Category Archives: Religion

A Brief Comment About Civil War Art

Robert Moore has a wonderful post in response to a very brief comment I made concerning a Mort Kunstler print. As usual the post was taken by the usual suspects for a general attack against all things Confederate and Southern or even as a personal jab at the artist – talk about “same ole, same ole.” I recently read Gary Gallagher’s new book on Civil War culture and memory, which includes an excellent chapter on Civil War prints. I am fascinated by the continued popularity of these prints and those subjects that tend to sell.

From a Reader: “I would like to see an acclaimed Civil War artist paint Grant or Sherman holding a tiny christian child. I suppose many would think that Grant would be too drunk to hold it while Sherman would try and burn it.”

While the comment is quite funny, it does hit on a fundamental truth regarding the agenda of most Civil War artists and that is they tend to focus on all things Confederate. Of course, this is what sells, but it is the fact that subject is so skewed that is worth our attention. First, you will be hard pressed to find Grant or Sherman in a print gallery. It seems to me that our collective memory much more easily embraces Confederates as something more than military men compared with their Union counterparts. Think of all the prints which depict Jackson, Lee, Stuart and even Forrest in religious scenes and other domestic scenes. You can find them praying just about everywhere, holding babies, and loved ones or just sitting around the fire place reveling in song and the presence of young southern belles. Please keep in mind that this is not a criticism, but an observation. My guess is that most Civil War enthusiasts would be unable to wrap their heads around the same scenes, but with Union officers. If we were to rely solely on Civil War prints to distinguish between Union and Confederate (North v. South) we would have to conclude that northerners were bloodthirsty atheists who had little interest in religion, family, and home.

In the end I think these prints are more about us than they are about the subjects they depict. The intention is to engender in us a certain emotion, which may or may not have any connection with history. Notice all of the emotion that is depicted in some of these domestic scenes. Are we really supposed to respond to these images as reflective of history or are they simply the imaginative constructs of the artists? Our primary interest is to be entertained by the war; in this regard I include myself. The art minimizes the horror of war, including the battlefield scenes painted by Troiani which hang on my office walls. We don’t really want to be reminded of the extent of the suffering that took place on and off the battlefield or the carnage that was left in its wake.

 

A Rebbe With a Cause or Nathan B. Forrest Was Not a Good Christian No Matter How You Slice It

I think I caught this guy once counseling couples and troubled families on the Oprah Winfrey Show.  Rabbi Schmuley Boteach addresses a strand of Civil War culture and memory that I've never understood and probably never will. 

Which leads me to another conundrum. Many of the Southerners who romanticize the Confederacy are religious Christians who lead lives devoted to moral excellence. How is it possible that they would make heroes of men who betrayed the Bible’s essential message: that G-d is the father of all humankind, and all of us therefore are equal before Him?

There is no easy answer to this question. Some would say that the original sin of the Confederacy’s Christians was to talk themselves into believing that slavery was really a benevolent institution, granting support, food, and shelter to a population who they believed could not fend for themselves. The perpetuation of that sin would be lionizing the Confederate leaders and believing that it does not offend the South’s black citizens or undermine its morality. Still others would say that when G-d-fearing Christians honor the Confederate leaders today, they do so as a means of honoring the South and a lost way of life rather than focusing on slavery. It’s collective amnesia. The horrors of slavery have been forgotten and only the charm of the old South has remained.

But all these answers ring hollow. For people of religion should be lionizing only those whose lives captured the divine ideals that they hold dear. And those who fought to preserve slavery, to use an understatement, simply don’t make the grade.

When religious southern Christians engage in nostalgia for the Confederacy, they are making the mistake of putting Southern sentiment before religious conviction, in effect elevating an inferior part of their identity over the most central part. Regional loyalty must never come before eternal principle.

Since it is the weekend let's have a little fun.  We all know that comments like these are almost always perceived as an attack on "Southern Heritage" so why don't we pretend for a moment that the history of the South extends beyond 1861-1865.  Let's see if we can come up with a list of Southern-born folks that more closely approximate the essential teachings of Jesus other than Lee, Jackson, Forrest, and the rest of the gang.

Note: Thanks for the comments, but at this point I think this discussion thread has been played out.  Therefore, I've decided to close the comments on this post.  :)

 

Southern Heritage for Me

I like to think that this blog occupies a unique position in our Civil War community.  I've tried over the past three years to share thoughtful observations about the intersection of historical scholarship, memory, and public history as well as my own continued journey to better understand the complexity of this relationship.  No doubt, I am often perceived as an outsider whose purpose is to denigrate the people of the South and Southern Heritage.  The outright attacks and/or suspicion, however, have only added to my curiosity about the blurred relationship between history and memory as well as the importance that people and certain organizations place on maintaining and defending certain views of the past.   Although I haven't come away yet with any firm conclusions, many of my posts do reflect a certain amount of concern when myth trumps or overshadows serious historical scholarship and an acknowledgment of the complexity of the past.  I see this in the debates over the display of the Confederate flag, the commitment to honor black Confederates such as Weary Clyburn for their "service" to the Confederacy, as well as the overly simplistic characterizations of Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as the standard bearers for moral and Christian perfection.  It's not surprise that my interest in distinguishing between myth and history as they relate to all three examples would engender a heightened defensiveness, but it also betrays a commitment to the view that there is only one way to identify with the history of the South or what we call Southern Heritage.

I've been helped tremendously by the thoughtful commentary of Robert Moore, whose Cenantua's Blog is in my mind the most interesting of the recent additions to the Civil War blogging community.  His site is a must read for those of you interested in issues related to memory.  [On the question of Southern/Confederate identity see his three most recent posts, here, here, and here.]  What I find most helpful is Robert's ability to maintain a very careful balance between his affection and need to find meaning in a family history that has deep Southern/Civil War roots with a respect for a strict observance of standards of historical analysis and research.  Consider Robert's recent post about the offering of books by a Southern Heritage organization:

Considering the books made available by this organization, through
their website, a precedence is being set. One might say that everything
there is “pro-Southern,” but that wouldn’t really be true. Therefore,
is everything there “pro-Confederate?” Maybe, but not
necessarily. Isn’t a Confederate veteran a Confederate veteran, whether
he enlisted, was conscripted, deserted, stuck-it-out to the end, etc.?
Yet, if he did not agree with the “Cause” and did whatever he could not
to be a part of it, even after being forced into the ranks, would not
calling him a “Confederate Veteran be a misrepresentation of the man
and that in which he really believed? Might calling this person a
“Confederate Veteran” be contrary to the way that same person wanted to
be remembered? Anyway, everything on the list of books must be ”pro”….
some line of thought. But again, is it representative of ”Southern
perspective?”

Apparently, this takes us back to the earlier discussion of the
definition of “Southern perspective.” If it is indeed, all-inclusive
and representative of the Southern people as a whole, then the use of
the phrase is misleading, for what we are seeing in the list of
available books is not all-inclusive of the Southern people. There is
nothing about Southern Unionists, Confederate deserters, free blacks
who were forced to help the Confederacy, disaffected Confederates,
etc., etc., etc.

So, in the end, in the manner in which the phrase ”Southern
perspective” is used, there is a problem and that problem is that there
is the distinct absence of one word… “balanced.” If the word “balanced”
and the actual commitment to being balanced remains absent from
“telling the ”Southern perspective,” then saying that a person or
organization is telling the “Southern perspective” would be a lie.

By "lie" I assume that Robert is referring to the tendency among certain people of reducing the idea of a Southern perspective to that of a white or Confederate perspective and heritage.  I agree with Robert that there are multiple, perhaps an infinite number of Southern perspectives that can be identified and that are equally legitimate as modes of identification and remembrance.  The interesting question, however, is when those modes of remembrance distort the past and serve to fuel our own contemporary values, interests, and insecurities.  In other words, at what point do we leave the realm of history and enter the world of mythology and story-telling, and is it possible to achieve a healthy balance between the two?  The problem, of course, is that the questioning of certain perspectives is often viewed as a threat rather than as an honest attempt to better understand the complexity of the object of remembrance.   When is the last time you saw the above-mentioned distinctions on an SCV website?   On the other hand, they seem to exist comfortably within Robert's identification and attempt to find meaning in his own family's past.

Perhaps, what we have at work is a confusion surrounding the use of language.  Perhaps, what  folks ought to refer to is not a Southern heritage, strictly and exclusively defined, but my Southern heritage, or our Southern heritage.  This at least makes it easier to understand and appreciate the nature of the attacks against me.  It's not that I am challenging or questioning Southern heritage, it's that I am looking into or questioning one among any number of ways of remembering the past. 

Thanks for blogging, Robert.

 

Taking Religion Seriously

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Over the past two years I've read a number of books that address various aspects of religion before, during, and after the Civil War.  I don't mean the popular titles that pluck out spirituals to make us feel good or stories that reinforce our overly simplistic assumptions about Christian Warriors and God-Loving Southerners v. the atheist North.  A few notable titles on my short list include Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, Harry Stout's Upon the Altar of the Nation, and Drew Faust's This Republic of Suffering, to name just three. 

I just picked up and am looking forward to starting Charles F. Irons's The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).  I've read a number of his essays published in various collections, but I am looking forward to reading what I must assume stems from his dissertation, which was written here at the University of Virginia.  Here is the jacket description:

"In the colonial and antebellum South, black and white evangelicals
frequently prayed, sang, and worshipped together. Even though white
evangelicals claimed spiritual fellowship with those of African
descent, they nonetheless emerged as the most effective defenders of
race-based slavery.As Charles Irons persuasively argues, white
evangelicals' ideas about slavery grew directly out of their
interactions with black evangelicals. Set in Virginia, the largest
slaveholding state and the hearth of the southern evangelical movement,
this book draws from church records, denominational newspapers, slave
narratives, and private letters and diaries to illuminate the dynamic
relationship between whites and blacks within the evangelical fold.
Irons reveals that when whites theorized about their moral
responsibilities toward slaves, they thought first of their
relationships with bondmen in their own churches. Thus, African
American evangelicals inadvertently shaped the nature of the proslavery
argument. When they chose which churches to join, used the procedures
set up for church discipline, rejected colonization, or built
quasi-independent congregations, for example, black churchgoers spurred
their white coreligionists to further develop the religious defense of
slavery.