Saturday, March 31, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 1: Memory at war with history

This is my fourth year of a blogging counter-observance of Confederate "Heritage" Month. It was orginally inspired by a daily selection of quotes that Edward Sebesta was highlighting on his Web site at the time pointing out what the neo-Confederate/Lost Cause outlook was really about.

To a large extent, I've used these posts as an opportunity to indulge my interest in Civil War history and prewar history. The Lost Cause view of the Civil War and its causes is similar to Holocaust denial in that it uses a narrative about historical events as an ideology for a present-day outlook: anti-Semitism in the case of Holocaust denial, white racism in the case of neo-Confederate/Lost Cause advocacy.

And like Holocaust denial or Christian-fundamentalist creationism, it's also aimed at what Chris Hedges describes at making facts and opinions interchangeable, in order to substitute a destructive, deceptive ideology for a reality-based understanding of the world.

In that sense, any kind of reality-based look at Civil War and "antebellum" (prewar) American history is useful in countering the dishonest way of thinking associated with the neo-Confederate, white supremacist outlook.

But, as Sebesta continually reminds us at his
Anti-Neo-Confederate blog, neo-Confederate ideology is not primarily a view of history, though neo-Confederates certainly try to exert an influence on "heritage"-related events and sites such as public statues, museums, historical commemorations and even plantation tours. Sebesta writes about the latter in Behind the Plantation Facade, Historical Societies and selective memory 12/23/06:

Just be aware, whether it is in Vermont or Georgia, or California or Minnesota, that often the "history" given out by historical organizations isn't but a frothy fantasy of the past, and this in itself is a political agenda. It is often a back door access to your thinking. Can you enjoy a beautiful plantation house, without subconsiously buying into certain views and fantasies? It is a question I can't definitely answer.
In this year's "Heritage" posts, I'm going to be a bit more eclectic in the topics. Fortuitously, my copy of the just-published second volume of William Freehling's history of prewar politics, The Road to Disunion, Vol. 2: Secessionists Triumphant (2007), just arrived a couple of days ago. So that alone should provide topics for some history-related posts. But I will probably be doing some posts on other aspect of neo-Confederate/Lost Cause ideology, as well.

I'm also going to feature some pictures of the 1995 US Civil War postal stamp series. This heading for the stamp sheet of the collection shows some influence of Lost Cause historiography by using "The War Between the States" as a subtitle:

 "War Between the States" has long been the preferred Lost Cause name for the Civil War. Because according to Lost Cause pseudohistory, there was no social conflicts involved of the kind "civil war" implies. It was strictly North against South, with the Southerners bravely defending their homes and sacred honor against violations from Yankee interference with their "states rights". I've addressed how bogus a notion that was in previous Confederate "Heritage" Month posts, to which I've linked indexes at end of this post.

The 1995 stamp series included the Harriet Tubman stamp featured here today. The Postal Service also produced a nicely-done book to accompany the series,with an introduction by historian James McPherson. It was titled The Civil War: A Collection of U.S. Commemorative Stamps 1861-1865, with no neo-Confederate "War Between the States" subtitle.

McPherson writes in the introduction:

Even more than the American Revolution, the Civil War has defined our national character. The violence and valor, and the nobility of the combatants' cause, each fighting to preserve a "sacred" truth, are enshrined in the American consciousness.

The flow of time over the past 130 years, however, allows us to reexamine a softened image, to see the broad contours with a new clarity, and to feel its human side with keener poignancy. An example of this perspective is Ken Burns' Civil War documentary narrated, in part, through the words of the men and women who experienced the war. Their voices speak to us not as Northerners or Southerners, but as Americans caught in a tragic tumult.

Now, James McPherson is a good historian whose entry in the Oxford series of books on American history, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), written to be accessable to a mass audience without sacrificing scholarly quality, has been credited with sparking a much bigger markets for such "popular" histories. He is certainly no friend of Lost Cause pseudohistory.

But that passage just quoted, which presumably was targeted to be as little disturbing as possible for the widest kind of audience, gives some hints of why Lost Cause pseudohistory has as much resilence as it has enjoyed. I won't belabor his use of "national character", which surely he knows has not enjoyed much credibility as a concept among historians for decades. But I will say it's a hokey concept that promotes more fuzzy thinking than clarity of focus.

Popular interest in the Civil War tends to be focused heavily on the war itself, which includes the excellent Ken Burns documentary McPherson mentions there. When looking at the experience of individuals in the war, much of the attention is inevitably focused on battles and the hardships of war, as well as the personal tragedies,sufferings and hopes of the individuals "caught in a tragic tumult", as he puts it there.

But the causes and conflicts leading up to the war don't receive nearly as much attention in popular accounts. Which opens the door for Lost Cause advocates to promote their pseudohistorical narrative about the war, which emphasizes above all that it had nothing to do with slavery.

Ironically, the democratic tendency in history since the 1960s to focus on the experience of ordinary people and not just politicians and generals, also opens the door for Lost Cause spinners to obscure the reasons for the war. Look, a common argument of theirs runs, most Southerners fighting in the war didn't own slaves at all. How can you say they were fighting for slavery?

Most American soldiers in Iraq today don't own oil wells, either. But anyone who actually believes that war has nothing at all to do with oil probably needs to ease up on their OxyContin consumption.

James McPherson himself in For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997), which is based largely on original research into letters and other primary sources on the soldiers North and South. There was no military censorship on letters during the Civil War. Soldiers didn't write a lot about the causes of the war. But they didn't need to. Their families and friends to whom they were writing knew what those were.

But the armies fielded by both sides in the Civil War were probably the most literate armies the United States ever had, including today's. Nor were these "kids" for the most part. Many of the soldiers were in their twenties and thirties and were family men and active members of their communities. The preceding decade saw the most heated political debates in the history of the Republic. So even in pre-TV and pre-Internet days, it was hard not to hear about the major disputes over slavery. Soldiers also received newspaper in camp, and their letters indicated that there was intense interest among most of the soldiers when the latest news arrived. So they were informed about what was happening. And, as McPherson found in many of the letters from Southern soldiers, part of the Southerners idea of freedom was the freedom to one day own slaves themselves. The notion that Southern soldiers didn't think that slavery played any role in their cause is just bunk.

Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month postings 2004 05/02/04
Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month postings 2005 04/01/05
Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month postings 2006 04/01/06

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