The tangled web of personal motivation and national purpose–a challenge for public historians

From John Hennessy:

It is one of the most interesting of all conundrums presented to public historians working at a Civil War site: a visitor comes in and asserts his understanding of the war based on family history: “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery. My great-great grandfather didn’t own slaves—he sure as hell didn’t fight to preserve slavery. He fought to defend his home, the way of life of his community and state. You are wrong to tell people the war was about slavery.”

An exchange (or rather soliloquy) like this is probably a weekly occurrence at a Civil War park. It reflects one of the biggest challenges of our business: interpreting an event in which visitors are often highly invested and possessed of information that reflects generations of conventional wisdom.  Add to that the work of constituent groups (does any other period of history beyond our memory have active constituent groups?) committed to affirming a certain memory of the war, and we are left with a tangled mosh of history and memory that makes our jobs both more difficult and interesting.

This visitor’s soliloquy highlights one of the salient facts about the Civil War’s place in American culture: in no other era of American history have we as a nation permitted the personal motivations of soldiers (often imperfectly remembered or revised over time) to define in the public’s mind the cause and purpose of war.

Nations (or aspiring nations) go to war for a purpose, usually articulated as policy that reflects the values and aspirations of that nation. How individual soldiers understand the policy or purpose of war varies widely (scholarship shows that they probably understood more than we think they did); what motivates them to enlist and fight sometimes only vaguely reflects the larger issues at stake. 

That a soldier from the Shenandoah Valley (where slavery was less common) may not have been inspired to fight by his desire to defend the institution of slavery should be no surprise to anyone. Nor should it be news that many northerners vociferously opposed emancipation as an outcome of the war. These varied perceptions add both complexity and richness to the stories we tell (a topic for another post).

But…it does not follow that because a soldier was not motivated by a defense of slavery that he was not in fact fighting to defend it. Likewise, simply because many Union soldiers were racists who opposed emancipation does not mean they were not fighting to abolish slavery.

Which brings us back to the reasons nations fight and this conundrum of public history as it relates to the Civil War. It seems to me that our challenge is to distinguish between the personal motivations of soldiers and the reasons the Union and Confederacy went to war.  Was that non-slaveholding soldier from the Shenandoah Valley fighting to preserve and sustain slavery?  Absolutely. The constitutional protection of slavery was the only profound difference between the new Confederate constitution and the constitution the South left behind upon secession. That valley soldier may not have been personally motivated by a desire to defend slavery or the South’s social order, but as a matter of policy he was demonstrably fighting to preserve it.

Similarly, that racist, pro-slavery soldier from New York or Pennsylvania was, after January 1, 1863, demonstrably fighting to abolish slavery, regardless of his personal views on the issue. 

The degree to which soldiers understood and embraced the policies—the war aims–their respective nations espoused is a hot topic open to a good deal of discussion. But while we need to be respectful of descendant’s understanding of their ancestor’s motivations (they are often correct), it’s also our job to help them see the distinction between personal motivation and national purpose and to recognize they did not, and do not, always align.

One thought on “The tangled web of personal motivation and national purpose–a challenge for public historians

  1. Another pretty significant point is that Southern soldiers who didn’t own slaves nevertheless did not believe that emancipation was acceptable.

    Slaves made up large portions of all seceding states — including majorities of the population in South Carolina and Mississippi and near majorities in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. They were at least a quarter of the population in all seceding states.

    Soldiers from non-slave holding families were generally not prepared to greet large communities of blacks in their states as fellow citizens rather than controlled populations.

    The part of your paraphrase about defending “the way of life of his community” may capture some of that. You don’t have to own slaves to favor the social institution of slavery in your community, to the point of being willing to fight for it.

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