The never-ending engagement in revisionist history

The late Shelby Foote, American author and historian, once said of the Civil War:

“There’s a great compromise, as it’s called. It consists of Southerners admitting, freely, that it’s probably best that the Union wasn’t divided. And the North admits, rather freely, that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed. And that is a great compromise, and we live with that and that works for us. We’re now able to look at the war with some coolness, which we couldn’t do before now.”

Foote, whose 1.5-million-word trilogy on the Civil War made him an American literary mainstay, was hardly incorrect. It took a century or so, as he went on to point out, but Abraham Lincoln’s vision of “malice toward none with charity for all,” as he spoke in his second inaugural address in March 1865, was fully realized. And for much of the 20th century, even as racial injustices continued to be perpetrated towards black Americans and as the seeds of division were sowed again during the civil rights struggles, that is how the Civil War was viewed.

But Foote’s comments, made in a 1994 C-Span interview, could not be uttered today. He would’ve been crucified by the internet-empowered lynch mobs who are specializing in revisionist history.

In 21st century America, there is no room for the view that Southerners fought valiantly for a cause in which they believed. Nor is there room for the view that Civil War contemporaries like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee were, at heart, honorable men.

There has been a move afoot for several years to villainize the Old South, to cast as evil the causes and characters of the Confederacy. This movement has drawn momentum from recent events, such as the Charleston church shooting, as is seen by calls to remove Confederate statues and other symbolism.

Foote has not escaped this movement. Once regarded as a literary genius of sorts, Foote — who died in 2005 — is increasingly reviled by critics and pundits who seek to posthumously destroy his name and his legacy.

A novelist at heart, the Greenville, Miss. native was contracted by Random House in the 1950s to write a brief history of the Civil War — about 200,000 words. He received a $400 advance for the work, which was expected to take about a year and a half to complete.

What resulted was a 19-year work, with Foote putting his career on hold for nearly two decades to complete a three-volume account of the war, consisting of 3,000 pages and 1.5 million words.

Foote’s trilogy was widely hailed as one of the most complete looks at the Civil War that had ever been tackled by an historian. He admitted that he didn’t do any real research, not in the truest sense; instead, his research consisted of reading the volumes of history that had already been written about the war, lending those earlier works his penchant for story-telling and engaging narrative voice.

Critics of Foote’s work complained that he didn’t document his sources, and that he focused too little on the political and economic causes of the war. This led some to insist that Foote was attempting to romanticize the Confederacy, perpetrate the “lost cause” mythology and whitewash history.

In truth, Foote’s work was a largely unbiased account that focused on recreating the battles themselves — immersing readers as though they were walking the battlefields themselves. It brought to life the art of warfare and the horrors that went along with it. And it focused heavily on the stories of the people — the characters of the Civil War. But, to that end, if Foote romanticized, he bathed the characters in blue with just as much nostalgia as those in gray.

Foote remained a relative obscure writer until 1990, when Ken Burns introduced him to the world in his highly-regarded nine-part documentary on the Civil War. The PBS special, which was viewed by more than 30 million Americans, relied heavily on interviews with Foote. He made 89 cameo appearances across the nine episodes, totaling about one hour of screen time.

Foote’s deep Southern drawl and his Southern-gentleman demeanor made him an instant TV icon. Sales of his books surged, and he later said that Burns made him a millionaire. (As an aside, if you have never heard of Shelby Foote, you owe it to yourself to watch some of his interviews that are on YouTube. If there ever was a person who would make reading the phone book interesting, it’s Foote.)

The Civil War documentary made Ken Burns a household name, and it also made Shelby Foote a household name. (The series is on Netflix, for those who haven’t watched it, and it’s an incredible work. There were no cinematic recreations of battle, no special effects. Just the use of historical still photographs, interviews with historians like Foote and voice-overs by celebrities like Morgan Freeman and Sam Waterston.) But, today, the effort to revise history has turned the series from a celebrated work into a criticized work. As John Daniel Davidson said in November, writing for The Federalist, “Our intellectual class, unable to think about the war between North and South in anything but the most reductive terms, has decided not only that (John) Kelly suffers from ‘nostalgia’ about the Confederacy, but that Ken Burns and Shelby Foote should be consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Once these revisionist historians have managed to properly malign Foote, they turn their ire on Burns because he relied much more heavily on footage of Foote than on that of others — such as black historian Barbara Fields, who appeared in the series a handful of times. There have even been plenty who have suggested that Burns might approach the documentary differently if he were filming it today, but he has made it clear that he would have changed nothing.

“What works, works,” Burns told the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg in 2015. “If you read Shelby’s writings, it’s possible to understand that he shares the very same things (as Fields). He just approaches it with the perspectives, as a white Southern male, that he has, opposed to a black woman, that Barbara has. Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow love Abraham Lincoln, genuinely. And that suggests to me that history could be a table around which we could still agree to have a civil discourse.”

Burns and Foote have become part of a greater movement to discredit anyone and everyone associated with the Old South. Writing for Newsweek, Matthew Cooper expressed horror in 2015 that Burns portrayed Robert E. Lee “as a sympathetic, noble soldier, not a 19th century version of Heinrich Himmler.” Cooper goes on to chide Burns for placing Confederate soldiers on the same level as Union soldiers, saying, “We hear the voices of Confederate soldiers — hungry and homesick — like their counterparts in blue.”

Think for a moment about what Cooper is suggesting with that last sentence. Then contrast that with Lincoln’s vision of “malice toward none with charity for all.”

In truth, Burns’ work was incredibly balanced. It made no pretense about the Confederacy’s cause. As Cooper himself wrote of the documentary, it “never drank the ‘lost cause’ Kool-Aid. It dispenses with myth: The war wasn’t northern aggression, as Dixie long maintained, nor was it about economic rivalry, as lefty historians once contended. The fight was about slavery. And the horrors of ‘the peculiar institution,’ as it was called, are not given passing attention.”

The perspective of a displaced Yankee

Let me pause to give you some background on where I’m coming from. I am a native of, and a lifelong resident of, the northern Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee — where sympathy for the Confederacy was not lost.

In Scott County, my home, there were only 61 enslaved people when the Civil War began — it was one of just two Tennessee counties with fewer than 100 slaves. East Tennessee as a whole was fiercely opposed to secession, but Scott County was even moreso. After listening to Andrew Johnson deliver a speech on the steps of the county courthouse, Scott Countians voted against secession in June 1861 by the widest margin of any county in Tennessee. The vote was 521-19.

Despite the opposition in East Tennessee, voters of the Volunteer State approved secession. Scott Countians weren’t taking it sitting down. At a county court meeting, an old farmer rose up to say, “If the goddamn State of Tennessee can secede from the union, then Scott County can secede from the State of Tennessee.” Inspired by his words, the county court voted to do just that, forming the Free and Independent State of Scott. They acknowledged that Scott County did not have legal standing to separate itself from Tennessee, but countered that Tennessee also did not have legal standing to separate itself from the union.

Tennessee Governor Isham Harris never formally recognized Scott County’s secession, but the move was not lost on him. He regarded Scott Countians to be traitors and funneled Confederate troops to the region to teach a lesson. The state sent a contingent of 1,700 soldiers to Scott County to arrest and hang all members of the county court. (None were ever captured, though Confederate soldiers spent hours looting the county seat of Huntsville and searching for county court members after eradicating Union soldiers from the town during a small skirmish more than a year later.)

My paternal ancestors migrated to the Cumberlands in the early 19th century. My fifth-great-grandfather (Elijah Caleb Garrett, 1777-1855) was likely a slaveowner, and there’s no record that any of my direct ancestors fought for either side, but if they had’ve, it’s very likely that they would’ve sided with the Union. Of the 560 Scott County men who were enlisted during the war, only 19 enlisted with the Confederacy.

In fact, on the occasions when the Civil War visited the Cumberlands, it was usually bad news from the side wearing grey. Union troops raided crops, livestock and barns when they passed through the region, to be sure. But with the region under the control of the South more than the North, there was more of a presence of lawlessness from Confederate sympathizers. Confederate guerrillas raided farms on a number of occasions, and there are legendary stories that resulted.

So these aren’t the words of a Confederate sympathizer. When my neighbors insist on flying a Confederate flag today because it’s their “heritage,” I remind them that if they had been around during the Civil War, they likely would have marched under the stars-and-stripes, and they would likely have despised the stars-and-bars.

Truth on both sides

There’s no denying that the institution of slavery was vile and reprehensible. There’s no denying that many of America’s founders — like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — were on the wrong side of slavery. It’s hard to fathom how men who helped establish the world’s brightest beacon for freedom could convince themselves that only one race was worthy of such liberties while other races were worthy of possession and cruelty.

It’s also hard to fathom how, by the mid 19th century, a region that was so deeply religious could still justify the institution of slavery. Or how men like Abraham Lincoln still believed that blacks were a lesser class of people who did not deserve the same respects and rights as whites.

There’s no denying that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War — or that preserving slavery was the primary cause of the Confederacy.

Foote spoke on many occasions about the necessity of placing ourselves in the shoes — and, in turn, the mindsets — of the people who lived in the mid 19th century. That’s difficult for many to do, which makes it impossible for us to have a fair and honest discussion about the Civil War once we’ve steeled our minds against the institution of slavery and the mistreatment of the black race.

But Foote’s sentiments are spot-on. We can recognize just how terrible slavery was, and just how much the Old South was on the wrong side of history, without villainizing entire groups of Americans.

After all, it had not been too many years prior to the Civil War that all Americans were convinced that slavery was justified. By the time America won her independence, minds were beginning to change, and our forefathers established a constitution that would likely have led to the abolishment of slavery because they understood just how wicked this institution was. But they also had the opportunity afford the same independence to black people that they had just won from the British, and they failed to extend it.

Let’s not forget that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in states that remained a part of the Union. And the 180,000 black soldiers who fought for the North did not receive the same pay rate as white soldiers — nor did they receive the $3 monthly clothing allowance that white soldiers received. In any regard, the North did not view blacks as being equal to whites, even after the war had begun.

In the meantime, I’ve written in the past that you just simply don’t get passion from those who aren’t impassioned. That’s true in sports, and it’s true in war. The Confederate army was out-sized and out-equipped. There were two million Union soldiers to just about 800,000 Confederate soldiers. It was a ragtag army, lacking proper clothing and severely out-gunned. And, yet, the Confederacy held its own for years. It could be logically argued that except for some serious strategic blunders at Gettysburg, the South might have won that battle, which might in turn have had severe consequences as the war progressed.

Many of the South’s soldiers were from slave-owning families. Still others didn’t own slaves but believed in the institution of slavery. But a great many did not own slaves, did not come from families that owned slaves, and did not inspire to own slaves. You do not get that kind of fight and that kind of effort out of men unless they’re fighting for something they believe in.

To insist that the Confederate cause was only about slavery is an attempt to alter history. It is probably true that most rebel soldiers were driven by biased racial attitudes — fearing a society in which black men were on equal footing with white men. But understanding such a point of view requires us to put on Foote’s mentality of placing ourselves in a different times and place.

Likewise, insisting that the Union cause was chiefly about ending slavery is an attempt to whitewash history. By 1864, the war had become largely about ending slavery — if for no other reason than to bring about its end more expediently. But, initially, the North’s cause was about preserving the Union.

Regardless of how misguided the South may have been, an attempt to cast the Confederate generals and soldiers as evil and unworthy of remembrance is as much an injustice as it is an attempt at revisionist history.

Meanwhile, there were grave injustices dealt by the Union army in an effort to bring about a swifter end to the war.

William Sherman’s “March to the Sea” was devastating to Georgia, affecting innocent civilians as much as anyone. His “scorched earth” approach resulted in nearly $1.5 billion (in modern dollars) in damages to Georgia alone, and he himself described it as “simple waste and destruction.”

As Sherman marched, he wrote in a letter, of the need to “make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies.” Homes and barnes were burned. Tens of thousands of horses, mules and cattle were stolen, along with millions of pounds of corn and grain. Atlanta went up in flames and farms were laid to waste.

While Confederate sympathizers are accused of attempting to romanticize history, Union defenders are guilty of the same with regards to Sherman’s methods of warfare. Historians have written that Sherman’s scorched-earth tactics were not born of cruelty but of a desire to end the war quickly, and that he attempted to proceed with as little loss of life as possible, on both sides.

Yet, upon arriving in Atlanta in July 1864, Sherman ordered that the city’s buildings be bombarded, saying, “No consideration must be paid to the fact they are occupied by families, but the place must be cannonaded.” The wife of John M. Weaver, an engineer who lived on Walton Street, was wounded by one of the shells. Her child, who she was carrying in her arms, was killed. In all, it has been estimated that around 25 civilians were killed, and dozens more wounded.

Moreover, he forced the civilians remaining in Atlanta to leave their homes, then the soldiers under his command destroyed the city by fire. Sherman said, “We quietly and deliberately destroyed Atlanta.”

In a separate campaign, General Philip Sheridan’s carried the scorched earth policy to the Shenandoah Valley. Mothers and children were forced from their homes as the Union cavalry under Sheridan’s command torched the valley. Mills, barns, homes, crops, supplies — everything was burned.

Both campaigns were part of Ulysses S. Grant’s strategy of taking the war to civilians in an effort to break the will of the Confederacy. He wrote of the Shenandoah Valley campaign, “If the war is to continue another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.”

Even the livestock was slaughtered in their pens.

In wartime, evil takes on many forms, and it was not exclusive to the Confederacy.

Separating hatred from truth

It is perhaps fitting that Foote is buried next to the family plot of Nathan Bedford Forrest — who might be the most misunderstood figure of the Confederacy, and its most unfairly maligned.

In the rush to destroy Foote’s legacy as a literary figure and as an historian, his critics have branded him a racist who perpetrated the “lost cause” mythology of the Confederacy.

In truth, Foote was anything but a racist figure. He repeatedly said it’s important for Southerners to learn from the Civil War so that the mistake is not repeated.

As the civil rights struggle developed in the 1960s, Foote came to despise the actions of Southern leaders who were standing in the way of equal treatment of blacks and whites.

He wrote in 1963, “I am obligated to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during several of the years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln.”

He was referring to Ross Barnett, Orval Faubus and George Wallace.

He wrote to his literary friend, Walker Percy, “I feel death all in the air in Memphis, and I’m beginning to hate the one thing I really ever loved — the South.”

Later, he wrote, “I suppose, or in any case fervently hope, it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know from watching these three gentlemen (Barnett, Faubus and Wallace) that it can be terrifying in its approximations.”


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