America’s A-La-Carte Relationship with Civil War History

In my last post I excerpted a Letter to the Editor in the August 4th, 1860 edition of the proslavery Missouri Republican from “Slaveholder.” The letter explained why voting for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas for President was the only way for both the Union and slavery to continue peacefully in the United States. It was a fascinating plea against secession as a form of protecting enslaved property, and it highlighted the thoughts of many proslavery Missourians as the country spiraled towards war less than a year later.

In that very same issue of the Missouri Republican–on the front page, no less–the paper posted a comprehensive of listing of auctions and items for sale in St. Louis. And if you look closely enough, you’ll see a listing about a runaway slave and a couple listings from Bernard M. Lynch, the city’s most prosperous slave trader. One of those ads is for an enslaved boy “between ten and twelve years of age,” conveniently placed right next to ads for furnaces, steam engines, and other pieces of property.

I’ve been reading Historian Jelani Cobb’s essay on the four New Orleans Confederate monuments that have either come down or are slated to come down soon. I think we have to be careful about who we generalize as opposing the removal of these monuments and why they do so, but he makes the point that many protestors–some of which are making death threats against the city’s Mayor and/or using racist language and Confederate flags to intimidate the city’s African American population–are enamored with a glorified “a-la-carte relationship with history”:

the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause. But that excuse falls flat when recognizing, for instance, that there is no monument in New Orleans to the mass slave revolt that took place in 1811, when some two hundred men who had endured the brutality of bondage marched on the city, killing two white men and burning plantations as they went. This is not the version of valor recognized by the crowd before the Lee memorial, or those phoning in death threats to Landrieu’s office.

I feel like we have a tendency in the United States to glorify and valorize the nation’s soldiers, past and present, without assessing why they went to war in the first place. The exceptions to that theory are probably the Revolutionary War and World War II.

As long as we commemorate the Confederacy’s legacy purely in terms of its soldiers’ military service and frame the erection of Confederate monuments as an apolitical extension of that commemoration and nothing else, we will downplay the politics of why the Civil War occurred in the first place. And we will minimize the stories, experiences, and legacy of thousands of ten-year-old enslaved boys and girls who were sold out of slave pens in the Land of the Free while Lee and Beauregard marched to Dixie.

Cheers

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7 responses

  1. Nice post, Nick. I’d go a step further and say they don’t want history at all. They want heritage, and specifically a fantasy heritage.

    1. Thanks, Al. I appreciate your thoughts.

  2. “As long as we commemorate the Confederacy’s legacy purely in terms of its soldiers’ military service and frame the erection of Confederate monuments as an apolitical extension of that commemoration and nothing else, we will downplay the politics of why the Civil War occurred in the first place.”

    This is why I like Thomas Brown’s “Civil War Canon” so much… because it identifies the terms of remembrance that you mention here as a creation of the 1890s (with similar terms for later periods.) I’m studying a memorialization effort here in Richmond in the 1890s and I’m struck by how much we now remember the war not in 1860s terms but 1890s terms: apolitical duty, etc. That’s quickly becoming a talking point for me when talking about the Civil War.

    “I think we have to be careful about who we generalize as opposing the removal of these monuments and why they do so..”

    Agreed.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful insights and the book recommendation. I’ll have to check that one out. It’s fascinating to see how the war was remembered in the 1890s and, equally important, how the generation that grew up after the war remembered it.

      1. Just two examples…

        From a 2015 Virginia Division of the SCV resolution: “Whereas, except for Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God, no more perfect examples can be found than Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, et al, whose virtues of gentlemanly character and behavior should be emulated, now, therefore, be it…”

        And from an email from a friend a few days ago: “Clearly, their devotion to duty is no longer honored by the majority of Americans these days, as we watch monuments to their memory desecrated by ignorant trash or removed by sniveling politicians groveling at the altar of political correctness.”

        That later one has modern language, but taken together… what matters is the solemn performance of duty and manhood and everything else is just politically correct bullshit. Again, not like the 1860s, but like the 1890s.

  3. Very nice post, Nick. Very nice.

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