Can I Have an Opinion on the Civil War if My Ancestors Immigrated to the United States After the War’s End?

Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.

There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”

I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.

On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.

One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?

It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.

All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.

Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.

P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.

The enlistment paper for Charles Brady, who joined the 49th Missouri Regiment in September 1864 from St. Charles, Missouri.

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