Constructing the Other’s Sense of History

One of the things I find most interesting about discussions about Civil War history is the tendency of some participants to construct accounts of what they believe “the other side” thinks.  This exercise in strawman architecture often serves as a prelude to the speaker’s decision to reveal truth.  It’s essential for the flow of the argument that claims must be made about what “the other side” believes in order to knock it down.  It helps if one either neglects evidence altogether or is extremely selective in crafting an account of what ‘the other side” believes.

This practice is not limited to discussions on various forums, although those forums usually see the most simplistic renderings of the practice.  One of my favorites is the claim that certain people believe the North fought the Civil War to free the slaves.  Any time you hear this claim, you can expect a response that shows that such was not the case.  Historians often do the same thing in setting up their own books by presenting a simplified version of the present state of scholarship, a presentation designed to show that there’s a problem which only this new study can address and resolve.  And sometimes people go a little to far in setting up these strawmen.  I recall reviewing a book about the Mugwumps in which the author singled me out, claiming that I so despised Henry Adams that I had called him a “pompous little ass”; I reminded the author in the published review that it was Henry’s own brother, Charles Jr., who so characterized his brother.


It is with this in mind that I offer to you the following claim and solicit your reaction.

America may well be the only country in the world to have experienced full-scale modern warfare upon its territory but then, as a matter of national identity, to have failed to establish a coherent narrative explanation.

In my opinion, this is flat wrong. There is a “coherent narrative“.

Here is the dominant “coherent narrative“.

The story of the American nation is the story of a struggle between the True America and the Evil Other (the South).

The True Nation had to compromise with the Evil Other in order to establish American independence at all.  Finally the Evil Other became so hateful and aggressive that the True Nation had to defend itself in the Civil War.  If it had not, popular self-government would have disappeared entirely from the earth.  

The True Nation won, but out of a misguided mercy, failed adequately to force the Evil Other to convert to True Americanism during the Reconstruction after the Civil War.

Nevertheless True America was strong enough afterwards to control the US national institutions.

The unregenerate Evil Other South, however, has never given up its perversity, and continues to live out its Nazi-like ways.

That’s it. It’s pretty close to the way Lincoln described the war …


6 thoughts on “Constructing the Other’s Sense of History

  1. Will Hickox April 29, 2011 / 1:12 pm

    I’m confused. Are you presenting this “coherent narrative” as the actual, dominant view of the majority, or as pro-Confederates’ attempt to characterize the other side’s arguments?

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 29, 2011 / 1:34 pm

      I’m just presenting what I encountered. I’d like to know what others think of it.

  2. Ned Baldwin April 29, 2011 / 3:00 pm

    Sounds funny phrased that way but it seems similar to the narrative of Henry Wilson’s books.

  3. Will Hickox April 29, 2011 / 6:01 pm

    The quotation marks around the sentence in green made me think the rejoinder in purple was written by you. But if you “encountered” it, does that mean it’s another quote from someone else? (Still unsure where this narrative is coming from.) But taking the narrative as it is, while it’s obviously silly to style the Confederacy and postwar Lost Causers “the Evil Other South,” I think it’s essentially accurate. But if you’re trying to say this “purple” narrative is the dominant interpretation, I’m not so sure. Popular culture had a decidedly pro-Confederate bent in its depiction of the Civil War until quite recently, and as that now-infamous poll just pointed out, a large swath of Americans still believe the war was caused by “States’ rights” as opposed to slavery.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 29, 2011 / 6:55 pm

      Purple’s replying to olive. Neither one is me. Indeed, purple’s not even close to me on this issue.

  4. Lyle Smith April 30, 2011 / 6:25 am

    I’m with you on this, I think, Professor. Ignorant people don’t only come from the South (wherever really) in the guise of so-called Confederate apologists, neo-Confederates or Confederate romanticists. They come from all over… including from the ranks of so called Federal apologists (ALL of Atlanta should have burned!), neo-Federals (the new South is just as traitorous and unreconstructed as the antebellum/Confederate South ever was!), and Federal romanticists (John Brown… pardon him!). I jest… sort of. 🙂

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