Yes, I Am A Historian Who Cares About the Truth

A real photo of WWII soldiers raising an American Flag

Phil Leigh, a Civil War author and blogger who I’ve never heard of or interacted with before, criticizes me in a recent blog post about the Confederate flag on his website. The issue begins with an essay by Andy Hall. Noticing that a popular photo-shopped image of a World War II Marine in the Pacific with a Confederate flag was going viral on social media, Hall did some quick research and clearly demonstrated that the photo was a fake. I re-blogged the essay here because I appreciated Hall’s detective work and efforts to correct misinformation on the internet. By sharing it on this blog, however, I seemed to have fallen into Leigh’s bad graces.

Leigh argues that both Hall and I ignore tangible evidence that some white southern soldiers flew the Confederate flag during WWII and that they flew it as a genuine expression of southern pride. He also points to a different post of his where he shares nine real images of WWII soldiers with Confederate flags.

Okay, great, but that wasn’t the point of Hall’s post or why I shared it here. Neither Hall nor I deny the existence of Confederate flags among WWII soldiers, and Hall did not write the post with the intention of providing an overview of the flag’s use during the war. The point of the post was to highlight a deliberate attempt to falsify history for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political position and a preferred version of history. The post also highlights how quickly misinformation spreads on social media. If you want to use images of WWII soliders flying Confederate flags, share the real pictures, plain and simple. Why distort the past to promote Confederate heritage today? It’s lazy and dishonest.

Leigh is not finished with me, however. In a detour of his critique of Hall, he also criticizes my recent essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era about Civil War gift shops and concludes that “[Sacco] sees no reason why items displaying the Confederate flag should be sold in Civil War museum gifts shops.” Again, that was not the point of the essay. My argument is that memory scholars and public historians need to undertake a more critical analysis of the items that are sold in these spaces. What do those items say about the ways people remember the Civil War? What are the values of a given historic site, and how do gift shop items reinforce or detract from those larger values and mission of a site? That is not the same as saying all Confederate flags must go, and I even concluded the essay by saying that a “one-size-fits-all solution” to the questions I raise does not exist. If Civil War gift shops want to continue selling Confederate merchandise, great. I think it is more than fair, however, to put that merchandise under a critical lens and push museums to think about gift shops as an extension of their mission. My point is not to engage in “political correctness” or an outright ban on selling Confederate flags, which Leigh and his commenters suggest.

On top of these critiques, Leigh feels the need to point out my employment status to his readers, although he does not do the same for Hall. One wonders why he feels the need to do that other than to suggest that my employer creates a bias that prevents me from practicing honest history, or that I have some sort of alternate motive for writing about history besides seeking truth and understanding. Perhaps there’s a different way to interpret Leigh’s mention of my employment status, but I do find the action very odd regardless.

Let’s get to the bottom of this strange discussion and put it to rest: altering historic photos for the purpose of promoting a contemporary political cause or a preferred version of history is wrong. Sharing these photos online is doubly wrong, and the image in question that Hall exposed as being photo-shopped has unfortunately gone viral. Hall was right to correct it, as he’s done with a lot of bad history over the years on his blog. Why does Leigh feel the need to criticize Hall instead of the people who create and share false history? Furthermore, it’s rather pretentious for someone who does not know me to title their post “Which Historian Cares About the Truth?” and then subtly suggest that I (and Andy Hall) don’t. You’ll have to forgive me if I find such an approach obnoxious and bothersome. It’s one thing to say “I disagree with your conclusions,” but another thing entirely to say that I don’t care about the truth.

I welcome comments of the former variety, but not of the latter. Mr. Leigh suggests readers view both of our essays and draw their own conclusions, and I encourage the same.


17 thoughts on “Yes, I Am A Historian Who Cares About the Truth

  1. Congratulations, Nick! That you should *finally* draw the ire of Leigh indicates that you have truly come into your own, Highly respected, award winning authors and historians have come under fire before you, and I suspect that it is a combination of fear and jealousy that provokes such vitriol from the aforementioned blogger. Your star is on the the rise, others, not so much. I am excited for you. because the future holds great promise.

  2. As I’ve said elsewhere, “lazy and dishonest” perfectly describes Phil Leigh’s relationship to history. His articles occasionally appear on the Abbeville Institute site. ‘Nuff said. He wrote for “Emerging Civil War” for about three minutes until an article about the Fourteenth Amendment revealed his racism.

    1. See, I wonder what would happen if I wrote a post entitled “Which Historian Cares About the Truth?” and then made a big deal about Leigh’s association with the Abbeville Institute? I imagine he’d be just as annoyed as I am with his antics. Whatever his affiliation, I simply disagree with the premise of his blog post. I haven’t seen much else of his writing so I won’t comment on it, but it seems we’d see differently on a number of historical topics.

  3. Nick, you’ve seen an example of Leigh’s basic lack of either ability or desire to honestly deal with what others say. Of course Andy never made the claim Leigh said he made. That’s Leigh’s M.O. He doesn’t deal with what was said; he deals with what he wants people to think was said, counting that the idiots who follow him are too lazy or too stupid to actually look at what was said and understand it. In many ways, that’s why he was bounced from the Emerging Civil War blog so quickly, and had his post summarily deleted from the blog–mishandling evidence and distorting the words of a distinguished historian, Bruce Levine.

    1. Christopher Shelley shared a post of his about Leigh’s ECW essay and mentioned your response as well. All I can say is “wow!”

        1. That’s right! Leigh has a peculiar way of “massacring” history 🙂 I seem to recall a fantasy about the Memphis Riots being purposely let to get out of hand by the Republicans. so to scare the Northern population into supporting Black enfranchisement. There is something oddly ironic about the aforementioned blogger attempting to call others out for “truth issues”. Perhaps it is a pathetic pitch to have readers of popular blogs such as this one re-routed over to the dark side?

          1. My goodness…Of course there’s probably no mention of the many instances where mob violence was implemented to intimidate Republicans from going to the polls.

  4. Oh man Nick, I am getting flashbacks of my own encounters with the notorious Mr. Phil. Thanks for the PTSD Redux.

  5. I have long thought that a common thread with people like Phil Leigh is their inability to make careful distinctions, and your response simply reinforces that belief. Thus, an essay pointing out that a particular image is a photoshopped fake becomes an attack on the sanctity of Confederate heritage and memory.

    1. This is just how it works, Jim, and has for as long as I’ve been paying attention:

      1. Person A says something patently ludicrous, dishonest, or offensive.

      2. Person B points out that Person A said something patently ludicrous, dishonest, or offensive.

      3. Therefore, Person B is the bad guy because he’s obviously much worse than Person A.

  6. thanks for your efforts to help the truth shine through. Sadly many poor whites fought to “stick it to the man” in today’s parlance. They were proud of truly being rebels. It was this characteristic that made them both motivated fighters, but also demotivated marchers. It appears as though only Stonewall Jackson could move them well, and then Jackson himself was a bit moody. My point is that the southerners were proud of being rebels and of state’s rights. along with being slave states. The rebel flag for many of those who fought is about independence more than about slavery

    Senator Jim Webb sent this quote to me that he found on the Confederate Memorial in Arlington cemetery.

    Not for fame or reward
    Not for place or for rank
    Not lured by ambition nor goaded by necessity
    But in simple obedience to duty
    As they understood it
    These men sacrificed all
    Dared all
    And died.

    My family, the McKim’s, by that time, was, I believe, already in Missouri or California (where I was born). Senator Jim Webb has Scotts Irish roots like me and while we both agree the plight of the South was wrong we must still admire their effort. If we don’t study misguided efforts like the Civil War, Vietnam and so many other wars we will only continue to repeat them as we are now.

    1. Hi Pat,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that we need to study the history of bloody, horrific wars so that we can learn from them and hopefully avoid future conflicts that promote unnecessary death and destruction. I will push back on your comment, however, that “The rebel flag for many of those who fought is about independence more than about slavery.”

      You are certainly correct that the common rank-and-file Confederate soldiers held a range of motivations and beliefs that helped determine their decision to fight for the Confederacy. Some of them may not have chosen to fight because of slavery. But no group of people in human history ever fought for their independence for the sake of independence alone. Independence is an end goal, but the means to that goal are motivated by political beliefs, causes, and grievances. And the high leaders of the Confederacy all stated that the preservation of slavery and white political supremacy was the underlying motivation for their effort at independence from the United States and Confederate nationhood. Whatever the rank-and-file were motivated by, all made a choice to fight for a government based upon those fundamental desires. The National Park Service has a fine handout that you can download that acknowledges a range of motivations for Confederate secession, but that ultimately brings it all back to slavery and white supremacy. Here it is and thanks again for commenting:

Comments are closed.