The Future of Civil War History: Joe Owen


Joe Owen (left) participated in a commemoration ceremony for the Texas monument at Gettysburg in early June
Joe Owen (left) participated in a commemoration ceremony for the Texas monument at Gettysburg in early June

Today, we’re pleased to welcome Joseph L. Owen back to Emerging Civil War. Joe is a historian with the National Park Service and co-author of Texans at Gettysburg: Blood and Glory with Hood’s Texas Brigade.

Due to the politically correct climate of the interpretation of Civil War history, I am concerned about how it will be interpreted and taught to future generations. It is becoming more prevalent to blame all the evils of American history before and during the Civil War to one section of our country, “the South,” or the former Confederate States of America, and not looking at both the northern and southern states before, during, and after the Civil War and reconstruction.

Civil War history that is becoming more prevalent in the classroom is the belief that the South=Slavery, the Confederate States of America=Evil, and the Confederate States of America=Bigoted War Mongers. Focusing on the broad strokes of “north=good” and “south=bad” and focusing less on the individuals of both sides who fought in the war is become more and more common. If historians and teachers are not vigilant and watchful, American history that doesn’t suit the political climate of the future will be ignored and, at worst, erased—not only history of the antebellum South, but of all American history that doesn’t suit the “politically correct” opinion and knee-jerk reactions of future societies.

Captain John Henderson, former officer in the 5th Texas Infantry, said it best during a speech to the Hood’s Texas Brigade Association reunion in 1901:

I am not unmindful that there be those who would rob us of our title of courage and honor – all that remains to us as a result of the war. But of this rest assured, they are not the soldiers who fought in that struggle. These if they would, could not afford to disparage our courage or bravery, for on this pedestal rests their own prowess and fame. For, take notice of this fact, no nation will discredit its own deeds of heroism. All men love glory, and all men admire courage, and without courage and love of glory a nation is doomed.

While the harvest of death through four long years of terrible war enriched our soil with the blood of our purest and noblest, it was not shed in vain; for in that martyrdom which tried men’s souls our people coined a reputation for courage and duty, for patriotism and love of country, which glorified them, and of which nothing can ever rob or despoil us. That honor and courage henceforth is consecrated to the preservation of the nation, and we will transmit it as a precious legacy to our children. May they not forget the immortal dead; may they emulate their example.”

[Close of the speech about the history of Hood’s Texas Brigade read by Captain (later Texas Superior Court Judge) John Henderson, 5th Texas Infantry Regiment on June 28, 1901, in Galveston, Texas.]

16 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Joe Owen

  1. Absurd strawman argument. All you have to do is look at recent pop culture efforts like Field of Lost Shoes or Mercy Street to see that the old Dunning School images of the noble southerner are alive and well, with the modern Confederate apologist twist of the anti-slavery Confederate patriot mixed in.

    If you want to move from pop culture to academia Owen’s argument still falls apart, as more and more scholarship follows the path blazed by Carl Degler and examines southern dissent, and discussions of northern complicity in the nation’s ills have never gone away. In my own work both as an undergraduate and graduate student I’ve been assigned plenty of material on northern slavery in the colonial era and northern racism after emancipation in the region.

    Joe Owen’s efforts to play the victim card simply don’t match reality.

  2. Joe:

    Ditto to Gregory’s response.

    What is “politically correct” about pointing out that preserving and expanding slavery, an evil and barbaric institution, was the main reason the Lower South seceded? That’s not political correctness, Joe. That’s a fact. It’s history.

    And what’s “politically correct” about pointing out that the South seceded from the United States in a (thankfully) failed effort to dismantle our great nation? That’s not political correctness, Joe. That’s a fact. That’s history.

    Sad to say, too many Americans – both in the South and North – have only a cursory knowledge of the Civil War and still view it through the prism of “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind.” You need evidence? Look no further than the Texas Board of Education.

    Sure, the South produced brave soldiers and outstanding generals. And sure, many Northerners in the antebellum era were complicit in slavery, especially bankers who financed Southern cotton production, manufacturers who sold slave masters cotton-producing tools and other gear, and shipping magnets who transported cotton abroad.

    But Joe, that doesn’t change the facts, history.

    Every single Confederate soldier fought on behalf of a government that wanted to retain and expand slavery. (It was in the Confederate Constitution). Conversely, every Union soldier fought for a government that wanted – after the Emancipation Proclamation – to end slavery in the South.

    And every Confederate soldier fought to dismember our great nation. Union troops, on the other hand, fought to preserve the United States.

    If those facts translate into the South fighting for two of the worst causes imaginable, so be it.

    On a completely different subject: While I was writing this, Cleveland won the NBA championship. Go Cavs!!

  3. I can only agree with the first two posters and add that Mr. Owen is going to have to work a little harder (such as providing evidence) to convince most historians of his southern “political correctness” victimhood thesis. Frankly, the fact that he works for the NPS and has access to impressionable minds is itself cause for concern.

    1. Will: Generally I see resort to the “political correctness” label as a cover for lack of nuanced analysis. It’s intellectual low-hanging fruit. Just for example – the controversy over the battle flag. This was something that became the symbolic weapon of choice for Klanners and other entrenched racists in the 20th century South as it fought tooth and nail to preserve the racist Jim Crow system along with its inferior segregated schools. All one has to do is watch the videos of the 1962 riots at Ole Miss, the brutal attacks on the freedom riders, etc. The danged thing wasn’t even important enough to fly over the South Carolina Capitol for nearly 100 years – until it became obvious that the Civil Rights movement was a real “threat”. I get why a lot of folks today object to its being displayed. Sweeping that into the dustbin as “political correctness” is its own form of “political correctness”, Lost Cause version.

  4. I think it is good that Joe has a differing opinion. The modern day climate of respecting other’s opinions is the real cause for concern. I don’t think Joe is a neo-Confederate, I think he believes we have gone too far the other way. No one is arguing slavery was not the cause of the war and no one is arguing that the south seceded. But it is also true that most educators today, in an over simplistic fashion, teach good vs evil in all things of history and when it comes to Civil War history it is North = good and South = evil. that is just a fact, if you disagree, that is fine but just spend some time in a local school. History, like life…is complicated and not black and white.

  5. I think we are misreading Mr. Owens posting. Historians and students of the CW will always have a balanced and more fact based understanding of the pre and post war situations. I do not see Joe indicating that those informed students of the war will become politically correct.

    It is society at large that is becoming increasingly politically correct. As a society we don’t read as carefully and extensively as we should. We are too focused on making simple categorizations of people, events and social issues — click the “like” or “don’t like” button. As a northerner now living in the south with a new hobby of CW study, I am constantly amazed by my northern friends uninformed opinions and characterizations of the CW era. Many seem to fit the good vs. bad categorization that Joe warns of.

    Proof of Joe’s point are the now seemingly constant attempts to remove flags, statues, street names and other recognition of the Confederate era leaders from public view. As the society becomes more categorical and politically correct, the more broadly-based facts as described by CW historians will become increasingly ignored. As a university professor for 40 years, I can attest to the difficulty of trying to change imbedded beliefs through the presentation of more factual information. It is the perception that ends up winning in the end.

  6. I feel the first three comments prove the point Mr. Owen is making. There has developed a “myth of the holy cause” which is just as skewed as the “myth of the lost cause.” It is especially telling that Mr. Hickox implies that anyone who holds opinions which vary from his should be silenced. This is hardly an example of tolerance, inclusiveness, and diversity!

    Over the years historians have changed their emphasis on the meaning of many events, the Civil War being a prime example. It is foolish to think that we have come to a time when the current interpretation will be the permanent interpretation. It is also foolish to think that all the historians of the past had it wrong.

  7. This is the first duffed shot in this otherwise insightful series of posts. Talk to me about the Texas Board of Education and the propaganda which it demands as a substitute for legitimate textbooks; talk to me about Lost Cause sawdust masquerading as educational materials in the South which began at the turn of the 20th century; talk to me about the mythology which gets tossed around on the internet as reader-duping “history”. Now back to reading the correspondence and speeches of the Secession Commissioners. They knew why they were seceding and their plain English belies any attempt to label the inevitable conclusion “political correctness”. As for the future of Civil War history, I worry that an uninformed general public will swallow the junk which one can pull up by a google search.

    1. I am glad you’ve found the series insightful, John. We’ve tried to present a variety of ideas, opinions, and perspectives. I wouldn’t expect everyone to agree with everything that’s said here, but I do hope people come to realize that there’s a wide gamut of thought, and unless we try to listen to differing opinions, we’ll never be able to discuss difficult topics.

      Joe touches on one point that a lot of people do overlook: It’s the habit of every generation to believe that they are, finally, the most enlightened generation…that people before them, no matter how well intentioned, just weren’t able to “get it right,” but finally, through the accumulation of wisdom and fact and through advances in science, we have FINALLY “arrived.” But in fifty or a hundred years, the next generations will look back at us just as we’ve look back at others, and they will shake their heads, and feel bad for us because we weren’t able to “get it right.”

      Our own “presentism” not only often clouds our view of the past but prevents an honest look at our own biases.

      1. I have many times said that my professional background as a mathematician was good preparation for my avocational activities as an historian. What we have here is akin to an iteration that is (perhaps slowly) approaching its limit value. Each generation takes the work of the previous one, refines and revises it, therefore producing something that we all hope is closer to The Truth (i.e., the limit value). The iteration is not monotone—we are not always getting closer, there are occasional excursions away from the limit (the Lost Cause, the Dunning School of Reconstruction)—but the general progress over time is toward The Truth.

        The homework for next week is the problems at the end of the section, and there will be a quiz on Friday … 😉

      2. Chris: I completely agree. My problem with Joe’s post was his use of “politically correct” (which has clear, current political implications) in what was an overstated “one-way street”. One need not look too hard in order to find abundant “presentism” in much that emanates from both “sides” in this discussion. The notion, however, that there is a “pc” victimization of the South in today’s Civil War studies is readily refuted by pulling up any number of internet sites and even books. Overall you’ve highlighted an important topic of concern for anyone with an ACW interest. Keep it coming.

  8. Patriotism certainly had nothing to do with the war efforts of Confederates. Moreover, this is not about political correctness in the teaching of history, it’s about dispelling the “myth of the lost cause.”

  9. I’m afraid I must agree with Foskett, Eatroff, Ruth, and Hickox. (Sounds like a law firm 🙂 ) The post is a strawman exercise, as Mr. Eatroff says. I’m decently active on Civil War blogs and discussion groups, and the only people who speak in terms of “South=Slavery, the Confederate States of America=Evil, and the Confederate States of America=Bigoted War Mongers” are the folks complaining about it. Just as one data point, over the weekend I watched part of the Gettysburg College Civil War Institute on CSPAN-3, and I heard Prof. Peter Carmichael argue *against* removing *any* Confederate monuments.

  10. I agree with Mr Owen. George you have said it all for me as well . No sense in repeating it..
    As far as Mr Ruth comments go as in all of his comments he most definitely has a set of blinders on as he as proven before in his remarks. We are all en titled to our opinions. Bob and Will you will learn more if you listen as well as talk .
    Thank you Joe for a open view point we can learn from .

  11. Thomas:

    Despite our opposing views on CW memory, you obviously are a man of great distinction and wisdom when it comes to sports. Go Cavs!!

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