Saturday, April 06, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2013, April 6: Slavery and the Civil War

Neo-Confederate or Lost Cause ideology is a segregationist, white supremacist outlook that began pretty much the moment Gen. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It began with not only a psychological but very practical purpose of minimizing blame and legal liability for Southern leaders over the Civil War.

Since the Civil War left the institution of slavery pretty much as totally discredited in the rest of the country as it could possibly be, a key element of the ideology has been to deny that slavery in any way caused the Civil War. This was always pretty much a schizophrenic, since at the time before and during the war, the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause, no one was under any illusion that slavery was anything but central to the dispute.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown in The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s (2001) gives an example illustrating this, involving one of the leading and most vocal secessionists, South Carolina's Robert Barnwell Rhett:

In 1860-61, the lower South separated from the Union out of a sense of almost uncontrollable outrage. To be sure, slavery was the root cause of sectional conflict. When the South Carolina secession convention met in November 1860, fire-eater congressman Lawrence Keitt insisted that the rationale should center solely on the issue of slavery. That was, he said, "the great central point from which we are now proceeding." Other fire-eaters sought to add a wider agenda. Robert Barnwell Rhett and Maxcey Gregg, two stalwart secessionists, protested that singling out just one grievance "dishonored the memory of South Carolinians" who had opposed the Tariff of Abominations, various internal improvement bills, and the second Bank of the United States. Keitt replied that these were no reasons for leaving the Union. Only slavery was. The dissenters were defeated. [my emphasis] (p. 177)
Part of the reason that the neo-Confederate argument on this issue gained the influence that it did in both scholarly and especially popular understanding of the Civil War is that much of the interest in it centered in the war itself, the battles, strategies and participants.

Leon Litwack addresses this in "The Historian, the Filmmaker, and the Civil War", his contribution to Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond (Robert Brent Toplin, ed.; 1996):

Like the battlefields that continue to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, [Ken Burns' documentary] The Civil War is mostly about how men died and how they responded to the call to battle, not why they fought and died. Like the preserved battlefields (dubbed by some Civil War buffs as "sacred ground"), the valor on both sides is commemorated. What the Rebels - badly misnamed - thought they were fighting for is left unclear. Shelby Foote (quoting the Confederate soldier who told a Yankee, "we're fighting because you're down here") suggests that they fought in defense of their homes. Without slavery, however, there would have been no war, no slaughter, and no need to defend their homes. From the very outset, as Foote (among others) is unwilling to concede, the enslavement of black men and women defined the Confederacy as a nation. Jefferson Davis resented any suggestion that secession had been revolutionary; on the contrary, he and his followers had left the Union "to save ourselves from a revolution." The secession conventions that chose to proclaim the reasons for their action invariably assigned the highest priority to the defense of slavery. Robert E. Lee said during the war that the Confederacy fought to save slavery from destruction. He refused to exchange black prisoners-of-war (since most of them he deemed property), he appeared to have no problem with his troops capturing blacks in Pennsylvania and sending them South into slavery, and as late as 1865 he preferred to think of the enslavement of black men and women not as an evil but "as the best [relation] that can exist between the white and black races."

Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, called slavery "the cornerstone" of the Confederate States of America: "its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery - subordination to the superior race - is his natural and normal condition. This our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth." The white South, slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike, echoed Stephens's words. A North Carolina private wrote a friend in 1863, "You know I am a poor man having none of the property said to be the cause of the present war. But I have a wife and some children to rase [sic] in honor and never to be put on an equality with the African race." [my emphasis](pp. 127-8)
This contention that slavery was not only not the cause of the Civil War but even had nothing to do with it is central to the Lost Cause view of the Civil War. And it makes a huge distortion of history.

Chris Matthews is not one of my favorite reporters or pundits. He was outrageously bad on his reporting on the Clinton scandals, Al Gore, John McCain and Hillary Cinton's 2008 campaign. But his excerpt, YouTube date 2010, with the odd title Confederate History Month: Revisionist History and Rising Civil War II is a decent report on this subject and on how neo-Confederate ideology about the Civil War stills plays a significant role in American politics. The topic leading off the discussion was the Viriginia's Republican Governor formally declaring April "Confederate History Month" in 2010. (Bob McDonnell Apologizes For Slavery Omission In 'Confederate History Month' Proclamation Huffington Post 06/07/201)

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