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Two Virginias Two Civil Wars

By Harold Holzer
1/26/2011 • Civil War

Two Virginias, two Civil Wars?
The state in the forefront of war remembrance still argues over what happened

The state of Virginia has been back in the news, again at war with itself and again over issues relating to the Civil War. On the one hand, the state’s diverse Sesquicentennial Commission masterfully organized its annual conference—a frank, eye-opening symposium at Norfolk State University titled “Race, Slavery and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History.”

On the other, a new textbook for the state’s fourth graders ignited a firestorm because it included a passage asserting that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy—a doubtful claim often advanced as evidence that slavery was not the cause of the war. That these two events could have occurred at nearly the same time in the same place suggests yet again that the fight over historical memory is far from over, especially in the bellwether state where more Civil War battles occurred than in any other—and apparently still do (Governor Bob McDonnell, remember, failed to mention slavery at all when he issued his official Civil War proclamation).

The Norfolk symposium, attended by nearly 900 people—and by way of disclosure, let me note that I delivered a 10-minute presentation on the image of Lincoln as an emancipator—handled tough stuff indeed: the little-known underground railroad that existed along the waterways of coastal cities like Nor­folk, the savage cruelties of slavery and the ever-relevant inspiration of brave voices like Frederick Douglass. Historian James O. Horton ably moderated the program, and the presenters included Yale University’s David Blight, author of the classic Race and Reunion, and Jean Fagin Yellin, who gave a harrowing ac­count of Harriet Jacobs, a slave who exiled herself in a tiny crawl space hideaway for years rather than submit to sexual violence from her owner. No one who attended the event will soon forget these and other riveting presentations, or the discussion they stimulated. Forth­coming conferences at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia promise to be equally important, and each will be preserved as books.

But the book that dominated the news, thanks to reporting by Kevin Sieff of the Washington Post was Our Virginia: Past and Present by one Joy Masoff, which featured the absurd claim: “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Con­federate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” The author admitted that she researched the subject of black Con­federates on so-called Confederate heritage Web sites. Experts hired to vet her text raised no objections.

Historian Carol Sheriff, who blew the whistle on the incendiary sentence, branded it “an unfounded claim,” adding that it concerned her “not just as a professional historian but as a parent.” Civil War scholar James McPherson pointed out that “These Confederate heritage groups have been making this claim for years as a way of purging their cause of its association with slavery.” Even University of Virginia historian Ervin Jordan, who contends that some African Americans did fight in Confederate ranks, admitted that Masoff exaggerated the numbers, adding, “the claim about Jackson is totally false.” Virginia school officials said they would ask their teachers not to teach the controversial sentence—probably the surest way to get kids to read and believe it.

How could these two Virginias—these two versions of reality—continue to co-exist, often unnoticed, in the parallel universes of Civil War memory? So much in our society has changed since the whitewashed 100th anniversary of the rebellion that we all but take it for granted that history will henceforth be politically, as well as factually, correct.

One explanation may be that the greatest information resource human ingenuity has ever created now also ranks as the most potentially dangerous: the World Wide Web. Writers who substitute URLs for more in-depth research, offering baseless claims as “history” because they found them online, are but the tip of the deadliest iceberg since the one that sank Titanic. Scary as it is when professionals forego genuine research, think of all the students and aficionados who may now believe that a blog or a Wikipedia entry are just as dependable as, say, a Pulitzer Prize–winning text by McPherson. Until writers and readers alike do as good a job as Wall Street did to burst the tech bubble—until we make clear that all Web sites are not created equal—we will face crisis after crisis during the sesquicentennial, and not just in Virginia.

No doubt we will soon be hearing “authoritatively” about 5-year-old recruits dying in battle, battalions of female soldiers cross-dressing in order to enlist, and rampant “don’t ask-don’t tell” within the Irish Brigade. Finding facts is more time-consuming, and more challenging, than Googling. But while the Web can lead us to history, it can’t substitute for it—and heaven help us if it begins to define it.

History, as they argued in Norfolk, is complicated. It requires not only passion, but the ability to separate archives from mythology, fact from advocacy.

No one—certainly not this writer—has all of the answers all of the time. Governor McDonnell, it should be noted, was brave enough to appear at the Norfolk slavery symposium and reverse himself, apologizing for the clumsy proclamation that got his state’s Civil War commemoration off to such a bad start. Of course, he said, slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And yet my friend Henry Louis Gates Jr.—the country’s most prominent scholar of African-American history—happens to believe to some degree in what Joy Masoff so casually transferred from Web site to textbook: that some substantial numbers of African Americans indeed fought, and not just when their white owners forced them to accompany them on campaign.

Worth discussing and debating? Absolutely. But as adults, in settings like the Norfolk symposium. Not in elementary school classrooms, where innocents are in genuine danger of being “educated” by the chaff contaminating the Web, and, if we’re not careful, poisoning forever our ability to separate fact from fiction.

Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

6 Responses to Two Virginias Two Civil Wars

  1. Bill Smith says:

    You know, we just had this discussion over on two other branches of this website. Under the ‘Irreconcilable Differences’ article, a well reasoned approach was presented, and I would applaud and recommend the article. Another branch, ‘Secession – Revisionism or Reality’ gives a simple-minded view that slavery is the sole cause of the Civil War. Mr. Holzer even goes so far as to brand those who disagree with that view (continuing with the simple-minded, name-calling approach, I suppose) as promulgating myth, and standing in support of racism and against our president and Civil Rights.
    I agree and applaud Mr. Welborn’s input to the latter mentioned article, that the Civil War was fought for many reasons: to limit the root cause of the war to slavery or state’s rights is indeed a dangerous simplification of that conflict. President Lincoln made it quite clear that the north did not begin the fight (at least) with the desire to abolish slavery; it was to “Preserve the Union”. Without doubt, the south fought primarily (but NOT exclusively) to support the ‘peculiar institution’ against Northern aggression. The North, however, started the war with the stated intent to NOT fight on the slavery issue! As the war progressed, President Lincoln recognized the need to call a spade a spade and add slavery to the list of things the Union was fighting for – but to simplistically say that slavery was the reason for the fight is just as misleading as believing everything Google tells you.
    Yes, many in the South fought to preserve slavery – especially if it meant protecting their homes from what they feared would be bands of freed slaves invading them (most did not own slaves themselves). Many also fought ‘for slavery’ in the sense that they believed it was necessary for their livelihood. In the North, while abolition blood was ‘up’, and many indeed fought to free the slaves (54th Massachusetts comes to mind), most fought to do exactly what their President called them to do, “Preserve the Union” — many fought because they were drafted. While there are primary causes of the war – slavery and state’s rights certainly being at the top of the list – it is simplistic, Google-like naiveté to see a single one or two causes that lead to the conflict.

  2. Joseph says:

    And what were those many other reasons? All the so called ‘many other reasons’ would not have led to secession and civil war – contentions, riots, duels, serious filibusters in the Senate… probably, but not civil war. The only naive ones are those who would give credence to the ‘many other reasons’ as part of the causes for the Civil War.

    An egregious racial philosophy mixed with a peculiar theology; slavery; the state’s claimed right to maintain slavery, an arrested southern culture enslaved to a proslavery economy; and a growing national conscience to end slavery forever; these are the ONLY causes that led to secession and civil war in 1860. All other reasons are a moot point.

    The soldier’s reasons for fighting – on either side – is a matter of personal conscience, and they are to be respected for it. But the soldier’s reasons for fighting are not in the same category with the causes which led up to the Civil War.

    The North did not fight on the ‘slavery issue,’ the South did. They fought to preserve it. Lincoln merely called up reserves to protect the capital and recover stolen federal property from secessionist activism, not to force the slavery issue. The South decried his actions as a declaration of war and it escalated from there.

    The emancipation proclamation of 1862 was clearly a very smart political and military move. Lincoln did not wage war against slavery, the way the South waged the war to preserve it. But it does not mean that Abraham Lincoln would not have done all he could, after the civil war, in a meaningful legislative way, to end the infamous institution of slavery forever. His speeches and addresses say he most certainly would have done so.

    • Joseph says:

      Comment # 2 was meant as a response to comment #1, not the article.

      Concerning the article: This syndrome of dual views on important historical events has been plaguing mankind from the beginning. Usually, as your article states, it is caused by those who are sensitive to the accuracy of the facts, as they attempt to skew, white wash, or camouflage those events. Without a doubt this maneuvering occurs across the board, so it is up to knowledgeable professionals and action groups to referee the opposing dual viewpoints, thereby clearing away the exaggerations and fabrications.

      Thank you for the effort expended in ‘Two Virginias Two Civil Wars.’ And for also shining the light on yet another attempt by confederate heritage groups to revise history.

    • Bill Smith says:

      Ya know, bluntly, I have never objected – and never will object – to the concept that slavery was the primary cause of the civil war. What I find offensive (and honestly a bit mystifying) is the insistence that there is apparently no other possibly existent reason for why the war was fought! For some reason, anyone who would offer any alternate reason why the war was fought is cast as a dangerous, self deluded (or worse, deliberately misled) racist who secretly still supports the southern ‘peculiar institution’ somehow… How in the world is it possible that those who argue for more data to be presented and more positions to be considered are accused of cover-up and white-wash?!?!??? Is it not those who insist that only their understanding is somehow the exclusively correct and only plausible hypothesis? Is it not white-wash to deride an opposing view – especially when historical facts are presented in support of that position? For cryin’ out loud – get down off yer skittish high-horse!
      Yes, the Civil War was fought because the south seceded. Yes, the south seceded primarily (and please note, I’m saying primarily, NOT exclusively!!!!!!!) because they wanted to keep their slaves. Now, you want more reasons? If you’re willing to let the discussion progress beyond the 5th grade level of understanding for the whole thing, and will be gracious enough not to accuse me of racism, white-washing, naiveté, or (heaven help-us) TEA partying…, I’ll be happy to suggest a few:
      1) The south felt that keeping slaves was necessary to their economic stability and growth. 2) The south felt that freeing the slaves would be dangerous to the whites who lived in the south. 3) The south fought because they believed there should be less power in the federal government and more power with the states. 4) The south fought because they were invaded. 5) The south fought to protect their homes and families. 6) The south fought because they felt what they were doing in their homes was frankly none of the Yankee’s business. 7) The south fought because some believed it was in the best interest of their slaves to be ‘protected’. 8) The south fought because of what they saw as unfair tariffs on goods they wanted to purchase from Europe — and many more!
      Are all these reasons ‘valid’? Maybe yes, maybe no, but they ARE the reasons many men, and their leaders, gave! Some (hopefully most) reasons were given honestly as they understood them; no doubt some were self-delusional or even worse. BUT THEY WERE THE REASONS THEY FOUGHT – none-the-less.
      Bottom line is this. You can’t fight a war without those who are willing to take up arms to fight it. In my mind that is at least on an equal footing with the reasons the leaders give for a conflict (or the reasons some self-righteous ‘historians’ try to shove on their memories). Each soldier had their own particular reasons for carrying a gun and shooting at someone else – and I’ve got news for you, IT WASN’T JUST SLAVERY!!!!!! There were over 3 ½ million men who fought – and there were at least that many reasons the civil war WAS fought! Do I know them all? Of course not!!!! Neither do you! Many of the known reasons men fought for the civil war died with those who fought – both on the battle field and with the rest of that generation as it passed away.
      Just to make my own motives crystal clear, I’m a Yankee to the core – the only relatives I have who fought, fought for the north. I hate slavery – and have been blest to not only abhor racism, but to have been raised in a family where my parents vociferously found it repugnant as well.
      It is dangerous, indeed flat out wrong, when folks naively parrot stuff like Joy Masoff. It is wrong, in fact morally repugnant to suggest that slaves were somehow better off when they were enslaved. Yes, the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. To respond to such dangerous naiveté as Ms. Masoff presents with sanctimonious single-issue blinders, however, smacks of nearly equal error. Let’s not go that dangerous route. Perhaps those who are paranoid of white-washing by their opponents should check what color paint is on their own brush?

      • Patrick says:


        This post was made before you and I exchanged, and resolved, our differing points of view. It was deliberately intended to be polemical and stirring so as to get a conversation going, which conversation already took place. Peace.


      • Bill Smith says:


        Thanks for your kind reply – gotta confess that mine was not so kind. Peace is indeed accepted!


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