Our Virginia, Our Challenge (Cont'd)

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)


12 thoughts

  1. I teach 6th grade in VA. I was delighted when I received a set of Our America. Not because it was a great book, or had all of its facts or assertions correct, but rather because on two colorful pages the tidbits of history that I am required to teach were presented. This is a far cry from the textbook I am currently forced to use that was not written for use in VA. The current textbook in use by my school system contains numerous chapters of excellent material that I have to avoid completely as it is irrelevant to VA state standards or does not align with VA state standards as it offers different interpretations of history. I try to exploit the strengths of the current textbook which means that I often have students read 1 or 2 pages and then skip the next 10 before reading 2 more. Simply because given the demands imposed by end of the year testing I cannot afford for my students to memorize facts or events that will not be tested. In addition, the current book was written at a reading level that is far above many students in the 6th grade.
    Our America, even the error filled 1st edition, did not suffer from this problem and Our America was at least aligned to the state standards. I too realized very quickly that the 1st edition had problems but I knew that I could teach around or through them. I also know that my students nearly drooled over the prospect of reading from them, which for those that are unfamiliar with today’s 6th graders is a very rare thing. So, once the factual errors were corrected I looked forward to using it. Unfortunately, the district I teach in has prohibited us from using anything from Five Ponds Press. So, my school has been forced to lock up cases of the revised book that Five Ponds sent free of charge to replace the 1st edition that was loaded with problems. We have been told to keep them rather than seek a refund because feelings about them may change. I am of course highly doubtful of this.
    I am offended by the errors in the 1st edition not because they existed but because they escaped the notice of so many and made it into my classroom. I am ashamed at the media for singling out the author of the book by name but not going after all the people that were supposed to check the work of this author. Finally, I am saddened that my students are being denied a tool to assist their learning. I agree that it is an imperfect tool but it is far better than the one with which I am currently saddled. I think any text is only a tool and that it is my responsibility as a teacher to use it as only a tool. I do not expect the text to replace me and my 3 college degrees and the years I have spent to continue learning. I just need a place where my student that does not have the internet can find out enough information to pass a test. I would love it if as Our America did it also inspires them to ask questions and discover the how and why of events but I also understand that this is truly my job as their teacher. This is why I have all my the students in my classes write reflections on what we learn in class. I do this to force them to make some connection to the facts we discuss in class. I do not care if these connections are silly or serious just as long as they show thought.
    Again, I am a teacher and I believe that part of my job as a teacher of history should not be getting my students to memorize facts but rather to think and I appreciate any tool even if it is highly flawed that will assist me in this task.
    PS> I hate that I feel the need to use an alias because I do not feel safe from reprisal by people in my system.

  2. psikeyhackr is a he. I was not claiming that the 25% was a fact I was just using it as a number to work with. I was assuming it was something less than 50% but I had no idea where to go looking for hard data on the subject.
    But even so I find it VERY INTERESTING that the question is almost never raised.
    But economics is still an issue. It is 42 years after the Moon landing. Are we supposed to believe that economists can’t figure out that planned obsolescence has been going on in cars for decades. What have they said about the depreciation of those cars since World War II? Economists don’t subtract the depreciation of those cars from anywhere in any country as far as I know.
    Did the United States get 3 million Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam War because economists can’t do algebra.
    And I don’t really understand this:
    History is not what’s true, but what we argue is true.
    Unless of course history is what some people lie about.

  3. I think a lot of human behaviour happens because of group think. There is no LOGIC to it it is just a matter of this is what my buddies are doing so I am going to do it too. But what has television done to group think and now we have social media. So what will happen to the global group think?
    To me the most curious thing about the slave owning confederate soldiers question is that it is not asked. I am sure I am not the only person that raised it. But I have never personally met anyone that raised it. And whenever I have asked it I have gotten a blank look. Like, that is a good question I have never heard it before. So why haven’t historians and history teachers brought it up A LOT.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Mr. psikeyhackr. You write: “To me the most curious thing about the slave owning confederate soldiers question is that it is not asked.” Except that I linked to not one but TWO entries on this site that deal with the very question you raise.
    I guessed that the number you raise was hypothetical, not based on your own research; that’s why I wrote that you asserted a “hypothetical fact.” But now that we have actual research before us, what do you think?
    Finally, you write:
    “And I don’t really understand this:
    “History is not what’s true, but what we argue is true.
    “Unless of course history is what some people lie about.”
    Here’s what I meant:
    History is, on the one hand, a collection of facts. Any given fact may be true or not true, or we may not know whether it’s true. Some facts come from reliable sources, others don’t, etc. Facts, in other words, are often a fuzzy business, even when we have them. Often we don’t.
    History is, on the other hand, more than just a collection of facts. Let’s say we have a fact and we KNOW beyond any doubt that it’s true. What then? What does it tell us? What does it mean?
    In order for history to mean anything, we have to put a bunch of facts together and make a narrative or an argument out of them. But other people can come along and put the same facts together into a different narrative or argument, right?
    I argue that my narrative is true and you argue that your narrative is true. And we do it from the same set of facts. This happens every day and it’s called history.

  5. {{{ Except that I linked to not one but TWO entries on this site that deal with the very question you raise. }}}
    This is a historical website. How much do most people care about history most of the time? The last time I took a history course was in high school. I was the kind of student that got straight A’s in mathematics and sciences but only bothered with a C in history because I didn’t regard it as that important or even interesting the way it was taught. I recall that history teacher insisted that the war was about preserving the union not freeing slaves. I didn’t care enough to argue. Given a choice I would have dropped history and taken accounting or more math.
    But I will think what I choose about history regardless of what the history teachers say. I also remember he asked what general said “nuts” to the Germans when asked to surrender at the Battle of the Bulge. I didn’t know then and don’t now.
    I tend to look at history as power games. There are no good guys. But the games require pawns. Lots of psychological conditioning of children to be dummies. So men fighting for the south when they didn’t own slaves is pretty silly to me. More than 500,000 dead. Ridiculous!

  6. Thanks for checking in again, psikeyhackr. I realize that this is a historical website, which is all the more reason for you to actually engage the history. You worry that everyone else refuses to think about these questions, but here — where they have been raised and where research and arguments presented — you refuse to respond. Instead, as you write, you will think what you choose about history. How is that any better than the people you rage against?

  7. Your statistics are based on one state. Would it be regarded as SCIENTIFICALLY SIGNIFICANT? And even so less than 50% of the men were involved with slave owning families. I don’t see how your historical evidence is very persuasive. That is the trouble with history. It is more a matter of people’s biases coloring their interpretation of history to support their biases.
    The Laws of Physics don’t care about the human race much less nations. But the US and the Soviet Union spent billions on nuclear weapons but economists on neither side can talk about how many billions are lost on the depreciation of durable consumer goods. Who decides what is important in HISTORY. LOL Can historians handle physics? Or economists for that matter?

  8. Psyikeyhackr, I’m not sure this conversation is adding up to much. You say that you don’t see how this historical evidence is very persuasive, but I ask you: persuasive of what? Tell me what you disagree with and how you read the evidence differently. Or provide new evidence. At least talk about the Civil War, not about nuclear weapons.
    And anyway, Professor Glatthaar’s evidence is about the entire Army of Northern Virginia, while Professor Sheehan-Dean’s entry talks about Virginia. Both are useful and interesting and deal with the question you raised.

  9. Since more than 50% of the soldiers in the known samples were not involved in owning slaves, winning the war for the south could not have served their interests very much. So they fought and died and suffered serious injuries FOR WHAT?
    So if the manpower of the Confederate army had been cut in half how would that have affected the war? History is at best a record of what did happen and we can’t change it. But people talk about learning from history. Doesn’t that mean figuring out when people in the past did something dumb and maybe we should try to understand why so we don’t do the same dumb stuff?

  10. It’s not for me to take one statistic and from that infer someone’s motives about going to war, or to presume to know someone’s best interests, or to presume that everyone who, say, didn’t own a slave had the same motives and interests. You are welcome to decide that something somebody did in history was “dumb,” but you need to do a much better job of understanding it first.

  11. Well considering that the slave owners lost their slaves anyway I do not comprehend your response. To me it sounds as though you think people should study history but refuse to think about it and thus learn nothing from it anyway.


Leave a Reply to Brendan Wolfe Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

Sponsors  |  View all