What to chose for this week's topic? I could go with the usual CBF defense where people try to ignore the baggage that comes with using a racist symbol for their modern political ideology such as we saw on The Historic Struggle and now seems to be spilling over into Exploring the Past, but oddly enough not this blog. I could also go with the continuing saga of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who has decided that gay marriage is wrong and refuses to issue marriage licenses, a decision that has her sitting in jail. Then I could go with the removal of statues from the University of Texas which has some comparing it ISIS destroying ancient temples.
Obviously there is plenty to work with here. The removal of a JEB Stuart painting has some abuzz, but nothing really jumped out at me except for what will happen next week when PBS presents the remastered Ken Burn's The Civil War beginning on Monday, September 7th. My DVR is already set. I really enjoyed watching this series in 2010 when I took a Civil War class at Columbia College with William Carney as the professor. I did a lot of fact checking as I watched the series and realized that it was not perfect, but was still very accurate. Despite what some wish to belief it does not present a Lost Cause vision of the conflict, although it does not dispell it as forcefully as I wish it would have.
This series first premiered in 1990. This was two years after the release of James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, a masterpiece which earned McPherson the Pulitzer Prize. The historiography of this conflict has undergone a massive change since the 1980s when Burns was putting this series together. There is no doubt in my mind that he edited the film so that he would present the broadest interpretation to a wide audience. It was the biggest show in PBS history and cemented Burns' reputation for documentary film making. A lot of historians were involved in the research for the nine episodes which are jam-packed with information. They did not all agree on everything which is not a surprise for anyone who knows historians.
The Lost Cause and Southern Heritage crowd has spent the last 25 years claiming that Shelby Foote supported their views based on his clips in the episodes. This past week an individual named Mike Musick posted on Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory. Mike gave us some information which has literally shattered the idea of Foote as a Lost Causer. I will let Mike speak in his words:
Let me add a few words in defense of Shelby Foote and Ken Burns. I was
one of the advisers on the series, and vividly recall the several days
long meeting at a Washington, DC, hotel at which many of the advisers
were present to discuss an early version of Geoff Ward’s script. Since I
spent most of my time grubbing as an archivist in the stacks at the
National Archives, I felt somewhat like Cinderfella at the ball. It was a
chance to meet Shelby Foote, C. Van Woodward, Eric Foner (who left
after expressing outrage at what was then no mention of reconstruction),
Don Fehrenbacher (who noted his direct descent from a Union officer
killed during the war), Barbara Fields (she expressed disapproval of the
use of the demeaning word “flocking” to describe enslaved people coming
into federal lines), and many more. At one point there was an animated
discussion of the conflict’s causes, with state rights brought up. Foote
essentially ended the topic when he quoted N.B. Forrest as saying “If
we ain’t fightin’ for slavery, then I don’t know what we’re fightin’
for” – a quote, by the way, I’ve never been able to substantiate. The
emphasis he put on slavery was not reflected in his on-screen
I have no doubts that Burns tailored this series to fit the biggest audience he could. You know what? I am glad he did. This film inspired a lot of people to begin to look at history and this particular era. He pointed out the primary sources which people began to look at as the Internet entered more and more homes. If anything has destroyed the Lost Cause in the last quarter century, it has been primary sources and the easy access to them. The Civil War has been a major player in pointing that out.
Some people really dislike the Shelby Foote clips, but I think they were the highlight of the film. They drew people to it. Today you can go on YouTube and catch The Best of Shelby Foote which is a compilation of his segments. Not everything Shelby said was correct. The most noticeable was the United State are and is, but he may have believed that in the 1980s. Computer technology allowed for a study of that idea and it was shown to be false. Even with that said, a lot of what Foote said was right on target.
More than anything, Shelby Foote told stories. That is what drew people to him. That is history in a nutshell. Telling stories is something that goes back before recorded history. That is how history was passed down for generations and still is. I can tell you from firsthand experience that when I use stories to tell history to students they pay attention and remember it. When I am lecturing and throwing facts around left and right they don't remember them. Take a look at the instructors who students consider to be the best history teachers. Every one of them is a story teller. Burns was right to use Foote like he did.
I wish Foote were alive today. A master story teller could go a long way to eliminating some of the garbage going on with the CBF and all today. Many of them do exist, but right now the Causers have closed their ears to anything that they don't want to hear. I expect that next week we will hear some screams from them and others as The Civil War plays once again. We will hear the charges laid against Ken Burns that he supports the Lost Cause, but those that make that claim will be fools because Ken Burns states that the Civil War was about slavery.