Monthly Archives: April 2016

Confederate Monuments

Few, if any, leading historians voice unqualified objection to the destruction of Confederate monuments. The most tolerant among them instead suggest that the memorials should remain, but with new explanatory inscriptions offering “context”—a code word that simplifies to: South=Bad, North=Good.

Consider, for example, the contextual marker that might be added to Liberty Hall, former home of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. No doubt it would emphasize the racist remarks in his Cornerstone Speech. But I’d wager $100 against a good Cuban cigar that it would ignore his address to the Georgia legislature after the war when he urged the body to adopt laws to protect African-Americans “so that they may stand equal before the law” partly because “we owe [them] a debt of gratitude…”

More significantly, adding additional perspective to Rebel memorials begs the question of whether the policy should also apply to Yankee monuments. Consider the Lincoln Memorial. A couple of months before he announced the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 Lincoln met at the White House with African-American leaders and urged that blacks leave the country. He arranged congressional funding for their emigration.


Addressing his guests Lincoln said: “You and we are of different races. We have existing between us broader differences than exist between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”

Four years earlier when campaigning to replace Stephen A. Douglas as a U. S. Senator from Illinois, Lincoln explained:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Although sometimes labeled the Great Emancipator, Lincoln’s famous proclamation was more controversial than commonly supposed. Contrary to popular belief, many contemporaries were confused, critical, and frightened by its implications. Major General George McClellan, among others, believed it was a deliberate attempt to incite a slave rebellion in the South in order to end the war by forcing Confederate soldiers to return home. Such an interpretation could be inferred from its statement that “the military…authority…will do no act…to repress such persons [slaves]…in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” The British especially feared that the proposal would set an example to ignite genocidal race wars throughout the Western Hemisphere and thereby decimate Atlantic trade.

President Lincoln even admitted the possibility of such insurrections shortly before issuing the September 22nd proclamation. On September 13th he replied to a delegation of Chicago abolitionists visiting Washington that he recognized the potential “consequences of insurrection and massacre at the South” that such a policy might trigger. Whatever the moral benefits, or immoral consequences, of emancipation he “view[ed] the matter as a practical war measure, to be decided upon according to the advantages or disadvantages it may offer to the suppression of the [Confederate] rebellion.”

Consequently, the proclamation led to an uproar about its potential to incite slave rebellions. Ultimately, however, Lincoln inserted a subtle but important difference between the preliminary September ’62 version and the final form issued on January 1, 1863 by adding the following paragraph, which was altogether missing from the September version:

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

It is impossible to know whether the addition represented a change in Lincoln’s policy or merely a clarification of his original intent. But if context must be added to Confederate monuments let’s add it to the historical memorials on each side including our common country’s greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.

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Congress Attacks the Supreme Court

Most Civil War era students know that a Radical Republican Congress took control of Southern Reconstruction by obtaining a near veto-proof majority against President Andrew Johnson. Since Johnson considered the congressional plan to be unconstitutional, the infant GOP wanted him removed from office so that he could not interfere.

As explained in an earlier post, the Republicans settled on impeachment as their methodology. They accused Johnson of violating a law intended to prevent him from replacing one of his own cabinet members without approval of the Republican-controlled Senate. The Senate trial fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority required to remove (convict) the President. Johnson’s successor, Ulysses Grant, complained about the law and it was repealed about twenty years after adoption.


Fewer Civil War era students, however, realize that the Republican Congress also took shots at the Supreme Court. Congress was prepared to run roughshod over both of the other two federal government branches in order to impose its will. They wanted Reconstruction arranged in a manner that insured a sizable new voting bloc for their Party even if their plan was unconstitutional. In an act that makes present-day Republicans look generous, they passed the 1866 Judicial Circuits Act in order to deny President Johnson the opportunity to replace Supreme Court justices.

This was accomplished by temporarily permitting the court’s size to number as few as seven justices. Johnson would not be allowed to nominate a replacement unless the number of justices fell to six. Shortly after Republican Ulysses Grant succeeded President Johnson, Congress passed an act that set the Supreme Court at nine justices.

In 1868 Congress passed a law that did not permit appeals to the Supreme Court from lower federal courts where habeas corpus was at issue. The court had already ruled that individuals could not be tried in military courts if civilian courts were operating in the region. But Congress wanted to be able to prosecute Southerners in the military districts of the South without permitting them to transfer the case to a civilian court. The 1868 law prevented the accused from appealing to the Supreme Court under a writ of habeas corpus to have the case shifted to a civilian court.  Based on prior rulings, the Supreme Court would almost certainly granted such an appeal.

No single federal government branch ever again dominated the other two as did the Radical Republican Congresses of the Johnson era and first Grant administration. Fearing further congressional restraints, the court failed to review cases that might anger Republicans. It was mostly irrelevant on such matters until the Democratic Party gained strength in the 1874 elections.

My Civil War Books

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

To be released in May and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide

Post Civil War Economic Suppression of the South

After President Andrew Johnson left the White House in 1869 the Gilded Age had a good head of steam. Capitalistic moguls became role models and nearly everywhere, outside the South, Americans focused optimistically on the pursuit of wealth. The possibilities seemed unprecedented. As always, those in power used the government to promote their own interest with little regard for others left behind. It was less a deliberate effort to penalize others than to promote one’s own interest. Nonetheless, some policies that prompted prosperity across the North were decidedly harmful to Southerners, both black and white. A couple of examples are provided below.

Almost from its beginning in 1887 the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) sanctioned discriminatory regional railroad rates. Even before the ICC was formed, Southern railroads charged more per mile than did Northern ones. The disparities were officially acknowledged at the beginning of the twentieth century but were excused on the presumption of higher Southern operating cost due to lower population density and seasonal shipment patterns.


No careful study was made until 1939 when rates for the same service in the South were found to be 39% higher than in the North while those in the Southwestern region (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and part of New Mexico) were 75% higher. The differentials were so discriminatory that remote Northern manufactures could ship finished goods into the South at lower cost than Southern makers of the same items could distribute them within their own region. (Three years later Carnegie demonstrated that racism was not limited to Southerners when he objected to black suffrage by saying that blacks “were steeped in ignorance of political responsibilities to a degree impossible for northern people to imagine.” [Ezell, 182])


My Civil War Books

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

To be released next month and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide


Due to a shortage of capital in the South for many years after the Civil War, Northern railroads steadily increased their ownership of Southern operators. They quickly began using the rate differentials to block Southern competition to principal Northern shippers such as steel producers and the makers of other manufactured goods. When asked in 1890 why shipping rates into the North for Southern iron products was higher, one Pennsylvania Railroad agent replied, “It was done at the request of the Pennsylvania iron men.” Yet due to its wealth and industrial concentration, the North was a market that all manufactures needed to access if they were to compete on a national scale. No producer could achieve   economical high-volume production costs without access to Northern markets where most of the buying power was concentrated. As a means of impeding competition from Southern and Western manufactures the discriminatory rates were as effective as protective tariffs, which were Constitutionally prohibited between states.

In 1889 when Andrew Carnegie toured the emerging Southern steel industry centered in Birmingham, Alabama he declared, “the South is Pennsylvania’s most formidable industrial enemy.” About ten years later Carnegie’s mills were merged into, and became the largest component of, Pittsburg-based U. S. Steel. Six years later U. S. Steel purchased the biggest Southern steel mills. Continue reading

Ulysses Grant

It is no surprise to Civil War students that Ulysses Grant’s reputation has soared over the last fifty years. During the past twenty years nearly all of his biographies have been decidedly favorable. They typically ignore, minimize, excuse, or deny his failings. Examples include those of Jean Smith, H. W. Brands, and Joan Waugh. Two more will apparently join the group later this year. One from Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography upon which the hit Broadway show Hamilton is based and the second will be Ronald White’s American Ulysses.

Nonetheless, several lesser-known authors have recently provided analyses that question Grant’s lofty reputation. They might persuade a venerable reader that Grant’s reputation, once too low, is presently too high. But a reader who first studied Grant in the past twenty-five years will be shocked and might conclude that the general’s reputation should be dropped to a new low.

Joseph Rose published an 800-page expose titled Grant Under Fire. Professor Frank Varney wrote General Grant and the Rewriting of History after studying the errors and self-serving statements in the general’s memoirs. David Moore wrote a biography on General William Rosecrans who he felt Grant had wronged. Readers seeking an earlier bio that is not overly critical, or overly favorable, may enjoy the Pulitzer Prize winning one from William McFeely.


Onset of the Sesquicentennial of Reconstruction led me to study Grant’s presidency. Despite numerous scandals his reputation has recovered so much that recent biographers give him an unmerited “pass” as president. They typically emphasize that he (reluctantly) used federal power to suppress the Ku Klux Klan and tried to sustain black voting power in the South. However, they miss or minimize two essential points.

Continue reading

Lee’s Memory

In the wake of growing hostility toward the Confederacy a New Orleans Robert E. Lee statue is scheduled for destruction and debate is underway in Charlottesville, Virginia to remove another. Even though Washington & Lee is a private university, it has already yielded to pressures to remove the Confederate flag from the Lee Chapel. The school may ultimately feel compelled to drop the Lee name unless at least a few venerable historians publicly object to the escalating hatred toward Confederate symbols. To date none have done so, presumably for one of two reasons.

W&L Stamp

First, they believe the odium is justified. Given such an opinion there is no reason why they should object to degrading Lee’s memory and may even wish to promote it.

Second, those who think the disdain is excessive lack the will to speak out due to the prevailing opposite sentiment among their peers and the public. It takes courage for historians who have spent years earning favor  to express a contrary viewpoint since it may adversely affect their popularity, reputations and book sales. Nonetheless, Mississippian Shelby Foote set a good example of such pluck fifty years ago in the afterword of the second volume of his three-volume Civil War Narrative:

I am indebted also to the governors of my native state and the adjoining states of Arkansas and Alabama for helping to lessen my sectional bias by reproducing, in their actions during the several years that went into the writing of this volume, much that was least admirable in the position my forebears occupied when they stood up to Lincoln. I…fervently hope it is true that history never repeats itself, but I know in watching these three gentlemen, it can be terrifying in its approximations, even when the reproduction is in miniature.

Washington & Lee would not be the admired school it is today without Lee’s legacy. After he became president of Washington College in 1865 he attracted financial donations from all over the country. His reputation was a magnet that drew some to the best students in the South and increasingly from other parts of the country as well. The school’s present status owes more to his memory than to Washington’s, or anyone else’s. To remove his name would be to deny the credit he deserves. Nonetheless, it could become a consequence of the present trend toward Southern cultural genocide that is “terrifying in its approximations.”

My Civil War Books

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

To be released in May and available for pre-order: The Confederacy at Flood Tide