This past Memorial Day, as a part of marking the Civil War sesquicentennial, I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at the yearly ceremony held at Andersonville National Cemetery. I made it clear to the park officials at Andersonville that I would use the occasion to respectfully, but honestly, address the enduring problem of how Civil War memory has always been contested and controversial, particularly in the case of Civil War prisons. The rangers warned me that in straying from the usual pattern of patriotic affirmation, I could expect a strong reaction to my speech. They were right.
During my college’s most recent commencement I found myself completely distracted from the usually entertaining and joyous proceedings. As I sat in the outdoor amphitheatre my eyes and attention were drawn to a small group of earnest looking people seated in front of me. My attention turned completely to them as they were joined by an ever-increasing number of security personnel and paramedics. Throughout the growing commotion, a well-known, influential, and very impressive alumna was addressing our graduates in what I’m sure was a thoughtful and engaging speech. I heard none of it. There was an elephant in the room that prevented me from giving her a moment of my attention; someone was in distress and I was concerned about her wellbeing. This moment made me think about what it might have been like for enslaved men and women to listen to a nineteenth century Christian minister in the South. Imagine what your response would have been to a sermon such as this.
When the World is Really Out to Get You, Champ Ferguson and the Civil War
My old buddy Bill Carter used to say, “You’re not paranoid if someone really is out to get you.” Bill used to a say a lot of things so this one didn’t strike me as particularly important until I started writing Confederate Outlaw. To be fair, Bill was not a big Civil War fan but he did have a keen historical eye that constantly focused on history’s undercurrents. Bill was also no diplomat so when he got to the pith and marrow of an issue, he usually did so with the deftness of a chainsaw.
What if our whole geographic understanding of the Civil War is wrong? What if, instead of viewing the Civil War as a grand, ideological struggle between the wage labor-based, urban, industrial North and the slave plantation-based, staple-crop producing South, we looked at the war as a battle of thirds: North, Middle and South. Yes, there was, in fact, an expanding industrial capitalist North stretching from New England to Chicago, perpetually seeking financial capital, immigrant labor, technological efficiency, natural resources, and national and global markets to exploit. And, yes, there was a vast plantation belt beginning among the tobacco fields of the Virginia Tidewater, traversing the indigo and rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country, and then enveloping the Deep South cotton belt – all worked by millions of African American slaves.
I’m going to post a lie. A couple of them, actually.
At least I think they’re lies. They’re not mine. (The Liar’s Golden Rule: make the fib bigger than yourself. Lying has a remarkably selfless quality when you do it that way.) The first is Thomas Jefferson’s. “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge,” Jefferson wrote in his famous description of Harpers Ferry in Notes on the State of Virginia, “is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. . . . This scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” Turns out Jefferson had never been there. According to a contemporary who claimed to know, Jefferson’s copped his description “from the representations of others.”
“Louisiana is a unique southern state” is a proposition that fails to raise an eyebrow. Whether one is thinking Cajuns, Creoles, New Orleans, Mardi Gras, jazz, or gumbo, one can quickly conjure an image of Louisiana that differs markedly from Mississippi, Alabama, or South Carolina. Yet, in January 1861, the Pelican State acted in a decidedly southern manner when it became the sixth state to secede from the Union.
As a child, family tales and relics of my great-grandfather, a Civil War veteran of the 154th New York regiment, convinced me that General William Tecumseh Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas were a noble freedom crusade and a freewheeling frolic. In other words, I was exposed to a northern legend of the two campaigns that largely cleansed them of their violence and destruction. In subsequent decades I gathered abundant letters, diaries, and memoirs by members of the 154th to chronicle the regiment’s role in the marches (and to correct my misconceptions).