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

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.

Some Myths Die Hard

From across the ocean the Guardian offers a short review of recent Civil War novels, including E. L. Doctorow’s, The March. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read much fiction in recent years so I can’t comment on the titles reviewed. What is interesting to me is the way in which the reviewer sets the scene for Doctorow’s story of Sherman’s “March to the Sea” following the capture of Atlanta in 1864:

The March by EL Doctorow, author of Ragtime and many other novels, follows the brutal progress of General William T Sherman’s army of 60,000 Union soldiers through the South in 1864. After setting Atlanta ablaze, they marched to the sea, then north through the Carolinas. Everywhere they slaughtered troops and livestock, burned cities, villages and plantations, and lived off the land. Their blithe disregard for civilians established a pattern that dogs American forces to this day.

I assume that remembering an embellished or exaggerated version of Sherman’s march makes for better fiction even for our friends across the ocean. Again, I can’t comment on Doctorow’s narrative, but this reviewer seems to view the subject of the story through the lens of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Few will doubt that Sherman’s march highlighted the final transition in Union policy to total war, but it should be remembered that this shift did not usher in a brand new style of warfare. As Mark Grimsley has demonstrated in his book, The Hard Hand of War: Union Policy Towards Southern Civilians, 1861-1865, the tenets of “hard war” policy had a rich history going back to the medieval ages. Grimsley also shows through an analysis of letters and diaries from Sherman’s men that very few commented on the march as a shift in policy. Rather the war had evolved from “limited” to “pragmatic” to “total” war policy. Both sides engaged in operations which collapsed the distinction between civilians and the battlefield. Of course Sherman’s policies stand out since much of the war was fought in the South. This is a wonderful example of how a certain perception of the past becomes ingrained in our collective memory thus bringing about a sense of “seeming understanding.”

What Political Act Freed the Slaves?

Check out Mode for Caleb for a thorough analysis of the meaning of political action as it relates to the abolitionist movement. The question of how historians should understand the necessary and sufficient conditions of political behavior has tended to focus on those “who were willing to roll up their sleeves and engage in formal “politics,” whether by organizing antislavery parties, running candidates for local and national office, and forging cross-party coalitions” as opposed to those who like Garrison himself who refused to take part in the process or were disfranchised for one reason or another. I agree with Caleb that our definition of “political” must be extended along the lines of Steven Hahn’s analysis in his most recent award-winning book, A Nation Under Our Feet. From McDaniel’s post:

One of Hahn’s central–and most provocative–points is that enslaved and recently emancipated people in the South “constituted themselves as political actors” and created a “distinctive African-American politics,” and that they did so long before being declared legally free or obtaining the right to vote (p. 1). To call people who lacked legal citizenship “political” actors, Hahn argues, requires “a broad understanding of politics and the political … that encompasses collective struggles for what might be termed socially meaningful power” (p. 3). This broad understanding does not exclude the traditional definition of the political arena as having to do with the electoral arena; Hahn’s book follows his “political actors” from slavery through emancipation and into partisan politics during Reconstruction, so he does not mean to diminish the importance of electoral politics by arguing for the existence of what he calls “slave politics” (p. 3). But Hahn does argue that viewing “slaves, who had no standing in the official arenas of civil and political society, as nonpolitical, prepolitical, or protopolitical” prevents historians from understanding the kinds of political choices that freedpeople made once they were enfranchised and endowed with citizenship rights. The transition from slavery to freedom did not transform formerly apolitical slaves into political agents, but rather transposed struggles over power from one political arena into another.

Such an analysis works well in the classroom in reference to the question of who freed the slaves. Most of my students when asked answer the question by pointing to Lincoln, but when asked to explain why he decided to free the slaves when he in fact did so they fall flat. Their image and explanation is of a president who somehow arrives at the conclusion in a vacuum. The act of issuing the proclamation itself becomes a sufficient explanation to the question of who freed the slaves. Hahn’s analysis forces us to step back to look for the external reasons that steered Lincoln in a certain direction. This year my students analyzed a range of source to better understand Lincoln’s decision. One of the first sources we looked at was a famous photograph of fugitive slaves followed by the beginning of the movie Glory which includes a scene showing the passing of escaped slaves along with the voice of Robert G. Shaw reading a letter home. I asked them to think about how fugitive slaves might impact the war effort for both sides. How might their presence in Union camps present both problems and opportunities for local commanders and eventually the Lincoln administration. More importantly, we tried to understand the motivations and intentions of the slaves themselves-as difficult as that is given the lack of traditional documentation. Still, it is not difficult to interpret their motivation and to do so by utilizing political terms. The very act of escape toward Union lines can be interpreted as political behavior. Hahn’s analysis reminds us of our bias towards written sources and the need to acknowledge behavior as an indication of political action. African Americans like Hiram Revels and others did not become political actors during Reconstruction, but moved into different political arenas. The goal is not to ignore Lincoln’s role in bringing about emancipation, but to acknowledge those, including those on the grass roots level, who engaged in political behavior that shaped the president’s policy of preserving the Union.

Introducing students to such an analysis also has a more immediate benefit. Since we tend to interpret political behavior as simply exercising the vote students often feel cut off from any opportunity to voice their concerns about national and world affairs. I’ve seen this intensify over the past few years. Understanding that political action that goes beyond simply casting a vote has the potential to bring about fundamental change can be empowering for those not yet of the voting age.