Historical Symbols, The Nature of Truth, and the Sides of History

14 07 2015

Thus far, apart from this post pointing out that the Confederate Battle Flag did not exist at the time of the First Battle of Bull Run, I’ve stayed out of the feeding frenzy that is the controversy regarding symbols of the Confederacy in our modern landscape. I’ve decided to dip my toe not as a prelude to diving in, but in deference to the rules of this site I think a mere dip is all I can take. Otherwise I – or you – may feel compelled to wade into modern political waters. And we can’t have that. However, I do feel there are issues of history involved which are altogether fitting and proper to discuss here.

It’s pretty clear to most that the Confederate States of America was founded to perpetuate the institution of slavery. It was the national cause. When it comes to what caused individuals to fight for or support that national cause – the personal causes, so to speak – I suspect there were as many causes as there were fighters and supporters, be they volunteer or conscripted soldiers, suppliers of their support in the field, manufacturers of the products necessary to wage war and support the government (and their employees), more-than-subsistence-farmers, planters, free- and not-free laborers, members of the media, elected and un-elected government officials, etc. We can’t of course assign to them the national cause as their personal cause. It doesn’t make sense. But we can’t exactly separate them. They existed hand in hand, effectively.

What we wind up with are symbols with multiple meanings: flags, monuments, place-names. And those meanings are as various as not only the individuals they commemorate, but as the individuals doing the commemorating. The simple fact that they are meaningful to a person tells me nothing – absolutely nothing – about that person.

I’m pointing this out simply to emphasize why I don’t have a problem with the existence and placement of these symbols in most – not all – cases. I recognize the schizophrenic and inconsistent nature of the symbols. In fact, I celebrate it. It’s fascinating.

So I don’t have a problem with Monument Row in Richmond, the same way I don’t have a problem with the biggest monuments to slavery on the planet:


Pyramids of Giza

or with this monument to a guy who was less than nice to Native Americans:

O. O. Howard

O. O. Howard

or with this monument to the man who ordered the mass imprisonment of US citizens of Asian descent:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt – In Washington, DC. I know, don’t get me started on that…

And before you say this is only because I’m not a Jew, or a Native American, or Japanese, I also don’t have a problem with the existence or placement of memorials to these guys, who were pretty brutal to my ancestors:

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

or of this flag:


Which brings us to Truth, and the Sides of History.

As a Catholic school kid back in the early-mid 1970s, I used to play the hell out of my LP and (later) cassette copy of the original recording (that is, 1970 with Ian Gillan) of the Weber/Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar. At the same time, my interest in history was really taking off (it would be nipped in the bud by a high school guidance counselor soon enough – no future in it, he said.) One line in particular, from Trial Before Pilate really stood out to me then and has stayed with me over the years. Pontius Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king:

JC: It’s you who say I am. I look for truth, and find that I get damned.

PP: But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Aren’t mine the same as yours?

(As an aside, these lines were changed somewhat in both film adaptations of the play. I’m sure there’s a story in there.)

Some might see Pilate’s question as rhetorical. I never did. Of course Truth changes, because Truth is in the eye of the beholder. Not only are times, people, and opinions different at any one point, but times change, and with it, people and opinions. Truth has its basis in belief, some might argue.

Today, the Truth of slavery is that it is an absolute wrong, legally and morally. This Truth is generally, overwhelmingly (though in varying degrees not universally) recognized. But, like it or not, in 1860 it was not, or at the very least was less so. Arguments were made for and against it on the basis of law, property rights, religion, morality, and the definition of human life. And those arguments were on a sliding scale, with different shades. Eventually, the Truth of the issue was decided to a nearly absolute degree. But this Truth does not change the Truth of 1860. Can you think of any issues like this today, with similar arguments, and supporters on both ends of the scale? If you can, keep them to yourself. Please. But also keep in mind that those current issues will one day be decided as well. Truth will win out, whatever it may be.

Once the Truth of slavery was established – or, at least, established as it stands today – believers and non-believers wound up on one of the two Sides of History: the Right Side, or what we call the Wrong Side. But these current sides do not change the fact that Truth was and is a moving target. Eventually, some current issue with multiple interpretations of Truth will be absolutely decided. And you and yours, dear reader, will wind up on the Right Side, or the Wrong Side. It will happen.

What do we do with the Wrong Side? Erase it? Write over it? Maybe it’s just too hard to interpret it. But isn’t that a historian’s job?


John Singleton Mosby

Consider one John Singleton Mosby. Here was a man who fought for the Confederacy, took up arms to perpetuate slavery. There was no doubt in his mind why he did it. He admitted to it, to his credit, after the issue had been decided. He also accepted that the issue was decided. In a 1907 letter to a comrade, he lamented (at least, I think of it as a lament):

People must be judged by the people of their own age.

What did he mean by this? Well, I see him saying that his actions had to be viewed in the context of his times and their Truths, by people who understood those times and their Truths. And in 1907, many of those people were gone. So who takes their place? Isn’t that a historian’s job?

Before we celebrate or encourage the removal of Confederate symbols from the landscape, we would do well to consider the words of a wise Vulcan:

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.

The Boundaries of Your American Civil War

21 06 2015


As what appears to the general public to be the end of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial has drawn, or draws, to a close, discussion (chiding? lecturing?) abounds on just what areas of history fall under that heading, American Civil War. Most prominent among those areas is Reconstruction. Arguments are made that the Civil War did not end with the cessation of armed and organized military rebellion, and that Reconstruction was the continuation of War in a number of senses. Even within that framework, disagreements have arisen regarding military and non-military activities in the period. I’m not going to advocate for any position, because I have a problem with the word should when it comes to studying history. But I’m rather curious to hear what you think.

Is history a river which feeds streams of micro-histories, or is it a river that is fed and created by those sub-histories? Is it OK for a student to focus on a time frame or events, and not give equal attention to events that may have affected or been affected by those times and events? If a student is not as interested in what he or she may consider ancillary events as they are in what they consider the “main events”, should they feel guilty or inferior, or made to feel so? I recall one blog post – sorry, where and who escapes me – in which the author reacted to a lack of response to a Reconstruction focused post by declaring “I guess it’s just too hard to think about Reconstruction.”

I mean, think about it. A recent blog post claims that one cannot understand the Battle of Gettysburg without a good understanding of the Battle of Chancellorsville. The argument is not without merit. But what is meant by the word “understand?” Can one understand command decisions of professional soldiers in almost any battle of the Civil War without having a firm understanding of the education and experience of those making the decision? Wouldn’t one need a firm understanding of, say, the development of the U. S. Military Academy and the content and goals of its curricula, or of the duties of antebellum officers, or of the U. S. war with Mexico, or of the Crimea, or of Napoleonic wars, or of the development of military theory through the years, Machiavelli, Vauban, yadda yadda yadda? Might a lack of understanding of these things lead one to less than sound conclusions regarding those decisions?

To understand Reconstruction, do we need an understanding of the history of slavery and emancipation from ancient times? Or of the events following other civil wars, revolutions, insurrections in other countries throughout history, and of the re-absorption of affected areas into the body politic? And why stop at 1876? As you expand it, the focus on any limited period can be made to sound a trivial exercise.


Or maybe, realizing we only have so much time on this rock, do we just study what interests us most – what floats our boats, or blows our hair back? Do we even want to think of it as “study” at all? There have been times I’ve wondered about folks who beat the bejeezus out of Gettysburg. Some showed little interest in the rest of the war. I’d ask myself, “Don’t you care? Aren’t you curious?” But I think I always asked those questions rhetorically, and assumed that they should care, that they should be curious. But guess what? Many don’t and aren’t.  I’ve learned to appreciate that, and also that should is my limitation, not theirs.

Just tossin’ stuff out, seein’ what sticks. What do you think? What are the boundaries of your American Civil War?

On Military History

12 12 2014

In the blogosphere, in print, and on social media currently there is a buzz about the subject of military history. I won’t go into the details and give links – just Google Civil War and Military History and you’ll find plenty of examples. Opinions on what “military history” is, what it is not, and what it is becoming vary widely, as do opinions on whether the issue is a mountain or a molehill. So who am I to not take the opportunity to weigh in?

First off, let me stress that I don’t consider myself a historian, military or otherwise. I’ve said that before and nothing has changed. To me, a historian is an individual who has been trained and accredited in the field of history. In short, someone with a degree in history from a post-secondary institution. Now, I try to adhere to a set of standards which I understand to be good practice in the field, but you only have my word to go by. It’s a base-line thing. It’s not qualitative. Historians can produce awful history, and non-historians can produce great history.

While I have not yet found a good definition for military history, I have developed my own, after a fashion. I’ll make it simple – military history to me is not history that simply involves military operations (though based on some awards given out this past year – and pretty hefty ones at that – that does seem to be a working definition for some pretty prestigious organizations.) Military history, in my opinion, at the very least reflects an understanding of  not only military conventions and doctrines of the time in question – say, the American Civil War – but also of how they fit on the developmental timeline. For example, if one is going to critique decision making, one had better have a good grasp of the experiences (education, training, service) that led the actor to that point. And a military historian is someone whose education in history focused on this specialty. That does not mean that someone untrained in military history cannot produce good military history. It does mean, however, that they are not military historians. To me. At this point.

To put it in simple terms, Sheldon is a theoretical physicist. Leonard, poor Leonard, is only a practical (or applied) physicist. Raj is an astrophysicist. And Wolowitz only has a masters. In engineering. A glorified plumber. You see the differences, right?

Omaha Beach: Seventy Years Ago Today

6 06 2014


The 116th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division spearheaded the division’s assault on Omaha Beach seventy rears ago today, and suffered 341 casualties, including Co. A which lost over 90% of its men within ten minutes of landing. The 116th was – and is today – a Virginia National Guard unit. It’s also known as The Stonewall Brigade, and claims lineage from that as-of-then un-monikered command that gathered on the reverse slope of Henry Hill on July 21, 1861. The above is the regiment’s former shoulder patch. Does it remind you of anything?



You can read about the men of Company A in The Bedford Boys. And below, some vets of the assault talk about it:

Poll: Sources of Civil War Information

23 04 2013

From whom do you think most interested folks will be getting their information regarding the Civil War era? Since Polldaddy doesn’t let you rank your answers, I have to ask for just one.

Poll: Civil War Information Delivery Systems

21 04 2013

So, what do you think will be the most infuential method of delivering information regarding the Civil War era to the great unwashed, that is, to the majority of folks who are – or may become – interested? Since Polldaddy doesn’t let you rank your answers, I have to ask for just one.

What’s Up With That Cane?

26 07 2011

My current read, At the Precipice: American’s North and South During the Secession Crisis, by Shearer Davis Bowman, hepped me to a bit of information of which I was previously unaware, and prompted a trivia question for you, dear readers.

We all know that on May 22, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was brutally attacked in the Senate chamber with a gutta-percha walking stick in the hands of cowardly Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.

Any idea why Brooks carried the cane? Here’s a hint: it wasn’t for show, and it wasn’t strictly for beating defenseless Yankees.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,229 other followers