Ask the Experts: John Enyeart on the Civil War and labor unions
September 02, 2011
LEWISBURG, Pa. — John Enyeart, an associate professor of history, talks about the Civil War and labor history.
Q. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. You teach a history class on the Civil War. What issues do you explore with regard to how we remember the war today?
A. I read somewhere that most Americans' knowledge of the Civil War comes from Ken Burns' PBS documentary. In a way, that's good, because it's an amazing series and there's a lot right with it. But there's a lot wrong with it too. There are important differences between how Ken Burns is doing it and how professional historians do history, and I want to discuss those differences with my students. Part of the course focuses on Civil War and memory. We look at how academic and public historians do history, and how we understand our country's history in general.
The students are required to watch the Burns episodes and read a book of essays by historians responding to Burns. They learn that it's the little details, like how the food got to the troops, that were essential to winning that war and that you don't see on TV or in movies. One of the essays points out, for instance, that the key for Union victory early on was success west of the Mississippi River. But Burns focused more on McClellan in the East, because there are more records and photographs of the Army of the Potomac.
I focus most of this section of the class, though, on having the students explore the Lost Cause Myth — the idea that the South never really had a chance to win and the war wasn't really about slavery, that it was about an honorable people who were trying to maintain their way of life, like you see in Gone with the Wind. The myth came from Jubal Early, a general under Lee who led the Southern Historical Society in the 1870s; he was one of the first people to start writing histories of the Civil War. The idea can seem innocuous, but it's been told over and over again until slavery has become, for many people, one of the issues of the Civil War instead of the main issue of the Civil War.
Q. How do you critique the myth?
A. My favorite thing to do with students is to have them read the "Cornerstone Speech" by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy. On the eve of the war, he gave a speech that essentially said, "What we are fighting for is slavery." It's clear, right there: Slavery is the reason for the war. When students read the primary sources like this they can start to be more critical of stories like Gone with the Wind and more recent films like Cold Mountain.
We finish the semester by discussing Confederates in the Attic, a book about re-enactors and how the Civil War shapes people's memories today. A lot of the people interviewed are from the North, but they dress up as Confederate soldiers because they see the rebels as believing in something. They argue that most of the men who fought in the Confederacy didn't own slaves. That's true, but why was slavery so important? Ultimately, you're led back to white supremacy. If poor, white non-slaveholders could no longer consider themselves to be better than slaves, what did that say about their manhood or honor? When you see the Lost Cause Myth as turning the war into a story of honor, you start to see why it has become so persistent and pervasive.
Q. Why does how we remember the war matter today?
It still matters because in the United States we don't like to talk about our legacy of slavery too deeply and what it meant to be a slave society, what it meant to the Constitution. We gloss over it. Just last year, South Carolina was having secession balls. The N.A.A.C.P. protested, yet the governor insisted that the celebration was all about heritage. What's that heritage? Slavery. Some people think we've had the Civil Rights movement and society's all fixed now, but in many ways, we're still a country that doesn't believe in racial equality.
Q. You are a political and labor historian. How does labor history relate to the Civil War?
A. What it comes down to is that the Civil War was a war over issues of labor, and how to use land. Homesteading was a key demand of Northerners and freed slaves, having your 40 acres and a mule. Most Northerners wanted the free labor ideal, which includes ownership of land. They didn't want the expansion of plantations that would have come with a Southern victory. When you start to understand the competing labor systems behind the war, you see why slavery as an economic system was so pernicious and that a slave system undermines notion of the dignity of work.
Once you start pulling the strings on one myth, you learn how to examine other economic and political ideologies about labor and workers.
Q. Such as?
A. Right now the governors of states like Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin seem to have bought into the idea that cutting spending by cutting public employees' wages and dismantling collective bargaining is a good idea. The reality is that those public employees provide services. They provide education and defense. They're our teachers. They're our military. By supporting them, we are making investments in protecting our own private property — which is essential to the notion of capitalism. These politicians are looking only at spending and deficits. They're not doing cost-benefit analysis. They're just doing the cost analysis and thinking they can save.
The reason we get public services is that we need them. It usually isn't out of ideology that they're created or out of romantic visions, though sometimes that can be true. Most of the time it's a reaction to a public crisis, and we try to solve that problem.
Q. What aspects of labor history do you research?
A. I wrote a book on workers in the Rocky Mountain West from the 1870s through 1924. During that time, workers saw the first eight-hour day laws, among the first working men's compensation laws, among the first minimum wage laws. Workers were having great success getting these measures passed. Part of it had to do with women having the vote in the West. There were a number of women's unions. In a place like Butte, Montana, 90 percent of the population was unionized, and that included the women who did domestic work. These unions had strong influence on workers voting to getting laws passed. Why did that matter for the nation? Because the workers were able to move this labor legislation forward and show that it wasn't detrimental to economic growth.
Now I've moved on in my research to the 1920s through the 1950s, looking internationally at responses to fascism. For instance, Italian-American workers were raising money to help Italian anti-fascist refugees who were in Paris.
Q. What are the broader implications of the topics that you research?
A. You can have economic development but still believe in regulating businesses. Most people accept eight hours as a day's work now. In the 1890s that wasn't true. Most people, until recently, accepted collective bargaining as a way to avoid strikes. Collective bargaining is considered a human right, as a way to avoid tension and promote peace and for people to have decent wages, work shorter hours and make a good living. Collective bargaining was actually included the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The larger theme of my research on labor and of my teaching on the Civil War is really a notion of justice in the world, of being humane.
Interviewed by Molly O'Brien-Foelsch
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