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History – Not Heritage Not Hate (A Preface)

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.

Unidentified soldier in Union first sergeant's uniform with small child on lap. LoC.
Unidentified soldier in Union first sergeant’s uniform with small child on lap. LoC.

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.

It was this passage that made me want to return to the 1800s after spending five years writing the Civil War Daily Gazette, and write This Cruel War. 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 might be devoid of most ceremony, but there is often a doctrine of sorts. Of course, there is no Heritage Pope, and has never been a Holy Heritage Empire. I suppose there could be a Heritage Reformation, but that’s really taking the analogy to a ridiculous conclusion.

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. This makes sense, not only from a proximity stand point, but for the sake of convenience as well. 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.

Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with wife and daughters. LoC.
Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with wife and daughters. LoC.

Even if one had a notion to broaden their horizons, this can be done without tossing out the base religion thought institutes of higher religious learning, such as seminaries. Those with a deep and passionate defense of their heritage may take to books, just as a student of religion would take to the Bible, concordances, and church histories. However, this additional study is not done in an attempt to necessarily question their heritage, but to prop up their inherited faith in some seemingly logical way. After all, a person entering Seminary isn’t enrolling to become an agnostic.

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 unpleasantness. 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 a very good way of preserving the heritage we want to be remembered. However, it’s a pretty crappy way of studying history. In fact, it is not history at all.

Unidentified man, woman, and child. LoC.
Unidentified man, woman, and child. LoC.

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, and that’s always a good thing.

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. But more often than not, we do neither and sort of both at the same time. Instead, we become heritagists, 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.

Unidentified soldier in Confederate 1st lieutenant's uniform with wife and baby. LoC.
Unidentified soldier in Confederate 1st lieutenant’s uniform with wife and baby. LoC.

By becoming heritagists, 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.

This is, of course, bias – the bane of all historians. We all admit we have it, but mostly we’re just paying lip-service to the idea. To allow our biases and heritage to distort history as little as possible, we have to be vigilant and aware of the weird and tricky ways our mind so desperately wants not to change.

And so, in that spirit, I want to approach this blog like I would approach a scientific quandary. I want to follow the sources and not my heart. History doesn’t give a damn which military unit found my ancestors on its rolls. It doesn’t care at all what heroics and service they did. And that I do care can’t be allowed to get in the way of learning.

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 and actual 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.

That said, I hope you follow This Cruel War as you did the Civil War Daily Gazette.

Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters. LoC.
Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters. LoC.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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