Category Archives: Memory

“Long-Legged Yankee Lies”

I posted this back in March 2006, but decided to showcase it since my Civil War Memory classes will be meeting today to discuss James McPherson’s essay on the UDC and their efforts to control and shape the content of history textbooks at the beginning of the twentieth century.  The article is titled, “Long-Legged Yankee Lies”: The Southern Textbook Crusade, which appeared in Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (UNC Press, 2004). 

By the 1890’s organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) had organized committees to oversee and review the content of textbooks for children in schools across the South. As one UCV committee report noted, the purpose of such reviews was to honor the sacrifice of the Confederate soldier and “to retain from the wreck in which their constitutional views, their domestic institutions, the mass of their property, and the lives of their bravest were lost, the knowledge that their conduct was honorable throughout, and that their submission at last . . . in no way blackened their motives or established the wrong of the cause for which they fought.” (p. 68)

Consider Susan Pendleton Lee’s 1895 text, A School History of the United States, in which she declared that although abolitionists had declared slavery to be a “moral wrong” most Southerners believed that “the evils connected with it were less than those of any other system of labor. Hundreds of thousands of African savages had been Christianized under its influence—The kindest relations existed between the slaves and their owners. . [The slaves] were better off than any other menial class in the world.” No surprise that in her account of Reconstruction the Klan was necessary “for protection against . . . outrages committed by misguided negroes.” (p. 69)

By the first decade of the twentieth century most Southern states had created textbook commissions to oversee or prescribe books for all public schools that provide a “fair and impartial” interpretation. These committees worked diligently to challenge publishers who stood to threaten the South’s preferred story of the war: “Southern schools and Southern teachers have prepared books which Southern children may read without insult or traduction of their fathers. Printing presses all over the Southland—and all over the Northland—are sending forth by thousands ones which tell the true character of the heroic struggle. The influence . . . of the South forbid[s] longer the perversion of truth and falsification of history.” (p. 70)

Perhaps the best example of the oversight by the UDC was through the work of “historian general” Mildred L. Rutherford of Georgia. In 1919 Rutherford published A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries. The UCV historical committee recommended the book for “all authorities charged with the selection of text-books for colleges, schools, and all scholastic institutions” and recommended that “all library authorities in the southern States” to “mark all books in their collections which do not come up to the same measure, on the title page thereof, ‘Unjust to the South.’

Here are some of Rutherford’s recommendations:

    1. Reject a book that speaks of the Constitution other than [as] a compact between Sovereign states. 
    2. Reject a text-book that . . . does not clearly outline the interferences with the rights guaranteed to the South by the Constitution, and which caused secession. 
    3. Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves. 
    4. Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholders of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves. 
    5. Reject a text-book that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis. 
    6. Reject a text-book that omits to tell of the South’s heroes and their deeds. (p. 72)

Here are corrections to common mistakes found in textbooks:

    1. Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free. They were studying earnestly the problem of freedom, when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters into their own hands. 
    2. “More slaveholders and sons of slaveholders fought for the Union than for the Confederacy (this fit awkwardly with assertions elsewhere that the Yankees got immigrants and blacks to do most of their fighting – McPherson comment). 
    3. Gen. Lee freed his slaves before the war began and Gen. Ulysses S. Grand did not free his until the war ended. 
    4. The war did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter. It began when Lincoln ordered 2,400 men and 285 guns to the defense of Sumter.” 
    5. Union forces outnumbered Confederate forces five to one, not surprising when the Union population was 31 million while the Confederate population was only 5 million whites and 4 million slaves.” (p. 73)

And there you have it. I wonder if Rutherford and the rest of the gang had any idea of just how successful they were in shaping an interpretation that continues to prove to be attractive throughout this country.  Consider the following two posts (here and here) if you have any doubts.

Obama and Civil War Memory

A few months ago I speculated on how an Obama victory might affect how we remember our Civil War.  I suggested that the election of our first black president (regardless of political affiliation) would present us with an opportunity to remember and commemorate aspects of the war that have traditionally been downplayed, if not ignored entirely.  Obama himself has encouraged this by voicing his admiration for Doris K. Goodwin’s book, along with a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and plans to follow part of the route that Lincoln took in March 1861.  Now we hear that reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts will march in the inaugural parade.  Millions of Americans will learn about the history and significance of these soldiers without any of the distraction associated with so-called black Confederates (Confederate slaves).  I couldn’t be happier for the members of the units who will take part because I know first hand what it means to them.

539w

Commemorating What?

It’s a strange feeling to have to write a commemoration talk when the very thing that deserves to be remembered and reinforced has almost entirely been forgotten. Even I failed to acknowledge that December 6 was the anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery forever. Few Americans would have conceived of this as a possibility in 1861. The battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, is part of this story of a “new birth of freedom” and deserves to be acknowledged in a nation that professes to believe in freedom and equality for all.

I believe the commemoration ceremony this coming Sunday is being held next to the Kirkland Statue. It’s a fitting place to hold the ceremony. We all know the story of Sergeant Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina who gave aid and comfort to wounded Union soldiers at the base of Marye’s Heights. That said, I would much rather be in sight of the soldier’s graves. They force us to ask the difficult questions of what the war means to us as well as what is worth remembering and commemorating. Kirkland’s story is one that all Americans can identify with, and rightly so, but when are we as a nation going to get to a point when emancipation and the end of slavery can be acknowledged as a fitting price for so much death and suffering?

VMI Will March in Inaugural Parade

One of my readers has informed me that the Virginia Military Institute’s entire Corps of cadets will march in Barack Obama’s inaugural parade.  Why is this significant?  The Corps, along with Thomas J. Jackson were present at the execution of John Brown in 1859.  Most notably, the Corps took part in the Battle of New Market in 1864, in a war whose purpose was the perpetuation of slavery and white supremacy.  Even as other military schools transitioned to admitting African Americans into their programs, VMI remained steadfast in refusing to do so until 1968.  Perhaps it’s just another sign of how far we’ve come as a nation.