You wouldn't think, 145 Aprils after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, that we'd still be arguing about the causes of the conflict that led them to that place, and cost 620,000 Americans their lives. But we are, and arguing as well over a related question: Who should be honored – and who should be blamed?
Perhaps it is precisely because the price of keeping the union together was so dear that the passions endure, erupting every so often over one pretext or another. This month, the proximate cause of debate was the decision by Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia to keep a campaign promise he made to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in 2005, when he was running for attorney general.
McDonnell's six-paragraph proclamation
declared April to be "Confederate History Month." The governor appears to have seen the offending document as innocuous, and much of it was, but it was underpinned by a sentiment that does not reflect a universal view among Virginians; namely, that it is important to pay homage to "the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War." The proclamation also had had an important omission, these critics asserted, namely any reference to slavery.
In the outcry that followed, including personal protests from some high-profile African American Democrats from Virginia
who had bolstered McDonnell's 2009 Republican candidacy, McDonnell quickly made amends. A new paragraph was inserted into the document:
WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history ...
This is a pretty thorough mea culpa, and as direct a refutation of Southern revisionism as anyone could ask for, so continued criticism of McDonnell from liberal Democrats can understandably be viewed as partisan posturing. But political jockeying notwithstanding, liberals are indeed right to confront this issue forcefully, whenever it arises.
McDonnell's edict was issued on April 7, the date in 1865 on which a weary Robert E. Lee, his crumbling and starving Army of Northern Virginia near collapse, answered a letter from General Grant by saying he shared the Union commander's desire to avoid the further "useless effusion of blood" and inquiring what the terms of surrender might be.
Those terms did not include humiliation, Lee soon learned. On April 9, the Confederate commander was informed that his men could keep their lives, their horses, their dignity and their sidearms – including a handsome sword that Lee, in a new buttoned-up Confederate gray uniform, wore by his side when the two men met at the home of Wilmer McLean. Union Gen. Horace Porter
, a Medal of Honor winner (and later Grant's personal secretary in the White House), thought the swordless Grant rather envied Lee's "long sword of exceedingly fine workmanship, the hilt studded with jewels."
But it is a historic fact that Grant never asked for it; moreover, in his own memoirs, published in 1885, Grant noted that the famous story – still repeated in some quarters to this day – of Lee proffering his sword to Grant only to have his Union counterpart respectfully hand it back is "the purest romance." In fact, Grant added, no mention of sidearms passed between the generals: Grant simply wrote it out in the terms of surrender, which Lee accepted.
Those terms could not, and did not mean facing up to what they had done – and why – and dealing with it honestly. It is often said that history is written by the victors, but this is not strictly true. The most chilling account of Agincourt
that I've ever read didn't come from Henry V's side, or even Shakespeare. It came from a Flemish knight named Jehan de Wavrin, who rode with the French and whose father and brother were killed in the battle.
So it is with Sons of the South and their famous "Lost Cause." Brandishing selective quotes from Abraham Lincoln, citing slogans about "states' rights," and emboldened by hagiographic histories
of Lee and his lieutenants, the Sons (and daughters) of the South
have convinced themselves, and many others, of something that never was.
"To most soldiers in the Confederate Army, the war was not about slavery," writes a gentleman from Beltsville, Md., named Lawrence Ink in a recent letter to the editor of The Washington Post. "It was about patriotism for one's state. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and were not fighting to protect slavery. ... Nor did President Abraham Lincoln initially view the war as about slavery. His objective was to preserve the union. Those who claim the war was only about slavery need to read some history."
Well, I've read a good deal of American history, and written some
as well, and my belief is that it's important to confront this view forcefully because the claim that this conflict was not about slavery is wrong, deeply wrong, no matter how sincerely those who adhere to it may feel – or how bravely the rebels acquitted themselves in battle. Grant himself felt that he could separate his feelings of the Southern soldiers, including Lee, from the perverted institution that induced them to take up arms against their own nation.
"I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly," he wrote, "and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse."
And what exactly was that cause?
The answer is not to be found in any of the Douglas Southall Freeman's three-volume histories of Lee and his men or in Martha Mitchell's nostalgic recreation
of the Old South. It can be found other places, however, if one looks a little deeper. University of Kentucky historian William W. Freehling called the decades' long argument over slavery in the U.S. Congress in the 1830s and 1840s the "Pearl Harbor" of the Civil War. In a brilliant book called "Arguing About Slavery," scholar William Lee Miller
notes that what made this chapter in American history so compelling is precisely that there were no bombs as at Pearl Harbor. There were words many hundreds of thousands of them that, in the end, couldn't forestall the shells fired on Fort Sumter.
It was not a coincidence that the Civil War broke out there, in South Carolina. That state had always been been home to a special breed of Southern politician, men like Rep. James Henry Hammond, who said this on the House floor in an 1836 speech sarcastically castigating those who would confer freedom, or even common humanity, on blacks:
"Are we prepared to see them mingling in our Legislatures? Is any portion of this country prepared to see them enter these halls and take their seats by our sides, in perfect equality with the white representatives of an Anglo Saxon race ... to see them placed at the heads of your Departments; or to see, perhaps, some 'Othello' or 'Toussaint' or 'Boyer' gifted with genius and inspired by ambition grasp the presidential wreath, and wield the destinies of this great Republic? From such a picture I turn with irrepressible disgust."
Well, it took 172 years, but an African-American with a name a lot more exotic than Othello or Toussaint did indeed become president of these United States. And it was particularly tin-eared, historically speaking, for a member of that self-same South Carolina delegation to hector Barack Obama at last year's State of the Union address. In truth, James Henry Hammond's racist diatribe was milder than those by other Southern "statesmen" who stirred hate and fear among their countrymen in the days leading up to the Civil War.
Jefferson Davis, in a speech to the Confederate Congress in April 1861, extolled slavery as a benevolent invention that allowed a "superior race" to transform "brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers." Alexander H. Stephens, Jefferson Davis' vice president, proclaimed that Jefferson and the Founders' high-minded declarations of universal liberty were "in violation of the laws of nature." This was profoundly wrong, Stephens said.
"Our new government is founded on exactly the opposite idea," thundered the vice president of the Confederacy. "Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition."
This was the kind of thing said by a group of now-forgotten men called "secession commissioners." They were dispatched in 1860 from South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama to other state capitals in the South urging state legislatures to prepare for secession. These men outlined a bloody apocalyptic scenario of black rebellion and the attendant slaughter of whites – with frequent allusions to mass rape and throat-slitting. They invariably mentioned Haiti as the relevant example, and stated flatly that this is what Lincoln wished on the South.
"The [Haitian] Negro ... arose with all the fury of the beast, and scenes were then enacted over a comparatively few planters, that the white fiends [of the North] would delight to see re-enacted now with us," Andrew Pickens Calhoun – son of John C. Calhoun – said in Columbia, S.C.
"Our deliverance from this great danger, in my opinion, is to be found in the reserved right of the states to withdraw from injury and oppression." So said Gov. John J. Pettus of Mississippi in his own capital on Nov. 26, 1860. The "injury" he alluded to was the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. The "oppression" was Lincoln's avowed opposition to the expansion of slavery to any new states – a stance that was the organizing principle of the newly formed Republican Party.
In Pettus' speech that day, Lincoln's as-yet-unformed administration was referred to as "Black Republican rule." That phrase "Lincoln and the Black Republicans" was mentioned a thousand times by Southern politicians, and quoted faithfully in the Southern press. It is a reminder that the key issue in the 1860 campaign was slavery, that Southerners were openly discussing withdrawing from the Union before Election Day, and that secession was accomplished before Lincoln arrived in Washington. Indeed, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as president of the Confederacy before Lincoln took office himself. And all of this was brought about by the South's fears that slavery's days were numbered.
Secession, Pettus insisted, was the only way of escaping "Black Republican politics and free Negro morals," something he assured his fellow Mississippians that would turn Mississippi into "a cesspool of vice, crime and infamy."
Over in Charleston, the General Assembly authorized a convention in Columbia when word reached the capital of Lincoln's victory. Even before it took place, both U.S. senators resigned their seats in Congress and the Legislature appropriated money to equip an army of 10,000 men. John Archer Elmore, a native South Carolinian then practicing law in Montgomery, was dispatched as Alabama's secession commissioner. Lincoln's election, he told the delegates, was "an avowed declaration of war upon the institutions, the rights, and the interests of the South."
The sole institution he alluded to, of course, was slavery. Occasionally secession commissioners would mention "states' rights." But the only imperiled "right" they ever got around to mentioning was the custom of holding other human beings in bondage. There was nothing subtle about this, nothing genteel or evocative of "Gone with the Wind" in the contemporaneous appeals. Lincoln was routinely drawn in Southern newspapers with ape-like features, bent on the destruction of the South and even the white race itself.
"Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the Negro as an ignorant, inferior barbarian race incapable of self-government, and not therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political or social equality," Mississippi secession commissioner William L. Harris told Georgia's Legislature. Lincoln, he said, was committed on a course "to overturn and strike down this great feature of our Union."
These accounts, and many others, are contained in a thin paperback volume of only 103 pages called "Apostles of Disunion." It was written by Charles B. Dew, a son of the South whose ancestors on both sides fought for the Confederacy. At age 14, Dew's father Jack – named for Stonewall Jackson – presented him with a .22-caliber rifle and the "Lee's Lieutenants" trilogy. Charles Dew grew up and became a professor of history at Williams College. His groundbreaking 2001 book was published by the University of Virginia Press, and in its opening chapter Professor Dew takes note of the 1998 flap over "Confederate History Month" then roiling Richmond under Gov. James Gilmore.
Using the words uttered by the South's secession commissioners and its elected leaders themselves, Dew debunks the myths he learned as a boy. Among those he quotes are William L. Harris, who had turned down an offer from President James Buchanan to serve on the Supreme Court. A native Georgian who was well known as an orator and debater, Harris ended his 1860 speech to Atlanta's secession convention with this florid oratorical flourish:
"Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish – the part of Mississippi is chosen. She will never submit to the principles and policies of this Black Republican administration. She had rather see the last of her race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pyre than see them subjected to the degradation of civil, political and social equality with the Negro race."
That was the true face of the "Lost Cause." It's a hard one to credit. Yes, most men in the Confederate army did not own slaves. Many believed they were fighting for their honor, and out of love of their native states. Some, like Robert E. Lee, did so reluctantly. But that doesn't change either the nature of the rebel government under whose banner they marched, or the depraved institution that the Confederate government had been formed to perpetuate.