“Long-Legged Yankee Lies”

I posted this back in March 2006, but decided to showcase it since my Civil War Memory classes will be meeting today to discuss James McPherson’s essay on the UDC and their efforts to control and shape the content of history textbooks at the beginning of the twentieth century.  The article is titled, “Long-Legged Yankee Lies”: The Southern Textbook Crusade, which appeared in Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (UNC Press, 2004). 

By the 1890’s organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) had organized committees to oversee and review the content of textbooks for children in schools across the South. As one UCV committee report noted, the purpose of such reviews was to honor the sacrifice of the Confederate soldier and “to retain from the wreck in which their constitutional views, their domestic institutions, the mass of their property, and the lives of their bravest were lost, the knowledge that their conduct was honorable throughout, and that their submission at last . . . in no way blackened their motives or established the wrong of the cause for which they fought.” (p. 68)

Consider Susan Pendleton Lee’s 1895 text, A School History of the United States, in which she declared that although abolitionists had declared slavery to be a “moral wrong” most Southerners believed that “the evils connected with it were less than those of any other system of labor. Hundreds of thousands of African savages had been Christianized under its influence—The kindest relations existed between the slaves and their owners. . [The slaves] were better off than any other menial class in the world.” No surprise that in her account of Reconstruction the Klan was necessary “for protection against . . . outrages committed by misguided negroes.” (p. 69)

By the first decade of the twentieth century most Southern states had created textbook commissions to oversee or prescribe books for all public schools that provide a “fair and impartial” interpretation. These committees worked diligently to challenge publishers who stood to threaten the South’s preferred story of the war: “Southern schools and Southern teachers have prepared books which Southern children may read without insult or traduction of their fathers. Printing presses all over the Southland—and all over the Northland—are sending forth by thousands ones which tell the true character of the heroic struggle. The influence . . . of the South forbid[s] longer the perversion of truth and falsification of history.” (p. 70)

Perhaps the best example of the oversight by the UDC was through the work of “historian general” Mildred L. Rutherford of Georgia. In 1919 Rutherford published A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries. The UCV historical committee recommended the book for “all authorities charged with the selection of text-books for colleges, schools, and all scholastic institutions” and recommended that “all library authorities in the southern States” to “mark all books in their collections which do not come up to the same measure, on the title page thereof, ‘Unjust to the South.’

Here are some of Rutherford’s recommendations:

    1. Reject a book that speaks of the Constitution other than [as] a compact between Sovereign states. 
    2. Reject a text-book that . . . does not clearly outline the interferences with the rights guaranteed to the South by the Constitution, and which caused secession. 
    3. Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves. 
    4. Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholders of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves. 
    5. Reject a text-book that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis. 
    6. Reject a text-book that omits to tell of the South’s heroes and their deeds. (p. 72)

Here are corrections to common mistakes found in textbooks:

    1. Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free. They were studying earnestly the problem of freedom, when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters into their own hands. 
    2. “More slaveholders and sons of slaveholders fought for the Union than for the Confederacy (this fit awkwardly with assertions elsewhere that the Yankees got immigrants and blacks to do most of their fighting – McPherson comment). 
    3. Gen. Lee freed his slaves before the war began and Gen. Ulysses S. Grand did not free his until the war ended. 
    4. The war did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter. It began when Lincoln ordered 2,400 men and 285 guns to the defense of Sumter.” 
    5. Union forces outnumbered Confederate forces five to one, not surprising when the Union population was 31 million while the Confederate population was only 5 million whites and 4 million slaves.” (p. 73)

And there you have it. I wonder if Rutherford and the rest of the gang had any idea of just how successful they were in shaping an interpretation that continues to prove to be attractive throughout this country.  Consider the following two posts (here and here) if you have any doubts.

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21 comments… add one
  • TF Smith Jan 15, 2009 @ 12:17

    In reference to the state of art in terms of Civil War remembrance in 1960-61, something that might be worth considering are the names assigned to the USN’s 41 SSBNs equipped with Polaris and/or Posiedon SLBMs.

    These ships were authorized during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, and the choices made for nomenclature (“American patriots” as opposed to the then-traditional “marine life” names for subs) are interesting:

    Of the 41 boats, only four (USS Robert E. Lee, SSBN-601; Abraham Lincoln (602), Ulysses S. Grant (631), and Stonewall Jackson (634)) would come to mind as figures from the Civil War period (although there were SLBMs named after Sam Houston and James K. Polk, among others, whose lives were intimately connected with the Civil War.)

    Overall, all 42 individuals (counting USS Lewis and Clark as a two-fer) honored are male, although not all are soldiers/statesmen types – Thomas Edison was honored, for example, as was the humorist Will Rogers. Rogers is fairly quixotic, but there are some others that sort of make you scratch your head in terms of “what were they thinking?”…

    Four foreign nationals (Lafayette, Von Steuben, Pulaski, and Bolivar) were honored, as was one (Mariano Vallejo) who became a US citizen more or less by force; also honored were two “natives” (Kamehameha and Tecumseh); Kamehameha died without any knowledge of the existence of the United States, presumably, and Tecumseh, of course, actually fought against the US as a British ally in the 1812-15 war.

    Exactly one African-American is honored, and he was not, for example, Frederick Douglas; instead, USS George Washington Carver was christened as such.

    The memoranda back-and-forth about the names selected for these ships could offer some real insight, I’d think.

  • Brooks Simpson Jan 15, 2009 @ 9:56

    As Grant freed the only slave he actually owned before the war, and as the Dent slaves freed themselves during the war (and this freedom was rendered into law when Missouri abolished slavery early in 1865), there’s a host of factual misstatements here, although even the editor of Mrs. Grant’s autobiography, the late John Simon, perpetuated the misapprehension in the notes to that volume.

    • Bob Pollock Jan 15, 2009 @ 12:20

      Thank you for responding to this, Brooks. I have only been at White Haven a few months, and visitation has been slow due to weather and other factors, but I frequently have to try to correct visitors’ false impressions. A few days ago, for example, after talking about Grant and slavery at White Haven, a man from Mobile, Alabama visiting with his wife, said to me, “Robert E. Lee didn’t own any slaves.” A Google search of Grant, Lee, and slavery shows just how much misinformation is out there. I think it is also important to note that we don’t know how or why Grant acquired the one slave he owned and that he could have sold him at a t

      • Bob Pollock Jan 15, 2009 @ 12:22

        OOPS! my finger hit the wrong key. Anyway… Grant freed his slave at a time when he could have used the money.

  • Larry Cebula Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:32

    Here is “A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries” online at the Digital Library of Georgia:

  • Robert Moore Jan 15, 2009 @ 7:44

    Excellent post, Kevin. I’m particularly fond of these three…

    “More slaveholders and sons of slaveholders fought for the Union than for the Confederacy”

    My answer to those who say this… A statement typically made by those who can’t even substantiate the claim. Ultimately, I have to say, “prove it, show me the numbers.” But then, for the person who makes the claim shown above, it shows a huge void in understanding the bigger picture.

    “Gen. Lee freed his slaves before the war began and Gen. Ulysses S. Grand did not free his until the war ended.”

    My answer to this… “Long-legged Rebel lie.” As we all know, Lee did not free his slaves until 1862, and then, it might be seen as something he did only because his father-in-law stated that the slaves (which were ultimately passed along to Lee from Custis) were to be freed no later than 5 years after his death. I wonder if Lee would have held on to them otherwise. In the end, we can only speculate on that.

    “The war did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter. It began when Lincoln ordered 2,400 men and 285 guns to the defense of Sumter.”

    My answer to this… “and of course, what forward-thinking president would not reinforce a US Military post considering the possibility of violence against said post.”

    Dog gone it! This would have been more fun to play on had these statements been on a site run by a new age Confederate. Then again, statements like these are floating out there in various sites.

    Yet, would it not be beneficial, in addition to Rutherford’s recommendations, to show your students the intent shown in the history text recommendations made by the G.A.R.?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:20

      Your final point is one that I tried to follow-up on. McPherson doesn’t say much in the essay beyond the claim that G.A.R. units did not push as strongly for a preferred narrative. I don’t know whether that it is true or not. Please let me know if you have any references beyond Stuart McConnell’s fine study.

      • Robert Moore Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:28

        I’m actually trying to dig deeper into that, but don’t yet have a good deal to work with. McConnell cites a paragraph from the, I believe, “Patriotic Committee” from a late 1880s or 90s National Encampment. He also cites objections of the G.A.R. to texts that exclude terms like “rebellion” and so on, but I don’t think (so far) that it comes near to anything like that which we see in Rutherford’s recommendations.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:31

          Without having done the necessary research, I would suspect that G.A.R. members would be concerned about the characterization of the war, but given the overall retreat from emancipation by the turn of the twentieth century it is unlikely they would have objected to claims about race and slavery.

          • Robert Moore Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:43

            I’m getting the impression that, in years after the war, the G.A.R. began to adopt, as a primary “cause” for their going to war, the liberation of the slaves; though this is, in fact, contrary to the reasons why many went to war at the beginning. I think there are enough works to show that Union soldiers adopted this as a good “cause” for their fight against the Confederacy as the war went on, and they were able to see slaves and the conditions in which many of them lived. I think as an action of postwar veterans adopting the “cause” of “freeing the slaves” in retrospect is somewhat deceptive as it sounds more like they, as soldiers, went to war with this in mind from the start. Maybe I’m a bit off base on this, but that’s the impression I’m getting so far.

            • Kevin Levin Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:52

              I have a graduate student friend at UVA who did a comprehensive survey of regimental histories published in the first few years following the war and he found that they emphasized emancipation as a crucial theme and consequence of the war. It would be interesting to know how they compared with later histories. It would also be interesting to know if there is a difference in the emphasis on unit histories from the western theatre.

              • Robert Moore Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:58

                But, if Union regimentals written after the war make the claim that emancipation was behind the “cause” of the men serving, does this not also mean that we should consider the claims made in Confederate regimentals written soon after the war, where the soldiers said they were not fighting for slavery?

          • Chris Meekins Jan 15, 2009 @ 8:54

            Might we not consider the War of the Rebellion edition set as the northern response to shape the narrative? The OR does indeed tell a particular story – and it is a selection of documents (and the selections were made by one veteran group as civil servants). I am not saying the OR is full of lies but I am saying it is forced by size constraints to only tell part of the story. I had thought this might be the case and, when checking the records of the Department of NC (under various command names), discovered this to be the case. The editors selected documents that served a particular narrative. They faithfully transcribed those documents . The selection process must have had specific criteria. The end result is that the OR tells a selective tale.

            • Ken Noe Jan 15, 2009 @ 10:11

              Going through the records of the 1862 Mountain Department at least, it was easy to pick out what ended up in the OR and what didn’t–there’s a little pencil checkmark on the former. Leaving those items out didn’t give the OR a Northern bias–the editors as I remember worked hard to find and even buy Confederate documents–but it did sanitize the war somewhat. That is, items related to traditional warfare routinely were included in the OR, but items related to guerrilla activities often were not.

            • Robert Moore Jan 15, 2009 @ 10:12

              Chris… Wow! I never considered the OR as a form of persuasion or argument to prove a point. Are you saying that the War Department, ultimately, only allowed Confederate reports that would support a particular argument?

              • chris meekins Jan 15, 2009 @ 14:34

                Hey Robert,

                Nothing so insidious as what you might be suggesting (not wishing to place an argument in your question). Although I had not checked, specifically, against Confederate reports. What I found in letters sent and received to the US Dept of NC offered more evidence on NC unionism and also on the issue of trade in the NC waterways. By excluding these documents from the OR our understanding of what is happening in the Dept of NC is altered. The editors were forced to choose documents that depicted key moments, as they understood what moments or actions were key. When a document is chosen it is rendered faithfully. But I submit that “what to leave in and what to leave out” colors our understanding in a particular direction. Even though it might be subtle. Maybe the editors did not think the trade issue important or maybe it does not portray the US in a positive light. But by not including those documents at all the reader of the OR would never know one way or the other.
                Control the information, control the argument, control the memory. Its about as 1984 as it gets.

                • Robert Moore Jan 15, 2009 @ 15:37

                  Hi Chris,

                  Not meaning to sound like there was something “sinister” about the OR, but I am compelled by the way you suggest how selection of specific documents “colors” the way we reflect on events as we read about them in the OR. I mean, it makes sense, but I never thought of the ORs that way before.

                  • chris meekins Jan 15, 2009 @ 20:01

                    Hey Robert,
                    They, all the various OR’s, are an amazing resource. And I think all Civil War historians can be thankful we have such a touchstone. And the OR’s seem so very exhaustive in materials presented. But an easy extra step for historians is to see if there are more documents pertinent to their research in the records at Archives I.
                    I guess it was seeing the purple circular stamp on documents denoting their selection to be used in the OR that began me thinking that not everything got in. And if it did not get in did that mean it was not important? When I found items I thought important to my work it crystallized for me that documents included were there to give an account of particular narrative lines. Someone had to chose those narrative lines. And with a title like “War of the Rebellion” we may be seeing a clue as to the general thrust of those narrative lines.
                    I am pleased to have contributed to the general discussion here – as I find Kevin’s work here of much benefit and appreciate everyone’s efforts to contribute. Thanks Robert for the dialog!

                  • Peter Jan 15, 2009 @ 22:25

                    While I agree entirely that the selection of documents in the OR colors the interpretation of the war, I might point out that the point of Series I of the OR was to relate the paperwork relating to the operations of armies in the field. Of course, focusing on the armies does lead to a specific story being told. From what I have read about the process behind the OR, there was immense pressure on the War Department to process the documents and get the series out. Likewise, the calls for the OR centered around the activities of the major armies in the field. I agree with you Chris that the document selection shapes memory, but I think with the OR the process is the reverse – popular sentiment at the time placed importance upon the actions of the armies in the field (rather than administrative, routine, or lower-level paperwork [how often do you run across regimental level documents outside of formal reports of battles?]). For us today, the OR is often the first place to go when starting to research a particular topic, but keep in mind by the time the first volume appeared in 1880, a vast literature about the Civil War had already appeared. For the most part this work concentrated on battles, leaders, and military operations. In other words, those behind the OR responded to popular public sentiment regarding what was worthy of inclusion. I find the insinuation that the editors left out documents simply because they portrayed the US in a negative light a bit unconvincing because of the amount of material that does paint a negative picture of the US war effort that found its way into the OR.

                    • Chris Meekins Jan 16, 2009 @ 6:05

                      Point well made and well taken. I certainly should not have suggested something was left out due to its possible negative effect – there is plenty left in that makes that a silly comment. Sorry about that.
                      I am pleased to be in agreement with you regarding selection coloring interpretation. And take your point about the process being influenced by the context of the times.

  • Woodrowfan Jan 15, 2009 @ 6:45

    So Mildred Rutherford also neglected to mention the hundreds, nay, thousands of slaves that volunteered to fight for the Confederacy??

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