Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Few Inconvenient Facts About the Civil War

With so much debate, fear, hate, sadness, pride and many other emotions swirling around the Confederate flag controversy now (again) enveloping South Carolina, and the related calls to remove the Confederate Battle flag from a Confederate Monument, I would like to offer some facts.

What little we learn about the Civil War in public schools often follows the victorious government's approved cannon: the war was wholly about slavery, the North fought to save the Union and end slavery, the South wanted to destroy America, nearly everyone in the South owned slaves, and President Abraham Lincoln was a paragon of tolerance; a staunch defender of racial peace and equality.

Below are little known facts about the North and South. My hopes is that this will force you to question what you have been taught (and the beliefs that teaching demanded), so that you can look at the whole issue and realize it was far more complex and nuanced than most like to think. 

On Lincoln and the North

* Lincoln married into a slave-owning family.

* In 1847 Lincoln said, “Any people anywhere being inclined and having the power have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.”

* During the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln said “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

* During Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861 he said, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” He continued by saying he fully supported the Fugitive Slave laws and that he has never recanted his views but has repeated them many times over.

* Various Union Army reports, including those from Gen. Sherman, talk about the total destruction not only of Southern property but of the Southern people themselves. Gen. Sherman remarked, “to the persistent secessionist, why, death is mercy, and the quicker he or she is disposed of the better.”

* Racism was alive and well in the North. New Jersey banned African Americans from voting in 1807, Connecticut in 1814, Rhode Island in 1822, and Pennsylvania in 1838.

* The New York riots of 1863, which saw the deaths and injuries of over 2,100 people, were the largest civil and racial insurrection in American history aside from the war itself.

* Economics and the fear of lost revenue was a driving factor in the North's invasion of the South. 

* Slaves who came under the control of the Union Army were often impressed (forced) to fight and engage in back breaking manual labor, such as in the construction of fortifications.

On the South

* Less than 5% of Southern white men owned slaves.

* The Confederate Constitution explicitly banned the importation of slaves from other countries – the US Constitution did not.

* The first Jewish person to hold a cabinet-level position in any North American country was the Confederate Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin.

* The last Confederate General to surrender was Gen. Stand Waite, a Cherokee.

* Thousands of American Indians, African Americans, and other minorities served and fought for the Confederacy, many of whom volunteered.

* There were multiple plans to end slavery after the war was over, indeed, in 1865 the Confederate government officially allowed blacks to serve in the military.

* There were over 260,000 free blacks in the southern states in 1860.

Yes, the Confederacy and the many different Confederate flags are part of our past. However, that past influenced an entire century and in some ways it continues to influence our present. Without the past we would not have our present. The past gives us a foundation and guides our future. Ignoring the past only serves to damage our future. Not recognizing that our past was far more complicated than taught in government funded schools or promoted by the media leads us all down a dangerous path.

People see the American flag as a symbol of freedom and peace. Others see it as a symbol of oppression and war. Likewise, people see different things in the flags of the Confederacy. The racial problems that we face today began over 400 years ago and were ingrained in American life with the adoption of the US Constitution. The Civil War was fought for many reasons, but the idea that every Northerner was fighting to end slavery and bring about true equality is completely false, just as false as the idea that every Southerner was fighting to keep slavery.

Before the war began, both sides, North and South, believed they were struggling to defend the same America. The North was wanting to keep our Union, the South was wanting to keep the foundations of our system: that the people and states are sovereign.

Tens of millions of Americans are descendants of Confederate soldiers. My g-g-g-g-grandfather, Cpt. Tim Allison, died in 1862 during the middle of the night near his home after Union soldiers were given express orders to hunt him down. Pretending like the Confederacy was entirely about oppression and that if we could simply erase or suppress everything associated with it we would end racism and violence is both naive and does a huge disservice to all the brave men and women who fought – North and South.

We would not be where we are today without the most destructive and deadly conflict in American history. We should do our best to understand it, not runaway from it or demand that it was a simple affair that can only be viewed through simplistic “good and evil” terms.

Those whose hearts are corrupt and violent will act on those desires regardless of what society thinks. Allowing any act of violence to serve as an excuse to obliterate history, or to drive a wedge further between the regions of our country will not lead to more respect and tolerance (such forceful actions usually lead to the opposite). We may be one country, but we are a country made up of multiple regions, accents, religions, and peoples with different experiences and histories. Allowing for these difference and different expressions doesn't make us weak, it's exactly the reason why the United States became the most powerful country on earth, and it is precisely this unique nature that our forefathers sought to preserve - starting with the Revolution.

We can still be one nation while recognizing that people are allowed to view symbols with pride and others with disgust without requiring one view supersede and dominate the other.


  1. Well written and factual. Excellent.

  2. ..very good, Jacob, regards from Germany.

  3. Most excellent blog Jacob, punctuated with ample research to carefully state the facts and point out several truths most likely unknown to many as well as those who are quick to accuse, slander and protest due to ignorance of all the reasons and mindsets that brought the north and south to wage this horrific war that cost many there lives. Yet the war and reasons it was fought has etched itself into the fabric of our lives as a staunch history lesson that we might learn from but also to heal from in order that we might strengthen our union as a nation and a leader of the free world.

  4. Excellent! I agree with everything you say. Unfortunately a few bad guys decided to use it as a tool for terror. We all know what happens when people associate signs and symbols with terrorism. Look at the swastika. It was a long used symbol for good until Hitler used it. Now it is practically a sin to show one.
    I think that people need to know the things you've said because they are true and help balance the boat. But, sorry, I don't think you're ever gonna get that flag back.

  5. A few things are left out, most of which I've learned from Ken Burns' "The Civil War".
    1) The entire Southern GDP in 1860 was 1/4 that of New York's.

    2) By the time Lincoln gave his inaugural address (March 4th), the entire South had already seceded (I won't argue the legality of their putative move here).

    3) While the US Constitution did not ban the importation of slaves, later laws did.

    4) By 1865, the South was scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of white manpower, or as Jefferson Davis put it, "grinding the seed corn of the nation". By the time of the siege of Petersburg, they had one man for every two yards of battle line.

    5) Blacks who volunteered for the Confederate armies and militias were promised freedom at the end of the war.

    6) While there may have been 260,000 free blacks in the South in 1860, they were "kept in their place". The were free, yet not free.