HISTORY, MEMORY, AND THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

Troy D. Smith

May 16, 2011

The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War is upon us. No doubt you have seen news reports of commemorations and/or celebrations; if so you are probably aware that there is some controversy attached to such events, and to the war itself, even after a century-and-a-half. The Civil War means different things to different people, and those differing meanings are very fluid; the public perception of “what the war was really about” changes not only from region to region, but from generation to generation, and often has as much or more to do with contemporary politics as with the events of the past.

For example, growing up in Tennessee in the 1970s affixed a very specific image of the Civil War in my mind. My home town movie theater had annual showings of Gone with the Wind every spring until Ted Turner bought the rights to it. One of my earliest memories is of wearing a little gray Confederate kepi. I heard stories about the heroism of Champ Ferguson, my hometown’s famous (and infamous) Confederate guerrilla, and the town was overshadowed by the huge memorial stone on the hillside grave of local brigadier general (and later politician) George Dibrell. Male relatives sat and discussed the War of Northern Aggression, and the words damnyankee and carpetbagger were bandied about frequently.

If I had been born a decade earlier, and spent my formative years during the height of the Civil War centennial, no doubt it would have made an even stronger impact on me. If I had been born black, or born white in Illinois instead of Tennessee, I would also have absorbed a very different perspective. That all makes sense—and at the same time, it seems to make no sense at all. We are talking about the same events, after all. What happened, happened. History is, well, history, right? How can people still be arguing about it 150 years later?

That brings me to the crux of what I wanted to discuss in this space: the difference between history and memory, and how it impacts the U.S. Civil War. That means I am going to spend some time defining terms, and explaining just what “history” and “memory” really are. You may be tempted to skip over this section and go straight to the fun Civil War part, but I urge you to bear with me. History and memory are words we all know, you see, but which few of us ever really understand as well as we think we do.

What is history? Easy enough, you say. History means stuff that happened in the past. But if that were the case, there would be no such thing as “prehistory,” would there? Lots of stuff happened in prehistoric times—but we know relatively little about it. There were events, but there was no history—because history is not “the past”, it is a written record of the past. Someone asked me once why, if I wanted to study the history of a certain indigenous tribe, did I not live among them and extensively study their material culture and oral tradition? Because that would make me an anthropologist. Historians look at documents and archives. Like the winter records painted in pictographs on a tribe’s tipis, for example. (Actually, an ethnohistorian takes an approach that blends history and anthropology in many ways, and that is the method I personally think works best in such circumstances—but for the sake of our discussion I wanted to demonstrate clearly the difference between history and anthropology.)

When Mesopotamians and Egyptians starting scratching images into clay—initially as a way for merchants to keep records—and Chinese inscribed divination records on bones and shells, that was the beginning of those cultures’ history. Historians look at those things, and at court records, diaries, news accounts, receipts, ships’ logs, and anything else that is written down to inform them about the era in question. And, of course, they look at narrative histories that were written after the fact—whether that be the records of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, or of Plutarch and Flavius Josephus, Edward Gibbon, or the Shiji of Sima Qian. No matter the source, historians are trained to weigh the context of the times when examining it, and to look at circumstantial written evidence (court records, receipts, etc.) as well.

It is said that history is written by the victors, and that is certainly true. Having the ability to write the “official” history of anything is a form of power, and those after-the-fact histories (as stated in my opening) reflect political realities beyond the event described. For example: generally speaking, whenever a new dynasty took power in China they re-wrote the history of their predecessors to make it seem that the former dynasty’s final years were marked by moral decline and heaven decreed that a change was needed. If you happened to be an average Chinese person of the time, and one of these new histories were released, you might well remember that things were not quite that way during the previous administration (although you might not want to vocalize that opinion too loudly.) Your children and grandchildren, however, would have no such memories and as far as they knew the official line was true—and over time, reality as you lived it would be forgotten. Unless, of course, you made a point of telling your children “Listen, we know the official story, but here is how things really were.” In that case, it is possible that a picture of your time might live on as part of an oral tradition, unanchored to any documentary evidence. A century after your death, the “reality” of your time would either be forgotten completely or endure as a dim legend whose origins have been forgotten (I often wonder whether the tales of Greek demigods or biblical stories of the demonic, giant Nephilim might be cultural memories of prehistoric conflicts between humans and Neanderthals.)

This is not something confined to ancient China. I can think of a very good example in U.S. history—the conflict known for almost a century as the Philippine Insurrection (it is now sometimes called the Philippine-American War, which I think is more accurate.) How familiar are you with this conflict? Odds are, if you are American, not very. I am a lifelong history lover, and I had never even heard of it until college. It was never mentioned in my public school history books. If you aren’t familiar with it, find out some details here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippine_insurrection

This was a pretty significant series of events. U.S. citizens were well aware of what was going on: Mark Twain led protests against the action, and congressional hearings were held. However- it was not in the “history books,” at least not the ones you read in school, until the 1990s. And unless you are what they call a “history buff,” and a pretty serious one, you may not even have known that this very controversial, and once widely-known, thing happened. For several generations –for all intents and purposes –it never did. It disappeared from American cultural memory. (This particular case’s disappearance had a lot to do with the Cold War –the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Union for the “hearts and minds” of other countries, and it was very convenient for such embarrassing truths as the Philippine episode to disappear. I think it is no accident that it was covered in high school history books again –although never in much detail –after the fall of the Soviet Union.)

Another example: before the 1989 movie Glory, how many of us knew that there was a huge number of black Union troops in the Civil War? My school history books mentioned it barely if at all. In fact, there were over 200,000 such troops, and they may have helped turn the tide of the war. Everyone knows that now. Did everyone know that in 1975?

While some things disappear, others are significantly altered- retconned, as comics fans put it. Retroactive continuity: when something new is inserted into a character’s “past” and everyone agrees to pretend it had always been there- and new readers usually never know it hadn’t. In that example, the only way new readers would know about the original continuity would be if they went back and read those earlier issues from years before –becoming, in essence, historians combing an archive.

This works with memory on an individual level as well. For example: do you think you would get the same stories if you read a newspaper interview with a particular sailor that was conducted late in the afternoon of the Pearl Harbor attack as you would get from interviewing that same sailor yourself 70 years later? Possibly, but probably not. The intervening years would have a bearing on the sailor’s recall. In fact, interviewers often find that their subjects will interject information into their own memories which they learned later but could not possibly have known at the time. Memories are not stored whole in your mind; every time you access the memory of an event, different parts of your brain chime in with aspects of that memory that are stored in them. Images, sounds, smells –all these must be instantly recalled and woven together in order to reconstruct a complete memory.

I picture this process in my own mind by thinking about Francis Ford Coppola’s approach to editing Apocalypse Now: Redux. The first version of the classic war film, presented at Cannes, ran much longer than the version later released in theaters. The “Redux” version replaces many deleted scenes, which greatly affect the overall narrative. However, Coppola didn’t just add the deleted scenes in, nor use the original Cannes version- he re-edited the whole movie, scene by scene, so that the final version was not exactly the same as any of the previous ones. In a way, that is what happens when we access a memory; it is reconstructed from scratch each time, and therefore often changes from one recall to the next. Cultural memory can be even trickier, because the changes which are inserted frequently are done so intentionally by agents who wish to control the general public’s memory of a certain event.

What does this have to do with the Civil War, you ask? A lot, I answer. The next section will go into great detail about how the tensions between history and memory affect the present-day public perception of that war and its meanings.

The Civil War and the Lost Cause

A recent poll indicates that more than half of Americans, and more than two-thirds in the eleven former Confederate States, responded to the question “What was the Civil War about?” with the answer “states’ rights.” As several commemorations of the war take place around the South, groups (including the NAACP) lodge protests over the fact that many of those events make no mention whatsoever of slavery, which they say was the primary cause of the war. Other groups, like Sons of Confederate Veterans, say that the war was about Southern independence, or high tariffs, or states’ rights, and that slavery—while a factor—was not the main factor. Who is right? And why do we still not agree on it?

Let me start by saying that the vast majority of professional historians—virtually all of them, in fact—say that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. I am a professional historian, in addition to being a novelist. I used to believe in the “Lost Cause” ideology of the war, until several years ago, and in fact there are echoes of that belief in some of my earliest fiction—but now I will tell you, with no trace of doubt, that slavery was the prime reason for the Civil War. I will explain why I say that, and how I came to change my mind. Many of you reading this will have already decided that you do not agree with me—but read on.

First, because historians like to quote each other, let me give you a few examples of historians’ conclusions before I explain my own.

James McPherson of Princeton, Pulitzer winning author of the classic Battle Cry of Freedom: “Everything stems from the slavery issue.”

David Blight of Yale, author of Race and Reunion: “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.”

Vernon Burton of Clemson, author of The Age of Lincoln: “Everyone knew at the time that the war was ultimately about slavery. After the war, some began saying that it was really about states’ rights, or a clash of two different cultures, or about the tariff, or about the industrializing North versus the agrarian South. All these interpretations came together to portray the Civil War as a collision of two noble civilizations from which black slaves had been airbrushed out.”

Bruce Levine of the University of Illinois, author of Confederate Emancipation: “Because they were fighting to preserve African American slavery and the racial creed that justified it.”

Sociologist James Loewen of The Catholic University of America, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and co-editor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The Great Truth About the Lost Cause: “Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery… Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.”

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

The fact is, there was a lot of dissent within the Confederate States of America. Of the eleven states which comprised the Confederacy, all except South Carolina produced volunteer military units for the Union, some of them contributing a large number of troops to the North. (There was some pro-Confederacy feeling in various Northern states, but there were no all-Northern Confederate regiments.) The areas of the South which were the most pro-Union are very telling: East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, West Virginia, and Northern Georgia. Look at those regions on the map below—what do you notice about them? They comprise the Southern Appalachian mountains. You see, the Southern region which had the fewest slaves, because its rocky soil would not support plantations, was also the one region that overwhelmingly opposed the Confederacy. West Virginia seceded from the Confederacy and became a separate state in the Union; East Tennessee came very close to doing the same thing. Yet when you drive through East Tennessee today—including the Knoxville-area town named for its most famous citizen, Union Admiral David Farragut—you will notice a sea of Rebel flags. Memory is stronger than history in the Southern mind, it would seem.

I would argue that this lack of cohesion in the South (which manifested itself in other ways as well) was a large factor in the Confederacy’s defeat. I would also argue that there was a lot more Confederate nationalism after there was no longer a Confederate nation, as evidenced by the aforementioned Rebel sentiment in places that were actually pro-Union.

After the war, the “Lost Cause ideology” took hold in the South (and the rest of the country.) In this worldview, the antebellum South was a romanticized place which its people fought nobly to defend, but which was doomed solely because of the North’s overwhelming military superiority (let me point out that in the American Revolution, the Texas War of Independence, and the Vietnam conflict, the losing side had overwhelming military superiority, yet this fact alone did not determine the outcomes of those conflicts.) Sure, there was such a thing as slavery, but it was not a major consideration. In some ways this worldview made the healing easier for the losers. We lost, but we lost nobly; and our cause was just, after all. It’s kind of embarrassing to say one’s great-great-grandfather died in a conflict that was mostly about keeping an oppressed people in chains.

This view has actually gained a lot more ground in the last decade or so. It is amazing that it took so long for anyone to catch the errors in that Virginia public school textbook a few months ago, the one which claimed that upwards of 100,000 blacks fought in the Confederate Army (half as many as in the Union!) That’s not true, of course. If there were any African Americans at all taking arms on behalf of the Confederacy they were a rare anomaly (See the various links at the end of this essay.) It turns out that the textbook author, a freelance writer rather than a trained historian, had gotten her information off the internet (specifically, from the Sons of Confederate Veterans website.)

As I said earlier, when I was younger I held the same beliefs—growing up in the South, one sort of absorbs them by osmosis. In college I learned that historians almost all present an opposite view, but that was not completely enough to make me re-examine what I thought I knew. It was actually when I reached graduate school that the last traces of Lost-Cause-Disorder were cleansed from my mind, and it was not due to historians or textbooks; it was due to my own research, and what I found in the archives.

Embarrassed descendants of the original Confederates may say the Civil War was not about slavery—and Confederate veterans, after the fact, might have said the same thing—but when the war was starting, Confederates and Federals alike knew what was causing it. Examples:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” - Mississippi secession declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861.

"One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute." –Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address

And then there is this, from Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens in a speech delivered in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861:

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature's laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material-the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made "one star to differ from another star in glory." The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders "is become the chief of the corner" the real "corner-stone" in our new edifice. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.”

It is difficult to read that speech and still argue that the Civil War was not about slavery. What really got to me, personally, though, was reading contemporary newspaper accounts from my own home region and discovering prominent citizens (like Judge Sam Gardenhire, one of the biggest slaveholders in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee) making the very same arguments as Stephens. The Confederate VP was not some firebrand saying things that no one in his audience agreed with—quite the opposite.

The documents verify what professional historians will tell you. Slavery caused the Civil War.

But what does it really matter, you might ask.

If more and more people become convinced that the Civil War was not about slavery, the public perception will eventually be that slavery was really not so bad. The principles which propelled the abolition of slavery, and the lived experience of all those who suffered it, will be disregarded. What is to stop people from then saying that the folks who opposed Desegregation were not really racists, they were just trying to protect states’ rights? What is to prevent some from saying, and convincing the public, that most African Americans were really on the side of the segregationists, and many of them fought alongside the local Jim Crow authorities against all those Northern interlopers and communists who were saying “Freedom Now”? It’s the same thing—and it would imply that segregation was not that bad, and that the social changes which were made in the Civil Rights Era were not really necessary or important. Why, it was all about the federal government trying to enforce its agenda on state governments and local businesses (thanks to Rand Paul, this example is not completely hypothetical.)

This is serious business. It really matters. So think about this: if it really bothers you that someone says a war fought 150 years ago was about slavery—why? What is your investment? Because if you are a historian, your investment is in the truth.

Read more:

“150 Years after Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War” by David Von Drehle

“Fort Sumter: The Civil War Begins” by Fergus M. Bordewich

“The Myth of the Black Confederate” by Bruce Levine

“A Union Divided: South Split on U.S. Civil War Legacy” by Claire Suddath

“Five Myths About Why the South Seceded” by James Loewen

Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech, in full:

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