The “Nationalist Tradition” and Civil War History

In my last post, I briefly analyzed a Memorial Day speech at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis given by Leo Rassieur, the Grand Army of the Republic’s National Commander for a one year term in 1900-1901. I argued that Rassieur engaged in a great deal of reckoning in his Memorial Day speech. As did many other orators in the years after the war, Rassieur didn’t recall what actually happened during and after the Civil War. Instead, he focused on what he believed to be the true meaning of the war and what he thought was important for his audience to learn/understand about the war, which can be summarized as such:

  • Former Confederates did not engage in treason. In fact, they were “fellow citizens” who had merely demonstrated excessive pride in their section before the war. Once the war concluded, Union veterans happily accepted their former adversaries back into the American body politic to reap the benefits of citizenship.
  • True citizenship was demonstrated through duty, honor, and sacrifice to nation.
  • Slavery and Emancipation were not worth discussing. To Rassieur, it was far more important to forgive former Confederates and look towards the future rather than dwell on past conflicts (or even those who had died as a result of those conflicts).

Interestingly enough, many of Rassieur’s comments reflected the ideas and sentiments of academic historians who were writing about the Civil War at that time. Whether or not Rassieur read books of history about the war is impossible to know, but the similarities are nevertheless fascinating. Reading Thomas J. Pressly’s 1954 work Americans Interpret Their Civil War over the past few days has given me new insights into how people interpreted the war at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

One important moment in the “history of history” was in 1884, when the American Historical Association was formed. During this period, the field of history became professionalized as universities began creating history departments and training young students for work in academia. Some of the early Civil War historians that emerged from this class professionalized historians included future President Woodrow Wilson, Fredrick Jackson Turner, Albert Bushnell Hart, and Edward Channing.

According to Pressly, academic historians attempted to establish professional standards for engaging in “good history.” Students were taught that history was best conducted through “impartial, objective, and scientific” methods that were completely free of bias. History was composed of set facts and knowledge outside the minds of historians, and it was their duty to collect these facts and deliver them as “definitive” accounts of the Civil War. In fact, “by the turn of the [twentieth] century the trained historians considered sectional bias ‘unscientific’ and a threat to their professional aims and standards,” according to Pressly (184). Therefore, showing any sort of bias or favoritism towards one side or the other when analyzing the Civil War was a representation of bad history and perhaps even a sign of mental weakness. Both sides were to be treated fairly and impartially so the “facts” would eventually come out.

Each of the aforementioned historians fell into what Pressly describes as the “Nationalist Tradition” (221). Each wrote from a perspective of promoting sectional reconciliation between North and South, and each was devoutly nationalist. They viewed themselves as members of a unified community in a nation-state ruled by a central government, not as members of a decentralized union of sovereign states (or members of no community at all). This distinction is crucial because it demonstrates that while objectivity was encouraged in historical study, the actual result of many works during this period was subjective satisfaction with the results of the war, most notably the fact that the Union was preserved intact. Likewise, any commentary on slavery was usually critical of the institution, but that criticism stemmed from a belief that slavery had caused a destructive chasm between North and South, not necessarily because it was a moral wrong.

Nevertheless, the first batch of professional historians made strenuous efforts to demonstrate an “objective” analysis for understanding what the Confederacy fought for. Woodrow Wilson essentially argued in his 1893 history of the Civil War–Division and Reunionthat both sides were “right” in their own way. Supporters of the Confederacy, according to Wilson, were right for interpreting the U.S. Constitution as supporting the “compact theory” of government (that the union was composed of sovereign states). Supporters of the Union, however, were also right in that they understood the Constitution as “a living organism” that changed over time and that the “compact theory” of governance was no longer in play by the time of the Civil War (211). Additionally, both sides had fought heroically and neither side could be blamed for starting the war. Wilson and Frederick Jackson Turner, rather than blaming the war on one side based on the actions of an “evil” individual (as did writers in the 1860s and 1870s like Edward Pollard in The Lost Cause), used their professional training to analyze economic, social, and geographical factors that contributed to the war. This in turn played a role in interpreting the war as a blameless conflict, at least with regards to political leaders at the time of the war’s breakout in 1861.

In perhaps one of the most ridiculous statements of the time, Emerson D. Fite, writing a book on the 1860 Presidential Election in 1911, boldly proclaimed that “both sides were right! Neither could have given in and have remained true to itself.” (195-196)

The fact that these historians were nationalists and professionally trained partially explains why they were so vocal about sectional reconciliation, but another crucial factor was also in play. None of these historians experienced the Civil War firsthand, and they had little to no interaction with the prewar antebellum society that had failed to resolve its problems peacefully (each of the aforementioned historians was born in 1856, 1861, 1854, 1856, and 1874 respectively). They were not participants of the war but rather the first generation of observers to study it from afar. This fact is particularly important when one realizes that these men had little to no experience with the institution of slavery, and perhaps this is why they did not consider it as an important factor in reinforcing their nationalist sentiments.

None of these historians analyzed the Grand Army of the Republic or what veterans were doing after the war, and part of this is because GAR Encampment records were secret at the time. However, it is nonetheless important to analyze the “Nationalist Tradition” school of thought because their interpretations of the Civil War were popular with many historians well into the 1950s. Historians that began writing about the GAR in the 1930s and onward were heavily influenced by the “Nationalist Tradition,” and these feelings of nationalism and sectional reconciliation would seep into their analyses of Civil War veterans in the twentieth century. It is this period to which we will turn to next as I analyze one historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Civil War veterans in 1937.


[Note: the original draft of this essay mistakenly stated that the year of this historian’s book was 1936. My apologies].


2 thoughts on “The “Nationalist Tradition” and Civil War History

  1. This s good work. It has helped me understand a few necessary things about historiography. But who is the author of this article and what’s his web adress?

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