The Civil War History You Don’t Know

Why the story of a pivotal moment in America’s past keeps changing

Portrait of Nina Silber
In her new book, This War Ain’t Over—Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, Nina Silber examines how historical memory offers people a way of understanding and defining themselves in the present. Photo by Cydney Scott

Nina Silber traces her passion for the intellectual and cultural history of the Civil War to her girlhood. Driving around New York City, her father would belt out refrains from “Marching Through Georgia,” whose lyrics tell of the Union Army freeing the slaves as its soldiers advanced upon Savannah.

Her father, Irwin Silber, an authority on American folk music heritage, compiled and edited Songs of the Civil War (Dover Publications, 1960). He looked at the war through the prism of his radical left wing politics and “from a sense that the Civil War era represented a pivotal moment in the struggle for freedom and racial equality,” Silber says.

In her new book, This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), Silber, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of history and of American studies, examines, through books, film, music, theater, speeches, and newspaper accounts, the often-conflicting ways Americans looked back at the Civil War as they grappled with the economic and social crises of the 1930s and ’40s.

It’s a familiar subject for her. Silber, who is president of the Society of Civil War Historians, has spent more than two decades examining that pivotal moment and how the story of the Civil War has been framed and reframed over the years. She has previously written three books on the Civil War, The Romance of Reunion, Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993), Daughters of the Union, Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2005), and Gender and the Sectional Conflict (University of North Carolina Press, 2008). She has coedited three books, among them Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Research talked with Silber recently about her new book, how the story of the Civil War continues to be retold, and the importance of studying history today.

Research: Why should we keep revisiting the Civil War?

Silber: It seems to me, especially as we see how much the Civil War remains contested territory today, that we need to keep studying the Civil War because it’s critical to our collective understanding of ourselves. Studying the Civil War, after all, reveals fundamental problems that Americans have repeatedly confronted regarding race, citizenship, and the nature of America’s national project.

And at so many points in our history, Americans have looked back to the Civil War to sort out these problems, each time bringing their contemporary concerns to bear on the way they look at the past. The Civil War represented a moment when Americans had to decide which direction the national project would go in: was it one that was for whites only? Or was it something more expansive, one that would guarantee rights to everyone born in the United States, which is what the 14th Amendment does. When today some people are being denied the right to vote, or find that they are still subjected to persistent forms of discrimination, it raises that question again about the direction of the national project.

You’ve assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay “Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?” in your honors seminar Race in America this semester [fall 2018]. Why that essay?

It’s very relevant in terms of current events. He talks about how the story we tell about the Civil War has really been a white story—that it’s all been focused on the great military leaders, the battles, and then how the resolution of the Civil War is all about how the white people learn to get together again. And he says black people get totally left out of the story. Today there are definitely more black historians, and white historians, who are telling stories about emancipation and stories about black participation in Reconstruction, but in terms of the popular story that most people know, it still doesn’t address those issues.

In the current moment, our journey back to the Civil War past is often being processed through the struggle over Confederate monuments, which actually have less to do with the actual war and more to do with the Jim Crow era when they were constructed. So historians today have the challenge of explaining how much of the “false narrative” about the Civil War, or Lost Cause, was being constructed during Jim Crow alongside these monuments. During the Jim Crow period, much was being done to erase the black story from the Civil War story—to deny the role of slavery, to make African American efforts seem either irrelevant or nefarious.

How do you tell that history so blacks don’t get left out?

First of all, it’s not a story of Lincoln freed the slaves. It’s a much more complicated story that involves: what do slaves themselves do to push the question of emancipation onto the agenda so that it has to be taken up in the course of the war.

Slaves were not waiting for someone to say, “Yes, we’ll free you now.” They recognize that the war is a prime opportunity to push for emancipation, and so they escape to the lines of the Union Army. They say, “We have valuable information, we know who’s a Confederate, where they are, what they’re doing.”

Why did the true history of the Civil War get lost over the years?

I think one of the problems is that very soon after the Civil War ended there was this very strong desire to unify, and in some ways it makes perfect sense. But that unification happened between white Northerners and white Southerners. There was the subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, agreement that the story that would be told about the Civil War should not be offensive to white Southerners.

You write about the Lost Cause as a “consoling narrative that bestowed honor” on the defeated Confederate soldiers and “rested on a sentimentalized portrait of the Old South and its system of chattel slavery.” How did that narrative play out in the 1930s and ’40s?

Go no further than Gone with the Wind and then that becomes an accepted way that everybody thinks about the Civil War.

I saw that movie when I was a kid and I loved it, so I guess I bought into that narrative, too.

Well, so did Boston University—why is our mascot named Rhett? They named the mascot not long after Gone with the Wind came out in 1939. It was building on the popularity of the movie.

Have you been following the controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where protestors pulled down Silent Sam, the statue of a Confederate soldier?

One of the interesting things about Silent Sam is that there was a PhD history student at UNC Chapel Hill who did some research, and he found a speech at the unveiling of the statue, in 1913, that was given by a Confederate veteran named Julian Carr. In his speech, Carr said something like: “Soon after I came back from the War, I saw this Negro wench and she was disrespectful to a lady and I whipped her and ripped her skirt to shreds.”

To me, that was kind of like, “Yay for historians.” Look at the thing that historians discovered that had an important impact. You could actually say that when this statue was unveiled, the racist agenda was really apparent.

When these Confederate monuments were put up, African Americans who lived in those communities were disenfranchised. It was a moment when really only white Southerners were allowed to make the decisions about what statues to put up and where to put them. To me it seems only right that we revisit this and have everyone have a chance to be involved in those conversations and decide what to do with those monuments.

Can you summarize your new book?

I wrote a book, The Romance of Reunion, that was basically about how the North learned to like the white South, the Confederate South, in the 50 years after the Civil War, about how they came to accommodate themselves to the Confederate story.

I was interested in what happened moving forward—in the ’30s and ’40s. There’s a crisis that happened in the United States right then, and in the moment of that crisis, how are people thinking of that earlier crisis? It was also a moment when the vast majority of people who were alive hadn’t gone through the period of the Civil War. So other people who had not actually been there were going to tell the story. How those stories get perpetuated into the next generation was interesting to me.

The one thing I’ve learned to appreciate: it’s one thing to have a story to tell, to actually have history on your side. But if you don’t have the resources to get your story out there, forget about it.

Why should we study history today?

There’s this whole question of the mythic stories that are out there and understanding stories that are closer to something that is historically accurate. People like to tell stories about the past that make them feel good, or that help them make a particular political point. But history, as it happened, is not about a feel-good agenda or scoring political points. We need to see beyond the BS story and grapple with something closer to the truth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Sara Rimer can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

A version of this article was originally published in BU Today.

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