Category Archives: Religion

George Fitzhugh, John Calhoun, (and Pat Buchanan?): Paternalism is Alive and Well

Check out the Vast Public Indifference blog for an excellent post on the question of whether colonial slaves were Christians.  While the post is worth reading, I was struck by her referencing of a recent syndicated column by Pat Buchanan in which he espouses what I assumed to be an extinct justification for slavery within intellectual circles (Yes, even though I rarely agree with Buchanan I consider him to be an intellectual.):

First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It
was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships,
grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian
salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity
blacks have ever known.

As Caitlin points out in the post, it is not at all clear that the first few generations of slaves subscribed to Christianity in large numbers.   For now, however, let's assume that all "600,000" were indeed introduced and accepted Christianity and ignore serious history as Buchanan does.  Does anyone really believe that their being introduced to a new religion outweighs the moral calculus surrounding the trauma of being separated from loved ones, community, and one's very identity?  Would Pat Buchanan accept this as a price for salvation for his own family and friends?   How could anyone justify the suffering and death that accompanied slavery with salvation?  If this bizarre picture of how our moral universe operates is true than God does indeed work in mysterious ways. 

“God Blessed America” and the Confederacy Too

Hey, you forgot the most important one of all: Constitution of the Confederate States of America

Preamble: We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.

Sec. 9. (I) The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.

(2) Congress shall also have power to prohibit the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of, or Territory not belonging to, this Confederacy.

(3) The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

(4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

Religion And The Civil War

First let me apologize for the continual change to this blog’s appearance.  For some reason I get bored with the look of it and find a need to explore other possibilities.  I’m sure I was an interior decorator in a past life.

The other day I posted some concerns about so-called Christian studies of the Civil War.  As many of you now know it led to an interesting dialog with a fellow blogger who challenged some of the assumptions that lay behind the post.  I wish the focus would have been more on the specific points made, but that was not to be.  Anyway, I thought I would offer a short reading list for those of you who are interested in historical studies that actually take religion seriously.

A great place to start is the edited collection by Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout, and Charles R. Wilson titled Religion and the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1998) and Mark Noll’s short, but thorough The Civil War As A Theological Crisis (UNC Press, 2006).  Harry Stout’s Upon The Altar of The Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (Viking, 2006) gives the reader a chance to think about the war as a moral crisis brought about in part by conflicting theological assumptions.  I plan to use part of this book next year in my Civil War elective.  Though it is hard going the new book by Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, titled The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholder’s Worldview (Cambridge University Press, 2006) provides the most thorough analysis of the role of religion among wealthy white Southerners.  Although I have not read it I’ve heard very good things about Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the South, 1810-1860 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

On religion and Civil War soldiers there is no better place to start than Steven Woodworth’s While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers (University of Kansas Press, 2003).  One of the best soldier diaries is Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2003.

There are numerous studies that I believe address the fundamental interpretive mistakes contained in many so-called Christian biographies/studies of the Civil War.  The best place to start is Charles R. Wilson’s Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1981).  Get through that and take a look at David Goldfield’s Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (LSU Press, 2004) and Daniel Stowell’s Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (Oxford University Press, 2005).  Finally there is Edward J. Blum’s Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (LSU Press, 2005).

This list doesn’t even constitute the tip of the iceberg.  Feel free to offer any additional suggestions.  I did not attempt to be inclusive; many of these studies offer broad interpretations of the Civil War and religion.  The titles in the last section should give you some  idea of why Americans continue to interpret Confederate generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Stuart as religious icons that almost appear to stand outside of history entirely.  Happy reading!

“Christian Cavalier” 101

It never ceases to amaze me, but every year I get the same questions when my classes study the Civil War.  Yesterday it was, “Is it true that Grant was a butcher?”  Luckily I get to address that one head on today.  In one of my other classes a student asked if it was true that Confederates were more religious than their Northern opponents.  That I am asked these same questions every year reflects the attractiveness of these assumptions.  It doesn’t take much of an imagination to figure out why these ideas remain so popular.  To the left is painter John Paul Strain’s “Battlefield Prayer,” which includes Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, though it  looks more like a bad impersonation of James Longstreet by Tom Berringer.  Why all three, along with a “Johnny Clem-type” flag bearer, are in the woods alone praying is beyond me.  To the right is my all-time favorite.  This is a painting by Mort Kunstler that shows Lee and Jackson engaged in intense prayer along with two unknown children.  I guess it doesn’t matter who the kids are, but I’m not sure I would leave them in the hands of strangers – even if they are “Christian Cavaliers.”  You can also see these assumptions at work in a number of recent books written by people who have apparently no training in the process of writing history.  Here is an example:

J.E.B. Stuart, The Christian Cavalier: For non-believers, death is often considered the end of all things, but, to Christians, it represents a new beginning. Our time here on Earth is short compared to eternity in Heaven, and what we do with this time determines our reward in the afterlife. Unfortunately, many people today waste their precious time focusing on self-fulfillment. Sadly, few leave behind a meaningful legacy. A legacy is the memory of who we were and the ways in which we touched the lives of others. History has recorded countless men who served their time on Earth in such an inspirational way. Their legacy continues to live on, years and years after their death. Such is the story of J.E.B. Stuart: soldier, servant, and Southern hero. In the end, it was far more than the service record, personal items, horses, and other accoutrements that Stuart left behind. It was the deep spiritual roots and patriotism that he had instilled in his children and his men. These are the memories that have truly made his story unforgettable.

Captain R. E. Frayser, from Stuart’s staff recalled the impact that his beloved commander had on all who knew him when he wrote, “In this short period of thirty-one years, four months and twelve days, he won a glorious and imperishable name, and one that posterity will delight to cherish and honor.”

The emphasis is my own and I did so to highlight the broad strokes that typically accompany these kinds of “studies.”  Does this characterization of Stuart have any basis in the history?  According to Stuart biographer Emory Thomas the answer is no: “During his first year at Emory & Henry a campus religious revival swept James into the Methodist Church.  At home at Laurel Hill, James’s mother had been an Episcopalian, his father was probably Presbyterian; but apart from Elizabeth Stuart’s moral strictures, James had not had much religious education or background.  And even after his revival experience at Emory & Henry, his letters to family and friends contain few, if any, religious references. (p. 13)  Thomas goes on to mention that many of his military orders did contain references to “Divine Providence.”  I quote Thomas not to challenge the idea that Stuart was not a religious man, but to suggest that the subject is much more complicated than these so-called Christian authors admit.  The biggest problem for many of these studies is the failure to seriously consider the rich secondary literature that addresses the place of religion in nineteenth-century America.  During a recent visit to my local bookstore I noticed a couple copies of Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend by Richard Williams, which makes constant reference to his religion as evidence of his paternalism towards his slaves.  I spent a few minutes going through the bibliography and was not surprised by the almost complete absence of the relevant secondary literature that covers religion in the antebellum South.

The other problem is the failure to see the role of conditions in the postwar South that reinforced this belief in the myth of the Christian Cavalier.  This is very important because if you are not aware of the political, social, and economic conditions that shaped the way Americans – and in this case white Southerners – chose to remember their leaders than you will not be able to fully interpret the source material.  Historian Peter Carmichael makes this very clear in an essay on Turner Ashby, who many would argue fits neatly into this Christian Warrior category.  [To the right is John P. Strain's "Black Knight]

Until recently every generation of white southerners since the war has learned, like some catechism, that all Confederates were gallant and moral, that they fought for a Christian nation, and that they protected the honor of their women against barbaric Yankee hordes.  Those who strayed from this dogma often became social outcasts.  Postwar southerners, consequently, came to rely on chivalry as an explanatory device to give meaning to and understanding of the Confederate cause.  No matter how poor their region had become after the Civil War, or how repressive against black people,white southerners could tell themselves that they came from a noble breed….If postwar southerners had examined Ashby as a rural leader who engaged in brutal partisan warfare, they would have overthrown the cavalier tradition and the basic tenets of the Lost Cause.  Few people are capable of stepping outside their experience and critiquing the assumptions of their world.  Over time, however, it should be easier to move away from the mythical Ashby [not to mention Stuart, Jackson, Lee, etc.], to look at his military career within the social context of the Shenandoah Valley, and to see through the romantic haze of the past.  By doing so, one finds a much different war in Virginia, a place where white society was badly divided, where fighting was uncivilized, and where Confederate leaders lived not as saints but as regular people who possessed the virtues and faults of all humans. ["Turner Ashby's Appeal in The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 ed. Gary W. Gallagher (pp. 167-69; in addition to Carmichael's article, see Paul C. Anderson's excellent book, Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and Southern Mind]

I find these so-called Christian biographies to be dangerous because they perpetuate the kinds of myths that divide. The authors may not intend to do this, but the upshot is a reinforcement of stereotypes and divisions that have little if anything to do with history.  When is the last time you came across a book on the Christian virtues of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman?  I guess we’re satisfied to think of Grant in the voice of Jason Robards.  I know some of my readers are going to conclude that this is evidence of some kind of religious bias.  Well, it’s not.  I am fascinated by the history of nineteenth-century America and especially the South, and religion is an important component to understanding Americans on both sides of the Potomac.  It’s too important to leave to individuals with no real interest or training in the writing of history.  There are plenty of excellent studies that focus specifically on religion; they may not be as exciting as the colorful stories contained in many of these Christian biographies and they may not be personally inspiring.  That said, if you do need inspiration don’t go to the world of historical fantasy, perhaps you should browse the Self-Help section of your local bookstore.

Creating Neo-Confederates

I decided to follow up yesterday’s depressing news story out of Mississippi involving Claude Tubberville and his inane assertions about the Civil War. What follows is a sample of the kinds of evidence that James McPherson uses in his article, “Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Southern Textbook Crusade” which appeared in an edited collection titled, The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture edited by Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh. David Woodbury is rightfully disturbed over at of Battlefields and Bibliophiles regarding Tubervilles claims of “educating” school children and I urge you to read his reaction. As a teacher I can add very little to his thoughts.

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:

    Reject a book that speaks of the Constitution other than [as] a compact between Sovereign states.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.

    Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves.Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholders of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves.

    Reject a text-book that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis.

    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:

    “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.“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).
    “Gen. Lee freed his slaves before the war began and Gen. Ulysses S. Grand did not free his until the war ended.

    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.”
    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.