Category Archives: Memory

Martin Sheen’s Civil War

I had a few minutes to kill this morning and noticed the companion volume to the movie Gettysburg, which includes paintings by Mort Kunstler and text by James McPherson.  The foreword is written by Martin Sheen who played R.E. Lee in the movie.  Here is a brief passage from Sheen that beautifully captures popular perception of the war:

If we look at this horrific conflict in the conventional retelling, the truisms of Northern industrialism attempting to impose an egalitarian ideal upon Southern agrarianism, of plantation feudalism protecting its privilege, of the test whether or not a voluntary political marriage of states could end in divorce–all these apply.

But Gettysburg leaves those questions to the history books: right and wrong, good and evil, are not the concern here, nor are the political distinctions.  The focus is on the people who faced each other on the battlefield for three long days of brutal combat in July 1863.  From generals to infantry volunteers, the human beings who fought loyally and valiantly for Union and Confederacy–this is their story.  How the great battle that consumed thousands of American lives was won, and lost, because of chance, and the skill or ineptitude of men, not causes.  Gettysburg is the human story behind the great battle.

Sheen’s Civil War and his understanding of the battle of Gettysburg in particular reflects the influence of the legacy of reunion that allowed white Northerners and Southerners to transcend or bridge their differences by the turn of the twentieth century.  It’s no accident that battlefields proved to be so attractive for reunions between one-time enemies;they provided a space in which the broader questions of cause could be set aside.

The problem with Sheen’s characterization is that the movie does present the battle as an ideological struggle, albeit a rather simple one.  Characters on both sides are given plenty of time to present their justification for the war and instill meaning into the very ground that they are fighting over.  Chamberlain does this before the engagement at Little Round Top and Armistead does so before “Pickett’s Charge.”  Yes, their respective views are presented in the broadest of terms and have a tendency to cloud more specific political and ideological differences, but they are there included in the film.  It gives the movie a certain level of sappiness that is exacerbated by Ron Maxwell in Gods and Generals.

Sheen is correct that the movie ignores the political views of the enlisted men.  The problem is that leaving those questions to the history books distorts the very history that the movie attempts to conveys.  We have little trouble assuming that ordinary Americans during the Revolution could be motivated to enlist and persevere because of the broadest of political principles, but for some reason we find it difficult to interpret the Civil War as a political contest that was fought out on various battlefields.  This is not an isolated oversight on the part of the general public; the historian Bell I. Wiley also downplayed politics when writing about Civil War soldiers during the period following WWII.  In the last few years, however, historians such as Earl Hess, James McPherson, and Chandra Manning have added a great deal to our understanding of the political views of the common soldier. It is unlikely, however, that these interpretations will be embraced by the general public to any great extent.  I believe the difficulty has everything to do with our own tendency to want to steer clear of the issues of race and slavery.

It seems strange to even suggest that any understanding of a Civil War battle is possible by ignoring “right and wrong”, “good and bad” and other “political distinctions.”  Of course, it is the historian’s responsibility to flesh out what these terms mean in all of their complexity.   We are taught in our history survey courses that the 1830s involved a dramatic shift on the local and state levels in the involvement of average Americans in their political system.  Americans no longer deferred to their betters and everyone was now a gentleman.  If we accept some version of this story it seems reasonable to expect that ordinary Americans on both the home front and in the ranks would have taken a great interest in the political events of the day.

Given Martin Sheen’s political activism one has to wonder if he really understands what he is saying.

Heritage v. History: Additional Thoughts

One of the most common criticisms that I receive (most of them in the form of private emails) is that my view of the past is distorted by a lack of a familial connection.  I guess this means that because my roots do not go back to the Civil War South I have no justification for making claims about certain topics of the war.  Rarely do these people explain which South I would need to trace my family history back to, but that’s another story.  It’s an interesting claim and one that abounds in Civil War circles.  I usually ask what it is that gives any historical claim or belief legitimacy simply because it comes from the mouth of someone with a specific lineage, but my questions are usually met by a befuddled look.  Such is the anti-intellectual strain that runs through popular interest in the war. 

I interpret this stance as a sign of a defensive posture; it reflects an unwillingness to look beyond shared stories and betrays an unwillingness to question the most basic assumptions about what we believe about the past.  What is so striking, however, is the failure to grasp that there is no connection whatsoever between the background of a particular person and the content of one’s belief about the war and specifically the Confederacy.  Think about it for a moment.  I know people who grew up in the North who moved South at some point and firmly hold to a set of beliefs indistinguishable from the white Southerner who defends the standard Lost Cause myths.  At least one prominent historian of the Confederacy that I am friends with loves to remind his audiences of his fascination with the Lost Cause at a very early age while growing up out west.  At the same time I know plenty of academic historians who grew up in the deepest parts of the South and who now write books that most heritage folks would assume were written by one of those yankee-liberal professors from New England.  This interesting dynamic suggests that regional origin and/or family history has little if nothing to do with whether you hold to a traditional Lost Cause view of the war.  Consider the case of historian Charles Dew for a moment.  Dew introduces his study of secession Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001) with a little personal history that is very relevant for our purposes.  I am going to quote Dew at length:

Although I have taught at a New England college for the past twenty-three years, I am a son of the South.  My ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy, and my father was named Jack, not John, because of his father’s reverence for Stonewall Jackson.  On my fourteenth birthday I was given a .22-caliber rifle and D.S. Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants.  I devoured all three volumes of Freeman’s classic history of the Army of Northern Virginia and the rifle was my constant companion during those seemingly endless summer days in Florida when plinking at cans and dreaming of Civil War battles constituted a significant part of my boyhood activities.  When I went off to high school in Virginia, I packed a Confederate battle flag in my suitcase and hung it proudly in my dorm room.  My grandmother, whom I loved dearly, was a card-carrying member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

I did not think much about secession and the causes of the war back then.  My focus was on the battlefield and Lee’s valiant men, who had fought so hard and so long before finally yielding to overwhelming numbers.  But if anyone asked me what the war was all about, I had a ready answer for them.  I knew from listening to adult conversations about The War, as it was called, and from my limited reading on the subject that the South had seceded for one reason and one reason only; states’ rights.  As I recall, my principal written source for this view was a small paperback entitled Confederate Youth’s Primer, a gift from one of my father’s law partners.  It was crystal clear to me that the Southern states had left the Union to defend their just and sovereign rights–rights the North was determined to deny my region and my ancestors.  Anyone who thought differently was either deranged or a Yankee, and neither class deserved to be taken seriously.

All this is a roundabout introduction to a point I wish to make at the outset: despite my scholarly training and years spent trying to practice the historian’s craft, I found this in many ways a difficult and painful book to write.  Even though I am far removed–both in time and attitude–from my boyhood dreaming about Confederate glory, I am still hit with a profound sadness when I read over the material on which this study is based. (pp. 1-2)

So, what are we to make of Dew’s revelation?  We could write him off as someone who has betrayed "the cause" or was negatively influenced by living so long outside of the South, but that would tell us more about ourselves than with Dew himself.  The fact that Dew tells us a story about his childhood, however, is instructive and perhaps sheds light on the nature of the attraction to these stories. 

The answer as to why Dew no longer needs to believe or holds to certain views about secession, slavery, and the Confederacy in general is because he understands what the scholarly study of history involves.  It first involves putting aside or challenging your personal view of the past.  To argue that some kind of familial connection with the past must shape one’s analytical view defeats the very purpose of history.  History provides an opportunity to see yourself and the rest of the world from a perspective apart from the luck that defines each of our lives.  I didn’t choose where, when, or to whom I was born to so why must that dictate how I begin and end my quest to better understand my environment?

The reason these traditional stories of Confederate perfection in the form of Lee and Jackson or the irrelevancy of slavery to secession and war remain so attractive is because the people who are attracted to them need to believe.  These stories provide some level of comfort, perhaps in the form of a shield from the modern world or even some kind of political justification.  Whatever it is it has little to do with a serious or scholarly interest in the past.  I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not meant as a way to single out white Southerners or any other particular group.  As I stated before these stories have as much appeal outside the South as they do in it.  And if we are to take Dew at his word those stories never completely lose their appeal.  

I’ve said before that my only understanding of the Civil War comes from limited work in the archives and a voracious appetite for scholarly studies.  There is very little emotional connection with the war for me so I am pretty much immune from personal attacks about my background or lack of a connection to the "Old South."  I read and consider and then read some more and along the way I try to figure out how to ask the right question – nothing more, nothing less.

The Greatest Virginians: Some Suggestions

Yesterday’s post inquiring into the greatest Virginians of the last four centuries has resulted in quite an interesting list.  And to think that I was anticipating the typical ahistorical nonsense of Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as somehow embodying all that is good in the universe.  I should never have questioned the sophistication of my readers (LOL).  Here are the suggestions, but feel free to contribute to the discussion.

George C. Marshall, Nat Turner, Douglas Southall Freeman, Glenn McMullen (invented jump shot), the Carter Family, Thomas Jefferson, John Smith, John Rolfe, Nathaniel Bacon, Emanuel Driggus, Woodrow Wilson

I love Rebecca Goetz’s suggestions, which include Netoaka, Wahunsonacock, Opechancanough, and Sir William Berkeley.  Rebecca has posted some thoughts over at Cliopatria where additional thoughts from readers are no doubt forthcoming.  My survey class in American history is beginning the year with the book Love and Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price.  One of the reasons I like the book is that it gives full agency to Virginia’s Native Americans.  In fact, it is is impossible to understand the actions taken by John Smith and the rest of the gang without understanding the motivations and initiative taken by Powhatan and others during those early years. 

One of my readers asked if I was planning to nominate William Mahone.   Is there anyone more important to postwar Virginia?  Mahone’s disappearance from Virginia’s political and racial history is evidence enough of his importance. 

The Greatest Virginians

Today I was asked to take part in a survey by the Library of Virginia and Richmond Times-Dispatch of the most famous Virginians of the last 400 years.  Here are the guidelines:

For each century – the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th – we would like you to name and write a short explanatory paragraph (about 200 words) for (1) a most influential Virginian and (2) a greatest Virginian. Please do not name the same person twice, and do not feel that the most influential Virginian necessarily left a 100-percent positive legacy. Fill in names only for the centuries your knowledge and comfort-level support. If you choose to focus on only one or two centuries, please feel free to do so – we expect it.

And if you would like to include a name and paragraph for a most important Virginian the public doesn’t know about, or a Virginian with the most destructive legacy, please feel free to do that as well. Be creative. The Times-Dispatch likely will publish a number of these, and we look forward to reading what our jury has to say.

The survey defines a Virginian as "someone who is identified with the commonwealth because of birth, residency, or circumstance."  I have a few ideas for the 19th century, but haven’t thought much beyond that. 

So, what do you think?

More Nonsense About Black Confederates

This story was referenced in its entirety without any analysis over at Michael Hardy’s blog.  It’s the standard story that points to a loyal slave – in this case Cliff Harrington Wary Clyburn – who served in the Confederate army and later collected a pension.  The article is truly bizarre: “The documents say he volunteered for the Confederacy with Capt. Frank Clyburn, who was the son of the man who owned Wary Clyburn[.]”  Let’s put aside for now the obvious tension, if not contradiction, between the idea of Clyburn volunteering for service when at the same time he was owned.  Of course, the article wouldn’t be complete without the all-important reference to slave loyalty:

According to the pension documents, Wary Clyburn served as the bodyguard for Frank Clyburn in Company E of the 12th regiment. Wary carried Frank on his shoulders to rescue him during intense fighting. Wary also served as a special aid to Gen. Robert E. Lee.

I can’t tell you how many slaves “served” at one point during the war as Lee’s “special aid.”  By the way did anybody consider that pension documents need to be interpreted?  I suspect that Clyburn viewed his pension application in terms of financial gain and filled out the forms in hopes that his application would be approved by a white employee.  What would you say?

The writer ends with the following:

The obvious question is this: Why would a slave volunteer to fight on the side of people who held him in bondage?That’s a question that only Mr. Clyburn can answer. Too often when it comes to the Civil War and slavery, we hear versions of the truth that are woven from conjecture and narrow perspectives. It’s refreshing when you find the truth. This is it. Wary Clyburn was a brave and loyal hero. And he deserves to be honored by all of us. IN MY OPINION

Apparently we’ve found “the truth” of Clyburn’s story through a document written over 50 years after the fact without any attempt at interpretation.  There is no indication that Clyburn left any additional documents for consideration, but according to the reporter we have everything we need.