Category Archives: Civil War Culture

Are Americans Divided Over the Civil War?

According to our mainstream media, which thrives on conflict, Americans are hopelessly divided over the Civil War.  Open up a newspaper and you can find scores of articles with titles such as, “After 150 Years, the Civil War Still Divides the United States,” and “150 Years Later, State’s Secession Still Stirs, Still Divides.”  Turn on cable news and you will find the various talking heads arguing the same tired script that tugs more at the viewer’s emotions rather than their intellect.  Consider a recent episode of the Ed Schultz Show, featuring the always lively, Al Sharpton.  Spend enough time in these places and you might even come to believe this alluring cultural meme.

Now, I don’t doubt for a moment that Americans disagree over fundamental questions about the history of the Civil War as well as how it ought to be commemorated.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with or even interesting about that alone.  What I am questioning is the way it divides Americans.  It’s the “Still” in this little narrative that troubles me since it implies little to no change in the overall contours of where the nation is in terms of its collective memory.  As far as I can tell Americans are not sharply divided over these questions in terms of their regional identification, political affiliation or connection to the Civil War generation itself.  In short, we are not living in a “House Divided” and to push such a narrative is facile at best.

The ongoing controversy about how secession ought to be remembered in South Carolina along with tomorrow’s Secession Ball illustrates this quite well.  What I am struck by is the level of agreement over how this bit of history is being commemorated.  While the mainstream media is enjoying highlighting the racial aspect of this divide by noting the scheduled protest of the NAACP at every turn, if we look closer we see a very different story.  Charleston Mayor, Joseph Riley, has been outspoken in his belief that the celebration is “unfortunate” and “the opposite of unifying.”  The state’s major newspapers have all struck a similar tone:

There is room for disagreement over whether we can fairly judge the morality of the secessionists by the standards of 2010. There is room to debate whether the men who fought for the Confederacy believed they were simply fighting to defend their state, without regard to why their state needed defending, or to what role slavery played in the social order. There might even be room to debate what motivated other states to leave the Union.  But those are debates that need to be had honestly, based on what really happened 150 years ago. Pretending that anything other than slavery played a significant role in South Carolina’s secession is not honest, as the secessionists themselves made a point of telling the world with such abundant clarity.

Spend enough time watching interviews that include representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and you might assume that everyone with Confederate ancestry is united around a certain view of the war.  Not so fast.  Consider native southerner, Edward Ball:

I can testify about the South under oath. I was born and raised there, and 12 men in my family fought for the Confederacy; two of them were killed. And since I was a boy, the answer I’ve heard to this question, from Virginia to Louisiana (from whites, never from blacks), is this: “The War Between the States was about states’ rights. It was not about slavery.”

I’ve heard it from women and from men, from sober people and from people liquored up on anti-Washington talk. The North wouldn’t let us govern ourselves, they say, and Congress laid on tariffs that hurt the South. So we rebelled. Secession and the Civil War, in other words, were about small government, limited federal powers and states’ rights.  But a look through the declaration of causes written by South Carolina and four of the 10 states that followed it out of the Union — which, taken together, paint a kind of self-portrait of the Confederacy — reveals a different story. From Georgia to Texas, each state said the reason it was getting out was that the awful Northern states were threatening to do away with slavery.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial is already shaping up to stand in sharp contrast with the divisiveness and narrow scope of the Centennial celebrations – a period that ought to be understood in terms of both a regional and racial divide.  Perhaps the most profound change can be found on an institutional level.  Consider the recent and upcoming events sponsored by the Lowcountry Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission not to mention the overall focus on and acknowledgment that slavery was central to understanding secession and war by every other state sesquicentennial commission.  The documents central to South Carolina’s decision to secede are now in the hands of people who have been educated during one of the most vibrant periods of Civil War/Southern historiography.  After displaying the Ordinance documents to a UDC sponsored memorial event, Eric Emerson, executive director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, expressed his hope “that people will develop ‘a deeper level of understanding’ of secession and war that goes beyond the nostalgia and gets at the heart of one of the most turbulent and talked about periods in South Carolina history.”  None of this fits neatly into the “America Divided” meme.

We can continue to get lathered up by focusing on Secession Balls and interviews with the usual suspects, who profit one way or another from promoting this “America Divided” narrative or we can step back and acknowledge the vast shift that has taken place in our society that has the potential to bring us even closer together.

We are not living in the 1860s and we are not even living in the 1960s.  Look Away, Look Away…

Salvador Dali’s Civil War Memory

Yesterday Mike Gorman left a comment in response to my post on Monument Avenue, which alluded to a a proposal for a monument to Sally Tompkins by Salvador Dali. I don’t know much about this so I did a little searching and found a sketch of the proposed monument as well as an interesting article.  Based on the allegory of St. George slaying the dragon, Dali proposed a full-bodied Sallie Tompkins standing in a petri dish — balanced atop a giant finger — taking a swing at a beast symbolizing disease.  Apparently this sketch was published in the local newspaper and met with almost universal disapproval.  I think it’s amazing.  Enjoy.

Dali Sketch of Sally Tompkins - 1966

 

C-SPAN Visits Monument Avenue

This is a wonderful overview of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.  It’s one of my favorite places to bring my students to discuss the intersection between historical memory, race, and politics, and the monuments themselves allow for a wide range of interpretation.  I also highly recommend Sarah S. Driggs’s book, Richmond’s Monument Avenue (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).

The Latest In Black Confederate Fashion

Looks like the newest line of Dixie Outfitters t-shirts is now available and with this little gem you are likely to be noticed miles away.  Actually, I can’t tell whether we are supposed to celebrate black Confederate soldiers or H.K. Edgerton.  Doesn’t this look utterly ridiculous when you put it up against this?

Remember To Put It In Perspective

The upcoming Secession Ball scheduled for Saturday in Charleston is certainly getting a great deal of attention from the mainstream media.  I’ve spent my fair share of time perusing through coverage from local newspapers in Charleston to national coverage as well as the blogosphere and other social media sites.  What stands out to me, however, is the amount of critical coverage of the event.  The criticisms are coming from all sides, but what is most impressive are the critiques from both black and white folks who identify deeply with the history and culture of the South.  There never was a monolithic view of the history of the South; the difference is now it has an opportunity to emerge and compete for attention.  These are people who have as much claim to the past as anyone and they are voicing outrage with the idea of celebrating an event that was carried out in defense of a social, political, and economic system built on slavery and which led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans.  I have no access to any kind of statistical data that would give us a sense of the percentage of Americans who do not see this as worthy of celebration and I don’t think it really is important.  What is apparent is a fundamental shift in the way that Americans – regardless of race and region – are now coming to view the Civil War since the Centennial celebrations of the early 1960s.  You would be hard pressed to find anything reflective of this current shift in perception during the Centennial.  Again, that’s not to suggest that it wasn’t present, just that it did not surface in any sort of way that posed a challenge to the status quo, which was clearly a deeply rooted collective memory built around the Lost Cause.

While I have no doubt that the good people who attend the Secession Ball will enjoy themselves thoroughly, it should be clear to everyone that this broader view of the war will continue to be on the defensive for the foreseeable future.  Consider these recent setbacks:

  • A Fourth Grade Virginia textbook that includes a reference to black Confederates has been identified as out of place based on the author’s research strategy and current scholarship on the subject.
  • A series of videos slated to appear on the History Channel that outline a Lost Cause view of secession and war has been canceled.  You know you are in trouble when you are banned from a channel that runs continuous loops of UFOs, reruns of Pawn Stars, and Hitlers last days in the bunker.
  • Courts have almost unanimously upheld the decisions of a number of school districts to ban images of the Confederate flag from school property.
  • Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell apologized for a Confederate History Month Proclamation that ignored slavery and went on to correct it by issuing a new proclamation declaring next April Civil War History in Virginia Month.
  • The Museum of the Confederacy removed a black Confederate doll from its website and the National Park Service removed literature referencing the same after being notified of the problem.

As much time as we spend on the staying power of the Lost Cause it is important to put it in perspective.  What I see around me is a vibrant Civil War Sesquicentennial community that includes plenty of institutions that are organizing conferences, exhibits, and other educational opportunities for their respective communities.  Best yet, they are taking full advantage of the latest Civil War scholarship.  It really is a breath of fresh air.

Try not to get too caught up in all this silliness.