Sunday, June 29, 2014

Gettysburg Interlude - Understanding Historiography

This was originally published on on July 5, 2013 as part as my Gettysburg Sesquicentennial coverage.  For the anniversary of the anniversary, I am putting this first.  The rest of the Gettysburg posts will be as close to real time as possible.  There will also be many more pictures than I put up on

Civil War enthusiasts.  Civil War buffs. Civil War nuts.  Call them what you want.  Despite my covivant's conviction to the contrary, I will not cop to being one of them.  The main evidence in my favor is that I embraced the Margaret Fuller bicentennial with much more enthusiasm than the Civil War sesquicentennial.  Gather 1,000 Civil War buffs in a room and I doubt you will find 20 who know who Margaret Fuller was.  When she died in 1850, she was the most famous woman in the United States of America.

Margaret Who ?

Born in 1810, Margaret Fuller inspired a generation of younger activists.  Among them was Thomas Wentworth Higginson one of the "Secret Six" who backed John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Included in the  grievances that are listed in the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union are these acts of the Northern states:
Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.
So why don't Civil War buffs know who Margaret Fuller is ?  Or even Thomas Wentworth Higginson who would command a regiment and whose memoir, Army Life In A Black Regiment, is considered by some one of the best civil war memoirs.  In order to answer that question you have to think about historiography.

What is Historiography ?

According to the infallible source:
Historiography refers either to the study of the methodology and development of "history" (as a discipline), or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic. Scholars discuss historiography topically – such as the "historiography of Catholicism", the "historiography of early Islam", or the "historiography of China" – as well as specific approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the ascent of academic history, a corpus of historiographic literature developed.
In order to understand what the Civil War means to people now and how it came to mean that, you have to study historiography.

Idiot's Guide To Civil War Historiography

To say that you can boil Civil War historiography into two schools might seem absurd, but I think a reasonable case can be made.  Among enthusiasts, on either side, the two schools are the right one and the wrong one or the things that "they" want you to believe and the truth.  As somebody once told me, my problem is that I am an Aquarian and want everyone to get along.  So I will refer to the two schools as Lost Cause and Neo-abolitionist.  Fortunately, I did not make either of those terms up so I can go to the infallible source for definitions.

Lost Cause
The Lost Cause is the name commonly given to an American literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the traditional white society of the U.S. South to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War of 1861–1865.Those who contributed to the movement tended to portray the Confederacy's cause as noble and most of its leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by the Union armies through overwhelming force rather than martial skill. Proponents of the Lost Cause movement also condemned the Reconstruction that followed the Civil War, claiming that it had been a deliberate attempt by Northern politicians and speculators to destroy the traditional Southern way of life.
Neoabolitionist (or neo-abolitionist or new abolitionism) is a term coined by historians to refer to the heightened activity of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The term was soon used by leading historians to refer to the moral impulses of historians influenced by the Civil Rights movement in their studies of slavery, Reconstruction, segregation and Jim Crow. Bradley (2009) says, "Inspired by the civil rights movement, neo-abolitionist historians such as John Hope Franklin, Kenneth M. Stampp, and Eric Foner took their cue from DuBois and placed blacks front and center in their Reconstruction narratives." They led a re-evaluation of Reconstruction and its aftermath that focused on the significance of full citizenship and suffrage for African Americans. Thus Allen C. Guelzo (2009) refers to "the most recent neo-abolitionist histories from Henry Mayer and Paul Goodman" as well as "older neo-abolitionists like James McPherson, Howard Zinn, and Martin Duberman.".George M.Fredrickson (2009) says, "Neo-abolitionist historians profess to derive their standard from the abolitionists of Lincoln's own time."
Who Is Right ?

You have to be kidding to ask that question. Lost Cause believers and Neo-abolitionists ask different questions of different sources.  They can both tell true stories that are deep and rich and inspiring.  Lost Cause has one very serious weakness. In order to continue to believe wholeheartedly in the full Lost Cause narrative, you have to avoid reading material that is written in the South before 1862.  If you are a Lost Cause enthusiast, I would never try to talk you out of it.  I would ask that you read just one thing -  Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.  Read it a couple of times and then explain it to me.  The only theory that I have been able to come up with is that it was really all about tariffs, but they were embarrassed about that, so they just said it was about slavery.

Why Did They Fight ?

When people start arguing about this they usually do it by setting up straw men that are relatively easy to knock over.  Nobody has ever seriously maintained that Northern soldiers were incipient NAACP supporters.  There were probably not that many officers who would give speeches where they said they were an army fighting to make other men free.

You will, however, find Lost Cause enthusiasts "proving" that they are right by showing how racist Northern soldiers were.  My own reading leans me towards concluding that a large portion of the Southern elite was very pro-slavery.  A very small portion of the Northern elite were militant abolitionists.  Regular folks - there is a lot of controversy and a lot of problems with the evidence.  The debates can make you a little crazy.  Maybe most Southern soldiers did not come from slave-holding families - depending on how broadly you define family.  On the other hand, if you are twenty years old and don't own a car or a house, it does not mean that you would not like to own one.  Clearly, though, to the extent there was an idealistic motivation for most regular folks, it was that bad guys were trying to take their country away.  Some of them thought they lived in a bigger country than others.
Why Can't We All Just Get Along ?
The Lost Cause had a pretty good historiographical run.  It served the interest of white people in both the North and the South.  And it is not as if you cannot find a lot to support it.  Lost Cause people may have buffed up the image of Robert E. Lee a bit, but they had really great material to work with.  Paul H. Buck explained the process in his Pulitzer Prize winning Road to Reunion in 1937.
The memories of the past were woven in a web of national sentiment which selected from by- gone feuds those deeds of mutual valor which permitted pride in present achievement and future promise. The remarkable changes that had taken place within the short span of a single generation had created a national solidarity hitherto unknown in American life. The reunited nation was a fact.
Lost Cause was not a purely Southern invention.  Even a governor of a Northern State, a Medal of Honor winner, wounded six times and promoted to Major General had a hand in it. Joshua Chamberlain wrote:
I was told, furthermore, that General Grant had appointed me to take charge of this parade and to receive the formal surrender of the guns and flags. Pursuant to these orders, I drew up my brigade at the courthouse along the highway leading to Lynchburg. This was very early on the morning of the 12th of April. ......

At such a time and under such conditions I thought it eminently fitting to show some token of our feeling, and I therefore instructed my subordinate officers to come to the position of 'salute' in the manual of arms as each body of the Confederates passed before us. .......
The General [Gordon] was riding in advance of his troops, his chin drooped to his breast, downhearted and dejected in appearance almost beyond description. At the sound of that machine like snap of arms, however, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse's head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his swordpoint to his toe in salutation.
Around the same time that Road to Reunion was published Lost Cause entrenched itself firmly in popular culture.

For the last fifty years neo-abolitionism has been gaining ground.  It won the colleges early.  If you win the colleges, within a generation you have the high schools and the elementary school. The centennial was all Lost Cause all the time, but the sesquicentennial is heavily neo-abolitionist.  As you walk into the museum at the visitor center you see a sign that says in part:
Americans fought one another over three fundamental issues: the survival of the union, the fate of slavery, the common rights of citizenship - what it means to be an American -the war resolved the first two issues.  The nation struggles with the third to this day.
Now that is neo-abolitionist with a vengeance.

How Do We Get Along ?

We get along by practicing a form of apartheid.  The educational system is neo-abolitionist.  Popular culture remains Lost Cause to a significant extent.  The educational system does not pay very much attention to the actual war.  Civil War buffs do not pay very much attention to what happened other than things relating to the actual conduct of the war.  When I was a history major, one of the professors told me they did not offer a course specifically on the war itself, because when professors  did that they always ended up with a couple of pain-in-the-ass nineteen year old buffs who knew more than they did.  I'm sure that has evolved some, but when I was at the Pickett's charge event, a high school history teacher from South Carolina was grumbling about the curriculum not having anything about actual battles.

How Does It Work At Gettysburg ?

Gettysburg is ground zero for both interpretations.  I think what the organizers for the Sunday night televised event did was invite Doris Kearns Goodwin to the wrong party.  Her speech aggravated some people by being too much about Doris Kearns Goodwin.  It outraged other because of its reference to the DOMA decision.  When Doris Kearns Goodwin said "Stonewall", she was not talking about how the battle might have turned out had General Jackson not encountered friendly fire at Chancellorsville.  If Doris Kearns Goodwin had given the same speech four and a half months from now and a few hundred yards to the east, only the self-absorption would have been aggravating.  The high water mark and July 3 will forever belong to the Lost Cause and nobody should try to disturb that. Neo-abolitionists have a very strong claim on the Gettysburg address where it was reconfirmed that we are dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.

My next post will be about the July 3 experience, which, like the Centennial, was all Lost Cause all the time.

You can follow me on twitter @peterreillycpa.


 Like many people I think of the rise of Neo-Abolitionist views as beginning around the 1960s.  Lost Cause enthusiasts will still refer to them as "revisionist".  A recent book I read The Southern Past - A Clash Of Race And Memory by W. Fitzhugh Brundage gave me a bit of a different perspective.  We will often think of Lost Cause as the Southern version, but that would be while accurate, perhaps imprecise.  Lost Cause is the white Southern version.  Black Southerners in their segregated schools learned a history that was more celebratory of emancipation.

Day 0 Pickett's charge reenactment not on the battlefield.

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