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The battle over history

Books | The politicization of history requires that we reassess it

Issue: "Cleaning up Longview," Nov. 23, 1996

Politics intrudes in almost every aspect of life today, including the study of history. Indeed, few issues generate more conflict than the attempt to control how Americans understand the past.

In Possessed by the Past, David Lowenthal studies what he calls "heritage crusades," as groups capture and distort history for political purposes. Traditionally, he argues, it was families that conserved elements of heritage. But now, he writes, "heritage over the past two centuries, most notably over the last two decades, has come to denote what we inherit and bequeath less as individuals than as collective entities." And thus enters politics, as in the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit of the Enola Gay. One may disagree with some of Mr. Lowenthal's contentions while agreeing with his conclusion: "We cannot escape dependency on this motley and peccable heritage. But we can learn to face its fictions and forgive its flaws as integral to its strengths."

Attempting to reassess the victors' history of the Civil War usually force-fed to students is Jeffrey Rogers Hummel. His book Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men offers not so much new facts as new interpretations. For instance, he distinguishes the South's two waves of secession. The seven Deep South states went out over their fear about the future of slavery. The outer four--Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia--left after Lincoln issued militia calls in order to coerce the others into submission. Writes Mr. Hummel, "Previously unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery, these four states were now ready to fight for the ideal of a voluntary Union."

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Mr. Hummel also asks whether the war was necessary. He argues: "As an excuse for civil war, maintaining the state's territorial integrity is bankrupt and reprehensible." In his view, only the abolition of slavery could conceivably provide such a justification. But, as Mr. Hummel points out, of more than a score of slave-holding societies, only America and Haiti uprooted the institution through violence. He believes that slavery's ultimate extinction was inevitable.

Supplying the military details largely absent

from Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men is William Davis's The Battlefields of the Civil War. This oversize volume is nicely written and lavishly illustrated. Admiral David Dixon Porter covers the life of one of the war's most talented sailors. Chester Hearn shows how Adm. Porter earned important victories at New Orleans and Vicksburg, but accumulated almost as many enemies as friends. His story is a fascinating one.

Also well worth a read is Gary Gallagher's Lee: The Soldier. In it Mr. Gallagher collects essays from leading acolytes and critics of Robert E. Lee, the South's leading soldier. Gen. Lee stands up well under attack, and Mr. Gallagher himself seems to get Lee right: "The greatest single obstacle to Northern victory after June 1862 was R.E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Without Lee and that famous field command, the Confederate experiment in rebellion almost certainly would have ended much sooner." Mr. Gallagher has produced a finely balanced volume that seeks an honest assessment of someone whose status as demigod has itself generated political controversy.

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