Gotcha History

Civil War Wives - BerkinI‘m not a fan of what I like to call “gotcha history”. It goes something like this. A book is marketed or reviewed based on the premise that its subject has been ignored or, even worse, suppressed for some nefarious reason. I sort of understand this first example from Carol Berkin who recently published Civil War Wives. The book is published by Knopf, which means that it will be widely available from most major book chains. The challenge for the author is to find a way to frame the book as offering something new among the vast array of Civil War books available. At HNN and with the title, “Why It’s Time to Write Wives into the Story of the Civil War”, Berkin suggests the following:

Thus the story of the civil war era comes down to us as a masculine portrait, its canvass filled with both powerful and ordinary men, free and slave, black and white.Yet, many of the Americans who endured the crises of secession, the brutalities and tragedies of warfare, the joy of success and the sorrow of defeat were wives, mothers, and daughters. For them, these experiences were not the same as for their husbands, fathers and brothers. If we are to understand the significance of the Civil War, if we are to measure its impact on the American psyche and its social landscape, we must listen to the voices of women as well as those of men. We must reconstruct the world of 19th century women with the same care and attention that we have reconstructed the world of men.

From a certain perspective no one can deny that our collective memory of the Civil War leans heavily to the masculine side. Hell, even most of the women I know who are interested in the Civil War are interested in battles and leaders and this is clearly the domain of men. On the other hand, Berkin is no doubt aware that over the past 15-20 years studies of women and gender during the Civil War have increased significantly. It is almost impossible to miss this ever-expanding literature and it has proven to be extremely helpful in uncovering aspects of the past that have for too long gone unstudied. It’s a clever hook, but not one that will resonate with people who have some understanding of recent Civil War historiography.

The other example is from our friend, Richard Williams, who back in 2007 reviewed two books for the Washington Times. Here is an excerpt of a post I wrote in response to his review. This is an example of the second type of gotcha history.

Today Richard Williams reviewed two recent releases that he believes force us to acknowledge that “Southerners have endured two never-ending accusations that, despite their inaccuracy, have made those from the region feel inferior because of their moral implications.” The first title is Bud Hall’s Den of Misery: Indiana’s Civil War Prison (Pelican Press) and the second is Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from the Slave Trade (Ballantine Books)

Williams makes no attempt to analyze the arguments contained in these studies. Rather he is content to frame his comments around a rather vague assumption: “However, with the recent release of two books, the truth finally is available to all who are willing to examine the facts objectively. What makes these two books so compelling is that they were written by Northerners.” It’s hard to know whether Williams is speaking for himself or the general public when it comes to describing these books as uncovering some kind of long-forgotten truth that has been suspended (one assumes) by those with nefarious interests.

In the case of the first title Williams seems completely oblivious to the historiography of Civil War prisons – both North and South. Perhaps he should be reminded of a few titles that explore in detail the conditions in Northern prisons. They include the edited collection Civil War Prisons (Kent State Press) by William B. Hesseltine. The essays go back to the 1950’s and Hesseltine’s own scholarship on the subject dates to the 1930’s. In addition there is Portals to Hell by Lonnie Speer and the newly-released book While in the Hands of the Enemy by Charles W. Sanders, Jr. (LSU Press). It is disingenuous to make claims about an entire area of historiography without any apparent understanding of the relevant literature. The problem is that further reading would detract from Williams’s initial claim that Southerners (and I assume he means white Southerners) have been the victims of a national lie.

Williams applies the same level of analysis to Complicity and seems to revel in the author’s own conviction that they have discovered something new about the history of slavery in the North. He quotes the authors at length:

We have all grown up, attended schools, and worked in Northern states, from Maine to Maryland. We thought we knew our home. We thought we knew our country. We were wrong…. Slavery had long been identified in the national consciousness as a Southern institution. The time to bury that myth is overdue. Slavery is a story about America, all of America. Together, over the lives of millions of enslaved men and women, Northerners and Southerners shook hands and made a country.

These comments fit perfectly into the working assumptions of the reviewer and of course go unquestioned. There is little doubt that the general public assumes that slavery was specific to the South, but that does not in and of itself provide a sufficient reason to conclude that this is a subject that has gone unstudied. Williams emphasizes the book’s focus on New York City, but is he aware that one of the most comprehensive exhibits on the city’s connection to the “peculiar institution” recently opened at the New York Historical Society? There is even a wonderful companion book edited by Ira Berlin that includes a number of first-rate essays.

The final few sentences do not disappoint as the reviewer’s own prejudices shine forth: “Complicity is thoroughly researched, heavily footnoted and generously illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawing, maps, charts and documents. Unfortunately, the book has been largely ignored by many in academia and the mainstream media. But perhaps the rest of America will, like the authors, soon admit they were wrong about who should share the blame for slavery.” I assume that according to Williams the book has been ignored by academics because they wish to steer clear of the fact of Northern slavery. As I stand here typing this post I look to my left and notice at least four shelves of books about the history of slavery and race in the North. The books cover the colonial period through the twentieth century. All of them have been published in the last thirty years and most of them are authored by academic historians who teach in Northern schools.

Gotcha history is relatively harmless, but don’t be surprised if you are called out for doing a poor job of it.

Deep Thoughts With H.W. Crocker III (4)

For this week’s installment of “Deep Thoughts” we visit the final chapter of Crocker’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War for some thoughts about what might have been.  Following a fictionalized speech in which Lincoln allows the Confederacy to leave the Union in peace, Crocker says the following:

Had Lincoln given that speech would “government of the people, by the people, and for the people have perished from the Earth”?  No, it would have been confirmed, as the Southern states would have enjoyed that very thing and not have been brutalized into accepting a government that did not represent their interests.  Would slavery have persisted until this very day?  No, it seems certain it would have been abolished peaceably, as it found itself abolished everywhere else in the New World in the nineteenth century.  Imagine that there had been no war against the South, and subsequently no Reconstruction putting the South under martial law, disenfranchising white voters with Confederate pasts, and enfranchising newly freed slaves as wards of the Republican Party.  Without that past, race relations in the South would have been better, not worse, and the paternalist planters would have arranged, over time, to emancipate their slaves in exchange for financial compensation. (p. 332-33)

First, given that the value of slaves continued to increase during the late antebellum period and even through part of the war, why would any slave owner seriously consider emancipation for compensation? Not surprisingly, Crocker presents the reader with a distorted and false view of Reconstruction. It pits black v. white and North v. South along with a fantasy about the future of race relations had the federal government not occupied the former Confederacy. What I fail to understand is if white Southerners would have done a better job handling race relations on their own terms than how do we explain the rise of Jim Crow?  Why were state constitutions rewritten to disfranchise the vast majority of black Americans during the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century?

It’s hard to imagine that there are people out there who consider this to be serious history. Keep in mind that this book eclipses in sales anything written by a serious historian. So, if you want to know what Americans believe about their Civil War start with this book. Yes, it’s very disturbing.

Exploiting John Brown’s Body

Storer_college_postcardI‘ve been thinking about the recent press release by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on the eve of the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry. If you remember, they have chosen to commemorate the death of Heyward Shepherd, who happened to be black and working at the local train station at the time of the raid.  There are a number of things that are disturbing here.  Referencing Shepherd as an “unfortunate black citizen” reflects the most basic misunderstanding of black civil rights history since the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857 that blacks could not be citizens.  Unfortunately, that is about par for the course when it comes to getting the basic facts right in the SCV.

What is more disturbing, however, is the blatant way in which the SCV distorts black history to serve their own agenda.  Notice that at no point in their announcement did they even mention why John Brown was in Harpers Ferry.  They do mention his “nefarious scheme”, but it would be helpful if the public was told what that scheme involved: How about nothing less than the freeing of the slaves.  Now please don’t misunderstand me as I am not suggesting that we should not engage in serious debate about the ethics of Brown’s life and actions in Kansas and Virginia.  The problem here is that the SCV has set up the parameters of debate in a way that serves their own purposes of distancing slavery from Confederate and Southern History.  More to the point, why honor Heyward Shepherd at all?  It is unfortunate that he was caught in the cross-fire, but does that in and of itself constitute a sufficient reason to honor him or give him his own day?  Would the SCV have taken these steps if Shepherd happened to be a white baggage handler?

The bigger problem is the choice of which black man to honor.  If you were just to rely on the SCV’s press release you might think that the only black individual in Harpers Ferry was Shepherd.  And here is where the intentional distortion of the past occurs.  There were five black with Brown at Harpers Ferry: three free blacks, one freed slave, and a fugitive slave.  How do these men fit into the SCV’s understanding of this event?  Why aren’t they being honored as opposed to Shepherd.  I think I have an idea.  Notice in the press release that Shepherd is characterized as a “faithful employee.”  What possible reason could the SCV have in characterizing an employee as faithful?  Of course, anyone familiar with the historiography of Southern history knows that that one word, ‘faithful’, resonates throughout the Lost Cause literature, which characterizes slavery as populated by faithful and obedient slaves.

This morning I came across an excellent video on the black legacy of John Brown and Harpers Ferry.  The documentary did not focus on Brown, but on the five blacks who accompanied him: Dangerfield Newby, Lewis Sheridan Leary, Shields Green, John Anthony Copeland, Jr., Osborn Perry Anderson.

Although I skipped around a bit I am pretty sure that you will not find Shepherd’s name mentioned (perhaps a brief reference) in this 48 minute video.  The importance of the Harpers Ferry Raid in the local black community is to be found in the actions of the five men mentioned above.  The distance between the SCV’s preferred memory of Brown and Harpers Ferry and the history of black Americans in the area couldn’t be wider.  As you will see in the video, for example, Heyward Shepherd’s death, however tragic and unfortunate, does not explain the rise of Storer College and its rich history of education and black civic activism.

Exactly what is the SCV commemorating?