Category Archives: Civil War Historians

Heritage v. History: Additional Thoughts

One of the most common criticisms that I receive (most of them in the form of private emails) is that my view of the past is distorted by a lack of a familial connection.  I guess this means that because my roots do not go back to the Civil War South I have no justification for making claims about certain topics of the war.  Rarely do these people explain which South I would need to trace my family history back to, but that’s another story.  It’s an interesting claim and one that abounds in Civil War circles.  I usually ask what it is that gives any historical claim or belief legitimacy simply because it comes from the mouth of someone with a specific lineage, but my questions are usually met by a befuddled look.  Such is the anti-intellectual strain that runs through popular interest in the war. 

I interpret this stance as a sign of a defensive posture; it reflects an unwillingness to look beyond shared stories and betrays an unwillingness to question the most basic assumptions about what we believe about the past.  What is so striking, however, is the failure to grasp that there is no connection whatsoever between the background of a particular person and the content of one’s belief about the war and specifically the Confederacy.  Think about it for a moment.  I know people who grew up in the North who moved South at some point and firmly hold to a set of beliefs indistinguishable from the white Southerner who defends the standard Lost Cause myths.  At least one prominent historian of the Confederacy that I am friends with loves to remind his audiences of his fascination with the Lost Cause at a very early age while growing up out west.  At the same time I know plenty of academic historians who grew up in the deepest parts of the South and who now write books that most heritage folks would assume were written by one of those yankee-liberal professors from New England.  This interesting dynamic suggests that regional origin and/or family history has little if nothing to do with whether you hold to a traditional Lost Cause view of the war.  Consider the case of historian Charles Dew for a moment.  Dew introduces his study of secession Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001) with a little personal history that is very relevant for our purposes.  I am going to quote Dew at length:

Although I have taught at a New England college for the past twenty-three years, I am a son of the South.  My ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy, and my father was named Jack, not John, because of his father’s reverence for Stonewall Jackson.  On my fourteenth birthday I was given a .22-caliber rifle and D.S. Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants.  I devoured all three volumes of Freeman’s classic history of the Army of Northern Virginia and the rifle was my constant companion during those seemingly endless summer days in Florida when plinking at cans and dreaming of Civil War battles constituted a significant part of my boyhood activities.  When I went off to high school in Virginia, I packed a Confederate battle flag in my suitcase and hung it proudly in my dorm room.  My grandmother, whom I loved dearly, was a card-carrying member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

I did not think much about secession and the causes of the war back then.  My focus was on the battlefield and Lee’s valiant men, who had fought so hard and so long before finally yielding to overwhelming numbers.  But if anyone asked me what the war was all about, I had a ready answer for them.  I knew from listening to adult conversations about The War, as it was called, and from my limited reading on the subject that the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only; states’ rights.  As I recall, my principal written source for this view was a small paperback entitled Confederate Youth’s Primer, a gift from one of my father’s law partners.  It was crystal clear to me that the Southern states had left the Union to defend their just and sovereign rights–rights the North was determined to deny my region and my ancestors.  Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee, and neither class deserved to be taken seriously.

All this is a roundabout introduction to a point I wish to make at the outset: despite my scholarly training and years spent trying to practice the historian’s craft, I found this in many ways a difficult and painful book to write.  Even though I am far removed–both in time and attitude–from my boyhood dreaming about Confederate glory, I am still hit with a profound sadness when I read over the material on which this study is based. (pp. 1-2)

So, what are we to make of Dew’s revelation?  We could write him off as someone who has betrayed "the cause" or was negatively influenced by living so long outside of the South, but that would tell us more about ourselves than with Dew himself.  The fact that Dew tells us a story about his childhood, however, is instructive and perhaps sheds light on the nature of the attraction to these stories. 

The answer as to why Dew no longer needs to believe or holds to certain views about secession, slavery, and the Confederacy in general is because he understands what the scholarly study of history involves.  It first involves putting aside or challenging your personal view of the past.  To argue that some kind of familial connection with the past must shape one’s analytical view defeats the very purpose of history.  History provides an opportunity to see yourself and the rest of the world from a perspective apart from the luck that defines each of our lives.  I didn’t choose where, when, or to whom I was born to so why must that dictate how I begin and end my quest to better understand my environment?

The reason these traditional stories of Confederate perfection in the form of Lee and Jackson or the irrelevancy of slavery to secession and war remain so attractive is because the people who are attracted to them need to believe.  These stories provide some level of comfort, perhaps in the form of a shield from the modern world or even some kind of political justification.  Whatever it is it has little to do with a serious or scholarly interest in the past.  I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not meant as a way to single out white Southerners or any other particular group.  As I stated before these stories have as much appeal outside the South as they do in it.  And if we are to take Dew at his word those stories never completely lose their appeal.  

I’ve said before that my only understanding of the Civil War comes from limited work in the archives and a voracious appetite for scholarly studies.  There is very little emotional connection with the war for me so I am pretty much immune from personal attacks about my background or lack of a connection to the "Old South."  I read and consider and then read some more and along the way I try to figure out how to ask the right question – nothing more, nothing less.

New Issue of Civil War History

CivilwarhistoryThe latest issue of the journal Civil War History arrived yesterday and includes the participants of the 2005 Society of Civil War Historians panel at the Southern Historical Association.  The panel, which was made up of Ken Noe, George Rable, and Carol Reardon, explored the process and challenges of writing military history.  I am making my way through it and will no doubt be the subject of future posts.  The only full-length article is by M. Keith Harris, titled "Slavery Emancipation, and Veterans of the Union Cause: Commemorating Freedom in the Era of Reconciliation, 1885-1915."  Keith is a graduate student at the University of Virginia and this article is drawn from his dissertation.

Books Under Review

KrickMy first stab at writing about the Civil War was through book reviews for the Washington Times and North and South magazine.  It forced me to read certain titles very carefully, think about historiography, and worked to build up my resume.  Once I had a few reviews under my belt I jumped to short newspaper articles and so on and so forth.  I’ve written over 60 book reviews since 1997, though in recent years the frequency has dropped to leave room for bigger projects.  Now I find myself with four titles to review in the next few months and I am not quite sure how it happened.  Anyway, they are all very interesting studies which I would have eventually read regardless.  I am putting the finishing touches on a review of A. Wilson Greene’s Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War and have to start a review of Robert Cook’s Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 – both for the journal Civil War History.  In addition, I am reviewing Robert K. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography and Ulysses S. Grant: A Bibliography by Mary E. Kelsey for H-Net.

I think that should do it for the rest of the year. 

The Civil War Sesquicentennial: Potential Problems

The other day I commented on the recent meeting I attended as an adviser to the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the Civil Commission.  Everyone on the committee is extremely optimistic and excited about both on-going and future projects.  During the meeting a few of the Commission members submitted written reports outlining the broad goals of the commission.  Ervin Jordan, who is an archivist and historian at the University of Virginia, submitted a very thoughtful report that included potential problems that will have to be addressed at some point. 

The most important issue that Jordan cites should come as no surprise.  As I’ve commented before the Commission hopes to be as inclusive as possible in commemorating the Civil War era and that will mean acknowledging, among other things, the importance of race, including the centrality of emancipation and the contributions of black Americans to securing their freedom through their service in the Union army.  While the Commission is committed to this goal of inclusiveness it may be difficult recruiting or convincing African Americans to take part in various events.  And the reason for this, which Jordan cites, is that many black Americans view the symbols of the Confederacy through the prism of "Massive Resistance".  Simply put, they consider those symbols to be offensive.  I am not making a normative claim as to how people ought to interpret those symbols, but simply reporting that the black community does in fact subscribe to this view.  And anyone who understands the history of symbols such as the Confederate flag should be able to sympathize with this view.  I heard the very same thing during my interviews of NPS personnel.  As long as those symbols are present on the battlefields it will be difficult to attract the attention of the black community or convince them that those symbols are not being used to reinforce an interpretation designed to exclude or minimize their claims to the past.  This is, of course, very difficult given that reenactors and others use the Confederate flag for historical purposes. 

I don’t know what the solution is or if there is one at all.

Jordan also raised a few other concerns.  Most importantly he speculates that there may be very little enthusiasm for the Sesquicentennial across the board.  Visitorship is down at places such as Monticello, the Smithsonian, and the Civil War Library and Museum in Philadelphia.  We’ve also heard recently that the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar is not meeting the levels they expected and the Museum of the Confederacy continues to deal with declining numbers.  It should also be pointed out that the First World War Centennial will overlap the sesquicentennial by two years (2014-2018).  I mentioned in my last post that the federal government has yet to create a Civil War Commission, but it is likely that they will devote significant energy to planning events for First World War commemorations – the planning of which will surely not generate the same kind of political tensions that the Civil War engenders.  Jordan speculates that the federal government will use the opportunity to "reinvigorate homeland patriotism in the Global War on Terrorism" which would not be surprising given the effort to use the Centennial as a way to unify the nation during the Cold War.

It is much to early to speculate as to how the Sesquicentennial will play out both here in Virginia and elsewhere.  As mentioned before the Virginia Commission has taken the lead in planning for the event, but it will also need to consider what it will mean for someone to have participated in the Sesquicentennial.  Perhaps we should move away from numbers alltogether and focus on projects such as James I. Robertson’s proposal that every community in Virginia transcribe their 1860 census report.  It’s a brilliant idea because it is worthwhile as a historical endeavor, it brings people together around local history and it has the potential to attract significant interest without its success necessarily depending on it. 

No one should expect that any amount of planning will shift the general public’s attention away from "To Catch a Predator" to questions of history.  Those days may be over for good assuming it was ever true.