Is the Civil War Narrative Changing?
Here in my town last week we held an annual event commemorating Corbit’s Charge. Never heard of it? I wouldn’t think so, unless you are either local or deeply immersed in Civil War history. This was a skirmish incidental to the Gettysburg Campaign. While Lee led the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia through Harper’s Ferry and into central Pennsylvania, J.E.B. Stuart took the cavalry division cavorting though central Maryland to no particular purpose. Eventually the time came for him to rejoin the main army, and he headed up what is now State Route 97.
This took him through my town of Westminster. Westminster was on the Western Maryland railroad, and so rated a small Union garrison, with a bit of infantry and a bit of cavalry. They got wind that some Confederate cavalry was at the south end of town, so the Union cavalry jumped on their horses and charged down Main Street under Captain Charles Corbit. It did not go well. He had counted on the presence of some Confederate cavalry, but not of all of it. The charge reversed direction, resulting in a running skirmish back up Main Street. About half the Union cavalry, including Captain Corbit, was captured.
Frankly, this ain’t much, but it’s all we got. Some people try to make this skirmish to be Very Important by claiming that it delayed Stuart long enough to prevent him from doing anything useful at Gettysburg, thereby turning the tide of the entire war. Deep skepticism of every element of this claim would be appropriate. But the real pisser is that the Battle of Gettysburg was supposed to be here in Carroll County. George Meade had taken command of the Army of the Potomac just the day before, with orders to protect Washington and Baltimore. He quickly devised a plan to position the army along Pipe Creek here in Carroll County. This would have presented Lee with three bad options: make a frontal assault against a prepared position; wander around central Pennsylvania for a while then go home; or skip the wandering around part and just go home right away. Just think of the epic Battle of Pipe Creek! Just think of all those sweet, sweet tourism dollars! Sadly, it was not to be. As Meade was putting his units into position he received word that a fight had started about fifteen miles to the northwest, in Gettysburg. The local forces had retreated through the town and occupied the nearby high ground. Meade had to decide whether to have those forces fall back into their positions along Pipe Creek, or throw everything he had into the fight he had. He went with the second choice, and it worked out pretty well for him, so who am I to second guess? But we lost our battle! We were promised a history-changing battle and all we got was a puny cavalry skirmish. (I should sell T-shirts.)
So that is the background to the annual Corbit’s Charge commemoration. It’s a lemon, but the best we have got, so the town does its best to make lemonade. This involves reenactors getting together every year and looking solemn. I wandered through the encampment a few years ago. It gave me the creeps. The Confederate reenactors–and there was a lot of gray in evidence–had a strong Lost Cause air to them. They gave a distinct impression that they thought the wrong side had won.
One part of the annual event is the graveside service at the Episcopal church. The Union cavalry had managed to kill two Confederate officers, who were buried in the Episcopal churchyard. The family of one of them retrieved the body after the war, but Lieutenant John William Murray is still there. This is an opportunity not to be missed. They get to stand around the grave with their most solemn expressions and declaim on the noble sacrifice of Lt. Murray: a complete wankfest.
This is where things get interesting. It turns out that there is another Civil War soldier in that churchyard: Corporal Samuel Butler, a colored soldier. This had gone unnoticed for years, until someone noticed a faded “USCT” on the headstone and the pin dropped. There is a script for what comes next. Money is raised for a new marker and everyone has a new opportunity for their most solemn countenances while talking about his sacrifice, etc. etc.
This is where things went wacky. A speaker was brought in from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He didn’t follow the approved script:
“He was well aware that the war was prompted by the issue of slavery,” McCoy said, according to a prepared text of his remarks. “And, as an African-American, he surely knew that the war’s outcome would determine whether an immoral institution that enslaved people like him would continue to exist in the United States.”
What? The war was prompted by the issue of slavery? Unacceptable! Faced with this grossly offensive statement, the color guard sergeant from the Maryland Sons of Confederate Veterans ordered the color guard to turn about face in protest. Good times.
Why does a statement so manifestly true as to be banal provoke such a response? It would be tempting to treat this as yet another sign of our sadly decayed public discourse in these latter days, but this pattern has been around since the war itself. It started in the North. While the institution of slavery didn’t win any popularity prizes in the North back in the day, few considered it something to fight a war over. “We’re fighting to free the slaves” didn’t wow many focus groups, so they went with an abstraction: “We’re fighting to preserve the Union.” This glosses over the question of why this fight was necessary, the answer being “slavery.”
The South had no such qualms, with several states explicitly citing slavery as a cause for secession. This changed after the war, and particularly after the end of Reconstruction. At that point the North threw in the towel on civil rights and the rule of law (in both the North and the South, to our eternal shame). Both sides now had an interest in smoothing things over, since they had to live together like it or not. The solution was another turn to the abstract: the South fought not to preserve slavery (even disguised under the euphemism of its “peculiar institution”). It fought for “States’ Rights.” The war was reduced to dueling abstractions: the Preservation of the Union versus States’ Rights, the conflict apparently just springing up spontaneously. The Southerners were at worst misguided, but noble.
The process was a little like the denazification of Germany following the Second World War. The western Allies found that they needed German cooperation, both for civil administration and to face the Red Army. The problem was that Nazis had been thoroughly vilified. This would be awkward, even had the vilification not been warranted. The solution was to identify and punish top offenders. Everyone else was declared to be the good Germans, who had fought out of noble, albeit misguided, patriotism. The difference with the Civil War was that no top offenders were identified. Everyone from top to bottom got to be a noble, if misguided, idealist.
The idea became entrenched in later decades as the war moved from current events through recent memory into the realm of academic history. Academic historians reflexively dismiss simple explanations for big events. You can’t put the causes of the Napoleon Wars or the First World War in a single tweet. The idea is ridiculous. Hence the impulse is to favor multifaceted causes behind the Civil War as well, resulting in complicated analyses of the chain of events, while glossing over the reality that there was one and only one reason the South decided it could no longer live with the North. Much chin-stroking is mandatory.
What it came down to was that the South got one of those rare exceptions to the principle that the winners write the history books. Even Northern histories adopted the abstract rationalization for why the war happened. This is how we get the weird circumstance that Southern generals could be lionized regardless of how much revisionism this takes, and even outright terrorists got schools named after them. In the meantime, Northern generals could be freely criticized or even demonized. Only Lincoln is off limits, and not even him if you don’t name him explicitly. Everyone else is fair game. The peculiar result is that the self-styled “party of Lincoln” can be the staunch defenders of all things Confederate, under the guise of “heritage,” don’t you know…
This finally brings us to the part that really interests me about the Corbit’s Charge story. It isn’t the neo-Confederate reaction to what they consider (but would never name) politically incorrect speech. It is to the newspaper reporter’s reaction of incredulity:
Even the argument that the war was really over states’ rights tends to circle back to slavery. In becoming the first state to secede from the Union, South Carolina complained of “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” Mississippi declared that “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.”
This is not the reporter seeking out a quote to counter the neo-Confederate statement for a“well, people disagree” balanced story. This is the reporter simply pointing out why the neo-Confederate version is obvious bullshit This is amazing. I am impressed when a newspaper story about the Flat-Earth Society will go out on a limb and flatly state that the Earth is in fact a sphere.
Here, ladies and gentlemen, we see actual progress: evidence that the narrative has changed and now accepts the obvious truth that the Civil War was ultimately about slavery, whatever else was layered on top of that. I don’t expect the neo-Confederates to accept this new narrative, but even their defensiveness is a good sign. The narrative has changed such that they now need to defend the old version. Some days I have hope.
P.S. The newspaper story also references two politicians who were there: Westminster City Council President Robert Wack and Maryland Delegate Haven Shoemaker. Wack’s response to the speaker was that he
“was just restating historical fact,” Wack said. “If they find that disrespectful, that’s their issue.”
Huzzah! I am happy I voted for him. He is a Republican, like nearly all politicians in the county, but local Republicans come in three flavors: Main Street Republicans, who know that potholes need fixing and that someone will have to pay for this; Pro-Growth Republicans, who regard the business of government to be the advancement of the interests of real estate developers; and Barking Mad Republicans, who use the bully pulpit to howl at the moon. Wack is a Main Street Republican. I have no issue with that crowd (with the stipulation that I am a white middle class heterosexual male).
Then there is Haven Shoemaker:
Maryland Del. Haven Shoemaker was also at the event, and spoke briefly. Calls to his office for comment were not returned.
Yup. This is what I would have expected. There is not a chance in the world he would minimize his press exposure if he could figure out a way to make himself look good to everyone. But he is very adept at keeping a low profile when it suits him. He used to be the mayor of the next town over. The town eminent domained some property it wanted in order to (you guessed it) promote growth. This is a Republican county. Eminent domain is right up there with drowning kittens in local public opinion. The story was in the paper for weeks. I was vastly impressed at how in all those stories you would never guess that Haven Shoemaker was the mayor of the town doing this. What a weasel. No, I didn’t vote for him.