If You Want to be a Historian, You Can be a Historian: A Bit More About Jim Webb’s Confederacy

Jim Webb appeared on CNN this morning and quickly responded to a question re: the Politico piece.   He seemed a bit frustrated, but I don't blame him given that it's virtually impossible to hold a mature discussion within the format of our mainstream media.  You can check out the interview at Huffington; unfortunately, I couldn't find a way to embed it here.  Still, Webb managed to rattle off a few kooky comments.  This one is my favorite:

People in the North were never asked to give up slaves even with the Emancipation Proclamation. 

I assume Webb is referring to southern states that remained in the United States since…you know…slavery had already been outlawed throughout the North.  More to the point, Webb reminded me why I don't consider him to be a historian, although he identified himself as one during the interview.  He went through the standard motions of distancing the reasons why most white southerners fought from slavery by reminding us that only 5% were actual slaveowners.  They were motivated more by "loyalty to community" as if slavery and community can somehow be understood separately.  I listened to Webb make this comment as I put together the last section of my essay on demobilization and the humiliating experiences that returning Confederates faced when they were met by USCTs and newly-freed slaves.

Sorry, but this kind of simplicity no longer cuts it in more serious circles.  You can't call yourself a historian when all you can do is fall back on the same tired one-liners that are in every neo-Confederate's playbook.  You need to read books by Jim McPherson, Joe Glatthaar, Jason Phillips, and Chandra Manning to even begin to approach these complex questions.  Webb identifying himself as a historian is like me identifying myself as a chef when all I can do is prepare TV Dinners or [now your turn] identifying yourself as _____________ when all you can do is __________.

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
  • John Maass Jun 19, 2008 @ 11:59

    There is an interesting column at the WSJ (http://blogs.wsj.com/politicalperceptions/2008/06/17/the-case-for-webb-as-obamas-running-mate/?mod=fpa_blogs) about Sen. Jim Webb and his political opinions, statements, positions, etc. in the past. Quite a right winger I would say, with very harsh things to say about the Clinton’s in particular. If he is the VEEP nominee, he will have quite a lot to explain to his (new) party, on Vietnam, affirmative action, etc. I wonder why he switched parties, was it just @ the Iraq War? Seems liek he would have more in common with the GOP.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 13, 2008 @ 6:03

    I have not read anything by Webb apart from his 1990 speech at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington, but I am not surprised that a senator – or anyone else for that matter – would hold such views. The passages I have read, however, do remind me of something out of Braveheart.

  • Jms Donaldson Jun 12, 2008 @ 18:08

    I was goaded by a volunteer I worked with at a local museum to read “Born Fighting”, and I had to lay the book aside when I got the Civil War section. I find it amazing that a man can be elected to the United States Senate while still being a Southern apologist, although I shouldn’t be shocked by that anymore, I guess. I was particularly amazed to find out that ninety percent or more of Southern soldiers had never even seen a slave. I can’t wait until I get to read about William Wallace bravely leading the Southern ranks at Gettysburg or some flop like that. The one good thing about this book is that it’s actually marketed as Sociology and not as history.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2008 @ 11:49

    I know what you mean, but as I stated in the posts there is nothing surprising about his views. In fact, I would be more surprised if he didn’t hold these views. Much of what he presents is taken from the studies by Grady McWhiney who took his celtic vision and gave it a scholarly wrapping.

  • Larry Cebula Jun 12, 2008 @ 11:34

    I am disappointed that Webb holds these ideas and angry that he presents himself as a historian while holding forth on them. Bad Senator–no veep slot for you!

  • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2008 @ 11:13

    The bigger problem is the framing of slavery’s importance along the lines of ownership. It’s an indication that Webb doesn’t really understand the role that slavery played in the white South and how it benefited both slaveowners and non-slaveowners alike.

  • Woodrowfan Jun 12, 2008 @ 11:03

    Please tell me he didn’t quote that bogus 5% figure? Gad. I think I will email him these figures…

    Percentage of slave-owning families as a fraction of total free households in the state.

    Original CSA
    Mississippi: 49%
    South Carolina 46%
    Georgia: 37%
    Alabama: 35%
    Florida: 34%
    Louisiana: 29%
    Texas: 28%

    States Joining CSA after Fort Sumter
    North Carolina: 28%
    Virginia: 26%
    Tennessee: 25%
    Arkansas 20%

    Border States
    Kentucky: 23%
    Missouri 13%
    Maryland: 12%
    Delaware 3%

    he took them from various sources, including the UVA historic census site.

    The figures match very closely to other figures I have seen from other sources so while they may be off by a percentage point or two, they are far from the 5% figure.

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