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.

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36 comments… add one
  • Ron Collins Apr 5, 2018 @ 4:53

    The South DID NOT commit treason.

    NAME ONE person that was ever tried and convicted for treason fighting for or supporting the Confederacy. JUST ONE.

    The Southern States, by and through their duly-elected legislatures, peacefully renounced their citizenship from the United States and seceded to form the Confederate States of America – essentially a separate country. This was before a shot was ever fired at Fort Sumter or anywhere else. A person CANNOT commit treason against a country that they are not a citizen of. If you think they can, then NAME ONE person that was EVER tried and convicted of treason for fighting for or supporting the Confederacy. JUST ONE. You can’t, because they were NONE. Jefferson Davis sat in prison for 2 years waiting on a trial for treason that never happened. Davis wanted the trial, but the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Salmon P. Chase – sitting in as circuit judge, as was common in those days – informed the prosecution for the U.S. that there were good chances that the U.S. would lose if the trial was allowed to take place. The U.S. dropped the charges. Then, on 12/25/1868, U.S. President Andrew Johnson issued a FULL AND UNCONDITIONAL PARDON for any and all that had fought or supported the Confederacy.

    During the Civil War, Federal officials recognized a need for new laws to deal with the rebellious acts of a large part of the Southern population. Because ‘treason’ seemed too strong a word and death too severe a penalty for many of the acts in support of the Confederate cause, the Congress of the United States passed acts on July 31, 1861 (12 Stat. 284), and July 17, 1862 (12 Stat. 589), that fixed penalties for lesser crimes of ‘conspiracy’ and ‘rebellion.’ The latter act also provided for future pardon and amnesty by Presidential proclamation to be extended “…to any persons who may have participated in the existing rebellion…with such exceptions and at such time and on such conditions as he may deem expedient for the public welfare.”

  • Ahmad J.Ali I Sep 6, 2015 @ 18:09

    I took the oath of allegiance to defend America, a country whose government and whose many citizens upheld the enslavement of the people I derived from , Africans.

    Even though I knew from my family who of the owners of my predecessors and how they had come to the conclusion that Jim Crow was ofttimes worse than outright slavery , I and many members of our family accepted this country was worth defending because there was hope better could come from struggling to make the common man understand the noble aspirations that the slave owning Founding Fathers issued from their months were Nobel enough for us to effect.

    I don’t believe the nonslave owning illiterate poor Whiteman was wise enough to understand past their neighborhood’s rights to appreciate States’ Rights to the point that could not be led to a better decision by their betters.The Generals such as Lee , A.P.Hill , Jackson , and such, knew how important it was to keep one’s word , not to bear arms against their country .

    I just don’t understand how these educated men can be judged any different than other selfish criminals.

    If they were finished with their obligations I could see them claiming to support another oath. We all have to swear allegiance every time we re-enlist . I think they were supporting the wrong cause but the issue is not the cause but breaking the oath of alligeance and not being deemed a traitor. I don’t get it .

    Ahmad Jamal Ali I ,
    former soldier in the United States Army, father, uncle and grandfather to three Officers and one Non-Com in today’s great military and nephew to WWII veterans who caught hell serving honorably under dishonorable conditions .

  • Conrad Vincent Aug 6, 2010 @ 13:18

    Lately I have to confess to having become ashamed to what is happening to a country I have always been proud of. To keep it short I can only say that I always wondered if using the words stupid and fool together could really be correct. I don’t think it would be correct to say a smart fool, though I guess it could be possible, but in your case I think I feel correct in saying stupid fool would indeed be accurate. I recently meet another younger than I student of history that was telling me how samrt she was and mentioning which of The Federalist Papers were her favorite ones, and when i questioned her as to why there were, she was lost. She may have been one of your pupils.

  • Lee May 6, 2010 @ 4:55


    You said “So, were Confederates traitors? Yes! As a loyal and proud American what other conclusion could I come to?”

    You could come to the conclusion that whether or not they were traitors is largely in the eye of the beholder, and that whether or not someone who rebels against a government is considered a traitor depends largely on whether they win the war. And remember that by your logic, “loyal and proud” Brits are obliged to consider the Founding Fathers and the Americans who fought for and supported the patriotic cause in the Revolutionary War to be traitors.

    • Kevin Levin May 6, 2010 @ 5:07

      Good point.

  • Al Mackey May 5, 2010 @ 18:57

    Were the Confederates traitors? Sure, of course they were. Does it really matter to us? No. Lincoln, Grant, and Chase took the right course of action in not countenancing treason trials across the land. I don’t see that it advances the ball any to rhetorically reverse that decision.

  • Nat Turners Son May 5, 2010 @ 12:07

    As bad as it was in the South from 1965-1900 ; the rebels got off pretty light in the scope of World History.

  • Larry Cebula May 4, 2010 @ 19:01

    Well, there is Article 3, Section 3 of the United States Constitution:

    “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

  • Margaret D. Blough May 4, 2010 @ 12:48

    Part of the reason that we lose sight of this is that, for all the attacks on how awful Reconstruction was, compare the fate of the rebel states and their leaders to what happened after previous failed rebellions and it becomes clear that it was remarkably magnanimous. If Robert E. Lee had been a general under the Hanoverian Kings of Great Britain and had gone over to either of either the Old Pretender (or James the VIII and III depending on your views) and/or the Young Pretender (or Charles III), led armies against the sovereign to whom he had originally pledge his loyalty, and later surrendered, mercy would have been allowing a beheading on the green inside the Tower of London rather than a more gruesome public execution. Areas of Scotland that supported the Jacobite rebels would have considered the worst of Reconstruction to have been a holiday. The signers of the Declaration of Independence weren’t engaging in rhetorical flourishes when they pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. They were stating what they knew was at stake. Patrick Henry meant it when he proclaimed that if this be treason, make the most of it.

    No matter how harsh Reconstruction was, there was still a conscious decision by the US government to reject the ways of the past in order to heal the nation; however, that doesn’t mean that many in the loyal states and the US government believed that no price had to be paid for subjecting the nation to the horrors of Civil War rather than accept the results of a Presidential election.

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 13:15

      I guess what it comes down to for me is I am glad that I have a chance to live in the United States. That was jeopardized in the 1860s.

      • Ryan May 11, 2010 @ 12:14


        I do understand and share your sentiments about being a proud American and I’m very glad that the war turned out the way it did. But your comment does seem to convey some sense of, as you put it, “desire to condemn.” Are you harboring some resentment towards actual Confederates and their leaders for the war, or is this more of a response to SCV members?

        As many previous commenters have said, I think classifying someone or some organization as traitorous depends solely on your point of view. Yes, Confederates were traitors but they also saw themselves as an extension of their forefathers in the revolution, even though the motives for separation were somewhat different. I think that people like Lee, Jackson, and whoever else you wanna put into that “honorable” category felt that the oath they took no longer applied to them in the traditional sense. Just as radicals like Adams, Jefferson, Lee and Franklin felt that their oaths to “God Save the King!” were likewise no longer applicable.

        Was it an incorrect way of thinking? In a philosophical sense, yes. An oath is an oath and it binds you as a public servant to the office or duty you took it to uphold. But if Southerners truly felt that, based on their interpretation of sovereignty, their duties applied first to their states and not their government, the oaths they took to that government would be null and void should that government betray its people. I suspect that if this was really the way they felt, it was a result of being brought up in the shadow of the American Revolution, where disobedience to law was the “right thing to do” and they would be rewarded with victory.

        Again, its a fairly relative term, depending on who you talk to. And what does it necessarily matter to us now? Any living connection to that war is dead and gone except for witness trees, and they are impartial. I see much of this arguing back and forth by SCVs and “neo-confederates” and their opponents as simply semantics. One can argue any point of view if he or she is so inclined and BOTH parties get caught up in these pointless arguments constantly.

        Anyway, love the blog Kevin. Keep it up.

        • Kevin Levin May 11, 2010 @ 12:24


          Thanks for the comment. You make a number of very good points. First, let me state once again that I am not interested in distinguishing between the good guys and bad guys in history. I don’t have any interest in condemning or praising anyone from this period of history. My interest has always been to better understand this period of history through my own research and the many excellent studies that are available to read.

          One of the things I wanted to get across is that I do believe that whether we describe x as a traitor really is a matter of perspective. The other thing is that I don’t think we necessarily need to shy away from thinking through these issues and drawing our own conclusions. Just because you conclude that Lee or Jackson was a traitor doesn’t necessarily imply that you “hate” the South or anything else for that matter. I don’t have much at stake in this issue and haven’t spent much time thinking through these complicated questions. We should remember that Americans during the Civil War rarely shied away from accusing others of engaging in treason.

          One final point. I don’t know if I agree with the common analogy with the Founders. Yes, both groups engaged in revolution, but the Revolutionary generation did not take part in electing those who served in the government in England while Lincoln was fairly/legally elected. I’ll say again that in the end I am glad that the Confederacy failed in their bid for independence. I don’t think there is anything controversial about that.

          Thanks again for the comment.

  • Bruce Miller May 4, 2010 @ 11:52

    Well said, Kevin. It’s one of the peculiar outcomes of decades of Lost Cause tradition that admirers of the Confederacy insist on making up pretty lies about the cause for which the Confederates fought. They knew they were fighting for the “sacred institution” of slavery, as their leaders called it. And they knew they were betraying their country, the United States in doing so.

    I assume that most of them understood that their actions were morally justified, and their writers and speakers compared their actions to those of the Revolutionary generation. But how does someone “honor” the memory of people in their role as Confederate supporters and officers by pretending they weren’t supporting what they were proud of supporting (slavery) and doing what they were proud of doing (betraying their country for what they saw as the higher cause of slavery).

    It’s particularly problematic for US Army officers from Robert E. Lee on down who had sworn to defend their country, the US, and its Constitution in the US armed forces, and then rejected that oath to fight against the US Army and kill huge numbers of US Army soldiers. Whatever “honor” they displayed in supporting the Confederacy should be weighed against their lack of “honor” in discarding their previous oaths to the Constitution. Understanding their point of view as Confederates is one thing; praising and paying tribute to it is something very different.

    • John Buchanan May 5, 2010 @ 10:35

      That is exactly how I approach this argument…Lee and many of the others took an oath. Period. Resigning does not absolve one from holding to what the oath stands for. Lee took the oath AT LEAST 3 times…when entering West Point, when commissioned as a second lieutenant and again as a colonel.

      Jeff Davis took it several times, as did scores of hundreds of others who took up arms against their government.

      That is the same oath I took at my commissioning and I took a similar oath when I entered Federal Service.

      An oath does not come with an expiration date.

      As Mr Cebula states below, its pretty clear what the definition of treason was/is…sounds like most of the Confederate leaders meet that definition.

      Oh, as for the failed rvolutionary as opposed to treason argument.

      How many of the Founding Fathers had sworn oaths to defend King and Country? Even if the answer is all of them, they won. If they had lost, does anyone seriously believe that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Marion, Greene, and all fo the others would not have been hung?

      • Lee May 6, 2010 @ 4:59


        I’ve read elsewhere that people at the time did not consider the oaths Lee and other officers took to be binding when they resigned their commissions.

        • Bob Pollock May 6, 2010 @ 8:44

          Lee, this is an interesting statement. I’d like to know where you read it. Who were these “people at the time” ? It seems to me that a person who resigned their commission to fight against the government they had taken an oath to defend would quite naturally argue that their resignation relieved them of the oath. Did those who honored their oath also believe they could simply resign and not be bound by their oath?

          • John Buchanan May 6, 2010 @ 9:04

            Some people at the time may have believed the oaths were not binding. But many others did believe that. Plenty of Southerners in the Army and Navy stayed loyal to their oaths and fought for their country.

            If Lee and others had resigned and then sat on the sidelines, I would have had no problem with that.

            However, they took up arms against the US, a country and Constitution they had sworn to defend.

            • Margaret D. Blough May 6, 2010 @ 11:57

              John-I thoroughly agree. As another alternative, when President Lincoln was trying to persuade his beloved brother-in-law Ben Helm not to go with the Confederate Army, he offered to ensure that, if Ben stayed with the Union Army, that he would not be put in a position in which he would have to fight his fellow Southerners. Helm felt compelled, despite his love for the Lincolns, to go with the Confederacy and was killed at Chickamauga.

              Another thing that bothers me about Lee, in addition to the oath issue, is that the US Government gave Lee a college education and an honorable livelihood after his father and half-brother burned through the family assets, leaving a mountain of debt, and, in return, he did his level best to destroy the US as it existed

          • Lee May 6, 2010 @ 16:23


            You said, “Lee, this is an interesting statement. I’d like to know where you read it. Who were these “people at the time” ?”

            I’m actually not sure where the statement came from. But to be honest, I think that criticizing Confederate officers for breaking the oaths they took in the U.S. military is a rather weak argument to make against them, as is condemning them for being traitors. The degree to which an oath of any kind is morally binding is not set in stone. And as Marc said above in a different context, people are often faced with conflicting loyalties. If men such as Robert E. Lee believed that the Confederacy’s quest for independence was morally justified, I don’t think it would be reasonable to expect them not to fight for it because of an oath they took when they were (formerly) in the U.S. military, particularly given that when they took that oath they probably didn’t foresee having to choose between loyalty to the U.S. and loyalty to the South and their individual Southern states.

            The end of slavery and the preservation of the Union (given the fact that that Union evolved into the country we know and love today) are reasons enough to be happy the Confederacy lost the war. I think going off on these other tangents only weakens the case for why Union victory was a good thing.

            • Bob Pollock May 6, 2010 @ 17:40

              Thanks for the response, Lee. I understand your position on this, but I can’t help but think that if there weren’t people who still want to celebrate Confederates and argue that what they did is worthy of emulation, we wouldn’t have to post these counter-arguments. As Kevin has said, if the same situation occurred today, I would hope that the insugency would be put down, and I’d likely think the insurgents should be punished.
              Our country has survived and thrived because, with the exception of 1860, we have had elections and peaceful transfers of power.

              • Margaret D. Blough May 7, 2010 @ 3:14

                Let us never forget that the event that triggered the rebellion was the lawful election of a Republican as president, even though pro-slavery forces did a lot to assure his election when they split the Democratic Party & ran their own candidate against Lincoln and Douglas. As to what the Framers/Founding Fathers intended to happen when one administration loses to another radically opposed to its principles: the peaceful, if grudging, transfer of power after the vitriolic 1800 presidential election.

                I think Lincoln said it best in his 1860 Cooper Union speech that played such a critical role in his being the Republican Party’s nominee that year:

                >>Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is, shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”

                To be sure, what the robber demanded of me – my money – was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.<<

              • Lee May 7, 2010 @ 5:28


                You said “I understand your position on this, but I can’t help but think that if there weren’t people who still want to celebrate Confederates and argue that what they did is worthy of emulation, we wouldn’t have to post these counter-arguments.”

                I agree with you about that. But people who feel this way strongly enough aren’t going to be persuaded no matter what anyone here or anywhere else says. True believers in something can’t be dissuaded unless they themselves decide to open themselves up to new ideas. Just before his death in 1986, Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin’s closest lieutenants, told his biographer that world communism would arrive by the end of the 20th century! And try convincing anyone with an emotional investment in either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that they’re not being fair to the other side.

                • Bruce Miller May 7, 2010 @ 19:48

                  But a key aspect of Lost Cause ideology is to hold up the heroes of the Confederacy, especially Robert E. Lee, the Christ-figure of Lost Cause dogma, as great men to admired for their abstract qualities of Honor and Courage and Devotion To Home, etc., etc. Because in Lost Cause history their war against the Union had nothing at all to do with slavery, oh no.

                  Lost Cause dogma has little influence in academic history now. But in popular versions of American history and in the huge volume of “amateur history” on the Civil War, it has a big influence. (I use “amateur” as a technical term, not as a disparaging one; some amateur history is of high quality.)

                  And part of the badly slopping thinking about both history and values Lost Cause advocacy promotes is the often mindless way it’s supporters attribute these grand abstractions of Honor and so forth to the leaders of the Confederacy. If we are going to talk about the Honor displayed by these great Christian heroes like Lee and Stonewall Jackson, we need to remember that their concept of “honor” included betraying their country – and their honorable oaths of allegiance to it – on behalf of the “sacred institution” of slavery.

                  And their concept of “honor” included also killing large numbers of soldiers in the US Army to which they had once pledged their legendary Honor. It’s a very legitimate question to pose to those who ask us to worship such heroes. And to remember people that bombastic declarations of American patriotism don’t really set that well with glorifying those leaders who shed such large amounts of the blood of soldiers of the United States.

                  • Margaret D. Blough May 8, 2010 @ 2:52

                    Bruce-The Robert E. Lee as the Christ-like figure who is essential to the Lost Cause myth is critical to understanding the Lost Cause. It also explains the defamation of Longstreet who the Lost Cause cast in the even more essential role of Judas. He was perfect for it: high enough in rank & close enough to Lee to inflict such damage, survived the war (no martyr bashing needed), became a Republican and accepted Reconstruction, and wasn’t a Virginian.

                    In many ways the Lost Cause parallels the post-WW I German “stab-in-the back” myth. (No, I’m not comparing the Confederacy or anyone in it to Hitler & the Nazis, who didn’t create the stab in the back myth. They exploited it and virulant, long-standing German anti-Semitism and took them to horrific extremes) Both myths are an attempt by people who started a war convinced that they could not lose because of what they saw as their vast military, cultural, and political superiority to their foes to rationalize the fact that this “inferior” foe beat them. This cognitive dissonance had to be resolved. The Lost Cause provided a way to do that & provide the explanation that the inferior foe didn’t beat them; the foe prevailed by the brute force of its overwhelming numbers combined with internal treason.

  • Bland Whitley May 4, 2010 @ 11:27

    I find precious little to respect and admire about the Confederacy, not the principal cause for its creation, nor the secondary and tertiary rationales trotted out by those who want to embrace secession (or at least the seceders) while eliding its connection to slavery. That said, it’s always struck me as dubious to label Confederates as traitors. It may be accurate in a sense, but so what? Was Bobby Lee any more of a traitor than George Washington? Both held or had held military positions and had pledged loyalty to some governmental authority that they later deemed unacceptable. Both risked all on the battlefield. We praise one as a patriot, damn the other as a traitor. All of which just seems to avoid the central issue. I don’t really care that Confederates rejected the good ole U.S.A. I care that they wanted to perpetuate slavery and sharpen white supremacy for as long as they could. Throwing the term traitor around runs the risk of avoiding this ideological consideration while elevating nationalism as the principal accomplishment of the War.

    A Virginian scalawag, now living in NJ

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 11:33

      Thanks for the comment, Bland. Despite the catchy title, I also don’t put much weight on whether or not we stick the label of traitor on Lee, Davis, and the rest of the gang. The more central issue for me that I hope is clear in the post is that I find it impossible to sympathize with the cause of the Confederacy on two levels: First the government was set up to protect and perpetuate slavery. That’s what the document clearly states and that is clear in the speeches of its designers and most important advocates. The other reason is because I place great value in our nation’s democratic institutions.

      You said: “I don’t really care that Confederates rejected the good ole U.S.A. I care that they wanted to perpetuate slavery and sharpen white supremacy for as long as they could.” I find it difficult to distinguish between these two points. Southerners rejected the USA because they hoped to create a government that would serve as a bulwark against what they perceived to be a threat to slavery.

    • Marc Ferguson May 4, 2010 @ 13:32

      Bland – I agree with the spirit of what you write, in that it seldom leads anywhere to get into debates over loyalty and treason in the Civil War. When that happens, it’s usually about heritage and not history. However, it is useful to make accurate historical comparisons, and to use our definitions correctly. The Constitution defines treason against the United States as waging war against the country or in giving aid to its enemies. Lee certainly did wage war against the U.S. By this definition he committed treason. You ask “Was Bobby Lee any more of a traitor than George Washington?” No. If the Americans had lost the revolution, Washington would have probably been hanged as a traitor by Great Britain. Now, I don’t mean to elevate nationalism, but I do think we should apply our historical analogies (Washington and Lee) and define our labels (treason) accurately.


      • W. W. S. Hsieh May 4, 2010 @ 16:22

        As someone who has argued in print that Lee shouldn’t get a free pass for resigning from the Army simple because his state seceded by pointing out that substantial numbers of regular army men from Confederate states chose Union over state (George Thomas being the most famous example), I think it’s clear where I stand on this issue.

        However, all that being said, the reality is that when large numbers of people commit a crime (in this case, “treason”), the criminality of the act becomes ambiguous. Furthermore, victory and success legitimates more than anything else, especially in the brass knuckle world of war and peace, so I think it’s a mistake to over-simplify this issue.

        For me, the Confederates were failed revolutionaries. They were disloyal, in the sense they wished to change the regime, but revolutionary disloyalty is of a different type and scale than the classic example of “normal” treason–either ideologically or monetarily motivated espionage for a foreign government. And has been pointed out, they were comparable to the American revolutionaries in this respect–this desire to change governments–but have the crucial distinction of having failed. Being of the opinion that the U.S. government in 1860 answered reasonable tests of legitimacy, and seeing the rationale of Confederate grievances, most of which focused on slavery, as rather dubious, it’s hard for me to muster much sympathy for the Lost Cause beyond a professional respect for the operational competence of Confederate military forces. All that being said, using the loyal/disloyal dichotomy of Radical Republicans elides all sorts of complications–something even substantial numbers of Northerners would have agreed with.

        • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 16:49


          Thanks for the comment. I probably should not have been so sloppy in my referencing of treason in the post. I don’t have much of a problem with your distinction since not much hinges on it for me. While it may have been poorly written, I was simply trying to get at those factors that prevent me from sympathizing with a counterfactual scenario that includes a Confederate victory. Regardless of what we call them, in the end, I am pleased that the Union was not broken up and that slavery ended.

        • Marc Ferguson May 4, 2010 @ 17:11

          While I don’t particularly admire the man, I’m not a Lee basher. That being said, I disagree with the notion that constitutional standards of treason don’t apply, or are mitigated, when large numbers of people are involved. The Constitution makes no allowances/exceptions for scale or motivation. In my opinion, I’m not oversimplifying the issue – I’m not claiming it to be one thing or the other, nor am I saying Lee should have been hanged. You are right, Southerners who fought for the Confederacy were indeed engaged in revolution and would have been consider patriots by their new nation had they won. They were also engaged in treason by Constitutional definition. Loyalty is complex, and there are times when all people are faced with competing claims for their loyalty. This was one such time, under momentous and tragic conditions. Some, such as Lee, had the luxury of choosing, others, like most who served the Confederacy, did not. Had Washington and other leaders of the American Revolution been failed revolutionaries, my guess is that they wouldn’t have been treated as leniently as Lee and the other leaders of the Confederacy.

          You wrote: “revolutionary disloyalty is of a different type and scale than the classic example of “normal” treason.” Yes, and in fact it is far more dangerous to the stability of a nation’s government and society. Ironically, it may be treated more leniently though the consequences are invariably more catastrophic.

          Finally, I think we are essentially in agreement. However, I don’t believe that Lee should get a “free pass” for his actions, defined as treasonous by the Constitution, of waging war against the United States. Among the many notable and fateful things he did during a remarkable life, committing treason against the United States was one of them.

  • Harry May 4, 2010 @ 10:12

    It’s “a heroic moment”, not “an heroic moment”. Cheese-whiz!

  • Jere Krischel May 4, 2010 @ 9:15

    Perhaps it needs to be more qualified than that -> I can identify and approve of *some* of the actions/intents that led to the creation of the CSA, but not all of them, and certainly not slavery. I definitely self-identify as a citizen of the US (and see my homeland’s entering of the Union as the 50th state as a blessing beyond blessings), and as a patriot, I’m definitely willing to stake my life defending the Union…but not simply for Union’s sake. I can clearly see the Union as having its flaws to atone for as well, but I’m very hopeful that these flaws eventually get corrected without another Civil War.

    This probably ends up being a “have your cake and eat it too” issue, but I certainly like the fact that we can have a Supreme Court demand that race-based discrimination is unconstitutional, whether Jim Crow or race-based benefit programs, but I must admit I’m wary of the falling wall between church and state (given the latest ruling regarding the Mojave cross). How we could create a system that could give me only what I want, and keep away all the things I don’t, well, I guess unless I was appointed dictator there’s no such thing 🙂

    I guess we could ask this question -> are Native American tribes who want to more permanently establish their sovereignty outside the plenary power of Congress traitors? As a nation of “one people, one law”, it would seem that this kind of split sovereignty is untenable (warning to all those who may travel on reservations, the bill of rights simply doesn’t apply there sometimes). I might go so far as to call them traitors, and demand that they renounce their separate governments with their separate laws and separate rights for people of specific ancestry, and simply join the body politic as equal citizens of the US.

    The fact of Native American oppression by the victorious US army in the Civil War of course is well documented, so perhaps we may feel more sympathy for the vanquished…could we also do the same for the CSA?

    • Kevin Levin May 4, 2010 @ 9:20

      It’s not about sympathy or whether we identify with some of the values reflected in the Confederacy. I was trying to focus on whether I could both support the attempt to break up the Union and self-identify as an American citizen, including a respect for the rule of law and its institutions. I don’t want to muddy this up with talk of Native Americans.

      • Jere Krischel May 5, 2010 @ 8:35

        I think the Native American analogy is directly applicable – can you support the attempt to break up the union by Native American tribes who want total independent sovereignty, and self-identify as an American citizen at the same time? Although I’m not saying tribes practice slavery, there certainly are power abuses one could identify that are at least similar in nature (primarily driven by the threat of expulsion from the tribe – imagine if your congress critters could revoke your citizenship, and you might not be so quick to criticize them).

        Now, if there is some sort of additional sympathy that you have for the tribes because of the poor treatment of them by the Union which allows you to hold both their right to pursue total independent sovereignty as well as your identity as a patriotic American citizen, you’ve got your answer in principle, if not in practice.

        • Kevin Levin May 5, 2010 @ 8:43

          You said: …”can you support the attempt to break up the union by Native American tribes who want total independent sovereignty, and self-identify as an American citizen at the same time?”

          Thanks for the comment, but I don’t have to worry about such a choice because I wouldn’t support an attempt on the part of Native Americans to break up the Union. That said, I agree that the treatment of Native Americans by the federal government is problematic. Honestly, I don’t see what this has to do with my post.

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