Trace Adkins on the American Civil War
As we approach the Civil War Sesquicentennial, I expect a good many people will weigh in on the meaning of the American Civil War. It’s no surprise to me that singer Trace Adkins is to be counted among that number. It is a little more surprising to see that Tennessee’s Sesquicentennial Commission saw fit to give him a place on the program during a Signature Event earlier this month. A report of Adkins’s comments is offered in this account (complete with video), which also offers some context as to his frame of reference.
Now, Mr. Adkins may have learned his history at his granddaddy’s knee, but most of us move on from there. Moreover, if he’s going to offer an explanation of why there was a Civil War, then I think he’s made himself fair game for commentary. However, I’m going to confine myself to a few comments for the moment:
First, it’s important to remember that not all white Tennesseans fought for or sided with the Confederacy. That includes Andrew Johnson and David Farragut, among others. It’s well known that many people in East Tennessee were unionists. Let’s hope that no one forgets this.
Second, Mr. Adkins says, “Over the generations it has seemed to me that Southern children, because of that terrible slavery issue, have been made to feel apologetic — if not guilty or ashamed — of their heritage.” I assume Mr. Adkins knows that many southern children are descended from slaves. I assume he knows that there are black southerners as well as white southerners. Mr. Adkins adds, “And I for one hope my children don’t feel that way, because everybody knows or should know that the majority of soldiers that fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves. I know that my grandfather didn’t, and had no aspirations of owning slaves. It wasn’t part of his makeup.” Point of curiosity: when was Mr. Adkins’s grandfather born? Slavery was abolished in 1865. Mr. Adkins was born in 1962. His grandfather must have been very, very old.
Third, I understand that Mr. Adkins is fond of Nathan Bedford Forrest. I’m sure he’s pleased to be portraying the hero of Fort Pillow in a forthcoming movie picture. That should be interesting, giving his commitment to remembering Confederate heroes the right way. I hope he also remembers that Tennessee was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and that when he goes to Memphis that he considers studying the Memphis Riots of 1866. After all, Mr. Adkins prides himself on honoring veterans and their sacrifices. I wonder what he thinks of the murder of black United States army veterans by white Tennesseans on May 1, 1866.
Finally, I’m afraid Mr. Adkins is sadly mistaken when he says that the American Civil War was fought over state rights. The North and the South did not divide over state rights. Many northerners cited state rights doctrines, for example, when it came to personal liberty laws and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law; white southerners endorsed an expansion of federal power to protect slavery. I’m hoping that if Mr. Adkins is so interested in state rights and resisting the dictation of the federal government that he’d highlight this stand on behalf of individual liberty. We’ll see. In truth, of course, issues of state rights and federalism were not settled by the war, nor did they divide North and South or become the foundation of the Confederacy (ask Joseph E. Brown or Zeb Vance). That’s because the war was not over those issues. The issue of state rights divided people within both North and South, as anyone who knows about the course of the Northern Democratic party during these years can tell us. Andrew Johnson was a loud advocate on behalf of state rights (as well as presidential power), and yet he was on the side of the United States during that conflict. The war was not fought to “settle” that issue.
This could be a teachable moment for Mr. Adkins. It could also be a teachable moment for the rest of us.
Kevin Levin offers a somewhat different perspective over at Civil War Memory.