Tag Archives: Peter Carmichael

Dwight Pitcaithley on the Cause of the Civil War and Public History

Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to mention that I’ve just finished previewing a forthcoming episode of American Experience on Robert E. Lee.  The show will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. ET.  Back in 2007 I received a call from one of the producers to chat about their plans for the episode.  We talked for quite a bit and I had a chance to offer some suggestions on various interpretive threads as well as suggestions on who to contact for additional commentary as “talking heads.”  The producers were able to bring together an excellent line-up of scholars that includes Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Michael Fellman, Emory Thomas, Lesley Gordon, Ervin Jordan, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Joseph Glatthaar.  The folks at American Experience did a fine job.

The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission now has all of the panels from the recent conference in Norfolk available on their YouTube page.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through them.  While I enjoyed Dwight Pitcaithley’s presentation he never really got around to discussing the challenges of interpreting Civil War causation within the NPS.  He did, however, say something relevant to my recent post on my tendency to steer clear of referring to people as Neo-Confederates.  In response to a student’s inquiry into whether he teaches the “true history” of the war, Pitcaithley points out to his audience that it is important to remember that people who subscribe to various strands of Lost Cause thought “come by it honestly.”  It’s important to remember because it seems to me that by calling folks “Neo-Confederates” we assume an accusatory stance that implies a conscious denial of a more complete understanding of what the war was about.

Assessing Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army at the SHA

I just booked my room and registered for this year’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association, which meets in Charlotte, North Carolina from November 4-7. It’s by far my favorite conference of the year as it comes at just the point when I can use a couple of days away from school and it gives me a chance to catch up with good friends.  Perhaps I will even be able to check in with the publisher to get an update on my Crater manuscript.  The panels are always interesting but I am especially looking forward to one on Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army.  I’ve blogged about it here at Civil War Memory over the past year and I can’t say enough good things about it.  Not only is it an excellent synthesis of recent scholarship, but Glatthaar’s analysis of key topics such as slavery, morale, discipline, religion and even black Confederates make this volume indispensable.  An independent study with one of my students has given me the opportunity to go through it again.

POINTS OF DEPARTURE: REFLECTIONS ON JOSEPH A. GLATTHAAR’S GENERAL LEE’S ARMY

Presiding: John Coski, Museum of the Confederacy

General Lee’s Army and General Lee: How Does Glatthaar Fit into a Contentious Historiography on the Rebel Chieftain? — Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia

The High-Water Mark of Social History: The Methodology of Glatthaar’s “General Lee’s Army” — Peter S. Carmichael, Gettysburg College

“They Are One in Reality & All of the Country”: Blending Battlefront and Home Front — Jacqueline Glass Campbell, Francis Marion University

Author’s Response: Joseph A. Glatthaar, University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill

A Few More Thoughts About Confederate Slaves

Peter Carmichael was kind enough to take the time to add a few thoughts to a post of his that I recently republished.  His comment is fair and balanced in its critique of the way various groups have approached this complex topic, which is why I decided to feature it in a new post.

In all the debate that the Confederate slave subject generates on this blog and elsewhere, I am still mystified by the failure of some to appreciate a fundamental fact that applies to every African American who existed in a Southern army—he was a slave and thus denied the ability to have free will in exercising his political loyalty. All the acts of bravery and fidelity on the part of slaves in battle and camp cannot overturn this basic and defining fact. Once we recognize this hard reality we will be better prepared to subdue our emotion and begin to consider the complicated ways in which slaves and whites coexisted in the army. To suggest that a slave who purchased a gray uniform was somehow committed to the Southern cause or loyal to his master overlooks the fact that there wasn’t a blue one at the Sutler’s store for him to purchase. Even if he was able to secure one, he sure as hell wouldn’t have been allowed to wear it in the Confederate ranks. What choices and political options were available to slaves is what we should be focusing on in this debate, for we cannot consider any act of “devotion” without also considering at the same time what punishments awaited a black man who failed to do his “duty” to the master class.

For those who are emphatic that Confederate slaves were both brave and loyal in their service to the Southern cause I would like for them to explain the implications of this argument. When I am in a charitable mood, I would like to believe that those who cherish the idea of the loyal Confederate slave do so as a way to protect their ancestors from being demonized by Americans who see history as a morality play. I understand their insecurities, but if they really want Americans to take their Southern ancestors on the historical terms of the antebellum South then they will have to abandon the notion that they are a minority group that is under siege from the political left–in doing so they will take the first step to seeing the past as a search for complexities and not for universal truths that can be used to assail PC radicals. Too many Americans have the insatiable need to see themselves as a minority group under attack. This perspective fosters a strange way of seeing the world in which the “persecuted” feel that they are the true owners of truth because the rest of the world has conspired against them. This position is intellectually debilitating and it is a paranoia that pervades both political extremes, not just the right. Those of us who are baffled by the folks who go to sleep every night believing that Confederate armies were composed of slaves who wanted to die for their masters and the Southern cause deserve our serious engagement, not our ridicule. We cannot make fun of their ceremonies, even if we think they are doing injustice to the complexities of the past. We have to find a way to create a dialogue.

I have no doubt that some slaves felt a strong sense of attachment to their masters and maybe even to the outfits that they served, but this “attachment” was forged as part of a slave system that was based, at the most fundamental level, on coercion. Let’s stop getting so misty-eyed over those slaves who served with white soldiers as a band of brothers and let’s also stop denouncing anyone who sincerely wants to understand the intimate relationship that existed between slaves and their masters. We are missing the complexities of this relationship in the army and its broader impact on soldier relations, the home front, and the political ideology of the Confederacy.

Revisiting Peter Carmichael on “Confederate Slaves”

This guest post on black Confederates/Confederate slaves by historian, Peter S. Carmichael, ran last July and received a great deal of attention.  Given the number and range of comments on a recent post on the subject I thought it would be helpful to run it again for those of you who are new to the blog.  I refrained from responding to most of the comments since we are still mired in fundamental problems when confronted with this question.  Yes, a few of you out there get it that what is needed is serious research and attention to the question of what it is we are even talking about. Others are citing sources that make little sense without serious critical analysis while others are hung up on vague comparisons with the north that have nothing to do with the subject.  And then there are always a few on the fringe who fail to see beyond their attachment to contemporary political/cultural issues.  As far as I am concerned, Carmichael’s essay constitutes a starting point for those of you who first want to understand the broad analytical contours of the subject.  It does not provide all the answers, but does address the questions that need to be examined.

“We were the ‘men’”: The Ambiguous Place of Confederate Slaves in Southern Armies

On August 6, 1861, the Richmond Enquirer ran an extended article, entitled “Ebony Idols,” on a camp slave named Sam who refused to leave his master during the battle of First Manassas. Sam received public acclaim for his stalwart behavior under fire, and the Enquirer recounted a boastful speech that he delivered to a group of Richmond slaves. Sam promised his black audience that “I wasn’t scared. I am not one of those kinds.” The story of Sam was intended to assure white audiences that slaves, even when the Yankees were shooting at them, would remain forever faithful. This claim of slave fidelity largely rested upon the Enquirer’s denying Sam his manliness, and utilizing antebellum stereotypes to describe black men as effeminate sambos.

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Peter Carmichael on Robert E. Lee or Why Robert K. Krick and Michael Fellman Will Never Agree

Peter Carmichael’s keynote address at yesterday’s Lee symposium was alone worth the drive to Lexington.  His paper was titled, “‘Truth is Mighty & Will Eventually Prevail:’ Why Americans Disagree About the Historical Legacy of Robert E. Lee” and provides a framework for understanding the intellectual root of the debate between two camps.  Carmichael identifies these two camps by referencing their intellectual/cultural roots and argues that they represent fundamentally different approaches to the study of history.  The first group which represents the pro-Lee camp emerged out of a Victorian view of society and the past and stands in sharpr contrast with the so-called revisionist historians who inherited a modernist interpretation that Carmichael beieves can be traced to the turn of the twentieth century.  First the Victorian interpretation.

According to Carmichael any characterization of the first generation of Civil War histories must be understood as emerging out of a Victorian view of the world.  The crucial component within this world view is an assumption about the inevitablity of progress and moral perfectibility of individuals and nations.  Histories were written and consumed by a general public looking for moral lessons or vindication regarding their own claims to moral perfection on a national level.  Postwar histories of the South with their peaceful narratives of plantation life and slavery pointed to their place on the hierarchy above their more “modern” neighbors to the north.  The South represented a noble way of life and the image of the cavalier provided southern white men with an example of what moral perfection looked like.  Such broad cultural assumptions came to shape historical narratives as linear and simple; in other words, history was knowable and verifiable.  Most importantly, it offered relevant moral lessons that were applicable regardless of societal changes.

The revisionist view, (some would call them the anti-Lee group) according to Carmichael, can be understood as a product of the modernist turn.  This turn was in large part inward and can be discerned in the psychology of Freud and the literature of Faulkner.  The modernist view challenged the Victorian Era’s claims to the possibility of moral perfection and the assumption that the past was knowable as a straightforward story that offered timeles moral lessons.  Freud and Faulkner remind us that interpretation is never completed.  The modernist view of the world is “messy, confusing, and incapable of giving one narrative.”  The modernist “mocks” the Victorian or traditional view of the South.  It paints with too broad a brush and it leaves no room for revision.  The “Old South” is the only South and its moral lessons must be defended to the end.  The modernist says that since the past is always being reinterpreted that it is naive to think that it can produce a static collection of moral lessons.

Carmichael is careful in pointing out that there was a great deal of overlap between these two views.  I agree.  Positivism is very much a part of this modernist turn and Comte’s view of the natural and social sciences places a great deal of weight on the accumulation and knowability of the past.  I applaud Carmichael for attempting to locate the intellectual root of these fundamental disagreements that characterize the Civil War community.  That said, I don’t believe that we need to go back so far for an explanation nor do I think it is necessary to try to pinpoint an explanation.  I think the answer is much more simple.  It may come down simply to not understanding the historical process as it is formulated in the academy and for those trained as academic historians a failure to appreciate how many continue to identify or empathize with the past.  For now it is enough to say that Carmichael’s distinction does provide a platform from which he can examine recent debates over R. E. Lee.

In doing so Carmichael contrasts the work of Robert K. Krick and Michael Fellman.  Krick represents the Victorian mindset and Fellman, author of The Making of Robert E. Lee, plays the role of the modernist.  Carmichael made sure to note that his criticisms of the two are based on the utmost respect for their scholarship.   Krick stands out as the most notable pro-Lee scholar.  He rarely “strays from Douglas S. Freeman” but what Carmichael finds troubling is the way he characterizes others who write about Lee.  In fact, it may be his comments about others more than his own writings that justifies his placement in this category.  Fellman’s recent biography of Lee has all the earmarks of the modernist turn.  His emphasis is on Lee’s inner life and his interpretation challenges many of the standard assumptions of the general.  Rather than interpret Lee’s personal side in transparent terms Fellman sees contradiction and complexity, both of which challenge long-held views that single Lee out as the embodiment of moral perfection.  Krick often refers to the work of Fellman and others as “psychobabble.”

The differences between Krick and Fellman are perhaps innocuous on one level, but it is the way in which these fundamental differences play out in public that concerns Carmichael the most.   I found Carmichael’s comments here to be very persuasive and important to the public discussion of some of the more divisive topics in Civil War history.  At the same time I think he could have made these points apart from any discussion of the broader dichotomy of Victorianism v. Modernism.  Krick comes under serious scrutiny for the way he characterizes Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered and what it tells us about the latest generation of Lee historians.  While Krick was justified in his criticisms of Nolan’s interpretation Carmichael suggests that his closing comments play into a non-intellectual and unfair characterization of historical methodology and the motivations of recent Lee scholars:

Nolan’s book sold well, has gone through several printings by this writing early in 2000, and unquestionably will remain popular in the current climate.  It wonderfully suits the Zeitgeist by appealing to the sempiternal yearning to smash idols, which inevitably afflicts a noisy segment of the race.  The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm.  In this instance, it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers. [review reprinted in Krick's Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy (p. 236)]

The “current climate” includes most academic historians who poke around Lee’s life and arrive at conclusions that Krick disagrees with. The problem, of course, is that Krick’s characterization is meaningless. It purports to explain what motivates modern historians when in fact Krick has no evidence whatsoever for the claim.  More importantly, and this is what truly bothers Carmichael, the constant references to “political correctness” tell us absolutely nothing that is historically useful.  We are left trying to understanding what PC means.  As best I can surmise it is used most often by individuals who appear to have very little interest or understanding of what is involved in the historical process.  I asked Krick in a recent talk why it isn’t possible for historians to disagree rather than to simply characterize them as misguided or worse?  He had no response, but if Krick’s remarks serve to remind us of the dangers of generalizing about academics, Carmichael also has words for those who would generalize about those who do find the more moralistic writings of an older generation to be attractive.

Carmichael challenged remarks by Fellman and others who give the back of their hand to anything that reminds them of a “neo-Confederate” agenda – a label that Carmichael also believes is overused and just as damaging as the PC label.  I agree.  The extreme language on both sides is unfortunately all too popular and often functions as a poor substitute for more serious debate.  We are surrounded by it.  Carmichael cited the recent S.D. Lee “conference” which framed its symposium on Lee as follows:

2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert E. Lee, one of America’s most revered individuals. But opinions are changing in this era of Political Correctness. Was Lee a hero whose valor and leadership were surpassed only by his honor and humanity? Or was he a traitor whose military skill served a bad cause and prolonged an immoral rebellion against his rightful government?

To many, Robert E. Lee is a remote figure, a marble icon. To others he was simply a great battlefield commander. But Lee was much more; his character shines brightly from the past, illuminating the present. The Symposium will cover Lee’s views on government and liberty, his humane attitudes toward race and slavery, Lee and the American Union, Lee as inspired commander and his relationship with the Army, Lee as a Christian gentleman, and the meaning of Lee for today.

We are asked to think of Lee in the most simplistic terms imaginable not for the sake of careful understanding, but for the purposes of defending perceived truth in “this era of Political Correctness.”  This is not the mark of a serious history conference, but a support group for those who feel threatened.

Carmichael is surely correct that what is needed is better understanding of the agendas of both groups.  Academics need to better understand why many people continue to identify with a certain version of the past.  They need to resist outright condemnation just because someone (Victorianist) identifies with the perceived moral perfection of Lee or feels as if a certain view of the past is under assault.  Many people look to the past for guidance or sanctuary and should not be criticized for doing so.  Those on the other side need not impugn the motivations of those who would challenge our fundamental assumptions about certain aspects of the past.  For academic historians (modernists) the past is in need of continual revision.  The past is complex and includes plenty of room for multiple interpretations of the same event or individual.  Historians are not in the business of tearing down gods for its own sake; rather, they hope that continuous revision will get us closer to a more sophisticated understanding of history.  There is no conspiracy at work here.

Finally, Carmichael said nothing about the difficult issue of race as a factor in understanding the agendas of both camps.  Over the past few decades academic historians have become more interested in better understanding how slavery and race defined Southern society and shaped those who lived in it.  This latest crop of Lee historians has spent considerable time examining his own racial views both before and after the war and his handling of slaves at Arlington.  [One of the best examples of this approach can be found in Elizabeth Pryor's recent study of Lee.]  Much of what they have had to say has been met with a great deal of hostility from those who wish to keep any references to race and slavery out of the discussion.

Thanks to Peter Carmichael for an engaging talk that has given me much to think about.