MOOC | The Nationalist Historians | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.3.2

MOOC | The Nationalist Historians | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1861 | 1.3.2


>>Now, so what I want to do basically with that is to talk about how the schools of interpretation of the Civil War have evolved. And bear this in mind as we do our readings because the readings reflect more than one point of view about this as we go along. The first period you might say of Civil War writing was really by — was by participants in the struggle themselves. In other words, it was more like it was a combination of scholarship and reminiscence. And reminiscence, as I’m sure you know, is generally people trying to justify their past behavior. So Northerners wrote blaming the South for the war, and Southerners wrote blaming the North for the war. Both explained the war on the basis of great principles, union or antislavery on the part of the North; states’ rights, constitutional government, individual liberty on the part of the South. And they often completely denigrated their opponents. In the South, it was all abolitionist fanatics who were bringing on the war. And to Northern writers it was so-called fire eaters, Southern extremists who were responsible for the war. Some in the South, both Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; and Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederacy, years later published lengthy tomes explaining and justifying their, you know, actions in the Civil War. Stephens was one of the more interesting or unusual in that, in 1861, as we will see, Alexander Stephens gave — the Vice president of the Confederacy gave an often-quoted speech stating that the cornerstone of the Confederacy, the cornerstone was the institution of slavery and the belief that black people are inherently inferior to white people. That was the cornerstone of the Confederacy. 15 years later, he wrote a book saying slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War. It was all states’ rights. It was all Northern violations of the Constitution, and forget about slavery. From the Northern point of view, it was different. And Henry Wilson, an antislavery Senator, wrote a famous book about the rise and fall of the slave power. John A. Logan, a general in the Civil War, wrote the book called The Great Conspiracy. You know, sometimes these titles will give you an indication of what’s — what they are about. And you might almost say not until the smoke had cleared or perhaps you’d say a new generation had appeared were you going to get real serious historical writing. And that began to take place in the 1890s and early part of the 20th century. This is what we might call the second school. The first school was participants. The second school are what we call the nationalist historians. And they’re writing at a period of intense nationalism. Remember the 1890s is a period of sectional reconciliation, at least among whites. Northern and Southern soldiers are now fighting side by side against a common enemy in the Spanish-American War. The Supreme Court has pretty much, you know, taken away most of the rights that African-Americans were given during Reconstruction. And so, in other words, in that era of reconcili — these nationalist historians wrote in a way that they tried to bring — you know, overcome these divisions and bring the two sections back together historically speaking. Who am I talking about? These are not names you need to know. Edward Channing, John B. McMaster. Only people who are about to take their orals in history need to know all this. Edward Channing, John B. McMaster, and especially James Ford Rhodes, these guys did not believe in the adage less is more. They published multivolume tomes. Rhodes published seven volumes on the period we’re talking about in this course, 1850 to 1877, long, detailed, boring volumes. They’re all up there on the ninth floor of Butler, or maybe they’ve been moved off-site like everything else. I don’t know. But they used to be up there. James Ford Rhodes was the most important of them. He was a Republican from the North. He was a businessman. He was not a professional or trained historian. He was a businessman. He made some money in the iron — in the iron industry. And then he wrote this multivolume history of the United States in the Civil War era. Rhodes was very clear about what the cause of the war was. He said, of the American Civil War, it may safely be said there was a single cause: slavery. Okay? That’s pretty explicit. One cause, slavery. It’s so obvious you don’t even need to explain it that much. So, now — but while the emphasis on slavery would appear to sort of blame the South for the war, in fact, Rhodes writes that neither side had a monopoly of right and wrong, good and evil. Both sides fought gallantly for deeply held beliefs. He wasn’t interested in apportioning sectional guilt like the previous writers had been. In fact, it was Rhodes who popularized in historical writing the very term “the Civil War,” which seems like a neutral term. In other words, Southerners had called it the War Between the States. Many still do. Northerners had tended to call it the War of the Rebellion. The Civil War is a more neutral kind of term, and it was something that both sides, said Rhodes, could look back on with pride. In fact, it’s in this period that there develops what we call the cult of Lincoln and Lee, Lincoln and Lee who seem to represent the highest values of their society or the best qualities of each society. Lincoln, the man who rose from you know, humble backgrounds to become a great political leader; Lee, the gentleman who — you know, who led his troops and was loyal to them and then in the end surrendered and said, No; we’re not going to continue fighting, etc., etc. So Lincoln and Lee, both sides could admire Lincoln and Lee together. It’s also a time when the soldiers themselves become the story of the war, the experience of the soldiers. This is the period — you may have seen, you know, long ago — maybe they’ve repeated it — Ken Burns’ multipart TV series on the Civil War which was very popular when it was first was shown back in the 1990s. It’s similar. It’s a very sentimentalized version of the Civil War. And a lot of time was spent on these reunions of old-time veterans, you know, and it kind of all — just to show they’re really pretty much the same despite having fought each other. This is also the period when a kind of romance of the lost cause, the Southern lost cause. Even in the North, not that people want the South to win. But, Oh, they fought so gallantly; and, you know, they were overwhelmed by greater resources, etc. as they said in that statue, this sort of romance of the Confederacy which begins to take hold. So — but the fact is, despite all that, Rhodes absolutely emphasized the war ended up correctly, so to speak. It was necessary to get rid of slavery, and it was necessary to save the Union. On the other hand — and other of these nationalists wrote — in reconstruction, the North was at fault. We will talk about reconstruction down the road. But, you know, the North was at fault. It really — reconstruction was a big mistake. White Southerners were more correct at that time; and, therefore, both sides kind of win one historical battle. The North wins the battle over how you think about the Civil War. The white South wins the battle over how you think about reconstruction. So that’s your nationalist sort of point of view.

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