A Response to Hallmarks of the Politically Correct Myth of the American Civil War, Part 1

by Brett Schulte on November 12, 2009 · 4 comments

Editor’s Note: This is a two part post which will appear on Thursday and Friday.  Check back for part two tomorrow.

I read Jim Durney’s recent TOCWOC post, Hallmarks of the Politically Correct Myth of the American Civil War, with interest.  Jim points out many things I agreed with, but he also made some statements I can definitely argue a bit.  I thought it might be interesting to go through Jim’s points one by one and offer my own comments, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, and in all cases getting my opinion on this controversial topic out there.  Jim’s original points are indented and in blue, my responses are in black.

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.

I mostly agree here.  Although I do believe slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, the Northern states weren’t blameless in the matter.  New England ships brought slaves to America up until the early 19th Century when the slave trade was outlawed.  New York City financiers were all too happy to keep the Southern cotton/slave economy humming along.

There is also the question of how long it would have taken the South to gradually emancipate the slaves.  Should the North have compromised to allow the South to continue slavery to save the Union?  I believe the slaves would have been freed eventually, but the record of unfair laws passed to keep African-Americans down and the number of atrocities committed against Blacks for a full century after the Civil War makes me believe it would have taken a long time, perhaps well into the 20th Century.  One need look no further than South Africa for a modern day example of the possibilities.

I also firmly believe secession was not a legal, Constitutional way for the Southern states to proceed, though that is a topic which I don’t think people are ever going to fully agree on.

With all of that said, the South fired first, and to me holds most of the blame for an actual fighting war.  What would have happened had the South waited out Lincoln’s presidency to see how he really intended to move, if at all, on the slavery issue?  We’ll never know, but it was a possible choice the South didn’t make.

Lastly, I DEFINITELY see a lot of people claim the South was as bad as the Third Reich.  This to me is over the top and out of line.  I think this particular comparison is one major reason why Southerners today react with anger to anyone who questions the Confederacy’s motives.

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.

Slavery wasn’t the only difference, sure, but I firmly believe there would have been no Civil War if slavery had been abolished along with the slave trade.  I am not so sure about the “kindness” of the Southern version of slavery.  The way a slave was treated depended on their owner and the people he/she hired to oversee the slaves.  While I don’t doubt some slaves had an “easy” time of it because an owner liked them, I also don’t doubt slavery was a living hell for others.  I can sum this up by saying, would you want to be a slave?  I don’t know of many sane people who would respond in the affirmative to that question!

With that said, some people do tend to exaggerate the relative cruelty of the “average” Southern slaveholder, IMHO.

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.

The topic of “Black Confederates” is an always controversial one.  Who is a Confederate?  Are teamsters and cooks impressed into the Confederate army Confederates, or were they mostly there against their will?  Since Blacks left so few written records of these experiences, we have no way to “ask them”.  My own take is that while some Blacks probably did shoulder weapons and help beat off Union attacks from time to time, these were no widespread or common occurrences.  I haven’t heard of the assertion that those African-Americans “serving” (again, what definition are we using here) were mostly mixed race, so I can’t comment on this.  I suspect the SCV values the “contributions” of Black Confederates more than Confederate soldiers did at the time, and that this group is doing so more for political reasons than anything else.  Again, with all of that said, some Blacks probably did wholeheartedly support the Southern Confederacy.  I have no way to dispute that assertion.  The number who did, again in my opinion, had to be minuscule, however.

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.

This assertion, though I wasn’t aware of it prior to reading Jim’s essay, is patently absurd.  Any attempt to do something like this would have led to guerrilla warfare on a grand scale.  Former Confederates would not have stood idly by while the Federal government took everything they owned.

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.

I am not an expert on the Reconstruction era by any means, but the tendency of Southerners to subtly sabotage the government’s Reconstruction policies through Jim Crow laws, intimidation of Northern officials in the South, and other methods did play a large role in the failure of Reconstruction.  In fact, African-Americans weren’t much better off than slaves for a good portion of the 20th Century due to Southern attitudes about Blacks.  Again, I have not heard of any sane and realistic people who have advocated permanently revoking U.S. citizenship to former Confederates.  That policy would have only encouraged another Civil War at some future point.

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.

I mostly agree with Jim here.  While there can be no doubt that many (most?) members of the original Klan were racist, most Whites in the United States held racist views in the late 19th Century.  However, much of what the original Klan did was in part to maintain white supremacy, a former fact of life which was suddenly not at all certain in the Reconstruction era South.

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.

Ouch.  Forrest and Fort Pillow discussion never seem to turn out well in the Civil War discussion boards, do they?  ;-)  Forrest was an extremely complicated man, and real life tends to produce “gray” rather than good or evil characters.  My own take on Fort Pillow after reading quite a bit on the topic is that it most definitely WAS a massacre by any logical definition of that word.  With that said, it wasn’t the only massacre to occur during the Civil War or any war.  The Crater is another famous example from the Civil War, for example.  What surprises me somewhat, given the incredible changes occurring in the social order, is that MORE Black soldiers weren’t massacred by Confederates during the war.  I’m not trying to downplay or “poo poo” the horrific actions at Fort Pillow in any way, but if you compare the Civil War to something like the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, the atrocities committed by Forrest’s men truly pale in comparison.

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I’ll give my take on Jim’s points 8-14 on Friday.  Be sure to come back and check it out!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

BR November 13, 2009 at 10:38 am

“This assertion, though I wasn’t aware of it prior to reading Jim’s essay, is patently absurd. Any attempt to do something like this would have led to guerrilla warfare on a grand scale. Former Confederates would not have stood idly by while the Federal government took everything they owned.”

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There was a plan promoted in the US Congress by the more radical politicians (led by Thaddeus Stevens) to confiscate land owned by former Confederates.

Fortunately, the majority were able to foresee what you describe. It was voted down by a large margin.

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Dan November 14, 2009 at 5:59 pm

>There was a plan promoted in the US Congress >by the more radical politicians (led by >Thaddeus Stevens) to confiscate land owned >by former Confederates.
>Fortunately, the majority were able to foresee >what you describe. It was voted down by a >large margin.

From what little I’ve read about the plan, it faltered in part because of pressure from Northern business interests. They were suddenly concerned that confiscation and redistribution, once established as a precedent, might be used against them by various immigrant, socialist, and other groups in the North.

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