The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: The Internet, Social Media, History, and Confederate Heritage Activism

The internet and the digital revolution together have changed how we view the world, in part because they have transformed how we receive and digest information. We have more information (and misinformation) available at our fingertips. Search engines help shape and sometimes control how we discover and extract information (just try using a few different search engines to see what I mean).

For professional historians who happen to teach, the result is a mixed bag. Yes, we have access to far more information than before, and it’s easier to use it. It’s much easier to research the Congressional Globe and the Congressional Record than it once was, for example, and one can read books once deemed difficult to find. We can secure video and images to educate, and we can point students to resources they would not have been able to access easily a generation ago. On the other hand, as teachers we see students (and others) use search enginges and internet resources uncritically, and we have to deal with teaching research methods online to ensure that students can find credible sources and make sense of them. There’s plenty of fake history to go around, especially on certain websites and discussion groups. Take any halfway decent Civil War discussion group, for example, and you’ll find people still refighting the war, mocking scholarship (and scholars) who don’t embrace the poster’s own prejudices, interpreting “evidence” to suit their predilections, falling in love with their heroes and chastising their villains (and their biographers), endlessly rehashing certain questions, and taking the notion of “if it is on the internet, it must be true” to a new level …”if I say it on the internet, I make it true.”

Scholars err in simply dismissing what in truth is a rich source of what they lovingly study as historical memory in other contexts. Simply to say that something isn’t true means little in an age whether “alternative facts” and denigrating authoritative sources hold sway. Time and again those of us who are more comfortable with the internet as a place of discussion, debate, and resources have to remind less-skilled and less-aware users that the net doesn’t discriminate between the good, the bad, and the immaterial, thus allowing such themes as the myth of the black Confederate soldier to flow freely in the minds of the uncritical or the agenda-driven and be disseminated to the unaware and unprepared. In an age where anyone with access to the internet can pretend to be their own historian, the problem intensifies. That people who whine about “fake news” embrace “fake history” and engage in uncritically reposting only that which feeds their already-established prejudices while pretending to host history blogs is part of the joke … and part of the problem. For them “political correctness” means “does not agree with me.”

Failing to engage such folks concedes the argument, and suggests that perhaps some people have abandoned the role of the public intellectual in favor of writing for each other or for a small circle of like-minded folks. When that is the case, historians can look in the mirror when they wonder why people don’t listen to them any more (if they ever did). Yet engagement comes with its own risks, and historians haven’t thought much about that, either. Nowadays the marketplace of ideas has been replaced with the hockey rink of debate, complete with high elbows, stick-swinging, and cheap shots. How to engage in such an environment while maintaining one’s self-respect and scholarly demeanor (and, one hopes, a sense of humor) is a challenge. Yet, unlike, say, the confrontation in a lecture (these rarely happen) or the nasty note (and now nasty email) that remains private, it is the very public accessibility of such misinformation and fake history that presents a challenge to any historian who presumes that educating people about history is an important part of their job, and is indeed more than mere vocation.

Yet historians are not the only people confronting a challenge in the age of the internet and social media when it comes to getting things done. Presenting a somewhat different challenge for Confederate heritage apologists is the interplay of social media, digital technology, and heritage activism. People who employ social media as part of their everyday lives know the problem. Repost something, offer a comment, hit “like” or “share” or “retweet,” and we’ve indicated where we stand on something, as if that in itself is enough. Want to make a more robust statement? Take some pictures … because digital technology has revolutionized photography for the common person. Don’t worry … you don’t have just 12, 24, or 36 precious exposures per roll any more … you can click away hundreds of times and then post the images to your social media outlet. Any Virginia Flagger event will suffice as an example, especially when Judy Smith is present. How many times do you have to see Susan Hathaway rally the troops (or hear her sing)? Or see Barry Isenhour look stern while thinking of his next hot dog? When it comes to graphic design, we have Connie Chastain churning out book jacket after book jacket for books she’ll never actually write (“fake literature,” anyone? … because “fake fiction” is too funny).

Let me kindly suggest that the digital revolution and the advent of social media has been key to the dissemination of the ideas of the Confederate heritage apologist movement … and that it will also be the death of it. For it appears to be true that the more time you spend on social media, the less time (and interest) you have to be a real activist and achieve real change.

You see, just like many other pseudo-activists, many Confederate heritage apologists think that reposting, sharing, liking, and retweeting is a sufficient expression of their activism, because people see it. Attaboy, folks, seems to be the prevailing attitude. It’s not unlike the Virginia Flaggers’ own Facebook page, which once painstakingly celebrated how many people “liked” it (Donald Trump does the same thing when it comes to his Twitter account). Yet the only significant achievement the Virginia Flaggers have to claim for years of “activity” is the erection of a number of Confederate flag-bearing flagpoles throughout Virginia. That’s it. Even that activity has been as productive of mocking humor as it has been of celebrating some ill-defined “cause.” Sure, we have a flood of Judy Smith photographs of “determined” Flaggers … but the photographs and videos shot by Smith and others have provided evidence of some of the people with whom the Flaggers associate (racists, bigots, and the like) and have been used to humiliate Flaggers or make them look foolish (hello, Tripp Lewis!). The blog Restoring the Honor makes its living off capturing Confederate heritage social media as well as using the internet to uncover interesting connections.

The result reminds us that the Virginia Flaggers and other like-minded Confederate heritage apologist groups are what we’ve said they are.

In short, even as social media can be used to mobilize on some minimal level of engagement a number of wannabe activists, the proof is in who shows up to do the real work. How many times have organizers of Confederate heritage events later complained that the turnout wasn’t anywhere near what organizers expected given all those positive responses on Facebook? Memes are cute and easy to produce (even Chastain can meet that low threshhold), but do they accomplish much (and, in certain cases, haven’t they provided ammunition for critics)?

Have the proponents of Confederate heritage done anything more that preventing some defeats and then proclaiming that victory? We see fighting withdrawals, retreats, routs, and the occasional stalemate or preservation of the status quo, but have “the colors” ever actually advanced? The entire struggle for Confederate heritage likes to invoke the spirit of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Wade Hampton, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, but in reality the icons of the Confederate heritage movement should be Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Joseph Johnston, and Braxton Bragg. Beauregard always offered plans that could never be implemented; Johnston was good at retreating and procrastinating while claiming that someday he would strike back; Bragg’s quarrelsome nature reminds me of a lot of the ranting within the ranks of Confederate heritage apologists (rainbow Confederates, anyone? Unhappiness with the SCV?).

All this, I suggest, is also the product of social media, which promotes pseudo-activism as a substitute for the real thing. Confederate heritage activities have failed in their efforts to mobilize a movement when someone can simply click a button or type a response as their entire effort to preserve and protect their “heritage.”

Mind you, the very reaction to this post in some corners will demonstrate the truth of the arguments it presents. But the fact of the matter is that offering dozens of photographs of a half dozen protesters outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (and doing so repeatedly) in order to garner likes and supportive comments is testimony to the bankruptcy of Confederate heritage activism … because that’s all it is. Raise another flag, post about it, and then do it again, in part because nothing has really changed (each flag raising has become a sign of the futility of the endeavor, because, outside of a few more photographs, a few more posts, and a few more “likes,” nothing happens) … while the setbacks and defeats keep mounting up.

It truly is the best of times and the worst of times.

Even More Ranting …

Several readers of this blog have drawn my attention to yet another rant about me from an unhappy fellow blogger.

Brooks Simpson is a paragon for an underlying fault among many academic historians identified by Harvard’s Gordon Wood that might explain why Simpson thinks publishers have been “duped” into issuing my books and articles:

… many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

Really?

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Reconstruction at the CWI–June 18, 2016

Over the first 24 hours of the conference attendees have been treated to discussions about white southern concepts of honor during Reconstruction, especially among former Confederates; several perspectives on black emancipation and the efforts of the formerly enslaved to reconstruct their lives; how white northerners viewed Reconstruction; the experience of military reconstruction for the occupying forces; and, this evening, a series of talks about Union and Confederate veterans, culminating in a presentation exploring how one rather prominent Union veteran–namely Ulysses S. Grant–sought to define and defend in peace what seemingly had been secured in war.

For those of you who are interested in that last topic, I’d make sure to fire up C-SPAN3 at 7:15PM ET. You may recognize the speaker.

Reconstruction at the 2016 Civil War Institute

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Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, directed by Peter Carmichael, will have as this year’s theme “Reconstruction and the Legacy of the Civil War.” The conference has already sold out, an interesting reflection on claims that no one really wants to remember or reflect upon Reconstruction.

C-SPAN (in this case, C-SPAN 3, I believe) will be present, broadcasting live on the afternoon and evening of June 18 while recording other sessions for future broadcast. Yours truly will speak at 7:15 PM Eastern Time on “Ulysses S. Grant and the Continuing Civil War,” where I’ll give people an overview of some of the themes that will be part of the second and concluding volume of my Grant biography, entitled Ulysses S. Grant: The Fruits of Victory, 1865-1885. You may follow the proceedings and commentary on Twitter at  . Note that my talk will be the last one of the evening: clearly Peter is depending on me to finish the day (reprising my role as scholarship’s answer to Mariano Rivera). Given who’s talking before, I hope I have enough time to cover my topic and answer questions. If not, I’m prepared to burn one of his scarves.

In preparation for the conference, I answered a few questions about my topic.

 

 

The Memphis Massacre of 1866: A Conference Blog

Readers of this blog will recall that not long ago I mentioned the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (also known as the Memphis Riot of 1866, although the reasons for the renaming are of interest) in examining a rather badly-flawed attempt to discuss the event and its implications.

It seems only right and proper to direct you now to a blog bringing together and reporting on the results of a recent conference on the event. Click here to go there. I guarantee you’ll learn something.

I think this is a wonderful way to share the scholarship presented at a conference by people who know what they are talking about, and I believe more conferences should follow suit.

Gary Gallagher and the Continuing Civil War

Nearly a month ago the Twitterverse tweeted with commentary on a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia by Gary Gallagher. Apparently Gary was determined to take on current understandings of the American Civil War, namely the emphasis paid to emancipation and the debate over when the Civil War ended. Gary took several authors to task concerning the first point, which received most of his attention, before turning to the second point at the 40:45 mark of the video below:

As I understand it, Gary’s argument is that present concerns shape our inquiry of the past, framing the questions and suggesting the answers we seek. There’s nothing exceptional about that observation: it’s often at the core of many a historiographical essay, the sort of discovery usually reserved for first year graduate seminars and for the occasionally perceptive undergraduate.

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Walter Williams on Ignorance

Professor Walter Williams is an economist who teaches at George Mason University. He has frequently written on the subject of black Confederates, and he took the opportunity recently to do so yet again.

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Dr. Walter Williams

Dr. Williams is quite fond of the notion that large numbers of enslaved African Americans voluntarily and willingly served as soldiers in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. He is also quite fond of recycling the same material time and time again in support of that claim.

Click here to read a short piece from 2000. Then click here to read a piece from earlier this year. That piece just appeared again here.

You may notice that Dr. Williams claims that the death of Anthony Hervey, an African American who shared Dr. Williams’s views on black Confederate soldiers, “was in no small part caused by the gross level of ignorance, organized deceit and anger about the War of 1861. Much of the ignorance stems from the fact that most Americans believe the war was initiated to free slaves, when in truth, freeing slaves was little more than an afterthought. I want to lay out a few quotations and ask what you make of them.”

Well, since Dr. Williams thinks this is a matter of life or death, I think it fair to respond to his request that I say what I make of his quotations.

First, Dr. Williams quotes Frederick Douglass’s 1861 statement: “There are at the present moment many colored men in the Confederate army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders, and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down loyal troops, and do all that soldiers may to destroy the Federal Government and build up that of the traitors and rebels.”

Well, I believe several people have already said a great deal about that quote. Surely Andy Hall did, here and here.  So have I. So what do I make of this quote? Not much. Douglass picked up on various rumors in the press to make the case that since blacks were in the Confederate army, the Union army ought to follow suit. The press reports and the research done on them suggest that reports of a significant presence of black Confederate soldiers on the battlefield was, to put it kindly, highly exaggerated.

Dr. Williams then quotes New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley to the same effect in 1862. Of course, Greeley said a lot of things, and some of them were true. But I don’t know what we are to make of an assertion without any supporting evidence. What Ta-Nehisi Coates said seems to me to be sufficient.

Dr Williams then cites Dr. Lewis Steiner’s comment about 3,000 blacks among the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia as it marched through Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862. We’ve discussed that document here.

Then we have a short report about blacks in Petersburg volunteering to help out. We’ve seen that recycled as well. What do we make of it? Good question. What happened to these men?

Finally, Dr. Williams reminds us that “Dr. Leonard Haynes, a black professor at Southern University, stated, ‘When you eliminate the black Confederate soldier, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.’” Unfortunately, we don’t know where he got that quote, or whether the professor said it at all.

At least the professor has dropped one of his claims. He once told us that “General Ulysses Grant’s slaves had to await for the Thirteenth Amendment for freedom. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, General Grant said, ‘Good help is so hard to come by these days.'” I wonder why he no longer cites this. Perhaps this is because the evidence against this is rather overwhelming?

Nevertheless, all this is rather important to Dr. Williams. As he declares, “Black civil rights activists, their white liberal supporters and historically ignorant Americans who attack the Confederate flag have committed a deep, despicable dishonor to our patriotic Southern black ancestors who marched, fought and died not to protect slavery but to protect their homeland from Northern aggression.”

Now, I understand that Dr. Williams is an economist, which may help explain why he finds evidence so challenging. That’s because he makes claims that are not supported by the very evidence he cites, and because he fails to take a critical look at the evidence he cites. But this does not deter him from repeating himself, as if that alone makes for a persuasive argument. Then again, he isn’t alone. Professor John Stauffer of Harvard University falls prey to the same shortcoming, and he claims to be a historian. You’ll recall that Stauffer and a colleague performed a scholarly hit-and-run last year, making claims and pointing fingers, only to slink away silently when challenged.

Perhaps Dr. Williams is different. Let’s see whether that’s the case. He freely shares his e-mail address at the end of his pieces. Here it is: wwilliam@gmu.edu. Write him. Share this post with him. Ask him what he makes of it. Let’s see what he says. After all, he wanted to lay out a few questions and ask what readers made of them.

Remember, Dr. Williams says that someone lost his life in large part because of ignorance. We can’t have that, can we? Enlighten him.

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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