How We Understand the Past

I love to read historical studies that force me out of my intellectual comfort zone.  We interpret the past from fixed points and at times through deeply entrenched assumptions.  It is sometimes difficult to see beyond our narrow windows into the past, but at the same time it is absolutely essential that we do so.  Think of the ways we tend to think about political acts in history.  We read speeches, political pamphlets, and look for the logic of discourse – not just any logic, but one rooted in the Western tradition.  And then a historian such as Eugene Genovese or more recently Stephen Hahn comes along and forces us to re-think our approach.  Are there other ways to investigate political behavior beyond the realm of formal discourse?  What happens when we try?  Stephen Hahn’s analysis of the political acts of slaves and newly-freed African Americans highlights the importance of the imagination in historical studies:

To look out from slavery is not to discount the powerful currents of liberal and republican ideals that African Americans embraced and advanced during the Civil War and Reconstruction….It is instead to suggest that African Americans continually made and remade their politics and political history in complex relation to shifting events; they did not have their politics and political history made for them.  In so doing, they often assimilated ideas and institutions from the outside to their own goals and practices, giving a distinctive shape to their political struggles and, by extension, to the interpretive significance of those struggles.  Thus, in the pages that follow, I present kinship, labor, and circuits of communication and education (especially rumor) as fundamental components of slave and freed politics, and try to show how they enabled organization and solidarity, and then were reconfigured by the course and outcome of political contests. (pp. 6-7)

Hahn widens the scope of what can be considered politically motivated behavior and why it is important to do so.  It is easy to think that the past comes pre-packaged with a set of assumptions or directions for its interpretation.  Within the context of Civil War studies this point-of-view is often expressed by more casual readers who label new approaches to history as "liberal" or "revisionist."  The mistake, however, is thinking that it is possible to delineate what it means to study the past and how to go about it.  What I appreciate about historians like Hahn and others is their ability to force the reader to step back to question the way a given subject is interpreted.  And the reason this is so important is that it opens up new questions. 

I recently ordered the latest historical study by Mark Smith titled How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses.  Smith analyzes the importance of the various senses in thinking about the past.  We tend to interpret the past from a cognitive perspective.  Most of our time as historians is spent thinking about both the spoken and written word.  We think of the past as a world of words.  What follows is a lengthy paragraph from an article published by Smith in Joan Cashin’s The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War:

Listening to how various Southern constituencies heard the Civil War is important for (at least) three reasons.  First, listening to the heard war muddies the tidy distinction some historians have made about the separateness of home and battlefield and contributes to a more recent emphasis stressing the conceptual necessity of blending of the two, particularly when trying to understand the Confederacy.  Second, particular Southern constituencies constructed the soundscapes of the Civil War differently.  There were, in effect, multiple acoustic home fronts during the war, and they were contingent on time, place, and status.  And third, listening to actual and perceived soundscapes in the Civil War South suggests how, in addition to all the other well-known contradictions that wilted the Southern will to prosecute the war, the introduction of new noises and the muting of old sounds probably helped erode Confederates’ long-term commitment and ability to resist their noisy Northern army.  Unlike Northerners, who found the fewer noises generated by the war perfectly compatible with their imagined and preferred future, Southern elites experienced new and deeply troubling noises and silences.  While mobilization in the North was, for the most part, in harmony with their idealized and actual industrial, free-labor soundscape, gearing up for war in the South quickly became too Northern for many white Southern tastes.  Because the actual sounds of war were far fainter in the North, there was much less adjustment to make than in the South where noises of battle and strife increasingly encroached on the Southern, tranquil, idealized home front.  In the end, such radical changes in the Southern soundscape, while inspiring feverish resistance and even a degree of accomodation in the first instance, probably had the effect of enervating the Southern will to win not just because of the new noises inaugurated by the war but also because these conflagration muted traditional Southern sounds.  Although sometimes unintended, sound itself became part of psychological warfare on the Confederate home front.  For other Southern constituencies, slaves in particular, the sounds of war were the welcomed notes of freedom. ("Of Bells, Booms, Sounds, and Silences: Listening to the Civil War South" p. 11)

The idea of a soundscape is fascinating to me and the point that different sounds held widely different meanings to various groups.  I have to say that I am not sure how salient a factor sound is to an explanation of Confederate defeat or the loss of will late in the war, but it doesn’t really matter.  Smith doesn’t simply add to our knowledge of the war he provides a novel new way to think about it.  Again, it is in those moments where new questions and the possibility of new data come together.  We grow as historians and consumers of history.

Embrace Revision!

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

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