Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

History Book History vs Personal History

I wrote a little while back about the fraught place that the memory of the Confederacy holds in the memories of different people within the United States. One of the elements of this is what we might call the difference between "history book" history, the reasons why major events took place as they might be recounted in some grade school history textbook, and history was it was experienced by people. I ran across a post today which is a good example of this. Rebecca Frech writes:
Once upon a time in the South, there were a couple fellas named Dubose, a father and his boy, who were fighting for the Confederacy. Neither one owned a single slave. In fact, no one in their family had owned a slave (according to the census records I read through) since the elder one’s grand-daddy had been a boy in Alabama. The family had sold the plantation and moved to Louisiana and then on to Texas. These were just a couple of cowboys in what was then called The Great Horse Desert (the South Texas area just west of Corpus Christi and down to the Rio Grande.) They didn’t rush off to war when Sumter fell. They stayed home – herding cattle and growing cotton.
It took the Yankee blockades of the Texas Gulf Coast to get our fellas to start thinking war. It wasn’t until they were unable to get their cotton and livestock to market and their kids got hungry that they made any move against the Union at all. Once they’d starved long enough and watched a season’s cotton mildew in the barn, they chose to avoid outright conflict with Union Troops, and opted to join up with Capt Richard King’s men in running the Union’s blockades.

Capt King and his men ran an elaborate scheme of taking the cotton for the entire Confederacy from the Texas/Louisiana border all of the way across Texas to Brownsville were they evaded capture by shipping out under a Mexican flag. King’s men ensured that the South had the money to keep fighting, and his men included their own crops in the shipments and made a little profit.

The Yankees were not a fan of their cleverness, and burned down the houses and running off or shooting the herds of cattle belonging to the men riding with King. The Dubose place (our homestead) was burned twice, with one of the youngest daughters dying in the second fire.

It was then that they went to join what history remembers as the Civil War, and my Grandmother still bitterly refers to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” For the people in South Texas, and other parts of the state, it was. We’d avoided war until we were starved, our homes burned over our heads, and our livelihoods destroyed. Then they did the only sane thing they could, they took up arms and joined the fight against the men who were leading an assault on their families.

If I were in their position, I can’t see that we would have any choice but to fight against such tyranny.

In any case, my ancestors did take up guns against the Union, fought at Gettysburg, lost friends and loved ones along the way, and eventually returned home to the ruined Texas homestead where they went back to farming cotton and raising cows.

It’s hard for me to look back at the reality of why my family fought for the Confederacy and see the Hateful Heritage and shame that popular culture seems to think should be my birthright as a Southerner. I’m not at all offended that my kinfolk were Johnny Rebs. I am, instead, proud that they tried to stay out of the mess until the Yankees brought the fight down here and forced it upon them....
[whole post can be read here]

Now, at a history book level, it's clear why it is that Texas seceded from the Union, and the answer is: slavery. Texas explained this in its document stating reasons for secession, passed by the state in Feb. 2nd, 1981:
[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.
That is why Texas and the other Confederate states seceded. That is why there was a war being fought between the Northern and Southern states. And that's why the Union navy was blockading Texas.

But war isn't like a social media campaign. People didn't identify with the Union or Confederacy by imposing flag filters over their profile pictures on Facebook based on whether they liked slavery or not. And as Frech describes in her piece of family history, wars have a way of finding people and involving them.

You win a war by destroying armies and by capturing territory or resources. That process (even short of the conscription which is also often used to fill the ranks of armies) involves people who might not care much about the original purpose of the war, or who might even disagree with it. Nor is this uniquely the case with the American Civil War. Virtually all wars are like this. Nor can people be expected to forget that their ancestors and people and think of them instead as totems of an ideology.

The challenge in teaching history is to deal with both the grand causes and the personal. It's a problem when history textbooks make it sound as if the Civil War really didn't have much to do with the question of slavery. But for the differences between North and South on the issue, the Civil War would not have happened. And yet, it's equally important to understand the reasons why individual people lived and fought as they did. That can be a much more varied set of stories, and one which often lacks clear good and bad guys.


Agnes said...

It is very important to remember that although the cause for which the war is fought may be a just one (against slavery, against Nazis, against terrorists etc) when it comes to the actual acts in war they are often very wrong. You can't win a war by being gentlemanlike and
courteous. When they go to war they are going to kill, burn, bomb, loot, torture etc, because by then the end seems to justify the means. There are various degrees of this, but we are usually prone to forgive/to disregard the war crimes "our" side commits while condemn the other side only because their "cause" was the wrong one. And "vae victis" also holds true.

Darwin said...

I think that's a very good point.

And it seems to come into play the more heavily mythologized a war becomes. It's very easy for people the US to remember that we did bad things during the Vietnam War, because that's a war a lot of people feel ambiguous about anyway. But World War Two in particular is heavily mythologized as "the good war" (despite being allied with people like Stalin) and so there's a tendency to forget the kind of things that were done in order to win.

Joseph Moore said...

The distinction between the causes of a war and why people fought in it is often lost, e.g., that some Irish fought for the Union in order to get guns and training they could bring to bear on the English (if that's even true, just something I read once). But as the story illustrates, the enemy is generally whoever is taking your stuff and burning down your houses, regardless of whatever may have caused the war on some larger level.

And that's where the problem starts: we can't imagine Southerners fighting for the South (or Germans fighting for the Nazis) for any good reason at all. Nope, all the men on the ground have to go into the evil racist (or evil Nazi) bucket - that way, we can pretend that they're evil monsters, not people just like us. That's step one on the moral path that I believe you described some time ago: My friends and I are good people; we do X; therefore X can't be bad. said...

In this connection, I recommend Black Edelweiss, the memoir of an 18-year-old Waffen SS soldier who served in Finland, and after the war was pressed (as a POW) into assisting the prosecutors at Nuremberg.

It's an interesting story. It's also available some places as a PDF download.