Remembering George Tindall

Some of you may be aware that historian George Tindall died last month at age 85.  Tindall spent his career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The Raleigh News & Observer recently included an article that included a few comments by Cliopatria founder Ralph Luker:

Tindall was regarded, along with the late C. Vann Woodward (a UNC-CH graduate) and John Hope Franklin of Duke University, as part of the holy trinity of 20th-century Southern historians.  “He, Franklin and Vann Woodward were the sources of a renaissance of Southern history that we are still benefiting from,” said Ralph Luker, a retired historian living in Atlanta.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Tindall, Woodward and Franklin took Southern history out of the magnolia-scented Lost Cause legends of the Civil War and administered the smelling salts of reality.  “All three insisted that Southern history had to be written in black and white,” [Ralph] Luker said. “Prior to their generation, Southern history had been written as a history of white people. That produced such a badly skewed and romantic vision of the South that we can look back on it with amusement and sadness.”

Tindall, a native of Greenville, S.C., taught at UNC-Chapel Hill for 32 years before retiring in 1990. He was an elegant gentleman with a bow tie and a wry sense of humor who would sometimes ride his bicycle to class. The historians trained by Tindall are now the pillars of distinguished history departments across the South.  In his personal life, Tindall was ahead of his time. In the 1950s he made sure that dinners were held in hotels where white and black historians could eat together, and he sent his children to the first integrated day-care center in Chapel Hill.

His books are living legacies. His most famous, “The Emergence of the New South, 1913-1945,” is an 807-page masterpiece published in 1967. It will likely remain the authoritative history of an era that saw the South pull itself out of rural poverty and wrestle with the great questions of race.

I have to admit that while I have a copy of The Emergence of the New South I’ve never actually read more than a few short sections.  A few days ago a post of mine which referenced a short essay by Mark Grimsley on recent interpretations of Sherman’s March led to a spirited discussion with a reader.  The reader’s comments implied that these revisions were authored by Northern historians who fail to sympathize with the suffering, destruction, rape, and pillage that Sherman’s hordes brought to Georgia.   Today Mark was kind enough to weigh in on the discussion by noting that he is a white southerner from North Carolina.  George Tindall grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and both the late C. Vann Woodward and Ed Ayers grew up in the South.  I could go on and on.

The important point to remember is that those most responsible for challenging the Lost Cause stories of the Civil War and the “Old South” are a product of the South.


The Crooked Road To Civil War

I am currently making my way through Nelson Lankford’s new book Cry Havoc!: The Crooked Road To Civil War, 1861.  The book is essentially a micro-study of the days following Fort Sumter.  In some ways the book can be seen as a companion volume to his previous book Richmond Burning, which took a similar look at the final days of the Confederate capital.  [Click here for my H-Net review of this book.]  The first few chapters set the stage for the incident for Fort Sumter with chapters 6 through 17 focusing on the period between April 12 – 25.  For those of you already familiar with this period there is very little that is new.  What is impressive, however, is the extent to which Lankford is able to integrate recent scholarship on the secession winter and the Upper South by Daniel Crofts, William Freehling, Charles Dew, and William Link.  And he manages to do this within a narrative that is beautifully written.  There is nothing worse than reading books geared to the general public that are written by people who have no sense of the relevant historiography.  It makes for poor history and all too often it reinforces long-standing assumptions that can no longer be justified.  Yes, it turns out that good history is revisionist in the sense that we continually add to our understanding and in turn hopefully understand better.

Like his earlier study, Lankford relies heavily on contingency.  He places his reader in a narrative space where they can appreciate the role that perception played in the continually changing political shifts and subtle misperceptions in Virginia in the days leading up to and following Sumter.  In doing so Lankford reminds us that Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and even the establishment of the new Confederate government in February 1861 did not necessarily lead to war.   

This is the story of the unfolding of those events as Americans experienced them, not knowing the outcome any more than we can know the outcome of events in our own day before they happen.  Long-running discord over slavery and sectional rights prepared the way.  That antipathy long predated Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and all the other actors of 1861.  Perhaps by then the war could not have been avoided.  But the particular way that it began was in the hands of individuals, not impersonal, irresistible historical forces. (p. 7)

Lankford actually takes this one step further as he argues that even the bombardment at Sumter did not necessarily have to end in war:

"And the war came."  So Lincoln would famously reflect in his second inaugural address, tersely eliding complexities of cause and motive.  But that cryptic remark four years later conflated events terribly.  In April 1861, no one could see where the furious cannonade woud lead.  For several tumultuous weeks, in fact, many Americans still hoped and worked to avert a full-scale civil war.  For all the hostility, noise, and anger released in Charleston Harbor, the shape of the prospective disunion of the country, like Edmund Ruffin’s fate, still lay hidden in the unknowable future. (p. 83)

Lankford’s language clearly echoes recent work by Ed Ayers based on his Valley of the Shadow project. I highly recommend this book.  Even for those of you who are familiar with this time period I am confident that you will enjoy it.   

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You’ve Been Warned

Tomorrow I start my spring elective course on women’s history.  I am very excited and also a bit nervous.  For the past four years I’ve offered slightly different versions of a course on the Civil War.  This year I wanted to try something new and give myself a little challenge because it’s important for teachers to see themselves as students every so often.  I have 11 girls registered for the course, but unfortunately no boys.  Right off the bat it looks like a case of gender construction at work: young men don’t take courses about women’s history.  While we lose valuable perspective in not having any boys in the class I am looking forward to the opportunity to think through questions about how assumptions about gender have changed and what it means to do women’s history.

I’ve ordered an excellent textbook that includes a nice collection of primary sources as well as Betty Friedan’s classic 1963 study The Feminine Mystique.  We are going to start off with some of the basics, including the distinction between sex/biology and gender construction and then we will jump right in and read the first chapter of Friedan and an examination of the "problem that has no name."  My guess is that most high school students are not introduced to a mature reading of women’s history especially if they are using even slightly outdated textbooks.  My AP students who are using Eric Foner’s new text are getting a heavy dose and he does an excellent job integrating this sub-theme into the broader narrative.  My regular survey courses use the most recent edition of the standard text The American Pageant originally authored by Thomas Bailey.  In the first few editions Bailey devoted 21 out of 1,000 pages to women and managed to mention only 48 by name.  Of those 48 seven were not American women and an additional six were mentioned only in the context of their relationships to presidents.  Eleanor Roosevelt was not mentioned at all along with Margaret Sanger and Jane Addams.  And when Bailey described women who demanded their right to control their own property, retain custody of their children or call for the right to vote he characterized them as a "belligerent bevy of female agitators" and "fiery females." (p. 366).  When it came to male "agitators" like Thomas Jefferson Bailey described him as a "brilliant writer" and reform President Woodrow Wilson as a "moving orator" and "idealist."   p. 115 and p. 730). 

One of the reasons I am so interested in gender/women’s history is that it has so much in common with the historiography of race and slavery.  Like African-American history, women’s history is relatively new and I suspect that this has much to do with the increase in the number of programs of study introduced into colleges and universities and the increase in the number of women and African-American scholars that have entered the job market since the mid-1960’s.  This also raises interesting questions about power and hierarchy.  It is not surprising that most Americans still have a distorted view of slavery and race given that most histories of the histories were written by white men up until relatively recently.  The same can be said about the place or absence of women in our collective memory.  My goal is to emphasize women as agents of change in American history by looking at both prominent individuals and the lives of ordinary women.  More importantly I want my students to see themselves as historically constructed around ideas of gender.  They are part of the ongoing story.  This class will hopefully give them the opportunity to step back and question the assumptions that have guided them thus far: What does it mean to be a woman at the beginning of the 21st century?

I love the fact that I still don’t know much about this subject.  On the one hand I get to guide the class through some interesting literature, but at the same time I am looking forward to having the students teaching me something new.  So, don’t be surprised if you see a post on this subject from time to time.


It’s A Celebration: Lee’s 200th

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The Washington Post article is out but unfortunately I wasn’t mentioned in it.  I spent close to one hour on the phone so I at least thought my name and blog would be mentioned.  Oh well, I guess that is the nature of the business.  You can read the article by Brigid Schulte if interested.  She did a pretty good job and included quotes from John Coski, Fitzhugh Brundage, and Theodore C. DeLaney; all are talented historians whose views I respect.

What follows are a few of my own thoughts about where we are on this 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth.  I want to say up front that I am not a Lee scholar.  Most of what I know about the man is from reading biographies and articles by Emory Thomas, Richard McClaslin, Gary Gallagher, Steven Woodworth, and Michael Fellman to name just a few.

For those of us who spend our lives thinking and writing about Southern history I think it is important to remember that for the overwhelming majority of people R. E. Lee is an insignificant name.  Still, for a small number of people there is the belief that Lee’s good name along with ideas about the Confederate experience are currently under assault.  We can make sense of this on a number of levels.  In the Post article Brundage correctly notes that the social make-up of the South is changing in ways that few people could have imagined just a few decades ago.

Now there are all sorts of other ways in which Southerners identify themselves — Salvadorans, Mexicans, Asians — [and] the politics and economics of the region are no longer based on white supremacy.  It makes all the sense in the world that for more and more Southerners, Robert E. Lee is just a footnote.

I agree with Brundage, but the  piece that is missing is that the participation by certain minorities in the last few decades since the Civil Rights Movement has led to a gradual reshaping of our historical landscape.  There is a strong connection between those that wield political influence and the way that power can be used to shape collective memory.  White supremacy during the era of Jim Crow led to a concerted effort to shape a certain memory of the war and the antebellum south.  In short, those who control politics also control the way we think about the past which in turn reinforces the justification for civic exclusion.  The changes that are taking place are inevitable and the debates that take place as a result are often heated.  I don’t know what the answer is; all I can say is that a certain amount of understanding and sympathy is always helpful.  Our public spaces should reflect the history of the people who live in a given region and who are in the end paying for the building and maintenance of these sites.

There is no shortage of biographies and other types of studies of Lee, but even here many interpret this body of scholarship as an attack on Lee and the South.  Copies of Alan Nolan’s 1991 study of Lee were burned in reaction to his characterization of Lee as slaveowner his decision to align himself with Virginia and the Confederacy, and his conduct of the war.  While I am not a big fan of the book there is something to be said of the heated response.  I see this as just one of the places where history and heritage compete for our attention.  We know much more about the antebellum south, the Confederacy, and the war in general so it is not surprising that many of our traditional views of this event and the people who fought it are changing.  We are closing in on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war which means that our emotional distance is also increasing.  No doubt this makes it easier for some to look at old questions from a fresh perspective or even challenge outright the assumptions that for so long have guided our thinking.  Washington and Lee University’s upcoming exhibit on Lee titled “Re-Visioning Lee” and Arlington National Cemetery’s symposium titled “Does Lee Matter” suggests that this year is going to see a great deal of conflict between those who are willing to step back and examine with fresh eyes and those who will cling to a more pleasing or comforting view of Lee.  According to DeLaney who is helping to organize the exhibit on Lee at W&L:

At Washington and Lee, all things are on the table for debate and discussion, including Robert E. Lee.  Nothing’s too sacred. And that’s an important change.

An important change for some, no doubt, but the majority of people celebrating Lee’s birthday are not interested in any reassessment of the general.  Rather, Lee’s place in the minds of many is secured and worth defending in the face of all challenges.  This popular image of Lee can be found in the many editorials that have appeared over the last few days in newspapers from around the country.  Here is just a small sample:

1. That “something” was wrapped up in his character more than in his morally maculate cause. He was a Virginia gentleman in the best sense: self-disciplined, devoted to duty, genteel, compassionate, humble. He cared for his bedridden mother, becoming nurse, companion, and housekeeper to her in her final years. Likewise did he serve his wife as arthritis began to cripple her. Other virtues? In his military career before the Civil War he displayed physical courage, fidelity, and technical competence as an engineer. As a father, he was a beloved–if seldom home–playmate, a reader of books and teller of stories.

2. If everyone had conducted themselves the way Robert E. Lee did after the Civil War, the healing could have been less painful. Human beings, flawed and sinful, decided to take the low road. They did not meet Lee on that road. True to his character, he refused to travel it.

3. In this modern age, where the individual has become god and God has been diminished so successfully, I guess it would be unreasonable to expect the general to receive his due respect.

4. The significance of General Lee’s (and Thomas Jackson’s) life cannot be overvalued. While the character and influence of most of us will barely be remembered two hundred days after our departure, the sterling character of these men has endured for two hundred years. What a shame that so many of America’s youth are being robbed of knowing and studying the virtue and integrity of the great General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

5. If Robert E. Lee were alive, he would be celebrating his 200th birthday on Friday, January 19, 2007. This date will probably pass without much notice in the North, but many of us in Dixie will mark the day with recollections of just how great a man he was. In this regard, I offer this reprint of his Farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia. If Mr. Bush wants to end the war in Iraq now, this would serve as an excellent draft for his farewell speech to the troops.

6. Please share the story of this great Virginian with your children and local schoolteachers. The example of Robert E. Lee should be taught in our nation’s schools as America remembers his 200th birthday today.

I will leave it to others to evaluate Lee’s moral qualities.  As a historian the question holds no significance for me.  I am much more interested in understanding Lee within the rich historical context that has been explored over the past few decades by historians.  What I find so striking is the apparent disconnect between the assessment of Lee’s moral qualities and any discussion about history.  It’s as if Lee has been plucked out of the past to be used as we see fit.  We can use Lee to figure out how to handle the war in Iraq and as the embodiment of moral perfection we can use him to educate our children.

It is difficult not to draw comparisons with interpretations of Jesus.  For some the very thought of questioning stories about Jesus – like Lee – is already to take one step too many; it’s as if something sacred has been violated.  Better to accept certain assumptions about the moral character of Jesus and the events of his life on faith.  The only problem, of course, is in deciding what exactly to accept on faith.  What, if any, are the constraints on what can be accepted on faith and who gets to decide?  And within one’s faith should historical methodology play any role and if so how much?  I see both of these strands at work in our discussion of Lee and the broader public debate about our collective memory of the war.

In contrast with those who venerate Lee we have people who would have us believe that Lee is the embodiment of all that is wrong with America.  Check out the site of the Virginia Anti-War Network [Hat-Tip to John Maas] which includes a long article about Lee’s legacy:

Robert Edward Lee — the Virginian who owned and exploited Black people; helped steal half of Mexico during the U.S.-Mexican War; led the attack on abolitionist hero John Brown at Harper’s Ferry; deserted the Union Army; took up arms against the country he had sworn to defend in order to preserve the immensely profitable system of chattel slavery; and lost the Civil War by getting his reactionary butt decisively kicked by a force that included 200,000 armed people of African descent — was born on Jan. 19, 1807, in Stratford, Va.

Both views have much in common, including an overly simplistic view of Lee and the world in which he lived in.  Of course that is to be expected given the forums in which these views appear.  That fact, however, makes these accounts relevant as they capture, unlike our more sophisticated historical treatments of the Civil War, how most Americans “interpret” the past.  The problem is that in the end neither side really does justice to the history of the individual in question.  Both sides give the back of their hands to serious debate and thought.  Their interests are more focused on the present.  On the one hand Lee’s memory can be used to address the current demographic shifts taking place in the South along with the economic, cultural, and social changes since the 1960’s.  For those who reduce Lee’s legacy to that of a villain end up with a false image that can be used to address their own grievances and hopes for the future.

Either way there is little interest in serious history.  So I say happy birthday General Lee – whoever you are.


Mark Grimsley on Myth, Memory, and Sherman’s March

I was doing a bit of snooping around on the internet looking for information on memory and Sherman’s March when I came across a short essay by fellow blogger and historian Mark Grimsley.  It is a nice concise overview of the campaign and how our popular perceptions of Sherman and his men have evolved.

"Thieves, Murderers, and Trespassers": The Mythology of Sherman’s March