Five Biggest Misconceptions about the Confederacy
As a number of you no doubt know, I live in Richmond, Virginia, and for the most part love this town. Of the biggest things that I do not like about the area though, aside from the growing number of hipsters moving here of course, as you might expect what with being the former capital, is the large degree of Confederate Nostalgia, especially in some of the rural areas surrounding the city.
It’s a long running joke of mine that the American South is perhaps the only region of the planet that celebrates the fact it was on the losing end of a war, let alone one over the right to own other human beings. Of course, perhaps a large part of this might be due to the massive shift in tone led by historical revisionist Lost Causer’s like Jubal Early, and assisted by teary eyed accounts from folks like Margaret Mitchell who popularized and romanticized the image of an Antebellum Southern society that, in real life had never existed. The result is a mythological image of the South, and the Confederacy in particular, has been accepted by the general public without regards to the actual history.
To be clear before I begin, there are many parts of Southern culture for its residents to be proud of, ranging from barbeque and bluegrass to smooth jazz and Coca-Cola. The Confederate States of America however, is not a part of the Southern identity that should be anything other than a stain upon the entire region, and anyone who glorifies its name and memory ought to be ashamed of themselves. As a man who knows his history, I take any opportunity to destroy to myths surrounding Confederate Nostalgia, and in this article, will correct five of the biggest myths about the Confederacy that anyone should remember before they salute the Stars and Bars:
1) The war was over States Rights, not Slavery
Not surprising that this is the one point those who claim to revere the Confederate identify rush to say that slavery was not a part of that identity – even the staunchest Dixiecrat would be hard pressed to defend the right to own another human being. As a result, many Confederate apologists wrap the Southern cause as one of States Rights, something Libertarian minded folk like myself should greet with great scorn and ridicule, and for good reason.
The picture above is of the Confederate 100 Dollar Bill, and the picture right in the middle of it is of slaves growing cotton. Not content to only enshrine slavery on their money, the Confederacy also wrote it into their Constitution, their respective state Constitutions, which among other things, made slavery one of the requirements of statehood, and had the abolition of slavery quite literally outlawed in the Constitution, enshrining it even above the Freedom of Speech, among others.
Much the same, many of the Founding Fathers of the CSA made speeches claiming slavery as the heart of the new nation, most famously in Vice President Alexander Stephen’s “Cornerstone Speech”, which included the following passage:
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”
In the words of their own leaders, their own laws, and even their own constitution, the right to own slaves was the core of the national identity of the Confederacy – I guess life liberty and the pursuit of happiness was too radical for the plantation owners. Granted, the Union was hardly a poster child for racial harmony, as a number of incidents prove, but even lip service to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ makes a better national cause than ‘right to own slaves’.
The most ironic part is that it was the North that had the right to claim the mantle of states’ rights more than the South had any claim to it – after all, the slave owners defended their peculiar institution by means of federalism any chance they got, because if it was left to popular opinion, slavery would have been left without a leg to stand on. One of the big reasons for the upswing in abolitionist support in the 1850s was that of the two latest efforts to prolong the lifespan of plantation slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dredd Scott Decision, one sparked a miniature Civil War in Kansas, and the other basically did away with the idea of Free States altogether.
So no, the slave owners that formed the Confederacy didn’t give two damns about states’ rights, and were more than happy to use federalism to defend their position, and the moment it no longer became possible to do so, they left the Union. It has all the political maturity of a toddler throwing a tantrum – if a toddler’s temper tantrum could spark the bloodiest war in the history of the United States that is.
2) The Confederacy supported Limited Government
Ironically, this myth was not only pushed by folks who revered the Confederacy, but by many political opportunists who sought to slander those who support state’s rights or limited government as bigoted neo-Confederates, and not surprisingly, by claiming the Confederacy to be a bastion of limited government, all either side does is showcase their ignorance.
As if writing slavery and prohibiting its abolition into their Constitution wasn’t a big enough hint, another notable part of the same document was to outlaw secession for any member of the Confederacy. So yes, not only did the group that claimed they has the right to leave the United States under the US Constitution forbid that same right in their own Constitution, but as a latter point will prove, they killed those who tried it.
Another infamous law of the Confederacy was the Twenty Slave Law, which exempted anyone who owned more than twenty slaves from military service, which not only meant the ones who pushed for session wouldn’t be the ones who fought for it, it also went the extra mile in restricting the civil liberties and voice in government of the vast majority of southerners who owned no slaves, while forcing them into conscription. To enforce this, you had the Confederate Home Guard, a band of proto-Gestapo thugs that was granted extra-constitutional rights to stifle dissent, enforce conscription and other edicts, and was authorized to use force, lethal or otherwise, to do so. I don’t know about you, but when I think of limited government, roving death squads are one of the last things I associate with it.
If restricting the voice in government to a small rich minority, reducing poorer citizens to cannon fodder and having roving death squads to restrict their rights isn’t big government enough for you, the Confederacy also had price and wage controls, internal passports restricting internal travel, government nationalized salt and alcohol production, required railroads to operate at a loss, and required shippers to transport government goods at no charge, all regulations that even in the current era of bloated big government, we have yet to see. There were more bureaucrats in Richmond then there were in DC, which is one reason while the Confederate Government couldn’t even determine what qualified as a Confederate citizen, the folks up in DC worked hard to ensure that argument was a moot point.
So yes, between the restrictions on freedom and voice in government, intense regulation and nationalization of many sectors of the economy, and having a group of government affiliated paramilitary groups enforce the will of the small group of elites who ran the nation, the Confederacy boasted a limited government – at least in comparison to the myriad of dictatorships that all used the same policies a century later.
3) The Southern people almost universally supported the Confederacy
Another popular myth about the Confederate Cause is that it had wide and broad support from all parts of Southern society, aside from perhaps the slaves (and some revisionists go as far as to say even they supported it). Of course, this is not the case, as even in the North, the Civil War was far from universally supported.
One only needs to look to the existence of West Virginia to tell that the cause of secession was far from universally supported. The entire reason for the split from Virginia centered that the residents of West Virginia, who were mainly poor mountain farmers, very few of whom owned slaves, saw little reason to send their sons to die for the cause of the plantation owners. And they were far from the only ones – similar movements formed in places from Eastern Tennessee to Texas – West Virginia was just the only ones the Union could defend, as most of the others (the Texan one especially) were met by the guns of the Confederate military. Seems the support for the right to secede only went one way in the CSA.
Another huge sign of just how popular the CSA was with the masses was the desertion rate of the Confederate military, which by the end of the war, left the CSA to use its Home Guard units to round-up deserters, usually running roughshod over due process in the process. Though a long, dry obvious bit of Oscar Bait, and boasting a largely British/Australian cast (poorly) playing Southerners, the movie Cold Mountain is a wonderful example of just how popular the Confederacy was with the general populace (ie, not very).
In addition, over 100,000 Southerners actually fought for the Union Army, with every Southern state except for South Carolina raising at least a battalion of men – and those numbers only include WHITE Southerners, not the scores of slaves who enlisted to fight for their freedom. Southern loyalists included men ranging from Sam Houston to Winfield Scott, and there were enough of them that they were a key part of Union war strategy and are referenced in Union marching songs.
Truth is, rather than boast popular support, you could have gauge how fervently someone in the CSA supported the Rebel Cause by how far away they were from running a plantation. Yes, there was a vocal minority in the South that wanted and supported succession – the majority however, only fought to defend their homes and families, and most threw down their arms at the first chance they had to go back to them, while many others took up arms to support the Union. Turns out, the only part of Southern Society that wholeheartedly supported succession was the same group of aristocratic plantation owners that pushed for it in the first place. Speaking of which…
4) The Confederate Military/Government leaders were brilliant/gentlemen/honorable
One of the huge reasons behind the modern trend of Confederate sympathy was the movement led by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans to rehabilitate the image of many members of the Confederate figures, both government and military. The movement to both paint the leaders of the rebellion as chivalrous gentlemen of honor, and their cause for Southern Independence as hopeless in the face of the Union’s sizable advantages largely succeeded and this is likely one reason for the near mythological status of men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and for the lacking of Union flag-clad Dodge Chargers named the General Grant. The truth of course, is quite less romantic, and at times, their white washing is downright insulting.
Nowhere is that more apparent than with the members of the Confederate government, which revisionists have painted as a picture of a group statesmen that claimed the mantle of the US Founding Fathers, many of whom members of the Confederacy could claim decent, and even claimed a Jew and a former US President among their ranks. In truth, the group had more in common with a den of cartoon super-villains, than with the Founding Fathers. While a number of them could claim decent from the Founding Fathers, it had more to do with the deeply entrenched Southern aristocracy then any connection to their ancestor’s cause, something all the more clear when you take a look at some of the kooks and crooks among their ranks.
Jefferson Davis was a hot-headed and mostly incompetent former Senator whose micromanagement of both the Confederate government and the military weakened a nation that could ill afford more weakness. What’s terrifying is he got the Presidency because some of the alternatives were worse. Alexander Stephens, whom I mentioned before, was a bigoted elitist that spent most of his tenure as Vice President either spouting slaver dogma or saying how he should replace Davis. Robert Rhett was one of several members who suggested restarting the African Slave Trade, and one of a vocal minority that considered enslaving the South’s poor whites. As a whole, Richmond played host to the biggest gang of racists with delusions of grandeur this side of 1930s Berlin.
The military was hardly any better. Nathan Bedford Forrest, in addition to selling slaves before the war, and leading the Kl Klux Klan after the war, would commit war crimes against black soldiers and Southern loyalists on a number of occasions, most notably the Fort Pillow Massacre. Braxton Bragg was a poor tactician and hot head who, along with the incompetence of men like Leonidas Polk and John Bell Hood, had as much to do with Confederate defeats in the West as the Union Army. Stonewall Jackson for all of his brilliance as a tactician, was a religious zealot who felt the Confederate cause a divinely sanctioned crusade, and whose lack of drilling his troops likely led to his death by friendly fire.
Even Robert E. Lee, who is one of the more honorable Rebels, was far from the brilliant commander culture has painted him as. Lee was a gifted commander, and his victories at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville were great achievements, but Lee’s many mistakes and failures were at least as marked as his successes. In particular, his passion for launching foolish frontal attacks, most infamously Pickett’s Charge, where he ordered 12,000 men to charge well-entrenched Union gun emplacements at Gettysburg, left over half of them dead, a loss his Army of Northern Virginia would never fully recover from. Over the course of the war, Lee alone was responsible for over a quarter of Confederate dead, and he is just as infamous for his textbook military blunders as he is for his more clever moments. This is in addition to one of the main drives for both his invasions of the north being to capture free blacks and sell them as slaves in the South.
Of course, the biggest flaw of the Confederate military, more than the failings of their generals, was their insistence of fighting by the same tactics used in the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars while the weaponry had gone from muskets to bolt-action rifles and machine guns. There is a reason why aside from World War II, the American Civil War is the most studied war in history, and a big part of that was that it was the first modern war. While tactical blunders in adapting to this were on both sides, the Union military eventually adapted, while the Confederate habit of frontally assaulting machine gun nests or entrenched Union soldiers was responsible for several notable Confederate defeats, including Gettysburg. Of course, another key weakness of the Confederate military was the Union possessed machine guns, which leads to the final revisionist myth…
5) The Confederacy could have won the Civil War (or long survived it)
To an extent, this particular myth has been debunked to all but the firmest of Confederate diehards – there was a reason early Confederate apologists were called ‘Lost Causers’ after all. Nonetheless, I will say it here: there is no way the Confederacy could have won the Civil War on the field of battle.
As many Americans learned in grade school, one of the biggest advantages of the Union in the War was that they made more guns, more railroads, more industry, more ships, more men to recruit into the army, and even more crops than the regions South of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though the American Civil War would be the first showcase of it, industrial warfare determines its victors just as much by the supply lines as the battle lines, and the Union’s ability to outgun, out supply and outman the Confederacy left the slavers cause with the deck already stood against them. The only prayer the Confederacy had, outside of foreign intervention, and what formed the core of their war strategy, was to fight on until the Union lost the will to fight, which though close at times, never happened. Somehow, the Southern cause, lost or otherwise, seems a lot less romantic when you realize the Confederate battle plan boiled down to keep sending waves of poor schmucks to die until the Union gets bored while the men in charge sipped on mint juleps on their plantations.
In the long run, defeat may have been the best fate for the CSA. Even if the Confederacy had won, its future was guaranteed to be grimmer than defeat. After all, nothing quite says national stability like a deeply indebted, neo-feudalist proto-banana republic built on chattel slavery. Odds are good, the best fate of an independent CSA, as its founders would have envisioned it, would be akin to your standard issue Latin American tin pot dictatorship. Far more likely, it would either be reabsorbed by the United States, splinter into separate nations, collapse due to anything from racial violence to economic crisis, and in any case, would likely not survive the century, and if it did, it would be as an economically broken, backward pariah state, masses of black slaves and poor disenfranchised whites itching to set aflame the powder keg, with a vengeful United States in the midst of jingoism staring hungrily across the border. Look away Dixie Land indeed!
So rather than salute the actions of a handful of traitorous slave-owning aristocrats that left hundreds of thousands of their countrymen dead, or mourn the loss of a nation that would have been fated no matter what to be an embarrassing footnote in the history of the continent, the folks sporting Confederate flags on their cars or shirts need to realize what I and many of our fellow southerners already know: That the best thing that ever happened to the South was that the attempt to swap the Stars and Stripes for the Stars and Bars failed miserably. To those who say otherwise, allow me to put a twist on a slogan of yours. If this offends you:
Then you need a history lesson.