Remembering the Past

In his article, “‘For Something beyond the Battlefield’: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the memory of the Civil War,” David Blight describes Frederick Douglass’s efforts to promote equality for African Americans through remembrance of the Civil War. Douglass felt that remembering the war and the war’s true meaning (the abolishment of slavery in his eyes) would help end white racism. As Blight points out, the South achieved greater remembrance of the war and romanticized its heroes. Growing up in the South, I can attest to this type of thinking. Throughout Virginia, public schools are named after Confederate generals (Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, etc.) and many of these generals are revered for their service to their great state. This thinking completely counters the beliefs of Douglass and Albion Tourgee. Both figures do not believe the South fought an honest battle, and therefore, does not deserve unification with the heroic North. During the period, their thinking was colored with emotion. I cannot argue with the emotional scars of being a former slave and the resentment carried by these former slaves for the South. I can, however, say that Douglass’s and Tourgee’s assertions are sweeping generalizations. Not all Confederates were fighting to maintain the institution of slavery. Robert E. Lee, for example, fought for his state’s rights (I don’t think he owned slaves) against his personal desire for the country to remain intact. Although Lincoln asked Lee to fight for his nation, Lee chose to fight for Virginia. Douglass neglects to remember the honor in fighting against your own personal beliefs because of your loyalty. Furthermore, Douglass’s hatred for Lee is seemingly unwarranted.  Lee was not “the soldier who kills the most men in battle,” that Douglass painted him to be. Instead, Lee was a gentleman who surrendered his troops before a planned insurrection occurred in the North. The South was radical, but Lee is remembered so fondly for a reason. Following the war, he supported reconstruction and became president of Washington & Lee University (formerly Washington College until Lee served as president).

Benny (not Johnny) Hartshorn makes a pretty good point about contextualizing Douglass’s arguments. I, too, believe that Douglass felt his actions were going to be remembered, and this belief probably shaped his writing. He wanted to be remembered as the man who fought for African American equality and was unforgiving of the South so other African Americans might follow in his footsteps. Concurring with Ben, Douglass was more concerned with the lasting effects of the war as opposed to the actual battles. He failed, however. Often, the Civil War is portrayed as the war against brothers and often divided families. I think since slaves were emancipated (due to a military strategy, not moral beliefs) in 1863 instead of at the start of the war, takes a backseat to the dividing aspect of the war.

Douglass's Warped Views

Fredrick Douglas has always been a character that I have admired for his intellectual ability but after the reading for today I am not so sure if I feel the exact same way about him.  Max points out in his work the general hypocrisy of Douglass through “his strong support of the Republican party which often abandoned black and while attacking individualistic northerners who wished to forget was issues while preaching self reliance to African Americans.” (MARIEHEMANN).  Now Douglass is a man who certainly built his own success out of the terrible lot life had given him.  Douglass taught himself to read and write while working as a slave and would use these tool to aid the black community.  I can understand why he would feel Reconstruction of the South would be unnecessary as he is an example of what someone can make out of themselves with little to no help.  This of course leads me to one of my favorite debates I have had in a Davidson class, “what was the war fought over?”  Douglass like most Americans believe that the war primarily was about slavery, I believe that the Civil War is falls somewhere in between the greatest game of chicken (regarding a group of people threatening something, in this case the South seceding) and a general over appreciation for someone’s role in a society (I believe the South thought that the North would be crippled without the raw goods and crops they provided).  Now Douglass is not wrong  thinking the war is about slavery, remember most people would see that as the biggest issue, but is certainly wrong to state as Henry put it “those who shape historical interpretations of the Civil War should be the ones to shape the fate of African-Americans in the post-war period.”

I get that Douglass was upset that this idea of Reconstruction was put into play right away, but what did he expect would happen? Was the South to suffer forever because they had an ideological difference that many considered “bad?”  It is this that makes me question Douglass for his hypocrisy.  Douglass is proof that there is more to meet the eye as his life challenges every claim that blacks were second class citizens due to their inferior intellectual nature.  It is now his turn to let members of the South prove that they can function in a society that does not treat blacks poorly.

A point that many of my classmates have made a comment on his an idea AJ brings up in his blog regarding Douglass being less credible because he did not participate in the war as a soldier.  To that comment I look towards a character like Ben Franklin.  To my knowledge he was not a soldier in the American Revolution, yet some of his views and rhetoric on the revolution are the most popular writings from that time period.   Douglass could have been held in the same light as Franklin but due to his simply “wrong” views regarding reconstruction and who should dictate the way we view the war to an extent wallows a state of irrelevancy because his work simply doesn’t appeal to the right audience.

Shaping History

I found Frederick Douglass’s idea that the postwar era may be defined and controlled by whichever side could best shape interpretations of the war to be very compelling.  He understood that it is almost more important to control how the story is told than the story itself.  Douglass’s argument that the people could not lose memory of the real issues and purposes of the fight rings true when thinking about many other historical situations.

Christopher Columbus is usually portrayed as the explorer who heroically though the Earth was round and discovered America.  After doing more research into Columbus and his expeditions though, one finds that he had many flaws (such as the ruthless way he treated the Natives that he encountered once in America).  This example goes well with Frederick Douglass’s point because the narrative of the war could very easily have been shifted if the South were allowed to tell the story by alone (like one of my roommate’s insistence on calling it “the war of Northern aggression”).

Douglass’s understanding of the idea that, “people and nations are shaped and defined by history,” is very advanced.  I only know of a few men in history that have been as aware of this idea (Thomas Jefferson comes to mind because of his prolific writing and record keeping).  Furthermore, I think that Douglass took it upon himself to make sure history remembered him so that he could tell the tale of slavery and freedom from the perspective of his people.  Last semester, I read one of his autobiographies in an American History class; so obviously his ideas have been passed down just like he was hoping for.

I think that it is crucial when talking about Douglass and his opinions to keep them in context.  This was, obviously, a time before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.  Douglass, a former slave, was in the unique position to really talk to all African-Americans through his speeches and testimonies.  Douglass understood that what he said was going to be read about by the rest of the country because of the man he had become.  With this power, Douglass took it upon himself to continue the crusade for his people.  He felt the best way to do this was to make sure that the Civil War was remembered for its causes and results.  Anthony John Pignone (Olney, Maryland) makes a different argument.  He contends that Douglass’s view on the war may be skewed because he did not fight in the war.  While I think this is a valid concern, I believe that Frederick Douglass was not trying to discount the perils and bravery of the actual fighting, he was merely trying to protect the legacy of emancipation and the future of his people.  I understand what AJ is saying, but I think that Douglass was more focused on how future generations would remember the war than the war experience itself.

Coping with Slaughter: Ars Moriendi and the "Good Death"

War and dying were not new to American society in 1861. In fact, they were an inseparable part of the early American psyche from its colonization, to its Revolution, to its ruthless settlement of the West. However, it had never witnessed the carnage of war on such a grand scale before the bloody campaigns of Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam in the early phases of the Civil War. Earlier today, Henry pointed out that, after the war, Frederick Douglas tried to reignite the passions and principles of the Civil War in an effort to halt Jim Crow and “remember (it) as a moral struggle between Northern abolition…and Southern slavery”. However, historian Drew G. Faust notes how the damage done by the war so numbed the populaces of both sides that it became “the common ground on which North and South would ultimately reunite” (5).  Faust argues that the destruction caused by the war and the desire of soldiers to die a “Good Death” largely tamed the political zeal and “secular language” that had triggered the war itself (37).

For much of her article “The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying”, Faust utilizes the last written correspondence of dying soldiers, the testaments by witnesses to fatally-wounded soldiers, and the condolence letters written by both friends and strangers to the families of those killed in action as primary sources. She argues that Civil War death became an “art”, following the tradition of the Ars Moriendi, offering a unique blend of patriotism and Christian sacrifice. Regardless of nationality or religion, wounded soldiers wished to die a “Good Death”, should it come to them (8). This kind of death required resilience in the face of fate that offered a sort of declaration of faith in God and love for family. “Bad Deaths” were those who were killed immediately in action, were denied a last testament on their deathbeds, or died “impertinent or unpardoned sinners”(29). It interests me that very few of the final testaments express passion for the fighting cause or hope for the war; most emphasize religious zeal over politics. Here, Faust argues that years of combat drained much of the political passion present on both sides amongst common soldiers, with spiritual concerns taking their place.

However, the lack of secular language brings me to some criticisms of Faust’s work. There are very little politics amongst Faust’s sources, but there is a total absence of race, ethnicity, or any sense of identity to differentiate between her subjects of interest. I have doubts that all soldiers had a homogenous view on what constituted “dying well” as a soldier. For example, African American soldiers in the war surely had different reasons to fight and die in the war than the typical regiments, but Faust ignores them as a group entirely. The same goes for immigrants fighting on both sides. Did they share the same principles and belief systems as all their comrades? What about non-slaveholding whites fighting for the South? The list goes on. While Faust makes an interesting argument that political rhetoric played little role in final testaments of dying soldiers, it seems as though patriotism, principles, and sacrifice for a higher cause were very prevalent on the minds of those who fought in the Civil War, even if many of them did not survive its entirety.

Competing Memories

A few things jumped out at me after reading David Blight’s account of Fredrick Douglas and the competing historical memories of Civil War. Particularly, I wondered why the Lost Cause narrative became so much more prevalent in in American society than a memory of the Civil War that praised emancipation. There is certainly the possibility that the reintegration was judged to be more valuable than celebrating it as the emancipation of former slaves, but I wonder if part of the reason stemmed from the tactics used some of the early leaders of the emancipation narrative such as Fredrick Douglas. For instance Douglas’s comment, “may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I forget the difference between the parties to that … bloody conflict … I may say if this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember” (Blight 1160). When read in conjunction with Faust work, The Civil War Soldier and the Art of Dying, which highlighted the traumatic nature of the conflict and how that trauma extended far beyond limits of the battlefield, Douglas’ decision to remember the war through its horrors and the bloody nature could have lessened his position’s appeal in the American public. As AJ pointed out, Douglas’ failure to participate in the war may have hurt his credibility and I think it goes farther than that. His distance from the conflict may have blinded him to the reality of this trauma not only in the returning soldiers but people throughout American society.

Douglass' Predicament

Frederick Douglass is often portrayed in a positive manner to the general public in historical thought, as he experienced slavery first hand and after he found freedom he became an ardent activist for abolition and African American rights.  He wrote extensively about his opinions and himself, as David W. Blight demonstrated he wrote at least three autobiographies.  Through these writings, however, Blight was able to uncover a Frederick Douglass who was stingy and hypocritical.  Blight demonstrates on two occasions the hypocrisy of Douglass:  his strong support of the Republican party which often abandoned black and while attacking individualistic northerners who wished to forget was issues while preaching self reliance to African Americans.

Both examples of hypocrisy are in direct relation to Douglass’ desire to remember the civil war, and provide no aid to the south in Reconstruction.  He was appalled by the idea of helping the south recover and the adoration of southern war heroes.  Douglass felt that forgetting the war meant forgetting its ideals, as he felt that the northern cause was primarily against slavery; or at least he wanted everyone to think it was.  His goals put him in a difficult position, as the Republican Party led the Union War movement he wished to remember, but they did not do much for the African American cause.

In the issue of individualistic northerners, a characteristic he agreed with, and their desire to forget the war, which he opposed, we see the issue brought up in class last week in our discussion of women where a disagreement with one characteristic of society did not mean disagreement with the society as a whole.  Douglass did not want to change all of society; he just wanted African Americans to achieve equal footing.  His desire to celebrate the union victory proves this, as historically the victors of war are praised while the losers regarded in a negative fashion.  The sentiment after the civil war to “forgive and forget,” however, was a more revolutionary sentiment.  Douglass vouched for a more conventional view of war in hopes to aid his desire to change society.

In AJ’s post, he raised the question of Douglass’ credibility, asking if he would be more credible if he had participated in the physical conflict of the war.  While this is a possibility, the bind he found himself in after the Civil War, as Blight puts it, “between the country’s historic racism and his own embrace of individualism.” This predicament led him to portray hypocritical tendencies, both real and perceived, that discredited him more than fighting in the war would have improved his credibility.

An Example of Blight's and Douglass' Thinking

In “For Something Beyond the Battlefield,” David W. Blight writes about Frederick Douglass’ efforts to preserve the memory of the ideological background of the Civil War. More specifically, Douglass wanted to make sure that the Civil War would be remembered in the American consciousness as a moral struggle between Northern abolition as an absolute good and Southern slavery as an absolute evil. Blight confirms Douglass’ perpetuation of that idea by quoting a speech in which Douglass urges Americans not to remember the Southern cause with any of the admiration afforded to the Northern one. (1160) A big part of Blight’s thesis has to do with the practical reasons for Douglass’ desire for this ideological narrative to persist—in other words, Douglass did not want to perpetuate these ideas simply because he believed them to be true. Blight posits that Douglass believed that those who shaped historical interpretations of the Civil War would be the ones to shape the fate of African-Americans in the post-war period. That is why, according to Blight, Douglass looked at the Supreme Court’s overturning of the 1875 Civil Rights Acts as a result of Americans forgetting that the Civil War was at its core a war fought to free people of color from bondage. AJ’s post does a good job of further delving into the specific factors which, according to Blight, drove Douglass to take this view.

I definitely see the merits of Blight and Douglass’ view of the effect of what kind of history the nation generally accepts on its policies going forward. I think a good example of this idea in effect is in the reception of the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. It is one of the most well known films of all times, due in equal parts to both its innovations in filmmaking as an art and, unfortunately, its racist message. The story of Birth of a Nation takes an extremely biased look at Reconstruction in the South, indignantly claiming that white Southerners were stripped of their voting rights and made to live under governments made up entirely of unqualified, lazy African-Americans. In the film, the main character fights back against Reconstruction by establishing the Ku Klux Klan as a force for good that puts whites back in power (where the filmmaker would say they belong). Birth of a Nation was the highest grossing film of its time. Its popularity suggests that many Americans accepted the idea that Reconstruction was fundamentally unfair to whites and upset a power balance that it should not have. That is confirmed by the fact that by 1915 Southern Democrats had long before managed to stop Reconstruction and establish Jim Crow laws. Furthermore, many scholars believe that the film directly contributed to the 20th century revival of the KKK as an institution to harass African-Americans. Thus, we see that the film was a powerful enough influence on American collective consciousness to impact the future of race relations. In this way, Birth of a Nation’s reception and aftermath reflects Douglass’ and Blights’ argument.

An Outsider's Memory

Much of David W. Blight’s work, “For Something beyond the Battlefield”: Frederick Douglass and the Struggle for the Memory of the Civil War, discusses Douglass’ pledge to “never forget” and his effort to forge memory into action. Blight details Douglass’ five sources for his meaning behind the Civil War: “his belief that the war had been an ideological struggle and not merely the test of a generation’s loyalty and valor; his sense of refurbished nationalism made possible by emancipation, Union victory, and Radical Reconstruction; his confrontation with the resurgent racism and Lost Cause mythology of the postwar period; his critique of America’s peculiar dilemma of historical amnesia, and his personal psychological stake in preserving an Afro-American and abolitionist memory of the war.” Having done some reading on the Civil War and Frederick Douglass previously, I think Blight does a nice job outlining much of Douglass’ arguments and personal stances on the post-war memory, as well as, the difference in opinions by those who do not side with the abolitionist and teleological memory of the war. Furthermore, one thing that caught my eye and I believe established Blight’s work as credible and thorough was the amount of sources he used throughout the argument. He drew upon many different speeches and quotations from Douglass and sprinkled them well in his work. Along with detailing Douglass’ five sources and an overview of his memory of the war, he did a nice job supplementing that with important opinions of others during that period and historically famous arguments that agreed and also went against Douglass’ perspective of the Civil War. Overall, I thought this was good work and gave us some real good first hand opinions of the nineteenth century’s most prominent Afro-American intellectual and others who had an influence on post-war ideals.

With that being said, however, I want to focus on a point that Blight just barely mentioned but stopped me from reading and made me think about a little bit. This challenge to Douglass’ meaning of memory is interesting and probably raises some intriguing questions about those in this time period who had substantial influence and power but had no stake in the actual fighting that was occurring. Blight explains how Douglass’ action was more of an inner struggle than a physical test claiming, “Perhaps his remoteness from the carnage enabled him to sustain an ideological conception of the war throughout his life.” A sentence that was masked but much of the bulk of this work was the claim that stuck out most in my eyes. I believe he is right, what if Douglass’ opinion is mainly shaped from an outsiders perspective? Would his argument be more credible or influential if he fought in the war and actually experienced the memory he is trying to preserve? Would his memory of the Civil War be different if he served behind the lines?  I think these all are valid questions as we consider Douglass’ memory as somewhat of an outsider’s viewpoint. As Holmes states, “the true hero—the deepest memory—of the Civil War was the soldier on either side, thoughtless of ideology, which faced the ‘experience of battle…” I think this is an interesting point and certainly deserves some attention regardless of personal stance.

I think it is important to remember those that were transformed by personal experience during the Civil War. As an intellectual, Douglass’ viewpoint cannot comprehend the soldier’s war experience and how those men remember the war. It is a question for thought as Douglass’ memory could be argued to be a “quest to save the freedom of his people and the meaning of his own life.” Like some of us mentioned in our posts last week (Mike and others), the feminist movement and Douglass’ argument can be seen similarly as sometimes they did not reach to a wider audience at the time and their voice wasn’t heard as much due to their relatively narrow views and opinions (ex. Success of the WCTU).

Similarities Amongst Women and Other Minority Groups in the U.S.

In his post, Lamoureux states that  “I think a feminist is going to want to see women achieve some form of social success before a black man every time that decision is presented.” While I agree with Lamoureux that the feminist cause for gender equality must be understood in different terms than African American’s fight for racial equality, but can these two movements truly be seen as completely separate? After all, weren’t both of these groups denied citizenship, and the right to vote? Weren’t they both discriminated when it came to their occupation? Dubois highlights the similarities between the two group when she states “Citizenship represented a relation-ship to the larger society that was entirely and explicitly outside the boundaries of women’s familial relations. As citizens and voters, women would participate directly in society as individuals, not indirectly through their subordinate positions as wives and mothers.” It seems that in this sentence “women” can easily be interchanged with nearly any other minority group that has encountered discrimination and not given the right to vote or citizenship. That is not to say, of course, that the movement for women suffrage was identical to the Civil Rights movement and other minority moments, but simply that these movements cannot be looked at individually because common elements are shared amongst the various movements. While African Americans and other minority groups were discriminated on the color of their skin, women were discriminated through the manipulation of the public and private sphere, but yet, both acts of discrimination held the white man as more “able” while also denying work to these groups on the basis of their race or their gender.  So while Lamoureux was right to say that some women at the time may have wished to attain freedom before Africans Americans, because they believed being white made them superior, I also think a good number of women felt that their movement was intertwined with other movements for rights and freedoms. Only these minority groups (African Americans, Jews, Indian American) could truly understand the white male dominated world in which these women lived, with all rights stripped away exhibited in their inability to attain citizenship or even the right to vote.

One Cause to Rule Them All

The notion of women having to pick their battles might be the most accurate statement when reviewing certain elements of history with minority groups (yes I am viewing women as a minority group in this instance due to their lack of “power”).  My current History 480 thesis draws heavily upon feminist perspectives and ideals and it is worth noting even in the 1960s (maybe even today) women still struggle to be seen as equal.  Because of that women do “radical” actions such as visit North Vietnam and visit NVA military camp sites while declaring U.S. troops are “baby killers,” or demand the right to vote.  Now in 2013 these actions appear drastically different but during their timeframe these were the most obscene claims a woman could make.  Now what does my thesis have to do with this idea of suffrage and abolition? Well the answer to that lies in the reaction of feminists across the country.  If feminists did not support an issue whole heartedly (for the most part) that issue would not see any chance of success.

Wade’s notion of DuBois and Earle supporting each other’s work is an interesting claim to make because I do not see women as a collective unit achieving success with the two movements being associated.  Using Wade’s notion of two movements strengthening each other I get the impression that women really knew what they wanted (suffrage) but had no idea how to get it.  It is this narrative that leads into a multitude of different directions of thought.  Do women really see themselves superior to African Americans or are they just appealing to the powers that be?  I honestly do think at this time some women do in fact see themselves as superior (women being white women of course).  Do some women think that slavery is wrong even if they are “above” blacks? Absolutely.  Given the choice between the ability to vote or the end of slavery though, I think a feminist is going to want to see women achieve some form of social success before a black man every time that decision is presented. That is just the nature of feminism from the work I have done on the topic.  Because of this notion a battle is picked by women in regards to what they would rather see come into fruition first.

Traditionally (up to the second or third feminist movement depending on what feminist scholar you study) women’s role in the household ensured them some level of security.  Why would these women want to escape this security net the home gave them? It is this idea that I agree with DuBois in that the household is what held women back from the success they desired.  While some women wanted a public voice where they could be heard many other women were content individuals proud to be simply Mrs. John Doe.  How are the women who want the public life to get the content women at home to get behind their cause? Well if you tell these women that their home/private life will be adversely affected they will get behind someone’s movement immediately.  I believe that is why women’s groups appealed to the “domestic nature” of women at this time.  Perhaps it is hear that Wade makes his notion of two movements for one cause (which is a bit more understandable).