Review of Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation

Robert Cook reviews Bruce Levine’s new book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the War over at H-South.  Here is the first part:

In an interview with Dan Wakefield of _The Nation_ in January 1960, Karl Betts, executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, made it clear that awkward facts would have no part in the upcoming commemoration of America’s greatest trial. When asked if any effort would be made to mark the centenary of emancipation, Betts responded, “We’re not emphasizing Emancipation. You see there’s a bigger theme–the beginning of a new America. There was an entire regiment of Negroes about to be formed to serve in the Confederate Army just before the war ended. The story of the devotion and loyalty of Southern Negroes is one of the outstanding things of the Civil War. A lot of fine Negro people loved life as it was in the old South.”

Half a century ago views like this were unremarkable. What was, for white supremacists, the comforting myth of black loyalty to the Confederacy held firm in spite of growing awareness inside the academythat, given half a chance (or less), enslaved southern blacks were willing to abandon their masters and, in the case of two hundred thousand adult males, enlist in the armed services of the United States to defeat the aspirant proslavery republic whose forces were arrayed against it. Half a century on, it is depressing to report that views akin to those of Karl Betts are still alive and kicking. Visitors to the Georgia Heritage Coalition website will find a recent 32-part series by Bill Vallante (a Confederate battle reenactor currently “living ‘behind enemy lines’” in New York state) attempting to detail the military support given to the Confederacy by southern blacks and to debunk the efforts of “liberal” historians to undermine “the truth.” Like it or not, historians of the American South are in the front line of the modern culture wars. What we need urgently, however, is not crusading history (for that will be dismissed or ignored by those without an attachment to the crusade), but good history that can be diffused effectively across the country. We are fortunate, then, that Bruce Levine is an accomplished historian and that he has fashioned a coherent and accessible analysis of the tortured Confederate debate over the military mobilization of slaves.

I checked out the link provided for Vallante and lo and behold a little exchange that we had a few months ago made it on his website.  Apparently, Vallante was not pleased with the content of my blog.  What a surprise.  Here is Vallante’s commentary.  Notice that he did not provide a link to my site.  Again, what a surprise:

Recently I sparred with a (white) neo-abolitionist blogger who had, in his daily rants, written a tribute to Martin Luther King. Flanking this tribute however were two “pot-shots” at General Lee, whose birthday comes at about the same time as King’s, and several pot-shots at the SCV.

I asked him why it was that he seemed unable to stay in his own little corner and have a good time celebrating something he sees as important without going over to someone else’s corner and poking fun at something that someone else considers important? “What is it”, I asked, “about you people that makes you so inclined to be pests?”

Needless to say, he did not appreciate my sarcasm. His response was as follows:

“First of all it is not “your corner” or anyone’s corner for that matter. It’s called American history and my blog’s theme focuses on the way in which Americans have chosen to remember their past. In large part and in reference to the Civil War this has involved highlighting an idealized Confederate past by ignoring the contributions of African Americans.”

I didn’t really expect the blogger, a transplanted yankee/liberal teacher now living in Virginia, to comprehend the philosophy of “live and let live”, so his failure to comprehend my analogy of staying in his own “corner” didn’t really surprise me. Besides, “Live and Let Live” has never been the liberal way.

What is significant however, is his reference to an “idealized Confederate past” and “ignoring the contributions of African Americans”. Contemporary (liberal) historians often describe this notion with the phrase, “Civil War Memory”, a phrase popularized by Amherst historian/professor David Blight. Blight and those like him maintain that our “memory” of the war is in error, and that the way Americans “remember” the war has left the African American out in the cold. Of course, Mr. Blight and company intend to remedy this situation. Remember the phrase because you’ll be hearing more and more of it as America draws closer to the 150th Anniversary of the “Civil War.

This is a great example of how not to argue about history.  Perhaps I will use it as an example next year in one of my classes.  Thanks Bill.

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Mark Snell and Civil War Memory

Last night historian Mark Snell and director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War presented a talk to the Charlottesville CWRT.  I first met Mark a little over a year ago in Charleston, South Carolina at the annual meeting of the Society for Military Historians.  Mark chaired a session that I was on.  Last night’s topic was not what was advertised, but Mark decided that the topic would create a more interactive session.  After all that was one of the original goals of the roundtables. 

Mark began his talk in a way that I am all too familiar with.  He suggested that this topic "might upset some of you."  And in an effort to head off the all too common attack that memory is a creation of liberal college professors, Mark made it a point to reveal his Republican sympathies.  He also dealt with the other silly charge of revisionism by suggesting that history is a process of revision.  It’s a sad commentary that historians must preface their remarks in front of a popular audience in such a way.  Unfortunately, that’s where we are.  We’ve allowed academic discourse to become overly politicized rather than deal with individual arguments on their own merits.  Mark did a first-rate job presenting the material.  He kept the discussion light, which probably kept the majority on board through the various topics.  Mark touched on the evolution of reconciliation and the displacement of African Americans and emancipation, the development of National Military Parks, and the construction of monuments.  In addressing more recent controversies such as the Confederate battle flag, NPS revisions, and monument construction (or destruction) Mark remained focused on both sides of the debate rather than alienate the audience.  All in all it was an interesting talk.

It’s always nice to see the topic of memory presented to a popular audience.  For me it’s not simply a dry analytical debate, but an issue that hits at the core of how we remember our national past and define what it means to be an American.

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Paint It Pink

Looks like the renovation of T.R.R. Cobb’s home in Athens, Georgia is causing a bit of a problem, though not for the reasons you might suspect.  While no one seemed to have a problem with the use of the mansion as a fraternity house, rectory, and apartment building, the decision by conservators to restore the building to its original color has some staring in disbelief.  Yes, the general apparently preferred bubble-gum pink.

The reaction ranged from angry to amused. Some who had fought against the house liked it. "Just horrible," said others. Dixie diehards refused to believe it. A guy in a pickup drove up and threatened to paint over it. According to local heritage experts, one of Cobb’s direct descendants, Marion Cannon, sniffed: "T.R.R. Cobb would never paint his house that color."

The controversy over the return of the Cobb House shows that modern Athens still struggles with its philosophical place as the Confederacy’s "city on the hill." But the color choice has injected another curious dimension into the debate. It has suggested a softer side to the otherwise irascible general and, in the process, diverted some attention from the political feud over his house, currently scheduled to open as a museum next year. At the same time, it has given insight into how conservators increasingly try to help Americans "see" history – and how deeply memory and myth still mingle in a region bedeviled by an uncomfortable past.

Well if this is not one of the clearest examples of the wide gulf between the agendas of heritage groups and historians/curators.  Perhaps they should paint a large Confederate battle flag on the front of the home.  Maybe that will satisfy or comfort the masses.  Read the entire article.

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The DaVinci Code and the Lost Cause

I am looking forward to seeing the DaVinci Code at some point in the near future.  I haven’t read the book and don’t plan on it and I don’t find the story in and of itself to be particularly interesting.  That said, I love Ron Howard movies and it seems like a good way to escape from the real world for a few hours.  The controversy surrounding this movie raises some interesting questions about tolerance and the extent we are willing to go to challenge some deeply embedded ideas about ourselves and the epistemology of religious thought.  I commented on this not too long ago in reference to the Judas Gospel.  Whether it is fully supported in the historical documents or not, the thought that Jesus may have been married and had fathered children is simply too much for many to consider.  It seems to me, however, that this resistance has less to do with evidence and justification rather than with our individual psychological profiles.  As a historian I want to know what the truth is about the life of Jesus.  Anything beyond what we can know from a historical context is of little interest to me.

What I find particularly interesting is the inability of many to suspend disbelief and play with the idea for a short period of time.  Why is the exercise of the imagination for a limited period of time such an issue here?  Can I be a committed catholic who believes in the Holy Trinity and the whole nine yards and still be entertained by the DaVinci Code?  If not, where exactly is the problem? I should ask, is there a problem beyond the nonsense of corruption at the hands of Satan?  Perhaps the problem is that many find it difficult being reminded that not everyone holds the same belief system.  This is so obvious that it should go unstated, but I raise the point because many hold that it is possible to be committed to a religion, but not engage in any hierarchical judgments in reference to other organized religions. But can we?  Isn’t there something constitutive in the very concept of a belief?  In other words, the act of believing implicitly involves judging x to be true.  I find this to be the case whenever I get that knock on my door from people who are bringing me the “good word.”  When I am patient enough to engage these people what I find is they have very little interest in me as a person.  Rather, I suspect that they see me as someone who potentially stands in their way of achieving comfort with the thought that everyone is on the same theologicla page.  Are they really interested in me?  What does it even mean to be interested in the “soul” of someone that you’ve never met?   In short is it really a concern with my well being that brings people to my doostep or a deep-seated insecurity with the possibility that everything they believe could be wrong?

I guess I have to somehow make a connection with the Civil War.  Perhaps it can be drawn by mentioning that Alan Nolan faced a similar situation with the publication of Lee Considered: Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (UNC Press) back in 1991.  My own view of the book is that much of it is flawed in its conception and methodology.  However, I’ve always thought the best way to handle any argument is to tackle the assumptions and conclusions that are drawn from those assumptions.  Of course, that is not what happend when the book was published.  Various heritage groups publicly condemned the book and I suspect it was without having read it.  Is this a function of the same psychology?  According to Charles Reagan Wilson the myth of the Lost Cause should be understood as a cultural mindset that is a blending of civic and religious symbols.  It may be the case that the religious components of Lost Cause culture helps to explain the continued resistance of many white Southerners to a more mature discussion of American history and specifically the South.  I am reminded of the story which historian David Goldfield tells of a book signing he did following the release of, Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (LSU Press, 2002).  Goldfield writes that he was surprised to find a nice crowd on this particular day and as a result hoped to engage the audience and even sell some books:

Once I completed my brief presentation and opened the floor for discussion, the folks in gray, who all hailed from the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp, as I later discovered, bombarded me with questions.  This was fine, except that they never allowed me to respond beyond a word or two before they shouted another question or comment.  Two things became obvious.  First, these individuals were not interested in a dialogue; second, they had not read the book.  One questioner asked me whether I had written about the “atrocities” committed by General William T. Sherman.  When I told the gentlemen I had not, he accused me of a cover-up and proclaimed my book a “damned lie.”  I thereafter responded to every outlandish comment by urging the speaker to read the book.  The consensus that afternoon was that I had written “revisionist trash” that offended every true southern man and woman.  (Southern Histories: Public, Personal, and Sacred, pp. 3-4.)

While Goldfield is describing a very different group from those that are protesting the DaVinci Code, it is not a stretch to suggest that both are laboring under a similar psychological make-up.  It isn’t simply tolerance that needs to be emphasized, but a willingness to engage in meaningful and mature dialogue.  Our “web of beliefs” are not structured simply around the hope that they may be justified and hence “mirror” [to use Richard Rorty's lingo] the world.  They are also a means to ensure stability, consistency, and comfort.  To challenge them is to do much more than throw those beliefs into doubt.

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A Walk on the Slippery Rocks

Awhile back I mentioned that I will be teaching an elective next spring on 20th century women’s history.  The following year I hope to teach a course on children in US History.  This idea sprung to mind after reading Steven Mintz’s wonderful book Huck’s Raft (Harvard University Press, paperback available).  I will continue to teach the Civil War course, but it is time to mix it up a bit.  With that in mind I decided to put myself in the most uncomfortable position imaginable.  Don’t get me wrong I am not in any way averse to the idea of teaching a course in women’s history.  The problem is that I have absolutely no idea where to start.  I’ve ordered a couple survey texts and primary source readers and I plan on reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique with the class.  Other than that I am a fish out of water.  I am anticipating an entire class of girls, which will be interesting in and of itself.  My Civil War course is, not surprisingly, male dominated.  With this in mind you will notice the addition of a new section to my blogroll on the bottom right where I’ve included a section on feminism and women’s history blogs.  My hope is to better understand the contemporary feminist landscape and its historical roots.  The blogs will appear on a rotating basis depending on how useful they are.  Please feel free to pass on any suggestions. 

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