Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Derailment of Civil War History

An apocryphal saying among professional historians use to describe their calling as “an endless debate.” This was not only a wry admission that scholars are contentious and competitive, but also a recognition that there are no fixed and eternal dogmas in the interpretation of the past. Rather, properly understanding the lived experience of our human race should be a product of lively discussion among diverse viewpoints. Indeed, the absence of such discussion and an insistent effort to close off debate in favor of a current interpretation indicates an authoritarian impulse and the lack of an intellectual life worthy of the name. Not too long ago, historians modestly accepted the idea that their work was perishable. It was inevitable that further research would turn up new evidence and that the unfolding of the long-term consequences of past events would give a new perspective to those events. This was not only inevitable, it was a good thing, representing an advance in knowledge and understanding and a maturing national consciousness.

Compared to the centennial celebration of the 1960s, the Civil War sesquicentennial has received slight public interest and produced little in the way of new knowledge and perspective. This is true despite the fact that the great war of 1861—1865, with its prelude and sequel, arguably remains the most significant (as well as the most interesting) part of American history. Is it possible that this lack has something to do with the now official and pervasive dogma that the Civil War was “about slavery” and “caused by slavery”? Any challenge to this understanding is, in the Marxist language now prevalent in American academic discourse, condemned as  “revisionism,” no longer a good thing but defined as the conniving of evilly-motivated people to challenge the party line established by the all-wise experts. There has even been created a whole literature dismissing dissidents as deluded victims of a “Lost Cause Myth.” Gary Gallagher, one of the celebrity historians of present Civil War historianship, describes such people as suffering from a mental “syndrome.” [1]

But, in fact, it is impossible to find any qualified historian of the first half of the 20th century who accepted the current party line of “slavery and nothing but slavery” in regard to the Civil War. This current dogma is nothing more than a replay of the early partisan presentation of the war as a morality play about the suppression of slavery and treason by the forces of righteousness. A little Marxist class conflict and racial vengeance has been mixed in to update the tale. Responsible historians before the present era realized that no large human event can be understood in such a trivial way, and that “about” and “caused by” are deceptive terms when applied to great happenings. Historians of the not-too-distant past realized that their proper task was to go beyond the claims of partisans. In pursuit of such a mission, a large literature was created treating the Civil War as a thing of great complexity and moral ambiguity. This great scholarly achievement has been washed down the Memory Hole. Thus the study of history is no longer a matter of cumulative knowledge. To control understanding of the past has always been an objective of power-seekers. We live in a time when such control flourishes.

[1] See Gallagher, Gary W. and Alan T. Nolan (ed.), The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000); and Gallagher, Gary, Jubal A. Early, the Lost Cause, and Civil War History: A Persistent Legacy (Frank L. Klement Lectures, No. 4) (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1995).

2 Responses to “Derailment of Civil War History”

  1. Marvin Edwards

    Slavery appears to be the key issue. Without the very real problem of slavery, there would be no theoretical discussion of a state’s rights.

    By the way, although the Constitution detailed a process for amendments, it did not describe a process for secession. So it was a permanent contract. If the states needed a right to secede, it could have been added at any time by an amendment. So the secession was an illegal act, begun by an act of aggression (firing on Fort Sumter).


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