Monday, April 9, 2012

Is the Lost Cause unique?

Today, April 9th, is significant to me for two reasons.  First, as a Civil War historian, it is the 147th anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.  This traditionally marks the end of the Civil War, though fighting would continue on until June in Texas and indeed November when the CSS Shenandoah gave up her round-the-world sailing mission against United States shipping.  It is also the supposed start of the Lost Cause, the historical vindication of the Confederate cause.  Lee's statement to his troops that "overwhelming numbers and resources" had bested them rather than any shortcomings in their cause, spirit or materiel.

Secondly, as a Canadian, it makes the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.  I was told as a youth that this was Canada's nation-making moment.  Canadians seized and held this important point on the Western Front which had resisted British and French attempts to take it.  It combined all four Canadian divisions in France for the first time, was largely planned by Canadian leaders, and executed by well-trained Canadian troops.  Afterwards, the Canadian Corps would be the most feared Allied unit, rivaled by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC)s.  After the war, Canada would stand as an independent nation.

Such sentiments boil my blood.  Each legacy is fundamentally flawed to the point of dishonesty.  To start, many groups did not participate in the same war or at all in the portrayed event.  The Lost Cause obscured the huge divisions in the South over secession.  To cite only the most obvious examples, West Virginians, Marylanders, and Delaware troops stood with Grant at Appomattox, while Marylanders and other Virginians surrendered with Lee.  Also, United States Colored Troops - many of whom had been slaves four years before - also observed their former masters' capitulation.  Lost Cause enthusiasts (I won't call them historians) merely exclude southern Unionists as traitors or non-existent, while maliciously insisting that blacks fought for the same Confederacy trying to keep them in bondage.  They also portray the home front as unified and happy, even dignified before the 'evil Yankees' showed up.  Civil War historians have sought to correct these images with, I'm happy to say, great success if controversy in public circles.

Canada is no better.   The Canadian troops who stormed up Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 were overwhelmingly white and English-speaking.  A handful of First Nations participated, despite efforts by white recruiters to keep them out of the war.  A paltry few Asians or blacks were there too, most of the latter in (of all things) a forestry unit.  Moreover, women and the home front experienced it too, although differently.   Even fewer Quebecers were there, most of them in the 22nd Battalion - now the famous Royal 22nd Regiment or the Van Doos (Vingt-Deux = 22 in French).   They, far more than the others, did not share in feelings of nationhood.  Quebec opposed the war from the start.  They resisted volunteering, or anyone from volunteering. In fact, anti-war feeling ran so high that separatist feeling began and persists to this day.  The memory of the battle, moreover, carried on along these lines.  So, Vimy Ridge can hardly be called a nation-building experience since only part of the country, admittedly the dominant part of it, went through it.  

In this vein, much of Canada's history resembles the Lost Cause.  However, I think all history is like this.  Every society seeks a usable past in order to foster unity, communication and pride.  No one likes being the bad guy.  So, in every society, people write the history that they wish to express.  Sometimes they are careless, other times they have economic interests at heart (what I call the "chamber of commerce" version of history), and sometimes they are malicious in implying unity where it never existed.  Sadly, no matter how many solid, professional-standard histories are produce, this trend will continue.  So, the Lost Cause and Canada's history are reflections of a near-universal trend.

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