A Response to Hallmarks of the Politically Correct Myth of the American Civil War, Part 2

by Brett Schulte on November 13, 2009 · 6 comments

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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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Will Hickox November 13, 2009 at 8:28 pm

One way to begin correcting a distorted view of the Civil War could be to stop using the term “Southerners” when we mean “whites in the south who supported the Confederacy.” Not only were there 4 million slaves in the south who were certainly southerners, but a good many whites in the region opposed the rebellion. At the very least, tens of thousands of white southerners fought in the Union army, and this doesn’t include their families or the many others who stayed home but refused to support the Jeff Davis regime. (I’m not trying to argue that some northerners didn’t become Confederates, only that the term “Southerners” as used by many is misleading.)

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James Durney November 14, 2009 at 3:55 pm

What will you do with “Northerners”? You will have to consider the copperheads, people in border states and many Democrats that refused to support the “Lincolnite War”.

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Will Hickox November 14, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Mr. Durney: It’s funny, but I could have sworn that I had indicated in the comment directly above yours that I wasn’t disputing the notion that some northerners supported the Confederacy.

And I quote: “I’m not trying to argue that some northerners didn’t become Confederates, only that the term “Southerners” as used by many is misleading.”

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Louis A. DeCaro Jr. November 14, 2009 at 4:58 pm

No, there is no basis for the presumption that Brown was insane. He was an extremist but that’s not the same for insanity; indeed, even extremism is subjective; to no surprise, black people have never considered Brown extreme or insane because they understood their own human rights were at stake. Regardless, the insane or manic notion actually has no basis in fact. It is more likely that Lincoln was mentally ill than Brown. The insane notion has two origins–Southerners who naturally slandered him; and his friends and family who collaborated in a legal ploy to have Brown’s sentence commuted by preparing affidavits.

As to the notion that the raid was quixotic, this is also an assumption, apparently based on wide spread miseducation about what Brown intended. Brown actually took HF and seized the armory with no real resistance. He knew it the armory was under civilian guard. As he told Gov. Wise of Virginia, who said basically the thing as you, Brown retorted that he had taken HF and held it for nearly two days. In fact, Brown’s plan was to move in and out quickly; he himself said repeatedly that he failed by not following his own plan which was to make a quick strike, occupy HF for only a short time, gather as many enslaved people as available, and move off into the mountains. The conventional notion that slaves did not support Brown has been overturned; there is solid argumentation for a good response with a promise of many more. So the plan was not quixotic; it failed, and failed missions always stand the harsher judgment of historians. But Brown and his men did not go to HF to hole up and fight to the death like their moral counterparts at the Alamo (who fought to the death quixotically for the dream of expanded slave territory). Had Brown not failed in his strategic choices on the ground, the raid would have been a mere first step.

Not everyone who defends Brown is an advocate of PCness, just like everyone who views JB is a white racist. But your view of Brown needs a lot of reconsideration. The Pottawatomie killings were ugly, but the conventional notion of those killings is hardly conclusive. My own reading of those killings is that they were brutal but preemptive–more counter-terroristic than terrorism. Brown was in Kansas territory for months without lifting a hand; he was actually an optimist and his letters show his belief that democracy would prevail in Kansas. But when pro-slavery terrorism overshadowed the territory and the free state side remained passive and naive as to the government’s intervention, not only were free state people generally threatened, but flagrant pro-black people like the Browns WERE targeted. The five men who were killed by Brown’s party were collaborators and there is lots of reason to think they were conspiring against the Browns with lethal intent. The wife of one of the men killed admitted as much when she scolded her doomed husband for his “devilment.” Brown went to Kansas to protect his sons and was drawn into the civil war that was begun by pro-slavery thugs. He didn’t start it but he wasn’t going to let thugs assault his family and if he overreacted (and I don’t think he did), he deserves more sympathy–there was no local or federal constabulary to protect the Browns; the territory was overrun by southern terrorists and democracy was underfoot; the highest leaders in the land had turned a blind eye to slavery’s benefit. He had to act and the men who killed under his command agreed with him, not just his sons, but a neighbor and a son-in-law; the latter argued until his dying day that the killings were necessary for survival. I believe they were and I find it unfortunate that in a society that has suddenly awakened to the realities of terrorism, Brown is seen as one of “them” rather than one of “us.”

If you think that not apologizing for John Brown is PCness, you’re entitled to your opinion. I am a biographer and a student of the man’s life and it is my opinion that across ideological lines, people who have studied Brown the closest tend to agree as to his basic character and integrity. With all due respect, you need to study the man closer. What is going on today in Brown studies is not the triumph of PCness necessarily; it is a breaking away from a lot of traditional, conventional, and hackneyed notions about the man that were themselves born out of snobbery and prejudice in former generations of historians. Regards–LD

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Richard Williams November 15, 2009 at 9:05 am

“I’m not trying to argue that some northerners didn’t become Confederates, only that the term “Southerners” as used by many is misleading.”

And Mr. Durney’s point, based on your reasoning, is that the term “Northerners” is also misleading.

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