Historians interested in the Confederacy navigate in perilous interpretive waters. The subject of their interest began its brief and stormy existence as a breakaway republic devoted to protecting slavery. Mississippi’s secession convention put the matter bluntly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institutions of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world….A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.” Vice President Alexander H. Stephens famously agreed, observing that the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man…. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Four brutal years of conflict saw the Confederacy mount a prodigious national defense that killed approximately one-fourth of its white military-age males, ravaged its economy, brought the destruction of slavery, and ended in absolute defeat. Along the way, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia carved a record of accomplishment against the odds that resonated powerfully among fellow citizens and invited praise from subsequent generations of Americans.
Following the trail of evidence relating to the Confederacy often leads to conclusions that upset two very different groups of readers—those who romanticize the Rebel republic and try to distance it from the institution of slavery, and those, mostly from the academic world, who bridle at anything they construe as even mildly positive about the Confederates and their nation. Broadsides aimed at me, many of them quite remarkable in their intensity, have come from both directions. I will start with those from people who jealously protect the Confederacy’s image. Like Lost Cause writers after the war who played down the importance of slavery (for example, Stephens claimed that it had not been the Confederate cornerstone, that the war was between “the principles of Federalism, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other”), they choose to ignore the overwhelming preponderance of evidence from the secession crisis and war years. Shortly after I published The Confederate War in 1997, I received a number of communications deploring my characterization of the Confederacy as a “slaveholding republic.” It was a nation devoted to states’ rights, these critics blustered, and I had willfully twisted history to defame the Confederacy. I can only imagine that these individuals have never read the Confederate Constitution carefully. The pseudo-scholarship seeking to prove that thousands of black men “served” in Confederate armies represents another facet of the effort to get Rebels right on slavery. If there were thousands of black Confederate soldiers (I have seen estimates as high as 100,000), I can only wonder why no one told General Lee. I feel certain he would have requested that some of these men be sent to his army.
Critiques of Nathan Bedford Forrest can also trigger overwrought reactions from Lost Cause devotees. Shelby Foote’s inexplicable statement that “The Wizard of the Saddle” ranks alongside Abraham Lincoln as one of the “two authentic geniuses” of the Civil War cries out for refutation. Forrest established himself as a very good cavalry officer who often operated on the fringes of major campaigns; however, nothing in his career, which contains many unsavory elements, justifies the label “genius.” My comment to this effect on a television call-in program in 2006 brought a cascade of angry calls and e-mails. One of the latter pronounced me a “social Marxist historian” who “deliberately ignored” the truth of history.
The Confederate War also inspired a very different type of criticism. In the book, I argued that many Confederates demonstrated robust devotion to their slave-based republic, developed feelings of national community, and sacrificed more than any other large group of white people in U. S. history. The last of these three is uncontrovertibly true; the other two can be debated, though I, not surprisingly, believe the evidence supports my conclusions. I was careful to distinguish between “Confederates” and “southerners,” the former being white people in the Confederacy who represented a subset of the latter, which included white and black people in the border states and black people in the Confederacy. Upset with my comments about the level of Confederate commitment, some reviewers and other scholars labeled me a “neo-Confederate”—which in academia is a synonym for “racist.” As one put it, my analysis of the “Confederate military and civilian experience veers dangerously close to hagiography of an entire culture.”
My goal in The Confederate War (and in much of my other scholarly work) was to challenge the idea that lack of will, absence of a sense of national community, fractures along lines of race and class and gender, and flawed military strategy doomed the Confederacy. I insisted that the armies led by Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman had much to do with the war’s outcome, and that vanquished Confederates were not confused about this in the spring of 1865. I also observed that Robert E. Lee and his army, through their storied campaigns, inspired people behind Confederate lines until very deep into the war.
These conclusions strike me as obvious for anyone who reads widely in the evidence, assesses relative rates of human and material loss, and compares the Confederate experience to that of other segments of white American society. For some, however, conceding determination and nationalist sentiment to many Confederates is tantamount to endorsing their effort to establish a slaveholding republic. It is a wonderfully perverse reaction that can be summed up this way: “You are what you write about.”
Perhaps the safe play would be to forego additional work on the Confederacy, to shift to a bland topic unlikely to arouse anyone’s ire. I leave that strategy to others. I will continue to explore what remains for me a complex and fascinating field, to encourage my students to do so as well, and to let the interpretive chips fall where they will.