The Future of Civil War History: Steve Davis


A couple of years ago I got a phone call during my day-job from a local TV reporter, Paul Crowley, who said he had gotten my name from the Atlanta History Center.

Paul explained that the night before, his station, WXIA, had run a little bit on how a foreign visitor had taken his family to nearby Stone Mountain. He was appalled that the big rock featured the sculpted likenesses of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

The visitor had somehow contacted WXIA and suggested that the offensive frieze should be blown off the mountain-face.

On its evening news, the station aired the gentleman with his suggestion.


Mr. Crowley explained over the phone that overnight the station had gotten thousands–thousands, he said, more than he could remember–of e-mails and tweets expressing outrage that the venerable Confederate leaders would be scraped off the granite.

Paul asked if I would agree to be filmed for that evening’s follow-up, keyed on why down here–and maybe everywhere in America–the Civil War continues, after these 150 years, to ignite such passion.

“Can you meet me at the History Center in two hours?”

I agreed.

“And by the way, are you wearing a tie?”

So Paul and I hooked up at lunch time, and he filmed me as a talking head in front of the Center’s 4.5-inch Parrott gun.

We got around to his main question.

I answered that, of course, Americans will continue to be inflamed about our Civil War. I cited Robert Penn Warren’s cogent observation in 1961 (The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial) that the Civil War was Americans’ only “”felt history’–history lived in the national imagination.”

I told Paul that I am a progressive Democrat, liberal on the current societal questions facing our culture today.

But when it comes to The War, I am a white Southerner whose ancestors fought in the Confederate army during the War for Southern Independence.

So, I said, this war is still being felt, and still being fought.

And because I have divided sensibilities, as Allen Tate and Donald Davidson, Southern intellectuals back in the 1920s, wrote, I would, if called by my country, enlist in a war to defend my homeland against Yankee invasion, enlisting with the rest of the “Rebels.”

What I didn’t tell him–only because I have recently re-read it–is what William Faulkner once told an interviewer after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949. “As long as there is a middle road, all right, I’ll be on it,” Faulkner said in 1956, during the complicated Civil Rights struggle then going in in the South at that time.

Then Faulkner added, “But if it came to fighting I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States.”

Needless to say, in the evening broadcast, my conversation with Crowley was snipped to just a few seconds.

It doesn’t  matter. We know what we know, down here…

…and maybe, everywhere…

The War still matters.

10 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Steve Davis

  1. Well said. Your response is shared by many who are not articulate enough to express it. I have forgotten the source, but I once read that a Southerner does not know the words to ‘Dixie” but when they hear the tune they want to stand up and yell. Felt history, indeed.

  2. The question is not whether you would enlist to fight against a Yankee invasion, but would you fire the first shot at Ft. Sumter?

    1. ncatty:

      Not only did Confederate troops fire the first Civil War shots during their “invasion” of Fort Sumter, they forcibly captured dozens of other U.S forts, arsenals and other military facilities well before Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion.

      Please remind me again, Mr. Davis. Who invaded whom?

    1. Michael:
      Attempting to resupply U.S. troops in a U.S. fort with an UNARMED supply ship. Since when is that an act of war?

  3. The expedition Lincoln sent was not a single, unarmed ship. Gustavus Fox was given command of several ships of war, including the Harriet Lane, Powhatan, Pocahontas, Pawnee, Baltic, and three tugs, Yankee, Uncle Ben, and Freeborn. These ships mounted about 180 guns, carried crews nearing 1,800 men. Fox did not manage to collect all his forces at one time but the effort being made was not to “resupply” but to “resupply and to reinforce.”

    Please see McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, pp 142ff, for a discussion of the pressure on Lincoln to hold Sumter, McPherson points out the advice given Lincoln that a bold move would solidify opinion in the North behind Lincoln and a policy of war.

    1. Fox’s expedition was in response to the shots fired against the *Star of the West.* That had been under Buchanan’s orders, and had it not been fired on, and instead allowed to peacefully resupply the American fort, held by American soldiers, there would have been no need to arm Fox’s fleet. Up to that point, pro-Secessionists were already capturing arsenals throughout the South that belonged to the Federal government as well as capturing Federal soldiers. It’s a mystery how Fox’s fleet can be seen as the first act of war when it was put together in response to a litany of abuses against Federal installations and soldiers.

    2. Michael:
      Sorry. I read your original post too quickly and read over the word “Lincoln.” I thought you referred to the January 1861 expedition of the Star of the West sent by Pres. Buchanan. Although that steamship was unarmed, it was fired on by a Confederate battery as it attempted to resupply Fort Sumter.

      FYI, I’ve read nearly all of McPherson’s books, including Ordeal by Fire.

      But we digress.

      The first actual aggressive moves that led to the Civil War were taken by the seven Lower Southern states that seceded even before Lincoln was inaugurated. The vast majority of these states’ leaders knew full well that their secession would lead to war. That’s why the Confederate Congress in February 1861, a month before Lincoln’s inauguration, authorized Jefferson Davis to create a 100,000-man Confederate army.

      Without secession, the Civil War would not have occurred.

      In addition to the Star of the West incident and the Lower South’s secession, Southern troops forcibly “invaded” and occupied dozens of U.S. forts, arsenals and other federal military bases well before Lincoln’s inauguration.

      Did Lincoln ponder how best to rally Northern support to reunify the nation? Of course he did. He was a politician, after all. Just as Southern politicians pondered ways to convince the average Southerner to support the war, even if he didn’t own slaves.

      As you must know, many Southern politicians and newspaper editors used racial fear to stir support for secession, i.e. Lincoln and his Republicans want to free the slaves to rape your white wives, daughters and sisters, to intermingle with your white children in schools, to take over your local and state governments, etc. Lincoln’s rallying cries were pretty tame compared to many Southern leaders’ racist warmongering.

      As I’ve written in many previous posts: Thank God the North won. Slavery was abolished, and the United States of American remained the United States of America.

  4. “Star of the West” carried 200 troops as well as supplies. This was not a peaceful attempt. Fox was put in command of a powerful fleet in response to political pressure from a large segment of the Northern public and by the hawkish wing of the Republican party.

    The position that there was a litany of abuses against U.S. installations and soldiers reflects a modern assumption that these installations and soldiers were in U.S. territory. That is not the way the citizens of the Confederacy viewed the matter. To them, the continued occupation of the installations by a foreign power was an act of war. The argument that the Confederacy possessed no sovereignty will not wash—they believed they did and acted accordingly.

    McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, pp 140ff discusses the “Star of the West” expedition.

  5. I noticed an error in the figures I cited for the armament and manpower of the Fox expedition. The fleet which finally sailed carried 39 guns and 1200 men. Five hundred of the men were intended to reinforce Sumter, 200 of them being from the 2nd U.S. Artillery.

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