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Who is promoting misconceptions?

Regard for at least minimal historic accuracy compels me, as a general reader of history, to respond to the article in the Nov. 9 issue “Demythologizing [sic.] the Lost Cause,” by Donald E. Wilkes, Jr.; the article is also available in complete form online, but adds little of substance. The article suffers horribly as history, largely from huge and jagged gaps of missing context. The author, Donald Wilkes, whoever he may be, tries to deflect criticism by giving the impression that any opposing ideas cannot be as “serious” or “impressive” as the ones from his reading list. I will nonetheless point out some ideas of at least equal weight.

Mr. Wilkes’ discussion of “Myth No. 1: The principal reason the Southern states seceded was states’ rights, not slavery,” merely replaces one myth with another. Wilkes fills out half of a precious Flagpole column with quotations from other, and better, writers, choosing a small selection from South Carolina’s Declaration of Immediate Causes and Vice-President Stephens’ infamous “slavery is the cornerstone” speech. I will leave for the time the issue over whether the speech-text we have is the one Stephens actually delivered and look at immediate causes of secession.

Wilkes first makes a good case that South Carolinians were concerned about the Northern states’ violations of Federal decisions supporting property in slaves. But it is important to remember that many other states besides South Carolina seceded. To get the full picture, it is instructive to read the full text of the South Carolina Declaration and the Ordinance of Secession, then to read the equivalent documents from all the other states, some of which are dated later than Lincoln’s call-to-arms against the states.

The bulk of the paragraphs preceding the quoted part in the South Carolina Declaration have to do with the right to secede. Other Deep South states approved ordinances that say in effect “same as South Carolina.” Texas, for its part, develops a frankly white-supremacist argument. Arkansas, on the other hand, seceded to prepare to defend herself from attack, Missouri because the state had already been invaded by Federal troops, and Maryland had no chance to decide at all – her leaders were too busy being arrested without charges by Federal troops.

Without these contexts, not to mention the host of Southern political and economic concerns from the tariff of 1816 on, the writer gives a casual reader the impression that South Carolina suddenly decided to up and leave because some slaves were not being returned to them. The bottom line is that this argument, “states’ rights vs. slavery,” is a false division. The two go together – the states exercised their right to secede for a variety of reasons, including protecting their property in slaves and everything else they had.

By the way, the word choices in “domestic institutions” and “servile insurrection” were not altogether original to South Carolinians. The U.S. Declaration of Independence charges that King George “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us,” by which token the American Revolution was likewise “about slavery.”

So, one can make a case that Southerners were concerned about their way of life, including slavery, but it is impossible to show that the motive for the Federal invasion had anything to do with slavery. The motive for the war at the North end was purely to force the seceding states to stay in the Union. Slavery per se was upheld by an array of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. So, at best the war was only half “about slavery.” Everyone knew there was already another way available to end slavery besides waging war; it was called changing the law.

Mr. Wilkes’ text also evinces some editing problems; “Myth No. 2” and “3” are essentially the same, amounting to the charge that secessionists used “‘force,” “fraud” and “intimidation and violence” at the ballot. Once again, there is no context – which in this case is force and fraud in the rest of the U.S. It was not unusual in the 19th century for political parties to corral groups of citizens and herd them to the polls to vote the right way – preferably more than once. I do not have the data in front of me on the relative levels of corruption in New York or Chicago as compared with Charleston or New Orleans. My hunch is that if we put these places next to each other, the secessionists might stand condemned for using the same methods as everybody else.

Also, it seems to me that the Lincoln administration used considerable “intimidation and violence” to prevent secession, not to mention further “force” to support the secession of West Virginia from Virginia. Just saying.

Wilkes gives us a magic figure for the violation of civil liberties in the Southland – 4,108 people arrested by the military of the Confederacy. Again, the number tells us little in the total absence of notes on the circumstances of these arrests, nor any figures from the U.S. in general. The Federal list of violations could begin with the arrest of the mayor and city council of Baltimore, an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the shutting down of dissenting newspapers and go on and on from there.

As I said, the online version of this article adds nothing to the printed parts, and the remaining “myths” suffer in the same way as the printed ones – context, context, context. His response to Myths 5 and 6 (Southern loyalty) both have to do with Southerners working against the Confederacy or joining the Federal army. Again, not a word about people in federally controlled areas deserting or joining the Confederacy. Wilkes overturns Myth 7 (the loyalty of the slaves) by pointing to the African Americans who worked against the Confederacy and then claiming that “blacks undermined the Confederacy.” Wilkes replaces one idealized generalization with another. No. 9 claims that the Confederacy used spies and black ops. Again, there is not a peep from Mr. Wilkes about the well-known Dahlgren affair, when Federal agents planned not only to assassinate President Davis and his Cabinet, but in the same act release prisoners on the general public and burn the city of Richmond to the ground. Far be it from the United States to settle for mere kidnapping when mass murder would be more effective.

I will concede some points on Myth 8 (external vs. internal causes of loss). Wilkes points out that the South was weakened by internal divisions. Since the principle behind secession was state sovereignty, it is not surprising that the states sometimes did not cooperate with each other or the Confederate government as much as they should have.

As Wilkes puts it, “many misconceptions have grown up around the Civil War,” and not all of them were nurtured south of the Mason-Dixon line. Wilkes may need some basic help in composition. His opening paragraph mentions idealization of the “Lost Cause,” but none of his busted “myths” are clearly tied to the ideal view of the past. Most are tired old targets for attack on Southern history. On the personal note, I am surprised and irritated that after so many well-developed articles on local history, from covered bridges to the Creek Nation, that the Flagpole would allow its ink to be wasted on such a shallow piece of polemic. I hope the good newspaper returns soon to its usual levels of quality analysis.