side that Virginia played,” he said.  Yesterday, the 48-year-old Hampton resident traveled to Richmond to tour the “In the Cause of Liberty” exhibit at the American Civil War Center. He said it offers a different, much-needed perspective.  “It tells a little bit of both sides,” he said.  Billups, a living historian representing the United States Colored Troops, was dressed in uniform similar to what his ancestors, who were members of the U.S.C.T., would have worn in the 1860s during the height of the war.  “My family fought so that I could be free,” he said yesterday morning.

The center, which opened to the public for the first time yesterday, is at the Tredegar Iron Works, an 8.3-acre National Historic Landmark along the north bank of the James River and once the industrial heart of the Confederacy.  The opening represents the culmination of a nine-year effort to create a Civil War museum that tells Union, Confederate and black stories in one place and brings about racial healing in addition to a greater understanding of the war. Because of heavy rain, some of the scheduled events, including an
artillery-firing demonstration, had to be canceled.

But Alex Wise, the center’s president, still was in good spirits.  “If you like guns and saddles, we’ve got them,” he said.  Wise had several dozen family members in town to celebrate the opening.  Cheryl and Charles Wise of Washington were two of them. Yesterday morning, they toured the center. Both agreed that it will become a tourist destination that adults and children will enjoy.

Anedra Bourne, marketing director at the center, said visitors walk from the present into the past. There are four filming areas in addition to the other exhibits that follow a natural timeline, she said.  Tim Fredrikson of Richmond, who also was at the museum as a part of the U.S.C.T. regiment, said, “This is one of the most fantastic museums we’ve been in.”  Yesterday, he was acting as Maj. Atherton Stevens, a white officer in the U.S.C.T. He said he was more comfortable in his Civil War uniform than in a pair of Levi’s.  “I don’t call this a hobby,” he said. “I call it an obsession.”

I would love to hear from those of you who have toured the museum.  If interested, email me a short review and in a couple of weeks I will put together a post that incorporates what I’ve received.


Jacksonian Paternalism In The Extreme

It’s time for another trip into the wonderful world of antebellum Southern white paternalism.  Today we visit with Thomas Jackson, friend of the black man and uplifter of their souls. 

Richard G. Williams has recently released Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, which "sheds light on Jackson’s love of God, and his desire to teach God’s word to all his children." Williams writes:

Jackson owned slaves, yet he wanted all people to know God. He asked that his church, Lexington Presbyterian Church, expand by more than 30 seats to accommodate increasing numbers of free blacks and slaves. In 1855 he began a black Sunday school, free for whomever wanted to attend. In violation of Virginia law, he and his wife taught black men, women and children to read, hoping that someday they could read God’s words.

On Sunday evenings, Jackson held prayer sessions with his wife, his slaves and any other black person that wished to partake. He, along with all those in attendance, was breaking the law.

According to Williams, "Jackson believed that for whatever reason, God allowed it (slavery) to happen. It wasn’t his business to thwart the will of God."  "Jackson’s example teaches us," continues Williams "that we cannot always change the difficult circumstances and injustices we see around us, but we can change how we react to them. I think Jackson, like a lot of the Southerners, was uncomfortable with it (slavery)."

First, if we are to follow this logic than what is to stop us from praising all Southern slaveholders who fervently believed that they were acting in a way that was beneficial to their "family members."  Many slaves in the antebellum South were encouraged to practice Christianity, so this doesn’t single Jackson out in any significant way.  And how does a belief that God permitted it to happen help us with any moral assessment of Jackson?  People believe all kinds of nutty things about what God allows and does not allow.  Perhaps Williams explores the rich literature on the complex interactions between slaves and slaveholders.  My guess is that Jackson’s behavior towards his slaves and other free blacks had much to do with the fact that both groups presented themselves in ways that demanded a recognition of their humanity (pace Genovese). 

Williams warns us not to judge Jackson and others through the lens of our 21st century values.  However, the alternative of judging based on mid-nineteenth century values is fraught with difficulties and are clearly exposed in most of these so-called Christian-inspired biographies.  If we are to praise Jackson, Lee and others (typically white Southerners and there is even someone who is going to apply this approach to of all people, Nathan B. Forrest) than what are we to make of those in the abolitionist camp?  Are they less praiseworthy because they mistakenly acknowledged that the Christian God and slavery were incompatible? 


American Civil War Center Opens Saturday

The American Civil War Center at Tredegar in Richmond is set to open its new exhibit on Saturday.  Emory Thomas worked as one of the historical advisors for the project.  Click here for his Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial on the project:

I do not think it hyperbole to suggest that the center is to the history of the Civil War what the civil rights movement was to the nation as a whole. For far too long our understanding of the war has focused upon battles between white men. The time is long overdue to pay attention to African-Americans during their transit from slavery to freedom.

Indeed, a focus upon battles and white males ignores the roles of women, the trials of the homefront, the legacy of this experience, and a host of other topics. This nation, section, and city feel the impact of the Civil War profoundly in the present, and thus we will profit from telling the story — stories — whole and fresh. War is battles, of course, and the center will offer a gracious plenty of fighting and killing. But war is about whole peoples caught up in conflict and crisis.

I am looking forward to this opening.


Who Is Responsible For The BackWash?

How about some more irrational ranting from Dimitri?  This time he attributes a conversation that an Antietam NPS historian had with a visitor about the motivations of Civil War soldiers to McPherson and Sears.  Click here for the conversation and here is Dimitri’s take on all of this:

Now where on earth do you think they got that attitude from? Who put them in the judgement seat? Clue: they are visiting a battlefield. They are not here by accident.

Lo! They are students of pop history, wherein the author and reader are judges of men and geniuses of surpassing insight. Doubt me? Read on:

The question is framed in such a way as if to imply that the soldiers of the Civil War were somehow a species inferior to us. Not nearly as sophisticated as we are, and certainly less adept at reading the tour map as we are.

That’s coming from a park ranger, folks. And he’s getting the backwash from Sears, McPherson, et al.

Manny tries to convert the geniuses to compassion. Good luck. "But still, I’m often struck by the lack of empathy that many people today have toward the soldiers of the Civil War."

Who else but Dimitri could take the comments of some ignorant tourist and attribute it to "Sears, McPherson, et al."  By the way if you are looking for an excellent study of what motivated soldiers to join and stay in the ranks you may want to look at James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. Who exactly is responsible for the "backwash"?