HISTORY, HERITAGE, AND THE SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS

A week ago today I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion on “Reconstruction Tennessee” down in Knoxville. The panel was part of a two-day commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, one of five “signature events” that the state of Tennessee has sponsored over the past five years in various cities. The event drew more than a thousand attendees who enjoyed a range of historical exhibits, living-history demonstrations, and academic presentations.

Tennessee Civil War Logo

I was joined on the panel by three other professional historians and we had a free-flowing discussion about the goals and realities of Reconstruction and, in particular, the factors that have shaped American memory of this crucial period. The attendance at our panel was disappointing, to be honest. The conversation was captured by C-SPAN, however, so eventually you should be able to catch it on cable, most probably at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.

Although there were several academic presentations on the program, this “signature event,” as the brochures labeled it, was not strictly an academic gathering. It was sponsored in part by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, and the goal was clearly to encourage a broad participation of Tennesseans interested in their history. This will help to explain why, as I sat down to sign copies of my book Lincolnites and Rebels: A Divided Town in the Civil War, I was positioned squarely across from a booth manned by none other than the Tennessee chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This is more than a little ironic, as scarcely a month ago I had written about the SVC and shared my opinion that their reading of southern history is more fairy tale than fact. (See “License Plates and the Lost Cause.”)

SCVlogoThe SVC would not be allowed space at any of the professional conferences I normally attend, such as the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The reason for this is simple: in the eyes of most academic historians, the SCV is not a legitimate historical organization. The fabulous tale they wish to tell about the southern past is not “history,” but “heritage.”

LowenthalI’m not 100% sure about the origins of the terminology, but it likely comes from a 1996 book by English scholar David Lowenthal titled The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History. Lowenthal is better at describing “heritage” and “history” than he is at defining either category, and the book is as frustratingly inexact as it is condescending. Boiled down, the two categories are distinguished by their practice and purpose. History relies on “rational proof.” Heritage depends on “revealed faith.” History seeks to “explain through critical inquiry.” Heritage aims to “celebrate and congratulate.” By Lowenthal’s criteria, the Sons of Confederate Veterans may be doing many things, but they are NOT honoring history. They are promoting heritage, and they are doing so at the expense of both reason and truth.

Part of me accepts this verdict wholeheartedly. Certainly, as I wrote earlier, the SCV’s reading of the Civil War is worse than awful, and the literature that they were distributing at the conference was nothing short of appalling. The most innocuous was a SCV merchandise catalog crammed with items that I would only give as gag gifts. There were “Confederate Claus” Christmas cards, Stonewall Jackson tree ornaments, Confederate cufflinks and coloring books, and just about anything you can imagine with the Confederate battle flag slapped across it: playing cards, beer mugs, shot glasses, drink coasters, earrings, tote bags, and (my favorite) a “Battle Flag Faberge Egg Pendant” (just $69.95, chain not included).

BattleFlagPendant

More troubling was the SCV essay “Defending the Constitution since 1861,” which SCV members were passing out in front of an enormous wall banner carrying the same slogan. This brief essay makes two main points: first, that Abraham Lincoln did not originally define emancipation as a goal of the northern war effort (definitely true), and second, that the Confederate decision to secede in 1861 had nothing to do with slavery (egregiously false).

Sprinkled along the way are a succession of untruths and half-truths. For example, the author proclaims that southern cotton exports before the Civil War were “heavily taxed.” (The taxing of exports was explicitly prohibited under Article I, section 9 of the Constitution, a prohibition inserted at the insistence of southern delegates to the Constitutional convention.) He insists matter-of-factly that “secession by States was Constitutional and anticipated when the U.S. Constitution was adopted by the states.” (The Constitution is actually silent on the matter of secession and the perpetuity of the Union; some of the delegates at Philadelphia clearly feared that the Union would not last, but none openly affirmed a Constitutional right to secession.) Finally, the document insists that “the C.S.A. was formed in 1861 to defend the Constitutional rights of liberty and the rule of law.” (This is true, as long as we remember that the “liberty” they sought to defend included the liberty to hold other human beings in bondage.)

What is missing from all this is any mention whatsoever of the antebellum debate over slavery or the near hysterical determination of southern statesmen to destroy the Union rather than submit to a Republican administration whose leader opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories and who had expressed the desire to place slavery on a “course of ultimate extinction.” In the SCV rendering of southern history, the enslavement of four million African Americans doesn’t deserve mentioning. America’s bloodiest war erupted when liberty-loving (white) Southerners stood up to the power-mad Federal Government’s “unfair taxing policies.”

If this is so, then someone forgot to tell the rebel soldiers who filled the Confederate ranks from 1861 to 1865. Over the course of years spent combing the diaries and correspondence of Confederate soldiers, Southern historian Colin Woodward discovered that “the proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes.” In Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Woodward concluded that the war that erupted in 1861 “was about protecting slavery,” and all ranks “knew that going in.” The irony in all this is that the Confederate veterans whom the SCV claims to honor wouldn’t recognize themselves in the organization’s cartoonlike rendition of the causes of the war.

And speaking of cartoons, the most grotesque thing I picked up at the SCV booth was a “graphic novel” titled Sam Davis: Hero of the Confederacy. Obviously intended for young readers, this Confederate comic book tells the highly embellished story of Sam Davis, a young Confederate scout from Tennessee who was captured by Union troops late in 1863 with maps of the Union fortifications of Nashville on his person. Charged with spying, Davis refused to divulge how he got the documents but went willingly to his death. Just before the noose was placed around his neck, he is supposed to have declared, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than betray a friend or be false to duty.” In the late-19th century, southern whites would remember Davis as a hero and martyr.

In 1909, the state of Tennessee erected this monument to Sam Davis on the grounds of the state capitol.

In 1909, the state of Tennessee erected this monument to Sam Davis on the grounds of the state capitol.

Like the SCV’s essay for grown-ups, the comic book doesn’t acknowledge slavery as a factor leading to war. (There is one reference to a slave, though. In one of many invented details, the comic explains that the Union maps were originally taken by a loyal young slave eager to serve the cause of the Confederacy.) On his way to the gallows, Sam meditates on “Mother” and “the old home place” and tells his executioners, “That’s why we’re fighting you, Yanks . . . for home and family!”

In the SCV’s retelling, the young Davis died so nobly that the Union soldiers at the foot of the gallows realized that they were in the presence of someone greater than themselves. “I didn’t know the South had men like this,” one marvels. “Bravest thing I’ve ever seen,” observes a second. What the Yanks had done “weren’t right,” laments a third. A final soldier prophesies, “God is gonna punish us for this.” Young readers may not consciously think of the centurion at Golgotha, but the author has unquestionably made Sam Davis into a Christ figure—the messiah of the Lost Cause.

So is this “heritage,” or just really, really bad history? I’d be interested to hear what you think. For my part, I’m torn on the matter, which might surprise you. It is surely tempting to follow Lowenthal’s criteria and dismiss the SCV’s claims as “not history” at all, as belonging to another universe that we can safely ignore. I’m hesitant to do that, though not for reasons that have anything to do with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I’m hesitant to do it because of the sense of calling that I have as a Christian historian to speak to Christians outside the Academy about how they engage the past.

By Lowenthal’s criteria, much of the ink spilt trying to prove that America was founded as a Christian country would fall into the heritage category. Certainly the work of David Barton would fall into this class, and you could probably place the late Peter Marshall Jr. (of The Light and the Glory fame) in that camp as well. I’m not sure that simply dismissing them as purveyors of “heritage” accomplishes much, however, especially if the goal is to reach Christians outside the Academy who do not automatically defer to anyone with a Ph.D.

Here is how I see it: Ever since the professionalization of history toward the end of the nineteenth century, academic historians have thought of “history” in one of two basic ways. The large and consistently growing majority have adopted a highly restrictive definition centered on method. History, from this standpoint, is in its essence an intellectual discipline that trains the mind to approach the past with logical rigor and epistemological sophistication. A small and dwindling minority has countered with a more expansive definition centered on focus. History, according to this view, encompasses any effort to remember and make sense of the past. From this perspective, the construction of historical knowledge is something that most humans engage in naturally, even unavoidably. The classic expression of this view came in the 1930s from Cornell University historian Carl Becker, who provocatively titled his presidential address to the American Historical Association “Everyman His Own Historian.”

I can see pros and cons in both views. Obviously, the more restrictive definition of history holds up a higher standard of accuracy and underscores the critical importance of reason and evidence to historical understanding. In contrast, the more expansive definition may seem to lower the bar distressingly, in the worst case legitimizing as “history” every crackpot commemoration of an imagined past. That’s a prospect not to be taken lightly.

But on the other hand, the more restrictive definition comes with its own cost, or so I’m beginning to believe. In conceiving of history as determined by method and training, academic historians came to think of history as something that only academic historians do. From there it was only a short step to our present state in which academic history is a self-contained conversation that we academic historians have among ourselves. In sum, I can’t shake the conviction that the more restrictive definition exacerbates the isolation and alienation that distances most professional historians from the larger society we seek to serve.

At any rate, I’m not yet ready to embrace the history/heritage distinction. I would rather call the claims of the Christian America camp “bad history” than relegate them to “heritage.” The former, at least, recognizes that we are engaged in the same fundamental pursuit, broadly defined. The latter simply encourages us to dismiss them, and perhaps to feel self-righteous in doing so.

Your thoughts?

8 responses to “HISTORY, HERITAGE, AND THE SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS

  1. As to the history presented by the SCV, it appears that the facts cited were accurate, save for the obvious error on Tariffs being levied upon “imports,” as opposed to “exports.” Regardless, the excessive tax upon the South was unjust, relative to the effect / justice. You can’t deny that.

    As to the cause of the war, Lincoln denied it was based on slavery (see 1st Inaugural Address, etc.) until he needed a better excuse. Lincoln’s motive was power and greed. Have you read his opinions on racial equality? The War was certainly not a civil rights campaign.

    • Hi, Scott. Sorry, I can’t agree that Lincoln denied the war was based on slavery in his first inaugural. When we read primary documents, it is crucial to read them in their historical context. Lincoln’s goal in the first inaugural was to make a constitutional case for the perpetuity of the Union, not to explain the ultimate causes of the conflict. More to the point, both the president and vice-president of the Confederacy insisted that the war was all about slavery in major addresses in March and April of 1861, i.e., about the same time as Lincoln’s first inaugural.

  2. As for the Christian America stuff, the problem I see is that since the Christian America proponents are Christians themselves, we don’t like to think that “one of us” might be selling us something that isn’t truthful or accurate. Most Christians aren’t either interested enough in history or don’t care about it to question the premise.

    Some time ago my family and I were having lunch with another family from our church. The wife in the other family said something about hearing/reading something about “what the Founders believed”. I was almost certain I could infer from the statement that it was something from the “Christian America” camp. What popped into my head was, “Should I pursue that bit of conversation further since I know it’s probably wrong? Is it worth the time and effort? Do others consider truth in history to be as important as truth in Scripture? Do we have one standard for truth when it’s related to Scripture and/or Biblical history and another for ‘other history’ that we don’t view as important”?

    Look at the way Christians can savage (sometimes justly) any TV show or movie that attempts to tell a Bible story and nitpick it death over details, but based on the number of hoax emails and Facebook posts I get, they put no thought whatsoever into any other number of historical things, especially if it’s a very dramatic telling of some historical event. The most glaring ones are the various renditions about the “lives of the 56 signers” or one about the story behind the national anthem.

  3. I’d have to say bad history for the SVC stuff. After all, if you want to be truly historically accurate, then you have to face the facts that those who fought for the South did so in support of slavery. That’s a very distasteful idea. I only have significant information on 1 of the 4 family lines of my grandparents. I’ve found one ancestor who fought for the South in a Tennessee Calvary regiment. According to census records, the family didn’t own any slaves and the guy didn’t join until 1862, which makes me wonder if he got drafted. From what I know of the other 3 lines, they come from rather impoverished backgrounds so I highly doubt any of them ever owned slaves.

    I think I could technically join the SCV with the one ancestor I have found, but I just don’t think I could bring myself to do it due to the slavery issue and the bad history they advocate. I think some argument can be made that secession was Constitutionally permissible, but I think it’s complete lunacy to try to to subjugate slavery to anything else as the primary cause of the war. Without slavery I do not believe there would have been anything but philosophical ramblings by Antebellum eggheads over whether tariff issues justified secession. Sure, there probably was a big stink in some quarters over tariffs, but when one reads several of the state secession documents it becomes quite apparent that the primary reason for secession was slavery. No way around it.

    One would like to think that you could act like Aquilla and Pricilla and take some of the SCV guys aside and “instruct them more accurately” in the history around the issue, but I suspect that it will be very difficult to do so – they are invested in honoring their ancestors and to do what would most likely be perceived as trying to dishonor their memory — well, it’s probably a very touchy situation. Probably take a good dose of Godly wisdom to engage them on the topic.

    Personally, I think the opening chapter(s) in your book on the First Thanksgiving about why Christians should handle history properly would be a good place to start the engagement, at least for those SCV members who are Christians and for addressing the “Christan America” premise. Maybe even throw in John Fea’s book “Why Study History?”.

  4. Jim Cunningham

    I’m not a professional historian, but, for what it’s worth, I agree with your position.

    I read somewhere (maybe on this site?) a definition of history that goes something like this: the past is what actually happened, and history is a record of what happened.

    To the extent that a record of what happened conforms to the truth about the past, it is good history, and to the extent that it deviates from the truth, it is bad history. While it may be more likely that the methods of the academic historian will result in good history than other methods, I would not think that those are the only methods that will do so.

  5. Jack Be Nimble

    Our contemporary world is littered with “deniers.” Anti-semites deny the Jewish holocaust, Turkey denies the Armenian genocide; and the SCV denies that the Civil War was fought over slavery. So how much damage do these deniers do? It seems to me that they actually might do some good in that they prompt people who value truth in history to defend accurate historical accounts and do the necessary research to establish accurate historical accounts. Just think how short this blog would be without those SCV people trying desperately to shade history to their way of thinking!!!

  6. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

  7. History teaches us about our heritage. History has a lesson to teach us only when we form judgments based on it. All historical writers have a purpose or aim in their writing. Of course people can be wrong about historical details, which will affect their judgments and conclusions.

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