Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History

By Eagles, Charles W. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History


Eagles, Charles W., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History. By DAVID GOLDFIELD. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002. xiii, 354 pp. $34.95.

DAVID GOLDFIELD'S latest work provides a "series of thoughts" (p. 14) on southerners' memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction and how that historical consciousness has affected the South. In an honest concession at the outset, Goldfield declares, and readers should understand, that he wrote "primarily for my neighbors, not my colleagues" (p. 14) in the historical profession. He does provide a useful introduction to his topic, though the relatively abstruse abstractions in the first seventy-five pages may make them challenging for the layperson. Scholars will find much of what Goldfield presents conventional. To his considerable credit, he seems to have read widely and deeply, not just in southern history but also in literature, memoirs, and other published works.

The first and most difficult chapter explores southern memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction era and the resulting historical (mis)understandings. The "historical myth that dominated the South for a century" (p. 41), according to Goldfield, saw the war "as a holy battle" (p. 41), made martyrs of the defenders of the South, and viewed Reconstruction as a battle for southern restoration. Though white men had lost the war, the history/myth "became the elixir of the mind" (p. 41) that justified the restoration of white dominance of blacks and of white male dominion over women. The other nine chapters follow the history of that elixir.

In two chapters on religion, Goldfield tells how "God-haunted" (p. 43) whites after the war merged evangelical Protestantism and the Lost Cause and "bound the South to a false past" (p. 68). Though critical of the stifling and corrosive effects of southern religion, Goldfield also celebrates religion for finally liberating the South; more specifically, he credits black religion and the civil rights movement. Fighting the Civil War has not ended, however, because he decries continued religious dogmatism and orthodoxy today as "the new racism in the South" (p. 82), yet Goldfield hopes for a "progressive religion" (p. 88) that will allow a progressive history for white southerners.

After chapters on southern religion, Goldfield focuses on women and blacks and their relationships with the legacy of the Civil War. And the experiences of women and blacks were interrelated: "The white version of southern history created a new enemy, the black male" (p. 101), and the white male therefore had both to control black males and to protect white females. Goldfield explains the role of white women in supporting the orthodox historical myth and their use of "the pedestal as a liberating and empowering device" (p. …

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