Is the human race predestined to off itself in a vicious orgy of mass violence? Lawrence Wittner, professor of History at SUNY/Albany, thinks so. In a post for the History News Network’s blog, Wittner ruminates on the continued popularity of mass violence in the form of warfare throughout the modern world. Citing the over a hundred million deaths resulting from the two World Wars of the 20th century, the continued persistence of 21st century warfare in the Developing World, and the trillions spent on military buildup in the so-called First World, Wittner sees a dreary pattern of death and destruction that may spell the end of humankind in the near future. He’s particularly worried about the human propensity towards mass violence in a world where many nations continue to proliferate their nuclear arsenals.
A few years back — I think it was 2009 — I took a summer trip back home to the Youngstown, Ohio area after having endured my first few months of graduate school in Calgary, Alberta. While back home, I went to a biannual local event, the kind that attracts a certain breed of generally harmless miscreants: a Civil War reenactment. Granted, there are lamer ways to spend your time, but not many, and since I’m a historian who focuses on the Civil War era, viewing one of the more popular modern manifestations of the war in contemporary culture seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon.
In American history, everything is about race. Even when an issue has nothing to do with race, Americans of certain stripes will find a way to make it about race. A case in point is the August 16, 2013 murder of Australian national Christopher Lane by three teenagers in Duncan, Oklahoma. An outraged Australian press seized on the incident to criticize the widespread availability of guns in the United States, which allegedly resulted in a cold-blooded slaying by three kids who were “bored and didn’t have anything to do.” Meanwhile, as Adam Serwer observes, the various American right-wing media propaganda outlets, who specialize in stoking a completely fabricated persecution complex among the country’s privileged, white, Ralph Kramden clones seized on Australian reports that erroneously identified the three suspects as black to claim that Lane was gunned down by blacks specifically because he was white.
Over at the Slate Vault historical blog, Rebecca Onion has published an epic musical broadside ballad printed by Union partisans during the Civil War. The song and others like it mocked the foolish attempts of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to give the United States of America a proper smack-down, even as he used “big cannon balls” to “put in big licks.” Titled “Jeff Davis and His Uncle,” the song details a hapless Davis who “tried to whip his Uncle,” but failed miserably since “He hadn’t the courage for to Root Hog or Die.” Onion explains the “roots” of the ladder phrase as such:
The “Uncle” in the title of this ballad is “Uncle Sam,” a man who Davis “tried to whip, but found it wouldn’t pay.” “Root, hog, or die,” an expression that recurs in this song but that’s now largely forgotten (save, perhaps, by fans of June Carter Cash), derived from the farmer’s practice of turning pigs loose to forage for their own food. In the 19th century, Americans used the idiom to tell others to be self-reliant and strong or suffer the consequences.
This was just one of an endless series of popular song broadsides that circulated during the war. Partisans on both sides published wartime propaganda tunes of varying degrees of quality and classiness designed to stoke the passions of soldiers and civilians, politicians and officers alike. In a thoroughly informative new study of music during the Civil War, Christian McWhirter details the ways music served as a vehicle for patriotic expression, as a form of political protest, especially against the draft, and as a source of aural inspiration to get soldiers in the field to fight with more passion and vigor and civilians on the home front to sacrifice everything to the cause.
A somewhat less-violent modern-day equivalent of the use of music to inspire passion for your “side” is the ubiquitous presence of such overplayed anthems like Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Europe’s existential masterpiece with the synth line that will NEVER leave your head, “The Final Countdown,” and Metallica’s ode to nighttime beach-soil delivery, “Enter Sandman” at major American sporting events. Music at sporting events serves to rally the respective partisans of both teams to cheer more enthusiastically for their side and make repeat visits to beer stands for $8 cups of Miller Lite. Much in the way Civil War era music inspired Union and Confederate partisans to fight on, sports anthems help modern Americans rally behind something larger than themselves, even if the national stakes aren’t quite as high as they were in the 1860s.
But this doesn’t mean that songs aimed at political figures like presidents have ever vanished from the American popular landscape. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush inspired songs of loathing and loving, like Bright Eyes’ trite, if heartfelt critique of Bushism, “When the President Talks to God” and Pro-Dubya anthems like Darryl Worley’s even triter Bush endorsement, “Have You Forgotten?”
President Barack Obama has also received his fair share of support and loathing through music. Hank Williams Jr., who in the not-so-distant past was a country artist worth your attention, released a scathing anti-Obama anthem called “Keep the Change” that is about as subtle as a kick in the groin, while Bruce Springsteen performed his folky dirge anthem “Forward” at several Obama 2012 campaign rallies.
Music has always been a fixture on the American popular landscape. It has served as entertainment, artistic and political expression, and as an excuse to root for a bunch of guys in helmets crashing into each-other on a Sunday afternoon. As the above anti-Jeff Davis broadside and various pro and anti Bush and Obama tunes demonstrate, as long as Americans have had opinions about stuff, there has also been music created to spread those opinions. Go Cleveland Indians.
The United States has always had an uneasy relationship between capitalism and patriotism. As residents of the world’s preeminent materialist, consumer-driven society, Americans have often bent over backward to sanctify the act of consumption as a badge of honor and even American identity. After all, what could be more American than scoring a completely necessary 10 gallon tub of processed, imitation mayonnaise from Sam’s Club for the always low price of $15.95? Lets see some communist bread-line society compete with that kind of freedom!
Yet somehow, the notion that patriotism and freedom can be equated with capitalist consumption has never been wholeheartedly accepted by all Americans. This was especially true in Civil War Mississippi, a state where Confederate civilians and government leaders equated material sacrifice with patriotic devotion. Such an ideal meant making homespun, jarring your own food, and, in general, learning to live without as a way of mirroring the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers who gave their lives for their country on the battlefield. If those left on the home front, especially women, couldn’t give their lives, they could at least sacrifice material luxuries by not shopping at cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans, and Natchez. And there was a very particular reason why good Confederate patriots shouldn’t shop at those urban centers: by 1863, all were controlled by the occupying Union forces. Thus, to buy goods at Union lines was colluding with the enemy.
Fast forward a century and the ideals have been reversed: now its seen as patriotic to shop. In fact, it’s so downright American that malls might as well be secular places of worship, where every red-blooded American is baptized with the ring of every cash register and the swipe of every over-maxed credit card. The idea of “patriotic shopping” really took hold after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Heeding President George W. Bush’s urging of Americans to continue shopping lest the terrorists win, publicans like Salon posed the question “Is Shopping the New Patriotism?” In order to bounce back from the attacks, Salon stated, Americans needed to shop:
The question is, how exactly will people bounce back? There is no clearly defined enemy, as in World War II, that can compel citizens to volunteer for the armed forces. There is no pressing need to save every shred of rubber or paper to contribute to the war effort. How can Americans express their patriotic fervor? How will they pull together?
Maybe, by remembering what makes this country’s economy great — shopping. The suggestion may sound facile — but it also carries with it some possibilities for pyschological satisfaction. Resolute Americans can stand tall by refusing to despair, by holding on to their stocks and heading to the mall — by continuing to shop, even in the face of unthinkable terror.
While most Americans seemed all too happy to equate patriotic sacrifice with their inalienable right to super-size their order of six-piece McDonalds’ coagulated chicken globules and update their wardrobes with the latest designer shirts stitched together by non-unionized Third World toddlers, some were nonetheless uneasy about the idea of “patriotic shopping.” Writing for Mother Jones, Ian Frazier mocked such “all consuming patriotism” as an insult to his patriotic Civil War forebears, especially Union women, who “sewed uniforms, made pillows, held ice-cream sociables to raise money, scraped lint for bandages, emptied their wedding chests of their best linen and donated it all.” In comparison to this type of material sacrifice, Frazier viewed “patriotic shopping” was utterly hollow to the core. Commenting on his photo collection of American “patriotic consumption,” photographer Brian Ulrich similarly mocked the idea that “We need to call on the nation’s best shoppers to fight the terrorists.”
Frazier’s and Ulrich’s concerns about the absolute non-sacrifice of material consumption when measured up against “higher” ideals such as patriotism would have rang true in Civil War Mississippi. In this Union-occupied state, issues of consumerism and sacrifice were a source of intense wartime debate, particularly regarding how good Rebel women should show their Confederate patriotism.
From the moment the Federal army established itself as an occupational force in 1862, Mississippi women traded commodities like cotton at Federal lines in exchange for Union Greenback notes or other consumer items. They did this in defiance of Confederate law that explicitly forbade trading with the Northern enemy. To staunch Confederate nationalists, trading with the Yankees filled the enemy coffers with valuable cotton, but more symbolically, buying and trading at Union lines evidenced an unwillingness to make material sacrifices for the Confederate cause. Put simply: shopping at Union lines meant you weren’t a good Confederate. This was especially true for women, long idealized in popular culture as the true keepers of the South’s patriotic ideals.
Mississippi Governor Charles Clark said as much in his 1863 inaugural address when he told women that “the spinning wheel is preferred to the harp, and the loom makes a music of loftier patriotism and inspiration than the keys of the piano.” Confederates like Clark wanted women to show their patriotic sacrifice by relying on homespun rather than committing the treasonous act of buying and trading from Union lines. But Mississippi’s women didn’t abide. By 1864, the Daily Clarion newspaper out of Meridian, MS complained that “the rustling of fresh silk, the snowy handkerchiefs, the love of a bonnet, the light tap of prunella boot heels on our pavements” demonstrated women’s refusal to forgo shopping at Union lines in the name of Confederate patriotism.
Confederate women were all too happy to acquire good from Federal lines, even as they mouthed pro-Confederate sentiments. In a series of letters to her daughter, Raymond, MS native Eliza Sively berated fellow women who traded with Union forces at Vicksburg for being “crazy about Yankee goods” to the point of ignoring their sacrificial duty to the Confederacy. Yet, Sively apparently saw no hypocrisy at work when in June 1864 she told her daughter, Jane, “I will try and…get you some muslins from Vicksburg, you ought not to wear all your clothes and have them all ruined.” A month later, Sively scored calico dress patterns, shoes, corsets, and “a rite pretty pink muslin” for Jane —all from Yankee lines at Vicksburg and Memphis.
Amanda Worthington, a Washington County, MS planters’ daughter, claimed that “rather than go back into a union” with the Yankees, “I would have every man, woman and child in the Confederacy killed.” Nevertheless, when her sister went shopping in Union-controlled New Orleans, Worthington was overjoyed to get a copy of David Copperfield, photographs, linen dresses, two pairs of shoes, handkerchiefs, stockings, perfume, jewelry, fancy hats, and two custom-made silk dresses.
Natchez, MS resident Louisa Lovell, the hard-line Rebel wife of a Confederate colonel, justified her mass consumption in New Orleans by claiming, “we did a good deal of shopping as our wardrobes needed replacing very badly.” These women remained loyal Confederates, but they didn’t accept the notion that equated patriotism with material sacrifice. They recognized a certain absurdity in the idea that shopping had anything to do at all with patriotic devotion to one’s country, regardless of what blustery Confederate boosters advocated.
In the decades after the Civil War, as the pace of American capitalist development accelerated into the twentieth century, the association of American identity with consumerism only became more entrenched. Contemporary Americans now invoke their right to drink a Big Gulp from a 7 Eleven as evidence of their perceived cultural superiority over other nations. Just as it did for women in Civil War Mississippi, however, the notion of “Patriotic Shopping” still rings hollow — at least a few Americans. What exactly constitutes true patriotism is worthy of discussion, and is something I don’t have any easy answer for, but let’s shelve the idea that buying a discount dress from Macy’s is as much a patriotic duty as it is an act of good ole’ American vanity. Seriously, the terrorists don’t care what you wear.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m crazy about music. Music made by people who care about making good music. So I couldn’t resist combining some good music in this entry with a bit o’ southern history. If you haven’t heard of the Drive-By Truckers before, you need to remedy such an obvious personal cultural deficiency and get some of their albums NOW. That said, the Truckers are, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the finest American rock and roll bands of this or any other generation.
Hailing from Alabama, they often get tagged under the unfortunate banner of “Southern Rock.” While they do focus on the South in much of their recorded output, and make no bones about being proud of their Dixie heritage, their music goes much deeper than the mere Rebel-flag wavin,’ backwoods lifestyle pimpin,’ Murica’ lovin,’ jingoistic slop that Nashville is currently spewing out like a ruptured hernia. Indeed, the Truckers make uncompromising American, not southern, music, and they speak to a broader issue in American history that is well-worth addressing.
The title of this blog comes from a remark made by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman during the American Civil War. Referring to the notorious Tennessee-born former slave trader, Confederate Cavalry General, and later, prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Sherman growled in 1864 that “that devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the federal treasury.”
Forrest proved a constant thorn in the side of Union commanders in the Civil War’s western campaigns, and he remains a controversial figure in American history to this day. As a symbol of the support for the system of chattel slavery and racial oppression that birthed the Confederate States of America, Forrest is simultaneously derided by those who wish to move beyond the uglier events of America’s past and celebrated by those who want to wrap up the past’s wounds in factually relative, revisionist gauze.
Beyond competing memories of the Civil War’s tumultuous legacy, however, Forrest serves as a greater symbol of how the American past, in William Faulkner’s famous words, is “not even past.” History continues to influence contemporary discussions of everything from political debates to popular culture. This is because everyone has an opinion — however well or poorly informed — about American history. Even those who claim ambivalence or outright hostility to the study of the past will have a strongly worded stance on it once you prod them enough on their particular pet issue. Thus, historical figures like Forrest, and the symbols and ideologies evoked by such figures, continue to stir passions among the historically literate and illiterate alike. Depending on who you ask, and depending on the cultural context on which they base their opinions, Forrest is either a hero or a villain — his legacy either embraced or rejected.
In this respect, the symbol of “that devil Forrest” might well be applied to history itself. Indeed, history is that most nefarious of devils whose influence can be embraced or rejected, invoked for good or bad, used to justify peace or murder, freedom or repression. This blog, then, will tackle “That Devil History” warts and all to examine crucial issues in America’s past. Furthermore, it will also connect historical issues to contemporary ones to discuss the ways history is appropriated and refashioned to suit the needs of the righteous and the devious alike, the best and the worst in American society.
Thanks for reading. I’m looking forward to looking backward.