“My Great-Great Grandfather Didn’t Own Slaves” (So What)

I’ve said it before, but I don’t mind repeating that no one has taught me more about the challenges of interpreting the Civil War at America’s battlefields than John Hennessy. John’s contribution to Common-place explores some of the more recent sticking points that have arisen as a result of shifts in battlefield interpretation away from the original intention behind the creation of or national battlefield parks. National Park Service historians have fully embraced an expansive interpretation of the events that transpired on their landscapes that go beyond the experience of the soldiers without any reference to causes and consequences.

But what happens when visitors, who have a connection to an ancestor who fought in the war, are exposed to a broader narrative that for some reason makes them uncomfortable?

Something else renders the National Park Service’s relationship with the Civil War and its battlefields more complicated than most. Tens of millions of Americans have a blood relationship with a Civil War soldier, the men whose deeds the battlefields were set aside to remember. These Americans often see the war not with the dispassion of a historian (even an amateur historian), but through the intensified lens of a family connection. Many visitors to NPS sites often understand the war in a way that reflects generations of conventional wisdom rather than historical knowledge acquired through formal study. Unlike any other event beyond our direct memory, the Civil War has constituent groups that patrol the intellectual universe, intent on protecting and advocating a specific memory of the war—usually one that reflects positively on their ancestors, communities, or regions. Historians have demonstrated that many aspects of this “true history” (as it is often called by heritage groups) are at best incomplete and at worst not true at all. Still, the beliefs endure in parts of the general public—and most commonly in those members of the public who visit National Park Service battlefield sites.

This personal connection to the past has helped shape our nation’s relationship with and understanding of the war. At least as it relates to the Civil War, we as a nation have permitted the personal motivations of soldiers (often imperfectly remembered or revised over time) to define the cause and purpose of war for the public. If you work at a Civil War site any amount of time—say, more than a week—you will hear something like this from a visitor: “My great-great-grandfather didn’t own slaves. He sure as hell didn’t fight to preserve slavery. He fought to defend his home, the way of life of his community and state. The Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and you are wrong to tell people it was.”

We have heard such assertions so often they qualify as a mantra. Of course, virtually every credentialed historian in America accepts a connection between slavery and the Civil War, and most of them see the connection as central to its cause, its progress, and its outcome. But to acknowledge, for example, that the South formed the Confederacy largely to protect the institution of slavery is to suggest to the millions of Confederate descendants that their ancestors fought to sustain what by any measure was a vile institution—perhaps the darkest stain on America’s national fabric. Many remain vehemently opposed to scholarly arguments about the war and slavery, and don’t hesitate to tell you. It was this vehemence—first articulated by the founders of the United Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy more than a century ago—that inspired the nation to simply avoid the topic and focus on the shared virtues of men fighting for life and principle (whatever they might have been) on our nation’s battlefields.

Since the 1980s—as scholarship from earlier decades started to take root in the American mind, and as scholars started exploring the role of historical memory in American culture—Americans have increasingly seen the Civil War not through the lens of personal connection, but through the prism of national purpose. This is by far the most important change in the cultural landscape of Civil War history in the last three decades, and it is one that portends dramatic change to come. Among those changes will be that America’s battlefields will likely no longer provide the quiet and happy historical refuge where history is neatly compartmentalized to provide comfort for Americans struggling to understand and reckon with their past.

Civil War Battlefields will and should always be places where visitors can honor the sacrifice of Americans and reflect on the past in ways that are personally meaningful. At the same time they are places where we as Americans can learn and think hard about tough questions. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. It’s unfortunate that 150 years later that some people can’t distinguish between the past and the present, but that should not be a concern of the National Park Service or anyone for that matter.

I also wonder whether the kind of emotional investment described by John is another example of an identification with the Civil War era that is generational and gradually fading away. Do we see the same kind of resistance among younger Americans, who visit Civil War sites and are introduced to issues related to slavery? I have my doubts.

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24 comments… add one
  • Forester Feb 8, 2014 @ 23:36

    For a lot of people, their interest in history is rooted in venerating some bygone era in which “things were better.” Most of them are Southern, but I’m sure they exist in a Northern variety as well. For these people, their ancestors (or anyone in the past) was braver, bolder, and more “pure” than modern people ever could be. It’s a self-deprecating fantasy, where the present is always bad and the past is always a gloriously tragic epic.

    For these people, a complicated (honest) depiction of history is counter-intuitive. They don’t want to hear that the South fought for slavery, or anything else that rocks their boat. The “quiet and happy historical refuge where history is neatly compartmentalized” is exactly what they’re looking for —- hell, it’s ALL they’re looking for.

    What happens when they’re expose them to an uncomfortable narrative? They’ll just stop coming. When my family visited Mount Vernon, the tour guide talked about slavery. On the drive home, my parents talked about how “they’ve re-written history,” as though the tour guide was lying about Washington owning slaves. It’s heritage, not history.

  • Chris Evans Feb 7, 2014 @ 16:44

    Tom Huntington in his wonderful book ‘Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg’ has that same sort of exchange with a guy at a North-South Skirmish meet. The person said that they researched a certain company of a Virginia regiment and none owned slaves. I just wonder though if they followed Glatthaar’s lead and checked if the parents of the soldiers owned slaves?

    I couldn’t agree more with “Some people need to learn how to deal with reality.” The facts don’t take away that a vast majority of the soldiers were brave as all get out.


  • Keena Graham Feb 5, 2014 @ 17:59

    I think one of the issues at hand is that people don’t know the difference between heritage and history. Heritage is like religion: people believe what they choose to believe and consideration for all the facts is secondary or tertiary for that matter. You’re allowed to pick and choose as you please to construct an image of the past that satisfies the idea that you have of yourself in today’s world. They don’t see that their heritage could very well be someone else’s history of hate. But most of the time the visit to the Civil War battlefield is not about learning history. It’s about validating someone’s existence.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 5, 2014 @ 5:12

    I think for a lot of people if a person was a slaveholder, it means that they were a racist; and if they were a racist, it must mean they were a horrible person. And if they were a horrible person, if you are descended from them, you must be a horrible person, too. And as a result of this thinking, I think it leads many not to be honest with how they think and feel about other people.

  • London John Feb 5, 2014 @ 3:13

    I imagine that if one of these proud descendants could meet his non-slave-owning gggf and ask him whether he had been fighting to preserve slavery, the answer would be something like “Of course I was, dummy. You got a problem with that?”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2014 @ 3:24

      Perhaps a slightly different question would work better. You could ask whether he sees a connection between Confederate independence, the safety of his family, and slavery. It also might depend on when during the war the question is posed. Let’s imagine a GGGF who fought at the Crater against USCTs.

  • Aaron Astor Feb 4, 2014 @ 20:08

    The best way to deal with this – if you have the time – is to explain two things: A) You did not have to own slaves in order to see the institution’s disappearance as something deeply threatening. Non-slaveholding white Southerners had many perfectly understandable reasons for supporting slavery, including status in a racial hierarchy and fear of an insurrection. Which leads to B) Nearly all Northern whites held white supremacist views in line with Southern whites. Insofar as they opposed slavery, it was because they thought it was bad for white people (devalued labor, encouraged laziness, etc.) and not because they thought whites and blacks were equal. That allows C) Whether or not great, great grandpa personally enlisted in the Confederate army to defend slavery, the cause was clearly vested in the defense of slavery. The politicians were explicit on this point. BUT, to apply today’s notions of race to the 1860s would result in castigating just about all of white America as repugnantly racist. If you want true heroes who fought for black freedom, look to the black Union soldiers themselves. Otherwise, just look at the Civil War on its own terms and not as a morality play for issues today.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 5, 2014 @ 2:26

      Hi Aaron, — What a nice surprise. My students are currently thinking about the extent to which non-white slaveowners were invested in slavery. Not an easy concept to understand. Regardless of why any individual volunteered (before the draft) to go to Vietnam he was taking part in a war of “Containment.”

      Your suggestions are all reasonable, but my only problem is that the upshot is to make the visitor feel better about himself/herself and in these cases I wonder whether anything can really get through.

      BTW, your book is in transit. It’s about time I read it. 🙂

  • josephinesouthern Feb 4, 2014 @ 18:30

    Lincoln’s Republic or Jefferson’s Republic; I’ll take Jefferson thank you and the National Park is just that National, so they should include the Jeffersonian States Rights for us too. Not Fair, not balanced at all. boo, I will not go to the parks again until they change this phony Lincoln narrative.

  • cagraham Feb 4, 2014 @ 14:32

    This reflects, I think, what Sam Wineburg means when he calls historical thinking an “unnatural act.” I see this in my students all the time. When confronted with historical information, the natural inclination is to 1. make personal connections, 2. use it to affirm a personal worldview, 3. draw moral conclusions (and place yourself on the right side of them). That’s the default cognitive position and that seems to explain very well the “not-my-grandfather”-reaction. If no intervention is made, it makes the faulty basis of a type of historical analysis we eggheads despise.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2014 @ 14:34

      Hi Chris,

      Wineburg’s reference to this kind of thinking as an “unnatural act” is helpful to a point. I see it among my students as well, but I don’t typically see the defensive posture in the way that Hennessy describes in the essay.

  • James Harrigan Feb 4, 2014 @ 14:28

    Here’s what I would say to somebody who claims to know why great great grandpa fought for the Confederacy:
    “The Confederacy was founded to defend slavery. Confederate soldiers fought for many reasons, and it is quite possible that your great great grandpa fought for reasons that did not include defending slavery. Why people fought is a separate question from why the war started in the first place”
    This formulation has the dual benefit of being historically accurate and non-confrontational.

    • M.D. Blough Feb 4, 2014 @ 21:29

      Another point is, “You say he fought to maintain the way of life of his community and his state. That way of life was based on the institution of slavery and any attack on the institution was seen as an attack on the society in which he lived.” The reaction you get is clearly the modern individual’s aversion to associating his ancestor with slavery, not the ancestor’s feelings about an institution that every authority figure and institution in his life (Church, state, and family) informed him was the best for both races.

  • Ben Allen Feb 4, 2014 @ 14:27

    “Do we see the same kind of resistance among younger Americans, who visit Civil War sites and are introduced to issues related to slavery? I have my doubts.” I think it is rather a different kind of resistance, unrelated to the American Civil War in a multitude of instances. In rural Virginia, there are plenty of adolescents who still wave the Rebel flag and wear pieces of attire displaying it some fashion. However, many seem to be unfamiliar with Lost Cause ideology. They know that the Confederacy existed, but that is all. To them, the treasonous banner simply symbolizes southern pride, or just looks worth wearing in some form, and means neither slavery nor states’ rights. Indeed, many show it off solely because they know it is somehow offensive.

    I take issue with this comment of Hennessy’s: “Unlike any other event beyond our direct memory, the Civil War has constituent groups that patrol the intellectual universe, intent on protecting and advocating a specific memory of the war—usually one that reflects positively on their ancestors, communities, or regions.” What about Turkey’s “Lost Cause,” which pertains to the Great War, especially the Armenian Genocide? Even better: What about Napoleon? I have heard that there are many Frenchmen who still venerate him. Indeed, there are probably other examples “beyond our direct memory.”

  • Robert Moore Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:16

    Kevin, I’d like to make a couple of points, but this is on the fly, so I’ll keep it to one. I disagree with your observation on the NPS… “that should not be of concern”. Quite to the contrary, considering they are front line contact with people. I think they have to be prepared for this, as not to descend into some sort of debate in the midst of providing interpretation. There’s more I have to say, but might be best in a post rather than just a comment.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:28

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for the comment and I look forward to hearing your additional thoughts on the subject. That particular sentence was a bit sloppy. The point I want to make is that these are cases of a deep investment in a personal past that is quite often immune from critique. Individuals who embrace such a view are free to do so, but I don’t believe that it is wise (with a few exceptions) for NPS staff and educators to go out of their way to try to change such views or to feel that they are obligated to engage in some form of soul searching. I’ve experienced this a few times in the classroom and in public talks. I tend to be very wary of engagement in these situation.

      • Robert Moore Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:37

        Not saying that they need to go out of their way… or set out to change minds… but rather, need to know how to handle such scenarios with finesse. I think John makes it clear that the situation is encountered with such frequency as to establish a need to weave this into interpretive principles.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:41

          To that extent I completely agree with you, but it seems to me that the best NPS historians already do this by interpreting their sites in ways that invite reflection and serious questions.

  • Rob in CT Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:03

    I have never understood and will never understand the degree to which many people tie up their personal identity with their ancestors. This is a common thing – I get the feeling that I’m the strange one.

    I have ancestors who did some neat things. I have some who may have been pirates (not clear, but with a seafaring family from Devonshire it’s not that much of a stretch). I would not be the slighest bit surprised to learn of ancestors who captained slave ships or who were involved in any number of unsavory activities. And I really, truly, don’t care. They’re dead and gone, and I’m here, doing my best to be a decent person.

    Now, I get it to a degree if we’re talking about one’s parents, or even one’s grandparents of whom you have personal memories. [This still doesn’t really apply to me. The grandfather I got to know was clearly a bigot, and if somebody who knew him pointed that out, my response would be “yep, sure was.” I’m not him.] But we’re past that with the CW now, aren’t we? Are there many people living whose grandparents fought? Surely there can’t be very many.

    • Yulanda Burgess Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:56


      I doubt that you’re strange. Everyone has different experiences and everyone handles their ancestral legacy differently. I, for example, can’t avoid tying up my personal identity with my ancestors. There are too many cases in my ancestral heritage that if someone had not had the will to live and survive I would not be here today. It begins with those who survived the horrors of their kidnapping from African, transcends to my great grandfather surviving Fort Pillow, and falls into father leaving the south courtesy of the US Air Force. I can’t think otherwise. It’s the Fort Pillow thing that lately has me living the nightmare and at a standstill.

      Kevin… Will read the article tonight as I watch the white-stuff from from sky — again.

      -Yulanda Burgess

  • James F. Epperson Feb 4, 2014 @ 12:51

    My great-great-grandfather (Joseph C.F. Epperson) did own slaves, in Campbell County, Virginia. That is an empirical fact, which can be verified by Census data. Does it change anything about me? No. I am the same person I am, regardless of this fact.

    Some people need to learn how to deal with reality.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2014 @ 12:53

      James, – You are clearly a well-adjusted Civil War enthusiast. 🙂

      Some people need to learn how to deal with reality.

      Couldn’t have said it any better.

      • J Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:27

        My family might disagree with the notion that I am well-adjusted about anything. I know my son would!


    • Kate Feb 4, 2014 @ 13:08

      One of my gg-grandfathers also owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy.

      One fought in both armies.

      One fought in the state guard.

      Two fought for the Union.

      Three stayed home.

      But since I didn’t do any of those things, none of this is cause for praise or shame.

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