26 April 2010

Virginia in the Civil War: A Sesquicentennial Remembrance


*Update: The link for the post to which I'm referring below is here.

A while back, another CW blogger posted some comments about a new Civil War Documentary which is a joint project between Virginia's Sesquicentennial Commission and Virginia Tech’s Center for Civil War Studies. Professor James I. Robertson, Jr. is the executive producer of the video series. (See preview below.) Those commenting on this video seem to be disappointed in the project although all that's been released is a 13 minute preview. The criticisms center around the predictable concern that the project does not address the primary interests of academics; as if their perspective, interests, and what they think should be addressed are all that matters--or are the most important.

Of course, the criticisms over this new video include the obligatory hand-wringing over the "Lost Cause" interpretation of the war, though I don't see how anyone watching this preview could possibly come away with that concern. The word paranoia comes to mind. Certainly one of the things that will irritate certain academics is the fact that Mort Kunstler's art will be featured in the documentary. Kunstler is a favorite target among many of these same academics and often on the receiving end of their juvenile jokes and comments. The use of Kunstler's work must really irritate these folks. I have a hunch that jealousy and envy plays a role in some of the criticism.

First of all, I find the criticisms over this video WAY too premature and totally off base. (This was a $300,000 plus project and there is much more to come--3 hours in total.) Secondly, it is obvious to me that the series will address slavery in a way that is balanced and objective. According to the Richmond Times, the series "examines the war from multiple perspectives, such as the role slavery played in dividing the nation."

But one critic was particularly upset that Bud Robertson had pointed out that Lee chose to follow the Confederacy because his native Virginia did; even though that is precisely what happened. Of course, anyone who has studied the Lees of Virginia would know that following Virginia was always instinctive to the family. During a debate in 1798 with James Madison, Lee’s father had stated, “Virginia is my country; her will I obey, however lamentable the fate to which it may subject me.” Those who suggest Robert E. Lee was a "traitor" for remaining loyal to Virginia (over the Union), overlook the fact that Virginia had been a political entity for more than two hundred years, and that Lee’s roots in Virginia could be traced to the year 1640. The United States had only been a reality for about 80 years at the time Lee resigned from the United States Army. The preferred loyalty to a particular state, which was so prevalent during colonial times, was still very much a part of the American mindset in 1861. Those who would label Lee a traitor are transferring 21st century American notions and beliefs about nationhood and loyalty to 19th century Americans - presentism at it's worse. Lee chose home, family, and likely defeat over the cold, faceless concept of "Union" along with likely glory and promotion. Many still see that as honorable. I suppose certain corners of academia prefer Lee being characterized as a vile, slave-holding traitor who had only selfish motives in casting his lot with what he likely knew was a losing proposition from the very beginning. That perspective is so sophomoric, shallow, and false as to be embarrassing. But it does fit the template and agenda.

It is often difficult for those with no roots in Virgina to understand native Virginians' provincial ways--especially those of us who have lived here for generations. Outsiders often characterize such loyalties as "quaint" and "dated." Our very mobile society has, in many ways, lost what it means to possess a "sense of place." Fortunately, I am not among them. My own roots in Virginia go back to Jamestown and my wife, who is of Monacan Indian ancestry, has roots in Virginia that go back millennia. Suggesting that a 19th century American's choice of Virginia (state) over the Union was traitorous reveals an ignorance of history and lack of understanding at best, and a partisan, agenda-driven perspective at worst.

The criticisms I've read also decry the absence of discussion about Nat Turner and Reconstruction as if this 13 minute preview is all there is to the project! I'm confident that Professor Robertson, along with the other historians in the series, will present a balanced view of the WBTS in Virginia and discuss the conflict from all perspectives--as they should. Robertson is, perhaps, the most respected and experienced Civil War historian in the Nation. He has the benefit of not only serving on Virginia's Sesquicentennial Commission, along with his decades-long work as a history professor at Virginia Tech, but also the experience of serving as executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission in the 1960's and was appointed to that position by President Kennedy. Suggesting that Professor Robertson would produce something less than objective is a little much for me. Certainly, no matter what is done, there will be things in the series for everyone to agree and disagree with.

A couple notes of interest regarding this preview: There is commentary from not only Professor Robertson, but also WBTS historian William Davis, Professor Ervin Jordan, Jr., VMI historian Colonel Keith Gibson, and fellow National Civil War Chaplains Museum board member (and newly elected House of Delegates member) Dr. T. Scott Garrett. Dr. Garrett serves on the board of the Historic Sandusky Foundation, along with a number of prominent historians. Other historians also appear in this preview.


Civil War preview from Carol Jennings on Vimeo.

16 comments:

Chaps said...

Looks great to me but I can see how it might get the pointy-headed crowd frothing at the mouth. I guess they won't point out, though, that the most vile and cruel character in Uncle Tom's Cabin was a northerner.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

The over the top criticism I read, based on a 13 minute preview of a 3 hour documentary, is just more evidence that many of these folks just lie in wait for an opportunity to push their particular perspective and label everything "Lost Cause" which doesn't feature their perspective as the only legitimate one. It's quite amazing to observe their reactions and then listen to them claim their objectivity.

cenantua said...

Richard,

Am I understanding that you are addressing the earlier criticism of the Lynchburg video AND the video clip that you show here? Or, are you just focusing on criticism of this clip below? Can you provide a link to the blog post in question?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting commentary. I can only guess the bloggers you are talking about. Unfortunately, theirs is a fairly predictable reaction even if their so-called reasoning and analysis based on a 13-minute preview is unsound and invalid at best. Ahh, modern-day academia. Their words and thoughts speak volumes.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Robert - I'm not aware of any Lynchburg video. I'm not sure what you're talking about there. I actually wrote this post late last year after Kevin Levin and others on his blog criticized the video clip shown here. For some reason I never posted it. Better late than never I suppose. I failed to include the link and now I don't have it. My apologies.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon - as I responded to Robert, I wish I'd included the link. Sorry.

Kevin said...

Richard,

You said: "But one critic was particularly upset that Bud Robertson had pointed out that Lee chose to follow the Confederacy because his native Virginia did; even though that is precisely what happened."

I assume that you are referring to me given that my name has already come up. I'm not sure what post you are referring to, but this one addresses the issue of Lee and secession: http://cwmemory.com/2006/09/17/a-heart-wrenching-decision/

My guess is that I linked to this post when commenting on Robertson's reference to Lee and his decision to secede. As far as I can tell this has nothing at all to do with being "upset."

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin:

Perhaps, I don't recall. My failing to include the link makes who said what somewhat confusing. My fault, though I believe my overall thoughts here are accurate. If you can provide the original link, I'll be happy to include it so readers can get the full context.

Kevin said...

I guess this post isn't about me since I can't find anything on this particular video that corresponds. Perhaps I've missed it, but if the comment about Lee and his decision to secede is, in fact, about me you can be guaranteed that I was working off of the linked post.

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Michael Bradley said...

The complaints about the video are entirely predictable given the point of view of the critics and the limits of their historiographic stance. The critics of the video, and of Robertson, do not wish to admit that many historicns, including academic historians, work from the point of view that there were multiple causes for the war; only some accept the view that a single issue (slvery) caused the conflict. The single issue people are not tolerant of the multiple causes point of view. The critism of the video is merely another example of this lack of tolerance for opposing views.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I would tent to agree Professor.

Kevin said...

Richard,

Glad to see you found the link. I knew I wrote something about it. Reading through the post once again I looked for something that reflected your level of concern in the post and came up short. I don't think the questions that I posed are simply the domain of academics in any way. Of course, the comments must be considered in the context of a preview rather than a full-length presentation, but I fail to see how raising a few questions in anticipation of the movie is problematic in any way.

As you know I have been incredibly supportive of the work that Bud Robertson and the commission has done over the past few years. Based on the time that I've spent as an adviser to the commission, I am willing to guess that questions and criticism are welcomed.

Guess I am wondering what all the fuss is about.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin:

All I can offer in response would be to restate my original post. I really don't know how to make it any clearer.

Michael Bradley said...

On April 20-21 the Conquest Group took a random telephone poll in Virginia about Confederate History Month. 66% or respondants support CHM, 69% think it will boost tourism, 86% want Confederate monuments protected by law, 16% were unfavorable to CHM.

These results seem to say a lot about the attempts to manipulate the issue of CHM. Apparently those who oppose CHM cannot expect public opinion to support them, no matter what CNN says.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Professor. As I said before, I think the issue was overblown for political reasons. I have a post coming up which will lend evidence to that assertion.

Michael Bradley said...

More news. United Press International released poll results on May 5 (yesterday). In a national random survey 50% of respondants nationwide supported CHM, 23% opposed. Support for Confederate symbols is higner in the west than in the south.

This news of what "We, the People" feel must be a great disappointment to some.