Heritage Attacks Are in the Eyes of the Beholder

You probably won’t be surprised that I have a fairly large file of saved emails from readers who believe that what animates my blogging and research is an intense hatred of Southern/Confederate heritage. One day I am going to go through and write something up about their content. Many of these emails conform to a certain theme that involves claims about what motivated or didn’t motivate their ancestor during the Civil War. It’s a mantra that over the years I’ve accepted as reflective of a relatively small, but passionate community.

The absurdity of this position was reinforced this past weekend for me in front of two audiences. On Friday evening I spoke to The Union Club of Boston and earlier today I spoke to the annual meeting of The Department of Massachusetts, Sons of Union Veterans. Both gatherings were held to celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. I chose to test an essay that I am close to completing on Northern soldiers’ racial attitudes following the battle of the Crater. Of course, I could have chosen an easier or more celebratory topic given the occasion, but I just can’t give that kind of talk. My attitude is, if we are going to gather to commemorate the war than let’s take on something challenging.

Without going into detail, I did not paint the most flattering portrait of Union soldiers in the summer of 1864. The language was a bit of a shock earlier on for both groups. What stood out to me, however, was how folks didn’t respond. No one got defensive. No one approached me with deeply emotional personal accounts of ancestors that were meant to challenge my broader understanding of the topic. No one insisted that their ancestor wasn’t racist. Not one person insisted that their ancestor fought to end slavery. There were plenty of people, especially today, who were emotionally and intellectually invested in the history and heritage of the Civil War.

Both audiences had every reason to be just as defensive as the people who care enough to write such colorful emails about their Confederate ancestors. It was a nice change of pace and I thank everyone who attended.

33 comments… add one
  • Alyssa Feb 11, 2014 @ 11:45

    The Confederates no more fought for slavery than the Founders did. What the Confederates fought for, like the Founders, was Independence.

    • msb Feb 11, 2014 @ 23:32

      Given the choice between your assertion and the statements of the President and Vice-President of the Confederacy (e.g. “cornerstone speech”), and the declarations and acts of secession, I’ll go with what actual Confederates said at the time. If you’re interested in the documents, Kevin has linked to them a number of times.

      I fear this is thread-jacking, however, so I’ll sign off. Thanks for the original post, Kevin; it was very interesting.

    • Forester Feb 12, 2014 @ 11:02

      Actually, slavery was a major factor in the American Revolution. The Somerset ruling in Britain in 1772 said that escaped slaves didn’t have to be returned to the colonies, and that shook American slaveholders to their core. Slavery was declining and dying in England, while it was thriving and growing in America. “Liberation” from England was certainly in the best interests of slaveholders.

      While English law was ambiguous about the status of slaves, the new American Constitution codified protection of slavery into law (although through the euphemism ‘other persons’). The Confederate slaveholders (justifiably) saw their efforts as a continuation of what their ancestors begun.

  • Alyssa Feb 10, 2014 @ 15:21

    I can see why Southerners might get defensive at the false suggestion that their ancestors fought for slavery. I see, for example how irate Northerners get when they are reminded of their role in the slave trade and the infamous Middle Passage. Just imagine if our history classes spent as much time and emphasis on Boston’s role in that nefarious practice. Imagine how angry and resentful Bostonians would get if they were constantly reminded that their ancestors were responsible for shackling pregnant women in the bowels of a ship and feeding the dead and dying to sharks? I suspect they would not respond very favorably at all.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2014 @ 15:25

      Just imagine if our history classes spent as much time and emphasis on Boston’s role in that nefarious practice. Imagine how angry and resentful Bostonians would get if they were constantly reminded that their ancestors were responsible for shackling pregnant women in the bowels of a ship and feeding the dead and dying to sharks?

      I just finished an entire unit on slavery that emphasized Boston’s connection to slavery. No problems.

    • msb Feb 11, 2014 @ 0:18

      It is illogical to compare reactions to false and true statements, but your comparison can stand because both statements are true. Confederates did fight for slavery, as they clearly said at the time, and the North was certainly complicit in the slave trade until it was outlawed. The Boston later became a hotbed of abolitionist activity doesn’t change its past.

    • Dan Weinfeld Feb 12, 2014 @ 7:18

      To the contrary Alyssa, they respond very favorably and enthusiastically. You clearly know nothing about Boston and its academic scene. Obviously you don’t realize that Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn each lived and taught in Boston for decades. The only aspect of American history that is sacrosanct in Boston is the Kennedy family.

  • Connie Chastain Feb 10, 2014 @ 11:22

    “No one got defensive.

    Perhaps one explanation for the difference is that they haven’t had the sins and evilness of their ancestors crammed down their throats for generations….

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2014 @ 12:45

      Hi Connie,

      Glad to see that you decided to take better advantage of your quota of one comment per week.

      Is it more difficult when it is white southerners who remind you of the “sins and evilness” of your ancestors? Don’t bother responding because that would be a violation of your quota.

    • Forester Feb 10, 2014 @ 21:02

      This, basically.

      HOWEVER, I think most of the anti-Southern hate is only in perception. Nonetheless, that’s exactly the heart of the issue … we don’t like seeing our ancestors defamed, because it hurts. It’s an emotional thing, really. It’s like hearing “your mama was a whore” on a grand, national scale. It hurts, and people tend to strike back when they feel attacked.

      A friend of mine who writes Superhero comics once commented about how he hated Norfolk’s Confederate monument, and how he was going to demolish it in one of his comic books. I felt literally dizzied, and wanted to go crawl in a hole. I realize he meant no insult to me, but the attack by association was still felt.

      However, as with any fight, the more White Southerners try to defend their heritage, the more they will be criticized. The VA Flaggers don’t help any at all. White Southern heritage is attacked as a backlash to the Lost Cause …. stop pushing Lost Cause nonsense and people will stop bashing your ‘heritage.’ It’s that simple.

  • Brendan Bossard Feb 10, 2014 @ 10:33

    Mark Twain observed something about Southern culture that may apply here: a tendency to hold vendettas. I am not familiar with this myself, having lived below the Mason-Dixon line only when very young. But there does seem to be a strong sense of family honor among those who are offended by the notion that their Confederate ancestors fought to continue the institution of slavery.

  • Non Such Feb 10, 2014 @ 9:06

    All human behavior is overdetermined, and I hesitate to propose any single explanation for the defensiveness of those that you reference in this blog. But, if I may, I would suggest the following consideration:

    The American Civil War has been an exception to the rule regarding the way that the victors generally write the history books. In this case, after a few years of patriotic (and angry) histories by writers such as Lossing, the North lost interest in the war and barreled ahead into an industrial and technological revolution, which, coupled with unprecedented immigration, transformed its society and drew a curtain over what it had been before and during the war. The South, on the other hand, reverting to a post-Reconstruction social system that was not all that different from the racial caste order of the antebellum period, became frozen in time, and, pouring out volume after volume of war “remembrance” (Freeman is especially prominent in this regard) was so successful in recasting the shape of the war that even Northern historians like Bruce Catton would later always pay homage to southern “valor” and whatnot in their writings. In short, thanks to “Lost Cause” historians and Northern disinterest in the growth of the Jim Crow South, the South effectively won the peace, and held onto that victory for a century or so.

    But now, between the successes of the Civil Rights movement, and further demographic change, the South of confederate memory is finally losing the peace as well. Responsible historians will no longer stand for the “war between the states” view that Alexander Stevens promoted scarcely before the dust had settled on the battlefields, and Southern State houses can no longer fly the stars and bars with impunity. Final defeat is looming—is, in fact, inevitable.

    The result is, well, what you are experiencing in your email.

    I do hope that this, my first post-response here, is a helpful contribution to your blog. I intend it solely as an explanation and not as a polemic.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2014 @ 9:13

      …after a few years of patriotic (and angry) histories by writers such as Lossing, the North lost interest in the war and barreled ahead into an industrial and technological revolution, which, coupled with unprecedented immigration, transformed its society and drew a curtain over what it had been before and during the war.

      That is simply not true.

    • Jerry McKenzie Feb 11, 2014 @ 8:16

      Non Such, although I don’t know anything about Lossing’s writings, I do agree with your analysis. The North let Reconstruction lapse and fail, and then become Jim Crow. Spot on otherwise!

      • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014 @ 8:21


        That’s a rather simplistic view of Reconstruction and why it failed. Jim Crow did not emerge immediately everywhere throughout the South. In fact, in Virginia what could be called Reconstruction was carried out with the help of a popular Confederate general.

  • Vince (Lancaster at War) Feb 10, 2014 @ 7:19


    I’m sure your essay is more nuanced, but from the post above I just want to make sure –whether considering 1861 or 1864 — you’re not conflating being against slavery and being for racial equality. In your essay, do you make a strong distinction between attitudes towards race and attitudes towards slavery? In other words, do you find many Union soldiers who passionately hate slavery but protest the idea of racial equality?

    As Capt. William McCaskey of the 79th Pennsylvania wrote to his brother after his brother included the National Anti-Slavery Standard in a stack of papers that he mailed to William in July 1864, “I am an Abolitionist, Emancipationist, Confiscationist, and all that, but not an equality-ist. The negro, in his proper place, but not my superior, and that paper, I think will hinder the cause more than will aid it.”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2014 @ 7:57

      Thanks, Vince. I am very sensitive to the distinction in the essay.

  • Billy Bearden Feb 10, 2014 @ 5:07

    It was in late January 2001 for me, that I suddenly became aware that my ancestors needed defending. Up until that time I was a happy go lucky fellow without any knowledge of my Confederate ancestors. My mother had been very involved in our family genealogy about the same time the 2nd effort to change the 1956 Georgia state flag. Watching TV and reading newspapers just after learning that my GGGrandfather was a veteran who served the southern army, I was to gather that there were people saying he (broad brush strokes calling all Confederates by certain enlightened so called leaders) was a “Nazi” and a “Terrorist” and the flag under which he served was a “Confederate swastika”

    Well, as the child of a man who fought Nazis and Communists in WW2/Korea and Viet Nam, and as a descendant of the same person(s) those people were implying was of a National Socialist belief system, I of course was very perturbed.

    Since those days of winter 2001, such vitriol has only increased. Emboldened by the victory of the changing of the state flag, attacks have grown and spread, resulting in the losses of monuments, historical displays, place names, cancellation of events, exclusions from parades, etc….

    The new zero tolerance policy in Obama’s America has resulted in stupidity like weeks of bashing Trace Adkins earpiece.

    Not sure what telling the SUVCW the fact their ancestors didn’t fight to end slavery has to do with anything – the SUVCW states clearly on their own website “The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War is a fraternal organization dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of heroes who fought and worked to save the Union.” Reckon it would equate to telling the SCV their ancestors wore gray and butternut.

    • Rob Baker Feb 10, 2014 @ 6:41

      Billy highlights some things that I’ve often suspected about why Deep South people (and some Appalachians) are so vociferous in their defense of Confederate Heritage.

      Many White Southerners have old world connections to the past. Their pedigree of Southerners spans hundreds of years. For example, my first American ancestor arrived in 1640. By sheer statistics alone, many people in the South will have some connection to Civil War service. Additionally, the South (like Appalachia) has a high percentage of men in the military throughout history. Notice Billy’s comments above:

      Well, as the child of a man who fought Nazis and Communists in WW2/Korea and Viet Nam,

      Remember David Tatum’s post? http://atrueconfederate.blogspot.com/2012/11/2-reasons-i-cant-support-modern.html

      Southerners usually defend all of their military serving ancestors. Perhaps Confederate Heritage is an extension of that; perhaps it is justification to the one ancestor that fought for something else besides America. It is easy to pay homage to an American soldier. America has a history of war glorification to do that. But in this special circumstance, you’ve got veterans of the U.S. and of a rebellion, whose ancestors consider that to be equivalent to U.S. military service.

      These are just some musings by the way.

    • M. E. Martin Feb 12, 2014 @ 8:07

      Defense of heritage–or any cause–looses credibility, respect, and support when it crosses the line to harassment and threat/encouragement of violence. Including protesting outside the Museum of the Confederacy director’s home and musing that you’d “love to see photos of him on a meat slab.” (Jan. 14 FB post) Not sure your Mom would be proud of that level of vitriol.

  • London John Feb 10, 2014 @ 0:57

    “Not one person insisted that their ancestor fought to end slavery”. They don’t need to because their ancestors did in fact end slavery. The Union cause was (I believe) the cause of humanity, and it doesn’t really make any difference to that what motivated individuals. They did it, and that’s what counts. Same as with the Allies in WW2.
    Coming back to the Southern Heritage lot, don’t you think it’s a little ironic that they go on about “respect for their ancestors” while projecting onto those ancestors motives derived from their own self-image in the 21st century, without any “respect” for what those ancestors might have believed themselves?

  • Woodrowfan Feb 9, 2014 @ 13:32

    Just send the haters a form letter along the lines of… “While Kevin does not have time to read all of his email, he appreciates your support and hopes that you will keep reading and supporting ‘Civil War Memory.’ It’s the support of fans like you that make blogging worthwhile.” If they send back an angry note just resend the same canned reply… “While Kevin does not have time…”

    • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2014 @ 13:33

      I love it. 🙂

  • Virgil Funk Feb 9, 2014 @ 12:21

    The more I explore John Winsmith’s views on race, the more I realize that they changed over the years. There is a process of coming to consciousness about race that takes place in all of us. Why would it be different for the Union Soldiers, their present day relatives, or even the present day relatives of the Confederate soldier? And further, John Winsmith at one point during the war was at one point, and as the war deteriorated, he changed his position–not only on the war, but also on racial relations, too. It’s a moving target!

    • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2014 @ 12:29

      Hi Virgil,

      I think you are right re: Winsmith, but your larger point is an important one. It’s all too easy to treat racial attitudes as static.

    • Jimmy Dick Feb 9, 2014 @ 13:05

      One of the things I’m pointing out to my students in our American History to 1865 course is that one of the main things they should be examining is how things change over time. Many themes in history are part of a far larger process and those processes are far reaching. I point out religion, racism, slavery, economics, politics, liberty, freedom, and others and show how Americans have changed their views on all of these things over time until we come to the various beliefs we hold today. By exploring these themes in the context they occurred in over the 375 years my course roughly covers they see how and why events in history occurred like they did based on what the people of the various eras thought. They like the exploration of how we got to where we are today. They begin to see how history is relevant to today and how many of these processes are active today and will continue to be active for many years in the future.
      There are those that oppose change of any sort and they exist in all cultures. We can even point to this same kind of activity in history and how change happened despite the efforts of a lot of people to prevent it.

  • Rob Baker Feb 9, 2014 @ 12:13

    Both audiences had every reason to be just as defensive as the people who care enough to write such colorful emails about their Confederate ancestors.

    Why do you think that is?

    • Rob Baker Feb 9, 2014 @ 12:25

      Re-reading that comment, I realize it doesn’t accurately convey my question.

      Why do you think the responses are so different when comparing these two Union groups to the Confederate Heritage advocates?

      • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2014 @ 12:29

        It’s a great question, but one that I can’t answer at this point.

        • Paul Taylor Feb 9, 2014 @ 20:04

          Both audiences had every reason to be just as defensive as the people who care enough to write such colorful emails about their Confederate ancestors.

          Maybe not. History is generally written by the victors and in the case of the Civil War, it was successfully presented to future generations by the North as a gallant struggle to save the Union and end slavery. Both were deemed noble ventures. In the years following the war, Union soldiers spoke of their travails and results with pride. To use a sports metaphor, though 1864 may have been a rough year, nobody will recall a 3rd qtr slump during the Super Bowl if you ultimately prevail and win in the end, which is what happened with the North. Therefore, no reason for shame or anger over anything said during the victorious and righteous fight.

          Not so with the South. Their defeat was emotionally devastating and has apparently cascaded down through the generations. And of course, fighting to preserve the “peculiar institution” left an indelible stain that is obviously not a source of pride. Thus, as with the Lost Causers, today’s Heritage advocates feel compelled to rationalize and explain away the war’s underlying cause, instead pointing to peripheral reasons like tariffs, taxes, Lincolnian tyranny, etc. From a psychological perspective however, why they feel they must act today on behalf of acts committed by ancestors from 150 years ago is beyond me.

    • Jerry McKenzie Feb 11, 2014 @ 7:58

      In my experience, it is that I know how my father and grandfather felt about race and how they referred to Black Americans with the word that cannot be used anymore. This I believe is something that is learned from generation to generation. My Great-Great Grandfather would have been one of those white soldiers at the Crater (45th Pennsylvania Volunteers). Although the regimental history is rather glowing about the heroic efforts of the USCV men that day, I have the uneasy feeling that his prejudices were not completely changed. Although I am glad he fought for the Union, I really don’t know what his motivations were, nor do I ascribe an anti-slavery or pro-union sentiment. After looking at many service records of ancestors and distant cousins, a lot of why a man choose one side over another was location. Family members tended to enroll in whichever side their state ended up on. The most telling information for me is those cousins who enrolled in the Union Army in Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia, and even Virginia. For them, there must have been a motivating factor which drove them to one side or the other, but whether is was Union or Abolition I cannot know.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 11, 2014 @ 8:11

        We should also keep in mind that Americans on both sides who entered their respective armies after a certain date were drafted.

        • Jerry McKenzie Feb 11, 2014 @ 8:22

          Indeed! I’ve come across two Confederate draftees who deserted immediately and joined the Union Army! Interestingly, one of them is honored as a Confederate Soldier on his grave although the records clearly show he deserted the same day he was mustered and subsequently enrolled in a Union Tennessee unit (maybe he didn’t want to stir up trouble with his Knoxville neighbors and keep this a secret).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *