Civil War Narratives: Is There A Problem?

I read with great interest Dimitri’s response to a fellow blogger’s query about his recent comments about James McPherson, Doris K. Goodwin and the supposed perils of writing narrative history.  Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s entertaining and insightful blog knows that he is a voracious and careful reader of Civil War history.  As I understand it Dimitri’s concern about narrative history is its tendency on the part of authors to mislead readers by including historical assumptions that most people do not know to question or are not equipped to challenge.  That is clearly not his problem:

The narrator has wired a large board and set all the switches of controversy to
flow the storyline in a manageable direction. As a naive reader of Jean Smith [author of the biography Grant],
the switches were hidden from me and I went with the flow – with pleasure. But
as a deep reader in other areas, say the early war in the East, I can recognize
each choice the narrator makes to either highlight or suppress a controversy. I
become judgemental: is the subject being done justice by the author?

What Dimitri must mean by claiming to be a "deep reader" is his willingness to push through more demanding analytical studies where historical assumptions are explicit  rather than the implicitness of assumptions in the traditional narrative.  And once that happens it becomes difficult if not impossible to go back to the narrative approach within that particular area of interest.  I can relate to this view of things, but my problem is that even in areas that I am unfamiliar with I tend to look for the assumptions that are driving the narrative; that, however does not take away from the pleasure of reading it as I find the art of writing to be my main focus rather than simply the analytical framework underneath. 

Still, I find it difficult to explain the almost "pathological" obsession Dimitri has with James McPherson’s Battle Cry.  It clearly is for him the paradigm example of a bad narrative:

But the Centennial era material that McPherson aggregated in the late 1980s had
already been made stale then by 10 to 15 years of research and new discoveries.
It is now almost 20 years since this outdated-at-birth, never-revised nonfiction
was released. The book, delivering its pleasure, sets up a pathology part of
which is a standing invitation to immaturity.

For the life of me I can’t imagine what would be problematic if the only book someone read about the Civil War was McPherson’s Battle Cry.  There are two problems with this view.  First, the book was supposed to bring together scholarship from the past few decades; that was the idea behind the Oxford series.  The other problem is that Dimitri’s criticisms of the book never go beyond that narrow area of interest involving the war in the East and specifically George McClellan’s conduct of the war and his relationship with his other generals and Lincoln.  My guess is that if we could somehow revise Battle Cry by integrating scholarship by Thomas J. Rowland, Ethan Rafuse, and Joseph L. Harsh he would be just fine. 

What is even more disappointing is that Dimitri does not draw the relevant distinctions between McPherson and Smith, both of whom have engaged in very different kinds of scholarship.  Smith falls into the camp of competent historian with a narrative flair.  Don’t expect the kind of analytical flair that you would get from Grant studies by Brooks Simpson, but enjoy the read.  The problem is that if you only read Dimitri’s posts you would have to arrive at the conclusion that both individuals have built their careers on broad/popular narratives.  In the case of McPherson this would be a serious mistake.  In fact, most of his publishing career has been spent writing the kind of analytical pieces that Dimitri seems to have a preference for and yet I’ve never read on his blog anything about this.    My guess is that most of McPherson’s academic colleagues could care less about Battle Cry or even his smaller study of Antietam. 

In the end McPherson did succeed in bringing a very readable and sophisticated study of mid-nineteenth century America to a large number of readers.  Parts of it are outdated and a recent edition includes a new afterword where McPherson suggests places in the story that are in need of revising. 

So, is there really a problem?


Is A Museum The Right Place For Confederate Statues?

The University of Texas is debating what to do about statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  UT  President William Powers Jr. is now considering various options, including the rearranging of the statues on campus, providing information to visitors on the history of the statues, and finally the removal of the statues to the school’s museum.

“The whole range of options is on the table,” Powers said. “A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well.”

In his excellent study of the history of the Confederate battle flag John Coski argues that the best place for its display is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  I tend to agree with John, but I’ve never believed that his suggestion would be taken seriously by those who see the flag not as a historical object, but as a cultural symbol or as a means to identify with a certain heritage.   My guess is that those who see the flag as a vibrant and meaningful way to identify with a certain past will draw similar conclusions in reference to the UT statues.  The removal of the statues from the grounds to a museum sends the message that their preferred interpretation of the past is no longer valid or relevant.  The defensiveness that accompanies this typically brings out the rants about liberals and political correctness rather than a more serious consideration of how public objects are now being interpreted by parties that traditionally have had little or no say in how the past is remembered.

The photograph at the top is our statue of Robert E. Lee here in Charlottesville.  It’s a nice little park situated just off the Downtown Mall and across the street from the historical society.  A few blocks away stands a statue in honor of Stonewall Jackson (just above).  I would hate to see either one moved from their present locations, though I would understand if certain groups felt differently.  My attraction is more aesthetic than one that involves some kind of sympathetic identification or appreciation of their symbolism.  I tend to interpret memorials to the Civil War as a reflection of the values of those who chose to dedicate them – most of which were dedicated between 1880 and 1920.

A university, however, is different.  In this case I think the best place for the statues is in the school’s museum where they can be interpreted properly.  There visitors can learn when and under what circumstances the statues were commissioned and dedicated, which fits perfectly into a school’s mission to educate.  This one seems to me to be a no-brainer.


Thank You

A reader informed me that a fellow blogger is praying for me over comments made in the past couple weeks concerning the suggestion that we think of Stonewall Jackson as the paradigm example of the Christian warrior and friend of the  slaves.  I just wanted to take a minute to say thank you very much for the prayers as we all need the support once in awhile.  Perhaps one day I will see the light, but until then I ask for your patience and understanding as I continue to examine the possibility that slavery and friendship are not mutually exclusive concepts. 

Relevant Posts:
Christian Warrior 101 12/13
Religion and the Civil War 12/14
The Fundamentalists’ Civil War 12/17
Were Southern Slaveowners "Trapped"? 12/19
One Step Back 12/21
Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners? 12/22


Books On The Table

I just finished Jonathan Sarris’s new book A Separate Civil War: Communities in Conflict in the Mountain South (University of Virginia Press, 2006).  At just under 200 pages the book offers an incredibly concise analytical comparison between Lumpkin and Fannin counties in northwest Georgia.  Sarris compares the evolution of these two counties in the decades before the Civil War and into the postwar years.  Along the way he challenges long-standing assumptions about the experience of war in the mountain south.  Sarris places a great deal of emphasis on the development of these two counties before the war as a determining factor on how residents viewed slavery, secession, nationalism, desertion, and defeat.  The evolution of the Lumpkin and Fannnin counties, along with ongoing local dynamics, provides the prism through which the war is interpreted.  If you’ve read G. Ward Hubbs’s Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community (University of Georgia Press, 2003) you may want to read Sarris.  While Hubbs focuses more on the men in the ranks both studies illustrate how specific localities in the South were shaped by the demands and uncertainties of war.  I was particularly interested in the final chapter on memory.  Sarris explains why many continue to generalize about the mountain South as a bastion of unionism throughout the war.  Confederates and unionists competed with one another for control of how the war was to be remembered and this brought about some unusual bedfellows.  Most interesting was the decision of Confederate veterans to welcome Union veterans to their reunions rather than fellow residents who for one reason or another chose to remain loyal to the United States or joined their ranks by crossing into east Tennessee.  I highly recommend Sarris’s book as I learned a great deal.

I am currently reading Douglas L. Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (Knopf, 2006) who is the author of Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln which is in my mind the best recent study of the man.  Unlike Gabor Boritt’s recent study of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Wilson concentrates on how he wrote and developed his ideas.  In doing so we get a peek into the process by which Lincoln shaped his ideas.  Wilson begins with Lincoln’s farewell speech in Springfield and in subsequent chapters tackles the First Inaugural and the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which I just finished.  With the flood of recent studies by Allen Guelzo, Gabor Boritt, Harold Holzer, and Ronald White I was worried that Wilson’s thunder would be drowned out.  Fortunately you will find that Wilson creates a nice niche for himself in sticking to how Lincoln utilized editorial advice and how he crafted his speeches.  Most recent studies comment on the precision of Lincoln’s thinking, but by taking the reader through various drafts Wilson is able to show the reader how he utilized language to achieve his political goals. 


The View From Outside

I ran across a fairly interesting editorial that recently appeared in the Japan Times.  The short piece was written by Hiroaki Sato who is a translator and essayist and has lived in New York City since the late 1960’s.  The focus of the essay is in reaction to the Atlantic Monthly’s recent ranking of the 100 greatest Americans.  What struck me was the sophistication of Sato’s understanding of American history, especially the Civil War and reconciliation.  Here is a bit from the editorial:

Worse, the aim of achieving racial justice rapidly lost its force
in the years following Lincoln’s assassination. So by about 1900, "national
conciliation" — between the whites in the North and the whites in the South —
was complete. The indispensable part of this process was the South’s
nullification, with the Supreme Court’s connivance, of the 13th Constitutional
Amendment that prohibits slavery.

It was as though white-dominated America took to heart Lincoln’s
famous statement to Horace Greeley, president of the New York Tribune, on Aug.
22, 1862: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not
either to save or to destroy slavery." In other words, emancipation was not the
real issue.

I was reminded of this regressive process recently when I read
the history of Berea College, in Kentucky, one of the many admirable educational
institutions in the United States. Started in 1855 by John Fee, who believed in
racial and sexual equality, the college had to give up accepting blacks in 1905
when the Kentucky legislature banned teaching blacks and whites together. Yes,
such things were done as late as 1905. And in Kentucky, that law was not changed
until 1950.

As a matter of fact, not long after I came here I began to notice
"Civil War buffs" — people apparently interested in the war between the North
and the South purely as a matter of military contests.
The Civil War buff
quality is discernible in The Atlantic’s list as well. It includes Robert E.
Lee, ranked 57th, because he "was a good general but a better symbol, embodying
conciliation in defeat." In the commentary that goes with the selection, editor
Ross Douthat adds another general of the South, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, as
someone who "might have won the war for (the Confederacy) had he lived past the
Battle of Chancellorsville." Lee and Jackson fought on the side of secession or
slavery, but that doesn’t matter.

While the terminology employed in reference to the thirteenth amendment is off I am struck by this individual’s grasp of how most Americans interpret their Civil War.  Perhaps to a foreigner the way Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War is distinct; my guess is that the sentence in bold is not meant as a compliment, but as a point of curiosity.  It would be interesting to know how he came by it.