Tag Archives: Union

What the Civil War Can Teach us About Patriotism

Placing flags on Union soliders' graves at Vicksburg National Military Park. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a a last and necessary resort.

Flags on Union soldiers’ graves at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill-a-sauruses to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a jellybean-grenade launching Ronald Reagan, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.

Okay, perhaps that’s not quite historically accurate, but the basic tenets of Independence Day are nonetheless there. The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and citizens of the U.S. are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”

Continue reading

Advertisements

Dylann Roof and the Twilight of The Confederate Flag

The Confederate flag may finally be lowered from South Carolina's capital after decades of well-deserved controversy.

The Confederate flag may finally be lowered from South Carolina’s capital after decades of controversy.

A century-and-a-half after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, the Confederacy may finally be laying down its cultural arms. Following the horrific shooting rampage by white neo-Confederate psychopath Dylann Roof that left nine African-Americans dead in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the long-enduring Confederate flag ‘s days of flying above the South Carolina capital — the heart of the Old Confederacy — may be numbered.

As the families of Roof’s victims still mourn their terrible loss, they may be able to take solace in the fact that the cold-blooded murder of their loved ones seems to have spurred a national awakening that centuries of spilled African-American blood could not quite inspire.

Continue reading

The American Civil War Rages on…in England

Members of the U.K. based Southern Skirmish Association shout the Rebel yell.

Members of the U.K. based Southern Skirmish Association shout the Rebel yell.

This past weekend, a bloody battle raged between entrenched Confederate forces and determined Union attackers in Bath, U.K. That’s right, the Brits also like to reenact the American Civil War. Today I thought I’d follow up a bit on an earlier, and deeply profound (just trust me on that) post about Civil War reenactments by highlighting an annual event held by British Civil War enthusiasts.

As the Bath Chronicle reported:

Gunfire rang out around the edge of Bath at the weekend as hundreds of people re-enacted some of the drama of the American Civil War.

The American Museum at Claverton has been hosting the annual weekend-long re-enactment since 1970 and this year welcomed around 200 members of the Southern Skirmish Association to the attraction, dressed in full 19th century battle regalia.

The event is associated with the American Museum in Britain, which bills itself as “the only museum of American decorative and folk art outside of the United States.” The reenactors themselves are members of the Southern Skirmish Association, a group of British Civil War buffs that date back to 1968, making them “the oldest American Civil War Re-enacting Society outside of the United States.” The SSA is a registered U.K. charity and its mission statement is as follows:

Our aim is to honour the fallen of the American Civil War and we do this by means of “living history” re-enactments, with most members camping out in period costume and accommodation although modern camps are also available. We recreate realistic battle scenes and skirmishes, including artillery, cavalry as well as infantry forces.  

The group’s Civil War reenactments seem to be reasonably popular, as far as these things go, and, like similar events in the U.S., the reenactments attract visitors hoping for a rush of history without the blood and mayhem:

Around 700 visitors came through the doors of the museum over the weekend, and both skirmishers and officials were delighted with the event.

Zoe Dennington, head of learning and events programming for the museum, said: “We have lots of visitors who come especially for the re-enactment. It’s quite a specialist thing and it appeals to people who have a specific interest in the civil war. People come from across the country to see the event, and it also appeals to families because it’s such a spectacle.

Of course, its more than just mock fighting. The event also relies on a good dose of nineteenth century nostalgia:

Skirmishers spent the weekend camped outside the museum living life as it was back in the 1860s, holding several events including two hour-long skirmishes with firing displays, prize ceremonies and displays of medical equipment used in the period.

While its interesting to note the popularity of the American Civil War in other countries (I’m writing a post about it, so it must be important), the existence of a British Civil War reenactment group isn’t really that surprising. The U.K. also boasts a West Yorkshire-based group called the American Civil War Society that does “living history” style demonstrations and reenactments, and of course, the British also like to reenact their own civil war. A similar state-side phenomenon is the popularity of Medieval and Renaissance faires, in which Americans of all stripes leave their comic book shops and parents’ basements for a few days and re-create the supposed chivalrous heroism of Europe’s Dark Ages and ensuing enlightenment.

American "knights" recreate European days of yore.

American “knights” recreate European days of yore.

These types of historical reenactments are ways in which contemporary folks can experience history in a very selective and bloodless manner by playing up notions of honor, chivalry, and the general pleasures associated with allegedly simpler times. Certainly, the big draw of these types of events is the chance to see some historical violence without having to see any actual violence, and there’s something mildly uncomfortable about that notion. Its neutering the past to make it less threatening for the present. Then again, it’s no doubt a good idea to leave the nineteenth and other centuries’ worst violence in the past. Better to have a fake civil war than another real one…right?

To Kill or not to Kill? From the Copperheads to September 11

Civil War-era cartoon depiciting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

Civil War-era cartoon depicting Copperheads as venomous snakes attacking liberty herself.

I initially wanted to avoid writing what might very well turn into yet another hackneyed patriotic post on The United States’ most recent and visceral national tragedy. Plus, I like to keep this blog at least partially rooted in the nineteenth century, and what do the September 11, 2011 terrorist attacks have to do with that era? Well, there actually is a connection. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that 9/11 actually connects to some deep-seated and long-lasting American ambiguities about the use of violence and the wisdom of war.

Despite a recent American cultural penchant towards mistaking force for strength and resorting to violence throughout the world without a full examination of the consequences, Americans have always been more divided than is commonly assumed over the use of violence in the name of grand ideals like “freedom,” “liberty,” “peace,” and, I should add, “Union.” Echoing my earlier post on how violence begets violence, the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania served as justification for the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, even though no connection existed between that country and the 9/11 attacks. In 2003, when thousands of anti-war demonstrators gathered in cities like New York and Washington D.C. to protest then President George W. Bush’s proposal to go to war with Iraq, they were continuing a long tradition in which some Americans, rightly or wrongly (but in this case, rightly), vehemently resisted what they considered dubious reasons for American use of violence.

These protesters had strange kindred spirits among the Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads.” During the American Civil War, the Copperheads adamantly opposed President Abraham Lincoln’s war against the Confederacy and generally supported the South’s right to own slaves. The Copperheads were strongest in mid-western states like Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Republicans gave them their nickname, likening peace Democrats to the venomous snake because they supposedly represented a sinister internal threat to the Union war effort. The most famous Copperhead was Ohio congressman  Clement L. Vallandigham, whom Abraham Lincoln had arrested in May of 1863 on charges of aiding enemies of the United States via his outspoken anti-war and pro-slavery views.

The Copperheads, then, acted as more than mere political opponents of the Republican Party. As historian Keith Altavilla observes in an article for the Winter 2012 issue of Ohio Valley History (sorry, membership only through the Filson Historical Society, so take my word for it), the Copperheads served as a sort of internal “fifth column”— to use a phrase lobbed by conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan at anti-Iraq War protesters — that Union soldiers in the field saw as a domestic uprising against the necessary war against the Confederacy. Copperheads disrupted pro-war rallies and meetings, fielded anti-war, pro-Confederate political candidates, and inspired fears among some Union soldiers of secret Copperhead societies infiltrating all aspects of northern society. For northern soldiers in the field, Copperheads represented such a dire threat because they were neighbors, friends — even family members. As Michael Corleone once observed, nothing is more sinister than enemies who are as close as your friends.

Now, lest I get accused of (very) latent Copperhead support, let me be clear: the Copperheads were wrong. They were wrong about supporting Southern secession and they were wrong about supporting slavery. But the Copperheads do demonstrate that those who (misguidedly) spoke out against American war in the past found themselves both justly and unjustly vilified for refusing to immediately support more violence as a solution to a problem that began with violence in the first place.

During the 2002-2003 build up to the Iraq War, for example, right-wing commentators lobbed a series of nasty epithets at war protesters, accusing them of treason, cowardice, emasculation, and, worst of all, of being FRENCH. And why were anti-war protesters accused of liking baguettes and Gérard Depardieu? Because they didn’t support an equally violent response to the violent 9/11 attacks. Never mind that links between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks were fabricated; these loathsome, treasonous, granola-scarfing, patchouli-dipping, unwashed hippies needed a lesson in patriotic duty, a duty defined in large part by violence.

Unlike the Copperheads, however, who were wrong about the futility of the Union war effort, the Iraq War protesters were right: not only was the connection between Iraq and 9/11 non-existent, but the entire military operation against Iraq turned into a quagmire of untenable nation-building for the U.S. and tribal sectarianism for Iraq itself. Heck, opposing the Iraq War even got another lawyer from Illinois elected president. So in the right were the Iraq protesters that even Andrew “Fifth Column” Sullivan issued a pleading mea culpa for his misguided support for pre-emptive war.

The point is not that Copperheads and Iraq War protesters are quite the same. They aren’t. The Copperheads were wrong-headed supporters of secession and slavery who often employed anti-war rhetoric as an anti-Republican partisan cudgel. The Iraq War protesters, though some were unquestionably guilty of dirty hippie-ness, nonetheless recognized that going to war is not an act to be taken lightly or under shady pretences, even when calls for vengeance were loud and influential. But the Copperheads and the Iraq War demonstrators are part of a distinct tradition in American history in which some group, usually the minority, has been willing to question U.S. decisions to rectify damage done through violence  with yet more violence. This is the great legacy of September 11, 2001. For all of the post-attack calls for unity, what 9/11 really did was reawaken American divisions over violence that had largely been dormant since the end of the Vietnam War.

Now, as President Obama half-heartedly tries to convince a justifiably skeptical American public on the wisdom of U.S. military intervention in Syria, he simply cannot escape the shadow of 9/11 and the disastrous Iraq War that it spawned. So when remembering 9/11 today, also try to remember that the question of “to kill or not to kill” probably shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

Just ask this guy:

Mission Accomplished

Calhoun’s Ghost and the Enduring Dream of Secession

John C. Calhoun, with one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

John C. Calhoun, sporting one of his many trend-setting mane styles.

Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.

Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:

The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.

Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:

“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.

Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.

Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander  Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:

He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.

Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.

An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.

Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.

No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.

This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.

Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.

Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.

Southern Conservatism, the Confederacy, and the Legacy of Slavery

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

1861 U.S. Coast Survey Showing Prevalence of Slavery in Southern Counties.

At the Vault History blog, Rebecca Onion posted a really cool map of the United States in 1861 (shown above), which uses data from the 1860 census to determine the percentage of enslaved people per county in the southern states.  Onion explains that:

The map, which shades counties based on the percentage of total inhabitants who were enslaved, shows what a range there was in levels of Southern enslavement. Some counties, the map explains, “appear comparatively light … this arises from the preponderance of whites and free blacks in the large towns in these counties.” The population of Orleans Parish, La., in one example, was 8.9 percent enslaved. Places that were rural but were located in mountainous areas devoid of plantations were similarly light-shaded: The people of Harlan County, Ky., were 2.3 percent enslaved.

Meanwhile, a dark belt of counties bordering the Mississippi River held more than 70 percent of their residents in slavery, with Tensas Parish, La., at 90.8 percent and Washington County, Miss., at 92.3 percent.

Historians have noted correlations between the percentage of slaves held in different parts of the South and the general enthusiasm for secession in 1860-1861.  Using these conclusions we can make some broad generalizations about support for the Confederacy in different southern states that are reasonably reliable…to a point. Onion notes, for example:

Though this map was simple, it showed the relationship between states’ commitment to slavery and their enthusiasm about secession, making a visual argument about Confederate motivations.

Again, this generalization is reasonably accurate, but as always, history is far more complicated than that. Take Mississippi for example: in 1860-61, some of its slaveholders, among the wealthiest people in the nation, voted for the Conservative Union ticket in 1860. Yet, other Mississippi slaveholders voted for immediate secession from the Union, and they ultimately won the day when Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union in January 1861.

The supposed correlation between slaveholding and support for secession really gets at a bigger issue in southern history that is still pondered over in contemporary American politics: the connection between race and conservatism in the South. Shortly before the 2012 election, for example, Michael Lind — and a whole lot lot of other political watchers — noted that the current conservative Republican South basically consists of the Old Confederacy, while the current bastion of Democratic Party strength lies in the old Union states that put down the slaveholders’ rebellion. Lind notes:

Now that they dominate the Republican Party, Southern conservatives are using it to carry out the same strategies that they promoted during the generations when they controlled the Democratic Party, from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren to the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.  From the 19th century to the 21st, the oligarchs of the American South have sought to defend the Southern system, what used to be known as the Southern Way of Life.

Notwithstanding slavery, segregation and today’s covert racism, the Southern system has always been based on economics, not race.  Its rulers have always seen the comparative advantage of the South as arising from the South’s character as a low-wage, low-tax, low-regulation site in the U.S. and world economy.  The Southern strategy of attracting foreign investment from New York, London and other centers of capital depends on having a local Southern workforce that is forced to work at low wages by the absence of bargaining power.

The key word in Lind’s analysis is “conservatism.” With some very notable historical exceptions that have generally proven a larger ruling trend, the South has been, and continues to be, dominated by political conservatism. In terms of the South, you can’t understand conservatism without recognizing the intimate connection between race and economics. This connection drove conservatism during the buildup to the Civil War, and it still retains a strong legacy on contemporary Southern conservatism.

As Corey Robin notes in The Reactionary Mind, his brilliant revisionist study of the modern Right, “Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity.” Thus, wherever there are movements seeking to expand freedom and agency to those lower orders in society, thereby expanding social agency beyond the sphere of the traditional ruling elite, conservatives will be there to, in the famous words of William F. Buckley Jr., yell “Stop!”

Nowhere was this more true than in the slaveholding South: there, powerful planters wanted to retain their system of racially based slave labor against the perceived growing political power of the anti-slavery North. But different groups of southern conservatives were divided over how to do that, and therein lies the answer to why some planters supported secession and some remained tied to the Union. Both groups, Secessionists and Conditional Unionists (those who believed that secession should only be a last resort, and that slavery was better protected in the Old Union) were conservatives. They both believed in the inherent right of a chosen few to benefit from a racially-based slave labor system. But the Secessionists thought that after Abraham Lincoln’s election, the slave system could best be protected by a new, breakaway nation, the Confederate States of America. Conditional Unionists, however, thought that slavery would better flourish under the Union. The latter proved right in the long run.

The legacy of slavery lives on in the political environment of the contemporary conservative South. Of course, southerners today don’t support slavery. But, the conservative South does support an economic system weighted almost entirely in employers’ favor. As Lind writes:

Anything that increases the bargaining power of Southern workers vs. Southern employers must be opposed, in the interest of the South’s regional economic development model.  Unions, federal wage and workplace regulations, and a generous, national welfare state all increase the bargaining power of Southern workers, by reducing their economic desperation.  Anti-union right-to-work laws, state control of wages and workplace regulations, and an inadequate welfare state all make Southern workers more helpless, pliant and dependent on the mercy of their employers.  A weak welfare state also maximizes the dependence of ordinary Southerrners on the tax-favored clerical allies of the local Southern ruling class, the Protestant megachurches, whose own lucrative business model is to perform welfare functions that are performed by public agencies elsewhere, like childcare.

The need to maintain the social and political dominance of privileged elites, and therefore stymie attempts by the lower orders to assert their agency, is a direct historical legacy of the old slave system, which was the ultimate manifestation of conservative dominance. Thus, Lind is partially right when he observes that “the Southern system is essentially about class and only incidentally about race.” In the South, the “lower orders” have historically consisted mostly of African-Americans. This created an intertwined relationship between race and class that exists to this day. Hence, southern conservatives continue their long fight against any agency on behalf of workers that might curtail employers’ power and pass restrictive voting laws that are blatantly designed to suppress racial minority groups that traditionally do not vote the conservative Republican ticket. Conservatives do these things because in the South, and indeed, in most of the United States, lower-income groups tend to be minority populations, especially African-Americans.

These are the groups most likely to use their votes to increase their freedom and agency relative to the ruling business and political elites. The fear of  a determined majority challenging the power of a much smaller ruling minority terrified southern conservatives of the 1860s, and contemporary southern conservatives still fear this expansion of power to the lower orders. In many ways, of course, the issues have changed, but in other ways, the fundamental issues of who wields power –  and why – remain as potent as when those slaveholding delegates voted to take Mississippi out of the Union and into a cataclysmic Civil War.