appomattox lee

In a recent Huffington Post video, director-turned-historian Gary Ross, of the film “Free State of Jones,” debunks what he calls “4 myths of the civil war era.” And since I’ve shown a propensity to answer Mr. Ross in kind, I am quite likely the best candidate to tackle his latest re-writing of history.

Myth #1:  “The Civil War was NOT about slavery.”

To this Ross states that the war “was absolutely about slavery.”  Absolutely?  To quote Obi Wan Kenobi, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”  For me, at least, the conflict between North and South was much more complex and far too complicated to lay the blame on the placemat of one issue.

Ross’s evidence for his conclusion is the same old stuff we’ve heard for decades:  The state declarations, like Mississippi’s, that say secession was all about slavery; and most notably the election of Abraham Lincoln, who Ross calls an “anti-slavery” candidate, cited as the immediate reason the South left the Union. So therefore it was all about a threat to the institution of slavery.

Lincoln’s Republican Party, though, was not an “anti-slavery” party and Lincoln was not an abolitionist, nor did he ever belong to an abolitionist organization.  Furthermore, the party platform in 1860 did not contain an abolitionist plank, only a call to halt the spread of slavery into the federal territories.  Northerners heavily favored this policy, not out of a concern for slavery, but out of a concern to keep the territories free of black people.

The slavery issue cannot be completely dismissed, but there were certainly other issues at play.  As Thomas DiLorenzo has pointed out, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the two dueling presidents, first faced off over tariffs and trade, not slavery or race issues.  In Davis’s first inaugural address, on February 18, 1861, he said this about his region and its people:

“An agricultural people, whose chief interest is the export of commodities required in every manufacturing country, our true policy is peace, and the freest trade which our necessities will permit. It is alike our interest and that of all those to whom we would sell, and from whom we would buy, that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon the interchange of these commodities. There can, however, be but little rivalry between ours and any manufacturing or navigating community, such as the Northeastern States of the American Union. It must follow, therefore, that mutual interest will invite to good will and kind offices on both parts.”

But pay particular attention to President Davis’s next sentence: “If, however, passion or lust of dominion should cloud the judgment or inflame the ambition of those States, we must prepare to meet the emergency and maintain, by the final arbitrament of the sword, the position which we have assumed among the nations of the earth.” Little more than a week later, Lincoln, after hearing of the Davis address, vowed to collect tariff duties by force if necessary.  Therein lies the Fort Sumter crisis and thus the beginning of the war.

But the real question is why did more than 250,000 Southerners die, with hundreds of thousands more wounded, for the cause of the Confederacy?  To defend the major planters?  To protect the cotton economy?  To safeguard slavery?  Hardly.

The letters of Confederate soldiers are filled with patriotism for their new country and a desire to fight for their independence as well as for their homes; not to sacrifice everything on the altar of slavery, but on the “altar of my country,” said one Georgia Confederate.

An Alabama soldier wrote home in 1862, after hearing of the death of one of his children:  “If it were not for the love of my country and family and the patriotism that burn in my bosom for them I would bee glad to come home and stay there but I know I have as much to fite for as any body else.”  A Georgia private wrote his wife that “if I fall it will be in a good Cause in the defence of my Country defending my home and fire side.”

A Tennessee private wrote home upset that his mother was “left there and Exposed to there insults and perhaps take what little you have got. I feel stronger Determination never to quit the field untill they are driven from that beautiful land.”  Others referred to the invading Yankees as “fiendish vandals,” an “insolent invader,” and Lincoln’s “hireling horde.”

Letters such as these are numerous. Yet you can find no letter from a Confederate soldier boasting of his pride in fighting for slavery.  And it’s the letters themselves, stating categorically what they did fight for, that flies in the face of the history we’ve been sold for 150 years.

Myth #2:  “The South was monolithic.”

This is the central theme in the Ross film, “Free State of Jones,” his attempt to show that not every Southerner supported the Confederacy.  Yet no one has ever said the South was 100 percent in lockstep.  It would be impossible to expect with long and deep-seated loyalty to the Union such dedication would evaporate overnight.  But neither was the North.  There were certainly pockets of Unionism and resistance to the Southern government across the Confederacy, just as there was resistance to Lincoln’s war in many Northern states, which Lincoln controlled by illegally jailing thousands of Union citizens without charges or trial.

In one example, Ross points out that part of Virginia “broke away” and formed a new state, all because they did not support the goals of the Confederacy. These initial 39 western Virginia counties were certainly a Unionist stronghold but that’s not the whole story. West Virginia did not break away from Virginia; Lincoln, in his one and only instance of supporting secession, illegally broke the state up, in clear violation of the Constitution’s Article IV, Section 3: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

Lincoln circumvented this constitutional problem by “creating” a new legislature in Wheeling, Virginia, within those Unionist western counties, recognized it as the legitimate legislature of the state of Virginia (even though it was not representative of the whole state), then accepted it’s vote to break away and become a new state.

Though one may point out that Virginia was part of the Confederacy, a separate nation, so it was not under the Constitution, the fact is Lincoln believed the Southern states had never actually seceded and were still, in essence, part of the Union. So his act toward Virginia, then, was clearly illegal, unconstitutional, and dictatorial.

When asked about what could only be considered hypocrisy, Lincoln made an amazing statement:  “It is said that the admission of West-Virginia, is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution.” So secession was okay as long as the country lawyer, and one-term congressman, from Springfield, Illinois approved of it.

But even though there were pockets of Unionist resistance, support for the new Southern republic was very strong. The 11 Confederate states had a total population of 9.1 million, which included 3.5 to 4 million slaves.  The white population, then, was roughly 5 to 5.5 million.  And not all of those were males of military age.  Probably half were women and a good percentage of the rest were either too old or too young to fight.  So out of the remaining population, at least one million fought in the Confederate army, which would total the vast majority of white military aged men.

Support for the Confederacy was strong and the South exhausting almost all of its strength defending the new nation.  When all was said and done, a full 25 percent of all military aged men in the South were dead.  Judging by the percentage of the current population, the catastrophic losses would rival that of the Eastern front in World War II.

Myth #3:  “Emancipation meant immediate freedom for the slaves.”

There is little to dispute here but how Ross chooses to spin it is.  Even though everyone knew that Lincoln’s proclamation did practically nothing to free slaves, the South saw it as something else entirely.  President Davis called the proclamation the “most excrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man” because he believed Lincoln sought to incite a massive slave uprising in the South to, in essence, finish the job John Brown began in 1859.  Davis lamented the likely result. If this occurred, the slaves, he said, “are doomed to extermination” because “they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters.”

But, unbeknownst to Ross, there was also considerable Northern opposition to the proclamation. Many in the Northern states believed that even though the proclamation did not legally free any slaves, the inevitable result would be a policy of emancipation, and once emancipation was the established policy, those slaves would begin flooding across borders into the North.  Simply put, Northerners did not want free blacks in their section of the country.

As one Midwest Democratic slogan for the fall campaign of 1862 summed up the widespread feeling:  “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, the Negroes where they are.”  Indiana feared the state would soon be “Africanized,” warned one of its newspapers. Emancipation, the editors wrote, would place “the negro side by side and in competition with white labor, forcing the State to assume the support of a horde of black paupers, idlers, and thieves.”

Soon after emancipation was legally established with ratification of the 13th Amendment, the South, says Ross, “instituted a series of laws that came to be called the Black Codes, which were draconian and pretty terrible.  For example, minor children could be ‘apprenticed,’ which was a euphemism for another form of slavery.”  He also mentioned the vagrancy laws that were instituted, whereby newly freed slaves could be arrested for the offense of vagrancy and sentenced to work on a plantation, a system that bore a striking resemblance to slavery.  Many of their newfound freedoms were restricted, Ross says, in a system akin to feudalism.

But just as we saw with their attitudes toward the federal territories in the west, Northern opinions on blacks in general were not very good.  In fact, the North preceded the South in legislative efforts to control blacks and segregate the two races, and had done so as far back as colonial times.

C. Vann Woodward, in his influential book The Strange Career of Jim Crow, writes that the system of segregation, though generally blamed on the South, “was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force.”  Northerners “made sure in numerous ways that the Negro understood his ‘place’ and that he was severely confined to it.”  Both political parties in the North, Democrats and Republicans alike, “vied with each other in their devotion” to white supremacy.  “It is clear,” concludes Woodward, “that when its victory was complete and the time came, the North was not in the best possible position to instruct the South, either by precedent and example, or by force of conviction, on the implementation of what eventually became one of the professed war aims of the Union cause – racial equality.”

Eugene H. Berwanger came to a similar conclusion in Frontier Against Slavery, stating that “discrimination against the Negro and a firmly held belief in the superiority of the white race were not restricted to one section but were shared by an overwhelmingly majority of white Americans in both North and South.”

Despite prevalent racist attitudes, the North reacted strongly with passage of these Southern “black codes,” and vowed a new round of violence to end it.  The Chicago Tribune editors took aim at Mississippi.  “We tell the white men of Mississippi that the men of the North will convert the State of Mississippi into a frog pond before they will allow such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep.”

But in reality the North had its own “black codes.”  In many Northern states free blacks could not hold office, serve on juries, or marry whites.  In at least 19 Northern states free blacks could not vote.  During Reconstruction, at a time when the South was being forced to grant voting rights to blacks, the Northern states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Connecticut turned down proposals to grant voting rights to black citizens.  Such blatant hypocrisy led to the eventual passage of the 15th Amendment.

Aside from voting, some Northern states barred free blacks from establishing a residence – Oregon, Iowa, Indiana, and even Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. In fact, Illinois enacted its law in 1853, which held that no “negro or mulatto” could immigrate to or settle in the state. In 1862, in the midst of the war, and as emancipation looked more and more likely, voters approved a similar amendment to the state constitution by a vote of more than two-to-one.  The Illinois law also dealt out harsh punishment for violators.  Those who brought blacks into the state faced fines and prison sentences. The blacks themselves could be fined, jailed, or whipped.

And it seemed that the farther west one traveled, the worse it got, as most of the states in the old Northwest Territory either greatly restricted black immigration or required them to post a cash bond in order to insure good behavior, knowing full well how difficult that would be for a freed slave.

In Illinois, writes Tom Woods, “any free black in the state who could not produce a certificate of freedom and who had not posted a bond of one thousand dollars was subject to arrest and to be hired out as a laborer for a year.”  This law sounds almost identical to the vagrancy laws of the South that Ross has such contempt for.

Despite the views of Hollywood and progressive historians, the North was as racist as any place on Earth. As abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher of New York put it, blacks “cannot even ride in the cars of our city railroad, are snuffed at in the house of God, or tolerated with ill-disguised disgust.”

Myth #4:  “Reconstruction was somehow a failure, or a noble failure.”

For Ross, “Reconstruction didn’t fail; it was killed.”  And his most prominent reason was “a counter-revolution on the part of white supremacist groups” conducting a “reign of terror” and “acts of terrorism,” which led to the advent of the Jim Crow era.

The violence certainly played a role but the fact is Reconstruction was not killed solely because of the actions of extralegal paramilitary organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.  In truth Northerners simply threw up their hands and walked away from it, turning their backs on the Freedmen in the process.

Why?  Because the real Republican plan for the South had failed and the Northern people had grown tired of the process.

Unlike Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson, the Radical Republicans in Congress, led by notables Thaddeus Stevens and Benjamin Wade, believed the Southern states had seceded from the Union and were now conquered territory and should be treated as such.  Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan said it this way:  “A rebel has sacrificed all his rights.  He has no right to life, liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness.  Everything you give him, even life itself, is a boon which he has forfeited.”

Radical Republicans hated the South and Southern institutions. They wanted the complete subjugation of the region, vindictive punishment of the rebels, the overthrow of all Southern state governments, and the confiscation of all land and homes.  Peoples from the North and West would then be sent to the South to repopulate it, ensuring that it would remain firmly Republican.  The South, said Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most radical members of Congress, should “be laid waste, and made a desert,” then “repeopled by a band of freemen.”

In other words, the Radicals wanted to make the South like the North, sweeping away all vestiges of Southern culture and politics. Stevens stated that Reconstruction was “intended to revolutionize their principles and feelings, to work a radical reorganization in Southern institutions, habits, and manners.”

But this attitude did not just pervade Congress.  Poet James Russell Lowell believed the backward South should be completely transformed.  “Is it not time that these men be transplanted at least into the nineteenth century, and, if they cannot be suddenly Americanized, made to understand something of the country which was too good for them?”

That’s not to say every Northerner believed as the Radicals did. Many conservatives certainly didn’t toe that totalitarian line.  Lincoln’s Navy Secretary, Gideon Wells, called the Radical plan “an atrocious scheme of plunder and robbery,” for it was Radical Reconstruction governments in the South that stripped every last vestige of wealth from the region.

This Radical plan ultimately failed because the Republican Party did not achieve its set goals: the comprehensive destruction of the South and its transformation into a carbon copy of the North, complete with industrialization, corruption, and Republican political control.  White Southerners certainly resisted this effort at cultural genocide (the same practice the Yanks later used against Native Americans), and resisted violently (just as the Indians did), causing most Northern attitudes to sour.

So, in the words of scholar William Gillette, the North “retreated from Reconstruction,” and abandoned the Freedmen to their fate, thus showcasing further proof that Northerners did not have the best interests of blacks on their mind – only money, politics, and power.

Sources and Suggestions For Further Reading

Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1974)

Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (1967)

Clarence B. Carson, The Sections and the Civil War, 1826-1877 (1985)

William Gillette, Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869-1879 (1982)

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades:  Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997)

Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page, Colonization After Emancipation:  Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement (2011)

Dunbar Rowland, Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches (1923)

Tom Woods, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (2004)

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955)

Thomas DiLorenzo, “More Lies About the Civil War,”, January 18, 2011 –

Ryan S. Walters, “‘The Powers of a Usurper’:  Northern Opposition to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.”  Confederate Veteran magazine.  April 2013.

Ryan Walters

Ryan S. Walters is an independent historian who lives and writes in North Texas. He is the author of five books, including The Jazz Age President: Defending Warren G. Harding. He can be reached at

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