History vs. Memory

The other day I picked up a very interesting collection of essays titled Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory and edited by James O. and Louis E. Horton.  All of the essays address the place of slavery in our national memory and provide examples of conflict in the public arena.  I’ve already finished essays by Marie Tyler-McGraw on recent interpretive problems in Richmond and Dwight T. Pitcaithley on the decision of the National Park Service to interpret its Civil War battlefields within a context that includes a discussion of race and slavery.  Readers of this blog know that I am very interested in these questions.  What I like most about the topics covered is the way that each essay focuses on the connection between historical interpretation and the presentation of that material in the public space.  I don’t want my work on the Crater to simply be considered or debated by other historians; I hope that it makes some kind of impact on the way we see our Civil War battlefields.  David Blight’s essay touches on competing interpretations of the role of slavery in our national narrative and considers the moral imperative of not forgetting certain aspects of our past that are uncomfortable.  At one point he provides an excellent comparison between history and memory (you can easily substitute heritage for memory):

History is what trained historians do, a reasoned reconstruction of the past rooted in research; it tends to be critical and skeptical of human motive and action, and therefore more secular than what people commonly call memory.  History can be read by or belong to everyone; it is more relative, contingent on place, chronology, and scale.  If history is shared and secular, memory is often treated as a sacred set of absolute meanings and stories, possessed as the heritage or identity of a community.  Memory is often owned; history is interpreted.  Memory is passed down through the generations; history is revised. Memory often coalesces in objects, sites, and monuments; history seeks to understand contexts in all their complexity.  History asserts the authority of academic training and canons of evidence; memory carries the often more immediate authority of community membership and experience. In an essay about the slave trade and the problem of memory, Bernard Bailyn aptly stated memory’s appeal: "Its relation to the past is an embrace. . . ultimately emotional, not intellectual."

Blight’s comparison highlights why it is so difficult for historians to engage more casual "buffs" and especially those in the various heritage organizations.  In my own experiences I’ve found that the distinction between secular and emotional approaches explains a great deal. 

Blight ends his essay with a nice little moral flair. He relates an encounter he had while leading a discussion at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on why a museum on slavery is necessary.  One of the participants suggested that "If you don’t tell it like it was it can never be as it ought to be." 

I couldn’t agree more.


Onward Christian Soldiers

The blogger over at Pinstripe Press takes issue in an open letter to the Southern Legal Resource Center with "attacks" against those who wish to celebrate the virtues of Southern Christian warriors such as "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.  The blogger who has also authored biographies of these two figures argues that, "For years, liberal scholars have referred to the Confederate States of America as a “hypocrisy” and questioned how a country fighting for independence could also deny that same freedom and liberty to it’s own citizens held in bondage."  The writer goes on to say:

My first two books, “Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall” and “Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart” were written and published as a testament to the Christian character and patriotism of these two men. I firmly believe that we can learn by their example, as it was these traits that ultimately gave them the strength to perform on the battlefield with such courage and conviction.

Let me start by suggesting that unless specific examples can be raised in support of the first point re: "liberal scholars" than it should be seen as a strawman argument.  I have a pretty good grasp of the secondary literature and I’ve never come across a claim of "hypocrisy."  What I have read, however, is a concerted effort to reintroduce the way that slavery both shaped the Antebellum South, the secession debates, and the course of the war.  As anyone who has studied Civil War historiography knows such a focus has been lacking within academic circles through the 1950′s and within more popular circles to this day. 

I find the claims that Jackson, Stuart and the rest of the boys constituted some kind of Christian Warrior society to be much more interesting.  First, it seems reasonable to ask whether the author believes that one can be considered "Christian" and a slaveowner in today’s world.  Does the ownership of another human being contradict the teachings of the Bible?  We know that Jackson owned slaves and there is evidence to suggest that he sold at least two slaves for financial reasons after marrying for the second time.  I should say that I understand that this was not necessarily a contradiction in the mid-19th Century South, but that is a different point altogether.  In thinking critically about the past we should try to the best of our ability as historians not to engage in presentism.  That said, the author seems much more interested in judging these individuals outside any historical context.  As a historian I have to admit that I am simply not interested in these questions.  As I suggested in an earlier post I don’t really understand Jackson’s behavior or his religious world view.  I’ve read both James I. Robertson’s biography of Jackson and Emory Thomas’s study of Stuart and I have to admit little success in penetrating the psychological surface.  Of course, that’s the challenge of doing and thinking critically about the past.  Jackson’s attitude towards Federal prisoners and his unshaken belief in the righteousness of the cause seem to have much in common with our popular perceptions of religious extremists in other parts of the world today.  It is also extremely difficult to peel back the layers of postwar storytelling that came to shape our popular perceptions of Jackson and others.

I would also like to know from the author why he makes no mention of Northern Christian warriors.  On his view, is it possible to be a Christian warrior from the North who fought to end slavery on religious grounds?  And what happens if we take one from each side and stick them in a room together.  If we are to judge them simply on moral grounds (we’ve taken off our historian’s hat for a moment) how should we proceed and what should our conclusions be given that for most reasonable christians today slavery is viewed as a contradiction of Biblical teachings. 

I agree with the author that it is important to preserve our history for future generations.  After all, that’s my job as a historian and as a teacher.  That said, I am not necessarily interested in steering my students to praise or blame anyone from the past.  My job is to give them the tools and the foundation for which to make those decisions on their own.

Note: The SLRC is also using H.K. Edgerton who was mentioned in yesterday’s post.  He is definitely making the rounds. If you are interested in reading more about the role of religion during the Civil War you may want to look at The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout, and ed. Richard M. Miller et.al., Religion and the American Civil War


John Bowie Magruder’s Civil War or What’s on a Man’s Mind?

Today I presented a talk on Colonel John Bowie Magruder for the Albemarle County Historical Society and the local Senior Center.  I had a great time.  It was a small audience, but they were enthusiastic and they asked insightful questions.  Magruder was a graduate of the University of Virginia in 1860 and served as Colonel of the 57th Virginia Infantry before his mortal wounding at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  His letters are housed in Special Collections at UVA.  There are around 25 letters and they cover most of his time in the army.  They are well written and touch on a number of important themes of historical interest.  Back in 2002 I published a lengthy article on Magruder in the Magazine of Albemarle History which won its Rawlings Prize for best essay.  I am currently revising the article for publication in one of the popular Civil War magazines.  Here are a few selections from the letters.

March 9, 1862
Fort Dillard, N.C. along the Blackwater River

"The country is very thinly inhabited and save and except the troops now with us we rarely see a face – until to-day I had not seen a ladies face in all this region of country – to-day however being Sunday several dilapidated looking females with their several escorts walked [into] our camp on the way to the river." 

May 18, 1862
On the march through Jerusalem to rejoin the rest of the Confederate army around Richmond

[Describing the mayor's daughter] "She was about 5 feet 5 inches high, black hair and eyes brunette, beautiful teeth and mouth – very agreeable, quite fast, and draped in a beautiful gown – She gave me a beautiful bouquet, which I was so ungallant as to throw into the ditch about a mile and a half from Jerusalem – [It was a] reminder that I had ever been in the least degree sentimental in my life."

December 4, 1862
Fredericksburg – describes the home of a Dr. Smith where he spent some time recovering from "bilious attack"

"He had quite a pretty daughter of about 18 summers, who had never been much into society, with whom I amused myself a good deal."

May 22, 1863
Outside of Richmond – Describes his visit to Richmond and the praise he received from friends owing to his first stint at independent command during the Suffolk campaign

"I visited Richmond very often, spent every cent of money I could lay my hands on, visited many of my old Richmd. friends, most of whom I found had married, formed many new acquaintances and enjoyed myself in every way – Nearly every lady had heard of my fight with the yankees on the White Marsh Road near Suffolk, and all had some nicely turned compliment to pay me with regard to it, which was of course very gratifying."

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“Rebel Yell” Grows Fainter

Turns out that a relatively new chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is having difficulty getting the good word out.  Grayson Jennings, founder of the Edmund Ruffin Fire Eaters Camp No. 3,000 hopes to "oust" Waite Rawls who is the Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and in his place appoint Allen M. Ferguson.  It is difficult to pinpoint the problem with Waite, but I suspect that he is perceived as too moderate given the goals of the SCV.  Ferguson was slated to become chairman of the Valentine History Center in Richmond when it was discovered that he flew a Confederate battle flag in front of his home.  This was perceived as a conflict with the goals of the History Center, but apparently just right for a position as president of the Edmund Ruffin chapter. 

Jennings is also utilizing the assistance of one H.K. Edgerton this summer to get the good word out.  Who is H.K. Edgerton?  Edgerton is from Asheville, North Carolina and a former head of the local chapter of the NAACP.  He is scheduled to appear at the Third Annual Dixie Days which is set to take place on June 10 and 11 in Hanover County.  (Please don’t ask me for additional event information.)  Edgerton decided to leave the organization to "embrace his southern roots":

Being a black civil-rights proponent and a Confederate sympathizer aren’t mutually exclusive, Edgerton says: “Me being black, there are plenty of issues on the table — the likelihood of being poor, dropping out of school, dealing drugs, getting locked up. But my social mobility has got nothing to do with the Confederate flag or the South.”

While I have no idea what Edgerton means here it is disturbing to see another example of an overly simplistic identification with the past.  Why is it that we reduce the Southern past to the four years of the Confederacy?  Isn’t there a much richer history that an African-American can "embrace" or does Edgerton have some kind of ulterior motive in aligning himself with this group? 


Wicked Spring

I finally had a chance to see the movie Wicked Spring. This is a low-budget production that managed to win a few independent film festival awards.  The movie tells the story of six soldiers, including three Confederate and three Federal soldiers, who spend the night together following the first day’s fighting at the Wilderness in May 1864.  The gist of it is that they don’t realize they are encamped with the enemy.

I can’t say that this was the most exciting or even interesting war movie of late, but given the crap that has been produced in recent years it is a breadth of fresh air.  The battle scenes were done effectively in that you actually see men shot in battle.  Think about it, how many men in Gods and Generals are actually shot?  Yes, many fell down in dramatic fashion, but did you actually see anything penetrate clothing or skin?  The director vividly captured the confusion of battle in the Wilderness and the perspective of the individual soldier.  A few of the battle scenes reminded me of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  Again, you have to remember that this is an independent film with a limited budget of $500,000.  No Ted Turner behind this one.

The most interesting part of this movie, however, are the scenes that take place overnight once these six men have decided to spend the night together.  There is a very touching scene between a Union and Confederate soldier which involves the former writing a letter for the latter.  The Confederate soldier has kept a pile of what appears to be pristine envelopes and letters owing to the fact that he can’t read.  This soldier dictates a very emotional letter home to his “sweetheart.”  There is nothing contrived or pretentious about these scenes.  No one mentions Grant, Lee, Lincoln or Davis and no one is debating what the war was about.  What you are left with is a group of tired soldiers who are trying to take advantage of a few quiet hours before hell breaks loose again in the morning.  It’s nice to see that the Civil War can be taken seriously in movies.

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