Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: "Ghosts of the Confederacy"

OK, now we're getting into some seriously dense academia with this effort from LSU professor Gaines Foster. There is a broad selection of texts written for the ACW-interested public, and this effort falls on the more rigorously academic side. This is not a problem, unless you're looking for the readability of a McPherson or Ambrose, because the data is wonderfully presented, just lacking in color.
"Ghosts of the Confederacy" is a study of how the post-Confederacy South and the Southern memory of the Civil War took shape in the period directly after the end of the war through 1913. We are walked meticulously through the adaptation of the South to the evolution of its society and economy in post-bellum America and the formation of soldier's groups, advocacy organizations, and memorialization movements, first in Virginia, then throughout the entire south.
This is a story of a beaten people trying to find some redemption in the dregs of defeat through the growth of the Lost Cause movement, all the while chasing and intercalating the culture of the victors in the birth and nascency of the New South. Foster shows us how the two moved in lock-step with each other; for every step southerners made in moving forward, be it politically, socially, economically, there was a proponent of the Lost Cause ready to denigrate them for the purpose of elevating Confederate memory.
There was real muscle behind this movement, as Foster meticulously demonstrates the growth of Virginia-based movements such as the Southern Historical Society and Association of the Army of Northern Virginia. He is not shy about showing how they were unable to mobilize the entire South and then moves to groups such as Lee Camp and United Confederate Veterans. These were the groups that brought in much more attention and money as the 19th century drew to a close; Foster shows clearly the political maneuvering that made this possible and how these groups pushed the memorialization movement further, including the erecting of monuments to Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis.
Foster's real strong suit comes in his ability to illustrate the reconciliation between North and South. This detente was instrumental in the cementing of the South's conception of the Confederacy in wartime and in the Lost Cause. This is an amazing story that deserves much more robust treatment than I will give here, but the idea that the two sides came together as quickly and peacefully as they did is quite remarkable. From Joshua Chamberlain and his troops saluting the defeated Confederates at Appomattox to the return of captured Confederate battle flags to the South, gradually the New South moved towards the validation it wanted: the public concession by the North of the honor and nobility of the Confederate's fight. This would finally be cemented, but it would take another war to do so.
Foster's strongest chapter and best argument comes in his analysis of the Spanish-American War and it's effect on reconciliation. When President McKinley moved the nation towards war in 1898, the powerful leadership of groups like the United Confederate Veterans called upon the South to join the fight. Southerners joined Northerners in the blue uniform of the national army and marched off to war and "the obliteration of all sectional distrusts" together. Foster even posits that this joining together of North and South was one of McKinley's war aims. Apocryphal or not, this is exactly what happened.
"The Spanish-American War, in sum, allowed southerners to affirm their loyalty to the union and, of equal importance, to demonstrate their courage and that of the Confederate soldier."
With this approval, the ideas of a war fought over Constitutional issues and states rights instead of slavery, and suppression of opinions that did not glorify the Confederate soldier and leadership became the standard throughout the now truly United States.
I would have liked Foster to take this discussion a bit further and investigate the effect of the next major war the United States fought in; World War I. It remains unclear if sectionalism was even on the table when America entered the war in 1916, and Foster does not explore past 1913. Perhaps an opportunity missed.
Another hole in Foster's narrative is that he does not address the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction period, and I believe this to be a mistake. This was a tangible, albeit small, reaction in the South to the defeat of the Confederacy and certainly had a larger role in decades to follow. Some discussion of the birth and development of this group as well as it's role in the suppression of opinions and even an entire race unsavory to the New South would have been in order.
The book is completed with a final chapter that begins to explore the challenge that historians faced (and continue to face) in collecting and recording an accurate history of the Civil War. The field of history. At the turn of the 20th century, the professionalization of history was in full swing, as scholars trained in the North and overseas and skilled in the rigorous application of primary versus secondary sources and using a balanced view on an issue turned their attention to the Civil War.
One can easily imagine how this approach would clash with the approach taken in the South (recall our previous discussion of the Southern Historical Society Papers) and Foster just begins to scratch the surface of this collision. He posits, and I tend to agree, that the losers of this battle in the South and really throughout the nation as a whole at the turn of the century, were the professional historians. It was the histories presented by the Southern Historical Society, United Confederate Veterans, and Daughters of Confederate Veterans that would hold sway in the general public, and launch the southern conception of the war and the Lost Cause into the national consciousness.
This is a provocative argument, and certainly one that merits an in-depth study; sort of a history of Civil War history, if you will. I tell you what, if I was a grad student now, I would try to crank out exactly that dissertation in time for the 150th anniversary of the start of the war, because that's the time that people's attention will turn back to the Civil War and it's memory.
Overall, I have a few issues with this book, but Foster certainly reaches the goal set out in the title. There are some real nuggets of genius in here, as well as some juicy starting points for further analysis. For those reasons alone, definitely an important read.


Anonymous said...

I came across your post on Foster's _Ghosts of the Confederacy_ and wanted to pass on a link to my blog, Civil War Memory, which I suspect you might find interesting.


Matthew Smith said...

crap...and I still read comic books!