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History Teaches Us to Hope: Reflections on the Civil War and Southern History

by Charles P. Roland, edited by John David Smith, University of Kentucky Press, 2007, 353 pages, $45.

Find yourself a quiet hour somewhere between the dark and day- light. Settle back; a wicker lounge chair on your porch, bolstered with feather pillows, will do nicely. Then, with only the hum of crickets and the occasional murmur of a mourning dove for company—and a soothing beverage at hand (maybe a glass of single-barrel bourbon, neat)—open History Teaches Us to Hope and let Charles P. Roland take you away to another time and place, strikingly different yet eerily similar to the one in which we now live.

Read slowly, aloud even. Surrender to the clarity of the arguments and listen to the surety of language used to make them. You are in the company of a master storyteller. And what better compliment to pay a historian?

The 18 essays collected by editor John David Smith serve as a window into the fertile intellect of one of America’s elite historians of the Civil War and the South. I would wager that elite is not how this 89-year-old son of western Tennessee would characterize himself, but even a cursory review of his intellectual bloodlines makes any other word seem inadequate. Undergraduate years at Vanderbilt University in the late 1930s were followed by three years as a captain in the 99th Infantry, the outfit that held Losheim Gap against the Sixth Panzer Army during the Battle of the Bulge in the frigid winter of 1944, then crossed the Rhine River at Remagen in March 1945. After serving as a provost guard during the 1947 Nuremburg trials, graduate studies at Louisiana State University—even with the legendary Bell Irvin Wiley, Francis Butler Simkins and T. Harry Williams for teachers— must have seemed tame. Roland has since divided his academic career between Tulane University and the University of Kentucky, where he is Alumni Professor Emeritus of History.

The essays are divided into four sections. The first three are autobiographical and include “A Citizen Soldier Recalls World War II,” a soulful reverie of men under fire. Roland has always maintained that his own experience in uniform helped him empathize with volunteer soldiers of any era.

The next five survey the coming of the Civil War. Roland insists that slavery was only one of many causes of America’s irrepressible conflict. The epistolary “A Southerner’s Defense of Slavery” allows him to attribute many arguments used to defend the “peculiar institution” by a fictitious Louisiana plantation owner representative of his class to a former college friend living in the North (see Nov/Dec 2007 CWT).

The five essays on Confederate military leadership are superb, particularly the three on Robert E. Lee. As Roland puts it: “Robert E. Lee is America’s great tragic hero, in the classical use of the expression. He was a supremely gifted soldier and a fervently devoted patriot, yet he fought for the most unacceptable of American causes, secession and slavery, and he suffered the most un-American of experiences, defeat.”

You might not agree with all of Roland’s conclusions, but he wouldn’t expect that you should. What he would expect is that you analyze the data and arguments in an orderly manner and arrive at your own understanding of these complex issues and events. It’s the time-honored method for expanding the universe of knowledge and deepening the paths of understanding that Roland learned from his mentors.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here