The Letter

confed arlington

“Every man should endeavor to understand the meaning of subjugation before it is too late. We can give but a faint idea when we say it means the loss of all we now hold most sacred – slaves and all other personal property, lands, homesteads, liberty, justice, safety, pride, manhood. It means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern schoolteachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the war; will be impressed by all the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors, our maimed veterans as fit objects for derision. It means the crushing of Southern manhood…”

– Maj. General Patrick R. Cleburne

In 1914, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson laid a wreath at the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Wilson, while a professor at Princeton University, had written a brief history of the Civil-War era, Division and Reunion, 1829-1888. Ever since, as a symbol of respect and reconciliation, presidents have continued to lay wreaths at the monument. In May of 2009, however, a group of “scholars” (though very few scholars of history, much less America or the American South) signed a letter written by Edward Sebesta and James Loewen, urging Barack Obama to end this tradition:

The Arlington Confederate Monument is a denial of the wrong committed against African Americans by slave owners, Confederates, and neo-Confederates, through the monument’s denial of slavery as the cause of secession and its holding up of Confederates as heroes. This implies that the humanity of Africans and African Americans is of no significance.

“Today, the monument gives encouragement to the modern neo-Confederate movement and provides a rallying point for them. The modern neo-Confederate movement interprets it as vindicating the Confederacy and the principles and ideas of the Confederacy and their neo-Confederate ideas. The presidential wreath enhances the prestige of these neo-Confederate events.

Thomas E. Woods, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, once remarked that whenever someone smears a book as a “screed,” he is immediately skeptical about whatever they have to say. In this case, however, it is not a stretch to describe Sebesta and Loewen’s letter as a “screed.” Charles Sumner, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts whose arrogance and malevolence embarrassed even fellow Republicans (and ultimately led to his fateful encounter with the business end of a gold-headed gutta-percha cane), could have written this screed.

The authors of the letter claimed that the United Daughters of the Confederacy built the monument to honor the “white nationalism” of the Confederacy, in defiance of the “multiracial democracy” of Reconstruction. The dirty little secret about Antebellum America is that “white nationalism” was actually endemic to both the North and South – in some ways, according to contemporaneous observers, far worse in the former – though the North has worked assiduously to turn the South into the whipping boy for her racial guilt. For example, in the much-ballyhooed Lincoln-Douglas debates, the only subject on which the two Illinoisans – one a Republican, the other a Democrat – could agree was white supremacy. Furthermore, Reconstruction was not an egalitarian utopia, but a lawless occupation. In Washington, D.C., the Republican Party resorted to shameless fraud and coercion to consolidate its conquest, suspending and reinstating Southerners from Congress to ensure votes went its way. The power grab was so blatant that even some Northern states (no doubt closeted “neo-Confederates”) resisted the Republicans.

Meanwhile, in the South, whites were disfranchised and freedmen were turned into a government-dependent underclass of reliable Republican voters. Southern state governments, under the control of Republican usurpers and interlopers, extracted punitive taxes from the impoverished Southern people and saddled them with enormous debts. Following Julius Caesar’s maxim of “divide and rule,” Republican auxiliaries like the Union League incited freed slaves to lash out against their former masters. After a dozen years of unlimited looting, the Republicans left, without any interest in the welfare of the blacks. Well into the next century, the South remained, for all intents and purposes, a colony of the North.

The authors were especially incensed by the monument’s Latin motto, “Victrix causa deis platuit sed victa Catoni,” (“the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the conquered cause pleased Cato”), which compares Lincoln to the “despot” Caesar and the Confederacy to “Cato, the stoic believer in freedom.” A man, elected president with 40% of the popular vote, who denounced lawful state governments as combinations of criminals, staged a military coup d’état in Maryland and imposed martial law in other border states, blockaded and invaded the Southern states for the collection of taxes without a declaration of war from Congress, suspended the Bill of Rights to deny civil liberties and crush dissidents, instituted the first draft in U.S. history over the protests of the poor, relied heavily on German socialist immigrants for support at the ballot box and on the battlefield, set the precedent of printing whatever money he could not extract in taxes, consolidated the banking industry in order to finance his record-setting debt, pardoned and promoted commanders convicted of war crimes to positions of authority, and waged a war which he described as the “subjugation” and “extermination” of the Southern people, estimated to have resulted in 750,000 casualties (including 50,000 civilians), a tyrant? Impossible! All hail Saint Abraham!

Hilariously, the authors concluded by denouncing Ron Maxwell’s Civil-War classic, Gods and Generals, a film based on Jeff Shaara’s beloved novel, as “neo-Confederate” propaganda. This was way out of left field, to say the least. Gods and Generals is renowned for its fair and balanced portrayal of both sides, but apparently the truth is still too “neo-Confederate” for these frothing fanatics.

According to these so-called “experts,” Confederates cannot be heroes because slavery was wrong, period. Never mind that securing slavery from irresponsible, reckless outside interference was just one of many causes of secession – all of which are documented in Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil War. Never mind that most Southerners, and most Confederate soldiers, owned no slaves. Never mind that the best and brightest of the Confederacy saw slavery as a millstone, not a cornerstone, to their civilization, and prayed for its peaceful abolition. Never mind that the Confederacy underwent a massive internal debate over freeing and arming the slaves to fight – and ultimately chose to risk it, showing where her loyalties truly laid. Never mind that after the war, former Confederates swore that preserving the principle of states’ rights, not the institution of slavery, was foremost in their hearts and minds. Never mind it all! The contaminant of slavery, to Sebesta and Loewen, discredits everything Southerners said and did; Southerners are treacherous and simply cannot be trusted. Obama, to his credit, upheld the tradition of laying the wreath.

The truth is that there is no higher cause than fighting to uphold the inalienable right of self-government and defending hearth and home against invasion. The Confederates were not brave but misguided men who fought for a bad cause; they were brave men who fought for an honorable – and thoroughly American – cause. If anything, it was the Yankees – pledging their allegiance to the Union as they destroyed it in spirit (though preserved it in form, more or less) and slaughtered its people, or singing songs about freeing the slaves as they drove them out of their homes, confined them to concentration camps where many died of disease and starvation, impressed the men into military service, harassed and molested the women, forbid them from resettling in the North, and stirred the pot of interracial tensions between freedmen and whites before packing up and heading home – who were woefully misguided.

James M. McPherson, author of the popular Battle Cry of Freedom, was the biggest name on the letter (unless, of course, you count the bomber Bill Ayers). Even though McPherson definitely favors the North over the South, a scholar of his reputation should have risen above this pathetic partisan fray. In What They Fought For, 1861-1865, however, McPherson undertook a serious study of the motives of Northern and Southern soldiers from their wartime journals and letters. McPherson concluded that Southerners “fought for liberty and independence from what they regarded as a tyrannical government.” Their writings “bristled with the rhetoric of liberty and self-government,” and opposed being “subjugated” and “enslaved” to the North. Of their Northern enemies, McPherson explained, “Union soldiers were willing to risk their lives for Union, but not black freedom.” Indeed, Lincoln himself had sworn time and time again that he went to war to preserve the Union, not abolish slavery, and made up to three offers to the Confederacy to trade submission to the Union for the protection of slavery. So the words of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are just that – words.

Two quotes, one from a Tennessean, the other from an Illinoisan, capture what inspired the Confederate soldier to take up arms and fight. You be the judge of whether Confederates deserve to be scorned as racists and traitors or honored as heroes:

“The Yankees are sacrificing their lives for nothing; we ours for home, country, and all that is dear and sacred. Everyone seems to know that his life, liberty, and property are at stake, hence we can never be whipped.”

“We are fighting for the Union…a high and noble sentiment, but after all a sentiment. They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders.”

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