The Need for a Yankee Strawman

Some people need to construct strawmen in order to make a point, oblivious to the fact that by constructing the strawman, they damage their own argument, because they concede it’s not grounded in reality.

Take, for example, the argument I hear from those white southerners (and others) who declare that white northerners today believe that the North went to war in 1861 to free the slaves.  When pressed to name names (and especially to cite historians who argue this), the argument loses much of its force.  Oh, I’m sure there are some folks in the North who say the North went to war to free the slaves, just as there are some white southerners who say it was all about state rights or the tariff and had basically nothing to do with slavery.  But no one would argue seriously that reputable scholars believe this: outliers and exceptions do not make the rule and serve as poor material for stereotypes.

So why make the argument?  Why claim that this is what white northerners believe?  After all, isn’t this argument the kissing cousin of Robert Penn Warren’s claim that today’s white northerners embrace a supposed Treasury of Virtue that allows them to lord it over the South?

The argument is made precisely because it’s a strawman.  It serves as a touchstone of criticism that is far more political and ideological than it is historical.  It’s also a way for those who make it to skirt the slavery issue itself and to avoid the notion that secessionists seceded to protect slavery, and many of those who had reservations about secession or opposed it worried about the impact of secession and war upon slavery.

So let’s get a few things out of the way.  Saying that the underlying cause of the American Civil War was a debate over slavery is not the same thing as saying that the North went to war to free the slaves.  Moreover, no one’s excusing or denying the racism of northern whites.  Among northern whites, abolitionists were in a decided minority; the Republican party’s members held a wide range of perspectives on race and slavery, with a good number of them opposing slavery for one reason or another (and sometimes for more than one reason) without necessarily embracing equality for blacks (and there existed in American thought different levels of equality).

Moreover, saying that most white northerners did not support the war because they sought to destroy slavery (and pointing out the prevalence of racism in the North, etc.) has very little to do with why white southerners went to war in 1861.  Slavery and its future were at the core of the debates over secession in 1860-61.  That debate was fundamental to the secession of the first seven states that formed the Confederacy, and it was the major issue in the remaining slave states, including the four that eventually joined the Confederacy.

We might also consider that “slavery” represented various things to various white northerners.  The expansion of slavery limited the area open to free labor; it enhanced the growth of southern political power (thus the “slave power,” which had no problem using the federal government to protect and promote its economic interests (this is something the advocates of “it’s all about the tariff” tend to overlook); and it did promote a system that many white northerners in fact did find distasteful.  Thus, one could oppose “slavery” in its many manifestations without concentrating on the issue of its morality or embracing black equality.

That being said, the function of the claim becomes more apparent.  It allows some people to have it both ways on Lincoln. Gee, these folks argue, why didn’t he simply free all the slaves in 1861?  If he was really antislavery, wouldn’t he have done that?  Why didn’t he simply seek a way to secure emancipation peacefully (right, Ron Paul?)?  Why not offer compensation to masters and make emancipation gradual? (What, you say he made that offer?)  Oh, he was a racist, because he believed in colonization.  (What, you mean he advocated it in large part because of his beliefs concerning the persistence of racism in a post-emancipation society?)  Well, he was a tyrant who broke the Constitution to establish an empire (wait … are you telling me that his actions concerning emancipation were conditioned by his understanding of what was constitutionally possible?).

The Yankee strawman is also a way for certain liberal white southerners to lash back at Yankee critics (real and imagined) in a way to confirm their credentials as southerners.  They then stand on common ground with those conservative white southerners and defenders of Dixie who are sometimes mistermed neo-Confederates (and, with some more justice, Lost Causers) … although they would claim in polite company that they have next to nothing in common with those folks.  This is especially delightful when the liberal white southerners in question accuse white northerners of stereotyping the South (or fashioning “the South as Other,” as some put it), because, of course, they are constructing their own strawmen and stereotypes, although the implications of this practice often elude their minds, because the argument they make is grounded in something other than their intellect.

And, of course, the Yankee strawman is simply a way for white southerners to mock white northerners.  It makes them feel smug (even as they hope to mock Yankees smugness).  It’s also a wonderful way to divert attention from looking at the South and slavery.  People who make the “you, too” argument tend to emphasize the “you” in the hopes that everyone will forget the “too.”  Highlighting that there was racism in the North, for example, in no way excuses racism in the South, but you would never know it from some of these advocates (who often highlight that some of their best friends are black, that their ancestors did not own slaves or were really kind masters, and that race relations in the South are … er, were … much better in the South than in the North, look what happened to Native Americans, and so on).  In short, it’s as much an argument about themselves and who they are today as it is about history and events of 150 years ago.  For these folks, history is identity (sometimes real, sometimes imagined, as in those people who hold to a romantic view of the antebellum South straight out of Gone With the Wind … the movie version).

Again, many white southerners do not feel the need to construct this strawman.  But some do.  Why?

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36 thoughts on “The Need for a Yankee Strawman

  1. Again, many white southerners do not feel the need to construct this strawman. But some do. Why?

    Because it’s easy. Period, full stop.

    It’s an easy thing to create a grossly simplistic straw man and then knock it down with a few well-worn quotes, than to dig down into the complexities of the subject, and acknowledge the contradictions and illogic inherent in the human species, individually and collectively. Why bother reading a stack of dense histories, written by professional historians, when you can simply make sweeping claims about what Northers “believe” or what “politically-correct” academics teach?

    Or if you absolutely must read something, why bother with a ton of books when a single title has all the answers you’ll need? One book is much more efficient than a whole shelf full, right?

    I have made two observations, though, about how this plays out in online communities. First, in many cases it seems, the folks who push these arguments are doing it as much of more for their own reinforcement as for “educating” the general public. It’s often more of a mantra than an actual argument in a discussion, one that is repeated ad infinitum, ad nauseum to an audience that’s heard the same line a thousand times before. (Lincoln was a racist. Rinse. Repeat.) And because the intended audience is mostly True Believers of like mind, there’s nothing really holding back the rhetoric, no particular incentive to make themselves seem even remotely rational. I saw once, in connection with Civil War history, that “political correctness is the spawn of Satan,” and I’m pretty sure they were serious about that. You don’t say things like that if your intended audience is the general public, you know?

    The other thing that’s striking to me is that so many of those who embrace the wicked, deceitful Yankee strawman hold equally simplistic, even childish, views of their own “side.” Folks will argue with a straight face that mainstream academic historians are part of a “cult of Lincoln” or “worship” Lincoln, and at the same time seem blissfully un-self-aware of their own view of Lee as the Marble Man. They hold Sherman’s army to be nothing more than a ruthless gang of rapists, thieves and murderers, but view their own Confederate ancestors (including partisan guerrillas like Quantrill) as guileless, noble men of honor, unblemished by base motivations and untainted by the sad-but-irrelevant institution of slavery.

    I think the real question is not “why the Yankee strawman?”, but why to people feel a need to embrace a cartoonish vision of the past, with simple heroes and villains, when the reality is so very much more complex and interesting?

    • My observation is that I’ve not seen this strawman exercise limited to non-academics. You see a little of it even in C. Vann Woodward and much more in some lower-tier types. So it’s not limited to Confederate apologists. It is a practice shared by some southern white liberals, as I’ve noted before.

  2. I think Ray makes a very valid point. One book I think should be required reading is “Southern Pamphlets on Secession: Novermber 1860-April 1861″ ed. Jon L. Wakelyn, UNC Press. Reading it, I frequently found myself simultaneously battling urges to weep and waves of sheer fury at the hubris of the pamphleteers and the realization that they’d come to believe their own propaganda. There were a few who realized the risks they were taking but they had about the same impact as Cassandra did at Troy. Most had total contempt for northerners and a belief that had been drummed into them their whole lives about the the superiority of their system. Northerners weren’t supposed to resist and, even if they did, it was expected to be easily swept away. Instead, what they unleashed was a devastating catastrophe. The Lost Cause then and the straw man now are attempts to evade responsibility for what the secessonists brought about. Even among academics & liberals, there’s still a discomfort level in confronting what their ancestors wrought.

  3. >> . . . why to people feel a need to embrace a cartoonish vision of the past, with simple heroes and villains, when the reality is so very much more complex and interesting?

    I just read “Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State” by Anne Elizabeth Marshall. It was fascinating. As commenters have pointed out, there are lots of reasons to hold onto these ideas. But Kentucky’s case at least seems to make certain things clear. The state (according to the author) was invested in the idea that the Union would in the end use its power to protect slavery (wish-fulfillment I would think) because they were loyal, among other reasons, and were enraged by the Emancipation Proclamation (though it only affected Rebel states the trend was clear. It does seem like the Lost Cause is much easier to grasp, than the uncomfortable racial complexities of the matter as it was both before the war and after. Perhaps in Kentucky a bit more clearly than other regions (since they have claim to strong Union sentiments) the power of this racial element can be seen.

    In any case, large parts of the Left and Right seem unable do digest that the war might have been justified, or the causes what they seemed to be, or the aims or means reasonable. Therefore conspiracies abound from all sides.

  4. Although it has been alluded to here, I think we need to specifically acknowledge that there are Southerners — white Southerners — who are quite interested in the Civil War and also ashamed that they had ancestors who were fighting to uphold the institution of slavery. They may not be a “silent majority,” but the are an important minority.

    I really would like to hear some more of their voices. I think they could have a lot to teach the nation as a whole — because in an important sense, in this day and age, all Americans are in the same boat as them. We live and pay taxes in a nation that practices torture, so what do we say about that? How do we think of ourselves? These sadder-but-wiser Southerners could have a lot to teach us in the days ahead — if we can encourage their voices to be heard.

    • White southerners should be ashamed that they had ancestors who were Confederates? Why is it important for the descendants of Confederates to be ashamed of their Confederate ancestors?

      Isn’t more important to understand the history than to feel ashamed about dead people we never knew? I think all we can do is acknowledge right and wrong, and that’s about it. Personally I think feelings of shame are kind of ridiculous being that I exist now and not back then.

      • “White southerners should be ashamed that they had ancestors who were Confederates? Why is it important for the descendants of Confederates to be ashamed of their Confederate ancestors”?

        That’s not what Noma said, Noma said there ARE some who are ashamed, that is totally different than what you claim was said and what you replied to,, You’ve built your own strawman.

        Call it shame as Noma said or embarrassment as I wrote it is part of what drives Lost Cause revisionism.. Clearly no modern person need feel either emotion about a war 150 years ago but it is partially understandable.

        A survey of the modern Southerners views on the CSA might be enlightening, Do people on East Tennessee remember their Unionist past? or do they think their ancestors were loyal Confederates? How about the descendants of Carpetbaggers, do they remember their carpetbagger past?

        • My opinion is that both Lyle and Ray are expressing important truths.

          It is “more important to understand the history than to feel ashamed about dead people we never knew?” I take Lyle’s question to be an “if you had to pick one” question, and as such that’s the right answer because choosing the other option means you have a only a fuzzy emotional understanding. (Of course we don’t have to pick one and should learn a subject in its fullness that includes ways that inform our emotions deeply as well, but the point stands.) Where I differ is in thinking “feelings of shame are kind of ridiculous.” I think that is too strong.

          So I think Ray is correct that a certain level of shame is “partially understandable.” I cringed a bit when I read an Indiana Union soldiers diary for his views towards the freedmen, and that cringe is a form of shame. It is limited, and should be because my personal responsibility is limited, though understanding it is important to be a full member of the relevant community (this is why history is important.) I swell in pride when I see the “liberal” racial views of US Grant and others that were rare in their time. If I were a Southerner, I’d like to think I would do the same (and also choose members of my own community who shared these views regardless of their historical standing because of them,) and I wonder if more don’t do so than we hear because transcending one’s region *to some degree* is a part of being an American. That’s one of the things that separates us from tribal cultures.

        • I have to disagree with you Ray about what Noma wrote. His paragraph clearly articulates by implication that it is important for the descendants of Confederates to be ashamed of those Confederates, otherwise he wouldn’t have written this:

          “They may not be a “silent majority,” but they are an important minority.”

          So at the very least Noma has argued that it is important for the descendants of dead Confederates to be ashamed of their ancestors’ Confederate service.

          • “So at the very least Noma has argued that it is important for the descendants of dead Confederates to be ashamed of their ancestors’ Confederate service”.

            His paragraph does no such thing and you are again putting words on Noma that were never written. Saying someone is ashamed and saying they should be ashamed are completely different things. Noma did the former, I can’t see how you get to the latter except by having a desire to deliberately mis-characterize what was stated to push your own agenda.

            • Ray,

              I’m haven’t put words in anyone’s mouth. He says that those people who are ashamed are an important (his word) minority. Why are they important? Here is where the implication come in, because that’s how Noma thinks descendants of Confederates should feel. Why even point out the importance of this minority if not for the desire to see more of them?

              Irregardless, I don’t think anybody needs to feel ashamed of their dead Confederate ancestors. I don’t.

  5. Am I off-base in suggesting that there is something of a subset of southern history studies (including a lot of work focused on race, gender, social history, and what would qualifiy as “subaltern” studies) around the (used proudly) “Southern Renegades” meme, that is yet to be brought together sucessfully?

    I’m referring to the the Jones County studies (good and bad), “Lincoln’s Loyalists,” regional histories in the border states and eastern Tennesee, the growing number of studies of the enslaved, the USCTs and veteran’s groups, Reconstruction, etc.

    One thing – unless I have missed it – that does not seem to have been done yet is too assemble these various disparate threads into a cohesive hole examing the – for lack of a better term – “internal opposition” to the CSA within the South, before and after secession, and then the same towards white supremacy and after Appomatox.

    Or is there a really solid syncretic study of all of the above?

    • I think most of us who can look at things dispassionately can see plenty of evidence for a divided South (and a divided North as well). Have these stories of internal division on both sides been brought together in a more complete synthesis? No, but this is an area where a skilled scholar could very well make a contribution to the general popular understanding of the conflict. Instead, we still see many folks implicitly collapse the war into two sides: a white southern Confederate side and a white northern Republican side.

      • That implies that only Northern Republicans supported the War for Reunion when plenty of Northern Democratic politicians supported the Union effort,
        The Union would probably have failed if it was a Republican only effort.
        Black Jack Logan was a Democrat who rallied to the war effort and he brought many constituents with him.

      • I agree. Not enough books on this, if any. I think an original book would be highly challenging, and potentially quite controversial. I wonder if a good complete story might come out of an edited collection of essays over the years on the subject of democracy. It seems to me the story is in bits and pieces across many essays over the years since the war.

        For example, didn’t Grant say the South during the war was “an armed camp”? I think Grant and others at the time saw the South as a dictatorship, and not a democracy. They had a democratic tradition like the rest of the country, but during the war they didn’t have elections, and they didn’t need to face Congressional oversight if there was a military disaster. And then after the war there was a terrorist wave that also showed how oppressive the culture could be if motivated. If they’d won the war it would have been a disaster for the South, as they would have continued to turn inward on their own population.

        The point being, I wonder if it isn’t hard to really understand what Southerners thought at the time. There were no elections in 1864, or any of the other things that went on in the North to give perspective. You can sift newspapers and letters, but I suppose there are some challenges with that. How many people didn’t express their thoughts for fear of being ostracized or worse? I take it that people’s views can’t be determined very well when they can’t freely express them. What is the opinion of citizens of certain oppressive nations today? Who speaks for them? I may be wrong to make the comparison this way, and Southerners would forever hate an author if this was an assumption of his analysis, but didn’t Grant and others think this way at the time? I forget who it was that mused whether or not Sherman’s March to the Sea ever would have happened if there had been a truly free press that would have reported how dire the situation really was, making the demonstration unnecessary. I don’t know enough to know if that statement is at all plausible, but I recall seeing it written.

  6. “Most had total contempt for northerners and a belief that had been drummed into them their whole lives about the the superiority of their system. Northerners weren’t supposed to resist and, even if they did, it was expected to be easily swept away.”

    I’ve often wondered what pro-Confederate opinion (then and now) would be if the North really had let the South secede in peace. Would there be respect for the honorable Yankees who respected the right to secede, or would the idea of Yankee-as-war-criminal be replaced with Yankee-as-coward?

  7. I particularly enjoy these comments:

    http://civilwartalk.com/forums/showthread.php?149394-The-Need-for-a-Yankee-Strawman

    Some people appeared to have reacted before reading. I draw their attention to the final paragraph:

    “Again, many white southerners do not feel the need to construct this strawman. But some do. Why?”

    Some folks seem to have missed that, and claimed that I’m speaking about all white southerners. Perhaps they should read before they react. Such is the world of blogging. :)

    Oh, and folks … mistermed is a word.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/misterm

    But I know you’re grasping for straws when you rant on about that. :)

    (Update 7/2): Not surprisingly, the people who don’t like this post in that group tend to identify with the Confederate side of things, judging from screen names and so on. They highlight their displeasure with the message but seem rather hard-pressed to offer anything approaching an intelligent counterargument.

  8. Strawman defense of the South doesn’t need a ACW slant as the TSAO “theory” shows,
    It has nothing to do with the war and it has more strawmen than a Nebraska cornfield.
    And I’ve always found similarity in the South and the Mid-West. except for the legacy of slavery they are quite culturally close more so than New England is to them, if anyplace is “other” is N.E..

    • Ray, on cultural identification that is way too strong a statement. I’m from the Mid-West: Central Indiana and grew up on a farm in rural Indiana and went to local rural schools. I grew up oblivious to any of the Southern political stuff discussed here. Though I heard the left-of-center stuff about Lincoln the tyrant and all that “believed by some” as told by our history teachers in the way they do, I never heard any students or friends even sniff any interest in going there since it was politically conservative, and the Southern sympathy was nil. If someone had pushed the LC as I know now, I think we’d have thought them close to crazy. It isn’t as though we high-fived our Union heritage (we were kids as ahistorical as anyone else,) it’s just that the cultural understanding of history were such that we considered the questions entirely decided. No adult I ever heard ever articulated anything remotely resembling the issues DeLorenzo and his ilk espouse.

      So I can assure you that growing up in central Indiana in the 70′s there was NO sympathy for the Southern cause. I never heard anyone make an argument for the Lost Cause or anything remotely sympathetic from my youth until I left the state at about 27 years of age. No one I knew even liked country music. It would be frowned on in those days. That was country-hick music. Things that were for Kentucky, not IN. There is a lot of regional bias regarding Kentucky over their southernness. I was from rural IN farm country, but we certainly didn’t identify with anything Southern, and we clearly did identify with NE.

      Now I don’t claim to speak for the state, though I do think I could more or less speak for the northern half. The southern half could have some sympathies for the South, but I’m not sure of that even though I went to college in the lower southern part of it and never witnessed it personally. But I’ve heard they don’t mind being called Hoosiers, whereas we Central to Northerners resent it. Obviously, I’m describing regional bias from my youth and later, and not necessarily fair, but pace the Lost Causer’s claims, nothing any more sophisticated than “they’re poor barefoot rednecks who listen to simple country music, and we’re not.” We never imagined they might hold onto Southern beliefs such as the Lost Cause and such so long after the war. It came as a shock to me to learn this in my 30′s.

      Anyway, though I doubt the Mid-West is monolithic, I can assure you that Central Indiana farm country does indeed identify strongly with NE. Sorry for the rambling response, but I just about spit out my drink when I read you say that the Mid-West was “quite culturally close more so than New England is to them.” But I’d be very interested in what areas you think that fits though. I’m interested much more in the Mid-West now that I’m older.

      the Mid-West identified with the South.

      • I didn’t say the Mid-Westerners were Southern sympathizers, but that they share a similar culture. which is different than how you characterized my point.

        .they have similar Conservative political views,
        Country music is very popular, one finds the same plethora of fast food restaurants and much of the same views on Washington DC and what they consider moral and immoral.
        it is much different than what one finds in the North East. the people tend to be more Protestant than Chatholic where Catholics are the largest group in N.E. and they tend to dominate politics. Catholics tend to be more socially/politically liberal than the more Conservative Protestants.

        • I thought by NE you meant New England, not the North East. But anyway, your point as you express it now seems nothing more than to point out the Red State / Blue State and Protestant / Catholic divisions, both of which existed long before the CW, and as such have nothing to do with the CW or Southern culture. Nothing that wouldn’t apply to the classic rural / urban issues in any country.

          As far as fast food restaurant chains, I don’t see what conclusions relevant to your comment can be drawn from the the fact that they tend to expand in a geographic progression In-N-Out Burger started in CA and has expanded to AZ, NV, UT, and recently TX in that order. Similarly, Southern chains spread north into the Mid-West. If they haven’t exhausted themselves by then, they look for other markets. Some more aggressive ones have national expansion plans very early and they don’t necessarily conform to this trend. But the point is these are geographic phenomena, not a cultural ones. Obviously, there is a relationship of geography to culture but it’s accidental, so merely observing phenomenon and assuming cultural affinities isn’t warranted.

          • I didn’t say affinities, I wrote similarities a different word with a different meaning and I stand by that.

        • And I still don’t know why you insist on the blanket statement that “country music is very popular” in the Mid-West after what I said. No one I grew up with in rural central Indiana would be caught dead with a country music paraphenalia, let alone listen to it.

          Country music went mainstream very recently, partly by transforming into something similar to pop music and others. Now, according to recent surveys, at least 60% of the adult population enjoys it. Guess what? That means it is popular in the North East too. Are there country music stations in Boston? I’ll bet there are. In light of these well-known music industry developments, I fail to see how the current popularity of country music is relevant to anything interesting that you’d like to claim here.

  9. From this group:

    Can I not say that some abolitionist and politicians helped fan the fire of the fireaters, and secession politics without being accused of trying to defend the CSA? Can one ask a question about the reconstruction motives of the US congress without being considered a Lost causer or confederate sympathizer?

    I’d say yes.

  10. Abolitionists like Charles Sumner and Edward Everett Hale certainly gave the Pyrophagi{great word} fuel for their positions but I don’t see that as “fanning the flames”
    John Brown is different and he was trying to get a war started.

    The motives of the Reconstructors are definitely open to question. Some wanted to remake the South, others saw a chance to move in and make a few bucks off of it. and most Unionists really didn’t care as long as rebellion was finished and just cluck clucked at the way the Southerner acted towards the Freedmen while not seeing any obligation to stop it.

    • But isn’t the “carpetbagger” charge overdone? There were quite a few idealistic schoolteachers there to teach the ex-slaves dodging bullets too. I’m not holding my breath waiting for the movie showing that.

        • Tourgee’s “regimental,” _The Story of a Thousand: Being a History of the 105th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, in the War for the Union from August 21, 1862 to June 6, 1865_ is one of the best. It is finally being reprinted next fall, IIRC, Kent State University Press, with a scholarly introduction. There are a number of instant reprints by Kessinger, et al., available but wait for the KSU one.
          Tourgee was Homer Plessy’s attorney and his arguments, unsuccessful in 1891, were used in Brown v Board of Education.
          And I agree that _A Fool’s Errand_ movie wold be a useful counter to CWTW!

  11. Back in 2007, Chandra Manning wrote _What this Cruel War was Over_. She analyzed the content of letters, diaries and regimental newspapers from both northern and southern soldiers/unit to attempt to understand the motivation of individual soldiers. Her analysis IIRC found that, from the beginning, individual soldiers on both sides understood slavery to be the central issue driving the conflict. I have waited in vain for someone to raise her analysis in these discussions. Has her work been discredited?

    • Chandra Manning’s book has come under criticism from Gary Gallagher in his new book, The Union War. He argues that she does not support her claims concerning the antislavery attitudes of Union soldiers. My own view is that we have to define exactly what we mean when we talk about slavery as an issue, because I don’t see the immorality of slavery as the primary motivation behind Union soldiers enlisting in 1861. However, I see slavery as a political issue (and the protection of slavery by secessionists) as driving issues.

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