Clarification

Richard Williams offers a thoughtful response to my post of a few days ago in which I describe his reference to "Stonewall" Jackson as a "champion of enslaved men and women" as dangerous.  Williams response is based on a short book review that historian Peter Carmichael did on Elizabeth-Fox Genovese’s classic Within the Plantation Household (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) in the most recent issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.   Williams quotes Carmichael as evidence of his contention that the relationships forged between Jackson and his slaves qualifies as friendship. Here is the quote: No one can ignore the overwhelming historical evidence mutual closeness between blacks and whites within the Slave South . . .”  He goes on to point out that Fox-Genovese also explores the complex chains of affection between slaveowners and their slaves.  Williams is absolutely correct on this point and I know this all too well because I read this book as a graduate student; not only did I read it, but I’ve read plenty of other articles and books by both Fox-Genovese and her husband Eugene Genovese.  I could be wrong since it has been some time, but I don’t remember seeing this book cited by Williams or any other recent analytical study of slavery in the bibliography of his Jackson book. 

By placing himself in the same camp as Fox-Genovese and Carmichael, Williams believes that by extension I must also believe that they too are dangerous.  Not at all.  In fact I agree with the assertion that slavery created a wide range of mutually affective relations or mutual closeness during the antebellum period.  To do so would be to ignore some of the most interesting literature to come out of this field over the past few decades.  One of the most important points that Eugene Genoves makes in Roll, Jordan, Roll is that slaves cultivated chains of affection because they understood that slaveowners could not help but acknowledge their humanity.  From this perspective such relationships can be understood as manipulated by the slaves themselves to help make a horrific situation bearable.  At one point William suggests that it is not unreasonable to equate mutual affection with friendship.  Perhaps, but I believe it to be very difficult in the context of the slave-master relationship because it seems to me that the concept of friendship implies freedom of choice and by definition that is absent.  This is a point that Aristotle makes in his Nicomachean Ethics with the other being that friendships are built over time around mutual interests.  That said, to a certain extent this is beside the point because my problem is with Williams’s claim that Jackson ought to be understood as a "champion of enslaved men and women." 

On this point I feel safe in assuming that Carmichael would disagree with Williams here.  In addition, I’ve never read anywhere in Fox-Genovese’s scholarship which implies anything along these lines.  Let me state again for the record that I am well aware of the scholarship that has outlined the ways in which the lives of slaves and slaveowners intersected and often resulted in close personal ties.  It would be surprising to me if it didn’t given the social dynamics involved.  I am exploring just such a relationship as I edit the letters of Captain John C. Winshmith of South Carolina.  The problem I have, and the reason I find the assertion of "champion" to be dangerous, if not perverse, is it involves what appears to be a celebration.

William Mahone, Nelson M. Blake, and the Journal of Negro History

Access to JSTOR through my school’s library has made life much easier.  I recently came across a wonderful review of Nelson M. Blake’s 1935 biography of William Mahone which appeared in the Journal of Negro History [Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1936)].  The reviewer was J.H. Johnston who taught Virginia State College (now University) in Petersburg which was the site of both Mahone’s postwar residence and the site of the battle of the Crater.  The content of Johnston’s review reflects a vibrant black countermemory of the war and Reconstruction; his main points are clearly decades ahead of the interpretive agenda of much of the historical community.  Blake’s William Mahone of Virginia, Soldier and Political Insurgent [Garrett & Massie Publishers, Richmond, 1935] is still the only biography available.  It is clearly dated in certain respects; unfortunately no one that I know is planning to write an updated account though it is desperately needed.  Most of Mahone’s personal papers are located at Duke University while smaller collections can be found at the Library of Virginia and the University of Virginia.

What I find so interesting about Johnston’s review is that he clearly understands what the publication of this biography means within the context of memory of Mahone.  He references the monument of Mahone that was placed on the Crater battlefield which makes no mention of his role as a Virginia statesman.  His suggestion that “The author [Blake] has thus dared to render long deserved service to Mahone’s memory” points to the extent to which white Southerners (particularly white Virginians) worked to erase Mahone from public memory of the war and Reconstruction.  After all Mahone was the “Hero of the Crater” who led the most successful bi-racial coalition which controlled Virginia’s government for four years and resulted in his election to the U.S. Senate where he aligned himself with the Republican Party.  Johnston understands all too well that this biography, which devotes only one chapter to his war years and eight to his postwar career, does not compliment the Lost Cause version of the war.

The Readjuster Party was overwhelmingly supported by the Negro voters of Virginia; and because of Mahone’s political association with Negroes this former Confederate officer was despised, and until now an effort has been made to consign him to oblivion. (p. 215)

Johnston seems pleased that Blake does not relegate blacks to the background, but acknowledges that made “intelligent use of their ballot.”  It should be remembered that the standard account of Reconstruction argued that black Americans were ill-equipped to exercise the vote and/or that corruption ran rampant because of their involvement in the Southern states.  Few correctives could be found at this point, though W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 had been recently published.

As much as Johnston praises Blake’s study he does acknowledge serious shortcomings which today would be inexcusable, but at the time understandable.  In particular, Johnston criticizes Blake’s handling of the Crater and a reference to USCTs as “half-drunken negroes.”  The reviewers frustration with Blake is perhaps a function of the fact that although Blake is able to praise blacks for voting for Mahone he is unable to take the next step which would involve a more sympathetic portrayal of African Americans more generally.  Much of the literature about the Crater was written without any interest in the black perspective and the specific reference to “half-drunken references” was one way white Southerners could make the point that unless blacks were drunk or forced to fight by evil yankees that they remained loyal.  Blake would have had to spend considerable time looking for the limited amount of archival material that is available which may have given him a different perspective.  Perhaps he did not know to even question this reference.  Along similar lines while Johnston praises Mahone for completing his railroad from Norfolk to Petersburg before the war and under very difficult conditions he fails to “mention the black workmen in the swamps that helped Mahone build his railroad.”  Finally, Johnston cites what he perceives to be a major weakness in Blake’s analysis of Mahone’s political success in his failure to reference those black politicians who worked in the Readjuster Party.

The biography of Mahone will be completed only when it makes it clear that these Negro men were the authors of the bills and the makers of the laws that brought these gifts to the Negro people of the state.  This book, then, while it is a deserved tribute to William Mahone and gives a far better picture of the Reconstruction in Virginia than one finds in other such works, must be supplemented with a treatment of the participation of the Negro in the Readjuster Movement. (p. 216)

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time going through the Journal of Negro History in JSTOR.  Given the broad assumptions that defined the nation’s understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and race a perusal through Carter Woodson’s journal serves as a reminder that black Americans took an interest in their history and worked hard to counter the overtly racist assumptions that were so prevalent at the time.  Not until the 1970s would there be studies of black politicians during the Readjuster Era along the lines envisioned by Johnston.

Still the “Champion of Enslaved Men and Women”

There is a new and extended trailer for the upcoming film Still Standing: The Stonewall Jackson Story.  Check this new clip out if you didn’t think it possible for an even more absurd treatment of this very important historical figure.  This time historians James I. Robertson and Col. Keith Gibson offer commentary.  Robertson touches on the "trauma of [Jackson] being given away" at an early age which is no doubt true.  He concludes that "family became far more important than a normal person" and this shaped a more "tender-hearted person" which is "not shown in battle."  Again, I see nothing wrong with such a comment.  Unfortunately, this then serves as a lead-in to the absurd claim made by Richard Williams that Jackson "was the champion of enslaved men and women" and the "proclaimer of good news." 

First, someone please point out to me the places in Robertson’s book where Jackson is interpreted as some kind of champion of the very people he owned.  The editor of this trailer did a wonderful job of interpreting Jackson and slavery along traditionally paternalistic lines.  Jackson valued and yearned for family and this must be evidence that his ownership of slaves was benign.  Actually, not only was it benign, but we are being asked to celebrate Jackson’s ownership of slaves. 

I know some of you are wondering why I keep harping on this and related issues.  Well, let me just say that I am a teacher and I care about what is both taught in the classroom and distributed for viewing in the general public.  In the end this kind of film is dangerous.  It perpetuates the same stereotypes that one can find in movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind.  What makes this worse is that we are at a point where we know so much more about the "peculiar institution".  But even if we ignore the scholarship the idea that anyone will seriously consider the possibility of celebrating slave ownership is perverse in the extreme. 

Do we really have to ask Mr. Williams whether he would be willing under any circumstances to exchange places with one of Jackson’s slaves to make this point?  Of course, I have not seen this film nor do I have any interest in doing so.  I’ve seen enough! 

Update: One of my readers was kind enough to inform me that responses to this piece have been posted.  See here and here.  I applaud Williams for at least making an attempt to respond even though he does not address the point of this post which is the idea that we can characterize any slaveholder as a "champion" of the very people enslaved.  The other guy seems to be just a bit unstable.

Peter Carmichael on Robert E. Lee or Why Robert K. Krick and Michael Fellman Will Never Agree

Peter Carmichael’s keynote address at yesterday’s Lee symposium was alone worth the drive to Lexington.  His paper was titled, “‘Truth is Mighty & Will Eventually Prevail:’ Why Americans Disagree About the Historical Legacy of Robert E. Lee” and provides a framework for understanding the intellectual root of the debate between two camps.  Carmichael identifies these two camps by referencing their intellectual/cultural roots and argues that they represent fundamentally different approaches to the study of history.  The first group which represents the pro-Lee camp emerged out of a Victorian view of society and the past and stands in sharpr contrast with the so-called revisionist historians who inherited a modernist interpretation that Carmichael beieves can be traced to the turn of the twentieth century.  First the Victorian interpretation.

According to Carmichael any characterization of the first generation of Civil War histories must be understood as emerging out of a Victorian view of the world.  The crucial component within this world view is an assumption about the inevitablity of progress and moral perfectibility of individuals and nations.  Histories were written and consumed by a general public looking for moral lessons or vindication regarding their own claims to moral perfection on a national level.  Postwar histories of the South with their peaceful narratives of plantation life and slavery pointed to their place on the hierarchy above their more “modern” neighbors to the north.  The South represented a noble way of life and the image of the cavalier provided southern white men with an example of what moral perfection looked like.  Such broad cultural assumptions came to shape historical narratives as linear and simple; in other words, history was knowable and verifiable.  Most importantly, it offered relevant moral lessons that were applicable regardless of societal changes.

The revisionist view, (some would call them the anti-Lee group) according to Carmichael, can be understood as a product of the modernist turn.  This turn was in large part inward and can be discerned in the psychology of Freud and the literature of Faulkner.  The modernist view challenged the Victorian Era’s claims to the possibility of moral perfection and the assumption that the past was knowable as a straightforward story that offered timeles moral lessons.  Freud and Faulkner remind us that interpretation is never completed.  The modernist view of the world is “messy, confusing, and incapable of giving one narrative.”  The modernist “mocks” the Victorian or traditional view of the South.  It paints with too broad a brush and it leaves no room for revision.  The “Old South” is the only South and its moral lessons must be defended to the end.  The modernist says that since the past is always being reinterpreted that it is naive to think that it can produce a static collection of moral lessons.

Carmichael is careful in pointing out that there was a great deal of overlap between these two views.  I agree.  Positivism is very much a part of this modernist turn and Comte’s view of the natural and social sciences places a great deal of weight on the accumulation and knowability of the past.  I applaud Carmichael for attempting to locate the intellectual root of these fundamental disagreements that characterize the Civil War community.  That said, I don’t believe that we need to go back so far for an explanation nor do I think it is necessary to try to pinpoint an explanation.  I think the answer is much more simple.  It may come down simply to not understanding the historical process as it is formulated in the academy and for those trained as academic historians a failure to appreciate how many continue to identify or empathize with the past.  For now it is enough to say that Carmichael’s distinction does provide a platform from which he can examine recent debates over R. E. Lee.

In doing so Carmichael contrasts the work of Robert K. Krick and Michael Fellman.  Krick represents the Victorian mindset and Fellman, author of The Making of Robert E. Lee, plays the role of the modernist.  Carmichael made sure to note that his criticisms of the two are based on the utmost respect for their scholarship.   Krick stands out as the most notable pro-Lee scholar.  He rarely “strays from Douglas S. Freeman” but what Carmichael finds troubling is the way he characterizes others who write about Lee.  In fact, it may be his comments about others more than his own writings that justifies his placement in this category.  Fellman’s recent biography of Lee has all the earmarks of the modernist turn.  His emphasis is on Lee’s inner life and his interpretation challenges many of the standard assumptions of the general.  Rather than interpret Lee’s personal side in transparent terms Fellman sees contradiction and complexity, both of which challenge long-held views that single Lee out as the embodiment of moral perfection.  Krick often refers to the work of Fellman and others as “psychobabble.”

The differences between Krick and Fellman are perhaps innocuous on one level, but it is the way in which these fundamental differences play out in public that concerns Carmichael the most.   I found Carmichael’s comments here to be very persuasive and important to the public discussion of some of the more divisive topics in Civil War history.  At the same time I think he could have made these points apart from any discussion of the broader dichotomy of Victorianism v. Modernism.  Krick comes under serious scrutiny for the way he characterizes Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered and what it tells us about the latest generation of Lee historians.  While Krick was justified in his criticisms of Nolan’s interpretation Carmichael suggests that his closing comments play into a non-intellectual and unfair characterization of historical methodology and the motivations of recent Lee scholars:

Nolan’s book sold well, has gone through several printings by this writing early in 2000, and unquestionably will remain popular in the current climate.  It wonderfully suits the Zeitgeist by appealing to the sempiternal yearning to smash idols, which inevitably afflicts a noisy segment of the race.  The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm.  In this instance, it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers. [review reprinted in Krick’s Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy (p. 236)]

The “current climate” includes most academic historians who poke around Lee’s life and arrive at conclusions that Krick disagrees with. The problem, of course, is that Krick’s characterization is meaningless. It purports to explain what motivates modern historians when in fact Krick has no evidence whatsoever for the claim.  More importantly, and this is what truly bothers Carmichael, the constant references to “political correctness” tell us absolutely nothing that is historically useful.  We are left trying to understanding what PC means.  As best I can surmise it is used most often by individuals who appear to have very little interest or understanding of what is involved in the historical process.  I asked Krick in a recent talk why it isn’t possible for historians to disagree rather than to simply characterize them as misguided or worse?  He had no response, but if Krick’s remarks serve to remind us of the dangers of generalizing about academics, Carmichael also has words for those who would generalize about those who do find the more moralistic writings of an older generation to be attractive.

Carmichael challenged remarks by Fellman and others who give the back of their hand to anything that reminds them of a “neo-Confederate” agenda – a label that Carmichael also believes is overused and just as damaging as the PC label.  I agree.  The extreme language on both sides is unfortunately all too popular and often functions as a poor substitute for more serious debate.  We are surrounded by it.  Carmichael cited the recent S.D. Lee “conference” which framed its symposium on Lee as follows:

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?

To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee’s views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

We are asked to think of Lee in the most simplistic terms imaginable not for the sake of careful understanding, but for the purposes of defending perceived truth in “this era of Political Correctness.”  This is not the mark of a serious history conference, but a support group for those who feel threatened.

Carmichael is surely correct that what is needed is better understanding of the agendas of both groups.  Academics need to better understand why many people continue to identify with a certain version of the past.  They need to resist outright condemnation just because someone (Victorianist) identifies with the perceived moral perfection of Lee or feels as if a certain view of the past is under assault.  Many people look to the past for guidance or sanctuary and should not be criticized for doing so.  Those on the other side need not impugn the motivations of those who would challenge our fundamental assumptions about certain aspects of the past.  For academic historians (modernists) the past is in need of continual revision.  The past is complex and includes plenty of room for multiple interpretations of the same event or individual.  Historians are not in the business of tearing down gods for its own sake; rather, they hope that continuous revision will get us closer to a more sophisticated understanding of history.  There is no conspiracy at work here.

Finally, Carmichael said nothing about the difficult issue of race as a factor in understanding the agendas of both camps.  Over the past few decades academic historians have become more interested in better understanding how slavery and race defined Southern society and shaped those who lived in it.  This latest crop of Lee historians has spent considerable time examining his own racial views both before and after the war and his handling of slaves at Arlington.  [One of the best examples of this approach can be found in Elizabeth Pryor’s recent study of Lee.]  Much of what they have had to say has been met with a great deal of hostility from those who wish to keep any references to race and slavery out of the discussion.

Thanks to Peter Carmichael for an engaging talk that has given me much to think about.