A Sense of Defeat?

Yesterday my Civil War classes watched a bit more of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.  We’ve been talking quite a bit about the evolution from Limited to Hard or Total War so I decided to show them Episode 8 which focuses on “Sherman’s March to the Sea.”  In fact, their final exam – scheduled for next Wednesday – will explore just this issue.  We had a very interesting discussion about how Burns interprets the event through images, sound, and narrative as opposed to the treatment in our text by Brooks Simpson.  A few of the students were struck by the differences in their respective approaches.  At least one student suggested that Simpson was minimizing Sherman’s destructiveness and the sheer brutality of his operation against the civilians. 

In addressing the issue I asked the students to consider how both Burns and Simpson approach the subject.  To make a long story short, by the end of the class we were discussing the role of empathy and emotion in documentary and the more detached perspective that historians are expected to take when writing about the past.  I also talked a bit about the literature that has come out on Sherman’s March over the past 15 years, including Mark Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War.

Back to the reason for this post.  In the prologue to Episode 8 Shelby Foote says the following:

Shelby Foote Interview – As a Southerner I would say one of the main importances of the war is that Southerners have a sense of defeat which none of the rest of the country has.  You see in the movie Patton, the actor who plays Patton saying, “We Americans have never lost a war.” That’s a rather amazing statement for him to make as Patton because Patton’s grandfather was in Lee’s army of Northern Virginia and he certainly lost a war.

One of my students asked if it is true that Southerners have a sense of defeat.  I suggested, first, that he might want to distinguish between white and black Southerners.  It’s not clear to me that black Southerners view the war as a defeat, if it makes sense to generalize at all.  Even for white Southerners, however,  I wasn’t quite sure what to say.  I’ve heard it said that this sense of defeat persists, but have never taken the opportunity to explore what it might mean or how it manifests itself in our culture.  Any suggestions?

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12 comments… add one
  • Kate Jan 5, 2019 @ 19:31

    It’s possible to share in the Southern states’ “sense of defeat” via an ideological connection to the Confederacy. Identity formation can extend beyond kinship of one’s immediate circles socially or geographically. One only has to agree with the Confederacy’s worldview of a particular socioeconomic/political order, a certain way of life, to partake in a membership. That identity has prefix of “Neo-“, the more removed in time and place it is from the origins of its docrines.

  • Erik Sherman Aug 17, 2017 @ 16:43

    I came across this post only today while looking for the text of the Foote quote. Although I doubt anyone will see this, I see a parallel between the South after the Civil War and the U.S. after the Vietnam War. Something changed in the country’s outlook and collective sense of self. No one could go back. Terrible deeds could never be undone.

    The feeling never disappeared. Even now, with more people having no personal memory than those of us who remember, whether from childhood or active participation, Vietnam affects the culture in this country. How could it not? It has become part of history and of us. We pass it down like a piece of cultural genetic inheritance.

    I notice that many people dismiss the notion that most people in the South — whether white, black, or all — could have this lingering sense of defeat. And yet, even as many people have relocated and diluted the stock of those who traced generations back in Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia or the Carolinas, the land molds the inhabitants just as they mold the land.

    In the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer said the common character of the German people, the willingness to follow orders that was not only in exhibition under Hitler, but also under Kaiser Wilhelm, tracked back to the time of the Junkers. It was when Germany was going into feudalism just as the rest of Europe emerged. Six hundred years before and the experience still shaped attitudes in the mid-20th century.

    I mean this not as an explanation or an excuse — absolutely not that — but as an idea I found worth turning over. Of course racism is a large part and the desire to again rule, but there’s also that call for many of the loss, perhaps as a way to turn their minds and hearts away from the deep shame that must be there, no matter how buried.

  • Sherree Nov 14, 2008 @ 9:29

    Yes, Faulkner is the primary writer to read for insight into the meaning of Foote’s observation. There was not only a “sense of defeat” in the South; the South was defeated, and all of the men and women in it defeated, too–black and white–as the South fought the wrong war for the wrong reasons, and then Northern troops prematurely left the region and the men and women who lived in it to deal with the devastation left behind in the war’s wake. Now is our chance as a nation finally to end the Civil War and to become one nation at last.

    One of your readers commented several months ago that Faulkner obviously studied his subject before he wrote. Actually, from what I know of Faulkner’s life, he lived what he wrote, rather than study. The Sound and the Fury, Go Down Moses, and Absalom Absalom capture for all of time the tragic, tortured relationship of the races in the South as observed by Faulkner and recorded through fiction. This relationship included (and still includes) generations of black men and women and white men and women who were, and are, connected by a shared and bloody history–a history that some transcended, and that others did not. To me, and to many others, one of the most tragic aspects of the war, other than the fact that there were those in the South who made it necessary to fight a war in order to end slavery, is that Reconstruction did not succeed and the peace was not won. Black men and women freed from slavery were left in a war torn part of the country to fend for themselves, with only those white Southerners who were brave enough to go against a racist power structure to fight with them and help them, and many suffered and died because of it. The entire nation shares responsibility for allowing this to happen, as many historians have acknowledged, and now is the time for the nation to accept responsibilty, so that the past finally can become the past, rather than a living ghost that haunts the present, as portrayed in Faulkner’s fiction. This can only be done by resolving the long unresolved issues that tie us to the past, and first and foremost among those issues, is the issue of racial oppression, represented by the ever present statue of the Confederate soldier that is central to the final scene of The Sound and the Fury, and that stands in front of courthouses across the South to this day, a silent sentinel to the unspeakable past, and the ever present ghetto in every major city of the nation, regardless of region.

  • Ed Nov 13, 2008 @ 12:10

    Patton saying, “We Americans have never lost a war.”

    Is Patton saying this to teach his men a historical fact or is he trying to inspire his men?

    What if he had said, “We Americans, except those who had relatives who fought for the Confederacy, have never lost a war.” Just doesn’t sound very motivating to me.

  • Paul Taylor Nov 13, 2008 @ 11:11

    This “sense of defeat” and “wishing it were not so” is also exemplified in William Faulkner’s famous passage from Intruder in the Dust:

    “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

  • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2008 @ 10:51

    Thanks Stephen. It’s been a while since I read that essay, but perhaps it is time to pull it off the shelf.

    Paul, — That’s one of Foote’s more interesting comments. My students adore Foote, but not so much for his intellect, but for his demeanor and accent. I think they can identify with his love for the subject.

  • Paul Taylor Nov 13, 2008 @ 10:12

    One of my favorite Foote moments in the entire series is where he tries to explain why the Civil War seems to still resonate so much more in the South than in the North. (Having lived extensively in both regions, I would concur with this observation) He pointed out that as a young man, he grew up in a very rough part of town and as a consequence, engaged in a lot of fist fights, the vast majority of which he won. Yet, as an elderly man, the few he remembered best were the ones he lost.

    Personally, I found that explanation to be a poignant explanation of why that “sense of defeat” may exist in the South to some. Most white Southerners today however, have probably little interest in the question one way or the other.

  • Stephen West Nov 13, 2008 @ 9:20

    This is a point that C. Vann Woodward famously reflected on over 50 years ago in his 1953 presidential address to the SHA. That essay, “The Irony of Southern History” and his further reflections appear in _The Burden of Southern History_. In that essay and in _Origins of the New South_, Woodward quotes Arnold Toynbee’s line that as a boy in 1897 Toynbee thought “history is something unpleasant that happens to other people” and that if he had been a Southerner boy at the same time “I should not have felt the same.”

  • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2008 @ 8:36

    Excellent point re: whether Patton ever really uttered such a statement. No doubt you are right to suggest such a study, but I wonder whether it is even possible. I also agree that the content of such a belief will have changed significantly with each generation. To what extent is this “sense of defeat” today a function of political concerns rather than an attachment to the past. One more question: Is it possible for someone today to harbor a sense of defeat who does not have any familial or regional connection to the Confederacy?

    Eric, — You are probably right that the overwhelming majority of southerners today have no stake in this question.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Nov 13, 2008 @ 8:09

    Generally those Southerners who have a sense of defeat are the ones who insist the war had nothing to do with slavery and regularly describe Sherman as evil and Lincoln as the Devil. The majority of Southerners, and a I mean probably 97% of them, have no feelings of defeat. Like the vast majority of those who actually fought the in the War, they have moved forward with their lives. Yet, there still are the few unreconstructed Rebels, as they have been labeled.

  • Robert Moore Nov 13, 2008 @ 7:43

    In an attempt to answer your question, I’m not sure what a “sense of defeat” would entail. I would think that one might need to look back at the reaction of former Confederates after the closing curtain of the war and then try to trace it through the generations. What carried-on and what did not? I would also wonder if the “sense of defeat” as continued is REAL (as a true-to-feelings legacy) or has been “imagined” by folks who cannot trace a clear path to whatever that sense may have been. In any case, I can’t help but think that the “sense of defeat” that existed in the consciousness is the same as that which existed in 1869, 1940 or today. I would think that there would be differences over time.

  • Robert Moore Nov 13, 2008 @ 7:07

    That quote from Shelby Foote is something that has always stuck with me and, because he cited the movie “Patton” and not the real man, I often wonder if he was speculating on something that wasn’t the case in the first place. Did Patton ever say anything close to that, really? Or is it simply (once again!) our memory being twisted because of Hollywood?

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