Who won the Civil War?

As a Civil War historian, Bill Blair has led his share of battlefield excursions. He has herded alumni over the fields and ridges of Gettysburg and walked with high-school teachers at Antietam. But another of Blair's missions is to decipher the broader lessons of the war, its causes and its legacies. His new book, Cities of the Dead, examines the turbulent history of Civil War commemorations in the South, the role these civic rituals played in Reconstruction politics and race relations, and their lasting impact on the way the war is remembered.

William Blair
James Collins

Civil War historian Bill Blair

A similar broad focus guides the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State, which Blair directs. Established in 1996 and endowed by the Richards family in 2002, the Center fosters scholarship and outreach that ranges beyond the four years of the war to include social, political, economic, and cultural studies on the entire "middle period" of American history, from the Mexican War through the end of Reconstruction. In addition to offering battlefield tours, a lecture series, and teacher institutes, the Center houses an active research faculty and a graduate training program, and Blair edits
Civil War History, the leading journal of the period.

A popular passion for the military history is one strong reason why the Richards Center exists at all, Blair acknowledges. "But you always hope that people will show an interest beyond the uniforms, and will use that first glimpse of the war to get themselves thinking about the broader issues," he says. "When that happens, it's magic. When it doesn't, it's frustrating for historians."

Research Penn State editor David Pacchioli interviewed Blair in March.

Q: There's a real conflict, isn't there, between an emancipationist view of the war—that it was fought to free the slaves—and a reconciliationist one, where what's stressed is the restoration of the union. A battle over remembering.

A: I think that's right. There was this attempt at the turn of the last century to deny the central role of slavery in the conflict. And that is part of a larger Southern interpretation of the war and its meaning, one that for the better part of a century became the prevailing interpretation, and still has impact today. It's a kind of Southern mythology, and the public still consumes it avidly—in popular magazines, movies, even figurines and chess sets. It helps account for why Lee is a far greater hero in American history than Grant. That's why I asked you who won the Civil War.

Q: I saw your article mentioning the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War. Do you think that film contributes to the romanticization of the war?

A: Yes. I'm conflicted about it, because there are things the series does that are very good. At the end, though, it rushes through the end of the war and the consequences, showing the grizzled veterans shaking hands at the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg—and missing a lot of ground in between, a lot of tension and a lot of fighting that was Reconstruction. It plays
a lot of heartstrings that we like to have played.

Q: Is that what is really at the core of the Southern mythology?

A: Historians have come to very different conclusions. One is, if you want reconciliation and reunion with the South—its white people, at least—you have to accept their version of history. It's a very uncomplicated romantic vision that certainly shores up unity around the turn of
the century. Unfortunately, that unity is based on the disenfranchisement and segregation of African Americans.

The other aspect of the Southern myth celebrates the Gone With The Wind image. Seventy five percent of the Southern people were what we would call yeoman farmers. But the "moonlight and magnolias" image is very compelling, especially around the turn of the last century. In the midst of these great convulsions surrounding immigration and industrialization, this alternate vision of an agricultural Eden where everybody was happy, there were peaceful relations between slaves and masters—it spoke of a simpler time.

Q: One of the things that amazes me is this idea of the loyal slave.

A: It actually comes up a lot, on monuments and statuary throughout the South. At Harper's Ferry, there's a monument to a man named Heyward Shepherd, who was killed in John Brown's raid. He was a railroad worker, a black man. It was dark when Brown and his men took Harper's Ferry. Shepherd stumbled upon one of these guys, turned and fled, and was shot down by this fellow, who obviously couldn't see him, didn't know if he was white, black, red, yellow, or what. But in the 1920s
certain Confederate groups put into place what they called the Faithful Slave monument there, and that became the Heyward Shepherd monument. The irony is, he was a free black worker—he wasn't a slave.

Q: So the suggestion was that he died trying to fight off the abolitionists?

A: That he saw the abolitionists as a peril, and so he fled from them rather than run to them.

The second thing, even more bizarre, is that there is a Confederate monument in Arlington national cemetery, the cemetery memorializing those who died to save the U.S., right? The Confederate monument was part of McKinley's overtures to Southern senators, to get their support for the Spanish American War. In fact it's the tallest monument there. And on the
side of it is a faithful slave.

Q: What about Northern mythology? Some writers suggest, for example, that the idea of the Underground Railroad was overblown.

A: From the 1970s to the '90s, a lot of people dismissed the Underground Railroad. But historians are looking at it again and what they've started to see is a little more complicated situation, not as much a centrally organized network that spanned from here to Canada, but it certainly operated.

Q: If it was to some extent romanticized, what purpose does that serve?

A: It assuages northern guilt and complicity in the issue of slavery. The question is why did it have to be underground? Fact is, there were a lot of Northerners who wanted to see slavery continue. The Underground Railroad—the mythologized version—shifts the blame for slavery and racism back to the South, instead of sharing that burden.

Q: There's an idea of affronted honor that seems to play into the romanticization. What accounts for that? Is there a particular Southern identity?

A: A Southern honor, you mean. First of all, it would be wrong to think that there is no such thing as Northern honor. These were both basically agrarian societies, and agrarian societies have a huge part of their life regulated by codes of honor. Southerners have a particular way of expressing their sense of honor. And so there was this coherent mentality that started to arise in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s, partly shaped by the abolitionist assault, where they began to describe themselves as honorable people. A lot of the honor revolved around how they were able to take care of their individual
households which, of course, may have included slaves.

Q: Were there slaves on those small farms?

A:

We use the term yeoman farmer for a person who grew predominantly for the table, with maybe an extra acre in cotton for the market. These folks at times might have rented a slave, borrowed a slave, even owned a slave. Renting slaves was very common, especially in the upper South. They would typically rent for a year, and it would cost them $120. The fee of course went back to the planter—it didn't go to the slave.

Q: You hear sometimes that the average Southern soldier didn't care anything about slavery, he was fighting for his family...

A: ...Yes, for State's rights. For principle. Do you know the term "The Lost Cause?" The Lost Cause was the title of a book by Sir Walter Scott. The term was used deliberately by Southerners right after the war, by 1866. They started this interpretation that basically said, "We didn't fight for slavery, we fought against overwhelming odds for state's rights. By the way, we were never defeated, we were just ground down by superior force." That was the mythology that persisted, and still persists.

Q: One of the most interesting post-War figures, in terms of resisting the prevailing myth, is John Mosby of Virginia. Here's about as romantic a figure as you can imagine, this Southern cavalry legend, the "Grey Ghost"...

A: That's what makes history so wonderful to me. Mosby ends up becoming a Republican, criticizing a lot of former Confederates, saying that they're keeping the war alive instead of healing the country.

Q: He was saying things like, "Of course we were fighting for slavery."

A: If you go back and read the record, it's absolutely impossible to conclude otherwise. It takes a really active amnesia.

Q: And yet that amnesia has been pervasive for a long time.

A: You see signs of it loosening some. But I don't know if we'll ever win over the "moonlight and magnolias" theme.

Q: Would you say that the film Birth of a Nation was the perfect expression of that theme?

A: Absolutely right. It captures, in almost cartoon fashion, the romantic Southern view of the Civil War and Reconstruction that endured into the 1960s. And it was profoundly influential. Woodrow Wilson called it "history written with lightning." White audiences went to see it in droves.

The fact is there was a window right after the Civil War that saw one of the most marvelous experiments that we've had—the first bi-racial political coalition in this country. Within three years after the war, black males were full citizens with full political rights. Reconstruction is ugly, there's violence, there's failure, but there were also successes. In some respects it was the successes that black people had that brought down this horrible repression much later.

Q: Which wasn't really addressed until the early '60s...

A: A lot of people, myself included, consider that Civil Rights moment the second Reconstruction.

This is all at the heart, by the way, of the Richards Center. Whenever we interpret things, we look at the big picture. It only makes sense if you look at it in its entirety. There's a persistent struggle. In some respects our Civil War era goes into the 1960s.

Q: Does it continue even today? I'm thinking of controversies over things like flying the Confederate flag.

A: Confederate groups recently protested putting a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Richmond. It's historically accurate—Lincoln visited the city at the end of the war. But groups protested it.

You could be disheartened, you could say animosity still runs deep. On the other hand, we're finally having some discussions, and being forced to reassess the way we remember the Civil War. And if that means creating a much more inclusive history, one that really does tell the whole story, I think we're better off.

William A. Blair, Ph.D., is associate professor of history and director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center; wab120@psu.edu. Blair's most recent book, "Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914," was published in 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Last Updated April 20, 2005