Having raised questions about other people’s scholarship in The Union War and about the place of military history in Civil War history, Gary Gallagher (in the April 2015 edition of Civil War Times) now turns his inquiring mind to asking why anyone (read: me [and a few other folks]) would pay any attention to the Virginia Flaggers.
He asserts that the Flaggers’ absurd “claims have provoked reactions from scholars and others who, in my view, bring a good deal of unwarranted attention to something that otherwise would be consigned to the irrelevant fringe of Civil War interests.” He does this, of course, by writing an article that will bring what he believes is “unwarranted attention” to the very people he would like me (among others) to ignore, although apparently he can’t quite ignore them.
Anyone who reads the article knows that Gallagher does not hold the Flaggers in high regard: “As with those who embrace the fantasy that thousands of black men ‘served’ in the Confederate army, flaggers seek, among other things, to get the Confederacy right on the topics of race and slavery.” I wonder what John Stauffer and Jim Downs will make of that. Although Gallagher agrees with the Flaggers that efforts to equate Confederates and Nazis are unfair, he is also quite clear when it comes to dismissing the Flagger interpretation of the Confederate cause: “The effort to play down slavery in the flaggers’ portrait of the Confederacy runs aground on the solid rock of historical evidence.” Indeed, “To talk about the Confederate flag’s historical meaning without linking it to the slavery-based society that created it is tantamount to discussing the great natural wonders of Arizona without mentioning the Grand Canyon.”
So far, so good … although there are other wonders to visit in Arizona. 🙂
Gallagher offers a few more well-known quotes from Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee that confirm the centrality of slavery to the Confederacy, just to remind us that on the history of the matter the Flaggers are in the wrong. Terrific. But it is what comes next that I find interesting … and misguided:
Long experience has convinced me that offering testimony such as Stephens’, Davis’ and Lee’s–or language from the Confederate Constitution–has no impact on those who argue that states’ rights or economic interests or something else, anything but slavery, fueled secession and the Confederate founding. The futility of trying to engage such people in a discussion about evidence prompts my inability to understand why any historians take flaggers seriously. This is not a debate that can be won on on the merits, as historians who write and speak about the Civil War era know very well; indeed, because evidence means nothing to individuals who prefer their Confederacy cleansed of the taint of slavery, it cannot be won at all.
Gee, Gary, all you had to do was ask … or read the blog.
Do I take the Virginia Flaggers seriously? No. I’ve already suggested that they are best suited for a television reality show, and, as someone once called the Paris Hilton of Civil War historians should know, that doesn’t mean taking them seriously. Others have taken them more seriously or have at least dealt with them in the media, and that has absolutely nothing to do with this or other blogs. This blog has demonstrated and documented the nature of their associations (and there’s plenty more where that came from). But if one thinks I take the Flaggers seriously, well, then one hasn’t read the blog, and you can’t tell me what the blog says without reading it.
Do I think that engaging the Flaggers will persuade them of anything? No. In fact, I agree with him that to engage them is to satisfy their desire to feel denigrated and evilized, etc. Why they need that inspiration is another question altogether. Perhaps Peter Carmichael’s suggestion that some people seek therapy should apply to them.
So I agree with Gary Gallagher on these points. I don’t understand his “inability to understand,” especially because no one takes them seriously. I can’t quite figure out why he believes otherwise. We’ve been over this before.
Nor do I believe that it makes any sense to “engage such people in a discussion about evidence.” We’ve already documented that they aren’t interested in such a discussion, and that they wisely decline the opportunity because they know they’ll lose … much like John Stauffer and Jim Downs fell very, very quiet after they offered their initial salvoes.
But Gallagher is not finished.
Just as logic and unimpeachable historical testimony will not sway flaggers, it is crucial to recognize that flaggers have almost no impact on anyone who knows anything about the Civil War.
Perhaps. But they seem to have some impact on those people who do not know very much about the Civil War, or those people seeking to learn something about it. Am I to conclude that Gary Gallagher doesn’t care what those people think? After all, more people see those flags flying along the interstate every day than read one of Gary’s books in a year.
Flaggers revel in a sense of confronting powerful opponents in support of their forebears who resisted Union power. “We are Southern Flaggers,” declares one of their Internet sites, “Made from steel of Southron blood. As our ancestors stood against overwhelming odds, we too stand, defending our heroes, flags and heritage.” Flaggers need critics to heighten their sense of purpose. Why any historians would oblige them escapes me.
Perhaps it’s because there are other folks to consider: namely, those people who will decide that since Flagger claims are uncontested, one cannot contest them.
See, Gary, there’s this thing called the internet. You might not realize this, but many students (even your own undergraduates) have taken to using search engines at their primary means of accessing information. But the internet’s a rather free-flowing place, thwarting the efforts of professional historians who would like to play gatekeeper (this link also sheds interesting light of the current kerfuffle about military history in which Gary’s a key player). Moreover, the internet magnifies the impact of whoever decides to use it to spread information, correct or otherwise. So it is up to historians to decide if they want to engage such heritage movements, or whether they believe that ignoring them will bring bliss.
You would think that a generation of Civil War scholars nurtured on the notion of the importance of historical memory would understand that they have a role to play in shaping how this and subsequent generations will understand the state of Civil War memory at the sesquicentennial, instead of standing above the fray and shaking their finger in reproving those who decide to engage in discussion. Otherwise, they demean the very significance of what they study. After all, wasn’t Jubal Early the original Virginia Flagger? Or is this another case of someone “freaking out”? I hope not.
All I know is that a good number of highly qualified Civil War scholars from all walks of life who engage a broader public on a regular basis thank me for what I do in this blog.
It’s not clear to me whether Gary reads this blog in the first place. I’ve been told yes … no … he used to until he believed I could tell he was reading it … and so on. Of course, you can’t say anything about the blog unless you read it. I know he’s never asked me directly why I do what I do, and it isn’t as if our paths don’t cross enough. He’s just offered a nice foreword to the reissue of the first volume of my Grant biography. He was instrumental in assisting in the publication of several of my books and essays and paved the way for a rather fruitful collaboration with another university press. I consider him a friend, and he’s been very helpful in my career, which makes his essay all the more puzzling.
However, anyone who reads the blog knows I’ve answered these questions before. I answered them when Gary was frustrated with conversations about black Confederates and I’ve answered them when he’s commented on blogging. For Gary to fail to acknowledge this leads me to think that to reason with him is a waste of my time, because, like the Virginia Flaggers, nothing will convince him that there might be a reason to do what I do. That would be unfortunate, given how much I respect Gary.
The Flaggers would garner media attention regardless of whether bloggers criticized them. Blogs don’t bring their exploits to the attention of the media. This is akin to saying that Kevin Levin or I am wrong because we dared criticized John Stauffer or Jim Downs, because we were bringing attention to them. Are we to assume by the same logic that Gary shouldn’t bring attention to groups or interpretations with which he disagrees by criticizing them? That would have made The Union War a much shorter book, and we would not have had debates on what Gary thinks about the scholarship about the Gettysburg campaign (in which he complained that we didn’t need certain studies, thus offending those folks who compose such studies) or about the place of military history in Civil War studies.
Maybe Civil War Times craves a little more attention, and knows that controversy will achieve that end.
I admit that I am puzzled by one thing: why does any of this worry Gary Gallagher? Why should he choose to bring more attention to something he thinks we should ignore? Was this the most important topic to choose to examine in the pages of a popular magazine on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War?
Look, folks, we’ve been through this before. We’ve been through this for years, in fact, in 2012 Peter Carmichael and I exchanged views on blogging at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Indeed, it was Peter’s insistence to discuss debates over black Confederates that brought forth my sharpest comments. One might listen to John Hennessy’s comments at the end of the session.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the implication in such observations that this blog (and others) wield a great deal of influence (otherwise, why fret?). Indeed, I’m honored. But I think it would be a good idea if the talented scholars who offer their opinions about such activities chose to devote their energy to doing scholarship rather than telling other scholars what to do and what not to do.