That All Important Personal Connection To The Past

Many of you know that my Civil War elective is structured in part as a research seminar.  In addition to reading a wide range of secondary sources on important interpretive debates my students write research papers using the Valley of the Shadow.  We are just beginning the process of narrowing topics and formulating questions that will guide each student through the collection of primary sources.  One of my students lives in Augusta County and has the last name of Hanger.  I’ve come across the name before in the course of my own research on the Valley, and was pleased to learn that this student is connected to that larger family which traces their history back into the antebellum period.  Family members have been politically active at both the county and state levels throughout much of Virginia’s history.  When we started this student thought that she might research her family, but was unsure as to whether the amount of information on the family would be sufficient for a research essay.  Well, we did a few searches and the results are truly amazing.  Here is the census report and slave census report for 1860.  Here is just a small sample of the letters authored by Hangers plus a diary by Michael Reid Hanger. There are many more letters which mention various Hangers both during and after the war.  Finally, here are the soldier’s records for the Hanger family.

This student has decided to focus on James Edward Hanger who lost his leg in July at Phillipi and is reportedly the first amputation of the war.  Here is his service record and report in the Staunton Vindicator of his wounding.  Within three months he had invented the first artifical limb modeled on the human leg and hinged at the knee. Hanger constructed factories in Staunton and Richmond, and after WWI he built branches in France and England. On 15 June 1919 he died and was buried in Washington, D.C., his home since 1906.  Today Hanger Prosthetics continues the work begun by James Edward Hanger.

I guess you can sense that I am very excited about this student’s project.  We were both surprised by the amount of information we found; what is presented above is a small sample.  At one point I was tempted to ask the class if they would be interested in focusing on the Hanger family, but soon realized that this was more about my own interests rather than any concern for what they might be interested in researching.  Luckily this is a student who has a very serious interest in the Civil War and now in her own family’s role in that war.  I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.

Understanding the Confederate Soldier

With little time to do any serious blogging today I thought I would extend yesterday’s theme, this time in reference to understanding the Confederate soldier.  Our friendly blogger at citizen.com has provided an overview of what made the Confederate soldier tick.  Yes, we’ve had studies by Wiley, McPherson, Hess, Linderman, Berry, Manning, Carmichael, etc., but none of them really gets to the core of the issue.  Here are some of the salient points to ponder:

That warrior ethic, which would carry the outnumbered and outgunned Confederacy a very long way, came from long traditions of service that had begun so many centuries before in Scotland and the north of Britain.

But not only the Revolutionary War spirit drove them. As I wrote of the Scots-Irish tradition in my novel Fields of Fire, the culture even to this day is viscerally fired by “that one continuous linking that had bound father to son from the first wild resolute angry beaten Celt who tromped into the hills rather than bend a knee to Rome two thousand years ago, who would…chew the bark off a tree, fill his belly with wood rather than surrender from starvation and admit defeat to an advancing civilization. That same emotion passing with the blood: a fierce resolution that found itself always in a pitch against death, that somehow, over the centuries came to accept the fight as a birthright, even as some kind of proof of life.  [Now who can argue with that.]

…The Confederate Army rose like a sudden wind out of the little towns and scattered farms of a still unconquered wilderness……….the Great Captains called, as they had at Bannockburn and King’s Mountain, and the able-bodied men were quick to answer.

…..the Confederate soldier fought because, on the one hand, in his view he was provoked, intimidated, and ultimately invaded, and, on the other, his leaders had convinced him that his was a war of independence in the same sense as the Revolutionary War…..This was not so much a learned response to historical events as it was a cultural approach that had been refined by centuries of similar experiences. The tendency to resist outside aggression was bred deeply into every heart—and still is today.

The end result was that on the battlefield the Confederacy, whose culture had been shaped by the clannish, leader-worshipping, militaristic Scots-Irish, fought a Celtic war while the Union, whose culture had been most affected by intellectual, mercantile English settlers, fought and entirely different manner. At bottom, the northern army was driven from the top like a machine…..by contrast, the Southern army was a living thing emanating from the spirit of its soldiers – …The Southern Army was run like a family, confronting a human crisis.

I think it’s safe to say that Grady McWhiney is resting well.

Thinking About Eyes On The Prize

Some of you are no doubt watching the wonderful Civil Rights Documentary Eyes on the Prize which is airing this week on PBS.  I’ve watched it a number of times and have used segments in the classroom, but every time I view it I am transfixed by the images and especially the interviews.  Last night included segments on the Lunch Counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides [I highly recommend Ray Arsenault’s new study of the Freedom Rides which was released last year by Oxford Press.]  New Kid on the Hallway offers a nice summation of my own thinking when it comes to understanding the Southern white perspective:

Total non sequitur, naive white liberal guilt variety: I’m watching Eyes on the Prize, and it just kills me to watch a bunch of smug white people – which, in general, is a group to which I belong – cheerfully defending their resistance to civil rights as if such resistance is absolutely natural and right. The scary thing is that to them, it was. They’re so cheery about it because they’re so secure in this belief that they can’t even take the contrary seriously. It always scares me to think, if I had grown up in the south during the period of Jim Crow – would I have supported segregation? I mean, if I’d been taught from childhood that it was “right” and “natural” that people of different races should live separately, how much would it have taken to convince me otherwise? Because there were plenty of evil, evil people who supported segregation. But I’m sure there were plenty of ordinary, reasonably good people who did, too, just because it was the way it had always been, and they probably thought that if that was the case, there must have been a reason for it.

And you know, none of this happened very long ago.

When I watch those interviews I almost want to reach into the television and shake those people into my world or what I assume is some semblance of rationality and understanding.  The challenge, of course, is to appreciate that white Southerners (“ordinary, reasonably good people”) were working through new and difficult experiences based on their own racial assumptions and a Jim Crow legal system that was taken for granted.  In short, what they considered reasonable or rational.  New Kid highlights what for me is the moral backdrop of my own interest in reading and researching the past, and that is the role of luck.  We need to be reminded that much of what goes into our “selves” or personalities involves a set of conditions that we have no control over, including when, where, and to whom we are born.  History provides an arena for thinking about moral case studies that are not so removed from what we consider possible behavior once the role of luck is acknowledged.  [Psychology also provides examples, most notably Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience to authority.]  Would I have supported segregation if a few conditions had been changed?  The answer is more than likely YES.  And that is why it must be understood.  Thinking about history in this way brings me closer to people that for moral reasons I am tempted to push away psychologically.  To run the risk of sounding philosophically vague, and borrowing a phrase from one of my undergraduate professors, the realization is that I AM THAT PERSON.

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?