Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Dwight Hughes

The cover story of the newest issue of Civil War Times asks, “Do we still care about the Civil War?” ECW is pleased to partner with Civil War Times to extend the conversation here on the blog.

Currier and Ives 1872

The Civil War matters because history matters, and that was a particularly intense, instructive period.

History matters because it endeavors to understand and appreciate the past, illuminate the present, and envision the future.

Historians seek to expound stories of our ancestors as objectively and accurately as possible, treating them as individuals with a common human nature operating within a specific historical context, or at least they should.

Historians sometimes fail in this mission when objectivity is lost as the narrative becomes hijacked by fears, prejudices, and agendas. A good example is the Lost Cause, that interpretation both public and academic that sought to explain the war in terms most favorable to former rebels as well as to those unrepentant political and social pathologies that caused the conflict.

Lost Cause ideology distorted perspectives for a century, delaying resolution of deep national divisions. It failed in its premises and in its methodology. As a theoretical approach to history—historiography—the Lost Cause has itself become history.

This history of history also matters because the propensity to commit such errors is immortal, as demonstrated by current discourse often involving the same subjects. A comparison between then and now is instructive; we can learn from the past to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

In its central premise, the Lost Cause sought to marginalize slavery as a war issue in favor of more defensible secondary or extraneous causes. Recent scholarship is correcting this aberration, filling in the story while assigning the institution its proper, central role in the Civil War narrative.

But another historical interpretation also has arisen, which goes to the opposite extreme, declaring slavery the all-encompassing theme for all American history, apparently explaining and motivating every act and every actor. This approach is no less subjective or agenda driven than the Lost Cause; it just reverses the script.

The richness and complexity of human experience refutes single causality. The Civil War has multitudes of fascinating and instructive stories to tell, which even with slavery hovering in the background, need not directly reference the institution or depend on it for meaning. They too are important. Even some threads of the Lost Cause were not necessarily wrong, just misplaced in the warp and woof of dense historical fabric.

The Lost Cause relied on subjective group identities and group rights with an artificial gloss of scientific objectivity, denying individual agency and declaring one amorphous group superior to another. It espoused racist assumptions concerning the inferiority of African Americans (and other marginalized groups) in order to perpetuate an antebellum oligarchy. This terrible idea lives on in “white supremacy.”

But again, we have a new and contrary concept, equally pernicious, of “white privilege,” which assumes the fundamental inferiority of all Americans of European descent—dead, living, and unborn—seemingly to advance the interests of new political oligarchy. How are these approaches different, except to reverse the color identities of the superior/inferior groups?

Then and now, labels most often applied—“white,” “black,” and the totally undefinable “person of color”—have little objective meaning, depending as they do on superficial physical features. Such designations can only make vague reference to probable and usually remote ancestry on one continent or another with perhaps some guesses as to cultural heritage.

They have no rational historical purpose; they say nothing certain about any individual of any color or their capabilities, hopes, fears, or prejudices. These labels are, however, imbued in public discourse with a great deal of emotional meaning—anger, fear, envy, hate, and greed—which is perhaps the intended purpose.

Black and white are extremes that describe no human being or human endeavor. Categorical distinctions are necessary, but they must not erase individual agency and should be made with more objective, less polarizing terminology.

The Lost Cause wanted to assuage the guilt of slavery’s adherents; the current obsession with slavery and “white privilege” assigns guilt to all persons of lighter skin color for all time.

The Lost Cause justified regimes of anger, fear and terror to keep former enslaved persons in their place. Current public discourse on race often employs anger, fear, and occasionally terror as demagogic tools to manipulate public perceptions and to subvert political opponents.

History as a method should be an inductive process, but the Lost Cause did the opposite. It started with favored premises, selected sources and facts to accommodate them, deduced conclusions, and demanded adherence and actions based on them.

Anyone questioning the conclusions, much less the premises, were declared apostate and illegitimate. That’s political ideology and demagoguery masquerading as history, and it’s still going on from “xxxx supremacy,” to “xxxxophobic,” and “white privilege.”

For example: One premise being advanced is that American slavery began in 1619 when Europeans first imported Africans. But slavery was common in Native American cultures as it was in all tribal and agricultural societies everywhere throughout recorded history. Different in form and practice to be sure, but not in substance. Slavery is universal human sin, not “America’s Original Sin.” If the premise is false, all conclusions derived from it are irrelevant.

The wonder is, not that slavery existed in America, but that the founders deliberately established the first society in history based on principles that rendered slavery illegitimate, principles that were documented and ratified by the people as the law of the land. Then in less than two generations, Americans abolished this timeless, abhorrent practice after stupendous sacrifice while building the freest and most egalitarian nation ever.

Given our nature, historical and historiographical conflicts like these will always be with us. One can begin to understand Lost Cause attempts to rewrite the past as a coping mechanism for extreme trauma along with the less admirable motivations. No such excuse exists now. That’s why the Civil War matters.

About Dwight Hughes

Dwight Hughes is a retired U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer and Vietnam Veteran. He speaks and writes on Civil War naval topics.
This entry was posted in Antebellum South, Civil War in Pop Culture, Memory, Politics, Reconstruction, Slavery, Ties to the War and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Dwight Hughes

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    Dwight Hughes
    I wholeheartedly agree with your report: the Civil War needs to be taught; and the Lost Cause needs to be explained.

  2. Douglas Pauly says:

    I think this a great treatise, and spot on. It spotlights an always relevant question: is history as we know it true? Is ‘that’ what actually happened? The first ‘history reports’ are often media accounts presented as current events. As we have seen both in the present and past is that “fake news” often does rear it head. If those accounts are not corrected by proper scholarship, they no doubt take on the vestiges of ‘truth’. That line (I paraphrase here) about ‘telling a lie often enough will lead to it becoming accepted as fact’ can sometimes ring true. I say again, great article..

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      Douglas Pauly
      I agree that newspapers are notorious for “being first to report the story,” and infamous for “getting most of the facts wrong.” However, there are EARLY reports that get the story correct; unfortunately, these early reports often do not come to light until many years later, and when they do, they have potential to upset the accepted narrative: Letters and Diaries. With the promise of the Internet being realized these past fifteen years, many of these personal stories, languishing in University special collections, or squirreled away by ancestors, remained mostly hidden until very recently. Nearly every week, “new” examples of these records come to light. And because these letters and diaries were penned so close to the event (often within days) they contain far fewer hidden agendas or massaging of Truth than are evident in Official Reports submitted weeks after the battle they memorialize. Letters and diaries can be Time Capsules to events of the past, and challenge Historians to award them proper emphasis, and incorporate them into “the accepted narrative.”
      Mike Maxwell

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        Well Mike, to that, I ask you this: Do you think all of those letters and diaries were absolutely correct and honest? How ‘honest’ were some of the letters of some commanders regarding their own decisions and actions and other things? I don’t think :McClellan ever did anything wrong as far as his own actions. Just ask him. LOL. Remember that individual soldiers, i.e., ‘the grunts’ if you will, were not setting strategies or planning campaigns. I think ALL such sources can be valuable, even invaluable, for gleaning the TRULY historic gems that might be in them. But it still takes what I call ‘proper scholarship’ when it’s all said and done to assign that value, if any, I mentioned.

        I am in no way trying to imply that ALL ‘reporting’ via media or other sources is or was always wrong or suspect. There’s just too many variables to consider as to why someone might have gotten something wrong in such endeavors. But both ‘reporting’ and history have been known to be subject to agendas, as this particular article by Mr. Hughes correctly points out (those ‘Lost Causers’ for instance). Things often change over time concerning attitudes and mores and other mindsets. That too can be ‘dangerous’ (for lack of a better word) as far interpreting and analyzing past events. “Presentism” is always rearing its head in such interpretations.

  3. John Foskett says:

    You make some valid points but the statement “a very small percentage of all southern soldiers actually owned a slave, or even believed it was an acceptable practice” is not accurate. Glathaar has shown that a substantial percentage of soldiers in the ANV came from families that owned slaves even if the (usually young) soldier himself did not. And Manning has taken contemporary letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers to show that a very significant percentage identified slavery as the central issue for going to war. Unfortunately, because today we recognize the evil of slavery it becomes too easy to ignore facts regarding what motivated people in a distant era.

  4. Donald Smith says:

    “Even some threads of the Lost Cause were not necessarily wrong, just misplaced in the warp and woof of dense historical fabric.”

    You are welcome to your opinion, but not everyone shares that opinion.

    If eschewing the “Lost Cause” means eschewing my great-grandfather, great-great grandfather and four great-uncles who fought in the 14th Virginia Cavalry, then no thank you. I’m confident they believed much of what the “Lost Cause” believed. That doesn’t make them bad people; that makes them creatures of their time, shaped by the attitudes and perceptions (or misperceptions) of that time.

    “The Lost Cause relied on subjective group identities and group rights with an artificial gloss of scientific objectivity, denying individual agency and declaring one amorphous group superior to another. It espoused racist assumptions concerning the inferiority of African Americans (and other marginalized groups) in order to perpetuate an antebellum oligarchy.”

    Illinois had a law preventing African-Americans from emigrating there. William T. Sherman, in his autobiography, spoke approvingly of more worthy white people taking over the lands of Indians. White America in the late 19th century was a racist nation. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

    IMO, people who want the legacy of their Confederate ancestors to be treated fairly, are too quickly tarred with the “Lost Cause Apologist” brush. Sorry, but I’m not going to sit by while my ancestors’ image is tarnished. The late nineteenth century was a time when many good people, North and South, believed things that nowadays we know to be bad. We all need to wrestle with that, honestly.

  5. Douglas Pauly says:

    “That doesn’t make them bad people; that makes them creatures of their time, shaped by the attitudes and perceptions (or misperceptions) of that time.”

    That is a VERY valid point. I am always cautioning about the use and imposition of the practice of ‘presentism’ (as one of my posts above shows) in trying to interpret and/or explain past events. I’ve read my share of pronouncements from folks who automatically label ALL who rallied to the Confederates cause as “evil” and “traitors”. That’s easy to to do if presentism is going to be one’s means to view all history. It is also the lazy way out when it comes to rendering certain judgements.

    One other thing here. As is said, to the victors goes the spoils. The victors usually get to write the history of the conflict they won. Concerning the Civil War here in America however, both sides have been heard as far as the memoirs and ‘remembrances’ and accounts and records and biographies established by those who took part. It does often take some work to separate the real from the fiction or the perceived. Thus scholarship must be relentless in trying to ascertain the REAL truth.

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