Editor’s Note: This is a two part post which will appear on Thursday and Friday. Read Part 1 if you missed it.
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 while my responses are in black.
(.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.
John Brown was insane. His methods clearly show this to be true. His attempt at a slave insurrection was quixotic in nature and had zero chance of succeeding. With that said, Brown’s views on race were clearly ahead of his time. Harpers Ferry was another flash point which brought the county ever closer to war…and slaves ever closer to their freedom. Despite his methods, Brown in his own way did help bring about what he desired and his hanging served as a rallying point for abolitionists and later the Union war effort.
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.
This I agree with wholeheartedly. Academia, despite the best efforts of true military historians like the guys at Civil Warriors, is overflowing with people who not only have no interest in the military aspects of history, but who also respond condescendingly to anyone who does enjoy this aspect of the Civil War. This is a pervasive and overwhelming trend which has been ongoing for decades. I’m hopeful that this “overcorrection” will ebb a bit as time goes by.
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.
Obviously, pro-slave and pro-free men swarmed into the Kansas Territory when it was opened up for settlement. Both sides committed atrocities and both were the aggressors in some cases, all in the name of trying to make Kansas a slave or free state. Many Kansans and Missourians still loathe each other to this day as a result. If we’re assigning percentages of blame, 50/50 sounds about right.
11) The South was incapable of changing their position on slavery and would never have grown to accept emancipation without the war.
This is a viewpoint of the “Politically Correct” movement I completely disagree with. Overwhelming and continually increasing negative world opinion coupled with more technologically advanced agricultural machinery, among other things, would have led to eventual emancipation. The question becomes, was the death of 600,000 Americans worth the immediate emancipation of Blacks? Some would argue yes and others would argue no. The fact is, this is the price that was paid for immediate emancipation.
12) “Gone with the Wind” is hated and considered a racist book and movie. Those involved with the PC Myth will go to great lengths to deprecate GWTW.
Although (as a classic movie buff who thinks 1939 was the greatest year for movies ever) I absolutely love the movie, Gone with the Wind paints an incredibly distorted moonlight and magnolias Lost Cause version of the South. One could also successfully argue that it does paint Blacks in a less than positive light, like most Hollywood movies of the 1930s did. GWTW gets a lot of hatred because it played a role in perpetuating the myth of the Lost Cause, and I understand and agree with those emotions. With that said, if you understand that what you’re watching is not remotely close to historically accurate (again, like many “historical” movies in Hollywood’s Golden Age), you can absolutely enjoy this movie.
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 racist locals forming a mob frustrated his plans and trapped him in the arsenal.
If you’ve read this entire essay, you know my position on Brown. Hacking people to death is not a justifiable action. Harpers Ferry was a quixotic farce in terms of actually working as Brown (at least publicly and in writing) intended it, but the man became worth much more to the Abolitionist and later Northern cause in death than he ever was worth in life.
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.
Robert E. Lee WAS a traitor to the United States of America. I’m not sure how anyone could argue otherwise. Rather than prolonging the war unnecessarily, I believe Lee played a pivotal role in preventing a massive and apocalyptic guerrilla war to break out after Appomattox. If the Army of Northern Virginia had chosen to fight on in this manner, other Confederates were sure to have followed. Lee, like most slave owners, had his “good days” and “bad days” with regards to his treatment of slaves. Again, people on the extreme ends of this fight tend to throw out blanket proclamations of good and evil and apply these to well-known figures on both sides. Lincoln, for example, can be “The Great Emancipator” to one person and the devil on earth to another. The truth, as it almost always does, lies somewhere in the middle, and two different people can argue until their dying days without convincing the other of the validity of their viewpoint. Lee was the product of a slave holding society and the very racist “White Man’s Burden” West. Believing that Whites were better than Blacks was a commonly held view at the time. Lee’s relatively humane treatment of slaves, slaves many Whites didn’t consider human, does not necessarily make him “evil”. I think most reasonable people without an agenda would conclude that Robert E. Lee was not an evil man.
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.
One thing I’ve learned since the internet was invented, and especially since the explosion of Civil War blogs, is that there are some extremely skewed views of reality out there. I’m not going to name names, but people who read multiple Civil War blogs, message boards, and web sites with regularity can probably pretty easily pick out examples of extreme “Lost Causers” and “PCers”. I look with rueful incredulity on people who liken the Confederacy to the Third Reich equally as much as those who claim the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. Both views are ridiculous and do not hold up under even the most cursory examination of the evidence. Slavery, Black Confederates, the causes of the Civil War, who started the war, the legality of secession, and other hot button topics have as much to do with today’s politics as they do with history. It’s why I generally try to avoid those topics on message boards and here at the blog. Nothing good seems to come of it.
I’m glad Jim wrote about the “politically correct” viewpoint on the Civil War, however. In my opinion, not as much derision is directed at this group as is warranted. I do grow tired of those who choose to mock Southerners with ridiculous strawman arguments, stereotype all Southerners, or throw up an image, a painting, a video, or something else supposedly representing Southerners only to offer extremely biased, condescending, and ultimately flawed “interpretation” of what it means. Ultimately, this serves no good purpose and makes you look just as foolish as the DiLorenzo’s of the world.
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