Even the Public Historians Have Been Seduced

E. Dabney at Petersburg National Battlefield

The History News Network has just posted an editorial by Steven Conn on the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Conn offers an overly simplistic reading of the evolution of Civil War historiography through the Civil Rights Movement before closing his essay with the following:

Sadly, 150 years after Edmund Ruffin fired on Fort Sumter, large numbers of Americans remain in the thrall of a romanticized Confederacy.  At Civil War reenactments far more people show up dressed as Johnny Reb than as Billy Yank.  The fact that it is acceptable to put a Confederate flag on a car bumper and to portray Confederates as brave and gallant defenders of states’ rights rather than as traitors and defenders of slavery is a testament to 150 years of history written by the losers.

I’ve come to expect this kind of silliness from newspaper reporters, who are looking for a quick story that follows a narrative line that most of us can easily relate to, but Steven Conn teaches Public History at Ohio State.  I expected better.

We should take stock of the important changes that have taken place in our collective memory of the Civil War.  No, we don’t have any hard data beyond a few polls that have been released in the past few weeks, but there is a great deal of evidence pointing in this direction. What exactly is preventing us from breaking out of what I am now calling the “Continuing War Narrative”?  The governor of the state that included the former capital of the Confederacy recently released one of the most thoughtful Civil War proclamations.  The sesquicentennial commissions of former Confederate states are engaged in activities that would have been impossible to imagine 50 years ago.  Museums and other historical institutions throughout the nation are presenting the general public with programs that introduce the latest Civil War scholarship.

This continuous loop of not having enough reenactors to play “Billy Yank” perhaps tells us something about that specific demographic, but it certainly doesn’t shed any light on broader public perceptions.  And as for the Confederate flag, well, do we really need to go there?  I’m not suggesting that some kind of victory be declared over the interpretive problems that have plagued Civil War historiography and, by extension, the form it took in popular culture, but we would do well to acknowledge the changes.  We should do so if only to more precisely point out the gaps and distortions that persist.

Whatever we do, let’s stop beating ourselves silly with this Continuing War Narrative and take stock of how far we’ve come.

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18 comments… add one
  • Jon Karp Apr 12, 2011 @ 16:41

    Well, what do you make of this CNN poll out today? Admittedly, a poll such as this isn’t very nuanced (e.g., one can sympathize with the people and not so much the “cause”). Still, the results at face value seem disturbing:

    In the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll released Tuesday, roughly one in four Americans said they sympathize more with the Confederacy than the Union, a figure that rises to nearly four in ten among white Southerners.


    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2011 @ 17:07

      I think it depends entirely on the questions asked. There was a recent Pew poll that asked more revealing questions, which resulted in more interesting results.

  • DG Foulke Apr 12, 2011 @ 10:41

    As is regularly the case, another good post. Thank you.

    I am, however, somewhat unclear about exactly what you mean by the locution “Continuing War Narrative”. Would you please define this term as precisely as you are able.

    Thanks again.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2011 @ 10:49

      All I mean to refer to is the tendency to ignore the changes that have taken place in our collective memory over the past few years. Americans are not divided along regional and racial lines in reference to the Civil War and related historical issues as they once were.

  • Jon Karp Apr 12, 2011 @ 3:18

    Dear Kevin,

    You criticize Conn but you don’t actually show how and why he’s wrong. What is factually wrong in his article. Why is his historiographical account “simplistic”? Assertions require support and evidence. It would be nice if you provided some.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 12, 2011 @ 4:34

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for the comment. I am not exactly sure what you are taking issue with in my post. You will notice that I didn’t take issue with his brief characterization of Civil War historiography. What I took issue with is his concluding paragraph, which I suggest is much too simplistic. I’ve commented on this issue on multiple occasions and I suggest you go back through the archives over the past few weeks to read what I have said. Thanks again.

  • Phil Ross Apr 11, 2011 @ 10:45

    I find the Continuing War narrative, as a literary/historical construct, to be significantly more valid than the Lost Cause narrative, and we’re certainly not done with that one yet either. When it’s the fringe political narratives that get the press’ undivided attention these days, given contemporary news values, why would fringe historical narratives be any different?

    Then again, my formal journalism training is frequently at war with my formal public history training. Too much history, not enough heritage. It will indeed be an interesting four years.

  • Ken Noe Apr 11, 2011 @ 8:43

    After a speech in New York last month, a man in the audience asked me why the south “was still fighting the Civil War.” I told him that I hadn’t seen much evidence that it was. I still haven’t. We still may see that evidence tomorrow, but if not during Fort Sumter week, I’m going to conclude once and for all that the “continuing Civil War” trope is only real for a squeaky-wheel (squeaky keyboard?) minority, and for a media used to focusing on two polarized extremes.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2011 @ 8:58

      Hi Ken,

      We shall see, but I don’t anticipate much excitement in that direction.

  • John Maass Apr 11, 2011 @ 4:14

    Conn’s previous articles for HNN are much more politics and partisanship than they are history.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2011 @ 4:32

      I noticed that as well.

    • Larry Cebula Apr 11, 2011 @ 15:04

      “more politics and partisanship than they are history”

      That is the problem with HNN!

      • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2011 @ 15:07

        It’s definitely one of the reasons that I don’t check in as often as I used to.

  • Sherree Apr 11, 2011 @ 4:06

    Hi Kevin,

    Great post.

    I think that to dislodge the “Continuing War Narrative”, as you phrase it, from our collective narrative, the function that the narrative serves must be examined from both within the South and from outside of it. If the South truly were to change, where would that leave the rest of the nation? If the South truly did face its past, would it then be incumbent upon the rest of the nation to do the same? As long as the worst of the worst (the white South) can be pointed to as an example of white supremacist racism beyond which the rest of the nation moved long ago, men and women from other areas of the country can breathe a little easier. There is tremendous energy by some in the white South to protect a history that most reject. There is also tremendous energy that goes into not letting the “Old South” go by others as well. To do so would require a deeper look into their own history beyond the narrative of the Union fought to free the slaves. That is not something that many people want to do.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 11, 2011 @ 4:39

      Thanks for the comment, Sherree and nice to hear from you. You said:

      “As long as the worst of the worst (the white South) can be pointed to as an example of white supremacist racism beyond which the rest of the nation moved long ago, men and women from other areas of the country can breathe a little easier.”

      I completely agree with this point.

      • Sherree Apr 11, 2011 @ 5:21

        You’re welcome, Kevin. Nice to speak with you again as well. I have enjoyed your posts.
        I am not quite sure that we agree, though–at least not as you quoted me. You would have to clarify, and may not want to, and that is ok.

        I have seen a T shirt at pow wows in which Indigenous war chiefs are pictured and reference to another form of terrorism is made–terrorism fought since 1492. My question to your readers would be is this claim valid–that is, have Indigenous men and women been fighting terrorism since 1492? Do we, as Americans, accept this claim and all that it implies? If not, why not? White Southerners did inflict terror upon African American men and women and upon Indigenous men and women as well. So did the rest of the nation. Are you willing to see your history as one that involved terrorism? Or do you prefer to speak about the Quakers and ignore the rest? That is what I mean

        • Sherree Apr 11, 2011 @ 5:46

          Thanks, Kevin, as always.

          An article sent to me by a friend illustrates my point. The article is entitled “Powwow Story Sparks Outrage in Indian Country”. The article appeared in the Union Weekly, which is a student publication of California State University–appeared in 2011, not 1960. The university responded quickly. Still, the damage was done. At least one student–the writer of the article–understands very little about how our nation was founded.

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