Category Archives: Civil War Culture

Lee – Jackson…what?

Today in Virginia is Lee-Jackson Day, but according to the The News Leader in Staunton you are going to have to look hard to find anyone celebrating it.  State offices are closed, but it looks like most government offices are open as well as public schools.  I will be in my classroom today as well.  While the public acknowledgment and celebration of Lee, Jackson, and all things Confederate may be on the decline, citizens of this great state will have plenty of opportunity over the next few years to study and come to appreciate the lives of these two men as well as the broader history of the war.  Their stories are absolutely essential to understanding this beautiful state that we call home so I encourage everyone to embrace Lee and Jackson during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

On a related note, the state of Virginia has officially rejected the notion that thousands of slaves fought as soldiers in the Confederate army.

Oh…and a reminder to the city of Norfolk: NO PARKING TICKETS ON LEE-JACKSON DAY!

This Is Not a Southern View of the Civil War

The Washington Post’s popular A House Divided blog has welcomed Brag Bowling as its newest member.  It will be interesting to see whether Bowling can move beyond advocacy and actually formulate an argument.

As I was perusing the site I noticed an announcement for the upcoming annual meeting of the Stephen D. Lee Institute, which happens to be the “educational arm” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  What concerns me is that Linda Wheeler chose to characterize it as offering a “southern view of the Civil War.”  Well, it’s doesn’t.  Wheeler goes on to include what I must assume is the organization’s own rhetoric of “presenting the true history of the South.”  Again, it doesn’t.  It is a fundamental mistake to assume that the Institute speaks for anyone other than their members.  To casually suggest that they speak for “the South” is inexcusable and irresponsible.  If we’ve seen anything over the past few months is that there are a number of competing narratives of the Civil War in the South.

They surely don’t speak for fellow southern bloggers, Robert Moore and Andy Hall. They don’t speak for the many professional historians who were born and raised in the South and who now work hard researching and teaching the history of this beautiful region of the country.  We can safely assume that they do not speak for the vast majority of African Americans in the South.  It’s not even clear that the Institute speaks for the majority or even a substantial minority of the region.  In fact, it’s insulting to suggest that just because you live in the South that you necessarily hold firm to a certain narrative of the past.  It would be nice if we could move beyond this naive view of Civil War memory.

Finally, I find it just a little troubling that Wheeler chose to announce this event at all.  Of all the forthcoming events in the next few weeks why would anyone publicize a conference that has almost nothing to do with history and everything to do with advocacy?

We Are Not Living in Lincoln’s House Divided

This weekend’s shooting in Tuscon, Arizona has led to a great deal of commentary about the intense partisanship that currently animates our political discourse.  I am as concerned as the next person about the short- and long-term consequences of a political landscape and media culture that seems to have little patience for rational debate.  To be honest, I don’t know where this most recent shooting fits into all of this.  That said, I tend to take a cautious view of the doomsday scenarios because I think they tend to contribute to the toxic atmosphere.

As a historian I understand the desire to place this shooting as well as broader concerns surrounding our political and cultural wars within a historical context.  Allen Guelzo gives it a shot in this interesting commentary on what the Civil War can tell us about the fine line between words and violence.  Guelzo expresses concern that “that the lids are rattling again” because the issues at stake strike at a difference over fundamental values:

This is why the political battles over specific policies have become so intense – because they are all linked to a fundamental collision of values about justice. The new health-care law, for example, is not merely another entitlement; it springs from a new way of understanding what justice is, and thus it ends up entirely rewriting the relationship of citizens to the state. Likewise with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. These are not merely variations on sexuality and marriage; because they represent an entirely new way of thinking about human nature, they bring into question our understanding of what Jefferson called “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Today’s passions are not merely the irritations of marginalized people with too much religion, too much talk radio, or too many guns. They are the sign of political pots ready to blow the lids off democracy.

First, I couldn’t agree more that the language has become overly hyperbolic, but that may not be a sign of impending doom for our democracy.  We may simply have become much too sensitive given the advances in communication technology.  That said, I don’t think the Civil War sheds much light on our current political culture.  As divided as Americans are over the issues mentioned by Guelzo not one of them divides the nation regionally.  We are not living in Lincoln’s House Divided.  As much as I find Lincoln’s appeal to “think calmly and well upon this whole subject” as well as “the better angels of our nature” it’s hard to imagine that we are headed down that road.

I find it interesting that few have compared our climate to the 1960s.  Perhaps this weekend’s shooting ought to remind us of the assassinations of King and Malcolm or that of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  Somehow the nation survived a period that witnessed violent political protest, social unrest, and an unpopular foreign war.  Are we as a nation really in a more dangerous position than this?  I find it interesting that Guelzo bypasses this period, but I suspect that many who are concerned about our present trajectory have done so as well.  Perhaps it reflects the extent to which the violence and partisanship of that period has become legitimized.

I’ll end with Guelzo’s final thought and one that I completely agree with: “Democracy lives by reason and persuasion, not by statute or decree. Its purpose is not to give us what we want, but to free us to do what we should.”

How Will We Imagine Slavery in 2015?

Mural by George Beattie (1956)

Here is another story for those of you who doubt that we are witnessing a radical shift in our popular perceptions of the Civil War and the history of slavery.  Gary Black, the newly elected agriculture commissioner in Georgia, has ordered that a series of murals depicting slavery be removed from the building.  The murals were painted in 1956 by George Beattie to show the evolution of agriculture in the state from Native Americans through the twentieth century.  I do hope these murals find a new home so they can be appreciated and even interpreted for their historical value.  According to the news story, Black is replacing a commissioner who occupied the position since 1969.

This shift in popular thinking about slavery is still, in my mind, best understood in terms of what it finds offensive or problematic.  The Lost Cause view of slavery, with its emphasis on paternalism, has already been put to rest by scholars and we can begin to discern the consequences of this from the controversies surrounding Governor McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation to the recent coverage of the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s secession.   What is not clear is whether the next few years and a more rigorous engagement with the history and legacy of slavery will leave us with any lasting impressions.

On this day 148 years ago the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and yet as a nation we do nothing to mark the occasion.  How strange in a nation that celebrates a narrative of the gradual embrace and expansion of freedom.