A couple of weeks ago I was asked by an editor at one of the Civil War journals to write an essay on the black Confederate controversy. I decided to reflect a bit on what the controversy tells us about the differences between academic and popular history as well as the rise of the Internet as a place where history is both consumed and created. While I am close to finishing I thought I would ask for your assistance with the title. I want to play off of Tony Horowitz’s classic, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. Here is a suggestion from one of my friends on Twitter: “Black Confederates: Out of the Attic and into the Mainstream.” Not bad.
If you haven’t read Brian Matthew Jordan’s reflections on David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory ten years later head on over to The Civil War Monitor and do so. It’s an incredibly thoughtful piece and much of it I agree with. Blight’s book has had a huge influence on my interest in the Civil War generally and specifically in regard to questions of memory. Toward the end of the essay Brian suggests that we need a “new geography of Civil War memory”:
One unfortunate (and I think unintended) consequence of the laudable efforts of recent historians to reposition race and slavery at the heart of the conflict is that the Civil War has become the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of “the Good War”—not, as the historian Edward L. Ayers has so eloquently pointed out, a “problem to be explained,” but, rather, a modern-day morality play that we tell and re-tell in an effort to exorcise white guilt. Massive death, destruction, and suffering are effortlessly explained away and left un-interrogated because they contributed to the demise of slavery in America. The blood spilled on battlefields from Big Bethel to Palmito Ranch, we are reassured, cleansed the nation of its collective sin. And as soon as that blood washes away the sin of slavery, that blood is itself washed away. The Civil War, we are told, was a necessary national sacrifice. It is time that we critically examine this sanitizing process and its manifold implications.
I am not sure I agree with Brian’s analysis here. It seems to me that the cleansing of the “destruction and suffering” of the Civil War had been accomplished long before our collective memory took a turn toward a narrative with emancipation at its center. The veterans themselves bear witness to this point. James Marten argues that a wide range of factors influenced how Americans during the postwar decades responded to their veterans, who bore the physical and psychological scars of war. Many veterans experienced disillusionment as those around them pushed their sacrifices off the public stage in light of changing definitions of manhood and bravery. Blight’s emphasis on the pull of reconciliation and reunion also contributed to this cleansing as well as a growing international presence buttressed by a belief in American Exceptionalism.
Popular culture today seems to have little patience with coming to terms with the death and destruction of the Civil War, which you can see reflected in such things as reenactments and movies. We seem much more comfortable pointing out the scale of violence and long-term damage in civil wars elsewhere. In contrast, our civil war was somehow special or unique. I also don’t see the focus on emancipation in recent scholarly studies of Civil War memory as part of a narrative that downplays the “hard hand of war” in order to emphasize a “Good War” or as part of an effort to “exorcise white guilt.” If anything, recent scholarship has reinforced a long-term narrative of “promises unfulfilled” rather than a rebirth in 1865 that replaced bondage for freedom. Even Ken Burns’s celebratory documentary sounds an alarm in the last episode over questions of race and rights in the Jim Crow era.
Those are just a few thoughts. It is entirely possible that I missed Brian’s point entirely. What do you think?
The last few posts on the important place that slavery occupied in the Deep South’s secession documents [and here] has been entertaining and informative, but as we all know it quickly gets old as both sides begin to rehash the same arguments. In the end, white southerners made it perfectly clear as to how slavery led them to secession. All too often, however, we lose sight of the fact that many of the official secession documents that were meant to announce to people on the local, state, regional, and even international levels why political ties ties had been severed with the United States also reflect how white southerners viewed themselves in contrast with the North. In other words, the defense of slavery was a catalyst for secession because it occupied such an important place in southern culture.
It’s a crucial step to take, especially in the classroom, since it gets us beyond the old canard of how few southerners actually owned slaves and other distractions. Instead of getting bogged down in the priority of causes or who owned what and how much, the goal is to better understand the meaning that white southerners (slave and non-slaveowner alike as well as those who remained loyal to the Union) attached to the institution. Not surprisingly, they wrote extensively about this on the eve of the Civil War as part of the difficult process of nation building. Consider the following March 14, 1861 editorial from the Richmond Examiner:
Those who suppose the present difficulties of the United States to be the result of an agitation against negro slavery, see only the surface. The true cause of the approaching separation of this country into two parts is the fact that it is inhabited by two peoples, two utterly distinct nations…. It [slavery] has developed our peculiar qualities and peculiar faults, all of them the exact reverses of those created by the system of leveling materialism and of numerical majorities which has attained in the North a logical perfection of application hitherto unknown and unheard of in any part of the whole world. Under the operation of these causes, we repeat the North and the South have come to be inhabited by two nations. They are different in everything that can constitute difference in national character; in their persons, in their pronunciation, in their dress, in their port, in their religious ideas, in their sentiments toward women, in their manners to each other, in their favourite foods, in their houses and domestic arrangements, in their method of doing business, in their national aspirations, in all their tastes, all their principles, in all their pride and in all their shame. The French are not more unlike the English than the Yankees are unlike the Southerners.
I am pleased to share the following comment that was left on the last post by Dwight T. Pitcaithley. Dr. Pitcaithley worked for many years as the chief historian in the National Park Service and now teaches history at New Mexico State University. He is also responsible for uncovering Florida’s unpublished declaration of causes. He has some interesting observations and given that the other thread is impossible to follow I thought it might be helpful to start a new one.
This has been an interesting exchange that points out, yet again, the importance of primary sources in understanding the past.
The Florida declaration of secession has to be placed in a different category from the other four declarations. Not only was it never approved by Florida’s secession cenvention, it is a hand-written draft that, we assume, was not even approved by the comittee charged with developing it. Why the convention aborted the effort mid-way through the process remains — for now — a bit of a mystery.
The other “official” declarations stand as the best and most authorative justifications for secession available to us today. South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas specifically developed their declarations to explain to the people of those states (and to the nation as a whole) why they voted to secede. Having studied them at length, and the convention journals from which they emerged, I see no reason why we should not take them at their word. All of them make clear that the rise of the Republican Party and the election of a Republican president threatened the continued existence of the institution of slavery. As Mississippi declared: There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
In answer to an earlier question, all four of the declarations make some mention of John Brown’s raid.
For an interesting twist on the tariff issue, look at Georgia’s declaration which takes some pains to argue that while the tariff was an important subject earlier in the nation’s history, it did not play a role the secession movement of the late 1850s and early 1860s.
It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s. Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage. Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself. We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.
It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms. Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth. I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard. While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.