December, 2010

….And so 2010 fades to black as the lights begin to shine on 2011….

2011 brings the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and I’m sure that we will have many more interesting things to discuss as it plays out.

With thanks to Kevin Levin for a GREAT idea, I’d like to give you, my readers, the last word as the year comes to an end. Please feel free to share your final thoughts for the year here.

To all of you, I wish you a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.

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For the 1001st post on this blog, I thought I would follow Prof. Glenn LaFantasie’s lead. Glenn has gone way out on a limb, and has published a list of his top 12 Civil War books of all time. For those who don’t know of Glenn and his work, he is the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History and Director of the Institute for Civil War Studies at Western Kentucky University and a good guy.

In creating his list, Glenn set certain parameters, and mine will follow the same parameters. He began:

I’ve only included books published after World War II, which means I’m leaving out a long shelf of good books issued before the second half of the 20th century, some of which still stand the test of time. Out of necessity, I’ve narrowly defined the universe from which I have picked my top dozen.

This limitation rules out any accounts by participants, as well as the works of Douglas Southall Freeman. He continued:

For example, I’ve not included any biographies on this list — an exclusion that some may find indefensible. No series or multivolume works are included here either, which means that Allan Nevins’ majestic “The Ordeal of the Union” (eight volumes), Bruce Catton’s “Centennial History of the Civil War” (three volumes), and Shelby Foote’s very popular “The Civil War” (three volumes) are not to be found below, despite the fact that they all qualify as masterpieces.

For this reason, I have ruled out all four of the excellent volumes of Gordon C. Rhea’s outstanding study of the 1864 Overland Campaign and Cap Beatie’s volumes on the Army of the Potomac.

So, with Glenn’s criteria in mind, here is my list, which, of course, is entirely subjective and represents my opinion only:

12. Edwin C. Fishel, The Secret War for the Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War. This book is truly unique: it discovered something entirely new and unknown and then told the story in a very effective fashion. Anyone with even a passing history in the first three years of the war needs to read and understand this book. It completely changed my perspective on a lot of things and showed how good a job the Army of the Potomac did in turning up and using good intelligence to its benefit. The stories of the Colonel George Sharpe and the Bureau of Military Information were untold for far too long.

11. Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. There is, of course, a multitude of books on the Lincoln assassination. In my humble opinion, there is none that does a better job of explaining and analyzing the conspiracy.

10. Harry W. Pfanz, Gettysburg: The Second Day. This book, by the former chief historian of the Gettysburg National Military Park, is perhaps the finest micro-tactical history of a Civil War battle yet written. With exhaustive detail and fine writing, Pfanz carefully details the sledgehammer Confederate assault on the Union left at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

9. Carol Reardon, Pickett’s Charge in History and Memory. Professor Reardon focuses on the memory of the Civil War through the microcosm of how the veterans of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg saw their experiences and shows how time distorts the accuracy of memory. This book is a must for those who study Civil War historiography.

8. Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle. I’m not typically enamored of social history or of the so-called “new military history,” which incorporates social history as a major element of the narrative for the simple reason that strategy, tactics, and decision-making are what interest me, not social history. However, Ken Noe’s outstanding campaign study is perhaps the best example of the good things about the new military history that has yet been published. By carefully weaving the social history aspects into an excellent battle narrative, Ken Noe has written one of the best studies of the Civil War in Kentucky ever done.

7. John J. Pullen, Twentieth Maine: A Classic Story of Joshua Chamberlain and His Volunteer Regiment. Pullen’s classic study of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry is considered to be the prototype for the modern unit history. It, along with Alan Nolan’s excellent history of the Iron Brigade, set the standard for the rest of us to follow in documenting the history of famous units of the Civil War.

6. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. Although it lacks in military detail, as one might expect of a one-volume narrative history of the Civil War, this book is by far the single best one-volume history of the military, political, and economics of the Civil War era yet published. It’s the book I always recommend to newbies.

5. John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. In my humble opinion, this is, hands-down, THE finest one-volume tactical Civil War campaign study ever written. Period.

4. Joseph L. Harsh, Taken at the Flood: Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862. If John Hennessy’s study of the Second Bull Run Campaign is the best tactical study of a campaign, then Joe Harsh’s Taken at the Flood is the finest overall campaign study ever published. This book, epic in scope, covers the entire 1862 Maryland Campaign and completely recast most of the prior art by determining Robert E. Lee’s strategy for the campaign and then analyzing its execution in light of that strategy. Deeply researched and magnificently written, this book deserves a prominent place on the bookshelf of anyone claiming to have an interest in the Civil War.

3. Alan T. Nolan, Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History. Revisionist in scope, and written as a lawyer’s brief, Nolan tackled the greatest icon of the Lost Cause and made him human. This book was critical to my own thinking on Lee and provided me with the role model for one of my own books. You may not agree with everything Nolan says, and some of it may anger you, but you will come away from this book having reconsidered your own positions on Robert E. Lee. At the end of the day, no historian can hope for more.

2. Edwin B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Simply put, this book is the Bible for the student of the Gettysburg Campaign. Featuring excellent tactical detail as well as deep analysis, this book is mandatory reading for any student of the Gettysburg Campaign.

1. American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. This is probably the only cross-over from Glenn’s list. He has it at no. 12. For me, it was my first Civil War book, and I still find myself drawn to Bruce Catton’s perfect prose, the coolest maps ever published in any Civil War book, and its gorgeous photography. My eleven-year-old nephew asked me for a Civil War book that would be appropriate for him last month, and this is the one that I chose for him. My first Civil War book is now his first Civil War book, and I know that neither Adam nor I are alone in making that particular claim. I checked this book out of the library literally dozens of times and no other Civil War book has influenced me more than this magnificent classic did. All else pales in comparison.

For what it’s worth, that’s my list. I’d like to invite you, my readers, to make up your own list and publish it here in the comments if you like. The rules are simple: keep it civil, use the same criteria that Glenn established, and have fun.

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I don’t know whether it should make me feel better that the State of Ohio is not the only state that has scrimped on funding its Sesquicentennial celebration. Indeed, it appears that most states are avoiding funding their sesquicentennial celebrations. The following appeared on MSNBC today:

States scrimping on Civil War anniversary
Efforts to commemorate the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest war will begin next year and run into 2015


updated 12/26/2010 2:18:27 PM ET

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York state contributed 448,000 troops and $150 million to the Union cause during the Civil War, not to mention untold tons of supplies, food, guns and munitions.

But with the 150th anniversary of the war’s start just months away, New York state government has so far failed to scrounge up a single Yankee dollar to commemorate a conflict it played such a major role in winning.

New York isn’t alone. Other states saddled with similar budget woes are unable or unwilling to set aside taxpayer funds for historic re-enactments and museum exhibits when public employees are being laid off and services slashed.

Even South Carolina, where the war’s first shots were fired upon Fort Sumter in April 1861, has declined to provide government funding for organizations planning events in the Palmetto State.

“State money right now is hard to find for anything,” said New York state historian Robert Weible. “That’s life. We’re all living with that.”

At least 21 states have formed commissions, committees or initiatives to commemorate the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest war, starting next year and running into 2015. Of those states, Virginia and Pennsylvania appear to be leading the way in efforts to plan, promote and stage Civil War commemorations.

“Most states have very little or limited funding,” said Cheryl Jackson, executive director of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission. “That’s not unique among the states, what you’re finding in New York.”

The Virginia organization has received an annual $2 million appropriation from the state since 2008, Jackson said. Three out of every five Civil War battles were fought in Virginia, home to the Confederate capital, Richmond, and some of the South’s greatest generals, including Robert E. Lee.

“Virginia bore its share of scars, many of which are still there, so it’s natural that the state take the lead,” said James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., a Virginia Tech history professor and member of the state’s commission.

Pennsylvania has managed to collect nearly $5 million in government funding for its commemoration, including $800,000 in federal grants, according to Barbara Franco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

The key, she said, was Pennsylvania’s decision to start its planning in 2007, just before the economy tanked and government coffers shriveled. Plus, Franco added, Pennsylvania didn’t wait for Congress to get around to creating a national Civil War commission, something lawmakers in Washington, D.C., so far have failed to do.

On the federal level, the National Parks Service is coordinating Civil War events planned through 2015 at more than 75 battlefields and historic sites, as well as at museums and other privately operated sites.

On the state level, various local and regional groups are being enlisted to muster resources for 150th anniversary events.

“Sometimes national commissions are helpful, sometimes they’re not helpful,” Franco said. “Perhaps this grassroots approach provides more opportunities to get down to the real issues that a national commission would never be able to do.”

New York so far doesn’t plan to create a Civil War commemoration commission. But Weible said talks already have begun between his office and local history-related entities to come up with ways to mark the war in the coming years.

“Our concern right now is trying to get everybody on the same page and cooperating with each other and talking to people they don’t normally talk to,” he said. “You don’t need money to make good things happen. It’s nice if you can get it. But we work with what we’ve got.”

What New York has to work with is a deep well of Civil War resources, even though no battles were fought on its soil.

New York communities large and small were touched in some way by the Civil War, and many still have the evidence to prove it, from old industrial sites that supplied Union troops to vast collections of artifacts held by state and local museums. Besides providing the most soldiers during the war, New York suffered the most casualties, with 46,000 killed. Monuments and memorials to their sacrifice can be found all across the state.

More than 200 New York infantry, cavalry and artillery units served in nearly every campaign of the war, from Gettysburg to Vicksburg, said Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, home to more than 850 Civil War battle flags, the largest collection in the nation.

Prominent figures from the era — including William Seward, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Fredrick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant — all lived in New York, and museums and historic sites in their names can be found upstate.

With such links to its Civil War history, New York is counting on local historians, re-enactment groups and the approximately 20 Civil War round tables across the state to help organize anniversary commemorations without any government funding.

“We must definitely commemorate what those soldiers did,” said Patrick Falci of Queens, past president of the Civil War Round Table of New York City. “Our job is to keep it going. What happened down there made us what we are today.”

Despite the lack of an official role by New York, Weible said he’s certain the state’s legacy in the War Between the States will be properly honored over the next five years.

“The bottom line is, we’ve got a great story,” he said. “Stay tuned. Things are happening. We’re going to make this work.”

Given Ohio’s terrible budgetary challenges, I really do understand the reasons why we can’t get any taxpayer funding for what we’re trying to do. We’re fortunate that our staffers have done a fabulous job of finding some grant money for us, so that we have some budget, and I am sure that the commissions from some of our sister states will do the same thing. Nevertheless, a great opportunity for the states to help to generate new interest in the Civil War on the occasion of its sesquicentennial. In spite of the lack of funding, I can only hope that we succeed in spurring some new interest in the war while also paying appropriate tribute to them men who gave the last full measure of their devotion for causes that they believed in.

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24 Dec 2010, by

Holiday Wishes

As tonight is Christmas Eve, I thought I would share a few holiday wishes, in no particular order:

To the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission: The wisdom to continue to make the correct decision and to again deny a casino license to LeVan and his crew in Gettysburg.

To the Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association: Twenty pieces of silver, the price for selling your collective souls to the devil. Oh, wait. I forgot…you already are getting $250,000 per year from Dave LeVan for selling your souls by supporting the battlefield casino and have entirely abandoned any pretense of being a legitimate battlefield preservation and advocacy organization. Never mind.

To Civil War Sesquicentennial Commissions around the United States: Sufficient funding to do the job correctly and a rebirth of interest in the Civil War triggered by the events of the Sesquicentennial.

To Ed Bearss: Many more years of your amazing stamina and knowledge. You are an inspiration to me, and I cherish every chance I get to share a battlefield with you.

To the burgeoning neo-Confederate, nullification, and secessionist movements in this country: The ability and wisdom to understand that George Santayana was absolutely correct when he wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

To Kevin Levin: Keep fighting the good fight, Kevin.

To the Civil War Preservation Trust: Keep fighting the good fight, my friends. Nobody does it better than you do. It’s my honor and privilege to be associated with your efforts.

To the Brandy Station Foundation and the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation: Keep fighting the good fight.

To all of my fellow authors in the Civil War history community: LOTS of book sales in 2011.

To Ted Savas: Nobody does a better job of publishing and marketing high-quality Civil War books than you do, Ted. May 2011 be filled with many more (including one of mine).

To my friends in the National Park Service: That you continue to do a great job of shepherding, preserving, and interpreting our battlefields in the face of ever-shrinking budgets.

To Mike Peters: More bookshelves.

To me: More bookshelves.

To Susan Wittenberg: The patience to continue to put up with me all of these many years later.

To Michael Aubrecht: A healthy 2011 and seeing your signature on a publishing contract for You Stink!.

For Headless Billy: A new head and a new hand in 2011.

To Drew Wagenhoffer: Lots more of your excellent book reviews in 2011.

To Brooks Simpson: Nothing but success with your already excellent new blog.

To Bomber: A quick and complete recovery and many more years of happy battlefield romping.

To Dan Mallock: A chance to finally write that novel of yours and a job you love.

To Keith and Jill Toney: Health and the opportunity to spend more time in Gettysburg.

To Stan and Beverly O’Donnell: A good job in Gettysburg for Bev.

To Rick Allen and Christina Moon: Many years of happiness together.

To Mike Noirot, Tom Clemens, John Hoptak, Greg Biggs, Dan Mallock, Chris Stowe, Mike Peters, Brad Snyder, and John Benintendi: Lots more fun battlefield stomping together.

To Mark Snell: That 2011 is the year you finally take the plunge….you know what I mean….

To Ted Alexander: Having you get healthy and for you to be around for a lot more years, old friend.

To Mannie and Susan Gentile: Many years of wedded bliss.

To my brother J. D. Petruzzi: Healthy hands and wrists and many more years of productive collaboration.

And to all of you, my readers: I wish for you the knowledge of how much our irregular interactions mean to me, and how much I enjoy meeting you when the opportunity to do so presents itself. And I also wish each and every one of you a joyous Christmas and a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2011.

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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.

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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

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.

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My co-author, Michael Aubrecht, and I learned some great news today that I want to share with you.

When I was 13 years old, I came up with the idea of doing a book about the worst teams in the history of major league baseball. The problem is that I knew nothing about how to research or write such a book, and the idea was shelved. Several years ago, I described my idea to Michael, and he loved it. We decided to tackle the project, and completed the manuscript about 18 months ago. The project is titled YOU STINK! Major League Baseball’s Terrible Teams and Pathetic Players. It’s a lighthearted but respectful look at just what the title suggests–terrible teams and pathetic players.

We had trouble locating a publisher for it for a variety of reasons, and the process has dragged on for far longer than either one of us might have liked. However, today, we learned that one of my prior publishers, The Kent State University Press, will be publishing YOU STINK! in 2012, and hopefully in time for the 2012 baseball season. Michael and I have some revisions to make, but we’re thrilled that it’s going to be in print.

The coolest part is knowing that this idea I had 36 years ago is going to finally and fully come to fruition and that my idea will end up in print. To say I’m tickled doesn’t do it justice.

I will keep you posted as to the progress of the project.

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8 Dec 2010, by

March 26, 2011

I’ve been invited, and have accepted that invitation, to be the keynote speaker for the Saturday, March 26, 2011 Harrisburg Area Community College seminar at HACC’S Gettysburg Campus. Here’s some information on the program. I will be delivering the primary talk that morning and then leading a battlefield tour that afternoon.

Saturday, March 26, 2011 also happens to be my fiftieth birthday, and I cannot imagine a better way of spending my entry into a new age bracket and eligibility to join AARP than in my very favorite place doing what I enjoy most in the world. I hope that some of you will be able to join me in my celebration that day.

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This article by historian/analyst D. L. Adams is thought-provoking and worth reading. My antipathy toward Nathan Bedford Forrest is well-known and I need not repeat it here, particularly in light of his racist roots. I’m not 100% certain that I agree with Adams or his conclusions here, but they are worth considering. Since I assume that most of my readers are not familiar with Adams and his writings, much of his commentary has to do with the threat to national security posed by radical Islam, so read this article with that in mind.

See what you think and draw your own conclusions.

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After being one of the founding members of the excellent Civil Warriors blog, my friend Prof. Brooks Simpson has struck out on his own and has begun his own solo blog, which is called Crossroads. It would not be appropriate to welcome Brooks to the blogosphere, as he’s hardly a newbie, but he is a newbie to having his own blog. I’ve added a link and will make Brooks’ blog a regular stop. And thanks very much for the kind words, Brooks. It’s always a pleasure.

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