Fellow Southerners!

Battle of Spotsylvania

It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s.  Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage.  Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself.  We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.

It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms.  Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth.  I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard.  While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.

Unfortunately, our popular media continues to push an image of southerners as heavily invested in vindicating their Civil War ancestors as a part of a continued struggle over Civil War memory with the rest of the country.  This usually comes in the form of a representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who is allowed to speak for all descendants.  It’s a picture of white southerners that has little basis in reality.  With this in mind I refer you to Gordon Rhea’s essay in the latest issue of North and South magazine.  Rhea is one of the foremost experts of the war in Virginia in 1864.

The essay is based on a talk that Rhea gave in South Carolina as part of the state’s sesquicentennial observances in which he outlined the reasons for secession.  The essay is informed by the latest scholarship, including Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War and George Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War.  For anyone familiar with the latest scholarship on the subject there is nothing controversial about the content of Rhea’s article.  Of course, there will always be some people who suggest that Rhea is just another anti-southern historian that has abandoned the memory and rich heritage handed down by the men in the ranks.  Rhea anticipates this move by emphasizing his own connection to Captain James David Rhea of the 3rd Tennessee regiment, who saw action at Fort Donelson, Franklin, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga.

Rhea appeals directly to his “fellow Southerners” that a personal connection to the past through an ancestor should not necessarily determine our own moral position nor does it constitute the beginning and end of an honest and mature investigation of the historical past.  I will allow Rhea to speak for himself:

I admire Captain Rhea’s personal bravery and the suffering he endured, just as I respect the fighting qualities of the Army of Northern Virginia and its skillful leader.  The sesqui – centennial, however, affords us Southerners an opportunity to look beyond the deeds of individual soldiers and the masterful battles waged by Confederate armies, and to dwell on a deeper issue.  It is time that we modern Southerners acknowledge that Confederate soldiers were cogs in the military arm of the Confederate States of America, a government founded for the avowed purpose of preserving human slavery and fostering that institution’s propagation into new territories.  While I respect Captain Rhea’s bravery, I cannot be proud of the cause that his nation represented and for which he risked his life.  And I’m very glad that his side lost….

For too long, organizations claiming to speak for our Southern ancestors have promoted fantastical versions of history. To this day, the Sons of Confederate Veterans website announces that “the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution,” conveniently neglecting to mention that the right at stake was the liberty and freedom of White people to own Black people. The site also highlights Stephen D. Lee’s charge to the Sons of Confederate Veterans to vindicate “the cause for which we fought,” but fails to remind us that that the glorious cause involved state-enforced bondage for some four million people. We hear that Confederate symbols represent heritage, not hate. But how can we in good conscience celebrate a heritage whose self avowed reason for existence was the exploitation and debasement of a sizeable segment of its population?

Our ancestors were unapologetic about why they wanted to secede; it is up to us to take them at their word and to dispassionately form our own judgments about their actions. This is a discussion we Southerners need to have. The Sesquicentennial affords us an opportunity to insist on a fact-based dialogue about the wellsprings of secession, a dialogue based on what the participants said at the time, not what they and their apologists said later to justify their actions to posterity. We are a diverse people with a wide array of opinions. I am very happy that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, and I believe that the Confederacy’s stated goals and ideology should offend the sensibility of anyone living in our times. We ought to be able to look history squarely in the face and call it for what it was. Only by discarding the myths of the past can we move forward to an honest future.

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11 comments… add one
  • London John Jan 10, 2012 @ 13:39

    “an image of southerners as heavily invested in vindicating their Civil War ancestors”. Sometimes they’re mistaken. I read somewhere (sorry I’ve forgotten where) about a lady applying to join one of these Confederate Heritage groups and proudly presenting her ancestor’s honourable discharge from a Tennessee or North Carolina regiment. The enrolling officer had to point out to her the letters “USA” on the certificate – her ancestor had fought for the Union. I suspect she’s not the only one.
    What do you think about Cold Mountain as a representation of White Southern attitudes during the CW?

  • Forester Jan 9, 2012 @ 12:15

    I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again …. recognizing that one’s ancestors were falible human beings capable of good and bad (as subject to the views of their period) is NOT disrespectful to one’s heritage or sense of identity.

    My ancestors may have viewed slavery as morally right or justifiable (and I have living relatives who feel likewise about segrogation), but that does NOT nullify their other acheivements or their personal character. People tend to be a mix of good and bad qualities, and they never fit our “modern” notions of morality (much as we ourselves may not match future generations concept of right and wrong).

    So am I proud of my Confederate ancestors, and do I love my home in Virginia? Absolutely. But I can love my home and heritage without whitewashing the past and living in ignorence.

    • Ray O'Hara Jan 9, 2012 @ 14:50

      A lot of people derive their identity from the past. If one has a facebook account just search the names of CW Generals, there are Jubal Earlys, George Picketts and Joshua Chamberlains galore. Many take it as a personal insult if you do not agree their chosen hero is the best, bravest and most pure soul to have ever strode the earth

    • Charles Jun 26, 2015 @ 4:07

      Forester, I believe you made the most significant point of these comments. While I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Rhea’s and Mr. Levin’s points, I must strongly object to Mr. Rhea’s latest opinion expressed via the (highly liberal) CNN news opinion site. While denouncing symbols of division such as the Confederate flag, it is borderline absurd to begin dismantling statues, monuments, buildings, tombstones, etc. as some sort of acknowledgement and penance for the many sins of the past. You cannot erase history, nor can you avoid repeating it if it is ignored. Finally, not all who fought for the Confederacy were slave owners, and not all agreed with slave ownership. Some just followed along much like sheep because that was what was expected. Let us acknowledge the past, not accept some degree of perverted “white guilt.” None of us were alive then, and the major majority of us acknowledge the mistaken beliefs of those times.

  • Gordon Rhea Jan 9, 2012 @ 5:42

    Thanks for the kind comments, Kevin. I really do think that it is time for my fellow Southerners to stand up for history and to repudiate fantasy. It is also time that we stop letting ancestor-worshipping organizations like the SCV define who our ancestors were and what we believe. Our ancestors were clear and outspoken about their beliefs, and about their reasons for wanting to leave the United States of America, establish a new nation, and expand their slave-holding empire resting on its cornerstone of white supremacy. For the SCV and similar organizations to deny their ancestors’ core beliefs does a disservice to the very people they claim to honor. And there is certainly nothing dishonorable about modern Southerners repudiating their ancestors’ beliefs. I can imagine modern Germans having a very similar conversation: the sons of Wehrmacht soldiers might well admire the courage and military acumen of their forebears, but that does not mean that they have to personally admire or adopt — much less reinvent — the ideology of the nation in whose service their forebears fought. I firmly believe that it is the obligation of historians to try and fathom the past as it was, and not as we wish it had been. Keep up the good work, Kevin.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 9, 2012 @ 5:45

      Hi Gordon,

      Thanks again for sending along the essay. I am convinced that your position is much more representative of how southerners are identifying with our Civil War past than is given credit. It would have been nice to hear you read this in front of an audience.

  • Margaret D. Blough Jan 9, 2012 @ 5:11

    Fortunately, Gordon is a pretty tough cookie. I am a huge admirer of his work and, shortly after his first book, on the Battle of the Wilderness, came out, I took a tour of the Wilderness battlefield that he guided. He’s a litigator by profession, including very high profile cases, so I think he can take the heat.

  • Rob Baker Jan 9, 2012 @ 5:06

    I couldn’t agree with Rhea’s comment more. All to often the personal connection can blind us to what is the total truth. Being too caught up in “heritage” can often lead us outside of objective thinking. My home state of Georgia has a scarred past as any and it pleases me when I see the works of the historical society in Georgia revealing and talking about these issues rather than covering them with a veil.


    It is unlikely however that Rhea’s essay will appeal to the subject audience.

  • James F. Epperson Jan 9, 2012 @ 4:32

    The outrage is going to be incredible to behold …

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