The great internal bloodletting of 1861—1865 is still a central event and great dividing line in American history. In our discourse today, both high and low, it is now pervasively declared that that great event was simply about suppressing “treason” and “slavery.” This is an abuse of history, using it as a weapon to enforce a party line rather than as a source of humane understanding.
Here are a few random notes that might suggest a more complex view of the matter.
SLAVERY WAS THE “CAUSE” OF THE WAR?
There were two Confederate generals who freed their slaves in the 1850s as a matter of conscience and at considerable financial sacrifice. Both these emancipators, William G.M. Davis of Florida and William R. Scurry of Texas, remained on good terms with their neighbours. Both were elected to their state secession conventions and voted enthusiastically for secession. Though not military men both joined the Confederate Army. Davis’s health was ruined, leading to early death, and Scurry was killed in action. More research will indicate more loyal Confederates who did the same.
Northerners Abraham Lincoln, U.S. Grant, and Stephen A. Douglas acquired ownership of slaves through their wives’ families. None of them showed themselves eager for emancipation nor lost any money in the matter, which like a great number of Northerners they simply treated as routine. Lincoln sold the Todd family slaves and also took law cases involving the recovery of runaway slaves.
In 1861 Lincoln stated his acceptance of a proposed 13th amendment that would have guaranteed slavery in perpetuity as long as he could continue to collect “his” tariff revenue. In the Emancipation Proclamation, he guaranteed the continuance of slavery if the South would lay down its arms and quit resisting his power. The proclamation exempted from freedom the slaves in the Border States and in southern Louisiana parishes where Northerners had seized rich sugar plantations.
To his last day Lincoln was a white supremacist and favoured colonisation of the black people outside of white territory.
Many Republican leaders stated plainly that the fate of African-Americans was of little interest to them. General Sherman’s brother John, Senator from Ohio, said that establishing a national bank was more important than freeing the slaves. Other Republican leaders declared openly that they wanted Southern resources to exploit for themselves. Supposedly liberating and egalitarian Northern leaders sometimes sound like Nazis talking about the land they have taken from inferior people.
It is difficult to find a Union soldier who thought he was risking his life for the welfare of African Americans. No Confederate soldier or Union soldier gave any thought to black people as he went into battle. Slavery was not central but rather a marginal factor in the thinking and attention of both sides. At the Hampton Roads Conference late in the war Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, who cared about the African American people in Southern society, asked Lincoln what was to become of them when freed without property or education? Lincoln dismissed his concerns slightingly with a phrase from a minstrel show song: “Root, hog, or die.”
In 1900 the life expectancy of African Americans was ten years lower than it had been under slavery.
THE GREAT RECONCILIATION
It is a fact that from the late 19th century to recent times most Americans accepted that the war had been a tragedy in which both sides had fought for a cause they believed in. Northerners accepted that Confederates were Americans who were to be respected for sincerity and courage. Southerners accepted that they were glad that the war had resulted in a powerful new country and that they would be loyal citizens from then on, something which they proved abundantly. In order to get back into the mainstream Southerners promoted conciliatory ideas that they did not really believe–that the war was a misunderstanding between Brothers and Lincoln was a wise and benevolent man.
Former Confederate generals were official pallbearers for General Grant and General Sherman.
Former Confederates served in appointed Federal offices in great numbers after the war. They were appointed to federal offices including the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, and diplomatic missions. Four former Confederate generals served as generals in the Spanish-American War. Some Southerners held significant offices in Northern and Western States. The Clayton Antitrust Act, designed to put some controls on Wall Street, is named for the son of a Confederate general.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s uncle was a Confederate Navy officer.
President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife had lived through the siege of Petersburg as a girl. Wilson’s son-in-law, William G. McAdoo, was the son of a Confederate general. McAdoo was Secretary of the Treasury and a serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
President Harry Truman’s forebears were Missouri Confederates. His mother refused to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom.
Eisenhower and Churchill chose the Lee and Confederate Army Expert, Douglas South Freeman, to show them the Gettysburg battlefield. Churchill wrote that Lee was one of the greatest men in the history of the English-speaking people.
Every U.S. President from William McKinley, a Union soldier, onward accepted the great reconciliation and spoke respectfully of Confederates. None were offended by being in the presence of Confederate flags. This custom ended with George W. Bush, Connecticut Republican, as the Carpetbag Governor of Texas, who had a Confederate memorial plaque removed from the capitol in the dead of night.
There are a plentiful number of commentators who think that putting down “treason” is the simple and obvious reason for the war. This is malicious stupidity that hints of fascism. They assume that the U.S. was a consolidated nation/state before the war, a government that had undoubted right to kill resistant citizens. That is untrue. It was the war itself which created the consolidated nation/state with sole discretion over the limits of its power.
The Founding Fathers and many other Americans long accepted State secession as an available remedy for grievance and incompatibility. Robert E. Lee, the son, nephew, and in-law of Founders, was not a traitor. He never swore allegiance to the U.S. government. As the Constitution stipulated he swore allegiance to the Constitution. He was acting as a good American citizen when his State withdrew from a government, elected by a 39% vote, which threatened revolutionary warfare against Americans of the South.
Jefferson Davis, who was the son of a Revolutionary officer and had served the U.S. with great achievements before the Confederacy, was held in prison for two years but he was never tried for “treason.” The Radical Republicans might have used a secret military tribunal to execute him as they did the innocent Mary Surratt, but they knew that would create great repulsion in European and in even in Northern opinion. They dared not bring the question of secession to open court.
The simplest, clearest fact about The War is that it was a brutal and unnecessary act of massive invasion and conquest by the federal government of fellow Americans in the South. Merely “preserving the Union” does not account for all the hatred and greed massively apparent in Northern sources.
Southerners would not have been good Americans had they not resisted invasion designed to deprive them of the rights won by their fathers. Southerners were Americans who valued their freedom and self-government. Therefore they resisted invasion and conquest.
Historians are now near universally dedicated to the theory of “The Lost Cause Myth” in their study of The War. According to this, everything favourable said about the Confederate cause is a lie made up after the fact to cover up Southerners’ evil and failed war to preserve slavery. This interpretation does not work except for a tacit assumption that such historians are not even aware dominates their thinking: Southerners are evil, lying people and it is not necessary to take into consideration anything they have to say about their side of things. Poor historianship to say the least.
Defeated and suffering staggering losses unprecedented in American experience, Confederates had to be realists, apparent to anyone who actually bothers to read them. As if the North’s celebration of its conquest was not full of mythology. Northerners had plenty of room to glorify their holy crusade, as they have done so abundantly, right up to the present day. They could imagine and celebrate a war fought by brave and benevolently motivated Boys in Blue.
And most destructively to historical understanding, Northerners could picture the crafty corporation lawyer and politician Abe Lincoln being wafted to Heaven by angels. The Mother of All Myths is the saintly Lincoln. His war had nothing to do with preserving government of, by, and for the people. The Gettysburg Address placed a lie at the center of Americans’ self-image. It is not good for a people to base their national image on something phony.