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THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: Triumph through Tragedy Phillip S. Paludati In 1968 the nation seemed to be coming apart. Black riots had recently wracked the major cities of the nation. Assassination had struck down Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy within weeks of each other. The Democratic convention had practically been a battleground where peace protesters clashed with Vietnam war supporters and police while delegates decried "gestapo tactics on the streets of Chicago." College campuses shook with the protests of students and faculty against the war and racism, the Kerner Commission warned of a society rapidly becoming two nations. Congressmen snarled bitterly at an administration that seemed willing to add to the over 40,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dead in a cause of dubious validity and even less hope of success. Still the war went on and the racial crisis burned. In this environment John S. Rosenberg, a young graduate student at Stanford University, one of the most militantly antiwar campuses in the nation, wrote an article which was published in the Spring 1969 issue of the American Scholar. It was time, Rosenberg asserted, to move "Toward a New Civil War Revisionism." Admitting that his opinions were colored by the problems of contemporary America he urged historians to recognize that over one hundred years after Appomattox blacks still had not achieved full freedom. Further, he suggested that the evils of the nation's Vietnam involvement might give new insight into discussions of the merits of the Civil War. Faced with such present realities Rosenberg insisted that the Civil War had gained little of lasting merit. Of its two achievements, union and emancipation, the first had been dubious, the second hollow. The 600,000 dead in the conflict had died in vain.1 Coming at such a time it is hardly surprising that Rosenberg's article should have contained the conclusions it did. Historians do not escape the events of their age. Neither do they erase from their writings the signs of their experience. Rosenberg, like Dreiser's Sister Carrie is "one 1 John S. Rosenberg, "Toward a New Civil War Revisionism," The American Scholar, XXXVIII (Spring, 1969), 250-272. The article has been reprinted in Gerald N. Grob and George √Ąthan Billias, Interpretations of American History (New York, 1972), pp. 459-79 and Annual Editions, Readings in American History '73-74 (Guilford, Conn., 1973), pp. 262-68. 239 240CIVIL WAR HISTORY of us." Yet if the article was understandable it is not for that reason defensible . Historians as sensitive human beings can hardly escape making moral judgments about the events of their time. But even as historians profoundly opposed to both war and racism, they do have a responsibility to describe and assess events not just with compassion or outrage but with their most critical intelligence. Rosenberg's humanity overwhelmed his professional judgment. The consequence is harmful not only to the writing of history but to the very causes he seeks to serve today . It is not Rosenberg's presentism and ethical concerns per se which betray him. It is a poorly executed presentism. Historians can and should choose topics which reflect their profoundest concerns as citizens , but that choice need not shape the results of their scholarship. In fact when they warp the past to suit their present hopes they may damage the cause they hope to advance. Topics such as the condition of the Negro or the Indian in America, the origins and dimensions of poverty, the sources of American wars are vastly preferable in terms of an ethical or socially responsible use of time to the irrelevances which too often attract us. That we should choose topics of modern concern however, does not mean that our research should demonstrate that Negroes, and Indians were always wise, brave, and noble that the rich are evil and the poor virtuous or that wars are always as despicable as the war in Vietnam.2 History can serve as a tool for understanding contemporary crises. It can provide alternative experience to weigh against our own. It can raise questions about analogous situations. But it cannot do these things if we do not tell even the harshest truths...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 239-250
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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