Catherine Templeton’s Civil War Memory on the Campaign Trail

This might be the clearest example of the distinction between history and memory that I have ever come across. It’s not unusual to employ memory of the Civil War to run for and maintain office in South Carolina. Not too long ago two Republican state legislators proposed erecting a monument to the state’s loyal black Confederates on the capital grounds in Columbia. It’s pure fantasy.

Now Republican Catherine Templeton is running for governor by reminding voters of her own family’s connection to the war and relationship to the Confederacy. Templeton’s understanding is right out of the conservative playbook. In a recent speech she argued that:

I think it’s important to note that my family didn’t fight because we had slaves. My family fought because the federal government was trying to tell us how to live. We didn’t need them to tell us how to live way back then, and we don’t need them to tell us how to live today.

They didn’t fight to preserve slavery because as far as Templeton understood, the family didn’t own any slaves. On another occasion, Templeton shared that, “I’m proud to be from South Carolina. I’m proud of the Confederacy.”

I think you get the ‘states right gist’ of things.

The problem is that none of this is true. A little bit of digging uncovered that, in fact, the family owned 66 slaves as late as 1860, which made them one of the largest owners of enslaved people in Chester County.

There is no indication that Templeton lied about her family’s past. It would be more accurate to say that she has very little need or even interest in this aspect of her family’s story. What appears to matter to Templeton is the ability to employ a narrative that is appealing to her constituents. The narrative of an oppressive Federal government fits this bill, regardless of the fact that the Confederacy was far more centralized than the United States during the war.

Based on the available evidence, did Templeton’s ancestor have an interest in protecting the institution of slavery in 1861? Yes. Did he believe that the Confederacy was the best vehicle to achieve this goal in 1861? Most certainly, yes.

It will be interesting to see if Templeton comes around to acknowledge this crucial piece of her family’s history or whether she tries to double-down on steering away from the unpleasant implications that her ancestor very likely fought to protect slavery. As we have seen memory (heritage) often trumps history.

Finally, this is an excellent example to use with students in teaching them the distinction between history and memory.

  • Why and how is Templeton employing her family’s history on the campaign trail?
  • What obligations do we owe our ancestors when discussing their lives? Do facts matter?
  • What are the dangers of elected officials or candidates employing history for purely political reasons?

These are just a few of the questions that come to mind.

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15 comments… add one
  • Ken Noe Feb 28, 2018 @ 9:34

    Some folks made a lot of hay out of former South Carolina Representative Jenny Horne’s confusion regarding her assumed relationship to Jefferson Davis. Will Catherine Templeton’s confusion about her Confederate ancestors bring similar criticism? Somehow, I’m thinking it won’t.

  • Ryan Feb 28, 2018 @ 4:04

    Meh, you know what? The war was political then, and it is still political. Pointing out the differences is interesting from an academic viewpoint, and commendable, but it is exhausting to correct every instance of revisionist propaganda. Especially with the Twitter in Chief in office.

    I work in a military museum and I had an intern apply from Liberty University. I interviewed him and when he expressed interest in Civil War, I asked what he thought the cause of the war was. He said slavery, and I said, good answer. You can believe in the black confederate myth, but it won’t get you a job in my museum.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2018 @ 4:08

      What can I say other than that I am interested in how history plays out in the present and especially among people who have power and influence.

  • Neil Hamilton Feb 27, 2018 @ 10:43

    History and memory. For some, neither the twain shall meet.

    History can be such a shock, as in my own case when researching our family tree, my wife discovered my Confederate ancestor owned 7 slaves. It was a real punch in the gut for the both of us, a kind of a shock and awe moment, if you will. I know that I am not responsible for the actions of my slave-owning ancestor but I did feel a need to do more research on the subject and try and find out why.

    Maybe others should take the lesson of doing such so that memory does not erase history.

    Just a thought.


  • John Wayne Feb 27, 2018 @ 6:01

    I had 7 ancestors fight in the war between states but none of them owned any slaves either. My ancestors were fighting for their states freedom! Also since you think the civil war was only over slavery please tell me then why did Lincoln let his north get their ass kicked for the first three years of the war & be on the verge of defeat before Lincoln issued the “Emancipation Proclamation” essentially causing the war do an about face with the instant addition of around 300,000 troops for the Union? He didn’t do until then b/c it was an last ditch effort to not be defeated.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2018 @ 6:05

      My ancestors were fighting for their states freedom!

      What evidence do you have to support this claim. Exactly what “freedom” were they fighting for?

      Unfortunately, the rest of your comment has nothing to do with this post. Thanks for the comment.

      • John Wayne Feb 27, 2018 @ 6:12

        Why did Lincoln wait 3 years being issuing the Emancipation Proclamation then if was only about slavery it would’ve issued the first day the war started! Slaves were still being used as servants in Washington the only difference was they were all being housed right outside of Washington at the horse stables!

        • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2018 @ 6:16

          Again, this post isn’t about Lincoln and his views on emancipation. Either you address the subject at hand or find another post on another blog to comment on or write your own blog post. You are not going to hijack this post and comment thread. Thank you for your understanding.

        • Dr. H. Feb 28, 2018 @ 11:11

          What’s your point? The South didn’t stop fighting when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

        • woodrowfan Mar 3, 2018 @ 6:13

          Maybe we’ll take you seriously when you figure out that from March of 1861 until September 1862 is not “three years.”

          then maybe we’ll discuss the difference between the secessionists’ motivations and Lincoln’s.

    • Dr. H. Feb 28, 2018 @ 11:10

      It’s possible that none of your ancestors held enslaved people because they were the sons of slave holders (like Templeton’s ancestor) who had not received an inheritance yet.

  • Reader Feb 27, 2018 @ 5:31

    To be fair, she is quoted as saying “[M]y family didn’t fight because we had slaves.” There are two ways to interpret that statement. Either her family, because it had slaves, did not fight, or her family did fight but it was for some reason other than that it had slaves. Which is not very plausible, but that’s what she’s claiming.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2018 @ 5:33

      Right. Neither reading appears to be supported by any inquiry into the historical record.

    • London John Feb 28, 2018 @ 7:16

      I’m sure she didn’t actually mean the first interpretation, but am I right in thinking that it was possible, because owning 66 slaves would have entitled up to 3 men in the family to be excused the Confederate draft?

      • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2018 @ 7:33

        Sure, but let’s also keep in mind that, according to historians like Joseph Glatthaar, slave owners were over represented in the Army of Northern Virginia.

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