Southern Heritage for Me

I like to think that this blog occupies a unique position in our Civil War community.  I've tried over the past three years to share thoughtful observations about the intersection of historical scholarship, memory, and public history as well as my own continued journey to better understand the complexity of this relationship.  No doubt, I am often perceived as an outsider whose purpose is to denigrate the people of the South and Southern Heritage.  The outright attacks and/or suspicion, however, have only added to my curiosity about the blurred relationship between history and memory as well as the importance that people and certain organizations place on maintaining and defending certain views of the past.   Although I haven't come away yet with any firm conclusions, many of my posts do reflect a certain amount of concern when myth trumps or overshadows serious historical scholarship and an acknowledgment of the complexity of the past.  I see this in the debates over the display of the Confederate flag, the commitment to honor black Confederates such as Weary Clyburn for their "service" to the Confederacy, as well as the overly simplistic characterizations of Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as the standard bearers for moral and Christian perfection.  It's not surprise that my interest in distinguishing between myth and history as they relate to all three examples would engender a heightened defensiveness, but it also betrays a commitment to the view that there is only one way to identify with the history of the South or what we call Southern Heritage.

I've been helped tremendously by the thoughtful commentary of Robert Moore, whose Cenantua's Blog is in my mind the most interesting of the recent additions to the Civil War blogging community.  His site is a must read for those of you interested in issues related to memory.  [On the question of Southern/Confederate identity see his three most recent posts, here, here, and here.]  What I find most helpful is Robert's ability to maintain a very careful balance between his affection and need to find meaning in a family history that has deep Southern/Civil War roots with a respect for a strict observance of standards of historical analysis and research.  Consider Robert's recent post about the offering of books by a Southern Heritage organization:

Considering the books made available by this organization, through
their website, a precedence is being set. One might say that everything
there is “pro-Southern,” but that wouldn’t really be true. Therefore,
is everything there “pro-Confederate?” Maybe, but not
necessarily. Isn’t a Confederate veteran a Confederate veteran, whether
he enlisted, was conscripted, deserted, stuck-it-out to the end, etc.?
Yet, if he did not agree with the “Cause” and did whatever he could not
to be a part of it, even after being forced into the ranks, would not
calling him a “Confederate Veteran be a misrepresentation of the man
and that in which he really believed? Might calling this person a
“Confederate Veteran” be contrary to the way that same person wanted to
be remembered? Anyway, everything on the list of books must be ”pro”….
some line of thought. But again, is it representative of ”Southern
perspective?”

Apparently, this takes us back to the earlier discussion of the
definition of “Southern perspective.” If it is indeed, all-inclusive
and representative of the Southern people as a whole, then the use of
the phrase is misleading, for what we are seeing in the list of
available books is not all-inclusive of the Southern people. There is
nothing about Southern Unionists, Confederate deserters, free blacks
who were forced to help the Confederacy, disaffected Confederates,
etc., etc., etc.

So, in the end, in the manner in which the phrase ”Southern
perspective” is used, there is a problem and that problem is that there
is the distinct absence of one word… “balanced.” If the word “balanced”
and the actual commitment to being balanced remains absent from
“telling the ”Southern perspective,” then saying that a person or
organization is telling the “Southern perspective” would be a lie.

By "lie" I assume that Robert is referring to the tendency among certain people of reducing the idea of a Southern perspective to that of a white or Confederate perspective and heritage.  I agree with Robert that there are multiple, perhaps an infinite number of Southern perspectives that can be identified and that are equally legitimate as modes of identification and remembrance.  The interesting question, however, is when those modes of remembrance distort the past and serve to fuel our own contemporary values, interests, and insecurities.  In other words, at what point do we leave the realm of history and enter the world of mythology and story-telling, and is it possible to achieve a healthy balance between the two?  The problem, of course, is that the questioning of certain perspectives is often viewed as a threat rather than as an honest attempt to better understand the complexity of the object of remembrance.   When is the last time you saw the above-mentioned distinctions on an SCV website?   On the other hand, they seem to exist comfortably within Robert's identification and attempt to find meaning in his own family's past.

Perhaps, what we have at work is a confusion surrounding the use of language.  Perhaps, what  folks ought to refer to is not a Southern heritage, strictly and exclusively defined, but my Southern heritage, or our Southern heritage.  This at least makes it easier to understand and appreciate the nature of the attacks against me.  It's not that I am challenging or questioning Southern heritage, it's that I am looking into or questioning one among any number of ways of remembering the past. 

Thanks for blogging, Robert.

Taking Religion Seriously

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Over the past two years I've read a number of books that address various aspects of religion before, during, and after the Civil War.  I don't mean the popular titles that pluck out spirituals to make us feel good or stories that reinforce our overly simplistic assumptions about Christian Warriors and God-Loving Southerners v. the atheist North.  A few notable titles on my short list include Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation, and Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering, to name just three. 

I just picked up and am looking forward to starting Charles F. Irons's The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).  I've read a number of his essays published in various collections, but I am looking forward to reading what I must assume stems from his dissertation, which was written here at the University of Virginia.  Here is the jacket description:

"In the colonial and antebellum South, black and white evangelicals
frequently prayed, sang, and worshipped together. Even though white
evangelicals claimed spiritual fellowship with those of African
descent, they nonetheless emerged as the most effective defenders of
race-based slavery.As Charles Irons persuasively argues, white
evangelicals' ideas about slavery grew directly out of their
interactions with black evangelicals. Set in Virginia, the largest
slaveholding state and the hearth of the southern evangelical movement,
this book draws from church records, denominational newspapers, slave
narratives, and private letters and diaries to illuminate the dynamic
relationship between whites and blacks within the evangelical fold.
Irons reveals that when whites theorized about their moral
responsibilities toward slaves, they thought first of their
relationships with bondmen in their own churches. Thus, African
American evangelicals inadvertently shaped the nature of the proslavery
argument. When they chose which churches to join, used the procedures
set up for church discipline, rejected colonization, or built
quasi-independent congregations, for example, black churchgoers spurred
their white coreligionists to further develop the religious defense of
slavery.

Why is This Book Getting So Much Attention?

I read David Williams’s previous book on the internal class strife within the Confederacy that he believes resulted in its defeat.  For the life of me I can’t understand why his most recent book is getting so much attention in the press.  I am quite sure that there is a system which can be manipulated by publishers, and I am quite sure that I don’t understand it.   One of the online news items that I came across on Williams’s new book, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War, includes an interesting interview.  But first the book jacket description:

The American Confederacy, historian David Williams reveals, was in fact fighting two civil wars—an external one that we hear so much about and an internal one about which there is scant literature and virtually no public awareness.

From the Confederacy’s very beginnings, Williams shows, white southerners were as likely to have opposed secession as supported it, and they undermined the Confederate war effort at nearly every turn. The draft law was nearly impossible to enforce, women defied Confederate authorities by staging food riots, and most of the time two-thirds of the Confederate army was absent with or without leave. In just one of many telling examples in this rich and eye-opening narrative history, Williams shows that, if the nearly half-million southerners who served in the Union military had been with the Confederates, the opposing forces would have been evenly matched.

Shattering the myth of wartime southern unity, this riveting new analysis takes on the enduring power of the Confederacy’s image and reveals it to be,
like the Confederacy itself, a hollow shell.

Of course, the publisher has to spice up the book a bit, but I have little doubt that Williams believes what is  included in the description given the focus of his previous book, which was written for a series edited by Howard Zinn.  That is no doubt your first sign of trouble.  At some point, however, we come to a point where it no longer makes sense to be so blatantly dishonest about a book’s significance.  There is nothing really new about Williams’s view as one can find it in Ella Lonn’s study of desertion,
which was published in 1928 and I am sure there are even earlier
studies that push what scholars have dubbed the “internalist”
explanation for Confederate defeat.  More recently, historians such as Paul Escott, William Freehling, Armistead Robinson, and the authors of Why the South Lost the Civil War have all emphasized internal problems as a salient factor in our understanding of Confederate defeat.   The interview with Williams offers some very strange exchanges:

Q: You say the war didn’t start at Fort Sumter.

A: The shooting war over secession started in the South
between Southerners. There were incidents in several states. Weeks
before Fort Sumter, seven Unionists were lynched in Tallahatchie
County, Miss.

Q: In the spring of 1862, the Confederacy enacted the first
draft in American history. Planters had an easy time getting out of it,
didn’t they?

A: Very easy. If they owned 20 or more slaves, they were
pretty much excused from the draft. Some of them paid off draft
officials. Early in the war, they could pay the Confederate government
$500 and get out of the draft.

Q: You use the phrase “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” several times. Does this history anger you?

A: I don’t think it would be unfair to say that. It seems
like the common folk were very much ignored and used by the planter
elite. As a result, over half a million Americans died.  My great-great-grandfather was almost one: John Joseph Kirkland. He
was a poor farmer in Early County, no slaves. He was 33, just under
draft age, and had five children at home. He went ahead and enlisted so
he could get a $50 bonus. A year later, he lost a leg at the Battle of
Chancellorsville.

I would have very little problem with such an exchange even twenty years ago, but given the flood of recent scholarship which has challenged the very idea of a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” it is simply irresponsible to proceed as if it doesn’t exist.  Consider Joe Glatthaar’s recent massive study of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  He actually argues that slaveholders were overrepresented in Confederate armies.  Beyond Glatthaar one can look at studies by Gary Gallagher, William Blair, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Peter Carmichael, Jason Phillips, and George Rable.  And the list goes on and on.

This is not to deny that the focus on internal conflict is not important.  It is essential for a complete understanding of the Confederate experience and for our own view of the war, which tend to simplify the Southern experience down to a unified pro-Confederate stance without any sense of space and time.

On a personal note, I always thought the Yankee army had something to do with Confederate defeat after four long years of successful resistance.

Civil War and Civil Rights Memory in Lee County, Mississippi

I came across this interesting article on the changing face of the Lee County Courthouse in Mississippi.  The Coalition for Change is scheduled to unveil a rendering of the estimated $7,000 civil rights monument to the Lee County Board of Supervisors in early September.  The author apparently did her homework and interviewed two authorities on the changing face of southern history and the courthouse in particular:

Charles Reagan Wilson, former director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and current Cook Chair of History at the University of Mississippi

The courthouse is a physical and symbolic anchoring for the sense of community in the South.  It’s a place of stability and common meeting ground.  The Confederate monuments were placed on town squares for exactly that reason.  In the old days, whites wanted those Confederate monuments there to recognize the importance of the Civil War experience to the South, so it’s the same reason you want to put a civil rights monument there.

James Hull, Coalition for Change Spokesman

The civil rights movement is also heritage.  It’s also history.  It’s the blood, sweat and tears of those who tried to bring the city together.  We are going to recognize that.

John Marszalek, Mississippi State University’s Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history

What’s happening actually – and in the South particularly – it’s no secret that it was a place of Jim Crow-ism until the 1960s, so any memorialization of history was done so from the white point of view. With the civil rights movement, blacks began to vote and elect black officials, so for the past 25
years there have been more successful attempts to present not just the white perspective on the history of the South but to include the role blacks have played.

I recently reread and highly recommend Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920.