It is to be expected that some people would take advantage of the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox (sometimes seen as the end of the Civil War, although that’s wrong) to reflect on how Americans remember the Civil War. However, that topic tends to be confused with speculation on whether Confederate heritage persists or is eroding.
One of the pet phrases of the Confederate heritage group known as the Virginia Flaggers is “Restore the Honor! Return the Flags!” The target of this declaration is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, because the Virginia Flaggers hold that institution accountable for the removal of Confederate flags outside the Memorial Chapel back in 2010. Never mind that that other groups, including the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were complicit in that decision. No one forced the SCV to sign that agreement.
Every once in a while it’s useful to examine a claim made by someone who can’t decide whether she’s a historian.
Let’s examine this a little more closely, shall we?
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.
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.
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?
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.
It’s one thing to examine the evidence and the intellectual framework behind a piece of historical scholarship. It’s quite another to follow the course of an argument that raises a lot of questions about the practice of Civil War scholarship. The response to John Stauffer’s essay on black Confederates is a case in point.
As one might assume, I was not the only historian who objected rather quickly to Stauffer’s article. So did Kevin Levin in a pair of posts, the second of which ignited more controversy. For it was there that Levin decided to make reference to another ongoing discussion about the place of military history within Civil War studies, one that aggrieved some people’s sensibilities and aroused objections. Most of that discussion involved an article by Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Meier that appeared in the December 2014 issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era, although Earl Hess in the December 2014 issue of Civil War History offered some different observations about the place of military history in Civil War studies. Levin simply observed that Stauffer’s essay could have benefitted from a better understanding of military history, a point Gallagher and Meier made in their essay.
The eruption that followed was as loud as it was unexpected. Continue reading
Historians of the American Civil War often have to contend with what-if questions (and some ask a few of their own). Indeed, inherent in much of an assessment of the wisdom of this or that move or decision is some contemplation of what was likely to happen if someone made a different move or decision. Otherwise, we would be stuck assessing decisions by outcomes, which is little more than hindsight, and tells us very little about the options open to the decision maker.
A different sort of what-if question reverses the course of history in some seemingly critical way. The favorite what-if that embodies this approach is asking what if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg. Usually, the person asking the question has Jackson replace Richard S. Ewell as a corps commander on the afternoon of July 1 and believes that Jackson would have attacked the Union position on Cemetery Hill, usually with the assumption that such an assault would have been successful, etc.
This exercise is so inherently problematic as to suggest that it is useless unless someone would rather deal with history as they fantasize about it as opposed to understanding what really happened and why (which would take actual work as a reader and researcher). Continue reading