Author Archives: Phil Leigh

Book Review: Secret Trial of Robert E. Lee

(March 31, 2020)
Thomas Fleming
A Forge Book, 336 pages

 

Fleming uses this 2006 fictional courtroom drama to formulate arguments for his 2013 Disease in the Public Mind non-fiction book identifying the causes of the Civil War. The story is set in early June 1865 when Robert E. Lee is secretly tried by a military commission prompted by Assistant War Secretary and former editor of the New York Tribune, Charles Dana. Lincoln is dead. Andrew Johnson is in the early stages of shaping his presidency while Radical Republicans use the trial as one way to work behind the scenes to gain control of the federal government.

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As a leading Radical, Dana insists upon a military tribunal for two reasons. First, if Lee were tried in a civilian court it would have to be in Virginia where a jury would likely acquit him. Second, a military commission provides the prosecution important advantages. For example, the Judge Advocate (prosecutor) is empowered to rule upon the admissibility of evidence, instead of an independent Judge.

Although Ulysses Grant objects to the trial for violating his Appomattox surrender terms, Dana silences him. Specifically, Dana threatens to recant his earlier field reports protecting the general when Dana had falsely denied Grant’s episodic drunkenness during the war. The five-officer tribunal is composed of one fictional character and Generals O. O. Howard, Ambrose Burnside, George Meade and William “Baldy” Smith. The Judge Advocate General is Joseph Holt who is assisted by General Ben “Beast” Butler. Holt had earlier prosecuted Lincoln’s assassins. The specifications against Lee are: betraying his allegiance oath, prolonging an un-winnable war after Gettysburg, responsibility for Andersonville deaths, conspiring to assassinate Lincoln, unlawful execution of prisoners, and his immoral defense of slavery. Lee is defended by Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson who was counsel for the white defendant in the 1857 Dred Scott case.

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Charles Dana

Fleming masterfully portrays the prosecution and defense cases of Butler and Johnson, respectively. After questioning a parade of witnesses that include Ulysses Grant, Horace Greeley, Charles Dana, Pete Longstreet, John Mosby, Jefferson Davis, Lewis Powell, Robert E. Lee, Henry Wirz, Edmund Ruffian, Charles Taylor, Wingfield Scott, Julia Tyler, and Mary Anna Custis Lee, among others, it seems likely that Lee will be acquitted of all charges except defending slavery. After four years of the worst casualties in America history, Ben Butler’s argument that slavery was a crime against humanity that merits conviction gains purchase with the judges.

After Mary Lee testifies that Southern women were genuinely fearful of slave rebellions, however, the judges begin to see merit in her argument that growing Northern fanaticism made such uprisings more likely. Reverdy Johnson explains that blacks outnumbered whites five-to-one, or more, in parts of the South. If America’s black population was not permitted to naturally diffuse to other parts of the country—even as free men—they will become increasingly concentrated in the South thereby intensifying the region’s worries over a race war.

In a private conversation, Dana explains to a fictional character that even though Northerners want to end slavery, they don’t want ex-slaves to leave the South and migrate into their own states. In actual history, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas conceded the point when he was sent South by Lincoln during the war to recruit black soldiers. Even though the families of ex-slaves desperately needed subsistence he wrote Lincoln explaining that the Northern states would not accept them as refugees.

Only a couple of months before the war started, former President John Tyler explained that John Brown’s 1859 attempted slave insurrection amplified Southern worries. He urged that Northerners ease such concerns by investigating the six abolitionist leaders who allegedly backed Brown. According to Fleming, during the secession crisis Tyler requested that The New York Tribune print an editorial asking for such an investigation, but Charles Dana turned him down. Additionally, Dana failed to tell Greeley of the request, even though the latter would have complied. Greeley’s newspaper was America’s most influential media in 1861.

As a harbinger of his analysis seven years later in A Disease in the Public Mind, several of Fleming’s characters engage in an insightful conversation near the end of his Lee-trial novel:

“We’ve killed six hundred thousand men to free four million slaves—and no one has a clue what to do with them! Or for them!” Stapleton said.​
“Except Dana and his fanatical friends,” Baldy said.​
“Old Buchanan was right,” Stapleton said, “it was a disease of the public mind.”​
“You think the war was a mistake? A sham?” I asked.​
“I’ll never call it that publicly,” Stapleton said. “The people couldn’t bear it. . . It will take a hundred years before the people can face the truth.”​
“Try two hundred,” Baldy Smith said.​

Fleming’s novel pretends that the trial actually happened and, for reasons explained in the story, was never entered into recorded history. It’s much like the approach Michael Crichton used in his Andromeda Strain.

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Buy and sample my books at my Amazon Author Page.

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

Book Review: A Disease in the Public Mind

(March 28, 2020)
Thomas Fleming (1927-2017)
Da Capo Press (2013)
Hardcover, $27 (370pp) 

This book investigates the origins of the Civil War by tracing its roots to the republic’s earliest days when two factors quickly became evident: secession and slavery. George Washington addressed both frankly. During his presidential farewell address he urged future leaders to avoid all political posturing that would endanger the Union and upon his death he freed his slaves. His actions were not enough. 

Ironically, New England threatened secession as early as did Westerners and Southerners. Three months before the convention that wrote our present constitution convened, the Boston Independent Chronicle urged that its region create “a new nation . . . of New England.” As America’s maritime leader, the Bay State was responding to an offer from Spain—then controlling Louisiana—to open key ports to New England shipping if they would oppose Westerners and Southerners who objected to Spain’s restrictions on Mississippi Valley trade.After President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803, partly to gain control of the Mississippi, New Englanders again threatened secession because they feared losing national influence as new Western states joined the Union. New England gradually ignored an 1807 Federal trade embargo designed to avoid a second war with Great Britain thereby requiring President James Madison to declare war in 1812 as a reluctantly-adopted way of fulfilling America’s aims. The region again threatened secession.

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When President John Adams pushed through the 1798 alien and sedition acts that made it situationally a crime to speak ill of the Federal government, many Americans felt that governmental power was getting too centralized. Among them was Thomas Jefferson who promoted States Rights. Thereafter, the matter of secession increasingly split between the followers of Adams, on one hand, and Jefferson on the other.

Although when writing the constitution some Northerners preferred a Union without slave states, they compromised by accepting some in order to create a viable country. Their preference never vanished. To the contrary, it grew stronger. Jefferson initially favored abolition and pushed through a Continental Congress bill that outlawed slavery in the states north of the Ohio River. He also tried to get his home state of Virginia to abolish it. Ultimately, however, he concluded that the states of the Deep South were too worried about a massacre of whites—as had happened in Haiti during Jefferson’s presidency—if blacks were given freedom.

Thus, emerged two Diseases in the Public Mind, which was a phrase originated by President Buchanan in response to John Brown’s raid. First, was abolitionism that increasingly demonized white Southerners and steadily became more intolerant of other viewpoints. Abolitionists went beyond arguing that slavery was morally wrong, they argued that white Southerners were uniquely depraved, as if New Englanders had never profited from slave trade and the molasses/rum trade tied to it. Second, was the Southerners’ fear of slave uprisings. Although they were rare, Southerners increasingly believed such uprising were the abolitionists’ true objective as John Brown’s 1859 Harpers Ferry attempt seemed to confirm. Although Brown was a murderer and ne’er-do-well, evidence found in his possession suggested that he was backed by at least six abolitionists including the wealthy William Garrett. Although Frederick Douglass declined to join the adventure, Douglass kept it secret.

Initially false perceptions between Northerners and Southerners grew to become realities. Generally, abolitionists did not seek Southern slave rebellions. They just wanted slavery to end—after they had profitably divested themselves of their own slaves. Conversely, Southerners did not seek to dominate America. In fact, Madison urged from the start that the infant industries of the North be insulated from foreign competition with protective tariffs, even at the expense of the South’s wealthier export economy. Exaggerated fear of slave uprisings coupled with resentment over the Northern hatred directed at them motivated Southerners. Conversely, exaggerated fears about Southern objectives—such as those implied in Lincoln’s “all-slave-or-all-free” House Divided speech—motivated Northerners.

Fleming suggests that Congressman and ex-President John Quincy Adams might have prevented the war. During the 1830s and 1840s he was a powerful abolition advocate. He might have been an effective mediator. Instead he spread paranoia about Southerners, labeling their region “The Slave Power.” He might, for example, have originated a bill—like one submitted shortly after his death by Congressman Abraham Lincoln—that offered slaveowners compensation for abolition. According to Fleming, “Adams had the potential to alter the debate and remind Americans of the 1830s and 1840s of the heritage they were endangering. . . Among the might-have-beens on the twisted road to Civil War . . . the hidden failure of [Adams] was one in which a change in [his] mind might have made a huge difference.” By 1860 it was too late

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Buy and sample my books at my Amazon Author Page

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

Why Academics Avoid Berry Benson

(March 26, 2020) Together with his sixteen-year-old brother, Blackford, Berry Benson (1843-1923) enlisted in a South Carolina regiment three months before Fort Sumter when he was one-month shy of his eighteenth birthday. After Sumter the two served in Robert E. Lee’s army until war’s end. Both refused to participate in the Appomattox surrender and returned to their Augusta, Georgia home after learning that General Joseph Johnston had also surrendered in North Carolina. They were still armed with their rifles when they arrived. Berry missed Gettysburg because he was badly wounded at Chancellorsville but otherwise participated in all of Lee’s major campaigns. He was twice captured and twice escaped notorious prison camps; Point Lookout, Maryland and Elmira, New York.

Today’s academic historians would at least mention his Civil War Book memoir in passing because they could demean it as that of a slaveholder’s son—his dad owned two—and could ridicule it for providing Shelby Foote with one of the Mississippian’s “hackneyed anecdotes” in the 1991 PBS Civil War documentary, except for Berry’s postbellum social progressivism. For example, even though the dominant accountant for Augusta’s textile mills, Berry backed their underpaid workers in an 1899 labor dispute. One local newspaper identified Berry as “perhaps the most ardent sympathizer the strikers have.” He leveraged business connections to get some of the workers hired in Atlanta where the Georgia Railroad agreed to transport them for free. The striking union invited Berry on the arbitration panel that finally ended the strike.

Leo Frank

But it is Berry’s role in the 1914 Leo Frank Case that puts modern “progressive” academic historians on the horns of dilemma. If they condemn him, they may be criticized as antisemitic but if they praise him, they risk accusations of racism. Too many academics are accustomed to monopolizing such denunciations, which they dishonestly use to try and shame-into-silence anyone who challenges their interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Leo Frank was a Cornell-educated Jewish engineer who moved to Atlanta in 1908 when he was twenty-four years old. Two years later he married a local girl and in 1910 was elected President of Atlanta’s chapter of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization. When managing a local pencil factory in 1913, a thirteen-year-old girl worker was found raped and murdered in the basement. A month later Frank was charged with the murder and convicted after a twenty-five-day trial.

Berry followed the trial from Augusta with interest because one of his adult son Charles’s boyhood friends, William Smith, represented the black janitor who was a key prosecution witness. Notwithstanding that Smith had become an advocate of black rights partly under Berry’s mentorship, Berry doubted the handyman’s testimony. Jim Conley, the janitor, claimed that Frank paid him $200 in cash the very night of the murder as hush money and to assist in the body disposal. The “confession” earned him a light sentence.

As an accountant, Berry felt $200 was too much money for a factory manager to have on hand on a Saturday night. He travelled to Atlanta where he lodged with the Smith family and, together with Smith, questioned Conley the next day. After checking the books, Smith learned that the pencil factory had only $26 in cash on hand the night of the murder. Upon further investigation Berry learned that the murdered girl could not have arrived at the factory as early as Conley testified. He also discovered other exculpatory Frank evidence.

After returning to Augusta he corresponded with Frank. He also published a pamphlet at his own expense detailing “Five Arguments” that questioned the prosecution’s case. This put him in a newspaper duel with Tom Watson, a newspaperman and former congressman who was convinced of Frank’s guilt. Eventually Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life-imprisonment, expecting that he could pardon Frank when tempers cooled. In order to protect Frank, the governor ordered the prisoner removed to Milledgeville. Watson became enraged and published an article demanding an investigation. Consequently, a vigilante group formed in the girl’s hometown, caravanned to Milledgeville, broke into the jail and lynched Leo Frank on August 17, 1915.

Despite his doubts about Conley, the Berry Benson family lived in a racially integrated neighborhood and he experimented with regional mushrooms in search for a cheap food supply for Southern blacks. The intelligent Benson became a cryptography expert whose assistance with Spanish codes during the Spanish-American War was repeatedly turned down by Federal bureaucrats who repetitively replied to his letters by falsely assuming he was trying to sell them a code. In 1877 he served as the model for the common soldier that stands atop Augusta’s Confederate monument, which some academics target for destruction.

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Buy and sample my books at my Amazon Author Page.

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

Online Confederate Book Discussion Tomorrow

(Monday: March 23, 2020) Tomorrow I’ll have an online discussion about my book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide. I will be at the Civil War Talk chat room at 11:00 AM eastern daylight time. We will chat from our keyboards and not user voice or video.

The Confederacy at Flood Tide covers the period from June to December 1862 when the Confederacy came closest to winning independence. In addition to examining military developments from all three theaters, the book discusses diplomatic, political, economic and espionage factors. Copies are available through most bookstores. Signed copies are available from me at phil_leigh(at)me.com.

Online Book Discussion: The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Date: Tuesday: March 24, 2020
Time: 11:00 AM Eastern Daylight Time
Location: Civil War Talk Chat Room
Free Membership Required:* Get it here.

*After getting a free membership you can log into the Civil War Talk chat room. If you are not yet a member, register ASAP because all memberships must be approved as a way to avoid spam.

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Buy and sample my books at my Amazon Author Page

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh
The Devil’s Town: Hot Springs During the Gangster Era by Philip Leigh

Hollywood Lies About Southerners

(March 23, 2020) The latest example of Hollywood’s tendency to lie about Southerners is a movie titled The Banker. It’s about two black bankers in the 1950s who are forced, because of racism, to use a white man as a figurehead to manage their Texas banks. Unfortunately, the banks get involved in shady practices that result in their failure.

Eventually all three men were called to testify before a Senate Banking Committee hearing chaired by Arkansas Senator John McClellan who is portrayed as an inveterate racist. McClellan is depicted as telling the blacks that if they admit to taking advantage of regulatory loopholes that the Senator wants to close they will avoid prosecution. But if they claim racial discrimination is the root of their problems, McClellan implies they will be convicted in a racially bigoted Texas court. In the Hollywood version the two blacks are convicted by an all white Texas jury after testifying at the McClellan hearing that the regulators targeted them merely because of their race.

In reality, however, Senator McClellan’s conduct toward blacks during Jim Crow was nuanced. While he supported school segregation the two-minute video below shows him protecting a black Federal employee whose rights were being abused during the 1954 McCarthy hearings.

Hollywood has enormous power to shape cultural attitudes worldwide. Unfortunately, they have an anti-Southern agenda that portray’s the adult white Southerners of my youth as racist the the nth degree. As Carlos Eire put it in his book, Waiting for Snow in Havana, “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”

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Buy and sample my books at my Amazon Author Page.

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh

Anti-Southern Academic Bias

(March 19, 2020) Although modern academic Civil War historians believe themselves to be truth-seekers, they are just as likely to delude themselves with argumentum ad populum as historians of an earlier era. However, their greatest failure is censorship. They fiercely censor viewpoints they falsely label as Lost Cause Mythology even when the rubric is misapplied. They often erroneously feel that they have an uncorrupted pipeline to the truth, lacking in the work of earlier historians. They behave as though they are an elite priesthood, much like the IBM technicians did in the era of mainframe computers.

Nonetheless, earlier historians no doubt were just as truth-seeking as today’s academics and were just as conscientious at their work. The key difference is that earlier professors did not censor new ideas thereby enabling today’s dominate perspectives to take root and grow. In contrast, too many modern academics are intolerant, even tyrannical, in opposition to different ideas. Consider the following:

1. During this Christian Keller interview about his new book on the Lee-Jackson military partnership, the academic interviewer asks Keller why he picked the topic given the opprobrium associated with the Confederacy. Even worse, Keller responds apologetically. He explained that he began the project before the anti-Confederate-statue movement became significant.

2. Last November (2019) the Lincoln Forum hosted a panel on Confederate statues at their Gettysburg conference, but not a single one of the four academic participants was a statue defender. Since I have been unable to find any academic online panel discussion that contains a solitary Confederate monument defender, I would be thankful to readers who can provide some. I would also welcome links to online speeches by academics defending Confederate statues because I have also not been able to find any of those.

When 70% – 80% of a group are in agreement, you have a consensus. When 99% are in agreement, you’re in North Korea.

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Buy and sample my books at My Amazon Author Page.

The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh