Category Archives: Civil War Culture

The Civil War is a Strange Place

While attending the SHA in Richmond last weekend I took in three panels on various topics connected to the Civil War and the nineteenth-century South.  Panels ranged from discussions of Unionist activity in North Carolina to the marketing of Confederate nationalism to northern tourists throughout the postwar period. 

If you can actually sit through three 20-minute presentations than you can hopefully look forward to spirited exchanges between panelists and commentator along with the audience.  Not once did I hear someone ask where a panelist was from, whether he had a Union or Confederate ancestor or their political persuasion.  In addition, I don’t remember at any time hearing a question regarding an individual’s "loyalties"; no one asked whether a speaker was "anti-South", "anti-North" or anti – pro anything.  In short, no one asked anything personal as an explanation as to why one’s individual research project led to a certain set of conclusions.  I assume the panelists included liberals, conservatives, northerners, as well as southerners.  Some of them no doubt can trace their family histories back to certain places in the north as well as south and so on and so forth.  Now, why is it that the blogosphere is filled with these types of questions, accusations, and suspicions? 

I think the question can be explained in large part as a failure to come to terms with what the discipline of historical research involves.  That’s not an accusation, but it is telling that those who utter such claims do not seem to have any formal training in the field.  They fail to see the process of history as a conversation that takes place over time in monographs, journals, and other venues rather than a slugfest between people debating or placing significance on where your great-great grandfather lived or whether you teach in a northern institution of higher learning.  Historians work to better understand the past by challenging one another’s questions, assumptions, evidence, and conclusions drawn from a certain body of evidence.  It’s not meant to be a conversation over blame, vindication or anything else that may fall into a normative category. 

My publications and on-going research projects have nothing at all to do with a need to vindicate or vilify any one region of the country.  I have no idea what it even means to be engaged in such a project.  The terms that are thrown around such as Confederate heritage, Union heritage, anti-South, pro-North, etc. mean very little to me and do not in any way enter into my interest in American history.  The terms themselves reflect an overly simplistic way of thinking and fail in any way to track anything historically salient.  The idea that one can be pro- or anti-South assumes that the South is some kind of monolithic entity or uniform throughout.  These references have no historical validity whatsoever, but unfortunately, those who consistently refer to such things have read very little or are caught up in an overly personal attachment to some conclusion that can only be defended in such a way.  Closely related are the attempts to prop up or tear down certain individuals from the Civil War as if this has anything to do with serious scholarship.  What is even more disturbing is the implicit assumption that white southerners must hold to a certain set of beliefs simply because of their background while white northerners necessarily hold distinct views.  This is a true mark of absurdity, but in the blogosphere and the Civil War community generally its business as usual. 

History is an intellectual discipline that involves careful study and sophisticated dialog.  It demands that we put aside our emotional baggage to whatever extent possible, not to attain some vague notion of philosophical objectivity, but to keep ourselves open to learning more and understanding better. 

R.I.P. Dixie Dawn: August 24 – November 3, 2007

I had high hopes for Dixie Dawn.  I’ve been following this blog for a few weeks and while it has attracted a large number of comments on the standard issues that energize the neo-Confederate base it looks like it has run its course.  I was holding out on the possibility that Dixie would actually read one of the books cited in a recent post.  Unfortunately, it looks like its not going to happen.  Instead we continue to get emotional rants about a besieged South, silly stories about black Confederates, and vague references to the Confederate flag.  Given the number of posts about the flag perhaps she could have read John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006) or she could have read Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006) in connection with the stories of black Confederates.  And why is it that every post and internet site on this topic utilizes the very same images? 

Honestly, I was holding out for the best.

“Lee at 200″: A Few Thoughts

Presented at the University of Virginia’s symposium on Robert E. Lee’s Life and Legacy

“This is sacred ground. It is a neutral place, no race, color, religion should be mentioned here.” This is how one person responded to a National Park Service survey which asked visitors to Arlington to assess the relevancy of slavery in properly interpreting life at the home of Robert E. Lee. Another visitor responded that slavery should be taught “only in schools” and another individual seriously suggested that “race has no place in the historical discussion and presentation of a slave plantation.” Across the Potomac River in Maryland, the newest Civil War monument to grace the town of Sharpsburg is of Lee on Traveler and includes the following at its base: “Robert E. Lee was personally against secession and slavery, but decided his duty was to fight for his home and the universal right of every people to self-determination.” I have no doubt that such a belief would have been news to Lee’s slave Wesley Norris.

The fact that such views continue to be embraced by Civil War enthusiasts is worth exploring if for no other reason than that it may tell us something about Lee’s relevance at the beginning of the 21st century. In the case of Lee I suspect that our defensiveness about race and slavery is a symptom of a broader resistance to anything that challenges our ideas of Lee’s moral perfection and ultimately our understanding of the Civil War. As historian John Coski noted in a recent Washington Post interview, “There’s an old saw in the South of a little girl asking, ‘Mommy is Robert E. Lee from the Old Testament or the New?’” I agree with Coski that Lee has been so overly lavished with praise that we have turned him into an untouchable “marble man.” Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock there is no doubt that Lee has come under more serious scrutiny in recent years. Some of the attacks can be dismissed as uninteresting or lacking any scholarly merit. On the other hand, professional historians have introduced interpretive frameworks from psychology, gender studies, political science, and race studies, and although the results have not always held up under scrutiny they have managed to enrich our understanding of Lee’s life, the antebellum south, and the Civil War.

It is not surprising that the increase in Lee studies have brought about a backlash from certain corners within the Civil War community. For many people any challenge to the traditional interpretation of Lee or the Confederacy is tantamount to heresy. Consider the description of a symposium on R.E. Lee sponsored by the Stephen D. Lee Institute in northern Virginia which took place this past spring:

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government? To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee’s views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

It is difficult to imagine how a serious historical discussion is supposed to take place when the terms of the debate are framed around such meaningless concepts as “hero” and “villain.” The above description, however, is symptomatic of the difficulty that characterizes much of the discourse surrounding Lee’s life and legacy.

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Still Standing is Standing Right in Front of Me

That’s right, my copy of the new documentary Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story has arrived. I plan to give it a thorough review very soon so stay tuned.  My comments about one line from the trailer caused quite an irrational outburst on a few fronts.  First, I never claimed to have seen the movie when I commented on the idea that Stonewall Jackson should be seen as the "champion of enslaved men and women."  No amount of argument, whether its religious, historical or moral could possibly convince me otherwise.  Sorry, I just have a problem with the idea that a slaveowner can be properly labeled as such.  I don’t know, call me old-fashioned. 

Clarification

Richard Williams offers a thoughtful response to my post of a few days ago in which I describe his reference to "Stonewall" Jackson as a "champion of enslaved men and women" as dangerous.  Williams response is based on a short book review that historian Peter Carmichael did on Elizabeth-Fox Genovese’s classic Within the Plantation Household (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) in the most recent issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.   Williams quotes Carmichael as evidence of his contention that the relationships forged between Jackson and his slaves qualifies as friendship. Here is the quote: No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .”  He goes on to point out that Fox-Genovese also explores the complex chains of affection between slaveowners and their slaves.  Williams is absolutely correct on this point and I know this all too well because I read this book as a graduate student; not only did I read it, but I’ve read plenty of other articles and books by both Fox-Genovese and her husband Eugene Genovese.  I could be wrong since it has been some time, but I don’t remember seeing this book cited by Williams or any other recent analytical study of slavery in the bibliography of his Jackson book. 

By placing himself in the same camp as Fox-Genovese and Carmichael, Williams believes that by extension I must also believe that they too are dangerous.  Not at all.  In fact I agree with the assertion that slavery created a wide range of mutually affective relations or mutual closeness during the antebellum period.  To do so would be to ignore some of the most interesting literature to come out of this field over the past few decades.  One of the most important points that Eugene Genoves makes in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that slaves cultivated chains of affection because they understood that slaveowners could not help but acknowledge their humanity.  From this perspective such relationships can be understood as manipulated by the slaves themselves to help make a horrific situation bearable.  At one point William suggests that it is not unreasonable to equate mutual affection with friendship.  Perhaps, but I believe it to be very difficult in the context of the slave-master relationship because it seems to me that the concept of friendship implies freedom of choice and by definition that is absent.  This is a point that Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics with the other being that friendships are built over time around mutual interests.  That said, to a certain extent this is beside the point because my problem is with Williams’s claim that Jackson ought to be understood as a "champion of enslaved men and women." 

On this point I feel safe in assuming that Carmichael would disagree with Williams here.  In addition, I’ve never read anywhere in Fox-Genovese’s scholarship which implies anything along these lines.  Let me state again for the record that I am well aware of the scholarship that has outlined the ways in which the lives of slaves and slaveowners intersected and often resulted in close personal ties.  It would be surprising to me if it didn’t given the social dynamics involved.  I am exploring just such a relationship as I edit the letters of Captain John C. Winshmith of South Carolina.  The problem I have, and the reason I find the assertion of "champion" to be dangerous, if not perverse, is it involves what appears to be a celebration.