Two Cheers for the Abolitionists

In the New York Times’s Disunion blog, Jon Grinspan offers the argument that the end of slavery should not be equated with the success of the abolitionists. Sure, he points out, the abolitionists were all about destroying slavery, but it was the war, not the abolitionists, that achieved that end.

Yes … and no.

Grinspan’s on target to suggest that when people nowadays associate their cause with that of abolitionism in an effort to say that they are for the right and that the right prevails that they overlook the extent to which abolitionism as a movement was overtaken by the debate over the expansion of slavery in the 1850s, followed by an escalating feud over the place of slavery in America’s present and future. Moral suasion did not triumph: force did.

But one cannot overlook the role played by abolitionists in the 1830s and 1840s in getting the ball rolling. Although they were a clear minority in northern society (and often a despised one), abolitionists through their tactics if not their strategy pricked proslavery defensiveness over discussing the prospects of the peculiar institution. Gag rules, intercepting the mails, and so on provided points of overreaction that in turn ruffled northern whites’ sensibilities about how the protection of slavery required compromising the rights of whites as well as blacks. Defenses of slavery as a positive good increased in intensity and volume, but found little sympathy in the minds and hearts of an increasing number of white northerners who balanced their racist inclinations against the notion that even inferior human beings were nevertheless human beings, and, as such, should not be subjected to the violent repression that arguments about slavery’s legality, morality, and superiority could ill conceal. Nor can one overlook that in the ranks of abolitionists one would find men such as Frederick Douglass, whose very existence challenged assertions of white superiority on a daily basis.

No, Americans did not go to war in 1861 because they thought slavery wrong, although some Americans did go to war because they thought slavery was right, that it was proper and profitable, and that it must be protected, regardless of the cost. To say otherwise is contradicted by the historical record: only apologists who seek absolution for their ancestors, actual or imaginary, are blind to the stark facts. But that proslavery southerners had to articulate such a defense and were prepared to do whatever they could to protect their peculiar institution–whether it meant supporting a war of conquest and expansion, creating new federal bureaucracies and congressional practices that compromised civil rights, endangering the legitimacy of elections, legislation, or the Supreme Court itself before embarking on that ill-fated journey called secession–was due in the beginning to the abolitionists’ ability to provoke such an overreaction. Much like taking a sledgehammer to squash a housefly, proslavery advocates succeeded in shattering their own future in a series of devastating blows that brought an abrupt end to the cornerstone of their experiment in independence. No one can doubt that the abolitionists played a role in that process.

So, two cheers to the abolitionists, who in any case were pleased enough with the result not to worry overmuch about who got the credit … unless, of course, you are talking about Charles Sumner.

A Response to Gary Gallagher

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.

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The Sounds of Silence

It’s been nine days since Harvard historian John Stauffer raised a ruckus with his commentary about black Confederate soldiers on The Root, and six days since Jim Downs used his platform on Huffington Post to add his two cents (adjusted for inflation). Other than Downs, the only people who have commended Stauffer’s article are select Confederate heritage advocates, which proves that sometimes poor scholarship makes for strange bedfellows. Neither historian has chosen to respond to the specific criticism leveled at their contributions to the discussion … and I no longer expect that either one will. This suggests that neither historian was interested in engaging in serious discussion, but perhaps just wanted to offer something sensationalistic to make a splash. In this they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. Whether their arguments left a favorable impression on readers outside a small circle of friends (none of whom have countered criticism of these pieces) remains to be seen, but at present count a number of people have called into question their arguments and use of evidence (where evidence is used, which is not always the case).

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Historians Freak Out About Freaking Out … Really …

Oh my goodness. But you knew it had to happen.

Discussions about “black Confederates” follow a pattern of assertion, response, and then commentary, and this time has proven to be no exception. Over at Civil War Emancipation, Donald Shaffer expresses his irritation with the most recent discussion. Kevin Levin objected to the objection.

I hope Don expresses his displeasure directly to John Stauffer and Jim Downs. It seems to me a bit bizarre to criticize people who were the targets of these essays, especially Kevin Levin, especially when the real target should be the poor example of historical scholarship offered by Stauffer. Downs’s piece is also worth engaging, and that would do a lot more to foster an informed debate than a call to put an end to it. After all, I don’t tell other people what to research, and nowadays I simply dismiss out of hand attempts to tell me what to do.

More useful is Matt Gallman’s response in Don’s blog. I think that is a topic worth pursuing. And I think Don’s correct in saying that there are other ways to explore this issue, but I’d prefer to hear what we can and should do rather than what we shouldn’t do.

This is all part of blogging. Posts beget posts. I’m sure that’s far from over. I find irritating such expressions of irritation, but, while I’d wish they would stop, I don’t tell people to stop it. After a while, however, I will just ignore them. I have hopes that Don’s post may provoke more thought than that.

Some Civil War Historians Are Freaking Out About Black Confederates

It’s one thing to examine the evidence and the intellectual framework behind a piece of historical scholarship. It’s quite another to follow the course of an argument that raises a lot of questions about the practice of Civil War scholarship. The response to John Stauffer’s essay on black Confederates is a case in point.

As one might assume, I was not the only historian who objected rather quickly to Stauffer’s article. So did Kevin Levin in a pair of posts, the second of which ignited more controversy. For it was there that Levin decided to make reference to another ongoing discussion about the place of military history within Civil War studies, one that aggrieved some people’s sensibilities and aroused objections. Most of that discussion involved an article by Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Meier that appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, although Earl Hess in the December 2014 issue of Civil War History offered some different observations about the place of military history in Civil War studies. Levin simply observed that Stauffer’s essay could have benefitted from a better understanding of military history, a point Gallagher and Meier made in their essay.

The eruption that followed was as loud as it was unexpected. Continue reading

Just The Facts, Please: A Note on Recent Discussions About Black Confederates … or … Civil War Cultural Historians Are Freaking Out

My, isn’t that a long title.:)

A few days ago a friend of mine pointed me to John Stauffer’s essay on black Confederates, which, as noted, was a slightly updated rehash of a presentation he made in 2011.

The essay was problematic, to be kind, in two respects.

First, Stauffer clearly and deliberately mischaracterized the perspective of several people, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kevin Levin, and yours truly, on black Confederates. That’s simply scholarly malpractice, and I’m surprised that in ensuing discussions that some scholars who declare that they are all about various research approaches to history did not call him out on that. None of the people Stauffer targeted have ever argued that there were no black Confederates. Nor have they denied that there were not substantial numbers of enslaved blacks who accompanied Confederate armies in the field. All have acknowledged that some free blacks, many of them along the Gulf Coast (New Orleans stands out as the best example) volunteered their services as soldiers to the Confederacy in 1861. There are other instances of people defined as black in southern society who fit the definition of “soldier” held by the Confederates at the time (these scholars resist retrofitting 21st century definitions on 19th century service, as they should). And, of course, they note the debate over enlisting enslaved blacks in the Confederate army in 1864-65, as well as the Confederate policy of impressing enslaved blacks into military service as well as the presence of slaves accompanying their masters in Confederate ranks.

To say otherwise is to misunderstand, mischaracterize, misrepresent, or simply lie, or to demonstrate sheer scholarly incompetence. Why any reputable scholar would tolerate such behavior or seek to excuse it puzzles me.

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Cries for Attention

The open nature of the internet has led to a crisis of authority among professional historians. Simply put, professional historians who once thought they controlled the flow of information and interpretation and who thus claimed the prerogative to dispense it find that they can no longer enforce that claim. I’m not sure that they ever could have done so. Many people claim to be historians regardless of their training or expertise or knowledge. Indeed, the amateur as historian has always been present in the writing of American Civil War history, from businessmen (James Ford Rhodes) to newspapermen (Bruce Catton) to novelists (Shelby Foote) to television pundits (Bill O’Reilly). People without training or a certain skill set claim to be historians in ways that no one would imagine claiming to be a chemist, brain surgeon, aircraft pilot, or professional hockey player. Reading one book, watching one show on the History Channel (hello, Pawn Stars!), or donning a uniform seems to transform some people into historians magically, at least in their minds.

Mind you, it is not the possession of a professional degree that makes one a historian. I know plenty of people who do not possess that training but who turn out wonderful books, largely because they have the same skill set and intellectual tool box needed to succeed. Nor does possession of an advanced degree in itself make one a skilled historian, judging from some of the careers I’ve seen (although it helps in the making of a college professor). So this is not an effort to revive the academic/non-academic debate about history that so many seem so fond of having, largely so that they can be snide and snarky. But what is true is that some historians attract more attention than do others, and those others may not like it. Two examples from this week stand out this week as illustrating that trend.

In the current issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era Kevin Levin offers a glimpse at the significance of the continuing controversy over what some people call “black Confederates.” Kevin is himself a product of the transformative nature of the internet on historical authority: a few decades ago people holding MA degrees who taught in small private secondary schools would have found it challenging to get past the self-appointed gatekeepers of the profession to contribute to such a discussion. That this article appeared at all also suggests that those professional historians who decried the very existence of a discussion of this issue have found themselves thwarted by one of their own professional journals.

It was thus left to Edward H. Sebesta once more to seek the attention he so dearly desires (and which this post will give him … well, he may not desire this sort of attention). Sebesta’s quest for attention included declaring that he did not want a book he co-assembled to be considered for a prize (his co-author, James Loewen, generally remained silent about Sebesta’s outburst); Sebesta’s also taken on Barack Obama over the laying of a wreath at the monument to Confederate soldiers at Arlington, a memorial that has received all sorts of attention over the past decade for foolish reasons. Sebesta has an obsession with Kevin, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out why he’s so jealous.

Sebesta declares that “in general the article really fails and a person has to wonder what the editors of The Journal of the Civil War Era were thinking.” In other words, “why didn’t they ask me, Ed Sebesta, to offer informed commentary?”

Why did the article “fail”?

There are three problems with the essay. The first is his enabling of the neo-Confederate movement. The second is his lack of critical thinking regarding history. The third is a failing to connect it to either the use of token African Americans by neo-Confederates and the neo-Confederates use of identity.

You read that right. Kevin Levin is being attacked for enabling the “neo-Confederate movement.” By the same reasoning, Ed Sebesta is enabling Kevin Levin, and I’m enabling Ed Sebesta. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.

People know that I find that the term “neo-Confederate” lacks definitional and analytical clarity, and so long ago I decided to set it aside as useless. It’s right up there with “politically correct.” None of this deters Mr. Sebesta, who is the Connie Chastain of his own “movement.” Not that he is totally wrong. I think people should not use “southern heritage” and “Confederate heritage” interchangeably. Southern heritage is so much more than Confederate heritage, and Confederate heritage is but a small part of southern heritage and should not be taken as representative of the whole South. But we’ve had that discussion before, even if Sebesta’s failed to follow it (precisely because he isn’t in it).

It would have been illuminating if Levin pointed out the irony of these two groups [the SCV and the UDC] promoting the myth of the Black Confederate while at the same time promoting a white supremacist view of history. However, Levin, like many Civil War historians and enthusiasts, wishes all the controversy would just go away and they could get back to the toy soldier gaming of the Civil War. (Maybe a special issue devoted to it.) Levin has stated that he doesn’t like the word “neo-Confederate.” He likely fears that it will lead to loud voices at Civil War Round Tables and disquieting questions about some of the members of the Civil War history profession.

I guess Sebesta doesn’t read Kevin’s blog, just like most people don’t read Sebesta’s blog, which is a collection of self-serving rants. Hope he enjoys the attention he’ll get now.

Levin thinking in the essay goes like this:

1. Historians with their training and expertise and knowledge have in their possession true history.

2. Unfortunately with the Internet, those without this training and expertise and are wrong headed are making false historical assertions.

3. This problem would be solved by informing people to only listen to properly credentialed historical experts and authoritative institutions.

Really? REALLY? Oh, the irony here is rich indeed. Kevin Levin, whose professional identity is defined not by his degree and training but by his blog and his work, is being chided for his defense of the castle known as the world of professional historical scholarship.

Sebesta would get a failing grade in my undergraduate course if he handed in this tripe as an essay.

After offering some commonplace observations with which Kevin would agree as evidence that Kevin is wrong, Sebesta presents this concluding observation:

The article is a simplistic, cartoonish, idea that a gullible public is being led astray by persons lacking proper historical training and credentials. It is an article that would be written by an elitist unconscious of the larger issues or critical theory.

That the editors of the journal accepted this article raises concerns about Civil War scholarship in general.

And who will fix that? Why, Ed Sebesta!

Meanwhile on Twitter, people saw a sign of the very arrogance in the historical profession that Sebesta decries. See, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked me a simple question about Grant and corruption. I happened to be at work when he asked, and by the time I came home and clicked on Twitter there were all sorts of replies and observations, many of which I found interesting as indicating what people represent as the current understanding of Grant. Then I came across a response from the Twitter account of History News Network, and that led to the following exchange:

HNN one HNN two What, you may ask, is History News Network, anyway? Well, it’s lots of things, and it’s not particularly good at many of them. After all, if it wants to parade as the source of all historical knowledge, it might have a simple “Ask a Historian” page that one could readily identify. If you’re a historian who wants to offer a historian’s two cents on an issue, well, HNN provides a forum for your op-ed. If you are an author who wants to pump up your own tires, well, contribute something to HNN as part of the publicity campaign for your publication. Want to gossip about your colleagues or highlight instances of perceived professional wrongdoing? Well, HNN will give you that forum, and give it uncritically.

But the remarkable arrogance of HNN’s Twitter feed (which HNN wisely chose not to feature in its own collection of its Twitter activity) in saying that HNN is the source of knowledge and information and interpretation (all the while failing to name a single expert in the field at HNN) and that people simply need to go there (and stop talking to real scholars on Twitter and the openness of social media) … well, doesn’t that just about top all? I’ll overlook their ignorance about my own professional identity, because, really, given what I saw, could you expect anything else? In short, HNN wants you to believe it is the ultimate source of information and it’s where scholars are to be found while remaining entirely clueless about the people engaged in a conversation. Yup, that’s where I would go to find out more about less and less about more, and in either case I’d be lucky to learn very much.

One of the consequences of social media is that historians who want to reach out and engage a more general public need not go through a portal such as HNN. It seems that HNN resents this … because the openness of social media means that fewer and fewer people will go to HNN, and not that many ever went in the first place, especially if they had a question to ask.

I don’t suffer fools gladly. Add the HNN Twitter feed to that list.

HNN isn’t where scholars publish. It’s where some scholars contribute views. Indeed, as you’ll see from this link, it isn’t really all that discriminating when it comes to the “experts” who publish there … people like (wait for it …) Ed Sebesta.

And that’s the way it is, Thursday, December 18, 2014. :)

How Has Blogging Changed Scholarship? Has It?

At the Civil War Institute’s evening session last night, Peter Carmichael suggested that blogging had somehow transformed the nature of scholarly discourse in a less civil direction. He may well be right, although the decline of civility is by no means limited to blogging. But his assertion leads to another question: has blogging indeed had an impact on historical scholarship? Has it in any way changed the way we conduct scholarly discourse, or how historians reach out and contact a larger population? In short, are things the same, or are they different, why, and how?

News and Notes: March 29, 2014

Here’s some stuff that may be of interest to someone:

  • George Purvis has his own blog. It reads as if he’s a long-lost cousin of Jerry Dunford. In either case, those of you who want to see what George has to say can go there.
  • Kevin Levin pushes for a change to the Mississippi state flag. Given how long it took that state to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, good luck.
  • Here’s yet another one of those “student displays Confederate flag, gets in trouble” stories from Kevin’s home state. And then there’s this, too. I will reserve comment until prom season passes.
  • Glenn McConnell was named president of the College of Charleston, and guess what happened? Yup … and this, too. As well as this. Told you sotwice.
  • None other than Gary Adams takes on someone who still embraces the black Confederate myth. In other words, here’s another case of the circular firing squad that is Confederate heritage advocacy.
  • For those of you who actually follow Civil War history, you will find this debate over the Lost Order of September 1862 fame very interesting. In order: here, here, and here. Maybe readers can go there to read the exchange and then come here to comment and discuss.

Some Thoughts on Lincoln and Colonization

Readers of this blog have read this past week about how several historians differ over the question of whether Lincoln continued to pursue initiatives that would provide for the colonization of free blacks abroad after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Basically, the dominant view at present is that he did not do so; a rather spirited minority position is that he did continue to do so. The reason the recent work of Philip Magness and Sebastain Page has made such a splash in some circles is that the authors offer additional evidence that suggests that Lincoln never quite abandoned colonization after all.

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