The Fundamentalists’ Civil War

I was browsing through the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine when I came across Jeff Sharlett’s essay, "Through A Glass Darkly: How the Christian Right is Reimagining U.S. History" (December 2006).  Sharlett includes a brief reference to Stonewall Jackson’s place in fundamentalist history:

In the pantheon of fundamentalist history, the man revered above all others
is General Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy, perhaps the most brilliant
military commander in American history and certainly the most pious. “United
States History for Christian Schools”  devotes more space to Jackson, "Soldier
of the Cross," and the revivals he led among his troops in the midst of the
Civil War, than to either Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant; “Practical
Homeschooling” magazine offers instructions for making Stonewall costumes out of
gray sweatsuits with schooling "fun day." The Vision Forum catalogue offers for
men a military biography and for the ladies a collection of Jackson’s letters to
his wife; both books extol his strategic and romantic achievements as
corollaries to his unparalleled love of God.

Fundamentalists even celebrate the Confederate hero as an early civil rights
visionary, dedicated to teaching slaves to read so that they could learn their
Bible lessons. For fundamentalist admirers, that is enough; this fall saw the
publication of “Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend,” by Richard G.
Williams, a regular contributor to the conservative Washington Times. Jackson
fought not to defend slavery, argues another biographer, but for religious
freedom; he believed the North had usurped the moral jurisdiction of God. "The
North seemed to be striving to alter basic American structures,” writes James I.
Robertson Jr. "Such activity flew in the face of God’s preordained notion of
what America should be."

Jackson’s popularity with fundamentalists represents the triumph of the
Christian history that Rousas John Rushdoony dreamed of when he discovered,
during the early 1960s, the forgotten works of the theologian Robert Lewis
Dabney. including “Life and Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. Thomas J. Jackson
(Stonewall Jackson).  Dabney had served under Jackson, but more important he was
a theologian in the tradition of John Calvin – that is, he believed deeply in a
God who worked through chosen individuals – and he wrote the general’s life in
biblical terms. Rushdoony imagined the story as transcending its Confederate
origins, and so helped make it a founding text of the nascent homeschooling
movement.

In 2003, Vision Forum sponsored a national essay contest and awarded first
prize to a pretty,  freckle-faced young woman named Amanda Freeborn for her
essay, "How Stonewall Jack- son Demonstrated a Biblical Vision of Manhood."
"There is a name," writes Freeborn, “that casts upon the screen of our
imaginations the image of the personification of godly manhood.  That name is
Stonewall Jackson… His life was a testimony to the world of what God can do
through a man consecrated to his purposes…

…Civil War buffs study his military maneuvers and wonder whether, had he
not been mistaken for a Yankee and shot by his own men in 1863, he might have
outflanked the Union Army and fought the North to a standstill. But Freeborn
chooses as case study not a Civil War battle but his first victory as a lowly
lieutenant out of West Point. Sent to the Mexican War, he defied an order to
retreat, fought the Mexican cavalry alone with one artillery piece, won, and was
promoted, later commended by General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S.
forces, for "the way in which [he] slaughtered those poor Mexicans."

Many of the poor Mexicans Jackson slaughtered were civilians.  After his
small victory had helped clear the way for the American advance, Jackson
received orders to turn his guns on Mexico City residents attempting to flee the
oncoming U.S. army. He did so without hesitation – mowing them down as they
sought to surrender.

What are we to make of this murder? Secular historians attribute this
atrocity to Jackson’s military discipline – he simply obeyed orders. But
fundamentalists see in that discipline, that willingness to kill innocents,
confirmation of Romans 13:1; "For there is no power but of God: the powers that
be are ordained of God." Obeying one’s superiors, according to this logic, is an
act of devotion to the God above them.

But wait – fundamentalists also praise the heroism that resulted from his
defiance of orders to retreat, his rout of the Mexican cavalry so miraculous –
it’s said that a cannonball bounced between his legs as he stood fast – that it
seems to fundamentalist biographers proof that he was anointed by God.  Is this
hypocrisy on the part of his fans?  Not exactly.

Key men always obey orders, but they follow the command of the highest
authority. Jackson’s    amazing victory is taken as evidence that God was with
him – that God overrode the orders of his earthly commanders. And yet the
civilian dead that resulted from Jackson’s subsequent obedience of those very
same earthly commanders are  also signs of God’s guiding hand. The providential
God sees everything; that such a tragedy was allowed to occur must be evidence
of a greater plan. One of fundamentalist history’s favorite proofs comes not
from Scripture itself but from Ben Franklin’s paraphrase at the Constitutional
Convention: "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is
it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”   

To put it in political terms, the contradictory legend of Stonewall Jackson –
rebellion and reverence, rage and order – results in the synthesis of
self-destructive patriotism embraced by contemporary fundamentalism.

I’m not sure I agree with lumping James I. Robertson in with the rest of the gang.  His enthusiasm for the movie Gods and Generals leaves something to be desired.  And I know that some people believe that his more recent scholarship betrays a disturbing sympathy with Lost Cause ideology; for example see Alan Nolan’s review of Robertson’s Jackson biography in the Washington Times [reprinted in "Rally Once Again!": Selected Civil War Writings of Alan T. Nolan, pp. 269-72].  I am not a huge fan of Nolan’s work, but I cite it simply as an example. 

Interpreting history in a way that merely confirms a religious worldview is not to do history at all.  I should point out that I get just as frustrated when secularists attempt to generalize about the Founding Fathers – the typical point being that they were all deists or admirers of Locke, Hutcheson and the rest of the Scottish Enlightenment.   They do this to counter the fundamentalist interpretation that God worked through these men during the founding period.  Both positions betray an unwillingness to admit of a complexity that defines many of our important historical figures. 

In my most honest moments I can easily admit to myself that I am still learning how to research the past.  One of the most difficult challenges in conducting research is in placing prior assumptions in check.  And this is a challenge that both seasoned scholars and novices must continually face.  I like to think that I am beyond the naive epistemology of the "noble dream" of objectivity; however, that does not mean that we cannot strive to get the story right.  In doing so we would do well to remember that the story to be told is not our story.

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Another Civil War Analogy

Last year we were forced to wade through the constant references to Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War during the debate over President Bush’s ordering of the NSA to collect intelligence from U.S. citizens without a warrant.  And this year we are engaged in a semantics debate over what to call the worst U.S. foreign policy decision of the last 100 years.  Does it really matter whether we call it a “civil war”?  And if we have to have this silly debate do we really have to reference the American Civil War?

With the recent brain surgery of South Dakota Democratic Senator Tim Johnson comparisons with Charles Sumner are already showing signs of life.  As Charles Sumner Republican senator from Massachusetts, sat writing at his desk in the Senate Chamber in May of 1856, he was assaulted by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina. Angered by Sumner’s “Crimes against Kansas” speech, in which Sumner had criticized Brooks’ uncle, South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, Brooks struck Sumner repeatedly with his heavy cane. Sumner’s long absence from the Senate to recuperate from the attack served as a powerful symbol of the tensions between North and South in the years before the Civil War. Sumner later returned to the Senate, where he authored the nation’s first civil rights legislation.  The senator was away from his desk for over three years after the incident and Massachusetts made no move to appoint someone in his place.

The Sumner case is relevant since questions will emerge in South Dakota over what to do given Johnson’s condition.  Of course this is politically interesting given the governor’s power to appoint a Republican in Johnson’s place thus handing the Senate back to the Republican Party.  The latest reports suggest that there is a chance that Johnson will recover sufficiently to maintain his seat.

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“Don’t Know Much [Anything] About History”

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released its report on the state of history/civics education in American colleges.  The report titled "The Coming Crisis In Citizenship" presents a bleak picture of students attending a broad range of colleges and universities.  The study was done by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy and involved 14,000 randomly selected college freshman and seniors at 60 different colleges and universities.  The students were given 60 multiple choice questions which covered American history, government, America and the world, and the market economy.  Overall findings include the following:

  • Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen.
  • If the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors
    would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional
    grading scale.
  • Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college
    students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than
    when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed
    engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.

I was also interested to find that "prestige" makes no difference; students attending Ivy League school did just as poorly as those attending lower profile institutions.  The report continues:

Responses from college seniors to a selection of individual questions display
how little they actually know about basic historical facts, ideas, and concepts
germane to meaningful participation in American civic life.

  • Seniors lack basic knowledge of America’s history. More than half, 53.4
    percent, could not identify the correct century when the first American colony
    was established at Jamestown. And 55.4 percent could not recognize Yorktown as
    the battle that brought the American Revolution to an end (28 percent even
    thought the Civil War battle at Gettysburg the correct answer).
  • College seniors are also ignorant of America’s founding documents. Fewer
    than half, 47.9 percent, recognized that the line "We hold these truths to be
    self-evident, that all men are created equal," is from the Declaration of
    Independence. And an overwhelming majority, 72.8 percent, could not correctly
    identify the source of the idea of "a wall of separation" between church and
    state.
  • More than half of college seniors did not know that the Bill of Rights
    explicitly prohibits the establishment of an official religion for the United
    States.
  • Nearly half of all college seniors, 49.4 percent, did not know that The
    Federalist Papers
    —foundational texts of America’s constitutional order—were
    written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Seniors
    actually scored lower than freshmen on this question by 5.7 percentage points,
    illustrating negative learning while at college.
  • More than 75 percent of college seniors could not identify that the purpose
    of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent foreign expansion in the Western
    Hemisphere.
  • Even with their country at war in Iraq, fewer than half of seniors, 45.2
    percent, could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein’s
    political support. In fact, 12.2 percent believed that Saddam Hussein found his
    most reliable supporters in the Communist Party. Almost 5.7 percent chose
    Israel.

I won’t bore you with the report’s recommendations, but here they are if interested.  So what are we to do about all of this?  Well, the short answer is that I have no idea.  Actually, we’ve heard it all before.  Now before you work yourself into a frenzy keep in mind that there has never been a golden age – at least not in the 20th century – when it could be argued that America’s youth was historically literate.  In 1917, 1,500 Texas teens performed just as poorly and tests conducted elsewhere in 1943, 1976, 1987, and 1994 resulted in similar scores.  Part of the problem perhaps can be traced to the fact that 80% of history teachers currently in the classroom did not study the subject in college.  I have no teacher training whatsoever and I am willing to admit that my skills as a teacher would be improved if I had more of a background in this area; however, I love the subject and I can get my students excited about studying the past.   I don’t see how you can do that without loving the experience of doing history regardless of how many teacher education classes you have under your belt. 

One more thought regarding this study.  I once read that even professional historians do poorly on these tests.  A group of historians from Stanford, Berkeley, and Harvard took a standardized and did worse than a group of AP History students.  Perhaps this is the result of very narrow research interests.  In the end I am not too concerned about these results.  They are nothing new and if I am reading the results correctly somewhere around 50% of college students do know something about American history. 

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Civil War Odds And Ends

The latest issue of the journal Civil War History includes a few announcements that readers may find of interest.  First, the Pennsylvania State University Libraries has completed a publicly accessible, full-text database of Pennsylvania Civil War Era newspapers.  The site includes digital facsimiles of newspapers from 10 Pennsylvania communities, including Gettysburg, Chambersburg, and Philadelphia. 

In the area of book prizes the Organization of American Historians has awarded Anne Sarah Rubin’s A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868 (University of North Carolina Press, 2005) the Avery O. Craven Award.  The Museum of the Confederacy also recently announced that While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War (LSU Press, 2005) by Charles W. Sander has been awarded the 2005 Jefferson Davis Award. 

Congratulations to both authors.  I have not had a chance to read the second book, but I highly recommend Rubin’s book.  Rubin does not get bogged down with the question of whether Confederates managed to attain sufficient nationalism; rather, she examines the ways in which white southerners expressed their nationalism both through the war and into the immediate postwar years.  Click here for Michael Perman’s H-Net Review of Rubin’s study. 

I know they are both university press books, but you should be safe.

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Religion And The Civil War

First let me apologize for the continual change to this blog’s appearance.  For some reason I get bored with the look of it and find a need to explore other possibilities.  I’m sure I was an interior decorator in a past life.

The other day I posted some concerns about so-called Christian studies of the Civil War.  As many of you now know it led to an interesting dialog with a fellow blogger who challenged some of the assumptions that lay behind the post.  I wish the focus would have been more on the specific points made, but that was not to be.  Anyway, I thought I would offer a short reading list for those of you who are interested in historical studies that actually take religion seriously.

A great place to start is the edited collection by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles R. Wilson titled Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998) and Mark Noll’s short, but thorough The Civil War As A Theological Crisis (UNC Press, 2006).  Harry Stout’s Upon The Altar of The Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) gives the reader a chance to think about the war as a moral crisis brought about in part by conflicting theological assumptions.  I plan to use part of this book next year in my Civil War elective.  Though it is hard going the new book by Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, titled The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview (Cambridge University Press, 2006) provides the most thorough analysis of the role of religion among wealthy white Southerners.  Although I have not read it I’ve heard very good things about Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the South, 1810-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

On religion and Civil War soldiers there is no better place to start than Steven Woodworth’s While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (University of Kansas Press, 2003).  One of the best soldier diaries is Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2003.

There are numerous studies that I believe address the fundamental interpretive mistakes contained in many so-called Christian biographies/studies of the Civil War.  The best place to start is Charles R. Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1981).  Get through that and take a look at David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (LSU Press, 2004) and Daniel Stowell’s Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (Oxford University Press, 2005).  Finally there is Edward J. Blum’s Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (LSU Press, 2005).

This list doesn’t even constitute the tip of the iceberg.  Feel free to offer any additional suggestions.  I did not attempt to be inclusive; many of these studies offer broad interpretations of the Civil War and religion.  The titles in the last section should give you some  idea of why Americans continue to interpret Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as religious icons that almost appear to stand outside of history entirely.  Happy reading!

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