Tag Archives: Secession

Teaching Secession

The two sections of my Civil War class have been a pleasure to teach so far.  Just about all of the students have either taken my AP class or read William Gienapp's biography of Lincoln last year, which means they have a nice foundation with which to dig a little deeper.  In addition to using Brooks Simpson's America's Civil War as our base text, students are reading excerpts from various historians.  In our discussion of Lincoln's election and secession students read an article by James McPherson and we are currently going through a short piece by Charles Dew that is based on his recent book, Apostles of Disunion (University of Virginia Press, 2001). 

The two articles work well together and both are from North and South Magazine.  McPherson tackles the importance of slavery from a long-term perspective, and along the way challenges the traditional answer of states rights with the question of "states rights for what?"  I encourage my students to think critically about their readings and to look for weaknesses in the argument.  A couple of students suggested that McPherson did not do sufficiently explain the fear that white southerners felt following Lincoln's election.   Of course, I did not anticipate this particular concern, but it was nice that I had the Dew article waiting in the wings.  Many of you familiar with Dew's argument.  Dew examines those individuals chosen by the seceded Deep South states to convince those in the Upper South that Lincoln's election represented an immediate threat to slavery.  The nice thing about the Dew piece is that it gives students a great deal to think about in terms of understanding the importance of slavery.  Students can discuss the relevant factors involved in the choosing of individual secessionist commissioners.  According to Dew, these men were typically from the state where they were sent and moderate in their political outlook. 

The speeches are incredibly rich and work to answer McPherson's question of "states rights for what?"  Their speeches reveal the fear following Lincoln's election that emancipation would lead to race wars, including the raping of white women and miscegenation.  The language goes beyond our tendency in the classroom to simplify slavery's importance to one of economics.  The book includes two samples from the commissioner's writings, one of which by Stephen F. Hale of Alabama we will read tomorrow in class.  This particular speech can be found in the Official Records, ser. 4, I:4-11.

Given the recent talk about heritage and perspective I thought it might be worthwhile referencing an older post on Charles Dew, which includes his thoughts about growing up in Florida and eventually breaking with the Lost Cause tradition.

“What A Drag It Is Getting Old”

Well, my fall semester Civil War class is slowly winding down. Students are working to complete their research projects and I continue to deal with various stages of senioritis (most of my students in this class are seniors). That said, I am pleased with their progress.

The other day we had a wonderful discussion that centered on a recent article in North and South Magazine by Peter S. Carmichael, titled “Confederate Crusaders: Virginia’s Last Generation Fights the Civil War” (Vol. 8, No. 5: Sept. 2005). The article is based on his recently released study, The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion. Students were responsible for reading the article and evaluating the thesis. We’ve been focusing on this skill over the course of the semester and many of the students have worked hard on their 2-page thesis summaries, which are required for each article. I want my students to see history as a process. They should understand that history is not simply the collecting of facts followed by memorization, but an ongoing discussion built on interpretation, critical analysis, and revision. Carmichael’s article is an ideal piece for analysis. His generational approach to the Civil War is ideal for students not much younger than the men under consideration. The thesis is clearly articulated: Carmichael analyzes 110 young Virginia men born between 1831 and 1843. All grew up in families connected materially and ideologically to slavery, were educated predominantly at the University of Virginia, and matured during the heated debates of the 1850′s. These men, according to Carmichael, blamed their father’s for Virginia’s economic decline. While their elders preached moderation during the secession crisis, this “last generation” pushed for secession and became some of the Confederacy’s most ardent supporters. Indeed, this younger generation’s charges of “old-fogyism” highlight antebellum tension and the promise that an independent South would sooth the insecurities of young men coming of age. The men in Carmichael’s sample served as mid-grade officers; their strong sense of nationalism could be seen on the battlefield, in their responses to the North’s use of black soldiers, and finally, in their continued devotion to the cause, even in the last few months of the war when many Southerners acknowledged the inevitability of defeat. This short summary does not do justice to the richness of Carmichael’s study. It clearly reflects the fact that even with the continued flood of Civil War studies, one can still say something original.

Civil War 101 — Day 2

Just one more comment regarding the silliness that is masquerading as serious Civil War debate over in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. One of the most common arguments (if one can call it a formal argument) is to assert that because my great grandfather fought in the Civil War and he was not a slave owner, slavery was not central to the establishment of the Confederate government. Yes, it is true that 75% of white southerners did not own slaves. Of course, that does not tell us anything about whether those white southerners had an interest in maintaining a slave-based society. More to the point, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens are crystal clear on why they believed secession and the establishment of the Confederates States of America was necessary – as long as you stick to contemporary and not postwar sources. Their speeches and other writings make it clear that the protection of slavery and a racial hierarchy was central to the new government. I have no reason not to take them at their word. The fact that soldiers enlisted for any number of reasons does not in any way conflict with the conditions that led to the meetings in Montgomery, Alabama in February 1861. I have no doubt that thousands of Americans who voluntarily enlisted in the 1960’s to fight in Vietnam did so for reasons unrelated to official U.S. foreign policy. In other words, that soldiers enlisted for multiple reasons does not change for one moment the reasonable assertion that a belief in the “Domino Theory” brought about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. I am willing to bet that plenty of soldiers never even heard of the Domino Theory during their tours of duty.

My guess is that this argument is really a function of the tension between honoring an ancestor’s service in a government that sought to perpetuate slavery. One way to deal with it is to deny that that government had anything to do with slavery. Of course, one can do this, but only at the cost of losing what many at the time acknowledged as central to the war. The question of what motivated men (and now we know this also includes women) to join the ranks occupies the attention of a large number of talented Civil War historians. Since the publication of Bell I. Wiley’s classic texts on Johnny Reb and Billy Yank we’ve learned a great deal about their ideological convictions, commitment to comrades, camp life, and their strong desire to stay connected with loved ones back home. At the same time we’ve learned a great deal about the important role that slavery played in secession and the establishment of the Confederate government. This distinction is acknowledged by just about every serious Civil War historian that I’v’e read. Until someone argues convincingly against it, I will stick with it.

Civil War 101

I decided to follow up Thursday’s post on the debate in the Fredericksburg paper regarding the cause of the war. This is a great example of the sloppiness that passes for serious debate among Civil War enthusiasts. I mentioned in that previous post the utter failure even to distinguish between the cause of secession and the cause of the war. These are two distinct questions that tend to get convoluted. As I understand it, the relevant question to ask is: Why did the Deep Southern states – starting with South Carolina in Dec. 1860 – decide to secede from the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln? Notice the emphasis on region. Not all of the southern states that would eventually join the Confederacy seceded at the same time. The distinction is also important because it implicitly acknowledges the fact that following the secession of the last Deep Southern state and the establishment of the new Confederate government, war was not inevitable. Lincoln could have allowed the states to go their separate ways. Of course, he did not, but it is important to acknowledge this contingency. Don’t read back into history from a point where the outcome is known! The distinction also forces us to acknowledge that what drove the Deep Southern states to secession was not necessarily what caused the Upper South to secede in April 1861. As historian William Freehling has noted, while the Deep South interpreted Lincoln’s election as an immediate threat (the exact nature of that threat will be explained below) the Upper South took a “wait and see” attitude towards Lincoln’s election.

So, why did these Deep Southern states secede and how did they try to convince their southern brethren in the Upper South to follow along? Well, luckily they told us why. In the months following the initial round of secession, each state sent representatives or commissioners to the Upper South to make the case as to why Lincoln’s election constituted a sufficient reason to secede. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2001) by Charles Dew explores this very issue. The book falls well under 100 pages and can be read in one sitting. Dew, who is a history teacher at Williams College in Massachusetts, carefully analyzes the speeches of these commissioners. These men had a few things in common. First, the commissioners were all one-time residents of the states to which they were sent; they were not radical “fire-eaters,” but fairly moderate in their politics; and most of them were lawyers. More importantly, their arguments are clear and to the point. Their speeches are arguably the most reliable sources as to why many Southerners viewed Lincoln’s election as a threat. And no, they did not talk about the tariff or even states rights. The speeches focused on the danger that Lincoln and the Republicans posed to the institution of slavery. More to the point, these speeches reflect a paranoia that the end of slavery would usher in race wars and amalgamation. Dew includes a few of the speeches in an appendix at the end; for those teachers out there, these are wonderful classroom sources.

A careful examination of Dew’s study drives home the point that the most important sources to be examined in reference to this question should be the speeches and other documents written at the time and not after the war. Postwar sources are unreliable as they are written in light of Confederate defeat. Stick with contemporary sources.

What Caused the War? [ad nauseum]

Over on you will find a link to the recent debate in the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star on the cause of the war. You will find on both sides of the debate the most absurd and uninformed arguments ever collected. I am not for a minute going to try to answer the question of what caused the war, in part because it is a waste of time. Instead I want to comment on what I take to be the misguided way in which these casual debates tend to unfold.

Problem #1: Why is it that these debates unfold with almost no awareness of what some of the best historians have written regarding this question in recent years? Everyone seems to be an expert. If you are going to talk about complex questions in history it seems reasonable to expect that one have some grasp of what the professionals have written. I am not suggesting that this means relying only on academic and non-academic publications, but simply that you demonstrate some grasp of the literature. Why, because they are the experts. This is not to diminish what someone can accomplish once they arrive home from a hard days work, but to acknowledge to some degree that there are people out there who study these events for a living. I was struck by the complete failure to distinguish between the cause of secession and the cause of the war. How many times do we have to hear that Abraham Lincoln was a racist because his Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves or that he failed to act against slavery until the middle of the war? The question of Lincoln’s racial outlook is an interesting one; however, these stock responses get us nowhere.
Solution to Problem #1: Subscribe to North and South Magazine. This magazine attracts some of the best writers in the field. The magazine includes studies of the battlefield, politics, and the home front. Articles are often included that present short overviews of recently released or soon-to-be-released studies. Articles by Charles Dew, James McPherson, Allen Guelzo, and William Freehling provide fairly sophisticated interpretations of questions surrounding the cause of secession and the war.

Since I find it hard to believe that any of the people currently taking part in this debate in the Fredericksburg paper have any real training as a historian or spent any significant time researching in an archive, they should discontinue the debate. If they want to debate, at least learn to ask the right questions and demonstrate some competence with the secondary literature.