Rethinking the War for Southern Independence

Jackson kunstler

(13th Annual Gettysburg Banquet of the J.E.B. Stuart Camp, SCV, Philadelphia)

We human beings are peculiar creatures, half angel and half animal, as someone has said. Alone among creatures we have a consciousness of ourselves, of our situation, and of our movement through time.We have language, and by symbols can communicate knowledge to one another and across generations.

We can learn something about humans from the Divine Revelations in the Bible. We can also learn something by scientific examination of our physical selves. Most of what we know about human beings is in our knowledge of the past. As a philosopher puts it: we must live forward but we can only think backward. I am, of course, making a plea for the importance of history, or to be more exact, historical memory, something that is undergoing catastrophic destruction today in the United States.

People without knowledge of their past would be scarcely human. What makes us human is the culture we inherit. It has been truly said that we are what we remember. Let me emphasise: What we remember determines what we are. What we take from the past is crucial to our identity. And it follows, as Dr. Samuel Johnson said, that there is hardly any worse crime against humanity than to falsify its records.

Every society of any worth has revered those who preceded. The Romans, in their period of greatest freedom and achievement, kept their ancestors by the fireside as minor gods. The Greeks at their highest point thrived in a belief in a Golden Age of Heroes that preceded their own lesser times. It is right that we of the Sons of Confederate Veterans honour our forebears because they are ours—but not only because they are ours.

We sons of Confederate soldiers are especially fortunate in our forefathers. They not only won a place in the hearts of us, their descendants. They also won the lasting admiration of every one in the civilized world who values courage, skill, sacrifice, and an indomitable spirit in defense of freedom. That is why our battle-flag, which is being suppressed in these United States, appeared spontaneously at the fall of the Berlin Wall and among peoples celebrating their liberation from the Soviet Empire.

Our forefathers are admired by the world to a degree seldom granted to lost causes. I find that thoughtful Europeans speak respectfully of the Confederacy, as did Winston Churchill. Foreigners have a great advantage in judging the right and wrong of the War between the States. They do not start out with the automatic assumption that all the good is on one side and all the bad on the other.

Lord Acton, English historian who published many deeply-researched volumes on the history of liberty, wrote to General Lee in 1866. The defeat at Appomattox, Acton said, was a blow to the entire civilized world because it had reversed the progress of humanity toward constitutional liberty. And Lee replied: “All the South has ever desired was that the Union, as established by our forefathers, should be preserved and that the government, as originally organized, should be administered in purity and truth.”

General James Johnston Pettigrew, on his way here to Gettysburg with the Army of Northern Virginia in the spring of 1863, wrote of the Confederacy: “Our reputation, next to the Greeks, will be the most heroic of nations.” What this brilliant and learned man, who lost his life in the campaign, meant was that in the long perspective of history, the action most exemplary of heroism was the stand of the small Greek city-states against the mighty Persian empire in the 5th century B.C. Next to that, most worthy of admiration in the long perspective of history, would be the outnumbered soldiers and people of the South in their resistance to another giant invading power. The world has for a long time conceded a measure of truth to Pettigrew’s prediciton. If not in second place, our Confederate fathers stand very high in the history of heroism in a noble cause.

People without a past describes an ever increasing part of the American population. Thanks to the governmen, it is projected that in a very few years a majority of inhabitants of the U.S. will be post-1965 immigrants and their descendants. People with no inherited connection to the American past—to the Revolution, or the winning of the frontier, or even to the sacrifices of World War II. Along with this, there is a campaign going on to wipe out the historical memory of Americans and replace it with a made-up history that is suitable for a multicultural empire. If we sons do our duty, I can foresee a time when Confederate heritage will be the only American heritage left.

My interest in this question became intense during the controversy over the battle flag on the South Carolina capitol dome. During that controversy, a press conference and television appearance was orchestrated by spokespersons for some 90 professional historians in the state. Here is what they said: the War of 1861-1865 was about slavery and nothing but slavery, the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism and treason, and that is not just their opinion, they declared, but rather an unquestionable truth established by unanimous experts.

There are a hundred different things wrong with this statement. It is a misuse of history to reduce such a large and complex event as The War to such simplistic terms. Historical interpretations change over time and in other generationsthe prevailing interpretation of the War was very different. Furthermore, so-called expert opinion cannot settle questions of value and meaning in human experience, which must always remain open for further understanding.

And what do we mean when we say a war is about something? Was the conflict not also about economic interests, as was believed by a former generation of historians much more learned than these, or cultural conflict, or constitutional questions, or issues of invasion and defense?

Still further, the opinion so declared was not all that expert. Very few of the noble 90 signers of the statement have any real fundamental knowledge of The War period. Most of their expertise was pretty remote, some not even in American history. Some of them had only been in South Carolina a short time—coming from weird places like Burma or California. They were expressing a party line, identifying with a view that they have been told that all wise and good people adhere to. This was not an informed historical judgment but a political fashion statement. When you hear that all experts agree about something, you know a partry line is being enforced, because there is always room for difference of opinion where people are actually thinking. These self-styled experts were telling South Carolinians that we are a stupid, deluded people, that our historical memory is false, our ancestors were despicable, and we should be instructed by better and wiser people like themselves. Our flag and our monuments are nothing but supports for a lie and they should be and soon will be done away with.

This is the view of Confederate history that dominates academics today. We are being expunged from history. We are to have no part in the story of America except one little dark corner labeled slavery and treason. When SC ETV presented a program on the siege of Charleston, it was not told from the viewpoint of the people of South Carolina heroically dealing with invasion but from the viewpoint of the invader. South Carolinians are merely a problem the good invader is eradicating. The recent History Channel production on Sherman’s March was from the same perspective.

What those historians are invoking is the current doctrine of “the Lost Cause Myth,” which claims to explain that everything favourable that anyone believes about the Confederacy is false manufactured propaganda. According to this rendering, your and my ancestors were evil people who tried to destroy the best country on earth to preserve slavery. Not only were they evil, but they were weak and stupid. They made a pathetic effort that was inevitably defeated. Then after the war, our evil ancestors, it is claimed, made up a mythology about a supposedly honourable and heroic Lost Cause which never really existed. In other words they covered up their bad deeds and failure with a pack of lies.

Remember that this anti-South historical onslaught is something recent. FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter did not mind being photographed with our battle flag and expressing great admiration for Robert E. Lee.

These people who want to trash our heritage display a familiar pattern—that of the conqueror wiping out the identity of the conquered. They want to substitute their political agenda for our real and true heritage. We, indeed all Americans ,hunger for bread and they give us a stone. They replace our historical memory with ideology.

This fashionable interpretation among academic historians today is fully laid out in a Gallagher and Nolan book called “The Lost Cause Myth and Civil War History.”According to this work, Confederate soldiers were not really brave and sacrificing, nor were they usually outnumbered; there were no real issues other than slavery; there was nothing to the Southern constitutional position or Southern complaints of economic and cultural aggression; Lee was not a great general (he lost didn’t he); the Southern people did not really support the Confederacy but were only dupes of a few large slave-holders; Southern women did not really support the Confederacy either but were in secret rebellion against their domineering menfolk.

This idea involves a basic misuse of the concept of myth. History that is not true is not a myth, it is simply false. A myth is neither true nor false, it is art. All people conceive of their history to some degree in a mythological way. A myth may not be precisely accurate in detail but it sums up a truth imaginatively to facilitate its understanding and its transmission over the generations. Pedants may examine the Magna Carta and tell us that it is really not much of a beginning for democracy. They miss the grain of meaningful truth contained in the traditional understanding. There is no history without an element of art. Facts are necessary but in themselves amount to little until arranged and given meaning. There is nothing wrong with myths if they are substantially true and preserve a valuable cultural inheritance. The biggest American myth is that of Lincoln, which is untrue and pernicious.

For a long time, from the late 1800s through much of the 20th century, Americans enjoyed a comforting myth about the war. North and South agreed that it was a great tragedy, with good and bad on both sides, that had fortunately resulted in a stronger, united country. This myth was consecrated here in Gettysburg in the joint reunions of blue and grey. Southerners pledged future allegiance to the U.S. and accepted Lincoln as a good man who would not have allowed a harsh Reconstruction. Northerners accepted Confederate heroes as American heroes. Army bases were named after Confederate generals, American fighting men carried their Confederate flags to the far corners of the world in World War II, and every Hollywood star at least once played an admirable Confederate character. This was a good myth—a myth of reconciliation and harmony that allowed the national memory to cope with an immense and ugly event.

Those days are gone forever, though many of our SCV compatriots seem to think that it is still the 1950s and have not realised that they live in a world of Political Correctness (which is a polite name for Cultural Marxism). Remember, this is not an argument over historical interpretation. This is about who we are.

We now have the opportunity to refresh our understanding of what happened in 1861-1865 and start once more defending our fathers as they should be defended. We created the Stephen D. Lee Institute for this purpose—to make the case not only for the Confederate soldier but for his cause. It is useless to proclaim the courage, skill, and sacrifice of the Confederate soldier while permitting him to be guilty of a bad cause. I hope you have heard of the Institute and that what you have heard is favourable. We have marshalled a small but distinguished and redoubtable group of scholars to present anew the issues of America’s greatest conflict. We are telling the truth about the war and the truth redeems our Confederate ancestors.

Victors write the history and the first prevailing interpretation of any great event is that the winners were the good guys and the losers the bad guys. With the passage of time and research by trained and supposedly dispassionate historians a more complex and balanced picture emerges. It is seen that the winners were not always angels and that the losers actually had something to be said for their side.

This kind of revisionism has appeared in regard to the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and World War I, among others. It governed the understanding of the Civil War for much of the 20th century. But notice how the professional historians I am talking about, the devotees of the Lost Cause Myth as explanation of The War, have absolutely reversed the progress toward a balanced historical perspective. They have reverted to the primitive propaganda of the South as guilty of all that is bad in history.

It was necessary for them to do this to support their political agenda, because the weight of facts is on our side.

There is a concerted effort underway by so-called professional historians to deny and denigrate the extraordinary heroism and sacrifice of the South in that war. I do not think they will get very far, as the facts are overwhelmingly against them. But Southerners, in trying to be good fellows and good Americans, have been a little too ready to accept the notion that the war was a gentlemanly and relatively fair contest. It was nothing of the sort. We give the Yankees much more credit than they deserve.

So, they have broken the truce. There is an upside to this. We are now free to tell the truth and the truth in every case supports the good name of the Confederate soldier. So, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

The Southern understanding of the Constitution was never refuted, and it can’t be. It was simply crushed. Preserving the Union. You cannot preserve the Union, or government of, by, and for the people, by a massive military invasion that destroys the constitutional, democratically elected governments of nearly half the states and converts them into conquered provinces with puppet governments and their citizens deprived of rights.

The most basic simple fact about the war is that it was a war of invasion and conquest. Once you get clear on this basic fact, all other truths tend to fall into place. This is no secret. It is plain in the record. The Northern war party openly declared that it was a war of conquest, to crush resistance to government, to promote a powerful state, and to keep the South as a captive source of profits. People love Lincoln’s pretty words because they put a happy face on a great crime.

The Lincoln fable. Those who complain about myths distorting our understanding of history are the same people who adhere to the biggest and most false and destructive myth there is—of Lincoln as a Christian saint and humane democratic leader. Lincoln was a corporate lawyer and clever political operative who always put himself and his party before any other consideration. He brought on war because he thought it would be a quick victory—the worst blunder in American history. Far from being a military genius, his decisions repeatedly prolonged the war, which he almost lost despite having four times the resources of the South. As Tom DiLorenzo’s books, which have now been read by hundreds of thousands of people, show, Lincoln’s first priority was always the economic interest of Northern capitalists. Even most of those who supported Lincoln despised and belittled him, cynically using his martyrdom for their own purposes. Even his assassination takes on a different light when you know how he sent Dahlgren to assassinate Jeff Davis. Certainly Frederick Douglass was correct when he said that nothing Lincoln ever did was determined by the interests of the slaves.

I believe that many Americans are rethinking Lincoln today because they are dissatisfied with the all-powerful central government and see where it was created.

Prisons. We now have enough research to be able to say for certain that the Union prisons were as deadly as propaganda told us the Confederate prisons were. There is a difference. The death rate in the Southern camps was due to supply problems, especially lack of medicine which Lincoln had made contraband, climate, and a large criminal element preying on their fellows. Deaths in the Northern camps were inexcusable and look very much to be the result of deliberate policy.

War Crimes. The Union conduct of the war was criminal from the very beginning. The first troops across the Potomac looted and stole and the crimes grew in scope and ferocity as the war went on. The people of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, howled in outrage when McCausland set their town afire. But many towns in the South, and innumerable homes, churches, and schools, had already been looted and burned by the blue soldiers. The civilians of Charleston endured a bombardment by some of the heaviest artillery in existence for over two years. Our Confederate ancestors were not guilty of anything like that. Even when Quantrill made his retaliatory raid on Lawrence, no women were harmed. When Sheridan visited Europe after the war he shocked the Prussian high command with his attitude toward Southern civilians. In the run-up to the Spanish War, the American press howled in outrage over the brutal Spanish general Butcher Weyler—without mentioning that he had learned his trade as an attache with Sherman.

But our Lost Cause Myth historians claim that total war was begun when Stonewall Jackson advocated ruthless battle. So they equate Jackson’s policy toward armed invading soldiers, which was never implemented, with the Union’s deliberate, systematic war on women and children and private property. Moral equivalency? I don’t think so. If you haven’t yet done so, get Brian Cisco’s book on war crimes. [Editor’s note: Walter Brian Cisco, War Crimes Against Southern Civilians, Pelican Publishing Company, April 2007]
Recently a military historian, a supposed conservative, wrote that the American people had rallied under the attack of 9/11 just as they had rallied after Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbour. Think about it. Two massive sneak attacks by foreign enemies are equated with the reduction of Fort Sumter as assaults on real Americans. Jeff Davis is put in the dock with Tojo and Osama ben Laden. This historian’s ignorance and malice is all too commonplace. Fort Sumter was preceded by a gentlemanly warning, involved no civilians and no casualties, and the garrison were not made prisoners and were allowed to go home with honour. And the only deception involved was by the U.S. government. One wonders that Southerners were allowed to fight alongside “real” Americans in World Wars.

Furthermore, his assumption about the Northern public’s support of the war is wrong. We are led to believe that the opposition consisted of a few Copperhead conspirators and the New York City draft riots. Not true. Northern opposition to the war was much more widespread, more respectable, and more articulate than that. This is the biggest untold story in American history. It was a Republican party war. Lincoln and his supporters knew that their support was shaky and they saw conspirators under their beds every night. We know about the suppression of newspapers and arrest of dissidents by the government without any due process. What does it tell us that detention of the Chief Justice and of a former President were seriously considered? Dissent was suppressed not only by the military but by violent mobs of Lincoln supporters. Lincoln bought support with patronage on a scale previously unimaginable in the United States.

I am told that in the main gentleman’s club in Philadelphia, Lincoln supporters were made so uncomfortable that they resigned and formed their own club. Why did at least 300,000 Northerners avoid the draft in one way or another? And why was it necessary to import an equal number of foreigners to fill the ranks?

A serious argument can be made that Lincoln would have lost the election in 1864 if it had not been conducted at bayonet point in the border states and many other places. Further, the supposed “loyalty” of the Border States has been greatly exaggerated. Why did all the Border States including West Virginia start electing ex-Confederates to public office as soon as the army left?

Here is something else to keep clearly in mind as a vital part of the history of the South. It took 22 million Northerners four years of the bloodiest warfare in American history to conquer 5 million Southerners. We mobilized 90 per cent of our men and lost nearly a fourth. Not only our self-government but more than half of our property was lost. The war impoverished the South and enriched the politically connected in the North. Foreign visitors to the North said that they could see little sign that there was even a war going on.

Our fathers were true heroes. Man for man they marched harder, risked their lives more often, fought better,endured impossible hardships, and won many battles against superior forces. Let me give you a comparative statistic. About 12,000 North Carolinians lost their lives in World War II. If we project the loss of men in the Confederate War against the larger population of World War II, it would require 300,000 North Carolina deaths to equal the State’s loss of men in the 1860s. No other group of Americans has EVER made a sacrifice that remotely approaches that of the South in its war for independence. Losses of the North in that war and of the United States in any war are negligible in comparison. Very late in the war, when defeat seemed inevitable, Northern generals were complaining that the Confederate soldier refused to give in and admit defeat, that Southern women remained indomitable in spirit, and that Southerners from the richest to the poorest were determined to keep on.

One of the popular themes among the South-hating historians today is to dwell on evidence of disaffection in the Confederacy. Of course, as in all human groups subjected to tremendous pressure, there were some slackers. But the real story of the Confederacy is in how little disaffection there was among a people subjected to such great sacrifices. What would have been the morale of the North if it had suffered a comparable extent of occupation, devastation and death as the South had by 1863, instead of enjoying a quiet and prosperous homefront? Imagine New York (instead of New Orleans) and Chicago (instead of Memphis and Nashville) occupied. Imagine Cleveland and Buffalo (instead of Charleston and Mobile) blockaded and under siege. Imagine Pennsylvania and Ohio (instead of Virginia and Tennessee) overrun and ravaged. Imagine Washington (instead of Richmond) under constant attack. Imagine privation and sacrifice instead of prosperity the order of the day everywhere, thousands of civilians refugees, and nearly the whole male citizen population under arms. What would the Northern morale have been in 1863? Under such conditions the Southern people remained overwhelmingly game.

We are too quick to be generous in our accounts of the war, and thus detract from the honour due our forefathers. One example, the great Union victory at Gettysburg. Some victory! Lee’s army maneuvered freely on enemy territory for several weeks, even though the nearest Union army outnumbered him greatly and there were several other sizable Union armies within a few days’ march. The Confederate army spent three days attacking a much larger force on its home territory and barely failed of victory. Then we stopped attacking and went home. Lee’s army trekked back to the Potomac with vast herds of cattle and hogs, a 50-mile long wagon train, prisoners, and wounded,in knee deep mud without any serious harm from the larger, supposedly victorious, army. and remained an undefeatable fighting force for more than a year longer. Some Union victory.

Are Grant and Sherman great generals? A great general is one who wins victory by skill, with economy of force. What kind of people regard Sherman’s nearly unopposed March of destruction against a civilian population as a great military feat and something for a nation to be proud of?

Another bit of the Gettysburg story. Something like 10,000 black men, bond and free, accompanied the Confederate army to Pennsylvania—and back. The British observer Col. Fremantle observed one of these men marching a Yankee prisoner to the rear. He wondered what the abolitionists in London would think if they saw that.

Finally, as your patience is almost totally exhausted, we come to slavery and the noble crusade to free the suffering black people. How can the war be “about” slavery when the government formally declares that it is not fighting to free the slaves but to preserve a nation?

And it would seem that the vast majority of Northern soldiers doing the fighting agreed. Certainly no Confederate thought he was fighting just to preserve slavery. In fact, at the end of the war many Southerners would have willingly given up slavery to secure independence.

Lincoln made a pretty speech about how all men were entitled to the fruits of their own labour. But what does this mean when a black person who becomes free in Kentucky is forbidden by law to even live Illinois? In such circumstances Lincoln’s statement is morally irresponsible. Especially since he also said that he did not know what to do about slavery even if he had the power and the only solution he seriously considered was to send the black people somewhere else to exercise their God-given freedom.

I know a descendant of a Confederate soldier whose ancestor, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania, taught a school for free black children in Springfield, Illinois. He was literally driven out of Springfield and went to Tennessee where he was hospitably welcomed and became a devoted Confederate.

Any way, Lincoln’s party did not dwell on the fact that slavery was bad, they dwelled on the badness of slaveholders who blocked the economic progress of the North. Lincoln’s platform did not call for an end to slavery but rather demanded that the territories be kept for white people only. A restriction on slavery which did not free a single person.

Any benefits that may have accrued to the black population of America from the war were incidental to the interests of the ruling elements of the North. There is no treasury of righteousness there. Overwhelmingly, the Yankees despised and used the black people. The North never did anything before, during, or after the war for the primary purpose of helping the black people.

One of the bad historians that I have described whines that somehow, even though he and other brilliant experts have declared the truth over and over, people still continue to admire the Confederacy. Why they still write novels and songs about Lee, and even about his horse! Why doesn’t anybody write about Grant and his men like that? It must be because so many of us poor deluded fools still believe in that Lost Cause.

Here is our great advantage. Our Confederate ancestors are truly admirable, and decent people all over the world know it. We need to to defend them. I hope you will join us in the counter-attack.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.

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