Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Civil War through their own eyes

i) The Civil War was American's great morality play. At least at the time. We have comparable issues today–like abortion. This is often the paradigm that's used to frame race relations in America. 

Whenever we have an incident like the recent Chas church shooting, the Civil War gets dragged back into the discussion. This usually begins with critics who blame it on the Civil War. This, in turn, elicits respondents who defend the Civil War.

Now, I don't think the Civil War has any real bearing on these incidents. Since, however, the Civil War is so often made the frame of reference, it's worth discussing. So long as race relations are constantly cast in reference to the Civil War, it's useful to have a correct understanding of the war. 

I'm not a Civil War historian. My knowledge of the subject is uneven. In this post I'm just giving my impressions.

ii) A central issue is who defines the Civil War. What motivated the participants? Typically, defenders say it was about states rights while opponents say it was about slavery. More extreme defenders say it was a conflict between (Southern) Christian civilization and (Northern) secularism. 

So the question is, who speaks for the Civil War? I think a basic problem with how we remember the Civil War is that textbooks, movies, the "news" media, social activists et al. have allowed the Civil War to be defined by 19C cultural elites.

On the one hand, there's how Northern abolitionists (e.g. Garrison, Douglass, Weld), theologians (e.g. Channing, Bushnell, Chas Hodge), and generals/statesmen (e.g. Lincoln, Grant, Sherman) defined the cause.

On the other hand, there's how Southern generals (e.g. Lee), theologians (e.g. Dabney, Thornwell), and statesmen (e.g. John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis) defined the cause.

Now, I think that's valid up to a point. To some extent, this indicates what motivated them. And they were the movers and shakers. 

Mind you, even in that respect we need to distinguish between what they said in public and what they said in private. What they said in speeches, memoirs, &c., were designed to shape public perception of the cause. Give their respective cause an idealistic patina. 

Cynical motivations will be edited out of the public case. But what they confided to friends and family in private (e.g. letters, diaries) may often be a more revealing and accurate reflection of their true reasons. 

It can be misleading when we permit the Civil War to be defined by statements made for public consumption. That's apt to be propagandistic. We allow ourselves to be manipulated by political rhetoric of we accept that at face value.

Although public statements may sometimes reflect how the players viewed themselves, viewed their own actions, they aren't impartial judges when it comes to the purity of their motives. The potential for self-deception is strong. 

A basic problem with letting the culture elites define the war is that it will give the war a very ideological interpretation. A bloody conflict between competing ideas

Although the Civil War had an ideological component, it's a mistake to think that all or most participants were ideologically motivated. That greatly oversimplifies human behavior. 

iii) In addition, defining the Civil War by the cultural elites will leave other significant voices muted or underrepresented.

Although a few notable blacks figure in the discussion (e.g. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth), that's exceptional. And I think that's because most slaves or former slaves were illiterate. They didn't write about the war. Moreover, they didn't have the social standing to publish anything. Many Civil War historians write about slaves. They presume to speak on behalf of them. But it would be more illuminating if we let the slaves speak for themselves instead of speaking for them. Make greater use of oral histories. 

Likewise, I think the view of the foot-soldier is underrepresented. From what I've read, the Confederate army was originally a volunteer army. But it quickly became necessary to conscript soldiers. At midpoint in the war, Congress did the same thing in reference to the Union army.

In the nature of the case, many draftees don't fight for ideological reasons. In many cases, they fight against their will. 

Despite conscription, desertion was fairly high on both sides. So it's not as if foot-soldiers were fired up by the glory of the cause. 

If you want to know what they thought of the war, read letters to home. I think that viewpoint is neglected in textbook depictions of the war. Even among volunteers, I suspect most soldiers fought for hearth and home, kith and kin, rather than ideology.  

iv) Although I can't say for sure, since I didn't live at that time and place, but I don't think Southerners identified primary as Southerners. Although "the South" is convenient and indispensable umbrella term, if we cast the conflict in such generic terms, it oversimplifies the motivation. 

From what I can tell, Lee didn't fight to save the South–he fought to save Virginia. He was first and foremost a Virginian. 

Likewise, I don't think it's coincidental that Dabney's notorious apologetic is entitled A Defence of Virginia, [and Through Her, of the South]. Both men were deeply attached, not to "the South," but to the Old Dominion. Dabney was critical of how South Carolina dragged the rest of the South into the war. 

It's my impression that Texans self-identified primarily as Texans rather than Southerners; Virginians self-identified primarily as Virginians rather than Southerners; Southern Carolinians self-identified primarily as Carolinians rather than Southerners.

I question the picture of a monolithic sense of Southern solidarity. That's reinforced by the fact that only the Deep South seceded; the border states remained in the Union. 

For instance, Missouri was a border state. Now, Mark Twain is the quintessential Southern author. And he joined a volunteer Confederate unit. However, his state own state didn't secede. 

To take another example B. B. Warfield's father was a Union officer. His maternal grandfather, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, was anti-slavery, and supported the Union. 

Machen and Warfield once got into a row over the admission of the first black student to Princeton. Both men were scions of Southern aristocracy, but had very different views of the war. 

You had other subdivisions within Southern society. Take South Carolina. Was white identity primarily Carolinian, or was it Upcountry or Lowcountry?

Imagine growing up on Johns Island in the 19C. That would be a world unto itself. 

What about your religious affiliation, viz. Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian?

What about your ethnic identity? Scots. Huguenots. English settlers who migrated from sugar plantations on Barbados.

In addition, these affiliations overlap. Huguenot was an ethnic and religious affiliation alike. Anglicanism was a mark of social class as well as religious affiliation. It catered to the landed gentry. 

v) There were notable individuals who are hard to pigeonhole. In the North, Charles Hodge didn't support the Union because he opposed slavery, but because he supported Federalism. His position owed more to political theory than theology. His position on slavery is ambivalent. 

Thomas Smyth took a mediating position. I suspect the difference between Smyth and Thornwell is largely due to the fact that Thornwell's father was a plantation overseer, whereas Smyth was an expat from Northern Ireland. As such, Smyth could assume a more detached viewpoint.
Likewise, you have John Lafayette Girardeau, missionary to the slaves. 
In addition, there were Jewish Confederates:
All told, I think we need to resist reductionistic interpretations of the Civil War. The motivations were more diverse than popular, influential representations suggest. 

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