Understanding a historical period such as the Civil War and judging it are two different processes. Understanding must come first or judging simply becomes prejudice, that is, “pre-judging.” This is as true when viewing ancestors as when evaluating contemporary people and events. Human nature doesn’t change but context does. It is incumbent on the historian particularly to be conscious of contextual frameworks, because conclusions might differ radically.
For the purpose of judging, three overlapping world views (weltanschauung) can be applied: 1) that of the past time under consideration, 2) that of the present, or 3) in the context of what we believe to be timeless and universal values. Beliefs and practices, and their resulting actions, may fall into just one, or two, or all three of these categories.
The challenge of understanding both the distinctions and the intersections among these perspectives became apparent to me while researching the CSS Shenandoah (A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah), which is a great story with superb first-person accounts and primary sources. The objectives were to present events as much as possible from the viewpoints of participants, minimize authorial judgements, and leave conclusions to the reader.
But even—and perhaps particularly—being neutral requires a thorough understanding of historical context along with a dedicated effort to explain it objectively, especially where it differs from current perspective. An inattentive writer, or one who intentionally promotes a narrow agenda, will lead the reader to inappropriate historical judgements based in contemporary context (a practice called “presentism”).
This problem is particularly difficult when considering citizens who fought for a Confederacy founded on an evil principle, but which claimed to be and which believed it was struggling for fundamental American values. Our society now considers slavery (and racism generally) to be wrong and that it has always been so; these are to us timeless values that should be universal (although they are not). But they are manifestly not historical.
Involuntary servitude of many forms—serfdom, peasantry, slavery—was the dominant, accepted form of labor throughout history in pre-industrial agricultural and tribal societies. Not until the early nineteenth century did a modern society, Great Britain, develop a moral consensus against these practices and ban them. Based on fundamental principles inherited from Great Britain (and from Rome, Jerusalem, and Athens) and at tremendous sacrifice, the United States followed suit thirty years later, just a generation after its founding.
This societal repugnance for slavery is a recent and fragile historical phenomenon, which is an element of context frequently lost in contemporary discourse. Historical judgements—and the historiography of the Civil War—are thereby corrupted. America is condemned for allowing a practice that had been nearly universal, and is not credited for its central role in eliminating it.
It also helps to zoom in from the macro world view to the micro personal in which all people are bundles of overlapping, sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory, personal identities. It helps to sort these out, to think about what Southerners (or Yankees) thought of themselves, to get into the others’ heads—a valuable practice under any circumstances.
Studying the men of Shenandoah became a highly enlightening process facilitated by wonderful journals, letters, and memoirs. Some of their viewpoints we can relate to; others not so much, but we should be able to accurately comprehend and portray them.
Three heritages drove these Confederates: As Americans and grandsons of revolutionaries, they believed profoundly in liberty and democracy (albeit an exclusionary interpretation of those concepts). They shared the atavistic social mores of the Southern gentleman class, along with its timeless dedication to family, country, duty, and personal integrity. These viewpoints were reinforced in their central identities as officers of the Confederate States Navy, consciously imitating the United States Navy, and applying the Southern martial tradition just as energetically as did Army brothers in arms.
During a thirteen-month cruise to the ends of the earth and back, in daily journal entries, letters, and memoirs, Shenandoah officers—like their enemies—were passionately focused on their mission, and on the fate of their country, communities, and families. They placed lives, fortunes, and honor on the line, defending their country as they understood it with courage, dignity, professionalism, and sacrifice.
It is easy to relate to and admire these characteristics, but underneath lurks the fundamental, dark issue. These men almost never wrote of slavery or slaves, which under the circumstances were simply not central concerns, but they implicitly accepted and even supported the institution; some were from prominent plantation families.
How do we reconcile those contradictions? We don’t, but we can understand and accept them as examples of common human failings. Those who condemn Confederates as evil, and then dismiss them as unworthy of consideration, are either pushing a selfish agenda, given to moral preening, or awash in their own ignorance. To them, the people of the past are wrong because they are not us—a prime example of presentism. We are not making their mistakes, and therefore we are morally and intellectually superior. Empathy is lost.
The same thinking applies to much of what passes for public discourse on current topics, especially in academe. It conveniently ignores that we are making very similar mistakes now. Issues of equal moral weight, difficulty, and potential consequence are in the news every day, issues with striking parallels to slavery. More importantly, it misses all that is worthy in the actions, intentions, and character of these Southerners, and misses the opportunity to learn from them.
This was the greatest revelation from my study of Southern Americans of the Civil War. I was compelled to consider the contradiction between my admiration for their good qualities and the underlying wrongness of the cause. How could decent, intelligent, normal people be right in many ways but so wrong on fundamental principle? Abraham Lincoln said that if he had been raised in the South, he would have believed as they did. He did not condone their conclusions, but he did understand them. Can we do less?
Applying a similar approach to today’s problems leads to a better understanding of them and of those who espouse positions that cannot be reconciled with our current world view or personal identities. Empathy is restored, leading to more constructive approaches for breaching the gaps, and to a better future. Understanding perspective is a vital part of the process. To think about how to think about those under study, it is necessary to put them in their own context, then draw judgements for their time, for our time, and for all time. That is what study of the past is about. That is the future of Civil War history.