- Southern Cross, North StarWhy the Middle Mattered—and Matters—in Civil War History
editor's note: The following represents the acceptance speech for the Watson Brown Prize for the best book published on the Civil War era in the calendar year 2016. Tad Brown, president of the Watson-Brown Foundation, awarded the prize to Christopher Phillips for his book The Rivers Ran Backward, published by the Oxford University Press. These remarks were given at the annual banquet of the Society of Civil War Historians (SCWH), held during the Southern Historian Association annual meeting on November 10, 2017, in Dallas, Texas. The SCWH judges and administers the book prize.
A half century after the coincidence of the civil rights movement and the centennial of the Civil War, cities in the former slave states and in the states of the so-called Lower North bordering them are struggling with the war's legacy. In the aftermath of the tragic mass murder of African American churchgoers in Charleston and police shootings and mobilized protests in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Ferguson, and Charlotte, the removals of Confederate battle flags and carved-stone monuments dedicated to its military leaders in Baltimore, New Orleans, Louisville, and St. Louis and Columbia, Missouri, triggered protests against "political correctness" and "historical vandalism." Many of these cities lie in what one historian called the Civil War's "borderland."1
Most recently, in another borderland city, Charlottesville, Virginia, the normally quiet home of a public university judged among the nation's best, self-described "Alt-Right" white nationalists (including several prominent University of Virginia graduates) bearing both Confederate and Nazi flags and vowing to "take our country back," held a "Unite the Right" rally to protest the city's decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, erected in 1924 following the semicentennial of the Civil War, from the newly renamed Emancipation Park. Violence ensued when they were met with [End Page 173] sign-carrying counter-protesters and armed National Guard, resulting in the tragic death of a counter-protester. Donald Trump, whose 2016 controversial election as the nation's forty-fifth president was accomplished mostly by carrying white voters in midwestern and southern states, further shocked many Americans by provocatively assigning equal blame for the violence to the counter-protesters and the white nationalists. Confusing history with heritage politics, Trump tweeted, "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments" and then doubled-down at a rally in Phoenix. "They're trying to take away our culture. They're trying to take away our history" he railed.2 As Philip Bump noted insightfully in the Washington Post, "By repeating the claim that Lee and Stonewall Jackson—generals who defended the Confederacy and its insistence on human slavery—are equivalent to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Trump echoed the equivalence he offered between neo-Nazis and those who'd come to Charlottesville to protest them."3 Many of those white nationalists who'd come, like Northern Kentuckian cum Northern Ohioan James Alex Fields Jr., were not from Trump Country's Confederate reaches.
The problem of race might be national, but the problematic legacy of the Civil War is still largely seen as sectional. Schoolchildren learn about the Civil War written as a binary—that the South lost to the North—with the Ohio River being a virtual extension of the Mason-Dixon line. Borders on this map are too easily drawn, separating northern states that fought the war for freedom from southern states that fought to preserve slavery. With few battlegrounds in their midst, whether war-related public sites, Confederate monuments, or civil rights commemorations, residents of states north of the Ohio generally breathe easy about the complicated legacy of that war, safe in the knowledge that former president Abraham Lincoln ended slavery and, like the painful struggle for civil rights, the war is a "southern" history and burden—until middle border people like Fields complicate that comforting story.
As a graduate student at the University of Georgia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in what seemed a bereft period lacking any moral...