When Simplification Becomes Distortion

Over at Cosmic America Keith Harris has a very interesting and telling reaction to his reading of Time‘s effort to address the evolution of Civil War memory.

I think he’s basically right.  We’ve spent too much time discussing the evolution of white southern memory of the war and very little on how African Americans and white northerners approached the issue of remembering the Civil War during the first fifty years after the conflict ended.  From my own reading I’ve concluded that for many white northerners reconciliation was far more conditional than the current presentation of historical understanding would have us believe.

That said, I’ve also come to believe that what today passes as our understanding of the process of reconciliation and its role in northern thought is due to a tendency for people to collapse complex historical explanations into bite-size, easy-to-digest claims, and I believe that this is what has happened in the case of David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion, a major work that propelled its author into the forefront of scholarship on this subject, to the point that one looks for a quote from David whenever this topic surfaces.

I’ve known David for over thirty years, since we were both graduate students at the University of Wisconsin studying under Richard H. Sewell.  He was already in the program when I entered in 1979, although we really didn’t start to get to know each other until the following year when our TA offices were a few doors apart.  It’s been wonderful to watch his success, especially since we were told as graduate students that we were, in the words of a member of the faculty, “flying our kites in a dying wind.”  We saw that as a challenge, so much so that we had t-shirts made up with that expression on them.  David and I have crossed paths a number of times, and we coedited a volume honoring our mentor, a volume that is now available in paperback.

The reaction to Race and Reunion when it came out surprised me a bit.  Yes, it was an impressive book, and yes, it broadened the discussion of Civil War memory beyond the emphasis given to the fashioning of the Lost Cause myth, but I’ve never seen a book be greeted with quite as much joy (it took a number of awards from the Organization of American Historians, and when I encountered David, even he looked a bit stunned by all the plaudits).  Since then it has been invoked freely and frequently, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder how many people are actually reading it any more.  It seems to me that Keith’s reaction to the Time article is very much a reaction to a rather simplified version of David’s argument, although one that has gained much circulation.

In support of Keith’s reaction I offer the following quote from Henry Cabot Lodge, who offered this observation in 1913 … the end point for David’s book:

I have wearied of the tone, so familiar of late, that now, fifty years after it all, everybody was right and nobody wrong, that there was no right and no wrong about it, and that the thing to do is to pass it over gently and politely with abundant sentiment and meaningless praise for everybody. No good is ever done by falsifying the past. There was a right and a wrong in the Civil War. I would not revive a single bitter memory, I would not do otherwise than acknowledge all the great qualities shown by the South, I would not attack them for what they then did. But it is a deep injury to shirk the truth or try to hide it by silence or seek to blot it out. The propositions I have stated about the Union and slavery are admitted openly or secretly by all men. If they are true then the North was right and the right won. If we start with that no more need be said, but I do not want this great truth of history to be lost in a sentimental mist or confused by a false belief that if we daub the truth with rhetoric so that it can no longer be recognized we shall in that way promote good feeling. The union of the States and good feeling as well can rest securely and permanently on truth alone. They will never prosper on debilitating falsehoods.  Let the central truth stand confessed and admitted, and then let all the rest be buried in silence. As Lincoln said, according to tradition: “I can conceive that both sides may be wrong. I can conceive that one side should be right and the other wrong. But it is impossible that both sides should be right.”‘ The tendency in the North just now in certain quarters is to try to pretend that both sides were right. That is not only impossible but false. Events have shown inexorably that it was the right which triumphed at Appomattox. Forgiveness is admirable and cannot be too complete, but in the affairs and the history of nations it is not wise wholly to forget.

I happen to be very fond of this quote: a shorter version hangs in my office at ASU.  It complicates simple explanations.  So would a study of southern unionist memory.  Indeed, if Civil War memory studies are going to go anywhere interesting and useful, they are going to have to press beyond David’s study, treating his book not as the last word but as a point of departure.  But I would also caution folks not to place too much stock in such simplifications of historical explanation, because those simplifications often distort the original argument to serve other purposes, including the desire to take on the very construct one’s erected as representing the current orthodoxy.


3 thoughts on “When Simplification Becomes Distortion

  1. Sherree April 20, 2011 / 6:16 am


    I understand the point that you and Keith are making. I, too, think that the memory of the war was much more complex than we now believe and that great animosity existed between white northerners and white southerners at the time and still exists–animosity that rivals racial animosity at times. However, I found Von Drehle’s article very insightful and also a good introduction, for the general public, to recent scholarship concerning the Civil War. I particularly found the following observation to be accurate and powerfully expressed:

    “Two fallacies prop up the wall of forgetfulness. The first is that slavery somehow wasn’t really that important — that it was a historical relic, unprofitable, dying out, or that all societies did it, or that the slaves were happy. But slavery was important, and not just to the 4 million men, women and children enslaved — a number equal to the population of Los Angeles today. And the fact that it ended is important too.

    The second fallacy is that this was only the South’s problem and that the North solved it. Not long ago, the New-York Historical Society mounted its largest-ever exhibition, titled ‘Slavery in New York.’ You can still visit the website and listen to public reactions. Over and over again, visitors repeat the same theme: as a teacher, as a college graduate, as a native New Yorker, ‘I knew absolutely nothing about this.’ As long as that belief persists, spoken or unspoken, Americans whose hearts lie with Dixie will understandably continue to defend their homes and honor against such Yankee arrogance.

    Lincoln’s words a few weeks before his death were often quoted after the war by those who wanted not just to forgive but also to forget: ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all.’ But those words drew their deepest power from the ones he spoke just before them: ‘Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

    In other words, the path to healing and mercy goes by way of honesty and humility. After 150 years, it’s time to finish the journey.”

    The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War has been conclusively proven false by scholars. Now, one of the major questions that could conceivably frame discussion as memory studies broaden and delve more deeply into the past, would be whether or not the Civil War was actually a civil war at all, or was, rather, the War of the Rebellion. The danger in interpreting the war in this manner is that yet another false and sanitized narrative could emerge in which the North is absolved of all responsibility for slavery and the Civil War, just as the South was absolved of responsibility in the Lost Cause narrative. If that is the price of reconciliation, then we all lose–again–but particularly African American men and women and Indigenous men and women, as the complicity of the North in creating and sustaining the peculiar institution would be at risk of being ignored or minimized, thus helping to fuel Northern racism, and the involvement of the North and of the South in decimating Indigenous nations after the war would be at risk of being completely forgotten and relegated to an esoteric study of the “Indian Wars”, leaving the rest of the nation wondering why some Dakota, Lakota, Cheyenne, Apache, and Navajo men and women–not to mention the various nations of California–are angry at the United States of America, a nation that did not grant them citizenship in a land that belonged to their ancestors for thousands of years, until 1924, even as a new birth of freedom was supposedly underway. That is not reconciliation–or even a reconciling. It is trading one false narrative for another false narrative. Something that we have done too much of in this nation.

  2. Brian Hampton April 25, 2011 / 10:47 pm

    I’m very fond of Dr. Blight’s book. I happened to have been lucky enough to run across it when it was initially published and fell into it in a way I had not the various studies of military history that had dominated my reading prior to that.

    Historical memory is the primary interest I have with the Civil War and its aftermath, though I don’t think I actually realized that until I read Race and Reunion. It is, as you suggest, a point of departure from the way these things have been discussed in the past, not the final word on the subject.

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