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Erase the Civil War?

Posted by Howard Denson on May 17, 2017 at 12:55 AM

By HOWARD DENSON

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FOR THE RECORD, I grew up fascinated by the Civil War and identified completely with the valiant soldiers of the Confederacy, and, when I read about their exploits, I admired the bravery of the Union soldiers, too.

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There were many things about the Civil War that I did not know.

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First, I bought into the rhetoric that the war was about states’ rights, state sovereignty, and self-determination. The argument went thusly: It was not about slavery; it was about the larger issues of independence. It took years for me to learn that the view was hooey.

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Second, although I knew about the nasty internecine fighting in bloody Kansas and Missouri leading up to the war, I believed that volunteers signed up willingly and went off for glory or, more likely, death or serious injury.

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Third, I had heroes. Robert E. Lee was one. Stonewall Jackson was impressive, but Jefferson Davis struck me as quirky. I was a kid in the 1940s, so I knew the U.S. needed to be one country, so my admiration extended to Abraham Lincoln.

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Fourth, I did not believe the Southerners were traitors but believed they had a right to secede.

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Fifth, I was taught that the former slaves were attacking whites during Reconstruction, which was a wicked institution. The blacks in the Reconstruction era state legislatures were uneducated “darkies,” talking like Uncle Remus to each other.

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Now, let’s have some time pass, along with much time spent reading Bruce Catton and dozens of other Civil War historians and commentators.

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What emerged that was different?

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Well, no one was emphasizing that, beginning about 1863, Southerners were infuriated with the Confederacy. They had been lied to repeatedly. The war was of, for, and by the slave class, the plantation owners, who lied to entice white farmers to be their cannon fodder. “If you enlist, don’t worry about your family. We’ll raise enough vegetables to feed your family.” They didn’t. They planted cotton and tobacco and put the proceeds in their bank accounts. If soldiers deserted to help their family, they were apt to be shot or hanged . . . or depicted as white trash villains.

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By 1865 when the end came, Southerners knew it had been a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight . . . and they were furious.

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This anger continued for fifteen years, basically a generation. In the 1890s, a great P.R. project was underway. Jefferson Davis had every right to pen his version of the history of the lost cause. Efforts were made to honor the soldiers, and town squares began featuring statues of Johnny Reb. Everything was romanticized and ennobled. The Klan changed from a vicious band of plantation owners into a noble group fighting against the wicked dark man who has gotten out of control.

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That is the romanticized version that was handed over to my generation and later ones.

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One book helped to bring things into focus for me: F. N. Boney’s Southerners All. He focused on “Rednecks,” “the Bourgeoisie,” and “Blacks” of the antebellum South. He was not the first to argue that these major groups of Southerners were neither as separated from one another nor as alienated from each other and other Americans as they were often depicted.

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When it seemed possible that the rednecks and poor whites in the South might find a natural alliance with the freed men and former slaves, the Big Mules destroyed the potential alliance by lynchings and racist rhetoric. In some form or another, this divide and conquer strategy is still being used.

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When I actually read the Constitution of the Confederate States of America (it was devised quite late and had no real impact), I saw that the new nation was founded on the notion that it MUST protect slavery. When I read the statements following votes to secede, each emphasized the importance of slavery. In short, the Civil War was ABOUT slavery. When Southerners were talking about protecting our way of life, they meant protecting slavery. When they spoke of states’ rights, they essentially meant that "we have the right to murder and hang our darkies, and you keep out of our business."

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Moreover, the secession votes often were not unanimous affairs. South Carolina was bat-guano crazy, but about 40 percent of the delegates from Alabama opposed secession. Other states came reluctantly to the vote. Along this line, Ken Burns’ otherwise excellent series on the Civil War devoted scant (if any) time to the pro-Unionist Southerners.

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When it came time for enlistments, in my neck of the woods, the recruitment went like this: “Are you going to join the CSA Army . . . or would you prefer to be shot, hanged, or thrown off a cliff?”

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In my allied families, the Stephensons and their neighbors in Winston County the Blevinses had sons join the Union Army, figuring, “If I’m going to be shot at, I might as well be shot fighting for the Union.” Their fathers had fought with Andy Jackson, and Abe Lincoln "hadn’t never done nothing agin them."

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The rest of my allied families, the Densons, O’Rears, Prices, Burdettes, Lollars, and others wore uniforms for the Confederacy . . . or at least were in the Home Guard (for old men and boys).

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Were they traitors? No, although the rhetoric that prevails today argues that they are. Why weren’t they traitors? Simple, the U.S. Constitution did NOT forbid secession. It did not address the issue.

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In fact, the Declaration of Independence was nothing more than a SECESSION document:

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“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

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By 1865, the Civil War itself wrote a Constitutional Amendment in Blood (thanks to the deaths of about 750,000 Americans all): No state may secede.

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Until slavery was struck down, the U.S. Constitution was pro-Slavery. The Supreme Court largely was taking pro-slavery interpretations of law and statutes. Even so, the South saw the end of slavery down the road as new states were admitted and managed to restrict or prevent slavery in their borders. Would the coup de grâce have occurred twenty years in the future? By 1880? Perhaps 1900? Ironically, they drove the nail in the coffin of slavery by trying to leave the U.S.A.

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With them OUT of the Union, they were no longer protected by the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, they were out of the Union and could not vote on amendments to abolish slavery.

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Now, today citizens want to tear down monuments to Lee and other Confederates, traitors all, some say.

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However, when the statues are removed, we also remove memories of why the war was fought. Someone may argue, “To hell with old wars, let’s focus on peace.”

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Fair enough. Let’s focus on the peace-makers. One of those was Robert E. Lee, who did NOT urge his soldiers to fade into the hills and conduct a guerilla war until the U.S. tired of the factious Southerners and simply let them go.

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Let’s erect MORE statues: Let’s have a statue honoring the Underground Railway. Harriett Tubman in this park; someone else in another park. For the black soldiers who went to their deaths (as in Glory), let’s honor them for they gave blood and heart to the country.

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If a Southern park has a statue of Lee, it likely has room for one of Grant (a long-time opponent of slavery, although he married into a pro-slavery family).

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Should there be a statue to the Abolitionist? Perhaps. Today, we assume that people back then were either pro-slavery or abolitionists. They weren’t. Abolitionist was a dirty word in most circles. The North didn’t want an invasion of freed blacks, either before or after the war.

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Let’s have a statue of an early teacher, one from the Reconstruction era. Most whites in those days argued for the blacks to be freed, but, of course, that didn’t mean they were equal. Their most progressive thinking was trying to figure out a way to get them back to Africa.

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Slave owners didn’t want blacks educated because they might communicate with each other and write themselves passes to enable them to escape to the North.

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When we read some of the embarrassing remarks Lincoln said about blacks, we often forget that, if he spoke like a true abolitionist, he wouldn’t have been elected president. In addition, he was exposed to eloquent blacks such as Frederick Douglas, but he had never been exposed to a black educated class.

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So, what else have I learned that’s different? For one things, the so-called "darkies" in the state legislature was false. The men selected to be in the Reconstruction legislatures were often well educated, teachers, medical men, ministers, etc.

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Oh, thanks to Ancestry.Com, I also learned that I am between 1-2 percent Sub-Saharan African (the swath that includes Mali and Senegal). I laugh to imagine my 15-year-old self trying to get his head around that information.


Categories: The Human Comedy or Tragedy

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