A Historian’s Misgivings

Here’s something to start off the new week. What do you make of this historian’s perspective?

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33 thoughts on “A Historian’s Misgivings

  1. I would make that is a fairly standard summary crammed with the most common oversimplifications that a short essay on the Civil War demands.

  2. Whenever I read this sort of boilerplate about CW reenactments from a professional historian, I am always immediately curious of the historian in question has ever bothered to attempt to establish a program that would address the issues raised. I am not so naive to believe such a program would be embraced by the reenactment community nor that it would necessarily be a popular addition for the public that likes to attend these events. However, if those who find reenactments lacking do not themselves at least put in the effort to correct the problems they see, what, precisely, is the point of the complaint?

  3. I think all who dedicate much time to knowing it can sympathize with what he’s saying, but I’m a bit tired of alarmists pointing to polls. Though I’d never bet on the wider public’s understanding of history in any detail, I have little doubt that the poll he cites would frustrate the informed ones a great deal. Maybe I’d have checked “states rights” too. It all depends on how the question was asked and what the alternative choices were. Garbage in, garbage out.

  4. While director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center we had an annual encampment (and still do) on the weekend nearest Hayes Birthday. We always began the usual mock battle with a brief explanation of the causes of the Civil War which naturally included a reference to the role of slavery in bringing about that war. Eventually, a group of Confederate re-enactors came to me and threatened to stop participating if I changed to opening narrative to stress the role of state rights. I refused to do so, or even to raise state rights to equality. The Confederates surrendered and participated despite my refusal to capitulate.

  5. The professor’s column is exactly what I was referring to as trying to push “issues of race, gender, and class”. And I was mystified by the shot at VDH. While I dislike VDH, I doubt even he has labeled -without qualification – Sherman a “moral crusader”.

    And what are we to make of this;

    “…the general’s primary aim was to be rid of the thousands of impoverished freedpeople who trailed his army.”

    Yes, because he was conducting a military campaign not a civil rights march.

    “Sherman had little sympathy for African Americans, whom he deemed “not fit to marry, to associate, or to vote with me or mine.”

    Yes, just like 90% of all white Americans in 1864, excluding those who wanted AA’s kept as slaves.

    • Sherman may have been conducting a military campaign, true, and his superiority to the Negro certainly was a fundamental precept of the popular culture. But did he have to pull that pontoon bridge out from under those liberated slaves? Leaving the ones who did not drown at the mercy of the Confederates who followed? This very act encompasses nicely the dichotomy of the Northern cause, viz the emancipation of the Negro. The North wanted to end slavery once and for all but didn’t care a damn for the Negro. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal……..” ALL MEN. The insistence on including the African American slave in these great truths led the country into a bloody war which vindicated the white man of his “sin of slavery”. After the Civil War ended, the great country which made such a grand gesture for the African American was now at liberty to turn his attention back to the American Indian. I really am at a loss as to which hypocrisy I find more revolting.

      • “But did he have to pull that pontoon bridge out from under those liberated slaves?”

        Sherman answered that charge in January 1865 directly to Stanton, and later repeated it in his memoirs. Guess some people just hear what that they want to hear.

      • Well Francis, you should realize that the idea that the Northerners were as racist or nearly so as the Southerners is part of several narratives that I believe are false. Foner for one, and everyone whose view owes anything to the Lost Causers for another. I don’t think we can or should take Sherman as representative of the citizenry of the North. I think that is a mistake that distorts.

        As for Foner, great scholars are not gods. They get some things wrong. Racism and social discomfort with those of different classes (let alone economic rivalry) aren’t the same things. The elephant in the room in politics. If you want to see Foner’s view challenged, and be able to consider alternative views to the one that seems now as the only plausible one (and what I think is the true reason that Reconstruction collapsed far short of any reasonable justice for the Freedmen), then you’re going to need to need to explore CW politics. Here are books that have helped my understanding immensely. To understand you need to get in touch with politics of the era. People do misguided things much of the time not because they intend to do this harm, but because of the urgency of something less important that seemed more important at the time. I don’t think it is accurate to say that the North “didn’t care a damn for the Negro”. I think people have accepted Foner and the Lost Causer’s thesis uncritically. The story is far more complex, though no less tragic for it.

        The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era – Andrew L. Slap

        The Era of Good Stealings – Mark Wahlgren Summers

        • Thanks for your comments and your recommendations for reading. Please understand that I don’t believe ALL the Northerners were a bunch of bastards but it is clear the vast majority were not ready to welcome the emancipated Negro into their homes. With the exception of the abolitionists most people had a view of the Negro that we would call racist. When you consider the abolitionists, one only needs to look at the violence endured by them at the hands of Northerners to get a clear idea of the Norths true sentiments. I understand finding an abolitionist in the South was a rare treat!

          Then there were the Draft Riots, a scene from which is graphically related to us in Foner’s book on Reconstruction. I would hardly describe throwing a three year old child out of an upper window as an attempt at solidifying good relations between the races.

          At any rate, yes I am very interested in the politics of the time and I will put your recommendations on my reading list. I am in the middle of William Lee Miller’s ‘Arguing About Slavery’ , which I recommend, and Oakes ‘The Radical and the Republican’ which is now overdue at the library.

          • I think you might want to distinguish between those white northerners who supported the Democratic cause (especially those who embraced Copperhead views during the war) and those white northerners who identified as Republicans. Simply talking about all white northerners as if they were the same (or as if they were all Republicans) severely distorts understanding. The NYC draft riots, which targets Republicans as well as blacks, is best seen as representative of a certain segment of the Democratic following, and not the entire North.

            Many Republicans deplored the NYC riots. As a comparison, how many white southerners deplored what happened at Colfax, Louisiana, on April 13, 1873?

            • Or the Mechanics Institute riot. Yes, you are right. I would be remiss in suggesting that anti-Negro sentiments were pervasive on both sides of the political lines, but I do not. I thought I made this clear when I stated that ‘I don’t believe all Northerners were a bunch of bastards.’ But I do hold the view that even the Republicans did not accept the Negro as their equal, a view which is prominent in Abraham Lincoln’s speeches. I understand that he (Lincoln) espoused the Constitutional right of the Negro to political equality, but this does not transcend itself into the domain of social or “popular” equality, and that is the crux. This is the basis for the synthesis of the argument into the “separate but equal” formulation of civil rights which was accepted pro forma by the North until the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

              Getting back on track, the idea of African Americans enjoying equal social footing in the free states was, on paper, widely given the Noli prosequi. However the theoretical advancement of the African American viz. Constitutional equality varied. Some states, provisionally, even allowed an African American to vote. That is wonderful, but the main sentiment was of separation rather than integration. And this was before the impact of emancipation began to emerge as a threat to the Northern economy both in the loss of cheap manufactured goods from the South and in competition in the labor market in the North. It was never a pretty picture for the average man in the North, Republican or Democrat.

              Exponam cervicem meam ad vos

          • >> I don’t believe ALL the Northerners were a bunch of bastards but it is clear the vast majority were not ready to welcome the emancipated Negro into their homes. With the exception of the abolitionists most people had a view of the Negro that we would call racist.

            But you shouldn’t imply that being anti-racist implies too much about hospitality. Very different things. But look, no one is going to say ALL white northern Republicans (thanks Brooks for that clarifying point) were anything. In my opinion overgeneralization isn’t the problem with your expression, but rather I think it lacks the acknowledgement of the social and political nature of things like racism and its consequents. How enforcement of laws affects people’s behavior. When things go bad they go very bad. We have majority rule, but if a minority view manages to win the *political* struggle one should be careful about what one concludes from that about the beliefs of the losers. That’s all I’m saying.

            We’ll never know what the plight of the freedmen might have been if Federal troops had occupied the South for longer than they did and enforced the laws that had been established. I think the mere presence of troops were amazingly effective, as is the mere presence of police officers in a community. We can cite many examples from history where social tipping points were reached that sometimes led to good things, and sometimes to bad ones. I don’t think that the idea that white Republicans let the white Democratic Southerners destroy the order there was because they didn’t care about Blacks is quite right. I don’t think that squares with the fact that so much blood and treasure was spilled in the war, nor my understanding of the political wrangling that led to the collapse of Reconstruction.

            The simple fact is that people often do not will or wish what actually happens socially in mass, and if we overlook this most basic of facts about human nature and political philosophy it entirely nullifies the value of historical research. We are political animals and what we do in groups must be politically enlightened about the times we are studying or we’re lost. That’s why knowing CW politics is not optional. It was a moral drama, but people on both sides have a tendency to collapse the political and social aspects into the directly moral ones. It’s just a mistake. That’s all I’m saying.

  6. I think it is an interesting opinion. I agree with the soul searching aspect of the piece since I do share similar thoughts on the value of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the war.

    The only thing I would question is the second to the last paragraph when a very broad brush was used to bolster personal opinion versus factual support for the ideas presented.

    I also have to agree with a friend of mine that reenacting is generally done by fat old men who to play soldier (Wow, I can see the comments coming in now!).

  7. You don’t focus on the Holocaust at Omaha Beach. You focus on the Holocaust at places like Auschwitz and Dachau.

    Also, people who say states rights was the cause are dang near close to saying slavery. Maybe they need a little help getting to slavery, but they’re almost there.

  8. I would like to clarify something. Bear in my I am not a historian, but the Civil War is my newest hobby. Those close to me say I’m obsessed. In my readings I have found that there is no single cause that led to the Southern states seceding, although Abraham Lincoln’s election was clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back. Among these causes I do find the issue of states rights weighing in. If anyone can help clarify this for me and point me toward some reading on the subject I would appreciate it.

    • Lincoln’s election was the “straw” because the South “knew” he would destroy the “peculiar institution”. The “states right” that was involved was the right to continue slavery and extend it to the new territories. You can access the following site to see exactly what the states were thinking at the time. http://sunsite.utk.edu/civil-war/reasons.html

      • That “States right” to which you are referring should properly be called a Federal Right as “slavery’ was legally embedded in the Constitution. The Slave owners knew this too! Stephen Douglas, the Democratic candidate in 1860 was all for the States right to ‘determine themselves” whether to allow slavery or not. And the same for any of the new territories and he called it “popular sovereignty’. The Democratic Party split itself before secession got underway. And I think the weakness of the two Democratic Parties helped the New “Republicans’ under Lincoln to win in the ‘stayed in the union” States.
        -Ric

        • Slavery was a state matter, not a Federal matter. Slavery wasn’t quite legally embedded in the Constitution. It wasn’t mentioned at all, and while the Constitution provided the bedrock for such things as the Fugitive Slave Law and kept the Federal government from banning the importation of anyone the states wanted to import until 1808, nothing in the Constitution established slavery. Slavery was established only by state law, lived only by state law, and barring a constitutional amendment that banned it (which eventually happened), could die within a state’s boundaries only by state law. Therefore, it is indeed properly referred to as a state right.

          • I don’t agree with that perspective Al. It was ‘slavery’ that was euphemistically referred too in the ‘banning the importation of ‘blank’. Yes,the founders attempted to hide’ slavery’ by not mentioning it directly,but again (they failed.)…lets assume that Chief Justice Taney was referring to ‘slavery’ in that famous decision…and that Stephen Douglas was referring to ‘slavery’ when he advocated “Popular Sovereignty”. Yes.. “Slavery’ was definitely embedded in our legal system on both a state and a Federal constitutional level.(One backing up the other.) And later even the proclamation by executive order did not free any slave!, but as you mentioned ,the constitutional amendment terminated the ‘slavery’ status and made all former slaves citizens by right of natural birth in any u.s. state or territory. ( And it didn’t seem to matter where or when the person was brought to a colony to serve as a slave, he was now a citizen.) There was a legally recognized status of the slave caste/class in the constitution.

            • By “that famous decision,” I assume you’re referring to Dred Scott v. Sandford. If so, you should read the decision. We don’t have to assume anything. The case was about slavery and Taney said so very clearly. His point was that slavery was a state matter, not a Federal matter, and the Federal government could not legislate on the matter. As to Douglas, again you should read his speeches because he also was very clear he was talking about slavery. Again his point was that slavery was a state matter, not a Federal matter, and that the Federal government had no business interfering with it. Your assumption the Emancipation Proclamation, which I assume you mean by “the proclamation by executive order,” is incorrect. The EP immediately freed tens of thousands of slaves who were in areas under Federal control not excepted in the EP, and after it was issued, as the Union army marched through the confederacy it enforced the freedom of every slave it came across–the freedom given to those slaves by the EP. The 13th Amendment, which is the amendment that terminated slavery, did not make the former slaves citizens. That was the 14th Amendment. Again, the Constitution did not enact slavery at all. Slavery only existed by reason of state laws. If you believe it was embedded in the Constitution, then I’d say it’s up to you to show where the Constitution enacted slavery. Show how slavery would exist in the United States if state laws didn’t enact it. The only way slavery could be ended outside each state ending it on their own was by constitutional amendment, not because slavery was embedded in the Constitution but because the Constitution is our supreme law of the land and had to be amended to give the Federal government power to act on slavery. The only time slavery was mentioned in the Constitution is after the Constitution was amended to abolish slavery. The plain text of the document itself invalidates your claim.

      • I thank you both for your comments. I have Freehling’s book on order and I will visit the website Mr Watson indicates. In reference again to the states rights issue, I have often wondered if this argument holds water today not simply to deflect the Southern states culpability on the slavery issue, but wether the argument stands in light of the many last minute efforts to avert the secession crisis. The Corwin Amendment comes principally to mind.

    • There were many causes. I think you might enjoy a couple of books that may not be at the top of everyone’s list that have deepened my understanding of the causes. You won’t be disappointed. Among other things, you’ll learn that Southerners in some states got free tickets to attend a secession convention. Some things never change.

      The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict – Andre Fleche

      The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America – William G. Thomas III

      • Thank you, Mark. I have written down these titles on my list and will no doubt be able to acquire them for pennies on Amazon. Great resource, that. I’ve purchased a dozen books on this subject (hardcover at that) for as low as six cents!

  9. WIthout the reenactors and those interested in military history, the 150th anniversary would lose what little interest it has for the general public. The only reason historians have the potential to reach a larger audience about the causes of the war and other non-military issues is because of these people.

  10. What he should be saying is most Americans don’t no squat about history. But most Americans won’t want to read about how ignorant they are about their own history.

  11. Perhaps most Americans don’t appreciate history as well as they should because it was never taught to them in an interesting or meaningful way. Brooks touched on the crux of the problem several weeks ago. Professional historians are loaded with interesting and meaningful snippets of information but they fail miserably at significant communication of this information to the general (and more importantly the buying) public.
    For example, in my own life during college I was a zoology major so I was required to take two semesters of organic chemistry. The first semester was a resounding D. The second semester course was tough by a preeminent organic chemist who almost won a Nobel prize but was beaten to the publication date by another chemist. This professor was a brilliant scientist and researcher but he was a terrible instructor for undergraduates. A short time into the second semester the professor gave up his classroom duties to a doctoral teaching assistant. The replacement professor turned out to be an excellent teacher and accordingly I got a B for the more challenging second semester organic chemistry.
    Doris Kearns Goodwin is not a Lincoln scholar on par with David Herbert Donald, Douglas L. Wilson or Allen C. Guelzo BUT if she has the ability to make the dry pages of history a best seller, more power to her and hooray for the educated public.
    Re-enactors, historians, writers and tour guides should strive to tell a story that is factual and that can hold the interest of the general public. It is not that most people are not interested in history, most people have not been taught history in an evocative way.
    We appreciate history as more than just names and dates. We see trends, ideas, the good, the bad, the ugly, the evil, the beautiful and the sublime. Share history with a friend or stranger

    • I also was turned entirely off by history courses in college, and even failed one on US history. I was completely baffled by the exams. One of the long essay questions was “What were the social ramifications of the CW?” Seriously. As an undergrad I couldn’t handle such broad questions.

      So though I used to have very bad things to say about history courses based on my experience, and learned to my amazement that I liked history in later years, I see it now as much more than just a teaching issue. Maybe history at that level just isn’t well learned in a classroom by most people at all. Maybe it isn’t the teacher’s fault but rather expecting an hour long class and a few tests to do very much good on a subject like history.

  12. Excellent point.

    In my on life it seems the older I got the more I appreciated historical perspectives on current issues and the history that surrounds us where I lived.

    Some people think history happened some place else. They don’t realize it happened in their own backyards.

  13. One thing that impressed me about my recent trip to Perryville was seeing the scale of the battle. I can read books that mention thousands of men lined up in a field or lines that were X miles long, but seeing several hundred reenactors lined up and how far they stretched was kind of eye-opening to me. I realize they were just a fraction of those who actually fought, but seeing even that portion of the fight was much more striking that reading it in a book and staring at an empty hillside. Hearing the gun/cannon fire and even smelling smoke from the musket fires added to it as well. (As many videos and pictures as I tried to take, I could not figure out a way to capture the smell of smoke from dozens of nearby muskets :) )

    Stuff like this does not add to the intellectual understanding of the war and does not address the questions raised in the article, but I think it does have value. Book learning and theoretical discussions of causes and effects are not all there is to the Civil War or any history.

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