It's Still Not About History

I’ve gotten into the occasional row over history.  I’m not really sure what that makes me (other than obnoxious) but I might even say I relish it.  In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville over the removal of a Robert E. Lee monument in a public park, I got into several.  

I wrote a handful of pieces about the way I used to think about the Civil War, the way that it’s taught in schools, and the way that we use it to (at best) whitewash and (at worst) glorify the worst parts of ourselves.  I’m generally rather unequivocal in stating that the Confederacy seceded from the Union in order to preserve and expand the institution of slavery.  I know full well the reaction that sort of statement will elicit and typically welcome it with closed fists and a vandal’s smile.  Because it’s true.  Two months removed from the scrum, however, one particular kerfuffle sticks out as the most interesting.

One of the pieces I wrote after the violence in Charlottesville was for a local newspaper.  A couple days after it ran, the editor contacted me and gave me an e-mail address for someone who wished to speak to me.  I reached out and the gentleman introduced himself (cordially) as a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  

We went back and forth over the course of a couple days and the discussion ended (as so many of these do) with my citation of Alexander Stephens’s great “Cornerstone Speech,” my sparring partner stating that we’ll just “have to agree to disagree,” and my questioning whether that was a valid response to being confronted with the literal words of the Vice President of the Confederacy.  But most interesting, perhaps, was a brief line at the beginning of our e-mail exchange where he stated that, “unfortunately, like most people north & south, I grew up with the history produced by the victor of that war.”  This is almost certainly not true and he quite surely knows that it’s not true by virtue of the very organization to which he belongs.

In his 2007 collection of essays, This Mighty Scourge, Pulitzer Prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson tackles numerous aspects of Civil War era America.  Like many of the historians of his generation, however, he pays particular attention to dismantling the “Lost Cause” mythology that pervades our national understanding of the war.

The “Lost Cause” refers to an understanding of the Civil War in which the role of slavery in secession was minimized, the importance of liberty and states’ rights vaunted, the nobility of the South exaggerated, the brutality of the North sensationalized, and the relationship of master to slave merely paternal.  It may sound a little old-fashioned and silly but this “Lost Cause” infects almost everyone’s understanding of how the Civil War was fought, why it was fought, why the victor’s were victorious, and what happened after.  

In an essay from This Mighty Scourge entitled “Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Lost Cause Textbook Crusade,” McPherson demonstrates the incredible extent to which neo-Confederate organizations – particularly the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the United Confederate Veterans, and later the Sons of Confederate Veterans – are responsible for our common understanding of everything from the cause of the war to U.S. Grant’s drinking habits.  This responsibility stems mostly from their early twentieth century campaign to sanitize the Confederacy’s reputation (and soil that of the Union) in primary and secondary school history textbooks.  That campaign included erecting monuments, protesting the construction of others, essay-writing competitions, lobbying of school boards, book-burnings of texts that didn’t pass muster, lobbying of state governments, pushing for the enactment of laws banning histories that reflected poorly on the confederacy, and – in South Carolina – making the assignment of such histories an offense punishable by fine or jail time.

McPherson continues to draw upon and quote directly from the official communication of Mildred Rutherford, the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s “historian general," to demonstrate the sort of histories that the UDC, UCV, and SCV would not tolerate.

-Reject a book that speaks of the Constitution other than [as] a compact between sovereign states

-Reject a text-book that … does not clearly outline the interferences with the rights guaranteed to the South by the Constitution, and which caused secession …

-Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves.

-Reject a text-book that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis.

-Reject a text-book that omits to tell of the South’s heroes and their deeds.

McPherson draws further upon what Rutherford considers to be truths worthy of teaching school children:

-Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free.  They were studying earnestly the problems of freedom, when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters into their own hands.

-More slaveholders and sons of slaveholders fought for the Union than for the Confederacy

-Gen Lee freed his slaves before the war began and Gen Ulysses S. Grant did not free his until the war ended.

-The war did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter.  It began when Lincoln ordered 2,400 men and 285 guns to the defense of Sumter.

-Union forces outnumbered Confederate forces five to one, not surprising when the Union population was thirty-one million while the Confederate population was only five million whites and four million slaves.”

McPherson concludes this lengthy and pungent list by stating quite simply that it didn’t seem to matter to those pushing such histories that much of their supporting evidence was “total fabrication” or that “every one of her ‘facts’ and ‘truths’ cited above was false.”  Many of the standards, however, were used to evaluate primary and secondary education for decades and the “truths” that accompany them remained in classrooms for even decades more.  It’s no surprise that they shape the entire nation’s common understanding of the war.

As my Confederate counterpart quite surely knew, no one (at least no one who attended a public school – particularly in the South) “grew up with the history of the victor.”.  There are likely many reasons for that, among which most certainly is racism.  The country was all too willing to erase the heroism of black soldiers, forget the centrality of black freedom to the conflict, and pretend that the pernicious evil of slavery was already on the way out long before 600,000 Americans lost their lives to end it.

Underlying even that, however, may be that so much about the Civil War runs contrary to our idea of ourselves as a nation.  One of the most important parts about learning from history is seeking out those contradictions and attempting to learn from them so that we can better prevent similar contradictions from exploding in the future.  As a matter of course, with respect to the darkest time in our country’s history, we don’t do that.  At all.  McPherson states (in a different essay from the same book) that “the American Civil War is a highly visible exception to the adage that victors write the history of wars.”  That in and of itself isn’t important, but rather that the history of the vanquished so blatantly erases or ignores all suggestion of darkness, guilt, or evil.  My Confederate friend would do well to remember that this war was a Civil War and his darkness and guilt, by definition, are shared.  Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, it just allows them to fester and teaches us not to notice.