Over the next few years – with the sesquicentennial of the United States Civil War – there will be more of a focus on ancestors who fought in the conflict as well as those ancestors who supported certain causes and movements such as states’ rights or the abolition of slavery.I’ll start by providing my thoughts on the final question. No. There is a ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ side of most wars – whether they are fought on a physical or intellectual battlefield. (Sometimes there’s a stalemate.) However, those who lose these wars weren’t necessarily ‘wrong.’
It is said that history is written by the winners. However, with the advent of blogging and the ability for almost anyone to have a platform where they can write and express their opinion, the stories of those on the losing side of these causes and movements are being told.
How do you handle telling such stories, especially if your ancestor was pro slavery or, for example, anti women’s suffrage? What if there is no evidence as to their opinions or positions yet they fought for the losing side in a war, such as World War II?
Is there, in fact, a “wrong side” of history?
I also don’t attribute the telling of the stories to the internet. The losing side has had a voice in history since Gutenberg. I read Mein Kampf in high school. Yes, it was presented in the context of the writings of a madman, but I read Hitler’s words. I also read the Communist Manifesto. I’ve also read speeches given by William Jennings Bryan. Whether a student is encouraged to read the works of those whose opinions weren’t favored by history depends entirely upon the quality of the school. However, it doesn’t depend upon the internet. It’s possible the internet is providing this information to a greater number of individuals – acting as a school-replacement for those who need one.
Fortunately, I have no knowledge of relatives who fought on the losing side of World War I or II. Since I can trace my maternal ancestry back to Germany, I can assume I have some distant cousins, but our most recent common ancestor would likely have lived during the 17th century. My Great Uncle, Sam, was accused of pro-German sympathies, but his accuser was an ex-wife, who might not be the most reliable source.
That said, there are several descendants of Thomas and Katherine Stoughton whose political beliefs are in opposition to my own. From William Stoughton, Chief Magistrate over the Salem Witch Trials to political commentator, Patrick Buchanan. I find the presence of John Kerry and Franklin Roosevelt, along with the poets Harold Hart Crane and Oliver Wendell Holmes in the same list of descendants ample balance.
I do have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy, and others who were United Empire Loyalists. I’ve blogged before about my discovery of a slave-owning ancestor.
I’m careful not to infer what someone’s thoughts or beliefs were, unless they were written down. I record the facts as they are known. My second great grandfather, Ebenezer Denyer, served the Confederacy in the State of Texas. He is not known to have owned any slaves. The Denyer family lived in Texas prior to the state joining the US. A sibling of Ebenezer’s fought for the Republic of Texas against Mexico in 1841. Was Ebenezer’s service during the Civil War more Pro-Texas than Pro-Slavery or Anti-Union? I can’t answer that. (I can raise the question, though.)
The political battles today can still get rather heated. I have good friends with whom I disagree strongly on some issues. I have no idea what 'side' I will be viewed on in 20, 40 or 80 years. I don't believe in hiding information about ancestors from future generations. I will respect kin and refrain from blogging about some things if the relative in question has close living descendants. But if the event in question happened 150 years ago or more, I'm not going to hesitate much blogging about it.