An earlier post responded to some of the most interesting comments on the Washington Post regarding my critique of Virginia’s new fourth-grade history textbook. Again: short version of the argument is that facts are important. But the narrative you construct out of those facts still has to make sense, and in this case it doesn’t.
There was one comment that required a bit more space for my response:
psikeyhackr: Well if we are going to deal with history shouldn’t we try to distinguish between important facts and unimportant facts? Things like who won which battle and when and where the battle occurred are regarded as important. But isn’t the manpower and motivation of the fighters important also?
For instance, what percentage of the White men who fought for the Confederacy did not own slaves? When is that ever mentioned? Suppose 75% of them did not. Then what were they fighting for? To serve the economic interests of people richer than they were? If even half of the non-slave owning White men had refused to fight then how would that have affected the war? Is history having the right facts swept under the rug?
I love this comment because it gets right at the heart of what I’m talking about. Let me be clear, though: these kinds of questions are best suited for students older than fourth grade. But that doesn’t mean that other questions aren’t suited for fourth-graders!
Anyway. What makes some facts important and other facts unimportant? As the commenter tells us, it has to do with what you want to learn. And psikeyhackr wants to learn about the motivations of Confederate soldiers. Fine. So s/he asserts a hypothetical fact (75 percent of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves) and then immediately assumes what that fact means: that these soldiers must have served the economic interests of people richer than they. Psikeyhackr then makes the implicit assumption that had they understood their interests, these soldiers might have refused to fight. Finally, the commenter tells us there are “right facts” and that these are being “swept under the rug.”
What I like about this comment is that it demonstrates how little can be done with facts alone. Here, the fact that 75 percent of Confederate soldiers may not have owned slaves tells us little on its own. What gives that statistic meaning is what we do with it, and the commenter does a lot! Of course, not all historians agree with what the commenter has done with that fact, and that’s an important point, too. History is not what’s true, but what we argue is true.
It’s worth saying that psikeyhackr does not actually make an argument here, so much as follow a fact with a number of assertions of what that fact means. That being said, there are other arguments to be made.
Here is what the Civil War historian Joseph T. Glatthaar tells us in the encyclopedia’s entry on the Army of Northern Virginia:
Slightly more than one in eight soldiers [in the Army of Northern Virginia] owned slaves, but 37.2 percent either owned slaves or their parents and family with whom they resided did. Four in nine (44.4 percent) lived in slaveholding households, demonstrating a strong connection to the institution of slavery. As a result, these soldiers had an investment in slavery that influenced their decision to fight. An Irish-born private in the 12th Georgia Infantry joked, “A short time ago he bought a negro, he says, to have something to fight for.”
Glatthaar’s argument reminds us, I think, that we should be careful not to assume that we, in 2012, know what a soldier’s motivations must have been, or that we, in 2012, can be sure we know what a soldier’s best interests were better than the soldier does. If an entire society was propped up by slavery—as was the South’s—then fighting was perhaps in the interests of more people than simply slave owners. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, too, because we shouldn’t confuse what caused the war (most historians believe it was slavery) with why soldiers fought.
Another historian, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, elaborates on this argument in our entry on Virginia’s Confederate soldiers:
Most important, from the perspective of correcting old and inaccurate assumptions, the Civil War in Virginia was a rich man’s fight. Several recent studies have used quantitative evidence to demonstrate that wealthy men were overrepresented in the armed forces. Contrary to the notion that poor men did all the fighting, both aggregate data and individual sampling reveal that wealthy counties sent more men than poor counties did and that wealthy individuals were found at all levels of the service in greater proportion than within the population.
These same studies have also revealed that slave owners were also overrepresented in the armies. While one school of thought argues that slaveholders used their positions and wealth to avoid service, the evidence from Virginia shows that these men conceptualized the war as a threat to their property and future security and acted to protect both. The necessity of protecting slavery apparently extended beyond even the slaveholders themselves. When considering aggregate enlistment figures for Virginia, the best predictor of whether a county would enlist a high proportion of its men was not slaveholding itself, but the percent of the population enslaved. The more people held as slaves, the higher the enlistment figures. Counties in which more than 50 percent of the population was enslaved had very high enlistment rates, most well over 75 percent.
These kinds of facts, and the arguments that stem from them, complicate psikeyhackr’s original assumptions about the interests and motivations of Confederate soldiers. There are no right facts here, or wrong facts. There are only fair and reasonable arguments. Glatthaar and Sheehan-Dean, as professional historians, make them a bit more thoroughly than psikeyhackr, and with different conclusions, but over time even the professionals’ arguments may be revised or rejected. And the point will still stand: History is not what’s true, but what we argue is true.
IMAGES: Pages 122–123 of Our Virginia: Past and Present (Five Ponds Press); these are the pages (now revised) that started the whole kerfuffle; Gettysburg: Three Confederate Prisoners (Library of Congress)