Question of the Week: April 11-17, 2016


This week’s Question of the Week comes from Ryan Quint, fresh off a spell at Hogwart’s: “If you could wave a magic wand and get rid of a single myth of the Civil War, what would it be?”

55 Responses to Question of the Week: April 11-17, 2016

  1. A tall order…is the blasted “Lost Cause” myth one or many myths rolled under one moniker? I think to start, the myth of “race” or more pointedly, racial inferiority.

  2. Let’s get rid of the myth that the Civil Wat was about state’s rights and not slavery.

  3. I’ll add another. Stonewall was a military genius who would have won the war, would have taken Cemetery Hill on July 1, and would have taught Grant a thing or four.

  4. All of the above, plus the myth that RE Lee was the greatest general of the war. US Grant was, hands down. Grant was the only general to capture three entire armies at Ft. Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox. Plus, in their head-to-head fight, Grant ultimately beat Lee. ‘Nough said.

      1. Thomas:
        You’ve fallen for another Civil War myth.

        In fact, Lee’s casualties, as a percentage of his overall armies, were far greater than Grant’s. Even some of Lee’s so-called victories, i.e. Seven Days (especially Malvern Hill), Chancellorsville and Bull Run II were terribly costly to the Army of Northern Virginia. A growing number of historians are now terming these three pyrrhic victories.

        I agree with you about Grant being flawed. Like Lee, he made mistakes. The difference: Lee’s mistakes eventually proved fatal to his cause.

      2. Bob could you please show me where you got your info on your last statement. I was referring to the over land campaign when both Generals faced each other, Not the entire war . you are waging the dog as they say .

      3. Well, let’s start with the Wilderness. They each lost 17% of their strength just in that fight. If I’m 1 of 100 soldiers or 1 of 50 but have the same chance of becoming a casualty, sounds like a dice roll to me.

      4. Thomas:
        This is in reply to your post below about the Overland campaign.

        My sources for comparing of Lee and Grant are many-fold. Here are a few of the books that generally debunk Lost Causers’ beatification of Lee. (Some of them are out of print but can be bought on or borrowed from a library.)

        The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society by Thomas Lawrence Connelly; Lee Considered: Robert E. Lee and Civil War History by Alan Nolan; Lee and His Generals in War and Memory by Gary W. Gallagher; Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and Southern Heritage by Grady McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson; and The Myth of the Lost Cause: Why the South Fought the Civil War and Why the North Won by Edward H. Bonekemper III.

        Narrowing the issue of casualties to only the Overland campaign is unfair cherry-picking. Of course Grant’s Overland casualties were higher than Lee’s. Except for the Wilderness, Lee’s army was behind what proved to be unassailable trenches.

        Unlike Lee, Grant had to keep on the offensive, keep attacking. If he had taken his cue from Lee and entrenched the Army of the Potomac, the North would have lost the war.

        The real issue is: Why was Lee – one of the war’s most offensive-minded and aggressive generals – forced by Grant into defensive trench and siege warfare, a strategy that Lee himself admitted would eventually end in defeat?

        The reasons are two-fold: Lee didn’t have enough men and he faced – for the first time – a general who was as aggressive as he.

        Lee’s pyrrhic victories in 1862 and 1863 and his two disastrous invasions of the North bled the Army of Northern Virginia of many of its best officers and men. The South, with a much smaller population, could not afford such casualties. (Unlike Lee, all of Grant’s invasion campaigns of the South – except fort Belmont early in the war – were successes.)

        Grant’s stubborn, never-retreat strategy forced Lee to repeatedly give ground until the Army of Northern Virginia was boxed into a siege around Petersburg and Richmond. Lee no longer faced patsies like McClellan, Pope, Burnside and Hooker.

        As Bonekemper sagely notes in his book: The Army of the Potomac had 144,000 fewer casualties under Grant than under his predecessors. And Grant’s predecessors had nothing to show for their bloody statistics. Grant’s casualties, on the other hand, resulted in saving our great nation from dismemberment and ending slavery.

  5. That if a Confederate demi-brigade with no true leader, no hope of reinforcements, no artillery support, and less than 2,500 men took Little Round Top, the entire Federal position at Gettysburg would be deemed untenable.

    On the flip side…. that the “Union” was single handily saved on that hill by one undersized Federal regiment.

    1. Good one, yourself. Although I’ve seen a version of the myth which holds that the “Union” was saved by one guy on that hill. Now imagine a man-to-man dual between Stonewall and the Professor on one of the two hills in question.

      1. No question that JLC would win, one arm tied behind his back (pun intended). JLC had Buster Kilrain to be his second……wait that guy wasn’t real? 🙂

      2. But Buster would have been distracted by faithful Jim Lewis shouting out religious questions about slavery to God. 😉

  6. In the Dred Scott case the Supreme Court ruled that “only the states can end slavery.” In so much that the war became an effort to end slavery by other than state action, is it a myth to say that states rights was the root cause of the war? The slave states had the right to settle the issue on their terms.

    It is also instructive to remember that slavery was ended, in the legal sense, by an action of the states, ie, ratification of the 13th Amendment.

    Perhaps the greater myth is that a single, clear-cut issue caused the war. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the old-school “multi-causal” historiography. Perhaps the matter is more tangled than many current historians think.

  7. Michael:
    The Lower South seceded from the United States for one major reason: Its leaders feared that Lincoln’s election would mean the death of slavery. Want proof? Read the ordinances of secession from the Lower Southern states, especially South Carolina’s. (Michael, you can find it through a Google search on the Internet.) This document repeatedly mentions preservation of slavery as virtually the ONLY cause for its secession.

    Of course, Lost Causers want to forget what Southern leaders actually said and wrote AT THE TIME of secession. Instead, they quote what many Confederate leaders said and wrote years AFTER the South was defeated, in a historically corrupt attempt to defend their secession.

    In a way, I sympathize with Lost Causers. Who in their right mind wants to admit a war that cost at least 650,000 American lives began in order to protect the savage enslavement of millions of human beings.

  8. Bob,
    I fear you missed my point. The issues of slavery and states rights are inextricably mixed. I do not think you can separate the two. I note that you do not address the issue of the Dred Scott case giving the states the right to preserve slavery. The perceived threat to slavery in 1860 was also a threat to the rights of the states.

    As to the various ordinances of secession, I am familiar with them.. I also know that they mention, in cases such as Alabama, a perceived threat to the rights of the states to manage their own affairs, which in this case, included protecting slavery.

    It is also problematical to ignore the fact that the war was, at first, a “war for the Union” for many people in the North and that it was a crusade against slavery for only some.

    1. Michael:
      With all due respect, you’re simply making the point that state’s rights was at issue because of the perceived threat to slavery – ostensibly in the territories but more importantly in the states themselves. The driving force for secession in the South (at least in the seven states which seceded first) is an entirely separate issue from the motivation to fight in the North.

      1. John,
        You are quite correct in saying that states rights was an issue because of the perceived threat to slavery–that indeed is part of my argument. You cannot separate the two. But, as you point out, the two sides were fighting for incongruent reasons. A compromise should have been possible if there was only the issue of slavery. That compromise was offered–the Corwin Amendment. The failure of that proposal suggests that there is more involved than the simple existence of slavery.

  9. Bob, sorry to add to my last post, but I note you used the term “one major reason.” I agree, slavery was one major reason. But it was connected to other reasons.

    1. Michael:
      Maybe I was too timid in my earlier post. What I meant to write is that slavery was – by far – the major reason for the Lower South’s secession. Other reasons were minuscule, infinitesimal in comparison.

      Re. Lower South ordinances of secession: South Carolina’s ordinance was the most forthright in discussing slavery as virtually the only cause for its secession. Some of the other Lower South states included such euphemisms as “property rights” and “states rights,”

      But in the 1860s South, “property rights” meant the right to own property. i.e. slaves. As I’m sure you realize, Southern slaveholders considered their slaves property, much like horses, mules, pigs, sheep and other livestock. And “states rights,” to the average Southern slave-master, meant the right of a state to allow slavery.

      The vast majority of the antebellum South’s economy was based on slaves planting and harvesting cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco, plus the raising and trading of slaves. Southern leaders believed that Lincoln threatened the preservation and expansion of slavery and, thus, their economic well-being.

      It was all about the money, honey.

      Again, I realize it’s difficult for Lost Causers to admit that the South attempted to dismantle our great nation for such a horrific cause as the preservation and expansion of slavery. But facts are facts, Michael.

      1. Slavery wasn’t just “thoroughly mixed” with other issues. It dominated and drove them. No perceived threat to slavery, no secession and no war. The Morrill Tariff wasn’t going to rouse the masses, no matter what the professor in Baltimore says.

  10. There are too many to count. The Lost Cause is one myth, a particularly odious one that is short on knowledgeable supporters. While not a myth, I think the cause of union is being eclipsed by slavery as the key component of the war’s causation and legacy. The two were bound together, but the importance of the union, that is of nation, democracy, and nationalism, should neither be ignored nor marginalized. It also goes a long way to explaining why the postwar drive for civil rights faded.

    In the end, I would love to see the adoration heaped upon certain leaders curtailed. Jackson and Lee were earlier mentioned, but both men often come in for their share of criticisms as of late, mostly fair but sometimes overwrought. Yet, Grant and Lincoln are both heavily mythologized. The word “genius” is often used to describe each man, Lincoln in politics and Grant in war. While I would not want to diminish their achievements, I also think historians are too fast to dismiss their failures, missteps, and foibles. If you praise Lee you might be called a Lost Causer. If you cart out a bunch of old Lincoln myths you get a prize. In particular, I would like the Union victory to be seen as a true unified effort and not the work of a few “geniuses.”

    After much thought, I would prefer the myth of McClellan as a bumbling incompetent to disappear altogether. He was flawed, but hardly the idiot of popular imagination. Indeed, Halleck, Lincoln, and Stanton are as much the authors of the defeat at Richmond in 1862 as McClellan was. I do not care for punching bags and scapegoats.

    1. I don’t think anyone who has written critically of McClellan has ever referred to him as an “idiot” or “bu,bling incompetent”. Far from it. McClellan’s problem was a combination of arrogance, lack of the “requisites” for a commander in the field (including the inability to put himself in his opponent’s shoes), and a failure to appreciate the role of the military in a democratic republic. His intelligence has never been a subject of dispute. In fact, several critics seem to accept the idea that he would have done a fine job in the role which was eventually handed to Halleck. By the way, how was Halleck involved in McClellan’s defeat on the Peninsula? He didn’t come east until late July.

  11. Michael, the various declaration of causes issued by the states that attempted secession all mention states rights — blasting the efforts of free states to protect the right of blacks from being kidnapped by slave chasers and their attempts to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act. What Dred Scott set up was to do away with free states, something SCOTUS would have completed in the Lemmon Case. The CS Constitution made certain that there would be no Free States in the CSA.

      1. Michael:
        You’re wrong – again.

        The Dred Scott case said, among many other outrageous things, that slave-masters could own slaves in any state – free states and slave states. In other words, slavery was legal anywhere in the U.S.

        Another odious ruling in this case was that African-Americans were – in effect – subhumans who could never have any human rights, including voting. This ruling applied to free African-Americans in the North, also. In other words, African-Americans, even freed ones, could never vote anywhere in the United States.

        Thank goodness, many states of the North disregarded most of the more ridiculous parts of Dred Scott. The Supreme Court has issued several outrageous rulings in its 225-year history – decisions to uphold segregation in the South, etc. – but Dred Scott was the worst, by far.

  12. That Sheridan came riding up on a frothing Rienzi at Cedar Creek, let his troops see him, yelled at his men to turn around, and the battle of Cedar Creek suddenly did a 180 degree turnaround with Union troops suddenly starting to fight because of Little Phil

    1. Ed,
      Remember the quote from George Costanza (Seinfeld) “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”
      That quote can apply to much of what Sheridan and Alfred Pleasonton wrote and said after the war.

    2. Yeah. Kind of ignores the whole story of Horatio Wright stabilizing along the lin and prepping for a counterattack when Sheridan rode up.

  13. That the entire war was won by a mongrel army of fresh off the boat immigrant Irishmen. Almost half of the Union Army was White Anglo Saxon. The next largest group was Americans of German ancestry followed by the USCT.

    And can we put to bed that the war was won by the Irish Brigade, Iron Brigade or anyone brigade. It took several field armies made up of Everymen to win the war.

  14. the MYTH that the war was fought to free the slaves. The truth being the slaves were freed because of the war.
    As i read some of these comments i could readily see the terrible and misleading concept of judging past history not by their thoughts and feelings but rather by our current 21 century thoughts and feelings. A injustice to their memory.

  15. Thomas:
    Anyone with any knowledge of the Civil War realizes that – in the beginning of the war – the vast majority of Northerners had a single goal: preservation of the Union. Although he changed his mind later, even Lincoln early in the war did not view ending slavery as a goal. Before and shortly after his inauguration, Lincoln repeatedly assured the South and border states that he did not want to end slavery where it already existed. He only opposed its expansion into the territories.

    To leaders of the Lower South, however, it was all about the preservation and expansion of slavery. And Southern fire-eaters were the ones whose actions – seceding – initiated the war. Bottom line: If there had been no slavery in the South, there would have been no Civil War.

    1. Bob let me remind you to succeed from the union was not illegal and thus not a cause for the union aggression against as you keep saying the lower south .
      Using your logic we could say if Columbus had not discovered the new world there would not of been a Civil War as well. Quite clear you look at history with blinders on .
      Also my friend who brought in the first slaves to sell .was it not your upper northern heros?

      1. Well, no, it wasn’t Northerners who brought the first slaves. The first African slaves in the colonies arrived off a Dutch slave ship at Jamestown in 1619, even before the founding of Plymouth, Massachusetts.

      2. Thomas:
        I agree that the North for many, many decades was complicit in the spread of slavery. The book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist, eloquently reminds us of this.

        However, Northern complicity does not lessen the fact that Southern slavery was a vicious, savage, barbaric institution. (Or do you – like most other misguided Lost Causers – believe the fantasies depicted in Gone with the Wind and the Uncle Remus stories?)

        On the issue of the legality of secession: So, what’s your point. Legal scholars have debated this one ever since 1861, both pro and con. As far as I’m concerned, the Civil War settled the legal question.

        And finally, in fact, the first aggressive actions were taken by the South. I assume you realize that Southern insurgents forcefully captured scores Union forts and arsenals throughout the South in early 1861, months before Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion. And, of course, Southern troops fired the first shots of the war – on Fort Sumter.

  16. Bob,
    Please review what the Dred Scott case says because you are making statements which do not withstand scrutiny. Each Justice wrote a separate decision but six of then agreed on three points:
    I. Free Soil does not make free men. II. A person “whose ancestors were sold as slaves” cannot become a member of the political community created by the Constitution and be entitled to the rights of Federal citizenship. III.The Missouri Compromise law, prohibiting slavery in part of national territory, was unconstitutional.
    Point I allowed a slave owner to travel into a free state with slaves but it certainly did not force those states to legalize slavery, they remained free states and the slave owner could not establish residency there and continue to own slaves. Your comment about ending free states is a gross exaggeration which I have not found advocated by any recognized historian. Points II and III are the most controversial parts of the ruling because they broke new legal ground, there was existing precedent for point I.
    You say the ruling in the Dred Scott Case is “odious.” It is not my purpose to debate the morality of the ruling, but to discuss its content. Many things from the 19th Century are “odious” to us in the 21st Century but, as historians, we need to discuss events in the context of the time in which they happened, else we will never understand them.

    1. Michael:
      I’m in the middle of heavy weeding and other yard cleanup tasks. When I have more time, I’ll give you a list of books and scholars who agree with my thoughts on Dred Scott.

      On the issue of discussing “events in the context of the time in which they happened,” let’s look at the “context” of the mid-19th century.

      Re. Slavery prior to 1861: All of Europe had banned slavery. A majority of the states in the United States had banned slavery. Even tsarist Russia, my goodness, had outlawed serfdom. In other words, using mid-19th century “context,” slavery was taboo (except, of course, in the South).

      Re. Secession: A majority of the states in the United States opposed secession. Not a single foreign nation formally recognized the South’s secession. In other words, using mid-19th century “context,” secession was taboo (except, of course, in the South.)

      Bottom Line: The South and its slave-master leaders were the outliners of the mid-19th century.

      1. I will wait anxiously for your list of citations. As to “context”, you are drawing a rather fine line, don’t you think? The Emancipation Movement did not gather much steam until into the 19th Century. Of course, there was Brazil. And the “Free States” were quite willing to compromise on the issue of slavery as late as 1850.

        Secession taboo except in the South? New England in 1814, NYC in 1850’s? Even Abolitionists had mixed feelings about secession with some saying “Let the erring brothers go.”

    2. Thank you Michael for your comments on the context of time . As our friend Bob will not nor does not accept I .FEEL ANY FURTHER CONVERSATION WITH HIM IS A WASTE OF TIME FOR HE SEEMS TO HAVE A SOUTHERN HATRED THAT EXCEEDS THE FUN OF STUDYING HISTORY.

      1. Thomas,
        . It is odd that one would say the Dred Scott Case “destroyed” free states when the ruling specifically recognized the right of the states to end slavery.

  17. Wow – enjoyed reading all the comments and debate. I know I’m late to the “party” (sorry), but there are two myths that I’d love to see disappear.

    #1. Civil War era ladies *all* acted/dressed/spoke like Scarlett O’Hara. #2. Civil War surgeons were just heartless butchers.

    So sick of these myths about society and medicine!

  18. John,
    it is not just the “Professor in Baltimore” who emphasizes the issue of the tariff; a Cambridge professor has done the same thing in a more scholarly fashion. By the way, what was the first legislation passed by the U.S. Congress once the Southern delegates had withdrawn? A bill to raise the tariff—seems the issue was important to some one.

    1. Michael: “seems the issue was important to some one” – but not to the Secession Commissioners. Either (1) they were telling the truth (2) even if they were lying, they picked the single issue judged by them to be most likely to persuade their recalcitrant brothers, or (3) they were maladroit at using plain English. A lot of folks seem to think they were liars (in which case they still thought that the perceived threat to the Institution was their best weapon for getting the others on board) or that they were just woefully inarticulate. Those letters and speeches weren’t crafted to fire up the base about the tariff.

    2. By the way, aren’t both of our distinguished academics card-carrying members of the Mises crowd?

      1. John,
        I had reference to Marc-William Palen of the University of Exeter (not Cambridge, as I first said). He has been a visiting fellow at Yale. He has a recent book on free trade and has published in the Journal of the Civil War Era.

        I don’t think it wise to judge the causes of the Civil War by reading the ordinances of secession and those alone. That is like accepting as valid Dick Cheney on the reason for going to war in Iraq. I also look at the newspapers of the time since they tell me more about what a larger group was thinking and not just the pols.

      2. Michael: The problem with taking a detour around the ordinances and the communications by the commissioners is that we are, after all, trying to assign motivation/causation to secession. So the first place to look must be those sources. They are public statements as to why the states seceded and why the others should secede. Those statements are clear and I take the authors at their word(s). In the minds of those who drove the secession bus, Lincoln’s election augured an assault on the Institution, first in the territories/new states and ultimately where it already existed. No perceived attack on slavery -, no secession/war. Anybody making a contrary case is battling a vertical slope. That’s why folks like DiLorenzo simply ignore undisputed facts in trying to craft an economics causation theory. Dr. Palen apparently doesn’t, on the other hand:

        “The tariff had been opposed by many Southern legislators, which is why it passed so easily once their states seceded. But this coincidence of timing fed a mistaken inversion of causation among the sympathetic British public – secession allowed the tariff to pass, but many in Britain thought that the tariff had come first, and so incensed the Southern states that they left the union.
        Nor was this a simple misunderstanding. Pro-Southern business interests and journalists fed the myth that the war was over trade, not slavery – the better to win over people who might be appalled at siding with slave owners against the forces of abolition.”

  19. John,
    Your analysis of Palen is spot on. My point is that the tariff issue stirred emotions and raised concerns. I do not think that reading newspapers which are contemporary with secession is a detour around the ordinances so much as it is a broadening of perspective to see what those outside the conventions thought. The papers in Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Memphis, and Nashville all printed editorials dealing with trade and taxes as well as with the threat they perceived from repeats of John Brown-type operations. In the same way, newspapers contemporary to the beginning of the war in Iraq rejected Chaney’s analysis of the cause and pointed to oil, terrorism, etc. I was taught in my first course on historiography that looking only to political statements is not a safe way to gain understanding of motives. I still feel that way.

  20. Mr. Bradley: In regard to the Dred Scott case may I ask you to consider the difference between the REASONING in that case and the HOLDING of that case. Each judge wrote a separate OPINION. It is the HOLDING of the case which had the greatest impact on our nation’s jurisprudence at the time. It is very easy for us to “cherry pick” a judge’s opinion to prove a point we want to make to justify our current view of history but it does little to further our understanding of their motivation at the time of the decision.

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