Given current events, I find myself asking how one will be able to write about the American Civil War now and in the future. This question has been brewing in my mind since 2015 when the debate over statues began in earnest. However, only now do we see the implications of the debate going beyond select statues.
On this blog and elsewhere I have identified the current consensus of the Civil War as the Just Cause. This interpretation, like the Lost Cause, has different varieties, but on a whole can be identified by a belief that the Civil War was inevitable, just, and/or necessary. It admits, either tacitly or overtly, that some questions cannot be solved by reform, elections, or even peaceful protest, but only by war. It also holds that the Confederates were not merely misguided, but one of the greatest villains of American history, beaten only by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, with the Soviet Union and George III’s Britain in distant fourth and fifth places.
History is viewed by the opinion-makers of our day in increasingly Manichean terms, which has made the Just Cause become more widely accepted. The complications of the past are brushed away in an attempt to find sins that make a figure worthy of ridicule and removal. In the case of Robert E. Lee, all that matters is that he was a Confederate general; nothing he did before or after the war matters.
This becomes an issue for historians working outside of the accepted Just Cause paradigm, which is not the same as embracing the Lost Cause. Attacks on one’s credibility, morality, and beliefs through social media can be hazardous to life and livelihood. There is an aggressive online mob ready to enforce intellectual and moral conformity. Much of the media has picked up on this, and with each year articles on the war take a more strident tone. For example, New Orleans intends to change the name of several streets, and the article here drips with disapprobation for anyone who would question even part of the process.
I grew up with the Lost Cause, but I found it wanting and abandoned it around 2004. I adhered to the Just Cause for a time, but in my opinion it is often too boastful, sanctimonious, and at its worst bloodthirsty. I view the Civil War as tragic. For a republic to settle such questions by mass violence is not particularly uplifting. The attempt to make it an uplifting moment, which is the thread that ties the Reunification, Lost Cause, and Just Cause narratives, is at heart a way to absolve ourselves. I find it hard to celebrate Americans killing each other, whether it was at Kennesaw Mountain or King’s Mountain or Kettle Creek or Wilson’s Creek.
In the Just Cause, the tragedy of former friends and family fighting becomes lost in an attempt to establish heroes and villains. As such, the pressure to downplay suffering and cast the Confederates as villains will increase over time. Books discussing battles and generals will be pressured to abandon nuance in favor of vilification. My own work on P.G.T. Beauregard is sympathetic to him, although I note his weaknesses. Yet, how can my portrayal exist in a world where he is cast as a traitorous oppressor? At the same time, I am writing a book on Shiloh. Reading about the repeated charges made by Randall Gibson’s brigade at the “Hornet’s Nest” makes for sobering reading. Confederate dead were piled in front of the Union lines and some burned up in the tickets. Union and Confederate reports of the fighting consistently remark on the heavy losses and fierce fighting in powerful language, not the usual “we advanced, fought, and were repulsed” that is common in the official records. The fighting there took on a special character that explains why this feature of the battle became central to its mythology.
Perhaps my definition of villainy is too narrow for these times. Yet, the nature of military history can often create sympathy; only the most heartless or detached could read about the “Hornet’s Nest” and simply wave it away with a hand. Yet, social media makes that easier. If a mob came after a book taking a balanced or even slightly positive view of a Confederate who would defend the writer? If Lee is simply a villain, what do we make of his actions before and after the war? He was before the war a great engineer, his finest work being on the Mississippi River. After the war he supported reunification and the rebuilding of the South through education. Yet, if one were to view of Lee as a tragic or complicated figure, then one could come under attack in certain quarters with real consequences beyond a few bad reviews. For the most bloodthirsty of the Just Cause, Lee deserved a good hanging, and they leave it at that.
There is however, a broader fear. Those who said in 2015 that only Confederate leaders would be touched were of course wrong. By 2017 Confederate soldiers were commonly being equated with the rank and file of the 3rd SS Panzer Division. Then, others fell. Mitch Landrieu, the man who removed statues of Lee and Beauregard in the most strident rhetoric, was appalled at the idea of Andrew Jackson coming down from his perch near St. Louis Cathedral. Yet that is a real possibility, and police presence near that statue has stepped up in the last few weeks. Ulysses S. Grant has even been removed by a mob, and I am not surprised. The ultimate contradiction within the Just Cause narrative is that men such as Grant made a go at Reconstruction, but once the economy collapsed in 1873, they abandoned the attempt. Grant tried to have peace with the indigenous, only for the riches of the Black Hills to tempt him into war with the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, one of America’s most naked acts of aggression. William Tecumseh Sherman’s marches through the South are rarely condemned in the current climate, but his wars with the natives certainly are. The very generals who freed the slaves conquered the west and are ripe for “cancellation” for lack of a better word.
If a Manichean vision of the American Civil War is pervasive, there is no reason to suppose it would stop there. The wars on the plains were no reenactment of good guys and bad guys. The complicated feelings and actions of men such as Oliver Howard and George Crook are obvious to those acquainted with each man. Yet, they both fought wars with the tribes of the west. Thomas Jefferson can be cast as a brilliant thinker, politician, inventor, writer, and a champion of education, or as a slave-owning hypocrite who raped at least one of his slaves. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington won Waterloo and supported Catholic emancipation. He was also steadfast in his opposition to voting, labor, and Jewish rights, while he supported harsh military discipline. He dubbed his soldiers “the very scum of the earth” on more than one occasion. Lord Byron, perhaps Wellington’s most eloquent assailant (certainly no saint himself), penned these biting words:
“You are ‘the best of cut-throats:’—do not start;
The phrase is Shakspeare’s, and not misapplied:
War ‘s a brain-spattering, windpipe-slitting art,
Unless her cause by right be sanctified.
If you have acted once a generous part,
The world, not the world’s masters, will decide,
And I shall be delighted to learn who,
Save you and yours, have gain’d by Waterloo?
I am no flatterer—you ‘ve supp’d full of flattery:
They say you like it too—’t is no great wonder.
He whose whole life has been assault and battery,
At last may get a little tired of thunder;
And swallowing eulogy much more than satire, he
May like being praised for every lucky blunder,
Call’d ‘Saviour of the Nations’—not yet saved,
And ‘Europe’s Liberator’—still enslaved.”
For those of us who find things to both admire and despise in men such as Grant, Sherman, Crook, Howard, Beauregard, Lee, Gibson, Jackson, Jefferson, Wellington, and even Byron, I predict only hard times.