We Cannot Know Their Minds

Confederate soldiers captured at Gettysburg, 1863, by Matthew Brady.

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin has a great post on the near-impossibility of really knowing one’s ancestors, particularly those who died long ago and left no correspondence or journals. His post is, I think, motivated in part by real frustration at the tendency of some folks to build a narrative about their ancestors’ beliefs, attitudes and motivations out of — well, out of nothing but their own desires. This is a particular problem with the Lost Causers. They imagine their ancestors as brave and truthful and honest and patriotic and generous not because they actually were — because in fact we cannot know those things — but because those are the traits their descendants want to see in them. It’s not history; it’s fantasy. Based on my read of his blog, Kevin tends to be a pretty equanimous guy in his discourse, but he (quite rightly) makes a sharp and very direct point here:

This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them.  You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter.  Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought.  You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree.  Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.

In my own case, I’ve been doing a little research on my family, with particular focus on identifying Civil War veterans. It’s turned up some surprises. In one case, I found a soldier who enlisted in a Georgia infantry unit in April 1861, and served the entire war in the same regiment — apparently in the same company — all the way from First Manassas to Appomattox. It’s staggering to think about the things he must have seen, the places and events and people that we know only from books and film. I do think — or maybe only hope — that it’s possible to at least to get a sense of what they knew, a sense of what they went through.

But even if that’s possible, it’s only a snapshot of a moment in time. In most cases we cannot know their minds, their fears, or their motivations, because there is no record of those intangible things. The men who marched off to war in 1861 were, like soldiers today, motivated by a whole range of reasons, often multiple reasons at once, and often by reasons that they cannot fully articulate to themselves.

I’m fortunate that I have a large collection of detailed stories about part of my family — though not involving the branch this particular Confederate inhabits — but even these would not really serve the matter, for they’re inevitably filtered though succeeding generations of perceptions, misunderstandings and prejudices. As you say, these often tell us more about those who have carried on the oral tradition than about the original subject.

I really do wish I could talk to that twenty-year-old soldier, a century and a half ago, and ask him why — why was he enlisting? What motivated him? What did he expect would happen? And I wish I could talk to him again, trudging back home from Appomattox — tired, hungry, hardened, and perhaps traumatized by his experiences.

Those are questions I want to ask, and never can. That’s a hard thing, but to my thinking, it’s preferable to creating an alternate fantasy. That’s no way to honor one’s ancestors.

[Cross-posted as a comment over at Civil War Memory]

Later addition, May 16: Robert Moore, writing over at Cenantua’s Blog, had an outstanding post last month on the the Virginia SCV’s response to the Virginia Confederate History Month debacle, to make the point that those who are most vocal in honoring their Confederate ancestors are actually doing their credibility a lot of harm by making false or entirely irrelevant historical claims (Lincoln was a segregationist! Grant owned slaves!), and by broad-brush assumptions about their Confederate ancestors’ beliefs and motivations that, while comforting to their descendants, are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. Moore’s writing very neatly expresses my thoughts about my own Confederate ancestors, and how they should be viewed:

As I have pointed out, I don’t believe that all [those men] embraced the Confederacy. They may have worn gray uniforms at different points, but belief in “the Cause” is subject to debate. Of those who went willfully (initially), I suspect that most were likely committed to the thought that they were enlisting to “defend their homes”, to “repel the oncoming invasion”, and maybe even believed that states’ rights were in jeopardy, but I remain quite aware that their motivations and that of many of those in high places in the Confederate government were not always one in the same. This is the line that I draw when looking back at my Confederate ancestors; a line between the motivations of the men (as they understood things) and those of the government.

I admire the valor, courage, and sacrifice of the common Confederate soldier. I respect their decision to do what they thought was right, then. I marvel at the stories of their lives in those four short years.

YET, I know what underlying factors were at play, not with the common soldiers, but in the motivations of the Confederacy. I acknowledge that the Confederate government was a government conceived in the interests of preserving slavery. The Southern states felt their power waning in national government as slavery was not being allowed to expand, but was slowly being limited. I acknowledge that high officials took initiative into their own hands, without regard for the common Southerner’s voice.

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3 Responses to We Cannot Know Their Minds

  1. Robert Moore says:

    Thanks for the pingback to my post… and your post. It’s good to know that there are more Southerners who can be rational when it comes to reflecting on ancestors in gray, and to show that we don’t all think like many of the new era Confederate celebrationists.

  2. Andy says:

    Thanks, Robert. I’m a newcomer to Cenantua, and am slowly working back though older posts. In the same vein as the above post, I appreciated your thoughts on not knowing the beliefs and attitudes of our ancestors. Without real documentation (which is rare), it’s nothing more than make-believe.

    I’ve been doing some digging recently on my own family, and in the process have nailed down a good bit of specific fact where only some loose family traditions had been before. These men’s Confederate service, in aggregate, spans the entire war both in time and geography, and encompasses many of the best-known actions. One saw action at Sharpsburg and Little Round Top at Gettysburg, before being captured and spending a year and a half in a Northern prison camp. Another commanded a division at Sharpsburg, and later a district in the Trans-Mississippi. One surrendered with Pemberton at Vicksburg, was paroled and later served in a cavalry unit in the Army of Northern Virginia until the end of the war. Two brothers served in the Eighth Texas Cavalry, their overlapping terms of service spanning almost the entire war. Yet another enlisted in April 1861, and — it appears — served in the same company, in the same regiment, in the Army of Northern Virginia from First Manassas to Appomattox. In all, the experiences of these men practically encompass the entire land war, fought across four years and a dozen states. It’s pretty amazing stuff, really, and makes me want to go walk the fields of Sharpsburg and Gettysburg.

    But I don’t know these men. With one or two exceptions, they’re names on a census or a unit roster. I don’t know what they thought, or why they enlisted. I don’t know how the war affected them, though most surely it did. They marched and fought and grumbled and screwed and bitched and laughed and puked and sulked and cheered and maybe went AWOL, and we’ll never know the details of any of that.

    And as a result, I don’t really know how to think about them, either. They were men who fought on behalf of a government explicitly established to preserve and expand the odious institution of slavery, but I have no idea how these men saw themselves or their roles. I think it’s likely that many of them genuinely believed that the Northern states — and Lincoln specifically — forced the war on them, but then many of the American soldiers who rolled into Baghdad in 2003, like their friends and family back home, believed that Saddam Hussein had been behind 9/11. Compelling reasons to go to war don’t have to be true. I suspect several of these men — again, like soldiers today — weren’t especially patriotic or politically engaged, and simply signed up because the coming war was going to be a big deal and they didn’t want to miss it. After all, it was all going to be over by Christmas, right?

    I’ve got a lot questions I’d like to ask these men, as well as the wives and sweethearts and children they left behind. But that won’t ever happen. Although understanding at least some of the experiences they had seems possible — I’m reading up on pea bread at Vicksburg at the moment — it doesn’t get me much closer to knowing them, and that’s sad.

  3. Robert Moore says:

    That sounds like quite an interesting set of ancestors. You would enjoy the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields. They are very different, and yet they are my personal favorites. Likewise, walking on such ground where your people were puts a different spin on things. For example, I found Chickamauga an interesting battlefield, but it just didn’t do as much for me as the fields on which my people fought.

    While most of us will never know why they served, the best we can do is to leave the door open to a wide range of possibilities. Even if we do find out why they served, that was their time, much different than our own, and I don’t believe we have a right to condemn them for their decisions at that time. We do much more by trying to understand that there is a huge gap in the way they saw things and the way that we see things.

    As for having an opportunity to ask them “why”, I don’t know that we would get straight answers. I’ve seen a number of letters where Confederates concealed the real persons that they were, even telling their wives not to reveal what they were saying. I wonder how many letters have been destroyed during, and after the war, and even in later generations to conceal the real reasons why they were wearing gray and what they really thought about the Confederacy.