Echoes of Reconstruction: Confederate Jubal Early Explains the Cause of the Civil War (part one)

Jubal A. Early

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog. Part one of a two-part series.

Jubal Early, a Virginian, was an important leader in the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, and a primary constructor of The Lost Cause Myth of the Confederacy. Modern students of the war are very familiar with his lionization of Robert E. Lee and his unremitting attacks on Confederate general James Longstreet, whom he blamed for the defeat at Gettysburg. Fewer seem to have read Early’s book Heritage of the South, written right after the war but published decades later after the general’s death. Inheritance was his defense of the Confederacy and its formative institution, slavery.

Early was never a large slave owner, although he seems to have had an enslaved servant. He earned his own living as a West Point-graduated United States Army officer and later as a lawyer. When South Carolina and other Deep South states began the Secession Crisis in late 1860 and early 1861, Early opposed Virginia joining the new Confederacy. It was only when his state decided to leave the Union that Early threw in his lot with the Confederacy.

Early had an initially successful career in the Confederate Army, entering as a colonel commanding a Virginia regiment. After Bull Run he was promoted to Brigadier General. He would eventually rise to command of the Army of the Valley and in 1864 he nearly reached Washington, D.C. during the Confederacy’s last invasion of the North. His army’s decline in the last quarter of 1864 and early in 1865 led to his removal from command.

Unlike most Confederate military leaders, Jubal Early went into exile at the end of the Civil War, and he stayed there for years. In 1866 he explained that he was not going to return to the United States because; “If I was to set any foot [in the U.S. I would [be] arrested and consigned to a military prison.” [Found in Civil War Writing: New Perspectives in Iconic Texts essay by Kathryn Shively p. 147] Early was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869 and the former Confederate veteran returned to Virginia the same year.

By 1873, Early had sufficiently established himself as a leading defender of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War that he was elected to head the Southern Historical Society, a group led exclusively at this time by former Confederate military officers and civilian office-holders. Early used his authority to defend the Confederate cause and preserve the memory of his deceased comrades. In 1875, for example, he protested plans to include Black troops in a Richmond event honoring “Stonewall” Jackson.

Early’s writings that are best known today are his memoirs and articles on the war, but he was a prolific writer of books, articles, notes, and missives. While he was still in self-imposed exile, Early wrote a book published after his death as The Heritage of the South. The book was edited by his niece Ruth Hairston Early and published in 1915, more than two decades after his death and nearly a half-century after it was written. In it, Early explains the cause of the Civil War.

I think it is worthwhile to explore the book both because of its frankness and because of Early’s role in the construction and propagation of the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War. The link to the book is the Project Guttenberg version, but I used the Kindle format and cite to that version  in my recounting of the text below.

In her introduction to the volume, Jubal Early’s niece Ruth H. Early says that the book examines “the causes which led to the political issue of the ’60s.”  [p. 1] She explains that the “manuscript has lain unpublished during the passing of half a century, till passion having cooled and prejudice abated, there is no longer reason for clash from difference of feeling upon the subject.” [p. 1]

The first chapter of Jubal Early’s book on the causes of the Civil War is entitled “The African Slave Trade,” and every chapter thereafter is focused on slavery, the doctrine of White Supremacy, and the abolition of slavery. Early leaves no doubt about slavery and abolition being the cause of the war, and he wastes no time discussing modern Lost Cause issues like “tariffs” or “taxation” as the causes.

According to Jubal Early, Britain was responsible for the introduction of slavery into the American colonies in the 1600s, and Britain fostered slavery throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in the Western Hemisphere. Early claims that during this period “there was no sentiment in any Christian or unchristian country which regarded the reduction of the negroes of Africa to slavery as opposed to moral right or religious duty, or in any other light than as a blessing to the negroes themselves and a great benefit to their owners.” [p. 7] While he blames Britain for bringing slavery to what became the United States, and he characterizes the “Middle Passage” as a region of horror, he describes slavery itself as benign for both the owner and the enslaved.

Early next turns to the period of the Revolution. American independence, he writes, was actually declared on July 2, 1776 and not on July 4th. Early makes this claim to diminish the importance of the Declaration of Independence. The July 2 vote on separating from the United Kingdom contained no language declaring that “all men are created equal,” he says. The Declaration of Independence was merely a “manifesto” designed to win allies for the new country, and not a declaration of law. Therefore the assertion that all men are created equal had no relevance to the question of slavery. Early says:

“The intention of it was to assert the right of the people, on whose part the declaration was made, to equality under the law with all other British subjects, and to maintain their right to set up a new government for themselves, when the one under which they had been living had been perverted to their oppression. If it was intended to assert the absolute equality of all men, it was false in principle and in fact.” [p. 50]

Therefore, he wrote, criticism of the leaders of the South that “the assertion contained in the Declaration of Independence ‘That all men are created equal, etc.,’ was entirely inconsistent with the continuation of slavery in any of the United States; and that the states which continued it were guilty of a great inconsistency” [p. 48-49] are unfounded because this was no assertion by the United States that slaves were equal, but instead this was merely a phrase “uttered under the enthusiasm and excitement of a struggle for the right of self-government,” for the white colonists making the rebellion. [p. 50]

In support of his contention of the supposed absurdity of a universal declaration of equality is Early’s question; “does any one believe, or will any one ever believe, that the native Congo, the Hottentot or the Australian negro, is the equal, mentally, physically and morally, of the Caucasian?” [pp. 50-51]

According to Early, the American Republic developed along economic and social lines that reinforced the continuance of slavery in the new country. He argued that “slaves bore such a proportion to the white population and the whole business of the country was so identified with their labor, that it was impossible to emancipate them, without entailing on both races evils far greater than those supposed to result from the existence of slavery itself. It was a practical question with which the statesmen of the country had to deal as practical men, and all they could do, was to allow the system to remain, as the best for all parties under the circumstances, without reverting to the dangerous experiment of the ideal schemes of a false philanthropy.” [pp. 51-52]

Slavery was so important to the Southern states that they made sure that the Federal government could take no steps to interfere with it. One example Early offers of the importance of slavery to the Southern founders of the new republic is the cession of its western territory by North Carolina to form the state of Tennessee. In placing this western land under Federal control, North Carolina stipulated “that no regulation made or to be made by Congress shall tend to the emancipation of slaves.” [p. 54]

Chapter IV of the book, titled “Causes Leading to Secession,” is devoted entirely to the issues of slavery and abolition. Early criticizes the Quakers for starting efforts to petition Congress to abolish the slave trade. So much anger was stirred up in Congress by these petitions that these were returned to the petitioners without going to members of the House and Senate because of their “incendiary and mischievous character.” [p. 64]

In 1834, Britain abolished slavery in her colonies. Early says, in the language of modern reparations arguments, “but she made no restitution of the hundreds of millions she derived from the profits of the inhuman traffic as she now styled it, and which had assisted in building up her marine, manufactures and commerce.” in other words, slavery had enriched and empowered the British and if slavery was illegal and inhuman, Britain should compensate Blacks. [p. 73]

Early alleges that “emissaries” from Britain came to America in the 1830s to begin the agitation for the Abolition of Slavery. He writes that:

“The preponderance of women in the New England States caused them to be selected as proselytes for the new crusade. There was also a class of men in that section, offshoots of the old persecuting theocracy who furnished recruits to the agitators. There were doubtless many who really believed slavery to be a great sin and wrong, who joined in the crusade from conscientious motives. Knaves there were in plentiful supply, gowned and ungowned, who were ready for anything which would tend to their personal advancement in position or their pecuniary profit. Out of these materials abolition societies were formed and petitions began to pour into Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and other places within the Federal jurisdiction, while the mails were filled with incendiary publications calculated to stir up insurrections.” [p. 74]

At the same time, John Quincy Adams introduced anti-slavery sentiment into Congressional debates.  In the Northern states, Early complains, “The law for the recovery of fugitive slaves, always inefficient because of the refusal or failure of the states’ officers to enforce it, had now become a dead letter by the resistance to its execution by mobs and the still more mischievous action of several of the legislatures of the free states.” [p. 75] Apparently the idea of “states’ rights” did not apply to a state refusing to help kidnap Black people within its territory.

Early also had little regard for the First Amendment rights of newspapers to publish what they would. He wrote that among the crimes of the North was; “The circulation of incendiary publications through the mails had been forbidden by Congress, but the Northern press was prolific in the production of gross libels upon the character of the people of the Southern states and misrepresentations of the institution of slavery as it existed there…” [p. 75]


Tomorrow, in part two, Patrick will continue his review of Jubal Early’s book, The Heritage of the South, and its impact on Civil War memory.

3 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Confederate Jubal Early Explains the Cause of the Civil War (part one)

  1. I love the topic. Approximately two years ago, I read a scholarly book on the influence of the Lost Cause(together with the deep Southern Heritage) on William Faulkner’s writings. I have a book by Professor Janney in line for reading. The historical significance of the Lost Cause thinking endures to this day.

  2. I put the following to the above essay on Early’s works. To do so, it is necessary to understand a few key terms.
    History is the written account of the past.
    Historiography is something different; historiography is the traditional manner in which the past has been examined, analysed, particular evidence has been engaged and prodded to extract meaning from and taught over a reasonable length of time to succeeding generations. In other words, historiography is a school of historical thought.
    It can be at least generally put then, that history can be presented as a ‘narrative’, (a story that makes at least surface level sense of the past); historiography is the process that has produced the specific narrative along identifiable patterns.
    The commonly regarded history of Davy Crockett, (the narrative), is that he was a self-made man of the American frontier who built a homestead that largely withstood all environmental challenges that the historical place in time in which it was situated. His life and actions are an exemplar of the ascribed American attributes of independence, courage, justice and to establish an avowed sense and form of justice out of ascribed lawless and previously uncontrolled situations.
    This form of historical narrative, in this instance, about Davy Crockett, is steeped in the tradition of Frederick J. Turner’s thesis, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893). That is, Turner identified that a common way of American history being examined, taught and understood to have meaning was situated as a process inevitably invoking ‘the frontier’, (the equivalent in, say, Australian history/historiography would be the thesis of Russel War, ‘The Australian Legend’).
    The American Heritage Dictionary’s multiple-sub definitions of the term, ‘myth’, taken together and understood holistically, render that a ‘myth’, is one of the following:

    -What is commonly ascribed about a person/place/thing/event/etc, can not be at least reasonably supported by the known, credible evidence.
    – What is ultimately unknowable about a person/place/thing/event/etc, that can’t be disproven by the known, credible evidence is more important that what CAN be reasonably established from the evidence about same.
    With the above as a guide, it is clearly impossible to argue that the Lost Cause is a ‘myth’. It is a historiography, a school of historical studies. There is err ranging from mild to serious in its tenets and arguments; yet at the same time, there is a variable measure of validity to at least a fair number of its tenets at the same time and the arguments it produced. Even wherein the arguments are incorrect, in part or in whole, careful study of these can still yield something meaningful to extrapolate from, (for instance, why did the Lost Cause argue this; what evidence did it engage with and not engage with, by who and when, to come to these various positions?)
    In this instance, the fact that in the work examined, Jubal Early does not engage with other factors the Lost Cause commonly cited as important war factors in the Civil War/War Between the States, such as tariffs and taxation, does not ‘disprove’ that these were important war factors cited at the time in other evidences and other persons and it would be methodologically disingenuous to argue that this proves the matter ‘at large’, that they were not important points.
    The fact that Alexander Stephens cited them three times in his infamous ‘Cornerstone Speech’ in 1861 is proof that these factors were not ‘created after the war’ by the LC school.
    Early is right to apply criticism to Britain for its historic involvement in this, but that he ‘reads’ the history of slavery, from apparently the instant it reached America’s shores as benign and a positive good is proof his racist spectacles have been put on, especially after he concedes that the Middle Passage was a brutal and horrific experience for the impressed Black Africans. Astonishing, but not really surprising, all at the same time.
    For all his pronouncement on the placement and meaning of the term, ‘all men are created equal’, and his postulation on the difference this conveyed between the Union and the Confederacy, Early fails to adequately comprehend and disclose the historical truth: This phrase was meant to destroy the legitimacy of the First Nations’ sovereignty and ownership of their ancestral nation lands by attacking the basis of the rule of the British Monarchy.
    Completely lacking in such an explanation of British history and government from the American Revolution was the fact that the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution of the 17th Century had firmly established the tenet of ‘Supremacy of Parliament’; the Monarch was obliged to act on the advice of Parliament only, (rare circumstances involving the Reserve Powers of the Crown aside). The destruction of the Jacobites in 1746 resulted in the loss forever of a British Monarch acting per ‘Divine Rule’ as the Declaration of Independence painted the British Monarch in. None of that is to argue or imply that there was no merit in the Americans’ arguments for having fought the Revolution, (these would actually be echoed about 150 years later…)
    In my opinion, Early ought to have availed himself of the copious amounts of literature in his own lifetime, while the war was being fought, about the intellectual strength of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, as even the example of the ill-fated Burke and Wills Expedition proved in 1860-61. With all the technological prowess and presumed superiority, the White Europeans perished in an environment that Australian Aboriginals had thrived in for 65,000 years.
    The rest of the essay presented herein is of excellent content in noting the racism that Early viewed slavery as a productive good. In this, Early set himself apart from even other Southerners of note, such as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, whom both ultimately came to be Emancipationists. Based on any full examination of the historical records, it would be impossible to argue that Early’s determination to not allow Black Americans to be included in the festivities to honour Jackson would have been in keeping with Stonewall’s views, himself. When it came to the dedication to Robert E. Lee’s statue in Richmond, Virginia, in May of 1890, there was no way that Early could mesh the perspective of Lee he was determined to expatriate to the world with the way that Lee really was with regards to Black Americans and slavery.
    The fact that Early so successfully ‘hid’ these more accurate understandings of both was proof of the power her was able to coalesce to himself through ‘owning’ the history and historiography of the Confederacy.

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