Tomorrow I head back into the classroom to teach the Civil War to my AP classes. We are a little bit behind, but that is not going to stop me from giving my students a thorough overview of secession and the events that led to the clash at Fort Sumter and the subsequent decision on the part of Upper South states to secede. This is not an easy task. While the first round of Deep Southern states to secede is relatively easy to understand, the situation in the Upper South is a bit more difficult. Where we find speech after speech calling for secession in response to a perceived threat to slavery by Lincoln and the Republicans the debate further north takes a bit more time to piece together.
Virginia is especially hard to grasp because most of my students are surprised to learn that the state, which would eventually become the capital of the Confederacy and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles, did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed. In the past, I’ve tended to situate Virginia within the rest of the Upper South and focus on their economic ties with the North as well as the sheer size of the state, which included present day West Virginia. In addition, I may have briefly discussed the vigorous debates between eastern and western Virginians over various tax issues that dominated the discourse into early 1861. What is sometimes lost on my students and, I suspect, the general public is the centrality of slavery to the debates that took place during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861. There are a number of reasons for this. First, in popular memory the story of Virginia’s secession is dominated by the emotional story of Robert E. Lee. The story of the state and the Upper South stands in sharp contrast with the widely held belief in the Deep South that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery. As a result, the documents available for classroom use are plentiful and ripe for interpretation. In other words, students can really sink their teeth into it. And that brings us to the final problem: We just don’t have the same easy access to documents related to the Upper South as we do to the Deep South. It’s a problem because while the debates in the Upper South were a bit more complex [Note: Daniel M. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies) is still the best study on this region.] we run the risk of minimizing the importance of slavery.
This is the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to use William W. Freehling’s and Craig M. Simpson’s eds., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union. For students of the Civil War and Virginia history this is a remarkable editorial achievement. Freehling and Simpson reduced four volumes George H. Reese’s Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 to one volume that numbers roughly 200 pages. The nice thing about the book is that the speeches are excerpted, which makes it easy to assign specific readings for class discussion. I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate. The debate over slavery takes center stage in Part I, which pitted slaveholding Tidewater planters against their western nonslaveholding colleagues. In short, the debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party was as much about the regional and political divide within Virginia as it is about Union. Part II focuses on debates surrounding taxation, but even here slavery was present. The most contentious issue here was the cap on taxation rates of slaves. The volume is especially helpful in the wake of the firing at Fort Sumter. Even after shots had been fired Virginia’s course had not been sealed.
I highly recommend this book to Virginia history teachers and general readers who are interested in a more thorough understanding of the secession crisis in Virginia.
According to our mainstream media, which thrives on conflict, Americans are hopelessly divided over the Civil War. Open up a newspaper and you can find scores of articles with titles such as, “After 150 Years, the Civil War Still Divides the United States,” and “150 Years Later, State’s Secession Still Stirs, Still Divides.” Turn on cable news and you will find the various talking heads arguing the same tired script that tugs more at the viewer’s emotions rather than their intellect. Consider a recent episode of the Ed Schultz Show, featuring the always lively, Al Sharpton. Spend enough time in these places and you might even come to believe this alluring cultural meme.
Now, I don’t doubt for a moment that Americans disagree over fundamental questions about the history of the Civil War as well as how it ought to be commemorated. There is nothing necessarily wrong with or even interesting about that alone. What I am questioning is the way it divides Americans. It’s the “Still” in this little narrative that troubles me since it implies little to no change in the overall contours of where the nation is in terms of its collective memory. As far as I can tell Americans are not sharply divided over these questions in terms of their regional identification, political affiliation or connection to the Civil War generation itself. In short, we are not living in a “House Divided” and to push such a narrative is facile at best.
The ongoing controversy about how secession ought to be remembered in South Carolina along with tomorrow’s Secession Ball illustrates this quite well. What I am struck by is the level of agreement over how this bit of history is being commemorated. While the mainstream media is enjoying highlighting the racial aspect of this divide by noting the scheduled protest of the NAACP at every turn, if we look closer we see a very different story. Charleston Mayor, Joseph Riley, has been outspoken in his belief that the celebration is “unfortunate” and “the opposite of unifying.” The state’s major newspapers have all struck a similar tone:
There is room for disagreement over whether we can fairly judge the morality of the secessionists by the standards of 2010. There is room to debate whether the men who fought for the Confederacy believed they were simply fighting to defend their state, without regard to why their state needed defending, or to what role slavery played in the social order. There might even be room to debate what motivated other states to leave the Union. But those are debates that need to be had honestly, based on what really happened 150 years ago. Pretending that anything other than slavery played a significant role in South Carolina’s secession is not honest, as the secessionists themselves made a point of telling the world with such abundant clarity.
Spend enough time watching interviews that include representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and you might assume that everyone with Confederate ancestry is united around a certain view of the war. Not so fast. Consider native southerner, Edward Ball:
I can testify about the South under oath. I was born and raised there, and 12 men in my family fought for the Confederacy; two of them were killed. And since I was a boy, the answer I’ve heard to this question, from Virginia to Louisiana (from whites, never from blacks), is this: “The War Between the States was about states’ rights. It was not about slavery.”
I’ve heard it from women and from men, from sober people and from people liquored up on anti-Washington talk. The North wouldn’t let us govern ourselves, they say, and Congress laid on tariffs that hurt the South. So we rebelled. Secession and the Civil War, in other words, were about small government, limited federal powers and states’ rights. But a look through the declaration of causes written by South Carolina and four of the 10 states that followed it out of the Union — which, taken together, paint a kind of self-portrait of the Confederacy — reveals a different story. From Georgia to Texas, each state said the reason it was getting out was that the awful Northern states were threatening to do away with slavery.
The Civil War Sesquicentennial is already shaping up to stand in sharp contrast with the divisiveness and narrow scope of the Centennial celebrations – a period that ought to be understood in terms of both a regional and racial divide. Perhaps the most profound change can be found on an institutional level. Consider the recent and upcoming events sponsored by the Lowcountry Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission not to mention the overall focus on and acknowledgment that slavery was central to understanding secession and war by every other state sesquicentennial commission. The documents central to South Carolina’s decision to secede are now in the hands of people who have been educated during one of the most vibrant periods of Civil War/Southern historiography. After displaying the Ordinance documents to a UDC sponsored memorial event, Eric Emerson, executive director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, expressed his hope “that people will develop ‘a deeper level of understanding’ of secession and war that goes beyond the nostalgia and gets at the heart of one of the most turbulent and talked about periods in South Carolina history.” None of this fits neatly into the “America Divided” meme.
We can continue to get lathered up by focusing on Secession Balls and interviews with the usual suspects, who profit one way or another from promoting this “America Divided” narrative or we can step back and acknowledge the vast shift that has taken place in our society that has the potential to bring us even closer together.
We are not living in the 1860s and we are not even living in the 1960s. Look Away, Look Away…
The upcoming Secession Ball scheduled for Saturday in Charleston is certainly getting a great deal of attention from the mainstream media. I’ve spent my fair share of time perusing through coverage from local newspapers in Charleston to national coverage as well as the blogosphere and other social media sites. What stands out to me, however, is the amount of critical coverage of the event. The criticisms are coming from all sides, but what is most impressive are the critiques from both black and white folks who identify deeply with the history and culture of the South. There never was a monolithic view of the history of the South; the difference is now it has an opportunity to emerge and compete for attention. These are people who have as much claim to the past as anyone and they are voicing outrage with the idea of celebrating an event that was carried out in defense of a social, political, and economic system built on slavery and which led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans. I have no access to any kind of statistical data that would give us a sense of the percentage of Americans who do not see this as worthy of celebration and I don’t think it really is important. What is apparent is a fundamental shift in the way that Americans – regardless of race and region – are now coming to view the Civil War since the Centennial celebrations of the early 1960s. You would be hard pressed to find anything reflective of this current shift in perception during the Centennial. Again, that’s not to suggest that it wasn’t present, just that it did not surface in any sort of way that posed a challenge to the status quo, which was clearly a deeply rooted collective memory built around the Lost Cause.
While I have no doubt that the good people who attend the Secession Ball will enjoy themselves thoroughly, it should be clear to everyone that this broader view of the war will continue to be on the defensive for the foreseeable future. Consider these recent setbacks:
- A Fourth Grade Virginia textbook that includes a reference to black Confederates has been identified as out of place based on the author’s research strategy and current scholarship on the subject.
- A series of videos slated to appear on the History Channel that outline a Lost Cause view of secession and war has been canceled. You know you are in trouble when you are banned from a channel that runs continuous loops of UFOs, reruns of Pawn Stars, and Hitlers last days in the bunker.
- Courts have almost unanimously upheld the decisions of a number of school districts to ban images of the Confederate flag from school property.
- Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell apologized for a Confederate History Month Proclamation that ignored slavery and went on to correct it by issuing a new proclamation declaring next April Civil War History in Virginia Month.
- The Museum of the Confederacy removed a black Confederate doll from its website and the National Park Service removed literature referencing the same after being notified of the problem.
As much time as we spend on the staying power of the Lost Cause it is important to put it in perspective. What I see around me is a vibrant Civil War Sesquicentennial community that includes plenty of institutions that are organizing conferences, exhibits, and other educational opportunities for their respective communities. Best yet, they are taking full advantage of the latest Civil War scholarship. It really is a breath of fresh air.
Try not to get too caught up in all this silliness.
This really is the best possible time to host a blog on the Civil War and historical memory. If the next four years follows the past year we are in for a wild ride. At the same time there is something rather depressing about the level of discourse surrounding many of these high profile events. Consider the upcoming Secession Ball, scheduled for next Saturday in Charleston South Carolina. The event marks a specific event in the history of South Carolina and the nation. While organizers trot out the standard arguments distancing their event from the role that slavery played in helping to bring about the very event that is being celebrated the NAACP is working hard to distort and butcher their own version of the past.
NAACP State President Lonnie Randolph had this to say about the upcoming gala:
“There is nothing to celebrate about killing a million people. South Carolina still lives under the rule of the Confederacy today,” Randolph said. He compared the Secession Ball to celebrating Sept. 11, Adolf Hitler, or the American Indian massacre at Wounded Knee. “We want some consistency. We want South Carolina — and America — to be consistent in the way it treats and honors all its citizens.” Randolph said the argument that secession was about states’ rights misrepresents the facts of slavery. “The state wanted to right to buy and sell people. Tell the whole truth,” he said. He spoke at a news conference at the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where he was surrounded by area leaders of the organization and ministers. Handouts at the meeting encouraged attendance at the march and mass meeting with the admonition: “A Call for Unity: Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism.”
Participants will watch segments of “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that portrayed Ku Klux Klan members as heroes…. “The states wanted the right to sell human cargo,” he said [Randolph], adding the public would not tolerate similar disrespect of other minority groups – a Holocaust celebration or an event celebrating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “The reason this can take place so easily is we’re still suffering the effects of the Confederacy in this state,” Randolph said.
The NAACP is not going to win any converts by pushing a narrative of the war that is heavy on emotion and rhetoric and short on historical content.
Here is what I would do to protest this event. Station both black and white residents of Charleston in different sections of the city and at a scheduled time, during the Secession Ball, have them read the actual document that was approved by South Carolina’s secession convention. You could organize literally hundreds of people for this. I think it would be quite powerful to see South Carolinians take ownership of what South Carolinians in 1860. As Larry Wilmer noted the other night on the Jon Stewart Show, highlighting the role of slavery in this event is not “politically correct, it’s correct correct.” And that’s it.
Let the documents speak for themselves.
Teaching the Civil War in central Virginia offers an interesting perspective on the continuing evolution of our collective memory of the war. My current course on the Civil War and historical memory includes students from the surrounding counties of Fluvanna and Greene as well as students who grew up in Charlottesville. Many of the students come from families that fit into this latter category come from other regions of the country. I spend a great deal of time listening to my students talk about their own perceptions of the war because it gives me a unique perspective on how future commemorations are likely to take shape.
What I learned today is worth sharing. As far as I can tell there is no discernible difference between the ways in which northern children are taught to understand the cause of secession and war from what can be found in southern schools. My students who are born and raised in the counties outside of Charlottesville – which we might suspect as being more traditional in focus – shared that they remember learning that slavery was the central issue driving secession. I had students who attended grade school in New England and Michigan, who remember learning that slavery was ancillary and that states rights was the central reason. The difference seems to be based on individual teachers rather than anything having to do with a sharp cultural divide between regions. That said, over the past few years I’ve noticed that more and more of my students begin their study of the Civil War on the high school level with an appreciation of the role that slavery played in the events leading up to and following Lincoln’s election.
I think this is important to keep in mind given the controversy surrounding the upcoming Secession Ball that has been planned for Charleston later this month as well as future events. If we listen too closely to the voices that populate our mainstream media we are likely to be bombarded by a language that divides rather than one that is more likely to reflect where we are in our understanding of these important historical issues. Tonight (5pm) Chris Matthews will interview the SCV’s commander-in-chief on the Secession Ball. I have no idea who he will be paired up with, but I can guarantee you that we will learn next to nothing about popular perception. Rather, we will be entertained by watching one side duke it out with another and we will be left with a facile reminder that Americans are still fighting this war. Well, that may be accurate to a certain extent, but I would suggest that it is less true than it was just a few decades ago. [Update: Looks like the interview was canceled.]
In the end I am not sure how much longer we can continue to manufacture these debates.