Barack Obama, Bob McDonnell, and Civil War Memory

This post originally ran in April 2007.  I thought it might be worth re-posting given the recent debate here in Virginia and throughout the country over Confederate History Month.  I am wondering whether we are witnessing a decisive shift in our collective memory of the war?  Is the governor’s apology an indication that it is no longer possible to use the Lost Cause for political gain?

One of my readers recently pointed out that the Civil War Sesquicentennial observances may coincide with the election of our first black president.  How will that shape the national narrative that will arise out of political speeches, state sesquicentennial commission plans, and other observances? My friendly emailer asks:

As the bellowing over the Confederate battle flag seems to be nearing crescendo, how relevant will Confederate heritage appear four years from now?  And with, perhaps, a black president, how empty will any Confederate legacy be revealed to be?

The more I think about it the more it becomes apparent that an Obama presidency could reshape our understanding of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rest of American history right down to the Civil Rights Movement.  We’ve already seen how a push for black civil rights in the 1950s and 60s served to challenge the work of various centennial commissions.  This led to a noticeable waning in enthusiasm among white Americans for centennial celebrations by 1963.  The difference this time around could be that with Obama potentially elected in 2008 that this will leave plenty of time for the nation to begin to rethink its history and the place of slavery and emancipation within the overall narrative.  Think about it: We will hear about how far the nation has come since before the Civil War.  Part of that narrative will highlight the Civil War as leading to emancipation through the sacrifice and bravery of black soldiers themselves along with the actions of countless others.   It is reasonable to expect that the work of various organizations involved in setting up events for the sesquicentennial would be influenced to some extent by this natural curiosity as to how the nation has come to elect its first black president.  In short, the “emancipationist legacy” of the Civil War would return to center stage. It does have the potential of becoming overly celebratory and I would resist this urge for the sake of maintaining the focus on better understanding the relevant history.

Returning to the passage quoted above it is necessary to point out that the “emptiness” referred to in connection with “Confederate heritage” is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors.  I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.  It is meant, however, to point out that this view reduces both the war years, Reconstruction, and the history of race and slavery in a way that fails to acknowledge salient factors and relevant perspectives as part of the overall historical narrative.  It tends to reduce Southern history and the Civil War to the perspective of white Southerners and equates the Confederacy with the South.  More importantly, Southern history is equated or understood along the overly narrow lines of the four years of the Confederacy.  In short, the narratives coming out of Confederate Heritage groups would be inadequate to explain a black president.

More to the point, the attention among professional historians in recent years to better understanding the ways in which slavery shaped the Confederate experience will potentially occupy a central place in future narratives that purport to explain the historical background of a black president.  We will be forced to acknowledge secession and the Confederacy as an attempt to maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy and not simply as a constitutional right or a defense of hearth and home; both points figure prominently in our collective memory while race and slavery linger on the fringes.  Of course, understanding the Civil War years does not in any way come close to defining the black experience in America nor does an emphasis on the American South.  What it does do, however, is highlight the importance that was attached to emancipation both during the war and in the decades to follow before it was overshadowed by reunion, reconciliation and Jim Crow at the turn of the twentieth century.

We shall see.

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“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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16 comments… add one
  • Nat Turners Son Apr 13, 2010 @ 11:16

    I too wonder about how the 150 year rememberance of the Civil War will be played out. I see in TX it has be avoided for the most part by the State Historical Commission unlike Virginia or SC or even Arkansas.

    As I have read somewhere before History is a multifaceted subject and it takes looking at each facet then as a whole to get the complete picture.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2010 @ 11:30

      Since I am an adviser to the Virginia Sesquicentennial commission and I teach here I am mostly interested in how this state commemorates the war. I am incredibly optimistic, in large part, because of the way all of this turned out. No one is telling anyone that they cannot study or even celebrate their Confederate ancestors, but what was voiced loud and clear is that governor’s will not be permitted to promote the Lost Cause view of the war as the view of the state.

      My advice is leave the job of commemorating the war to the commission. It’s doing a fantastic job thus far.

  • Charlene Apr 11, 2010 @ 9:11

    I’m so glad this topic is finally being discussed. It is long past due. The thing that scares me the most is each state’s apparent ability to re-write their school’s history books to their choosing, as is being done in Texas.

  • Paul Taylor Apr 10, 2010 @ 12:49

    “… it is necessary to point out that the ’emptiness’ referred to in connection with “Confederate heritage” is not meant to denigrate the very strong desire on the part of Southern whites to remember and acknowledge the service of ancestors. I’ve said before that there is nothing necessarily wrong or even strange about this personal need to remember.”

    Not yet, anyway. As our contemporary discourse on the “proper” memory ebbs and flows, I cannot help but wonder if we’re slowly building toward a public endgame that says there’s no longer anything noble or worthy in cherishing a “memory” or “heritage” that, as one reader put it, was nothing more than “treason in the defense of slavery.” In other words, I wonder if the day is coming where expressing pride in one’s “Confederate heritage” is considered something that is just not done in polite society, and further, is something that in fact should be a point of shame. The SCV might say we’re already there, which is what they’re purportedly fighting against, and I would dare say there are those on the other side who hope to get there as soon as possible.

    I hope we don’t reach that point, but will not be surprised if we do.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2010 @ 13:01

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. As I stated in the post I can understand an individual’s desire to want to recognize in some form an ancestor who served in the military. The problem, however, is when that identification becomes something akin to the sanctioned view of a certain community even if it doesn’t reflect its shared values. The Sons of Confederate Veterans has every right to decorate the graves of their ancestors, but they should not expect the general public to share their sentiments. Up until recently their views found voice in local, state and even national government, but they may have more to do with who controlled political office than the virtues of their preferred narrative of the war.

    • JB Apr 10, 2010 @ 16:31


      While “I am not now, nor ever have been, affiliated with” the SVC, I can definitely share in their sentiment as you’ve expressed it. In my own home town in the Deep South, we have a history walk that runs the length of our river levee with commemorative historical flags along it–flags such as the Union Jack, the Spanish cross, the French fleur-de-lis, the Betsy Ross, etc: all flags that have historical value of some sort to the early US history and/or the history of GA. Included among these was the 2nd National flag of the CSA (why the 2nd and not the 1st or 3rd I’m not sure), but it wasn’t given any particular prominence or distinction–it was merely one of nearly a dozen such historical banners. Well, a couple of years ago, an anonymous complaint was made to the mayor’s office, and, long-story-short, it came down and hasn’t been back since. There wasn’t a public discussion on it–it was simply done quietly and without fanfare.

      Bringing it up to folks today, however, gets you bizarre looks and mutterings of ‘racism’ this or that, even when you mention the flag’s historical value and it’s right to fly alongside the other banners of historical import. I do not believe the crowd that crows, Let’s remember, but remember correctly. Eventually, in my experience in high school, college, and grad school in the South, “remembering correctly” means erasing history altogether. What professional educator asks to his/her students to study such foul deeds as are recorded in War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, by Walter Cisco, or the Slave Narratives as recorded by FDR’s journalist-historians? None that I know of: The common refrain is “Slavery!” to any and all discussions on the War, followed up with, “Let’s change the subject.”

      I hope we don’t reach that point, but will not be surprised if we do.

      I’m not surprised that you’re not surprised: We’re there now, at least in the schools of the Deep South.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2010 @ 16:46


        Given the history of the Confederate flag during the 1950s as a symbol of “Massive Resistance” I am not surprised by its gradual disappearance in the public square. White and black Americans have every right to be offended by it given its history. That said, I am not a proponent of erasing our past; in fact, I believe the flag should be displayed for all to see in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.

        I don’t know what your other point about Cisco’s book is supposed to be. I was asked by an academic journal to review that book, but had to write back after finishing it to inform the editors that the book is so poorly written and documented that it doesn’t deserve a review. If you are looking for an excellent book on the evolution of Union war policy in the Confederacy you should read Mark Grimsley’s _The Hard Hand of War_ (Cambridge University Press).

        • JB Apr 10, 2010 @ 18:39

          This flag was in a museum of sorts: an outdoor history walk with plaques “interpreting” each historical banner. If it can’t be displayed there, then no other museum is ‘safe’ for it either. How a self-professed historian can rationalize omitting history where history is being commemorated I’m not sure I know.

          Frankly, I found Grimsley’s book a gloss of the last year of the war–the hardest on the South’s civvie population–and wholly incomplete without the US Army Provost Marshal Records in a book purporting to specialize in exactly those kind of records.

          White and black Americans have every right to be offended by it given its history.

          I wonder why Mississippians–40% of whom are black–felt differently when asked whether or not to change their flag…

          • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2010 @ 0:46


            My guess is that this outdoor history walk is funded by taxpayer dollars. If so, the general public has every right to voice their concerns about what their dollars are being used to support. There is also the political aspect to it as well. As for my suggestion that the flag ought to be displayed mainly in museums I take my cue from historian John Coski. No one knows more about the history of that flag than Coski and he has done an outstanding job interpreting it at the Museum of the Confederacy.

            Apparently, we disagree about the importance of Grimsley’s book, but that is of little concern to me. As I said, Cisco’s book was so poorly written and organized that I was unable to assess it for the purposes of an academic journal. Finally, I don’t know what poll you are referring to nor do I think it is really relevant. In the case you just described it looks like actions speak louder than polls.

      • Bob Pollock Apr 11, 2010 @ 4:49

        Just for the record, in my “Civil War in Missouri” grad class at Missouri State U., Prof. Piston required us to read and analyze a large stack of the slave narratives.

  • DickH Apr 10, 2010 @ 10:11

    I also enjoyed your essay but fear it applies mostly to the thinking of academic historians, for the rhetoric of our political culture today seems to echo that which preceded the start of the Civil War with talk of states’ rights, nullification, etc. I can’t help but wonder whether Obama’s election and our current economic distress have caused attitudes on race that remain suppressed in better times to edge closer to the surface. Consequently, remembering the Civil War will raise too many uncomfortable parallels between then and now which might tend to diminish popular interest in Sesquicentennial observations

    • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2010 @ 12:29

      Thanks for the comment, but I think it is a big mistake to compare today’s rhetoric of states’ rights/nullification with the period leading to the war. First, only a very small percentage of people speak openly about such things and the most important difference, which you overlook, is that none of the issues today divides the nation along regional lines.

      You may be right that the election of Obama has brought certain racial attitudes closer to the surface, but that is not what this post is about. I was commenting on whether the Civil War narratives that emerge during the presidency of a black president would continue the Lost Cause theme. This past week’s dram here in Virginia suggests that we may be turning a corner. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Margaret D. Blough Apr 10, 2010 @ 3:10

    Kevin-Excellent essay. I would add that even though the President’s paternal ancestors remained in Africa and did not get swept into the African Diaspora, the First Lady of the United States, and therefore, their daughters are descended from slaves.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2010 @ 3:17

      Thanks Margaret. Good point, but we perceive Obama as African American which is what matters for the sake of this issue. And don’t forget that he checked off African American on his census form. 😀

  • Andrea Apr 10, 2010 @ 3:06

    Speaking from the point of view of a military veteran, people often mistake the reason an individual soldier went to war for the reason the army went to war. If someone wants to tell me that great-great-great grandpappy joined the Confederate army because the Yankees were at the doorstep, I’ll buy that for a dollar. But that same person needs to remember that there was an army for grandpappy to join because the South was attempting to, as you say, “maintain slavery and a racial hierarchy.”

    And yes, I think you did nail it in the paragraph before the video. Governor McDonnell definitely put his white privilege on display when he advocated a vision of Civil War remembrance that only stood for the experience of white Confederates; furthermore I suspect him of thinking that Gone With the Wind was documentary history.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 10, 2010 @ 3:10

      You can make the same point about the soldiers who volunteered to fight in Vietnam as opposed to those who were drafted. They may have enlisted for any number of reasons, but that has little to do with the nation’s policy of containment, which explains why our military was present there to begin with.

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