Due in part to the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War (and in part to great work that’s been ongoing for many years and is just being aired more widely because of blogs), there are a wide and rich variety of online conversations about the war happening these days. Many of those conversations, such as the ones featured at the New York Times’ hugely engrossing Disunion blog, are grounded very fully and impressively in the historical details and sources; some, such as those about whether the war’s principal cause was indeed slavery (a question that is answered demonstrably and unquestionably in every major primary source related to the war), are instead entirely about contemporary political perspectives and debates (to my mind, anyone arguing that the Civil War was principally about something other than slavery, particularly states’ rights, is doing so entirely because of contemporary political issues). But a few, and for me often the most complex and interesting, of the conversations straddle that line, extending both back into the historical contexts and forward into some of our most divisive and important present debates.
Two of the most interesting, and two very much interconnected, such conversations have, not surprisingly, taken place at two of the best blogs (historically engaged or otherwise) I know. At his Atlantic.com blog, Ta-Nehisi Coates has led and linked to an evolving series of discussions and debates over the question of whether the Civil War was or was not tragic. Coates, focusing on the war as a final, necessary, and ultimately uplifting stage in the multi-century fight for the emancipation of African American slaves, has argued that the war was in no way tragic; many of his respondents and fellow bloggers have taken more mixed positions similar to what I would say is my own, positions perhaps best summed up by a (probably apocryphal but very effective) line delivered about the battle of Antietam by Massachusetts Governor John Andrew in the film Glory: “a great and a terrible day.” But no matter what position one takes on this question, it seems to me that it’s impossible to separate it entirely from subsequent historical and national issues, from Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement up to the Obama Presidency and the (at times) overtly Neo-Confederate responses it has provoked. That doesn’t mean that the debates are necessarily a-historical, though—quite the opposite in fact, as Coates in particular has proved time and again (here as elsewhere) that the more historically grounded arguments contextualize and enrich the present debates in every case.
In recent days Coates has linked quite a bit to another blogger, Kevin Levin, an AmericanStudier and Civil War historian whose CWMemory blog hosts (in the posts and in the comment threads) some of the very best of these ongoing Civil War debates. The specific subject of these links has been a second and, again, very much interconnected conversation: the question of whether African Americans fought for the Confederacy in any significant numbers, along with parallel questions such as whether they did so entirely as slaves or were ever acknowledged as soldiers. While (as Levin’s recent posts note) hugely prominent AmericanStudiers such as Henry Louis Gates and John Stauffer have begun to argue for the affirmative positions, Levin, Coates, and many other historians (and, based on much less archival research to be sure, I as well) continue to believe that the vast majority of the individuals and organizations making this case are (like the Sons of Confederate Veterans) explicitly interested at least as much in contemporary narratives about race and region as they are in revising Civil War historiography. As Levin and Coates have noted, it is far from coincidental that many of those arguing for the existence of black Confederates use that argument to further their claims that the war was not and could not have been about slavery—for, these arguments go, why would African Americans fight for such a cause? Yet in this case the historical contexts and the present debates do often part ways, for a historically grounded argument would have to note that, even if African Americans did occasionally fight for the Confederacy, they did so explicitly as slaves rather than soldiers, making their service much, much more likely to be coerced than volunteered.
I have only touched the tip of the iceberg for any of these questions, and can’t recommend strongly enough the Disunion, Coates, and Levin blogs (and the many similarly rich scholars and perspectives that appear in their links and comments). Yet even if we leave aside the complex Civil War-specific questions, I believe that all of these debates illustrate one of my most overarching and central points and purposes here—that narratives about our history are necessarily and crucially also and always narratives about our identity and thus our present and future, and that the more we include knowledgeable and scholarly (in the broadest and best sense) voices in those conversations, the better served we’ll all be. More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
1) The Disunion blog: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/disunion/
2) One of many great Coates posts on the tragedy question: http://www.theatlantic.com/personal/archive/2011/08/tragic/244044/
3) Ditto for Levin on black Confederates: http://cwmemory.com/2011/09/04/dear-professor-gates/
4) OPEN: Any Civil War histories, questions, or conversations of especial interest to you?
We can pass notes on this in today's faculty meeting, but one thing I only slowly began to learn about this summer was the ways in which Lincoln's Gettysburg Address challenged the Constitution and shaped it. I took a long look at the Address for my Speech Writing class (in fact, we are examining it today) and read Garry Wills' "Lincoln at Gettysburg." I don't know how you AmericanStudiers feel about him--I'm so BritishStudier most of the time, but I learned how stunningly important the speech was--not only for its verbal and emotional depth, but for how shaping it was for the future of the Union.
I realize I am giving very short shrift to Wills' argument--which was, I have learned, the argument, of many of Lincoln's critics, but it is another outcome of the Civil War that I was (I am sad to admit) that I was unaware of.
Great post and blog--as always!