Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Robert Lee Hodge

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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.

Of course the Civil War still matters! I tend to think it matters more now than it has in the past. The traditional ties to memory of “The Late Unpleasantness” are being challenged.

I had viewed the history of the war from the perspective of a somewhat passive consumer of the rich and colorful stories and data. The “Why was the Civil War fought?” question I traditionally have not paid much attention to. My feeling has been, “It happened,” and I have not had much interest in understanding the “why?” as opposed to the “who, what, where, when, and how.” The latter is perhaps more concrete compared to the former, more-arguable, philosophical, “why?” The latter is admittedly supplementary simple and entertaining. The “why?” can get uncomfortable, personal, vengeful, and sensitive.

Memory, and the fight for memory, has taken a much more active and passionate bend in the wake of the Charleston shootings in 2015. The radical attempts at the obliteration of monumentation has surprised—and hurt—me. Regardless, these efforts create definition, which is healthy. It awakes many in society to reflect upon who we are and what the country is. Despite how painful these exercises are, they add to the narrative.

Our War Between the States is evergreen. New information rises continuously to the surface. “The Information Age” didn’t start in the 1970s; it started in the 1850s. Literacy was exploding as was data gathering, not to mention technological advances benefitting from the Industrial Revolution. New stuff will be discovered for decades to come about this old subject. The future is bright to learn about our collective complicated past—warts and all.

I have become more sensitive to Civil War memory because of the hyper-passionate focus and judgment by others. It motivates me to dig deeper and attempt to be less subjective and more objective, and hope others will honestly do the same. Neo-vilification of the many dead from the War of the Rebellion compels me to read more from the primary sources. The information can fortify one to challenge the somewhat fashionable, media-fueled dogma (which can also appear cliché). During the advertising campaign for Ken Burns’ Vietnam series in 2017, I remember the tag-line, “In war there is more than one truth.” I believe that expression can be applied beyond the Vietnam War.

History philosopher Sir Herbert Butterfield, who emphasized the limits of a historian’s moral conclusions, wrote, “If history can do anything it is to remind us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance.” Butterfield discussed the dangers of the English Whig interpretation of history—that the study of the past with reference to the present was a teleological assumption, and a bourgeois prejudice masked as progress and goodness.

Reinforcing Butterfield, former Democratic Senator Jim Webb said that the attacks on Robert E. Lee were “some vicious hits, as dishonest or misinformed advocates among political interest groups and in academia attempt to twist yesterday’s America into a fantasy that might better service the political issues of today.”

An interesting letter in regards to state sovereignty, from the British Parliamentarian, Lord Acton, written to Robert E. Lee in 1866, said:

I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that [this?] great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.

Lord Acton’s words to Robert E. Lee are gravitating, and illustrate another profoundly theoretical perspective. Acton is also noted for saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Recently there has been too much passion and not enough compassion.

4 Responses to Do We Still Care About the Civil War: Robert Lee Hodge

  1. So your term for ‘slavery’ is ‘profit motive’. We get that. It doesn’t change the fact that war was fought overwhelmingly BECAUSE of slavery. Wrapping it in any other guise or term doesn’t change that.

    1. Fair enough Tim, but none the less, slavery was predominately determined by geography because of the Missouri Compromise. And while the ‘economic engine’ in the region of the country that became the basis for the Confederacy retained their slaves, the rest of the country outlawed that. And while you are right that products and wares that were produced as a result of slave labor were ‘gladly’ handled in those other parts of the country, and the world for that matter, in time it still all boiled over. As is said, “You gotta crawl before you can walk, and you gotta walk before you can run!”. No doubt there WAS plenty of hypocrisy to go around at one time. Heck, even :Lincoln made pronouncements that he could live with slavery so long as the Union was not cut up. But over time attitudes changed, as well as the political climate.

  2. An interesting approach. It’s fine to have no interest in focusing on why the war was fought but if you’re going to take it up, do better than simplistically closing with a salute to the “state’s rights” theory. That gets us back to reading the ordinances of secession, the correspondence and speeches of the secession commissioners, VP Stephens’ clear statement of the cornerstone of the CSA, etc. Words matter and people should be given the benefit of speaking honestly about their beliefs.. Not everything about that is presentism. The latter is at least as much apparent when folks today who know that chattel slavery is wrong reach back and modify/alter the views of those who lived in a far different time and culture and harbored different beliefs. .

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more: “Words matter and people should be given the benefit of speaking honestly about their beliefs.”
    As Lincoln said in his first inauguration speech concerning “his belief” in the Corwin amendment (which passed both houses of Congress by the required 2/3’s majority – Imagine getting a 2/3’s majority for anything in Congress today – and overwhelming even without the votes of the then seven seceded slave states,):
    “… has passed Congress, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service … holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”
    So if the North didn’t invade the South over states’ rights, the US Commander in Chief didn’t send in the troops to end slavery either. Could it be related to what Capt. Stephen Nunnelee of the 5th Ala Cav wrote in 1864: “… a [Northern] people who cannot afford to live without us, and are determined not to let us go in peace…”

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