Tag Archives: Virginia

The Myth of American History

Guest Post

Today’s “Myth of American History” is written by Bo Traywick who is the author of Empire of the Owls and Virginia Iliad. As a guest contributor, Mr. Traywick’s opinions and claims must be taken as his own and not necessarily mine. — Phil Leigh

“History is the propaganda of the victorious” – Voltaire

Is the past that is reconstructed by historians a revival or a “new show”?

Paul A. Cohen asks this question in his History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth. He answers that the history created by historians is fundamentally different from the history made by the people of the times. The professional historian’s objective is to understand the past and then explain it as “event”, whereas those who made the history explain it as “experience”. The historian tries to look at the past objectively, whereas the people who made the history tend to look at it subjectively, and in a fashion that is psychologically tolerable to themselves. If such subjectivity becomes validated by communal consensus, then myths can be created in place of intellectual truth. “Myth” is the third way of looking at history.

Can an objective historian be a purveyor of myth? However committed he may be to the objective truth, he remains a product of his own culture, and he is subjected in varying degrees to its cultural imperatives, its “world view”. How much cultural subjectivity goes into a historian’s selection of historical matter to be examined or theses to be argued? How much pressure are professional historians under to be admitted to a course of study, to hold tenure, to gain grants, and to stay in good professional and financial graces with the powers that dispense these things?

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It should come as no surprise to find that the most powerful nation in history has at its disposal the most powerful, extensive, subtle and effective means for disseminating its own version of history. From the history books used in government-accredited schools and colleges with their facts given or omitted, to television “docu-dramas”, Hollywood romantics, National Park Service presentations, and the politically correct sensationalism of the media, America has just as much incentive to tell its own story as “creatively” as anyone, and it has its own stable of government-accredited “Court Historians” with PhDs groomed to tell it – and, when necessary, to shout down, deride, or debunk with voluminous obfuscation anyone who disagrees with it.

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Phil Leigh’s Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

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The North’s war against the South’s secession is a glaring example. The story trumpeted from the heights is that the war was all about slavery, that the North fought to free the slaves and the South fought to keep them. End of story. Any questions?

Well, yes. Something doesn’t compute, here. If the North was waging a war against slavery, why didn’t she wage war on New York and Boston, the two largest African slave-trading ports in the world, and trading with Brazil and Cuba at the time of Lincoln’s election? Or on New England cotton mills and their profits from slave-picked cotton? Or on Northern iron foundries that forged the shackles and chains? Or on New England rum distilleries that made rum from slave-harvested sugar cane to use for barter on the African coast? Or on New England shipyards that built the slave ships? Or on the African slave-catchers, such as the Kingdom of Dahomey, the largest exporters of African slaves in the world for hundreds of years? And why did Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation say that slavery was alright as long as one was loyal to his government? 
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Falsely Demonizing Lee

While listening to a radio interview about the future of Robert E. Lee’s Charlottesville, Virginia statue I learned just how far some historians go to demonize Lee. While the critic conceded that Lee’s statue should not be torn down he argued that it should be updated with qualifying signage to reveal the general’s underlying racism. He claimed that Lee was “livid” when the general learned of the Emancipation Proclamation and referenced a January 1863 letter as evidence. After investigating I discovered that the applicable letter was one Lee wrote on January 10, 1863, which was nine days after the second version of the Proclamation. (Keep in mind the term: “Second Version.”) The letter made a single reference to the “degradation” that would result if his army were not reinforced.

The problem with the historian’s claim is summed up by Mark Twain’s humor: “Most things did not happen when they were supposed to and some never happened at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” Lee’s critic basically invented something that never happened.

W&L Stamp

Lee’s cited letter to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon was a plea for more civilian troop recruitment in order to avoid the “degradation” of defeat. One Fredericksburg battlefield historian speculated in 2011 that the “degradation” mentioned in the letter referred to the emancipation of slaves. The usual suspects jumped on his bandwagon. Nonetheless, there are several problems with the interpretation.

First, the January 10, 1863 letter to Seddon does not mention the Emancipation Proclamation. It does not even mention slaves or African-Americans.

Second, on the same day Lee wrote Seddon another message complaining of “the atrocious orders of Federal General Milroy” who had occupied Winchester, Virginia nine days earlier. A 2003 study of Civil War Winchester by Jonathan Noyalas explains Lee’s anger:

Milroy fought a war not only against Confederate troops but against the Confederate population as well. He firmly believed that only an Old-Testament style scourge of the land could rid this country of slavery and restore the Union. Milroy’s strong convictions moved him to inflict his will on the Winchester population. Exiles, arrests of civilians (women and children included) secret detectives and widespread destruction of property were the norm under Milroy’s occupation.

Third, the original nineteenth century compilers of the Official Records of the Civil War specifically notated that the “degradation” referred to was Lee’s expression of the consequences of failure to defeat opponents like Milroy. They concluded that the two letters in the first and second points noted above were directly connected.

Fourth, if Lee were to be reflexively angered over the Emancipation Proclamation it would not likely have been in January 1863. It would have happened three months earlier in September 1862 when the surprising preliminary version was first announced. The January ’63 version was mostly an official follow-up.

A delayed response by Lee would have been comparable to a Hillary, or a Donald, supporter getting enraged when the opposing candidate is inaugurated in January 2017. It’s more likely that the anger would surface in November 2016 when the election results first become known.

In the instance of the Emancipation Proclamation the case for an earlier expression of anger by Lee—if there ever was one—is even stronger. Many people, including Union Major General George McClellan, felt that the September ’62 version was a deliberate attempt to incite a slave rebellion in the South. In contrast, the January ’63 version had a more moderate tone because it urged the people thereby made free “to abstain from violence except in necessary self-defence.” Such advice was missing from the September ‘62 version.

It is pointless scholarship to replace one myth with another, but it might be a political agenda.

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My Civil War Books

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

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