Hallmarks of the Politically Correct Myth of the American Civil War

by James Durney on November 3, 2009 · 14 comments

Editor’s Note: I’d like to welcome those of you coming from either Brooks Simpson’s Civil Warriors post or his updated version at Crossroads.  Before you read further, I urge you to read our disclaimer here at TOCWOC, which reads:

The views of each individual TOCWOC blogger do not necessarily reflect the views of the group as a whole or any other individual contributor to this blog.

I’d also like to note my own (Brett Schulte’s) two-part response to Jim’s post below, only days after this one appeared.  My point is that you may have already formed an incorrect opinion of this blog based on one blog entry, considering there was no disclaimer of this type in Brooks’ original posts.  I do this now because something similar happened not too long ago at Andy Hall’s Dead Confederates site, and I want to make clear what TOCWOC is and what it isn’t.  I encourage you to explore the site as a whole, including our long list of Civil War book reviews, or for another portion of what Jim Durney contributes to this blog, his monthly looks at upcoming Civil War books, before you form an opinion.  With that said, read on.

Brett Schulte 2/26/2011

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Hallmarks of the Politically Correct Myth of the American Civil War
by James Durney

1) The insistence that the North is good and the South bad can be a warning sign, just as an insistence that the South was good and the North bad is a warning sign of Lost Cause Mythology.  Most accept that the North’s position was the right one and that the United States should not have allowed secession.  However, an insistence that the Northern position was 100% right and the South’s 100% wrong isn’t historical or likely.  Both sides missed opportunities to avoid the war and both sides did things that brought the war closer.  The South has the majority of responsibility for causing the war but the North is not the innocent victim.  An excellent indication that you are talking to a PCMer is when they equate the Confederacy and /or owning slaves with the Third Reich.

2) Slavery is wrong, was unkind and was the underlying cause of the war.  It was the most visible difference between the two sections but it was not the only difference.  The South lost national influence in the years leading up to the war.  This coupled with the differences between agricultural and industrial economies created tensions that led to war.  Southern slavery, while not kind, was not excessively cruel considering the standards in place.  An example of the PCM is the person on Yahoo Groups that stated slave owners would let a slave die rather than spend the price of a chicken on a doctor.  Considering the price of a slave was several years’ wages, the idea makes no economic sense.

3) Black support of the Confederacy is the one place the PCM & LCM meet!  Both are dedicated to showing that the CSA was an all-white operation.  The LCM simply ignored any contributions by Blacks expect as “the faithful slave” stories.  The PCM has decided that, the South being the center of evil and slavery being hell on earth, no Black could support the CSA in any way.  This has led to the assertion that any Blacks serving in CSA armies were really mixed race and somehow less Black.  I have had authors say that a history of the Battle of Williamsport cannot be written.  Black teamsters picking up rifles joined white troops in fighting off the Union cavalry.  While historical, this is not acceptable to the book buying public.  The SCV is accepting the contributions of Blacks and recognizing them as a valued part of the South’s armies.

cppbanner Hallmarks of the Politically Correct Myth of the American Civil War

4) Reconstruction; part of the PC Myth is the contention that the USA should have engaged in massive land distribution projects during Reconstruction.  These projects would have stripped those that fought for the CSA of land and given it to former slaves.  This idea seems based on the redistribution of land done in Russia and China after the communist revolutions and would have been completely out of character for the USA.

5) The failure of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow are blamed on racism and the refusal of Southern Whites to be reconstructed.  Books by Eric Foner follow this line, restricting the failure to racial issues and local politics.  Part of the popularity of this view is how well it works with the South being the center of evil, one of the most popular and widely held parts of the PCM.  This view holds that whites should have been denied civil rights for life and reduced to non-citizens for rebelling.

6)  The Reconstruction Klan is seen as a wholly rascist organization having no other reason for existence.  This view is more consistent with the Klan of the 20th Century and ignores any excesses, real or perceived, that occurred during Reconstruction.  This view is consistent with the underlying theme of racial animosity that is so much a part of the PC Myth.

7)  Nathan Bedford Forrest and Fort Pillow occupy a special place in the PCM.  First, Forrest is the perfect Southerner for this group.  A slave trader prior to the war and founding member of the Klan afterwards, makes him the man they love to hate.  Fort Pillow is a massacre of surrendering members of the USCT directed by Forrest.  Richard Fuchs’ book scores very high with the PCM.  The lack of prosecution after the war and race relations between Forrest and the Black community has no bearing here.

8) John Brown is an iconic figure for the PCM.  Their history abounds with books lauding Brown for destroying slavery and being free of racism.  They see Brown, in Kansas, as shielding the anti-slavery group from violence initiated by the pro-slavery group.  Harpers Ferry is an act of civil disobedience, not insurrection, and is applauded as a blow against slavery.

9)  While not a defining trend, the PCM is more interested in the political, social and/or economic history of the war than the military history.  McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” is always the recommended general history of the war for this reason.

10) The Bleeding Kansas violence was caused by pro-slavery faction invading the area from Missouri.  These groups were responsible for 75% of the violence during this time.  The anti-slavery faction was just protecting their lives and responding to the violence committed against them.

11)  The South was incapable of changing their position on slavery and would never have grown to accept emancipation without the war.

12)  “Gone with the Wind” is hated and considered a rascist book and movie.  Those involved with the PC Myth will go to great lengths to deprecate GWTW.

13)  John Brown is a revered hero.  His actions in Kansas are always defensive and justifiable.  Harpers Ferry was a good plan, local slaves joined him and the drunken rascist locals forming a mob frustrated his plans and trapped him in the arsenal.

14)  Robert E. Lee is dismissed as a traitor and responsible for prolonging the war unnecessarily.  In addition, much is made of the problems with freeing the slaves under his Father-in-law’s will and his having a runaway slave whipped.  Both are used to “prove” Lee was an evil person.

A defining trait of the PCM is the insistence that there is no such thing as the Politically Correct Myth of the American Civil War.  A second part of this argument is that there is no such thing as political correctness, just the truth.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

The Abraham Lincoln Observer November 3, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Hallmark of standard southern apologia: The title includes the term “politically correct.”

I’ll let others more qualified than I deal, should they care to, with most of the errors, mischaracterizations, simplifications, overgeneralizations and sheer wrongheadedness wrapped up in these 14 points. I’ll stick with just two:

– Whatever his other redeeming qualities, Robert E. Lee was a traitor, by definition:
“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” (U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 3)

– “Gone with the Wind” certainly is racist (and, by the way, that’s how you spell it). On an artistic level, it also was a godawful movie and, if anything, a worse book.

Reply

Will Hickox November 4, 2009 at 9:08 pm

“Fort Pillow is a massacre of surrendering members of the USCT directed by Forrest. Richard Fuchs’ book scores very high with the PCM. The lack of prosecution after the war and race relations between Forrest and the Black community has no bearing here.”

You are indeed correct in saying that these points “have no bearing here.” All you have to do is study the casualty figures to see that a massacre took place at Ft. Pillow, not to mention many other battlefields which you don’t mention. I’ve always wondered: if Ft. Pillow had happened anywhere else than the American south, would there be any debate over whether it was a massacre?

I, for one, welcome the end of the Lost Cause stranglehold on American history.

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Donald Thompson November 5, 2009 at 6:35 am

Jim,

I’d love to engage you in a point by point debate, because we’d both probably learn something. However, I’ll limit my comment to Number 12 and “Gone with the Wind,” the movie. My favorite scene is when Ashley Wilkes, as played by Leslie Howard, returns from four years of fighting. He still looks as sharp as the day he left, not a hair out of place, his uniform still neatly pressed. Why, Miss Scarlett, one would almost think he was a skulker.

Thanks,
Donald

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BR November 13, 2009 at 8:01 pm

I don’t call these folks “PCMers”…but neo-Radicals (after their ideological forebears).

Mc Pherson, Simpson, Levin and the rest of the crowd.

They want to dictate the interpretation of history.

Reply

BR November 13, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Will Hickox:
“All you have to do is study the casualty figures to see that a massacre took place at Ft. Pillow”

Casualty figures according to who?

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BR November 13, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Article:
“1. …An excellent indication that you are talking to a PCMer is when they equate the Confederacy and /or owning slaves with the Third Reich.”

The statements of Thaddeus Stevens, Nathaniel Lyon, and Wm. T. Sherman (about exterminating Southerners) sound more like the Third Reich.

As for slavery, the North had no reservation in maintaining slavery in areas that it controlled. No reservation in using slave labor.

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Richard Williams November 13, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Brett:

Excellent post. Regarding the “Lee was a traitor myth”, I have a post coming some time tomorrow that touches on that issue. Here’s an excerpt:

“Those who suggest Lee was a ‘traitor’ for remaining loyal to Virginia over the Union overlook the fact that Virginia had been a political entity for more than two hundred years, and that Lee’s roots in Virginia could be traced to the year 1640. The United States had only been a reality for about 80 years at the time Lee resigned from the United States Army. Those who would label Lee a traitor are transferring 21st century American notions and beliefs about nationhood and loyalty to 19th century Americans – presentism at it’s worse. Lee chose home, family, and likely defeat over a faceless concept of “Union” and likely glory and promotion. Many still see that as honorable. I suppose certain corners of academia prefer Lee being characterized as a vile, slave-holding traitor who had only selfish motives in casting his lot with what he likely knew was a losing proposition from the very beginning. That perspective is so sophomoric, shallow, and false as to be embarrassing. But it does fit the template and agenda.”

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Richard Williams November 13, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Excuse me, my response should have been directed to Mr. Durney.

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Brooks D. Simpson November 13, 2009 at 10:52 pm

“Mc Pherson, Simpson, Levin and the rest of the crowd … want to dictate the interpretation of history. ”

I’d love to know how.

This is the sort of mindless accusation that is of a twin with “political correctness” rants. Unlike Mr. Durney, BR seems unwilling to identify himself, however. Wonder why. :)

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LCS November 22, 2009 at 7:24 am

[1] There will always be people who make incorrect interpretations of history. My question to the author is, how pervasive do you feel these incorrect views are? Is this issue of PCM-ness a minor thing, or a major one?

[2] I wonder, who does the author perceive as being PCM? Does being a proponent of any one of these hallmarks make someone PCM, or is it one or two hallmarks, or all of them?

[3] “Southern slavery, while not kind, was not excessively cruel considering the standards in place. ”

Please provide your definition of “excessive cruelty.”

[4] I would add this comment on the never-ending discussion of what “caused” the war.

As I see it, there are really two questions:
(a) why did the southern states secede?
(b) what caused the Confederacy and the United States to go to war?

These are two separate questions, with two separate answers (IMO). But they are often put into a single question, resulting in responses that often go in different directions and prevent any useful debate.

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Paul Jackson April 29, 2010 at 11:52 am

The American Civil War started, politically in the 1820′s. The list of traitors, in my opinion is a long one, Robert E. Lee is not on my list. Andrew Jackson, surprisingly enough is at the top of my list.

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Dick Stanley February 26, 2011 at 7:07 pm

PC is a loaded phrase, even the initials by themselves. I like to fire it off now and then, though I know it isnt fair. But, hell, who wants to be fair all the time?

I would aver that every era has had its political correctness, previously called conventional wisdom.

You know, the stuff everyone knows is true whether it is or not simply because they hear it more often than any other view.

Reply

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