The Dangers of USA Civil War Nostalgia & Romanticism

On November 5, 2015, author Robert Hicks (Twitter) talked about his book The Widow of the South and the place of the USA Civil War in history at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, USA as part of the 5th Civil War Symposium. In my opinion, he oversold the position he took in his New York Times column on the 150th anniversary of the final day of the battle in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. What I heard, which may not be exactly or substantially what Mr. Hicks said, was that the federal government’s victory in the Civil War preserved the United States so it could play a saving role for humanity “twice” in the 20th century C.E.

So in the Q&A, I objected to this characterization of the United States’s role in the 20th century C.E. My recount here is probably more coherent than what I actually said, which that night seemed to bother some of the upstanding citizens in attendance whom I did not see at subsequent events in the symposium held at black institutions in Augusta.

I agreed that the federal government’s victory prevented North America from being divided among the various European powers’ spheres of influence, and, since the United States very soon thereafter became a world power, that victory was important.

I claimed that the United States’s embrace of white supremacy through the next century was evidence that the Civil War’s impact had its limits. I continued by saying that had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s & 1960s, my Egyptian immigrant parents would not have had the opportunity to become citizens when they moved to Chicago in 1970.

Then I said that World War I was simply one group of imperialists versus another, and the United States happened to side with one group over the other. Then I claimed that United States racial policies inspired European fascists (and here). Then I claimed that the U.S.S.R. did more to defeat Nazi Germany than the United States. And 2/3 of the world did not care either way.

Mr. Hicks was generous enough to parse out content from the ravings of the local yokel attending the public event and said the following, again, as I remembered it:

Abolition of slavery would not have occurred had the rebellious states succeeded. He cited as an example that iron/steel mills in Richmond, such as Tredegar Iron Works, were productive and used slave labor. Then he claimed that the Civil Rights Movement would have been impossible without the abolition of slavery. He said that the USSR sacrificed more than any other nation on the side of the Allies during World War II, but the United States’s contribution was nonetheless decisive.

I’m not a historian, nor did I study American history enough to pretend to discuss these claims in depth. I did ask my friend who has a Ph.D. in American history, who shall remain unnamed to prevent his association with me from harming his blossoming career. He told me that, while emancipation may have been achieved peacefully before 1850, most U.S. historians believe that peaceful emancipation became increasingly unlikely thereafter. And, he agreed with Mr. Hicks that the Civil Rights Movement would have been impossible without emancipation, which I also concede to be true.

After the lecture, as Mr. Hicks was signing my copies of his books The Widow of the South and my newly-purchased A Separate Country, I mentioned to Mr. Hicks my aversion to the people whom I imagine interested in the Civil War, including the Georgia politicians who created Confederate History Month.

After a few days, I realized that, while Mr. Hicks may have used some poetic license regarding the USA’s role in the 20th century and his stories of meeting F. Shelby Foote, the atmosphere of Civil War nostalgia and romanticism, the racial injustices of today’s United States and its endless militarism were what drove my reaction to his talk.

In my mind, the “military history” approach many southerners take regarding the Civil War excludes a rigorous look at the economic history of the United States, the essential role slaves played in that history and the extent of their exploitation. It also muddies analysis of the continuities between the antebellum and postbellum eras.

So we have endless talks from local historians and museum curators about a regimental commander’s resupply at this depot as the regiment moved from one location to another and the moving letters found in an attic from soldiers in a distant campaign or Union prison camp. But there aren’t talks about how slaves created the capital that was used to create many of the United States’s most enduring institutions, both north and south. There aren’t many talks about laws restricting slaves and free Blacks, unless one ventures from the velvet venues of the local restoration society to the university lecture halls, the sparsely-furnished rooms of historically black colleges or the talks at the Afrocentric bookstores. As I remarked on Twitter:

Of course, an economic, (God forbid!) Marxist, analysis of slavery as a labor issue might then result in an understanding of today’s inequalities, which would then lead to … quelle horreur!

Another major problem with the restoration-society approach to American history is the commonly expressed idea of “heroism” among the soldiers of both sides. While this was certainly useful for white reconciliation to resume the task of subduing the continent’s First Nations and establishing the racial hierarchy within the United States, we inherit it today as the ridiculous idea that one can be an honorable soldier in a dishonorable war. And, since we have this notion that, by default, one should consider the wars our government pursues as honorable until proven otherwise, despite the overwhelming evidence that all of our past wars were lies and all the wars that all other nations fight are also lies, we end up with an endless reservoir of young people willing to participate in the next war.

The best war book I’ve ever read is And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov. All I remember now is its intimate portrait of the corruption of civilian and military officials and civilians on all sides of the Russian Civil War and the unromantic deaths of the major characters, be it from dysentery, domestic violence, capture and summary execution or shrapnel from an artillery shell. And if you don’t believe the US Civil War was the same way, then you are fooling yourself.

Another aspect of militarism is the idea of “The Good War.” In the United States, warmongers primarily promote World War II as “The Good War” and source of moral guidance for the war they are promoting. A close second, however, is the Civil War, because it Ended Slavery.

I delayed writing this blog post until I finished The Widow of the South. Although I wold not have picked up this book had it not been part of the symposium, I did moderately enjoy reading the book, which means that anyone without my ideological biases would probably enjoy it tremendously. And I do intend to read A Separate Country, which is a strong enough endorsement of the author’s writing.

The book isn’t full-blown Gone with the Wind, Lost Cause romanticism. Its romanticism is closer to the late 19th century C.E. white reconciliation USA heroic myth model, with generous portrayals of soldiers on both sides. The final portion of the book focuses on the conflict between Carrie McGavock, scion of slaveholders and mistress of a plantation, Carnton, whose lands are soon to be stripped by foreclosure and whose slaves freed from emancipation (although most of them have been sent farther from the fighting at the time of the events in the book), and Mr. Baylor, a Union-sympathizing money-lender who has acquired Mrs. McGavock’s and others’ lands upon the collapse of the Confederacy.

A bloody, futile, useless battle without strategic importance (but I’m being redundant, aren’t I?) left hundreds buried in shallow graves on one of Mr. Baylor’s properties. When he announces he intends to farm that land, thus plowing through the soldiers’ corpses, Mrs. McGavock asks Mr. Baylor to relent and preserve the graves of the dead. Mr. Baylor, grieving the death of his son at that battle and spiteful of his neighbors who supported the rebellion, insists upon farming the land.

I lost my son to the cause of mountebanks and losers and cranks, whose fine talk and wayward sense of the truth let my son down the path to damnation and me along with it. I lost my son for stupidity’s sake, and not his own, either. Oh, he was stupid, but stupid like an enthusiastic and credulous young man. His wasn’t the stupidity of the self-deceivers and the sentimentalists who ran that goddamn war, or the trash who started it in the first place. Let your child be wasted on purpose, with someone else’s blessing and approval, and then talk to me of your sacrifice. I will not let those men who ran that war and those of you who stood by and let it go until it was too late to stop, escape into this new age without penalty. I want to see the humiliation and the anger and the pain on your face. I have to see it. You owe me this, all of you owe me this. My son, my loving and beautiful son, was sacrificed upon the altar of your insanity and your evil. I loved him, but I will not commemorate his actions, or the actions of any of those other boys, any more than I would celebrate a suicide. I’ve given you your sacrifice, ask no more of me. [pp. 364-5, italics in original]

Without spoiling a dramatic conclusion, Mr. Baylor allows Mrs. McGavock to disinter the bodies on his field and move them to Carnton, where she developed a cemetery and preserved it until her death in 1905 and which is today part of a museum/park complex.

Mrs. McGavock’s overriding moral claim was that each human deserves to be remembered. At the same time, she reserved to herself the right to present that memory in the manner which best comforts those who loved the deceased and which best quells the desire for violence and revenge.

The bulk of the novel prior to this event helps us understand how Mrs. McGavock emerged from the trauma of the death of some of her children into a person who would work for the injured and dead of battle.

Mr. Hicks’s novel is not “flower of Southern womanhood” drivel. Mrs. McGavock’s personal slave Mariah emerges as a character. Other free blacks and other non-wealthy whites appear. The McGavocks are not retroactively portrayed as opposing slavery (“We marched with MLK!”).

Nevertheless, if there’s any validity to my claims about the importance of deromanticizing the Civil War remembrances, this novel has that defect. But then again, I’m not trying to draw tourists to a small town in Tennessee, and more people read historical fiction with some romance than historical fiction without it.

Finally, I should point out the trend of white people using plantations as venues for weddings and corporate retreats. Read with pain the training black actors in Colonial Williamsburg receive.

On Instagram, you can look at the pictures people have uploaded with Carnton as a location. Many, in my opinion, don’t reflect the moral claim Mrs. McGavock made on Mr. Baylor. None showed any consideration for the generations of slaves who created the McGavock’s wealth. Of the pictures I looked at, I thought this was the best in respecting the dead.

Franklin, Tennessee

A post shared by Mooney (@doctormooney) on

I should note that a woman in attendance approached me after Mr. Hicks’s talk and said that her husband brought her from Cuba in the 1950s and that she had no problem becoming a citizen. I wish I had taken some more time to talk with her, but I needed to get home. I hope at some point to learn more about naturalization in the United States prior to the Civil Rights Era.

One other good feature of the book is the way it handled the redemption, a literary construct I question, of Confederate soldier Zachariah Cashwell. Because of the pain he accumulates during the war, he basically attempts suicide by federal rifle. A federal soldier saves him during the battle, and then Confederate surgeons and Mrs. McGavock heal his wounds. Later, he decides to live, and he spends his adult life raising an angry child of Franklin into a healthy adult.

Updated December 27, 2015:  Asian Immigration and Angel Island, a March 3, 2015 lecture by historian Erika Lee (Twitter)

University of Minnesota professor Erika Lee talks about Asian immigration to the West coast from 1830 to 1930, including the role of San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island in the 20th century. She compared the Angel Island and Ellis Island experiences, describing how Asian immigrants in California had more extensive background checks and longer holding times than European immigrants in New York. This class was from a course called “American Immigration History.”

Updated January 31, 2016: Sinclair Lewis beat me to this observation in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. Also, read how a South Carolinian used Civil War romanticism to argue for legislation restricting the settlement of Syrian refugees in South Carolina.

Updated February 24, 2016: Ta-Nehisi Coates said it a lot better than I did.

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3 thoughts on “The Dangers of USA Civil War Nostalgia & Romanticism

  1. Pingback: Rejoicing in USA Civil War Led to More Wars | Aym Playing

  2. Pingback: Bigot Harkens Back to Civil War Nostalgia to Ban Syrian Refugees | Aym Playing

  3. Pingback: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Experience at USA Civil War Battlefield Sites | Aym Playing

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