“Favoriting” people in history… responsibly

Posted on June 2, 2013 by


strotherRecalling that David Hunter Strother’s memoirs picked-up again (the last entry, just before that, was May 19, 1863) around June 1, 1863, or so, I started this morning (somewhat of a “Sesqui moment”) by flipping to a page in A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War. After campaigning in the deep South, Strother had returned to Virginia… looking for a command with which he might find a home. The entries in early June are rather simple, starting with a few remarks about his return to Martinsburg, meeting with some familiar faces, and the like. What catches my attention are his references to “Adam”, his old banjo player, and Mr. Clarke (a family friend who lived in Clarke County). There’s really nothing remarkable about either of these, apart… maybe… from Strother recalling a lack of enthusiasm in Martinsburg-area soldiers, in the summer of 1861.

Still, it made me think about my peculiar fascination with Strother.

As several may know, I’ve often used Strother’s image in association with this blog (early-on) and with my Twitter page (still do with the Twitter page). To me, he ranks high (he may even rate “top billing”) as one of my “favorite” Southern Unionists. It’s likely that his ranking is largely associated with the fact that he was a man of the Shenandoah Valley. Not only that, but his connection to the greater Valley (thanks to The Virginia Canaan and Virginia Illustrated) is especially captivating. The man identified himself, quite clearly, as a man of the Shenandoah Valley. His destiny and that of the Shenandoah Valley were closely woven together. Likewise, his sentiments regarding secession and the Confederacy stand as such an amazing contrast against that which has seemed to dominate “memory” in the Valley, over generations. He shows us that all was not as it may appear. He brings us what appears to be a level-headed reality of our (the Valley’s) own history.

That said, however, I think we need to make sure that we don’t confuse “favoriting” with setting one on some higher platform… even “sanctifying”.

While the man, his connections, and his story fascinate me, I have problems with Strother on other levels. There are two, in particular, that come to mind today.

If you have read Strother… you know the man comes across as racist. I don’t use this term irresponsibly. Take care…

For one, I don’t care to use the word “racist” in connection with people of Strother’s time. That’s not to say I haven’t cringed a bit when I’ve read some of his comments. Such moments, I think, should make us aware of context. While we might hold a fascination with certain people of the past, we need to be mindful of their time and place, and ours. It shouldn’t be some sort of an epiphany to realize that times were/are different. Judging him would be judging out of context. I don’t believe it’s a fair assessment of the man to judge him based on our modern expectations… and because we don’t like what he said doesn’t necessarily make his view “wrong”. Remember… context; place and time. While we have an advantage of looking back on the bigger picture, our focus is still blurry and even tainted by both all that has elapsed since that time, and our modern sensibilities. He describes his world as one who grew up in it. How he writes is a reflection of what he grew up with, and came to understand as acceptable. We need to be mindful of this. My disagreement with Strother, on this matter, is based on my modern position on that which is acceptable and that which is not, so… I need to be mindful of my being bothered by his position on this matter. His time and mine are different.

The other point is his position on the people of the South. I can understand his frustration with the world around him, at the time of the secession crisis, but there is one passage that really strikes me as over the top. In conversation with General Nathaniel Banks, on March 28, 1862, Strother found Banks’ position on the war agreeing, as he states, “exactly with my own”.

Speaking of Virginia, he characterized our late public men as a very inferior set, both in manners and intellect, whisky-drinking being the common ground on which they all met. I have myself considered the Old Virginia people as a decadent race. They have certainly gone down in manners, morals, and mental capacity. There seems to be nothing left of their traditional greatness but a senseless pride and a certain mixture of dignity and suavity of manner, the intelligence of a once great and magnanimous people. it was high time that war had come to wipe out this effete race and give this splendid country to a more active and progressive generation. That will be the final result of the war, I do not doubt.

I have no doubt that Strother felt betrayed by many of his neighbors and friends, and Virginia on the whole… and it might be that this is just one of those instances (among several in the book) in which it came out in the sharpest of tones. It’s also ironic that Strother uses… again… the word “effete”. In his larger account of the war in Virginia, he had pointed out the error of New York newspapers in so carelessly assuming that Southerners were ‘effete”:

… The New York papers speak of the Southern people as “effete;” and there seems to be an impression prevailing generally in the North that the physique of the Southern people is deteriorated by a life of luxurious and dissolute idleness. If the dapper ideologist who entertains such an idea should happen to come in contact with some hardy Southern mountaineer carrying a hundred and fifty pound buck on his shoulder – some stark and sinewy swamper with his swivel of a ducking-gun – some hard-riding Tony Lumpkin of the rural gentry, the preux chevalier of tournaments, cock-fights, and quarter-races, he would presently find out who was “effete.”

Does Strother contradict himself?

What’s worse, however, is his feeling that “the Old Virginia people” were “a decadent race”, and that the war would “wipe out this effete race and give this splendid country to a more active and progressive generation.”

Extermination? Interesting. Would he be a relic of that which he agreed would be exterminated?

Strange, considering his own self-expression of passion for the place and people.

I do know that, with a Virginia Yankee in the Civil War, Cecil Eby took-on Strother’s later transcriptions of his memoirs… and the later transcriptions (postwar) tended to be different than the memoirs as written at the actual time. In his rewrite, did Strother himself (though he had tweaked other entries) remain true in this one entry to the feelings he had at that time?

It merits further study, especially as one who looks to find answers as to the different things that motivated Southern Unionists.

So, yes… we can “favorite” people of the past, but we owe ourselves… and, if historians, relating history to others… we owe our readers to “favorite” people responsibly. We can still appreciate people of the past for what they bring to our understanding of the past, but let’s not lose ourselves in those who may, to others, appear to be our “heroes”.