Over the past several years Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, has become one of the most-consulted blogs in Civil War era history: it also enjoys a broader audience among historians and teachers of all stripes and a public interested in history. Over that time the blog has shifted focus a bit and become more focused on several issues, each relating to the blog’s title. At the same time, Kevin’s gained a reputation in certain circles for his discussions of Lost Cause historiography, the evidence concerning “Black Confederates,” and the relationship between present issues and understandings of the past.
… this is an opportune time to discuss the views of your family or guardians as it relates to the American Civil War. Find out how the events between 1861 and 1865 shaped the lives of your family and/or community. Have an open and honest discussion on your views about slavery and why the United States of America and the Confederate States of America went to war. Do you and others agree or disagree that African-Americans served in the Confederate States Army during the War Between the States? Read Entangled In Freedom as a conversation starter.
The book certainly became a conversation starter on one blog.
You hear it all the time. You hear it here, in an article detailing Florida’s commemoration of secession; you hear it here, in the words of a Gilbert, Arizona middle school teacher who is a member of the UDC; you hear it here, where I went to college; indeed, you hear it frequently, and odds are you will hear it a great deal over the next four years … some variation of “each side fought for what they believed in” or “they fought for what they believed in,” and so on.
What exactly is that supposed to mean?
Today I introduce a new feature at Crossroads: “Keeping It Honest.” The title (which may be subject to change) is adapted from a feature on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, although I’ve replaced the “them” with “it.” I’m still toying around with other labels.
This week, we look at a quote from Ed Bearss, who served as Chief Historian of the National Park Service from 1981 to 1994. The following statement is often attributed to him:
I don’t want to call it a conspiracy to ignore the role of Blacks both above and below the Mason-Dixon line, but it was definitely a tendency that began around 1910.
In 2000 the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed me about neo-Confederate distortions of Civil War history. The interview came the year before David Blight’s Race and Reunion appeared, and years before blogs became an established part of the scholarly landscape. I recall that many of the people who seemed to pay the most attention to the piece were folks who espoused the arguments I was challenging. If you read the piece, you’ll see that several of the themes people argue about today are far from new, and they’ve been contested for some time.
I have suggested that one of the reasons that the issue of Civil War causation ignites such heated discussions in some quarters is because people take it personally. At least some descendants of Confederates do not like to hear that secessionists seceded to protect slavery (regardless of what advocates of secession said); all too often you hear that since someone’s ancestors did not own slaves, the war was not about slavery (which confuses the issues of the reasons for secession and the reasons for fighting, and well as muddling the concepts of why nations fight with why people fight).
Another favorite arguing tactic is to argue that since most white northerners held racist prejudices to a greater or lesser degree, neither secession nor the war could have been about slavery. Sometimes you hear that Ulysses S. Grant owned a slave (he did, although he freed the slave prior to the events of 1860-61) or that he owned slaves during the war (he did not) who were not freed until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (factually wrong on several levels, but mistakenly given credence in a piece of sloppy scholarship by the editor of Julia Dent Grant’s memoirs), while Robert E. Lee hated slavery (he did not) and he freed his slaves (Lee was the executor of a will that called upon him to set several slaves freed, and he missed the five-year deadline for doing so). Besides, whether Grant or Lee owned slaves and their connection with slavery is besides the point, because neither one of them played a prominent role in the debates over secession. I’ll deal with some of the usual canards about Grant and Lee later, but it is frankly bizarre that some people need to distort the historical record so badly in support of the illogical argument that says that because the circumstances of Grant and Lee explain why the war came and what it was about.
One of the most interesting things about sharing one’s work on the American Civil War is what I learn about how people view history and historians. One thing that startles me (okay, it used to startle me) is the degree to which some white southerners take the findings of scholarship personally. There’s a notion out there among some folks that a primary goal of historical scholarship about the Civil War era (at least as practiced by supposedly left liberal politically correct academic elitists who clearly do not hail from the South) is to make white southerners feel guilty or ashamed about their ancestors or their region. Apparently this is especially true when it comes to anything related to slavery or violence against blacks during Reconstruction.
Take Trace Adkins, who recently declared: “Over the generations it has seemed to me that Southern children, because of that terrible slavery issue, have been made to feel apologetic — if not guilty or ashamed — of their heritage.” Mr. Adkins adds, “And I for one hope my children don’t feel that way, because everybody knows or should know that the majority of soldiers that fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. I know that my grandfather didn’t, and had no aspirations of owning slaves. It wasn’t part of his makeup.” Let’s set aside the fact that Mr. Adkins’s grandfather must have been very, very old to make that decision, since slavery was abolished in 1865. And let’s overlook the fact that whether or not the majority of Confederate soldiers owned slaves has no bearing on the issue of why secession happened or why the Confederacy was formed. Let’s agree that the purpose of teaching history is not to make people feel bad about their ancestors. What, exactly, would Mr. Adkins have southern children taught? I assume he knows that public schools are desegregated, so not all those children are white, and there may be more than a few who claim slaves as ancestors. Indeed, his query gets to the heart of the matter: why teach history? Is it to instill civic pride? Is the reason to make children proud of their ancestors? Or might one teach history to help students learn about the past? Oh, I guess it can’t be that simple.
A few weeks ago Dr. Lonnie Bunch visited the Valley of the Sun and ASU. My colleague Matt Whitaker and I had the opportunity to sit down with him for a few hours. As many of you may know, Dr. Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which plans to open its doors in 2015 … which happens to be the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment. This was no coincidence, as Dr. Bunch assured me. During our conversation, I noted that I had read his response in the new Washington Post Civil War blog when asked about the best new book on the Civil War. He answered by pointing to a new book on Reconstruction, Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox. After all, Dr. Bunch reasoned, the war didn’t end in 1865, and what the war achieved, even for the generation that fought it, was not defined for another dozen years.
Now, Mr, Budiansky’s book is not the first one to point this out, and if I’d say anything about the recent outpouring of books on violence and violent incidents during Reconstruction, it is how in many cases the authors of these works did not pause to read what was already in print before they plunged into their research. Charles Lane’s The Day Freedom Died is to my mind the best of these books, although one might also find useful LeeAnna Keith’s study of the Colfax massacre; I am not as enamored of Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption, a popular study of the overthrow of the Republican regime in Mississippi in 1875, because its analysis of national politics is simply uninformed (it simply rehashes William McFeely’s interpretation offered in his 1981 biography of Grant), and reviewer Sean Wilentz’s essay offered a perceptive corrective. Moreover, I suspect this renewal of interest in the violence of Reconstruction and of the triumph of white terrorism owes more than a little to current affairs.
Writing about his early education, Ulysses S. Grant remarked on how his classroom instruction proceeded by rote and repetition until he had heard that “a noun was the name of a thing” so many times as to believe it. Words are important, and which words we use to describe things are important.
I have been most forcibly reminded of this recently due to the flurry of activity associated with efforts by various groups to celebrate secession and offer explanations of the coming of the Civil War which minimize the role of slavery and the debate over that institution in precipitating conflict. I expect this to continue in years to come with stories of outnumbered Confederates (presumably white as well as black … how dare some people neglect the contributions of white Confederates in their politically-correct rush to embrace black Confederates) fighting with skill and bravery for state rights and independence (and certainly not slavery) before being forced to submit to overwhelming numbers … you know the story … it’s the one we’ve heard ever since General Robert E. Lee issued General Orders No. 9 at Appomattox Court House. For folks who cling to this tale as the only story worth telling, the war had next to nothing to do with slavery, and to say otherwise is dismissed as an exercise in political correctness. For years people have floated different terms to express one aspect or another of this tale, from “the myth of the Lost Cause” to “neo-Confederates,” a term which I believe both means something else and something distinct from “Lost Cause.” At Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s questioned the descriptive utility of “neo-Confederate,” a word I’ve used somewhat imprecisely myself. As Kevin’s pointed out, there are people who brag about being neo-Confederates, which I now take to be some present manifestation of endorsing the principles of the Confederacy, identifying with the Confederacy, and expressing a vague hankering to try secession again, even if that rarely gets past some sort of boisterous verbal defiance. Y’all know who you are.
Sometimes it pays to read the original sources.
It is a common assumption that on April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee made a choice which has rebounded to his great credit. On that day, so we are told, the Confederate general, upon comprehending his situation, decided to meet Ulysses S. Grant to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia. In so doing, so the story goes, he declined to continue hostilities by waging guerrilla war, and shared his reasoning about that decision with an artillerist, Edward Porter Alexander, who had proposed the guerrilla warfare option.