(February 27, 2018) When a new Civil War history book is published that does not conform to currently dominant interpretations of the era, most modern academics and their students seek a reason to condemn it. One popular ploy is dismiss it for containing too many secondary sources.
But if the facts cited by such sources are valid the merit of the book should be judged on the value of its analysis, and not the nature of the citations. Facts, after all, are facts. Unfortunately, today’s typical historians will concede the point only when the applicable book upholds their anti-Southern interpretations.
One example is Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, which was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1991. Nolan’s purpose was to deflate Lee’s long-standing reputation, especially as the best general of the Civil War. It is one of two books over the past forty years that has, in fact, triggered a decline of Lee’s reputation among today’s dominant historians. Yet its sources are overwhelmingly secondary ones.
Nonetheless, Nolan’s reliance on such sources fails to prevent academics from praising Lee Considered. One example is Drew Gilpin Faust. She is currently the President of Harvard University but was a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania when she reviewed the book for the New York Times in 1991.
She wrote, “Lee Considered calls for a wholesale revision in our national image of Robert E. Lee.” Even though admitting that the book contains “no new facts” she praises Nolan’s criticisms of Lee as “persuasive.” One such critique is that Lee’s “offensive military patterns . . . caused a defeat that was far from inevitable, while his military persistence in the face of certain defeat . . . [was] . . . murderous folly rather than heroism.” She also supports Nolan’s belief that “Lee’s supposed magnanimity toward the enemy, and his long-admired role as postwar conciliator . . . is unsubstantiated.”
Faust next segues to an endorsement of Pious Cause Mythology* by explaining that Nolan’s larger purpose transcends the “century-old fascination with Lee.”
The Lee tradition constitutes the parable of the war. Just as we have distorted the figure of Lee, so we have remembered the Civil War not as history but as legend. The trauma and pain connected with the experience led Americans to convert the tragedy into a Victorian melodrama, a mawkish romance. The representation of a Christlike Lee . . . provided a myth around which Americans could unite. This in turn . . . led Americans to embrace a racist view of the war . . . and “deprived . . . the nation . . . of any high purpose for the war.”
So long as we as a nation insist on explaining away the Civil War by reassuring ourselves that both sides were right, we cannot overcome the legacy of slavery.
Even though Nolan’s book is based chiefly on secondary sources, Ms. Faust could hardly have provided a more ringing endorsement.
*Pious Cause Mythology is the myth that Northerners chose to fight the Civil War to end slavery. That they had no economic motives. That the South is kind of an evil twin to the North that is responsible for American racism and the slow adoption of progressive policies.