Against Neo-Confederates

By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 2007

Rough Draft

1.  The South Was Wrong

2.  The Civil War as Surreal Event

3.  The Insanity of Secession

4.  The Right of Revolution

5.  The Road from Serfdom: The Real Nature of the American System

6.  Why Southerners Should Love Abraham Lincoln

7.  William Tecumseh Sherman as Humanitarian

1.  The South Was Wrong

To understand the American Civil War, it is important to understand a great principle of politics.  This principle was not always adhered to by many Americans.  It can be set down very simply, without fuss or complication.  It is this: a black man is not a hog.  Anyone who understands this principle — that a black man is not a hog — understands why the North fought against the South in the Civil War.  Abraham Lincoln said:

“Equal justice to the south, it is said, requires us to consent to the extending of slavery to new countries.  That is to say, inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your slave.  Now, I admit this is perfectly logical, if there is no difference between hogs and negroes.”[1]

If a black man was treated as property, he could be brought, willy-nilly, into free territories as easily as a hog could be brought in.  And if an escaped slave was found in a northern State, he would have to be turned over to his slave master as promptly as if one were to find a stray hog that had wandered from its owner.  This is essentially the way Southerners wanted to treat their African slaves, as if they were property with no more rights than a hog.  For Lincoln, the issue came down to whether a black man was to be considered a human being or not:

“The doctrine of self government is right—absolutely and eternally right—but it has no just application, as here attempted.  Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man.  If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him.  But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?  When the white man governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism.  If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”[2]

For Lincoln the issue was not majority rule, as his opponent Stephen Douglas argued.  If the black man was a human being, and not a piece of property like a hog, then even a majority could not treat him as anything less than a human being.  A majority had no more moral right to treat a black man as a hog than an individual had that right.

Lincoln, of course, was a realist.  He could do nothing about slavery in the southern States, and to adopt abolitionist ideas of immediate emancipation of slaves in those States would have been political suicide.  Nor, as he said, was he arguing for the “establishment of political and social equality between the whites and the blacks.”   That, too, would have been political suicide.  It would take a bloody civil war to gain political rights for blacks (the Thirteenth through the Fifteenth Amendments), and it would take another hundred years or so to gain equal social rights for blacks.

So as a politician living in the mid-19th century, Lincoln could only do so much for African slaves.  It is simply absurd to quote some of his more “racist” sounding words of the mid-19th century, and then compare them to the views of (say) 1960s liberals, in order to denigrate Lincoln’s place as the Great Emancipator.

This is what neo-confederate writers do.  Nevertheless, it is not good historical judgment to wrench a man out of his historical context.  It is like quoting someone out of context, making him say something different from what he actually said, or even making him say the opposite of what he actually said.

For Lincoln, the main issue was the extension of slavery, not its existence in the southern States.  Lincoln was perhaps naively optimistic, thinking that if slavery could be contained in the southern States, and spread nowhere else, it would eventually wither away and die.  If it were extended to the new territories out west, it would greatly expand the evil practice of African slavery, and the country might never be rid of it.

In order to justify slavery, southern apologists attacked the Declaration of Independence.  Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, denied that “all men are created equal.”  He said that the new southern confederacy was founded on the opposite idea, that “the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

As the historian J. M. McPherson has pointed out, the earliest “revisionists” were Confederate apologists, who claimed that the war was over some higher principle than African slavery.[3]

Later “revisionists” such as the Beardian school, and the James G. Randall school, also downplayed the importance of slavery in bringing about the Civil War.  Others blamed “extremists” or sectional differences, or even impersonal factors such as the cotton gin, again downplaying the importance of slavery.  Here is a chart, based upon a similar one made by Mark Twain in another context, that should show the real cause of the Civil War:

Alleged Cause Real Cause
1.  States’ rights slavery
2.  Desire for self-government slavery
3.  French radicalism slavery
4.  economic interests slavery
5.  sectional interests slavery
6.  extremists on both sides slavery
7.  rural/urban conflict slavery
8.  frequent elections slavery
9.  tariff slavery
10.  cotton gin slavery
11.  impersonal forces slavery
12.  complex causes slavery
13.  The “West” slavery
14.  Freud-type drives slavery


Anyone interested in the Civil War will find out fairly quickly that the “causes” listed in the first column simply do not compete, whether taken individually or collectively, with slavery as the main cause of the Civil War.  Historians have been returning to the older and wiser view of the Unionists that slavery (or rather its extension) was the main culprit leading to war between North and South.  There is simply no way any longer for revisionists or neo-confederates to dilute the real cause of the war.  The South Was Wrong, and was as wrong as could be.  And the real reason behind it all was that the South could not, or rather would not, accept, as a basic principle of their political philosophy, that a black man is not a hog.

2.  The Civil War as Surreal Event

In looking at pictures of the Civil War, one sometimes has the odd feeling that there is something not quite real about this war.  Here we have a juxtaposition of a modern technology — the beginnings of photography — and a war fought over the ancient, barbaric practice of human slavery.  To put it another way, photography is one of the most familiar aspects of modernity, and yet it was used to cover a war fought over a practice scarcely conceivable in a civilized, modern society.  The juxtaposition is disorienting.

Our minds start believing when we see the paintings.  There are quite a number of them, of varied quality, but each engenders some level of believability in the events depicted.  One has no trouble believing in the American Revolution, for it was told entirely in paintings.  On the other hand, even one photograph of the Revolution would damage it considerably.  The idea of George Washington in a photograph seems unthinkable.  It would demean the man, make him smaller.  We recall, too, the words of Mark Twain that a photograph can make a wise man seem a fool and a fool seem a wise man.  So just at the turning point from old ways to modernity, the Civil War broke out, and the paintings convince us that it really happened.  Perhaps this is because the Civil War, like the American Revolution, has become the stuff of legend and folklore, and the paintings rather than the photographs seem the only worthy medium for depicting its bloody course.  (The only exception would be Ken Burn’s use of photographs in his documentary on the Civil War.  He accompanied the photographs with the sounds of war, of music, and of voices.[4]

When I was growing up, my mother had a copy of Bruce Catton’s large, picture-filled The Civil War in our living room.  I would frequently get the book down from the shelf and flip through its pages of drawings, paintings, photographs, newspaper headlines, cartoons, caricatures, diagrams, topographical maps of battles at First Bull Run, Shiloh, and many other places.  Later, I would sometimes come across people who fit the old cliché about some who were still fighting the Civil War.  I think that by growing up with Catton’s book, I was forever immunized from this sort of exuberance.  It was all dreadfully dull stuff for me by the time I heard anyone getting upset over the subject.

In my opinion, the North was clearly right, and the South was clearly wrong, but there is no need to overstate the case in order to preserve this truth.  Southerners were not wholly evil, and Northerners were not wholly good.  There is room for charitable treatment of the contending sides, as long as the basic truths are not lost in quest to be “fair” to both sides.

Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that anyone could still be defending the Lost Cause of the South.  In our day, this is even more surreal than the Civil War itself as told in photographs.

3.  The Insanity of Secession 

“Let us begin, then, with the mad-house….” 

G. K. Chesterton

I’m always amazed at the attempts by neo-confederates to picture the South as a victim in the Civil War.  It is never the South’s fault, but always someone else’s fault (Lincoln, abolitionists, Wilberforce).  Of course, it isn’t that anyone in today’s South really cares about it anymore.  I’ve lived in the South off and on and cannot remember the average southerner being angry about the Civil War.  In fact many do not know anything about it, and likely would think it was just a rivalry between a couple of local sports teams.  The only people I’ve heard discussing the subject with a spirit of earnestness that suggests the war at Gettysburg was still raging, were religious people — religious people of a southern Presbyterian sort.  They seemed to think the Old South had been a great Presbyterian civilization, and the North little better than a Unitarian swamp.

The real problem with neo-confederate authors is the same that afflicted the mind and spirit of the Old Confederates, namely a faulty view of the nature of the American system of government.  These neo-confederates claim, with a straight face, that secession is the most fundamental principle of political philosophy, and that this country was founded by secessionists.

To believe this requires that one either be a racist or a lunatic.  Most neo-confederate apologists of the South are not obviously racists.  I’ve checked far-left websites, and if anyone could find ideological dirt of that sort, it would be these people.  All they could come up with, however, were connections to Civil War reenactment societies, or to antiquarian, Southern pride type organizations.

So that leaves only one conclusion: neo-confederates are raving madmen.  This might be thought of as an exaggeration, but if one forces oneself to read any of their literature, one will find that they are dedicated to the proposition contained in the words of that old Negro spiritual:

“In Jeff Davis’ fall

We sinned all.”

First of all, let us admit what (little) truth there is in neo-confederate claims.  They often lambaste Abraham Lincoln for claiming that the Union came before the States.  It’s at least technically correct that a union was in existence before either the Articles of Confederation or the U.S. Constitution were adopted.  It could even be said that a union existed as far back as the Stamp Act Congress.  The real question, of course, is what type of union existed under these conditions.

An examination of the historical record leaves little doubt that the Union created by the Revolutionaries under the Articles of Confederation was largely a union in name only.  The “national” government under the Articles was only a weak military alliance.  The States were declared to be sovereign and independent entities, and in practical terms this meant the “national” government had no real power to enforce its laws.  One of the many consequences of this was an inability to provide for the Continental army, a weakness that was strikingly illustrated at Valley Forge, where men starved for want of provisions.  This was also seen at Yorktown, where Washington had to borrow money from the French in order to land the final blow of the war.  Talk about humiliating.

All right, we grant that the neo-confederates are right in regard to the Union under the Articles of Confederation.  It was an alliance of sovereign States.  It is not granted, however, that they are right about the nature of the Union under the Constitution itself.  In fact, they make a complete botch of it.  The truth is that the States were no longer sovereign or independent entities once they ratified the Constitution, for by ratification, they gave up part of their sovereignty.  Old and new confederates deny this, but it is nonetheless true.  Ratification of the Constitution made secession a legal impossibility, and the only alternatives were revolution or just plain anarchism.  Abraham Lincoln described the principle of southern secession as, at bottom, anarchism:

“Plainly, the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy.  A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.  Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism.  Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left.”[5]

The Old South was thus arguing not only for the principle of secession but also, in effect, for the principle of anarchy, which is a kind of political insanity.

Long before the secessionists raised the issue, a group that became known as the “anti-Federalists” were complaining that the Constitutional Convention failed to preserve the “federal” form of government, in which the Union is regarded as a confederation of sovereign states.  Instead, these anti-Federalists argued, the Convention created a “national” government where the Union is regarded as a consolidation of the states.  If the Constitution were a confederation of sovereign States, as neo-confederates claim, what were the anti-Federalists complaining about?

In fact, the complaints of anti-Federalists were not valid, as James Madison argued, and one can just as easily apply Madison’s teachings on the subject to the neo-confederates.  Unfortunately, it’s true that Madison moved to a more libertarian view a few years after writing the Constitution, and neo-confederates can certainly cite him as supporting a state rights view.  In fact, both Madison and Jefferson opened up a Pandora’s Box when they supported a right of the States to nullify unconstitutional laws enacted by the Federal government.  Nullification is not secession, of course, but Madison and Jefferson’s opposition to, and remedy for, the Alien & Sedition Act of 1798 would later become a basis for the arguments of Southern nullifiers and fire-eating disunionists.

As presidents, Jefferson and Madison’s libertarian policies left the country weak, and when the war of 1812 was declared, Madison’s government was unable to fight off the British, who burned Washington, and humiliated both the country and the President.  However, Andrew Jackson defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans¾or more accurately slaughtered them.  Jackson’s artillery could now join Samson’s jawbone of an ass as effecting one of the most lopsided battles in history, for Jackson’s forces killed or wounded about three thousand British troops, while his own suffered only a dozen or so.  (Tragically, peace between England and America had already been agreed to, but the news was too late in reaching New Orleans.)  In any case, other countries who might have taken advantage of America’s weakness now knew it was Jackson they would face, not green militia from the eastern States.  The war of 1812 showed the foolishness of purist libertarianism, and as a result Madison would support a stronger government in his second term.

Indeed, despite his earlier support of nullification in the late 1790’s, Madison would eventually deny the right of nullification to individual States.[6]  Madison also opposed secession, the idea that States could unilaterally withdraw from the Union.[7]  And it was Madison who emphasized the distinction between a so-called constitutional right of nullification and the natural right of revolution.  He also corrected misinterpretations of Jefferson’s views on nullification.[8]

In addition, near the end of his life, in one of his last writings, Madison strongly reemphasized the need for the Union, and warned against disunionism:

“The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions, is that the Union of States be cherished and perpetuated.  Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened, and the disguised one as the serpent creeping with deadly wiles into Paradise.”[9]

Thus, after the war and late in life, Madison had come full circle, reflecting once again Washington and Hamilton and his own earlier strong government views as over against Jefferson’s more libertarian views.

Let us, however, listen to the Madison of the Federalist Papers.  As against the complaint of the anti-Federalists that the Constitution created a consolidated, national government instead of a confederation of independent States, Madison saw the work of the framers as creating a unique government, one that was both national and federal, not just one or the other:

“The proposed Constitution, therefore, even when tested by the rules laid down by its antagonists, is, in strictness, neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both.”[10]

The Constitution was ratified by independent, sovereign States.  These States represented the sovereign will of the people.  In other words, the people did not act as an undifferentiated mass, but acted through their respective States.  According to Madison, “The act, therefore, establishing the Constitution will not be a national but a federal act.”  Moreover, Madison recognized the full sovereignty of the States: “Each State, in ratifying the Constitution, is considered as a sovereign body independent of all others….”  Thus, ratification was an act of independent States.

Madison then speaks of the government as having a “mixed” character, “presenting at least as many federal as national features.”  To illustrate Madison’s distinction, a “national” characteristic of a government is whatever is universal.  This is seen most clearly in the authority the Constitution gives to the federal government over the States in matters affecting the whole country, e.g., trade, commerce, war, etc.  On the other hand, “federal” characteristics would have to do more with particularity, e.g., the States’ control over local or domestic issues, the representation of the States in the Senate, etc.

Furthermore, in Madison’s view, this federal-national government has real power, enumerated and limited to be sure, but still real power.  It was something that could not be ignored by the States, as all too often happened under the Articles.  Thus, while neo-confederates are right to say that the Constitution was formed by sovereign States, it is incorrect to say that the States remained sovereign after the ratification of the Constitution.  What remained was a mixed sovereignty, with the federal government having the final say on national matters, or in disputes between the States.

Mixed sovereignty is seen in the supremacy clause of the Constitution.  This clause says that the Constitution and laws pursuant thereof shall be the supreme law of the land, and that judges are bound by it, “anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The States entered into the compact with full knowledge of this supremacy clause, and were presumably familiar with anti-Federalist objections to the new Constitution and to the national government that would be formed under its auspices.  The supremacy clause, however, did not take away all sovereignty in the States; just those powers having to do with national matters.  The States were still sovereign on domestic matters.  As Madison said, the new government consists of both federal and national characteristics.  Of course, there would be no federal features if the States lost all of their sovereignty, and likewise, there would be no national features if the federal government lacked sovereignty.

Madison rejected the “indiscreet zeal of the adversaries to the Constitution” who wanted the States to retain supremacy vis-à-vis the central government.  Thus Madison had to contend with an early version of the state rights philosophy in his defense of the Constitution against anti-Federalists.  The supremacy clause was necessary because:

“[T]he world would have seen, for the first time, a system of government founded on an inversion of the fundamental principle of all government; it would have seen the authority of the whole society everywhere  subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have been a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members.”[11]  

It would be like the feet telling the head “I’m going to separate myself from you and go down a different path.”  The result would be that the head could not go anywhere, and the feet would have no direction.

Failure to understand the mixed character of our government may be why neo-confederates go all frothy whenever anyone denies the state rights principle, as Lincoln did.  Maybe it’s because they do not factor the anti-Federalists into their understanding of the Constitution.  If a State could leave the Union anytime it wanted, what were the anti-Federalists so afraid of?  If the national government became oppressive, could not States simply secede from the Union as a remedy?  Why was there a demand by the States for a bill of rights?  If the federal government took away any of these rights, could not the States easily secede and obtain the rights in that way?  So why worry about rights?

Of course, the answer is that neither the framers nor their anti-Federalist opponents contemplated any right of secession under the Constitution.  A right of secession under the Constitution would have defeated the whole purpose of the Constitution vis-à-vis the Articles of Confederation.  The permanence of the Union was a presupposition of both sides in the ratification debates.  As Lincoln said, a more perfect union presupposes that the old union is perpetuated, not disbanded.  That is why the anti-Federalists were concerned about the possibility of oppression, because they knew that there was no going back.  Southern arguments for the right of secession are really attempts to go back to the allegedly halcyon days of the Articles of Confederation.  Such arguments are of no value in describing the nature of the American system of government under the Constitution.  As Madison said, the parts cannot govern the whole without creating a monster.

Chesterton spoke of the madman as “in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.”  It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the South believed that Africans were born with saddles on their backs, to be ridden at will by their masters.  In support of this, the South invoked the principle of secession, the well-lit prison of one idea.

4.  The Right of Revolution

Neo-confederates (as with Old Confederates) do not much care for the philosopher John Locke.  His political philosophy presents some inconveniences to the secession theory.  Since America was founded largely on the political views of Locke, the U.S. Constitution presents some inconveniences, as well.  Locke argued that a true compact is not formed until a power is created that all parties agree to live by:

“And thus every man by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to every one of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact, if he be left free, and under no other ties, than he was in before in the state of nature.”[12]

For Locke, if men were free to reject any decrees of the new society, what would be the point of the compact?  “For what appearance would there be of any compact?  What new engagement if he were no farther tied by any decrees of the society, than he himself thought fit, and did actually consent to?”

When forming the new community, the social compact requires its members to give up some of their power: “Whosoever therefore out of a state of nature united into a community, must be understood to give up all the power, necessary to the ends for which they united into society, to the majority of the community.”[13]

The members give up some rather than all of their powers to the majority, since only those powers that are necessary for maintaining the ends of the social compact are required to be given over.  Other powers are retained by the members.

In Locke’s view, freedom to reject the determinations of society is simply the liberty men have in the state of nature.  If they will not abide by society’s decrees, they have not really formed a social compact.  In addition, if men do not submit to the majority, or if they require unanimous consent for all governmental business, the constitution will not last:

“Such a constitution as this would make the mighty Leviathan of a shorter duration, than the feeblest creatures; and not let it outlast the day it was born in: which cannot be supposed, till we can think, that rational creatures should desire and constitute societies only to be dissolved.”[14]

Later on during the Constitutional debates, Alexander Hamilton would express Locke’s concept of the social contract, that the general government must be supreme or else the compact signifies nothing:

“If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct.  If a number of political societies enter into a larger political society, the laws which the latter may enact, pursuant to the powers entrusted to it by its constitution, must necessarily be supreme over those societies and the individuals of whom they are composed.  It would otherwise be a mere treaty, dependent on the good faith of the parties, and not a government….”[15]

One can see that it is the very nature of the social compact that no right of secession could possibly exist, else the social compact would be meaningless.  Nevertheless, an important question arises when a majority goes beyond its enumerated powers.  If there is no legal right to secession under the Constitution, how can majority oppression be checked?  In the last resort, in terms of Locke’s theory of government, the answer is revolution.

Is there a right of revolution?  Yes, this right exists for all Americans, and for all people as well.  The right of revolution is an extra-constitutional right, not because it is illegal, but because it is a natural right.  According to Locke, the people retain this power, and the implied threat of revolution is a bulwark against tyranny.  As Hamilton said,

“But it will not follow from this doctrine [supremacy of federal law] that acts of the larger society which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies, will become the supreme law of the land.  These will be merely acts of usurpation and will deserve to be treated as such.”

But the people can only exercise the right of revolution with great caution.  There must be a long train of oppressions, and arms cannot be taken up against a good government.  Locke said:

“[S]uch Revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs….But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the People….”[16]

Southerners did not appeal to this Lockean right of revolution, certainly not leaders like Jefferson Davis or Alexander Stephens.  It is true that Davis, in his 1861 “Inaugural Address,” justified secession by an appeal to the Declaration of Independence, and he believed that the States had an “inalienable” right to take back previously ceded authority.  Why would he not want to associate his cause with the Revolutionary founders?

Nevertheless, a few sentences after the Declaration comment, Davis said: “[T]he sovereign [seceding] States here represented proceeded to form this Confederacy, and it is by abuse of language that their act has been denominated a revolution.  They formed a new alliance, but within each State its government has remained….The agent through whom they communicated with foreign nations is changed, but this does not necessarily interrupt their international relations.”[17]

Davis may have been delusional, but we should accept his claims that the South did not see itself as fomenting revolution.  “Ours is not a revolution,” he said once again in 1864.[18]

Before the war, Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, spoke of the consequences of disunion as revolution, but in his long-winded, post-war, two volume tome A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, he argued that the seceding States were attempting to preserve the Constitution, not to overthrow it.  “I do maintain there was no rebellion, no resistance to lawful authority in the action of the Confederates in what occurred at Fort Sumter, but, on the contrary, I maintain that their resistance there was a resistance to open and palpable usurpations of power by the authorities in Washington….”[19]  Moreover, “It was no Insurrection or Rebellion, or even Civil War in any proper sense of these terms.”[20]

One of the chief post-war defenders of the South, R. L. Dabney, theologian and formerly chief of staff for Stonewall Jackson, accused the North of revolution, even though he says he had once complained to Stonewall Jackson that the people of the South did not understand how essential it was of “striking quickly in a revolutionary war like ours.”[21]  Dabney provided no explanation for this contradiction between his pre- and post-war sentiments.

Moreover, in his explanation of why the Civil War started, Dabney indulges in fantasies about a conspiratorial “war party” determined to enlarge its power in order to centralize government.  “But the Jacobins needed a war for their own factious ends….Those minds said to themselves: ‘Just so; therefore we will coerce, because it is war which we crave, and not a righteous Union.”[22]  Dabney did not explain how a union can be righteous when four million of its population are enslaved, are forbidden to learn to read, and are consequently forbidden to read the Bible.

Not surprisingly, Dabney rejected the social contract theory of John Locke.[23]  It is, of course, understandable that Locke was overlooked by the South, since African slaves had greater political justification for Lockean revolution than anyone else.  The South appealed therefore not so much to natural rights, as to a supposed right of secession guaranteed by the Constitution, or that is to say, a right retained by the States even under the Constitution.

The fact is, however, that there is no intra-Constitutional right of secession, only a natural right of revolution (conducted by magistrates).  It is also evident, despite claims by neo-confederates, that there was no long train of abuses justifying any revolution on the part of the seceding States.  No laws had been passed to take Southern slaves away from their masters.  The Constitution had not been changed to give any rights to slaves.  Even Alexander Stephens, at the Georgia State Convention in 1861, asked, “What right has the North assailed?  What interest of the South has been invaded?  What justice has been denied?”[24]

Lincoln even said his intentions were not (formally) to change slavery in the South, and he bent over backward — perhaps too far — in attempting to placate the slave States.  In short, there simply was no persistent oppression to which the Old South could appeal to that could sustain a legitimate case for revolution.  But the South seceded anyway, and did so because Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency.

Of course, merely declaring a right of revolution does not mean one is guaranteed to win such a revolution.  Besides being incorrect in its reasons for leaving the Union, the South, as Robert E. Lee learned at the end of the war, just did not have enough resources or manpower to defeat the North.  Thus, besides being guilty of grave political error, the South was also morally and economically foolish, for it did not count the true costs of the war, both in lives lost, and in resources destroyed.  The right of revolution is a theoretical right.  It is not a right to win, nor is there any promise that the costs will be worth the sacrifice.  Above all, the key characteristic of true revolution is that the cause must be just.  There is simply nothing in the southern argument for secession that can be counted as a just cause for revolution, for the purpose of southern secession was not the preservation of freedom, but rather the continuation of slavery.

5.  The Road from Serfdom: The Real Nature of the American System

The noted Christian reconstructionist, Rousas J. Rushdoony, wrote a book in 1965 called The Nature of the American System.  This book is recognizably favorable to the Old South with respect to the Civil War, and in my opinion makes some serious errors regarding the causes of the war.  The reason for this is that Rushdoony relies on Alexander Stephens’ post-war apologia for the southern cause, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States.  (This book, in two volumes, is largely a fictitious colloquy between Stephens and some invented characters.  Stephens always comes out on top, of course, but his supposed questioners are at least representative of some Northern viewpoints.)

Not only does Rushdoony allow Stephens to mislead him with respect to the slavery issue, but also with respect to the nature of American government.  The South, according to neo-confederates, supposedly believed in federalism whereas the North supposedly believed in centralism.  Rushdoony agrees and says that the war was a “battle between Constitutionalism and Centralism.”[25]  This is about as wrong as one could be about the Civil War and the nature of the American system.  It reflects the revisionist downplaying of slavery as the cause of the war, and fails to see that the government under the U.S. Constitution is a mixture of federalism and centralism, not one or the other exclusively.

Here is what Stephens says on the question of the nature of American government: “The absolute Sovereignty of these original States, respectively, was never parted with by them in that [Constitution] or any other Compact of Union ever entered into by them.”[26]  This was the Old South axiom, its primary purpose being to prevent interference with African slavery.

In his post-war writings, Stephens claimed that slavery was not the real cause of the Civil War: “Slavery, so called, or that legal subordination of the black race to the white…was unquestionably the occasion of the war, the main exciting proximate cause on both sides, on the one as well as the other, but it was not the real cause….”[27]

What was the real cause?  A difference in political philosophy?  Yes, that is Stephens’ view, that the war was caused by a difference over the nature of the American government.  Yet Stephens says after the war that it was fear of what Lincoln and the federal government would do with respect to southern slaves that prompted the southern States to withdraw from the Union.  He continued:

“Consideration connected with the legal status of the Black race in the Southern States, and the position of several of the Northern States toward it, together with the known sentiments and principles of those just elected to the two highest offices of the Federal Government [Lincoln & V.P. Hamlin], as to the powers of that Government over this subject, and others which threatened, as was supposed, all their vital interests, prompted the Southern States to withdraw from the Union…”

Here we have it.  The South seceded because of Northern opposition to slavery, because of the election of two anti-slavery politicians to the presidency and vice-presidency, and for fear of the powers of the Northern government over the slavery issue and other interests that the South thought vital.  No actual oppression, mind you; no realistic chance that abolitionists had the power to rob Southerners of their slaves.  Just the bare possibility of Northern interference was enough for secession.  When the federal government denied this putative right of secession, the war was, in Stephens’ view, “inaugurated.”

This was not the position held by Stephens before the war.  In his pre-war “Cornerstone” speech of 1861, he declared that African slavery was “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”  Jefferson had said that African slavery was the “rock” upon which the Union would split, but Stephens claimed that this “rock” (the subordination of blacks to whites) was the “stone which the builders rejected” and had become the “head of the corner.”  Thus, African slavery was the chief cornerstone of the new Confederation.  Stephens, to his credit, opposed secession and also admitted that the “leading statesmen” of the early Republic regarded slavery as a “violation of the laws of nature.”

Stephens, however, made the outrageous claim that the federal government started the war, not the South, and he provides a sophistical argument why the firing on Fort Sumter cannot be thought of as starting the war.  He makes a distinction between “inaugurating” the war and the idea of firing the first shots.  The South fired the first shots, Stephens admits, but the North supposedly “inaugurated” the war.  Stephens is given to making similar specious distinctions.  In one case, he distinguishes between the “law of the land” on the one hand, and the “paramount authority” on the other; this for the purpose of denying that the supremacy clause in the Constitution undermines the theory of state rights.  In another case, he distinguishes between “sovereignty” and “sovereign powers”; this in order to maintain the view that all the States retained their absolute sovereignty even after ratification of the Constitution.

The state rights principle is Stephens’ starting axiom.  Everything is interpreted in light of this assumption.  The States, in this view, started out as independent, sovereign entities, and remained so even after ratification.  The federal government, then, was given no real power, but merely borrowed it from the States, for a time.  If the States wanted to take back this power, they had the right to do so.  This, in a nutshell, is Stephens’ political presupposition.  It is constantly appealed to as justification for the defection of the South from the Union.

Rushdoony was aware of Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech, and acknowledges that Stephens attacked equality.[28]  Unfortunately, he says nothing against this attack on equality, but summarizes Stephens’ view in a way that suggests he agrees with it: “Not equality but justice should govern the political or moral order and should be the controlling principle.”[29]  Thus the Declaration of Independence and its “created equal” clause are thrown out like yesterday’s garbage.  In fact, Rushdoony only criticizes Stephens for his supposedly “humanistic” view of justice, not his denial of equality.

In what must be one of the most foolish statements Rushdoony ever made, he says, “Thus the whole slave system was a privileged order resented by many, and the great majority were not slaveholders.”[30]  Why privileged?  Because during much of the Civil War slaves were exempted from military service!

Rushdoony accused Lincoln of assuming “unconstitutional powers” to further the war effort, but at least admits Jefferson Davis “reluctantly felt it necessary to move in the same direction.”[31]  Rushdoony also cites the view of David Donald that the South lost because of too much “democracy.”  He accepted that Donald has raised the question of whether one must give up one’s personal liberty in order to fight a successful war.  Rushdoony’s answer is pure libertarianism.  He claims that the free market in World War II overcame government controls, and the black market was a “major contributor to efficiency and to victory.”  He regards the growth of such “war-time controls” in each war as parallel to the growing idea of war as “revolution.” “This,” says Rushdoony, “having become an ever-increasing function of war, it has become increasingly important to insist on the sacrifice of liberty as the foremost requirement of the art of war.”[32]

Robert E. Lee said the South lost because it did not have enough men or resources, and there is little reason to deny this explanation.  There is then no good reason to blame “democracy” for military defeat, or to set up an antagonism between military preparedness and freedom.  Moreover, even if war were to require the temporary sacrifice of some personal liberties, this would not be the end of the world.  The Constitution itself acknowledges this necessity by allowing the suspension of habeas corpus during times of insurrection or invasion.  Purist libertarians, however, live in a dream world where the chief enemy is the state, and where there are no real enemies who want to kill or enslave us.  Only the state is evil in the libertarian view, and it is the state that causes other peoples or nations to hate us and make war against us.  They attack us, said presidential candidate Ron Paul in 2007, because we’re “over there.”  The framers of the Constitution, however, were wiser men, and realized that the long term survival of freedom sometimes required the short-term suspension of freedoms.

Rushdoony’s laudatory view of Stephens ends on a couple of absurd notes.  He reports that Stephens had a dream while in prison:  “In his sleep in prison, he dreamed of home, and of instructing his ex-slaves in the meaning of liberty, and woke up, ‘my eyes streaming with tears.’”

Of course, it never occurred to Stephens to free his slaves and instruct them in the meaning of liberty before the war.  No, it was only in prison that he was converted to this new magnanimity “with tears.”  Rushdoony doesn’t have the slightest awareness of how ludicrous these tears appear when compared to the millions of tears shed by those enslaved on the basis of Stephens’ principles.

Rushdoony also ends his chapter on Stephens with a foray into crank economics: “The years have only underscored the relevancy of Stephens’ analysis.  From a very limited system [sic] of privately owned slaves, the entire United States has, from the Civil War era, gone into debt-money slavery to the ‘Money Trust,’ so that its very monetary wealth, being debt-money, is itself a sign of bondage.”[33]

Rushdoony is merely imitating the Old South apologists who used the tu quoque argument repeatedly against the North, claiming e.g., that non-slave wage-labor in the North was much worse than the supposedly mild domestic slavery of the South.  Thus, in Rushdoony’s view, the “very limited” slavery of the Old South was not nearly as bad as, apparently, universal slavery to the “Money Trust.”

I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s famous story of the “Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” in which the winner of the frog race (who cheated by filling his opponent’s frog with quail shot) remarked solemnly, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s any better’n any other frog.”

In Rushdoony’s view, “debt-money slavery to the ‘Money Trust’ is equivalent to, or worse than, African slavery.  But I think that perhaps a former slave, or his descendants, would have no trouble in seeing p’ints about them that, rather distressingly, appear to have escaped Rushdoony’s notice.

6.  Why Southerners Should Love Abraham Lincoln

In the last few years, President George Bush has come in for a lot of poisonous verbal abuse by his critics (and some not so poisonous, but better deserved).  He is regularly attacked by mendacious leftists as a liar, murderer, serial killer, mass murderer, war criminal, and on and on.  (To be fair, the same is true for Bill Clinton, who has been accused by loopy rightists of being a murderer, rapist, drug smuggler, or terrorist.)  Bush can at least take comfort in the fact that he was not the first to receive this treatment from political enthusiasts.  Most of us grew up admiring Abraham Lincoln, so it comes as a shock when we find out that he actually had enemies, and that they said many nasty things about him. Lincoln was at various times called a:



wet rag

Kentucky mule












And these were what his friends called him.  No, not really.  His political allies, however (or at least those closer to him in politics — i.e., the abolitionists) could be fairly insulting in their own right.  Historian Don Fehrenbacher says:

“Among the antislavery radicals, in contrast, Lincoln seemed the embodiment of timorous, vacillating conservatism—too inhibited by constitutional qualms, too solicitous about border state feeling, too obliging to Democrats…, and much too cautious in his approach to emancipation.  ‘He is,” said a Maine critic, ‘a tall, lank, lean, homely, weak-kneed man, a poor, good-dispositioned horse that must be led!  Kind to a fault, obliging to everybody, and consequently, devilish short of square work.’”[34]

Strange as it may seem, we still have Lincoln-haters to this day.  None that I’m familiar with are pro-slavery types, but they still adopt Old South, anti-Lincoln attitudes.  Even stranger is the fact that some of these Lincoln haters are libertarians, who are supposed to believe in the freedom of the individual.

The libertarian economist and sometime EIB radio talk-show host, Walter Williams, believes that the “true costs” of the Civil War were not the battle-field related deaths, but were “a change in the character of our government into one feared by the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and Calhoun — one where states lost most of their sovereignty to the central government.”

I personally do not downplay the battle-field related deaths, which were staggering; and I also believe the Old South has blood on its hands for this massive loss of life.  In any case, Williams’ absurd claim about a change in government comes from a black American whose ancestors were presumably freed by the Civil War.  He is writing the forward to an anti-Lincoln book by Thomas DiLorenzo called The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War.  DiLorenzo is a teacher of economics, who during his saner moments, is a defender of capitalism.  He has this to say:

“Before the [civil] war, government in America was the highly decentralized, limited government established by the founding fathers.  The war created the highly centralized state that Americans labor under today.  The purpose of American government was transformed from the defense of individual liberty to the quest for empire.”[35]

One would think that a war in which four million human beings were liberated from slavery might count as a pretty ringing defense of individual liberty — but not in the logic of some modern libertarians.  Moreover, the idea that Abraham Lincoln was a precursor to FDR or modern day big government liberalism can only be described as preposterous.  If DiLorenzo buys that, then all I can say is that Junior Samples has a used car to sell him, call BR-549.

James and Walter Kennedy have the audacity to write a book that contains a chapter with the title “A Moral Right to Be Free.”[36]  But why didn’t African slaves have the moral right to be free?  In my opinion, the blindness and hypocrisy of the Old South was due to its love of greed over Christian morals, and the modern defenders of the supposedly Christian character of the Old South are just as morally bankrupt.

The Kennedy brothers claim that the “real reason” for abolitionism is that the North wanted more money from the South.  They quote Abraham Lincoln as follows:

“Let the South go?  Let the South go!  Where then shall we get our revenues!”[37]

Now Lincoln was sometimes given to making jokes, and it could very well have been an attempt at humor.  Or it might have meant only that the South did have obligations to the country to pay its fair share of taxes.  But did Lincoln actually say it?  I checked the footnote for these statements, and the Kennedy brothers cite as an authority, not Lincoln’s writings or speeches, but a book by Confederate captain Ralph Semmes.  In his book, however, Semmes did not provide any source for the statements.[38]

The quotation was also used by Assistant Secretary of War for the Confederacy, Albert Taylor Bledsoe.  He too provided no source for the statements.[39]  The earliest that I could find was from an editor of the Southern Literary Messenger named Frank Heath Alfriend, who was also a biographer of Jefferson Davis.[40]  As we might have expected, Alfriend did not cite any source for the statements attributed to Lincoln.

I also “googled” the statements and noticed they were quoted frequently by neo-confederates, but again no sources were given from Lincoln’s writings or speeches, or even from newspaper articles.  Finally, I used the search engine at the Abraham Lincoln Papers hosted by the Library of Congress.  The query for “Let the South go?” came back with zero (0) items.  Similarly, the query for “Where then shall we get our revenues!” came back with zero (0) results.

In other words, Lincoln never said the words attributed to him.  If neo-confederates still want to use this as proof that Lincoln went to war out of greed, they need to provide proof he actually said it, and provide context as well.

It is too bad Southern apologists (both old and new) refuse to take Lincoln’s word for it, that is, for why he went to war.  Lincoln said after the firing on Fort Sumter:

“And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States.  It present to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes….It forces us to ask: ‘Is there, in all republics, this inherent, and fatal weakness?’  ‘Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?’”

He continued, “So viewing the issue, no choice was left but to call out the war power of the Government; and so to resist force, employed for its destruction, by force, for its preservation….”[41]

Why the neo-confederates always want to find some wicked motive behind Lincoln’s actions is rather hard to understand from a rational point of view.  The simple one that Lincoln himself gave — that he wanted to preserve the Union against domestic insurrection — is the only one that makes sense.  Any other putative motivation is just plain Old South propaganda.

Neo-confederates whine about the great economic losses that the South endured after the Civil War.  Since this property consisted largely of African slaves, whom Southerners had no right to enslave in the first place, I shall not shed many tears.  If Southern whites were allegedly turned into second class citizens after the war, and were admonished (by fanatics no doubt) to treat their formers slaves as human beings, then they should have reconciled themselves to their situation, and been grateful it wasn’t worse.  By right, the Union could have cleared the lot of southern whites out, colonized them, so to speak, to a European or French backwater.  Or maybe sent them as slaves to Liberia for a while.  Wouldn’t that have been an interesting sight!  At the least, it might have taught southern fire-eaters some manners, but that’s an optimistic assessment, I admit.

Lincoln-haters invariably claim that Lincoln was a dictator for suspending habeas corpus.  This is basically a right not to sit in jail indefinitely without due process.  However, neo-confederates are as ignorant of the Constitution as they are of Lincoln and the Civil War.  The Constitution in Article I, Section 9 actually allows for the suspension of habeas corpus:

“The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

The secession of the cotton States at the time of Lincoln’s election was certainly a rebellion, and Lincoln was fully justified in suspending habeas corpus and other rights of treasonous individuals.  When a ship is at sea, passengers usually have free run of the ship, but if there’s a storm, or if the ship comes under fire from an enemy, the passengers are sequestered, even required to be silent.  It is just a matter of survival.  Once the storm, or the battle, are over, the passengers are free again.  So also with Lincoln, who was the captain of the ship of the American state through the storm and strife of rebellion, and of a civil war that threatened the survival of the nation.  There is no need to romanticize the ship of the Union in any Longfellowish way, for there are dangers to freedom in unchecked power.  However, Congress reviewed Lincoln’s policies and confirmed them.

In fact, Congress always had the right to restrain too much power in the executive, but was also wise enough not to exercise it until the Union was out of danger.  They realized, as the framers of the Constitution did earlier, that in dire emergencies the suspension of the legal order was the only way to save the moral order.  Lincoln himself distinguished between arrests for the “ordinary and continuous perpetration of crime” and arrests that are made due to “sudden and extensive uprisings against the government….”[42]

Lincoln faced a unique situation, one that has never been faced by any president before or since, an internal insurrection of enormous scale.  It is simply absurd to compare the war powers of presidents before Lincoln, or during WWI or WWII, or even during the Iraq War, with the war powers of Lincoln at the time of the Civil War.  Failure to heed this has led some to adopt a “dictatorship” theory—that Lincoln provided a dangerous precedent for later presidents.  This, however, ignores the uniqueness of the historical situation.  By the same token, modern politicians, left or right, cannot use Lincoln to draw inferences about either the protection of, or the limitations on, civil liberty during today’s wars.  Any threat to the Union (from foreign invasions) is just not as great in the modern era as it was in Lincoln’s day (from internal rebellion).  So any comparisons should be made with caution, if at all, and with due regard to the sui generis nature of the Civil War.[43]

The South owes a lot to Abraham Lincoln.  If it had not been for Lincoln, the Old South would have continued on as a slavocracy for generations, stagnating as the Roman Empire did.  It would have become a backward country unprepared for the assaults on civilization by twentieth century fascists, Nazis, and communists.  Perhaps it would have remained neutral in such contests, or worse, joined with the totalitarians.  While counterfactual speculations only go so far, there is little doubt that if the South had been allowed to go its own way, it would have drifted farther and farther away from the principles of the American Revolution, and of Christianity.  Thus, Southerners owe much to Lincoln, not the least of which is that he broke the back of the slave power and its apologists, men who betrayed both Christianity and the Revolutionary generation in their rebellion against Lincoln’s Union.  Their modern counterparts, the neo-confederates, have followed in that disreputable wake.

7.  William Tecumseh Sherman as Humanitarian

Southern apologists love to bash William T. Sherman (and Philip Sheridan), the former for his march through Georgia and South Carolina, the latter for his “scorched earth” policy in the Shenandoah.  Both were among the greatest generals in American history, and they provide a good example of strategic warfare.  The aim of strategic warfare is to deprive the enemy of food supplies or war resources.  Traditional warfare usually thought in terms of throwing armies against armies on the battlefield.  In the Civil War tactical warfare of this sort proved enormously costly in lives lost, especially in the months that Grant and Lee were battling it out in northern Virginia.

Neither Sherman nor Sheridan were mavericks pursuing their own policies, but were always acting under orders from General Grant.  Bruce Catton says:

“Grant’s instructions [to Sheridan] were grimly specific.  He wanted the rich farmlands of the Valley despoiled so thoroughly that the place could no longer support a Confederate army; he told Sheridan to devastate the whole area so thoroughly that a crow flying across over the Valley would have to carry its own rations.  This work Sheridan set out to do.”[44]

Grant also gave instructions to Sherman: “You I propose to move against [Joseph] Johnston’s army, to break it up, and to get into the interior of the enemy’s country as far as you can, inflicting all the damage you can against their war resources.”[45]

Some call this “total war,” though it is not always clear what people mean by this term.  It could refer to total mobilization of all sectors of a society, military as well as civilian, in order to fight an enemy.  We are not used to warfare of this sort.  Today’s military (in America at least) does not need civilians to drop everything for the war effort, and that’s been true at least since WWII.  Others think of total war as attacking not just military targets but also civilian resources that are used to supply food and materiel for the enemy.  This latter is more akin to strategic warfare, sometimes referred to as “area denial.”  Another use of the term is what would better be called “absolute” warfare, where not only food and materiel are destroyed, but civilians are regarded as legitimate targets.  In early America, Indian warfare was like this since it often involved the intentional killing of women and children.  Modern terrorism is often absolute warfare, since civilians are purposely targeted for maximum political impact.

Unfortunately, neo-confederates, addicted to ideas of moral equivalence, do not distinguish these types of warfare.  For this reason, they have no qualms about lumping Sherman and Sheridan in with modern terrorists!

One of the most widely known instances of what some would call “total warfare” was the bombing of Dresden in February, 1945.  The fame of this incident is probably due to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) with its anti-war theme.  Before Vonnegut, however, Joseph Goebbels used the bombing to inflame sentiment against the Western powers.  He inflated the casualty numbers by adding a zero to the real number and used it for Nazi propaganda purposes.  The Soviet communists would later use the incident during the Cold War to drive a wedge between eastern bloc and western countries.  Nowadays, Dresden is often invoked by neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers.

In fact the bombing was carried out to help a Soviet push into Germany.  The railway yards at Dresden were the immediate targets, the reason being that trains allowed the movement of German troops to battlefronts.  Both British and American air forces bombed the city for three days, and the fires from the bombing turned the city into an inferno which killed about twenty thousand.  The bombing was not the worst ever seen in Germany during WWII, but the environmental conditions and wooden-frame structures in the city created a firestorm, leading to more deaths than usual for such bombings.

Strategic bombing (or warfare) does not deliberately target civilians, though it is expected that civilians will die by such means simply because it is impossible to contain completely the damage done to an enemy.  No matter how smart a bomb might be, it is always possible that some civilians are close by when it goes off.  To say that war should not be fought, or bombing should not be conducted, if even one civilian dies, is simply to admit defeat right off, since no war can be fought in that way.  What is important is that civilians not be the primary target of such warfare.  In the real world, secondary casualties are simply part of what it means to fight a war.  Too many secondary casualties, of course, might tip the scales against military action.  Nevertheless, non-combatant deaths are among the inescapable, if tragic, variables in the equations of war.  “War is all hell,” Sherman said, years after the Civil War.  That is why it cannot be entered into lightly or for transient reasons (such as martial glory).

DiLorenzo claims that Union troops deliberately targeted southern civilians:

“Lincoln wanted Southern civilians to suffer, which required him to abandon international law and the U.S. military’s own code as he began to wage total war.  And it was total war waged against fellow citizens—mostly women and children and old men—not an invading army.”[46]

This use of the term “total war” leaves the impression that Union troops killed old men, women, and children, which they did not.  Moreover, DiLorenzo talks about Union vandalism and the burning of towns, but does not mention Confederate looting and burning of towns (attempting to deny supplies to Union forces).  In fact roving gangs of thieves were a real problem in the South before Sherman began his march through Georgia.  When he left Atlanta, southerners moved into the abandoned town and looted what remained of it.

Sherman allowed his men to forage for food and supplies, and some of the foragers (or “bummers”) took things that were not of any obvious military necessity — silver spoons, for instance.  There was a great deal of destruction of fine china, as well as the burning of towns such as Atlanta or Columbia.  During the American Revolution, Washington’s men often had to confiscate food and materials from colonists, but since they were on the same side, his men gave the disgruntled farmers what we would call IOUs.  Not so with Sherman, since he was marching through enemy territory.  The southerners were like Tories, and in principle could have their property confiscated.

Nevertheless, DiLorenzo admits that Sherman gave orders that private property should be spared, but then claims that Sherman did not really mean it.  This argument is like news reader Dan Rather saying a story is still true, even though based on bogus evidence.  Sherman did try to rein in damages to civilian property, but obviously he was more worried about weather conditions and where the enemy might be than about the excesses of bummers.  Sherman is not above criticism for allowing some elements of his army to run unchecked, but one must keep context in mind.  He was marching through a rebellious, insurrectionist country, where southerners hated the federal troops and sniped at them whenever they could.

DiLorenzo claims that Sherman’s troops were grave robbers.  “Even the cemeteries were looted, with graves dug up and carcasses stripped of jewelry and valuables.”[47]  His source for this is listed at footnote 34 which reads: “Walker, p. 152.”  However, I could find no Walker in the Notes section of the book, nor in the bibliography.  In fact, a look at some other books cited by DiLorenzo shows that the reference should have been to John Walters.  Here is what Walters said:

“Sherman’s men had shown no more respect for the dead than for the quick [living], and in the cemetery they had rifled the vaults or coffins from which they had stripped all the silver fittings.  A personal representative sent by Georgia’s Governor Brown to make an official report on the condition of Atlanta confirmed this robbing of graves in Atlanta’s cemeteries.  The Union army dumped the bodies from metal caskets, which they used to ship their own dead to the North.”[48]

Jewelry and valuables, as DiLorenzo claims, or silver fittings from coffins, as Walters claims?  This story is repeated by Burke Davis, who quotes Governor of Georgia Joseph Brown’s personal representative as saying it was the “crowning act” of villainy by Sherman’s men to rob graves.  The claim was also made that Union troops dragged bodies from vaults and replaced them with the “Federal dead.”[49]

It is unfortunate that Walters and Davis relied on the story told by Brown’s representative.  Did southerners imitate the Egyptians and place valuable objects in graves?  Did grave robbers think they would find the treasures of King Tut in such vaults or coffins?  It seems unlikely.  Moreover, the idea that Union troops would leave their dead in Atlanta graves is preposterous.  The idea of dumping the caskets, and sending their dead up North would be more likely, though I have not found any independent evidence for such a practice.

Who, by the way, is John Walters?  DiLorenzo cites him as if he were a mainstream historian, but aren’t professional historians supposed to leave partisan terms such as “Merchant of Terror” out of their writings?  Walters does not sound like an unbiased source, and indeed he is not.  In the “Acknowledgments” page of his book, he says he was a student and friend of Frank L. Owsley.  Owsley was a Southern historian who combined old Confederate ideas with Beardian economic theories of history.  Owsley believed that “Negroes” of the Confederate days were “cannibals and barbarians,” and that slavery was necessary to discipline them.  According to Thomas Pressly, Owsley’s writings on the causes of the Civil War “expressed the most drastic pro-South and anti-North sentiments among Southern historians in the twentieth century.”[50]  As with most revisionists, Owsley denied that slavery was the main cause of the war and sought its cause in sectional differences instead.

Like teacher, like student.  Walters does not get his information about grave robbery from a unbiased government report of the situation in Atlanta. nor from unbiased newspaper accounts.  No, he cites as authority for his grave robbery claims a book written by a Confederate soldier named Isaac Wheeler Avery.[51]  Now Walters does admit that his source for the grave robbing claim was a Confederate officer, but he quickly moves on, as if this were of little consequence.

So then, how reliable was Avery?  According to Walters, Atlanta had 3,800 houses within the city limits, and when the battle of Atlanta ceased, the number of houses still standing was 400.  That would be 3,400 houses destroyed.  Within the same paragraph, Walters cites Avery’s figure that 4,500 houses were destroyed “in and about Atlanta.”[52]  So Avery’s figure is at least a thousand more than Walters’ figure.  So which is it?

Another problem is that is hard to understand how “Colonel” Avery could have known the number of houses destroyed.  All the Confederate soldiers had absconded from the city while Sherman’s troops marched in, and (most) civilians were subsequently banished from the city.  When did Avery have time to survey the damage?

Walters apparently accepts Avery’s claim that he was “rendered inactive by wounds.”  But if Avery was wounded and unable to move (to follow his fellow Confederate soldiers out of the city), how did he get around the city to make a count of all the houses?  How did he do this while federal troops were milling about in the streets of the city?  The answer is that Avery was not in the city after the battle.  It is much more likely that surveys of the city were done after the city had been set on fire, and only after Sherman had left the city.  So in all likelihood, the destruction of homes was accomplished by fire rather than by Sherman’s initial artillery assault.

Avery also reports that “three thousand carcasses of animals lay in the streets.”  Really.  And how did the supposedly wounded Avery get around to count all these animals?  The killing of animals that could be used by an enemy is an old story in warfare, but we are left without a clue as to how Avery could have known this putative fact.

How did Avery get around to the cemetery to observe federal troops rifling “vaults or coffins”?  As we’ve noted, it’s probable that the cemetery was not seen until after federal troops had left Atlanta.  There really is no way of knowing who rifled the cemetery, assuming it really was robbed out.  Moreover, it appears that the real source of the grave-robbery story was not Avery but rather Governor Brown’s “personal representative,” militia general of Georgia, W. P. Howard.  Thus, it seems that Avery borrowed the report from Howard, and Walters and Davis followed him on this.

After Sherman left the city, but before Howard arrived, southern scavengers had looted what remained of the city (as noted earlier).  Burke Davis says, “The last Federal soldiers were still within sight when a growing horde of Confederate scavengers invaded Atlanta.”[53]  Nevertheless, Howard could not really begin his inspection while Sherman’s army was still in Atlanta, so it was obviously done afterward.  If Howard was Avery’s source, this means the examples of destruction supposedly seen by Avery were the result of the burning of Atlanta, not of the initial defeat and expulsion of Confederate forces, as implied by DiLorenzo.  Neo-confederates make this claim in order to say that in the initial attack on Atlanta Sherman fired on civilians, especially, old men, women, and children.

Thus, DiLorenzo attempts to prove his case against Lincoln by citing old criticisms of Sherman, these criticisms being launched by partisans of the Lost Cause, and based on even older criticisms of Sherman by his Confederate enemies.  While we can certainly accept that some of Sherman’s men may have stripped tombs, bombarded thousands of homes, left animal carcasses in the streets, and so on, this is not the same thing as proving it.  And one certainly does not prove a thing to anyone’s satisfaction by citing biased sources.  With respect to the last point, area denial often meant killing unneeded livestock in order to prevent enemy forces from benefiting from the resources, so it would not be surprising to find a lot of dead livestock in the city.

The bottom line is that neither Walters, nor his source Avery, can be relied on as unquestionable authorities.  The story of Federal looting of tombs probably originated as Confederate propaganda, was picked up by Howard in his report to the Georgia governor, and like many a Confederate tall tale, had a life of its own in pro-South literature.  And DiLorenzo is simply the latest retailer of Old South trash-talk.

To cite another example:  DiLorenzo claims that Sherman was warned during the Battle of Atlanta that too many women and children were being killed, but did nothing to stop it:

“The city was bombed day and night until barely a house or building remained untouched.  When Sherman’s chief engineer, O. M. Poe, voiced his dismay at seeing so many corpses of women and young children in the streets of Atlanta, Sherman coldly told him that such scenes were a ‘beautiful sight’ because they would bring war to a quicker end.”[54]

Here we have DiLorenzo claiming that Sherman was an inhumane, irresponsible killer, somewhat like Tom Cruise’s character David Shawn in Taps (1981), in which the cadet opened fire in a dormitory bunker upon the National Guard below.  His last words were, “It’s beautiful, man!  Beautiful!”  Or, it might be that DiLorenzo is trying to compare Sherman to Robert Duvall’s character Colonel Bill Kilgore, in Apocalypse Now (1979).  This character is famous for his line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

To establish his claim about what Sherman said, DiLorenzo cites Michael Fellman, a Canadian author much upset with Sherman for preferring military rule over the South to “democratic restoration.”[55]  Nevertheless, Fellman’s naiveté about war would be tantamount to an army’s giving up everything it had fought for, which would be an absurd result.  The North, in fact, would soon learn this during the Reconstruction period when it realized that the “democratic” South was just as rebellious and racist as it had been before the war, and was by no means ready to treat blacks as human beings.  At least with military occupation, the Old South had to respect the freed slaves’ most basic rights to life, liberty, and property.  Without it, the former slaves had little if any protection, and Sherman understood the situation all too well to trust to Old South democracy.[56]

But does Fellman really provide any basis for DiLorenzo’s claim about Sherman saying anything “coldly”?  Or does he provide any basis for DiLorenzo’s claim that Sherman described the killing of women and children as a “beautiful sight”?  Here is what Fellman actually says:

“O. M. Poe, Sherman’s bright young chief engineer, was deeply troubled by the fact that women and children had been killed during the shelling of Atlanta while rebel soldiers had been safely stored away….‘You know I was opposed to shelling the place, for it did no good at all, and only brought harm to unoffending people,’ Poe wrote his wife shortly after Atlanta fell….In Poe’s analysis, the shelling of civilians, which George Thomas and Sherman had looked upon as a beautiful sight, had been pointless militarily.”[57]

George Thomas had supposedly said to General Sherman that Union shells ‘burst beautifully on Atlanta.”[58]  Thus, Fellman paints a picture of Thomas and Sherman watching the shelling of Atlanta, with Thomas saying it was a beautiful sight.  Supposedly, Sherman agreed with this assessment, or at least that is what Fellman implies.

Note, however, that these were only Thomas’s words, not Sherman’s, and Fellman is merely speculating about whether Sherman agreed with him.  Moreover, even if Sherman agreed with Thomas about the shelling being a beautiful sight, it would have been the shelling of Atlanta, not the deaths of women and children, that would have occasioned such a description.  Fellman is gratuitous in claiming that Sherman thought the shelling of civilians was a beautiful sight.

In fact, Sherman defended the shelling of Atlanta by pointing out that it was the Confederates who turned the city into a fortress.  Fellman notes this defense, but is unwilling to allow context to modify his interpretations of war, so he quickly moves on, as if Confederate behavior had no significance in determining Sherman’s battle tactics.[59]

Orlando Poe was in charge of the burning of Atlanta, and was a close colleague of Sherman, but was he correct about the civilian casualties, including women and children?  According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the number of civilian deaths from the shelling was quite small:

“Civilian casualties during the five-week bombardment were remarkably low; the townspeople who decided to remain in the city found shelter in basements or ‘bombproof’ dugouts.  During Sherman’s barrage and semi-siege of Atlanta . . . about twenty civilians were killed.”[60]

Twenty!  So where are all those bodies Poe was supposed to have seen?  Is this another example of a forged quotation of a union officer?  Is Poe being made to say something he did not really say?  In the quotation provided by Fellman, Poe is made to say that the shelling “did no good at all, and only brought harm to unoffending people.”[61]  It is hard to believe a Union man, much less a close colleague of Sherman, would have referred to southerners as “unoffending”!  There is just something about these alleged words of Poe that sets off my “Dan Rather” alarm.  In light of the low number of casualties during the bombing of the city, Poe’s comments seem fabricated.

In fact, I tried to find Orlando M. Poe’s papers (cited by Fellman) but could not find them anywhere.  A search of my local university library turned up nothing.  A search of the Library of Congress website turned up nothing except some graphic images (maps, etc.).  A Google search likewise turned up nothing.  Is it possible that these papers were only published as part of an article in a history magazine or a journal?  Who knows?  In the meantime, it is a good idea to remain skeptical of such convenient but unverifiable quotations provided by neo-confederates.

A comparison of the statements of DiLorenzo and Fellman shows that the two are not the same, and that the attempt by DiLorenzo to put words into Sherman’s mouth falls short of the historical record.  It appears to be a prevarication on the part of DiLorenzo, for Fellman says nothing about Sherman “coldly” telling anyone anything, much less saying that the deaths of women and children were a “beautiful sight.”  Sherman is merely included by inference in George Thomas’s description of the shelling of “civilians” in Atlanta.  Sherman himself did not say this, nor does Fellman provide any evidence that he did.  One can only conclude that DiLorenzo is more interested in polemics than in sound scholarship.

We have mentioned the question of context in the Civil War.  The Union army’s hostility to the south grew at Milledgeville, where the troops saw some of the federal soldiers who had escaped from the notorious Andersonville prison camp.  Civil War books usually have pictures of these former prisoners, and they speak nearly as loudly as pictures of skeletal Jews at Nazi concentration camps.  It is easy to understand the growing anger of the Union troops, and it is not surprising that they burned the houses or barns of many a recalcitrant southerner.  In addition, Sherman learned to play hardball when confronted with southern war tactics.  For instance, when Confederate forces threatened to place mine-fields in front of the Union army, Sherman ordered Confederate prisoners to march up front and dig up the mines.  Presumably the practice ended.

As far as crimes of violence, these were rare.  “There were,” says Charles Flood, “exceedingly few cases of rape, murder, or beating of civilians.”[62]  During the march, Union soldiers were being killed by Confederate snipers, and a Union major said that a desire to punish southerners “settled down over the army. . . . It is a question of life and death for us, and the considerations of mercy and humanity must bow before the inexorable demands of self preservation.”[63]

Union anger grew even more in South Carolina, the State that had started the insurrection leading to the Civil War, and the burning and destruction became greater than in Georgia.  In an attempt at area denial Confederates set fire to some buildings in Columbia, and by the evening sparks were flying all over the place, carried by the wind.  Despite attempts by Sherman to put out the fire, drunken Union soldiers, along with blacks, set more blazes.  Forty Union soldiers were executed for resisting arrest!  So much for the claim that Sherman did not care about public relations.  In fact, Sherman denied that he had ordered the burning of Columbia, though he did not shed any tears over its destruction.[64]

While it is natural for Old South apologists and neo-confederates to say nasty things about Sherman, it is not based on anything other than the bitterness of war-defeat.  James McPherson says:

“Despite Sherman’s reputation in the South as a ferocious ogre of vengeance and spoliation, he was actually sparing of the lives of his own soldiers, or the enemy’s soldiers, and of civilians.  He preferred to accomplish his strategic goals by maneuver rather than by all-out combat.  After the battle of Shiloh in 1862 he wrote to his wife: ‘The scenes on this field would have cured anybody of war.  Mangled bodies, dead, dying, in every conceivable shape, without heads [or] legs.’”[65]

McPherson describes Sherman’s success in the field as due to mobility and surprise.  Sherman’s tactics were later studied by WWI veteran and historian Liddell Hart, who described them as a “strategy of the indirect approach.”  The British Mechanized Force of 1927 and later German Panzer strategy (the blitzkrieg) were indirectly based on Sherman’s approach to warfare.[66]

Sherman’s capture of Atlanta also helped Abraham Lincoln to regain the presidency.  His chief opponent, General McClellan, would surely have pulled the Union troops home, and sought peace terms with the South.  The preservation of the status quo, of course, would have been exactly what the South had wanted from the beginning, and it would have meant all the Union sacrifices had been for nothing.  The South had pursued the strategy of trying to tire the North out, and once that was done, and the war was over, the South would have been an independent nation.  The reelection of Lincoln, however, meant that the war would go on, something the South could ill afford, both economically and in terms of human resources.

In addition to helping with the reelection of Lincoln, Sherman’s march prevented Joe Johnston’s Confederates from joining Lee’s forces in Virginia, which would have made Grant’s push to Appomattox much more difficult both in terms of time and casualties.  Sherman’s ability to march through Georgia with little serious opposition also demoralized the South.  McPherson says, :  “Without any large battles, they devastated Confederate resources and undermined the will of the Southern people to continue fighting.”[67]

McPherson says that outside of neo-confederate circles, Sherman’s reputation has been transformed in recent years.  Mark Grimsley, for instance, speaks of the actions of Sherman and his officers as “seldom the wanton, wholesale fury of legend” but instead struck a “balance between severity and restraint.”[68]

In Grimsley’s view, Sherman did not practice “total war” but rather “hard war,” which in our opinion is just another name for strategic warfare.  Sherman’s march after Atlanta to Savannah was carried out with a minimum of casualties on both sides, and his harsher war strategy in South Carolina helped to shorten the war.  This shows that Sherman was really, in effect, a humanitarian, not an Ivan the Terrible or Genghis Khan, as some benighted southerners still call him today.  As Grimsley points out, the main purpose of hard war is psychological, to get the enemy to stop fighting:  “[The operations of hard war] had one common element: the erosion of the enemy’s will to resist by deliberately or concomitantly subjecting the civilian population to the pressures of war.”[69]

I am not going to defend everything that Sherman (or Grant or Lincoln) did in the pursuit of victory in the Civil War.  That would be like getting stuck to Joel Chandler Harris’s famous Tar Baby — where you would have no way to extricate yourself from such an endless debate.  In judging the behavior of great men of the past, one must judge their principles and how well their actions were in accordance with these, while acknowledging that such men sometimes fell short of their principles.  Purity of will or purity of behavior are seldom the only criteria in making historical judgments.  One must also look to consequences.  Despite individual failings, the strategy of Sherman in the South, along with Lincoln’s political leadership in the North, and Grant’s bulldozing attacks on Lee’s army in Virginia, were the right combination for the time.  Sherman can join with Lincoln and Grant as the greatest of Americans, for he, along with they, restored the Union and helped preserve America’s legacy of freedom.


[1] Abraham Lincoln, “The Question of Slavery Extension, speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854; cf., R. N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, 1967, p. 70; emphasis added.

[2] Lincoln, “The Question of Slavery Extension, speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854; cf., R. N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, 1967, pp. 72-73.

[3] J. M. McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, 2007.

[4] For a discussion, see R. B. Toplin ed., Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond, 1996.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861; cf., R. N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, 1967, p. 175.

[6] K. R. Gutzman, “From Interposition to Nullification,” etc., Essays In History, 1994, Vol, 36, at:

See also James Madison’s 1831 letter to Nicholas P. Trist, at:

[9] Madison, Advice to My Country, 1836.

[10] Madison, Federalist Papers, No. 39.

[11] Madison, Federalist Papers, 44.

[12] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chap. 8:97.

[13] Locke, 8:99.

[14] Madison, Second Treatise, 8:98.

[15] Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, No. 33.

[16] Locke, 19:225.

[17] Jefferson Davis, quotation from W. J. Cooper’s, Jefferson Davis: the Essential Writings, 2003, p. 199; emphasis added.

[18] Cooper, p. 346.

[19] Alexander Stephens, A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Vol. 1, p. 362.

[20] Stephens, 1:425.

[21] R. L. Dabney, Discussions, Vol. 4, pp. 101; 171; emphasis added.

[22] Dabney, p. 105.

[23] Dabney, A Defense of Virginia and the South, 1867, p. 242.

[24] Stephens, quoted in Harry Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom, 2000, pp. 214, 215.

[25] Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Nature of the American System, 1965, p. 35.

[26] Stephens, Constitutional View, Vol. 1, p. 19.

[27] Stephens, 1:29.

[28] Rushdoony, p. 36.

[29] Rushdoony, p. 38.

[30] Rushdoony, p. 39.

[31] Rushdoony, p. 41.

[32] Rushdoony, p. 43.

[33] Rushdoony, p. 44.

[34] Don Fehrenbacher, Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays, 1987, p. 200.

[35] Thomas DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln, 2003, p. 2.

[36] James and Walter Kennedy, The South Was Right, 1991.

[37] James and Walter Kennedy, p. 50.

[38] Ralph Semmes, Memoirs of Service During the War Between the States, 1869, p. 59.

[39] Albert Taylor Bledsoe, The Southern Review, 1869, p. 215.

[40] Frank Heath Alfriend, Life of Jefferson Davis, 1868, p. 201.

[41] Lincoln, “‘Secession’ or ‘Rebellion,’” Message to Special Session of Congress, 1861; cf., pp. R. N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, 1967, pp. 180, 181.

[42] Lincoln, Collected Works of Lincoln, 6:264-65.

[43] For further discussion, see Daniel Farber’s Lincoln’s Constitution, 2003; cf., also, Mark Neely’s The Fate of Liberty, 1991.

[44] James McPherson, ed., American Heritage New History of The Civil War, 1960, 1996, p. 495.

[45] Quotation from Charles B. Flood’s, Grant and Sherman: The Friendship that Won the Civil War, 2005, 237.

[46] DiLorenzo, p. 179.

[47] DiLorenzo, p. 186.

[48] John B. Walters, Merchant of Terror: General Sherman and Total War, 1973, pp. 151-52.

[49] Burke Davis, Sherman’s March, 1980, p. 13.

[50] Thomas Pressly, Americans Interpret Their Civil War, 1962, p. 281.

[51] Isaac W. Avery, The History of the State of Georgia from 1850 to 1881, Embracing Three Epochs, etc., 1881, p. 307. 

[52] Walters, p. 151.

[53] Davis, p. 13.

[54] DiLorenzo, p. 186.

[55] Michael Fellman, Citizen Sherman, A Life of William Tecumseh Sherman, 1995, p. 185.

[56] For the difficulties faced by blacks in the post-war South, see Kenneth M. Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1965, and David W. Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, 2001.

[57] Fellman, p. 184.

[58] Fellman, p. 177.

[59] Fellman, p. 183.

[61] Fellman, p. 184; emphasis added.

[62] Charles Flood, Grant and Sherman, 2006, p. 271.

[63] Flood, p. 273.

[64] Flood, p. 289.

[65] James McPherson, This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War, 2007, p. 116.

[66] McPherson, p. 117.

[67] McPherson, p. 119.

[68] Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War, 1995; also, McPherson, p. 123.

[69] Grimsley, p. 5.