Following in Their Footsteps

Professor Stephen Berry was kind enough to send along this wonderful letter after reading yesterday’s post.  In the following 1930 letter, Lexington lawyer and Lincoln-historian, William Henry Townsend, responds to the cranky “posts” of  Mary Carter, who has charged Lincoln with the usual tyrannies and abuses.  Apparently, angry “Lady Rebs” have been unleashing their venom in defense of the “Lost Cause” for a long time.  It’s nice to know that I am in such good company.  Enjoy

Dear Miss Carter:

I have your letter…. Thank you very kindly.  You will pardon me, however, if I say that a careful reading of your lengthy letter fails to disclose much that I had hoped to find in it….  Although it was time for a rebuttal, I find that you abandoned the argument as to all of the…issues…and in lieu thereof, dumped into the hopper of our discussion a putrid mass of undigested vituperation.  Really, my dear Miss Carter, let me say in all good temper that you apparently have run into the same error that the “old tyrant” Lincoln once admonished against when he said: “One ought never plead what he need not, lest he be compelled to prove what he can not!”…  Lincoln once said that “a mathematician could hardly disprove Euclid by calling Euclid a liar.” Yet, you fall into this error also. Dr. Cravens is a liar! Allen Clark is a liar! Mrs. Pickett, the widow of a brave Confederate soldier, is a liar! Mrs. Davis is a weak, unstable creature with traitorous inclinations!! Everybody is either a traitor or a liar who has a good word for poor old homely, kind, tragic Abraham Lincoln!…  I have carefully read the enclosures….  I am sorry to say that they are all alike—bald, blatent assertion, vituperation and abuse, dripping with prejudice and a black, stifling heat that sheds no light….  You say that you will “cease firing” when Lincoln the man is divorced from Lincoln the myth. Why, bless you dear lady, you do not need to do that if it is any sport you. Abraham Lincoln is as far removed from blank cartridges as Mount McKinley was from the “Big Berthas” on the Western Front. If Lincoln himself were here, he would smile and say, in that slow Kentucky drawl: “Will, it don’t hurt me any, and it does her good, so let her alone.”…

Miss Carter, are there really any enemies of the south, or do we see only windmills which prejudice and bias have distorted into pugnacious knight errants of old? Who, at this time, are the traducers of Davis and Lee in the south? What organization of the north is now engaged in vicious propaganda against our southland and its heroes? I have traveled through the north and east extensively, and if we have any enemies, any persons who possess a settled hostility to the south, I have neither read nor heard of them. Name me, please, any man or set of men who are today flooding the mails with defamatory matter concerning any southern soldier or statesman….  Miss Carter, if the tone of this letter has been too emphatic, I confess that I was somewhat nettled at first by the accusation of “posing” in my respect for Lee and Davis and the rather surprising reference to “men of your ilk.”  I had hardly supposed that my two courteous letters merited such an appraisal of me, but I waive these small matters in deference to a southern gentlewoman, doubtless quite sincere, though sadly misguided, who will frankly and candidly, as becomes her breeding, take it all back when she meets Abraham Lincoln in heaven.  With very best regards and many thanks for writing me, I am, sincerely [W.H. Townsend, to Miss Mary D. Carter, August 29, 1930]

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“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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7 comments… add one
  • Richard G. Williams, Jr. Jan 31, 2009 @ 12:34

    True, but it’s impossible to make that judgment without reading her letter.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2009 @ 12:39

      Well, if you want to get all epistemological on me than you are correct, but if you’ve received as many nutty emails as I have than it is easy to identify/sympathize with Townsend.

  • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2009 @ 10:20


    Nice to hear from you. I believe it is Lexington, Kentucky. Please don’t make too much of this. The individual who sent it simply wanted to point out that overly-emotional rants from people who feel threatened is nothing new.

  • Richard G. Williams, Jr. Jan 31, 2009 @ 9:51

    Am I missing something here Kevin? What, exactly, did “Miss Carter” say in her letter, beyond what Townsend alludes to? To analyze his comments objectively, it would be necessary to read her letter as well, don’t you think? Also, I believe it should be pointed out that the “Lexington” to which you refer is Lexington, Kentucky and not Lexington, Virginia. Am I correct?

  • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2009 @ 7:04


    Sounds like an interesting project. I suspect that if Josephine has a problem with your project it has little to do with any kind of solid grounding in history, but because of her own political views. That is what usually comes through loud and clear whenever I read these rants. In a sense the Civil War/Lincoln becomes a filter through which to reinforce and disseminate a preferred political/ideological framework.

  • Sherree Tannen Jan 31, 2009 @ 5:49

    For Abe:

    O Captain! My Captain!

    O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
    The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
    The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
    While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
    But O heart! heart! heart!
    O the bleeding drops of red,
    Where on the deck my Captain lies,
    Fallen cold and dead.


    O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
    Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
    For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
    For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
    Here Captain! dear father!
    This arm beneath your head;
    It is some dream that on the deck,
    You’ve fallen cold and dead.


    My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
    My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
    The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
    From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
    Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
    But I, with mournful tread,
    Walk the deck my Captain lies,
    Fallen cold and dead.

    Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

  • Greg Rowe Jan 31, 2009 @ 5:40

    OK, through all of this I have tried to remain quite because often I am guilty of emitionally-driven post, although I attempt to confine those to my own meager attempts at a blog.

    I am a Southerner and a Texan. At times, that makes me worse than some who have Southern ancestry from other states! 🙂 I have, on this and my own blog” openly admitted my status as a “reformed Confederate apologist.” It has been through my continued research into the primary sources and scholarship; the efforts of institutes like the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History; and people like Kevin and Gary Gallagher that I can say “reformed.” I have responded from an emotion, at times, that has been a product of a lack of knowledge and a product of years of hero-worship, but the outright vitriolic nature of some posts I have found on this site in response to Kevin’s posts, I have tried to avoid.

    I suppose some, particularly JosephineSouthern, would find the latest project for my World Events class an atrocity, in light of their feelings about Lincoln. Since we came back from holiday break, the students have been working on a “Lincoln Legacy” project in honor of the bicentennial of his birth next month. Lincoln’s life and memory have been divided into 17 different topics, including how President Obama has been influenced by Lincoln and the myriad of comparisons between the two. I guess I see my responsibility as a teacher as being to present the information and let the students make any emotional determination rather than teach from an “us vs. them” mentality.

    I see most emotional responses to history as being a product of how students are taught, either by parents or teachers. Sure, there is going to be some disgust at the horrors of any war, the decimation of Native Americans by European diseases and slavery. Yes, there will be outrage at the lack of fairness and equality that has been shown minorities. At some level, these make us human. But to attempt to make the point of an arguement from this frame does not, usually, allow the debater to present critical sources of information to support his/her arguement, if indeed they even exist. “Shooting from the hip” usually results in a huge miss, at best, and, most often, you never “clear leather” and end up shooting yourself in the foot.

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