Writing About History in a Manichean Age

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.

The Duke of Wellington at Waterloo.

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45 Responses to Writing About History in a Manichean Age

  1. Pingback: Writing About History in a Manichean Age | Emerging Civil War – Halfway Home: halfway between Ivy and Crozet

  2. Eric Sterner says:

    Well done. Mobs don’t do well with nuance or complexity, much less bother getting their facts correct. Right now, their influence has been amplified by modern technology; they’re setting the tone of public discussion; and our political leaders seem more interested in capitalizing on them than finding a responsible course. There are plenty of historical examples available to us. Sadly, they don’t bode well for historians.

  3. Donald Smith says:

    “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.”

    For those of us who found things to admire in Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Johnston, Stuart, Beauregard and the average Confederate soldier—and have had some mildly hard times on this blog because of it—welcome to the party!

  4. Meg Groeling says:

    The lure of history, though–its complex changes, a kaleidoscope of endless designs, words of poets, paint from artists’ brushes, memoirs, fangirls-and-boys—it is irresistible. Many might think that there are no changes in something that has already happened, but nothing could be more wrong. Well done, good sir! My thanks.

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      “Many might think that there are no changes in something that has already happened, but nothing could be more wrong.” – So well said and so true.

  5. Tom Mack says:

    A sad state, Orwell’s world in 1984 is here. This book was not meant to be an instructional manual. Is there a long-term goal here, to destroy the country’s history completely? I am not optimistic.

  6. Stan Killian says:

    Excellent piece, Mr. Chick, but depressing. There is a small, but vocal minority, aided and abetted by gutless, groveling politicians, driving this attempt to transform the Country. I have faith that the good and reasonable citizens will see this for what it is, and put a stop to it. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      Before I begin, this is not political advocacy, only what I have noticed using the same analytical tools I would use to explain the past. I also want to counter the idea that this is a minority movement that well be squelched by some great “silent majority.” This is not a replay of the Richard Nixon years.

      Both studies and practical observation show that what the majority wants does not matter, only what a moneyed educated elite with influence wants. The protests have a lot of support. It is not a vocal minority, although hardly a tsunami either. Yet so do other positions, yet these protests have institutional support; the others do not. I suspect it is in large part because it does not include a class dimension that would question some of the fundamentals of power in America. Those who discuss class, left or right, are marginalized. For more on that merely look at the recent treatment of Adolphe Reed or Thomas Frank’s career. On the other end, conservatives who address class issues were until only very recently, not to be found at The National Review. Even then they are more oddballs than anything else.

      Much of this is also a consequence of changing values, the social media echo chamber, the devaluation of history (it does not pay and is not emphasized in school), and that those with a certain amount of money and education live in a vastly different world. The result is a broad bipartisan distaste with the current situation that seems to make the upper class both nervous and oblivious. If such a revolt can be sated by throwing Thomas Jefferson into a funeral pyre, they will only hesitate to act long enough for the proles to “get used” to the idea or merely surrender. At the same time, elite support for this movement has given it power. Consider that BLM (despite its Marxist roots) has the backing of Burger King, Target, McDonald’s, NASCAR, Citigroup, Amazon, etc. while Occupy Wall Street was allowed to die and the Tea Party was co-opted by conservative think tanks looking to get more taxes and deregulation.

      The pieces are set. The time to fight this was 2013-2016 when it first reared its head. But those who sounded the alarm were often branded alarmists, racists, Internet trolls, and/or crazy depending on the subject, the accused, and the accuser. It was dismissed as a fringe elite campus ideology or merely an attempt to remove some Confederate symbols. That defense ignored that elite colleges produce the aristocracy that calls the shots, while slavery, conquest, and treason can be easily found in statues beyond those who wore the gray (*cough* George Washington *cough*). It is true similar calls and movements went nowhere until 2013, but that was before the Internet and back when American confidence was riding high. The disasters of the last 20 years have annihilated confidence in America on all levels. It was once said “If Jefferson is wrong then America is wrong.” Well, we have the answer now.

      I have no faith that “the good and reasonable citizens will see this for what it is, and put a stop to it” because they no longer have economic, institutional, or cultural power. Their opinion is immaterial, and that group is only just now learning how powerless they really are. How that knowledge plays out, as well as the increasingly religious fervor of the new identitarian movement, remains to be seen.

      Lastly, thank you for the kind words. I guess I went on because I tire of being told this is a fad pushed by a vocal minority. I see it as “the new normal.”

      • billhenck says:

        Mr. Chick-10 or 15 years ago, I would have read your above post and assumed that you were a conspiracy nut. Unfortunately, recent history has shown that you are correct. Based on personal observation, the elites in this country have contempt for ordinary citizens and have become more and more powerful as they become more and more incompetent. My experience was within the IRS, but it is true within numerous other American institutions. This is relevant because those statues were not taken down in a vacuum. Mayor Stoney of Richmond acted illegally, even in the opinion of the city attorney, but he was able to do it because he has the backing of the governmental and corporate elite of Richmond. The frenzy of tearing down statues will probably burn out as people lose interest, but the damage has been done. It is far easier to destroy than to build. I suspect that ordinary Americans understand that better than our elites.

      • Ben Allen says:

        For a movement that has been associated with Marxism, Black Lives Matter does not advocated workers controlling the means of production, collective farms, or phases of history. Its members just want the police to conduct themselves better in dealing with African Americans.

        Anyway, I don’t submit to either the Just or Lost Causes. Do I believe that the Confederacy was in the wrong and Union was in the right? Yes. That being said, like every period of history, there are plenty of grey areas.

        I’m fine with monuments being moved elsewhere, so long as they end up on private property or in museums. I’m also fine with erecting interpretive panels or signs next to the monuments to put them in context, explaining the Lost Cause. (You don’t see any problems arising over monuments on battlefields, although such fortunate has not allayed fears.) I prefer they not be destroyed, but if they are I see it as a reminder of this ongoing battle over memory, just as the ruins in Europe remind passerby of more recent wars. In other words, I’m open to adopting how Spain deals with the National monuments of its civil war. Then again, you can put on your creativity hat do what Germany has done to the Hermann von Wissmann Monument. No matter the solution, something has to change. Besides, Lee didn’t want any statues of himself.

        As for the other monuments of persons not part of the Confederacy, if the majority of a city council or its residents want them removed, I will in some cases be sad, but a democracy is a democracy. C’est l’guerre.

      • Sean Michael Chick says:

        Sadly Ben, moving monuments to museums, privates spaces, or cemeteries is receiving its own roadblocks. That was discussed in New Orleans in 2019-2019, but the activists shut it down. They prefer the statues in a junkyard, so art, history, and nuance be damned. I do not know how Spain or Germany have handled such things, but I could see in 2017 it was always going to be a destructive process that went beyond Confederates.

        BLM is not Marxist, even if some of its members are Marxists or claim to be. I adhere to a strict definition on these things, which is why the casual application of the labels Marxist, communist, fascist, Nazi, racist, etc annoys me and is often just an ad hominem attack. That said, it seems clear BLM is about more than just police behavior.

        Also, the battlefields and cemeteries are next. Vandalism in each is occurring, and there are rumblings. After all, it will only take a few high profile articles portraying Beauregard’s grave or Shiloh battlefield as a “white nationalist” pilgrimage sites before each is put under pressure.When that happens, I have my doubts people will rush to defend them either, since they will in turn be portrayed in a negative light.

      • Bob Ruth says:

        Sean:

        You’re probably not old enough to remember the false criticisms thrown at Martin Luther King back in the day. I am. King also was wrongly labeled a Communist, especially by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

        By the way, I find it hard to believe you ever espoused the Just Cause. Your posts on ECW routinely have leaned heavily toward the Lost Cause.

      • Sean Michael Chick says:

        Bob,

        Martin Luther King was not a communist. It was a smear used by Hoover, who also used guilt by association. That said, many members of BLM are Marxists. At least some of the founders, such as Alicia Garza, are Marxists. They are very upfront about that. How you feel about that depends on your view of Marxism. I at least think Marx was a shrewd critic of capitalism. I also think BLM is not a Marxist organization, which is a smear used by certain conservatives.

        I do not espouse the Lost Cause. Perhaps I may seem to in so far as I do not think Lee is a villain or militarily incompetent. I do not think Grant was a military genius, but there are precious few of those and Lee does not fit the bill either. Both were talented commanders but not the second coming of Wellington. I do not think slavery was the central motivation behind the North’s war effort, but rather reunification. However, slavery certainly was the prime motivation behind Southern secession. The evidence is overwhelming. None of this will make one Lost Cause unless the definition of Lost Cause is “not Just Cause.”

        You have confirmed my thesis that we live in a Manichean age. I submit that one does not need to fall into Lost or Just Cause camps. Indeed, until a few years ago, the main camp was reunification. Where has that memory and narrative gone? I commented on its coming demise years back: https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/10/11/the-awkward-meeting-of-richard-taylor-edward-canby-and-peter-osterhaus/

        As to me once being Just Cause, people’s minds change. In 2010-2011 I wrote a lot of papers about it and argued that the North had a memory of the war that rejected the Lost Cause. I find it a fascinating and under-studied topic.

      • C.W. Roden says:

        Mr. Chick, thank you for writing such an eloquent piece on the current state of affairs. I have to disagree with you on the point that what we are seeing now is going to be the “new normal”.
        If anything I see this as the Left’s version of the Battle of the Bulge, namely their last big push before their collapse. Sure its ugly and likely to get uglier before it improves, but its not exactly the game-changer many folks seem to think it is.
        Remember we are only a few years removed from a presidential election nobody thought would turn out as it did (including a good many folks who voted for the individual in question), and from BrexIt — both acts an overwhelming rejection of globalism and socialist ideology.
        For the first time these people were hit with the cold hard reality that they could actually lose the culture war and it panicked them.
        Now they are flexing their muscles, using their domination of corporate America and popular culture to hit back. They have allied themselves with the new popular religions of BLM and the 1619 Project.
        But they are also making a critical and — I dare say it — fatal mistake. They argue that they are fighting “systemic racism” in the Establishment, but by showing their overwhelming control of this nation’s institutions and beating down resistance with such blunt force and rhetoric, they have exposed themselves, they have become the Establishment, while the rest of us (the sane people for lack of a better term) have become the counter-culture.
        The more they tighten their grip and push their repressive ideals, the more they vilify American figures, the stronger they are making that opposition; and American history has shown us that nothing ends up being more popular than a group of rebels. The more those in power repress ideals, the more they vilify their opposition, the more resentment builds up. Right now there are signs that the new religion may have overplayed their hand and the push back is slowly starting to get rolling.
        All we can do is wait and see, and continue to ride out this current wave.

      • Sor says:

        Chick, BLM is self avowedly Marxist. Get a grip.

    • Tee Ambrose says:

      A coverup also known as Hogwash…

  7. Your posts always resonate so well. Thank you for another fantastic piece.

  8. Kevin Pawlak says:

    Well said, Sean. A very nice piece!

  9. Dan says:

    I don’t see how current events are going to have much effect on the writing of history. The changes are really not even about history, but about choices in public commemoration. The Lost Cause distortions in current historiography are just about kaput. People aren’t buying those myths anymore, and that’s good. I don’t agree about there being a “Just Cause” myth. That seems contrived.

    It seems like it would be easier and simpler to just listen to the protesters, rather than trying to make it into an elaborate Marxist, elitist conspiracy. It HAS been building for a long time, and these issues should have been addressed long before now. But many people chose to ignore them. Now many people want to mischaracterize the changes as some apocalyptic collapse of our culture.

    After this all calms down, I sure there will still be authors writing biased puff pieces on some historical figures, and writing biased hit pieces on others. And their bias will still be called out like it is now.

    If anything REALLY threatens biased revisionist writers, it’s the ongoing digitizing of sources. It used to be much harder to verify revisionist claims, especially if the source was in some musty archive that most readers couldn’t access. Between online access to sources and online discussion with other readers of history, I doubt that any ‘Lost Cause’ type of distorted history will gain much traction among consumers of history books. There will still be distorted works but the bias will be evident, and it will keep them in the margins. The more professional and objective works of history will continue to be praised and respected.

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      You have far more faith in the capacity of people for reasonableness, fairness, objectivity, and justice than I. I do not even think there is anything such as “professional and objective works of history” that “will continue to be praised and respected.” It seems to me most books are an attempt by the author to make an argument in favor of their worldview, which in turn dictates what evidence is used and how it is used. An honest study of historiography will teach you that, and that every era thinks they have found the “truth.” Such though is the arrogance of the present. You may not see the Just Cause, but I see its bias in many books. I will grant it is better than the Lost Cause (on non-military matters in particular), but it has its own limitations and distortions.

      I have grave doubts that this is only about “public commemoration” and that said events will have no effect on history and how it is written. The way we view Jefferson, and the fact that he has so many honors, does effect how we write about him, whether the book is for or against him. Those biased puff pieces you scoff at are not fringe zines or obscure blogs. They are in public speeches and published on the front page of major newspapers, magazines, and websites. They are carted out in Internet debates. They even win awards. There is no end in sight to them, and they are running fast out of Confederates to beat up on. Sherman and Grant could be next and relatively low hanging fruit, that is if we want to consider the indigenous, possibly the worst off social group in America then and now.

      I will say it is not an “elaborate Marxist, elitist conspiracy.” For one thing, these people are not Marxists. Marx was a thinker obsessed almost wholly with class and material conditions. Some draw ideas from Marx, but they also draw ideas from Rousseau, Locke, Plato, Arendt, etc. It does make them Platonists either. As to conspiracy, that would imply some sort of well organized plan, which I do not see. Its more a product of echo-chambers and networks built in elite colleges. As to the protests, I do not doubt the popularity or sincerity. I hate it when people left or right think protesters who are on their side are virtuous citizens exercising their rights, while those against their side are a vocal minority astroturfs harboring criminal intent.

      You are correct about the digitizing of sources helping to deal a needed death blow to the Lost Cause. Yet, be careful in this regard. The new conservative thinkers I have observed for the last few years are abandoning Reagan and the old paradigm and are going back to those digitized and forgotten books. They are quoting and using Filmer, Maistre, Carlyle, and even some Confederates who wrote about more than just slavery.

      Thank you Dan for being without hyperbole and rudeness in an age where that can make you a sensation on Twitter.

      • Dan says:

        The best history, IMO, is when the bias is virtually undetected, and it’s filled with well-sourced information, and it’s well-written. That’s what I meant by professional and objective. It becomes a go-to standard, and it’s respected. I think any writer that consciously tries to knock some figures down or puff up others, is not writing good history.

        I haven’t read your Petersburg book, but I read the Civil War Monitor review. The reviewer mentioned that you made some “sweeping, unsubstantiated judgments” and attempted to “tarnish” some figures (Grant) and elevate others (Beauregard).

        Biased history has been around forever, and is in every memoir, but the best history is that which you don’t feel you have to take every statement with a grain of salt until you can find time to verify it.

        I don’t see how current events are going to change things for historians. If it does change anything, hopefully it will be for the better.

  10. Rob Orrison says:

    Sean, this is spot on and glad you posted it on ECW…we need more common sense posts like this. We are seeing a shift pushed my a vocal minority. Many just say “its just Confederate stuff…” but it isn’t…they will keep going. You sum things up well and provide great perspective. Kudos

  11. Grego says:

    Well said. You are a voice of reason in the wilderness of mob rule.

    Any historian who doesn’t fully support current leftist doctrine on the Civil War – all individuals connected to the Confederacy in any way were evil – will be branded a racist and white supremacist, and will be ostracized and marginalized In the profession.

    They’re coming after the Founding Fathers and the National Anthem next. To quote one of those Founding Fathers; “I tremble for my country”.

  12. George Slaton says:

    Thank you for these very insightful reflections! Your reasonable approach to these issues is helpful to those of us who recognize – and appreciate – that people of the past, like those of the present, were far more than one-dimensional characters.

  13. Dennis says:

    I wanted to say thanks for this perspective. I’m African American, I have relatives on my Dad’s side from Louisiana, so I have people like my Dad who grew up under Jim Crow and relatives that stretch far back who were slaves. I don’t necessarily have a problem with taking down statues in an orderly manner (which is sadly not happening), but I am uneasy in how the Civil War has become so Manichean. Looking at America from a black perspective, you grow to learn that America isn’t Manichaean, but filled with a lot of grey, a mixture of good and bad. I think Confederates were to use a worn-out phrase “on the wrong side of history,” but I also think people like Robert E. Lee were far more complex than we’d like to think. People forget that Lincoln asked him to lead the Union forces in the Civil War. Malcolm X is rumored to have once said that the Mason/Dixon line stops at the Canadian border. I tend to interpret that to mean that racism is not a Southern issue and even support for slavery was not just in the South. I see Confederates as Americans because they are part of this double consciousness when it comes to race in America. The Lost Cause romanticized the Confederacy, but the Just Cause is demonizing it and I don’t think either approach is helpful.

    I would love at some point to interview you. I write articles on politics and various issues on Medium and people seem fascinated when I write about the Civil War.

    Thanks again.

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      Thank you for the comment Dennis. I particularly liked Malcolm X’s quip there, as it says a lot about what Robert Penn Warren called “the treasury of virtue” which is how the North used victory in the war to deflect from their own shortcomings.

      Can you provide a link to Medium so I can look at what the site entails?

    • Ben Allen says:

      Dennis, I, too, wish monuments would be removed in an orderly manner. I’m not exactly going to shed a tear for the statues of Jefferson Davis and Christopher Columbus, and I’m not angered that protesters tried to take down the Andrew Jackson Monument in D.C. Honestly, I’m more worried about police brutality than with monuments. To paraphrase my friend Ryan Quint, you can fix or replace monuments or headstones, but you can’t bring back George Floyd.

      However, I don’t have a problem with simply demonizing the Confederacy. My issue is with _how_ it is demonized. The fact that it fought to maintain the peculiar institution of slavery is worthy of condemnation. Like you said, the Confederates were “on the wrong side of history.” That being said, I’m not going to characterize Lee as an absolute villain. For the most part, he was a decent individual who understandably chose the wrong side, and who after the war behaved like the curmudgeonly Mr. Carson in _Downton_ Abbey_ (see Elizabeth Varon’s book on Appomattox). I like him, despite the fact that I would not have agreed with him on everything.

      Every period of history has grey areas, and the American Civil War is no exception.

    • Elizabeth A Panessa says:

      I like your comment very much. It’s broad with a lot of thought. I’m Caucasian, not white privileged, whatever that is. I believe history with all of its warts should be shown for what it was along with statues and monuments. Those Confederate soldiers, especially the leading officers, did what they were told- just like any soldier before or since. They were someone’s father, husband, brother- every one human. What’s happened recently is an abomination of that humanity.

  14. David Connon says:

    Thank you, Sean Michael Chick, for a thoughtful piece on our Manichean age. You raise some questions I have wondered about, particularly as they relate to bloggers and authors who delve into the complexity of the Civil War.

  15. Dave says:

    Our Fore Father’s Risked Everything For This Country Unlike You People That Sit Behind a Keyboard Being Relentless Boot Lickers For Such Weak Written Content ! Truly Sad !!!

  16. Martin Gawoski says:

    Lee spent the part of the remainder of his life supporting the disenfranchisement of black people. Many of the leaders on the Confederate side spent the post war period organizing the Klan and the jim crow system that kept people in virtual slavery for 100 years and and continues and has left this country with racist and white supremacist attitudes that continue to plague our society.

  17. JOHN THAYER says:

    The War Between The States was NOT a “Civil War”. A civil war is what happens when the population of a single nation or region begins fighting with one another. Take, for example, the civil war that occurred in Northern Ireland or in Syria.

    The War of Southern Independence was fought between the United States of America (the Union) and the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy). Both had their own separate capitols, governments and organized armies.

    The institution of slavery played a part, but so did Mr. Lincoln’s raising of import taxes (tariffs) on the imported manufactured goods from Great Britain and Europe on which the agricultural Southern states depended. The Southern economy was based on exchanging farm products such as cotton, tobacco and rice for finished goods from the industrialized countries of the old world. Mr. Lincoln and his Northern industrialist backers wanted high import taxes because their new factories could not compete on price with old established companies of Britain and Europe which had already amortized the cost of their production facilities.

    Basically, the War Between The States was brought on by the desires of Northern industrialists to gain sales in Southern markets from which they were excluded due to their higher cost of production.

    • nygiant1952 says:

      Your definition of a ‘civil war” is exactly what happened in the United States.

      Call it what you want, but at no time was the Confederacy recognized by a significant European, African or Asian country. The United States did not recognize the Confederacy , but treated it as states in rebellion.

      According to the Cornerstone Speech, the South left the Union because of slavery. Only AFTER the Civil War, did the Southern States find other reasons …like States Rights, and tariffs, And in the Ordinances of Secession, most of the States declared that slavery was the reason they were leaving the Union.

      And what precipitated this secession, was the election of Lincoln as President . The South feared that the demographics would allow passage of laws that would ban slavery, and that the South no longer wold have the ability to stop any legislation against slavery as they had in the past. The North had the greater population , and the admission of free states to the Senate would turn the tables against the South.

      • Sean Michael Chick says:

        It was indeed a civil war, if a bit unusual as compared to the English, Spanish, Russian, and various Roman varieties.

        Individual states had certain reasons. South Carolina certainly cared about tariffs while Texas mentioned disagreements over frontier policy. That said, slavery connected all of the states, particularly the original seven members of the CSA. It is no coincidence that the likelihood of secession and support for secession was correlated to the percentage of slaves in a state.

  18. Steve Carry says:

    I echo much of the previous replies. This is a very good and well thought out piece. Thank you.

  19. Michael Bacon says:

    In these times of social unrest, with a pandemic and abuse of authority by police escalating the Black Lives Matter movement, we hear many false narratives of the Civil War. Radical extremists on both sides are showing their ignorance of history while taking the War and beliefs of Americans at the time out of context. They attribute actions to personalities at the time that never happened. These personalities were humans not Gods or saints. But they were glorified through art and text.

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      “But they were glorified through art and text.” – It seems every movement or people do this. Just look up “Genghis Khan statues in Mongolia.” Beyond lessening anything bad a certain person did, it also makes them less human. A symbol if you will.

  20. Asher J Reisman says:

    You’re clearly quite impressed with your own capacity to discover and appreciate nuances in the historical record. Let’s state some bald facts though. No one is going to take away your blog, and wokeness poses no credible threat to your ability to make a living, or your life, for cherishing some idiosyncratic attachment to Jefferson Davis or whoever the fuck you admire for their fortitude or whatever. What is at stake in the demand to remove monuments raised to defenders of white supremacy (typically erected by later even more ideologically hardened white supremacists like the Daughters of the Confederacy) is your privilege to have those attachments confirmed in public architecture.

    Leaving aside the bleeding question of whether the intellectual and emotional satisfaction to continuously pontificate on whatever edifying or instructive lessons one can find in the lives of men who prosecuted treason to preserve the slave power (which you still get to do even if universities don’t want to invite you to give lectures or Google deprioritizes you) really counts against a patriotic responsibility to solidarity with your living compatriots (Black Americans) who you can know for a surety will find such attachment to the oppressors of their predecessors bizarre and hurtful, there is the other unnuanced fact that whatever subtle lessons these statues recall to you the basic lesson they cannot help but express is that these men were heroes.

    • Sean Michael Chick says:

      This post is not a defense of such and such statue. It is certainly no defense of Jefferson Davis, a man for whom my opinion is low. Nor is it an attempt to be “quite impressed with” my “capacity to discover and appreciate nuances in the historical record.” As I see it, there are two problems. One is the brutal fact that civilization, in every part of the world, is built on horrendous acts by individuals, and those actions were supported by the society of the time. So we have statues to people with mixed records. On the other hand, they built the foundations for the world we live in. So our feelings become mixed, and different depending on who we ask. The Lakota will feel different about Grant and Sherman than your average resident of Allentown, PA.

      In the last few years a new moral order has been erected. When these things are crafted, statues come down. It was the same when Christianity overtook the Roman Empire and during any political revolution. The Jacobins went so far as to dig up and destroy the long dead corpses of kings and nobles.

      If I were an optimist, I would say the new moral order will improve how we relate to each other, create broader equality, and raise up heroes who are not compromised. In one sense, going after Washington and Jefferson, who were also traitorous slave-owners, is encouraging. It means the movement behind this is not merely obsessed with low-hanging Confederate fruit, but something broader and deeper.

      However, I am a pessimist who distrusts moral orders. In large part, it is because hypocrisy, elitism, exploitation, and expansion are found everywhere and at all times. I do not defend those things; it adds to my suspicion that George Carlin was right to think we are “semi civilized beasts, with baseball caps and automatic weapons.” To be fair there are degrees of elitism, exploitation, and expansion. Yet, until this new moral order can move away from a celebration of cheap consumer goods made with semi-slave labor in governments with records of murder and repression, I do not hold out much hope. Indeed, the open support of various corporations that make such goods tells me this movement is not considered a serious threat to their power.

      Lastly, I enjoyed reading your comment, both because it challenged the post and because I like your writing style. If you are willing to exchange replies here or messages elsewhere, I am open to it. There are things you know that I do not know.

    • Sir says:

      That’s it Reisman – keep it classy. I was unconvinced until you relied on profanity. Now I know you must be really, really right. Good job for adding just a little bit more crudeness in the world.

  21. Lynn Carter says:

    Is there no hope?

  22. Robert Denney says:

    This topic has taught me a lot. I have expanded my knowledge of the “Lost Cause” theory, and been introduced to the “Just Cause” and “Manichean” theory, neither of which I had ever heard of.

    I think Mr. Reisman misses the mark because of what Mr. Chick calls the “new moral order” that has been created. To me this new moral order takes the issue of monuments and memorials completely out of context of the times in which they were erected.

    Therefore, I go back to what I will call the “original intent” which emanated from the surrender at Appomattox.

    From Grant’s memoirs at the surrender table: “my own feelings……were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought…. I do not question,however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.”

    From Chamberlain’s The Passing of the Armies: “i resolved to mark it by some token of recognition, which could be no other than a salute of arms. …. The act could be defended, if needful, by the suggestion that such a salute was not to the cause for which the flag of the Confederacy stood, but to its going down before the flag of the Union. My main reason, however, was one for which I sought no authority nor asked forgiveness. Before us in proud humiliation stood the embodiment of manhood: men whom neither toils and sufferings, nor the fact of death, nor disaster, nor hopelessness could bend from their resolve; standing before us now thin, worn, and famished, but erect, and with eyes looking level into ours, waking memories that bound us together as no other bond-; was not such manhood to be welcomed back into a Union so tested and assured?’

    Therefore, the monuments and memorials were erected to honor the Confederate soldier, who “fought so long and valiantly’, not to honor the cause of slavery or symbolize white supremacy. Also, to suggest that the Daughters of the Confederacy were “ideologically hardened white supremacist” is patently absurd.

    So when I look at these monuments and memorials I think of “the embodiment of manhood” they represent, not treason, slavery, or white supremacy. Furthermore, I believe only a person learned in the Civil War can truly understand this. That doesn’t mean they accept it, but they do understand.

  23. “Therefore, the monuments and memorials were erected to honor the Confederate soldier, who “fought so long and valiantly’, not to honor the cause of slavery or symbolize white supremacy. Also, to suggest that the Daughters of the Confederacy were “ideologically hardened white supremacist” is patently absurd. So when I look at these monuments and memorials I think of “the embodiment of manhood” they represent, not treason, slavery, or white supremacy. Furthermore, I believe only a person learned in the Civil War can truly understand this.” Couldn’t agree more with robert’s comments (esp. that last sentence). I’ve worked for two history museums and personally own hundreds of books on CW period. I’m from the South and that’s where my sympathizes will always lie. But what’s so maddening now is the illiteracy and continuous vilification in everything from Facebook comments to TV news. Sitting through the Ken Burns series once is NOT a full understanding of that period of US history. Without more than a rudimentary knowledge of 1860-65, the general public is easy prey for the falsehoods and implicit bias. But I have to admit – I don’t feel hopeful either that reason and logic will prevail. It feels like we already crossed the rubicon described in Isaiah 5:20.

  24. Dennis says:

    Hello. I chatted with you here online a few weeks ago. I’m working on a story on General Lee and the changing views on the Civil War and wondering you would be up for an interview. If you are interested you can contact me at dennis (dot)sanders (at) gmail (dot) com. You can read some of my past stories on the civil war by going to: https://medium.com/@dennissanders. Take care.

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