Earlier this year, at the behest of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the State of Mississippi declared April to be Confederate Heritage Month. “It is important for all Americans to reflect upon our nation’s past,” read the proclamation, “to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow if we carefully and earnestly strive to understand and appreciate our heritage and our opportunities which lie before us.”
There is, of course, little with which to disagree – not least because there was little actually conveyed in the proclamation. However, This Cruel War plans to fully observe Confederate Heritage Month by attempting to understand not the movements of troops upon the field of battle, but how the Confederate forces and government treated black slaves and black United States soldiers. More than likely, this exploration will not be what the Sons of Confederate Veterans had in mind.
Heritage vs. History
Anyone with even a fleeting interest in the Civil War has heard the term “heritage” tossed around as almost a synonym for “history.” But in definition, they are two vastly different ideas.
The differences between the study of history and the honoring of heritage should be obvious. But in practice, the latter bleeds into the former, while the former informs the latter. It’s a relationship that can’t really be described as symbiotic, but doesn’t quite border on parasitic, either.
In his remarkably balanced book, John M. Coski, historian at the Museum of the Confederacy, had this to say concerning the argument between history and heritage:
“What is at stake is not so much history as heritage. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, they are in many ways opposites of each other. The discipline of history strives to present the past objectively, but acknowledges that historical interpretation is inevitably subjective and must evolve as new evidence and new perspectives emerge. Heritage is more akin to religion than history. It is a presentation of the past based not on critical evaluation of evidence but on faith and the acceptance of dogma. Heritage seeks to define and propagate Truth and often does so with the selective use of evidence. Heritage affirms the historical myths essential for national, cultural, or subcultural identity.” 1The Confederate Battle Flag; America’s Most Embattled Emblem by John M. Coski, The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005, p291.
Heritage as Religion
Coski put it so much better than I could (which is why I lifted the quote), but is he correct? Is Heritage really like a religion? In some ways, yes, of course. People cling to their heritage just as they cling to their religion. It is often dripping with ceremony, and there is most definitely a doctrine of sorts.
Heritage implies a bloodline – something one inherits from ancestors. Most peoples’ religion is taught by their parents, whose own religion was taught by their parents. Generation after generation passed down their beliefs to the next. It’s pretty easy to grow up with a specific religion and then practice that religion upon reaching adulthood. Things like doubts, questions, and change are unnecessary in such a situation. This is true in both religion and heritage.
Attached to religion, as well as heritage, are certain preconceived ideas. When diving into the books to learn more, it’s a natural tendency to disregard anything that doesn’t ring true to our closely-held beliefs. Likewise, when we see something that does in fact mesh with our notions, we hold to it, ignoring the information we’ve thoughtlessly tossed aside believing it unimportant.
For instance, history may teach us that our ancestors represented what we today view as something deplorable. It may even teach us that they were hateful – at least by our own standards. Heritage, however, can avoid such unpleasantries. We are, in the end, masters of our own beliefs. If we want to believe that hate and oppression were not part of our heritage, then that belief is true. Heritage is whatever we want it to be. It is our own construct, our own truth; it is what we believe. Anything counter to that need not be incorporated. Evidence, as Coski said, may be selectively used.
This is precisely how Confederate Heritage has been passed down. Certainly, bits (such as the black Confederate Myth) were added along the way, but at its core, Confederate Heritage is unchanged from the immediate post-war Lost Cause era. This is a very good way of preserving the heritage we wish to be remembered. However, it’s a pretty crappy way of studying history. In fact, it is not history at all.
History as Science
The study of history, then, must be more like the study of science. We must approach our topics with skepticism, even of our own hypotheses. We have to not only test our own ideas, but be open minded enough to test those in opposition. If the evidence is found to render our initial stance as inaccurate, we have to be humble enough to change – to admit we were wrong and that our argument was flawed.
But being wrong doesn’t mean that we ourselves are somehow flawed. Making such a discovery is exciting! We are learning history, and that’s always a good thing.
The Dilemma of Truth
The problem comes, then, when the heritage and history become incompatible. When we discover that one of the beliefs that we have always known to be true is actually incorrect, it can be crushing. We then have a decision to make.
We could decide to either ignore or accept this new evidence. More often than not, however, we do neither and sort of both at the same time. Instead, we become heritagists – devotees of a heritage cult, justifying the guarded past, and making excuses or exceptions for our ancestors. This is, in some ways, more dangerous to history than the simple denial of evidence.
By becoming members of this cult, we pick and choose the bits of history we want to hold as our own truth, and change or reject those facts that don’t support our heritage. By doing this, we invent a new story, wholly different from reality. In the end, it does dishonor to our ancestors and deals death to history.
Our ancestors were people – they had flaws and faults, loves, hates, and passions, just like we do. They also had a heritage, that ancestral spirituality based not upon facts, but upon what they chose to believe. They’ve passed that down to us, and in turn we want to believe in it as a way to somehow honor and remember them. But by learning history, it allows us to see our ancestors and our heritage in a much more realistic light.
It is a struggle, as most important things are. But in the end, for me, it’s more rewarding to study history than to prop up my heritage.
And with that, I hope you enjoy our coverage of Confederate Heritage Month – so named as it really has nothing at all to do with history.
This article was adapted from the very first article posted to this blog. You can read that here.
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|1.||⇡||The Confederate Battle Flag; America’s Most Embattled Emblem by John M. Coski, The Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005, p291.|