Did the South Win the Civil War?

Negro Digest (November 1961)

This is a question that Howard N. Meyer posed in the November 1961 issue of Negro Digest.  It’s a thought-provoking essay that anticipates a burgeoning black counter-memory that emerged in the pages of popular magazines by 1965.  It also provides a helpful reference point to gauge the evolution of Civil War memory over the past few decades.  Here are a few choice quotes:

  • One is first tempted to say that the commission’s plans have been marked by a kind of equal treatment: reverence as much for the Stars and Bars as for the Stars and Stripes, honor as much for Jefferson Davis as for Abraham Lincoln; tributes for the Boys in Gray as for the Boys in Blue; equality, that is, for all except the Negro.
  • Chairman Grant is eighty years old, and apparently still accepts the ideology that prevailed during his turn-of-the-century youth: that North-South reconciliation is more important than human rights for the Negro.
  • What will the Civil War Centennial be like?  It will last four years.  Battles will be re-enacted, many on a huge scale.  Colorful ceremonies will be held, exhibitions of war trophies and mementos organized.  There will be memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies…
  • The success of Southern apologists meant not merely that the Confederate side of the war was hygenized and glamorized.  The cause of the North was correspondingly demeaned.
  • One does not have to deny the tragedy of blasted homes and lives to say that the Old South depended on an iniquitous social system that could not be tolerated in America.  It does not serve America well, in the world of 1961, to ignore the evil and iniquity of slavery in marking the Centennial of the conflict.
  • When the firing on Fort Sumter was re-enacted, in a setting of live oaks and magnolias, who was there to remind the play-actors, in ever so small a voice, that the original shot was, after all, treason?

My have the times changed.

17 comments… add one
  • Keith Aug 23, 2011 @ 8:45

    I would argue that the white South won in the sense that a) they were able to control a great deal of the narrative for almost a full century and, b) they succeeded in keeping African-Americans in a condition of, if not slavery, then what can generously be called peonage. White Southerners’ intransigence exhausted Northerners to the point where they finally left in 1877, leaving unreconstructed Southerners to control events.

  • Laura McCarty Aug 23, 2011 @ 5:11

    Kevin, thanks for sharing this article. It’s extremely interesting to see someone in 1961 making the connections between the Centennial and the Civil Rights events that were underway.

    Can you tell me more about who Howard N. Meyer was/is? Also, following up on EarthTone’s point about the article being a reprint–who published/publishes Commonweal?

  • EarthTone Aug 22, 2011 @ 19:31

    Some folks might be interested to know that the article in Negro Digest originally appeared in Commonweal magazine.

  • Ray O'Hara Aug 22, 2011 @ 18:22

    The South was never going to be an industrial power.
    Slavery was obsolete and it would not have been attractive to immigrants looking for a better life to go to a place where the entry level jobs were taken by unpaid “employees” and the agribusiness geared towards the large land holders.
    The CSA Constitution banned emancipation, that would have been a real problem as the century ended and the CSA found itself a pariah state.Even during the war Europe developed new cotton sources in place like Egypt and India. the best thing that happened to the South was losing the war, they got the social change it desperately needed but could never achieve on it’s own.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2011 @ 2:10

      According to most historians, slavery was not obsolete in 1861. In fact, it was expanding along with the South’s industrial base in places like Baltimore, Richmond, Petersburg, and Atlanta. Check out Charles Dew’s book on Tredegar, Frank Towers’s The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War, and William Link’s Roots of Secession.

      • Rob Baker Aug 23, 2011 @ 3:08

        I will definitely have to look into those.

      • Ray O'Hara Aug 23, 2011 @ 4:29

        The South had one major foundry, Tredegar. in Richmond. That is bot what I’d call an industral revolution. they couldn’t make railroad rail. they had to import almost all their rifles. just a few small rifle makers were around. the slow moving rivers weren’t conducive to running mills.

        the reason the Europeans stayed away from helping the South in the war was due to the unacceptability of slavery in the modern world..
        That slaves could still pick cotton profitably doesn’t mean it wasn’t obsolete.

        the rest of the world have moved away.from it decades before the war here.
        The people of the North had rejected it and were not willing to let it expand.
        So w what did “most historians” base the claim it wasn’t obsolete on?
        The South was bucking the world trend in trying to keep.

        With being shut out of the territories and the resistance the Slavers encountered in Kansas seem to show it wasn’t expanding. It would seem with slavery being cut off from the western territories the expansion would only come from forcing small farmers off their land and turning it over to the big planters and from filibustering which had so far been a failure. that hardly speaks to its viabilty. the rest of the world had moved on.from slaves the South was bucking the sands of time.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2011 @ 5:44

          You are correct in pointing out that the South/Confederacy stood firmly against the rest of the world in terms of its commitment to maintaining a slave society. As a region it was one of the most industrially developed on the planet in 1861. Please note that I did not suggest that an industrial revolution took place in the antebellum; rather, what the literature suggests is that the region continued to expand industrially in various ways and that slavery was not viewed as an impediment. The gradual rise in slave prices attests to this. In addition to the books I’ve already suggested I also want to point out John Majewski’s study, Modernizing a Slave Economy, which I highly recommend.

        • Rob Baker Aug 23, 2011 @ 6:45

          Also, I am fairly certain that the South was producing railroads. The problem was that they ran North to South mostly, and that the track sizes varied instead of an established standardized rail size. Also, I would argue that you are underestimating the industrial output and capabilities of Atlanta, leading up to and during the war.

          As far as the Expansion, I invite you to research the Knights of the Golden Circle, “General” William Walker and the military term filibustering.

          • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2011 @ 6:58

            It’s not just Atlanta that is being ignored, but the many smaller industrial communities that popped up during the last few decades of the antebellum period. The other problem was that the roads were disconnected from one another. They tended to be used to shop cotton to port towns/cities.

            • Rob Baker Aug 23, 2011 @ 7:07

              Cannot say that I disagree with that statement.

        • London John Aug 23, 2011 @ 12:01

          (1) Surely the motive for secession was to expand plantation slavery west? so peaceful co-existence of USA & CSA was impossible.
          (2) Plantation slavery persisted for a generation in Latin America after the ACW. Also, after slavery was abolished in the British empire a generation before the ACW, the British moved workers around the empire so that plantation workers, altho’ not slaves, had no choice but plantation work because there was no niche they could move into locally.
          (3) Interesting point about southern railways being for export of cotton. Similar point has been made about the railways the British left to their Asian and African former colonies.

  • Ray O'Hara Aug 22, 2011 @ 14:21

    The South benefited from defeat , much as Japan benefited from losing in WWII
    that is far different than winning and any who thinks it is a win is slightly craked.

    Jeff Davis as revered as Lincoln. among the SCV types yes, among the other 999.999% of America not even close.
    The Rebel Soldiers seen as equal to the boys in blue. not quite.

    if the South had won the Civil War it would have been a disaster for it as it was saddled with an obsolete society the CSA constitution mandated it maintain.

    • Rob Baker Aug 22, 2011 @ 17:43

      I don’t know Ray. I can definitely admit that the South had its own industrial revolution on a small scare during the war, and then mostly after the literal ‘reconstruction.’ But economically, wasn’t the south fairly well off before the war. I read a while back (and I wish I could cite it, but I’d have to go digging through resources) that had the South been independent before the war, it would have been the 3rd largest economy in the world. Interesting thing to explore.

      As far as Davis, I agree with you in that regards. The rebel soldier….uhhhh, I might have to disagree there. Especially if you go to reenactment and notice how many people are there dressed as Confederates as opposed to Union. Not all members are SCV either. Though admittedly, they are a large percentage.

      It’s all a big blend of how people remember/celebrate the Civil War.

      • London John Aug 22, 2011 @ 23:18

        Are re-enactors’ attitudes representative? I read somewhere (Horowitz?) years ago that Confederate r-a’s were considered more “hard-core” than Union ones, even wearing 19th-C underwear, and some Union r-a’s defected for that reason.

        • Rob Baker Aug 23, 2011 @ 3:11

          That’s a very good question. Are they? I can tell you from personal experience I have only seen a handful of the hardcore campaigner types. I think you are right in saying citing Horwitz. I just read his book again (Confederates in the Attic) and I remember that thought. But just wearing the underwear really isn’t considered ‘hardcore’. They are 10 bucks at the Sutlers. Hardcores are basically the Robert Lee Hodge stigma in Horwitz’s book.

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