Professor Williams’ argument (“Naming Commission Historian Rationalizes Name Changes in Campus Talk,” news, May 14) that the Confederate soldier is odious because he committed treason when killing Union soldiers collapses at its premise. He was not a traitor.

First, almost 300 officers left the Federal Army during the secession crisis and 270 joined the Confederacy. None were charged with treason.

Second, the legality of secession, and the converse “right” to force seceded states back into the Union, were unsettled at the time. President James Buchanan concluded that no state had a unilateral right to secede but also decided that the Federal government had no power to force it to return.

Third, in 1860 no law, no word in the Constitution prohibited secession. Every power not given to the national government belonged to the states and to the people. The founders gave us a Federal system, not a national one.

Fourth, the Confederacy had no purpose to invade the District of Columbia and overthrow Lincoln’s government. In his first report to the Confederate Congress two weeks after the opening shots at Fort Sumter, Jefferson Davis said, “…all we ask is to be let alone.”

Fifth, Virginia and three other states of the upper South remained loyal to the Union until Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to coerce the seven cotton states back into the Union. The four had warned Lincoln that — like Buchanan — they believed coercion to be unconstitutional. Those states contributed half of the white population from which the eleven-state Confederacy drew its soldiers.

Dr. Williams sets a reckless example by labeling the Confederate soldier a traitor. In truth, the Confederate warrior has been an inspiration to American soldiers in postbellum wars. Among such examples is Robert E. Lee.

After Lincoln’s assassination, President Johnson wanted ex-Confederates to take a new loyalty oath to the Union. Lee was among those who complied as did the Captain son of former Virginia governor Henry Wise.

When the Captain told his dad that he had taken the oath, the father barked: “You have disgraced the family!”

His son replied, “But General Lee told me to do it.”

“Oh,” said the father, “that alters the case. Whatever General Lee says is all right.”

Originally published in the W&L Spectator.

Philip Leigh

Philip Leigh contributed twenty-four articles to The New York Times Disunion blog, which commemorated the Civil War Sesquicentennial. He is the author of U.S. Grant's Failed Presidency, Southern Reconstruction (2017), Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies (2015), and Trading With the Enemy (2014). Phil has lectured a various Civil War forums, including the 23rd Annual Sarasota Conference of the Civil War Education Association and various Civil War Roundtables. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Florida Institute of Technology and an MBA from Northwestern University.


  • Billy P says:

    Without doubt! There were certainly traitors to the constitution in those days, but they were not Confederate soldiers. To call them as such is a cowardly attempt to undermine the courage and heroic defensive stance they took against an invading horde, many who were violent revolutionaries from Europe, and to justify said invasion. The latter is a very tall order and not an argument I would want to own. I do not doubt that there were Union soldiers who believed in what they fought for – and certainly likewise! If only we could return to the “agreement” made by the men who actually fought the war in an effort to reconcile, but Washington DC, the Marxists and the neocons have decided to tear open the old wound and point the finger in one direction only. They should have reconsidered that path because the truth is being told and I find that people are listening.
    Secession was never treason. I would much rather defend the conventions that took place and the votes casted to secede than to defend a President who asks other states to invade other states militarily all for tax funds and political power, leaving in its wake a river of blood and hundreds of thousands dead.
    Traitors? And a traitor to what exactly? A ridiculous, hollow argument from those within a country literally founded on actual treason – just ask a Brit his thoughts – but hey, we made it stick, so in that specific case, is perfectly fine to be a traitor. Can’t deny the irony.
    Those who would denigrate the southern soldier are imploding on their own lies and the destruction they have brought on to this country in the form of tearing down Confederate statues, statues of the founding fathers, destroying proud military traditions (base names)…is exposing them.

    • James M Persons says:

      “… the truth is being told and I find that people are listening.” That is my experience as well, Billy. In part I think the fact that the truth is resonating with more and more Americans explains the continuation of the Yankee propagation about the war. The centralizers are losing their grip, so they have been increasing the propaganda output, but it is not going to work.

      • James Persons says:

        I meant to say propaganda.

      • Billy P says:

        James, I have found that those who seem most open to hearing the true history and more often than not, northerners. It amazes me actually. They seem to really want to absorb it and understand it. There are a lot of Copperheads in this country.

        Some young southerners who hear history they’ve never been exposed to tend to be more skeptical of new information, retreating to the perceived safety of the simplistic northern version, the one they are taught in schools, their key driving desire is to be liked and to not hurt someone’s feelings. They will sacrifice even their own history, speak ill of their ancestors and their country, if it means being accepted. it’s a coward’s existence and a shame what has happened.

        I once visited the Boston tea party museum/store in Boston, and they had a sign at the counter to raise funds for a local Revolutionary War reenactment. I told the lady at the counter that I was a War Between the States reenactor, then I had to follow it with the obligatory “Civil War” term so she could understand. She said they don’t even teach the “Civil War” in schools there anymore. That was so surprising given the number of dead in that war on both sides. I don’t want to anchor on just one person’s feedback at a store in Boston….but maybe the north would prefer to just forget it/bury that one? I believe it’s because it’s based on lies and distortions and deep down, always off the record, they know it.

        Are they afraid someone in that northern school might ask a question that may challenge that northern view – a question from someone who isn’t southern and can’t be immediately called the R word? They might not be able to shut down legitimate questions on the north’s real motives, so maybe they avoid that war altogether. Who knows, but something to think about.

        But….they sure didn’t stop teaching their holier than thou, anti-southern version to southern kids, and decades of effort has left us with a lot of mentally distressed kids who hate their own ancestors and even their own skin color.

        Fortunately, my kids are excluded from that mix though….I raised mine the right way.

        • Matt C. says:

          “She said they don’t even teach the “Civil War” in schools there anymore.” I don’t know what time frame that is referred to there, but I went to school in the north in the 60’s into the 70′. I remember learning about the Revolution, the War of 1812; learned some Reconstruction; maybe. Learned about the Industrial Revolution, and events afterward. But, I recall learning nothing about the war between the states, and I had gone to private school. I learned as much about thar war from movies like “Shenandoah,” and “The Undefeated,” as anything else. From the military, I ended up in Virginia in 1980 and here I am. It wasn’t until watching Ken Burns series, “The Civil War,” that I began reading and studying that time. I’m aware of the issues with Burns, so anything about him need not be mentioned. I very much appreciate all the men and women who have written about that time which helped my understanding and educated me: Foote, Robertson, the Kennedy twins, Thomas, Wilson, O’Barr, Protopapas, Cathey, McClanahan, and others.

          • Billy P says:

            Matt – The visit to Boston that I referred to above was in July 2023, so recent in the scheme of things. Again, it was just one lady chiming in about the subject, so I’m certainly not sure what the standard curriculum is in that area, whether the war just isn’t taught, or maybe she was absent that day.
            Like you, I enjoy all the writers you listed – it is a continuous learning curve with such great writers.
            And – thank you for your service. Much appreciated.

        • Matt C. says:

          Had to reply here. Appreciate it Billy. You know, just last week, a friend and I took a trip to Petersburg to see the Pamplin Museum and National Historical Park. It was Thursday, a beautiful day. We couldn’t believe it, but it was closed. The website before and after we got there said it was open. We called the number. A recording said one needs a special appointment or something, or it has to be a school related prearranged visit. Just couldn’t believe it. Budget issues? Staffing issues? Or, besides the monuments, are they going after the memorial historical parks, too?

          • Billy P says:

            That’s unfortunate. Let’s hope that’s not the case, but nothing surprises me anymore. But probably something we should keep on the radar.

  • Matt C. says:

    Thank you for the article, Mr. Leigh. It’s been a long time since I read the biography of Lee by Emory Thomas. And I read Foote’s three volumes, and I guess he, like Thomas, mentioned Lee’s loyalty oath. But, I’d forgotten that, a little. I suppose Lee might have regetted doing that when he soon saw how aggressive abroad and despotic at home America had become. And he expressed this concern to, Lord Acton, was it? The Kennedy twins did a good work on that fact.

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    We’ve hired low-brows to rename (Naming Commision)“Honorables.” Lets keep up the force. May it be with us! Let us continue:

    Let’s rename Washington D.C.
    Named for a racist slave owner the name sticks in the craw of all who believe in the great liberty-loving and egalitarian people consolidated from the beginning as persons of LGBTQRJ&X@@BEESWAX) who founded a NATION which finally stuck up a statue (gifted by those adorable freedom-loving French fellow-ettes) called Lady (LGBTQRJ&X@@BEESWAX)Liberty in that wonderful New York water park overlooking Fox, MSNBC, CBS, NBC and all Radio-City bloviators et BS. That great obelisk of freedom for the tired, the weary, the stupid, the corrupt, the thieves and all of hell’s creatures! Oh powerful Satan we cry from our “capital” of clarity: “send them all for our expense and care.”
    A new name: remembrances in blood, rape, murder, damnation and dearth of manners and those whose mythology is freedom of the African from his Massachusetts chains of the great schooner Salem.
    The new named District of… ?
    Yankee-Doodle-Damnation, D.C.
    And may those Southern “representatives” remain there with their true friends: Yankees and money!
    Don’t come home you #$%^&*()!

  • AJ campagna says:

    You’ve out done yourself. Those name suggestions are perfect.

  • Albert Alioto says:

    If Dr. Williams is representative of Yale, it has sunk a long way since Calhoun graduated.

  • David LeBeau says:

    Good job, Mr. Leigh!

    Just tonight I’m in my truck and channel surfing when I landed on two clowns (Glenn Beck & Bill O’Reilly) discussing Trump’s trial. O’Reilly stated that Trump referred to Joe Biden as the worst US President. Then O’Reilly tells Beck, no Biden is second worst, it’s James Buchanan who is the worst of them all. So tell me, how is it that a President, who didn’t start a war is the worst president of all time? Those Yankee neocons have always looked at the Southern soldiers of the 1860s as traitors.

    • William Quinton Platt III says:

      And the worst SCOTUS decision was Dred Scott…no doubt…because it said property could be taken anywhere in the union of sovereign States…but fedgov failed to march armies into northern States which passed laws contrary to federal fugitive property laws…which is entirely different from lincoln marching South to collect his tariffs…

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    The 1830 US military officers’ oath read as follows…from memory…I swear to defend the United States and protect THEM from THEIR enemies…so…All the men who fought for the South swore to defend their State as part of a union of sovereign States…when the States left, the officers went with them.

    This oath remained unchanged from 1830 until 1862…when, as you know, dear reader, there was a War for Southern Independence raging…

    Then, to show how powerful the above argument was, the YANKEES CHANGED THEIR OATH IN 1862 TO FORCE OFFICERS TO SUPPORT AND DEFEND THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES…Rebel armies didn’t force this change upon the yankees…the yankees made the change voluntarily…without coercion…unlike the 13th-15th Amendments forced upon the Southern States as a condition to end military rule.

  • Ryan says:

    Great job! I’m halfway through your book, Trading with the Enemy, it’s been a fantastic read.

  • Tom Sabetta says:

    Traitor is certainly an inappropriate and inaccurate term; hollow as Billy stated. If I am not mistaken, succession, it happened at least once before, with a few states in the upper East Coast. However, given that the states succeeded, which was not unconstitutional, As stated previously by a writer in the string, the states elected, a new government, with new Senate and representatives, and President. Therefore, the people of the south had a new government and therefore a new citizenship. at that point, it was one country. The confederate states of America fighting another country the United States of America.

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