Tag Archives: The South

More alternate Civil War histories? Look away!

I assume we’ve all heard that the guys behind Game of Thrones are doing an alt-history series where the Confederacy survives into the present day, and that the entire Twittersphere ripped HBO a new one over it.

We don’t yet know how well the show would grapple with the subject matter, but that interview in which one of the GoT guys seemed to have difficulty recalling the name of the Battle of Antietam doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?

Setting aside questions of historical sensibility or whether a series about modern-day legal slavery would be in good taste, one of the reasons it strikes me as a dumb idea is the fact that we’ve seen the whole Confederacy-wins-the-war premise done So. Many. Times.  The only alt-history scenario that’s more worn-out is the notion of an Axis victory in WWII.  There are so many novels based on the idea that you could build your own Fort Sumter using only the ones written by Harry Turtledove.  In fact, a Civil War setting for alternative history of any kind is pretty stale; it’s got its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud.

Now comes news that Amazon is developing its own alternative offering—an alt-alt-history, I suppose you could call it—which “focuses on freed slaves who form their own country, New Colonia, out of the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, given to them as reparations for the country’s original sin.”  At least that’s a somewhat original twist.

If you ask me, though, storytellers need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to alt-history settings.  They’ve got centuries of the human past to play with.  Give the 1860s and 1940s a rest.

 

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When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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Will ‘Free State of Jones’ change any popular notions of the Civil War?

The trailer for Free State of Jones is out.  In case you haven’t seen it, here you go.

It’ll be interesting to see if this movie has any effect on popular notions of the Civil War, the South, and the Confederacy.  People have a tendency to equate the “Civil War South” with the Confederacy.  Using “the South” as shorthand for “the Confederacy” in the context of the Civil War is something we all do from time to time, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the two weren’t synonymous.

The Civil War divided Southerners just as it divided the nation as a whole.  This wasn’t just true in the sense that some states in the South never seceded; it was also true of many people living within Confederate territory.  For many Southerners faced with conscription, shortages, home guards, and requisitions of goods, the idea of rallying around the Confederate flag became more and more distasteful as the war dragged on.  And, of course, some Southerners in Confederate-held territory were never crazy about secession to begin with, as was the case for many people here in East Tennessee.

It’s also noteworthy to see a movie depicting blacks and whites engaged in anti-Confederate resistance.  The point here is not to fashion some myth of interracial amity in the nineteenth-century South.  The point, rather, is to consider black Southerners as Southerners—in other words, as real people with some degree of agency living in the South, rather than an inert mass simply awaiting the war’s outcome.  In other words, when we speak of a divided Civil War South, it’s easy to forget that white Southerners weren’t the only potential source of anti-Confederate dissent within the region.

I think a cinematic reminder of these Southern divisions in the Civil War would do us all some good, whatever region of the country we hail from.  A lot of neo-Confederates equate critiques of the C.S.A. with attacks on the South as a whole.  I can heartily agree with them that a lot of Americans carry unjustified and pernicious prejudices regarding this region, but remembering that “the Confederacy” and “the South” weren’t synonymous might help us all examine the C.S.A. a little more dispassionately.  Conversely, folks from the North who let the darker aspects of the South’s history determine their attitudes toward the region and its people might rethink those attitudes after seeing Newt Knight’s story.  Even in the 1860s, there were Southerners doing unexpected things.

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Battle flag backlash?

Something really unusual happened this afternoon.  I was headed back to my apartment when I met a pickup truck going the other direction with two ginormous banners fluttering from its back: Old Glory and a Confederate battle flag.  I’ve been running around Knoxville for a few decades now, but that was a first.

Come to think of it, I’ve basically spent my entire life in the South, and that was probably only the second or third pickup truck flying a ginormous Confederate flag I’ve ever seen, period.  People whose knowledge of the South is limited to pop culture and what they get from the news probably assume that pickup trucks flying big Confederate flags are ubiquitous down here, but my experience has been otherwise.  Pickups decked out with Confederate flag bumper stickers, novelty plates, decals, and the the like aren’t that uncommon, I guess, but huge, in-your-face flags on poles mounted in the bed are another matter entirely, especially in an urban setting like Knoxville.  Yet today somebody was driving around town with a pretty big Confederate flag flapping in the wind, in the midst of a national debate over that flag’s display.

Of course, one such sighting doesn’t amount to much, but there are other indications that the Confederate flag is becoming really popular all of a sudden.  I’ve always said that most southerners I know are neither strongly in favor of nor strongly opposed to the flag.  It’s just not the sort of thing that comes up in the day-to-day lives of most people.  It would therefore be really ironic if the recent groundswell of support for taking the flag down only ended up prompting a backlash, reversing what would have otherwise been the continuation of a long, slow, gradual decline in regional attachment to Confederate iconography.

Or maybe the uptick in sales noted in the article linked above is just so much statistical noise against a general backdrop of indifference or hostility to the flag on a regional or national scale.  Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, my question for people who are suddenly rushing to defend southern heritage by buying Confederate flag merch is the same as it was a few days ago.  Wouldn’t southern heritage be better served if you devoted that energy and money to preserving historic sites and objects?

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North Koreans love Gone With the Wind

Pyongyang is just about the last place in the world you’d expect to find GWTW fans, but apparently you can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting one.

Maybe the notion of a society devastated by war and famine is especially resonant in North Korea.  Or maybe it appeals to some aspect of East Asian culture in general; Tony Horwtiz mentioned GWTW‘s popularity among Japanese visitors to Atlanta in Confederates in the Attic.

Personally, I think the explanation is pretty simple: Margaret Mitchell was a master storyteller who knew how to create remarkable characters.  Sure, her portrayal of the Old South was mythical—but holy cow, what a myth she managed to build.

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Did the plantation aristocrats ruin America?

Over at Salon.com, Sara Robinson claims that the Southern aristocracy’s values—or lack thereof—have become the dominant ones among the governing class. This, she believes, is sending us all to hell in a handcart.  I stumble across similar editorials from time to time, in which a pundit flies into hysterics over the ascendancy of Southern and/or conservative and/or evangelical forces with the same horror of a Roman patrician watching the Goths pour across the border.

Robinson started losing me right at the outset.  She argues that the Yankee elite had a sense of noblesse oblige, whereas Southern planters always displayed an “utter lack of civic interest.”  From a purely historical standpoint, this is simply asinine.  Noblesse oblige was an integral part of the worldview of colonial Tidewater planters.  Anyone who’s read anything substantial on early Virginia society should know this.

Equally bizarre is her inclusion of Woodrow Wilson as one of the “nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously.”  It’s true that Wilson was a reformer.  And yet Wilson was also a Southern Democrat, the son of a Celtic father who migrated from Ohio to the South before the Civil War and enthusiastically embraced the Confederacy. Robinson decries the Southern aristocracy’s belief in inequality; she should recall that Wilson held firmly to that belief, and allowed his cabinet members to segregate their departments’ offices.  In fact, Wilson is one of many examples one might cite to demonstrate the extent of Robinson’s drastic over-generalization; neither Southernness nor a belief in racial inequality have been incompatible with the reformist spirit over the course of American history.

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This is why we can’t have nice things

The much-anticipated Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy is opening soon, and this occasion offers all of us an opportunity for substantial and sober reflection about a host of important topics, such as the challenge of interpreting complex and emotionally charged subjects through exhibits, the proper stewardship of collections at a multi-facility institution, the place of military history in public history as a whole, and the relationship between scholarship and popular memory.

So naturally, instead of considering any of these issues, we’re going to get up in arms over what sort of flags they’re flying in front of the building.

Appomattox, VA – A new battle is brewing around the Museum of The Confederacy in Appomattox. Southern Heritage groups are calling on people to boycott the museum because the Confederate Flag will not fly outside.

All of this is surrounding 15 flag poles outside of the building, called the Reunification Promenade.

It will display state flags in order of their secession leading up to the U.S. flag.

Virginia Flaggers says they’ve offered to pay to add the Confederate Flag to the display, but the museum isn’t interested.

The museum’s president notes that the outdoor flag display is actually intended to illustrate the relationship of the seceded states to the rest of the country, which accounts for the Confederate flag’s otherwise conspicuous absence. Furthermore, the museum will include the biggest exhibit of Confederate flags anywhere in the history of mankind, which suggests that keeping said flag under wraps isn’t exactly a priority for the MOC.  But this isn’t enough to assuage the concern of people who are evidently more concerned about the museum’s front porch than they are about the actual content of the exhibits.

If questions about outdoor vexillology aren’t enough to convince you that nefarious anti-Southron forces are at work here, then consider the assertion that the facility’s location is, and I quote, “evidence that Yankee interests have invested the museum.”

Is the first opening in the lovely Shenandoah where Jackson beat three Union armies in one campaign?  No.  Oh I know, it’s off Interstate 95 at Chancellorsville, the site of Lee’s greatest victory!  NO.  OK, maybe up closer to Washington, D.C. on the Manassas battlefield where the Confederacy won two major battles?  Nope.  So where?

Appomattox, the place where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.   You are kidding!  For a Southerner, only Andersonville could be a worse location!

And bear in mind that while these folks are complaining about encroaching Yankeefication at the MOC, another critic is denouncing the institution as a Confederate shrine.

Make up your minds, guys.  If I’m supposed to go with a knee-jerk reaction, at least let me know which direction.

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