Saturday, April 30, 2005

Concluding thoughts on Confederate "Heritage" Month 2005

It worked out very nicely to end the main series on Confederate "Heritage" Month with a post inspired by Appomatox.

As anyone in the "Civil War community" knows, the history surrounding that conflict is a rich vein that is never fully mined.  I don't want to make promises about next year.  But it's not at all hard to find material for 30 days of posts on the Lost Cause mythology and the reality-based history that refutes it.

Preparing this year's series piqued my interest in several related topics.  One of them would be to look more closely at Jacksonian democracy as a movement and its relation to slavery.  It's one of many fascinating aspects of the democratic movement in America in the 1820s and after, which came to be known as "Jacksonian," that it always carried within it the larger contradiction in American democracy, the ultimately irreconcilable combination of slavery and democratic government.

What had become clear by 1860 was that one or the other had to die.  And it's no accident that the Southern Democratic Party of the postwar area found its traditions in the prewar Southern Whig Party, not in the Jacksonian movement.  The "Redeemers" wanted nothing to do with Jackson's commitment to democratic nationalism and to defending the interests of working people against the threat presented by concentrated economic power.

I'm also still very struck my how much influence the experience of the prewar "slave patrols" and the chronic fear of "servile insurrection" in the South had on the subsequent politics and racial attitudes of Southern whites.  The book Black Flag Over Dixie (2004) that I used in one of this year's posts includes an essay by Chad Williams called "African American Soldiers, White Southerners, and the Christmas Insurrection Scare of 1865" that ties together the slave patrols and insurrectionary fears of the antebellum days with the postwar attitudes and the fate of Reconstruction better than I've seen anywhere else before.  I meant to use it in a post this year.  But I ran out of days.

I'm also especially intrigued by the religious motivations of John Brown in his fight against slavery.  On the one hand, Brown (like the postwar Newton Knight) seems to have not only professed but practiced the notion that blacks and whites really were equal.  One of the favorite schticks of Confederate nostalgics, one that I recently encountered on in an online discussion group, is to haul out this or that prewar quotation from Abraham Lincoln that expresses some degree of racial prejudice.  The idea is to invite people to obsess about the nuances of Lincoln's racial attitudes without realizing that they're validating the Lost Cause mantra of "the Yankees were hypocritical, they didn't care about the blacks or slavery at all" and yadda, yadda.

Now, the evolution of Lincoln's attitudes toward blacks is an important topic, and I've touched on it in the two posts on Lincoln as Abolitionist.  And thanks to the University of North Carolina, Web users can easily check out the first-hand impressions of African-American abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth (p. 177ff) about Lincoln.  We can also check out the racial attitudes of those on the other side of the abolitionist/pro-slavery divide.

But if we want to find a well-known antebellum white figure that had something sounding like the (publicly-professed) prevailing attitude on race of today, John Brown fits the bill.  Yet the people who love trotting out those selective Lincoln quotes to make him look like a Yankee hypocrite also see John Brown as a demon, not unlike William McDonald did.

Or at least most of them do.  Because it's also disturbing that, as a reviewer of a new book on Old Ossawattomie (Brown) notes (John Brown's visions still stoke the fires by Chuck Leddy San Francisco Chronicle 04/24/05):

While it's easy to say that John Brown was on the right side of history, it remains problematic to wholly embrace his legacy. It's no coincidence that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh cited Brown as an inspiration, or that bombers of abortion clinics do the same.

Now, I wouldn't say "it's no coincidence."  In fact, it's pretty weird.  Because John Brown and his men in the Kansas conflict quite literally chopped up several white guys with machetes that were not nearly so bigoted and vicious as Timmy McVeigh or Eric Rudolph.  Brown would have been no friend of guys like that.  And they would have been on the other side of every battle (violent and otherwise) over slavery that John Brown was in.  Still, since the US is now trying to deal with the threat of Muslim terrorists who think they are also on a mission from God, and with Christian Right theocrats trying to make their particular religious vision the basis of judicial interpretation of American law, it is "problematic" to make sense out of John Brown's religious inspiration from the perspective of today.

I'm also reminded again how important it is in understanding the Civil War to look at the prewar politics as well as postwar events.  If the focus is only on the war itself, it's very easy to get caught up in the personalities and battles and the endlessly varying stories of individual soldiers and lose sight of how things reached such a point.  And without understanding something about the Reconstruction period, it's impossible to understand how such bogus pseudohistory as the Lost Cause dogma ever got taken as seriously as it was by so many people.

And if we want to honor the real heritage of the Civil War and those who fought in it, we need to first of all remember that they were real human beings whose lives were cruelly affected by the vicious Peculiar Institution in which Southern planters owned their fellow human beings as private property.  As Kate Campbell sings in "Wrought Iron Fences":

Sarah Mae bore two children
One died at birth
And one at Shiloh
Now they're on a hill
Long forgotten, carved in stone

I have seen hope and glory fade away
I've heard old folks talk ofbetter days
All that's left to guard the remains
Are wrought iron fences

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)


purcellneil said...

Terrific series of posts.  

I have always been interested in the Civil War, but you have made a real study of the subject, and these posts in April on the Confederacy have been very impressive.  I never looked at the war from this perspective before, and so much of what you presented here was therefore new and intriguing to me.  

I am astounded at the breadth and depth of good sources, knowledge and analysis.  I can't say that I have read it all, but I have worked my way through most of your journal over the past year and have come to admire your work immensely.  Thanks for your outstanding journal.


bmiller224 said...

Thanks, Neil.  Glad you found the series this year interesting. - Bruce