It’s Not About You … Or, Taking History Personally

One of the most interesting things about sharing one’s work on the American Civil War is what I learn about how people view history and historians.  One thing that startles me (okay, it used to startle me) is the degree to which some white southerners take the findings of scholarship personally.  There’s a notion out there among some folks that a primary goal of historical scholarship about the Civil War era (at least as practiced by supposedly left liberal politically correct academic elitists who clearly do not hail from the South) is to make white southerners feel guilty or ashamed about their ancestors or their region.  Apparently this is especially true when it comes to anything related to slavery or violence against blacks during Reconstruction.

Take Trace Adkins, who recently declared:  “Over the generations it has seemed to me that Southern children, because of that terrible slavery issue, have been made to feel apologetic — if not guilty or ashamed — of their heritage.”  Mr. Adkins adds, “And I for one hope my children don’t feel that way, because everybody knows or should know that the majority of soldiers that fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. I know that my grandfather didn’t, and had no aspirations of owning slaves. It wasn’t part of his makeup.”  Let’s set aside the fact that Mr. Adkins’s grandfather must have been very, very old to make that decision, since slavery was abolished in 1865.  And let’s overlook the fact that whether or not the majority of Confederate soldiers owned slaves has no bearing on the issue of why secession happened or why the Confederacy was formed.  Let’s agree that the purpose of teaching history is not to make people feel bad about their ancestors.  What, exactly, would Mr. Adkins have southern children taught?  I assume he knows that public schools are desegregated, so not all those children are white, and there may be more than a few who claim slaves as ancestors.  Indeed, his query gets to the heart of the matter: why teach history?  Is it to instill civic pride?  Is the reason to make children proud of their ancestors?  Or might one teach history to help students learn about the past?  Oh, I guess it can’t be that simple.

And yes, this seems to be somewhat of a white southerner thing, although one could point out that some other areas of historical study offer moral judgments about various folks.  Some Native American historians present pointed indictments of how whites treated Native Americans.  I don’t feel targeted by their scholarship.  I come from New York, yet I don’t feel targeted by scholarship on the New York City draft riots of July 1863.  Indeed, some white southerners take pains to argue that there was racism in the North as some way of saying “you, too”– but, as I wasn’t around 150 years ago, how could that be about me?

If anything, the “you, too” response (which one sees every once in a while in the writings of the eminent historian C. Vann Woodward) suggests that it is the people who make that connection who want to hold people of today accountable for what happened in the past.  Part of that’s understandable: there are people who portray the South in caricature or claim that there’s something more backward, more racist, more evil about it that separates it from the rest of the nation.  Oddly enough, that literature on the South as different collides with a literature by white southerners that proudly proclaims that the South is different, and for the better.  However, while the growing scholarship on how people remember the past draws linkages between past and present, it doesn’t hold people in the present responsible for the behavior of people in the past … although it certainly holds them accountable for how they choose to view that past.  Thus, the recent flap about Confederate History Month in Virginia was not, at least to me, about holding white Virginians accountable for the supposed sins of their forefathers, but to highlight the distortions of history inherent in the first proclamation (before the entire debate became dominated by the governor’s failure to mention slavery).  Overlooked by most was the Virginia SCV’s own willful warping of the historical record; at least the governor got the message.

That some white southerners may feel defensive is understandable: how they respond to this is another thing altogether.  Moreover, often it’s not a response to anything, even if it comes in the form of a response.  A reader commenting on my blog entry about Reconstruction must have overlooked a great deal of what I had written in his haste to assume that it was an attack on white southerners (especially those from Louisiana).  “Remember and acknowledge our history we should,” he concluded,  “but the remembrance and acknowledgement shouldn’t be used to promote bigotry, self-hate, and disunion today, i.e. it is not a tool with which to metaphorically bludgeon certain groups of people with.”  And yet who was being bludgeoned?  Here’s what I said:

“After all, a belief in white supremacy was not limited to slaveholders … nor was it limited to white southerners.  And yet during Reconstruction the majority of white southerners were united by a desire to maintain white supremacy in a way that they were never united by the quest for independence: some white southerners were willing to fight the guerrilla war to preserve white supremacy that they refused to fight for Confederate independence.  And, if a majority of white northerners supported a war for reunion and the destruction of slavery, not nearly as many made the realization and protection of the equality of African Americans before the law a priority during Reconstruction … and, indeed, a significant number actively opposed that end.”

This would seem to hold whites North and South as accountable for what happened during Reconstruction, and yet I don’t see any white northerners (recall, I am a white northerner) complaining that I’m being unfair about them.  Oh, yes, and I guess the words “a majority” and “some” seem to have escaped notice.

Now, to point out that in writing about people long ago I’m not issuing an indictment of their present day descendants would seem to me to be obvious (although, as we see in this discussion group, sometimes the obvious isn’t so obvious).  Nor do I believe that the purpose of scholarship is to make white southerners ashamed of their ancestors (it sounds silly just to have to say that, but then I’m replying to a silly argument).  Recall that I am married to the descendant of Confederate soldiers, and the accusation becomes even more warped.  So the question remains: why do some white southerners take all this personally?  What are the consequences of that?  Should we whitewash (pun intended) our nation’s past so that white southerners can feel good about themselves?  Is history an exercise in therapy and building self-esteem?  If it’s not about you, why do you think it is?

And, if you think I’m being harsh, well, part of me thinks I should react in this fashion.

It’s not about you … that is, unless you want to make it about you.  You’ll have to tell us why.

31 thoughts on “It’s Not About You … Or, Taking History Personally

  1. Arleigh Birchler December 28, 2010 / 2:19 pm

    While studying my ancestors so that I could tell my children about them, I discovered that they were on both sides during the War Between the States. I tried to learn more about it. It did not take long to find that folks who are still strongly pro-North or pro-South found it easy to assume that I was from “the other side” and attack me. It is not just White Southerners.

    I am certain that this country has not even begun to come to grips with that War, let alone heal.

  2. Brooks D. Simpson December 28, 2010 / 2:40 pm

    I’ve had white southerners decide that because I wasn’t a southerner, they could draw what conclusions they so desired based on assumptions that they hold so dear. However, I’ve never had a white northerner say that my work targeted them as white northerners, despite my comments about the North. Indeed, most people who hail from states north of the Potomac/Ohio rivers don’t identify as “northerners” per se unless there’s a conversation relating in some way to “the South.”

  3. Bryce VanStavern December 28, 2010 / 3:09 pm

    Could it be that people are reacting against the pretty stories of their history, learned from childhood, being questioned? I think you do see a similar reaction from Americans, northern and southern, when, for instance, it is suggested we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus day since he started the invasion of North America which resulted in the taking of this land from the natives. I don’t think most Americans are too terribly willing to look at the difficult things in our history; especially if it conflicts with the heroic tales we learned growing up.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 28, 2010 / 9:59 pm

      People may not care for the Columbus Day critics, but they seem to brush it aside, and they don’t appear to me to go after those critics in the same way or with the same intensity that I see when there are arguments about the Civil War. Then again, some of the most intense battling I see over history can be viewed as intramural, that it, between two parts of the same group. That’s another dynamic worth considering. Still, I’d suggest that most Americans (and certainly most white Americans) get more worked up about the Civil War than they do about anything else … it sometimes reaches Yankees-Red Sox friction.

  4. Lyle Smith December 28, 2010 / 5:05 pm

    Professor Simpson,

    Thanks for your considerate response. I have to admit I went beyond your blog post with my comments. Yours is not the only blog I’ve been reading, and should have probably left my response within the confines of your post. Although I think not knowing what exactly you meant by “current affairs” and “unfinished revolution” got me thinking.

    I have to disagree with your point about history not being personal. It is personal when other people attack you with it… which is happening today with regards to the Civil War sesquicentennial. Just go read the comment section to the New York Times’ wonderful Disunion Opinionator thread. There is a lot of personalizing of history and present day South bashing there. And that’s fine (freedom of speech), but don’t expect people to not stand up and defend themselves. Right? Isn’t that fair?

    I see that is not how you want people to understand history, and I totally agree with you. I am right there with you about not feeling aggrieved about what somebody did 150 years ago. I didn’t own slaves or fight at the Little Bighorn either. However, that’s not how all people look at it… they do want to hold people responsible for those acts today… like your Lakota Sioux friend. So your point about it not being personal is the way it should be, but it just isn’t that way for a lot of people. Your point is what we should strive for… and definitely how historians should understand it, but we do live in a world where not everyone is a good historian and won’t ever be.

    Now, obviously, you’re not these people or this kind of academic… and I wasn’t getting defensive to you specifically (because I didn’t know what your point about current affairs or the ending of the revolution was), but to those who are using the Civil War, and whatever else to point fingers at people today. It’s one thing to remember the Colfax massacre, and another thing to remember it and then use it to push some kind of present day political or social agenda.

    Anyway, posting my comment here was probably inappropriate to your post and your own arguments. And I apologize for that.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 28, 2010 / 10:02 pm

      I don’t have a problem with people defending themselves. Moreover, as someone married to a southerner and who lived in the South for some ten years, I don’t care very much for South-bashing. That said, I would venture that there are some more creative ways to respond to such attacks, and the vast majority of professional historians simply don’t go about bashing the South.

      • Lyle Smith December 29, 2010 / 8:15 pm

        I think your absolutely right about the vast majority of your academic colleagues.

  5. Arleigh Birchler December 28, 2010 / 5:30 pm

    I belong to both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Sons of Union Veterans. While living in Wisconsin I attended a few SUV meetings. While living in North Carolina I have attended a few SCV meetings. My own experience, which can certainly not be generalized beyond me, is that there were about as many people in each who were still Fighting the War and about the same with those who are just honoring their ancestors. Madison Wisconsin happens to have a lot of Southern Heritage built in. Some of the hatred for anything Southern could be found in a number of people I knew, even those who I actively supported in modern day political affairs.

    That is not to say that the same can not be said about Johnston County, North Carolina. There are plenty of people here who still feel a great deal of passion about The War, and there are a lot more who could care less.
    I would have to say that from what I have been able to see, race plays a much smaller role here in North Carolina then it did in Wisconsin. Perhaps that is only because I live in a rural setting here and I lived in an urban setting in Wisconsin.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 28, 2010 / 10:04 pm

      I’m sure you are aware of the Confederate cemetery in Madison.
      I’m rather familiar with Madison, and I’d hesitate in calling it representative of very much outside Madison. 🙂

  6. F. Marsh December 28, 2010 / 7:11 pm

    “Let’s set aside the fact that Mr. Adkins’s grandfather must have been very, very old to make that decision, since slavery was abolished in 1865.”

    Not really so old. I am 60 years old. My father was 50 when I was born, my father was born in 1900. His father, my grandfather, was born in 1866, the last of eight children. His oldest brother, my grand-uncle, was born in 1847. My great-grandfather was born in 1814.

    (They were Quakers, all born in East Tennessee, and didn’t have slaves and probably pro-Union.)

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 28, 2010 / 10:06 pm

      And yet in the very case you highlight, your grandfather was born the year after slavery came to an end in Tennessee. Adkins’s grandfather would have to have been born in the 1840s to make any sort of considered decision about being a slaveholder.

  7. Arleigh Birchler December 28, 2010 / 10:02 pm

    My great-grandfather (not that many generations ago) lived through the Kansas/Missouri War in Cass County, Missouri. His double cousin, about two years older, served for most of the War in a Confederate Infantry unit. Two great-great-grandparents who were the same age as him lived near Eudora, about eight miles from Lawrence, Kansas. My parents generation was not that far removed from that War, on opposite sides.

  8. Arleigh Birchler December 28, 2010 / 10:09 pm

    While I did not mean to do so, I guess I am arguing against the title of Dr Brooks paper. While I feel a great deal of distance from those folks in the SUV and SCV who proclaim their hatred of their opposite parts, I do feel that the War has a whole lot to do with me. It has a lot to do with the country I grew up in, and the events of my life. I am still seeing the results of that War play out their course in the twenty-first century. And I see the different heritage and values of my cousins on both sides of the family who lived a few miles apart.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 29, 2010 / 10:03 am

      There’s a great deal of difference between saying that the war and its result had an impact that can be felt down through the present day and claiming that historians writing about the behavior of past generations are thus issuing an indictment against people in the present. To point out the centrality of slavery to the South in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, is not an attack upon today’s white southerners, and so why should it be treated as such? When I write about the racism in northern society that confronted Republican policy makers, I don’t encounter white northerners who come up and tell me I’m attacking them.

  9. Arleigh Birchler December 28, 2010 / 10:12 pm

    My apologies. I meant Dr Simpson. My only plea is my increasing senility.

  10. Arleigh Birchler December 28, 2010 / 10:21 pm

    “Forty square miles surrounded by reality”

    I was (and am) a strong supporter of Tammy Baldwin. We talked many times. The only think I ever took issue with her about was her leaving the Memorial Day Service before the last portion at Confederate Rest. As President Obama likes to say, we don’t need to do what is easy, we need to do what is right.

  11. Arleigh Birchler December 28, 2010 / 10:25 pm

    I have met a few people recently who use the terms “grandfather” or “grandmother” much as the term “cousin” is used. They might mean any ancestor from several recent generations. It is one of the things that drives me a bit … Well, I guess I am slowly getting used to it.

  12. Sherree December 29, 2010 / 6:33 am

    Oh lol. I was going to make a comment, but clicked on “Drill Sergeant Therapist” first, and will just say, I agree with you (and also with the Drill Sergeant Therapist.) Everyone needs to get a grip and come to terms with our history.

    On a more serious note–I do hope that you continue to blog about Reconstruction. That time period does seem to be the time when the American dream of freedom finally came completely unraveled. For a documented visual history of the unfinished American Revolution, readers should take a look at “Without Sanctuary”, which includes postcards of lynch victims. A lynching was a public event, widely supported by the community. Just read a Thomas Wolfe story, “Child by Tiger” about that very thing. As you said, Dr. Simpson, it is time to get serious about our history. Thanks for blogging. Your voice is welcome and needed.

  13. Robert Moore December 29, 2010 / 11:07 am

    “There’s a notion out there among some folks that a primary goal of historical scholarship about the Civil War era (at least as practiced by supposedly left liberal politically correct academic elitists who clearly do not hail from the South) is to make white southerners feel guilty or ashamed about their ancestors or their region.”

    Oh, it’s not just the “supposedly left liberal politically correct academic elitists who clearly do not hail from the South”, but also those who DO hail from the South, having, I suppose, been “brainwashed by the academy”. 🙂

    Your take on this in interesting, Brooks… as a Northerner with a Southern wife. So, can you imagine just how strange it must be for a Southerner, born and raised, to be called a “Southern-basher” because he (or she) doesn’t write and think in harmony with Lost Cause ideology?

    While it may seem all too easy to explain away an outsider (Northern) looking in, I find it particularly fascinating that the only explanation for me (according to some) thinking the way that I do, is to blame the academy and Northerners (liberals too, mind you) who have infiltrated even the halls of academia in the South, and who have filled my mind with dirty Yankee lies.

    What’s amazing is that discussing voids in CW era Southern history can’t simply be “presented information”, but has to include an explanation as to WHY the writer/historian writes about something. This leads to asking the question… why should anyone feel a need to go into such depth, and bring in a personal (modern) connection in order to clarify his/her story of the past? In fact, it may be, at this point, that it really does become ABOUT us, after all. Yet, I wonder if it’s just about Southerners who write about history… if not in conformity with the Lost Cause. Aren’t the facts more interesting… more rewarding… when we consider how someone brought up under the shadow of the Lost Cause, realizes that the stories told might not be all that accurate?

    Personally, I still find Charles B. Dew’s introduction to Apostles of Disunion one of the most eye-opening moments in my graduate studies… while I was in the midst of writing about Southern Unionists in my home county… which was against the grain of everything I had come to understand growing up.

    Long way of getting around it, I suppose, but good post, Brooks… made me think.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 29, 2010 / 11:22 am

      Well, Robert, clearly you’re a scalawag, whereas I’m a carpetbagger. The politics of identity (the history I believe depends on who I am and where I was born) strikes me as problematic on two levels. First, those folks who make that argument when it comes to me trip all over the place (for example, I did my undergraduate work at the University of Virginia); second, if the history one believes depends on who I am and where I was born, then Yankees are just as much entitled to their view of the past as anyone else. That logic has its own consequences: the advocates of history as identity don’t pause to consider them.

      Charles Dew’s introduction is a compelling piece of writing. At the same time, in what other field of historical scholarship do scholars feel compelled to offer autobiographical statements in order to situate themselves? Oh, you see it sometimes in women’s history, Native Amer4ican history, and other areas, but you don’t see it among practitioners of the mainstream narrative too often.

    • Francis Hamit December 30, 2010 / 2:08 pm

      I’m rather counting on their being a global audience of Civil War romantics since we have foreign language rights for “The Shenandoah Spy” on offer and a second book due out in June, and the individual stories are romantic because people were brave. Misguided, misinformed, but patriotic and dedicated to defending their homes and their way of life. That the way of life was founded on an evil principle and an obsolete economic principle did not occur to most and there was considerable disinformation spread about. (“Cotton is King” being but the most obvious). For those who want to read further, I recommend William Howard Russel’s “North and South”. He was a reporter for the London Times and went around looking at both sides at the start fo the war. A couple of years later, another English journalist , George Austas Sala came over and wrote “American in the Midst of War”. Both are available for free on Google Books as downloads. Sala also ghost-wrote Belle Boyd’s memoir and helped her start her theatrical career.

      People in the South started out with very romantic notions about the nature of war. They assumed that the fight would be like the American Revolution; with guerillas firing at invading troops from behind trees. They were influenced by the novels of Sir Walter Scott. This is where the idea of “Chivalry” came from. But war had become an industrial process and they were crushed by superior numbers and modern technologies such as the railroad and telegraph. Those who saw this woukd happen were a minority who could not make themselves heard above the din for war on both sides. To be fair, there was a forty year history of bad compromises that had not worked. Perhaps it could only be settled in blood and pain. And at the end of it, after Lee’s surrender, everyone thought it had been settled.

  14. Arleigh Birchler December 29, 2010 / 7:12 pm

    I see Cousin Marc is still in the thick of it at civilwarhistory2. There was far too much name calling and vitriol there for my taste.

    • Brooks D. Simpson December 29, 2010 / 9:11 pm

      Well, its archives are at present open, so one can explore it to view certain dynamics. I’m sure the participants have fun refighting the war.

  15. Francis Hamit December 30, 2010 / 7:34 am

    Well. I’m not a pure historian, but in the process of researching my Civil War novels I have come to some conclusions about the sources that remain. Memoirs are, not surprisingly, self-serving and often written decades after the events in question. Letters are filtered discourse because those in battle were protective of their kin. Newspaper accounts are flawed because they were slanted by the political factions that owned them. Even “Official Records” are flawed because these reports were written weeks or months after the event by staff officers who were not actually present at those battles. Then there is the massive disinformation campaign carried out by Jubal Early and the rest of the Southern Historical Society after the war. This is where the pejorative phrases such as “The War of Northern Aggression” and “The Lost Cause” come from. Myth making.
    There are a lot of surprises that go against the accepted and conventional views of Civil War history. You just have to dig for them.
    I am using my novels, which are about female spies in the service of the South, as a way to reframe the arguments and expose other influences that are not much covered because they aren’t big noisy battles. My heroine, Belle Boyd, was pretty well trashed by later (male) historians, and her deeds discounted as fables. In doing that they ignored eye-witness accounts in the literature of her heroism. There was another civil war going on; the one between men and women for political power.

  16. lunchcountersitin February 5, 2011 / 2:24 am

    Take Trace Adkins, who recently declared: “Over the generations it has seemed to me that Southern children, because of that terrible slavery issue, have been made to feel apologetic — if not guilty or ashamed — of their heritage.” Mr. Adkins adds, “And I for one hope my children don’t feel that way, because everybody knows or should know that the majority of soldiers that fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. I know that my grandfather didn’t, and had no aspirations of owning slaves. It wasn’t part of his makeup.”

    The thing that’s extraordinary about Adkin’s statement is, he’s basically saying that IF his ancestors owned slaves, then his children would have reason to be ashamed. (I guess it must really suck to have that mindset and have ancestors who actually did own slaves.)

    I wonder how much is this reaction is a vestige of 19th century conceptions of honor and degradation that are discussed in Shearer Bowman’s book At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis . It seems that people are feeling that ancestral slave-holding has shamed the ensuing family line, making all of the descendants “degraded.”

    The way they should be looking at it is, the sins of the father are not mine. But the emotional need for ancestor worship gets in the way of logic.

    • Arleigh Birchler February 5, 2011 / 7:00 am

      I think there is a very large difference between honoring ones ancestors and ancestor worship. “Ancestor worship” could just be a derogatory way of referring to people who honor their ancestors. Making fun of cultural differences instead of trying to understand them.

      • lunchcountersitin February 5, 2011 / 8:07 am


        Until I read your comment, I had not occurred to me that the term “ancestor worship” would be taken as being derogatory or an insult. It’s something I’ll think about.

        I totally agree with you that there is a difference between honoring one’s ancestors and ancestor worship. Honoring one’s ancestors, I believe, is the process of identifying particular acts that are deemed honorific, and then formally or informally acknowledging the honor of those acts.

        “Ancestor worship,” in my context, is the process of believing that our ancestors are, or must be good; and that this goodness is inherited by following generations. Thus, if the forefathers were honorable, then the children are honorable, or more precisely, they can draw from a well of honor that was bestowed upon them by the ancestors. But if the forefathers are shamed or degraded, then that necessarily falls on the descendants.

        I don’t think that the shameful act of a forefather shames any child of a subsequent generation. But that seems to be exactly what Atkins is saying: “Over the generations… Southern children… have been made to feel apologetic — if not guilty or ashamed — of their heritage… I for one hope my children don’t feel that way… everybody knows or should know that the majority of soldiers that fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. I know that my grandfather didn’t, and had no aspirations of owning slaves. It wasn’t part of his makeup.”

        As constructed by Atkins, his children should not feel ashamed because his grandfather didn’t own slaves. Note that, his statement implies that if his grandfather did own slaves, that would be cause of shame for his children.

        All of this reminds me of a quote from John Mosby in Blight’s book Race and Reunion:

        “Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance. Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates and cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property, it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery… I am not as honored for having fought on the side of slavery-a soldier fights for his country-right or wrong-he is not responsible for the political merits of the course he fights. The South was my country.

        Mosby says he was fighting for his inheritance – slavery – and his country, and shows no shame about it. But he also shows some reflection… perhaps slavery was not such a good thing, he seems to be saying. If more men like Mosby had made this kind of reflection, and if that reflection were a larger part of the history we teach, perhaps the slavery issue wouldn’t be the bear to handle among current day Southerners that it is.

  17. OhioGuy June 11, 2015 / 1:47 pm

    Brooks, this is excellent and I’m glad that you re-posted it since I was not subscribed to your blog back in 2010. I have direct ancestors in the Civil War period who were anti-slavery, probably because of marriage into a Quaker family. I have some others a generation further back who owned slaves. I will admit to being prouder of the former than the latter, but I certainly don’t feel that good scholarship that presents facts about the actions or attitudes of either group in historical context is some kind of personal affront. Let the chips fall where they may!

    • bob carey June 12, 2015 / 5:33 am

      I always believed that one should learn from the study of history, civil war or any other era,but if the history of any era is presented in such a way as to ignore or change the facts than what can we learn from it. To believe that one should be held accountable for the actions and beliefs of ones ancestors belies common sense, unless you believe in reincarnation. To paraphrase many’ ” if we don not learn from history than we are doomed to repeat it”.

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