Chapter 39 – How and Why to Study History
By Clyde N. Wilson, Ph.D., S. I. S. H.
How to study history has been a passion of co-editor Howard Ray White, a retired chemical engineer who became interested in history at midlife. He emphasizes biography, judging the character of important leaders, looking at what they did instead of what they said, keeping history in strict chronological order to see action, reaction, action, etc. (cause and effect), sorting propaganda from fact. He purposefully transports himself back in time to the era being studied, choosing to know what people of that era knew, forgetting subsequent history for the moment. Dr. Wilson has taught truthful history all his life. This editor considers him an expert of the highest order. So pay close attention as he gives worthy instruction concerning “How and Why to Study History.” And keep in mind that, if a student, you will soon be in charge of leading America, sifting through propaganda in search of truth. You must know the past to wisely steer forward. Dr. Wilson explains “How and Why to Study History,” using as the basis of his instruction the hugely confusing story of the War Between the States.
How and Why to Study History
How should 21st Century Americans T\think about the War Between the States? We human beings are peculiar creatures, half angel and half animal, as someone has said. Alone among creatures, we have a consciousness of ourselves, of our situation, and of our movement through time. We have language, and by symbols can communicate knowledge to one another and across generations. We can learn something about humans from the Divine Revelation in the Bible. We can also learn something by scientific examination of our physical selves. But most of what we know about human beings is in our knowledge of the past. But what kind of human “knowledge”? – truthful knowledge or accepted propaganda? You see, what makes us human is our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, and that is the theme of this chapter. As a philosopher puts it: we must live forward but we can only think backward. I am, of course, making a plea for the importance of history, or to be more exact, historical memory, something that is undergoing catastrophic destruction today in the United States.
People without truthful knowledge of their past would be scarcely human. What makes us human is the culture we inherit. It has been truly said that we are what we remember. Let me emphasize: What we remember determines what we are. What we take from the past is crucial to our identity. And it follows, as Dr. Samuel Johnson said, that there is hardly any worse crime against humanity than to falsify its records.
Every society of any worth has revered those who came before. Romans, in their period of greatest freedom and achievement, kept images of their ancestors by the fireside as minor gods. The Greeks at their highest point thrived in a belief in a Golden Age of Heroes that preceded their own lesser times. Perhaps you know of personal ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. Then be proud that those ancestors not only won a place in the hearts of us, their descendants, they also won the lasting admiration of everyone in the civilized world who values courage, skill, sacrifice, and an indomitable spirit in defense of freedom. They are admired by the world to a degree seldom granted to lost causes. I find that thoughtful Europeans speak respectfully of the Confederacy, as did Winston Churchill. Foreigners have a great advantage in judging the right and wrong of the War Between the States. They do not start out with the automatic assumption that all the good is on one side and all the bad on the other.
Lord Acton, an English historian who published many deeply-researched volumes on the history of liberty, wrote to General Lee in 1866. The defeat at Appomattox, Acton said, was a blow to the entire civilized world because it had reversed the progress of humanity toward constitutional liberty. And Lee replied: “All the South has ever desired was that the Union, as established by our forefathers, should be preserved and that the government, as originally organized, should be administered in purity and truth.” But there has long been a campaign within our society aimed at wiping out our historical memory and replacing it with a made-up history that serves the political and social needs of a multicultural empire.
And what do we mean when we say a war is “about” something? Was the American Revolution “about” the price of tea? Was the War Between the States not also “about” economic interests, as was believed by a former generation of historians, or cultural conflict, or constitutional questions, or issues of invasion and defense?
Most current historians seem to be invoking a doctrine of “the Lost Cause Myth,” which claims to explain that everything favourable that anyone believes about the Confederacy is false, manufactured propaganda. According to this rendering, Confederates were evil people who tried to destroy the best country on earth to preserve slavery. Not only were they evil, but they were weak and stupid. They made a pathetic effort that was inevitably defeated. Then after the war, those evil Confederates, it is claimed, made up a mythology about a supposedly honourable and heroic “Lost Cause” which never really existed. In other words they covered up their bad deeds and failure with a pack of lies packaged as “The Lost Cause.” In order to understand truthful history, which is keenly important, the student must be discerning and sort truth from falsehood. Often all that is needed is good common sense. The records are there to be examined.
The biggest American myth is that of Lincoln, which is untrue and pernicious. But Americans have experienced another myth, now mostly forgotten. For a long time, from the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s, Americans enjoyed a comforting myth about the war. North and South agreed that it was a great tragedy, with good and bad on both sides, which had fortunately resulted in a stronger, united country. This was a good myth – a myth of reconciliation and harmony that allowed the national memory to cope with an immense and ugly event. Those days are gone forever. The Lincoln myth and the myth that the War was “about” slavery, end of story, dominates the teaching of history.
Victors write the history and the first prevailing interpretation of any great event is that the winners were the good guys and the losers the bad guys. With the passage of time and research by trained and supposedly dispassionate historians a more complex and balanced picture emerges. It is seen that the winners were not always angels and that the losers actually had something to be said for their side. This kind of revisionism governed the understanding of the war for much of the 20th century. But now there is a concerted effort underway by so-called professional historians to deny and denigrate the extraordinary heroism and sacrifice of the South in that war.
The Southern understanding of the Constitution was never refuted, and it can’t be. It was simply crushed. Preserving the Union? You cannot preserve the Union, or government of, by, and for the people, by a massive military invasion that destroys the constitutional, democratically elected governments of nearly half the states and converts them into conquered provinces with puppet governments and their citizens deprived of rights. The most basic simple fact about the war is that it was a war of invasion and conquest. Once you get clear on this basic fact, all other truths tend to fall into place. This is no secret. It is plain in the record. The Northern war party openly declared that it was a war of conquest, to crush resistance to government, to promote a powerful state, and to keep the South as a captive source of profits. People love Lincoln’s pretty words because they put a happy face on a great crime.
Furthermore, historians’ assumption about the Northern public’s support of the war is wrong. We are led to believe that the opposition consisted of a few Copperhead conspirators and the New York City draft riots. Not true. Northern opposition to the war was much more widespread, more respectable, and more articulate than that. This is the biggest untold story in American history. It was a Republican Party war. Lincoln and his supporters knew that their support was shaky and they saw conspirators under their beds every night. We know about the suppression of newspapers and arrest of dissidents by the government without any legal due process. What does it tell us that detention of the Chief Justice and of a former President were seriously considered? Dissent was suppressed not only by the military but by violent mobs of Lincoln supporters. Lincoln bought support with patronage on a scale previously unimaginable in the United States. The supposed “loyalty” of the Border States has been greatly exaggerated. Why did all the Border States including West Virginia start electing ex-Confederates and Democrats to public office as soon as the Federal army left?
Here is something else to keep clearly in mind as a vital part of the history of the South. It took 22 million Northerners four years of the bloodiest warfare in American history to conquer 5 million white Southerners. Confederates mobilized 90 per cent of their men and lost nearly 30 percent. Not only Confederate self-government but more than half of the property of its citizens was lost. The war impoverished the South and enriched the politically connected in the North. Foreign visitors to the North in 1861-1865 said that they could see little sign that there was even a war going on.
Confederates were true heroes. Man for man they marched harder, risked their lives more often, fought better, endured impossible hardships, and won many battles against superior forces. Let me give you a comparative statistic. About 12,000 North Carolinians lost their lives in World War II. If we project the loss of men in the Confederate War against the larger population of World War II, as a percentage, it would require 300,000 North Carolina deaths to equal the State’s loss of men in the 1860s. No other group of Americans has EVER made a sacrifice that remotely approaches that of the South in its war for independence. Losses of the North in that war, a huge 400,000 deaths, larger than the United States in any other war, are negligible when compared to the South as a percentage of population. Very late in the war, when defeat seemed inevitable, Northern generals were complaining that the Confederate soldier refused to give in and admit defeat, that Southern women remained indomitable in spirit, and that Southerners from the richest to the poorest were determined to keep on.
Southerners are too quick to be generous in their accounts of the war, and thus detract from the honour due their forefathers. One example is the so-called great Union victory at Gettysburg. Some victory! Lee’s army maneuvered freely on enemy territory for several weeks, even though the nearest Union army outnumbered him greatly and there were several other sizable Union armies within a few days’ march. The Confederate army spent three days attacking a much larger force on its home territory and barely failed of victory. Then stopped attacking and went home. Lee’s army trekked back to the Potomac with vast herds of cattle and hogs, a 50-mile long wagon train, prisoners, and wounded, in knee deep mud without any serious harm from the larger, supposedly victorious, army, and remained an undefeatable fighting force for more than a year longer. Furthermore, something like 5,000 black men, bond and free, accompanied the Confederate army to Pennsylvania – and back. The British observer Col. Fremantle observed one of these men marching a Yankee prisoner to the rear. He wondered what the abolitionists in London would think if they saw that.
Finally, we come to slavery and the noble crusade to free the suffering black people. How can the war be “about” slavery when the government formally declares that it is not fighting to free the slaves but to preserve the power of the politicians in Washington? And it would seem that the vast majority of Northern soldiers doing the fighting agreed. Certainly no Confederate thought he was fighting just to preserve slavery. In fact, by the third year of the war many Southerners would have willingly given up slavery to secure independence.
Confederates were truly admirable, and decent people all over the world know it. Historians need to tell that story. And, if an inquisitive student, you need to find it, dig it out. Use this booklet as a jumping off place. Then march forward.
Regarding “How” to study history the inquisitive student must be discerning and investigate diligently. Regarding “Why” to study history, be assured that productive citizenship and personal liberty requires truthful knowledge of it.
Suggestions for Class Discussion
How does a student of history sort truth from falsehood, the right story from the propaganda? Why must the student transport himself or herself back into the times of the history being studied to truly understand the events of that era?
When seeking to understand the War Between the States, look for histories and biographies written before 1940. The era of 1900 to 1940 will provide the most truthful histories and biographies.