Tuesday, May 03, 2011

News---If All Men Are Created Equal, Then Are 'Lost Cause' Explanations A Heritage Violation?

150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War, David von Drehle, Time Magazine, April 18, 2011, pp. 40-51.

During the previous decade Civil War Librarian came across the term 'heritage violation' during Civil War reenacting events and while keeping an eye on the fracturing of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans organization.

Heritage violation is a term that has come to be used in a specific way regarding what some perceive to be unfaithful depictions and untrue remarks about the Confederate experience and Confederate history.

During the 145th Antietam reenactment a heritage violation occurred when Confederate refused to reenact accurately the defense of the Sunken Road. They abandoned the road and the Confederate left flank marched within yards of the grandstand to assault the right of the Federal assault on the Road. As a 'wounded Federal' on the far right flank of the Sunken Road, CWL witnessed this. A glorious deception was worked upon the grandstand audience that day by a portion of the Confederate command.

YouTube's video collection of the reenactment of Jefferson Davis' inauguration in February 2011 includes remarks by Sons of Confederate Veterans. The remarks reveal a heart felt desire to stop others from pejorative labelling and associating the Confederacy with terrorism and Nazism. In the excerpt below, David Von Drehle addresses the continued trend among some to argue that the American Civil War was caused by everything but slavery. The Internet link to the entire text is placed at the end of the excerpt.

Excerpt: The question "What caused the Civil War?" returns 20 million Google hits and a wide array of arguments on Internet comment boards and discussion threads. The Civil War was caused by Northern aggressors invading an independent Southern nation. Or it was caused by high tariffs. Or it was caused by blundering statesmen. Or it was caused by the clash of industrial and agrarian cultures. Or it was caused by fanatics. Or it was caused by the Marxist class struggle.

On and on, seemingly endless, sometimes contradictory — although not among mainstream historians, who in the past generation have come to view the question much as Lincoln saw it. "Everything stemmed from the slavery issue," says Princeton professor James McPherson, whose book Battle Cry of Freedom is widely judged to be the authoritative one-volume history of the war. Another leading authority, David Blight of Yale, laments, "No matter what we do or the overwhelming consensus among historians, out in the public mind, there is still this need to deny that slavery was the cause of the war."

It's not simply a matter of denial. For most of the first century after the war, historians, novelists and filmmakers worked like hypnotists to soothe the post traumatic memories of survivors and their descendants. Forgetting was the price of reconciliation, and Americans — those whose families were never bought or sold, anyway — were happy to pay it.

But denial plays a part, especially in the South. After the war, former Confederates wondered how to hold on to their due pride after a devastating defeat. They had fought long and courageously; that was beyond question. So they reverse-engineered a cause worthy of those heroics. They also sensed, correctly, that the end of slavery would confer a gloss of nobility, and bragging rights, on the North that it did not deserve. As Lincoln suggested in his second Inaugural Address, the entire nation, North and South, profited from slavery and then paid dearly for it.

The process of forgetting, and obscuring, was long and layered. Some of it was benign, but not all. It began with self-justifying memoirs by defeated Confederate leaders and was picked up by war-weary veterans on both sides who wanted to move on. In the devastated South, writers and historians kindled comforting stories of noble cavaliers, brilliant generals and happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause. In the prosperous North, where cities and factories began filling with freed slaves and their descendants, large audiences were happy to embrace this idea of a time when racial issues were both simple and distant.

History is not just about the past. It also reveals the present. And for generations of Americans after the Civil War, the present did not have room for that radical idea laid bare by the conflict: that all people really are created equal. That was a big bite to chew.

The once obvious truth of the Civil War does not imply that every soldier had slavery on his mind as he marched and fought. Many Southerners fought and died in gray never having owned a slave and never intending to own one. Thousands died in blue with no intention to set one free. But it was slavery that had broken one nation in two and fated its people to fight over whether it would be put back together again. The true story is not a tale of heroes on one side and villains on the other. Few true stories are. But it is a clear and straightforward story, and so is the tale of how that story became so complicated.

This Excerpt is continued at Time Magazine, April 18, 2011


Tim Kent said...

I would never quote James McPherson. Every book he has ever written, he portrays people of the South as devils and people of the North as angels. You would almost believe the man was from Massachusetts. On a more serious note, the war was fought over one thing and that thing is what every war has been fought over. That is money and nothing else. You can call it tarrifs, slavery, or whatever you want, but it all comes down to money. When Horace Greeley wrote Lincoln let them go in peace, Lincoln replied by asking where we would get our revenue. Just my 3 cents worth.

Rea Andrew Redd said...

Your three cents is of the right currency. The Beard's economic interpretation from the 1920s and the 1930s is still carried forward. Egnal's Clash of Extremes' and Gene Datel's Cotton and Race in the Making of America have again underscored that the money issue. Land, labor and capital are fundamental to the coming of the war. Add to that mix the question 'what is just?' and the mix of world views that existed in 1860, you have a very complex set of conditions.