Remember To Put It In Perspective

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.

Let the Documents Speak For Themselves

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.”

and

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.

States Rights v. Slavery: No Discernible Difference

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.

Confederates Were Traitors! How About You?

I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory.  As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law.  In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration.  This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors.  For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside  for now and take one step back.  Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble.  For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.

The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans.  It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation.  It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions.  In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.

OK…but were they traitors to their country?  In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American.  It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn.  Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history.  On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country.  I value its institutions and the rule of law.  I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy.  That’s right.  If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary.  Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well.  So, were Confederates traitors?  Yes!  As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?

This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence.   Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.

Will the Sons of Confederate Veterans Have Any Impact on the Sesquicentennial?

I may be speaking too soon, but it looks like the influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans on how we remember the Civil War will be minimal as we make our way through the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Today we learn that plans to place a monument to South Carolina’s decision to leave the Union in December 1860 at the Riverfront Park in Charleston have been scrapped.  There is now talk about placing the monument at a site related to the Hunley.  The monument celebrates this event by completely ignoring the issue that propelled South Carolina out of the Union: slavery.  This weekend the SCV will finally unveil their Davis-Limber statue at Beauvoir.  The decision to locate the statue at Davis’s home came after their decision to pull out of an agreement with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar in Richmond.  Following this move the organization unsuccessfully petitioned the state of Mississippi to accept the statue.  Finally, as we all know the recent decision here in Virginia to set aside April as Confederate History Month was a public relations disaster for the SCV.

Where does this leave the SCV?  As I said up front it may be too early to tell, but their Lost Cause inspired view of the past is clearly on the defensive and bound to be minimized even further.  I guess the only question is how will the organization respond?  The SCV has a role to play in the next few years, but if they hope to have an impact they are going to have to acknowledge that the general public’s understanding of the Civil War has evolved to one that is much more inclusive and open to addressing some of the tough issues at the center of our civil war experience.