Category Archives: Lost Cause

Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000.  The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations.  I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday.  I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews.  One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond.  If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case.  I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg. 

Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section.  I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing.  The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous. 

Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress.  So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people.  At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context.  That is much broader than left and right obliques.  An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service.  Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred.  So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites.  Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation.  I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements.  In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly.  This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields.  And why is that?  I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain.  They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context. 

By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race.  He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.

A Few Additional Thoughts About Robert Krick, Lee, and Historians

Last night I caught Bob Krick’s SCV talk "Lee and Historians in the Age of the Anti-Hero" on CSPAN.  I blogged about this talk a few weeks back, but only had a newspaper article to work with.  Viewing the talk in its entirety, however, did not add much to my previous observations. 

I actually enjoyed listening to Krick.  He’s got a great sense of humor and is clearly a well-read individual beyond the confines of Civil War history.  He started off on just the right note, by commenting on the ways in which memory often comes to distort the past.  In the context of memory of the Civil War Krick outlined the general view made popular by David Blight and others, which highlights the impact that reconciliation and reunion had on popular perceptions of the war.  He referenced this view as a point of departure in noting that not all postwar observations were distortions or exaggerations. 

Krick’s central observation is that historian’s claims that Lee’s reputation was constructed during the postwar era are reflective of a general trend of conspiracy theories and "anti-Confederate" writings.  Now if there ever was a strawman argument this is it.  Before proceeding I should note that Krick frames the issue correctly: the question is not whether one ought to view Lee as an icon, but whether people at the time did.  Krick quotes from three texts to make this point, including Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan, and Michael Fellman.  Only three historians are referenced in the entire talk, which doesn’t make for much of a historiographical analysis.  At one point he suggests that these writers are mainly academics, but of course, Nolan is an attorney.  Later in the talk he quotes approvingly from Charles Roland’s short text on Lee and he is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Kentucky so clearly not all academics are problematic on his view.  On the other hand, Krick’s criticisms of Fellman’s study of Lee focus not on his central question but on the author’s use of psychological categories such as "manic depression."  While I agree that psycho-history can be misused it is not clear to me that Fellman is anti-Lee or anti-anything.  He may be wrong about his claims, but Krick has little interest in critiquing those claims.  Vague generalizations and mischievous minds seem to be the order of the day.

The problem as I see it for Krick is that while his conspiratorial claims about recent Lee literature barely include anything constructive his preferred approach to history is one that many historians have come to appreciate.  Krick believes that the way to approach Lee is by looking at the way he was perceived at the time and not after the war.  He quotes from E. Porter Alexander and a civilian who I am believe is Catherine Edmundson.   Here Krick is on solid ground and on target as an implicit response to Nolan and Connelly.  The problem here is that Krick doesn’t cite one historian writing today who has adopted such an approach and there are many.  He presents himself as a lone cavalier out to save the reputations of the great Confederate chieftain.  To drive the point home Krick asserts that only Lee has been the victim of such attacks while Lincoln and Grant have been largely untouched.  This last point is patently absurd as anyone who follows Lincoln historiography knows.  In fact, if ever there was a "historian" whose conclusions followed from an agenda and little understanding of how to conduct research about Lincoln it is none other than Thomas DiLorenzo who was one of the panelists at this conference.

Krick is right about one thing that is there is a great deal of bad Civil War history out there.  However, basing one’s observations on bookss published 15 to 30 years ago does not help us understand more recent historiographical trends in the field. I understand that Krick’s next book on weather in Virginia during the Civil War is due out soon with the University of Alabama Press.  No one has a better grasp of Confederate military sources, so as always, I look forward to his next book.

“It’s the End of the World As We Know It”: Lee on Race and Emancipation

My research into Confederate reactions to the presence of USCTs at the Crater leaves little doubt that one of their primary fears was that defeat would lead to the overturning of a slave society.  From their perspective this outcome had nothing at all to do with slave ownership and had everything to do with losing control of a society where the institution of slavery guaranteed the continued separation of the races along with its well-entrenched hierarchy.  The archival record is very clear on this and Chandra Manning’s new book on Civil War soldiers and slavery confirms it. 

While the discussion of race and slavery within the ranks has been given new life in recent historical studies, Robert E. Lee’s own racial outlook continues to suffer at the hands of people who draw overly simplistic distinctions or who fail to place Lee within the proper social-economic context.  Luckily we have Lee himself who makes it very clear in a letter to Secretary of War James A. Seddon on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The letter was written on January 10, 1863:

In view of the vast increase of the forces of the enemy, of the savage and brutal policy he has proclaimed, which leave us no alternative but success or degradation worse than death, if we would save the honor of our families from pollution, our social system from destruction, let every effort be made, every means be employed, to fill and maintain the ranks of our armies, until God, in his mercy, shall bless us with the establishment of our independence.

While the letters written by soldiers in the ANV who experienced the fight at the Crater were understandably much more emotional, Lee’s letter touches on the main themes.  Battlefield defeat for Lee meant nothing less than an overturning of the Southern racial hierarchy, and one can assume that his reference to "pollution" has something to do with miscegenation or at least a fear of more liberal rules governing the interaction of the races. 

The acknowledgment of such a racial outlook does nothing to my personal view of Lee since I am not invested in any specific moral image.  He is a figure from the past who held views about slavery and race which corresponded to widely held assumptions. 

Nothing surprising about that.

Grabbing Hold Of That Thin Slice of Delaware’s Confederate Past

Looks like the first monument to honor Delawareans who served in Confederate armies will be unveiled this Saturday on the grounds of the Nutter B. Marvel Museum.  The 9-foot obelisk will honor somewhere between 200 and 2,000 residents of the state who served in military and civilian capacities.  Of course, one of the individuals to be recognized is a black man:

David White, a slave from Georgetown who was traveling with his owner on a ship that was captured by the Confederate raider CSS Alabama on Oct. 9, 1862, near the Azores. According to historical accounts, White voluntarily served as a mess steward aboard the Alabama and refused numerous opportunities to desert and gain his freedom.   White went down with the ship when it was sunk by the USS Kearsarge in June 1864 off Kearsarge, France.

White was loyal to the end and even went down with the ship.  How touching.  What more can you ask for? (LOL)

It’s interesting that the SCV would spend so much time focusing on Delaware’s links to the Confederacy.  There is a bit of irony in all of this given the fact that, according to historian William Freehling, it may have been Border States like Delaware that doomed the Confederate experiment.  Delaware’s antebellum experience meant that the rhetoric coming from Deep South “Fireaters” would receive a cold reception before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  It also helps us to understand why the secession commissioners that Charles Dew documents were unsuccessful in convincing the Border and Middle South States that Lincoln’s election constituted an “immediate threat” to the institution of slavery.  That Delaware ignored these pleas can be seen in the fact that from 1790 to 1860 the percentage of slaves in the Border South had dropped from 25 to 13 percent.  During that same period the percentage of free blacks had increased; by 1860 ninety percent of the state’s blacks were free.

The antebellum history of Delaware serves to remind us that the South was not monolithic in any sense.  The overwhelming number of its residents served in Northern armies and fought against their Southern brothers.  I have absolutely no problem with this monument, but I can’t help but wonder whether this is more a matter of ignoring the richness that is the history of the South in favor of another overly simplistic representation of the past.

I Am Not Interested In You, I am Interested In the Past

One of the lessons I’ve learned as a result of blogging is just how emotional people can get over the Civil War.  Of course I knew this before blogging, but when that emotion is directed at you it provides a whole new perspective on things.  It is almost cliche to say, but it is true that many are still "fighting the war."  Perhaps Brooks Simpson is experiencing the same thing in reference to memory of Grant and the war in the West.  While our subject matter differs our responses are similar.  In this case I will let Brooks speak for me:

I’ve always been interested as to the extent to which certain people take the Civil War personally. You can say what you want about honoring one’s past, one’s heritage, and one’s ancestors, and yet it still surprises me that so many people can’t draw distinctions between past and present, between “them” and “us,” “they” and “we,” or exhibit a passion for (or against) a particular historical figure to the extent that they project their own way of personalizing history on others (you can come across this characteristic if you examine some comments posted in response to blog entries here)….

Let me simply suggest that when people confuse past and present and their ancestors with themselves that they are not practicing history, but a form of identity politics, and, in some cases, are responding to something best found within themselves, whatever that may be. “We” did not fight that war; “we” did not respond to something that happened nearly 150 years ago; “we” did not own slaves, and “we” did not fight to free them, or to save the Union, or whatever. We are trying to understand what they did and why, how they saw and understood the world around them, how and why things happened as they did … in part by appreciating the “pastness of the past,” as it were.

Most of the responses to my posts are sent to my personal email.  I rarely respond, but I am struck by the number of people who actually believe that I have a personal agenda or have taken a moral stand in connection to my research.  You can find numerous statements on message boards where I am labeled "anti-Southern" or my personal favorite, "hater of the South."  While I typically laugh in response to such accusations I am hard pressed to understand the motivation behind it all.  Such accusations tell me nothing about the past, but about the ignorance of the accuser.  Much of the mail I receive stems from the assumption that we should equate Southern history with the white South and/or the four years of the Confederacy.   

I am willing to admit that I am personally invested in one outcome of the war and that is the end of slavery – regardless of how it happened.  Of course I have my personal views of certain individuals, but they are working assumptions that are not invested with much emotion at all.  In other words, I am perfectly willing to step back from the way in which I understand the past.  My assumptions about the past are based on what I’ve read and since I am constantly reading I would hope that my understanding continues to evolve.    I constantly reference books when making specific claims.  While some interpret this as condescending I see it as acknowledging a basic fact that apart from the quality of the books we read no one has an independent connection to historical truth.  My voracious appetite for historical studies is a function of wanting to know better. 

I grew up on the beaches of Ventnor, New Jersey and didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.  My ancestors arrived in this country after the war so I have no personal connection to the 19th century.  As difficult as it might be for some people to believe this I have absolutely no personal feelings one way or the other about the people who fought the war.  Often times I find that my readers have failed to distinguish between the perception of an emotional interest with a focus on how Americans remember the war.  The implication is that because I ask questions or draw certain conclusions that I must be personally invested.  In the case of my numerous posts about "Stonewall" Jackson or Robert E. Lee the failure on the part of of my readers is to distinguish between criticisms of historians who write about such subjects and the individuals in question.  How could I possibly have such strong emotional convictions about individuals that I’ve never met?  Since my primary interests center on memory and race in the Confederacy and the postwar South the typical response is to inquire why I don’t write more about the racism of Northerners.  The implication is that I am treating the South "harshly" or that my narrow focus is a sufficient reason to conclude that I am "covering up" other areas of history.  I don’t know how to respond to such criticisms, but to say that I have my interests which I will continue to pursue.  Part of it is that I tend to write about the areas where I live, which is of course Virginia for now.  In a few years I will move and more than likely will take up subjects that bring me closer to my new community. 

Brooks hit the nail on the head in the passage quoted above: I’ve never considered myself part of a "We" in any context whatsoever in regard to the Civil War.  I used to find that personal connection to the Civil War to be somehow endearing, but now I find it distracting and annoying.  It’s annoying because it wastes a great deal of time and conversations with such people are usually not about history, but about themselves. 

I am not interested in you, I am interested in the past.