In 1907, Mosby drove a dagger into the heart of Lost Cause mythology about slavery: “I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. The South went to war on account of slavery. I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country … the South was my country.” Why doesn’t the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history? Or is it that nothing punctuates the long and violent story of white supremacy in America quite like the brief four years of the Confederate States of America?
Is it really all about federalism? Or the honoring of ancestors? Or valor and loyalty? Or regional identity? Or about white racial solidarity in an America becoming browner and more multi-ethnic every day? In 1951, in an essay probing how and why Americans have a difficult time facing their racial past, AfricanAmerican writer James Baldwin left a telling observation: “Americans have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”
We should decorate our battlefield heroes, and we have been doing so for a century and a half. We can only wonder whether this time, during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we can finally face the past and probe the real causes and consequences of that conflict, or whether we will content ourselves again with unexamined moral contradictions and piquant confections in our public memory. If we do it better this time, we will need stronger verbs than “involved,” and a good dose of Mosby’s candor.
Many of you know that I am a huge fan of David Blight’s scholarship. Race and Reunion was the book that set me off on my own research projects as well as in shaping the overall theme of this site. Since reading it I’ve come to question parts of Blight’s thesis as a result of studying the work of others and as a result of my own research on the memory of the battle of the Crater. This recent interview touches on a number of issues related to Civil War memory that are relevant to the ongoing debate about Confederate History Month as well as broader questions of remembrance. After yesterday’s post I thought it might be nice to introduce a little thoughtfulness to the discussion.
There is nothing too surprising about this short interview with Prof. David Blight, but I thought it would be a nice way to end the work week. Teachers may find this useful as a way of introducing basic questions of historical memory with students. Blight touches on how Americans remember the Civil War, race, the Civil War Centennial and Sesquicentennial, and Barack Obama’s place in this narrative.
Legacies can take endless forms — physical, political, literary, emotional. This time, we must commemorate our Civil War in all its meanings, but above all we must commemorate and understand emancipation as its most enduring challenge. This time, the fighting of the Civil War itself should not unite us in pathos and nostalgia alone; but maybe, just maybe, we will give ourselves the chance to find unity in a shared history of conflict, in a genuine sense of tragedy, and in a conflicted memory stared squarely in the face.
Today I showed a segment of Henry L. Gates’s “Looking for Lincoln” to my Civil War Memory class. They enjoyed it and it provides an excellent overview of some of the themes that will be explored in this last full week of classes before the trimester ends. We looked specifically at the segments on emancipation and race. Gates spends time interviewing both David Blight and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Throughout Gates proceeds as if he is on a personal journey to better understand the history of Lincoln as well as the evolution of Lincoln mythology. In a conversation with Goodwin, Gates suggests that his search has left him disillusioned and disappointed to learn that Lincoln harbored racist views or that the impetus for the Emancipation Proclamation was not borne of pure motives, but political expediency and military necessity. In a charming little give and take Goodwin encourages “Skip” not to blame Lincoln for the conflict between history and mythology, but to try to reconcile the two. Goodwin hopes that out of conflict will come empathy for Lincoln and a more sophisticated understanding of his life within the context of the war and the mid-nineteenth century generally.
At one point one of my students wondered out loud whether Gates was really confused about Lincoln. I soon realized that he was inquiring how a professional historian whose area of expertise is race relations and the nineteeth century could be confused about Lincoln. It’s an excellent question. After all, Gates is currently the director of the W.E.B. Dubois Center of African and African American Research at Harvard University. Of course, Gates is not confused about his subject. I tend to think that Gates is modeling the kind of journey that he likely took when studying this subject seriously for the first time and one that he hopes others will take as well. His interviews with professional historians pit him as the outsider who is trying to better understand Lincoln; this comes out clearly in the dinner table scenes with Harold Holzer, James Horton, and David Blight. There was nothing said over dinner that Gates didn’t already know, but the viewer is left with the impression that this is just another step in his journey to better understand Lincoln. In proceeding in this way Gates entices his viewer to join him on this journey. It also works to collapse the distinction between the academic and the neophyte.
All in all I think this is an entertaining approach to the history documentary without having to sacrifice content and scholarship.