While attending the SHA in Richmond last weekend I took in three panels on various topics connected to the Civil War and the nineteenth-century South. Panels ranged from discussions of Unionist activity in North Carolina to the marketing of Confederate nationalism to northern tourists throughout the postwar period.
If you can actually sit through three 20-minute presentations than you can hopefully look forward to spirited exchanges between panelists and commentator along with the audience. Not once did I hear someone ask where a panelist was from, whether he had a Union or Confederate ancestor or their political persuasion. In addition, I don’t remember at any time hearing a question regarding an individual’s "loyalties"; no one asked whether a speaker was "anti-South", "anti-North" or anti – pro anything. In short, no one asked anything personal as an explanation as to why one’s individual research project led to a certain set of conclusions. I assume the panelists included liberals, conservatives, northerners, as well as southerners. Some of them no doubt can trace their family histories back to certain places in the north as well as south and so on and so forth. Now, why is it that the blogosphere is filled with these types of questions, accusations, and suspicions?
I think the question can be explained in large part as a failure to come to terms with what the discipline of historical research involves. That’s not an accusation, but it is telling that those who utter such claims do not seem to have any formal training in the field. They fail to see the process of history as a conversation that takes place over time in monographs, journals, and other venues rather than a slugfest between people debating or placing significance on where your great-great grandfather lived or whether you teach in a northern institution of higher learning. Historians work to better understand the past by challenging one another’s questions, assumptions, evidence, and conclusions drawn from a certain body of evidence. It’s not meant to be a conversation over blame, vindication or anything else that may fall into a normative category.
My publications and on-going research projects have nothing at all to do with a need to vindicate or vilify any one region of the country. I have no idea what it even means to be engaged in such a project. The terms that are thrown around such as Confederate heritage, Union heritage, anti-South, pro-North, etc. mean very little to me and do not in any way enter into my interest in American history. The terms themselves reflect an overly simplistic way of thinking and fail in any way to track anything historically salient. The idea that one can be pro- or anti-South assumes that the South is some kind of monolithic entity or uniform throughout. These references have no historical validity whatsoever, but unfortunately, those who consistently refer to such things have read very little or are caught up in an overly personal attachment to some conclusion that can only be defended in such a way. Closely related are the attempts to prop up or tear down certain individuals from the Civil War as if this has anything to do with serious scholarship. What is even more disturbing is the implicit assumption that white southerners must hold to a certain set of beliefs simply because of their background while white northerners necessarily hold distinct views. This is a true mark of absurdity, but in the blogosphere and the Civil War community generally its business as usual.
History is an intellectual discipline that involves careful study and sophisticated dialog. It demands that we put aside our emotional baggage to whatever extent possible, not to attain some vague notion of philosophical objectivity, but to keep ourselves open to learning more and understanding better.