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Friday, May 7, 2004
Civil War Blogging

By Steven Taylor @ 3:43 pm

Several weeks back, a debate emerged in regards to how to view Confederate soldiers, specifically those from the CSS Hunley who were recently given a funeral. I started to write on it at the time, but never got beyond some partial thoughts. However, yesterday Jeff Quinton had a lengthy post on the Hunley yesterday, which re-sparked my thoughts on this subject.

Let me say, I find this to be a difficult topic, and I am by no means trying to pick a fight with anybody. However, over the last several years I have found myself thinking quite a bit about the appropriate view of the Civil War, and specifically how we should view those who fought for the CSA, especially in terms of memorializing them as equal to those who fought for the Union. While there is a certain amount of respect that should be afforded to anyone who defended, to death, their homes, it is the case that what one fought for matters greatly.

The debate emerged, in part in response to this NRO piece by W. Thomas Smith Jr. which discussed the funeral for the crew of the CSS Hunley. Wrote Smith

True: Slavery is indeed the greatest scar on the national soul. But chances are the men who went down with the Hunley would have been no more concerned with whether-or- not slavery would have continued (or been extended into the western territories of North America) than a 21st-century soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine might have concerned himself with what particular U.N. resolutions Iraq violated prior to March 2003. For the most part, American combatants-then as now-take up arms for one reason only: Their nation calls them to do so.

This fact is best illustrated in one of the more popular stories of the Civil War. During a lull in the fighting, a Union officer asked a captured Confederate soldier if he was a slaveowner. When the young Confederate answered, “no,” the officer asked why he was fighting on the side of the rebellion. The prisoner simply responded, “because you’re here.”

This provoked Steve Bainbridge to say

In my book, the Hunley’s crew were traitors and rebels who tried very hard to rend asunder the nation Lincoln called “the last best, hope of earth.” When I think of the dire consequences a confederate victory would have had not just for Americans but for the whole world, I cannot have much sympathy for those who perished on the Hunley.

And while I admit to having reservations at employing the terms “traitors"-strictly speaking it is not incorrect. And while Smith refers to them as coming to the call of “their nation"-in point of fact, they did not. The were citizens of the United States of America until such a time as their states illegally withdrew from that entity and took up arms against “their nation".

As a conservative of southern heritage-with my Mother and her family coming from Alabama specifically (so I am not just a southerner by way of Texas, which isn’t the Deep South, but I have a substantial Deep South branch of my family tree), I am not what feddie of Southern Appeal warns against: “non-Southern Conservatives bashing the Confederate cause". I have spent the preponderance of my life in former Confederate states (Texas and Alabama) and all of my family, to my knowledge, are from Southern states. I was given a generally positive view of the South, and while I remember being told at a fairly young age that it was good that the Union won, there was still a sense that the CSA had some justification in the war. This is a prevalent view, I think, but I also think that most people in the South who hold that view don’t really give the issue the consideration that it deserves.

However, as noted above, I have given this topic a great deal of thought since moving to Alabama in 1998, and can’t get around the following: the main reason, indeed really, the only reason that the Civil War was fought was to protect the institution of slavery. Yes, the battle cry was over “states’ rights” but in this case the state right in question was the right to hold slaves. (And I am not one who thinks that the modern usage of the phrase “states’ right” is racist code. However, in the 1860s, it is rather difficult, to put it mildly, to argue that it meant anything other than the “right” of states to allow slavery.)

And it wasn’t as if the Union Army preemptively invaded the South to eradicate slavery. Indeed, the South made the first move, militarily speaking.

The funny thing is that I used to be more agnostic, if you will, on the Confederate battle flag and held less intense opinions on the general subject of the Civil War prior to moving to Alabama. My experiences here have brought into sharp focus the fact that clinging to, and glorifying, the Civil War period does two very damaging things to the South. First, it exacerbates racial divisions, which have not fully healed, and second, it keeps a large percentage of the population looking backwards, rather than forward.

It is therefore no leap to note that memorializing the Hunley soldiers has problematic overtones.

Jeff’s recent post also re-raises the “treason” question. He asks

If the men fighting for the Confederacy were all traitors then why did they all eventually have their citizenship restored and why were none of them, including Jefferson Davis who was held in Fortress Monroe for a time after the war, tried for treason?

This is actually pretty easy to answer: in internal wars, such as the US Civil War it is normally quite necessary to allow some, if not all, of the defeated belligerents to resume their roles in civil society, sometime even in prominent political positions, given the delicate nature of turning armed factions into non-warring ones (there are a number of very good examples from Twentieth Century Latin America). To fail to do so might lead to the resumption of violence. It is a practical consideration that often even is necessary in wars between

The bottom line in all of this is that I am not sure what the justification is today for seeing Union and Confederate soldiers as moral equivalents. For that matter, the continued exaltation of the symbols of the Confederacy, including the Rebel Battle Flag, strikes me as wrong and not really about “heritage” (although I am in the decided minority on this one where I live).

As someone who is, at my ideological core, a classical liberal who believes that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is it hard for me to not see slavery as the greatest crime that this country has ever committed, in a collective sense. Given that the primary purpose of the rebellion that led to the formation of the CSA was to protect the institution of slavery, how can I support the exultation of the symbols of the Confederacy? Especially when one considers that a military victory by the CSA would have resulted in the dissolution of a country that has grown into the greatest example of liberal democracy the world has ever seen?

Surely the decision to decide which side was “Right” in a war is the one whose victory is the most desirable outcome. And there can be no doubt, therefore, that Union represented the “Good Guys"-that only leaves, like it or not, the “Bad Guys” for the Confederates. I just don’t see any logical way around this fact.

I would further note, that had the CSA won, the South would be far worse off economically than it is now. Had the South won, the social and economic structure that was in place would not have led to industrialization, but rather to an agricultural economy not unlike many of the poorer Latin American countries in the late Nineteenth Century (i.e., land concentration in the hands of a few with vast number of free poor persons, and, of course, a slave class). It was in the interest of the citizens of the CSA to have lost, to be honest.

(Ok, let the slings and arrow fly…)

UPDATE: Posted as part of today’s Beltway Traffic Jam.

Click here to go to the main page.


  1. I am a southerner, born, bred and likely to die so. The greatest thing I can say about the Civil War is “THANK GOD WE LOST” because the historical difference a southern victory would have made is not worth thinking about but at best, we would be as you describe, at worst a terrible state more dreadful.

    In your “copious free time” read some of Harry Turtledove’s Great War series for a fairly serious fictional treatment of this very subject.

    Comment by Leroy — Friday, May 7, 2004 @ 4:41 pm

  2. I have letters and other documents from my relatives that fought on both sides of the war. The Southerners fought for their State, but so did many of the Northerners. True some of my relatives from the North wrote about preserving the Union, but many of those relatives also wrote about serving the state, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois. My relatives from Alabama and Texas wrote about defending Alabama and Texas.
    Robert E. Lee had a huge internal moral battle, before deciding to fight not for the South, but for Virginia. Loyalty to the State was strong and had a Constitutional basis.
    The Civil War was the transforming point where the United States reaching adolescence, matured into a nation, rather than a confederation of States.
    The soldiers on both sides were honorable. The primary issue was not slavery, but the rights of the State.

    Comment by rich — Friday, May 7, 2004 @ 7:16 pm

  3. Rich,

    That used to be my view. However, one has to ask a simple question for which there is only one answer the rights of the States to do what?

    Comment by Steven — Friday, May 7, 2004 @ 8:07 pm

  4. Steven…does it matter?

    What I mean is this: Of the soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, what percentage actually owned slaves? I’d assert that the number was somewhat low. Given that, what were those non-slave-owning soldiers fighting for?

    I mean, call me silly, but I have a hard time believing that very many people would be willing to fight and die for a cause that offers them no benefit.

    I also have to ask if the Union would really have ended, had the CSA won. Isn’t it likely that, had the US simply said, “Okay, you have the right to secede…we’re going home,” that the US would have continued, though as a smaller entity?

    Comment by Tom — Friday, May 7, 2004 @ 8:23 pm

  5. It’s a lot more complicated than I’d like to get into in comment sections-though, I DO want to point out that the Slavery issue removed any potential moral superiority the South may have claimed with their legitimate defense of States rights-but I have to take exception with this:

    “The were citizens of the United States of America until such a time as their states illegally withdrew from that entity and took up arms against “their nation".”

    - - -At the time, people generally regarded themselves as “Virginians first, Americans second". We can’t really conceive of that now, which has a lot to do with the effect of the Civil War.

    Comment by Jon Henke — Friday, May 7, 2004 @ 8:40 pm

  6. it hard for me to not see slavery as the greatest crime that this country has ever committed, in a collective sense.

    I think what we did to the natives (think trail of tears and countless treaties) would rank with slavery. Might even be greater.

    Comment by bryan — Friday, May 7, 2004 @ 8:43 pm

  7. I believe legalized abortion is the greatest crime committed by the United States.

    Comment by Feddie — Saturday, May 8, 2004 @ 7:22 am

  8. “…until such a time as their states illegally withdrew…”

    And therein lies the crux of the matter. The states did not illegally withdraw. They had the right to. The Civil War changed the nature of the country in that critical way, through martial victory.

    In the balance, I believe it is for the best that the north won, and that slavery was an abomination for which the gone by conquest sovereignity of the states was a flimsy and shameful shield, but the states that left the union did have the right to leave.

    Comment by Jay Solo — Saturday, May 8, 2004 @ 9:42 am

  9. Jay,

    On what basis could they legally withdraw?

    And I can envision no scanerio in which the South winning would have resulted in a positive outcome.

    Comment by Steven — Saturday, May 8, 2004 @ 10:20 am

  10. Jon,

    I do understand the differing view of state citizenshp v. US citizenship. And these are typical arguments.

    Here’s the question though: why did the states see the need to leave?

    Comment by Steven — Saturday, May 8, 2004 @ 10:25 am

  11. I don’t see the south winning as a positive thing either, and a legitimate reason for the northern conquest was to eliminate a danger to national security in the form of a nearly as large nation on their southern border.

    Show me where it was illegal for states to leave.

    The federal government derived its existance and powers as an association of the states. Powers not expressly granted to the federal government are reserved to the states. (And the people.) Preventing a state from leaving is not an enumerated power of the federal government.

    Sadly, the war was nearly inevitable as a result of failure to address both slavery and the issue of leaving some details vague or unstated enough to get everyone to go along with the formation of the republic. Addressing them at the embryonic stage would have been abortively suicidal.

    The Civil War more or less finished the argument of how strong the federal government should be, and how far the rights of the states could be limited.

    I have no problem preferring that the north won at the same time I mourn the direction it took, and is still taking, the country.

    Anyway, the states had the right to secede because they didn’t NOT have the right to secede, and because prior to the Civil War, the country was still a collection of sovereign states joined together for some common purposes, but with substantial rights and responsibilities of their own. Since then, states are increasingly mere geographic and administrative regions of an all-powerful federal government that conquered and subsumed them in war and beyond.

    Comment by Jay Solo — Saturday, May 8, 2004 @ 11:19 am

  12. There can be no serious doubt that the underlying reason for the Civil War was to preserve the institution of slavery. I once spent an afternoon reading the Mississippi Congressional record of the seccession debate and there was little if any high-brow debate about “states rights” (and, btw, states don’t have rights under the US Consitiution, they have powers and duties). Rather the debate was entirely focused on slavery and the word “nigger” was used frequently.

    Having said that, I am convinced that the Southern states had the better of the argument as to whther a state could withdraw from the Union or whther, having once joined, it was irrevokably bound to it. The south likely would have won its argument before a neutral court. Instead they lost it on the battlefield.

    To call Confederate troops traitors, I think, mistakenly applies modern considerations to a historic situation. During the antebellum period, Americans, both North and South, generally thought of themselves as citizens of their respective states first - those states having joined togther in a Union. When one’s state withdrew from the Union, one’s loyalty was to the place of one’s citizenship, the state, and not to the Union one’s state had joined.

    This is why men like Lee, who favored union and generally opposed slavery, nevertheless followed their states into secession. It wasn’t from motives of treason but out of obligations of loyalty, as those obligations were felt at the time.

    An imperfect anology would be to consider if Britian were to withdraw from the EU. Suppose the EU sought to prevent that withdrawl by force. Could Englishmen who fought for Britian be described as traitors? No. Might they be viewed as traitors in 150 years were a true united European state to evolve? Perhaps.

    The Southern cause was misguided the Northern victory welcome. But to label those men who fought for the south as traitors displays a profound lack of understanding of the thinking and loyalties of the time.

    Comment by Conrad — Tuesday, May 11, 2004 @ 2:33 am

  13. Well, under the EU the member states haven’t surrendered their status as soverign states. This is different than the federal structure that existed after 1789 in the US.

    Granted, the citizenship in the states was quite a bit more important. Still, the issue for me is ultimately how should we view those events NOW, not so much as how they viewed the issue then.

    Comment by Steven — Tuesday, May 11, 2004 @ 7:23 am

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