28 July 2012

They Killed Those Stories

In a previous post this week, I mentioned that I was going to be posting some comments regarding the mindset of modern academics - as it pertains to their interpretation and views of history; specifically American history and, even more specifically, the history of the WBTS as it relates to various aspects of Southern culture. This is the first post. Some of the things that got me to thinking about this issue were several posts at Civil War Memory by Kevin Levin. The title of one of those posts was, You Are Not A Victim Of Sherman's March. Though I rarely agree with Kevin's perspectives, he does provoke me to think and to sharpen my own analysis. Kevin's post was prompted by something which occurred at a recent teaching seminar about the Civil War. He noted:

One participant asked what war crimes William Tecumseh Sherman could be brought up on for his actions in Georgia in 1864.  Well, I jumped all over that one.

Indeed. In the post, Kevin was dismissive of any suggestion that descendants of Confederate soldiers (or anyone who suffered loss due to Sherman's rampage through parts of the South) had any legitimate right to consider themselves "victims." While I don't believe "victim" is really the best word to describe this, I'll let that stand for simplicity's sake and my response. Kevin wrote:

It’s one thing to imagine those involved and perhaps the next generation maintaining a less than gracious attitude toward Sherman, but as far as I am concerned such a stance carries no weight today.   [On this point, see Thom Bassett's recent article in the Civil War Monitor on Sherman. He argues that Sherman's reputation remained fairly positive during the first few decades after the war.]
Regardless of where you live and how you happen to trace your family lineage, no one today is a victim of Sherman and his army.  We would do well to find demons that did something other than help to preserve this nation during war.
Since Kevin did not grow up in the South hearing of these stories, I find it quite astonishing that he can dismiss such notions so casually. It is however, as I mentioned earlier, the mindset of many professional historians and those in academia. (I once read one academic historian's comment that he "didn't care if yankee soldiers blew off Grandma's arm.") It is also, in my humble opinion, very narrow-minded. In response to Kevin's post, I received a private email from another Civil War blogger who wished to remain anonymous. If I were to mention this person's name, most readers here would know this person who, by the way, no one would accuse of being a "neo-Confederate" or having any particular ax to grind. Here's what this person said in his email:

. . . I couldn’t resist passing this along to you as one of the few people who calls Levin on his BS.  At the end of a recent post (http://cwmemory.com/2012/07/25/you-are-not-a-victim-of-shermans-march/), Levin made the following comment:

“Regardless of where you live and how you happen to trace your family lineage, no one today is a victim of Sherman and his army.”

This immediately made me ask the question, “This applies to slavery too, correct?”  He can’t have it both ways, but I’m sure if anyone calls him on this he will attempt the impossible.

Now, I don't believe that the destruction and mistreatment Southerners received at the hand of Sherman or other Federal soldiers compares to the horrors of slavery; nor do I believe the person sending me the email believes that either. But, to a matter of degree, it is a fair and relevant question. One could apply the same question regarding the Confederate Battle Flag, as well as other aspects of Southern history and heritage.

Then something else quite interesting - and related - happened. For the last week or so, I've been watching the Ken Burns series, The West, which is available streaming on NetFlix. Though not perfect, I think its an excellent documentary and I would highly recommend it. I think it's better than his series on the Civil War. While watching an episode the other night, I was intrigued by some comments made by an Indian by the name of Albert White Hat regarding his personal memory and experience surrounding his ancestor's mistreatment at the hands of the Federal government and officials' attempt to belittle and dismiss the lingering feelings of injustice and anger over that same mistreatment. In his words, they "killed those stories."

This is, to one degree or another, comparable to what has (and is) taken place regarding the memory of what many in the South view as injustices committed by the Federal government during and after the WBTS. There is an attempt to "kill those stories" or at least suggest they have no current relevance or legitimacy. Again, in a matter of degrees, there are striking similarities here.

My take away from this is that there are quite a few people in the United States who still remember these injustices. And, to a degree, they are all justified. For anyone to suggest that these should simply be dismissed and are irrelevant is very shallow thinking and reveals glaring inconsistencies in perspectives and historical analysis.

Please take the time to watch the short video clip below of Albert White Hat. It is quite moving. One of the aspects of this video that moved me was Mr. White Hat's decision on how to handle his bitterness and anger. My conclusion regarding these issues - regardless of the particulars - is that forgiving these types of things may be righteous but forgetting them is sin. "What has happened in the past will never leave us."

I can't help but wonder how different Kevin's response might have been had Albert White Hat posed a similar question about Sherman. Though the circumstances are certainly not the same (there have been articles and essays comparing the two), both do support the legitimacy of remembrance and acknowledgment from those who are descended from the original "victims."


Anonymous said...

I do not read Levin's blog because it is so predictable. On this occasion I made an exception. The basic problem with his conclusion is that he views Sherman through a faulty source, The Hard Hand of War by Mark Grimsley. This is a seriously flawed book and lacks credibility among those who have studied the topic of U.S. Military--Southern Civilian Relations.

The basic primary source for the subject is the Provost Marshal Records of the U.S. Army. These records document house burning and execution without trial of thousands of Southern civilians and POW's. Grimsley does not mention the Provost Records in his bibliography. Does he not know about them or does he ignore them? In either case, his book is fatally flawed by the omission of the basic primary source.

Also, Grimsley does not mention any of the U.S. generals who used unlawful tactics against Southern civilians and POW's---no mention of Robert Milroy, Eleazar Payne, George Burbage, etc. In short, all evidence which counters Grimsley's thesis is omitted. This is a fatal flaw in the work since an honest historian cannot pick and choose evidence.

Recent scholarship on the subject of army-civilian relations has challenged the accuracy of Grimsley. Levin is behind in his reading.

The use of discriminatory freight rates, high tariffs, and exploitation of natural resources made the South what one historian called "an economic colony" until 1950. Since I was born before 1950 I think I am a victim of Sherman and the policies of the administration he served.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Anon for adding another dimension to the conversation. Kevin (and many others like him) has no personal connection to this particular aspect of Southern history and culture. Of course, one can certainly overcome a lack of personal connection and get beyond per-conceived notions and ideas. But Kevin has never been able to do that; which is evidenced by the referenced post, as well as many, many others.

Yes, his blog as well as so many others akin to his, are absolutely predictable - for the most part. But I do find reading them useful for the intellectual exercise of countering their flawed analysis.

Brother Juniper said...

My first instinct is to agree with Mr Levin that no one today should consider themselves a victim of Sherman's March. However, I think the answer is very different for those who suffered directly from his actions at the time. Dispicable (to use one of Daffy Duck's favorite words) is too kind a word to describe Sherman. By contrast, one cannot even imagine Robert E. Lee ordering such acts.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Juniper - As I said up front, I don't think "victim" is the best choice of words. That was Levin's choice and, I think, meant to drive the discussion in a particular direction in order to make an agenda-driven point.

I do think, however, that these things can and do impact subsequent generations. Those families whose property and wealth were destroyed by Sherman did not magically recover that wealth once the war was over - some never recovered. Thus, their descendants suffered loss. Progressive historians like Kevin view American history through a prism which must always be remembered when considering their perspectives.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Beyond Sherman's conduct, it's also important to remember that the WBTS was fought primarily on Southern soil so my region of the country obviously witnessed and suffered most of the destruction and economic loss. That's indisputable. For Kevin to suggest that the memory of that destruction is not legitimate and does not linger is ridiculous. He should have met my grandmother and great aunt - they'd have taken him to school.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BTW, the memory of the WBTS did not prevent subsequent generations of the men in my family from serving in the Unites States military in each and every armed conflict. I discussed that issue in a recent post.