Understanding the Confederate Soldier

With little time to do any serious blogging today I thought I would extend yesterday’s theme, this time in reference to understanding the Confederate soldier.  Our friendly blogger at citizen.com has provided an overview of what made the Confederate soldier tick.  Yes, we’ve had studies by Wiley, McPherson, Hess, Linderman, Berry, Manning, Carmichael, etc., but none of them really gets to the core of the issue.  Here are some of the salient points to ponder:

That warrior ethic, which would carry the outnumbered and outgunned Confederacy a very long way, came from long traditions of service that had begun so many centuries before in Scotland and the north of Britain.

But not only the Revolutionary War spirit drove them. As I wrote of the Scots-Irish tradition in my novel Fields of Fire, the culture even to this day is viscerally fired by “that one continuous linking that had bound father to son from the first wild resolute angry beaten Celt who tromped into the hills rather than bend a knee to Rome two thousand years ago, who would…chew the bark off a tree, fill his belly with wood rather than surrender from starvation and admit defeat to an advancing civilization. That same emotion passing with the blood: a fierce resolution that found itself always in a pitch against death, that somehow, over the centuries came to accept the fight as a birthright, even as some kind of proof of life.  [Now who can argue with that.]

…The Confederate Army rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a still unconquered wilderness……….the Great Captains called, as they had at Bannockburn and King’s Mountain, and the able-bodied men were quick to answer.

…..the Confederate soldier fought because, on the one hand, in his view he was provoked, intimidated, and ultimately invaded, and, on the other, his leaders had convinced him that his was a war of independence in the same sense as the Revolutionary War…..This was not so much a learned response to historical events as it was a cultural approach that had been refined by centuries of similar experiences. The tendency to resist outside aggression was bred deeply into every heart—and still is today.

The end result was that on the battlefield the Confederacy, whose culture had been shaped by the clannish, leader-worshipping, militaristic Scots-Irish, fought a Celtic war while the Union, whose culture had been most affected by intellectual, mercantile English settlers, fought and entirely different manner. At bottom, the northern army was driven from the top like a machine…..by contrast, the Southern army was a living thing emanating from the spirit of its soldiers – …The Southern Army was run like a family, confronting a human crisis.

I think it’s safe to say that Grady McWhiney is resting well.

Top 10 Causes Of The Civil War (SCV Style)

Here is a fun way to start your Tuesday.  According to one SCV Camp Commander here are the top 10 causes of the Civil War.  Surprisingly, slavery did make the cut, but was only "indireclty" involved in the cause of secession and war.  After all, most white Southerners did not own slaves:

I respectfully disagree with those who claim that the War Between the States was fought over slavery or that the abolition of slavery in the Revolutionary Era or early Federal period would have prevented war. It is my opinion that war was inevitable between the North and South due to complex political and personal differences.

My two favorite causes are:

3. CHRISTIANITY VERSUS SECULAR HUMANISM–The South believed in basic Christianity as presented in the Holy Bible.The North had many Secular Humanists ( atheists, transcendentalists and non-Christians ). Southerners were afraid of what kind of country America might become if the North had its way. Secular Humanism is the belief that there is no God and that man,science and government can solve all problems. This philosophy advocates human rather than religious values. Reference : Frank Conner’s book “The South Under Siege 1830-2000.”

and

6. NORTHERN INDUSTRIALISTS WANTED THE SOUTH’S RESOURCES. The Northern Industrialists wanted a war to use as an excuse to get the South’s resources for pennies on the dollar. They began a campaign about 1830 that would influence the common people of the North and create enmity that would allow them to go to war against the South. These Northern Industrialists brought up a morality claim against the South alleging the evils of slavery. The Northern Hypocrites conveniently neglected to publicize the fact that 5 New England States ( Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and New York ) were primarily responsible for the importation of most of the slaves from Africa to America. These states had both private and state owned fleets of ships.

And there you have it.  What’s your favorite cause?

Thinking About Eyes On The Prize

Some of you are no doubt watching the wonderful Civil Rights Documentary Eyes on the Prize which is airing this week on PBS.  I’ve watched it a number of times and have used segments in the classroom, but every time I view it I am transfixed by the images and especially the interviews.  Last night included segments on the Lunch Counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides [I highly recommend Ray Arsenault's new study of the Freedom Rides which was released last year by Oxford Press.]  New Kid on the Hallway offers a nice summation of my own thinking when it comes to understanding the Southern white perspective:

Total non sequitur, naive white liberal guilt variety: I’m watching Eyes on the Prize, and it just kills me to watch a bunch of smug white people – which, in general, is a group to which I belong – cheerfully defending their resistance to civil rights as if such resistance is absolutely natural and right. The scary thing is that to them, it was. They’re so cheery about it because they’re so secure in this belief that they can’t even take the contrary seriously. It always scares me to think, if I had grown up in the south during the period of Jim Crow – would I have supported segregation? I mean, if I’d been taught from childhood that it was “right” and “natural” that people of different races should live separately, how much would it have taken to convince me otherwise? Because there were plenty of evil, evil people who supported segregation. But I’m sure there were plenty of ordinary, reasonably good people who did, too, just because it was the way it had always been, and they probably thought that if that was the case, there must have been a reason for it.

And you know, none of this happened very long ago.

When I watch those interviews I almost want to reach into the television and shake those people into my world or what I assume is some semblance of rationality and understanding.  The challenge, of course, is to appreciate that white Southerners (“ordinary, reasonably good people”) were working through new and difficult experiences based on their own racial assumptions and a Jim Crow legal system that was taken for granted.  In short, what they considered reasonable or rational.  New Kid highlights what for me is the moral backdrop of my own interest in reading and researching the past, and that is the role of luck.  We need to be reminded that much of what goes into our “selves” or personalities involves a set of conditions that we have no control over, including when, where, and to whom we are born.  History provides an arena for thinking about moral case studies that are not so removed from what we consider possible behavior once the role of luck is acknowledged.  [Psychology also provides examples, most notably Milgram's famous experiments on obedience to authority.]  Would I have supported segregation if a few conditions had been changed?  The answer is more than likely YES.  And that is why it must be understood.  Thinking about history in this way brings me closer to people that for moral reasons I am tempted to push away psychologically.  To run the risk of sounding philosophically vague, and borrowing a phrase from one of my undergraduate professors, the realization is that I AM THAT PERSON.

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.