Deep Thoughts By H.W. Crocker III (2)

It’s a pretty miserable day here in central Virginia.  On top of the rain I am strung out on the couch watching college football and dealing with a cold and sore throat.  Since it looks like I will not get anything serious done today I thought I might offer you the second installment of my examination of Crocker’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War.  The following is titled “We’re All Confederates Now” and asks the reader to imagine the following:

Put yourself in Robert E. Lee’s shoes.  If the South seceded today, how many of us would think the proper response would be for the federal government to send tanks over the bridges spanning the Potomac into Virginia, to blockade Southern ports and carpet bomb Southern cities?  If we don’t, it’s because we see the United States as the Confederacy saw it, as a voluntary union.  The idea that we have to keep California, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Maine together by force would probably strike us as ridiculous.  And if it came to that, it would probably strike us as horrendous and wrong. (p. 33)

First, why do we need to put ourselves in the shoes of Lee?  Does he have some kind of privileged position that would steer us to the correct answer as to what would be considered a proper response by the federal government in case of a modern day secession?  To show how absurd this little thought experiment is, why not put ourselves in the shoes of Winfield Scott, George Thomas or any other Southern graduate of West Point who took part in the invasion of their own homes.  Scott himself outlined the invasion of much of the South in his Anaconda Plan. More importantly, we now know that the generation of Southern West Point cadets that graduated in the 1830s did not resign their commissions in 1861.   In the end, it is irrelevant what we would countenance as a legitimate response.  What we do know is that plenty of white Southerners in 1861 believed that “invasion” was the only response to the actions of most of the Southern states.

There is plenty more where this comes from.

“Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?”

My Civil War courses are in the middle of reading two essays about the 1850s and secession by James McPherson and Charles Dew.  It is interesting that every year I end up having to spend the most time on two specific issues at the beginning of the semester.  Even if my students claim not to have spent considerable time studying the Civil War they arrive in my class believing certain things.

Continue reading ““Why Would Anyone Fight For Union?””

The Most Important Primary Source on Secession

My students thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing the article by Charles Dew along with the letter by Stephen Hale who served as a secessionist commissioner to Kentucky.  Students picked up on a number of points about secession between the Dew article and another piece by James McPherson, which takes a much broader view of the events leading to Lincoln’s election.  One of the things McPherson does is briefly survey how others have answered the question of what caused secession, including those subscribing to the Lost Cause view as well as the Progressive and Revisionist schools of thought.  My students were particularly interested in the Lost Cause view and seemed to understand the need for those like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens to distance their cause from race and slavery following the end of the war.  The long-term influence of the Lost Cause could easily be identified as we read through Dew’s own brief autobiography in which he admits to growing up in Florida with a glorified view of the cause only to be confronted with a less than pleasant picture through careful study.

Our close analysis of the Stephen Hale letter led to a very engaging and spirited class discussion.  Actually, once I introduced a few questions at the beginning of the class I said very little and instead allowed the students to engage one another.  They commented on the close linking between the states rights argument and the strong desire to preserve slavery.  In other words, they can now answer the question that McPherson posed in his article, which is, “States rights for what?”  Some of the students struggled with the strong racial references and at times questioned whether this apocalyptic vision that Hale was suggesting was a function of real fear or hyperbole.  They also discussed the importance of linking together slave and non-slaveowners:

Who can look upon such a picture without a shudder? What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed? In the Northern States, where free negroes are so few as to form no appreciable part of the community, in spite of all the legislation for their protection, they still remain a degraded caste, excluded by the ban of society from social association with all but the lowest and most degraded of the white race. But in the South, where in many places the African race largely predominates, and, as a consequence, the two races would be continually pressing together, amalgamation, or the extermination of the one or the other, would be inevitable. Can Southern men submit to such degradation and ruin? God forbid that they should.

By far the most difficult parts to consider were where references to God and Christianity were used as justification for the preservation of slavery:

But, it is said, there are many Constitutional, conservative men at the North, who sympathize with and battle for us. That is true; but they are utterly powerless, as the late Presidential election unequivocally shows, to breast the tide of fanaticism that threatens to roll over and crush us. With them it is a question of principle, and we award to them all honor for their loyalty to the Constitution of our Fathers. But their defeat is not their ruin. With us it is a question of self-preservation– our lives, our property, the safety of our homes and our hearthstones– all that men hold dear on earth, is involved in the issue. If we triumph, vindicate our rights and maintain our institutions, a bright and joyous future lies beforeus. We can clothe the world with our staple, give wings to her commerce, and supply with bread the starving operative in other lands, and at the same time preserve an institution that has done more to civilize and Christianize the heathen than all human agencies beside– an institution alike beneficial to both races, ameliorating the moral, physical and intellectual condition of the one, and giving wealth and happiness to the other.  If we fail, the light of our civilization goes down in blood, our wives and our little ones will be driven from their homes by the light of our own dwellings. The dark pall of barbarism must soon gather over our sunny land, and the scenes of West India emancipation, with its attendant horrors and crimes (that monument of British fanaticism and folly), be re-enacted in our own land upon a more gigantic scale.

One of my students noted that the Hale letter makes it is much easier to see why Lost Cause writers chose to ignore the role that slavery played in the decision to secede.  I find that my students do one of two things when grappling with difficult passages such as this.  Either they dismiss the writer as a “moral monster” or question whether the author could have believed such a thing at all.  In the case of both positions I tell my students that there job is not to judge, but to understand; no doubt this takes time and a willingness to consider the perspectives of those with whom we seem to have little in common with, but it is a crucial step in introducing basic historical skills.  What needs to be carefully considered is not that they believed this, but how white southerners came to subscribe to this particular view of their religion or how Christian doctrine come to be used to prop up the institution of slavery and white supremacy?  It is also important to remind students that the analysis of primary sources is not about them.  Moral judgments about the past have their place, but in the hands of students who are being introduced to various topics the net effect is a distancing rather than an intellectual embracing of the historical subject.

Charles Dew contends that the speeches of the secessionist commissioners are the most helpful and insightful sources in trying to better understand what drove whites in the Deep South out of the Union following Lincoln’s election.  At one point he suggests that the speech by Stephen Hale belongs in every classroom and I have to agree with this assessment.

The complete letter by Stephen Hale can be found here.

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.