Celebrating Revisionist History

“[T]he enemy of Civil War history is everything people think they know about the conflict.” — Ed Ayers.

Thanks to everyone for the emails and comments about my most recent op-ed in the New York Times Disunion column.  Yesterday I took some time to catch up on some old posts.  What I value most about the Disunion site is its continued emphasis on introducing top-notch scholarship to a broad general audience.  Anyone who follows this column from its beginning through to 2015 will surely walk away with a firm grounding in Civil War history.  A few readers have suggested that the best articles ought to be collected in book form or in some other format and I couldn’t agree more.  They make for ideal high school level readings.

One of the best reasons as to why this site is so important can be found in William Thomas’s recent essay on how Southern railroads utilized slave labor.  I’ve mentioned Will’s book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America, a number of times and even included it in my “best of 2011” list.  Thomas’s research expands our understanding of how slave labor was utilized beyond the fields, its profitability, and its place within Americans’ understanding of their own exceptional place on the world stage.  In short, it reminds us of why revisionist history is so important to our understanding of the past.  Consider the following responses from a few readers:

In addition to the ownership by corporations, which I knew but had no idea it was apparently so extensive, it is astonishing (and appalling) that slaves could be used as collateral for loans. Thanks for another interesting and informative article in this series.

Wow, mention of corporation-owned slaves is just not in our school textbooks. How was their existance different than the agricultural/farm slaves? The Ballton’s experience would make for a fascinating film. truth can be stranger than fiction.

Wait a minute, does this mean that a substantial percentage of slaves were owned by corporations? All my life I have never heard of slaves owned by anyone but individuals. By families. What was it like to be owned by a corporation? Were the enslaved on average treated the same, better, or worse? Are there any corporate equivalents to the stories of slaves who chose to take care of their owners possessions when Union troops appeared?

I love the sense of surprise that comes through in their responses.  For most people history is made up of a set of stories, some of which are more closely guarded than others or are more popular within a certain community.   Depending on when and how these stories are learned can determine the response to the introduction of new information.  In the case of the Civil War era many people want nothing more than to hear the same stories told well.  In this case the reaction to new interpretations is often accompanied by a defensive or dismissive posture.

If we can manage to step back, however, from our own personal investment in certain stories we can appreciate and even celebrate the introduction of new information and how it effects our understanding of the past.  It has the potential to challenge some of our most deeply engrained assumptions about what happened and why and new questions arise that beg for further research.  In this case this brief column forces readers to step away from their popular images of slavery from “Gone With the Wind” or their high school textbooks and further assumptions about the master – slave relationship as well as the future of slavery in 1861.  This is revisionist history at its best.

Why We Need History Education: Black Confederate Edition

It should come as no surprise that Representative Benton is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  This past weekend an SCV camp in South Carolina honored a slave for his “service” to the Confederacy.  Unfortunately, his personal history has no significance or meaning beyond the vague references that support the SCV’s narrow and self-serving slave narrative.  Henry Craig,

  • went to war with his master.
  • rescued his master on the battlefield and brought him home safely.
  • remained on the family’s property until the day he died.

Where have we heard this one before?

William Mahone and the Readjusters to the Rescue

Illustration of a White Member of the Readjuster Party Cajoling a Black Man to Vote

Looks like the Virginia General Assembly has been busy with resolutions about the Civil War era.  Last week I shared Sen. Henry Marsh’s resolution that would set aside a day to honor Abraham Lincoln and today I bring to you another resolution sponsored by Marsh that would honor black Virginians, who served in state government during Reconstruction.  The Senate committee approved the resolution and incorporated it by voice vote into SJR 13 Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868, recognizing African American representatives. The committee substitute was ordered printed and the resolution will now advance to the floor of the Senate.  I assume that for many Virginians this resolution makes more sense than one meant to honor Lincoln.  I tend to agree, but this resolution distorts a crucial moment in the state’s history.

Our standard narrative of Reconstruction goes something like this:  After the war the southern states were forced to re-write their state constitutions to conform to the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  In many of these states these changes were imposed by occupying federal armies.  Between 1865 and 1877 African Americans enjoyed a brief window of civil rights and political privileges that would not be seen again until the civil rights era of the 1950s and 60s.  The Compromise of 1877 left the southern states once again in control of their own futures and quickly instated a series of Jim Crow laws that left their African American population disfranchised and reduced to second class citizens.   In short, the black population was abandoned by the federal government.  This narrative has become so deeply embedded in our collective memory (at least in our textbooks) that we tend to assume that the end of Reconstruction led inevitably to Jim Crow.

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Silas Chandler on Voice of Russia Radio

Yesterday Myra Chandler Sampson and I spent about 45 minutes with Voice of America radio host, Ric Young, to discuss our recent Civil War Times article about Silas Chandler and related topics.  I thought the interview went well.  It was nice to have the opportunity to talk for an extended period of time and I was particularly interested in Myra’s reflections on a number of topics related to Civil War memory.  Have a listen.

I know I mentioned it before, but it bears repeating that I absolutely love the fact that Silas is pictured alone on the cover of the magazine.  That was a great move by the design staff.