Confederate History Month – a disservice to Antebellum Southern history?

Posted on April 2, 2014 by


I know… I’ve been incredibly quiet for well over a month, but I’ve been considering various things regarding directions in which to go with writing history. Another topic for another day, perhaps.

For now, however, since “Confederate History Month” (as I was reminded by a post I saw on Facebook this morning) is now underway, it does touch on something else I’ve been thinking about within the last month (and beyond, actually). In fact, in a conversation with a friend, just the other day, I mentioned how I thought the Southern version of the history of the Civil War has… in many ways… virtually obliterated popular (emphasis on popular) knowledge of the the history of the South before the war.

To be honest, I’ve not been a big fan of Confederate History Month, as, regretfully, it too often is a “carnival of half-truths”. I could say… “to each his own”, and those who wish to recognize it have the right to do so, yet, anyone concerned about Southern history (especially those with a “rooted share” in the overall story) should voice concern.

Anyone who has followed this blog for the last year or so, no doubt has seen how I have become even more fascinated with the antebellum history of the Shenandoah Valley. This actually sprang forth from my curiosities about wartime sentiments and how they were influenced. I wanted to step away from the Civil War… backward, not forward… because too much that came after the Civil War actually redefined (warped, even) popular understanding about the Valley (and the South) before the war. I’m a firm believer that the Southern-born postwar narrative has done a gross disservice to the history of the South… even to the point where either people define prewar via the postwar narratives, or where they don’t really grasp much of an understanding at all about prewar South.

Go ahead… ask most who partake in Confederate History Month to give a fair and accurate summary of the pulse of the Shenandoah Valley prior to the Civil War. If you don’t get a story tainted with the Southern postwar narrative, I’d be surprised. While I haven’t gone around to everyone to conduct this sort of survey, I’ve been around enough folks to know where such a question will lead. It’s not an unfair assessment on my part, but one based on actual encounters.

Am I Southern-bashing? Oh no, far from it… it is, after all, my home… and the home of many, many generations from my family, back to the earliest days of Virginia and Maryland. Yet, I’m not looking back that far. I’m more focused on the period which molded the mindset of the generations (that included folks born as far back as the latter 1700s) that existed at the time of the Civil War. It’s become an obsession of mine. In fact, I’ve formulated a question in my mind when evaluating the area… “What good can you find in the antebellum Shenandoah?” I’m not out to sugarcoat the history, but I’m looking for what could be perceived as genuinely good… things that demonstrate a culture of people trying to better themselves and make a better setting for those who were to come… and I’d argue that “making better” did not necessarily mean via the use of slaves (although I’m not saying that to some, it actually did mean that). My approach is also fueled by my aggravation with those who wish only to see the South (and even the Valley, via a “lumped-in” sort of thinking) strictly from the narrowly-focused views of a “place which continued to have slavery”. Those who look at the antebellum South merely through the “South is bad because of slavery” glasses makes a horrible mistake… just as much a mistake as those who continue to look through “glasses” that define the Valley (and the South) through the Lost Cause narrative.

I argue that, culturally, there was value… there was worth. It’s not just something that I’d like to consider… but was something that many of them, at that time, wanted to prove. Perhaps we should spend more time listening to what they had to say, how they said it, and what motivated them to say what they had to say.