Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

This Should be the Last Word. . . but Probably Won’t Be

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on January 18, 2011

On his blog Crossroads, Brooks Simpson has what really ought to be the last word on the common arguing tactic of deflecting an historical focus on slavery in the South, and its central role in both Southern society and in the coming of the war, by pointing to racism that existed in the North:

Responsible scholars recognize the persistence and depth of racism among white northerners during the Civil War period.  It’s a key component in constructing the narrative of the sectional crisis, the war, and Reconstruction.  One of the reasons Lincoln hesitated in issuing a proclamation of emancipation was because he knew it would arouse opposition in the free North among Democrats.  None of that, however, has anything to do with the centrality of slavery in southern society or the reasons why secessionists advocated separation and independence: to protect slavery from the threat posed by Lincoln’s election and the long term implications of the Republican triumph in 1860.  Moreover, pointing to the existence of northern racism does not make it disappear from southern society.  Nor does it necessarily follow that because in 1861 most white northerners did not support going to war to destroy slavery (let alone to secure black equality) that white southerners did not go to war to protect a society and a way of life that was ultimately grounded upon and supported by the enslavement of several million human beings.  To deny that is to deny historical reality.

Go read the whole thing, then print out a copy to carry in your wallet.

10 Responses

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  1. TheRaven said, on January 19, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Responsible scholars recognize the persistence and depth of racism among white northerners during the Civil War period.

    ….then print out a copy to carry in your wallet.

    Truer words were never spoken. This is a battle between truth & lies. The ignorant are legion. We must give them no quarter.

  2. corkingiron said, on January 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    Was it possible to be a believer in white superiority (racist) whilst not being an advocate of white supremacy (ie: needing to take active measures to keep non-whites from any of the benefits of citizenship). It seems to me that Lincoln was the former (as, I think, was Jefferson) while many advocates of secession were the latter – or am I just splitting hairs here?

    • Andy Hall said, on January 19, 2011 at 10:04 pm

      Not splitting hairs — I think just different points on a continuous scale. Lincoln certainly held views that, today, would be considered straight-up racist, and in that he was little different from the vast majority of white persons, North and South. No historian challenges that. The problem is not that he (and many others) held those views; it’s that those views are continually brought up as if they constitute some sort of moral vindication for the Southern cause. It’s a ridiculous false equivalency — don’t talk to me about slavery, Lincoln was a racist! — but it pops up all the time, as in this news story from last summer about an SCV-sponsored summer camp:

      Ray W. James, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Texas Division, stands next to a scale replica of a Civil War-era cannon that participants at the camp learn to shoot.

      Specifically, the teens are exposed to the group’s contention that the Civil War was not about slavery, James said. Too many people have bought into that notion, he said, and wrongly exalt then-President Abraham Lincoln as wanting to end slavery.

      Lincoln was “a bigger racist than I ever knew,” James said.

      Lincoln Derangement Syndrome much?

      • corkingiron said, on January 19, 2011 at 10:43 pm

        Agreed, Andy. I’ve been doing a fair bit of reading on slavery in the Cherokee Nation – because that intersection of Native/African/European is, I think, enlightening – it’s slavery without the racism – and it is fascinating. (I know – the 1825 Cherokee Constitution mirrored Southern values – but that was, IMO, an attempt to forestall removal and was honored more in the breach than in the observance.) I was fascinated to read the story of one woman who said she was an adolescent before she ever realized she was a slave.

    • Lyle Smith said, on January 22, 2011 at 11:05 pm

      Hmm… I’m not sure I actually agree with you about Jefferson. Jefferson was a proto-Confederate, I think. Unlike Lincoln Jefferson actually owned slaves and never freed a good many of them (because of their capital worth), in life or in death. And the antebellum South, after Jefferson’s death, largely, yet imperfectly, manifested the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, i.e. that America become a great republic of planters… and so the antebellum South did; compounded by the benefit of legal slavery, of which Jefferson, in his own time, had dutifully participated in and perpetuated.

  3. Rob in CT said, on January 20, 2011 at 11:33 am

    Something I’ve been trying to get through to a poster on another site: noting the root cause of secession is not an attack on him, his family, or The South. It is not an assertion of some inherent superiority of the North. The guy has a huge chip on his shoulder about arrogant Yankees… and I rather get the sense he’s far from alone. It’s sad.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 20, 2011 at 11:52 am

      It’s easier simply to accuse someone who disagrees of acting in bad faith (liberal agenda, political correctness, hatred for the South, etc.) and dismiss anything they say on that account, than to defend on the merits of the question. You see that in public discourse (or non-discourse) over a whole range of topics, but it’s particularly pervasive among folks who self-identify so strongly with their ancestors — about whom they often know surprisingly little that can be documented — to the extent that any critique of the Confederacy is perceived, emotionally, as a personal insult to them.

      What results from that perspective is closer to hagiography than history.

      • Rob in CT said, on January 20, 2011 at 6:38 pm

        Agreed. This particular fellow is Texan, and I’m not sure he has really got anything invested in Confederate ancestors. I could be wrong, but as far as I can tell, he’s just reacting to *anything* critical of Texas in particular, The South in general. Whatever, it’s one guy, but it seems like a common thing.

        I don’t really get it, myself. I’m from CT, right? CT actually has a poor record re: slavery (abolished finally in 1848, when our state had a whopping 6 slaves left). Why would this make me feel superior. After all, my ancestors weren’t here yet. So good or bad even my ancestors weren’t involved (of course the real point is that what they did or didn’t do doesn’t mean diddly squat about ME). It’s also possible that a Devonshire seafaring family (Dad’s side) could easily have had connections to the slave trade (none I’m aware of, but I wouldn’t be shocked). SO WHAT? I literally don’t get it. Is this a Yankee thing, not getting that? I don’t *care* if great-great-great granddad was a jerk (considering my family was a bunch of Puritans, this is a near-certainty). If he was, so be it. I’m not, and that’s what matters.

        This does not strike me as a difficult concept, but apparently it is. By the way, I’ve really enjoyed your posts over at TNC’s blog. In that regard, his latest post (on Grant) just slays. I’ve read most of the memoir online and man, it’s engrossing. I’ve got a huge mancrush on U.S. Grant.

  4. Dick Stanley said, on January 23, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Denying it altogether is certainly silly, but to overemphasize it is just modern politics and equally blind. Whatever they enlisted for, by the end of their time in service the soldiers, like all combat troops, were surely, mainly, fighting for each other.

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