he American Civil War has always lingered in the hidden caverns of american nationhood, whether it be in the way we understand the Civil Rights Movement as a continuation of the 19th century conflict, or in the hushed reverence we give to the Gettysburg Address in our English classes. As the country presently puts its foot down one more time on the issue of the confederacy, the climactic event of the american national experience has surged into the popular discourse of the day. As a student of the conflict and a member of an organization that seeks to preserve the physical memory of the Civil War, I looked on these developments with excitement.
Mirroring the conflict itself, my excitement was met with a somber recognition that it should never have taken a terrorist attack to elicit this debate. The fault is not with those who have recently come to advocate for the destruction of confederate imagery on our nation’s buildings, I applaud them, the fault lies instead with our retelling of the event in our history classrooms and on the pages of history journals and popular historical publications. In an era where enrollment in history classes is plummeting and where the importance of an institution for the study history is being doubted by “program prioritization” at universities across the country, the events in Charleston offer a grim and terrifying reminder of the importance of the way we study history at the academy and the ways we write about it in our publications.
For the better part of the 20th century, the Civil War was portrayed as a tragic failure to compromise that broke apart old army college buddies and houses across the country. Amidst the slaughter of hundreds of thousands towards the defeat of slavery (sorry – “state’s rights,” and “union” according to Shelby Foote and Gary Gallagher, respectively) a few “authentic geniuses” (2) emerged to seek what sanity they could in this cataclysmic struggle. Happily, the social history movement of the 60s and 70s attacked the great man romanticization that dominated Civil War historiography, but there is still more work to do. In Ken Burn’s massively popular documentary, for example, the army of Northern Virginia was called “the greatest army in the history of world.” (3) Later in the series, Shelby Foote was inexplicably allowed to say that the two “authentic geniuses” of the war were Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forest. If only the South Carolina Senate could vote to make putting those two names next to each other illegal.
This idea of “authentic geniuses” is a good one to frame a short discussion on how the way in which we have depicted the Civil War (the historiography we have utilized in studying it) at the academy and in popular media has stunted our national discussion on the continuing relevance of the Civil War. Implicit in such a discussion is the fact that history is important, and the work we do at the academy with it has significant impact on people living right now.
Shelby Foote’s assertion that the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and the First Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan are both geniuses is not as out of place as you might think in the historiography of the Civil War. Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, a major motion picture, portrays Stonewall Jackson as a deeply religious man who actually liked black people (4). The film’s predecessor, Gettysburg, decided to portray Pickett’s Charge, a battle in which thousands were gunned down in an insane frontal assault ordered by the equally mystical Robert E. Lee, as a a quirky reunion between confederate general Lewis Armistead and union general Winfield Scott Hancock – two old West Point pals.
This odious great man theory, or an approach to history that sees the actions of heroic individuals as central rather than the political struggles of millions, serves a specific purpose in that paralyzing historiography of the Civil War that social historians righteously attacked. When a conflict of millions for the liberation of millions is reduced to the heroism of a handful of men, the political content that defined their decisions to fight for the union or confederacy is lost in a haze of personal traits that serve only to make the event theatrical.
For example, Bruce Catton claimed in his book A Stillness at Appomattox, that Union soldiers saluted Robert E. Lee as he rode off into the sunset, having butchered 300,000 of their friends. Later historians of the event have found no evidence for this, and the anecdote has generally been written off as pure falsehood. The falsehood is reflective of much of what we find in the above mentioned movies and similar popular histories – the deep political divisions between confederate and unionist, the disagreement on whether it was righteous under the lord to own another man, whether it was economically fair to do so, whether the declaration of independence and the founding ideals of the United States of America should include all men – are lost in a dramatized great man narrative that supposes that these divisions would be dropped as soon as the bullets stopped flying. Nathan Bedford Forest and Abraham Lincoln would reconcile, the confederate flag and the american flag could fly simultaneously – all because the great men who fought this war held within their hearts magnanimous mercy, forgiveness, and mutual respect.
The move to vanquish politics under the smoke and mirrors of great men is a clever one, as through the ripples the Civil War sent through society grew a growing radical sentiment for a more generalized liberation and a radical stomping out of confederate ideology. By robbing the conflict of this political content, the nascent american myths could endure – compromise is the american way, republican democracy can cure all social ills, and peaceful protest is the way to true change.
But as current events prove so magnificently, the political content at the heart of the Civil War and in the hearts of the men and women who fought in it, can be hidden no longer. The social history of authors such as James McPherson have begun to turn the page in Civil War historiography, but the historiography of eras past still propagates the idea that confederate ideology holds no political content and is merely a reflection of personal identity (a direct product of the depoliticization described above). In opposition to this group has grown a new generation of union soldiers, armed not with rifles but with climbing equipment, picket signs, and keyboards. Our historiography must nurture the sentiment that the Civil War was a fundamentally political struggle in which millions of people made a deliberate decision to fight for freedom and to fight for slavery. That same choice is now before us.
American history as a field has always been dominated by exceptionalist and great man ideology. Yet just as the political movements of the 60s and 70s created an environment for challenging and reevaluating those dominant methods, modern historians must react to the events unfolding on our streets and upon the glow of monitors across the country. Our history can unfold this much obfuscated conflict, and show that in an era not so long ago Americans fought for the liberation of the mistreated and enslaved for political, religious, and economic reasons. In such a message holds the catalyst for a national reckoning, where studious eyes find a political truth in the dim and flaring lamps of an every growing camp (5).
(1) Excluding James McPherson’s The Battle Cry of Freedom, which is an excellent text that garnered well deserved acclaim and popularity.
(2) To use Shelby Foote’s terminology
(3) I wish I was joking.
(4) Roger Ebert was right when he said it’s a movie only Trent Lott would enjoy.
(5) See: Battle Hymn of the Republic:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps: