Seven Myths of the Civil War: An Interview with Dr. Wesley Moody

When I first began teaching at Florida State College at Jacksonville in 2010, Dr. Wesley Moody was a senior historian who became both my mentor and my friend. Always in a coat and tie, with a conservative, formal approach to dealing with students and teaching, Wes is very much a professor in the classic or traditional sense. He values scholarship, seeing it as essential for high-quality instruction, and so although he has tenure, he nevertheless pushes himself to engage constantly in high levels of scholarly productivity. If one did not know him, that person would never realize just how friendly he can be. He is from north Florida, born and raised, as his southern accent makes clear, and his easy-going style when socializing can be both charming and disarming. He is a top-level historian and his work has won high praise from the likes of James McPherson, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, but he is also not above using the phrase “y’all” in a private conversation. 

As a young man studying at the University of Southern Mississippi, Wes initially envisioned a career in law enforcement, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice in 1997. It was at Southern Miss that he met his wife Beth with the couple marrying in 1998. It was not long after Wes’ graduation that the young couple made the decision that Wes should pursue his passion- history. He enrolled in a MA program in history at the University of West Georgia, focusing on the American Revolution and graduating in 2002. Then Wes pursued his Ph.D. at Georgia State University, focusing on the legacy of Civil War general William T. Sherman. It was while Wes was studying at Georgia State that he applied for his current position at Florida State College at Jacksonville and was hired in 2007. While teaching full time at FSCJ, Wes completed his dissertation and graduated with his doctorate from GSU in 2009.

In the eight years since Wes graduated with his doctorate, he has produced no less than four books, averaging one every two years. All of them have been published with academic presses and all have been well received. They include his 2011 work Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History (a History Book Club Selection); his co-edited (w/ Adrienne Sachse) 2012 work The Diary of a Civil War Marine: Private Josiah Gregg; his recent 2016 work The Battle of Fort Sumter and the Origins of the Civil War; and most recently, his soon to be released (September, 2017) work Seven Myths of the Civil War.

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It is his most recent work, Seven Myths of the Civil War, with Hackett Publishing, that I would like to focus on here. This project originated as the result of several “water cooler” conversations between the two of us at work. In our case, if students do not visit us during our posted office hours, Wes and I are usually discussing history, good books, and our current projects. As I am a series editor (along with Alfred J. Andrea) for Hackett Publishing’s Myths of History Series, I am always on the lookout for good historians who might be willing to contribute a worthwhile book for the series. It is a series that focuses on dispelling popular myths about important historical topics, by contrasting popular understandings with the current state of scholarly research on a topic. Historians tend to view most historical events or phenomena quite differently from the public, and so the books in the series seek to explain both the origin and evolution of popular myths as well as the evidence historians cite in their disagreements with those popular myths.

Naturally, a book on the American Civil War is an excellent candidate for a series like this, as there exist many popular myths about the topic. Moreover, Wes seemed like an ideal historian to oversee such a project, and after many conversations, he finally relented and agreed to my requests to edit the volume. Wes then recruited several leading historians to write six essays dealing with various popular myths of the Civil War, while Wes himself authored both the introduction and the seventh essay. The fruit of his labors will be realized in September of 2017, the scheduled publication date of the book (both in paperback and hardback).

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“Readers of this book who thought they knew a lot about the U. S. Civil War will discover that much of that they ‘knew’ is wrong.  For readers whose previous knowledge was sketchy but the desire to learn is strong, the separation of myth from reality is an important step toward mastering the subject.  The essays will generate lively discovery and new insights.”
James M. McPherson, Emeritus, Princeton University

Wes and I, both teaching at a southern college, realized the potential for controversy over such a book. Academic history and popular history often clash in their perspectives of past events, and one of the hottest and touchiest topics is how modern Americans interpret the U.S. Civil War. Is it true that “Slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, which was really only about ‘states rights’” as some suggest? Or that large number of blacks fought in the Confederate army, which proves that he war was not about slavery? Or that Ulysses S. Grant was only effective on the battlefield because of his disregard for the lives of his troops, earning him the nickname “Grant the Butcher”? These and other questions are carefully considered by the historians Wes recruited to contribute to his book.

Fortunately, Wes has agreed to respond to some questions about his forthcoming volume, giving us a preview of what we might expect when the book is finally available in print in September.

Question 1: Tell us about your background a bit. Why did you make the switch from criminal justice to history? Why and how did you become interested, more specifically, in Civil War history?

Thank you for the kind introduction.   To make a long story short, the Criminal Justice path just did not work out.  I am a firm believer that things happen or do not happen for a reason.  I could not be happier with where I am and what I am doing, so I look back and thank God for my failures that caused me to completely change paths.

My initial idea was to go back to school and take just enough courses for a high school teaching certificate.  However, after a few graduate level courses I was hooked.  I was particularly motivated by Dr. John Ferling.  Besides being a great teacher, he was a true scholar.   Dr. Ferling has published over a dozen books on the American Revolution and Early Republic.  His book on the 1800 Presidential Election is the best book on the subject.  My goal is to write quality books like Dr. Ferling, but more.  This is going to be difficult as he keeps cranking them out.  

When I started my Ph.D. program, I was going to continue specializing in the American Revolution.  However, we lived in Jonesboro, Georgia.  The town itself was a Civil War battlefield.  I was literally surrounded by Civil War history.  I was drawn in, especially by General Sherman the man who looms larger than anyone in Georgia Civil War history.

Question 2: Tell us about the authors you recruited to write chapters for your book? Briefly, what does each of them cover in their chapters? I know recruiting authors for an edited volume can be something of an adventure at times. How did they respond when you told them of the proposed volume?

We have a wide range of authors.  I have to give a great deal of credit to Hackett Publishing for this.  They have a great reputation and are extremely professional.  When you have an organization that writers want to work with, recruiting becomes easy. 

I wrote a chapter on General Sherman.  The myth surrounding Sherman was that he invented a new type of warfare, where civilians and infrastructure are targeted.  What we would call today Total War.  Not only were Sherman’s tactics pretty standard for the Civil War, as a medieval historian you know the idea that the Civil War was somehow more brutal than earlier conflicts is a little silly.

I was very lucky in that for two of the myths I chose for the book, I happened to be friends with the leading authorities.  One of the myths is the idea that the Civil War was fought strictly on battlefields between uniformed armies.  There was a vast, ugly brutal war that went on outside of the famous battles.  Barton Myers from Washington and Lee University has written some interesting books on the guerilla war in North Carolina.  Washington and Lee is a school and a community that takes Civil War history seriously.  To be the Civil War historian at Washington and Lee is an honor.  His chapter deals with irregular warfare throughout the war.   Benjamin Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity is the book on Civil War prisons and how they are memorialized, which is complicated and controversial.  Dr. Cloyd has moved up to administration so we were very lucky to have him write this chapter for us before he is buried in the day to day running of his college.

There is a chapter on Ulysses S. Grant and his military reputation.  The myth is that Grant had no strategic skill and that he just overwhelmed with numbers, allowing his men to be slaughtered.  I contacted the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library at Mississippi State University.  They were kind enough to recruit Edward Bonekemper, a respected authority on Grant’s military campaigns in the east. 

That worked so well, that when I needed an authority on Abraham Lincoln I contacted the Lincoln Presidential library in Springfield Illinois.  Ian Hunt, the Chief of Acquisitions and Research agreed to produce a chapter.  He very effectively dispelled the growing myth that Lincoln was a racist with no concern for the plight of African Americans.

Michael T. Bernath, a Harvard-trained historian at the University of Miami, addresses the issue of States’ Rights as a cause of the War.  Like all the chapters, this could have easily and has been a full length book on its own.  Dr. Bernath comes at it from one particular angle.  He shows the desire for a strong central government within the Confederate States of America, a situation that throws a little cold water on the theory that the driving motivation for the war was a central government getting too strong.  Dr. Bernath came highly recommended and he did not disappoint.

I read a blog by Brooks Simpson, one of the leading historians of the American Civil War, about the growing myth of black men serving in the Confederate army.  He was very passionate about it and convinced me that the myth had to be included in this book.  I emailed Dr. Simpson who very quickly agreed to write the chapter.   

Question 3: What is a “myth” in the context of your book? Can you give us an example of a popular myth related to the Civil War and how it emerged? Broadly, what causes various groups to embrace certain historical myths related the Civil War?

What we mean by a myth is a story that has emerged that portrays the Civil War in an inaccurate light.  All of the myths covered in the book are historic ideas accepted by many people today but which specialists in the field reject.

There is a common truism in the field, that the writing of history tells us as much about the writer as it does the event.  We see past events through the prism of who we are and where we are.  This does not mean that history cannot be accurate.  I am not a postmodernist.   John Brown is a controversial Civil War figure that has been portrayed in many different ways, from a crazy radical to a man whose foresight ended slavery in America.  He was a real person with real motivations.  Some authors are wrong and some are correct in their portrayals.  Today’s events may help an historian see Brown more accurately as easily as they do the opposite.

History is a tool to talk about today.  That the South was fighting for States’ Rights is a huge myth.  Most Southern leaders are on the record at the start of the war that slavery was the only issue.  Southern newspapers editorialized that war was necessary to defend slavery.  The idea that it was a war to preserve Jeffersonian ideals of a small central government emerged only after the war was over.  The men who fought for and supported the Confederacy created that myth; they wanted to be remembered for fighting for a cause more noble than slavery.  Their children furthered this belief.  People who believe it today do so because they, as we all do, view history through the prism of their experience.  The major political issue for many today is that the Federal government is too big and too powerful.  That men took up arms against that in 1861 makes sense.  To them the Confederate battle flag represents a defense of the noble aims of the Founding Fathers, not slavery.       

Question 4: Which two chapters in your book will potentially be the most controversial?  Who will find them controversial and why?

Dr. Simpson’s chapter on Black Confederates is going to controversial.   In this day and age anything dealing with race is provocative.   There are Southerners who feel they have to justify the cause of the War to take pride in their ancestor’s actions.  If they can show that black men fought for the Confederacy how could it possibly be a war fought to keep men enslaved?  This is a myth that is relatively new, so there is still a lot of energy in this fight.

Dr. Cloyd’s chapter on Civil War prisons will stir up some readers.   Prisoner of War camps have been a controversial issue since the war and little has changed in the last 160 years.  Dr. Cloyd challenges myths held in both the North and South, potentially doubling the number of people he angers.  The prisoner of war issue comes down to who holds the moral high ground.  The importance of that cannot be overstated. 

Question 5: Why is it important to dispel myths about the Civil War? Why does it matter?

History can be a weapon.  It has been and will continue to be used as justification for all types of things good and bad.  A better understanding of history will not change that but the more people who know and understand true history; well at least it becomes more difficult to misuse history.  

People are still very passionate about Civil War history.  The removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans almost became violent.  Had it, the tragedy would have been that both groups were fighting over what they thought the other group believed. 

I recently watched a rather bad science fiction show about time travel.  The plot was like any other, where the protagonists ran around trying to change back history after they had inadvertently changed it by time traveling.  There was a good analogy in the otherwise terrible movie.  They referred to history as wet cement.  If it sat too long it hardened and could not be changed back.   The writing of history can be seen the same way.  The longer the myth sits, the more classes it is taught in, the more magazine articles discuss it as truth, the more times the myth is referenced without challenge the concrete sets and it becomes permanent.           

Image Below: Wes and his four children at the Olustee Battlefield State Park, March 2016.

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