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.

Comments (15) to “Don’t Take It Personally”

  1. Dear Mr. Simpson,

    First, let me correct some of your claims.

    I, too have no passionate feelings about Grant, Meade, or believe it or not, Thomas. At least no more than YOU. My feelings for Thomas are as the same for Rosecrans, Hooker, Thomas J. Woods, Lovell H. Rousseau and the western civil war. Thomas, in my opinion and several others, was probably best of the group therefore foremost in need of examination. Also, I include the great battles of the west, Nashville, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Tullahoma, Murfreesborough. I do have a great wonderment as to why you historians (?) continue to ignore these apparently foreign, or alien topics to concentrate on such over covered topics as Ulysses S. Grant, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, or Joshua Chamberlain. As I asked in another post (and received no answer, not even a sarcastic one), what more needs be said or even can be said after 4200 works on Grant (including musicals), over 5000 on Gettysburg and 24 on Chamberlain?

    As for Grant’s drinking, my own conclusion is that he was not a falling-down, drunken, alcoholic. I figure he probably imbibed because of boredom, loneliness, a combination of both or he liked the
    comradery. It seems to me that there were too many periods where he did not imbibe to conclude he was an alcoholic.

    You state: “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.” Since I have yet to see any of your groupies disagree with anything you say, I have to assume you are addressing me! I haven’t read your works because I don’t feel you can open any new vistas we haven’t covered in what, about 5 – 6 years of Internet discussions. I have read several Grant books, or as in the Da Vinci Codes, shall we call them “Novels.” I have the first 15+ books of Simon’s work. I am always amazed at the puppy-dog slavering over Grant’s soldiering. In most of his admirers works he is either a combination of Alexander, Napoleon, Caesar, Frederick, Genghis Khan and Patton (did I miss anyone?), or a combination better than they. Also, I don’t remember claiming you covered up anything, but, you certainly are a Grant defender, aren’t you? You certainly strike me that way. By the way, why do you have to tear down Thomas to build up Grant? E.g. “Anyone could have won the battle of Nashville!”

    Another of your psychoanalytic statements claims: “They may disagree with my case, but they err badly in attempting to explain my motives. All they do is to reveal their own.”

    I don’t recall examining your motive, but, I may have. And my motives, never complicated, have been only to question why the war in the west and the individuals involved have never been examined by so-called historians as has been the case of the eastern theater? My conclusions, $$$$$$$. Prove me wrong!

    “Think about it … and stop taking things so personally.”

    Don

    I appreciate all the attention you spend trying to refute my efforts

  2. Thank you, Don, for again providing an excellent illustration of the issue I wanted to discuss, even if I had a number of people in mind. At least you are a devoted reader of this blog, if not of my works. However, I’m not aware of your “efforts,” whatever they may be, so I can’t be accused of refuting them. But I enjoy your banter.

    People who write about Grant’s military career usually spend some time on his operations in the west. You’re the first person I know who does not see Belmont, Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga as part of the western theater.

  3. Brooks,

    I found it interesting that of the list of “western theater” battles not found on Don’s list, one general was conspicuously not present at each. And of his list of western theater battles listed, I wonder why Perryville wasn’t listed?

    Ed Bearss once noted, one shouldn’t use superlatives like “the best,” or “the worst,” because you are are often tripped up by others.

    I thought it interesting Don thought that Thomas was the best of a list of “Rosecrans, Hooker, Thomas J. Woods, Lovell H. Rousseau and the western civil war.” Interesting group to contrast him with, I thought. Given that list of names, I probably can agree with him!

  4. Dave:

    With the exception of Tullahoma, where a good treatment really is needed, “the great battles of the west, Nashville, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Tullahoma, Murfreesborough” all have been covered by one or more excellent recent studies, notably those of Cozzens, McDonough, and Sword. This also is true of the battles Brooks references. There’s a half-decent Perryville book as well. Indeed, didn’t we reach a point in the mid-1990s that that the west was attracting so much attention that folks like Gary Gallagher had to step in to argue that the east really was important after all?

    For the record, I also “like” Thomas, Rosecrans, and Rousseau, despite George’s unusual lack of activity on October 8, 1862.

    Ken

  5. Of course, Tullahoma’s a campaign, not a battle, and indeed that’s part of the significance of the operation … and it’s “Thomas J. Wood.”

    I don’t think Don’s really aware of recent scholarship per se. For example, we have studies of the Army of the Tennessee, the (first) Army of the Ohio, and the Army of the Cumberland (the previous army’s successor) out recently. We’ve had several books on Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and even a pair on Perryville (I wonder whether Don knows of your work, Ken). He appears not to have heard of Cozzens, McDonough, Woodworth, Daniels, or Sword.

    I think the problem is that Don doesn’t read much if at all. Recall this sentence about Grant biographies: “In most of his admirers works he is either a combination of Alexander, Napoleon, Caesar, Frederick, Genghis Khan and Patton (did I miss anyone?), or a combination better than they.” I know I haven’t mentioned five out of the six people Don has named, and all I’ve mentioned is that Grant had a certain view about Napoleon (he didn’t particularly like him, but said that his genius was in making the rules, not in following them). Oh, I guess one could repeat the crack he made about Meade’s headquarters flag, but …

    Don’s fandom, entertaining as it is, was not the inspiration for the post. That had more to do with people who confuse past and present and talk about “us.” It’s about how discussions about race and slavery can degenerate in certain popular venues into a finger-pointing exercise that’s more about personal politics than it is about historical accuracy.

    That Don thought it was all about him is … amusing.  He shouldn’t take it personally.  :)

  6. Brooks,

    Speaking of Napoleon, in nearly every biography I’ve seen on a Civil War general (in particular, those who went through West Point), there’s some discussion back to Napoleon. That only seems logical, since, Napoleon was *the* military mind whose campaigns would be studied at West Point by students.

    I guess unless you were a George Pickett or James Longstreet, for whom book learning wasn’t a high priority …

  7. “I have no trouble with my enemies. . . . But my friends, my goddamned friends, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor at nights!”

    I don’t think Warren G. Harding was talking about Civil War generals and their admirers, but he could have been . . .

    And forewarned is forearmed, I suspect at least one follower of this blog might be interested in the July issue of The Journal of Military History, which is supposed to have an essay on the last 25 years of Grant scholarship in it.

  8. 25? Not 26? :)

    Maybe it was written in 2006. :)

  9. The subtitled is dated 1981-2006. On the other hand, it could have in good conscience just skipped over 2000, since nothing of any consequence on Grant was published that year.

  10. I guess there is a time and a place for everything, and this may be neither, but I cannot imagine being unaware of ancestral memories or regional and cultural empathies. In addition, I cannot imagine how historical memories, real or perceived, do not influence current policies and politics.

    Clearly, these feelings can and do get in the way of historical objectivity, whatever that is, but to claim a lack of understanding of the phenomena makes me wonder what’s missing in a vital human thought process. In fact, it comes across as so outrageously untruthful that any attempt to deny it is highly entertaining. How does that saying go?…”don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining”.

  11. “I guess there is a time and a place for everything, and this may be neither, but I cannot imagine being unaware of ancestral memories or regional and cultural empathies. In addition, I cannot imagine how historical memories, real or perceived, do not influence current policies and politics.

    Don’t know who’s argued otherwise. Seems to me you want to get a load off your chest.

    “Clearly, these feelings can and do get in the way of historical objectivity, whatever that is, but to claim a lack of understanding of the phenomena makes me wonder what’s missing in a vital human thought process. In fact, it comes across as so outrageously untruthful that any attempt to deny it is highly entertaining. How does that saying go?…”don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining”.”

    Apparently I struck a nerve. :)  Methinks Jim didn’t really understand my post. 

  12. “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”

    Sound familiar? But if you want to feign confusion, that’s fine too.

  13. I can see Jim’s still taking it personally. Most of us can understand the difference between past and present.

  14. Note: There are wonderful places for people who wish to hurl personal insults, but this blog is not one of them. This is especially true in the case of responders who change e-mail addresses and have a habit of posting in this fashion, apparently unaware of the address-tracing tools available to the people who run this blog. I know several of my fellow blogkeepers have had to wrestle with this same problem (sometimes with the same people).

    In the future I’ll not hesitate to delete comments that go beyond the bounds of civil discourse, detract from the purpose of the blog, or which assail posters instead of wrestling with the content of posts. Disagreement and discussion is fine, even welcomed, as they have always been.

    Sorry for the interruption, but I’d rather give fair warning prior to an incident than act without warning.

    And … Don, believe it or not, you’re not my special target. :)

  15. Ken Noe wrote:

    “With the exception of Tullahoma, where a good treatment really is needed, “the great battles of the west, Nashville, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Tullahoma, Murfreesborough” all have been covered by one or more excellent recent studies, notably those of Cozzens, McDonough, and Sword. There’s a half-decent Perryville book as well. Indeed, didn’t we reach a point in the mid-1990s that that the west was attracting so much attention that folks like Gary Gallagher had to step in to argue that the east really was important after all?”

    First of all Mr. Noe, your statement reminds me of Marie Antoinette, remember “Let them eat cake!”

    Well Mr. Noe, It seems that you’ve proven my point or at least supplied an argument! One or more books on “Nashville, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, Tullahoma, Murfreesborough” plus “a half decent book on Perryville.” With over 5000 books on Grant, 200 books on Sherman, 65 books on Stonewall Jackson, 20 on Chamberlain, 4000 books on Gettysburg, 32+ on Fredericksburg, 30+ on Chancellorsville. We should be satisfied with “one” or more titles on important battles and personages of the war in the west.

    To the Ramparts!

    Don