Tag Archives: Civil War

Lincoln and McClellan

(March 7, 2018) Provided below is Chapter Eleven of my Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies book. Source citations are available in the book whereas they have been removed from this online version. Generally, modern historians condemn McClellan for what he failed to do instead of applauding him for what he did do. Among the things he did do was to take command of a panicked and demoralized army and converted it into a victorious one that stopped Lee’s first invasion of the North in less than three weeks.


Ultimately Civil War students must take a position on Major General George McClellan. It is necessary to decide whether Lincoln was correct in growing impatient with him, or whether the general was driven to a natural resentment of the President—and especially Radical Republican leaders—by their unfair treatment of him. While most modern historians side with the Republicans, McClellan apparently had powerful endorsements among experts of his time.

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One example was Helmuth Von Moltke who was the leader of the Prussian armies that won the 1870-1871 Franco Prussian War, which paved the way for the creation of a German state. George Curtis, who was co-counsel to Dred Scott when the slave’s case reached the Supreme Court in 1857, cited a conversation that Moltke had with another American whom Curtis “had no reason to doubt.” The American said, “Some of us in America do not estimate McClellan so highly as we do some of our other generals.” Moltke replied, “It may be so, but let me tell you that, if your Government had supported General McClellan in the field as they should have done, your war would have ended two years earlier.” However, since Moltke met with McClellan in 1868 when the latter visited Europe, it may be presumed that the Prussian was influenced by whatever information McClellan provided.

Similarly, during the last summer of his life Robert E. Lee visited his cousin Cassius Lee and they shared reminiscent conversations. Cazenove Lee who was Cassius Lee’s twenty-year-old son, claimed to be present. Cazenove later told Robert E. Lee, Jr. that he asked the former Rebel leader, “ . . . which of the Federal generals he considered to be the greatest.” According to Cazenove, the old general answered, “McClellan, by all odds.”

While both the Von Moltke and Cazenove Lee incidents cannot be absolutely verified, they were told under circumstances that suggest validity. But whether or not they are true, a case for McClellan or Lincoln can be made independent of the statements.

Following defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861 the principal federal army in the east was in disarray. Lincoln called upon 34-year-old George McClellan to take command, bring order out of chaos and prevent the capital from being captured by the jubilant Rebels. The President chose McClellan for two reasons. First, he was familiar with him from before the war because Lincoln did legal work for the Illinois Central Railroad when McClellan was an executive in the company. Second, news reports had generally credited McClellan with winning four small victories in the western mountains of Virginia during the preceding month or so. In truth, the victories were actually won by subordinates, although McClellan had overall command. Nonetheless, they had the effect of separating the strategically important western part of Virginia from the Confederacy. Continue reading

Pious Cause Mythology

(November 28, 2017) Given that “Lost Cause Mythology” has mutated into a phrase synonymous with racism, a contra-term is required for the false belief that nineteenth century Republicans advocated for Southern blacks purely on the merits of racial justice. One choice might be “Pious Cause Mythology.”

One “Pious Cause Mythologist” suggests, for example, that the claim of a “white Northern Retreat from Reconstruction” is a dubious “trope.” Since he is among those who will most readily label others as “Lost Cause” proponents and portray them as racists, perhaps he will consider evidence from a Reconstruction-era black leader that validates the very “trope” he doubts.

Specifically, in September 1874 Mississippi carpetbag Governor Adelbert Ames asked President Ulysses Grant to send federal troops to protect black voters in the November election. Grant declined and Mississippi Republicans lost decisively at the polls. Ames ever afterward blamed the defeat on Grant’s failure to send protecting federal troops.

Only after about four decades was the reason for Grant’s inaction made public when one of the Mississippi Republican congressmen who survived the election debacle explained what happened. Specifically, a former mulatto Congressman named John Lynch revealed that Grant had told him in November 1874 that Mississippi was politically sacrificed to Ohio.

Specifically, Ohio Republicans worried that they could lose their autumn elections if Grant intervened in Mississippi. Like many Americans, Ohioans were appalled when Grant’s federal troops forcibly installed a Republican regime in Louisiana that included one of his own brothers-in-law after the 1872 elections. The Ohioans urged that he keep federal troops out of Mississippi, and the President complied. Significantly, there is good reason to believe that the Ohio worries were justified because the state’s legislature adopted a resolution condemning Grant for interfering a second time in Louisiana after December 1874.

In short, a contemporary black leader disclosed that Grant confessed to him that the President “Retreated from Reconstruction” in Mississippi for purely political reasons that favored Northern Republicans over Southern (mostly black) Republicans. Thus, in order to reconcile history to their agenda some “Pious Cause Mythologists” might feel compelled to try to discredit Lynch’s statement, but . . . could that be racist?


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Presidents Trump, Jackson and the Civil War

(May 4, 2017) Despite nearly universal scolding in the mainstream media, President Trump’s suggestion that a compromise similar to the one Andrew Jackson arranged during the 1832 South Carolina nullification crisis might have prevented the Civil War merits analysis for four reasons.

First, those pundits accusing Trump of not realizing that Jackson was deceased before the Civil War began either did not understand that he was suggesting that methods similar to those Jackson used to end the 1832 South Carolina Nullification Crisis might have also aborted the 1860-61 Secession Crisis, or they simply lied.

In 1832 South Carolina declared that the high tariffs of that year and 1828 were unconstitutional and would therefore be unenforceable in their state after the end of January 1833. In response, President Jackson obtained congressional authority to militarily force South Carolina to comply. He also persuaded Congress to adopt a more moderate tariff. When South Carolinians realized that Jackson would not let them defy federal authority they accepted the new tariff as a compromise. War was averted.

About three years earlier in April 1830 prominent political leaders gathered in Washington to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Jefferson who had died in 1826. Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina hoped, by means of a toast, to use the occasion to identify Jefferson as the father of the Nullification principle that the Palmetto State would later use in an attempt to void the 1828 and 1832 tariffs. As president, however, Jackson was asked to make the first toast. Since he was aware of Calhoun’s intent and objected to it, the president salute to the author of the Declaration of Independence was a simple and forceful, “The Federal Union: It must be preserved!”

Second, the reasons for Southern secession in 1860-61 and the reasons for the ensuing war were different from one another. The Northern states, after all, could have let the Southern states leave in peace as many prominent abolitionists advocated before the fighting began. Examples include Horace Greely, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Beecher, Samuel Howe, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Clark, Gerrit Smith, Joshua Giddings, and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner who would later become a leading war hawk. Garrison’s decades-long hunger for separation is underscored by his statement that the constitutional Union was “a covenant with death and agreement with hell.”

Although the best of the media-selected Trump critics itemized reasons for Southern secession, none explained why Northerners declined to let the South leave peaceably. Even the Pulitzer Prize winning dean of modern Civil War historians, Eric Foner, admits that he cannot explain it. For example, in this lecture he asks, “Why not just let [the Southern states] go? Good question! You can adduce answers [such as] The American Mission, Unionism, Nationalism. Very few people in the North said, ‘Let them go.’ Why? [To answer that] requires us to do what no historian has ever successfully done.”

Foner’s inability to explain why the North decided to fight reflects a gigantic blind spot caused by his anti-Southern historical interpretations. The real reason the North chose war was to avoid the economic consequences of Southern secession. Consider the following points:

1. Southern cotton alone accounted for about sixty percent of all American exports and all Southern exports represented about seventy percent of the country’s total. A truncated federal union composed solely of Northern states could not hope to maintain a favorable international balance of payments. The situation would be worse if the Northern states tried to match the anticipated low tariffs in the new Confederacy. Ten days before South Carolina led the cotton states into secession on December 20, 1860, the Chicago Daily Times editorialized on the calamities of disunion:

In one single blow our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one-half what it now is. Our coastwise trade would pass into other hands. One-half of our shipping would be idle…We should lose our trade with the South, with all its immense profits. Our manufactories would be in utter ruins…If [our protective tariff] be wholly withdrawn from our labor…it could not compete with the labor of Europe. We should be driven from the market and millions of our people would be compelled to go out of employment.

2. If the Confederacy were to survive as a separate country its import tariffs would likely have been much lower than those of the federal union. President Jefferson Davis announced in his inaugural address, “Our policy is peace, and the freest trade our necessities will permit. It is…[in] our interest, [and those of our trading partners] that there should be the fewest practicable restrictions upon interchange of commodities.”

3. Low Confederate tariffs would confront the remaining states of the abridged Union with two consequences. First, since the federal tax base relied chiefly upon the tariff the government would lose the great majority of its tax revenue. Articles imported into the Confederacy from Europe would divert tariff revenue from the North to the South. Additionally, the Confederacy’s low duties would encourage Northern merchants to import European goods by smuggling them across the Ohio River, or the Northwestern states might secede themselves to form a third country in order to unilaterally set low import duties from the Southern Confederacy. Second, a low Confederate tariff would make Southerners more likely to buy manufactured goods from Europe as opposed to the Northern states where prices were inflated by protective tariffs.

The third factor that the media critics of Trump’s remarks about Jackson fail to understand is that Northerners did not go to war to abolish slavery. The Party’s slavery plank in the 1860 election that made Abraham Lincoln president was merely to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the federal territories that had not yet been admitted as states. Such territories were chiefly in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain region east of the Pacific Coast states.

In his March 1861 inaugural address President Lincoln expressly stated, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Regarding a constitutional amendment that would forever block the federal government from interfering with slavery in the Southern states then being considered by Congress he added, “…I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Finally, even those commentators that admitted Trump was alluding to Jackson’s role in the 1832 Nullification crisis failed to realize that secession-crisis lame duck President James Buchanan actually did try to emulate Jackson’s methods to avert civil war. He was unsuccessful because the Republican Party would not compromise. Republicans insisted that there would be no exceptions to their campaign plank to keep slavery out of all federal territories.

They even rejected a proposal to permit slaves to be taken into only those western territories south the latitude applicable to Missouri’s southern border, which probably would have ended the crisis. Since the natural features of the pertinent region—later the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma—were intrinsically inhospitable to slavery the chances that they would enable the institution to spread outside the South were about as remote as a Cherokee Indian getting elected Pope.

Even though such a compromise would not have ended slavery in the South, it bears repeating that Lincoln conceded he did not go to war intending to interfere “with the institution of slavery in the States where it exist[ed].” Furthermore, he later admitted shortly before issuing his Emancipation Proclamation that 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.”

In short, it was Union military reversals during the summer of 1862 that led Lincoln to adopt the Emancipation Proclamation. He confided to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles that  emancipation was “a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.” In the same context Jefferson Davis told Union peace commissioners in July 1864, nine months before the war ended, “we are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for independence.” Moreover, after Congress finally gave him a bill in March 1865 to incorporate blacks into the Rebel armies, President Davis basically granted them freedom. Specifically, by executive order he stipulated that blacks admitted into the Rebel armies must be volunteers, accompanied by manumission papers.


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Foner’s Misstep on Civil War Fiat Currency

(January 1, 2017) When history professor Eric Foner applauds the North in this lecture for making Civil War paper money legal tender (which the South did not) he overlooks exceptions, including a rebellion in otherwise Union-loyal states that was never punished. The excerpt below summarizes his remarks:

The paper money issued in the North was declared…legal tender. That is to say, “You’ve got to accept this money [even] if you don’t think it is worth anything.” [If I] borrow [money from you] before the war, it’s gold. Now I can pay you back with [paper money]. But creditors don’t want to be paid in money that is worthless. But [the Legal Tender Act] makes paper money acceptable everywhere.

The South did not make their money legal tender. Therefore you could accept it or not, as you saw fit, which meant that it’s value fell far faster.

To be sure, the professor correctly notes that the value of paper money fell much faster in the South than in the North. He fails to mention, however, that the authority forcing everyone to accept Northern paper money (Greenbacks) in trade for debts originally incurred in gold—The Legal Tender Act—had limits. For example, Greenbacks could not be used to pay tariff duties, which remained a major source of federal tax revenue. As Foner acknowledges in a later lecture, they also could not be used to pay interest on federal bonds, but that was a limitation on the government, not the people. Most significantly, however, the Pacific Coast states simply rebelled against Greenbacks.

Although California and Oregon never seceded, they defied the February 1862 Act by refusing to accept Greenbacks as legal tender. They would not honor the notes at face value.

Since gold was more common on the Pacific Coast, the two states were particularly contemptuous of Greenbacks. In November ‘62 San Francisco merchants refused to accept the notes at anything above the discounted rates at which they were exchanged for gold. As the accompanying chart indicates, those rates fluctuated. (The chart shows the value of a gold dollar in relation to a Greenback dollar. In July 1864 after Grant had lost 50,000 men during the overland campaign and was stalled before Petersburg, for example, one gold dollar was worth about 2.7 Greenbacks.) The following April California’s legislature adopted a Specific Contracts Act, clarifying that contracts entered on the basis of gold were enforceable in gold. Finally, the California state government refused to accept Greenbacks in payment of taxes.


Oregon quickly followed California. For years gold had been the state’s exclusive currency. Shortly after the San Francisco merchants’ agreement, those in Salem and Portland followed suit. Portland merchants also circulated a black list of residents and businesses that tried to settle bills with Greenbacks. Finally, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to accept Greenbacks for tax payments.

Neither California nor Oregon was punished for their defiance. Instead, the federal government eventually conformed to the Pacific Coast monetary principles. First, when Grant became President in 1869 his first step was to sign the Public Credit Act, which required that all federal bonds be repaid in gold even though most had been purchased during the war with Greenbacks for as little as thirty-seven cents on the dollar. It was a huge windfall to the bondholders, among whom there were almost no Southerners, if any. Second, all Greenbacks became redeemable at par in gold in 1879, but few were presented for redemption.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase proposed to make Greenbacks superficially more palatable by adding the “In God We Trust” motto that he had earlier put on coins but Lincoln suggested wryly, “If you are going to put a legend on the Greenbacks, I would suggest that of Peter and John, ‘Silver and gold I have none, but such as I have I give to thee.’”

Instead, Chase put his portrait on the face of the one-dollar denomination. He reasoned that the circulating notes might help him win the Presidency in the 1864 election. Instead, his self-promotion led Congress to eventually stipulate that no image of a living person could be placed on US currency or postage stamps.

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Eric Foner on Fugitive Slave Act

(December 24, 2016) As I progress through the Civil War class lectures that Dr. Eric Foner has posted on YouTube I continue to find errors and a persistent, unjustified, sarcastic dismissal of Southern viewpoints. In today’s example he misrepresents the Southern attitude toward state’s rights. When summarizing the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act he says:

Most [Americans] acquiesce to [the 1850 Compromise.] But the Fugitive Slave Law will very quickly become a volatile issue….If you look at the…Law you can forget about the idea that the South believed in state’s rights. That is completely absurd….

The professor then proceeds to explain that the Law put the recapture of fugitive slaves into the hands of federal commissioners instead of state authorities. That, he concludes, made the Law “the strongest violation of the rights of the states enacted by Congress before the Civil War.” It would, said Foner, “override state laws interfering with the capture of fugitive slaves.”


Unfortunately, he overlooks important context, some of which he may have forgotten that he mentioned in an earlier lecture.

First, in the 1842 Prigg v. Pennsylvania case involving the Fugitive Slave provisions of the Constitution and an earlier 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, the Supreme Court ruled that the states individually had no responsibility to enforce the return of runaway slaves. According Foner’s earlier lecture in plain language the decision meant, “that it was a federal responsibility to go and get those slaves.” If the Court was to be obeyed, Congress simply had no choice but to adopt a Fugitive Slave Law.

To pretend that an 1842 Supreme Court decision requiring the adoption of a federal law to override state authority meant that Southerners did not “believe” in state’s rights is an distortion beyond the truth.

Second, between the 1842 Court case and passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a number of Northern states adopted laws forbidding state law enforcement agents to assist “in the rendition of a fugitive slave.” To Southerners such laws signaled that the applicable Northern states were prepared to renege on the fugitive slave provisions of the Constitution and the 1793 Act.

Third, even after the 1850 Act it quickly became apparent that selected Northern states would simply refuse to comply. Foner employs a euphemism when he says such states made the Law “inoperative” and cited an incident as early as 1851 in Massachusetts. He does not explain why such actions by Northerners fail to be regarded as outright defiance of federal law whereas later Southern defiance that led to Civil War was condemned as “treason.”

It begs the question of whether “treason” was merely a matter of a state’s geographic location with a free pass for the North and a “go-to-jail-card” for the South.

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Eric Foner’s Spotty Memory

(December 22, 2016) Recently I watched a few of the class lectures about the Civil War and Reconstruction by Columbia University’s history Professor Eric Foner. I quickly observed a sarcastic anti-Southern bias combined with selective factual omissions that would otherwise have revealed his sarcasm to be unjustified. One example is his session about the Compromise of 1850, which permitted California to be admitted as a free state thereby tipping the balance of power in the Senate to a 16-to-15 advantage for the free states over the slave states. It also outlawed slave trade in the District of Columbia.

Since Southerners permitted the Senate balance of power to shift against them and agreed to terminate slave trade in the capital, the Compromise provided a couple of Acts that Southerner’s wanted. One was a Fugitive Slave Act, which was pragmatically necessitated by an 1842 Supreme Court decision specifying that no state could be required to enforce an earlier 1793 Fugitive Salve Act or the Fugitive Slave terms of the Constitution. Enforcement, therefore,  would have to be up to the individual owners, or federal authorities. Another is an Act involving Texas. It is the terms of Texas Act that Professor Foner sarcastically misrepresents. Provided below is what the Pulitzer Prize winning author told his students:

“There’s some stuff about Texas; particularly assuming the state’s debts. Texas owed a lot of debt to various people and they didn’t want to pay. And so they wanted the federal government to pay their bills for them. So, that’s what’s going to happen here.”


As the accompanying map illustrates, Foner neglects to mention that Texas traded rights to lands that it claimed as the Texas Republic in exchange for federal assumption of some of its debts. As a result 120,000 square miles of land presently in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming were given to the federal government. In terms of total area, the forfeited acreage amounts to about 45% of the area within present-day Texas. In exchange, the federal government assumed $10 million in Texas state debts. That equates to about $83 per square mile, or thirteen cents per acre.

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