Monthly Archives: July 2015


In the history courses that I teach here at Wheaton, my students and I spend a lot of time wrestling with basic concepts that seem simple until we really start to think about them. Foremost among these is the term history itself, but I don’t like to start there. I think we have to meditate on the idea of the past first, so that’s where we begin. We’re not after a dictionary definition of the term, by the way. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that concepts like these are best understood through metaphor. Metaphors are less precise than simple declarative statements, but they are also immeasurably richer. They are more open-ended and evocative than anything Webster’s can provide. They are also better at stimulating our thinking, our imagination, and even our sense of wonder.

Nor do we have to decide on one and only one metaphor for each concept we are trying to understand. We can alternate between any number of metaphors that each point toward a particular facet or function of the concept we’re trying to wrap our minds around. The Scriptures do this all the time. The descriptions of Jesus in the gospel of John would be a classic example. The writer tells us that Jesus is “the vine,” “the door,” “the way,” “the good shepherd” etc. We’re not supposed to choose between them like on a multiple choice exam. (“Circle the answer that best describes . . .”) Rather, we can find value in all of them, believing that each points us toward a crucial truth.

When it comes to the past, historians’ favorite metaphor is drawn from a little–known British writer from the mid-twentieth century named L. P. Hartley. Hartley opened his 1953 novel The Go-Between by observing “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The metaphor warns us against the trap of viewing figures from the past as if they were our neighbors dressed in funny clothes. We should expect a degree of culture shock when we go to the past, and much of the value of studying history is lost when we remake peoples from the past in our own image.

The “foreign country” metaphor reminds us of one fundamental truth about the past: it was often profoundly different from the present. I regularly draw on a metaphor from C. S. Lewis to convey a different, equally critical point. In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis observed that

“A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of ‘history’ falls off the world into total oblivion.”

By likening the past to a roaring waterfall “fall[ing] off the world into total oblivion,” Lewis was underscoring an epistemological truth about the past: the vast majority of it is beyond our knowing. As Lewis put it, “It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing.”

I just finished a book that makes (possibly?) a somewhat similar point about the past, although I’m still working through what I think about it. I suspect not many of you have read Stephen King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers. Let me say up front that I generally despise horror movies and novels, and I’m not a fan of King’s work overall. And yet The Langoliers makes a fascinating argument about the passage of time. Rather than offering a pithy metaphor for the past, it is more accurate to say that the entire book (or almost the entire book) is an extended metaphor that challenges the way that we naturally (and often unconsciously) think about the past when we are studying history. When I ask my students to tell me what makes a work of history interesting, often the highest compliment they can offer is that it “makes the past come alive.” If I wanted to summarize what King does in The Langaliers, I would say that he puts the past to death.

Poster for the 1995 ABC miniseries based on the novella.

Poster for the 1995 ABC miniseries based on the novella.

The Langaliers tells the story of American Pride flight #29, a red-eye flight from southern California to New England. During the flight, a handful of passengers who had been asleep awaken to discover that most of the two hundred other passengers have disappeared and the remainder are flying over a dark, desolate, and apparently uninhabited continent. As the story unfolds, we viscerally feel their surprise, then their terror, as they gradually come to realize what has happened to them. What they eventually figure out (spoiler alert!) is that they have flown through some kind of “time rip” over the Mojave Desert and have actually traveled backward in time, although only by a very few minutes.

As the sun is coming up the pilot lands the jet in Bangor, Maine, although nothing about the airport there seems quite right. The terminal is empty, still, eerily quiet—there are no sounds, no smells, no movement of any kind. The colors of the décor seem faded, the beer in the snack bar is flat, the sandwiches taste like sawdust. Everything about them is oppressively, utterly lifeless.

King speaks through a passenger named Bob Jenkins (a mystery writer) to explain what they have encountered. “I think we’ve gone into the past and discovered the unlovely truth of time-travel,” Bob speculates. “You can’t appear in the Texas State School Book Depository on November 22, 1963, and put a stop to the Kennedy assassination; you can’t watch the building of the pyramids or the sack of Rome; you can’t investigate the Age of the Dinosaurs at first hand.” Bob then raises his arms wide and gestures all around them: 

“Take a good look around you, fellow time-travellers. This is the past. It is empty; it is silent. . . . I believe we may have hopped an absurdly short distance in time, perhaps as little as fifteen minutes—at least initially. But the world is clearly unwinding around us. . . . It feels old and stupid and feeble and meaningless.”

In sum, King turns the lifeless Bangor airport into an extended metaphor for the past. It is devoid of everything that gives life: empty, silent, meaningless.

If we stop here, it might be possible to think of the metaphor as entirely consistent with our hope of making the past “come alive.” The metaphor would underscore the truth that historical facts never “speak for themselves.” It would also call attention to the indispensable role that the historian plays in generating historical insight. The surviving shadows of the past lie lifeless and inert until the historian comes along and breathes life them; only then, and only in this way, can the past ever “come alive.”

King, however, doesn’t stop here. Maybe the predicament that his characters faced wasn’t sufficiently terrifying; maybe he wanted to make a more disturbing point about the past. Enter the Langoliers. We first hear of them through one of the story’s central characters, a deeply disturbed young businessman named Craig Toomey. Craig’s father had been a desperately ambitious businessman who died of a heart attack when Craig was nine. The elder Toomey had thought that the greatest offense in life was to waste time, and so he had raised his son on bedtime stories about monsters called Langoliers who come to eat up lazy children.

But then the passengers of American Pride flt. #29 discover that Langoliers really exist, billions and billions of them. These small, insatiable, razor-toothed eating machines race perpetually around the world from east to west, consuming the gray shadow of existence that remains after the past becomes the past. Their next stop, of course, is the Bangor airport.

After a couple of grizzly deaths, the passengers manage to take off again with the Langoliers fast on their heels, and as they zoom into the clouds they get a glimpse of the monsters at work below. They watch as the Langoliers eat their way through “the rotten fabric of the dead past,” gulping huge chunks of past reality and leaving nothingness in their wake. Bob Jenkins again explains what they are seeing:

“Now we know, don’t we? . . . what happens to today when it becomes yesterday, what happens to the present when it becomes the past. It waits—dead and empty and deserted. It waits for them. It waits for the time-keepers of eternity, always running along behind, cleaning up the mess in the most efficient way possible . . . by eating it.”

Weird, huh? It’s a bizarre story, but King has given us a metaphor that hammers home the truth that the past is dead and gone. In isolation, its message is too dark, too pessimistic about our ability to learn about and from the past. But it might be a healthy corrective to the more common popular view that exaggerates our ability to know the past with minimal effort. I think I’ll share this story with my students this fall and see what they make of it. In the meantime, what do you think?


Here, at last, is a final set of thoughts sparked by the recent controversy over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. (I say “recent,” even though it’s been almost three weeks since the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, and three weeks in the blogosphere is just a hair shy of an eternity.) I’ve already written at length on the controversy (see here, here, here, here, and here), not because it was “trending” (a social media euphemism for “trendy” and “transient”), but because I think it provides a marvelous example of the way that we’re all tempted to remember the past in simplistic and self-justifying ways, ways that rob history of its power to speak truth into our lives.

The recent war of words about the battle flag quickly became a debate about the larger meaning of the American Civil War. For a century and a half Americans have resisted remembering that struggle honestly, and the online debate mostly perpetuated that cultural amnesia. Defenders of the flag resurrected the southern myth that the war had little to do with slavery; opponents trumpeted the northern myth that it had everything to do with the institution, that the war was first and foremost a moral crusade to rid the nation of human bondage. Neither view is true. Both prevent us from effectively confronting our complicated past with regard to slavery and race.

While it’s important to realize that both the southern and northern views are incorrect, it’s not enough simply to say that both sides have invented comforting myths. We still need something to hang our hats on, historically speaking—a story or narrative of the war that’s true to its complexity and fair to both sides. Thankfully, I think we’ve always had such a narrative, more or less hiding in plain sight. It comes from Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed it to posterity in one of his last public addresses before his assassination.

I was first reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865 while reading Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins’s diatribes about the Confederacy. After comparing the Confederate battle flag to a swastika and charging the Confederacy with a “crime against humanity,” Jenkins opined that “Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee should have spent the rest of their natural lives in work camps, breaking rocks with shovels.” By March 1865 Lincoln was wearily familiar with such sentiments, and in his second inaugural he pointedly rebuked them. Despite an unimaginable death toll and incalculable human suffering, the president exhorted his northern listeners to proceed “with malice toward none, with charity to all.”

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

Lincoln sat for this photograph less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

These are the words we’re most likely to remember from Lincoln’s address, if we remember any part of it, but they can’t be understood when wrenched from the larger context of Lincoln’s brief speech. In isolation, we may be tempted to read them simply as an exhortation to northerners to forgive their enemies or to leave retribution to the Lord, who said “vengeance is Mine.” Both are Christian sentiments and both are good counsel, but neither really captures Lincoln’s point. Lincoln knew the Bible well—he quoted it twice in the address—but he had also practiced law for thirty years and his cast of mind was relentlessly logical. Lincoln’s call for charity is best understood when we read it as the culmination of a logical argument about the cause and nature of the war. It was a war, Lincoln told his uncomfortable audience, in which neither side could claim the moral high ground. Because both sides were morally culpable, it would be hypocritical for the North to impose a draconian peace as if only the South were to blame.

I recommend that you look for the address online and take the time to read it in full. It’s only 700 words long (and over 500 of those words contain only one syllable!) so you can review the whole thing in five-six minutes. The heart of the address comes in the third and longest of its four paragraphs. In it Lincoln made three crucial assertions.

First, the cause of the war was slavery, period. Lincoln reminded his audience that, when the war broke out,

“one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union.”

Note that the president felt no need to prove his assertion. “All knew” that it was true, so why belabor the point? Even white Southerners agreed at the time, although their memory would play tricks on them later. So much for the southern myth.

But note the key qualifier “somehow.” In insisting that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln was not proclaiming that the conflict had ever been a clear-cut moral contest over slavery. In fact, he explicitly dispelled that simplistic notion. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” Lincoln went on to observe. More important,

“Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Lincoln’s wording here may be a little hard to follow. Two tips will be helpful. First, bear in mind that, even though he referred to both sides in the conflict, his immediate audience was exclusively northern, and it was the North that he was consciously addressing. Second, remember that he had already identified the cause of the war as slavery earlier in the paragraph. With these in mind Lincoln’s point becomes clear: he was bluntly reminding northerners that they didn’t go to war in 1861 to end slavery. The conflict’s most “fundamental and astounding” consequence—the end of an institution that had been entrenched in American life for two hundred and fifty years—was something few northerners had in mind when they rushed to enlist after Fort Sumter. So much for the northern myth.

With the final defeat of the Confederacy all but certain, most of Lincoln’s audience on this cold March day was surely expecting the president to congratulate the North on its impending victory. But instead of a celebration he gave them a sermon. In the rest of the paragraph, Lincoln dismissed the facile, pervasive assumption that God wore Union blue. Although both sides had prayed to God for His assistance, the prayer “of neither has been answered fully,” he observed. This was because “the Almighty has his own purposes.” Not only did Lincoln discourage the North from taking credit for the end of slavery, he went so far as to suggest the possibility that the blood-bath of the past four years had been a form of divine judgment on both regions. It was possible, Lincoln told his supporters, that God had given “both North and South this terrible war” as divine retribution for the offense of slavery, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was Lincoln’s speculation correct? I don’t know, nor do I think we can know for certain. But this much I do know: In one eloquent paragraph, Lincoln offered a complicated narrative of national responsibility for slavery that was mostly absent from the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag. Now, as in 1865, it’s a story that many of us would rather not hear.


I have one more set of reflections I want to share with you concerning the Confederate battle flag controversy, and I promise that I will get to them, but my recent experience on “my” bench at Lake Ellyn called to mind a marvelous novel that I finally got around to reading earlier this summer, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Quite a number of its passages are now in my commonplace book, and I thought I would share a few while they are fresh in my mind.

Many of you are probably familiar with Bradbury’s 1953 classic, but in case you aren’t, it’s easy to summarize the plot. It’s a dystopian novel, set some time after the year 2020 (the only year ever mentioned), at a time when the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to set them. Specifically, they burn books, almost all of which are now illegal. The novel explains retroactively how such a state of things came to be and meditates on the incalculable human cost that ensued. At its most basic, it’s a “love letter to books.”

Fahrenheit 451

Years after writing Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury identified himself as “a preventer of futures . . . not a predictor of them.” The book is speculative fiction, imagining what would happen if men and women succumbed wholly to the lure of empty entertainment and simply stopped reading, or at least stopped reading books of substance. According to a recent reviewer, the novel’s remarkable staying power stems from its ability “to symbolize the importance of literacy and reading in an increasingly visual culture, offering hope that the wonders of technology and the raptures of multimedia entertainments will never obscure the vital importance of an examined life.”

As the novel unfolds we learn the chilling truth that “the public stopped reading of its own accord.” Although the prohibition of reading is now officially enforced by the state, it originated with the people themselves, and throughout the book individuals who are hiding books are caught because they are turned in by neighbors rather than because of extensive government surveillance. The local fire chief reveals the genesis of the oppressive regime to the novel’s protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag whose eyes are opening to the heart-emptiness and soul-sickness that surrounds him: “It didn’t come from the Government down,” Chief Beatty exults. “There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with, no!”

The majority preferred to be amused rather than stimulated, titillated rather than educated, affirmed rather than challenged. Above all, they preferred to be happy rather than wise.  Because books might threaten these values, the safest course was to give up books entirely and reduce life to two dimensions: work and entertainment. The path to this impoverishment led directly through the schools, as Chief Beatty explained: “School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?”

“Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work.” No firemen will set our books aflame, but doesn’t this mindset pervade our society? A generation ago, Neil Postman offered a trenchant critique of how modern media feeds our cultural obsession with entertainment in his marvelous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. More recently, Martha Nussbaum has exposed the ways that higher education is actively exalting the other pillar of Bradbury’s dystopia, the grossly misguided conviction that higher education should focus primarily on knowledge that generates income. In her work Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum exposes how both politicians and university administrators are evincing a willingness to sacrifice the liberal arts as peripheral subjects that don’t produce the same obvious public benefits as investment in science and technology. Both groups, Nussbaum writes, “prefer to pursue short-term profit by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit-making.”

All across the country today, state legislatures and boards of trustees are concluding that the humanities are peripheral to education. Rejecting the heart of the western intellectual tradition and following the example of nations like India and Japan, they are choosing to allocate precious resources disproportionately to STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) on the grounds that the primary purpose of education is to promote national competitiveness in the global economy. Boiled down, they now champion a vision of education that teaches students how to make a living rather than learn how to live, that helps students to create technology but not to think deeply about it, that trains them to think about things but rarely the meaning of things. Bradbury saw this coming sixty-plus years ago.

As a historian (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), I can’t help but notice that this glorification of the pragmatic—life is immediate, the job counts—is also a mindless exaltation of the present, a marvelous example of what C. S. Lewis long ago labeled “chronological snobbery.” Throughout Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury makes the point that it is in books that we most commonly connect with the generations that have preceded us. Professor Faber, an out-of-work literature professor who went into hiding after the final liberal arts college was shut down, explains to Guy Montag that books were a “type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.”

Toward the end of the novel, Montag—who is fleeing for his life after being caught with books and forced to burn them himself—joins a band of hobo intellectuals in the distant countryside. Each individual has memorized all or part of an important book, and they wait for the day when they can return to print what they carry in their minds. Until that day comes, they are a living library, the world’s surviving, secret connection to the best that has been thought and said in humanity’s now forgotten history. The group’s leader explains their thinking to Montag as the novel closes, shortly after a nuclear attack has devastated the nearby city:

“Some day the load we’re carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, We’re remembering.”


I’m going to interrupt my observations on the Confederate battle flag controversy to share a simple pleasure that I enjoyed night before last. If you’re a long-time reader of this blog (and if you are, “bless your heart,” as my mother would say), you know that one of my greatest joys is to sit and read in the summer in a park near the college. There have been summers when I have read thirty to forty books on the same lake-side bench, and the anticipation of being able to return to “my” bench is part of what gets me through our brutal Chicago winters.

"My" bench at Lake Ellyn Park

“My” bench at Lake Ellyn Park

For a variety of reasons I haven’t gotten to spend much time on my bench this summer, but I did sneak in a couple of hours a few evenings back. It was unseasonably cool for July—not much over seventy—the sky was almost painfully blue, there was just a hint of breeze, the mosquitoes had mysteriously gone elsewhere, and the park was quiet except for the distant sounds of children on the playground. Does it sound too mystical to say that it was a deeply religious experience—a fleeting moment of peace and beauty that both filled me with joy and left me longing for more? I was thankful—and because I believe that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights”—I worshiped.


I shared in my last post the concern that the recent scrutiny of the Confederate battle flag may simply end up replacing one myth about the American Civil War with a different one. On the plus side, most of the online chatter has rightly dismissed the postwar southern invention that the conflict had little to do with slavery. On the minus side, much of the editorial opinion I’ve read implicitly promotes the postwar northern fiction that the conflict was first and foremost a moral struggle over the institution. Both views are wrong, and both prevent us from reckoning honestly with our nation’s racial history.

As I explained last time, the Civil War was never a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery. While the white South was nearly unanimous in its defense of human bondage, the North was badly divided. To generalize broadly: the cause of Union unified the North, the cause of emancipation divided it, badly blurring the distinction between the two sides.

For different reasons, it’s likewise true that the war was never an unambiguous contest over racial equality. On this issue, the opinions of whites in North and South were almost—if not quite—interchangeable. The range of attitudes was undoubtedly greater in the North than in the South, but in both regions the vast majority of whites took white supremacy for granted and denounced all appeals for racial equality. Much of the condemnation of white southern racism during the debate over the Confederate battle flag has left the mistaken impression that the men who marched under the Stars and Stripes had significantly different views.

I won’t take the time to overload you with examples, but here are just a few observations that hint attest to the pattern I am describing. I’ll concentrate on white northern attitudes:

Let’s begin in the late 1850s. In many of the eighteen free states, adults could easily remember a time when bondage had been legal in their own neighborhoods. Slavery had been legal in all of the original thirteen colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution, but the northern states began to phase out the institution after the achievement of independence. They typically did so very gradually, however, commonly passing what are known as “post-natal” statutes that only freed slaves not yet born. Pennsylvania was the first to act in 1780 and set a pattern that was widely followed. The Pennsylvania law stipulated that no slaves currently living would ever be freed, but that any future children born to enslaved mothers would be freed on their twenty-eighth birthday. Other northern states followed suit, with New Jersey being the last to act in 1804 when it declared that all slaves not yet born would be free when they reached adulthood. This gradual approach minimized the financial impact of emancipation on slaveholders and insured that slavery would linger in the North, although in increasingly small numbers, all the way up to the Mexican War.

As enslaved African Americans made the transition from slavery to freedom in the North, they quickly discovered that “freedom” did not mean equality. Five states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Oregon) legally prohibited free blacks from settling within their borders or required them to post prohibitive bonds for “good behavior.” In the remaining states, blacks were relegated to the most menial, low-paying jobs; consigned to segregated schools, when schools for blacks even existed; often prohibited from giving testimony in courts; always barred from serving on juries; and in the vast majority of cases, disqualified from voting explicitly because of their race. (When the Civil War ended, nineteen of twenty-four Union states still disfranchised black voters. Those that allowed blacks to vote were typically New England states with minuscule black populations. Overall, only 6-7 percent of adult black males could legally vote in the North at war’s end.)

In northern politics, race was a combustible theme throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Both major parties recognized its power. Generalizing broadly, northern Democrats sought to score points with northern voters by convincing them that the reason Republicans opposed the extension of slavery was that they favored racial equality. Republicans tried to deflect such charges by assuring northern voters that they were as committed as anyone to white supremacy. Where both parties clearly agreed was in their reading of the northern electorate. No political movement could expect broad success across the North if voters became convinced that they questioned the hierarchy of the races.

Such racially charged politics pervaded the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In their contest for a U. S. Senate seat from Illinois, the two future presidential candidates perfectly modeled the larger strategy. For his part, the Democrat Douglas continually charged that Lincoln and his Republican Party were a bunch of abolitionist fanatics with radical views on race. According to Douglass, the Republicans

Democratic Stephen Douglas, U. S. Senator from Illinois

Democratic Stephen Douglas, U. S. Senator from Illinois

“really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence that all human laws in violation of it are null and void. With such men it is no use for me to argue. I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negroes, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fiji Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men. They alluded to men of European birth and European descent—to white men, and to none others—when they declared that doctrine. I hold that this Government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.”

This was race-baiting with a vengeance. While I find no evidence that Lincoln ever similarly pandered to white racism—intentionally trying to whip up a crowd with cheap racist remarks—he understood full well that he had to convince voters that Douglas was wrong if his campaign was to survive. And so he sought to persuade the audience that it was possible to oppose slavery without favoring the end of all racial distinction. Lincoln confessed his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political evil.” He admitted his opinion that the black man had just as much right as the white to “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.” But this need not lead to complete racial equality, Lincoln explained.

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. . . . And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Northern racism kept the Republican Party on the defensive throughout the war. By all accounts, it was more virulent in the lower North than in the upper North, stronger in the Midwest than in New England, more pronounced in cities than in the countryside, more common among immigrants and blue-collar workers than among native-born Americans and farmers. Catholic archbishop John Hughes spoke for New York City’s massive Irish population when he insisted that Catholics “are willing to fight to the death for the support of the Constitution, the government, and the laws of the country. But if . . . they are to fight for the abolition of slavery,” he declared, “they will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.”

Class animosities also figured prominently in attacks on the Republican campaign against slavery. New York City’s Democratic newspapers argued that emancipation would eventually lead to a mass exodus of newly freed bondsmen from the South to northern cities, where they would compete for jobs with working class whites and drive down wage levels. Campaigners in 1862 for New York gubernatorial candidate Horatio Seymour announced that “a vote for Seymour is a vote to protect our white laborers against the association and competition of Southern Negroes.” Such working-class resentment of blacks reached its pinnacle in July 1863 when New Yorkers rioted for four days in protest of the new federal Conscription Act. During the New York City Draft Riots, as they are known, angry Irish laborers trashed African-American homes, burned an African-American orphanage to the ground, and lynched a half-dozen black New Yorkers.

This sketch of a purported scene from the New York City Draft Riots appeared in Harper's Weekly later in 1863

This sketch of a purported scene from the New York City Draft Riots appeared in Harper’s Weekly later in 1863

Racism was almost as pronounced in the Midwest. Republican politicians from the region lamented that it was ubiquitous. Republican Congressman George Julian of Indiana confided in a letter, “Our people hate the Negro with a perfect if not a supreme hatred.” Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois agreed. “There is a great aversion in the West . . . against having free negroes come among us,” Trumbull conceded. “Our people want nothing to do with the negro.” The Chicago Times spoke for a broad swath of Midwestern sentiment when it blasted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Alluding to Lincoln’s allusion to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” the Times editorialized:

“It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

Race continued to be a powerful weapon in the presidential campaign of 1864. Seeking to protect themselves from Democratic charges that they favored black equality, the Republicans took two steps aimed at redirecting the voters’ attention away from the controversial emancipation policy. First, they temporarily abandoned the “Republican” label and ran instead under the banner of the “National Union” Party, a transparent attempt to make loyalty to the Union, rather than support for emancipation, the defining issue of the campaign. Second, they scratched the current vice-president from the ticket. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was widely perceived as a man of radical racial views, and some Democrats had even insinuated that the supposedly swarthy Hamlin was a mulatto. To replace him the Republicans opted for an individual that no one ever accused of liberal racial views, the current military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. A staunch southern unionist who hated slaveholders and slaves alike, Johnson would later publicly proclaim in his 1867 State of the Union address that blacks  possessed “less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

While the Republicans tried to soft-pedal emancipation in the campaign, northern Democrats did everything they could to emphasize the issue, always linking Republican support for emancipation to the party’s supposed commitment to full racial equality. There was no subtlety in Democrats’ playing of the race card. They lampooned Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus I” and insisted that he and his Republican Party wanted nothing so much as a thoroughgoing intermixture of the races on terms of complete equality. Democrats coined a new term in the 1864 campaign—miscegenation—and informed voters that the creation of a mongrel race that was neither black nor white was the Republicans’ true objective. Democratic pamphlets and broadsides told voters that the Republicans wanted ex-slaves and Irishmen to intermarry, and Democratic artists imagined a ballroom of interracial couples celebrating a Republican victory.

No, the Civil War was not a referendum on racial equality.  Next time we’ll talk about what to make of this fact.


If you are like me and don’t have to earn an honest living during the summer, perhaps you had the opportunity to watch last week as the Confederate battle flag was lowered from its flagpole near the South Carolina state house. The ceremony marked the culmination of an extraordinary three weeks of national conversation about American history, and especially the power of race in the American past (and present). It began with the tragic murder of nine congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17 combined with the subsequent dissemination of pictures of the gunman posing with a Confederate battle flag. Since then, politicians and pundits from across the spectrum have weighed in, debating not only the symbolism of the flag, but also the nature of the Confederacy and the larger meaning of the Civil War. Much of their claims have been superficial and sensational, but their instinct to look to the past for understanding is dead on. There are times when “we cannot escape history,” as Abraham Lincoln once told Congress, and this has been one of them.

lowering battle flag

One of the positives of the public debate has been to hold up to close scrutiny the tired assertion that the Civil War was caused by a dispute over states’ rights rather than slavery. As I wrote earlier, that view is indefensible–preposterous even. It’s not just that modern-day historians widely condemn it; more to the point, white southerners between 1861 and 1865 didn’t believe it. The statesmen and journalists who shaped the southern justification for secession made their motives abundantly clear. Disunion was necessary, they declared repeatedly, in order to preserve both slavery and “the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race.”

When black Americans view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism, they absolutely have history on their side. The point is not that every rebel soldier marched into battle thinking about slavery and white supremacy. No academic historian that I’m aware of would argue that. The point is rather that it is utterly ahistorical to depict the defense of slavery as somehow incidental or peripheral to the Southern cause. All Americans understood that slavery “was somehow the cause of the war,” President Lincoln observed as the war was winding down. He was right.

But now let’s complicate things. There’s been a lot of righteous indignation coming from online pundits who remind us that the South seceded in defense of human bondage. “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy,” Vox’s Dave Roberts tweeted. “The Confederate battle flag is an American swastika,” wrote Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, “the relic of traitors and totalitarians, symbol of a brutal regime.” Nationally-syndicated columnist Harold Myerson writes of “the South’s vile history” and “the grotesque reality that was the antebellum South.” “Barbaric.”  “Totalitarian.”  “Vile.”  “Grotesque.”  These aren’t exactly nuanced arguments.

For most of the last century and a half, two competing regional myths have struggled to shape popular American memory of the conflict. Boiled down to its essence, the southern myth depicts the war as the culmination of a philosophical struggle over the rights of states in the American Constitutional system. Slavery was at best coincidental to this struggle, which might just as well have come over mules, as one southern apologist famously contended near the close of the nineteenth century. In contrast, the northern myth defines the war as a moral crusade to remove, at long last, the blight of human slavery from the American republic. This is the view embodied in the 1876 Freedmen’s Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.  It’s the view that poet Carl Sandburg popularized in his rapturous (if wordy) 2,800-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. It’s the view that Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker perpetuates when she describes the Federal invasion of the South after Fort Sumter as “noble” and insists that “no one would argue otherwise.” As she put it recently, “Wars to liberate people from human bondage don’t come any nobler.”

Freedman's Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Despite the glaring difference at their center, these regional myths actually share a lot of common traits. For one thing, both became popular ways of viewing the war after the shooting stopped, not before. Both are self-serving and self-justifying, placing one or the other section in the best possible light. Both are also grossly simplistic, portraying the war as a kind of Manichaean struggle between good and evil. According to the southern myth, the war was a contest between zealous defenders of the Constitution and those who would trample the country’s founding charter beneath their feet. According to the northern myth, the conflict pitted advocates of human bondage against champions of human freedom. Finally, most importantly, both regional myths are wrong.

I’m worried that, in their rush to remind us of the centrality of slavery to the sectional struggle, many of the critics of the Confederate battle flag are simply replacing the southern myth about the Civil War with the northern one. For the most part, they’re not doing this explicitly. (Kathleen Parker’s gushing tribute to the Union army is the exception to the rule in what I have read.) Rather, they are doing so implicitly by focusing  on the Confederacy in isolation. One of the cardinal rules of sound historical thinking is that it is imperative to pay attention to context. We cannot claim to understand any individual or group or event or belief system from the past when we have ignored the historical context. “Know context, know meaning,” I constantly remind my students. “No context, no meaning.”

Most of the anti-flag editorials that I have read ignore this foundational principle. If they allude to the Confederacy at all, they tend to focus on it exclusively.  They identify its prevailing values, measure them against twenty-first century mores, and draw their blistering conclusions. Along the way—whether intentionally or not I cannot say—they perpetuate the impression that the attitudes of the North and South regarding slavery and racial equality were diametrically opposed.  This is a fundamental tenet of the northern myth, and it is wrong. Careful attention to context shows that nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is important to broaden our focus to include the Civil-War North, but not primarily to rehabilitate the reputation of the Old South. I have no patience with southern apologists who think that they somehow exonerate the South by proving that the North was racist also. No, we need to bring the wartime North into the conversation because it affects the story that we tell about America’s racial history. In their indignant condemnations of a “vile,” “barbaric” Confederacy, writers like Jenkins and Meyerson are actually reinforcing a perspective that has long been an obstacle to racial progress in this country. This is the view that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past. By making the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem, the rest of the country has been able to reassure itself that racism is an aberration, a pathology limited to the country’s one sick region.

A careful attention to the broader context of the Civil War does nothing to weaken the conclusion that the Confederacy was conceived in a determination to defend slavery and white supremacy. It does, however, show us that the war itself was never a clear-cut struggle over the morality of slavery, much less the injustice of white supremacy. I’ll address the first in the remainder of this post and turn to the second in a few days.

The Civil War was not a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery for one simple reason: while the South was nearly unanimous in its defense of the institution, the North was badly divided. Let’s start with the most obvious reality: throughout the Civil War “the Union” included four states where slavery remained legal—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. With the exception of Delaware, these states had large slave populations and large pro-slavery majorities that would have bolted to the Confederacy if the new Republican administration threatened to strike immediately at slavery. Although we sometimes fall into the bad habit of describing the struggle between North and South as a struggle between slave and free states, it was never that clear-cut.

Next we have to consider the Constitution: On the eve of the secession crisis, one of the things that northern whites shared in common with southern whites was that both groups believed unquestionably that the Constitution prevented the federal government from interfering with slavery within states where state law already recognized it. The leaders of the Republican Party, which emerged exclusively within the North during the latter half of the 1850s, accepted this view to a man. They sought to use the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories, but they acknowledged that they were prevented from attacking it where it was already entrenched. Northern Democrats, who represented just under half of the Union-state electorate, thought that the white population of the territories should determine whether slavery was legal or illegal there, but they agreed with the Republicans in maintaining that the federal government must leave slavery alone within the states where it was already legally recognized.

And so it was that, when states of the lower South began passing secession resolutions in the winter of 1860-1861 in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, one of the ways that northern congressmen tried to assuage southern fears was to support a proposed amendment to the Constitution that stated explicitly that the federal government could not touch slavery within a state:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

This proposal—which if ratified would have become, ironically, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution—was passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress at the beginning of March 1861, but the shooting began before more than two states (Maryland and Ohio) could approve it. Once blood was shed, the momentum for ratifying an amendment designed to pacify the South came to a screeching halt.

Even so, the belief that the war was not a war to end slavery was the near unanimous position among northern officeholders during the first year of the conflict. In his first major address to Congress after war had begun, Abraham Lincoln vowed that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the states where it exists.” A few weeks later Congress passed a joint resolution that staked out the same ground. Named in honor of its primary sponsors, the Crittenden-Johnson resolution of July 22, 1861 was the closest thing to a formal declaration of war ever approved by the U. S. Congress. According to the wording of the resolution, the war was not being waged

in any spirit of oppression or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or . . . of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of . . . States. . . . [The goal of the war is to] defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several states unimpaired; and . . . as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.

Put simply, abolition was not to be a goal of the northern war effort, according to the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution. Whenever the southern states ended their rebellion the war should stop immediately, and their “established institutions”—a euphemism for slavery—should remain undisturbed.

Historians who have closely studied the values of Union soldiers have determined that they professed similar views during the war’s first year. For example, in his study of the correspondence and diaries of nearly six hundred Union soldiers, eminent Princeton historian James McPherson concluded that in 1861 fewer than one out of ten were motivated primarily by the desire to end slavery.

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Union Major General George B. McClellan

The highest ranking officers in the Union forces tended to show the same indifference—if not outright hostility—to the cause of emancipation. More than a year into the war, Major General George McClellan, for instance—at the time the commander of the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war—wrote to Abraham Lincoln to express his view that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Although he surely overstated the case, McClellan further warned Lincoln that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Now without a doubt, much changed after the war’s first year. One of the most important developments in all of U. S. history was the transformation of northern war aims between 1861 and 1863, as a war that began as a war exclusively for Union evolved into a war that linked Union with emancipation. Part of the reason for this transformation was a new understanding of the president’s authority in time of war, in particular the belief that the rebellion had created a Constitutional window of opportunity that allowed the commander-in-chief to strike at slavery as a military measure to restore the government’s authority.

But the transformation of war aims rested on more than just a shift in technical Constitutional interpretation. There was also a profound change in popular sentiment in the North, particularly among those in uniform, that the events of the war brought about. To prevent this already lengthy post from becoming ridiculously long, I won’t go into a full explanation of how this came about. Imitating Inego in The Princess Bride, rather than explain fully, “let me sum up”:

For many Union soldiers who were exposed first-hand to the reality of southern slavery as they marched through the South, the war quite genuinely revolutionized their thinking. Some became wholly converted to the cause of emancipation as a moral obligation and readily embraced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. And yet the evidence is clear that a large portion of the Union army felt betrayed by the redefinition of Union war aims. James McPherson found that, for every Union soldier who welcomed the emancipation policy in the winter of 1862-1863, another declared it to be “unconstitutional and illegitimate.” Fairly typical of the latter were the Indiana private who wrote that “if emancipation is to be the policy of this war . . . I do not care how quick the country goes to pot”; the soldier in the 12th Maine who wrote, “I do not want to hear any more about negroes when I get home”; and the Illinois private who confessed to his parents, “I am the boy that Can fight for my Country, but not for the Negros” [sic].

Although support for emancipation in the Union Army grew gradually and significantly over time, McPherson finds that it was frequently couched in the most pragmatic of terms, so much so that he labels most supporters of emancipation in the army as “practical abolitionists.” These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war. “We have been playing with traitors long enough” was a typical viewpoint. Believing that slavery was the backbone of the southern economy and the primary source of wealth of the planters who had fomented the southern rebellion, these soldiers agreed with the Yankee private who concluded that “the war will never end until we end slavery”; with the Union surgeon who decided that “slavery must be cleaned out” because “the only way to put down this rebellion is to hurt the instigators and abettors of it”; and with the Minnesota officer who declared that “crippling the institution of slavery is . . . striking a blow at the heart of the rebellion.”

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

A consummate politician, Abraham Lincoln correctly understood that the way to build broad support for emancipation was to link it to the cause of Union. After studying, teaching, and writing on the Civil War for a quarter-century, I am persuaded that Lincoln’s opposition to slavery as immoral was absolutely genuine. But it is also clear that he took seriously his role as leader of the Republican Party and the consequent obligation to frame the policies of his administration in a way best designed to perpetuate his party’s success at the polls. A viable majority could never be built in support of emancipation as a moral crusade, Lincoln recognized, but it might be politically possible to forge a majority willing to swallow emancipation as a pragmatic measure necessary to save the Union. In the summer of 1863, Lincoln famously defended his proclamation against northern critics in a public letter that embodied such a pragmatic strategy:

You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional—I think differently. I think the constitution invests its Commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy?

When Lincoln was re-elected president in the fall of 1864, 55 percent of the northern electorate supported him, but 45 percent cast Democratic ballots, supporting a party whose platform condemned the war as a failure and renounced emancipation as a war aim. Emancipation divided the North through the Civil War’s bitter end. Concentrating solely on the Confederacy obscures that crucial reality.

Back with more soon.


I plan to write again soon at much greater length about the rapidly unfolding events in the South Carolina legislature, but I thought I would share a few quick reactions to the just completed debate there over the proposal to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol. As you’re surely aware by now, on Monday the South Carolina Senate voted 37-3 to lower the flag for good. Then in the wee hours this morning the state House of Representatives followed suit after an intense and contentious thirteen-hour debate. By a margin of 94-20 they concurred with the Senate and sent the measure to Governor Nikki Haley for her signature. She is expected to sign the bill at any moment, which means that the flag will be gone by tomorrow, an outcome that no one could have anticipated a scant three weeks ago.

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

I’ve only skimmed the extensive news coverage of the debates in Columbia, but three assertions caught my attention because of the way that they speak to the role of historical memory in the legislature’s emotional deliberations. Two of them I’ll pair together. They are almost perfectly symmetrical and almost equally illogical, although one of them will be mostly ridiculed and the other widely applauded.

During the debate in the Senate, Senate majority leader Harvey Peeler Jr. opposed the removal of the flag on the grounds that “moving the flag won’t change history.” It would be tantamount to “removing a tattoo from the corpse of a loved one and thinking that would change the loved one’s obituary.” Two days later, representative Jenny Horne, who passionately supported the flag’s removal, decried all discussion of the past. After the House finally approved the measure, Horne, who emerged as one of the heroes of the debate, told a Washington Post reporter she was tired of talking about the purported values of those who carried the flag into battle. “What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now,” she told the Post. “And in 2015, that flag was used as a symbol of hatred.”

SC Representative Jenny Horne: “What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now."

SC Representative Jenny Horne: “What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now.”

In fairness to both, we need to acknowledge that Peeler and Horne were both engaged in an unscripted, emotional debate, but we still need to think deeply about their claims. Neither is supportable. The debate over what the Confederate battle flag symbolizes has always been a dispute about historical memory—popular memory of the past from the vantage point of the present. Neither Peeler nor Horne get this. Peeler argued as if the Confederate battle flag testifies only to the past, blind to its power as a living symbol that makes a statement—an inexact and debatable statement, to be sure—to all who view it.

Horne, for her part, takes Peeler’s obtuseness and turns it upside down. The debate over the Confederate battle flag can be settled without any reference to the past whatsoever, she implied to the Post reporter. Dylann Roof has settled the question quite nicely, thank you very much. What other evidence is needed? But the flag is a symbol, and symbols are inescapably imprecise. They’re squishy things that often mean different things to different people. We can’t classify symbols as “true” or “false,” as if they were mathematical postulates. What we can do—and are obliged to do in instances such as this one—is to ask whether a particular symbol is appropriate, whether it reasonably can be made to stand for the values that are imputed to it. Was Dylann Roof simply a deranged mad man, or were there rational grounds why someone seeking to incite race war might want to be photographed with that flag? If the battle flag is a “symbol of hate,” as Horne stressed repeatedly, it didn’t become one three weeks ago.

The third claim that caught my eye was attributed to several opponents of the flag’s removal who insisted that the battle flag was in reality a noble symbol that has been “hijacked” by racists. Unlike the previous two claims, this is one that takes the past seriously. What is more, it shows an admirable sensitivity to how symbols can evolve in their predominant meaning over time. Unfortunately, the claim just isn’t true. I’ve already made the case that the battle flag is appropriately viewed as a racist symbol because of its connection with the Confederate defense of slavery and white supremacy during the Civil War. But even if we concede for the moment that the flag only became a symbol of racism after it was “hijacked” by bigots sometime after the war, who did the hijacking? Was it only extremists like Ku Klux Klansmen? Deranged killers like Dylann Roof? Or should the list include more mainstream figures?

In his book The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s most Embattled Emblem, historian John M. Coski notes that white southerners rarely displayed the  flag between the end of the Civil War and the late 1930s. The original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which existed briefly during the early years of Reconstruction, was not popularly associated with that emblem. After the Klan was reborn during World War I, in part because of the popularity of D. W. Griffith’s notorious movie Birth of a Nation, Klan rallies regularly featured not the Confederate battle flag but the Stars and Stripes.

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention.

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention.

Although the popularity of the Confederate battle flag began to pick up at the close of the Great Depression, another decade passed before it would became a prominent symbol of white supremacy. And in what context did it do so? If there was a single moment that embodied the flag’s renaissance as an important cultural symbol, it came in 1948 and it centered around none other than the popular governor of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond. After walking out of the Democratic national convention that year in protest of a possible civil rights’ plank, the segregationist “Dixiecrat” Party that the South Carolina governor helped to found quickly embraced the Rebel banner. When the fledgling party met in convention in Birmingham later that year, state delegations entered the convention hall waving Confederate battle flags. White South Carolinians voted overwhelmingly for Thurmond in that fall’s election, giving him 72 percent of the ballots cast. Black South Carolinians didn’t vote–not because they were indifferent, but because they weren’t allowed to.

Blaming unnamed fringe groups for “hijacking” an honorable symbol just won’t wash.

Back with more soon.


In my last post I alluded to a recent CNN poll that suggests that nearly three quarters of white Americans do not view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism, despite Dylann Roof’s best efforts to the contrary.

Let’s think about this a bit. The actual question posed to respondents was, “Do you, yourself, see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” Much of the furor over the continued exhibition of the flag on public property revolves around the contention that the flag is racially divisive and intrinsically insulting to African Americans. (According to the same poll, nearly four fifths of black respondents see the issue in precisely this light.) So here is a slightly modified question for white Americans that might be more relevant to the controversy at hand than the one that the CNN pollsters asked: “In your opinion, is it reasonable for African Americans to view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism?” How would you answer? Here would be my response, as someone who has taught and written on the American Civil War for more than a quarter century: Definitely, absolutely, unequivocally, indisputably, and (lest there be any doubt) emphatically, YES!

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

The Confederate battle flag flying outside the South Carolina capitol

I’ll explain in a moment, but let me start with a bit of autobiography. I was born, raised, and educated in the South. I still have family in the South, I’m proud of my southern roots, and I speak unapologetically with a southern accent, even though I have now lived nearly half of my life outside the region. (My best friend in the UW history department used to tease me mercilessly about my accent, saying that when I used fifty-cent academic phrases like “epistemological presuppositions,” it reminded him for all the world of Gomer Pyle singing opera.)

I’ll go further. In my youth, I was enamored with all things Confederate, including the Confederate battle flag. My lifelong fascination with history began with an obsession with the Civil War. The historian Arnold Toynbee recalled thinking as a child at the close of the nineteenth century that “history is something unpleasant that happens to other people.” (By “history,” Toynbee had in mind those once-in-a-lifetime upheavals—revolutions, wars, the collapse of dynasties and civilizations—that traditionally got all of the attention in world history textbooks.) Toynbee then went on to acknowledge that his understanding of what history entailed was surely influenced by his very privileged and protected upbringing. “If I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States,” he mused, “I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.”

When I reflect on my early interest in history, I call to mind a succession of snapshots centered on my evolving awareness that “history had happened to my people in my part of the world”:

* Watching the two-part movie Johnny Shiloh on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” when I was six or seven. (The movie was about drummer boy Johnny Clem, who actually wasn’t present at the Battle of Shiloh, but no matter.)

* Talking with my grandfather, who had been born in 1890, and whose father had actually been alive during the Civil War and could remember troops riding into the farmyard to “requisition” the family cow.

* A trip at age eight or nine with my mom to the “Confederama” in Chattanooga, a diorama depicting the 1863 Battle of Lookout Mountain, otherwise remembered as the “Battle above the Clouds.”

* The Halloween that I was nine years old, when my grandmother dyed my old Sunday suit gray and I went trick-or-treating as a Confederate officer (and later wearing that uniform to meet my older sister’s Yankee fiancé).

* And yes, decorating the wall of my bedroom with a small Confederate battle flag.

“When I was a child,” the apostle Paul wrote in II Corinthians, chapter 13, “I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” My adulation of the Confederacy was not malevolent, and I don’t think it was racist, but it was undeniably childlike—innocent, maybe; ignorant, definitely. Indeed, my ignorance was unbounded. To begin with, I knew nothing of the war’s complicated internal dynamic in my part of the South. I grew up in East Tennessee, which overwhelmingly supported the Union during the war and sent more than thirty thousand men into the Federal Army.

I also had literally no inkling of the conflict’s connection with the controversy over slavery. In this regard, my early understanding of the Civil War was not unlike what you might learn from attending a Civil-War re-enactment today. In my mind’s eye, the war was a whites-only affair in which both sides were honorable and the underlying causes need not be mentioned. As I grew older, I did learn that the contest was also a struggle over ideas, but these ideas had absolutely nothing to do with the South’s benign “peculiar institution”—that was a damned Yankee lie. (I still recall the thrill that I felt when my seventh-grade civics teacher conclusively proved—to my 12-year-old mind—that the “War Between the States” was a principled struggle over state rights. Take that, damn Yankees!)

It was not until my junior year of high school that I fell from this state of innocence. My American history teacher took a chance and required us to read a small book by Georgia-born Yale historian C. Vann Woodward: The Strange Career of Jim Crow. “Jim Crow” was a phrase that came to serve as a nickname for the pervasive system of segregation that emerged in the former Confederate states after the Civil War and persisted for nearly three generations. In Strange Career, I read about Jim Crow school systems, Jim Crow streetcars, Jim Crow drinking fountains, Jim Crow restrooms, Jim Crow telephone booths, and Jim Crow Bibles for swearing on in segregated courtrooms. I was appalled. Although I had been born and raised in the South, I lived in an overwhelmingly white Appalachian community, and I was just young enough to miss most of the furor over forced integration of southern public schools, so I was truly unaware of the South’s complex and tortured racial history. The Strange Career of Jim Crow did not touch on the Civil War itself, but it became the point of entry through which I now revisited the South’s history with new eyes.

I was troubled by what I discovered, but I didn’t stop loving the South. True love “is not blind,” G. K. Chesterton reminds us. “That is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Indeed, because I love the South, I think I can sympathize with why so many white southerners feel compelled to defend the Confederate battle flag. I want to speak for them, if I can, in a later post. But first, we have to deal with some hard truths.

Let’s start with the basic question of why eleven southern states seceded from the Union during the winter of 1860-1861. A one-word answer will get us started: fear. A chorus of politicians and journalists told southern whites that the election of a Republican president signaled the beginning of the end of their way of life, and they made clear—again and again and again—that the central pillar of that way of life was the enslavement of African Americans. Demonstrating this systematically would quickly grow tedious, so here are a few representative samples from a plethora of possibilities (I assure you I’m not cherry-picking):

Charleston MercuryLet’s begin with the Charleston Mercury, one of the most outspoken voices for secession in the event of a Republican victory in 1860. Three weeks before the presidential election, the Mercury laid out a systematic case for secession in an editorial titled “The Terrors of Submission.” The writer listed eleven reasons to favor secession, ten of which involved the effects of a Republican victory on slavery. The South’s “abject prostration to Abolition rule at Washington” would undermine confidence in slave property, cause slaves to depreciate in value, and encourage abolitionists to “renew their operations on the South.” But more than southern pocketbooks were in jeopardy, the Mercury warned.

The ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves, is not like the ruin of any other people. It is not a mere loss of liberty, like the Italians under the BOURBONS. It is not heavy taxation, which must still leave the means of living, or otherwise taxation defeats itself. But it is the loss of liberty, property, home, country—everything that makes life worth living.

Stephen Fowler Hale (1816-1862), mortally wounded at the Battle of Gaines' Mill in 1862

Stephen Fowler Hale (1816-1862), mortally wounded at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862

As support for secession grew from South Carolina to Texas, the states of the lower South regularly sent agents or “commissioners” to the state governments of the upper South to enlist their support for disunion. The letter of Alabama commissioner Stephen F. Hale to the governor of Kentucky was fairly representative of their arguments. Writing in late December 1860, more than a month and a half after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Hale set out in lurid detail the predictable consequences of submitting to the Republican administration soon to be installed in Washington, D.C.

The Republican Party was determined to destroy “the sovereignty and equality of the States,” Hale insisted, “resting its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the Equality of the Races, white and black.”

What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Alexander Stephens (1812-1883)

Alexander Stephens (1812-1883)

Speaking at a public rally some three months later in Savannah, Georgia, the recently inaugurated vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, sought to crystalize the ideological core of the southern rebellion. The former U. S. congressman derided the view held by some of the Founding Fathers that slavery “was wrong in principle.” “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens assured his cheering audience.

Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone 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.

Finally, a word from the president of the Confederacy, the former U. S. Senator and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Two weeks after the opening battle at Fort Sumter, the Mississippi statesman stood before the Confederate Congress and rehearsed the causes for the recent eruption of war. After making the case that the Constitution was intended by its framers to be a compact among sovereign states, Davis turned his attention to the “spirit of ultra fanaticism” in the North that had led to “a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States.” The Republican Party was bent on “impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority.”

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

Unimpeded, the Republicans’ fanatical crusade would have tragic consequences. Not the least of its victims would be the slaves themselves, Davis lamented. “Under the supervision of a superior race,” the South’s African and African-American laborers had been “elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.” The Republican agenda would also cripple the South’s production of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco—for “which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable”—and destroy the region’s bounteous prosperity. “With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled,” Davis concluded, “the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North . . . to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”

So much for the politicians and journalists. Do their views prove that the men and boys who put on the Confederate uniform were similarly motivated? Of course not. Historians who have studied the values of Confederate soldiers have learned that they entered the service for all kinds of pragmatic as well as ideological reasons: for adventure, for money, to impress women, to defend women, to get away from home, to defend their homes, to defend their “country,” to be true to their forefathers, to resist “tyranny,” and—in at least one out of five cases—because they were drafted and had no choice.

ManningAnd yet historians have unearthed precious little evidence that the Johnny Rebs in the ranks viewed the essence of the war any differently than their leaders. Especially when we focus on the soldiers who enlisted the earliest and fought the longest, it seems that the fighting men in gray saw eye to eye with Davis, Stephens and company. In her book What This Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, historian Chandra Manning relates that Confederate soldiers wasted little breath expounding on state rights. Reviewing literally thousands of documents, Manning found that in their letters and diaries Confederate soldiers “virtually never discussed political principles such as states’ rights.” She elaborates,

For the men who filled the Confederate ranks, secession, the Confederacy, and the war were not about state sovereignty or whether the central government could levy a tariff or build a road. Secession, the Confederacy, and the war were about securing a government that would do what government was supposed to do: promote white liberty, advance white families’ best interests, and protect slavery.

MarchingMastersSouthern historian Colin Woodward agrees. Over the course of years spent combing the diaries and correspondence of Confederate soldiers, Woodward discovered that “the proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes.” In his book Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Woodward notes that, whenever Rebel soldiers reflected on what was at stake in the war, their thoughts always came back to slavery. They worried about the loss of economic opportunity if slavery was prohibited from further expansion. They claimed to be anxious for the purity of white womanhood if an inferior black race was set loose by abolitionist fanaticism, and they were troubled more generally by the loss of racial control that emancipation would bring about. Simply put, the war that erupted in 1861 “was about protecting slavery,” and all ranks “knew that going in.”

So let’s return to our original question: Is it reasonable for African Americans to view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism?” Yes it is, but I think we can go further: it would be unreasonable for them to see it as anything else.

Back soon with more.


Although no one could have planned it this way, the recent seminar that I attended at Yale began only four days after the cold-blooded murder of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The focus of the conference was on ways of teaching nineteenth-century American slave narratives, and our conversations about race and American history took place against a backdrop of a national conversation about the meaning of one of the most controversial symbols in our nation’s past: the Confederate battle flag.

As a professional historian, it was an exhilarating and frustrating time. It was exhilarating in that it was one of those rare moments when it looked like the broader public might be alive to the power of the past in the present. It was frustrating—and continues to be—because that initial impression looks increasingly incorrect. The tragedy at Charleston has evoked an outpouring of dogmatic opinion about the Confederate battle flag, and we may very well be witnessing the emergence of a cultural consensus against public displays of the controversial symbol. And yet popular understanding of the battle flag’s historical connotations seem as ignorant as ever.

TshirtI’m not talking here about groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which I have written about earlier, much less the sort of person who would buy a t-shirt like the one pictured to the right, which I came across conspicuously displayed in front of a Gettysburg souvenir shop only a week after the photos of Dylann Roof and his Confederate flag swept the internet. (The shirt’s slogan—“If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson”—seems designed primarily to help the historically ignorant feel smugly superior.) In culturally controversial debates such as this one, there will always be a significant element of public opinion that is both dogmatic and impervious to evidence, and it is a waste of time to try to reason with them. As a former colleague of mine used to observe, you can’t reason someone out of a conviction that reason didn’t lead them to.

No, what has troubled me far more are the views of Americans not affiliated with such fringe groups. A CNN poll conducted ten days after the Charleston shooting offers some profoundly disturbing insights into popular attitudes concerning the Confederate battle flag. (To see the poll in its entirety, click here.)  On the one hand, 55 percent of Americans now claim to oppose the display of the battle flag on government property (with the exception of museums). Why they do so is not entirely clear. In response to the query “Do you, yourself, see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” 57 percent of respondents associated the flag with southern pride, 33 percent linked it with racism, and 5 percent connected the flag equally with both.

In sum, more than three fifths of Americans (62 percent) deny that the Confederate battle flag has significant racist connotations.

Interestingly, such attitudes don’t vary significantly by region. The proportion of respondents who think of the flag as a symbol of racism was 40 percent in New England, 35 percent in the Midwest, 36 percent in the South, and 37 percent in the West. For the most part (and we have to be cautious here, because of the margins of error), when it comes to views of the Confederate flag, the South is more or less American in its perceptions.

Not surprisingly, views of the flag do vary dramatically by race. Nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of African Americans view the battle flag as a symbol of racism. Scarcely a quarter (28 percent) of whites would agree. To put it the other way around, 71 percent of white Americans don’t see the Confederate battle flag as a racist symbol. Among southern whites, that proportion is fully 82 percent.

What are we to make of these figures? I’ll be back soon with some thoughts.


(This week marks the 152nd anniversary of the three-day-long Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle of the American Civil War and the largest military engagement ever fought in the western hemisphere.  With the anniversary in mind, I am re-posting  a series of four essays that I originally penned two years ago after my first visit to the battlefield.  The first was a kind of tourist’s report; the remaining three–including the concluding below–are  more properly styled meditations or reflections.  My goal in these was to explore what it might mean to remember that bloody conflict through eyes of faith.)

One of my favorite quotes about the value of history comes from historian David Harlan, who reminds us that, “at its best, the study of American history can be a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” Not many academic historians hold to that view anymore, and we’re the poorer because of it. I was repeatedly reminded of this as I walked the ground at Gettysburg–the opportunities for life-changing conversations abound, if we have ears to hear. “Hear” is the key verb, because the conversations that I have in mind require above all that we be willing to listen.

Sometimes in such conversations the figures from the past interrogate us. The first conversation that I was drawn into was of this sort. It began as I tried to envision what happened there a century and a half ago, when over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers in blue and gray clashed in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. I have previously noted the chasm that separates us from the men who fought there, and yet it is almost impossible to walk in their footsteps without imagining what it was like to be in their shoes. And as I clambered among the boulders at Devil’s Den, peered through the trees on Little Round Top, and ascended the long, gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge, the questions running through my mind began to change. When the conversation began, I was the one doing the asking–posing safe, academic questions about troop movements and tactics. But then as I tried to imagine what these men experienced, much more personal, far more disturbing questions came to dominate my thoughts.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

Gazing east at Little Round Top (on left) and Big Round Top.

“Could you steel yourself to do what these men did?” I found myself wondering. “Could you endure what they endured?” More importantly, “Could you witness such carnage and still believe in mankind? Could you help to inflict such destruction and still believe in yourself? Could you experience such suffering and still believe in God?” Above all, “Are you devoted to any principle, any cause, any person, any Master enough to give, in Lincoln’s words, “the last full measure of devotion?”

The short answer to all of the above is, “I don’t know.” I pray to God that my faith would not falter, but I just don’t know. What I do know about myself is not reassuring: I too often struggle with even the most trivial acts of self-denial, the most mundane expressions of laying down my life that pale in comparison to the price paid by so many who fought here.

Sometimes our conversations with the past involve listening in on a discussion among historical figures and trying to learn from it, trying to glean wisdom as to “what we should value and how we should live.” I was also drawn into this kind of conversation as I walked the ground at Gettysburg, particularly as I contemplated the nearly fourteen hundred monuments that are sprinkled across the landscape. As I’ve noted before, Gettysburg National Park is arguably the world’s largest statuary garden, and as such it speaks not only to the battle itself but also to its aftermath.

As with tombstones in a cemetery, we read in the ubiquitous inscriptions two kinds of testimony: testimony about the doings of men, and testimony about the longings of mankind. That is, their words speak not only to what happened here, but also to how the soldiers who are commemorated, as well as their descendants, yearned for significance and wanted to believe that their lives mattered. In this sense, the monuments at Gettysburg are best understood as part of an ongoing conversation about the meaning of what happened there, and that conversation is, in a sense, merely a small part of a universal human dialogue about why, or whether, our lives matter at all.

As I noted in my last post, in their language the vast majority of Gettysburg’s monuments are mundane. Like Mr. Gradgrind in Dickens’s Hard Times, they care for nothing but “the facts.” The company or regiment in question fought on this spot at this time for this objective. It sent this many men into battle and suffered this many casualties. But not all are so reticent. “It’s not enough to remember what these men did,” the exceptions seem to say. “Subsequent generations must also know why these men fought, and why we should venerate them.”

Modern-day historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning have read literally tens of thousands of pages of Civil War soldiers’ diaries and letters in an attempt to understand why men fought in the Civil War. The words they have pored over were not chiseled in granite but scribbled in pencil. In their unguarded moments, Civil War soldiers revealed a broad range of motives. Some voiced ideological motives. Speaking in terms of duty and obligation, they professed to have enlisted in order to defend liberty, or democracy, or union, or states’ rights, or republican government, or the legacy of 1776 (however they understood it). Others enlisted for less exalted reasons: to escape boredom, find adventure, prove their manhood, see the world, impress girlfriends (or potential girlfriends), increase their income, or avoid the draft.

The Gettysburg monuments that speak to the larger meaning of the battle see only what was noble. The prototype in this regard is one of the oldest and largest monuments on the field, the so-called “Soldiers’ National Monument” that rises from the heart of the national military cemetery just north of Cemetery Ridge. Dedicated in 1869, its primary inscription consists of the closing lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with its ringing references to a “new birth of freedom,” “government of the people,” and those “who here gave their lives that [the] nation might live.”

Most of the monuments erected at Gettysburg honor specific military units or particular individuals, but many of the states that were represented at Gettysburg eventually built state monuments as well, and these larger monuments regularly make claims about the object and meaning of their sons’ sacrifice. A sampling of state monuments tells us that Pennsylvanians fought for “the preservation of the Union.” Michigan troops were champions of “liberty and union.” Soldiers from Indiana–a state with more than its share of opposition to emancipation–fought for “equality” and to “advance freedom.”

Southern state monuments were often (understandably) less specific. Tennessee soldiers were guided by unspecified “convictions” and performed “their duty as they understood it.” Floridians “fought with courage and devotion for the ideals in which they believed”–whatever they were. Georgia’s Confederates, though, were forthrightly patriotic. (“When duty called, we came; when country called, we died.”) More explicit still, South Carolina soldiers were propelled by an “abiding faith in the sacredness of States Rights.”

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

The Alabama State Memorial at Gettysburg

I want to be clear here. I am not sneering at the possibility that many of those who fell on this field were motivated by high ideals. I am convinced that many were, and I admire them for it. C. S. Lewis has written that the greatest chasm separating the human race is not the divide between Christians and non-Christians or even that between theists and atheists, but rather the gulf between those who recognize any belief system outside of themselves that demands their allegiance and those who acknowledge no such standard. The latter, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, are adherents of “the most horrible” of religions: “the worship of the god within.” In a recent essay on the importance of fatherhood, N.Y.U. psychologist Paul Vitz observes that “the world is hungry for examples of unselfish men.” In our age of materialism and individualism, the example of those who did fight at Gettysburg for union or states’ rights, freedom or independence, is a breath of fresh air.

And yet we need to think carefully about the conversation that we are listening to. What impresses me most about these monuments is their use of religious language and imagery in commemorating the men who fought here. It’s not that there are references to God, Jesus, or Christian faith–I’ve found almost none. But think about the words and phrases that do appear: “martyrs,” “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “faith,” “immortal” fame, “righteous” causes, “eternal glory,” “the millennium of their glory,” “sacred” heritage, “no holier spot,” and “ground forever hallowed.” As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, such rhetoric confuses the sacred and the secular. It fuels a temptation to which none of us is immune: the temptation to conflate our identity as Christians with other loyalties and attachments.

But such language also speaks to a universal human longing. No one is truly, completely happy, Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft observes. Beneath the surface of our lives, with its innumerable distractions and diversions, “the deep hunger of [our] hearts remains unsatisfied.” We reflect on life and, in our unguarded moments, we are haunted by a recurring question: “Is this all there is?” The reason, Kreeft goes on to explain, is that “we are not supposed to be happy here.” This is not our home. “You made us for Yourself,” Augustine of Hippo concluded nearly sixteen centuries ago. “Our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”

And yet we commonly cope with our heart hunger through self-deception, convincing ourselves that we can find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and transcendence in this life alone. As Christians, we are free to give a conditional loyalty to the state, but not our ultimate loyalty. All too often, the monuments at Gettysburg that speak to the battle’s larger meaning imply that we can be the authors of our own immortality, and that the key to our doing so lies in our making sacrifices to the state. Christian scholar Wilfred McClay has written recently that, because “human beings are naturally inclined toward religion . . . we have an incorrigible need to relate secular things to ultimate purposes.” Gettysburg’s monuments remind us that, because we are fallen, we are naturally tempted to equate secular things and ultimate purposes.

But these are not the only voices that I heard at Gettysburg, for there were countless others raised during the battle itself. Most of these cries from the heart are known only to God, but a fraction has survived in the soldiers’ own words, confessions made to contemporaries rather than declarations to posterity. One stands out in my mind, the testimony of an unnamed, unknown soldier who bore witness to a different kind of response to the indescribable happenings on this field.

We know of this soldier only through the recollection of another, Confederate Captain George Hillyer of the Ninth Georgia Infantry, a regiment in Anderson’s brigade of Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. Twenty-nine miles from Gettysburg when the fighting began on July 1st, they had marched all day and night and arrived on the field just before daylight on the 2nd. After spending the morning lying in a stand of woods due west of the Round Tops, in the afternoon Hillyer’s company was part of the general Confederate attack on the Union left. After making it almost to the base of Little Round Top, the Ninth Georgia was forced to withdraw, and Hillyer and his exhausted and bloodied company spent the night within earshot of Farmer Rose’s wheat field, a twenty-six-acre expanse that had been the site of some of the day’s fiercest fighting. As the sun went down, the wheat field was a kind of “no-man’s land” between the contending armies, with perhaps as many as four thousand dead and wounded soldiers now carpeting the flattened grain.

And in the midst of that hellish scene, Hillyer marveled to hear one of the men between the lines begin to sing. “He was probably a boy raised in some religious home in the South,” Hillyer recalled later, “where the good old hymns were the standard music.” There were “thousands of desperately wounded men lying on the ground within easy hearing of the singer,” the captain observed, “and as his voice rang out like a flute . . . not only the wounded, but also five or ten thousand and maybe more of the men of both armies could hear and distinguish the words.” The lines that they heard had been penned four decades earlier by an Irish poet named Thomas Moore and then set to music and published in 1831:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; / Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel; / Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; / Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

This is the voice that I will remember most from my visit to Gettysburg. To take the past seriously is to put our own lives to the test, and the conversations at Gettysburg do just that, pressing us with hard, discomfiting questions: What do we value? In what do we hope? Where do we find meaning? The answers etched here in granite are noble, but they are also earthbound, temporal. Far more challenging, far more convicting, far more comforting, far more hopeful is the response on the lips of this unknown soldier. Sung in darkness amid death and despair, it is both historical occurrence and spiritual metaphor, an echo of God’s invitation to a bruised and hurting world.

Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel . . .

The Wheat Field at sunset.

The Wheat Field at sunset.