Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

In Which I Almost Agreed with Brag Bowling

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 22, 2011

My expectations for Brag Bowling’s contributions to the Washington Post‘s A House Divided group blog are, shall we say, not high. But is it too much ask that he not contradict himself in consecutive sentences? Apparently it is.

In answering the question, “how novel was Gen. Butler’s decision to treat escaped slaves as contraband and did he do it for humane or military reasons?”, Bowling launches into predictable tropes about Butler, identifying him as a “political general” in the first clause, and referencing the nickname “Beast” Butler, in the second sentence. Nothing surprising about that, if you’ve read his earlier contributions to the blog, a couple of which I’ve discussed here and here.

The whiplash-inducing contradiction in this new piece comes in the middle of the third paragraph, to wit:

Butler used the novel legal approach of viewing them as “property” and calling them “contraband of war”. This enabled Butler to ignore both the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which would have required that they be returned to their owners.

Did you catch that? Bowling first criticizes Butler as being wrong for recognizing slaves as property, and then wrong again for not returning them to their owners.

More to the point, Bowling seems to forget that Butler’s “novel legal approach of viewing them as ‘property’ ” conforms entirely to their status both under U.S. and Confederate law. Indeed, it was the explicit claim by Southerners of their property rights in the form of slaves that both drove their decision to secede from the Union, and subsequently provided Butler with the rationale to designate those same slaves as “contraband of war” when they were put to work building fortifications. It takes some real chutzpah to deny that slaves are property, then demand their return to you as their owner.

It’s true enough that Ben Butler was never a great battlefield tactician. But his contributions, which Bowling dismisses as being in the political arena, and (presumably) therefore irrelevant to his assessment, were substantial nonetheless. Bowling makes passing reference to Butler’s “ruthless occupation” of New Orleans, but omits that the “political general’s” quarantine and general cleanup of that city almost certainly saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives that would have been lost to that perennial scourge of the Crescent City, yellow fever. He omits Butler’s commitment to African American troops in the Federal army, and his willingness to test them in battle when other, better-known commanders like Sherman, were unwilling to give them a chance. And of course he omits Butler’s postwar career in Congress, when he wrote the first draft of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a key measure that helped to reign in the abuses of the Ku Klux Klan in the South in the years after the war.

Bowling forgets to acknowledge those things, but you can be certain he remembered to mention the chamber pot with Butler’s picture in the bottom. One has to focus on the important stuff, I guess.

Oh, and that part where I almost agreed with Bowling? It was when I read this:

Northern abolitionists considered contrabands synonymous with emancipation even before Lincoln’s final Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. General Butler’s treatment of the contrabands, while mired in legal, political and cultural issues, was closely linked to the role of emancipation. When freedom did come to the slaves still in Confederate territory, the Union lines were flooded with the newly freed causing the U. S. government to implement new policies to provide them shelter, food, clothing and even some health care – all in part – because of Butler’s decisions at the beginning of the Civil War.

Then I looked again and realized I’d scrolled too far, and was reading the end of Frank Williams’ answer to the same question. My bad.
Image: “Contraband, Fortress Monroe,” Library of Congress

“Slavery is the element of all value.”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on May 25, 2011

A while ago I took former SCV Virginia Division Commander Brag Bowling to task for his A House Divided essay, which repeated the hoary old trope that the Confederacy had been “forced” to open fire on Fort Sumter. Not surprisingly, he’s still pounding that particular drum. In response to a question about whether the South’s secession came about because of a small number of fire-eaters or was actually a movement with wide popularity, Bowling instead prefers to answer a different question that hadn’t been asked:

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina formally withdrew from the Union and was closely followed by Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Certainly an argument could be made that the fire eaters in those states did much to stir up secession sentiment. The “cotton states” seceded primarily for economic reasons and a fear that their economies would be disrupted by the ascension of Lincoln and the Republican Party to national governance.

This is arguably true, if by “economic reasons” Bowling means the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, and its expansion into the territories, the latter proposition which the Republican Party (i.e., the “Black Republicans”) had vowed to block.

But that’s not what Bowling is suggesting, of course. Is he correct, that those first several states secede because of generalized worries about tariffs and their economies? No, they didn’t; Southern political leaders were torqued about the possible loss of their property. More specifically, their property in slaves. How can we know this? Because they effing told us.

For the umpteenth time, South Carolina:

The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the *forms* [emphasis in the original] of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.


Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

John C. McGehee, President of the Florida Secession Convention:

In the formation of the government of our fathers, the Constitution of 1787, the institution of domestic slavery is recognized and the right of property in slaves is expressly guaranteed. The people of a portion of the States who were parties in the government were early opposed to the institution. The feeling of opposition to it has been cherished and fostered and inflamed until it has taken possession of the public mind at the North to such an extent that it overwhelms every other influence. It has seized the political power, and now threatens annihilation to slavery throughout the Union. At the South and with our people, of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property. This party, now soon to take possession of the powers of government, is sectional, irresponsible to us, and, driven on by an infuriated, fanatical madness that defies all opposition, must inevitably destroy every vestige of right growing out of property in slaves.


The North demanded the application of the principle of prohibition of slavery to all of the territory acquired from Mexico and all other parts of the public domain then and in all future time. It was the announcement of her purpose to appropriate to herself all the public domain then owned and thereafter to be acquired by the United States. The claim itself was less arrogant and insulting than the reason with which she supported it. That reason was her fixed purpose to limit, restrain, and finally abolish slavery in the States where it exists. The South with great unanimity declared her purpose to resist the principle of prohibition to the last extremity. This particular question, in connection with a series of questions affecting the same subject, was finally disposed of by the defeat of prohibitory legislation.

The Presidential election of 1852 resulted in the total overthrow of the advocates of restriction and their party friends. Immediately after this result the anti-slavery portion of the defeated party resolved to unite all the elements in the North opposed to slavery an to stake their future political fortunes upon their hostility to slavery everywhere. This is the party two whom the people of the North have committed the Government. They raised their standard in 1856 and were barely defeated. They entered the Presidential contest again in 1860 and succeeded.

The prohibition of slavery in the Territories, hostility to it everywhere, the equality of the black and white races, disregard of all constitutional guarantees in its favor, were boldly proclaimed by its leaders and applauded by its followers.

With these principles on their banners and these utterances on their lips the majority of the people of the North demand that we shall receive them as our rulers.

The prohibition of slavery in the Territories is the cardinal principle of this organization.

Georgia goes on to argue that “because by [the Republicans’] declared principles and policy they have outlawed $3,000,000,000 of our property in the common territories of the Union.” The phrase, “$3,000,000,000 of our property” refers to slaves.

E.S. Dargan, addressing the Alabama Secession Convention:

If pecuniary loss alone were involved in the abolition of slavery, I should hesitate long before I would give the vote I now intend to give. If the destruction of slavery entailed on us poverty alone, I could bear it, for I have seen poverty and felt its sting. But poverty, Mr. President, would be one of the least of the evils that would befall us from the abolition of African slavery. There are now in the slaveholding States over four millions of slaves; dissolve the relation of master and slave, and what, I ask, would become of that race? To remove them from amongst us is impossible. History gives us no account of the exodus of such a number of persons. We neither have a place to which to remove them, nor the means of such removal. They therefore must remain with us; and if the relation of master and slave be dissolved, and our slaves turned loose amongst us without restraint, they would either be destroyed by our own hands– the hands to which they look, and look with confidence, for protection– or we ourselves would become demoralized and degraded. The former result would take place, and we ourselves would become the executioners of our own slaves.

And my own state, Texas:

Texas abandoned her separate national existence and consented [in 1845] to become one of the Confederated Union to promote her welfare, insure domestic tranquility and secure more substantially the blessings of peace and liberty to her people. She was received into the confederacy with her own constitution, under the guarantee of the federal constitution and the compact of annexation, that she should enjoy these blessings. She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.

These passages are not the writings of some politically-correct textbook author, or a liberal academic, or a South-hating blogger caught in the trap of “present-ism”; they’re not some modern historian’s opinion, or analysis, or interpretation. They’re the words written and spoken at the time, by the men who voted to take their respective states out of the Union. These are the words they themselves chose to explain and justify their actions, to their peers and to posterity. These words are explicitly how they wanted succeeding generations to understand their actions.

We should take them at their word.

Bowling, of course, continues to play his one-note tin whistle, again (and always) placing full and utter responsibility for the war on the sixteenth president, while admitting no missteps or bad faith on anyone in gray:

Lincoln had made his choice to fight. There had been no casualties at Ft. Sumter. Things might still have been worked out peacefully. One must wonder if Lincoln had met with the peace negotiators and tried to negotiate the contentious issues dividing the country such as slavery and tariffs rather than by using coercion and military force, that the ensuing fratricidal war might have been avoided. It must be noted that Lincoln was still willing to legally permit slavery to exist even several years into the war. The war rightfully should be laid at Lincoln’s feet. Lincoln’s premeditated bad choice set in motion a series of events which would lead to the death of 600,000 American citizens and the total devastation of the South for over 100 years.

An online friend of mine, JimmyD,  summed up the secessionists’ situation nicely, saying “first they lost the election, then they lost their minds.” By April 1861 nothing other than complete capitulation on on the part of the Lincoln administration would have avoided a shooting war, and given the indignant lather the fire-eaters had worked the South into, it’s an open question whether even that would have sufficed. “Negotiation,” in those Confederates’ (and Bowling’s) view, meant “give us everything we want.”

A Northern cartoon c. 1862, mocking the terms on which the Confederate states might be persuaded to rejoin the Union. Jeff Davis (left), his coat pockets stuffed with pistols, chides Brother Jonathan, an early representation of the United States: “Well Jonathan, if you agree to bear all the expenses of the war, and on top of that let me impose on you the old burden of slavery, while I hold the chain and the whip, I’ll put up my weapons for a while and we’ll have the ‘Union as it was’ only a great deal more so.” Library of Congress.

Folks committed to the Southron Heritage™ movement are fond of pointing to things like Lincoln’s reluctant support of the Corwin Amendment to demonstrate the the new president was not, at that point, willing to commit to ending the institution of slavery; true enough. But they ignore that his support for that legislation is Exhibit A in his willingness even to go against his own, personal opposition to slavery to ensure what he saw at the time as a more important goal, to preserve the Union intact. That was the one line he would not cross, and the South knew it. As Lincoln himself would later recall, “both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.”

And the war came.

It’s slightly embarrassing to have to continually remind folks of these inconvenient truths; it’s far more embarrassing for the Washington Post, historically one of this country’s great newspapers, to give over electronic real estate to such revisionist foolishness.