Warning: This is another column about the War Between the States.
A recent CNN poll asked some simplistic questions about 1861 and got some very surprising responses, as least as far as conventional wisdom is concerned. I say “simplistic” because I think the questions CNN asked were sophomoric, and were bound to generate heat rather than light. Besides, I don’t care how “scientific” their “representative sample” was, I don’t think you can really gauge any national opinion by asking only 824 citizens out of us 310,000,000 Americans who could potentially weigh in on whatever question is at hand.
The questions in this case were designed to measure modern American thinking
on what Yankees call “The Civil War” but what is more accurately called “The War Between the States.” I hope my friends who hail from North of the Mason-Dixon line understand that I use “Yankee” lovingly. The ones I don’t like I call “DamYankees.”
My father said he was in his 20s before he knew that “Dam” and “Yankee” were two separate words. I could never tell whether he was joking or not.
Oh yeah, the poll. Well, CNN asked 824 adults whether or not slavery was the reason the Southern states seceded. Forty-two percent replied that slavery was not the reason. A slight majority, 52 percent, believed that slavery was indeed the impetus for secession. A quarter of all Americans believe the Confederate withdrawal was justified, while 40 percent of white Southerners hold that view.
Given the prevailing modern myth that racist Southerners left the Union rather than free the slaves, and that it was they who started the war against the noble colorblind Union, and that Honest Abe won the war and freed the slaves, and given that this national myth has been promulgated by every popularizing historian and every major national media outlet since Appomattox, I am surprised by the poll numbers. I figured Shelby Foote and I were about the last ones who understood the complex history behind that conflict. And ol’ Shelby passed on to the Southern part of Heaven a few years back.
The fact is that the national narrative was written by the winners, and any slight mention of the Southern viewpoint is subject to a plethora of piling on by liberal pundits and “historians” who were schooled in the academic atmosphere of the post 1960’s period.
I think that the South seceded for a lot of good and bad reasons, but mostly because they thought they had a perfect right to go their own way.
Y’all, the War Between the States started exactly 150 years ago this month, and as our nation commemorates this Sesquicentennial, I would suggest that CNN is asking the wrong questions, and that national mythologies have completely washed out certain realities of the decades leading up to that terrible conflict.
There are those of us who think that for the sake of national unity we need to reframe the discussion and to fearlessly debunk those mythologies. In that vein, may I introduce a few intentionally provocative heresies?:
(1) There was no right side or wrong side in “The War Between the States.” There were clearly two naturally diverging regional interests, two very different economies, two very different cultures, and two very different visions of a republic. A lack of strong leadership (especially in the 1850’s) compounded the problem, and radicals from both regions gained political power that exacerbated the divisions. The War was far from inevitable; it was the result of political weakness and yes, the power of special interests above the public interest. It should not have happened.
There was a great deal of moralizing going on, especially in New England.
(Ironically, Rhode Island was largely built by the slave trade. Slavers endowed Brown University there.) But once the shooting started, neither region had morality on its side, though both sides claimed moral superiority.
(2) The nostrum that the North “opposed slavery” is a myth. Abolition was a hot issue among a small minority in the North and a few in the South. It was indeed an issue in the North in the election of 1860. Lincoln’s position was that African slaves should be returned to Africa, since in his opinion they could never be integrated into American society. Slavery had existed in great numbers throughout the Northern states for two centuries. It disappeared there only in the decades before 1850, when there was no continuing economic benefit, and a thoughtful moral crusade against the institution. But blacks continued to be third-class citizens in the North, prevented from even living in certain cities and states.
A year into the War, in 1862, Lincoln informed Horace Greeley that if he could preserve the Union with slavery, he would be fine with that.
(3) The modern argument that the South seceded in defense of “state’s rights” has some validity if one could completely separate slavery from the “state’s rights” issue. One can not. They had been thoroughly intertwined for over 40 years, through ongoing efforts to stymie the expansion of slavery into the territories of the rapidly growing nation.
(A major exception to that was the Nullification fight of 1832. Southerners were at an enormous disadvantage because of protectionist federal tariffs that rewarded the North and punished the South. That fight was waged between two Southern slave owners, President Andrew Jackson of South Carolina and his former Vice President, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. War was avoided by compromise. Calhoun backed off. Jackson eased the tariff. But tariffs continued to be a point of contention for the South.)
(4) The view that the South was a romantic land of cavaliers and chivalry and that plantations were places of benign patronage is bunk, too. (There was moonlight and magnolias. Still are.) Cotton and tobacco production was tortuously backbreaking, and human bondage is an eternal evil. Yet “great men” like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison bought and sold human beings. The vast majority of Southern whites owned no slaves.
(5) The argument that secession was somehow un-Constitutional is nonsense. There is no mention in the Constitution about secession, but it was discussed in several State Conventions. Riders demanding the assurance of that right accompanied the reports of New York, Virginia, and Rhode Island. The founders had “seceded” from Great Britain, dissolved the Continental Congress, rejected the “perpetuity” of the Articles of Confederation, and therefore presumed that if they were voluntarily joining this new compact, they could voluntarily leave it when it became unworkable for their “state,” which to them was in fact their “country.”
(6) Perhaps the greatest canard is that “the South started the War.” The Confederacy was certainly belligerent, and unrealistically expected the Union to concede its military installations in Southern territory. Once again, compromise was possible, but Lincoln calculatedly provoked the incident at Ft. Sumter, the fight that galvanized Northern opinion and patriotism. It was also the catalyst for the neutral Southern States to join the Confederacy. From the Southern point of view, the Confederacy seceded in peace, and wanted no war. The southern thinking was that the Union had invaded a newly sovereign nation, and the Confederacy was fighting for survival.
(7) There had been no more loyal “Unionists” than the Southerners, through the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War. Eight of our first eleven Presidents were of the South, and a high percentage of our military leadership had traditionally been from the South. (Gen. Winfield Scott, commander of the United States Army in 1861, was a Virginian.) But there were very divergent views of how the Constitutional compact should work. The South felt it was getting the short end of the stick, while paying more than its fair share of the freight.
(8) John Brown was not a hero. He was the ultimate self-righteous madman, and he killed a number of innocent people. His actions inspired many in the North, though he was as evil as the slave drivers he raved against.
(9) Jefferson Davis was not presidential material. Though Davis and Lincoln were born within a year of each other in the same neck of Kentucky, one went South and the other went North. (Had it been the other way around, the Confederacy might have survived . . .)
(10) The most important five months in American history were the months between Lincoln’s election and the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Lincoln made no move to “save the Union” or to attempt any rapprochement with the Southern states. There were those on both sides who tried desperately to head off war, but Lincoln paid them no mind.
(11) The Emancipation Proclamation was a piece of political demagoguery that did not apply even to the slaves who were in Union-controlled territory. It pleased abolitionists in the North, gave hope to those enslaved in the South, and went over well in Europe. But it freed no slaves.
(12) Reconstruction was an unmitigated disaster for the South, and was a continuation of the punishment and devastation the South had suffered throughout the War. It especially failed the newly freed slaves, providing little to help with the transition to full citizenship. The Compromise of 1877, however, a deal brokered by the “party of Lincoln” to elect Rutherford B. Hayes, was even more cynical. “Reconstruction” ended, and the Southern white power structure instituted strict segregation, Jim Crow laws, and the doctrine of white supremacy.
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What I have just written is arguable and provocative; certainly politically incorrect these days, but I think it should be considered seriously if we are to have a more candid examination of the crucible of our nation’s history. It seems to me that Southerners as a whole are more knowledgeable about the War, perhaps because we lost, and we lost badly. I believe that the scars of the War have not fully healed. Nor have the scars of slavery, our great national sin, healed.
Had the South remained in the Union, slavery would have continued for some time, as a legal national sore spot. It surely would have eventually died, but who knows how or when? The hypothetical “what ifs” are the stuff of endless speculation. The truth is hard. We do know that whether or not the war was fought over slavery, it had the effect of ending that malignant horror.
And we do know that in those four blood-soaked years, our nation lost more than 620,000 young soldiers, North and South. They would have been our leaders, our best and brightest, and our strongest asset into the 20th century. Whose mistake was it? The blame was collective, and the post-bellum mythologizing has been collective. But perhaps we have enough distance from the event now to get beyond blame. We might even learn a little something about ourselves.