Tag Archives: Secession

Confederates Were Traitors! How About You?

I have been thinking a bit more about yesterday’s post and specifically about the problem that I have in considering counterfactuals that end with a Confederate victory.  As I pointed out my difficulty with such scenarios center on the belief that slavery would have continued with a Confederate victory and that the United States would have ceased to exist as a Republic, including its democratic institutions and faith in the rule of law.  In a recent online search I came across this NPR interview from the height of the controversy surrounding Gov. McDonnell’s Confederate History Month declaration.  This exchange from that interview really does a good job of nailing down some of my thoughts from yesterday:

WERTHEIMER: But, you know, in fairness, this is a huge part of Virginia’s past. Republican Governor Jim Gilmore observed Civil War History Month in a much more inclusive way, but still he did observe it. This state has huge battlefields. It’s a big tourist draw. Should there be a way that is a proper way or an inclusive way to commemorate this history?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Listen, this was a civil war where people who were traitorous to their nation made a choice to secede and begin a new country. It is not just sort of a thing that happened or a neutral position vis-a-vis the government. The confederacy was an attempt to break the union that is the United States of America.

So, even if you took race and slavery and the stain of racial inequality out of the story, even if you pretended that slavery had nothing to do with the civil war, the fact is it was an attempt to break the union. And so I think the idea of celebrating that – it’s one thing to commemorate it, to recognize that it happened; it’s another thing to turn it into an heroic moment that we should celebrate and potentially even emulate.

Now I know some of you will take issue with Prof. Harris-Lacewell’s conclusion about the legality of secession and her referencing of white southerners as traitors.  For the sake of argument, however, I suggest that we put this aside  for now and take one step back.  Americans clearly disagreed in the decades leading to the Civil War about whether or not the Union was a contractual agreement between states or indissoluble.  For most Americans the result of the war ended any serious consideration of secession and a formal breakup of the Union.

The reason why I identify with the professor’s response, however, has little to do with my knowledge of constitutional law or my personal connection (or lack thereof) with that generation of Americans.  It has to do with the fact that my Civil War memory is intimately tied up with my identity as a citizen of this nation.  It is my own self-identity that prevents me from entertaining or desiring an outcome that would have left 4 million Americans in bondage as well as a nation that could not enforce its own rule of law and defend its institutions.  In short, it is my sense of patriotism and identity as an American citizen that prevents me from seriously considering the actions of white Southerners, who steered their states out of the Union.

OK…but were they traitors to their country?  In approaching this question it is helpful to distinguish between my role as a historian and my identity as an American.  It goes without saying that my research into the Civil War, and the Confederate experience in particular, is not motivated by some deep desire to condemn.  Rather, my interest in the Civil War has allowed me to explore questions about race that I find interesting and which have helped me to better understand the broader sweep of American history.  On the other hand I value the rights that I enjoy as a citizen of this country.  I value its institutions and the rule of law.  I support swift government action in response to any attempt to threaten the rights that we enjoy.  That’s right.  If an attempt were made to break-up this nation from within I would support the swiftest response by the federal government and that means by force of arms if necessary.  Apart from a few people on the political fringes I assume that most Americans would support such a response as well.  So, were Confederates traitors?  Yes!  As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I arrive at?

This gets us back to the question of whether you can both identify and approve of the actions that led to the creation of the C.S.A. and at the same time self-identify as a citizen of the United States and maintain some sense of loyalty and commitment to its continued existence.   Perhaps it is possible, but I am going to need someone to explain it to me.

Will the Sons of Confederate Veterans Have Any Impact on the Sesquicentennial?

I may be speaking too soon, but it looks like the influence of the Sons of Confederate Veterans on how we remember the Civil War will be minimal as we make our way through the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Today we learn that plans to place a monument to South Carolina’s decision to leave the Union in December 1860 at the Riverfront Park in Charleston have been scrapped.  There is now talk about placing the monument at a site related to the Hunley.  The monument celebrates this event by completely ignoring the issue that propelled South Carolina out of the Union: slavery.  This weekend the SCV will finally unveil their Davis-Limber statue at Beauvoir.  The decision to locate the statue at Davis’s home came after their decision to pull out of an agreement with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar in Richmond.  Following this move the organization unsuccessfully petitioned the state of Mississippi to accept the statue.  Finally, as we all know the recent decision here in Virginia to set aside April as Confederate History Month was a public relations disaster for the SCV.

Where does this leave the SCV?  As I said up front it may be too early to tell, but their Lost Cause inspired view of the past is clearly on the defensive and bound to be minimized even further.  I guess the only question is how will the organization respond?  The SCV has a role to play in the next few years, but if they hope to have an impact they are going to have to acknowledge that the general public’s understanding of the Civil War has evolved to one that is much more inclusive and open to addressing some of the tough issues at the center of our civil war experience.

South Carolina Rejects Secession Monument

Update: “The board of the Patriots Point Development Authority on Tuesday split 3-3 on whether to allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to place an 11 1/2-foot granite monument to the ordinance signers at the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum. The tie vote meant the idea failed.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans is hoping to erect a monument commemorating the 170 South Carolinians who signed the ordnance of secession in December 1860. The South Carolina division is proposing to install an 11 1/2-foot-tall stone memorial as the centerpiece of a 40-foot by 40-foot landscaped plaza at Patriots Point. According to the news article:

The name of each of the signers and the wording of the secession document would be among the text and images engraved on each side of the monument. Albert Jackson, chairman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ monument committee, called the secession debate and the subsequent unanimous approval of the ordinance “a significant action” for South Carolina. Most people are not aware of the history behind it, he said.

Mr. Jackson is no doubt correct that “most people are not aware of the history behind” South Carolina’s decision to secede from the Union within weeks of Abraham Lincoln’s election. Here is South Carolina’s Ordnance of Secession:

AN ORDINANCE to dissolve the union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled “The Constitution of the United States of America.”

We, the people of the State of South Carolina, in convention assembled, do declare and ordain, and it is hereby declared and ordained, That the ordinance adopted by us in convention on the twenty-third day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, whereby the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified, and also all acts and parts of acts of the General Assembly of this State ratifying amendments of the said Constitution, are hereby repealed; and that the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the “United States of America,” is hereby dissolved.

Done at Charleston the twentieth day of December, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty.

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The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861

Here is the second post in the ongoing series on Civil War classics written by students in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar. Today Joseph Rizzo reviews David Potter’s classic, The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861Read other reviews in the series.

Professional historians, to varying degrees, believe that slavery was elemental to the coming of the Civil War.  While there is disagreement as to the ways that the conflict over slavery and wage labor infused sectional differences, David Potter has arguably done more than any other scholar to forge a consensus on this issue.  In Impending Crisis, he explores the different ways that slavery ignited the sectional conflict while refuting generalizations that describe the North and South as culturally different. Some saw the struggle as a clash of profoundly dissimilar cultures whose disparities transcended the difference over slavery. Others had a more economic opinion and viewed the conflict as a clash between economic interests of an emerging industrialist North and an agricultural South.  A third viewpoint saw the conflict arising from different values between the sections. Potter’s criticism with these three arguments is that they all embellish the differences between the North and South and fail to see the similarities between the two regions. Potter displays how similar northerners and southerners were, and that a sense of American nationalism permeated both cultures more than historians have acknowledged.

Although the cultural, economic, and ideological explanations recognize slavery as an issue in sectional division, they neglect its significance within American culture. Potter shows how slavery was a key element to all three of the explanations for division. “Slavery, in one aspect or another, pervaded all of the aspects of sectionalism,” argues Potter (44). In spite of the American nationalism and cultural homogeneity between the North and South, the slavery issue intensified following the acquisition of new territory following the Mexican-American War and caused both northerners and southerners to lose sight of how much alike they were and how many values they shared. With a breakdown of the two-party system nationally, the Election of 1860 represented how much the slavery issue isolated the two regions as the young Republican party won a victory despite only receiving Northern votes. Not surprisingly, the breakup of the country followed soon after.

By placing slavery at the forefront of the conflict, Potter continues the debate over the main cause of the war. Was the war inevitable? Was slavery the main cause? Michael Holt has led a movement against Potter’s interpretation and responded with a study claiming that slavery was not the central reason, and that the breakdown of the two-party political system caused disunion. William Freehling’s work adds to the historiography by arguing that the South’s culture was not unified over slavery and that these internal divisions fostered anxieties, which fueled extremism. Future studies that elaborate from Potter’s traditional political narrative and infuse political culture will give a more complete analysis of 1850s. Not only understanding how Americans viewed singular events but also how they interpreted the world in which they lived will open new discussions about the causes of the war.

Remembering Alabama’s Secession and “Lincoln bin laden”

You gotta love these commemorative events that on the surface seem to be about the Civil War, but are little more than forums for folks to complain about what they perceive to be our own oppressive government.  They always seem to bring together a true cast of characters.  In this case there is John Eidsmoe, Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law Emeritus at the Thomas Goode Jones School of Law, who goes on and on about the compact theory of government and states rights as an explanation for Alabama’s secession without ever mentioning slavery, as well as a woman who wears a t-shirt with Frederick Douglass, who she believes was an advocate for limited government.   All of them were brought together as a result of one Patricia Godwin who believes that the decision on the part of Confederate forces to fire on Fort Sumter was carried out because “Lin­coln bin laden had fortified the fort with arms and sup­plies.”  By the way, you won’t find one black person in the audience.  I guess they don’t remember secession as a crucial moment of freedom from an oppressive government.  The best part of this video is the end when a few of the participants are asked what would have happened if the southern states had never seceded.  Their responses are priceless.  I guess I just find it funny that people who believe in limited government would identify so closely with the Confederacy.  They must not know their history.

By the way, just in case you are interested in why the state of Alabama seceded, you will not find it in this video:

WHEREAS, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of President and Vice-President of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of the State of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions of the Constitution of the United States by many of the States and people of the northern section, is a political wrong of so insulting and menacing a character as to justify the people of the State of Alabama in the adoption of prompt and decided measures for their future peace and security; therefore,

Be it declared and ordained by the people of the State of Alabama in Convention assembled , That the State of Alabama now withdraws, and is hereby withdrawn from the Union known as “the United States of America”, and henceforth ceases to be one of said United States, and is, and of right ought to be, a Sovereign and Independent State.