Don’t Take It Personally
I always found interesting this expression displayed on the home page of a certain internet discussion group: “To respect the belief systems and perception of reality of both Union and Confederate here …”
It’s as if the moderators of the group assume that the war is still going on, and that people identify themselves as “Union” and “Confederate.” This remains true even when one of the moderators is a woman who resides in Canada, but who at times appears to be living in the 1860s, as you can see here.
I’ve always been interested as to the extent to which certain people take the Civil War personally. You can say what you want about honoring one’s past, one’s heritage, and one’s ancestors, and yet it still surprises me that so many people can’t draw distinctions between past and present, between “them” and “us,” “they” and “we,” or exhibit a passion for (or against) a particular historical figure to the extent that they project their own way of personalizing history on others (you can come across this characteristic if you examine some comments posted in response to blog entries here).
As historians we are supposed to maintain some sort of professional detachment from our subject. This is usually something easy to do. I don’t have passionate feelings about Grant, Meade, or Thomas, for example. Nor do I hold white Southerners today accountable for the existence of slavery (slavery and racism, after all, were American institutions). Even in cases where I dislike a historical figure (Andrew Johnson comes to mind), I resolve to give the devil his due. If I believed I could not approach a figure with sufficient detachment and objectivity, I would just cast that subject aside. Rather, I call them as I see them. Case in point: in many studies of Grant the general in the 1864 campaign, he is hit hard for Cold Harbor and let off the hook for the Crater. I happen to think that he was less at fault for the mangled assault on June 3 (I think Meade and his corps commanders did not do their job) than he was for what happened at the Crater (by which time Grant knew beyond doubt that Meade and Burnside did not work well together, and that he had to exercise closer supervision to take advantage of the opportunity before him). I don’t see that as either pro- or anti- Grant. I know of one historian who was quite upset at what I had to say about Cold Harbor, because he had earlier claimed that Grant had deliberately covered up the losses; he never did wrestle with the evidence I offered to discredit that notion and never mentioned any other reason why he might be sore with me. He tended to overlook what I had to say elsewhere about Grant. In the end, there were personal feelings involved with that discussion, but they weren’t mine.
The same goes for Grant and drinking. I’ve investigated several of the well-known tales about Grant’s drinking, and in a few cases I’ve offered new evidence that leads to a different understanding of those tales. But there is no doubt in my mind that Grant drank, that he did so at times to excess, and that the claim that he never did so when it mattered is open to criticism, not because I have evidence that Grant was drunk in battle but because there was always the potential for something important to happen. I’ve also highlighted a few incidents where Grant may well have been drunk that have not been discussed in the extant scholarship, and in the second volume of the biography I’m aware of two instances of intoxication (one in 1866, one in 1868). All I want to find out is what happened and then to try to figure out why it happened, what it tells us, and why it’s important. Yet I have people (some of whom admit openly that they haven’t even read my work) asserting that I cover up stories or go out of my way to defend Grant. After a while one realizes that these comments tell us far more about the inner workings of the minds of those critics … that in fact they believe what they want to believe … than about a body of work that in many cases they have not even read, let alone considered. They may disagree with my case, but they err badly in attempting to explain my motives. All they do is to reveal their own.
Let me simply suggest that when people confuse past and present and their ancestors with themselves that they are not practicing history, but a form of identity politics, and, in some cases, are responding to something best found within themselves, whatever that may be. “We” did not fight that war; “we” did not respond to something that happened nearly 150 years ago; “we” did not own slaves, and “we” did not fight to free them, or to save the Union, or whatever. We are trying to understand what they did and why, how they saw and understood the world around them, how and why things happened as they did … in part by appreciating the “pastness of the past,” as it were.
Think about it … and stop taking things so personally.