The Persistence of Myth in Confederate Heritage

As people reflect on William T. Sherman’s march through the Carolinas, it stands to reason that some folks hold dear to myths about the march, especially when it comes to certain claims about Yankee atrocities. So, for example, we aren’t surprised to see that a Confederate heritage blogger points to a famous letter, offering it without comment or analysis, as if the letter speaks for itself.

The document in question, as you might recall, was supposedly a letter from a Union officer, Thomas J. Myers, composed on February 26, 1865, at Camden, South Carolina. It professed to detail exactly how the Yankees went about their business of looting and destroying property. You can find it here, in the first of two posts that appeared on this blog in August 2012. Both that post and a followup post about another letter on the same topic examined certain troubling facts about both letters.

Note that these posts were published in August 2012. The post in question from Defending the Heritage appeared in November 2013.

Now, what are we to conclude from this? After all, we all know that certain folks who embrace Confederate heritage visit this blog often. They did not contest the discussion of the letter. They simply continue to embrace it as true. This suggests that to “defend the heritage,” one has no problem ignoring history, or fabricating it … as the fellow who runs Defending the Heritage has done before. So, are they stupid, ignorant, or dishonest? Or some combination of the above?

You tell me.

Remembering … and Misremembering … Reconstruction

Recently I came across a diatribe on Reconstruction from a Confederate heritage advocate. That person offered the following observation:

Then there was the debt run up by carpetbagger legislatures that taxpayers were saddled with for generations. (I may be mistaken about this — I’m going from memory of something I read years ago — but South Carolina’s carpetbagger debt was not paid off until the 1960s.) So there was very little money for infrastructure, public education, etc. — and then Southerners were ridiculed not only for being “lazy” but for being poor and uneducated.

This is interesting. Ever explore what state governments throughout the South spent money on? Why, that’s right: public schools and infrastructure, otherwise known as railroads.

South Carolina is particularly interesting, as that state legislature contained many black representatives (carpetbaggers were but a small percentage of southern Republicans during Reconstruction). Its debt indeed rose during Reconstruction, but nearly all of that increase was cancelled by the early 1880s (not generations, and not until the 1960s). The state’s formerly enslaved population was indeed criticized by many people as being lazy, poor, and uneducated … by white southerners who opposed efforts to give a greater meaning to emancipation than the mere demise of slavery. In contrast, people don’t tend to pay as much attention to the state governments that emerged during the period known as Redemption that followed Reconstruction, in which white native-born southerners did not always govern effectively except when it came to suppressing black rights, regardless of the consequences. When it came to that, however, they were skilled indeed.

But there must be some people who believe that was a good thing and a sign of good government.

Black Confederates in Cartoons

There’s been some chatter about black Confederates lately, although in retrospect new efforts by certain scholars to revisit the issue have proved less than persuasive even those scholars’ rather flawed handling of evidence. Indeed, in some quarters their efforts were subject to ridicule.

The same can be said of what some people thought of black Confederates at the time. Take the image above, from Harper’s Weekly. It raises the question of what would happen if black Confederate infantry regiments took the field. Could they be relied upon to hold their positions or to launch attacks? After all, it’s one thing for a single black man to wield a weapon under duress; but what would happen if several hundred of them, grouped together, were armed so that they could protect themselves? Who would be more at risk: the Yankees or their fellow white Rebs?

CSA Black Enlistment Cartoon 1

London’s Punch reminded readers that both sides were compelled to recruiting blacks in part because of the faltering spirit of whites. With volunteering down, both sides resorted to conscription; when that proved unsatisfactory, where else were they to go?

CSA black enlistment cartoon 2

Indeed, Punch looked at the issue in 1863, before either Patrick Cleburne or the Confederate Congress considered enlisting blacks. The cartoon flipped the concept of “brother versus brother,” so often used to refer to whites, to suggest that blacks really had no interest in fighting each other. Punch speculated that black soldiers on both sides might not prove reliable combat soldiers, although the record of blacks who donned Union blue proved that wrong.

CSA black enlistment 3

And then, of course, there is more recent commentary.

CSA black enlistment cartoon 3

Happy birthday, Peter Carmichael.

Skip Gates Skips Scholarship When It Comes to Black Confederates

Start at the 7:00 mark for the highlight.

Oh my. Kevin Levin offers a detailed response.

I see no reason to waste my time answering someone who simply hasn’t done the work required to enter into this discussion responsibly. I’ve already written about Stauffer’s piece and the discussion it sparked (and the failure of people to deal with these issues) here, here, here, and here.

It’s time to peddle this claptrap elsewhere.

 

Who Was Worst?

Another presidential poll has come and gone, this one populated by political scientists, who tend to measure presidents according to how closely they approximate their conception of the modern presidency (thus historians tend to rate Ulysses S. Grant higher than do political scientists). But the folks at the bottom include three Civil War-era names: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.

Which one do you think was worst … and why? Often the criteria one uses is critical to understanding these assessments.

Montesquieu on Republics Punishing Treason

Interesting advice offered by Montesquieu that might be of interest as we embark on the sesquicentennial of postwar Reconstruction. The text is taken from here.

CHAP. XVIII.: How dangerous it is, in Republics, to be too severe in punishing the Crime of High-Treason.

AS soon as a republic has compassed the destruction of those who wanted to subvert it, there should be an end of terrors, punishments, and even of rewards.
Great punishments, and consequently great changes, cannot take place without investing some citizens with an exorbitant power. It is therefore more adviseable, in this case, to exceed in lenity, than in severity; to banish but few, rather than many; and to leave them their estates, instead of making a vast number of confiscations. Under pretence of avenging the republic’s cause, the avengers would establish tyranny. The business is not to destroy the rebel, but the rebellion. They ought to return as quick as possible into the usual track of government, in which every one is protected by the laws, and no one injured.

The Greeks set no bounds to the vengeance they took of tyrants, or of those they suspected of tyranny: they put their children to death∥; nay, sometimes five of their nearest relations*; and they proscribed an infinite number of families. By such means their republics suffered the most violent shocks: exiles, or the return of the exiled, were always epochas that indicated a change of the constitution.

The Romans had more sense. When Cassius was put to death for having aimed at tyranny, the question was proposed, whether his children should undergo the same fate: but they were preserved. “They, says Dionysius Halicarnasseus, who wanted to change this law at the end of the Marsian and civil laws, and to exclude from public offices the children of those who had been proscribed by Sylla, are very much to blame.”

We find, in the wars of Marius and Sylla, to what excess the Romans had gradually carried their barbarity. Such scenes of cruelty, it was hoped, would never be revived. But, under the triumvirs, they committed greater acts of oppression, though with some appearance of lenity; and it is provoking to see what sophisms they make use of to cover their inhumanity. Appian has given us§ the formula of the proscriptions. One would imagine they had no other aim than the good of the republic; with such calmness do they express themselves; such advantages do they point out to the state; such expediency do they shew in the means they adopt; such security do they promise to the opulent; such tranquility to the poor; so apprehensive do they seem of endangering the lives of the citizens; so desirous of appeasing the soldiers; such felicity, in fine, do they presage to the commonwealth.

Rome was drenched in blood when Lepidus triumphed over Spain: yet, by an unparallelled absurdity, he ordered public rejoicings in that city, upon pain of proscription.

What do you make of this advice, as applied to Reconstruction America?

Dimitri Rotov Wants To Know

From Dimitri Rotov’s blog Civil War Bookshelf, which is starting to show some signs of life again …

The passing

A friend writes,

Just saw news of Pfanz’s death, and was thinking about Civil War history and generations of historians:

I guess you saw Harry W. Pfanz just died (age 93). Albert Castel died in November (age 86).

Stephen Sears is 82. McPherson is 78. James I. “Bud” Robertson is 84 or 85. Ed Bearss is 91. William C. Davis is a spritely 68, but just retired.

Are we now, fully and finally, in the age of Simpson, Rafuse, Grimsley, Symonds, Woodworth, Carmichael, Hess, et al.? And if so, what will they do as they seize the wheel? With their power to shape history? Will we see new and powerful analyses of battles and leaders and logistics and politics, or just blog posts about social history and latter-day “controversies” like the Confederate flag? How many of those guys are working on major books at this point? Do we have anything to look forward to?

(Then there’s the threat of Michael Korda and the like. Don’t get me started.)

Your thoughts, dear reader?

Of course, as Dimitri’s blog has no comments section, there’s no place to put answers to his question. But that doesn’t mean you can’t share your thoughts here.

As for me, certainly I’m working on various projects, but they aren’t all limited to the period of 1861-65. As to what those projects are, I like keeping some things a surprise.

I didn’t know that I was entitled to have an age named after me, individually or with others. Well, as Taylor Swift says, some people love the players, while I love the game.

Two Cheers for the Abolitionists

In the New York Times’s Disunion blog, Jon Grinspan offers the argument that the end of slavery should not be equated with the success of the abolitionists. Sure, he points out, the abolitionists were all about destroying slavery, but it was the war, not the abolitionists, that achieved that end.

Yes … and no.

Grinspan’s on target to suggest that when people nowadays associate their cause with that of abolitionism in an effort to say that they are for the right and that the right prevails that they overlook the extent to which abolitionism as a movement was overtaken by the debate over the expansion of slavery in the 1850s, followed by an escalating feud over the place of slavery in America’s present and future. Moral suasion did not triumph: force did.

But one cannot overlook the role played by abolitionists in the 1830s and 1840s in getting the ball rolling. Although they were a clear minority in northern society (and often a despised one), abolitionists through their tactics if not their strategy pricked proslavery defensiveness over discussing the prospects of the peculiar institution. Gag rules, intercepting the mails, and so on provided points of overreaction that in turn ruffled northern whites’ sensibilities about how the protection of slavery required compromising the rights of whites as well as blacks. Defenses of slavery as a positive good increased in intensity and volume, but found little sympathy in the minds and hearts of an increasing number of white northerners who balanced their racist inclinations against the notion that even inferior human beings were nevertheless human beings, and, as such, should not be subjected to the violent repression that arguments about slavery’s legality, morality, and superiority could ill conceal. Nor can one overlook that in the ranks of abolitionists one would find men such as Frederick Douglass, whose very existence challenged assertions of white superiority on a daily basis.

No, Americans did not go to war in 1861 because they thought slavery wrong, although some Americans did go to war because they thought slavery was right, that it was proper and profitable, and that it must be protected, regardless of the cost. To say otherwise is contradicted by the historical record: only apologists who seek absolution for their ancestors, actual or imaginary, are blind to the stark facts. But that proslavery southerners had to articulate such a defense and were prepared to do whatever they could to protect their peculiar institution–whether it meant supporting a war of conquest and expansion, creating new federal bureaucracies and congressional practices that compromised civil rights, endangering the legitimacy of elections, legislation, or the Supreme Court itself before embarking on that ill-fated journey called secession–was due in the beginning to the abolitionists’ ability to provoke such an overreaction. Much like taking a sledgehammer to squash a housefly, proslavery advocates succeeded in shattering their own future in a series of devastating blows that brought an abrupt end to the cornerstone of their experiment in independence. No one can doubt that the abolitionists played a role in that process.

So, two cheers to the abolitionists, who in any case were pleased enough with the result not to worry overmuch about who got the credit … unless, of course, you are talking about Charles Sumner.