Centennial Wars

Today we are happy to welcome guest author Philip Leigh. Philip received his BS in Electrical Engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology, and received his MBA from Northwestern University. He has written 22 articles for the New York Times Disunion. In 2013 Philip authored his first Civil War book Co. Aytch: Annotated and Illustrated; which is an illustrated and annotated version of the memoirs of Confederate Private Sam Watkins. Next month Westholme Publishing will release his newest work titled Trading With the Enemy, which is about intersectional commerce between the North and South during the War. Philip also authored self-published an illustrated and annotated version of Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Fremantle’s Civil War diary titled Three Months in the Southern States.

Fifty years ago the master narrative of the Civil War Centennial failed to synchronize with the momentous 1960s Civil Rights movement. It minimized the roles of slavery and race. Instead the War was characterized as a unifying ordeal in which both sides fought heroically for their individual sense of “right” eventually becoming reconciled through mutual sacrifice. Slavery was considered only one of several causes of the War.

Lady LibertyAfterwards most historians began rejecting the Centennial interpretation. Yale professor David Blight explains that historians who came-of-age during the 1920s economic boom, ensuing crash, and Great Depression were the ones chiefly responsible for shaping the twentieth century understanding of the War’s causes – until the 1960s. Such writers “tended to see the world through the frame of the Great Depression” and interpreted sectional differences as more important than differing ideologies on slavery.

His signature example was Charles Beard who “saw the South and North as essentially two economies. . . . [U]ltimately the Civil War, in Beard’s view, wasn’t really about any particular ideology . . . it was two economic systems living together in . . . the same nation, and coming into conflict with one another in insolvable ways; forces meeting at a crossroads and they had to clash. Beard is laden with inevitability, as any great economic determinist usually is.”

If Blight correctly reasons the accepted causes of the Civil War fifty years ago were distorted because the Great Depression personally affected influential authors, it is reasonable to examine whether the Civil Rights movement similarly impacted Sesquicentennial historians. Princeton’s James McPherson is a good starting place. He won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Battle Cry of Freedom, which was his historical interpretation of disunion and the War. His influence is evident from the book’s massive popularity as a college text. Moreover, he’s repeatedly stated that the 1960s Civil Rights movement molded his study of the War. The affect was evident as early as his dissertation selection:

…[T]he selection of a dissertation topic was one of the most difficult experiences during my four years at Johns Hopkins from 1958–1962. . . . My adviser…encouraged me to write . . . on Alabama Reconstruction. . . [T]he Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and I knew [presumed?] that as a Yankee (born in North Dakota and raised in Minnesota) I might be less than welcome in Alabama. The prospect…left me considerably less than ecstatic. . . Meanwhile, I had become fascinated with the abolitionists… My empathy with these civil rights activists generated more excitement than…Alabama.

Additionally, McPherson echoes Blight’s criticism of Beard: “As Beard viewed it, slavery and emancipation were almost incidental to the real causes and consequences of the war. The sectional conflict arose from the contending economic interests.” On the eve of the Sesquicentennial McPherson concluded that Beard’s once popular economic-centric explanation had been nearly universally rejected by contemporary historians, who define slavery as the overarching cause: “Probably 90 percent, maybe 95 percent, of serious historians of the Civil War would agree on…what the war was about . . . which was the increasing polarization of the country between the free states and the slave states over issues of slavery, especially the expansion of slavery.”

After winning the Pulitzer, McPherson steadily attracted followers. While nearly all correctly emphasizes slavery as the reason the cotton states seceded, they generally fail to satisfactorily explain why the North declined to let the South depart peacefully. After all, if the South quietly left the Union, slavery would have ceased to exist in the United States. It was precisely what prominent abolitionists frequently advocated prior to the War. Examples include William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Beecher, Samuel Howe, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Clark, Gerrit Smith, Joshua Giddings, and even Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner who became a leading war hawk. For years Garrison described the United States Constitution as “a covenant with death and agreement with hell.”

MoneyMoreover, Lincoln continually rejected emancipation for the first seventeen months of the War. During the first year, he overruled Major Generals David Hunter and John C. Fremont when each attempted to emancipate slaves in their districts. As late as August 1862, he famously replied in a letter to publisher Horace Greely’s call to free the slaves, “My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” In short, “saving the Union” was really a slogan to avoid the consequence of disunion. The reasons are chiefly linked to economics, not abolitionism.

A surviving independent Confederacy would undoubtedly employ much lower tariffs than the United States. In his inaugural address President Jefferson Davis stated, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is . . . [in] our interest, and that of [our trading partners], that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.” Similarly Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin later offered France a special tariff exemption “for a certain defined period” in exchange for diplomatic recognition.

A low Confederate tariff presented the remaining states of the Union with two consequences. First, the federal government would lose the great majority of its tax revenue because 82% were obtained from tariffs. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Additionally, the Confederacy’s low duties would encourage Northern-bound European imports to enter in the South, where they could be smuggled across the Ohio River into Midwestern states and thereby evade US duties. Tariff compliance would nearly vanish and cause a collapse in federal tax revenue. Second, given the Confederacy’s lower tariffs its residents would likely buy more manufactured goods from Europe rather than as previously from the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

It was quickly realized that such concerns were not mere abstractions. In March 1861 New Yorkers were panicked to read a dispatch from St. Louis in a Manhattan newspaper: “Every day…our importers are receiving, by way of New Orleans very considerable quantities of goods, duty free…If this thing is to become permanent, there will be an entire revolution in the course of trade and New York will suffer terribly.” Cincinnati also reported that goods were arriving from New Orleans tariff-free. Three months earlier the Philadelphia Press editorialized, “It is the enforcement of the revenue laws, not the coercion of the [Rebel] state[s] that is the question of the hour. If those laws cannot be enforced, the Union is clearly gone.” Historian Charles Adams explains:

If trade were to shift to the Southern ports because of a free trade zone, or extremely low duties relative to the North, then [the] great cities [of the Northeast] would go into decline and suffer economic disaster. The image painted by these editorials [from secession-era newspapers of Northeastern cities] is one of massive unemployment, the closing of factories and businesses, followed by unrest, riots, and possibly revolution. The inland cities of the North would also go into decline, like Pittsburg, where duty-free British steel and iron products would cripple the American steel industry.

States northwest of the Ohio River had additional economic reasons to fear dissolution of the Union. Specifically, they were apprehensive that the Confederacy would jeopardize free trade to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The concern was sufficiently acute that some Midwesterners toyed with the notion of forming a Northwest Confederacy of states to be allied with the Southern Confederacy. Although the Davis government promised that the river would be open to free trade, many Midwesterners regarded such assurances as mere paper guarantees. They remained worried that the Confederacy may impose fees and import duties at some future date.

Finally, after the opening guns at Fort Sumter many Northern capitalists reasoned that a war would be good for business. Initially, Wall Street looked at disunion as a menace to their investments. Government bond quotations dipped with every incident of federal indecision. But eventually Northern industrialists correctly reasoned that the demand for war goods would lift the overall economy. Since hostilities would block much of the Mississippi River trade, eastern merchants concluded that they could monopolize commerce with the Midwest. Manufacturers would get many profitable military supply contracts. The Midwestern states would supply Union armies with provender. Such expectations proved to be valid. From 1860 to 1865, the gross national product increased from $4.3 billion to $9.9 billion, which translates to an 18 percent compounded annual growth rate. Since the economy in the South was shrinking, the rate applicable to the Northern states was probably well above 20 percent annually.

Critics of the Centennial storyline have successfully placed slavery and race at the center of the Sesquicentennial narrative. Some have over-corrected to a point where some historians are wrongly blacklisted as “neo-confederates.” One example is Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. Despite agreeing that slavery was “central to the coming of the War and the conflict itself” his most important books focus on Confederate topics thereby leaving him feeling compelled to explain, “Don’t dismiss me as a ‘neo-Confederate’…As a native of Los Angeles who grew up on a farm in southern Colorado, I can claim complete freedom from any.  .  .special pleading…[and] not a single ancestor fought in the war.”

Consequently, during the past fifty years numerous authors apparently competed with one another to devalue everything about the Confederacy to the point of absurdity. E. L. Doctorow’s fictional account of Sherman’s March to the Sea entitled The March became a best seller, won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and was made required reading at a Yale University Civil War history course, while portraying every male Southerner in the story as a reprehensible person. Characteristic of the dogma that typically depicts Southern failures as resulting from stupidity or arrogance, modern Antietam scholars conclude that Lee’s invasion of the North after Second Bull Run was driven by overconfidence. Yet they fail to even consider an important aspect of his viewpoint, which was the fact that Beauregard and Johnston were castigated in Richmond about a year earlier for failing to try what Lee attempted. Annapolis students are taught the consensus of historians agree that Grant was the War’s best general. Bruce Levine portrays as undisputed fact a dubious allegation denied by Lee that he whipped a female slave. The list goes on and on.

Those who worry that the “Gone With the Wind” version of Civil War history currently holds much public influence fear a ghost. By capturing an average 66% share of the TV audience over eight nights the race-centered narrative of the “Roots” miniseries has surely been as influential as the countervailing account provided by Scarlett’s story. It has been 37 years since “Roots” shifted Hollywood’s Civil War focus to slavery and race. By comparison, the interval between “Gone With the Wind” and “Roots” was 38 years. Historians should lead public knowledge about the war, not trail it by 37 years. It’s time to give up the ghost.

(Please email Emerging Civil War if you desire the authors citations for the article.)


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12 Responses to Centennial Wars

  1. Reblogged this on Poore Boys In Gray and commented:
    An extremely well-written and reasoned article…

  2. Thank you this extremely well-written and reasoned article. As Historian Edward Ayers has pointed out, had the Union defeated the Confederacy by 1862, the South would have been returned to a United States whose Constitution sanctioned slavery. We would then see the war, its causes and consequences in a very different light.

  3. Phil Leigh says:

    @ Poorboysingray:

    Thanks for the compliment and the reposting.

    Emerging Civil War is to be commended for publishing the essay. Some readers might be surprised at the identify of other publications that attempted to censor the message.

  4. Al Mackey says:

    I’m surprised to find this piece of historical chicanery on this blog.

    First of all, Mr. Leigh misstates the reasons for Lincoln’s overturning both the Frémont and Hunter proclamations.

    Slavery in Missouri, a loyal state not in rebellion, was a state matter, and a military officer did not have the authority to free slaves in that state. Congress had passed the First Confiscation Act, and Frémont could have implemented that Act by emancipating slaves that had been used in support of the rebellion. Instead, his proclamation claimed to emancipate all slaves of all disloyal masters. This was a violation of the law as passed by Congress. Frémont’s proclamation also violated the Constitutional prohibition on attainder. It had more to do than emancipating slaves. It declared martial law and it also confiscated all the property of disloyal people in Missouri. It was an unconstitutional usurpation of power by Frémont. Lincoln had a few problems with it. Lincoln asked Frémont to amend his proclamation in order to make it compliant with the First Confiscation Act. Frémont refused. Lincoln then ordered Frémont to modify the order.

    David Hunter actually issued two proclamations dealing with slavery. The first was issued on April 13, 1862 and said, “All persons of color lately held to involuntary service by enemies of the United States are hereby confiscated and declared free.” This proclamation conformed with the law as passed by Congress and Lincoln allowed it to stand undisturbed. The second proclamation, dated May 9, went beyond what Congress had allowed. In that proclamation, Hunter declared all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to be free, something a military officer was not authorized to do. Lincoln overturned that second proclamation because Hunter went beyond his authority.

    In both cases, we had officers going beyond their authority and Lincoln exercising civilian control to correct that situation. Mr. Leigh would have us believe that these cases show that Lincoln rejected emancipation of slaves. Nonsense. Since August of 1861 the Lincoln administration had been formally emancipating slaves on a regular basis as they came within Union lines, especially after Congress passed the Confiscation Acts. See the instructions from Simon Cameron here: http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;idno=waro0114;node=waro0114%3A3;view=image;seq=776;size=100;page=root

    On August 8, 1861, Lincoln’s War Department issued instructions for implementing the First Confiscation Act. The slaves would be discharged from service permanently. In other words, they were freed. The House also endorsed a resolution prohibiting Union soldiers from participating in any way in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. [The following year this would become an Article of War]

    The War Department authorized Butler to emancipate all the slaves who came into Union lines from any area in rebellion. As a result, 900 contrabands were immediately freed.

    In September a copy of the instructions were sent to Gen. John Dix in Maryland, ordering him to emancipate any slaves coming into his lines from Virginia.

    In October they were sent to the commander of the joint Navy-Army operation at Port Royal in South Carolina, and 9,000 slaves were emancipated as a result.

    In December they were sent to General Halleck, who was told to emancipate any slaves in Kentucky who had fled from Tennessee.

    In December of 1861, in his First Annual Message to Congress, Lincoln noted that numerous slaves had escaped to Union lines and were “thus liberated.”

    In February of 1862 at New Bern, North Carolina, Ambrose Burnside freed slaves.

    David Hunter, at Fort Pulaski and the Cockspur Islands freed slaves.

    In June of 1862, General McClellan, in his campaign up the Peninsula, followed the same orders. All slaves who came within his lines were emancipated.

    By the spring of 1862, thousands of slaves along the South Atlantic coast from Hampton Roads, Virginia to Fernandino, Florida were freed.

    On August 24, 1862, the US Navy captured New Orleans, and Benjamin Butler was sent to take command. Butler was not sure whether the tens of thousands of slaves in Southern Louisiana met the conditions for emancipation. Louisiana slaveholders for the most part didn’t flee the Union occupation, and many of them claimed to be loyal. Butler asked his superiors in Washington for instructions.

    Congress answered with the Second Confiscation Act. In the Union-occupied areas of the south that were formerly occupied by the rebels, like Southern Louisiana, slaves owned by anyone who couldn’t demonstrate continuous loyalty to the Union were immediately emancipated. Lincoln sent word to Butler to immediately implement this Act. Butler complied, writing, “By the Act of Congress they are clearly free.”

    Mr. Leigh quotes Lincoln’s famous letter to Horace Greeley in response to Greeley’s editorial, “The Prayer of Twenty Millions.” Of course, he leaves out the final sentence in which Lincoln says, “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.”

    Greeley had been piously writing editorials while Lincoln had been issuing orders to emancipate tens of thousands of slaves. At the time he wrote that letter to Greeley, Lincoln had in his desk the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had long decided that striking against slavery was the best way to preserve the Union.

    Mr. Leigh’s claim that “Lincoln continually rejected emancipation for the first seventeen months of the War” is simply ahistorical nonsense with no basis in fact at all.

    Mr. Leigh is correct that Lincoln’s primary goal was the preservation of the Union, but that’s one of the few things he has correct in his argument. Anyone who cites the dubious Charles Adams, who famously and very falsely claimed Fort Sumter was a tariff collection point, as a credible historian has a problem from the very beginning, and Mr. Leigh has a huge problem in his claim regarding tariffs. He claims that a low confederate tariff would mean the US Government would lose the great majority of its revenue. Hogwash.

    In 1860, Charleston only had $2.0 million in imports, Savannah had only $800,000 in imports, Mobile had only $600,000 in imports, New Orleans had only $20.6 million in imports, and other southern ports had only $3.0 million in imports. In the same year, New York City alone had $231.3 million in imports and all other northern ports had $95.3 million in imports.

    New Orleans was the southern port that collected the most in the tariff, and it was only $3.1 million. The total south only collected $4.0 million in tariff revenues, whereas New York City collected $34.9 million in tariff revenues and the total for northern ports was $48.3 million. [Source: Douglas B. Ball, Financial Failure and Confederate Defeat, p. 205, Table 18, "Trade Figures by Port in 1860" and "Customs Collections by Major Port (1860)"]

    So out of $52.3 million in tariff revenue in 1860, 92.35% was paid in northern ports, while only 7.65% was paid in southern ports, which includes Baltimore, Maryland.

    “There is no way of calculating accurately the value of the foreign imports consumed in territory naturally tributary to Southern seaports; but the probabilities are that it did not so greatly exceed the direct importations as Southerners generally supposed. Some Southern writers made the palpably untenable assumption that the Southern population consumed foreign goods equal in value to their exports to foreign countries, that is about two-thirds or three-fourths of the nation’s exports or imports. More reasonable was the assumption that the per capita consumption of imported goods in the South was equal to that of the North; but even that would seem to have been too liberal. A much higher percentage of the Northern population was urban; and the per capita consumption of articles of commerce by an urban population is greater than the per capita consumption by a rural population. Southern writers made much of the number of rich families in the South who bought articles of luxury imported from abroad; but there is no doubt that the number of families who lived in luxury was exaggerated. That the slaves consumed comparatively small quantities of foreign goods requires no demonstration. Their clothing and rough shoes were manufactured either in the North or at home. Their chief articles of food (corn and bacon) were produced at home or in the West. The large poor white element in the population consumed few articles of commerce, either domestic or foreign. The same is true of the rather large mountaineer element, because if for no other reason, they lived beyond the routes of trade. Olmstead had these classes in mind when he wrote: ‘I have never seen reason to believe that with absolute free trade the cotton States would take a tenth part of the value of our present importations.’ One of the fairest of the many English travelers wrote: ‘But the truth is, there are few imports required, for every Southern town tells the same tale.’ ” [Robert R. Russel, Economic Aspects of Southern Sectionalism, 1840-1861, pp. 107-108]

    So the absolute upper limit of the amount of foreign goods consumed by southerners would be the percentage of southerners. But, as Prof. Russel tells us, that is too high, because more southerners were in rural rather than urban areas, meaning they used fewer foreign products, and slaves used even fewer foreign products. Let’s just take the 11 states that made up the confederacy. The percentage of the population in the 11 states of the confederacy was 29% of the total US population in 1860, according to the US Census, and 40% of THAT population were slaves who didn’t use imported goods. 60% of the confederate population, then, were theoretically liable to use imported goods, so we have the most southerners in the confederate states would have paid being just about 17%, because the upper limit of southerners in the confederate states who would use foreign goods amounted to 17% of the total US population. Again, this is most probably an overestimate because a higher percentage of that population was rural and didn’t use foreign goods.

    Bottom line, southerners in the confederate states paid no more than 17% of the Federal revenue in 1860. How they will magically and suddenly be able to consume another 83% of the dutiable goods coming into the United States, or even be able to smuggle that large an amount over state boundaries, is something Mr. Leigh fails to prove.

    Mr. Leigh mentions Gary Gallagher, and perhaps Mr. Leigh should read Professor Gallagher’s books. Professor Gallagher argues very cogently that protection of slavery lay at the root of the confederate war effort while preservation of the Union lay at the root of the Union war effort. And it wasn’t preservation of the Union in order to get tariffs, but rather preservation of the Union because the Union was sacred to them.

    Mr. Leigh claims, “Bruce Levine portrays as undisputed fact a dubious allegation denied by Lee that he whipped a female slave.” This is a distortion of what Professor Levine wrote. According to Professor Levine, “In 1859, three of Lee’s slaves–Wesley Norris, his sister, and a cousin named Mary–attempted to escape from the Arlington plantation. Recaptured in Maryland, the unfortunate people were jailed there for two weeks and then delivered back into Lee’s hands. Promising to teach them a lesson they would not soon forget, Lee had them taken to the barn, stripped to the waist, and whipped between twenty and fifty times each on their bare flesh by a local constable named Dick Williams.” [Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South, p. 11] As we can see, Professor Levine doesn’t claim that Lee whipped a female slave, but he had her whipped. This is detailed in Wesley Norris’ own account. Elizabeth Brown Pryor, in her book, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, substantiates much of Wesley Norris’ story, lending a great deal of credibility to the account.

    Mr. Leigh complains that “Annapolis students are taught the consensus of historians agree that Grant was the War’s best general.” Well, he was, so I fail to see the problem there.

    In sum, the article is a prime example of a bogus argument based on ahistorical nonsense and a few facts taken out of context.

  5. Meg Thompson says:

    . . . and the War continues.

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