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


Editorial Changes At North and South Magazine

Last week Terry Johnston announced that he is leaving his editorial duties at North and South Magazine

I have some news that I need to share with you. As of last Friday (the 12th) I ceased to be the editor of North & South magazine. The move came as the company looks to cut costs in an attempt to help it back on secure financial footing. In short, I was downsized. Keith Poulter, the magazine’s founder and publisher, will resume the editorship, a position he occupied up until the end of 2004.

This is the first I’ve heard about any financial concerns surrounding the management of the magazine.  If I remember correctly Terry took over for Keith Poulter who was in the process of starting a new magazine on military history.  Now that I think about it I haven’t seen that publication on any news stands.  I do hope that Keith can maintain the publication as it is one of the best popular history magazines currently available. 

Terry did a great job maintaining the overall quality of the magazine, which was something I was concerned about when the transition was made.  I wish Terry all the best in his future endeavors. 

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Internal or External: A False Dichotomy?

I am making my way through the essays in James McPherson’s latest offering This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2007).  All in all I have to say that I am just a bit disappointed with this collection.  Many of the essays fail to deliver a stronger analytical punch.  Part of the problem is that most of the chapters are reprinted from other publications that I am already familiar with.  A couple of chapters were originally published in the New York Review of Books.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with reworking material; Gordon Wood’s most recent collection is a also pulled from his articles in the NYRB.  The difference, however, is that Wood apparently spent more time expanding the reviews into fairly sophisticated essays.  There are a few chapters, including one on the Lost Cause and textbooks that are well worth the time to read.  For someone unfamiliar with these chapters the book will no doubt make for interesting reading. 

One of the chapters that originally appeared as a book review in the NYRB examines recent studies that explore questions surrounding Confederate defeat.  The books in question include, William Freehling’s The South v. The South, William C. Davis’s Look Away! and Gary W. Gallagher’s The Confederate War.  McPherson reviews these books and along the way offers  commentary about the historiography of Confederate defeat.  Most interpretations that purport to explain why the North won or why the Confederacy lost can be grouped within the so-called internal and external camps.  Explanations that fall into the former tend to reference internal conditions such as economic deficiencies or political bickering (David Donald’s thesis that states rights killed the Confederacy)  as the reasons why the Confederacy lost.  Shelby Foote brought this point home when he noted in the Ken Burns documentary that the "North fought that war with one hand behind its back."  External explanations, on the other hand, concentrate on the ebb and flow of the military campaigns as a sufficient reason for Northern victory or Confederate.   On this view the Confederacy succumbed to military defeat rather than specific internal problems. 

There is some value in distinguishing between internal and external explanations of Confederate defeat or Union victory.  The historiography of internal explanations is fairly rich and includes Richard Beringer, et. al. Why The South Lost The Civil War and Charles Ramsdell’s Behind the Lines in the Confederacy.  Historians who subscribe to this view must explain away the fact that the North experienced just as much – perhaps even more – internal political strife.  And implicit in the explanation is the assumption that we can know what is a sufficient level of internal conflict to explain defeat.  In arguing for internal conflict these historians conclude that white southerners never experienced a vibrant or sufficient level of nationalism (whatever that means).  McPherson notes another difficulty relating to sources which he notes in his comments re: Davis’s Look Away!:

It is the nature of newspaper editorials, private correspondence, congressional debates, partisan speeches, and the like to emphasize conflict, criticism, argument, complaint.  It is the squeaky wheel that squeaks.  The historian needs to step back and gain some perspective on these sources, to recognize that the well-greased wheel that turns smoothly also turns quietly, leaving less evidence of its existence for the historian.

If I understand McPherson he is basically saying that if you look for conflict and criticism in the political realm you are going to find it.  From here it is a short step to Foote’s conclusion that Confederate defeat was inevitable.  Regardless of the problems with the explanation it is undoubtedly the cased that these historians have uncovered important information about the Confederate experience. 

External accounts have made their mark more recently.  Gallagher’s Confederate War is a great place to start in looking at why the Confederacy lasted as long as it did.  Notice that the way the question is framed matters.  This was one of the first books that I ever read about the Civil War and it has shaped to a great extent the way I interpret the Confederate experience.  I wasn’t convinced at first by the argument and this had much to do with the way I read Gallagher’s book.  My biggest problem early on had to do with the fact that I was looking for an argument that somehow indicated that  Confederates had achieved in generating sufficient nationalism.  Indeed Gallagher talks a great deal about Confederate nationalism in the army and on the home front, but he does not get stuck in the question of whether the Confederacy "created a nation."  Rather he argues that Confederates identified in various ways which allowed them to continue the fight for close to five years and even come close to victory on more than one occasion.  I now tend to see that book more as a call to arms: Gallagher is basically saying that historians have tended to explain the Confederate experience by looking at why their experiment in revolution failed.  The question itself steers the historian in the direction of looking at what they fell short of achieving; in doing so they have ignored the myriad ways in which Confederates identified with their "nation."  It’s no accident that some of the best studies of Confederate nationalism have been written by Gallagher’s students.

This brings me to my major concern surrounding this distinction between internal and external accounts.  Simply put, I think the distinction has outlived its usefulness.  Although I can’t prove it I suspect that the attraction of the internal account as it appeared in earlier histories such as Why The South Lost The Civil War is that it allowed the historian to utilize the new social history without having to come to terms with the military aspects of the war.  This is where that vacuum affect comes into play.

Freehling’s study does not make this mistake.  While he admires Gallagher’s sketch of "selected Southerners’ pro-Confederate passions" Freehling argues that white southerners in the Upper South who served in large numbers in Federal armies and the slave population constituted a significant problem for Confederate authorities.  Freehling does not confine his analysis to the Confederate states, but broadens it to include all southern slave states.  In doing so he is able to show that between southern unionists and the slave population roughly half the population stood against the Confederate war effort.  I hesitate to call this an internal explanation – even though Freehling argues that both populations and the pressure they placed on the Confederate war effort proved to be decisive – because he spends as much time discussing the ways in which Union military operations along the Mississippi River exploited these apparent weaknesses.  There was nothing inevitable about Confederate defeat unless Union military authorities and the president took proper action.  [Freehling would probably disagree with this last point.] 

It seems to me that we can have our cake and eat it too.  The best recent military histories that fully integrate analysis of the political, economic, and social aspects of the Confederacy have the best chance of answering the big questions of why the war turned out the way it did.  We need to know how Union military policy changed over time in response to conditions on the ground.  Certain internal conditions may rise to the top depending on how they connect to the military sphere.  It is clear, however, that we are beyond examining interal conditions in a vacuum, which is where some studies fall short.   Our ability to unwind different forms of nationalism from complex local internal conditions is indispensable to understanding why military operations evolved from limited to hard war – to use Mark Grimsley’s language.  [I would also recommend Buck T. Foster’s Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign as another example of this approach.] 

I think we sometimes get wrapped up too tightly in certain distinctions.  I’ve tried to suggest that the distinction between internal and external explanations of the Civil War no longer carve up the historical terrain at its joints.  It is often noted that the Civil War created a situation where battlefield tactics failed to keep up with the technology.  Perhaps here we have a situation where recent historical interpretations have oustripped our ability to describe them accurately. 


A Blogging Confession

I am not happy with the quality of my blogging in recent weeks.   The few days in Atlanta allowed me some time to think a bit more critically about why I blog, and I was surprised to realize that I didn’t miss being away from it.  I actually thought about bringing my laptop to Atlanta for blogging purposes, but thankfully I decided against it.  I am certain that not bringing it made for a much more pleasant trip.

As many of you know I have maintained a fairly steady schedule of blog posts since starting in November 2005.  On most days you can read at least one post and sometimes as many as three.  While the amount of time I spend actually typing in a post is surprisingly short I do think a great deal about possible topics and whether they would make for interesting reading.  The other aspect that I am somewhat wary of is the extent to which my cynical side has emerged in my writing.  I’ve been criticized for the way I’ve referenced the writings of others and perhaps it is even justified.  Still, I stand behind everything I’ve said even if the tone could have been more palatable for some.  Let me say up front that I never thought of this blog as a way to make friends.  Links have been added by others to this blog and taken off for various reasons; at no time did I take it personally.  This sense of community is apparent among CW bloggers and for some I imagine that it is of some value.  For me it is more illusory.  That’s not to say that I have not enjoyed communicating with other bloggers just that I don’t necessarily blog to make friends or as a means to interact with others who share a common interest.  Issues surrounding how we write and think about the Civil War (and American history generally) matter to me for a number of reasons and at times that has emerged in my writing.

I’ve read that the average life of a blog is somewhere around a year.  There is a great deal of excitement early on which translates into a flurry of activity, but this eventually trails off into fewer posts and an overall lack of substance.  I now have a better sense of why that happens.  Bloggers begin to rehash old arguments and strain for fresh material and this tends to be accompanied by a certain amount of frustration.  Along with this is the feeling of obligation to those people who stop by at least once a day and often more than once.  There is a danger in allowing this to drive your blogging; for me it detracts from why I got into blogging to begin with.  Admittedly part of what is difficult for me to come to terms with is the fact that I tend to obsess about certain things; in other words, I find it difficult to pace myself.  In the case of blogging I find it especially difficult to pace myself because I tend to think that blogs should be updated on a regular basis.  I often wonder what’s wrong with those people who post infrequently (LOL).  In short I don’t want to end up posting for the sake of posting.

If you happen to be concerned that I am signing off let me assure you that I am not going anywhere.   What I am trying to say is that I do need to figure out how to proceed.  You may notice a change in the number of posts over the next few weeks.  To be honest I don’t know what will happen, but I do think that a healthy reassessment of what I am doing here is necessary.