Confederate Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Promise of a New Football Season

With the new college football season upon us it might be worthwhile to reflect on the cultural connections with the Civil War and defeat and the Lost Cause.  While the enthusiasm here in Charlottesville, Virginia probably doesn’t match the anticipation found elsewhere around the South [I lived in Alabama for two years.] the talk seems to be all about UVA’s prospects and even who will start at the quarterback position.  Apparently, this is a serious matter for many.  I’ve never been a big college football fan and I have even more trouble understanding how it is possible to get so excited about playing William and Mary as a season opener.  Perhaps UVA fans no all too well that the rest of the season is likely to be a real bummer.  For those of you who are college football fans and Civil War enthusiasts I offer you the following for your reading pleasure.  The first is a journal article, titled, “From Lost Cause to Third-and-Long: College Football and the Civil Religion of the South, which appeared in the Journal of Southern Religion.  Additional commentary can be found here and here.  And I almost forgot, GO TERPS!!!

From the Bain-Selbo essay:

A particularly moving moment occurs at the end of a game. In this video, we see such a moment after a hard-fought Mississippi loss to Alabama in the fall of 2005. While some fans leave the stadium, a large portion (particularly the student section near where the band sits) stays for a final playing of the medley. It begins slowly, mournfully (particularly appropriate after a tough loss)—the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Dixie” gently mixing together. One feels a sense of longing— longing for a past more ideal than real. Midway through, the tempo picks up, hands are clapping, and the parts that include the fans singing (particularly the chorus of “Dixie”) are louder and more boisterous. This all culminates with a yell, a hope, a declaration of defiance rising from all—”The South will rise again!”

“The War Between the States”: Homeschool Style

It’s true that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can judge it by the number of black Confederates that are claimed to have loyally served.  As a teacher I think it is important to stay up to date on new textbooks and other classroom resources, so with that in mind I decided to contact the good people at American Vision to see about getting a review copy of The War Between the States: America’s Uncivil War, which is authored by John J. Dwyer.  The book was published in 2005 and is endorsed by the likes of Thomas DiLorenzo, Lew Rockwell, Clyde Wilson and Donald Livingston.  The book is marketed to Christian schools and families that homeschool their children.  It is illustrated throughout with the artwork of John Paul Strain and at 650 pages it is by far the longest textbook on the war that I’ve ever come across.

Not surprisingly, the endorsements claim that this book serves as an alternative to the standard interpretations that currently pervade public schools and colleges.  Of course, Dwyer never elaborates on what this interpretation includes or explores its supposed weaknesses, but than again this book was not written to raise questions and encourage curiosity.  Rather it was written to conform to a Christian outlook that uses the past to justify current political and moral beliefs.  Such an approach offers a convenient justification for parents and educators who believe that the secular world must be resisted in all its forms.  Dwyer believes that his text moves beyond the “politically correct” studies that are used in secondary schools and colleges and allows the reader to focus on “God’s almighty work of calling out a covenant people for Himself in space and time, throughout human history.”  Such an approach doesn’t leave much room for questions about how the author constructs his interpretation since any challenge must necessarily be construed as a challenge to God’s vision.  I will leave the epistemological concerns aside for now rather than get bogged down into something that, as a historian, I could care less about.

The book includes no references to outside studies other than a few choice titles that are floated throughout the text such as Charles Adams’s In The Course of Human Events and other books by the Ludwig Von Mises crowd and assorted libertarians.  The curious reader is left to wonder what kinds of primary and secondary sources were used.  Obviously, I cannot review the entire book; rather, I will proceed in short segments that focus on a representative sample that should give you a sense of why the book is so popular as a homeschool/Christian text.

Consider the author’s treatment of black Confederates as an entry point into the overall quality of this text.  The student is prepped for this “analysis” with multiple sections focused on the life of slaves and their relationships with their masters.  Dwyer relies heavily on the WPA Slave Narratives as well as Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross.  The author acknowledges that historians have pointed out problems with using the WPA sources, but suggests that they reveal a wide range of experiences of slave life.  Indeed they do, but the author simply makes assertions that are to be accepted by the reader rather than demonstrating with examples.  Dwyer also never mentions the controversy surrounding Time on the Cross, including important critiques by Herbert Gutman and others.  Ignoring such problems allows the author to pick and choose from the texts to draw conclusions that confirm the crucial point that God is an ever present force in the lives of slaves and slaveowners.  “They (Fogel and Engerman) produced perhaps the most thorough examination of plantation records and first-hand accounts ever done,” writes Dwyer.  Just as disturbing is the way in which facts are presented without any context whatsoever.  In fleshing out the reality of slave life in the South the reader learns that “thousands of free Southern blacks owned other blacks as slaves, including one hundred twenty-five in Charleston, South Carolina, and over 3,000 in New Orleans.  No mention of the complexity of race in a city like New Orleans compared with the rest of the region and no references at the end of the chapter to allow students to read further.  I guess it’s all about faith.  There is a constant reminder throughout that historians today cannot be trusted and that their research is a product of nefarious motives.  The student learns quickly that the author’s goal is to rescue them from such treachery.

The author’s assessment of slavery is difficult to make sense of given the goal of reconciling a Christian world-view and a slaveholding society.  There is a palpable tension between acknowledging the reality of slavery and wanting to correct the harshest critiques of slave life.  In the hands of a reputable historian such a goal is not only laudable, but essential if we are to continue to uncover the complexity of slave life and race relations in the United States at different times.  This is not meant to ignore the harsh reality of slavery, but to acknowledge that it does not constitute the beginning and end of what we need to know.  Here is a revealing passage:

Slavery, though not an evil institution when practiced Biblically, was attended with evils as practiced in the South.  It was not in any way perfect or utopian.  In fact, as a Southern social institution, generally considered, it was evil.  Christians should be quick to notice the discrepancies between Biblical slavery and that practiced in the South.  These differences between the Biblical standard and Southern slavery make impossible an unqualified defense of the institution as it existed and operated in the South.

One could read this as suggesting that the “evils [of slavery] as practice in the South” was a matter of degree given its sanctioning in the Bible.  An “unqualified defense” may not be appropriate, but it certainly leaves room for one that is qualified.  For someone who is not a Christian, but who holds to very strong moral/ethical principles it is impossible for me to come to terms with such a distinction.  Dwyer takes full advantage of the opening provided in the above passage to present the “Unexpected Blessings” of slavery.  No surprise that it is the fact that the slaves were introduced to Christianity.  Of course, it implies that the original Africans had no religious identity, but that doesn’t seem to bother Dwyer since the goal of his commentary is to present slaves and slaveowners as some kind of organic whole that at least approached the Biblically sanctioned institution of slavery.   As far as I am concerned such a view reflects moral bankruptcy and deserves outright condemnation.  But if that wasn’t enough of a reason to question our “politically correct” narrative of slavery how about this one?:

No one needs lament the passing of slavery, and the editors of this volume emphatically do not.  But who cannot but lament the damage to both white and black that has occurred as a consequence of the way it was abolished?  In many respects, the remedy applied has been far worse that the disease ever was.  Christians who doubt this should consider whether it was safer to be a black child in the womb in 1858 or in 2004.

Well, you can probably surmise that I will not be using this particular book in my Civil War survey course, but you can bet that I will break this out for my course on Civil War memory.  I was hoping to get to this book’s interpretation of black Confederates, but given the length of this post I will hold it for the next one.  It’s a doozy.  They even offer up a number of 40,000.

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.  :)