We Cannot Know Their Minds
Confederate soldiers captured at Gettysburg, 1863, by Matthew Brady.
Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has a great post on the near-impossibility of really knowing one’s ancestors, particularly those who died long ago and left no correspondence or journals. His post is, I think, motivated in part by real frustration at the tendency of some folks to build a narrative about their ancestors’ beliefs, attitudes and motivations out of — well, out of nothing but their own desires. This is a particular problem with the Lost Causers. They imagine their ancestors as brave and truthful and honest and patriotic and generous not because they actually were — because in fact we cannot know those things — but because those are the traits their descendants want to see in them. It’s not history; it’s fantasy. Based on my read of his blog, Kevin tends to be a pretty equanimous guy in his discourse, but he (quite rightly) makes a sharp and very direct point here:
This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them. You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter. Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought. You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree. Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.
In my own case, I’ve been doing a little research on my family, with particular focus on identifying Civil War veterans. It’s turned up some surprises. In one case, I found a soldier who enlisted in a Georgia infantry unit in April 1861, and served the entire war in the same regiment — apparently in the same company — all the way from First Manassas to Appomattox. It’s staggering to think about the things he must have seen, the places and events and people that we know only from books and film. I do think — or maybe only hope — that it’s possible to at least to get a sense of what they knew, a sense of what they went through.
But even if that’s possible, it’s only a snapshot of a moment in time. In most cases we cannot know their minds, their fears, or their motivations, because there is no record of those intangible things. The men who marched off to war in 1861 were, like soldiers today, motivated by a whole range of reasons, often multiple reasons at once, and often by reasons that they cannot fully articulate to themselves.
I’m fortunate that I have a large collection of detailed stories about part of my family — though not involving the branch this particular Confederate inhabits — but even these would not really serve the matter, for they’re inevitably filtered though succeeding generations of perceptions, misunderstandings and prejudices. As you say, these often tell us more about those who have carried on the oral tradition than about the original subject.
I really do wish I could talk to that twenty-year-old soldier, a century and a half ago, and ask him why — why was he enlisting? What motivated him? What did he expect would happen? And I wish I could talk to him again, trudging back home from Appomattox — tired, hungry, hardened, and perhaps traumatized by his experiences.
Those are questions I want to ask, and never can. That’s a hard thing, but to my thinking, it’s preferable to creating an alternate fantasy. That’s no way to honor one’s ancestors.
[Cross-posted as a comment over at Civil War Memory]
Later addition, May 16: Robert Moore, writing over at Cenantua’s Blog, had an outstanding post last month on the the Virginia SCV’s response to the Virginia Confederate History Month debacle, to make the point that those who are most vocal in honoring their Confederate ancestors are actually doing their credibility a lot of harm by making false or entirely irrelevant historical claims (Lincoln was a segregationist! Grant owned slaves!), and by broad-brush assumptions about their Confederate ancestors’ beliefs and motivations that, while comforting to their descendants, are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Moore’s writing very neatly expresses my thoughts about my own Confederate ancestors, and how they should be viewed:
As I have pointed out, I don’t believe that all [those men] embraced the Confederacy. They may have worn gray uniforms at different points, but belief in “the Cause” is subject to debate. Of those who went willfully (initially), I suspect that most were likely committed to the thought that they were enlisting to “defend their homes”, to “repel the oncoming invasion”, and maybe even believed that states’ rights were in jeopardy, but I remain quite aware that their motivations and that of many of those in high places in the Confederate government were not always one in the same. This is the line that I draw when looking back at my Confederate ancestors; a line between the motivations of the men (as they understood things) and those of the government.
I admire the valor, courage, and sacrifice of the common Confederate soldier. I respect their decision to do what they thought was right, then. I marvel at the stories of their lives in those four short years.
YET, I know what underlying factors were at play, not with the common soldiers, but in the motivations of the Confederacy. I acknowledge that the Confederate government was a government conceived in the interests of preserving slavery. The Southern states felt their power waning in national government as slavery was not being allowed to expand, but was slowly being limited. I acknowledge that high officials took initiative into their own hands, without regard for the common Southerner’s voice.