March 27, 2017 § 8 Comments
Lincoln’s birthday came and went in February, largely ignored in Tennessee and other Southern states. In the wake of his birthday, this image came floating through my Twitter feed. This is an interesting take on the question of history and memory of the Civil War. It fascinates me on both levels.
Factually, there is not much in this that is true. And the interpretation presented in this poster is, well, wrong. The part on top, with the spelling and grammatical mistakes, was tacked onto the Wanted poster by someone as it travelled through the right wing, Confederate social media world. I don’t know who did it.
Note how the unknown commentator claims that Lincoln waged an unholy war against the South. The Civil War, of course, was begun by the Confederacy, when it attacked Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, on 11 April 1865. Thus, the war is not the fault of the Union. Fort Sumter was a fort held by the United States military, constructed in the wake of the War of 1812. There are no ‘hard facts’ that can be presented to deny this historical truth.
But, of course, fact and memory are not the same thing. And this is why the question of history and memory fascinates me. It’s not simply a matter of how we remember history as individuals, as our own individual memories are a function of society as well, but it’s also a question of how all of our individual memories work in concert with each other to form cultural memory.
Certainly, in the South, the Civil War is remembered differently from the North. And it is not always remembered in a cartoonish, neo-Confederate manner as this. On a more basic level, many Southerners can express distaste for the actual causes of the war and the war aims of the Confederacy and a deep pride in their ancestors’ gallantry in battle against the North. Hence the romance and popularity of Civil War re-enactors and their romance of the Confederacy. And, of course, there is a careful parsing of the larger context of the Confederacy and its reasons for fighting the war in the first place.
Slavery is the first or second thing mentioned in every single Confederate state’s articles of secession. It was central to the war aims of the Confederacy. It was not, however, central to the war aims of the Union, despite what many Northerners believe. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on 1 January 1863, nearly two years into the war, that the end of slavery became a Northern war aim. In short, then, the Civil War happened, from the perspective of the Confederacy, over slavery. Not states’ rights (had it been, the fight over the entry of new states to the Union and whether they’d be slave states or not, would not have happened).
And clearly, Lincoln is remembered differently on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. But there is also a question of history. When the Republican Party tweeted a fake quote from Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday (in a tweet that has since been deleted), it wasn’t the fake quote that amused me, it was the GOP’s statement. Lincoln certainly did not bring the nation together. His election was the excuse the Confederacy used to justify secession.
But at any rate, to return to the original issue here of the differing memories of the Civil War and un-reconstructed Southerners: One could indeed argue that Lincoln violated the Constitution. Many people have made this argument, including respected historians and constitutional scholars. Lincoln was very aware of his expansionist reading of the Constitution and reminded his opponents that they could question him, through the ballot box and via the court system. Ultimately, however, his expansion of the Constitution has been recognized by scholars as an historical fact, more or less.
But there is also the question of other means of bending the Constitution. In the case of habeus corpus, Art. I. Sec. 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution reads:
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.
However, Article I of the Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, not the Executive (that’s Article II). However, Congress can delegate authorities to the Executive, and has (for example, during World War I, the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917). But, Congress had not delegated this power to Lincoln. Thus, in ex parte Merryman, a federal court decision in 1861, Justice Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sitting as a federal court justice, found Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and his delegating of this power to United States Army officers to be beyond the law, that the suspension of habeus corpus was limited to Congress, which could, of course, delegate this power. Merryman, however, was ignored by Lincoln on the grounds of necessity due to the unusual circumstances of the war. He argued that the Civil War was exactly situation noted in the Constitution, a case of rebellion. And, furthermore, he argued that the President has had to act many times when Congress was not in session. Indeed, this is true, dating back at least Jefferson’s era. In these cases, the President is expected to seek post facto permission for his actions from Congress. Indeed, in 1863, Congress passed An Act relating to Habeas Corpus, and regulating Judicial Proceedings in Certain Cases.
Indeed, in my copy of Richard Beeman’s Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, which I assign every semester, as it annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Beeman merely states the following:
On at least a few occasions American presidents have suspended while either suppressing rebellion or protecting public safety.
Beeman then uses President Lincoln and the Civil War and President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 as examples. That’s all. In other words, this is a recognized power of the president, though Beeman does note that Bush based his actions on the USA Patriot Act, which is obviously an act of Congress.
As for the treason claimed in the Wanted post, I’m not sure where this comes from, given that the attempted secession by the Confederacy was, by definition, a treasonous act. Treason is an attempt to overthrow or betray one’s country. Certainly, the Confederates felt that the American government had overstepped its bounds and was attempting to claim the right to rebel, as the Founding Fathers had in the Declaration of Independence.
Nor did Lincoln imprison 40,000 Northerners in military prisons during the war. I’m not even certain where such a number would come from.
As for the question of the plight of Southerners under Union occupation, that is another thing entirely. Certainly, federal troops did commandeer supplies and property. They did rape Southern women. But, the argument about the loss of civil rights, well, the Confederacy did start the war. There was no official declaration of war, given that the Union refused to recognize the Confederacy, nonetheless, there was most certainly a war And the war was fought in Southern territories. Thus, the suspension of civil liberties in a territory of open rebellion should not be surprising.
Nonetheless, while I would not state that the vision of Abraham Lincoln in this Wanted poster is a common one in the South, there is a small fringe that does view him in this manner. And I also do not find this surprising, given the romanticization of the Civil War in the minds of many (and not just in the South). Lincoln was the enemy, obviously. And so it should not be surprising that someone, thinking it clever, created this Wanted poster (though I cannot speak to the editorialization attached to it).
In this romanticized version of the Civil War I have seen up close, at County Fairs and the like in Alabama and Tennessee, something interesting happens to the Civil War. Race is removed from it, in that the Sons of the Confederacy, the ones who dress up and Civil War garb and re-enact the war, insist they have no racial malice and that there is no racial malice behind their play-acting nor flying of the Confederate Battle Flag (whether or not this is true is a matter for another blog post). Rather, they claim, they are celebrating the gallantry of their ancestors against the Northern incursion (and, of course, the reasons for that incursion are elided).
And this brings me to what I see as the greatest irony of the lionizing of the Confederacy. I had a student who wrote an MA thesis on the Confederate soldiers between the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama in August 1864. She used soldiers’ diaries as a major primary source. Shiloh was their first battle and many of these men responded much as you’d expect: abject terror at the actual grizzly face of mid-19th century war. And almost overnight, these young men went from being keen to be battle-tested to bitter. They were bitter at their inadequate supplies and medical care and leadership. But they were also bitter that they were being compelled to fight for the right of rich men to own slaves. As they marched South, chased by the Union Army through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile Bay, they became increasingly angry and bitter. Those that survived did fight, against insane odds. And generally lost in this theatre of war, which was very different than the one commanded by Robert E. Lee in Virginia. In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they were outgunned, outmanned, and victim to poor leadership. But even the soldiers in Lee’s Army of Virginia were well aware of the irony that they, too poor to own slaves, were laying their lives on the line for the rich slave owners.
It’s certainly a historical truism that poor men are the cannon fodder for the rich. Even today, the US Armed Forces tend to draw their recruits from the poorer areas of the South. So that the poor white men of the South found themselves in grey uniforms and fighting the US Army should not be surprising. So, in many ways, this is what these men, the Civil War Confederate re-enactors are interested in: the plight of poor men. And celebrating their ancestors. But, their ancestors were on the wrong side of history. And the wrong side of the Civil War.
And so they’re left with the uncomfortable problem of unsorting the simple fact of slavery and racism from their views of the Civil War. Hence the rise of the states’ rights claim. Or others. The simple fact is that they’re confronted with a double dose of difficult knowledge in confronting the Confederacy and the Civil War. First, the slavery issue. Second, their ancestors’ plight of fighting and dying for rich, slave-owning plantation owners. And perhaps this is their way out of the racial conundrum: these men and women, their ancestors weren’t the slave owners.
February 22, 2017 § Leave a comment
Historians tend to take the long view of everything. We tend not to be make rash judgements of the world. We are just trained not to. And so, of late, I have been thinking of the longue durée of government and society. One of the truisms of history is that the government really has no bearing on the lives of the majority of any given state. Kings, queens, presidents, dictators, and prime ministers have come and gone and for the overwhelming majority of society, life carried on.
Sometimes the government’s policies came home, such as when a village’s young men marched off to war. Or a particularly oppressive government came to power and instituted surveillance. But even then, whether in medieval France or Ancient China, or Nazi Germany, for most people, the sun still came up, the fields still got tended, the factories still produced.
But all the while, something arose from Enlightenment thought. And this was the idea of the rationalization of government. By this, I mean the standardization of government and the state, and its attempts to impose itself in the lives of its citizens/subjects. Quite often, the growth of the state was met with resistance. In the early 1850s in rural Quebec, the guerre des éteignoirs broke out against the attempts of the Canadian government to impose a standardized, compulsory education on the children of the country. To call it a ‘war’ is a misnomer, it was a collection of violent acts of resistance. Still, it was a very dogged resistance. Yet, it was ultimately fruitless. State-sponsored education had arrived.
The mid-19th century was a period of massive state growth in Canada and the United States. Both nations got the idea from the British, where the growth of the state and government surveillance may have staved off the spread of the French Revolution to the British Isles. In the United States, of course, this process was both interrupted and sped up by the Civil War, as the federal state grew exponentially during the conflict, and has only continued to grow since.
This mid-19th century state building occurred through the imposition of the state into communities, through the construction of courthouses, post offices, and the like. And the buildings followed a standardized form, designed by the same architects. The Catholic Church had already figured out the value of standard design by this point, the state was a bit of a latecomer. But the effects were the same. Newly designed and constructed courthouses brought the state into a community. The uniformity of the buildings from one town to a next reinforced the impartial eye of the state. Back at the centre, the state also underwent tremendous growth, as new departments were created and new bureaucrats appointed to oversee this growth.
The process of the expanding state picked up from there, to the point now where it is nigh-on impossible to escape it. It is in our wallets in the form of our driver’s licenses and our Social Insurance/National Insurance/Social Security cards (to use the Canadian/British/American terms). It is on our cars as license plates and in the dashboard as registrations. It knows where we live. It knows where we work. It knows how much we work and how much we make. It knows intimate details of our lives.
You can see the effects of this and the various periods of state growth in any mid-size town to large city. For example, post offices tend to look the same, built either in the late 19th century or the mid-20th. Courthouses follow a similar plan, whether built in the late 19th century, the early 20th, or the late 20th, though they follow different plans based on era.
For example, Government Center in Boston is a massive neo-brutalist construction in the centre of downtown. Government Center houses Boston’s city hall, federal courts, state courts, and government offices at all three levels (city, state, federal). The building style is familiar.
The same sort of neo-brutalism exists very far away from Boston, in a different country. Winnipeg, Manitoba’s city hall is also a neo-brutalist construction. And this architectural style is repeated for government buildings (and university campuses) in nearly every city I can think of in North America. The style is immediately recognizable as the state, whether it’s Winnipeg’s City Hall or the campus of the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. We see this style of architecture and we instantly know its purpose.
These buildings are designed to be immovable and permanent, to show us the permanence of the state, and the implied power behind it. These are overwhelming buildings. Standing in Government Center, Boston, or Nathan Philips Square, Toronto, is an exercise of feeling one’s insignificance in the face of the state. When I went for my interview to receive my Green Card at Government Center, I thought about this, how insignificant my individual power was in the face of the state. Whether we think about this implicitly or explicitly, it is there. And that is the point (just as Edwardian era bank buildings make their point)
So we are left to believe that the state is unmoving and immovable. And so it is. But, something else has happened in the wake of this massive growth of the state, as it has invaded our wallets, our dashboards, and more. The power of the state has continued to grow, its presence in our lives in inescapable.
And thus, now, when government changes hands through the democratic process and a new one takes control, whether it is in Olympia, the capital of Washington state, or Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, or Washington, DC, or Ottawa, there is a very real possibility that it will change the lives of the people of that state/province/nation. Major governmental policy shifts on everything from foreign affairs to net neutrality to consumer protection laws to immigration laws impacts nearly everyone.
And this is something to think about as we enter the era of the Trump Administration in the US.
February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments
We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days. This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre. But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting. Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).
But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves. In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left. I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94. This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton. It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.
During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate. They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things. Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page). Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened. Not good enough for one of my accusers. She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’ No, it’s not. But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources. So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits. None of this changes historical fact.
In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States. This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh. And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude. They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans. In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs. And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion. Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong. And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US. The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country. Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country. Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession. So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.
He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong. And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854. But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.
In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged. I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century). In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit. But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them. They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.
This is deeply disturbing.
February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment
I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London. This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature. He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries. The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones. They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’ And you can see the logic here. Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction. And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.
I use fiction a fair lot when teaching. I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction. This is true both in the case of literature and film. So how is literature history, you ask?
Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written. This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction. The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times. It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past. Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry. What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us. It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.
So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past. Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.
And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not. Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader. And this is the point of using literature as an historical text. Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.
And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.
February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history? We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era. First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies. I have already commented on this. Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment. Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’ What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?
I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face. But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem. Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too. He notes that
Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes. Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter. Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on. Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.
Indeed. The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act. This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book). But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.
When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature. We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music. We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect. And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc. We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.
Historians, we tend to go further than journalists. Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why and how they happened. And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews. The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled. In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.
When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation. How do we do that? Logic and reasoning. We use other scholars as guides. We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject. We consider their interpretations based on the evidence. We agree or disagree. Or we agree and see another possibility. And so on.
Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations. So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where. We establish the facts. And we establish these from our sources. Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts. They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research. And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.
So how do we source that in the post-truth world? Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on. When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course. And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.
My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair. When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada. Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice. They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.
The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair. In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun. He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house. Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.
So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56? I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular. I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order. I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement. I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions. and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair. I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.
And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time. They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary. Maybe even blogs like mine.
We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen. And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.
February 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
When Joe Corré, son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, torched his Sex Pistols memorabilia in November, I was left very conflicted as an ageing punk and a public historian. I felt equally conflicted when I learned that British Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May wears Vivienne Westwood designs. Or, rather, I was horrified at that, so I pondered Corré’s argument the more. And I wrote a post for the National Council on Public History‘s blog, History@Work. It got published today.
January 30, 2017 § 2 Comments
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not officially recognized until DSM-III, published in 1980. But that, of course, does not mean it does not have a long history. In the First World War, symptoms that look a lot like PTSD were called ‘shell shock.’ We have all heard of shell shock. When I played hockey, I was a goalie. It was not uncommon for me to come out of the net after a game where I was peppered by shots to have my teammates joke about me experiencing shell shock (I played for a string of really bad teams). In other words, shell shock has become part of our lexicon.
One of the jobs of historians is to complicate matters and what we think we know about the past (my other job as an historian is to explore what we know about the past and why and to what uses such knowledge gets used). I joke with my students that historians can ruin anything in this manner. And so, shell shock.
The British were the first to diagnose and name shell shock, in the fall of 1914, right after the war started. The name itself actually came from the soldiers themselves. There was not, however, much in the way of agreement over what shell shock actually was; it became a catch-all phrase. It could be physical. It could be psychological. It could even be a lack of moral fortitude.
But shell shock was also complicating for the British Expeditionary Force (as the British Army in Europe was called in the First World War) and its attached colonial expeditionary forces (most notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, the Dominions). In particular, it was demoralizing. So, the British High Command did what you would expect: it banned shell shock. In June 1917, the order came down: the term was no longer to be used in any reports, any diagnoses, in any conversation. It simply no longer existed.
This echoed the German response to shell shock, which the Germany Army dismissed simply as a lack of moral fortitude. So it punished shell shocked soldiers.
By 1922, the British government was adamant that shell shock would never exist ever again. The Southborough Report of that year recommended that the symptoms of shell shock should be regarded as nothing greater or lesser than any other battlefield injury. The government and the army came to the conclusion that troops who were well-trained and properly led would not suffer the fate of the malingerers of World War I.
The reasons for denying the existence of shell shock differed between 1917 and 1922. In 1917, it was a question of morale and defeating the Germans. In 1922, it was a question of finances, as the United Kingdom was nearly broke. Shell shock diagnoses from World War I cost money, in the form of compensation to affected veterans. The government simply didn’t want to pay anymore casualties in any future wars.