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History: set of lies agreed upon.

It is good to hear from my worthy antagonist, Mr. Donald Westman, and to read his comments in the Fall 2003 issue of The Loyalist Gazette regarding my views on the Second American Revolution (a.k.a. the Civil War). I had to look up obiter dictum, but it turned out to be not nearly as bad as I had feared. Mr. Westman raises some interesting points, and I would like to take this opportunity to respond.

1. "the racist monstrosity"

The most significant and fortunate result of the Civil War was the emancipation of the slaves. Sometimes, however, we fail to distinguish between results and causes. In other words, because the war resulted in the end of slavery does not necessarily mean the war was started exclusively for the purpose of ending (or preserving) slavery. To be sure, there was an active abolitionist movement and the Southern economy was dominated by an elite minority who owned most of the slaves. It is equally true, however, that the objective of the Federal government at the onset of the conflict was to preserve the union created by the US Constitution, and the objective of the Confederacy was to protect the rights of its member states to secede from the union since the Articles of Confederation predated the Constitution. Since most of the fighting took place in the South, many Southerners fought simply to defend their homes from what they saw as a foreign invader. A significant number of participants on both sides cared very little about slavery. Tragically, had there been no Civil War, slavery would certainly have been abolished later as a result of increasing moral consensus against it.

If "history is the set of lies agreed upon" (Napoleon), winners of conflicts always reserve the right to ensure that their admixture of truth and lies is accepted as the official version. The Emancipation Proclamation effectively changed the focus of the war from preserving the union to the abolition of slavery, giving the Union the high moral ground, and making it impossible for Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy and intervene on the side of the South. Thus it represented a political and diplomatic strategy as well as a declaration for human rights, and the southern cause is remembered not just as a war to assert states' right to self-determination, but as what Mr. Westman calls a "racist monstrosity". The truth is a bit more complex. I agree with him that slavery is a monstrosity, but would stop short of applying the term to the entire Confederate cause, since there was merit to their constitutional arguments.

2. "it is categorically false to state that the war was fought over the 'tariff issue', it is also incorrect to attribute secession to a fear of excessive federal power"

I did not say that the civil war was fought over the tariff issue, although it was part of the bigger picture. Tension between north and south was evident during the First Civil War (a.k.a. the American Revolution). George Washington, a high profile Southerner from Virginia, was appointed General-in-Chief of the Continental Army to inspire colonial unity, and this incurred the resentment of many of his New England subordinates. Debate between federalists, who advocated a strong central government, and anti-federalists, who supported comparative autonomy for the states (over which the rebellion had been fought), dominated the politics of the early years of the republic. Congress assumed the role of occupying western territories claimed by the original thirteen states and conferring "'statehoods". Several New England states threatened to secede from the union during Mr. Madison's (a Southerner) War of 1812-14 because they depended on trade with England and the British North American Colonies. The "tariff issue" came about because the US government imposed duties on cotton exports that many southern planters saw as exploitive. This led to the "nullification crisis" in which several southern states adopted the position that the states were only obligated to recognize federal powers specifically granted to the US government by the states; all others were illegal and could be "nullified" or prevented by the states from being enforced within state borders. President Andrew Jackson, a Southerner and strong federalist, threatened to use federal troops to enforce federal law. A compromise was reached and civil war was postponed, but questions of federal and state authority inspired much debate in the 1830s and 1840s. In the 1850s, sectional differences were heightened by increasing debate over the moral implications of the institution of slavery, and federal government attempts to admit equal numbers of slave and non-slave states in its western expansion, to preserve the balance in Congress. All this is to say that by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, tensions between north and south, and between federalists and state's rights advocates, had been ongoing since before the United States was created, for reasons that were usually economic and cultural, and often had nothing to do with slavery. I believe the events leading up to the Civil War are difficult to understand if we concentrate on the slavery issue alone and ignore 1) apprehension on the part of the states, not just southern states, that the federal government was systematically accumulating powers at their expense; 2) cultural differences between an agrarian south and an increasingly industrial and mercantile north; and 3) if we impose our concept of the US as an indivisible federal nation-state on people whose primary loyalty at the time was to their home state.

3. "anyone who knows this war must surely recognize the arbitrary dictatorial powers which were progressively accumulated by ... the Confederacy"

Yes, ironically, the Confederacy, which championed state's rights, was compelled to increasingly centralize control over its member states if it were to survive and win the rebellion. On at least one occasion this led to the ludicrous spectacle of states threatening to secede from the Confederacy that was attempting to secede from the United States! The Federal government, however, was even more successful in suspending the civil rights of its citizens and exerting control over its member states in order to put down the secessionist rebellion, and this is one of the reasons for its eventual victory. It is important to recognize that once the United States government won the war it kept much of that power. The Civil War can be seen as a victory for the federalists, and the United States federal government has continued to increase its primacy over state and local governments. Furthermore, the power of the Executive (Presidency) within that federal government increased dramatically during the Civil War and has remained much stronger than was ever intended in the ante bellum period.

4. "verminous war criminals"

Regrettably, civil wars have a way of bringing out the worst as well as the best in people, and incidents recorded during the Civil War cover the full range from cruelty to compassion. Atrocities, such as Mr. Westman described in his letter, were committed in frontier areas by both sides. This was also true during the American Revolution. As for Grant's comment about "so much courage shown for so base a cause", the campaign fought by his generals is often cited by military historians as one of the earliest examples of modern warfare, not just because of the technology used for the first time, but because it introduced the concept of "total war"--defined as warfare directed not against the enemy army to force it to surrender, but against the enemy civilian population to cause economic privation and compel them to urge their politicians and diplomats to sue for peace, and this remains an unfortunate feature of modern warfare. In my very humble opinion, Grant had little grounds for moralizing about how Confederate commanders conducted their campaigns, given Sheridan's devastation of the Shenandoah, Sherman's "march to the sea" and the punitive period of reconstruction under military governors that followed the conflict.

5. "they attacked us"

By the time Fort Sumter was fired upon, the Confederate government knew there was no possibility that the Federal government would acknowledge its right to secede. While Fort Sumter was designed by Federal army engineers to protect Charleston Harbor, the guns could easily have been turned around and used against Charleston if the garrison had so decided. So perhaps from a strategic standpoint a preemptive attack seemed logical. I agree that if General Beauregard and his superiors had simply blockaded the fort and waited for the garrison to make the first hostile move, it might have been more advantageous politically. Alternatively, the US government could have recognized the Confederacy and withdrawn its troops from Fort Sumter, thus avoiding the loss of the 600,000 lives, to which Mr. Westman refers. However, had the rebel lion succeeded, I question whether the question of who fired the first shot would have mattered that much. For example, we do not know who fired that famous "shot heard around the world" at Lexington in 1775, but if we discovered a primary source document tomorrow that proved it was a Rebel, to what extent would that diminish the righteousness of the revolution in the minds of Americans today?

People fight in wars for many reasons, so it is no surprise that historians can be divided in their interpretations after the fact. While it is not incorrect to view the Civil War in terms of racial & human rights issues, I reserve the privilege to also interpret it in terms of its constitutional aspects. I tend to see this war as a continuation of the American Revolution in that many of the issues the participants believed they were fighting for at the time were issues left unresolved by the earlier struggle:

* what was meant by "all men are created equal"?

* the relation between central authority (be it in London or Washington) and colonial or state autonomy,

* the question of when the right of self-determination supercedes loyalty to King or Congress and when economic protectionism becomes economic exploitation.

In fact, "Unresolved Issues" was the working title for the article that eventually became "The War that Created Two Countries" (The Loyalist Gazette, Spring 2002).

--Yours very respectfully, W.A. Manning BA, UE
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Title Annotation:Letters to the Editor
Author:Manning, W.A.
Publication:The Loyalist Gazette
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:1698
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