Category Archives: Lost Cause

Karen Cox on the United Daughters of the Confederacy

Karen Cox, William Blair and others recently spoke at the “The Legacy of Stones River: Remembering the Civil War" which was held in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Cox is the author of the excellent book, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation
of Confederate Culture
(University of Florida Press, 2003).  The book offers the most comprehensive analysis of the social make-up of the organization over time and its agenda.  This article provides an overview of her talk and a preview of the book:

The United Daughters of the Confederacy was an outgrowth of the various
benevolent aid societies and ladies memorial groups that developed during and
after the war, Cox said.  Initially these groups had worked to aid the war
effort and to help the widows and children of Confederate soldiers who died in
battle.
The ladies memorial groups were centered on bereavement and to
returning the bodies of the war dead from far-flung battlefields. It wasn’t
until the South had been returned to home rule that the real vindication efforts
began.  Vindication was an important goal of the UDC, which was founded
just up the road in Nashville, Cox said.  The National Association of the
Daughters of the Confederacy was organized in Nashville on Sept.10, 1894, by
founders Caroline Meriwether Goodlett of Nashville and Anna Davenport Raines of
Georgia. At its second meeting in Atlanta, in 1895, the organization changed its
name to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  “The two founders …
their career was the Lost Cause,” Cox said. “From the beginning this would be a
very elite organization.”

The general goals of the group were:


To memorialize those who fought for and fell in battle for the Confederate
cause.

• To preserve the history of the “War Between States.”

• To
educate future generations about the Confederacy from a pro-Southern
viewpoint.

• Social in nature. The group even had blackball provisions to
keep out women who weren’t from the top social strata.

We’ve only recently begun to look at the role that elite white Southern women took in shaping the contours of the Lost Cause and in turn shaping the way we think about the Civil War.  A closer look at these organizations also provides insight into the extent and limits of political action among Southern white women.  I am looking forward to the publication of Caroline Janney’s study of the Ladies Memorial Associations which were active in the years following the end of the war. 

 

The Tough Questions

At the end of What This Cruel War Was About Chandra Manning offers some final thoughts about the challenges that the war presented to Americans in 1865 and by extension to the way we remember.

First, Confederate soldiers’ admirable devotion to their families and abhorrent attachment to the enslavement of other human beings sound a cautionary note because those impulses were so closely related.  There is little doubt that most white southern men cared first and foremost about the well-being and material advancement of their loved ones, and the steadfast love so many displayed for their families surely stands among the noblest of human emotions.  Yet that love led otherwise good and ordinary men to embrace and fight for an institution that stole the lives and bodies and families of other human beings.  Clearly, the connection between soldiers’ attachment to their families and the institution of slavery does not suggest that love of family is to be disparaged, or that it inevitably leads to an atrocity like slavery, but it does raise sobering questions about the ills that human beings will justify when they convince themselves that they owe no obligation to anyone beyond those to whom they are related or who are like themselves.

Second, astonishing changes took place in many white Union men’s ideas about slavery and eventually, if more fragilely, about racial equality.  When ordinary men, many of whom began the war without a single black acquaintance but with plenty of prejudice toward African Americans, actually met black people face to face and often came to rely on the aid, comfort, and military intelligence that former slaves offered to the Union Army, they found reason to discard old views.  Those changes remind historians of the power of events to rearrange even the most seemingly immovable cultural ideas and attitudes among people in the past, and they alert all of us to the dramatic changes in attitude and achievement that can take place when people who think they have nothing in common find themselves thrust into interaction and interdependence.

Finally, the vision of a very different United States could be seen clearly by men like David Williamson in the spring of 1865 but had faded tragically by the turn of the twentieth century.  Taken together, the vividness of the vision and its eventual fading challenge historians to investigate more rigorously exactly how the United States could in the crucible of war create such vast potential for change and then, in the end, fail to fulfill it. (pp. 220-21)

I can remember reading one of Manning’s North and South articles last year with my Civil War class and wondering how she would end this study.  After reading this book I am more convinced the Manning is going to divide Civil War enthusiasts right down the middle.   That divide will be drawn between people who are comfortable discussing the way in which Union and Confederate soldiers thought about race and slavery over the course of the war and those who will interpret Manning’s conclusions as an indictment of the Confederacy or perhaps “Pro-Union.”  Another way of framing this is that Manning risks having the contours of her preferred debate relegated to Robert Penn Warren’s wonderful distinction between “the great alibi” and the “treasury of virtue.” That would be unfortunate as Manning has given us a very thoughtful and analytical study with a great deal of wartime sources to think about.  It is one of the most complete accounts of what soldiers thought about race and slavery published to date.  In some ways I can’t help but think of this book as a challenge to our Civil War community – broadly understood.

It seems clear to me that we can have this discussion without it being reduced to a childish debate about which region of the country can claim moral superiority.  And the reason is because the nation as a whole moved in a direction that did not include reinforcing or protecting the Reconstruction amendments.  The national agenda changed owing to the reconstruction agendas of white southerners, the Republican Party (by 1877), and the federal government.  By 1900 GAR camps in the North were largely segregated.  That said, I find that Manning’s emphasis on contingency in 1865, or the claim that the future could have been different, is enough to force readers to move away from a more defensive posture that involves interpreting the past in ways that reinforce contemporary political, cultural, and racial assumptions.  In other words, there was a salient distinction between the way that Union and Confederate soldiers understood race and slavery and it is our job as serious students of history to deal with it regardless of how uncomfortable it may make us.

 

Hey Rudy, Is It Just About State’s Rights?

Politics surely makes bad historians of us all.  Take Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani who recently addressed the Alabama State Legislature on flying the Confederate flag atop the state capitol:

"One of the great beauties of the kind of government we have, which is a national, federal government, [is that] on a broad range of issues, we can make different decisions in different parts of the country," the GOP presidential front-runner said after addressing the Alabama Legislature.  "We have different sensitivities and at different times we’re going to come to different decisions, and I think that is best left to the states," Giuliani said.

Perhaps Rudy should have reminded the state legislature about when those Confederate flags were placed atop the state capitols in the South.  In 1956, 82 of 106 southern congressmen signed a Southern Manifesto, denouncing the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision as a "clear abuse of judicial power," and calling for resistance to "forced integration" by "any lawful means."  States took various measures, including banning the NAACP from operating within their borders.  My own state of Virginia took the step of closing the public schools rather than have black and white children learn together.  Finally, as a symbol of defiance, Georgia’s legislature incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its state flag in 1956, and Alabama and South Carolina soon began flying the battle flag over their state capitol buildings.

Hey Rudy, good luck courting those conservative white southerners.

 

God gave us R. E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson, but did he also give us the Emancipation Proclamation?

I am almost finished with Chandra Manning’s new book on how Civil War soldiers understood race and slavery over the course of the war.  It’s a wonderful book and one that I will have much to say about over the next few weeks.  Manning gives us a great deal to think about, especially for someone interested in our popular perceptions of Civil War memory.  One of the difficult challenges that Manning takes on is in analyzing how the views/sympathies of both Union and Confederate soldiers shifted during the war.  I just finished the section of the book that covers the period leading to and following the crucial Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863.  Manning argues that a significant number of Union soldiers supported the Emancipation Proclamation when it went into effect on January 1, 1863.  She is careful, however, to draw the relevant distinction between slavery and racism.  While Union soldiers held tight to deep-seated racist views at the same time they acknowledged that slavery had to end either for moral reasons or as a necessary step to bring the war to a close.

Manning demonstrates that Union soldiers interpreted the summer victories of 1863 as an indication that the nation would only be saved following the end of slavery.  Soldiers’ beliefs were shaped in part by their travels through the South and direct encounters with slaves and their stories of hardship along with a fervent belief that they were carrying out God’s will.  It is important to note that Manning is not suggesting that we understand the war between North and South as one of good v. evil.  Manning does an excellent job of demonstrating that there was a significant shift in thinking within Union ranks by 1863 that brought many to a position that involved a desire to end slavery.  This stood in sharp contrast with Confederate soldiers who viewed slavery as a crucial linchpin in their ideas of hearth and home as well as a social hierarchy that slaveowners and non-slaveowners alike had reason to defend. That commitment was strengthened by 1863 in large part owing to the Emancipation Proclamation and the recruitment of black soldiers.  Manning brings a great deal of recent scholarship to her study in explaining the long-term and immediate conditions that shaped ideas of freedom and government in relation to slavery during the war. 

As I was reading I couldn’t help but be reminded of how distant the image of Union soldiers as carrying out God’s plan must seem within the context of our popular perceptions of the Civil War.  As I’ve pointed out in numerous posts for some reason we are much more comfortable thinking about God in relationship to the Confederacy.  One need look no further than the latest popular Civil War magazine.  There you can find the likes of Robert E. Lee, "Stonewall" Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest along with images of Confederate soldiers engaged in prayer.  Don’t get me wrong I have no problem at all with these images as I make no claim to being able to fathom whether God was on one side or the other, both sides or no side at all.  As a historian the concept itself has no place in my work.  What I am interested in is the apparent discrepancy in our thinking about God’s place and role in the Civil War.

It is interesting that the people who find these images attractive or identify them as somehow reflecting Christian virtue rarely acknowledge the possibility that Union soldiers or the goal of emancipation itself was reflective of divine will (whatever that means).  If we hold the assumption that, at least on occasion, God shapes history than the Emancipation Proclamation and the actual process of ending slavery in the 1860s would seem to serve as an example to celebrate.  A survey of lithographs from the Civil War period and the immediate postwar years suggests that we did at one point, but we clearly do not do so today.  Why?  Part of the reason is that we’ve pushed the theme of emancipation much too far from our collective memory.  Most people tend to see Lincoln as simply a political opportunist who held racist views (which he did) and who cared little about slavery.  Recent scholarship (see historians like David Donald, Allen Guelzo, Richard Striner, Douglas Wilson, etc.) has challenged this last point, but it is unlikely that these interpretations will filter down to be considered by those who are more concerned with defending stories rather than serious thought.  That’s fine as we can easily keep Lincoln out of this to make the point. Perhaps we can even admit that this question is still up for serious debate.

What is not up for debate is the extent to which Union soldiers viewed themselves as taking part in a war to end slavery.  Whatever merits there are in our impressions of Confederates as reflective of Christian virtue and assuming that God shapes history it seems obvious that the images of emancipation and the end of slavery deserve a prominent place in our collective imagination. 

Related Posts:
Christian Warrior 101 12/13
The Fundamentalists’ Civil War 12/17
Were Southern Slaveowners "Trapped"? 12/19
One Step Back 12/21
Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners? 12/22

 

A Book We All Should Read

My copy of Chandra Manning’s What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (Knopf) arrived today.  I’ve mentioned Manning’s scholarship on a number of occasions.   It was a great pleasure for me to be able to join her for a panel discussion about Civil War soldiers at the most recent AHA meeting.  I’ve read a great deal of her work over the past two years and have used Manning’s North and South Magazine articles in my Civil War class.

This book should receive a great deal of attention as it focuses on an important topic and has been released by a popular publisher.  Manning explores the way soldiers on both sides of the Potomac understood the issues of slavery and race over the course of the Civil War.  This is a touchy issue for many Civil War enthusiasts and for Americans generally.  We’re not very comfortable talking about these issues and tend to steer clear at all costs.  All too often these discussions, including specific questions and answers are framed in ways that reflect more about how we would like to understand Civil War soldiers rather than the soldiers themselves.  For instance, in an attempt to distance slavery/race from the world of the Confederate soldier we mention how few actually owned slaves – as if ownership were somehow a sufficient reason to ignore the ways in which non-slaveholders may have understood and responded to the “peculiar institution.”  On the other hand, we prefer to distance Union soldiers from the same issue by asserting blanket statements about the primacy of preserving the Union over emancipation.  In both cases there is little willingness to explore the complexity of the topic or the ways in which the war transformed the men on both sides in relationship to these issues.  In contrast to this overly simplistic stance on what is perhaps the central issue of the war and American history we have no problem appreciating the voracious appetites of those people who leave no stone unturned in tracing the excruciating minutiae of a Civil War battlefield.

Manning’s book is steeped in archival sources.  There are literally hundreds of individual soldier collections, and Manning kept “data sheets” on 477 Confederate soldiers as well as 657 Union soldiers.  In addition, Manning utilizes for the first time over 100 regimental newspapers.  What Manning has given us is arguably the most complete study of how Confederate and Union soldiers understood slavery/race throughout the war.

If we listen to what soldiers had to say as they fought the Civil War, the men in the ranks do not allow us to duck the uncomfortable issue of human slavery, but rather take us right to the heart of it.  They force us to look at it unflinchingly, and what is more, to see it a as a national, not simply southern, issue that defined a war and shaped a nation. (p. 18)

As you might imagine I will have much more to say as I make my through this book.  In the mean time go out and buy this important book.