Onward Christian Soldiers

The blogger over at Pinstripe Press takes issue in an open letter to the Southern Legal Resource Center with "attacks" against those who wish to celebrate the virtues of Southern Christian warriors such as "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart.  The blogger who has also authored biographies of these two figures argues that, "For years, liberal scholars have referred to the Confederate States of America as a “hypocrisy” and questioned how a country fighting for independence could also deny that same freedom and liberty to it’s own citizens held in bondage."  The writer goes on to say:

My first two books, “Onward Christian Soldier: The Spiritual Journey of Stonewall” and “Christian Cavalier: The Spiritual Legacy of J.E.B. Stuart” were written and published as a testament to the Christian character and patriotism of these two men. I firmly believe that we can learn by their example, as it was these traits that ultimately gave them the strength to perform on the battlefield with such courage and conviction.

Let me start by suggesting that unless specific examples can be raised in support of the first point re: "liberal scholars" than it should be seen as a strawman argument.  I have a pretty good grasp of the secondary literature and I’ve never come across a claim of "hypocrisy."  What I have read, however, is a concerted effort to reintroduce the way that slavery both shaped the Antebellum South, the secession debates, and the course of the war.  As anyone who has studied Civil War historiography knows such a focus has been lacking within academic circles through the 1950’s and within more popular circles to this day. 

I find the claims that Jackson, Stuart and the rest of the boys constituted some kind of Christian Warrior society to be much more interesting.  First, it seems reasonable to ask whether the author believes that one can be considered "Christian" and a slaveowner in today’s world.  Does the ownership of another human being contradict the teachings of the Bible?  We know that Jackson owned slaves and there is evidence to suggest that he sold at least two slaves for financial reasons after marrying for the second time.  I should say that I understand that this was not necessarily a contradiction in the mid-19th Century South, but that is a different point altogether.  In thinking critically about the past we should try to the best of our ability as historians not to engage in presentism.  That said, the author seems much more interested in judging these individuals outside any historical context.  As a historian I have to admit that I am simply not interested in these questions.  As I suggested in an earlier post I don’t really understand Jackson’s behavior or his religious world view.  I’ve read both James I. Robertson’s biography of Jackson and Emory Thomas’s study of Stuart and I have to admit little success in penetrating the psychological surface.  Of course, that’s the challenge of doing and thinking critically about the past.  Jackson’s attitude towards Federal prisoners and his unshaken belief in the righteousness of the cause seem to have much in common with our popular perceptions of religious extremists in other parts of the world today.  It is also extremely difficult to peel back the layers of postwar storytelling that came to shape our popular perceptions of Jackson and others.

I would also like to know from the author why he makes no mention of Northern Christian warriors.  On his view, is it possible to be a Christian warrior from the North who fought to end slavery on religious grounds?  And what happens if we take one from each side and stick them in a room together.  If we are to judge them simply on moral grounds (we’ve taken off our historian’s hat for a moment) how should we proceed and what should our conclusions be given that for most reasonable christians today slavery is viewed as a contradiction of Biblical teachings. 

I agree with the author that it is important to preserve our history for future generations.  After all, that’s my job as a historian and as a teacher.  That said, I am not necessarily interested in steering my students to praise or blame anyone from the past.  My job is to give them the tools and the foundation for which to make those decisions on their own.

Note: The SLRC is also using H.K. Edgerton who was mentioned in yesterday’s post.  He is definitely making the rounds. If you are interested in reading more about the role of religion during the Civil War you may want to look at The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout, and ed. Richard M. Miller et.al., Religion and the American Civil War

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

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7 comments… add one
  • collector bob Feb 16, 2007 @ 12:07

    One disturbing thought is that most historians neglect the role religion played in peoples lives. At almost 70 years of age, I can remember how religion “griped” the lives and actions of its adhearents. One reference book on Lincoln’s death reports that people in St Cloud, MN were talking about his death a day prior to the actual date. St. Cloud is a catholic community and as such the Catholic Church has been linked to Lincoln’s death in various ways. If the Union were to survive, the Church would lose most of its influence not only here, but world wide. They would have a more difficult time tobe “father confessors” to potential heads of state. In modern times the church has informed newly “elected political leaders (elected by ballet/gun)” that it would receive the necessary church support if the church were to receive its custimary state support. If not , it was tobe understood that the church seek changes more to is liking. There was apparently much distrust against the Catholic Church but with good reason. Various Web Sites , particularly Catholic sites seem to slant history to their liking. They point out that Jeff Davis’s cabinet was more politically diverse than Lincoln’s. That is reasonable if being a Catholic made you more sympathec to the Southern cause. This seems to have support when other sites indicate that there was advise to Lincoln to only have protestents in high cabinet posts. Lincoln apparently had constant problems in keeping the peace in the north which could be explained by the church promoting the apparent “southern thinking”. The church promoted its own self interest in promoting the destruction of the Union.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2006 @ 16:57

    Chris, — Thanks for writing. Whether the members of the Knights Templar considered themselves to be Christian Warriors can be considered to be an historical question, but the question whether they were is a moral and not a strictly historical debate. After reading Carmichael’s study of young Virginians I have no doubt that they considered the war to be a religious crusade, but again that is different from any discussion of whether their cause was morally justified. As to the question of moral debates in the history classroom I have no problem debating the issues, but my primary goal is not to arrive at any one conclusion. Of course history if full of moral questions, but my job is to equip my students with the analytical tools necessary to engage in such debates. Hope that helps.

  • Chris Jun 2, 2006 @ 10:36

    Just thinking out loud here. Kevin would you have a similar stance (“don’t care because it’s not a historical question”) with say, the Crusades and the Knights Templar for example? They can be considered a “Christian Warrior class.” But let’s say there is a debate, and there might very well be one. Would that not be a historical question? I also wonder about “moral” questions and the teaching of history. It seems such questions cannot be avoided, yet here again, we place ourselves on a slippery slope. Obviously we can come to a clear moral judgement with something like genocide, but with other less obvious issues… I don’t know.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 2, 2006 @ 6:32

    Marc, — You are correct in pointing out this overly simplistic contrast with the North. Southerners are typically portrayed as God-fearing and morally upright while Northerners are victims of a burgeoning Industrial Revolution. No mention of the fact that most Northerners farm in 1860.

    Cash, — I pretty much agree with your point here. While I don’t believe that an advanced degree is a necessary nor a sufficient to be considered a historian it clearly doesn’t hurt. That said, I tend to read the so-called “liberal-revisionist” historians who publish with university presses because there job and training is to interpret the past. I also tend to stick with these titles because there is a demanding peer review process at work. I just finished looking over page proofs for an article of mine that will appear in September in an essay collection for a university press and I am amazed with the peer review process. Just when you think you are finished you have additional questions to address.

    The only reason I commented on this site was because both Dimitri and Grimsley link to it. As a historian I have no interest in the question of whether Jackson and the rest of the crowd constitute some kind of Christian Warrior class. And I don’t care because it’s not a historical question – it’s a moral question and a poorly framed one at that. Can William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant be considered Christian Warriors? If no, why not. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for such a label. Notice that I filed this under “Civil War Culture” and not “Civil War Historians.”

  • Cash Jun 1, 2006 @ 23:49

    Interesting situation here, Kevin.

    The author calls himself a historian, but I wonder if he really is.

    This brings up the question of what makes one a historian? Can one simply label themself a historian? Does writing a book automatically make one a historian?

    I’d say the answer to all the above is no.

    I could do some cursory research and call myself a doctor. I could even give you a flu shot or put a bandage on a wound of yours. Would you then trust me to perform an appendectomy on you? I would hope not.

    It seems to me there is a professional body of knowledge common to all historians, no matter what period they cover. This involves historical methods, use and evaluation of sources, and the like. While a history degree is probably not required, I would think one should be able to demonstrate a mastery of the professional body of knowledge before one can be called a historian.


  • Marc Ferguson Jun 1, 2006 @ 16:22

    Interesting post! In my experience, claims for the moral uprightness of figures such as Jackson, Stuart, and Lee are usually paired with the characterization of Northerners as greedy hypocrites.

  • Anonymous Jun 1, 2006 @ 10:14

    Perhaps also worth considering is the notion of “Christian soldier.” I don’t think this sort of notion was countenanced by Jesus (turn the other cheek, love thy brother, &c). I think this pretty much points to the fact that someone claiming to be a “Christian soldier” is simply using the statement “God is one my side” to advance their own political views.

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