McPherson and Inevitability: A Brief Comment or Dimitri Gets it Wrong Again

It’s been quite some time since Dimitri Rotov took one of his cheap swipes at James McPherson so I guess we should have anticipated one before the end of the year.  Dimitri doesn’t disappoint.  According to Dimitri, Nelson Lankford’s excellent book Cry Havoc! (which is now out in paperback) is "an attack on James McPherson’s and the Centennialist’s "inevitability of war" thesis."  I know this is going to sound condescending, but I do wonder whether Dimitri has ever read Battle Cry of Freedom or anything else by McPherson.  Students in my Civil War classes know that McPherson does not subscribe to some kind of inevitability thesis.  In fact, one of the fundamental distinctions that McPherson makes in a recent North and South magazine article (Vol. 4, No. 1. 2000), which I teach, is that even after Lincoln’s election in November 1860 the war was not inevitable.  After surveying the historiography on the cause of the war which cites both political and economic differences between north and south, McPherson notes that, "Such disparities did not have to lead to war; they could have, and should have, been accommodated peacefully within the political system."  He then concludes that "The Civil War was not an irrepressible conflict, as earlier generations had called it, but a "repressible conflict," as [Wesley] Craven titled one of his books. (p. 15)  Towards the end of the article which covers the period between the secession of the Deep South and Lincoln’s inauguration, McPherson states very clearly that the "refusal [on the part of Lincoln and his administration] to countenance the legitimacy of secession did not make war inevitable."  (p. 21).  Chapters 8 and 9 in Battle Cry work to explain the complexity of events that followed Lincoln’s election right through the showdown at Fort Sumter in April 1861. 

If anything, it’s McPherson’s scholarship which is largely responsible for challenging the inevitability thesis. 

An Open Post to Keith Poulter

In a recent issue of North and South magazine (Vol. 10, No. 2) which featured an article by Bruce Levine on so-called black Confederates, editor Keith Poulter issued a challenge.  "If there is anyone out there who still believes in legions of black Confederates," writes Poulter, "I invite them to write in, spelling out their grounds for that belief, and their grounds for dismissing the statements of Confederate leaders to the contrary."  The last two issues of the magazine have included a number of letters-to-the-editor and this one in particular takes the cake.  According to this reader, "The records prove…that Georgia raised six regiments of slaves, a total of 5,000 men, designated as the First through Sixth Georgia Colored Volunteers."  A bit further into the letter the author admits that there is "not a single word of documentation of these gallant men, who resisted the War of Northern Aggression.  Yankee revisionists and p.c. historians refuse to admit that the total lack of records proves the existence of black Confederate soldiers."  Now that is a keeper for classroom use on how not to engage in historical reasoning.  With this logic we could demonstrate that every color in the rainbow was represented in Confederate ranks.  What I don’t understand is why Poulter thought it necessary to publish such a ridiculous letter.  I understand that this section of a publication is reserved for readers’ letters, but this silliness only exacerbates the problem by implicitly sanctioning such a view as worth considering. 

More troubling, however, is that in the most recent issue Poulter announced that the author of one of the letters will be contributing an essay which supposedly will demonstrate that roughly 3,870 "Afro-Confederates" from Virginia served openly in Confederate ranks.  Jack Maples will be working with his "genealogist friend" to bring this new evidence to light in the face of denials by "mainstream historians."  They are utilizing the 1850, 1860, and 1870 census reports along with pension records and muster rolls for their research.  Let’s hope they spend sufficient time defining their terms.  In other words, what they need to flesh out is the complexity of race relations before the war and how the contingency of war altered the slave-master relationship.  We need to move beyond questions of loyalty to a more sophisticated perspective that first explores the many reasons why blacks were present with Confederate armies.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe this kind of analysis is forthcoming from Maples and his co-researcher.  Maples is the author of Reconstructed Yankee which tells the story of Caleb and Tom Parker:

Civil War expert Maples tells the fictionalized tale of two North
Carolina friends, one white and one black, who fought together during
that war. Set in 1862, the story follows Caleb Parker, a free person of
color living in the Confederacy, and his best friend, Tom Parker, a
white man, as they join the Union militia and set out on their civil
war adventure. After serving for a time in the army and witnessing the
atrocities perpetrated by the Union side, the two decide to switch
allegiances and join the Confederate Army, where things quickly go from
bad to worse. After the war and Tom’s death during a particularly harsh
battle, Caleb returns to North Carolina and Reconstruction, a world
that has been made unbearable for the newly freed black populace. Caleb
then heads for upstate New York, where he is ultimately disappointed to
find the same racism problems he thought he’d left behind.

In a nutshell: North bad, South good.  If this isn’t enough you may want to take a look at Mr. Maples lecturing a crowd about the loyalty of southern blacks during the war.  What I don’t understand is if all of these black southerners were so loyal to the various southern states and Confederacy during the war than why did it take so long for black Americans to get basic civil rights in many of these places?  How did white southerners justify a system of Jim Crow in the face of such broad-based participation and devotion to the cause? Of course, northern blacks faced discrimination well into the twentieth century, but the argument – as I understand it – suggests that the balance of loyalty was in favor of the Confederacy and not the Union.  Didn’t their love and devotion to their masters and the Confederacy at least justify the right to vote and take part in our democratic system? 

Perhaps there is reason to be optimistic that the research of Mr. Maples and his co-researcher will tell us something new about this divisive topic.  My only concern demand as a loyal reader of N&S is that Keith Poulter ensure that their research meets the stringent requirements that his magazine has upheld from the beginning. 

I for one will cancel my subscription immediately if those standards are not upheld.

Bruce Levine Wins Peter Seaborg Award

Mark Grimsley has announced that Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006) has been awarded the 2007 Peter Seaborg Award.  This is an excellent choice for the award, which is given annually by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  [Their website does not mention anything about the 2007 and I was unable to locate an online news item.  No doubt Mark has an inside source.]  Levine’s study addresses the debate in the Confederacy surrounding plans to free and arm slaves as well as why most white southerners steadfastly refused to approve the plan until close to the end of the war.  The book also addresses issues of memory in connection with the continued popularity of stories purporting to demonstrate that large numbers of free and enslaved black men served in and supported the Confederate war effort.   

Congratulations to Bruce Levine

Buster Keaton Points the Way

275pxtredegar_iron_worksI find it interesting that in Keaton’s short cinematic interpretation of the Civil War it is the locomotive – a popular symbol of the antebellum and post-bellum north – that saves the day as Confederate troops retreat in the face of advancing Federals.  It would be a mistake to over-interpret his use of the locomotive beyond the fact that they tend to make for first-rate comedy.  Given that the production and release of "The General" took place well after the height of the Industrial Revolution in this country it is unlikely that Keaton would have acknowledged the still lingering sectional split over how to differentiate between the antebellum north and south. 

From a certain perspective Keaton’s linking of an popular symbol of industry with "the South" and the Confederacy anticipates a great deal of recent research.  We are wedded to certain beliefs that are picked up at various points in our lives and held to tightly.  In the case of the American history one of the most popular is the distinction between an agrarian South and industrial North.  The two regions were not simply different in degree, but in kind.  We hold to these distinctions as if they are sacred and rarely look beyond the surface to better understand the extent to which they help us understand the past.  Part of the problem is the implicit moral assumptions that lay just below the surface of these beliefs many of which are culled directly from travel reports from such notables as Frederick Law Olmsted and George Fitzhugh.  Many of us identify with these ideas as a way to defend or vindicate the past. 

I’ve commented quite a bit about Peter Carmichael’s recent study of young Virginians who matured in the 1850s and who eagerly went off to war in 1861.  Carmichael demonstrates that these young Virginians from slaveowning families were quite progressive in their call for internal improvements and other steps to "industrialize" the commonwealth.  These young men clearly did acknowledge a distinction between themselves and their neighbors to the north, but that stance was much more complicated and not drawn along a strict industrial v. agrarian line.  I am currently making my way through Charles Dew’s wonderful study Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph Reid Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works [first published in 1966 and re-published in 1999 by the Library of Virginia].  I found the following passage where Dew describes Anderson’s appointment to assistant state engineer to the Valley Turnpike in 1837 to be quite interesting:

Anderson found is new job attractive for a number of reasons.  It got him out of the army, of course, and it took him back to his native Shenandoah Valley.  But it also offered him the chance to do something tangible to further the economic development of the state.  While still at West Point, he had compared the bustling commerce of New York with the languid pace of economic activity in Virginia and decided that internal improvements lay behind Yankee prosperity.  "The immense profits of the New York Canals are enriching the state," he noted in 1834.  "Every day numberless vessels are seen wafting on the waters of the Hudson to the great city of New York the inexhaustible resources which these very improvements have increased or developed."  It was time for Virginians to wake from their economic slumber, start digging canals and building turnpikes, and secure their share of trade and wealth.  After settling in Staunton, he supported various canal and railroad projects intended to improve transportation between the Valley and the Tidewater.  This interest in internal improvements led him first into the Whig party and then into the Southern commercial convention movement, which was just beginning in Virginia in the late 1830s.

Dew is very careful in the way he analyzes Anderson’s correspondence.  According to Dew, Anderson did not compare an agrarian/pre-industrial south with the north, but acknowledged a nation on the move and a region that stood to benefit from continued and expanded economic development.  Anderson’s story serves to remind us that our own deeply-held assumptions about the past may tell us more about ourselves than anything having to do with serious history.

Why the Emancipationist Legacy of the Civil War Matters

[Hat-Tip to John Hennessy and David Blight]

Update: Click here for Hennessy’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star article on John Washington.

The recent discovery of John Washington’s slave narrative along with next week’s event in Fredericksburg, which will include a number of his descendants, serves to remind us of just how important the Civil War is to the history of this nation.  More to the point, the fact that his descendants had no idea of this document’s existence nor the rich history of John Washington reinforces the extent to which the theme of emancipation has been lost to our modern memory of the war.  In the minds of all too many people the memory of the war is distorted to include talk of tens of thousands of loyal black Confederates and benevolent-champions of "enslaved black men and women" such as "Stonewall" Jackson.  Such talk only reinforces dangerous generalizations about the kindness of slaveowners and content slaves.  It’s as if Gone With the Wind premiered just yesterday.

Luckily we don’t have to wait for individual narratives to surface (they are quite rare for the obvious reasons) to understand how black Americans contributed to the emancipation moment.  This talk of benevolent slaveowners and black Confederates fails to stand up even against a cursory perusal of the relevant evidence.  We have the letters and diaries of white southerners on the home front and in the armies who wrote about the loss of slave labor along with the recruitment of tens of thousands into the Union armies.  We have the letters and diaries of thousands of Union soldiers who passed fugitives on the march and who interacted with them in camp.  Finally, we have the military records of the USCTs themselves which reveal the bravery of the men who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom even as the recent decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford failed to acknowledge black Americans as citizens. 

The price of this collective amnesia and distortion can be discerned in next week’s event.  I already mentioned that Washington’s descendants were unaware of this document, but to what extent do black Americans generally know about an ancestor’s possible flight to freedom.  Are they even aware of the question itself?  This past summer I took a few weeks to interview a number of black Americans who are somehow connected by their interest in the Civil War.  What stood out during those interviews was the almost complete absence of an early education that emphasized the centrality of black history to the Civil War.  No one remembered learning about the contributions of USCTs or they way in which the lives of fugitive slaves impacted the course of the war.  On the flip side we have the likes of H.K. Edgerton whose treks across the south with his Confederate flag and uniform reflect a desire to feel connected to a past even if it is a fantasy.

Next week’s event has meaning on a number of different levels.  A select few will walk away with an important piece of their family history as well as the history of this nation.  Residents of Fredericksburg with an interest in the Civil War will learn about the history of a section of the community that for much too long has been ignored and/or distorted.  Finally, David Blight and John Hennessy will be reminded of why their respective crafts (public and scholarly history) are so important.

p.s. Isn’t this a wonderful example of southern heritage at its best?