Author Archives: Phil Leigh

Political Activists or Historians?

(4/20/2019) Last month over at Relics & Bones, Richard Williams questioned whether many Civil War experts have morphed into Political Activists instead of historians. He suggests that those active at Civil War online forums, FaceBook Groups, and especially Twitter, have become absorbed in corrosive debates intended to intersect their political activism with the role of historian. Cyberspace enables them to congregate into packs that behave much like high school cliques.

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To be “in” with the “in crowd” it is necessary to despise a pre-defined group of historical figures and organizations while venerating a select group of others. Furthermore , it is also necessary to censor, shout down, bully and ridicule any contrary voices. Chief among the pariahs are anyone (or thing) associated with the Confederacy while Ulysses Grant is among the sacred cows. Thus, any Twitter user who tries to defend Robert E. Lee or criticize Ulysses Grant is promptly cyber-lynched.

To his credit, Richard admits to sometimes participating in such debates. As a dissenting voice to the “in crowd” he has endured his share of abuse. But recently he decided to withdraw from, or at least minimize, future debates. Instead he intends to focus on history without activism. He even made nice with a blogger on the other side. I suspect, however, that he will not completely abandon the defense of his Rebel ancestors. 

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Activist Historians & Our Undeclared Civil War

I recently recommended Keith Harris’s blog post about Twitter and the corrosive nature of the “debates” that take place there. Professor Harris opined that historians who have embraced social media platforms are attempting to “intersect” their goals of being an activist with that of being an objective historian. I agree with much of what he says, but I’m more pessimistic in regards to the possibility of pulling off that “intersection.”

The agenda always seems to trump the history. And that damages the credibility of those historians and becomes a turn-off for those really interested in history. The approach does, however, attract many activists. Perhaps that is the real goal.

I understand that both sides of the aisle are guilty of this, but there’s no debating that one side vastly outnumbers the other. When I read the Twitter feed of some of these historians, I come away with the same feeling I get when I’m behind a car at a stoplight that’s plastered with political bumper stickers. You know I’m right. In the case of these historians, activism and the agenda is the destination. History is simply the vehicle to get them there. Their obsession is obviously overwhelming; and controlling.

But it is important to understand the social media optics create a false confidence and a false narrative. The activists who engage on social media seem to vastly outnumber Americans in the general population who are primarily interested in American history, simply for history’s sake, and who do not engage [argue] on social media. The activists are more vocal and less contemplative and objective, in my opinion, than are the vast majority of Americans.

If you doubt me, just go to Twitter and inspect the feeds by “historians.” You’ll see lots of anger, lots of activism, lots of protesting, lots of politics, lots of silly memes, lots of insults, lots of virtue-signaling, lots of moralizing, lots of obsessing and lots of rage. Oh, and you will see some history; primarily mixed in to support the agenda. But the focus is not history. It’s activism. That’s fine if that’s what you’re about. But that is what they’re about. Oddly, that seems to be obvious to everyone but the activists.

To read the rest of Richard’s article click here.


British Reaction to Lincoln’s Blockade

(4/19/2019) Six days after Confederates occupied Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of Southern ports on April 19, 1861. His use of the term “blockade” was carefully chosen to avail for the Union certain benefits from the 1856 Declaration of Paris  that set an international convention on such matters. Even though the United States did not sign the Declaration, he had two reasons for announcing that he would abide by its terms.

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First, the Declaration outlawed privateers. (A privateer is a privately owned warship authorized to attack enemy merchant ships for the purpose of capturing their cargoes, which may be sold for monetary reward.) Two days earlier Confederate President Jefferson Davis invited private ship owners to apply for such authorizations. By conforming to the Declaration, in a single pen-stroke Lincoln effectively denied Confederate privateers access to neutral ports of such important signatories as the British and French empires, among others. Less than a month after Lincoln’s action Great Britain revoked the right of non-signatories (e.g. the Confederacy) to clear their prizes in any British port including those in Canada and the Caribbean. Other treaty member quickly followed Britain’s lead. The inability to sell captured cargos in neutral ports ended Confederate privateering almost before it began.

1856 Declaration of Paris

Second, the Declaration stipulated specific procedures for inspecting neutral cargo ships and turning them away from blockaded ports. Thus, compliance with the Declaration meant that blockaders were less likely to accidentally trigger hostilities with neutral governments while performing their duties.

While his decision to align the United States with the Declaration provided important benefits, it also had a major drawback. Specifically, it implied that the Confederacy was an independent nation.

The British explained that if the Southern ports were part of the United States (as Lincoln maintained) they should have been closed in the manner that Boston harbor was closed by Great Britain when the town was part of Massachusetts colony in 1774. But selective port closings violated the U. S. constitution. More importantly, there was no international treaty that would require signatories to comply with a port closing. Thus, if Lincoln closed the Southern ports the probability of an international incident that might lead to war with an initially neutral country would increase.

Since Britain did not want war with Washington, she responded in the least offensive way practicable. Although she declined to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, the Declaration terms practically compelled her to recognize the Confederacy as a belligerent. Unfortunately for Lincoln, belligerency status gave the Confederacy the right purchase weapons and borrow money from Great Britain and other Declaration signatories. It also gave Confederate warships limited use of neutral ports for refuge and repair.

While Northerners were angered when Britain defined the Confederacy as a belligerent, Southerners were dismayed at Britain’s interpretation of the blockade’s legal status. This was important because an illegal blockade need not be honored. Importantly, the Declaration outlawed “paper blockades.” Nation “A” could not require signatories to honor its blockade of nation “B” if it did not deploy the ships required to block harbor traffic. In terms of the Declaration’s language, a blockade could only be legal if it was “effective.”

Since the Union initially had few ships to intercept traffic, Lincoln’s blockade was undeniably not “effective” for the first year or two. Nonetheless, Great Britain treated it as though it were effective. The reasons for the perplexing interpretation became evident in the ensuing decades.

Great Britain chiefly wanted to establish an international precedent that would benefit her in hypothetical future wars with European powers. Since she intended to maintain a large navy she realized that she was most likely to be the initiator of a future blockade. If so, she wanted to insure that neutrals would honor it. Thus, during the American Civil War Great Britain redefined the concept of an effective blockade.

Prior to the Civil War the British regarded a blockade as effective if blockading ships established “an arc of circumvallation round the mouth of a prohibited port, where, if the arc fail in any one part, the blockade itself fails altogether.”  During the Civil War they changed their definition to include a situation where blockaders merely “created an evident danger” to ships entering or leaving the applicable port.  Nothing like the new definition had ever been heard before.

From today’s vantage point it’s clear that British policy looked a long way ahead. During World War I Britain never established “arcs of circumvallation” before German ports. She merely intercepted shipping on a “catch-as-catch-can” basis. Nonetheless, she compelled the USA to honor her blockade. When American exporters protested during our period of neutrality in that war, Britain pointed to Lincoln’s blockade as their precedent.

Sins and Virtues of Civil War History

(4-18-2019) History is remembered as a narrative, not facts and figures. If the story is told from the viewpoint of past sins, the rendering condemns our ancestors and makes us ashamed of our legacy. If it is told from the viewpoint of ancestral virtues, it leaves us proud of our tradition and inspired to build upon the accomplishments of those who came before us.

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Thus, if Civil War history is told from the perspective of slavery white Southerners are portrayed as America’s evil twin and Confederate statues are torn down. But when the virtues of the Confederate soldier were considered, the narrative inspired—and can continue to inspire—future generations of all Americans.

Consider, for example, General Robert E. Lee. He took full responsibility for his army’s failures at Gettysburg. In contrast, then and now many leaders seek to blame others for their failures as Hillary Clinton repeatedly demonstrates. Moreover, Lee took responsibility immediately. He went forth to meet the Confederate infantry retreating from Pickett’s failed charge telling them “. . . all this is my fault; it is I who has lost this fight and you must help me out as best you can. . .This will all come out right in the end, but you all must rally and we will talk it over afterward. We want every good man now.” Although modern historians like to disparage Lee, they cannot deny that he was probably more beloved and respected by the men who served under him than any other general in Gray or Blue.

Retired Army Officer, best-selling Civil War author, TV news commentator, and Northerner Ralph Peters, had this to say about the typical Confederate soldier:

The myth of Johnny Reb, the greatest of infantrymen, happens to be true. Not only the courage and combat skill, but the sheer endurance of the Confederate foot soldier may have been equalled in a few other armies over the millennia, but none could claim the least superiority. Especially (but not only) in the Army of Northern Virginia, the physical toughness, fighting ability and raw determination of those men remains astonishing.

Billy Yank showed plenty of courage, too, and yes, the Southern armies had their share of shirkers and deserters, but the fact that most Johnnies fought on against crushing odds, hungry, louse-infested and flea-bitten, clothed in rags and exposed to the elements, often sick and usually emaciated . . . the more I study those men, the more I admire them.

As noted in an earlier post the legacy of the Confederate soldier inspired warriors in every American war since the 1898 fight to free Cuba. Three of the most decorated soldiers of World Wars One and Two and the Vietnam War were white Southerners born into grinding poverty. As boys they hunted game for food, not sport. During World War Two, the first American flag to fly over the captured Japanese fortress at Okinawa was a Confederate Battle Flag. It was put there by a group of marines to honor their company commander—a South Carolinian physically disabled by a wound in the victorious assault. Some of the tank crews that freed prisoners from German concentration camps also flew the Confederate Battle Flag.

Such veterans vouchsafed for us the country we have today. It is the World’s wealthiest and our culture has more worldwide influence than any other. It is a country for which aliens will flagrantly violate our immigration laws in exchange for a chance to live here. It is a multicultural society, but one so fair that it elected Obama as President even though he identifies with the black race that represents merely thirteen percent of our population. It is one where women represent the majority of college graduates and have more opportunities than in any other country in the World.

Texas Ranger Frank Hamer

Yet America is also a country in which most academics and their acolytes primarily see flaws. Consequently, they espouse a false victimhood ideology that despises white males—especially Southerners—while portraying all minorities and women (a majority) as victims. These critics imagine only the worst of those who disagree with them and increasingly demand that contrary voices be censored. Instead of meeting conflicting opinions with arguments, they respond with ad hominem code word accusations intended to end all discussion like a trump card. Examples include “racist,” “homophobe,” “misogynist,” and “Lost Causer.” Predictably, the white Southern male is hated most because his critics consider him to be all four.

To be sure, racism lasted a long time in the South. But it was not as the typical academic imagines it to have been. Southern men like Mockingbird’s fictional Atticus Finch really existed. While such men lived in a time and place where most blacks were presumed to be destined to become members of a perpetual servant class, they did not hate blacks. Some brave ones even felt that blacks merited protection against other whites who were even more racist. And they acted upon those feelings.

One example was Frank Hamer. He was the Texas Ranger who led the group of lawmen that put an end to Bonnie & Clyde. Hamer began his career in 1905 on horseback and fought most every kind of outlaw until about 1940.  Although his racial attitudes were like most Texans of the era, he faced down lynch mobs when they wanted to string-up blacks without a trial. Even though the rescued men were most likely guilty he risked his own life  to insure that they got due legal process. Such is the ambiguity of the Southerner from that era. When pondered honestly, it mystifies the typical modern historian. Unfortunately, they seldom ponder it at all and are blind to the nuance of Southern race relations in the years before the historians were educated indoctrinated.

Thus results today’s dominant narrative of the South. It is fabricated upon a foundation of legendary sins and ignores genuine historical virtues.

Review: U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency

Cotton Boll Conspiracy Blog – 4/15/2019

All the lipstick in the world can’t pretty up the Grant presidency

Historians revise history constantly. That’s a key component of the job: seeking out and assessing new information, considering and reconsidering the motives of participants, and pondering the authenticity of documents and other accounts.

But revising history is different from “rewriting” history, which involves ascribing positive or negative motives to actors based on predetermined outcomes, ignoring information that contradicts those preordained outcomes or faulting historical figures by holding them to modern standards and values incompatible with the past.

This is evident in recent analyses of Ulysses Grant’s presidency. Grant, the Union general who served as president from 1869 to 1877, was graded near the bottom of U.S. presidents just 70 years ago, ranking No. 28 of 30 chief executives in 1948. Conversely, in 2017 Grant was rated No. 22 of 43.

This is curious, given that unlike such presidents as Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Grant’s Administration didn’t have the benefit of classifying secret information for decades. In other words, it’s not like a horde of secret files were released 75 years or a century after Grant left office, giving historians solid reasons to reassess his presidency.

Grant’s eight years in the Oval Office is the subject of Philip Leigh’s last book, U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency (published by Shotwell Publishing, 2019)

Ulysses S. Grant and his family, Long Branch, New Jersey, 1870

Leigh ascribes Grant’s revival to two factors: Modern historians tendency to focus on the racial aspects of Reconstruction – and to ascribe egalitarian motives to Grant’s decisions when they were almost certainly political in nature – and an inclination to minimize or even overlook the corruption that was a hallmark of his presidency, including concerns that Grant himself was involved in the graft.

Today’s historians, many of whom came of age during or after the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, too often fail to critically evaluate Grant’s motives for supporting black civil rights, particularly voting rights, during Reconstruction, Leigh writes.

“His policy is commonly portrayed as a noble stand for racial equality. They fail to adequately examine evidence that his prime motive may have been to gain the political power that a routinely obedient voting bloc could provide to Republican candidates,” Leigh states.

Grant was opposed to black suffrage at the end of the War Between the States, but by 1868 he was warbling a different tune. That change, however, did not encompass extending the franchise to other minorities such as Native Americans and Chinese Americans. The Republican Party was less than two decades old when Grant was first elected and securing a compliant voting base to help the party become established was crucial to its long-term survival.

Regarding integrity, the Grant Administration’s ethical lapses rival those of the Harding, Nixon and Clinton administrations.

There were at least 10 major scandals during Grant’s two terms, including a gold speculation ring that resulted in the nation’s economy spiraling into a recession, the Whisky Ring, in which whisky distillers bribed Treasury Department officials who then aided the distillers in evading taxes, and the breach of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, when Grant, seeking a means to get the country out of the Depression of 1873, approved an 1,000-troop expedition into the Black Hills, sacred land of the Lakota Indians where gold had been discovered. Grant appointed a commission to buy mining rights from the Sioux, but the commission reported that force was necessary to begin negotiations. Grant proceeded to launch an illegal war against the Plains Indians, then lied to Congress and the American people about it.

Corruption would be discovered in seven federal departments: including the Navy, Justice, War, Treasury, Interior State and Post Office. Nepotism was prevalent, with more than 40 of Grant’s family members benefiting from government appointments and employment. And several of Grant’s close aides and cabinet officials were indicted.

Grant himself exhibited dubious standards which, were a politician to act similarly today would surely end their career and possibly result in prison time. In 1866, prior to entering public service, Grant accepted a $30,000 home in Washington, D.C., raised through public subscription that netted the general $100,000 in all.

When Grant was ready to move into the White House, he initially agreed to a deal to sell the home for $40,000. Treasury Secretary designee Alexander Stewart led a subscription to purchase the home for $65,000 for Union General William T. Sherman. When the money was raised, Grant turned his back on the agreement with the first buyer and pocketed the $35,000 difference, according to Leigh.

Six months into his first term, Grant accepted a vacation home on the New Jersey coast. The 27-room structure cost $35,000, money raised by seven donors, including a Philadelphia newspaper owner and the owner of the Pullman Co., which manufactured railroad cars, according to Leigh.

A century and a half after Grant became chief executive the office of the president has changed so much that contrasting mid-19th century presidential administrations and those of today is extremely difficult. The manner in which information was recorded and archived (or, as in the past, wasn’t archived), and the present access to public information, inadequate but a far cry from that of the 1860s and ‘70s, make an apples-to-apples comparison impossible, for example.

Still, Grant’s Administration was a marked period of corruption, when speculators and rouges fleeced both the public trust and the public treasury, while the common citizen, whether white or black, worked diligently just to simply keep their heads above water.

U.S. Grant’s Failed Presidency is a well-done, easily understood work. In it, Philip Leigh cuts through the presentism that pervades so much current historical writing and examines the facts of 1869-1877, delivering an appropriately unflattering appraisal of Ulysses Grant’s eight years in office.

Did Grant’s Soldiers Cheer His Advance on Spotsylvania?

(April 15, 2019) One of the inspirational stories that Ulysses Grant’s hagiographers tell concerns the aftermath of the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. Although soundly defeated in his first match against Robert E. Lee, legend has it that his troops reflexively cheered him when they realized he was leading the Army of the Potomac on a march toward Lee’s right flank after the battle instead of retreating as former Union commanders typically did after losing to Lee. Biographer Ron Chernow describes it this way on pages 385-86 of his biography:

As the long column of Union soldiers began to stir that night, they found themselves suddenly wheeling around, not to the north [in retreat] but to the south, and realizing with a flush of exhilaration that Grant was going on the offensive, leading them back into battle against Lee! . . . In spontaneous joy, soldiers expressed their fond opinions of Grant with cheers so loud they resounded through the woods, leading Confederate to fear attack.

Chernow’s account relies primarily upon secondary sources except for Horace Porter’s Campaigning With Grant. (Porter was a military aide and later a private secretary for President Grant.) Unfortunately for Grant fans, in his Grant Under Fire author Joesph Rose has disclosed a number of instances when Porter falsified records in order to portray his chief in a more favorable light. Last month Rose added the article below at his website after discovering yet another suspicious Porter recollection.

James M. McPherson, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of U.S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs, noted how Horace Porter served on Grant’s staff from the Wilderness to Appomattox. McPherson concluded that, Porter’s “own version of those events, entitled Campaigning with Grant, is next in value only to Grant’s memoirs as a firsthand account of command decisions in that campaign.” Porter in his own preface maintained that, “While serving as a personal aid to the general-in-chief the author early acquired the habit of making careful and elaborate notes of everything of interest which came under his observation, and these reminiscences are simply a transcript of memoranda jotted down at the time.”

The implication that he actually transcribed these supposed notes is ridiculous. Among his unbelievable renderings, Porter remembered verbatim a pair of four-sentence comments and then a speech lasting more than two pages, during a six-mile horseback ride with the General. But what apparently proves the comprehensiveness of Porter’s fabrications, however, is his letter on April Fool’s Day of 1868, an excerpt of which is in the Wyoming State Archives’ Bender Collection. In it, Porter acknowledged that “I kept no notes in the field ….”

Readers may continue Rose’s article at his website here. A discussion of the dubious cheering after the Battle of the Wilderness is in the comments section.

Turning Point Leaders on Confederate Symbols

(April 14, 2019) In the article below from TurningPoint USA two leaders of the politically conservative campus organization stand up for Confederate Heritage and dispute the popular conception within academia and the mainstream press that today’s Southerners are racists.

Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens hosted Campus Clash at Mississippi State University on April 7.

Kirk and Owens spoke critically of the movement to remove Confederate statues from public places. In recent times, Confederate monuments have become controversial, causing people to petition for their removal.

“It deeply troubles me to hear about the statue situation,” Owens said. “It deeply bothers me that the idea of a Confederate soldier now is someone who owned slaves when it wasn’t the case. It was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. It’s become a perversion of history.”

Continue the article here.