22 December 2008

Don't Forget To Remember The Truth

It's really funny to read and observe those who believe they're the smartest people in the room when it comes to historical interpretation. Modern historians like for everyone to believe that studying history is akin to rocket science. Arrogance is so blinding. The faddish altar at which many CW historians are now worshiping has been christened "memory." Actually, it's a good concept--and a biblical one. The word "remember" is used 148 times in Scripture. It's important for a whole host of reasons. Scripturally, God wants us to remember His works in past generations, the consequences of rebellion, and the wisdom of great men of the past; what Scriptures refer to as the wisdom of "the ancients."

But memory and remembering is worthless if you distort it to fit some modern political/social agenda, which is what many historians are doing today. These historians believe we should re-examine historical Civil War "memory" due to the fact that they believe the Civil War has been remembered incorrectly and that we need to be reminded that our "memory" of the Confederacy was framed, for the most part, by bitter ex-Confederates who distorted history for their political agenda. First of all, these moderns assume everyone else is stupid and don't realize that all history is written from a particular point of view and that it is always necessary to filter what's written through the times and political environment in which they were penned. That's a given. But moderns act as if they've discovered some new profound truth when they point this out. They're quite obsessed with it.

Due to this strange obsession, many modern historians overplay this fact (and for their own political agenda, I might add). For example, we often read that the popular images of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee were created solely by "Lost Cause" sympathizers after the war and for the sole purpose to "maintain the old order." What utter nonsense. Actually, that is the new "myth." Lee was considered a hero long before "Lost Cause" ideas took root in the South. And even the interpretation of what the "Lost Cause" meant is twisted by moderns who see nothing but evil in the Old South.

In order to believe what we're being told by many about this "memory" one has to believe that some of the co-conspirators came from the most unusual corners in order to build up this "Lost Cause" image of men like Lee:

“My own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on receipt of Lee’s letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and so valiantly and had suffered so much for a cause.” ~ General Grant on Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

“I turned about, and there behind me, riding between my two lines, appeared a commanding form, superbly mounted, richly accoutered, of imposing bearing, noble countenance, with expression of deep sadness overmastered by deeper strength. It is none other than Robert E. Lee! … I sat immovable, with a certain awe and admiration.” ~ Union General Joshua Chamberlain at Appomattox.

“He was one who, though famous, was not honeycombed with ambition or tainted with cunning or cant, and though a soldier and wearing soldier’s laurels, yet never craved or sought honors except as they bloomed on deeds done for the glory of his lawfully constituted authority; in short a soldier to whom the sense of duty was a gospel and a man of the world whose only rule in life was that life should be upright and stainless. I cannot but think Providence meant, through him, to prolong the ideal of the gentleman in the world . . . It is easy to see why Lee has become the embodiment of one of the world’s ideals, that of the soldier, the Christian, and the gentleman. And from the bottom of my heart I thank Heaven . . . for the comfort of having a character like Lee’s to look at.” ~ Union General Morris Schaff referring to Lee’s surrender at which he was present.

For not to the Southern people alone shall be limited the tribute of a tear over the dead Virginian . . . we [Northerners] have claimed him as one of ourselves; have cherished and felt proud of his military genius as belonging to us; have recounted and recorded his triumphs as our own; have extolled his virtue as reflecting upon us – for Robert Edward Lee was an American, and the great nation which gave him birth would be today unworthy of such a son if he regarded him lightly. Never had mother a nobler son. In him the military genius of America developed to a greater extent than ever before. In him all that was pure and lofty in mind and purpose found lodgment. Dignified without resumption, affable without familiarity, he united all those charms of manner which made him the idol of his friends and of his soldiers, and won for him the respect and admiration of the world.” ~Excerpt from an editorial in the New York Herald the day after Lee’s death.

“Lee is the greatest military genius in America.” ~ Union General Winfield Scott.

"[Lee was] without any exception the very greatest of all the great captains that the English-speaking peoples have brought forth." ~ Teddy Roosevelt

I suppose Grant, Chamberlain, Schaff, Northern Newspapers, Winfield Scott, and Teddy Roosevelt were all part of this conspiracy. Scores of similar quotes could be cited. Of course, Grant, Chamberlain, Schaff, Scott, and The New York Herald can all be credited with helping to START what moderns consider part of the Lost Cause myth. How ironic that Lee's former enemies wanted to help Lee and other Southerners "maintain the old order" after spending 4 years and hundreds of thousand of lives to crush it. Someone's confused.

As a Washington Times piece noted after covering a symposium on Lee in 2007:

Robert E. Lee has been attacked by revisionist historians who have argued that the Confederate commander's reputation was a "postwar mythical creation," a Civil War historian said at a weekend conference in Arlington. "A wretched flood of Lee biographies" has been published in recent years, Robert K. Krick told more than 200 attendees at Saturday's Lee Bicentennial Symposium at the Key Bridge Marriott hotel. "These kinds of books ... offer no new evidence," said Mr. Krick, author of 16 books on the war. The revisionist arguments, he said, consist mainly of "counterfactual blathering." Revisionists have asserted that Lee's reputation was inflated after the war as part of a "Lost Cause myth," said Mr. Krick, who spent three decades as chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Well said.This is all part of faddish history. It would do us well to remember the words of G.K. Chesterton when it comes to fads:

“You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas. The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well.”

It would also be wise to not to forget to remember the truth.

**Update: Some of my friends in the CW blogosphere have become very defensive at criticisms being directed toward their point of view; as if they are above criticism. I realize that many academic historians are used to everyone singing their praises, since many of them are singing from the same songbook. However, they need to realize that when you enter the arena of public discourse, you should be prepared to be criticized. And when you throw stones you should expect someone to occasionally pick a few up and chuck them back at you. And I notice no one countered my argument. Hmmm . . .


Michael Aubrecht said...

A brilliant post my friend. I could not have said it better myself.

George Grant said...

Richard: This is an excellent reminder of the paradoxes of history, the faddishness of academia, and the sublime connections between truth and myth. Thank you. And merry Christmas.

Jubilo said...

Dear Sir ,
Thanks for this post. Since you are not a drinking man I'll toast to you and the Old Dominion by myself. Remeber even Marse Robert had a glass of wine now and then . ( of course he was an Episopalian unlike Stomewall).
Merry Christmas,
David Corbett

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael: Thanks. I've said it all before but,as someone much wiser than I once said, "Man does not so much have to be taught as he does have to be reminded."

George: Thank you sir and a very Merry Christmas to you and yours!

David: Who said I wasn't a drinking man? I enjoy a glass of hard cider at this festive time of year, but do draw the line there. :)

BorderRuffian said...

These 'memory' folks seem to think that mythologies come from only one direction...and then they accuse others of having an agenda.

Tsk, tsk...

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BR: Exactly. As I said, arrogance is blinding.

David H. Jones said...

Well said. The simple truth is that the soldiers of both the North and the South, and their families on the home front, were all American patriots. Their story is our story; a common legacy that must be preserved and cherished in unvarnished form.

Justin said...

It is very much like the modern treatment of Christianity, where it is a popular thing to find "smoking gun" manuscripts and re-translated phrases that challenge the continuity of historical Christianity. The discipline of de-constructive literary criticism was intended for the Christian scriptures alone. Try applying the same deconstruction to Islamic or Buddhist texts and people would be outraged. Nevermind that heretical and gnostic works were carefully preserved in Catholic and Orthodox monasteries.

In the same way, all this with the CW seems to begin with the presupposition that a sinister, dishonest vein ran through the War era South, through the Lost Cause generations, and continues to run through anyone who makes a case for non-racial motives or merely claims that empathy existed in the South. There is an institutional reward for a one-sided critique.

It should be pointed out that there are SCV camps preserving slave cemeteries- not because of any black confederates- but out of the conviction that it is simply right to honor the memory of the people so affected by that era, regardless of who they were. But this motive, of course, is impossible. Since we start from the assumption that all Southern memory and history is suspect, then these cemetery workers obviously have deceitful, revisionist motives... whether they know it or not.

Rather than starting from the assumption that the entire "The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States" effort of the early 1900s was organized misrepresentation, it could just as easily be described as an early effort to document their own motives (i'm not talking about Lost Cause memory here) by compiling roster data, first hand accounts, and Northern sources. If there were some Confederate veterans consulting on Northern history books of the time, that doesn't negate the corporate testimony of hundreds of others. It rather points to the fact that there were a variety of motives held by people who fought for the South. Just look at how Vietnam is remembered differently by veterans who served together, and who is wrong depends entirely on their current political views.

Where are the historians applying the same critique to Northern memory, motives, or lack of empathy? I am not an academic, so I don't know. Are there any such books?

I'd bet an entire paycheck that if GAR veterans had produced a "Union Cause and Conduct" using the same methods, the effort would still be hailed today as a great step forward in historical analysis and peer review.

Merry Christmas to all, even to those who disagree with us.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks David. So true.

Justin: Thanks for the time and effort to write your comment. Very thought provoking.


Anonymous said...

"I like to think that my own research on Civil War memory is in a way a form of activism."

-Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hi Kevin - this is an old post and I had to read it again to recall what it was all about. I would certainly agree that your research is a form of activism.

Thanks for stopping by.