Thanks to years of hard work by Lost Causers and neo-Confederates, the true cause of the Civil War–chattel slavery–has been obfuscated. That’s tragic, because it marginalizes an atrocity and takes the focus away from where it should be in an effort to put a human face on the horror of slavery.
This article from Time does a fine job of explaining why it’s important to keep our eye on the ball here and why it’s important to continue to fight the good fight against this nonsense:
The Way We Weren’t
By DAVID VON DREHLE
A few weeks before Captain George S. James sent the first mortar round arcing through the predawn darkness toward Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, Abraham Lincoln cast his Inaugural Address as a last-ditch effort to win back the South. A single thorny issue divided the nation, he declared: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”
It was not a controversial statement at the time. Indeed, Southern leaders were saying similar things during those fateful days. But 150 years later, Americans have lost that clarity about the cause of the Civil War, the most traumatic and transformational event in U.S. history, which left more than 625,000 dead – more Americans killed than in both world wars combined.
Shortly before the Fort Sumter anniversary, Harris Interactive polled more than 2,500 adults across the country, asking what the North and South were fighting about. A majority, including two-thirds of white respondents in the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, answered that the South was mainly motivated by “states’ rights” rather than the future of slavery. (See “A Union Divided: The South Still Split on Civil War Legacy.”)
The question “What caused the Civil War?” returns 20?million Google hits and a wide array of arguments on Internet comment boards and discussion threads. The Civil War was caused by Northern aggressors invading an independent Southern nation. Or it was caused by high tariffs. Or it was caused by blundering statesmen. Or it was caused by the clash of industrial and agrarian cultures. Or it was caused by fanatics. Or it was caused by the Marxist class struggle.
On and on, seemingly endless, sometimes contradictory – although not among mainstream historians, who in the past generation have come to view the question much as Lincoln saw it. “Everything stemmed from the slavery issue,” says Princeton professor James McPherson, whose book Battle Cry of Freedom is widely judged to be the authoritative one-volume history of the war. Another leading authority, David Blight of Yale, laments, “No matter what we do or the overwhelming consensus among historians, out in the public mind, there is still this need to deny that slavery was the cause of the war.”
It’s not simply a matter of denial. For most of the first century after the war, historians, novelists and filmmakers worked like hypnotists to soothe the posttraumatic memories of survivors and their descendants. Forgetting was the price of reconciliation, and Americans – those whose families were never bought or sold, anyway – were happy to pay it.
But denial plays a part, especially in the South. After the war, former Confederates wondered how to hold on to their due pride after a devastating defeat. They had fought long and courageously; that was beyond question. So they reverse-engineered a cause worthy of those heroics. They also sensed, correctly, that the end of slavery would confer a gloss of nobility, and bragging rights, on the North that it did not deserve. As Lincoln suggested in his second Inaugural Address, the entire nation, North and South, profited from slavery and then paid dearly for it.
The process of forgetting, and obscuring, was long and layered. Some of it was benign, but not all. It began with self-justifying memoirs by defeated Confederate leaders and was picked up by war-weary veterans on both sides who wanted to move on. In the devastated South, writers and historians kindled comforting stories of noble cavaliers, brilliant generals and happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause. In the prosperous North, where cities and factories began filling with freed slaves and their descendants, large audiences were happy to embrace this idea of a time when racial issues were both simple and distant.
History is not just about the past. It also reveals the present. And for generations of Americans after the Civil War, the present did not have room for that radical idea laid bare by the conflict: that all people really are created equal. That was a big bite to chew.
The once obvious truth of the Civil War does not imply that every soldier had slavery on his mind as he marched and fought. Many Southerners fought and died in gray never having owned a slave and never intending to own one. Thousands died in blue with no intention to set one free. But it was slavery that had broken one nation in two and fated its people to fight over whether it would be put back together again. The true story is not a tale of heroes on one side and villains on the other. Few true stories are. But it is a clear and straightforward story, and so is the tale of how that story became so complicated.
History textbooks say the Civil War began with the shelling of Fort Sumter. The fact is, however, that the Founding Fathers saw the whole thing coming. They walked away from the Constitutional Convention fully aware that they had planted a time bomb; they hoped future leaders would find a way to defuse it before it exploded. As the Constitution was being written, James Madison observed, “It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line.”
As long as the disagreement remained purely a matter of North and South, the danger seemed manageable. But then North and South looked to the west. All that land, all those resources – the idea that the frontier might be closed off to slavery was unacceptable to the South. It felt like an indictment and an injustice rolled into one. Slave owners were not immune to the expansionary passion of 19th century America. They too needed room to grow, and not just to plant more cotton. Slaves could grow hemp and mine gold and build railroads and sew clothes. The economic engine of slavery was immensely powerful. Slaves were the single largest financial asset in the United States of America, worth over $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars – more than the value of America’s railroads, banks, factories or ships. Cotton was by far the largest U.S. export. It enriched Wall Street banks and fueled New England textile mills. This economic giant demanded a piece of the Western action.
In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act proposed to let territorial settlers decide the future of slavery. Never in U.S. history had so much depended on so few so far beyond the rule of law. There was a footrace to the distant prairie, and Kansas, where the racers clashed, was where the war started, not Fort Sumter. And everyone involved knew exactly what the killing was about.
It was on May 21, 1856, that a proslavery army, hauling artillery and commanded by U.S. Senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri, laid waste to the antislavery bastion of Lawrence, Kans. “Boys, this is the happiest day of my life,” Atchison declared as his men prepared to teach “the damned abolitionists a Southern lesson that they will remember until the day they die.”
One of those abolitionists was John Brown, who tried to come to the aid of Lawrence but arrived too late. Three days later, as Brown pondered what to do next, a messenger arrived with news from far-off Washington: an antislavery leader, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, had been clubbed nearly to death by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks while sitting at his desk in the Senate chamber after delivering a fiery speech titled “The Crime Against Kansas.” Brown went “crazy – crazy” at the news, his son reported. That night he led a small group, including four of his sons, to a proslavery settlement on Pottawatomie Creek. Announcing themselves as “the Northern army,” Brown’s band rousted five men, led them into the darkness and hacked them to death with swords.
Two contending armies, artillery fire and flames, bloodshed in the Senate and corpses strewn over dew-damp ground. People at the time knew exactly what to call it: civil war. Kansas Territorial Governor Wilson Shannon used the phrase himself in a warning to President Franklin Pierce. “We are standing on a volcano,” Shannon added.
The reason for the eruption was simple. As Brown explained, “In Kansas, the question is never raised of a man, Is he a Democrat? Is he a Republican? The questions there raised are, Is he a Free State man? or Is he a proslavery man?” This is why armies marched and shells burst and swords flashed.
From there, the remaining steps to Fort Sumter seemed to follow inexorably. The Supreme Court, in its infamous Dred Scott decision, tried to answer the question in favor of slave-holders. The backlash was furious. In Kansas, settlers passed competing constitutions, one slave and one free, and the battle over which one Congress should accept splintered the Democratic Party. When Stephen A. Douglas failed to reunite the Democrats in 1860, he opened the door to a Lincoln victory.
Meanwhile, Brown organized a quixotic plot to invade the South and stir up an army of slaves. Quickly captured at the armory in Harpers Ferry, Va., tried for treason and hanged, he was hailed by abolitionists as a martyr. After that, the idea that Northern Republicans supported slave rebellion became the defining theme, for Southerners, of the 1860 election. A vote for Lincoln was in many minds a vote for the sort of blood-soaked insurrection that had freed the slaves of Haiti and left thousands of white slave owners dead.
Abolitionists had “inspired [slaves] with vague notions of freedom,” explained President James Buchanan as he prepared to leave office. “Many a matron throughout the South retires at night in dread of what may befall herself and her children before morning,” making “disunion… inevitable.” As Southern states began to declare their independence, they echoed this theme. South Carolina’s leaders indicted the North for encouraging “thousands of our slaves to leave their homes, and those who have remained have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.” Mississippi affirmed, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world,” adding, “There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union.” Georgians declared, “We refuse to submit.”
Even as the conflict turned to all-out war, many people still hoped for a way to put things back as they had been. As George McClellan, General in Chief of the Union Army, wrote to a friend in 1861, “I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union & the power of the [government] – on no other issue. To gain that end, we cannot afford to raise up the negro question – it must be incidental and subsidiary.” His words go to the root of a persistent question: How could slavery be the cause of the war when so many in blue had no interest in emancipation? McClellan was speaking for the millions whose goal was not to free the slaves but to preserve the Union.
What McClellan did not perceive, though, was that the Union and slavery had become irreconcilable. The proposition on which the revolutionaries of 1776 had staked their efforts – the fundamental equality of individuals – was diametrically opposed by the constitution of the new Confederacy. “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition,” explained Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. In other words, the warring sides had stripped their arguments to first principles, and those principles could no longer be compromised.
The forgetting began with exhaustion. “From 1865″ – the year the war ended – “until the 1880s, there was a paucity of writings about the war that really sold,” says Harvard historian John Stauffer. “Americans weren’t ready to deal with the reality of the war because of the carnage and the devastation.” When an appetite for the story began to return, readers embraced only certain kinds of memories. There was no market for books of war photographs. Ulysses Grant’s 1885 memoirs were a best?seller, but the Union general gave almost no attention to the events leading up to Lincoln’s call for troops, while his touching account of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox strongly conveyed the idea that it was best to move on. There was an avid audience for essays by military leaders in the magazine The Century, describing their battles in minute detail but paying scant attention to the big picture. This “Battles and Leaders” series spawned an endless literature that, some critics say, treats the terrible conflict as if it were America’s original Super Bowl, Yankees vs. Rebs, complete with watercooler analysis of the play calling, fumbles and Hail Marys.
The first publishing success to really engage the reasons for the war was a strange and rambling book by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Twenty years earlier, Davis had framed the choice to secede in simple terms: “Will you consent to be robbed of your property” – meaning slaves – or will you “strike bravely for liberty, property, honor and life?” But looking back, he preferred to say that the slavery issue had been trumped up by “political demagogues” in the North “as a means to acquire power.”
Davis’ book, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, became a polestar for the Lost Cause school of Civil War history, which takes its name from an 1866 book by Richmond newspaper editor Edward Pollard. Highly selective and deeply misleading, the story of the Lost Cause was immediately popular in the South because it translated the Confederacy’s defeat into a moral victory. It pictured antebellum life as an idyll of genteel planters and their happy “servants” whose “instincts,” in Davis’ words, “rendered them contented with their lot… Never was there happier dependence of labor and capital on each other.”
But then: “The tempter came, like the serpent of Eden, and decoyed them with the majic word of ‘freedom.'” Though outgunned and outnumbered, the South fought heroically to defend itself from aggressors whose factories up north were the true slave drivers. And though God-fearing warriors like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson outgeneraled their foes at every turn, ultimately the federal swarm was too large and too savage to repel.
The Lost Cause story required a massive case of amnesia. Before the war, Southerners would have scoffed at the idea that the North was overwhelmingly stronger. They believed that King Cotton was the dominant force on earth and that powerful Britain – where roughly 1 in 5 people depended on cotton for a living – would intervene to ensure Confederate victory.
But people were eager to forget. And so Americans both Southern and Northern flocked to minstrel shows and snapped up happy-slave stories by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris. White society was not ready to deal with the humanity and needs of freed slaves, and these entertainments assured them that there was no need to. Reconstruction was scorned as a fool’s errand, and Jim Crow laws were touted as sensible reforms to restore a harmonious land.
A Quarrel Forgotten
Instead of looking back, postwar Presidents stressed the future, adopting the reconciling tone of Grant at Appomattox. William McKinley, assassinated in 1901, was the last Civil War veteran to lead the country. His successor, Theodore Roosevelt, was the living embodiment of reconciliation and moving forward. His father had served the Union cause; his plantation-raised mother had supported the South; his childhood was a master tutorial in leaving certain things unsaid in the pursuit of harmony.
By the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, it was nearly impossible to know from the commemoration why the war had happened or who had won. The year was 1913, and the President was Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner to hold the office since 1850. Wilson had been a historian before entering politics, and his book A History of the American People was tinged with Lost Cause interpretations. He described the Ku Klux Klan as “an empire of the South” created by men “roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation.” It was no surprise, then, that his remarks at Gettysburg completely avoided slavery. Instead he chose to talk about “gallant men in blue and gray … our battles long past, our quarrels forgotten.”
So what was remembered? Two years after Wilson spoke at Gettysburg, partly influenced by Wilson’s book, filmmaker D.W.?Griffith debuted The Birth of a Nation. It was the first film in history with a six-figure production budget, yet by selling out theaters at the unheard-of price of $2 per ticket – nearly $44 in current dollars – Griffith made a fortune. The movie brought the Lost Cause to cinematic life, with the Klan saving the day in the final reel, rescuing white families from a group of marauding blacks. Then in 1939, a new Lost Cause melodrama made an even bigger impact: David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. The story of plucky Scarlett O’Hara and the sad destruction of her “pretty world” of “Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South” is the top-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, according to the website Box Office Mojo.
Both films begin in an antebellum South where all is peaceful and bright and trace the sad fall from paradise into a hellish postwar world of carpetbagging Northerners and rapacious, incompetent freed slaves. Such powerful cultural images were buttressed by the academic work of leading historians. At Columbia University, William A. Dunning established himself as the leading authority on the postwar South, and he brought up a generation of scholars with the belief that blacks were incapable of equality and that Reconstruction was a disastrous injustice.
Equally influential was University of Illinois historian James G. Randall, who towered among Lincoln scholars. Horrified by the senseless carnage of World War I, Randall saw it foreshadowed in the trenches and torched fields of the Civil War. The chief villains, in Randall’s orthodoxy, were Northern abolitionists with their “reforming zeal.”
Reigning over the study of slavery was Yale’s U.B. Phillips, the son of slave owners. For decades he was the only scholar to undertake a systematic examination of the plantation economy, which, he argued, was a benign and civilizing force for African captives. He concluded that slavery was an unprofitable system that would have soon died out peacefully. That would have surprised the Southerners who in the 1850s certainly believed there was money to be made in slavery. In the decade before the war, per capita wealth grew more than twice as fast in the South as it did in the North, and the prices of slaves and land both rose by some 70%. If slavery was dying out, it sure was hard to tell.
Why It Matters
Historians began to break the grip of forgetfulness after World War II, as the civil rights movement restarted the march toward equality. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt ordered equal treatment for “workers in defense industries or government.” The next President, Harry Truman, desegregated the armed forces. The next one, Dwight Eisenhower, dispatched federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Arkansas. And so on, step by little step.
In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, John Hope Franklin, a black historian then at Howard University, published From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. This runaway best seller revolutionized academic discussion of the black experience. The same year, Columbia’s Allan Nevins published the first of eight volumes of Ordeal of the Union, which explored America’s road to disaster in great depth and clarity.
The Dunning School lost its grip on Reconstruction when C. Vann Woodward of Johns Hopkins published The Strange Career of Jim Crow in 1955. The following year, Kenneth Stampp at Berkeley did the same to U.B. Phillips with The Peculiar Institution, which examined the slave system through the eyes of the slaves themselves for the first time.
With the centennial of the war approaching, a flood of outstanding Civil War history books hit shelves, and the half-century since then has been rich in scholarship. Robust controversies rage and always will, but the distortion and occluded memory that shaped the Lost Cause story is found now only on the academic fringe. What energy exists in the modern version comes from a clique of libertarians who view the Union cause as a fearsome example of authoritarian central government crushing individual dissent. Slave owners make odd libertarian heroes, but by keeping the focus narrowly on Big Government, this school uses the secession cause to dramatize issues of today. Outside academia, denial remains an irresistible temptation for some politicians. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell last year issued a 400-word Confederate History Month proclamation without a single mention of slavery. “There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states,” McDonnell later explained. “Obviously it involved slavery, it involved other issues, but I focused on the ones that I thought were most significant for Virginia.” (Barraged by criticism, he corrected the omission.)
And in popular culture, as University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher writes, “The Lost Cause’s Confederacy of gallant leaders and storied victories in defense of home ground retains enormous vitality.” It shows up in movies like Gods and Generals, in commemorative paintings, decorative plates and battlefield re-enactments. By contrast, Gallagher searches in vain for a scene in any recent film that “captures the abiding devotion to Union that animated soldiers and civilians in the North.”
Why does this matter? Because the Civil War gave us, to an unmatched degree, the nation we became – including all the good stuff. Had secession succeeded, it’s unlikely that there could have been a stable, tranquil coexistence between an independent North and South. Slaves would have continued running away. The riches of the West would have been just as enticing. There never would have been the sort of roisterous hodgepodge of wide-open energy that America became. One of the blessings of being able to set up shop on a new continent was that Americans never had to be defined by clan or tribe or region. We’re the people who order a Coke from Atlanta and some New England clam chowder at a diner in Las Vegas. The place where a boy from Mississippi goes to California to make a movie called Blue Hawaii. Secession was about making more borders. At its best, Americanism is about tearing them down.
To be blind to the reason the war happened is to build a sort of border of the mind, walling off an important truth. Slavery was not incidental to America’s origins; it was central. There were slaves at Jamestown. In the 1600s, writes Yale’s David Brion Davis, a towering figure among historians, slave labor was far more central to the making of New York than to the making of Virginia. As late as 1830, there were 2,254 slaves in New Jersey. Connecticut did not abolish slavery until 1848, a scant eight years before the fighting broke out in Kansas. Rhode Island dominated the American slave trade until it was outlawed in 1808. The cotton trade made Wall Street a global financial force. Slaves built the White House.
Furthermore, if slavery had spread to the West, the country would have found itself increasingly isolated in the world. Russia emancipated its serfs in 1861. The once sprawling slave system that had stretched from Canada to South America was by 1808 still vital only in Brazil, Cuba and the U.S. The first nation founded on the principle of liberty came dangerously close to being among the last slave economies on earth.
Two fallacies prop up the wall of forgetfulness. The first is that slavery somehow wasn’t really that important – that it was a historical relic, unprofitable, dying out, or that all societies did it, or that the slaves were happy. But slavery was important, and not just to the 4 million men, women and children enslaved – a number equal to the population of Los Angeles today. And the fact that it ended is important too.
The second fallacy is that this was only the South’s problem and that the North solved it. Not long ago, the New-York Historical Society mounted its largest-ever exhibition, titled “Slavery in New York.” You can still visit the website and listen to public reactions. Over and over again, visitors repeat the same theme: as a teacher, as a college graduate, as a native New Yorker, “I knew absolutely nothing about this.” As long as that belief persists, spoken or unspoken, Americans whose hearts lie with Dixie will understandably continue to defend their homes and honor against such Yankee arrogance.
Lincoln’s words a few weeks before his death were often quoted after the war by those who wanted not just to forgive but also to forget: “With malice toward none, with charity for all.” But those words drew their deepest power from the ones he spoke just before them: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”
In other words, the path to healing and mercy goes by way of honesty and humility. After 150 years, it’s time to finish the journey.
And that’s why the fight against this stuff can never end. The truth must prevail.Scridb filter
My good friend Clark B. “Bud” Hall was born and raised in Mississippi. Bud is the great-grandson of a Mississippi Confederate who fought with Barksdale’s Brigade for the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg. He’s also a Marine Corps combat veteran of the Vietnam War. And, lest there be any questions about Bud’s dedication to the Civil War, he is one of the three founders of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now known as the Civil War Trust), was the founder of the Brandy Station Foundation, and presently serves as its president. He won’t like this, but nobody has done more to preserve that battlefield than he has. In short, Bud’s a guy who puts his money where his mouth is.
Bud is also deeply bothered by the way that neo-Confederates distort the causes of the Civil War, and he’s taken up his pen to discuss that concern. From today’s issue of the Fauquier Times Democrat newspaper, I give you Bud’s letter to the editor, reprinted here with Bud’s express permission:
Quite often the best way to make a point is to relate a story; and being a Southerner, it’s in the DNA; so, please indulge…
Charles H. Hall, the 21-year old son of a hard scrabble Mississippi farmer, joined an infantry company formed by local gentry in 1861, and was quickly elected as the company’s sergeant. Sgt. Hall’s newly formed regiment was incorporated into Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade, soon to be a hard-charging unit in General Robert E. Lee’s legendary Army of Northern Virginia.
Sgt. Charlie Hall served faithfully throughout the war and surrendered the company’s flag at Appomattox. He then walked home and started a family. And as I gaze at his image, it is clear how much his steadfastness and courage have inspired me over the years. In my mind’s eye, Charlie Hall is a hero—notwithstanding the fact he served in an unjust cause. And by the way, neither Charlie Hall nor any of his family ever owned a slave.
Sgt. Hall’s great-grandson joined the Marine Corps and was assigned to a fine infantry outfit that was soon sent to South Viet Nam. This writer is that great-grandson, and I served successively as a patrol leader in the deep jungle, and on the commanding general’s staff. I came home after the war, re-entered school, and started a family.
While in Viet Nam—especially while serving on Lt. Gen. Lewis Walt’s staff—I saw and heard things that utterly convinced me the war was an enormous, shameful lie and that young Americans were dying for naught. So feeling both burned and outraged, I helped start a “Viet Nam Veterans Against the War” chapter at my university. Did it help? I don’t know about others, but it certainly helped me.
And although I could not be prouder of the Marine Corps (anyone who knows me realizes that fact), or of the service my mates and I conveyed to our country, it is a fact we served in a bad cause. It took me a long time to finally admit the hard truth that my friends and subordinates who died in Viet Nam perished for nothing. Why? We served in a bad and unjust cause.
Now, where is this going? Thus far, I have made the point that one can serve honorably in a misguided war, and yet be enormously proud of that service. But there is another point.
There are just wars fought to liberate mankind, and other wars waged to perpetuate human bondage. Other wars were prosecuted to fulfill political aims that were deceitfully manufactured before and after the fact. Both of the latter two classes of war are wrong, therefore by definition, unjust.
And indeed, both the Civil War and the Viet Nam War were terribly wrong, and for the South, an unjust calling. We live today with the divisive consequences of both national tragedies.
As to the Civil War, I have studied, written, and lectured about the topic for more than twenty-five years. It has been my pleasure to have co-founded three battlefield preservation groups, and presently I am honored to be the president of one such non-profit group.
And here are the “stern facts,” as the taciturn Winslow Homer would offer:
The central, motivating, pivotal purpose driving the South to secede was slavery. As Confederate General James Longstreet stoutly asserted after the war, “If it (the war) wasn’t about slavery, then I don’t know what else it was about.”
Let’s also hear from someone we know locally—and I am in the first rank of John Mosby’s admirers: “The South was my country, but the South went to war on account of slavery.”
Declining invitations to memorial ceremonies wherein wrong-headed speakers claimed slavery had nothing to do with the conflict, Mosby offered in response he was not ashamed to say he fought for the Confederacy— and did he ever! —but that the South must come to grips with the “true facts of history.”
So, here we are at the end of the story:
If Sgt. Charles H. Hall did not own any slaves, how could he have fought to perpetuate slavery? Simple. His country asked him to, and he served proudly and honorably, for his country.
And if his great-grandson fought in a place he had never heard of until he was ordered there, how do we assess his service? Easy. He served proudly and honorably, for his country.
And as it turned out, Sgt Hall and his progeny were both mere pawns in separate but equal tragedies. Both of us—and others like the “Hall boys”—were victims of morally righteous politicians who blindly put their faith in the myth of war making as the primary mechanism to solve political disputes.
So today when you hear folks contend that slavery was a secondary issue underpinning the Civil War, just think back to the words of a proud, old warrior who cared about nothing but facts.
And John Mosby told nothing but the truth.
Clark B. Hall
Coming from a Southerner who truly is a son of a Confederate veteran, I hope that his words carry some punch. They will undoubtedly upset the apple cart of some of the neo-Confederates out there who are bound and determined to rewrite history to put a human face on slavery and to downplay its role as the central cause of the Civil War. Kudos to Bud for taking a brave stand.Scridb filter
From this week’s on-line edition of Time:
The Civil War’s 150th Anniversary Divides the South
By CLAIRE SUDDATH Claire Suddath – Thu Mar 3, 4:15 am ET
In 1867, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest became the first Grand Wizard of a newly formed organization called the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest had been a slave trader before the Civil War; he was also the commanding officer during a battle known as the “Fort Pillow massacre” in Tennessee at which some 300 black Union troops were killed in 1864. (Whether they died in combat or were killed after they surrendered is still a matter of dispute.)
Now, in honor of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) are seeking to put Forrest on a Mississippi state license plate. But the state’s government opposes it. When asked to comment on the proposal, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican, told the Associated Press, “It won’t become law because I won’t sign it.” (See the history of photographing the nation’s war dead.)
Barbour’s reaction is just one sign that things have changed since the South commemorated the Civil War’s Centennial in 1961. Back then, much of the South was still segregated – and many people, including Mississippi’s then-Governor Ross Barnett, were fighting to keep it that way. State and local governments took an active role in Confederate celebrations, using them to promote their causes. When the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission, a group sponsored by the federal government, held its inaugural event in a Charleston, S.C. hotel, Madaline Williams, a delegate from the New Jersey legislature, was denied entry because she was black. For this year’s anniversary, there is no such commission.
And in February of this year, when a Jefferson Davis impersonator was sworn in on the steps of Alabama’s State Capitol for a reenactment of the Confederate States of America’s 1861 Presidential inauguration, Alabama officials stayed away. Similarly, a December “Secession Ball,” held in Charleston, S.C. drew protests and a candlelight vigil from the NAACP. (See pictures of the Cold War’s influence on Art: 1945-1970.)
This year’s Civil War anniversary caps a decade in which Southern institutions have struggled mightily with the racial undertones of their Confederate monuments. In 2001, Georgia redesigned its state flag, shrinking the Confederate battle emblem that had adorned it ever since 1956. Six years later, it removed the symbol all together. The University of Mississippi – the same school that endured campus riots when James Meredith became the school’s first African-American student in 1962 – ditched its mascot Colonel Rebel, a plantation owner, in 2003. And last November, a federate appellate court upheld a Tennessee school district’s ban on Confederate-themed clothing.
As much of the South continues to distance itself from its racially divisive past, the organizations fighting to maintain the prominence of Confederate symbols are pushed further right of the mainstream. Nonetheless, the Sons of the Confederate South plan several highly publicized events over the next four years, as various Civil War-related anniversaries crop up. The club has 840 local chapters spread across 29 states, Europe and Australia. It was founded in 1896; aspiring members must prove direct relation to a former Confederate veteran in order to join. The SCV openly denounces the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups who use the Confederate flag as a racist symbol. Former President Harry S. Truman and Clint Eastwood are often cited as members. (Read “How America Fights Its Wars.”)
But even as the SCV rejects traditional symbols of racism, they provoke debate with their promotion of contentious Civil War leaders like Forrest. “Robert E. Lee has been replaced as the great [Confederate] hero by Nathan Bedford Forrest by these Southern white heritage groups,” says Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which investigates extremist groups. Lee owned slaves, Potok says, but “he was very much a statesman, and at the end of the Civil War he encouraged Southerners to rejoin the Union in heart and soul. Forrest was very much not like that. The fact that they want to honor him specifically says a lot about what they stand for.”
Chuck Rand, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, calls any assumption that the Mississippi Forrest license plates are racist is a “knee-jerk reaction” by people who don’t understand the “real causes” of the Civil War. Or, as he calls it, “The War for Southern Independence.” But critics point out that slavery isn’t addressed in these commemorations. The group’s reenactment of Jefferson Davis’ inauguration took place near Martin Luther King’s old Montgomery church and the spot where Rose Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955. But during the event, no mention of the South’s racial history was made.
The SCV’s controversial events often make the news, but their perspective on the war and its causes isn’t getting much traction nationally. In December, the History channel refused to run one of the SCV’s commercials that blamed the North for slavery, claiming that slaves were essentially forced onto South plantation owners. Another commercial, also refused by the History channel, claimed that the Civil War was “not a civil war… [but] a war in which Southerners fought to defend their homes and families against an aggressive invasion by federal troops.” (Comment on this story.)
“Lincoln waged a war to conquer his neighbor,” Rand explains, “In our view he was an aggressor against another nation, just as Hitler was an aggressor against other nations.” Most people, Southern or otherwise, are not likely to agree with such an inflammatory statement, but the sentiment underlying Rand’s assertion has deep roots. “Coming out of the experience of the Civil War and Southern Reconstruction, there was a sense of wounded pride and grievance,” explains James Cobb, University of Georgia history professor and author of Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity. But even if racism, intolerance, and discrimination still plague the South – as they do the rest of the country – the sense of regional separateness on those issues has largely diminished. “Time has passed,” says Cobb. “To uphold the Confederacy in this way has become a fairly extreme position.”
Extreme or not, the Sons of Confederate Veterans aren’t giving up the fight. They pledge to advance their cause through parades, advertisements and the battle for commemorative license plates. The South may never rise again, Rand admits, but that doesn’t mean it has to disappear completely. “The North is a direction,” he says. “The South is a place.”
I’m no fan of Haley Barbour, but I give him kudos for doing the right thing here.
Once again, the SCV’s radical agenda is exposed. This organization’s blatantly revisionist approach to history needs to be highlighted, and it needs to be resisted.
And to be quite clear about this. I love the south. I intend to retire there. Most of the SCV members I know–and I know many–are good and decent people who truly commemorate their ancestors. But they also do so without having to justify and humanize chattel slavery by claiming nonsensical things like slaves were forced on the south by the north, that the Civil War was anything but the federal government putting down an active rebellion, and, most reprehensibly, by trying to make slavery acceptable by promoting a myth that tens of thousands of slaves willingly–as opposed to being forced into service by virtue of their bondage–served in the Confederate armies during the war.
We must fight this neo-Confederate hooey wherever we find it.Scridb filter
Thanks to friend Keith Toney for bringing this to my attention.
The powers that be in Union County, NC have refused to erect a marker to honor so-called black Confederates for the simple reason that there is very little documentation that these men served the Confederacy voluntarily. At least one of the men that would have been honored was sent to help construct Fort Fisher as a slave and then was returned to his master after the work was complete. Only a neo-Confederate/Lost Causer hoping to put a human face on slavery would consider such service to be voluntary or appropriate of honoring.
From today’s issue of The Charlotte Observer
Marker rejected for slaves in South’s Army
Union County says plan poses an inconsistency.
By Adam Bell
Posted: Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011
MONROE Union County is refusing to approve plans for a marker to commemorate slaves who served in the Confederate Army, raising questions of how to appropriately honor men virtually ignored by history.
On the eve of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, amateur historian Tony Way led the push for a granite marker to be placed at the Old County Courthouse in Monroe next to a 1910 Confederate monument. The new marker would be for 10 black men, nine of whom were slaves, who served the Confederacy during the war and eventually got state pensions.
It would probably be one of a few public markers of its kind in the country, experts say.
Way, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Monroe, says he and some friends sought to highlight a little-known facet of county history and make commemorations more inclusive.
But county officials recently recommended the marker not go on the 1886 courthouse grounds, saying it would be inconsistent with other monuments. The existing Confederate monument cites regiments, not individuals. Other war monuments on the grounds name only those who died.
Earl Ijames, curator of community history and African-American history at the N.C. Museum of History, worked on proposed wording for the marker.
“A tremendous opportunity has been lost to have this outreach for black and white people to understand a facet of history that has been swept under the rug,” he said. “It re-enslaves them all over again” by not recognizing their service.
Slaves in the army
So how would a slave end up in the Confederate Army?
Armies need vast amounts of labor, and slaves provided a plentiful source, said David Blight, a Civil War expert at Yale University.
Nearly all of the work that blacks did for the Confederacy was support and logistical, from building latrines to working in armories. Some slaves could have been hoping for more favorable treatment back home because of their service, Ijames said.
Almost no black men fought in battle for the Confederacy, Blight said. He added that though it’s impossible to know how many slaves went willingly, many bolted for the Union lines the first chance they got.
Still, there have been occasional commemorations of the South’s slaves. At Tyrrell County’s courthouse in Eastern North Carolina, a 1902 Confederate statue includes the words, “To Our Faithful Slaves.”
In the 1990s, stories about “black Confederates” seemed to pick up traction, Blight said.
“For neo-Confederates, it was a way of legitimizing the Confederacy in the popular memory: ‘Look, the blacks supported us, too,'” he said. “If they were there, they were impressed or ordered into service. They were not soldiers.”
After the Civil War began, Wary Clyburn ran away from his plantation to join his master’s son, Frank Clyburn, acting as his cook and bodyguard for his old friend.
Wary’s daughter, Mattie Rice, was fascinated to hear her father’s stories when she was a young girl in the 1920s. She remembers him describing a battle where Frank was shot. “He crawled up a hill on his stomach, like a snake, and pulled Frank to safety.”
In later years, Wary moved to Monroe, played his fiddle at reunions and got his Civil War pension. He was buried in a Confederate uniform in 1930 at about age 90. Rice, an 88-year-old High Point-area resident, is proud of her father’s service.
The city of Monroe and a Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter honored him in 2008.
The next year, Way, the historian, got to wondering about other pensioners. He and several friends began research with a county librarian’s help. They found records for 10 black pensioners, including a free man, Jeff Sanders.
All were described as “body servants” or bodyguards, even Sanders. Some hauled supplies, carried water or cooked. At least two were wounded.
Hamp Cuthbertson helped build Fort Fisher near Wilmington in 1863, his pension application stated, “under the direction and command of his masters, and enduring severe privation, hunger, illness and punishments, and being returned to the home of his owner about one year later.”
Southern states began providing Civil War pensions in the 1880s; only Mississippi did not exclude blacks. In 1927, N.C. law finally let people of color seek pensions – but only if they went to war as laborers or servants.
“They essentially got pensions by being loyal slaves,” Blight said.
Fewer than 200 sought N.C. Civil War pensions, Ijames said. They got annual pensions of $200, about $2,550 today.
In Union County, most of the 10 men had an average age of 90 when their pensions began.
Last May, Way asked county commissioners to approve a marker honoring the men.
Commissioners sent the request to the county Historic Preservation Commission, which recommended that no new marker go on the courthouse grounds unless there was a major new conflict to commemorate.
A Civil War room in a future museum at the courthouse would be the best place to memorialize the 10 men, the preservation group said. No money has been budgeted for a museum, nor is there any timetable to create the center.
The county manager agreed with the group’s assessment. Staff told county commissioners they did not recommend the marker be added and recently told Way of the decision.
He isn’t sure what he will do next. Way said he felt the historic commission did not want to see a monument to African-Americans at the courthouse.
County Manager Cindy Coto and preservation commission Chairman Jerry Surratt said they did not think the historic commission’s actions were based on race.
Surratt said all of the other monuments at the site, except for the Revolutionary War marker where records were hard to come by, honor those who died in service. No marker mentions a person’s race.
About 552 Union County soldiers died in the Civil War, Surratt said, but only their regiments are on the monument.
“If you go back 100 years later and put up a supplement to the monument, with names, it elevates the 10 people by name above the 500 other people who died,” Surratt said. “(It) would turn a race-neutral monument to be racially a step backwards.”
Ijames called it disingenuous to think a monument erected in 1910 at the height of the Jim Crow era would have been intended to honor contributions by black residents.
Until Way contacted Greg Perry, he knew little about his great-great-grandfather, pensioner Aaron Perry, who toiled at Fort Fisher.
“To find out he fought for the Confederacy was mind-blowing,” said Perry, 48, of Monroe.
Perry said he understands but disagrees with the reasons the marker was rejected.
“It’s really sad,” he said. “One thing about history, it can be divisive or it can be healing.”
Not to disrespect Weary Clyburn, but he was a musician. He didn’t tote a musket. With the exception of the one free black, Jeff Sanders, the likelihood is that these men had no choice but to do what they did–they were slaves, and this was part of their bondage. It simply doesn’t make sense to erect a monument to the suffering of slaves, and I think that Union County did the right thing here.
Kevin Levin has an interesting take on this issue today as well.Scridb filter
Brooks Simpson has an especially thought-provoking post on his blog today asking why the Lost Causers are so afraid of Kevin Levin and his blog. Brooks quite correctly points out that Kevin’s blog seems to stir up massive amounts of hatred and personal attacks/insults among the Lost Cause and Neo-Confederate crowd, and asks why. Brooks points out that when Kevin asks for evidence–especially about the existence of black Confederates–and that usually brings out the haters.
As I said there, we lawyers have a cliche we like to use that’s particularly apropros: When the facts are against, argue the law. When the law’s against you, argue the facts. When the facts and the law are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.
It seems to me that most of this visceral response to Kevin’s posts is pounding the table and yelling like hell. They can’t produce evidence because there isn’t any. Rather than admit it, they go on the attack very aggressively and very personally, and they hope that doing so diverts away from the real issue, which is very sad indeed.
Lost Causers: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story and good spin doctoring, okay?Scridb filter
Mississippi looks to be the battleground over Civil War memory. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have decided to push their aggressive Lost Cause agenda by asking the State of Mississippi to offer a vanity license plate dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest. My thoughts on Forrest as a general are well known and need not be repeated here. Whether he was a good general is irrelevant to this discussion.
What is relevant is that black soldiers were massacred by troops under his command at Fort Pillow and that Forrest was a Grand Wizard–and one of the founders–of the KKK. Those are facts, and they are indisputable. It ought not be a big surprise that members of the African-American community might have some serious issues with an official commemoration of such a person by the State of Mississippi.
From MSNBC today:
License plate proposed to honor KKK leader
Fight brewing in Miss. over proposal to honor Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest
By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
The Associated Press
updated 4 minutes ago 2011-02-10T14:02:54
JACKSON, Miss. — A fight is brewing in Mississippi over a proposal to issue specialty license plates honoring Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans wants to sponsor a series of state-issued license plates to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which it calls the “War Between the States.” The group proposes a different design each year between now and 2015, with Forrest slated for 2014.
“Seriously?” state NAACP president Derrick Johnson said when he was told about the Forrest plate. “Wow.”
Forrest, a Tennessee native, is revered by some as a military genius and reviled by others for leading the 1864 massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow, Tenn. Forrest was a Klan grand wizard in Tennessee after the war.
Sons of Confederate Veterans member Greg Stewart said he believes Forrest distanced himself from the Klan later in life. It’s a point many historians agree upon, though some believe it was too little, too late, because the Klan had already turned violent before Forrest left.
“If Christian redemption means anything — and we all want redemption, I think — he redeemed himself in his own time, in his own actions, in his own words,” Stewart said. “We should respect that.”
State Department of Revenue spokeswoman Kathy Waterbury said legislators would have to approve a series of Civil War license plates. She said if every group that has a specialty license plate wanted a redesign every year, it would take an inordinate amount time from Department of Revenue employees who have other duties.
SCV has not decided what the Forrest license plate would look like, Stewart said. Opponents are using their imagination.
A Facebook group called “Mississippians Against The Commemoration Of Grand Wizard Nathan Forrest” features a drawing of a hooded klansman in the center of a regular Mississippi car tag.
Robert McElvaine, director of history department at the private Millsaps College in Jackson, joined the Facebook group. McElvaine said Forrest’s role at Fort Pillow and involvement in the Klan make him unworthy of being honored, even on the bumpers of cars.
“The idea of celebrating such a person, whatever his accomplishments in other areas may have been, seems like a very poor idea,” McElvaine told The Associated Press.
Mississippi lawmakers have shown a decidedly laissez-faire attitude toward allowing a wide variety groups to have specialty license plates, which usually sell for an extra $30 to $50 a year. The state sells more than 100 specialty plates for everything from wildlife conservation to breast cancer awareness. One design says “God Bless America,” another depicts Elvis Presley. Among the biggest sellers are NASCAR designs and one with the slogan “Choose Life.”
The Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has had a state-issued specialty license plate since 2003 to raise money for restoration of Civil War-era flags. From 2003 through 2010, the design featured a small Confederate battle flag.
The Department of Revenue allowed the group to revise the license plate this year for the first of the Civil War sesquicentennial designs. The 2011 plate, now on sale, depicts the Beauvoir mansion in Biloxi, Miss., the final home of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president.
SCV wants license plates to feature Civil War battles that took place in Mississippi. It proposes a Battle of Corinth design for 2012 and Siege of Vicksburg design for 2013. Stewart said the 2015 plate would be a tribute to Confederate veterans.
Johnson, with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he’s not bothered by Civil War commemorative license plates generally. But he said Mississippi shouldn’t honor Forrest, who was an early leader of what he calls “a terrorist group.”
“He should be viewed in the same light that we view Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden,” Johnson said of Forrest. “The state of Mississippi should deny any vanity tags which would highlight racial hatred in this state.”
Democratic Rep. Willie Bailey, who handles license plate requests in the House, said he has no problem with SCV seeking any design it wants.
“If they want a tag commemorating veterans of the Confederacy, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Bailey, who is black. “They have that right. We’ll look at it. As long as it’s not offensive to anybody, then they have the same rights as anybody else has.”
Nobody would ever accuse me of being an advocate for political correctness. Indeed, I am deeply bothered by the idea of political correctness. At the same time, there’s being politically correct, and then there’s thumbing your nose at an entire segment of society, and it appears to me that the SCV, bound and determined to push its revisionist agenda, is doing precisely that with the African-American community. Forrest is a polarizing and hated figure among African-Americans, and for very good reason. It seems to me that the SCV could not care less about whether it offends African-Americans because “it’s heritage, not hate.”
I know a lot of SCV members. Most of them are good and decent people who are, indeed, primarily interested in honoring their forebears who fought for the Confederacy, and I have no issue with them. What I have major problems with is the very aggressive cadre that took control of the SCV board a few years back and and decided to push their Lost Cause agenda by claiming that thousands of blacks fought willingly for the Confederacy in an attempt to justify and humanize slavery. Kevin Levin and Brooks Simpson have done a fine job of dealing with that particular canard, and I commend their work on the subject to you.
It seems to me that if the SCV was serious about it being about heritage and not hate, it would have selected a less polarizing figure than Nathan Bedford Forrest to lionize in a state that historically boasted one of the largest slave populations of the Deep South.Scridb filter
150 years ago today, the fire-eaters of South Carolina lit the fuze for the tinderbox of the Civil War by enacting an Ordinance of Secession. I doubt that they realized what their actions would trigger, and I seriously doubt that any of them anticipated that 600,000 Americans would die as a consequence of their foolhardy and ill-considered actions.
I know that some view the passage of that ordinance of secession as a good thing, but I don’t. I view it as one of, if not THE, greatest tragedy in the history of our Republic. For reasons that are nearly a complete mystery to me, a Secession Ball is being in held in Charleston tonight, as if this tragedy is something to celebrate through light-hearted activities such as cotillions. While the passage of the Ordinance of Secession is certainly worthy of commemoration, I surely don’t view these events as something to be celebrated, and I have to state that I hardly think that a Secession Ball, intended to celebrate treason as if it was a good thing, is appropriate, and I regret that such an event is being held.
My friend John Hoptak has a very thoughtful discussion of why these are not events to celebrate on his blog today, which I commend to you.
I can only hope that it is a once-and-done thing and no other such inappropriate celebrations are contemplated any time soon.Scridb filter
Prof. Glen LaFantasie teaches American history at Western Kentucky University. Glenn is a respected scholar known for his excellent work the fighting at Little Round Top and on Col. William C. Oates. Glenn has written a really interesting analysis of the phenomenon of secession–clearly illegal in 1860 and clearly illegal now–and how its threat is rearing its ugly head again now. With thanks to Jim Epperson for bringing it to my attention.
How the South rationalizes secession
150 years later, a campaign to deny that the South’s exodus from the union was a revolution is in full force
BY GLENN W. LAFANTASIE
Secession is making a comeback. Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union, a political act that set in motion the events that led to the Civil War, but one needn’t look very far into the past to hear the rumblings of disunion and the rhetoric of states’ rights. In April 2009, Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, suggested that his state might ponder secession if “Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people.” In response, the audience began to chant, “Secede, secede,” hoping, one assumes, that everyone there would soon begin to party like it was 1860. The Texas House of Representatives quickly passed a resolution that seemed to threaten secession, and Gov. Perry just as quickly endorsed the resolution.
Yet if you think that all this secession bluster is only a symptom of some peculiar Texas Tea Party madness, you need only Google the word “secession” to find that the radical right believes, apparently in growing numbers, that the Constitution does not prohibit secession and that states can leave the federal union whenever they want. Worse, a Middlebury Institute/Zogby Poll taken in 2008 found that 22 percent of Americans believe that “any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic.” That’s an astounding statistic, one that means that nearly a quarter of Americans don’t know about the Civil War and its outcome. Sadly, it also means that for 1 out of every 4 Americans, the 620,000 of their countrymen who died during the Civil War gave their lives in vain.
If by defeating the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Union did not prove conclusively that secession could not be legally sustained, the point was made emphatically clear in the 1869 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Texas v. White. In the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (a Republican appointed by Lincoln), the court ruled that under the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the states during the American Revolution, “the Union was solemnly declared to ‘be perpetual.’ And when these Articles were found to be inadequate to the exigencies of the country, the Constitution was ordained ‘to form a more perfect Union.’ It is difficult to convey the idea of indissoluble unity more clearly than by these words. What can be indissoluble if a perpetual Union, made more perfect, is not?” Chase, of course, was an activist judge, like his modern Republican successor John G. Roberts, but Lincoln had earlier made the same point about secession in his distinctively simple and disarmingly coherent style: “It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” In his mind, secession was nothing short of anarchy. It was also treason. “No State, upon its own mere motion” he said in his first inaugural address, “can lawfully get out of the Union, — that [secession] resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void; and that acts of violence, within any State or States, against the authority of the United States, are insurrectionary or revolutionary.”
Surprisingly enough, secessionist extremists (called fire-eaters in the parlance of the times) in the South agreed — at least at first. In 1858, William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama proclaimed that the time had come to “fire the Southern heart — instruct the Southern mind — give courage to each other, and at the proper moment, by one organized, concerted action we can precipitate the cotton States into a revolution.” After Lincoln’s election in November 1860, Sen. Judah Benjamin of Louisiana told a political ally that “a revolution of the most intense character” was moving forward and that it could not be “checked by human effort” any more than a prairie fire could be extinguished “by a gardener’s watering pot.” When South Carolinians decided unanimously in their secession convention to leave the Union, the Charleston Mercury declared: “The tea has been thrown overboard. The revolution of 1860 has been initiated.” One of the delegates admitted that the convention worked “to pull down our government and erect another.” In Louisiana, a broadside declared: “We can never submit to Lincoln’s inauguration; the shades of Revolutionary sires will rise up to shame us if we shall do that.” Many Southerners saw themselves as carrying the banner of their ancestors who had fought a revolutionary war against a tyrannical king; by rebelling against the United States, secessionists believed they were engaged in a revolution to restore the principles of 1776. When Texas left the Union on Feb. 1, 1861, the secessionists there proudly announced that “for less cause than this, our fathers separated from the Crown of England.”
But talk of revolution was dangerous. Alexander Stephens, who would become the Confederacy’s only vice president, warned that “revolutions are much easier started than controlled, and the men who begin them, seldom end them.” In many of the Southern states, Unionist sentiment remained strong, and several secession conventions were divided among those who wanted to leave the United States immediately, those who wished to wait for the Southern states to cooperate together by jointly seceding, and those who sought to prevent disunion entirely. Eventually the fire-eaters prevailed by whipping up passion — that prairie fire mentioned by Benjamin — and using fear tactics (e.g., Lincoln was an abolitionist bent on destroying the Southern way of life, meaning slavery) to convince moderates and conditional Unionists that secession was their only political option. By the time the Confederate government was formed in Montgomery, Ala., in February 1861, many Southerners — like Jefferson Davis, the new Confederate president — jettisoned the extremist rhetoric and espoused moderation, denying at the same time that secession constituted revolution. “Ours is not a revolution,” Davis maintained. “We are not engaged in a quixotic fight for the rights of man; our struggle is for inherited rights.” He claimed, in fact, that the Southern states had seceded “to save ourselves from a revolution.”
His statement has led some historians to conclude that Southern secession was less a revolution than a counterrevolution — a dubious interpretation that relies solely on taking Davis and some other Southerners at their word, when, in fact, what these Confederates were really attempting to do was justify secession by relying on the right of revolution articulated in the Declaration of Independence (or on the Lockean theory of “natural rights”) rather than on anything found in the Constitution. In other words, Davis and his brethren did not want to be called traitors, even though they were leading a blatant political (and later an armed) rebellion against the existing government. To call secession a counterrevolution amounts to saying that Lincoln’s election to the presidency, which was accomplished legitimately under the law, was in itself a revolution. That proposition is, of course, preposterous.
More to the point, Confederate Vice President Stephens plainly asserted in March 1861 that the “present revolution,” which had brought about the creation of the Confederate States of America, “is founded … on the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Other Confederates cringed at the persistent description of their revolution as a revolution (but not at the admission that the preservation of slavery was their primary motive for seceding) and turned instead to defending their actions by arguing that secession was, in fact, legal and not revolutionary at all. Harking back to the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, written by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in response to the Federalist Party’s enactment of the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts, Southerners advanced the idea that the Union under the Constitution consisted of simply a compact among the states and that any state, by means of its retained sovereignty, could divorce itself from the Union if it ever desired to do so. Confederates also based their rationalization of secession on John C. Calhoun’s notion of nullification, which held that a state could declare a federal law null and void. But Calhoun — a South Carolinian who had served in Congress, as secretary of war under Monroe, as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and later as the South’s most famous (or infamous) senator — went further in his states’ rights arguments than Jefferson or Madison had ever done. In his view, states were not only sovereign, they were virtually independent; thus states were simultaneously in the Union and out of it. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson, a fellow Southerner, forced South Carolina to nullify its nullification of a federal tariff. Instead of reinforcing the idea of a perpetual Union, the nullification crisis simply laid the groundwork for the South’s later secession.
For many Southerners, the Union created under the Constitution was never meant to be a nation in perpetuity; they regarded it, instead, as a voluntary federation of autonomous states. To reach such a conclusion, of course, required tortured logic, since there was nothing in the Constitution that hinted at the possibility of a state seceding from the Union, just as there was nothing in the newly established Confederate Constitution that enabled any of its member states to secede. (The Confederate Constitution mimicked the U.S. Constitution in most of its particulars, except for legalizing slavery, limiting the president to a single term of six years, and giving the executive a line-item veto on budget matters.) What could be found in both constitutions, however, was a provision allowing for powers not delegated to the central government, “nor prohibited by it to the States,” to be reserved to the states or to the people “respectively” (U.S. Constitution, Tenth Amendment; Confederate Constitution, Article VI, Section 6).
Not surprisingly, South Carolina in part based its secession on what it regarded as inherent rights granted by the Tenth Amendment. Modern secessionists like Rick Perry and other neo-Confederates (some of whom call themselves “Tenthers”) also look to the Tenth Amendment to justify their disunionist — and sometimes anarchic — rants. The problem is, however, that if one is to be a consistent Jeffersonian in these matters, then a strict construction of the Tenth Amendment does not allow for any reading between the lines. Unfortunately for South Carolina in 1860 and Tenthers in 2010, the Constitution — and especially the Tenth Amendment — is silent on the issue of secession. The silence, despite all the hyperbole of secessionists old and new, does not mean that the Constitution condones the right of secession.
In any event, Southern secessionists believed that it did, so they came to see themselves as conservatives, not revolutionaries. This position entrapped them in the contradiction of wanting to overthrow the government of the United States while also remaining under the protection of the Constitution. As a result, Southern justifications of the constitutionality of secession and their own conservatism became almost surreal. The Reverend George Carter of Texas argued that secession, “so far from being a destructive process, was eminently conservative in its effects.” Secession, in other words, did not tear the nation apart; rather, it provided the means by which true American virtues and principles could be conserved (while, of course, tearing the nation apart). In 1863, as the Civil War raged on, Carter told an enthusiastic crowd of like-minded disunionists: “Secession was conservative in the true sense. It preserved our rights and institutions by rejecting the control that sought to destroy them.” As historian George C. Rable has insightfully noted, the Southern protests avowing conservatism and denouncing revolution eventually became Orwellian in their logic and rhetoric. “Submission is revolution; Secession will be conservatism,” cried John M. Daniel, the editor of the Richmond Examiner. Just how twisted his logic had become was more fully revealed when he exclaimed: “To escape revolution in fact we must adopt revolution in form. To stand still is revolution — revolution already inflicted on us by our bitter, fanatical, unrelenting enemies.” Probably he knew what he meant, but what seems to have been at the core of his pronouncement was the hope that by simply saying a revolutionary act like secession was not really revolutionary would ensure that Confederates could not be branded as revolutionaries or traitors.
Even a conservative Confederate like Robert E. Lee, however, admitted that “secession is nothing but revolution.” Despite this belief, he willingly broke his solemn oath to defend the Constitution, followed Virginia out of the Union, and became the Confederacy’s greatest warrior and its foremost national symbol. When the war was over, he sought a federal pardon. Implicitly he seemed to understand that his actions required absolution. But a war-torn nation was unforgiving. Lee’s rights as a citizen of the United States were not restored to him until 1975. Nevertheless, he was never charged with treason before his death in 1870, although he worried that he would be.
Jefferson Davis, however, was indicted for treason. Under the inept administration of Andrew Johnson, who bumbled his way through his presidency, federal prosecutors and Chief Justice Chase, a legal formalist, could not agree on anything beyond Davis’s indictment. Political fears and effective Northern Democrats, who had catered to Southern interests since the 1830s, led federal officials to satisfy themselves with keeping Davis incarcerated at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, where he spent a few days in shackles and later lived comfortably in a four-room apartment with his wife. After posting $100,000 in bail (raised in part from a secret Confederate fund kept in England), Davis was released; the federal government, continuing to stumble and to appease Southern demands, did not drop the case against him until early 1869. In 1978, the nation — suffering from a bad case of historical amnesia as it often does — restored Davis’ rights of citizenship.
One of America’s worst traitors, a man who had committed or condoned far worse acts against his country than Benedict Arnold, was allowed to go home after his brief detainment in Virginia. But even that lenient punishment was enough to elevate Davis to Southern martyrdom. Rumors were spread throughout the South about his mistreatment at Fortress Monroe, although Davis himself said the stories were untrue. Until his death in 1889, he found a stronger voice in passionately defending the right of secession and extolling the nobility of the Lost Cause. He became, like so many of his fellow Confederates, an unreconstructed rebel. As one might expect, he never believed that he had committed a single traitorous act; in fact, he boldly, even arrogantly, affirmed that every one of his actions was legal and constitutional. Unlike Lee, he never sought a pardon, which is just as well because he probably would not have gotten it (although President Johnson, who was courting the Democratic Party at the time, could have easily caved in on this issue). But he also never uttered a single word of regret or remorse for the bloody revolutionary war he had willfully led against his country.
It is, in fact, rather odd that Confederates should have denied so vehemently their revolutionary actions, especially when one considers their voluntary, even enthusiastic, taking up of arms against the United States, their desperate fight for independence from the United States, and their conscious modeling of their behavior on the Old Revolutionaries of 1776. The patriots of the American Revolution understood fully that their own rebellion began as a political protest against Great Britain’s imperial policies and involved what Americans like Jefferson and John Adams and Benjamin Franklin believed to be an effort to restore their rights as Englishmen — what we might call a conservative political uprising. But in doing so, those patriots held firmly to an ideology of republicanism that was radical in all its implications: that the Creator had endowed all men with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At the heart of this republican ideology was the extremely radical idea of equality. In the end, what began as a political controversy within the British empire resulted in the formulation of a new, original political science that, in turn, brought about the movement for independence and the establishment of an entirely new nation. The Founders fully understood that they were revolutionaries. They also famously grasped the reality that if their revolution failed, they would all be hanged. What had begun as a politically conservative protest climaxed in the radical act of founding a new country.
For decades after the Civil War, former Confederates emphatically denied that they were revolutionaries and traitors, although they continued to insist that their actions were equivalent to those taken by their forefathers, the Old Revolutionaries. Today’s Red State Republicans, Tea Party supporters, Tenthers and other right-wing extremists, particularly neo-Confederates, make the same arguments. Confederates then and now deny that they are traitors for championing nullification and secession. But that is precisely what they are.
How can anyone possibly be a patriot by calling for the destruction of the country one professes to love and honor? At the root of the theory of secession is an undemocratic impulse that calls for the splintering of the country into separate, sovereign entities. What the Tenthers seem to want here in the United States is the kind of implosion that led to the obliteration of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries in recent times. If the Founders had wanted to create a federation of independent nations, such as the modern European Union, they would have done so. If they had wanted to create a union of autonomous countries aligned under a single head of state, such as the United Kingdom’s Commonwealth of Nations, they would have done so. But they did not. Instead, they brought forth a new republic, a new nation, in which sovereignty was not placed in the hands of the executive authority (such as a monarch or a president), or in the hands of a legislature (such as Parliament or Congress), or in the hands of the separate states (as the Confederacy tried to do and failed), but in the hands of the people — which is precisely why the Constitution begins with the words, “We the People.” Recent threats of secession, like the ones made so forcefully by Gov. Perry, are dangerous because they are, in essence, anti-American. They threaten to tear apart the country, just as the Southern slave states did by seceding and then by engaging in an armed rebellion against the United States.
But even peaceful disunionist sentiments — like the ones Confederate secessionists had when they believed that the federal government would let them abandon the nation without any resistance — are also potentially treasonous. You either give your full allegiance to the United States or you don’t. You may not like the president, the Congress, your local dog catcher, but even if your own personal political preferences aren’t currently in effect, you can’t simply say “hasta la vista, baby,” and set up your own separate Republic of Me. I say this without invoking the old bumper-sticker platitudes of “My Country, Right or Wrong” or “America — Love It or Leave It.” I am simply pointing out that the Civil War ended the debate over whether a state can leave the Union. The answer is no, it can’t, but if you think it can, then you are falling far short of your duty and responsibility as a citizen of the United States.
Rhetoric is one thing, action another. The political blather of extremists on the right or left is something the nation can endure — it always has, it always will. Southerners threatened secession for decades leading up to the Civil War and succeeded mostly in convincing Northerners that their talk was nothing more than a bluff. When Confederates finally took up arms, proving their words were no bluff, the North started shooting back at them. It should be obvious, then, that any serious suggestion of secession in our own time is perilous. And, quite frankly, when it comes to secession (and not just the more benign “opting out” of federal programs, which in some cases are voluntary anyway), words put into action would become treason. Nor does the right of revolution — enshrined in the words of the Declaration of Independence — allow you to foment rebellion without paying the consequences. You have every right to rise up in revolution. But when you do so, you become an enemy of the United States. There is no gray area, no wiggle room, that allows you to claim that because the Constitution does not mention secession, it therefore must be legal, and, oh, by the way, beginning on Tuesday Texas will henceforth be an independent republic. If Texas desires to leave the Union, then the president and Congress are duty-bound to prevent it from doing so. The aphorism “Don’t Mess with Texas” has no relevancy. Neither Texas nor any other state can secede from the Union without paying the consequences (or, for that matter, paying back to Washington all the federal dollars it has received since 1845, when it very willingly entered the Union). That’s what the lesson of the Civil War is, although Tenthers and other potential disunionists seem not to have learned it.
Where I come from (New England), there are many people who would be very willing to let Texas leave the Union while wishing it a hearty bon voyage (not me, necessarily — my paternal grandparents lived for a long time in San Antonio and loved the place; I’m rather fond of the Alamo and the Riverwalk, and Austin’s OK, too). It might even be conceivable that the rising tide of secession sentiment in this country could eventually lead to a state deciding to leave the Union for good; it might also be conceivable for such an event to take place while a weak-willed president occupied the White House — someone more like, say, James Buchanan than Abraham Lincoln. If so, that act of secession would be the beginning of the end of the United States. For once the theory of secession is put into practice, there would be no stopping the fragmentation. The nation — and all that it stands for, all that it has meant — would be finished forever. As the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein points out, “Once the logic of secession is admitted, there is no end except in anarchy.” In pledging allegiance to the flag, Americans vow to uphold “one nation, indivisible.” For Lincoln, the issue was straightforward. Secession was revolution. Secession was treason. There still should be no doubt about that, especially as we ponder the meaning of the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s ignominious — and traitorous — secession from the Union.
The fact that idiots like Texas Gov. Rick Perry are threatening secession again, and the fact that Tea Partiers are trying to provoke another nullification crisis proves the philosopher George Santayana was, unfortunately, absolutely correct when he said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” For this reason, we must be constantly diligent and constantly on the alert against neo-Confederate nonsense and against this sort of agitation.Scridb filter
Prof. Brooks Simpson sums up my position on the issue of Black Confederates quite nicely here. So what, indeed.
Neo-Confederates and Lost Causers like to argue that blacks served in the Confederate army willingly because it puts a more human face on the issue of slavery. A few may well have served for reasons entirely of their own. Most would have done so involuntarily for the simple reason that they were slaves.
At the end of the day, though, so what?Scridb filter
Thanks to Prof. Chris Stowe for bringing this to my attention.
A fourth grade textbook that has been published draws on neo-Confederate doctrine to claim that there were thousands of black Confederate soldiers with the Army of Northern Virginia, including two full battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson. The source for this drivel was the website of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization which has lost all credibility in its drive to try to find some good in slavery as a means of advancing the neo-Confederate agenda. Instead of doing real research, the idiot author parroted this swill–flagrantly false swill–and has promulgated it to unsuspecting children, who are going to think that this nonsense is historical truth. We have to take a stand against it, and all other neo-Confederate hooey.
From today’s issue of The Washington Post:
Phony history controversies will swell with Lincoln, Civil War anniversaries
By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 10:06 PM
Voltaire said history is a pack of tricks we play upon the dead. He should have added that the living are victims, too.
Virginia fourth-graders are the latest targets of historical misinformation. A textbook distributed to students last month included the gross falsehood that two battalions of African American soldiers fought for the Confederacy under famed Gen. Stonewall Jackson.
This wasn’t just a minor factual error, like saying that Jackson lost his right arm at the Battle of Chancellorsville when any self-respecting Civil War buff knows it was his left.
The passage represents a deliberate distortion of history driven by a political agenda. It was foisted on kids by a sloppy author using Internet research who mistakenly drew from works done by Confederate heritage enthusiasts.
The latter like to promote the canard that large numbers of African Americans carried arms willingly for the South. The rebel revisionists do so because it helps cover up two historical truths that put their Lost Cause in a bad light.
One truth is that blacks at the time were overwhelmingly pro-Union, and they fought in large numbers for the North because they recognized that a victory by that side represented their best chance at winning freedom. The second, larger verity – which, to its credit, the schoolbook did make clear – is that sectional disagreements over slavery were the primary cause of the war.
Carol Sheriff, a Civil War expert at the College of William and Mary, discovered the error in her daughter’s copy of the offending book, “Our Virginia: Past and Present.” Sheriff clarified the facts in a Web chat Wednesday on washingtonpost.com.
“As far as we know from the historical record, not a single black person participated in a battle under the command of Stonewall Jackson,” Sheriff wrote. “There is historical evidence that individual blacks, usually servants who followed their masters to the front, occasionally picked up guns in the heat of battle. But it was illegal in the Confederacy to use blacks as soldiers until the waning days of the war (early 1865). A few companies . . . were raised then, but none saw battle action, as the surrender followed shortly thereafter. Stonewall Jackson had died in 1863, so no black soldiers could have served under his command.”
Sheriff said that thousands of blacks worked as laborers for the Confederate army, most of them involuntarily, including under Jackson’s command. But that’s very different from agreeing to risk your life in combat on behalf of a government committed to your enslavement, as some Confederate apologists would have us believe.
Such arguments have been going on for generations, and they are about to become more public and acute. One reason is that Nov. 6 is the 150th anniversary of the election of Abraham Lincoln, which led to the war because it prompted Southern states to begin seceding.
That means the nation is entering a nearly five-year string of commemorations – Fort Sumter, the Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg, Appomattox – full of opportunities to revive the controversies over the Civil War. (It will also familiarize many people for the first time with the word “sesquicentennial,” for a 150th birthday.)
In addition, it so happens that 2010 is a time when the nation is sharply divided by ideological differences that in some ways parallel those of 1860. I’ve heard the comparison made by participants in the Glenn Beck rally in August and in an interview with a Virginia leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Both said resistance today to health-care reform and other alleged excesses of “big government” is reminiscent of the Southern states’ battle against what they viewed as Northern aggression. In a column in April, I quoted the Confederate veterans leader as saying the rebels of the 1860s “were fighting for the same things that people in the ‘tea party’ are fighting for now.”
Moreover, there’s been a surge in activity, especially among conservatives, to adjust history teaching to reflect contemporary political positions. One prominent recent effort occurred in Texas in May. The state school board revised social studies standards to increase study of Confederate leaders and reduce emphasis on the Founding Fathers’ commitment to separation of church and state. Some wanted to stop referring to the slave trade and substitute a euphemistic phrase, the “Atlantic triangular trade,” but that idea was, thankfully, dropped.
The Virginia Department of Education has conceded its error in allowing the misleading textbook to be used in classrooms. On Wednesday, it sent an e-mail to school superintendents and history specialists warning them that the offending passage is “outside accepted Civil War scholarship.” The department said that it anticipates teachers “will have no difficulty working around one objectionable sentence” in using the book.
I don’t think that’s enough. A lot of teachers will neglect to pass on the message about the mistake. Also, many fourth-graders are going to have a hard time understanding that one part of the book is wrong but that they need to learn the rest.
The state should yank the book and replace it with an accurate one as soon as possible. It should also investigate why a review committee approved the book and what steps are necessary to prevent such mishaps from occurring in the future.
The First Amendment protects Confederate sympathizers’ right to write this nonsense. But public schools should take greater care not to help spread such myths.
Staff writer Kevin Sieff contributed to this column.
The author of this tripe claims that she stands by her research, which speaks volumes for her, as it’s well known that there were, perhaps, a handful of black Confederate solders at best. Kevin Levin has led the charge in efforts to combat the neo-Confederate canard of the black Confederate, and I commend you to the good work that Kevin has done on his blog to fight this good fight.
The bottom line is that those of us who take the truth seriously–not neo-Confederate hooey–MUST fight this fight every day. Keep up the good work, Kevin.Scridb filter