The Future of Civil War History: Dwight Hughes (part two)


Circles of History GraphicUnderstanding 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.

23 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Dwight Hughes (part two)

  1. “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.”

    This is the basis of the piece. It is a straw man argument. The author invented a preposterous and easy to defeat position. I find this difficult to believe, as I have seen few dismiss the existence of the Confederacy–real or theoretical–out of hand simply because of a difference in opinion.

    Chattel slavery is the least common form of slaver in world history. Most forms of slavery had some way for the person in servitude to change his or her position at some point. Slavery was not an inherited condition. Also, you can’t prove that slavery wasn’t considered all that bad by claiming that it’s been around and accepted for a long time. By the time of the CW, the abolition movement had been around long enough to splinter into several rival factions. Lots of people in the antebellum and CW eras understood slavery to be the abomination that more of us believe it is today.

    Just because something exists does not mean everyone who deals with it thinks it is a good thing. I would choose the point of overlap in the center of the triple Venn, personally.

    1. Thanks for the comment. You certainly are right about chattel slavery, but I did not intend that particular statement to be the basis of the piece and perhaps overstated it as a gut reaction to political correctness (a clear manifestation of presentism). The point was the challenge of judging within and across contexts, and how that applies to difficult questions both past and present. Naturally we would choose the intersection of the three perspectives, but not all issues fit there neatly and we need to be clear on the distinctions in order to come to informed and constructive judgements.

      1. Dwight: “Presentism”, unfortunately, is not limited to those who “demonize” Confederates because of the evil institution which indisputably led to secession. The Internet and even some published material is awash with the historical bull scat that nobody who supported secession or fought for the CSA owned slaves, benefitted from slavery, or was motivated to defend it. Glathaar’s excellent study of the ANV has demolished that notion from a purely statistical standpoint. Manning has shown that plenty of soldiers who volunteered for the CSA cause did indeed mention/write about slavery. You make excellent points. My sole reservation is the (probably unintended) impression that “presentism” exists on only one side of this fence. We have fabrications about legions of “black Confederates” because some folks have a need to make their ancestors’ views palatable in the 21st century.

      1. Absolutely right, John. I was compelled by this particular avenue of research to address one aspect of potential presentism as it impacted my work. I by no means intended to apply that it is the only one. Presentism comes in all forms, equally wrong. Thanks for clarifying.

  2. Dwight:
    I think your extensive research into Confederate sailors has clouded your view of the larger picture.

    Sure, those sailors were brave, dedicated warriors. Most were probably of high moral character and good family men. You can probably say the same thing about the average German soldier during WWII. The soldiers and sailors – in both cases – were not evil people. However, the causes for which they fought were.

    Meg is absolutely correct.

    As I’ve written repeatedly in earlier posts, chattel slavery was considered evil by the vast majority of nations in the civilized world at the time of the CW. And the vast majority of literate Southerners realized that the rest of the world frowned on their “peculiar institution.” That’s why antebellum Southerners were so sensitive about criticism of slavery and why most Southern states banned the distribution of abolitionist literature in their states.

    “Empathy is lost” by present-day critics of Confederates, you write. Dwight, where is your empathy for the 4 million African-Americans in the CW South who were tortured, raped and otherwise de-humanized by their slave-masters?

    1. Great discussion. Again, as with Meg’s comment, I agree entirely with your historical points about slavery, but think this distracts from the points I was trying to make–and maybe did not do very well. Empathy is a tool for understanding; empathy for one faction does not imply a lack of it for another. Sympathy, where judgement comes in, is something else entirely. (Your qualification “at the time of the CW” is relevant. I was referring to the broader scope of human history and the almost universal willingness to enslave the “other” by one means or another, which still exists today in many places.) My problem was understanding in context how and why these Confederates could rationalize the evil of slavery, and reconciling that with their other qualities. In the process, both human nature and the deep parallels to current events became clearer. Good history enlightens past and present.

  3. Empathy often clouds one’s judgement as surely as other emotions. Megan Kate Nelson interviewed Victoria Bynum concerning her book, The Free State of Jones. In reading the interview, I was struck by two comments: Bynum said, ” . . . there was neither a Solid (White) South during the Civil War era, nor a monolithic white heritage . . .” and Nelson reminds us, ” . . we need to understand the broad range of white southerners’ experiences during the Civil war in order to understand that conflict and what came after.”

    It is in learning about Reconstruction that I think your argument falls apart, just as the “good Nazi” argument falls apart. I feel no compulsion to try to be empathetic with years of almost daily lynchings in southern states. Slavery in European history has more to do with class structure than race. Odious as that is for a reason to justify anything, race is even worse. If Southerners were so complacent about it, why was slavery referred to as a “peculiar institution?”

    I am not buying this at all.

    1. Meg: I do buy your historical points, but still think you are “not buying” something I do not say or intend. Do I really have to spell out that I in no way justify, excuse, or find sympathy with their cause? Quite the opposite. Just trying to understand them. In fact, it is extreme moral revulsion that led me to question why I was studying them or writing about them at all. I needed a mental framework to grasp the contradictions and deal with them. This, for whatever use it is, is what I came up with. For the reasons discussed, it helped.

  4. Mr. Hughes:

    An excellent piece and so refreshing compared to what, in too many instances, has become simply rote repetition with, as you put it, “moral preening” or, as someone else has described it, “virtue signalling.”

    “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.”

    An astute observation. And you are not the first to note this:

    “. . . in these dreariest of days in Academia . . . American history has largely become a plaything for canting ideologues . . . our times call for a correct ideological line, which at its increasingly popular extreme regards the Old South as a rehearsal for Nazi Germany and calls for the eradication of all traces of the conservative voices that have loomed so large in southern history . . . [There is a] step-by-step domination of departments of history in our southern as well as northern universities by those who regard what Richard Weaver aptly called the Southern Tradition and all its works as an evil past to be exorcised by all means, fair and foul.” ~ Eugene D. Genovese (The Southern Front – History and Politics in the Cultural War, page 25.)

    And more recently, Professor Gordon S. Wood has expressed similar criticisms, though not specifically aimed at interpreting the history of the Confederacy, his comments are, nonetheless, germane to this discussion:

    “. . . the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past. These historians see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present.” (See:

    Sorry if I’m overstating the case here, but I just wanted to illustrate that you’re certainly not alone in your viewpoint. As a matter of fact, it would be hard to find any more widely respected historians than Genovese or Woods. You’re in good company.

    Again, a great piece and quite balanced and thoughtful.

    Much thanks to the editors of ECW for allowing this perspective to be posted and discussed.

    1. Richard:
      Glad to see you’re contributing again to ECW. I agree that ECW should be congratulated for running divergent opinions, even when I disagree with them. It’s one of the things that makes ECW the best of the Civil War blogs.

      By the way, love the look of your own updated blog.

      1. Thanks Bob – That’s just the current splash/landing page. I can’t find the time to really work on it. Soon, I hope. Too many irons it the fire . . . which reminds me, I need to go weed the garden. 😉
        Hope you have a Happy and Safe Independence Day!

      1. You’re welcome. I could go on and on, and I usually do. 😉 But I think the point has been adequately made. Have a Happy Independence Day!

    2. To your last sentence–the editors at ECW are the best ever. When I feel like I am on thin ice (aren’t we all, sometimes?) a phone call usually gets the same response: just be able to defend your ground, and take responsibility for your results. This makes us all better thinkers & writers, and ultimately, better historians. This discussion really got me going!

      I am only sad that, although the internet world makes us all very close, the geographic world hasn’t caught up. I just made fresh berry smoothies–you guys want come over and eat them on the porch?

      1. Thanks for the invite Meg! That sounds great! I noticed this morning that there may be a bumper crop of Huckleberries on my property this year – a perfect summer treat. Have a nice holiday weekend.

  5. My thanks to everyone for the civil discussion–and the kind words. While we don’t all agree on everything, I’m glad to see a respectful and earnest discussion. We like to present a wide variety of perspectives so that people have plenty to think about. As John Adams said, “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading.”

  6. Thank you for providing such a principled and professional venue for such discussions.

  7. I am dissapointed with the simplistic comment about a confederate state founded on on an evil principle. The vast majority of folks who lived in the the pre-civil war South never owned a slave, and in my particular circumstance my great great grandfather was a Methodist abolitionist. He served in the Third Va. infantry, the force who made the last confederate advance at Appamattox. It might also be noted that the canal built through Richmond in the in the early 1800s was not built by slaves ,even when one of the biggest slave market was only blocks away. Slave labor was to costly,
    hired day laborers were much less expensive!
    We will never be able to hold honest discource about this period until we accept that is to simplistic a premise. Particularly, in light of the post civil war president U.S Grant personally keeping slaves until the constitutuion was amended to forbid it in the whole country!

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