John Kelly and "Compromise"
One of my favorite blogs to read (other than this one, of course) is that of historian Kevin Levin, called "Civil War Memory." Levin writes daily about interesting Civil War trivia and books he reads and information he comes across. He is an active writer and shares primary sources from his research often and shares his thoughts as he explores new topics. His specialty, however, is on how history is remembered and portrayed and why. The Civil War is particularly fertile ground for that endeavor.
Yesterday, Levin wrote about Chief of Staff John Kelly's hugely inaccurate understanding of the Civil War. Levin said of Kelly:
In Kelly’s world, they were all “honorable.” Kelly’s understanding of the war is a time capsule that brings us back to the 1960s, but we forget just how long this Lost Cause/Reunion narrative had its hold on our popular memory of the war. It’s not until the late 1970s and early 80s that you even begin to see noticeable change in history textbooks, museum exhibits, and National Park Service sites.
A number of people have concluded that Kelly’s narrative reveals a racist agenda. I think that is an unwarranted conclusion. Certainly, his comments are unfortunate, but I suspect that if you sat the general in a room with an updated text or placed him in conversation with a reputable historian he would come around. This is a guy who hasn’t read a book about the Civil War, beyond the narrowly-defined field of military history, in decades.
Ultimately, Kelly’s understanding of the war and even Robert E. Lee is a product of an outdated and discredited view held by his generation.
Obviously Levin is correct, but I think it's worth putting Kelly's remarks in context. The man is a former four-star general, Secretary of Homeland Security, and current Chief of Staff. I can understand a Lieutenant's understanding of the Civil War being somewhat limited to its narrow impact on tactics and military strategy, but someone with Kelly's background? Kelly, more than perhaps anyone I can think of, should be aware of the social, economic, and geopolitical context that made the tactics and strategies he studies relevant in the first place. I have no earthly idea if Kelly's "narrative reveals a racist agenda." I do think, however, that he should be held to a much higher standard than 99% of the rest of his generation that learned something similar.
My parents' neighbors, for example, left school in the 1960s. Kelly was commanding armies in January of 2016.