Category Archives: Southern History

Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free: An Analysis

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The National Park Service recently released a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free, which focuses on the experiences of both black and white Virginians in the Fredericksburg area during the Civil War.  The production is another example of the NPS’s efforts to broaden their interpretation of Civil War battlefields to acknowledge the importance of the civilian perspective as well as the role of emancipation and race.  I invited historian John Hennessy who is currently employed as the Chief of Interpretation for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and the script’s author to share his thoughts about the movie.  Mr. Hennessy was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the movie for review.  Feedback is of course welcome, especially from those who have seen the movie. 

John Hennessy

Dominantly, we did the civilian film because the story is important.  The transformation of this war (from the Union perspective) from a relatively straightforward effort to re-assemble the Union in 1861 into a consumptive conflagration intended to restore the Union by transforming the nature of it is, I believe, the single most important thematic link between all Civil War sites.  Every site has something to say and stories to tell about that transformation.  Fredericksburg has more to tell than most.  With four battles spanning 18 months; with a town bombarded and looted; with civilians fleeing as refugees into he countryside; with thousands of slaves refusing to await emancipation, and instead seizing freedom themselves; with a landscape desolated not just by battle, but by the mere presence of armies; with changing Union attitudes toward the concept of a Hard War; with a local economy that suffered wartime damage enough to require nearly a century to recover; with the loss of life that vividly reflects the immense human cost of this war; with leaders struggling to adapt to a changing war, and to reckon with the political implications of every victory or misstep–the story we can tell goes miles beyond pure military science or military history.  There is hardly place in America where a visitor can get a better understanding of this war in all its manifestations, and in all its consequences, as it evolved from relatively simple to profoundly complex and significant.

Our primary purpose in making the film is to do good history–to begin th process of showing that what the armies did reverberated beyond the bound of their camps and colleagues in uniform.   We wanted to show that different people often perceived the same event in entirely different ways (for example, the traditional monolithic interpretation that "Fredericksburg" was horrified by the arrival of the Union army in 1862 is simply not  true; slaves–literally half the population in this region–saw the Union army in VERY different terms than did white residents; for them, the Union army meant not horror, but opportunity).  We wanted to illustrate, by using Fredericksburg as an example, that the Civil War transformed not in abstract, legalistic ways, but in physical, financial, and cultural ways, and that the impact of the war still reverberates (though I think we were not as successful on this last point as we should have been).

How has it been received?  Very positively, largely.  The most common negative comment is that it focuses too much on slavery.  A few have suggested that we were just being politically correct by addressing slavery.  About one-third of the film addresses the experiences of slaves and the significance of that experience.  Objectively–given that the civilian population in the region was almost exactly 50% slave–spending just one-third of the film addressing slavery is too little, not too much. But, in the context of a society often instructed that slaves and slaver were not and are not an integral part of the Civil War story, it’s not surprising that even the quantitatively inadequate treatment in the film strikes some as too much.

In our visitor center, where we show the film once a day (we show it regularly at Chatham), the staff has noted that visitors just don’t seem to expect or be prepared for something that doesn’t focus on the battles themselves.  Again, that’s not surprising given our long tradition of focusing only on military history.  I think over time and even decades, part of our goal should be to increase visitors’ expectations so that something of this sort doesn’t surprise them…..

There have been a few rumbles that we shouldn’t be doing this sort of interpretation at all–that we should confine ourselves solely to the military story, as we have for decades.  The reasons for that are well-discussed on this board, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on them.  I can only say, again, that our commitment is to doing good history, and to me that means untangling all the impacts and meanings of the events and sites we’re charged with interpreting.  In that context, it seems to me, the civilian story is unarguably an important part of our story, one that’s both important to tell and well worth hearing.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the civilian film has brought to the surface some fear that the NPS is going to overawe our traditional, battle-oriented interpretation with abstract forays into social history, cultural meanings, and modern relevance.  That’s silly. The civilian film hasn’t replaced a thing.  It’s an addition to our program, delivered with an eye toward according MORE significance to the battles fought here rather than less. We have not and will not diminish our commitment to telling the story of the battles this park was founded to interpret–that’s our job. But we will, I hope, constantly plow new historical ground that reveals the full impact and importance of those events.  Both good history and historical justice demand it.

Kevin M. Levin

One of the central themes of this blog has been to challenge the way we think about our Civil War.  As we approach the sesquicentennial it is safe to conclude that we are still wedded to an interpretation that treats the war as part of a broader narrative of American Exceptionalism or as an arena where the virtues of courage and steadfastness were practiced by men on both sides.  From this perspective little has changed in how we view the war over the last one hundred years.  According to this view our Civil War is something to celebrate rather than explore by continually asking new questions.  Slavery and emancipation play almost no role since it forces us to address the tough questions of what caused the war, how the war evolved, and its short- and long-term consequences.  No, better to keep our attention on the battlefields where such messiness can be avoided. 

The battle of Fredericksburg is the paradigm example of this tendency.  We tend to see the December 1862 battle as a slug-fest where men on both sides were slaughtered and where Robert E. Lee could utter his famous line about the horrors of war.  Visitors to the battlefield walk the path along the Stone Wall and Maryes Heights, but probably think little about the civilians caught in the middle or the timing of the battle which was situated between the release of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and its execution on January 1, 1863.  The war was changing in profound ways that few could have predicted at the beginning, but given our prejudices for a narrow conception of the battlefield one would never know it.  If we look at the battle at all from the civilian perspective it is as a white Southerner who viewed the occupation of the town as a terrible tragedy.  What is missed, of course, is the slave perspective which interpreted the movements of Union soldiers not as "Yankee hordes", but as liberators. 

This broader perspective on the significance of Fredericksburg is nothing new for professional historians.  Recent social and cultural histories have opened up new areas of research and have enriched the way we think about individual campaigns and battles.  Unfortunately, there is a gulf between the kinds of questions that professional historians analyze and most Civil War enthusiasts who have an insatiable thirst for the minutiae of the battlefield and who – for any number of reasons – have an interest in maintaining a traditional interpretation of the war.  Over the past few years this debate has taken place on the very battlefields of the war and in the offices of the National Park Service.  As many of you know the NPS is now re-interpreting many of its Civil War sites to include references of civilian life as well as the touchy issues of race, slavery, and emancipation.  [My recent trip to Appomattox Court House is but one example.] 

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s contribution to this trend is a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free which looks at the war in the Fredericksburg area from the civilian perspectives of white Southerners and slaves.  What emerges is an incredibly rich account of how the war, and the battle specifically, altered life in the area in ways that few could have predicted.  The movie is rooted in the words of the participants themselves, which challenges the criticism that this "new" approach to doing history is simply a product of liberal or post-modern theory emanating from the academy. 

The wide-range of primary sources brings to life such unknown figures as the slave John Washington who eventually escaped as the Union army approached the town, as well as Dabney H. Maury, Fanny White, and Mary C. Knox who struggled through the hardships of occupation and the destruction of their homes; most importantly they struggled to understand and accept the end of slavery.  One of the strongest scenes takes place following the battle and involves a Union soldier escorting a slave family off their owner’s property and to freedom.  The woman of the house rushes to the family and pleads for them not to abandon her and the family.  The scene goes far in suggesting how little white Southerners understood their slave’s desire for freedom.  As Washington noted, "…life had a new joy awaiting me."    The message underlying the movie is clear: Only by focusing on the slave perspective can the real significance of military operations in 1862 be more clearly understood. 

Southern white woman are also featured prominently in this movie.  The war mobilized the entire Fredericksburg community and its woman are shown meeting to discuss how best to support the soldiers in the ranks.  Woman are also depicted as ardent supporters of the Confederate cause through their bitter hatred of "Yankee" soldiers.  One young woman noted in her diary, "They little no the hatred in our hearts."  Even towards the end of the war the civilians of Fredericksburg remained defiant and convinced that "with God we will be victorious."  Such a stance reinforces recent interpretations that white Southerners remained committed to the Confederacy until the very end and that defeat did not bring about a smooth reconciliation with the North.

The production staff for this movie should be congratulated for creating an entertaining and educational look at those groups and themes that have long been ignored at our Civil War battlefields.  As John Hennessy noted in his commentary, there will always be critics.  What we need to remember is that the Civil War does not belong to any one group.  Our job as historians is to continue to explore the difficult questions and find ways to share those insights with the general public.  I applaud the National Park Service and particularly the staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for their efforts.

Click here for a schedule and location

Click here for a review from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

 

New Study of White Southerners: 1945-1975

Here is a good rule to follow: Don’t start a new book the day before classes begin.  There has been some buzz about the recently-released study by Jason Sokol titled, There Goes My Everything: White Southerners In The Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975.  Sokol teaches at Cornell University and wrote his dissertation under Leon Litwack at UC Berkeley.  I am making my way through the introduction and I can’t put it down.  Check out the review in the Washington Post by Jonathan Yardley.

 

Guest Post

One of this blog’s readers recently emailed some thoughts about the conference that Mark Grimsley is organizing at Ohio State.  Given that I am in the middle of a blog hiatus I thought that it would make for an excellent guest post.  The author agreed and re-worked the material for that purpose.  From the author: “I should say that this is more of a thought piece, not really intended as an airtight argument so much as a way of imagining a way that we could fit the history of the United States into a tidy paradigm of decolonization and postcolonialism.”  Comments are welcome and the author will respond.

To start with, let me say that the conference Mark Grimsley is organizing on the war for the South from 1865-1965 is a wonderful and refreshing change.  One of the major problems with history in general is how a war serves as a break in periodization.  The historian, of course, has to limit the scope of inquiry.  A war provides a clearly delineated start and finish. The convenience of this approach is immediately obvious: it makes intuitive sense.  Unfortunately, the start and the finish also limit the range of causes and effects that can be observed.  The periodization provides a discursive break that in some instances overemphasizes the impact and changes wrought by war.  In many instances a war only magnifies or accelerates trends already present.  Rather than looking at what comes before a war and what results from the war, it may be beneficial to look at a sort of trans-war period.  All this of course is to say: the way the question is asked dictates how it is answered.  By raising a different question, Professor Grimsely is in effect giving us new and different answers.

Reading Professor Grimsley’s posts and articles relating to the conference, I noticed that the conference will look at the South after the Civil War as being in an extended insurgency or protracted war of decolonization.  What I present here are some thoughts on the United States fitting within a paradigm of decolonization.  While it is clear that the conference will be examining this issue from a military perspective, focusing more on the technical aspects of insurgency or low-level conflict, my analysis here is more along socio-political lines.  Finally, before I begin, let me define the terms I will be using.  I use “colonialism” to refer to direct political control of a territory (geographically separate) by another state, with the economic relationship strongly weighted to the benefit of the metropole. “Postcolonialism” refers to any point after direct political control ends but before autonomy is achieved.  I use “neocolonialism” to mean economic control of the territory, but not necessarily overt political control (though indirect control exercised through various political factions may; Colonialism and neocolonialism should be seen as gradients of a continuum, stretching from complete political control to autonomy.

The Civil War can be seen as the last in a series of the wars of the decolonization of the United States (this does imply that Reconstruction and Civil Rights are not a war of decolonization, which I will get to shortly). The first war of decolonization would be the French-Indian War, which was also the last in the series of Colonial Wars.  The French-Indian War eliminated the French as a serious threat to the British in North America. The level of involvement by the colonies was unprecedented.  More importantly, the influx of British troops fostered a sense of distinction and difference between the colonists and the metropolitan British (there is debate on this, but I find Fred Anderson’s work convincing in this regard). Combined with the series of imperial crises regarding taxation and defining the meaning of “colony” in the aftermath of the French-Indian War led to the American Revolution.  The American Revolution saw the creation of a national identity, and one is tempted to say, a national ideology (this is not to deny prior American anxieties of provincialism).  This ideology was one rooted in a firm belief in the benefits of capitalism and trade with a commitment to republican governance (though who was received a voice under republicanism was not clear).

Also worth noting at this point is how the American Revolution was extremely different from nearly every other war of decolonization.  First, British rule in America had not depended upon a single minority group (other than whites).  Typical of a colonial system is metropolitan rule through a class of subalterns, usually a traditionally marginalized minority.  Fearful of their status within the colony, they prove pliant and often willing collaborationists.  Before, during, and after the struggles for decolonization this minority group serves as a stand-in for the distant metropolitan authorities, receiving the approbation and ire of oppresses majority.  In the American colonies there was no single minority group that filled this role, and indeed there was no foreign ruling class.  The flexibility and upward mobility of capitalism firmly prevented the establishment of a hereditary ruling class.  The elite in America was not institutionalized, except broadly along the lines of race.  Second, there was no widespread critique of European liberalism, such as that presented by Marxism.  While Whigs and Tories might debate the path to achieve the most beneficial enactment of this, the overall goal was not questioned.

After the Revolution, America entered a protracted period of neocolonialism. The domestic political struggles, and foreign affairs centered on the best way to establish and ensure economic and political independence from European powers.  The Embargo Act, Quasi-War, and the War of 1812 can all be seen as struggles to complete the decolonization of America.  An indication of how deep these fears went is the persistent belief that all Indian disturbances were the result of British intrigue (not to mention the whole Citizen Genet affair and Aaron Burr’s intrigues along the Mississippi).  The War of 1812 seemed ended the threat of British reoccupation, but it still did not end the threat of neocolonialism.

Following the War of 1812, the domestic politics of the United States turned more towards economic expansion and establishing economic independence.  The South and the North did not disagree so much on the need for economic independence, but rather on the best way to achieve that economic independence.  Debates centered on slavery, and whether or not slave labor was a better path to development then free labor.  Because the two systems dictated differing economic policies on a national scale, they could not exist in the same country.  Yet the idea of what America should be was not so much in question as was the best way to get there (the Confederate Constitution was not radically different from the United States Constitution).  The rhetorical war escalates to insurgency in Bleeding Kansas then spreads to full-scale military conflict with the Civil
War.

Looking at the South as postcolonial also helps explain why so many ardent defenders of the Old South became proponents of the New South.  The struggle of the South to modernize was not radically changed by the Civil War.  The white elite wanted to modernize and throw of the chains of
economic dependence (notwithstanding cotton is king).  The new work by Genovese, O’Brien, and Carmichael pretty definitively shows that many in the South were looking to create a capitalist society that was not economically dependent on exports.  The Civil War accelerated these trends but did not change the trajectory of the South.  The goals of these developers were the same after the war as they were before the war.  Why reconciliation was so easy was because the only underlying fissure between the North and the South was the labor system used to attempt decolonization (and then the economic choices suggested by the different labor systems).  That is, the project of the North and the South (decolonization) was the same, just that the means to the end were different.  Because there was no major ideological difference about the ends of the American project, there was no impetus for a cycle of reprisal violence among whites.  When the Civil War answered the question of means, it also sparked a war of decolonization by the African-American community.

What is crucial to note, is that for the most part, from Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement, African-Americans did not want to overthrow the existing order.  Rather, they simply wanted to claim a place within it.  During Reconstruction, for the first time, African-Americans on a large scale were able to lay claim to being “American.”  White violence directed at blacks in America, before and after the Civil War, was aimed at ensuring their continued exclusion from the definition of “American.” Slavery was one form of this instutionalized violence.  The end of slavery did not end the violence, just changed the shape it took.

A war of decolonization aims to end colonial rule.  The colony aims to retrieve its ability to make political and economic choices.  Certainly this is what African-Americans wanted, but they also wanted to compel white Americans to recognize that blacks were African-Americans too.  The white counter-insurgents did not necessarily need to apply force in any consistent manner, but only needed to demonstrate that blacks were not considered American.  Whereas most struggles of decolonization aim to exclude the metropole (politically, culturally, and economically), the struggle of African-Americans was one of incorporation.

 

How The South Really Really Lost The Civil War

I was checking Amazon for upcoming releases and noticed that David J. Eicher is set to release a new study, titled Dixie Betrayed: How the South Really Lost the Civil War. Here is the description that I assume will be on the jacket:

In DIXIE BETRAYED, David Eicher reveals for the first time the story of the political conspiracy, discord, and dysfunction in Richmond that cost the South the Civil War. Drawing on a wide variety of previously unexploited sources, Eicher shows how President Jefferson Davis fought not only with the Confederate House, Senate, and state governors, but also with his own vice-president and secretary of state. He interfered with his generals in the field, micromanaging their campaigns and playing favorites, ignoring the chain of command. He trusted a number of men who were utterly incompetent. Secession didn’t end with the breakaway of the Confederacy and Davis’s election as president; some states, led by their governors, debated setting themselves up as separate nations, further undermining efforts to conduct a unified war effort. Sure to be one of the most provocative and controversial books about the Civil War to be published in decades, DIXIE BETRAYED blasts away previous theories with the force of a cannonball and the grace of a gentleman.

I hate it when publishers treat the reading public as complete idiots. Now, I understand that marketing concerns are paramount, but how about a more honest description that still does justice to Eicher’s work. This internalist explanation for Confederate defeat has been around for ages. You can find it in studies by Paul Escott, William C. Davis, and most famously in the words of David Donald who concluded that the Confederacy “died of states’ rights.” More recently, Shelby Foote proclaimed that the South “never had a chance to win that war.” He then went on to note many of the points that are presented in the above description as ground-breaking. At least Foote brings that sympathetic southern drawl to the table.

In his earlier study, The Longest Night, Eicher also made the point in the introduction that he believed Confederate defeat was inevitable. Unfortunately, in the roughly 900 pages that followed he never engaged in an argument to prove this claim. This was an important oversight, especially given the fact that so many talented historians have challenged the internalist explanation by arguing that Confederate defeat is best understood by examining the way in which the battlefield contributed to the outcome of the war. After all, Lincoln and the North also experienced internal divisions. Mark Neely has recently challenged the assumption that the two-party system in the North aided the Union war effort. In fact, as Neely demonstrates the presence of two parties seriously threatened the stability of the North and its ability to prosecute the war to a successful conclusion. And of course disagreements over emancipation also threatened Northern unity. One can only hope that this time around Eicher deals head-on with this important debate.

 

Teaching Reconstruction

This week I will be teaching Reconstruction. I am putting primary documents together, slides, and segments of movies, including Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind. We will analyze both how Americans have traditionally remembered the period and the actual history. It’s always a challenge teaching this section. My approach is to begin by laying out the challenges of Reconstruction for all parties involved and to make clear that the question of the status of the newly-freed slaves and the role of the federal government constituted an immediate problem and one that was not predicted only a few years earlier. I emphasize the steps that African Americans took to secure their freedom even as the Republican party gradually pulled back by the mid-1870′s. This approach is not intended to castigate white Americans for the eventual abandonment of Military Reconstruction, but to reveal the extent to which African Americans were able to engage in political action on the grassroots level and within individual state legislatures. That means on one level the story of Reconstruction becomes a heroic tale of black Americans striving to assert themselves in challenging the racial boundaries to which civil liberties applied.

We will end this section by reading through an article by either David Blight or Ed Ayers. Of course, Blight emphasizes the process by which white Americans shaped their history to the point where it minimized black political action during the Civil War and Reconstruction. On the other hand, given the conflict in Iraq we may read an article by Ed Ayers which explores our collective belief that we can export reconstruction to other parts of the world. I am leaning towards the Ayers article. Perhaps our amnesia regarding the deep-seated racial and political divisions after the Civil War is what allows this administration to shape its foreign policy in a vacuum. Our own experience at reconstruction was less than successful, which raises the question of why we should have any reason to believe that it can be accomplished in parts of the world where the divisions are even more deeply rooted.