The Growing Vacuousness of Confederate Heritage

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s speculated about the decline and eventual disappearance of Confederate heritage commemorationsimplying that perhaps confining such ceremonies in time and place may prolong their existence by confining their expression to appropriate venues and occasions. As you might well imagine, some of Kevin’s most vocal critics (who also happen to be among his most loyal readers) offered their usual pitiful petulant protests. Fine, folks: just go raise another flag somewhere and claim victory.

Although I appreciate Kevin’s argument, I hold a different view (although I suspect that Kevin agrees with much of what I am about to say). I think that the real problem with Confederate heritage today is that it has less and less to do with the Confederacy or any sort of heritage and much more to do with serving as a vehicle through which people express their political views and cultural preferences. There are several themes sometimes associated with Confederate heritage that come through in these declarations, much as other themes woven throughout Confederate heritage reappear in the claims made by critics of Confederate heritage (think slavery, folks: there’s no Confederacy without it).

Neither advocates nor critics comprehend Confederate heritage as a whole, although critics do a better job of relating that heritage to history, an area where Confederate heritage advocates often struggle, largely due to their ignorance or their anxiety to find a usable past to justify their present perspectives. Rather, they rest with complaining about the “race card” or “political correctness,” a sure sign that they can’t actually articulate a compelling defense of Confederate heritage on its merits or why Americans should honor or at least tolerate it. In short, the concept of Confederate heritage is increasingly intellectually bankrupt, and its advocates have no one but themselves to blame.

It is precisely this difficulty in framing a defense of Confederate heritage on its own merits that proved so devastating to Confederate heritage prospects in 2015 in the aftermath of the Charleston murders. Simply put, the defenders never articulated a defense of Confederate heritage on its merits. They were reduced to assailing their critics and tossing around slogans. We see the same incapability in New Orleans and Charlottesville. Take the latter case: we already know that sooner or later we’ll see a Confederate battle flag go up somewhere in Albemarle County.  We may see even more than one. Surely the residents of Charlottesville have read about the proliferation of Confederate battle flags in Danville. Yet that concern does not drive the debate in Charlottesville, in part because the folks in Charlottesville remember the sight of Karen Cooper ranting and raving uncontrollably about social policy.

You can see Karen Cooper start her comments at 1:34:25 on the video.
You can see Karen Cooper start her comments at 1:34:25 on the video.

Cooper’s life story, which draws attention because people find her to be an unusual advocate of Confederate heritage, actually suggests that she is quite typical except in the blunt frankness with which she expresses what really makes her tick. It’s not as if her fellow Confederate heritage advocates are not intellectually lazy. They are. But at least some of them do a better job of concealing their political and cultural agenda, one that would not tolerate someone sharing Cooper’s assertiveness for very long.

One could point out, of course, that heritage has always had its inherently political aspects, and that is true. Tales of heritage often have a political message, including explaining, justifying, or challenging the existing order of things. But what makes the cutting edge of current Confederate heritage so interesting is that it has very little to do with the historical Confederacy, at least not in ways that its proponents want to highlight. This helps explain all the bleating about “playing the race card” and “political correctness” to obscure the white supremacist aspects of the Confederacy while overlooking the ways in which proslavery forces themselves endorsed “big government” to protect the peculiar institution (see the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) and how the Confederate experiment repressed self-determination (ask southern white Unionists) or moved in the direction of “big government” (see conscription and impressment, to say nothing of the Confederacy’s sorry record when it came to civil liberties).

What this means, of course, is that efforts to defend Confederate heritage are so muffled by the rhetoric of current politics and cultural values that surround it that the proponents of that heritage fumble away any effort to defend it on its merits. They would rather raise the specter of removing other statues, for example, because they really can’t tell you why those statues they adore should stay where they are. The “you are erasing history” mantra is equally bizarre, because the “history” being erased is evidence of the reasons the statues were put up, not the story of the person or event being commemorated (are you going to tell me that white southerners needed a statue of Robert E. Lee to remember who he was?). Indeed, to explain all the reasons the statues went up (however unpopular that might be in some corners) is, I think, a worthwhile project, but one that advocates of Confederate heritage might not endorse. And let’s not forget the advocates of a Confederacy that celebrates “diversity.”

For many advocates (and apologists) of Confederate heritage, the politics of heritage correctness rest upon people in the present identifying with people in the past who are, to a greater or lesser extent, creatures of  Confederate heritage advocates’ imagination that sometimes barely resembled the people heritage is supposed to honor. Whenever I hear about how “we” lost the war or what “we” are going to do next time, I know that that person or persons are living in an imaginary land where heritage is little more than a device selected to service present needs, desires, beliefs, and prejudices. That’s presentism with a vengeance, but then it’s never been about history, but heritage. Once we understand that Confederate heritage in some hands is little more than identity politics (I can’t make this stuff up), then we should be able to comprehend why exploring the historical record, however much it may do to wreck heritage claims of what happened in the past, has very little effect on the understanding of the past as professed by proponents of heritage as identity politics. After all, “heritage correctness” is really nothing more than a certain kind of “political correctness,” at least as defined by those people who whine about it all the time. It’s just a matter of explaining what sort of political and cultural beliefs we are discussing.

Remember, Confederate heritage apologists: it’s not all about you.

Then again, maybe it is.


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.

Continue reading

A National Civil War Memorial?

Many visitors to Washington, DC, spend a lot of time going to memorials dedicated to individuals and groups. Among the memorials they visit are ones dedicated to the Americans who fought in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Fewer visit Pershing Park, which serves as a World War I memorial, although a new memorial is under discussion.

Between the District of Columbia and Arlington National Cemetery, there are a good number of Civil War memorials, monuments, and statues. I need not detail them here. But one might note that there is no national memorial to the American Civil War.

Should there be? Someone thinks so.

What we have here is one vision for such a memorial. Do you think one is necessary? If so, what should it include? What themes should it emphasize?

The comments section, as always, is open.

Does Rommel Deserve a Statue?

During my travels through northwest Europe last year I came across some very interesting sites that sparked renewed thinking about how we as Americans have decided to deal with the commemoration and memorialization of the American Civil War. One cause for thought was the presence of German military cemeteries in France and elsewhere — for both world wars. Not far from where George S. Patton, Jr., is buried in Luxembourg, for example, one finds a German military cemetery containing dead from the Ardennes Offensive, while one can view the Aisne-Marne American military cemetery from a small nearby German cemetery when exploring Belleau Wood. At La Cambe Military Cemetery, some seven miles from Omaha Beach, some 21,000 German soldiers are buried.

In short, German dead are buried in enemy territory, and those areas are cause for contemplation and reflection. We talk a great deal about honoring military dead regardless of what they believed (even if we often debate exactly what it was that they believed). After all, they fought for what they believed, and for some people, that’s enough.

Statues, we are told, honor service and sacrifice. They are not political statements about the cause for which these men fought. I might disagree with that argument (most war memorials offer at least implicit explanation and affirmation about the cause of the conflict and related political statements), but let’s set that aside. What, then, should stand in the way of erecting a statue to Erwin Rommel as well as the German fighting man near Normandy? Anything? After all, if certain people are willing to remember the Confederate fighting man, complete with the erection of memorials and the raising of historically appropriate flags as symbols of the military effort of the Confederacy, should not the German fighting man and the generals who commanded them be afforded the same courtesy? If so, why? If not, why not, and what’s the difference (if any) between a discussion about honoring the service and sacrifice of World War I and II dead with one about Civil War dead?

You tell me.

On Al Arnold, Turner Hall, Jr., and “Black Confederates.”

There’s been some discussion here and elsewhere about Al Arnold’s tale about the tales of his ancestor, Turner Hall, Jr., and what exactly this all means for historians interested in the role played by enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. Andy Hall went to the trouble of reading the entire book, and he offered his reactions here. It’s a discerning response that looks carefully at the paucity of actual evidence to support Hall’s stories, which Arnold accepts at face value. Note that Arnold’s interpretation of Turner Hall’s story relies on a tremendous amount of speculation and inference that finds scant support in the historical record. As usual, plaudits to Andy for his usual skillful treatment of matters of evidence.

I also point readers to the very thoughtful post over at Alan Skerrett, Jr.’s Jubilo! The Emancipation Century. It’s a model of discerning reflection that balances respect and skepticism in a careful consideration of the evidence. Alan’s brought his usual high standards to this piece, and it shows.

Stories about African Americans’ willingness to serve the Confederate war effort serve many modern agendas. Arnold’s story, it turns out, is really about how Al Arnold dealt with a family story that he spent very little effort to verify. What we do know is that Turner Hall, Jr., told these stories about his past, and that white southerners embraced him for the telling, much as Confederate heritage advocates have embraced H. K. Edgerton, Karen Cooper, Anthony Hervey, Arlene Barnum, and now, it appears, Al Arnold, who seems more and more interested in telling the story of black support for the Confederacy. It’s interesting (and revealing) to research the life stories of Edgerton, Cooper, Hervey, and Barnum, all of who seems to have grown bitterly dissatisfied by black leaders and organizations such as the NAACP before veering right … and right into the arms of Confederate heritage advocates who welcome the chance to disassociate the Confederate cause slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Arnold’s personal quest seems to be just that: a personal quest. In the process, he’s become quite a popular speaker among certain people, as this list of events on his Facebook page suggests. He’s also become involved in the debate over the current Mississippi state flag, suggesting that this is no longer simply a matter of family history.

Truly, Al Arnold is following in the footsteps of Turner Hall, Jr.

Or course, Arnold’s rendering of Turner Hall’s life will be treated as fact in some reports by the uncritical, the unqualified, the unwary, and others who just like a good story. People who question it will be dismissed as haters. Arnold himself struggles with criticism, as a recent Twitter exchange with Kevin Levin revealed. Kevin, pointing to the story behind the banner that adorns Arnold’s Twitter account, asked him if he knew the truth behind the tampered image:

LevinArnold OneSimply put, to interpret Union soldiers as servants is a slam against the military service of American soldiers: an unkind critic would say that such a remark shows just how little respect Arnold has for some African Americans. At best, it’s a display of gross ignorance.

The exchange continued:

LevinArnold 2

Somehow I don’t think that citing the Lord in support of my methods is going to satisfy any critics of my work. Indeed, I know some very religious historians who would not dare to make such a claim.

LevinArnold 3

Given the tenor of this exchange, I doubt Mr. Arnold’s willing to engage in the sort of discussions that historians have when discussing evidence. Then again, this was never really about evidence, was it?

For some time the discussion about the service of enslaved and free African Americans in the Confederate armed forces has been one about historical fact and the consequences of those findings for larger interpretations of the war. That tends to be what historians do. However, students of Civil War memory might be better advised to turn to the modern day advocates of a story that places such service at the center of their narratives, and ask why that is. We may better understand Turner Hall, Jr., if we seek to understand Al Arnold.

Historical Memory: Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan

Apparently politicians rarely learn from the mistakes of their fellow politicians.

Take Georgia state representative Tommie Benton, who on Thursday told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up.”

Like this?


“I’m not saying what they did was right,” he added. “It’s just the way things were.” But he believes that the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

On Friday Democratic lawmakers struck back.

If nothing else, Representative Benton’s declaration transforms Hillary Clinton’s comments earlier this week concerning Reconstruction (and the response to them) into a minor kerfuffle.

I can’t wait for the people who whine that I talk too much about historical memory and heritage to protest that I should keep away from those subjects in favor of “safer” topics. The fact is that if this is how people remember the past, they will use those understandings in the present to shape our future … and I for one don’t care for an America in which people say that the KKK’s purpose was “to keep law and order.” Its purpose was to maintain white supremacy through violence and terrorism, and to thwart the promise of emancipation by any means necessary.

That someone characterizes an effort to denounce actual terrorism as “cultural terrorism” stuns me. That the same person also has proposed another bill that “would require streets named in honor of veterans that have been renamed since 1968 [to] revert back to their original names” suggests what a hypocrite he is when it comes to “cultural terrorism.” Clearly 1968 is no accident: it’s the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered.

You bet this is a fight over history and memory. It’s going to say much about us as a society if we celebrate domestic terrorists while mocking the struggle for liberty, equality, justice, and opportunity. And if condemning such behavior leads to critics calling me some leftist socialist Marxist fascist academic, so be it. At least then we’ll know where they are coming from.

Hillary Clinton’s Clarification: More Confusion?

As you might have expected, Hillary Clinton issued a clarification of her controversial remarks about Reconstruction, made in the context of her speculation on what might have happened had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated:

HRC clarification

Nice try, but strike two.

Ms. Clinton’s statement now indicts the federal government, saying it gave up too soon, and its lack of persistence “led to a disgraceful era of Jim Crow.”

That this was due in part to the behavior of “defiant” white southerners, including terrorist activity, is a link she’s unwilling to make, although one can make it when she reminds us about “racist efforts against Reconstruction.” How exactly a president could achieve “equality, justice, and reconciliation” while protecting black rights — not exactly a good way to reconcile white southerners — remains unanswered. Nor does her response consider the role played by the racism of some white northerners, most of whom were Democrats (that might take more explaining).

We’ve been over this before: it’s rather difficult to envision a policy that would have successfully sought both equal rights for blacks and reconciliation with southern whites. That the federal government Ms. Clinton blames was first headed in the postwar years by someone who led “the racist efforts against Reconstruction” when it came to black rights is also omitted. It’s also wishful thinking to speculate about what Abraham Lincoln would have done (to say that he would not have been Andrew Johnson doesn’t get us very far).

No one expects Hillary Rodham Clinton to be a Reconstruction historian. One could even forgive her verbal fumble and vagueness. Now, however, we have a more considered statement, and it is also problematic.

She would have been smarter to have had Harold Holzer speak for her. Really. No doubt he and others may have learned something from the troubles of Tony Kushner.

Hillary Clinton’s Reconstruction Misstep

As I’ve said before, politicians often mangle history in an effort to show how much the know, only to remind us of how much they don’t know or how willing they are to twist the story of the past to fit present needs.

Here we go again.

Last night, at a Democratic town hall, Hillary Rodham Clinton shared her understanding of Reconstruction in answering a question about which president inspired her most. She responded with Abraham Lincoln. Then she explained how Reconstruction would have been better had Lincoln lived … that is better for “southerners.”

(Someone pointed out that Clinton said “people in the South.”)

It’s clear from the context that she’s confused, because while she mentions Jim Crow and segregation, her reference to southerners/ “people in the South” points to the people who instituted those policies, and not to the freedpeople. Blacks were discouraged. Many whites were defiant.

(Note: blacks were also defiant in defending their rights, but that’s another story.)

It did not take long for people to pick up on the comment and criticize it (this link includes tape of the answer). Among those who did so was Ta-Nehisi Coates, who linked to this blog in offering his answer.

Nor did it take long for that well-renowned friend of presidents and Democratic politicians, Harold Holzer, to jump to the defense of the former senator from New York. This was not entirely unexpected: I recall how Holzer once delivered a banquet address on presidents he had known which sounded more like a talk on the presidents who were fortunate enough to have known him.

Holzer claims: “All she was saying — maybe a bit awkwardly, but, I think, sincerely and justifiably — is that a leader of Lincoln’s extraordinary abilities and patience might well have found the means of empowering formerly enslaved persons, granting them rights, and bringing the defeated white Southerners into alignment with these righteous new policies.” That’s excellent spin.

Just another day in the neighborhood.

Roads Not Taken: Thomas Fleming on American Slavery

Thomas Fleming, author of several books, including an overview of the coming of the Civil War, declares that (white) Americans set aside several paths to end slavery in the United States in a most interesting article.

Among his conclusions:

–(White) Americans missed a great opportunity to get rid of slavery through gradual compensated emancipation followed by colonization, as offered by Lincoln.

–This failure was sue in large part to the sectionalization (and thus concentration) of slavery. As Fleming argues, James Madison “concluded that a national solution to the problem of slavery could be found in one word – dispersion. By allowing slavery in all the new states beyond the original thirteen, the federal government would gradually make it a minority issue, which could be eliminated state-by-state, as it had been in the first round of emancipation in the original northern states.” Thus limiting slavery preserved it where it still existed.

–According to Fleming, “The South’s embrace of slavery was not rooted in greed or a repulsive assumption of racial superiority. Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.”

–Fleming concludes, “If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.”