Almost unquestionably, the Civil War is the most divisive historical topic in our nation's history. Adding to the mix, The Washington Post recently published a piece by author and University of Vermont professor James W. Loewen that addressed five perceived myths encompassing this bygone era.
Scholarly at the outset of his assessment, Loewen concluded that White supremacy, commingled with a desire to expand slavery beyond the continental border, provided the driving motivation for the South's secession. In fairness, perhaps, he added that "Northerners' fear of freed slaves moving north then caused Republicans to lose the Midwest in the congressional elections of November 1862."
Although I'm probably just a "neo-Confederate" hayseed simpleton locked into the mythology and lore of the romanticized Old South, I must say that I've mulled over perceptions such as Loewen's more times than I can count since the mid-90's. And despite all that I've been commanded to believe, I keep arriving at the same questions:
Why would such a sizable uprising of mostly underprivileged, non-slave-holding Southerners -- a fledgling upstart of a nation -- form a citizen-soldiery to battle against their brethren of the North in the interest of maintaining a slavery establishment that, according to the U.S. census of 1860, was perpetuated by a mere 6% of the Southern populace? Further, why would these Confederates who knowingly faced impossible odds even consider firing a single shot in the name of White supremacy when, according to Loewen himself, such a mindset (however debatable) was largely shared among their northern counterparts?
Here's a quick history review...
During the second session of the 36th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution on February 11, 1861 that guaranteed noninterference with slavery in any State. Undeterred by the eight slave States that remained in the Union, representatives of the new Confederacy (comprised of only seven States at this point) established a provisional Congress and formalized a new Constitution. They had also chosen Jefferson Davis -- a West Point graduate and former U.S. Army Colonel, Senator and Secretary of War -- as their first provisional president.
Because the resolution failed to draw the seceded States back into the Union, the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution was passed by both houses of Congress on July 25, some three months after those dastardly Southerners took Fort Sumter, stating that war was being waged to "defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union." Any document regarding a desire to do away with slavery would not be produced until Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, some 20 months after the War began.
For nearly half my life, I have known what rich and politically influential men of the time have said. But I also wanted to know about the common man who loaded and fired his musket on the field of battle. I considered those who were under no delusion about the grievous hardship that awaited them all. And from this, I was forced to consider if it was possible -- if it was even conceivable -- that these ordinary people from a century-and-a-half ago were driven to fight, suffer and die for reasons other than maintaining human servitude and racial domination.
Consider Judah Benjamin. Prior to his service in the Confederate Cabinet as Secretary of State, Secretary of War and Attorney General, Benjamin was only the second Jewish U.S. Senator in American history and the first Jew considered for nomination to the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (an offer he declined twice).
Also consider Ambrosio José Gonzales, a Confederate Colonel and native of Cuba who served as chief of artillery and figured prominently in the South's coastal defense.
And let us not forget Stand Watie (a.k.a., Standhope Oowatie). The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, he was also a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army who led the Indian cavalry of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, CSA.
Did such men fight for the causes of slavery and White supremacy?
Some of Loewen's points are accurate. Those who wished to keep their slaves absolutely existed and held considerable clout. But are Loewen's conclusions comprehensive in scope, or is this merely another case of the Southland being hit with the inclusive liability of an institution that has prospered continuously throughout our planet for nearly 4,000 years while everyone else, past and present, are given a pass?
The malignancies and complications of this time in history are undeniable. But what if I were bold enough to define anyone by only the most negative aspects of their culture? I doubt that would be very well received. Hence, I never tell anyone why they have to love the former Confederate nation. I only tell them why they don't have to hate it. There's a difference.
"The South will rise again!" is unappealing rhetoric to most, including yours truly. Yet the act of comparing the unashamed Southerner to Hitler and the Nazis ("Godwin's Law," Reductio ad Hitlerum) invariably makes its way into the conversation, usually when the debate has nowhere else to go. But more interesting still is how America can always depend on those kooky Confederate flag wavers to be first in line for a fight to defend Old Glory. Define that however you like, but the unyielding commitment demonstrated time and time again by the sons of the South stems from the reasoning behind why George Washington was placed at the center of the Great Seal of the Confederacy.
Today we mock the notions of smaller government and States Rights, and we act as if the 10th Amendment doesn't even exist. At present, we have an uncontrollable national government which, by most accounts, becomes more intrusive with each passing year. And this is notable because, like it or not, that behemoth was born with Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
Instead of listening to the agenda-driven demagogues of the present, it is better to witness the words spoken by those who experienced the unpleasantness of the time firsthand. Their viewpoints are not politically correct by our current standard. But they are indeed correct, and it does matter:
"The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; and these, in uniting together, have not forfeited their Nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the States chose to withdraw its name from the contract, it would be difficult to disprove its right of doing so."
-- from "Democracy in America" (two volumes, published in 1835 & 1840) by Alexis de Tocqueville
"Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to abolish the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. ... Any portion of such people, that can, may revolutionize and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit."
-- Abraham Lincoln, Congressional Records; January 12, 1848
"The Union is a Union of States founded upon Compact. How is it to be supposed that when different parties enter into a compact for certain purposes either can disregard one provision of it and expect others to observe the rest? If the Northern States willfully and deliberately refuse to carry out their part of the Constitution, the South would be no longer bound to keep the compact."
-- from Senator Daniel Webster's (D-Massachusetts) Capon Springs Speech; June 28, 1851
"Wealth has fled from the South, and settled in the regions north of the Potomac, and this in the midst of the fact that the south, in four staples alone, in cotton, tobacco, rice and indigo had exported produce since the Revolution, to the value of eight hundred million dollars, and the North had exported comparatively nothing. ... Such an export would indicate unparalleled wealth; but what was the fact? In place of wealth, a universal pressure for money was felt; not enough for current expenses... and the frugal habits of the people pushed to the verge of universal self-denial for the preservation of their family estates. ... Under this legislation the exports of the South have been made the basis of the federal revenue. ... Virginia, the two Carolinas and Georgia may be said to defray three fourths of the annual expense of supporting the federal government; and of this great sum annually furnished by them, nothing, or next to nothing, is returned to them in the shape of government expenditure.
"That expenditure flows in an opposite direction; it flows northwardly, in one uniform, uninterrupted and perennial stream; it takes the course of trade and of exchange; and this is the reason why wealth disappears from the South and rises up in the North. Federal legislation does all this; it does it by the simple process of eternally taking away from the South, and returning nothing to it."
-- from a lengthy and perfectly stated offering by Senator Thomas Hart Benton (D-Missouri) in 1851
"A legitimate union of states depends for its continuance on the free consent and will of the Sovereign people of each state, and when that consent and will is withdrawn on either part, their union is gone. Any state forced to remain in a union by military force can never be a co-equal member of the American union and can be viewed only as a 'subject providence'."
-- from The Daily Union of Bangor, Maine; November 13, 1860
"If we of the North were called upon to endure one half as much as the Southern people and soldiers do, we would abandon the cause and let the Southern Confederacy be established. ... A nation preserved with liberty trampled underfoot is much worse than a nation in fragments but with the spirit of liberty still alive. Southerners persistently claim that their rebellion is for the purpose of preserving this form of government."
-- Private John H. Haley, 17th Maine Regiment, United States Army
"With all my devotion to the Union and the feeling of loyalty and duty of an American citizen, I have not been able to make up my mind to raise my hand against my relatives, my children and my home."
-- Colonel Robert Edward Lee, United States Army. Lee was President Lincoln's personal choice to lead the charge against the Southern uprising.
"I am fighting to preserve the integrity of the Union and the power of the government -- on no other issue. To gain that end we cannot afford to mix up the Negro question. It must be incidental and subsidiary. The President is perfectly honest and is really sound on the [N-word] question."
-- Major General George B. McClellan, Army of the Potomac, United States Army
"Surrender means that the history of this heroic struggle will be written by the enemy; that our youth will be trained by Northern school teachers; will learn from Northern school books their version of the War; will be impressed by all the influences of history and education to regard our gallant dead as traitors and our maimed veterans as fit subjects for derision."
-- Major General Patrick Cleburne, Army of Tennessee, Confederate States Army
"So the case stands, and under all the passion of the parties and the cries of the battle lie the two chief moving causes of the struggle. Union means so many millions a year lost to the South; secession means the loss of the same millions to the North. The love of money is the root of this as of many, many other evils ... the quarrel between North and South is, as it stands, solely a fiscal quarrel."
-- Charles Dickens, author of numerous all-time classics, as editor of the British periodical All the Year Round in 1862
"All these cries of having 'abolished slavery', of having 'saved the country', of having 'preserved the Union,' of establishing a 'government of consent' and of 'maintaining the national honor' are all gross, shameless, transparent cheats -- so transparent they they ought to deceive no one."
-- Lysander Spooner, philosopher and Massachusetts abolitionist
"Concerning CSA President Jefferson Davis: He was imprisoned after the war (and) was never brought to trial. The North didn't dare give him a trial, knowing that a trial would establish that secession was not unconstitutional, that there had been no 'rebellion' and the South had got a raw deal -- but he refused to ask the United States for a 'pardon', demanding that the government either offer him a pardon, give him a trial or admit that he had been unjustly dealt with. He died, 'unpardoned' by a government that was leery of giving him a public hearing."
-- from "The Civil War" (1953) by James Street
"The American people, North and South, went into the (Civil) War as citizens of their respective states. They came out as subjects ... and what they thus lost, they never got back."
-- H.L. Mencken, one of the more notable commentators of the 20th century, and ironically, a noted detractor of the South