Aren’t We All Confederates?

A reader just posted this comment in response to the last post that featured a crucial section of Florida’s declaration of causes following its secession from the United States.  One of things that I’ve learned over the years is that differences in interpretation often have little to do with strictly historical concerns, but with much broader assumptions about the nature of power and the relationship between citizens and government.  This is a perfect example:

What do you base your concerns on the Government by? Isn’t it based largely on what has already taken place with a real and present estimation on what might happen? You surely vote. Is not your vote a gamble, on what good or calamity might happen if you choose one candidate vs. another? Consider this has a group, political candidate or party ever threatened your livelihood and well being? Are you so different from being a Confederate, that if a very real threat affected your very livelihood and families well being, that you would not defend them? They did so in accordance with the laws and the Constitution. When their rights were threatened they seceded.

The questions point to a picture of government that I have real trouble identifying with.  While I believe a healthy skepticism about federal power and our elected officials is essential to any democracy, this seems to border on paranoia.  I live in a democracy and I do my best to ensure that my voice is heard through elections and other forms of political activism.  I don’t necessarily view the election of someone I disagree with as a “calamity” since their terms of service are not indefinite.  My government is not my enemy.  Of course I have strongly disagreed with actions taken by my government in recent years that straddle party lines, but at no point have I ever entertained nullification or secession as a solution.  Our system of government is not perfect, but it has served us pretty well so far and I can see no reason to alter it beyond its amendment.

What I now understand is that my disagreement with this individual over how to interpret Florida’s declaration has little to do with whether slavery was or was not central.  What do you think?

Why Florida Seceded From the Union

On this day in 1861 the state of Florida formally seceded from the Union.  A number of the secession conventions issued “declarations of causes” to explain why they decided to sever ties with the United States, though at the time Florida chose not to publish its statement.  The unpublished document was recently discovered in a Florida archives. [h/t to James Epperson]

By the agency of a large proportion of the members from the non slaveholding States books have been published and circulated amongst us the direct tendency and avowed purpose of which is to excite insurrection and servile war with all their attendant horrors. A President has recently been elected, an obscure and illiterate man without experience in public affairs or any general reputation mainly if not exclusively on account of a settled and often proclaimed hostility to our institutions and a fixed purpose to abolish them. It is denied that it is the purpose of the party soon to enter into the possession of the powers of the Federal Government to abolish slavery by any direct legislative act. This has never been charged by any one. But it has been announced by all the leading men and presses of the party that the ultimate accomplishment of this result is its settled purpose and great central principle. That no more slave States shall be admitted into the confederacy and that the slaves from their rapid increase (the highest evidence of the humanity of their owners will become value less. Nothing is more certain than this and at no distant day. What must be the condition of the slaves themselves when their number becomes so large that their labor will be of no value to their owners. Their natural tendency every where shown where the race has existed to idleness vagrancy and crime increased by an inability to procure subsistence. Can any thing be more impudently false than the pretense that this state of things is to be brought about from considerations of humanity to the slaves.

It is in so many words saying to you we will not burn you at the stake but we will torture you to death by a slow fire we will not confiscate your property and consign you to a residence and equality with the african but that destiny certainly awaits your children – and you must quietly submit or we will force you to submission – men who can hesitate to resist such aggressions are slaves already and deserve their destiny. The members of the Republican party has denied that the party will oppose the admission of any new state where slavery shall be tolerated. But on the contrary they declare that on this point they will make no concession or compromise. It is manifest that they will not because to do so would be the dissolution of the party.

I agree with Gordon Rhea that white Southerners in the Deep South made themselves perfectly clear as to why they believed secession was their only recourse following the election of Abraham Lincoln.  There is no reason why we shouldn’t take them at their word.

[Image from Florida Memory Project]

Fellow Southerners!

Battle of Spotsylvania

It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s.  Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage.  Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself.  We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.

It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms.  Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth.  I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard.  While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.

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Glorifying War at the Crater in 1937

Drawn By a member of the WPA Art Staff

In the process of reviewing the final edits for my Crater book I’ve had to go through research files that have not been touched in a couple of years.  Today I read through a bunch of editorials concerning the 1937 Crater re-enactment in Petersburg, which the National Park Service used to mark the inclusion of the battlefield within its jurisdiction.  The event attracted around 50,000 people and was widely publicized around the state.  Thought the support was overwhelming among white Virginians I was struck by the number of editorials the expressed concern over what they viewed as the glorification of war through re-enactment.  Having experienced WWI and having to consider the possibility that American boys might be sent overseas once again it is not surprising that a vocal minority expressed concern.  I thought I would share a few excerpts given the current debate about the place of re-enactments in the ongoing sesquicentennial.

Richmond Times-Dispatch (April 29, 1937)

It would be extremely unfortunate if the re-enactment of the Crater and other famous battles of the War Between the States under the auspices of the National Park Service, should impress upon onlookers with the feeling that war is a glamorous, or in any sense an alluring spectacle…. [W]e hope the lesson to be learned from it will that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.

The Petersburg Progress-Index (April 30, 1937)

We need to stop glorifying war and begin to glorify peace.  I recall something in personal experience of the horrors of the so-called Civil War, and have had my best friend shot down by my side while warring with Indians, and we all have seen the results of the unrighteous World War, in which we had no business taking part.  We should be cured of the war spirit.  And that is the kind of spirit, that the re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater fosters among the youth of the land who are to be our future congressmen and leaders.

The Richmond News Leader (May 6, 1937)

Apropos the “Crater,” celebration at Petersburg.  I am wondering if it was wise or helpful.  Should we exploit the ruthless murdering called “war”?  How about the horrible experiences of people in Spain?  I hope the terrible occurrences are greatly exaggerated for it makes our hair stand on end to read of it.

William Mahone Replaces Lee as Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia

Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews

Early on in my Mahone research I was intrigued by a letter that J. Horace Lacy wrote to the general at some point during the post-Readjuster years.  Lacy shared a conversation he had with Robert E. Lee at a commencement dinner at Washington College in which the general revealed that in the event of his death or inability to lead the army he had Mahone in mind as a replacement.

Gen’l Hampton sat on the right and I as an orator of day on left of Lee.  Turning to Hampton Gen’l Lee said something in a low tone, I leaned back as I thought it was possible it might be something confidential.  Laying his hand upon my knee he said lean over Major I only wish Hampton and yourself to hear.  Then Gen’l Hampton in the dark days which preceded the fall of the Confederacy, for a good while I was almost hopeless, and you know I did not spare this poor life, for I thought it became me to fall on one of those fields of glory. My artillery was handled well, the cavalry was in the very hands, after the death of Stuart that I preferred to any other.  But I often thought if a stray ball should carry me off who could best command the incomparable Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Of course I could not nominate a successor that whole matter was in the hands of the President.  But among the younger men I thought William Mahone had developed the highest quality for organization and command.

The words were written down by me that evening and are in my desk at Ellwood. I write them now hastily in a public room.  But I know they are accurate.  We drifted so far apart politically and I so entirely condemned your policy and methods that I would not give them to the world.  Now I cheerfully write them and as far as I am concerned this may be an open letter to the world.

It’s a great story and I don’t mind admitting that back in 2004 I was seduced by it.  Mahone was my guy and I was going to rescue him from historical oblivion.  In fact, in my first public talks about Mahone I used the well known 1907 print, Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews to make my point.  I was still thinking through issues related to how to handle certain kinds of evidence as well as questions surrounding historical memory.  More importantly, at the time I still didn’t have as solid a grasp of just how divisive Mahone’s postwar politics were and my understanding of the Confederate high command was also lacking.

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