Category Archives: Lost Cause

Remembering Virginia’s Unionists

One of the places where the distinction between those interested in "heritage" as opposed to history comes into play is the question of Southern Unionism.  In recent years historians have explored the complexity of what William Freehling calls "the many Souths."  On the other hand those with an interest in "southern heritage" find it difficult to talk about the history of the Confederacy without talking about white loyal Confederates in the Lost Cause tradition.  Race may be a difficult topic to broach (as it is for most Americans) but the presence of pockets of Southerners who remained loyal to the United States is perhaps even more troubling.  Think about the postwar scene and what happened to Confederate generals such as James Longstreet and William Mahone who for one reason or another decided to back political views that were perceived to be a threat against conservative southern slaveholding values.  Longstreet and Mahone were not Unionists, but their treatment following the war reminds us of the influence of the Lost Cause tradition which laid out a unified white Southern face during secession and the war. 

Two bloggers (Richmond Democrat and Slantblog)in Richmond are supporting steps to honor the state’s Civil War Unionists.   From the Richmond Democrat:

A few days ago I proposed that the time had at last come to honor Virginia’s
Unionists — Virginians who had stayed loyal to the United States during the
American Civil War. My proposal is based on the simple premise that Virginians
who render heroic service to the United States are deserving of some recognition
in the form of a monument or monuments…

I bring this to your attention not because I am an advocate or because I am convinced that this blogger’s intentions have any chance of succeeding.  I am much more interested in what the proposal does to the way most of us think about the South.  Can "heritage" incorporate Southern Unionists? 

My local PBS station recently aired a short documentary about the debate surrounding the Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  A few Confederate reenactors were interviewed who tried to make the point that they were not necessarily against a monument to Ashe, but the placement of it in close proximity to Lee, Stuart, Jackson, and Davis.  Let’s assume that this had nothing to do with Ashe being black, but a matter of wanting to preserve Monument Avenue for Virginia’s Civil War heroes.  If that be the case could we expect opposition to the placement of a monument honoring Elizabeth Van Lew, Major General George H. Thomas or Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th USCT?  All of these figures are important parts of Virginia’s rich Civil War history and can be considered to be heroes because of their actions. 

I am convinced that in the end most people tied to "Virginia heritage" desire to maintain a white only interpretation with "others" fitting in in ways that do not threaten certain preconceived notions such as secession and slavery.  Evidence for this can be found in the opposition to the placement of the Lincoln and Tad statue a few years back.  The idea that a portion of the Richmond population (both white and black) welcomed Lincoln to the capital of the Confederacy in its final moments was simply too much to ask. 

I am still thinking my way through the question of whether heritage and history are mutually exclusive ways of looking at the past. 

Earlier Posts:
Is Heritage History?
Is Heritage History? (Part 2)

George L. Wood On Slaves and Slaveowners

A friend of mine who is a regular reader and currently studying Union regimental histories published right after the war sent me the passage below.  It is from George L. Wood’s “The Seventh Regiment [Ohio Infantry]: A Record” that was published in 1865.  The regiment was raised in northern Ohio, principally from Cleveland and surrounding counties.  One of the most important developments in the historiography of slavery and the Civil War since the 1960′s is the focus on the slaves themselves as full historical actors.  Up until recently the tendency was to downplay their role in understanding emancipation, and the Lost Cause assumptions that interpret slaveholders as paternalistic figures left us with little understanding or appreciation of how slaves viewed their situation.

While professional historians have moved beyond the naivety and implicit racism of this interpretation there are plenty of people who continue to interpret the institution of slavery as benign and in some cases as beneficial along some vaguely formulated “spiritual” view.  The danger is that the goal of trying to prop up the slaveholder as a paradigm of religious/moral virtue necessarily negates taking seriously the perspective of those who are being held in bondage.  Of course Southern slaveowners believed that what they were doing was for the good of their slaves.  Acts of kindness such as offering Bible lessons or starting a Sunday School were just the tip of the iceberg.  Their paternalistic assumptions were probably formulated in part as a reaction to the humanity of the people they owned.  In other words it was perhaps a way of coping with their acknowledgment on some level that slavery was a cruel and barbaric institution.  The passage below offers some interesting observations about how the slaves viewed their masters and their captivity.  The complexity of their outlook anticipates some of the observations made by Eugene Genovese in the early 1970′s. [Note: I don't know anything about the author or his racial/political outlook apart from what can be reasonably surmised based on this passage.]

[77]  While at Charleston, we were deeply impressed with the profound interest the slaves were taking in passing events.  That down-trodden race, who had for years suffered every injustice at the hands of their white oppressors, were now the first to assist the Federal commanders. Through darkness and storm, they carried information, and acted as scouts and guides on occasions when it would try the heart and nerve of their white companions

From my own observation, I am confident that the slaves of the South, were just as well informed with regard to their relation to their masters, as we were.  They were, from the very first, impressed with the idea that this rebellion was to work some great change in their condition.  They were watching, with great interest, every movement of the troops, and were continually asking questions, as to the disposition to be made of them; thus evincing an interest in military affairs, of which their masters little dreamed. It is well enough to talk of the [78] deep devotion of slaves to their masters; but the latter have found ere this, I trust, that this devotion on which they have relied, has not prevented them from cutting their throats, when it was in the line of their duty, and by means of which they could gain their freedom.  An instance of this great devotion on the part of a slave for his master, was related to me while at Charleston.

A Mr. R—– owned a colored servant by the name of John; he enjoyed the unlimited confidence of his master, who was in the habit of trusting him as he would one of his children.  This confidence was reciprocated by a like devotion on the part of the slave for his master.  One day a neighbor told Mr. R—– that his John was about to run away, as he had repeated conversations with his servants on the subject.  Mr. R—– flew into a passion, feeling very much grieved that his neighbor should think, for a moment, that his John, whom he had raised from infancy, should prove so ungrateful as to leave him.  The only attention he paid to this timely warning was, to put still greater trust in his servant.  One day, shortly after this, John was missing; not only this, he had been so ungrateful as to take his wife and three children. The last heard from faithful John was, that he was safe in Ohio  Now Mr. R—– is a very good man and a Christian, and treat his servants very kindly; but that [79] God-given principle, a desire for personal liberty, actuated him in connection with other men of fairer complexion.  John, undoubtedly, left his old home and master with regret, but home and friendship, when compared with freedom, were nothing.

I was once told by a colored man, in whom the utmost confidence could be placed, that there has been for years an association among the negroes, which extends throughout the South, the purpose of which was one day to liberate themselves from slavery.  He said that hundreds of slaves who, apparently, were as innocent as ignorant, were tolerably well educated, and were secretly bending every energy to bring about an insurrection, which should end in their being released from bondage.  When asked if the field-hands were members of this association, he said they were; and although possessing less information than those living in the cities and villages, yet they were aware of what was going on; and after their work was done at night, they often met in their cabins, and talked over the prospect before them.  He also said, that in the larger cities of the South this association had regular meetings and officers; that they awaited only the proper time, when a tragedy would be enacted all over the South, that would astonish the world.

When we reflect that revolts have been common in the South, and they have been attend[80]ed by partial success, it does not require a great stretch of the imagination to believe that this association did really exist.  The fact of the intense feeling of hatred cherished by the people of the South against Northern fanatics, as they were termed, who came amongst them, is strong evidence in favor of the existence of some organized course of policy among the negroes.  The outward appearance of the slave is usually gentle in the extreme, although his inward feelings may be agitated to
such a degree, that in a white man they would burst forth in the wildest passion.  Therefore, this hatred of the South to the opponents of slavery must be traced to a fear of some secret organization, the object of which lay deeply buried in the reticent minds of the slaves.  The Southern mind was more
deeply agitated, from the fact of the want of this outward emotion on the part of their slaves; for had this strong desire for liberty, which was awakened in them, burst out in wild enthusiasm, it would have been readily checked by the severe punishment of individuals; but it was this secret working of this deep-laid desire for freedom that troubled them. The most guilty were, to all outward appearance, the most innocent.

While the Federal army occupied the country, the slaves were much less guarded in what they said.  One of these slaves, an old man, was passing [81] a tent one day, when a soldier said to him that he belonged to Jeff. Davis.  With a knowing look, he replied: ‘I did; but now, massa, I belong to Uncle Sam.  A colored woman, who had been a slave for years (as she is very old), came into our room one day, and taking up a paper, asked if we wanted it.  Some one said to her, as she was about leaving the room, that she had better not be seen with that paper, as it was not the sort her mistress admired.  Said she, ‘I know what missus likes; I can take care of it;’ and slipping it under her apron she left the room.  That slave could read and write, and yet her master knew nothing of it.  So it is with many others.  It may be asked how they acquire this knowledge.  They gain it in a great many ways.  Many of them learn of their masters’ children, with whom house-servants spend a great deal of time.  Having acquired a slight knowledge, it
stimulates them to greater exertion.  They obtain scraps of newspapers and parts of books, and thus gain a great deal of information entirely unobserved.  Few persons, at the commencement of the rebellion, had the least conception of the vast resources and power of the slave population of the South.  And it was not until they had fed and clothed the Southern armies for two years, and by [82] this means kept them in the field, that it was acknowledged.  Had it not been for its slaves, the South, long ere this, would have been compelled to yield obedience to the Government.  The rebels appreciated and used this element of strength from the beginning.  The Federal Government, through the influence of weak-minded politicians, rejected it; thus throwing an element of its own strength into the hands of its enemies.

Notwithstanding this harsh treatment, the slaves proved true to the Government; and finally, through the medium of this faithfulness, their vast services were acknowledged, and they have not only been taken into the private service of the country, but they have been admitted into the army, to swell its numbers, until the strength of their mighty arms, and the nerve of their fearless hearts, are felt by the enemies of the country on every
battle-field.  What a glorious thought! thousands of the oppressed fighting for the redemption from slavery of a race which has ever worn the chain.  When it is remembered that by this strife questions are to be settled which have ever disturbed the harmony of this country, and not that only, but questions which, when settled, will release millions of our fellow-men and women from the power of the oppressor, ought we not to be thankful that we are permitted to make great sacrifices in so good a cause?”

A Sanitized Past

Many of my comments over the past few weeks have been directed at our continued tendency to sanitize our past or to make it more palatable for our own purposes.  We desire heroes and unfortunately we are all too willing to sacrifice good analytical history for stories that reflect a deep need to identify with a past that confirms our own ethical and moral sensibilities.  Such is the case with our Civil War.  I don’t read Civil War novels; in fact I’ve only read two, including The Killer Angels and Cold Mountain.  Most of them are poorly written and play much too much on the emotions.  The Washington Post just reviewed a new novel titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature by S.C. Gylanders.  I haven’t read it nor do I plan to read it.  The review, however, neatly sums up my own views of how I believe most Americans prefer to remember their Civil War:

But Gylanders is no Stephen Crane. The very title of the novel — taken from
Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address — suggests that the world depicted here is one
of angels and demons. The author’s acknowledgments, which refer to her "humble
portrait of this great American patriot [Sherman] and the story of his war,"
should warn us not to expect ethical challenges or significant moral
ambivalence. Despite the author’s loving (and somewhat long-winded) attention to
weaponry and medical matters, she glosses over such discomforting subjects as
slavery, desertion, corruption, conscription and disease. And the dialogue and
interaction between these rough soldiers is strangely — and implausibly –

But the novel’s essential weakness lies in the characters, who tend to stand
out like monuments
, especially the gruff, cigar-chewing Sherman and the
swashbuckling brigade commander Thomas Ransom. They are beyond criticism,
remaining largely unchallenged and unknown, alienated from the reader by their
own legendary status
. It is as if the author’s personal enthusiasm for these
historical figures has blinded her to the emotional needs of the reader.

If I’ve never made known my views of Gods and Generals clearly enough try this.  Ethan Rafuse recently posted on the difficulties involved in challenging some of the most deeply ingrained assumptions about specific figures such as Grant, McClellan, and Lincoln.  I assume that the reviewer of this book probably has at least a cursory understanding of the Civil War, which makes the ideas cited above that much more relevant.  They stand out like a sore thumb. 

Perhaps I’ve become sanitized by my own work on Civil War memory.  From my vantage point Americans have never really been interested in confronting the tough questions from the war, including race and emancipation.  In that sense it is much easier for us to let go when thinking about the "civil war" in Iraq.  We can imagine the worst case scenarios as part of what it means to be engaged in civil war.  In short, we can accept the darkest aspects of human nature.  To what extent are we able to acknowledge these same themes in our own past? 

Is A Museum The Right Place For Confederate Statues?

The University of Texas is debating what to do about statues that honor Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.  UT  President William Powers Jr. is now considering various options, including the rearranging of the statues on campus, providing information to visitors on the history of the statues, and finally the removal of the statues to the school’s museum.

“The whole range of options is on the table,” Powers said. “A lot of students, and especially minority students, have raised concerns. And those are understandable and legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the statues have been here for a long time, and that’s something we have to take into account as well.”

In his excellent study of the history of the Confederate battle flag John Coski argues that the best place for its display is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  I tend to agree with John, but I’ve never believed that his suggestion would be taken seriously by those who see the flag not as a historical object, but as a cultural symbol or as a means to identify with a certain heritage.   My guess is that those who see the flag as a vibrant and meaningful way to identify with a certain past will draw similar conclusions in reference to the UT statues.  The removal of the statues from the grounds to a museum sends the message that their preferred interpretation of the past is no longer valid or relevant.  The defensiveness that accompanies this typically brings out the rants about liberals and political correctness rather than a more serious consideration of how public objects are now being interpreted by parties that traditionally have had little or no say in how the past is remembered.

The photograph at the top is our statue of Robert E. Lee here in Charlottesville.  It’s a nice little park situated just off the Downtown Mall and across the street from the historical society.  A few blocks away stands a statue in honor of Stonewall Jackson (just above).  I would hate to see either one moved from their present locations, though I would understand if certain groups felt differently.  My attraction is more aesthetic than one that involves some kind of sympathetic identification or appreciation of their symbolism.  I tend to interpret memorials to the Civil War as a reflection of the values of those who chose to dedicate them – most of which were dedicated between 1880 and 1920.

A university, however, is different.  In this case I think the best place for the statues is in the school’s museum where they can be interpreted properly.  There visitors can learn when and under what circumstances the statues were commissioned and dedicated, which fits perfectly into a school’s mission to educate.  This one seems to me to be a no-brainer.

The View From Outside

I ran across a fairly interesting editorial that recently appeared in the Japan Times.  The short piece was written by Hiroaki Sato who is a translator and essayist and has lived in New York City since the late 1960′s.  The focus of the essay is in reaction to the Atlantic Monthly’s recent ranking of the 100 greatest Americans.  What struck me was the sophistication of Sato’s understanding of American history, especially the Civil War and reconciliation.  Here is a bit from the editorial:

Worse, the aim of achieving racial justice rapidly lost its force
in the years following Lincoln’s assassination. So by about 1900, "national
conciliation" — between the whites in the North and the whites in the South –
was complete. The indispensable part of this process was the South’s
nullification, with the Supreme Court’s connivance, of the 13th Constitutional
Amendment that prohibits slavery.

It was as though white-dominated America took to heart Lincoln’s
famous statement to Horace Greeley, president of the New York Tribune, on Aug.
22, 1862: "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not
either to save or to destroy slavery." In other words, emancipation was not the
real issue.

I was reminded of this regressive process recently when I read
the history of Berea College, in Kentucky, one of the many admirable educational
institutions in the United States. Started in 1855 by John Fee, who believed in
racial and sexual equality, the college had to give up accepting blacks in 1905
when the Kentucky legislature banned teaching blacks and whites together. Yes,
such things were done as late as 1905. And in Kentucky, that law was not changed
until 1950.

As a matter of fact, not long after I came here I began to notice
"Civil War buffs" — people apparently interested in the war between the North
and the South purely as a matter of military contests.
The Civil War buff
quality is discernible in The Atlantic’s list as well. It includes Robert E.
Lee, ranked 57th, because he "was a good general but a better symbol, embodying
conciliation in defeat." In the commentary that goes with the selection, editor
Ross Douthat adds another general of the South, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, as
someone who "might have won the war for (the Confederacy) had he lived past the
Battle of Chancellorsville." Lee and Jackson fought on the side of secession or
slavery, but that doesn’t matter.

While the terminology employed in reference to the thirteenth amendment is off I am struck by this individual’s grasp of how most Americans interpret their Civil War.  Perhaps to a foreigner the way Americans have chosen to remember their Civil War is distinct; my guess is that the sentence in bold is not meant as a compliment, but as a point of curiosity.  It would be interesting to know how he came by it.