Category Archives: Southern History

A Statement To My Readers

I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to the comments to my recent post, Jacksonian Paternalism in the Extreme that accuse me of being both anti-South and anti-Christian.  You can read the comments on your own.  Now I imagine that most of my regular readers see through these comments as a reflection of an overly simplistic and naive view of American history and historical methodology, but this does provide an opportunity to make a few points for the record. 

First, I am the first to admit that many of my posts could be and probably are interpreted as anti-Christian and anti-South.  And I think the reason for this is that for many Civil War enthusiasts the starting interpretive points revolve around the Lost Cause theory which postulates a unified white South around the fervent belief that specific leaders such as Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson represent the ideal Christian Warrior.  As I’ve stated on a number of occasions on this blog, one of my central goals has been to challenge this view of the war and the South.  The fundamental problem with the Lost Cause interpretation is its tendency to paint the South and the war with broad strokes whose original purpose was to soothe the pain of defeat in a post-emancipationist world.  In short, this is not history, but a rationalization to deal with the hard realities of defeat. 

Careful readers of this blog know that I am anything but unfriendly to the South.  The difficulty for many, however, is to see "the South" as anything but the "white South" — narrowly understood.  Not only is it a "white South" of Cavaliers but it tends to be reduced to the four years of the Civil War.  It’s as if everything beforehand was just a preview and what followed, a big unfortunate mistake.  The tendency is to dwell on those four years, which is dangerous.   More importantly, historians such as William Freehling and Ed Ayers have argued convincingly that there were "many Souths."  My job as a historian has been to try as best as I can to understand the many places and the ways in which various groups over time created their communities through constant interaction.  Once you dispense with this narrow understanding of what it means to study "the South" you will see that I am anything but anti-anything.  One final point: as far as I am concerned the most significant push to expand the boundaries of freedom in this country occurred in the South – the first as Fugitive slaves took it upon themselves to push Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and recruitment of U.S.C.T.’s and the second, one hundred years later during the Civil Rights Movement.  Isn’t that what our country is about? 

As to the second point that I am anti-Christian, all I can say is that religion is a complex topic so one should be careful to conclude anything without careful consideration.  My criticisms of Lee and Jackson as embodiments of the Lost Cause idea of Christian gentility should not be mistaken for any conclusions about my view of Christianity.  That I even have to make this explicit seems ludicrous.   I am fascinated by the historical Lee and Jackson and have read multiple scholarly monographs and articles about both.  The question of how their respective religious outlooks shaped their broader views is absolutely relevant and has been tackled by numerous historians.  My concern is in reducing these men and others down to an overly simplistic label that says more about our own agendas rather than anything historical.  This obsession with establishing the Christian virtues of Lee, Jackson and other reminds me of our current obsession with the religious convictions of the Founding Fathers. Liberals and Conservatives debate the hot issues like abortion and capital punishment by claiming some kind of ownership or monopoly about what the Founders believed and conclude with some statement of vindication.

I did not come to the study of the Civil War and the South until my mid-20′s.  I say this because I understand that many people who grew up with the Civil War in their backyard have much more of an emotional attachment to the events and people involved.  While I do celebrate certain aspects of American history I tend to be pretty unemotional about the war.  My guess is that many readers take my overly critical stance against the Lost Cause as evidence of some kind of approval for the North and Lincoln.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I admit that I admire Lincoln for a number of reasons and I am glad that the North won and slavery was abolished.  However, I do not read or research as someone who is rooting for a certain side.  I am currently reading a new study of the Copperheads who were incredibly criticial of Lincoln and the Republicans.  As far as I can tell my blood pressure has remained steady througout the reading.

As I suggested at the beginning, most of you do not need to be reminded of what is contained above.  For those of you who are new to Civil War Memory think of this post as an explicit overview of some of the themes that course throughout this blog.   

 

Jacksonian Paternalism In The Extreme

It’s time for another trip into the wonderful world of antebellum Southern white paternalism.  Today we visit with Thomas Jackson, friend of the black man and uplifter of their souls. 

Richard G. Williams has recently released Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend, which "sheds light on Jackson’s love of God, and his desire to teach God’s word to all his children." Williams writes:

Jackson owned slaves, yet he wanted all people to know God. He asked that his church, Lexington Presbyterian Church, expand by more than 30 seats to accommodate increasing numbers of free blacks and slaves. In 1855 he began a black Sunday school, free for whomever wanted to attend. In violation of Virginia law, he and his wife taught black men, women and children to read, hoping that someday they could read God’s words.

On Sunday evenings, Jackson held prayer sessions with his wife, his slaves and any other black person that wished to partake. He, along with all those in attendance, was breaking the law.

According to Williams, "Jackson believed that for whatever reason, God allowed it (slavery) to happen. It wasn’t his business to thwart the will of God."  "Jackson’s example teaches us," continues Williams "that we cannot always change the difficult circumstances and injustices we see around us, but we can change how we react to them. I think Jackson, like a lot of the Southerners, was uncomfortable with it (slavery)."

First, if we are to follow this logic than what is to stop us from praising all Southern slaveholders who fervently believed that they were acting in a way that was beneficial to their "family members."  Many slaves in the antebellum South were encouraged to practice Christianity, so this doesn’t single Jackson out in any significant way.  And how does a belief that God permitted it to happen help us with any moral assessment of Jackson?  People believe all kinds of nutty things about what God allows and does not allow.  Perhaps Williams explores the rich literature on the complex interactions between slaves and slaveholders.  My guess is that Jackson’s behavior towards his slaves and other free blacks had much to do with the fact that both groups presented themselves in ways that demanded a recognition of their humanity (pace Genovese). 

Williams warns us not to judge Jackson and others through the lens of our 21st century values.  However, the alternative of judging based on mid-nineteenth century values is fraught with difficulties and are clearly exposed in most of these so-called Christian-inspired biographies.  If we are to praise Jackson, Lee and others (typically white Southerners and there is even someone who is going to apply this approach to of all people, Nathan B. Forrest) than what are we to make of those in the abolitionist camp?  Are they less praiseworthy because they mistakenly acknowledged that the Christian God and slavery were incompatible? 

 

Another Poor Historical Analogy

Today’s editorial by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post analyzes Condoleezza Rice’s recent reference to the Civil Rights Struggle as an appropriate analogy to the war on terror and the Iraq War.  The comment was made on 60 Minutes in an interview with Katie Couric.  I only hope that 60 Minutes never allows her to play reporter on one of their future segments. 

"Nobody can go back and reinvent the past," Condoleezza Rice told Katie Couric on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. But this nugget of truth came amid a flood of retrospective reinvention in which Rice equated the war in Iraq with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s — and left me wondering whether I was hearing polished sophistry or a case of total denial.

I’m not sure how many more analogies I can handle from this administration – from the Nazis to postwar Europe and now to the Civil Rights Movement. When will it end.

Rice equates the racists who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young girls — including Denise McNair, a childhood playmate — with modern-day suicide bombers who kill in the name of jihad. "Some people say, ‘Well, they do it to prove a political point,’ " she said. "Then why go after little girls? Or innocent people standing at a bus stop in Britain or in Madrid?"

The problem as Robinison points out is that it throws all "evil-doers" in the same basket and asks that we conceptualize without drawing any distinctions.

In her interview with Couric, Rice went on to argue that critics of the administration’s Middle East policies are like the racists who contended that black Americans were not ready to participate in democracy because they were "kind of childlike" and couldn’t handle the vote. But that’s a bizarre analogy. The last stand by white racists against integration and voting rights for African Americans wasn’t about patronizing attitudes some whites might have held — it was about power. It was about the knowledge that blacks were not just ready but also determined to exercise the right to vote.

How convenient.  The first problem is that Couric is such a poor interviewer that she failed to force Rice to talk about the problems that plague our policy in Iraq apart from the safety of her manufactured moral high ground as outlined in her flimsy analogy.  If ever there was a time for tough interviewing (in the best sense of the word) it is now.  Robinson rightly points out that Rice’s analogy "makes it sound as if those who disagree with the administration are standing in the schoolhouse door."  Our public leaders should be held to a higher standard when it comes to having to account for their decisions.  Why we allow them to hide in the past is beyond me.

 

Where History and Myth Meet: Winnie Davis

I am just about finished with Joan Cashin’s new biography, First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2006).  It is well written, includes just enough analysis, and is based largely on manuscript sources.  This is the first modern scholarly biography of Varina Davis.  I was struck by Cashin’s analysis of Winnie Davis, who was popularly known as the "Daughter of the Confederacy."  This was due to her decision to accompany her father on a trip through the South beginning in 1886 to take part in celebrations of the Lost Cause.  What most people don’t know is that  the identification of Winnie as the embodiment of everything that was noble and pure about the "Old South" and the Confederacy was manufactured.  From Cashin’s biography:

The title was factually correct, since Winnie was born in Richmond in 1864, but she did not remember the war and actually knew little of the South.  In many respects she was scarcely an American, having spent almost half her life abroad before she returned to the States in 1881.  In Karlsruhe [Germany, where she attended school] she kept a scrapbook with numerous mementos from such figures as Bismarck and Moltke, and a few images from her native country, including the Confederate flag.  She was fluent in German and French, and her accent when she spoke English was mittel-European.  Sometimes Winnie had to look up words such as gingham in the dictionary, and she made mistakes in usage, as if she were trying to translate German noun constructions into English.  She is best described as a transnational figure–unlike her mother, an American who was drawn to European culture, or her father, who felt homesick in the Luxembourg Gardens. (pp. 247-48)

What is interesting and ably argued for by Cashin is that not even Varina Davis would have provided for a more honest vindication or confirmation of the Lost Cause mantra.  Her support of the Confederacy was challenged throughout the war and her decision to reside in New York City following the death of her husband alienated and upset many white Southerners.  She even published a very positive account of Ulysses S. Grant in a New York City newspaper.  This was a complex woman who was born in Natchez and was educated in the North and later studied under a private tutor from New England; in addition, she maintained contact with Northerners even during the war and after it had been deemed illegal by the Confederate government. 

 

Bob Dylan’s Civil War

I can’t believe that it took me so long to discover the music of Bob Dylan.  The recent Martin Scorsese Moderntimescvr200 documentary No Direction Home which aired on PBS, along with my colleague John Amos, served as the trigger.  I’ve been hooked ever since.  The most recent release – titled "Modern Times" – is absolutely brilliant.  It is hard to believe that Dylan is still able to produce high-quality and thoughtful music.  Today’s New York Times reports that Dylan seems to have "borrowed" some of his lyrics from Southern poet Henry Timrod:

Henry Timrod was born in 1828 and was a private tutor on plantations before the Civil War started. He tried to sign up for the Confederate Army but was unable to serve in the field because he suffered from tuberculosis. He worked as an editor for a daily paper in Columbia, S.C., and began writing poems about the war and how it affected the residents of the South. He also wrote love poems and ruminations on nature. During his lifetime he published only one volume of poetry. Among his most famous poems were “Ode Sung on the Occasion of Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead at Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, South Carolina 1866,” and “Ethnogenesis.”

Mr. Dylan has long been interested in the Civil War: in “Chronicles: Vol. 1,” Mr. Dylan’s autobiography, published by Simon & Schuster in 2004, he writes about spending time in the New York Times combing through microfilm copies of newspapers published from 1855 to 1865. “I crammed my head full of as much of this stuff as I could stand and locked it away in my mind out of sight, left it alone,” Mr. Dylan wrote.

I just purchased tickets to see Dylan in Fairfax, Virginia in November.  Although I’ve heard that his voice is not what it used to be live, it will be enough to be in the same room with a real American icon.  Go out and pick up his latest release.  You won’t be disappointed.