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.

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!