Were Southern Slaveholders “Trapped”?

It’s always interesting to watch the way the comments evolve in response to specific posts.  In a recent post I made the mistake of mentioning Robert E. Lee, which led to a lengthy discussion in the comments section about his relationship to slavery.  I was struck by a comment from one reader who characterized men like Lee and other Southerners as "trapped" by slavery.  Here is his comment:

We will agree to disagree. It was a complicated relationship. Evil, for certain. But one in which whites felt they were trapped; trapped by their own ancestors’ doing, of course, but nonetheless trapped. Northerners had already built their industrial economy on the capital earned via the slave trade and did not have the same economic interest in slavery by the mid 19th century. It was convenient for them to condemn Southerners since they could do so from the security of an economy built upon the backs of slaves sold to Southerners. I maintain that Lee, like Jefferson and many other Virginians, hated the institution and would have preferred it "go away." Accusing Lee of doing what was "fashionable" reveals, I believe, a lack of understanding of the man’s true character. If reputation and "fashion" were his concerns, he would have chosen to ride to victory at Lincoln’s offer rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Lee was first, a man of principle, not fashion.

I worry about this characterization of slaveholders.  If they were "trapped" or unable to acknowledge an alternative then what are we to make of Southern ambassadors discussed by Charles Dew in Apostles of Disunion or Alexander Stephens’s "Cornerstone Speech"?  These are people who have thought carefully about what it would mean if a system of white racial hierarchy were to cease to exist.  In that speech he acknowledges that Jefferson and the rest of the boys believed "that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically." [I discussed this speech with my survey classes today.]  My point is that to characterize Stephens and others as trapped is to ignore the fact that they were indeed aware of alternatives, but for the obvious reasons believed them to be reflective of Northern "fanaticism." 

There is a tension between the scholarship of Gordon Wood who is fond of pointing out that to criticize the Founders for not following through and abolishing slavery is to accuse them of failing to arrive at a conclusion that they could not identify.  I think Wood has a point here; we don’t want to engage in presentism, rather we want to identify as much as possible with the limits of their intellectual world.  The problem is that there is a growing body of literature that highlights the extent to which white Southerners did voluntarily emancipate their slaves following the Revolution.  The best book on this subject is Melvin Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom From the 1790’s Through the Civil War.  The book won a number of awards, including the Bancroft Prize.  From the review in The Washington Post:

Now comes Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox, whose dissonances are likely to shake the usual orthodoxies. In colonial Virginia and across the upper South, slavery always had eminent critics, among them George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other great Virginians. Among their intellectual heirs was young Richard Randolph of Prince Edward County, a member of one of the state’s distinguished families who had enjoyed a Northern education at Columbia and Princeton. When he died in 1796, Randolph instructed his executors in a will that Ely calls "a ringing abolitionist manifesto" to free his slaves and settle them on family lands. Some two decades passed before his testamentary wishes were executed, but executed they were, in the face of some difficulty, by his faithful widow, Judith. Former slave families were installed on Randolph properties along the Appomattox River in a settlement called Israel Hill, a promised land. The community endured well into the 20th century until oral memory faded — it was studied late in the 19th century by a young W. E. B. DuBois — and many of its members achieved substantial economic independence. They became boatmen, hauling goods between Farmville and Petersburg, tobacco workers in early packing factories, farmers, woodworkers and other craftsmen.

Along with Ely’s book I also recommend Andrew Levy’s The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves.  I am not suggesting that we use Randolph and Carter as our standard by which to judge the actions of all slaveholders, but we need to understand that slaveholders believed in their "peculiar institution" and were willing to fight a war to protect it. 

The idea that slaveholders were trapped perhaps makes it easier to distance their actions – especially in the case of Lee, Jackson, and the rest of the Confederate pantheon – from slavery.  Referencing Northerners drives home the image of slaveholders as trapped.  Of course Northern involvement in slavery is essential to understanding its continued hold on the South and the nation, but that seems to me to have little to do with how white Southerners identified and worked to protect their slave-holding society.   

Thomas Nast’s Reconstruction

Today my AP classes started Reconstruction.  I always enjoy teaching this section of U.S. History and given that we are using a text by Eric Foner, my students get the latest historiographical trends.  On the first day I try to present and engage my students in a discussion of the challenges that Reconstruction presents.  We examine the perspectives of the newly freed slaves, Republican Party, and white Southerners.  The first point I make is that the distinction between the Civil War and Reconstruction is an artificial one used by historians to more easily carve up the past.  Well, perhaps that is to go too far, but my point is that the issues involved are in large part a continuation of trends from the war years.

Thomas Nast’s images are some of the most useful sources for the classroom.  For example, the image to the left is titled “And Not This Man (August 5, 1865) and can be used to examine the debate about civil rights for black Americans and especially those who fought for the United States.  I ask my students to think about the intention of the illustrator and the message that he hopes to communicate.  Without sharing the title of the image I ask the students to imagine the words spoken as this crippled veteran is presented to the nation.  Students are able to connect Nast’s early work with the goals of the Republican Party, especially during Military Reconstruction.

The nice thing about Nast’s work is that it can be used to track the progress of Reconstruction or  the commitment on the part of Republicans to continue the policies that led to important political inroads made by black Americans.  As many of you know some of the most committed Republicans grew weary of their ability to bring about change forcefully in the South.  Younger Republicans who had not lived through the turbulent decade of the 1850’s were more concerned about an expanding capitalist economy and Northerners generally gravitated to the allure of reunion and reconciliation.  All of this comes out in Nast’s later work.  Compare the dignified soldier in the first image with the conduct of black politicians in a reconstructed state.  Did portrayals of black politicians in the South make it easier for Republicans, that were at one time committed to social and political change, to abandon Reconstruction?

Part of the problem in teaching Reconstruction is that there is simply too much good material that can be used.  Let me know what you do.

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.

Civil War Memory 101

Since this site has experienced a very sharp increase in the number of visitors over the last few weeks I thought it might be helpful to introduce the overall focus of this blog with a series of questions that I am preoccupied with.

Robert Penn Warren: “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

1. How have Americans at different times chosen to remember the Civil War and how has that collective memory been shaped by a need to forget certain aspects of the war?

2. What are the important lessons to be learned about our Civil War and how should those lessons be taught in our schools and other public spaces?

3. Why might it be important to step back and analyze the way nations have chosen to remember their history?

4. What is the relationship between history and political power?

5. What is it about the Civil War that explains its continued presence in our culture and its strong tug on our imaginations?

6. What was the Civil War’s most significant result?

7. What explains the continued popularity of Lost Cause themes throughout the country?