Okay, So You Have Civil War Ancestors. So What?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What does a family tree say about us today? Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay suggested that the time had come for St. Louisians to reappraise the merits of a monument to the Confederacy in Forest Park that was originally dedicated by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1914. I shared my own mixed feelings about the Mayor’s announcement in this post. Since then the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has provided space for letters to the editor and opinion writers to share their thoughts on the monument. Former Georgia U.S. Congressman and current Virginia resident Ben Jones fears that altering or removing the Confederate monument will lead the United States towards a “slippery slope of historical revisionism,” while Bridget McDermott Flood, a St. Louisian and Executive Director of a local non-profit organization, suggests that providing more context for interpreting the monument would positively reflect the sensibilities of a “healthy, confident community” ready to confront its past.

Both op-eds make points that elicit agreement in some areas and disagreement in others. I have my own thoughts on those arguments, but I am putting those views aside and instead focusing on one method both writers use to claim authority in this discussion: ancestry.

Flood’s use of ancestry is more subtle than Jones’s, but it’s the first thing she wants you to know about her role in this discussion. “Many of us have a personal connection to the Civil War. My ancestor Frank Nouss was a Union corporal.”

For Jones, the possibility of altering this monument represents no less than a full-frontal assault against the honor of his family. To wit:

As one who has spent a lifetime fighting for civil rights and racial reconciliation, it is also my civil right to raise my voice in memory of my many Confederate ancestors, who deserve to be fully understood in the context of their times and to be honored for their efforts to repair the nation in the years after Appomattox.

It is estimated that there are as many as 70 million Americans whose forefathers fought for the South 150 years ago. The current effort to demonize our ancestors and to simplify the complexities of America’s crucible event is antithetical to the goals of bridge building and brotherhood that the Civil Rights Movement emphasized. It is a shortsighted campaign that is guaranteed to divide people of good will.

You see, to many millions of Americans, these men are family. Their pictures are on our walls, their names are in our Bibles and in our cemeteries, and their stories have been passed down through our families for generations. We will stand in their defense until our last breath.

I could be looking at these arguments from too cynical a viewpoint, but to me they are both essentially saying, “my opinion matters and has sufficient authority to shape this debate because I have ancestors who fought in the Civil War. My ownership of this history is stronger than yours.” Moreover, these arguments imply that U.S. residents who don’t have Civil War ancestors ought to put a deferment on their opinions about the ways the Civil War is commemorated today. Why else would ancestry need to be mentioned within this context?

I believe ancestry claims are ultimately false claims of historical authority, ones that represent my own ambivalence towards the genealogical side of the historical enterprise.

Make no mistake about it: I think exploring one’s family history can be a useful endeavor. Psychologist Marshall Duke argues that children with a high degree of knowledge about their family history generally have higher levels of self-esteem and self-control than children with little knowledge of their family’s past. Finding one’s roots can help us find our own place in the world and give us perspective when looking at our successes and failures today. If anything, family history shows us that in most cases our ancestors had to deal with a lot of crappy situations and struggles during their lives.

Too often, however, genealogy is tactically deployed in a selfish exercise of social privilege, a way to boast about ourselves as if an accidental familial connection to a long-dead ancestor says something truly significant about the content of one’s character today. As François Weil argues in Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America, the acquisition of genealogical knowledge in the nineteenth century was an overtly political act aimed at justifying the preservation of an “Anglo-Saxon” cultural elite amid the end of slavery and a wave of “less genetically desirable” Southern and Eastern European immigrants arriving on American shores after the Civil War. These efforts were intensified during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s when eugenicists employed genealogy and race science to call for the sterilization of people with undesirable genetic traits. Few people undertake genealogical research for those purposes today, but that desire to use family history to reinforce social hierarchies still remains in many cases. Ben Jones’s vocal use of his Civil War ancestors to dominate public discussion about the St. Louis Confederate monument provides a particularly good example of genealogical privilege in action.

Which gets us back to the use of Civil War ancestry to shape debates about Civil War memory. Most of my ancestors on both sides of my family immigrated to the U.S. from Southern Italy in the 1880s and 1890s. They came in part because of the economic opportunities, but they also came because they believed in democratic principles of governance that were drenched in the blood of United States troops who died in the Civil War. Those ancestors carved an existence for themselves and became Americans, but maybe none of that would have happened had the events of the antebellum and Civil War years turned out differently. Is my perspective on a Confederate monument today less valid because my ancestors did not fight in the Civil War like Ben Jones’s? If we agree that the Civil War should have meaning and significance to all Americans today, then the answer should be a resounding no, and the use of family history to claim authority in Civil War memory debates should be dismissed or at least taken with a grain of salt.

We can be proud of our family heritage, but we are not bound by it. We should take pride in the achievements of our ancestors but also acknowledge and accept their failures, provided that one has the privilege of accessing available historical records to help uncover these mysteries in the first place. And if we engage in genealogical research for the purpose of learning more about ourselves, we would benefit even more by striving to go beyond ourselves towards an understanding of the complex worlds in which our ancestors lived.

Cheers

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11 responses

  1. Complex topic. Good job on this post. These discussions will be going for many generations to come. You provide much to think about in this post.

  2. Nick,

    “Too often, however, genealogy is tactically deployed in a selfish exercise of social privilege, a way to boast about ourselves as if an accidental familial connection to a long-dead ancestor says something truly significant about the content of one’s character today.”

    Yes, people do this for all sorts of reasons and connections; many of them have nothing to do with the US Civil War. People often look for what they want to see in themselves in their ancestors and sometimes they see traits they would like to think they inherited.

    Usually, this involves emphasizing one ancestor, while minimizing the other 15. In other words, it is editorializing history to fit your narrative via biological proofs.

    Too many times I hear people say, I am related too Jesse James or Abraham Lincoln, and maybe they are, but so what? What did you do today? Not your dead great-great-grandfather.

    Luke

    1. Hi Luke,

      We’re on the same page here. You can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your ancestors. It’s great if you’re related to U.S. Grant or Jesse James or whoever, but that does not make you an expert on their lives or a practicing historian. Genealogy is fun, but it takes a lot of work to understand the context surrounding the lives of our ancestors.

  3. This is a good and thought-provoking post. It’s made me wonder about some things. As someone who grew up Southern, the fact that I had ancestors who fought for the South was definitely something that was important to me as a child, it gave me “connection” to the events in the 1860s. However, after growing up and becoming historically trained, I don’t really feel a “connection” to my ancestry in that way anymore. If ancestors (like WWII vets) were people I actually talked to and their experiences were thus in living memory, I feel much more of a connection to those events.

    Then again, the older I get and the more I move around, the less of a connection I feel to my “homeland” anyway. I feel more of a connection to a neighborhood in Berlin or a trench system in northern France than I now do to many important sites related to the Civil War. I don’t have ancestors (well, apart from one) that were involved in those events. But acculturation through living in a place, studying the history, etc can make someone feel a connection to an event or place that they have no ancestral ties to. The same thing can work on the other side of the Atlantic, you don’t need to have had ancestors to have fought in the Civil War in order to feel connected to the events. It’s part of the American project and also an important event for world history. To say that you need to be the right kind of American in order to appreciate it is flat out stupid. It’s the same as the so-called Irish-Americans traveling to Ireland and thinking that a red carpet will be rolled out for them simply due to centuries-diluted blood. Not picking on Irish-Americans specifically; this also applies to the sort of German-Americans who feel “deeply connected” to Germany despite knowing 3 words in the language and being rabidly against the welfare state, a cornerstone of German culture at this point.

    1. Thanks for the really thoughtful comment, Nick.

      “If ancestors (like WWII vets) were people I actually talked to and their experiences were thus in living memory, I feel much more of a connection to those events.”

      Precisely. Having a personal relationship with an older family member who actually experienced a historical event firsthand is much different than a impersonal connection with a long-dead ancestor who participated in a historical event that no one in living memory actually experienced first-hand. The latter connection is not insignificant, but I’d suggest that finding the significance and meaning behind that connection takes a great deal of work. None of us lived during the American Civil War with the exception of very few people still alive today who may have interacted with a Civil War veteran in the 1920s or 1930s. Understanding that era goes beyond finding a name in a census record.

      “Acculturation through living in a place, studying the history, etc can make someone feel a connection to an event or place that they have no ancestral ties to.”

      That’s a brilliant point that I had not thought about before.

  4. “As one who has spent a lifetime fighting for civil rights and racial reconciliation, it is also my civil right to raise my voice in memory of my many Confederate ancestors, who deserve to be fully understood in the context of their times and to be honored for their efforts to repair the nation in the years after Appomattox.”

    Well, then Mr. Jones won’t have any problem at all with erecting monuments explaining the role of Confederate veterans in forming the KKK, the White League, and other terrorist organizations after the Civil War in order to wage a campaign of fear and intimidation against blacks in the South. Or does he want to continue to whitewash the past concerning those events just like he does with monuments about the Civil War?

    I just put a post up about Confederate monuments on my blog this morning as well: http://amoregeneraldiffusionofknowledge.blogspot.com/2015/05/according-to-jim-vol-i-no-i.html

    1. Thanks for commenting and providing a link to your own blog post, Jimmy. It seems to me that if we want to honor Confederates who worked to repair the nation after the war (James Longstreet, John Mosby, Jo Shelby) then it makes sense to also acknowledge those veterans who did everything in their power–even breaking the law–to prolong that healing process.

  5. […] I was reading a post from Nick Sacco on a recent controversy in St. Louis involving a Confederate monument. Apparently some people are […]

  6. Occasionally I speak about immigrants in the Civil War to audiences. It is not uncommon for someone to come up to me afterwards and tell me that an ancestor was in the Irish Brigade. No one tells me that their ancestor was a Draft Rioter, a member of the Know Nothings, or in the original KKK.

    1. That’s a great observation that demonstrates how people pick and choose their useable pasts. Thanks so much for commenting, Pat.

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