Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 3: Kevin Levin

Also most prominent military leader of the Confederate revolt which attempted to destroy the Constitution and the government of the United States by force and violence

One of my favorite Civil War-themed sites is
Civil War Memory, the blog of Kevin Levin. Kevin is a high school history teacher who also publishes material on the Civil War, including work based on his own original research.

In this post,
They Wouldn't Know Originality If It Came Up and Bit Them On the ... 04/01/07, he talks about how the field of Civil War history is affected by the fact that along with professional historians, there are a large number of hobbyists interested in the Civil War, a few of whom become competent "amateur" historians on their own (i.e., with a Ph.D. in history) but most of whom take a far more casual, even entertainment-oriented interest in the subject. And, as always, discussions of issues around the Civil War are heavily affected by the amount of emphasis hobbyists place on the war itself, as distinct from the political events leading up to the war:

The Civil War community is a strange lot. It's easy to imagine people like ourselves reading incessantly, but my guess is that most people don't read at all. Those who do read tend to read traditional military history as told by competent writers who tell their stories well. Most people have little patience for trying to fit an interpretation into a broader historiographical context or are willing to take the time to seriously consider the kinds of evidence used in a study and the interpretation of that evidence. I should point out that it is not clear that they should have to do so.
Of course, the Civil War attracts ideologues as well as hobbyists. In this post of the same day, Distorting the Past neo-Confederate Style 04/01/07, he refers us to this creative piece of research, The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, Jr., from the Web site of Jerome Handler of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in which the authors debunk a photograph being peddled by a neo-Confederate site as a photo of black troops organized into a Confederate army unit in 1861, the first year of the war. It turns out that it bears a remarkable resemblance to a photo of black Union recruits that was turned into a lithograph and used to recruit other African-Americans into the Union army. Check it out: it's a fun piece of detective work. (You may need to page down to the second page for the start of the text.)

This business about blacks fighting for the Confederacy and for the sacred right to be held in slavery by white people is a favorite theme of neo-Confederate pseudohistorical hokum. My impression is that it's meant not so much to be taken seriously but rather as a sneer at African-Americans and at anyone who prefers reality-based history.

That paper is an excellent example of one of the exciting aspects of the Internet for all kinds of research. Someone, whether a specialist in the field or an "amateur", takes an interest in some item like this and researches it. Maybe they're interested in the subject from some particular angle, or maybe they come across a photo like that one and think, "Hey, I've seen a photo like this somehere else". Then they make their findings available on the Web, in this case with plenty of detail and citations so that anyone else could take their information and verify it.

And it's available then to the entire world once it's posted on the Web. Whereasin the pre-Internet days, something like this might have languished in a trunk in someone's attic for decades, until maybe an heir who only cares about finding jewelry or valuable metals tosses it out as waste paper. Or maybe it gets published in the local county weekly in Georgia or Arkansas or Wisconsin whether other researchers interested in the field might, by chance, stumble across it while researching something else.

For a final sample of Kevin's blog, I'll recommend
Looking For A Few Righteous Men: How About Slaveowners? 12/24/06. Here he makes an argument that addresses popular Lost Cause/neo-Confederate lore, this one in the form of a book claiming that Stonewall Jackson was a fine Christian master to his slaves:

The book does not engage in any serious historical analysis; there is little in terms of manuscript material and the author has absolutely no grasp of the secondary literature that is necessary to analyzing any southern slaveowner. The author relies heavily on postwar material, but unfortunately doesn't understand the first thing about how to handle these sources. The methodology is as follows: find as many pro-Jackson accounts as possible and ask as few questions as possible about why they were written. As many of you know I ran into Jackson's wartime servant at the 1903 Crater reenactment in Petersburg. He was the only black man present and if you didn't know anything about Jim Crow Virginia you wouldn't know the first thing about how to handle this fact. My high school students have a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle postwar slave narratives. ...

First, let's forget for a moment that the reviewer is referring to Jackson and instead just imagine a slaveowner who professes to be a good Christian. Let me see if I understand this: the suffering that the author of the review is referring to is the result of people being enslaved, but somehow we are to believe that the effort to minimize their suffering is reflective of a good Christian. Are we to expect that the individual enslaved ought to be grateful for the care that has been bestowed? If the effort to minimize their suffering is to be applauded then what are we to make of those who worked to free the slaves? Of course I am thinking about the abolitionists such as William L. Garrison and others. We might also ask about old John Brown [the militant antislavery fighter]. He also claimed to be a man of God. How do we reconcile the tension here? Does God both sanction Brown and Jackson and if so why? How do we know if one was mistaken as to what God demanded in reference to slavery? What is the moral content of a conclusion that both justifies immediate abolition and the attempt on the part of slaveowners to minimize the suffering of their own slaves?
In that quote, Kevin manages to address the vapid nature of much of the Lost Cause propaganda, which very often doesn't stand up against even the most elementary kinds of critical thought. And, at the same time, he poses one of the real challenges for honest readers of history today looking at pre-Civil War times in the US and trying to understand the varied role of religion and religious institutions in the events that led to civil war.

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