Day By Day

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Refighting the Civil War

The commemorative avalanche of Civil War publications is upon us and the meaning of our American Iliad is being debated once again. Today's offering comes from James M. Lundberg. He has a bone to pick with Ken Burns who, he argues, produced a "sentimental, romantic, deeply misleading", but wildly popular, TV series on the subject of the war. It's not that Burns ignored important subjects such as race and class conflict -- in fact his show was almost obsessively centered on race relations -- but that he suggested that the end of the war produced a settlement that bound the nation together into a coherent national framework within which such conflicts could be resolved.

In the formulation that Lundberg attributes to Shelby Foote, but which was most extensively argued by Roy Nichols more than half a century ago, the "United States" ceased to be a plural and became a single entity -- The United States "are" was replaced by the United States "is". The republic became a nation. This was, Burns implies, a satisfying resolution to the great conflict. But Lundberg disagrees. He notes that conflicts over race and class continued into the period of Reconstruction that followed the war, and still trouble us today. There was, in other words, no happy ending to the war.

Lundberg is representative of a generation of American historians who, inspired by the political rhetoric of the civil rights era and by European Marxist critiques of American culture, viewed everything in terms of conflict and focused obsessively on the subjects of race, class, and gender relations. For half a century they have constituted the mainstream of the profession and now, at the end of the civil rights era when their influence is waning, are circling the wagons and inveighing wildly against alternative interpretations. Lundberg's screed should be seen as part of this process -- a professional academic establishment attempting, with varying degrees of success, to fend off challenges to their interpretation of the past and its meaning for today. His real target is not so much Burns or the benighted PBS audience who uncritically accepted his account of the war and its meaning, but a just released book by Gary Gallagher titled "The Union War" that refocuses attention away from the social issues so dear to Lundberg's heart and back onto the constitutional issues that once dominated discussion of the Civil War. It's a clever ploy. By attacking Burns and not mentioning Gallagher Lundberg insures that his article and the argument it contains will have a far wider readership than a direct attack on his colleague would have generated.

I have not yet read Gary's book, but have seen several reviews of it. I will be reading it soon and will comment here on his arguments as I do. The game is on. Stay tuned. The next few years will be interesting to watch.

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