Today is the day that Lincoln died. It was on April 14, 1865—another Good Friday to be precise—that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth President, was murdered in cold blood.Young Mary Brennan, an Irish immigrant only recently arrived to our shores, remembered well that dreadful day for the rest of her life.A devout Catholic, she, like many a Protestant of the day, regarded Good Friday, the day Christ died, as a solemn holy day and one not to be commemorated by going out the theater.“He never would have died,” she would often say, ”had he not gone to see a play on Good Friday.”Great grandmother was a font of such sayings and superstitions, she was, and her many descendants can still recite one or another of her sayings at will.
But Abraham Lincoln, never a “technical Christian,” had ample reason to celebrate that Friday, April 14 so many years ago.Robert E. Lee and his army had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant scarcely a week before and that very morning the general was delivering his report to the President and Cabinet in person.For the first time in four years, Lincoln, who frequently suffered from “melancholy” seemed uncommonly hopeful, now that the end of the Rebellion was in sight.Lincoln could at last look ahead to the future, to peace and to the task of rebuilding a nation torn apart by a fratricidal conflict.
As his Cabinet chatted before the official beginning of the meeting, Lincoln also told them that Friday about the “usual dream” he had had only the night before.He explained that before every major event of the war he had dreamed the same dream: of a ship sailing towards a distant shore.It always portended important war news.Lincoln, raised on presentments, omens and prophetic dreams, believed that this latest portent was a sign of something momentous about to happen.
Cabinet met, Lincoln was expecting news from Sherman in North Carolina, where “Uncle Billy” had run to ground the once proud Confederate Army of Tennessee, now commanded by “Uncle Joe” Johnston.Johnston’s force was but a hollow shell of what it had once been, but the proud Rebels, barefoot and in rags, could still fight like wildcats—albeit cornered wildcats.Lincoln hoped to hear that Johnston too had surrendered, marking the end of organized resistance.Surely the “usual dream” portended this, thought Lincoln.
Later that day, as Lincoln and his wife readied for the theater, the President was in an uncommonly optimistic mood, not realizing the prophetic dream portended not good news on Good Friday, but ill.For even as they dressed for the night, across town a band of conspirators were also preparing for the night—but their performance would end in death and mayhem.
Much has been written about that day and about the conspirators led by John Wilkes Booth; yet, to this day there is no certainty as to how deeply the Booth Conspiracy to do away with Lincoln and his Cabinet ran.To be sure, many were arrested and most of the leading conspirators executed.But Mary Lincoln, for one, had her suspicions that there were others involved who got away—including some high placed in the Lincoln administration.Mrs. Grant too, had had a terrifying incident that day that lead her to believe not all the culprits had been caught.But historians hate loose ends and the strands of evidence pointing to a broader conspiracy lie moldering in archives and museums little looked at or considered. Still, the truth may still be out there.
What is proven about the events of Good Friday, April 14, is tragic enough, however.Just as Lincoln’s ship of state was about to reach that far and distant shore of peace, the captain—Lincoln—was cut down.How different our history would have been had Lincoln survived to oversee the peace as he had the war!We can be sure that the “Better Angels of our Nature” would have thrived under his leadership and the postwar darkness and violence, and the enduring aftermath of meanness and divisiveness that still dogs our nation to this day would have been greatly diminished, if not prevented entirely.
Greatness is not to be measured in the number of bombs one drops or the number of innocents one kills; Lincoln did not rejoice in war and wished it brought to a speedy end.No, what was great about Lincoln and Lincoln’s America was its struggle for equality, for social justice, and for the betterment of the average worker, not some aristocratic elite. The President who created land-grant universities to provide free college education, who redistributed millions of acres of land to any who would settle and till it, who fought and died for racial equality, and who sought to unite the nation from seas to sea with modern transportation: these and other social and economic programs were what truly made Lincoln great—not his leadership of a war that was forced on him by the Cotton Slaveocracy and other elites who benefitted from human bondage.In the end, Lincoln paid for his achievements in human progress with his life.As we commemorate Good Friday this April 14, this too should be borne in mind.
One might think that after one has written over 100,000 words on a subject–in this case, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife–one has said all there is to say on a subject. But that is not the case; there are any number of miscellaneous sources, topics or quotes which simply don’t fit into the book; similarly, for every question which one answers about this enigmatic American author, other questions arise as a result of new research or discoveries.
Here below, for example, is a classic bit of Bierce: Ambrose Bierce declaiming against a famous Civil War regiment whose fame Bierce felt was less than deserved. In the early days of the war, when Washington was virtually surrounded by Secessionists, the arrival of the 7th NY Militia was eagerly anticipated and they were widely viewed as the saviors of the Nation’s Capitol.
Bierce’s view of the regiment and its accomplishments may have been a bit jaundiced: for one thing the 7th was known as the “Silk Stocking” Regiment, because its membership included many of New York City’s social elite. Their service record mainly consisted of suppressing demonstrations and strikes by workers and organized labor–often mislabeled as “riots.” Bierce, who in later life was at pains to distance himself from his humble origins, may have harbored a bit of a grudge against the New York patricians. Also, Bierce was a member of the “Bloody Ninth”–the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry–who amply earned their nickname in the fierce battles of the western theater, which was in sharp contrast to the “Bloody Seventh” which Bierce emphasizes did most of its fighting in the hotels and taverns of Washington DC and precious little in the field. Their unwillingness to volunteer for the Spanish American War apparently summoned up old memories of their rather timid Civil War record in Bierce, whose prose rose to the occasion. Whatever one’s view of their war record, those who appreciate Bierce’s acid wit will certainly relish this prime example of his sarcasm:
Ambrose Bierce on the 7th NY
No matter “where rolls the Oregon,” the famous Seventh Regiment of New York is indubitably safe. And despite the lapse of time and mutations in its personnel, it is the same old Seventh Regiment of the Civil War period. True, it did not then unanimously resolve to merit the Humane Society’s great leather medal for saving life, as virtually it has now done; but as a matter of fact it then did save many lives, and all were lives of its own members. This noble benefaction it accomplished by governing its own temper—and he that subdueth his spirit is greater, and as a rule safer, than he that taketh a city. If the Seventh of that far day had suffered itself to fall into anger and uncharitableness offended Nature, who
“hides hr lashIn the purple-black of a dyed mustache.”
Might have sentenced that impetuous organization to be shot at and, if overtaken, hit. As it was, the Bloody Seventh advanced upon Washington, then held by a superior force of the regular army, captured and occupied some of the strongest hotels in the place, and after several weeks of brilliant and startling dress parades returned as grizzled veterans in New York without the loss of a man.The regiment did not re-enlist, but in Central Park a costly monument to its valor,“Like a tall bully, lifts its head and lies”; for it is inscribed with names of “members of the Seventh” who fell in battle. There is nothing to show that, righteously disgusted with their own regiment’s policy of peace on earth and good will to men, they had left it, and that they fell as members of less pacific organizations. It is not so very bad to be “dead upon the field of honor” if one have the good luck to be counted twice—a double patriot with twin renowns.
In unanimously voting to remain at home while Spain is abroad, and thereby drawing upon themselves a hot fire of patriotic reprobation, the star-spangled Quakers of the Seventh are especially blamable, for they compel many a war-willing patriot to remain at home also in order to deliver the fire. As members of the firing squad some of us are withholding from the service of our country military abilities of the highest order.
Today’s article was originally published in our sister blog about unexplained phenomena of the South, Dixie Spirits, itself based on my book by the same name. In that tome we investigated the Custis-Lee Mansion, also known as Arlington House, which still stands near Alexandria, Virginia, but we did not explore the many other Civil War related ghosts and haunts of Alexandria proper. Today let’s take a quick look at one well known Civil War haunted down in the city proper.
They say the first casualty of war is the truth. That may well be true, but in the early days of the war, neither side was much concerned with truth, but more with justifying their own actions, as well as portraying the opposite side as the aggressor. Regardless, by the time that Lincoln was inaugurated, the time for rational discussion was already over and the Secessionists moved quickly to surround Washington, DC in the weeks following his installation as President. Lincoln could call for 75,000 troops—but actually organizing, equipping and fielding them to defend the capitol was quite another thing.
Before the war, volunteer militia units were quite the rage in the US. In the antebellum era it was fun to be a soldier and many volunteer groups donned colorful costumes, learned to drill like real soldiers and above all, attract the ladies with their displays of martial virtue. Some militia groups developed a reputation for their skill at close order drill and toured the country performing for the public, especially those units who fashioned themselves as zouaves. The original zouaves had been recruited by the French in Algeria and wore colorful oriental style uniforms, but over the years their ethnic makeup was of less importance than their reputation for élan and aggressiveness.
One of the more famous such show units was Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth’s Cadet Zouaves, originally based out of Chicago. Although he was never able to get into West Point, Ellsworth had studied military tactics with a passion and his fencing instructor in Chicago had been an actual French zouave. Ellsworth was a close personal friend of Lincoln’s and when the call went out for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, Ellsworth wasted no time forming a regiment.
Ellsworth went to New York City, where he sent out a call for the bravest and the boldest, seeking out firemen in particular. Within an amazingly brief time received more than double the number of volunteers than he needed. Although rough around the edges and short on discipline, the 11th NY “Fire” Zouaves were shipped south in short order.
When, on May 23, Virginia officially seceded from the Union, Ellsworth’s regiment was ordered across the Potomac to secure Alexandria and Arlington Heights on the Virginia side of the river.
While securing the city, Ellsworth noticed that a Rebel flag was still flying over the Marshall House, a local inn. The flag had been something of a sore point for weeks, being visible from across the river and symbol of Lincoln’s inability to preserve the Union even within the shadow of the capital.
Not willing to allow this act of defiance to go unanswered, Ellsworth personally climbed up to the top of the Marshall House and tore down the offending flag from the large flagpole on the roof. As he was descending the stairs, however, the hotel owner, one James Jackson, suddenly appeared without warning and shot and killed Ellsworth with a shotgun at close quarters, for which action he was immediately rewarded with his own death at the hands of Ellsworth’s men. It was still early in the war and the death of a single officer, such as Ellsworth, was still notable news in the North. Ellsworth being a close associate of Lincoln amplified the importance of his death. Soon Ellsworth was hailed as a martyr—the first of many—to the cause of preserving the Union.
In the ensuing months and years following his death, rumors began to circulate that, although dead, Colonel Ellsworth was not really gone from the Marshall House. Some claimed to see him removing the Rebel flag from the rooftop of the hotel, others swore they saw his shade on its stairs, where he was murdered. It was also said that the ghost of the fire-breathing Secesh James Jackson also haunted the same stairwell in the old inn. The Marshall House and its ghosts stood on the same spot until the 1950’s, when it was torn down as part of a modernization trend in the city. Normally, that would be the end of the story, but apparently it is not.
Today the Monaco Hotel, a “boutique hotel,” occupies the same space where the old inn stood. It has all the amenities one expects in a modern hotel, plus one more: it is haunted.
There are those who claim that it is the restless shades of the Civil War who still roam the new hotel. Sometimes nothing is actually seen, but people claim to hear the sound of gunshots out in the hallways, as if the Rebel hotel owner and the zouaves who killed him are still having it out in the new building. On one occasion recently, a couple was riding the elevator when it unexpectedly opened at the fourth floor; no guests were there but they saw a glowing light appear on the wall opposite, then disappear. Later, the visitors found they were not alone in having uncanny experiences there.
According to some, it is the Monaco’s sixth floor that is most haunted, which could be a reflection of Ellsworth’s flag taking venture, although the reports are vague on that score. Regardless, the hotel embraces the site’s haunted heritage and in the Fall offers a “Ghosts of Alexandria Family Package” which includes discounted room rate, a stay on the “haunted sixth” plus tickets for the local ghost tour of the town. Not a bad deal and maybe Colonel Ellsworth will put in a personal appearance, but don’t hold your breath.
As we have seen previously, beginning with the very foundation of the nation, there have been successive movements to split apart the Union, none of which had anything to do with slavery per se. In this installment we shall look at one episode which had a direct bearing on the 1860 Secession Crisis, yet which did not directly impinge on the issue of slavery versus abolition. This was the Nullification Crisis.
After the War of 1812, the country entered a period of renewed national unity, which some historians have labeled as an age of Nationalism. Although the United States had done poorly in the war, Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory at New Orleans gave the country the perception that we had actually won it. To foster American industry, Congress had instituted tariffs to prevent foreign, mainly English, imports. The Tariff of 1828 was particularly stiff in restricting imports, earning it the sobriquet, “The Tariff of Abominations.” Many in the South opposed the tariff, but so did many New England merchants. In South Carolina in particular, opposition to this tariff was very strong. When Andrew Jackson ran for President in 1828, many in South Carolina and elsewhere hoped that Jackson would repeal the hated import duties.
When, after taking office, Jackson did not take immediate action to repeal the tariff, the radicals in South Carolina became even more militant in their opposition. Vice President John C. Calhoun resigned his office to run for the Senate, where he felt he could more effectively oppose the tariff. President Jackson did in fact pass a reduced tariff in 1832, which had the support of New England and much of the South, but it was not enough for either John C. Calhoun or the radicals in South Carolina.
Here’s where the situation grew from a simple political dispute into a potential threat to the Union. John C. Calhoun proposed the Theory of Nullification: that the individual states had the right to overrule any Federal law which that state considered unconstitutional. In essence, if accepted, nullification meant that no law passed by Congress would be able to be enforced, returning the country to the same chaos which had caused the downfall of the Confederation government. The separate and individual states were to be the ultimate arbiters of what was and was not constitutional, not the Supreme Court. Nullification flew in the face of both the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, as well as Article III, which gave the Federal judiciary the right to rule on constitutionality.
Andrew Jackson, it should be borne in mind, was a slave holder and was not opposed to reducing tariffs to the benefit of the planters and shipping merchants; but he was also a nationalist and felt a sense of betrayal by the actions of his former vice president, who was the main proponent of what was tantamount to an act of rebellion. Previously, as the controversy was still brewing, at a Democratic Party celebration in honor of Jefferson’s birthday, Jackson had famously proclaimed, “Our Federal Union: It must be preserved.”
South Carolina passed the Ordinance of Nullification in November, 1832, unilaterally repealing the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 and the state began to make military preparations to resist the Federal government. In response, in December of 1832, President Jackson issued the “Proclamation to South Carolina” as his response to the Ordinance of Nullification, which categorically refuted Carolina’s claims.
Andrew Jackson was in a high rage at both Calhoun and the radicals in South Carolina; Congress passed the Force Bill, which authorized the President to use military force against South Carolina to compel it to submit to Federal authority. Jackson threatened to personally lead an army into the state to enforce his will and hang all the state legislators who had passed the rebellious acts. But at the same time, Congress also passed the Tariff of 1833, which substantially reduced the import duties to a level which even the radicals in South Carolina could live with.
In the end a military solution was averted and South Carolina backed down, although they continued to argue their right to nullify Federal laws. In retrospect, the Nullification Crisis was very similar to the situation which existed during the Secession Crisis of late 1860 and early 1861; but there were important differences. As in 1860, it was South Carolina that was the most militant and aggressive in seeking to undermine Federal authority; but unlike 1860, none of the other Southern states sided with Carolina in the crisis, even though there were many in the South who disliked the high tariffs.
Moreover, it was not strictly a North versus South issue, as there were many in New England who were equally unhappy about the protectionist tariffs. On another point, although South Carolina talked of defying the Federal government to enforce its “rights” in truth they were not militarily prepared to do so. In 1860, contrary to all their talk about being the offended party and of Lincoln’s aggression, South Carolina had in fact been secretly stockpiling arms and ammunition, including heavy artillery, for a decade or more.
The Nullification Crisis was not directly about slavery; it was about free trade versus protectionism. But in pursing their militant theories of states rights, Calhoun and other Carolinians of his ilk were setting the groundwork for the later Secession Crisis. Slavery was not the issue at stake in this fight, although it was lurking in the background, to be sure. The Age of Jackson was considered a period where Nationalism was triumphant over sectionalism; indeed, even the though Jackson was from Tennessee, at this time Tennessee was still considered The West and not The South, a perception which would change after he left office.
Following the Jacksonian era, the country would increasingly divide itself over the issue of slave versus free. But the notion that one or more states had the right to go their own way was not fundamentally tied to the issue of slavery; it was very much tied to whose economic interests were threatened at any given time. Or, to quote James Carville: “It’s the Economy Stupid.”
In 1860, despite what many Secessionists tried to claim in their ordinances of Secession, and which modern writers have taken out of context, Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery, nor did he run on that issue in the presidential election. Nor could Lincoln have abolished slavery even if he had wanted to on taking office in 1861; President Lincoln was simply too good a lawyer to think so. Slavery was built into the Constitution and it would take Constitutional amendments to abolish it—which only came about because of the hubris of the Southern States and the “Fire-Breathing” Secessionists in South Carolina and elsewhere, who goaded the South into rebellion and war.
Ever since a deranged racial terrorist burst into a Black church in Charleston and murdered people, politicos of all stripes have been on a Jihad against symbols of the Civil War throughout the South and elsewhere. Self-anointed vigilantes have gone on private and pubic property vandalizing monuments even remotely connected with the Civil War, especially anything to do Confederate veterans. This vigilante mentality has now spread to other icons of American History unrelated to the Confederacy and now virtually no public monument or private memorial is safe from vandals.
In the wake of the Charleston murders, noted identity-politics journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published an op-ed article in Atlantic Magazine on why the Civil War was all about slavery and nothing else. While Mr. Coates was, as usual, eloquent in his argument and cited numerous period quotes to buttress his argument, it set off debates about this much disputed topic once again.
As a disclaimer, let me reiterate that the Charleston massacre was an abominable act; that Governor Nikki Haley was entirely correct in removing the Confederate battle flag from state grounds, that slavery was a Bad Thing—and still is—and that racism in all its forms is not just morally wrong, but a spiritual illness that should be actively combated in society. Nor, for that matter, do I think that Secession was either a necessary or good thing in 1860, and that fringe groups such as neo-Secessionists are a dangerous and delusional fringe group that should be taken very seriously.
However, a historian’s first responsibility is to the truth. Part of that responsibility consists, not of simply regurgitating quotes out of context to prove one’s a priori assumptions. Still less is it to simply parrot the assumptions of the current prevailing popular dogma; rather, one should to go beyond what was said at the time and seek to understand the underlying factors that led people to act in certain ways, for good or ill.
The road to Secession that culminated in the Civil War was a long one which stretches back to the earliest days of the Republic and that, yes, slavery was a very important factor in the long process that led to the outbreak of Civil War. But that is a far cry from saying that slavery, in and of itself, caused the Civil War.
It would take a very large volume to detail all the factors that led to the Secession Crisis of 1860 and certainly the debate over slavery would play a very large part of that book. But other countries outlawed slavery and did not go to war over it—notably Great Britain—although during our war, the British establishment was quite active in aiding and abetting the slave states in their rebellion. In fact, far more Black slaves were transported to the Caribbean and South America than to the US, which fact is conveniently overlooked by most historians. So Great Britain’s investment in slavery in the Caribbean was quite substantial–yet no rebellion or civil war when it was finally abolished.
Conversely, when the colony of Georgia was first founded in the early 1700’s, slavery was banned as its founders did want the colonists to be dependent on an economy based on human bondage. The truth about slavery was far more complex than most Americans realize and, unfortunately, nostrums and stereotypes abound by people of all castes and classes. Be that as it may, let me limit this present essay to analyzing just one aspect of this Gordion’s Knot of causality that lead to the Civil War and try to show why slavery was not THE cause of war, despite its large and pernicious role in the crisis.
Let us deal with the North to start with. In 1860, Lincoln did not run on a platform of abolishing slavery; he ran on a plank which would have prohibited the extension of slavery into the territories not yet admitted to the Union—two very different things. Lincoln, although opposed to slavery on moral grounds, was not an Abolitionist, although as a good politician he actively solicited their votes. At best one could label Abraham Lincoln as a “gradualist”—to try to slowly wean the nation away from the “Peculiar Institution” and more or less starve it to death. Even after war broke out, Lincoln only came to emancipation very cautiously: several generals who tried to free slaves prematurely were severely reprimanded by Lincoln early in the war. He stated on several occasions to the effect that if to preserve the Union he would maintain slavery, he would not hesitate to do so. Even after embracing emancipation, Lincoln continued to entertain various schemes to ship freed Negroes back to Africa, rather than allow them to remain as citizens in the US.
In retrospect, even though it seems wrong by modern standards, President Lincoln was entirely correct to go slow regarding emancipation. In truth, had Lincoln asked the North to go to war in April of 1861 to free the slaves, the response among northern whites would been have been an overwhelming NO. Abolitionists, while vocal and politically powerful in many states, were a very small minority in 1860. Preserving the Union; rallying to the flag; fighting Southern rebellion; northern patriotism; these were all important motives to go war for most northerners—and even some southerners.
Although the postwar Lost Cause propaganda glossed over it, the truth is that in many parts of the South there was strong anti-Secessionist sentiment that over the course of the war turned violent. Nor were Southern loyalists at all motivated by sentiments of abolishing slavery; many were virulently racist themselves and detested not only the Southern plantation owners, but their slaves as well.
In the North, moreover, there were pockets of strong sympathy for the Confederate cause: throughout the Ohio Valley there was strong pro-Secessionist sentiment in southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio; similarly in ostensibly Free States along the Mississippi there were pro-Confederate pockets. For that matter, the northeast also had its Rebel sympathizers: the Mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, proposed that New York City secede from the Union and there were Yankee factory owners in New England who were none too happy that the supply of cotton for their textile mills was cut off by the Union blockade.
Although slavery existed from the beginning of the first colonies, the nature of slavery in America evolved over time. In the Jamestown Colony and elsewhere, there co-existed several forms of unfree labor, of which slavery was but one.
Far more numerous in raw numbers were indentured servants; although de facto treated like slaves (or worse) their term of servitude was only for a limited number of years.
In fact the first 33 Blacks to land in Jamestown were not slaves but indentured servants. Nor was slavery exclusively limited to Negroes. During the reign of the usurper Oliver Cromwell in England, the Puritan ‘reign of saints’ carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Ireland; English troops would descend on Irish villages and massacre everyone over the age of 12 and then send the survivors as slaves to the West Indies, which why today one frequently finds Jamaican Americans with names like O’Brian or O’Hara.
Although, like modern Holocaust deniers, you will find English apologists who deny the genocidal policies of Oliver Cromwell and other English leaders, the truth is that whites were often enslaved as well in the early years.
The northern colonies practiced slavery as well as the southern ones at the time of the American Revolution, although by that time Black slavery was already well entrenched in the South. Many of the founding fathers were aware of the incongruity of having slavery while proclaiming freedom; but they were men of the Enlightenment and sincerely believed that in time rationalism and humanism would lead to the end of slavery. Rice and tobacco cultivation at that time made up most of the large plantation agriculture and while they were economically important to the southern states, small farms had far less need of slaves, especially in the more mountainous regions of the South. Cotton was a small part of Southern agriculture, mainly because it was so time consuming to process.
That all changed with the invention of the Cotton Gin. It was this invention by Yankee inventor Eli Whitney that revolutionized the Southern economy in the early nineteenth century. Large plantations, owned by a very small number of landowners, many of them absentee owners, could efficiently raised large crops of cotton, a raw material in high demand in both the northeast and also in England, where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.
These were a far cry from the small “Yeomen Farmers” that Thomas Jefferson had envisioned as the basis for his ideal of democratic agrarian republic. In truth the plantation system was big business, a form of commercialized agriculture—Agribusiness—at its very worst and it contaminated every other institution it touched.
If one so chose, I’m willing to wager one could track the growth of ever more restrictive slave legislation with the growth of the cotton economy in the deep South, as well as the growing ideology of Blacks as an inferior race who needed to be kept in permanent submission. The growth of racist ideology and of racism was a necessary corollary to the rise of King Cotton. The growing numbers of slaves, needed to work what were essentially factory farms, spawned increasing fear of blacks, punctuated by occasional slave revolts. The official outlawing of the transatlantic slave trade did nothing to slow its growth and was more honored in its violation than observance.
By the world view of the Southern plantation owner, Abolitionists rabble rousers were not just a threat to public safety, they were a threat to their very way of life. Destroy slavery and the elite who owned most of the wealth in the South would be impoverished—or so they believed.
A crusading journalist in Great Britain, who wrote for the New York Tribune from 1852 to 1862, understood this very well and gave a name to it: he dubbed it “the Slaveocracy.” It was a small group of very wealthy planters who became fabulously wealthy on the enslavement of Negroes who dominated the politics of the South and even of the Nation as a whole. It was, as the name implies, an oligarchy based on slavery.
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia: “Slaveholders controlled not only the best land and the vast majority of personal property in the state but also the state political system. In 1850 and 1860 more than two-thirds of all state legislators were slaveholders. More striking, almost a third of the state legislators were planters.”
This economic elite controlled the state legislatures, the newspapers and just about everything else in the South; moreover the dominance of the plantation economy in the South also meant that free whites who did not own large plantations were at a severe disadvantage both as farmers and as laborers. It meant that you were either very, very wealthy or very poor, with a small group in the middle dependent on the slave masters. No wonder that in many places like Appalachia hatred of slaves went hand in hand with hatred of their masters.
In 1992, James Carville famously advised up and coming Presidential candidate Bill Clinton that it was “the economy stupid;” In 2008 it was also “the economy stupid” and today it is still the same thing. Similarly, in 1860 it was also the economy, not States’ Rights, tariffs, or at base even slavery in itself, although many at the time believed it was.
White Folks did not going about kidnapping Negroes from Africa just to get their jollies; the slave system was a by-product of the plantation economy, not a cause. In turn, racism was an ideology which grew to justify that vile yet profitable economic system. It was the Slaveocracy’s stranglehold on the economy of the South and the politics of the nation which really precipitated war.
Although from the perspective of Americans of African descent it is understandable that they should be fixated on the most important aspect of their own personal history, if we would really understand what caused nearly three quarters of a million of Americans to die in the Civil War and the event whose after effects still dog us today, we need to look more deeply to this key underlying factor and its lingering after effects on American society.
There is another lesson to be learned here: Oligarchy and Democracy are mutually exclusive political-economic systems. The concentration of wealth into the hands of the few is an immanent threat, not only to Democracy, but to the peace and prosperity of the nation.
Let us hope it does not take another civil war to finally learn that lesson.
Christmas,1865. The fighting was over, the armies disbanded and all over the nation men were returning to hearth and home. When the war began the country was an agrarian republic; by war’s end the nation was an industrial giant beginning to flex its might, bound together from coast to coast by a band of steel rails. While most still lived on farms at war’s end, changes were already in the air.
Women, bereft of their husbands, brothers and fathers had become use to fending for themselves; now their men-folk were back by their sides and all hoped things would return to normal. While no one realized it yet, society had been fundamentally altered by the war.
Soldiers returned home to warm welcomes from family and friends. Those who were maimed—those who won their ‘red badge’—were celebrated as heroes. But many who came home whole had wounds as well, invisible wounds. Many wives welcomed their husbands back to their side, only find themselves sleeping next to a stranger. Today we have a name for it—PTSD—but back then it was just attributed to “the war” and men and women simply made do and got on with their lives.
Winslow Homer, whose evocative art captured camp life during the war, captured something of this new domestic reality in his artwork.
Still, all told, Christmas of 1865 in the North was indeed a joyous time: the nation was reunited and at peace. Moreover, only a week before Christmas Secretary State Seward announced with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, officially doing away with slavery. On December 18, the words of the new amendment at last became the law of the land: “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Slavery was at last abolished; the Union victory was complete.
A terrible winter storm struck the east coast just before Christmas that claimed the lives of many aboard ships at sea, but Christmas Day itself dawned bright and clear in New York City, although the rain melted the snow and ice of the previous days, spoiling the usual skating parties in Central Park.
Although the Christmas cover of Harper’s had a religious theme for a change, Thomas Nast still weighed in with his usual centerfold celebrating both Christmas and the Union victory. Although most of the tableau celebrates the new peace, down at the bottom General Grant stands center stage with the heads of Jefferson Davis, General Lee and other Rebel leaders at his feet. The caption in part reads: “For the heroic dead, the flower of our youth which the fierce war withered, there will be forever renewed tenderness of private remembrance and of public respect with every Christmas season. For most Americans in the North, Christmas was a time of plenty and celebration, food was abundant on every table and scarcely anyone had cause for complaint.
In the South, however, the situation was far different. Peace had come to the land and for the most part the soldiers were home with their loved ones—if they still had homes to live in. But throughout the South, many cities were still in ruins: Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia and Selma; the work of rebuilding and recovery had just begun. Many parts of the countryside, moreover, had also been ravaged by the passage of armies. Far more so than in the North, there were many families where the man of the household would never be returning; food was scarce and many who had known plenty before the war, now faced want and deprivation. Even where there was adequate shelter and food, and loved ones had made it safely home again, the bitter gall of defeat left a pall over the holiday season.
Christmas Eve, December 24, 1865 marked one notable anniversary in the South, however. On that date eight former Confederate soldiers gathered in Pulaski, Tennessee to form a new fraternal organization. As former Rebels they were prohibited by law from working in business, so they decided to while away their idle hours in social merriment, with secret handshakes, signs and other occult activities know only to the members of their circle—or kuklos. Although initially organized more from boredom than animosity, the night-time rides of their Kuklos—their Klu Klux Klan—lubricated by large quantities of liquor, soon turned more sinister and more violent. In many parts of the South, civil government had virtually ceased to exist and the isolated Federal garrisons were resented as an occupying army. Life and property were defended by knife and gun and wartime scores were evened in the same manner. Vendetta and vigilantism soon became the order of the day in many parts of the South.
Added to that was the fact that, in the deep South, the cotton farmers had been forced to sell their last cotton harvest to the Confederate government in return for virtually worthless Confederate paper money. With the collapse of government, many farmers hid their bales of cotton in hopes of somehow getting it to market either in the North or in England, where cotton was going for record prices. Meanwhile, close behind the Union troops had come a small army of Treasury Agents who were paid on commission for every bale of Confederate cotton they seized. Corruption was rife among the Federal agents who pocketed much of the profits for themselves. While Southern planters were primarily interested in their making money back on their valuable cotton, killing a Federal agent or two in the process was more or less a bonus. Peace was restored, but in the South it was a fragile peace where Christmas and goodwill to fellow men was in short supply. The process of healing would a long one. It is still not complete.
Just before Christmas, the editor of Leslie’s Illustrated Weeklyexpressed the sentiment of many in the recently reunited republic when he exclaimed that, “The lands devastated by the tramp of armies, and the homes laid waste by the invader of either side are once more being brought back to the standard they held five years agone….A stranger coming among us would hardly believe, looking at our wealth, prosperity and happiness that but a few months had elapsed since the most terrible war of the last thousand years has just closed; that thousands of miles of territory have been despoiled, and hundreds of thousands of lives sacrificed. And yet in the face of this we have great cause for thankfulness. We are everywhere overburdened with natural wealth. We have national recuperative power beyond telling, and we are, as a people, determined upon the ultimate greatness of the nation, and that is the grand secret of all our success….The camp gives way to the pleasant church and the joys of home, the sword is almost literally beaten into a ploughshare, and the “hardtack” gives place to the thanksgiving turkey and the pumkin pie….Never before, since we have had a record of great nations, has one year made so great a difference in their status of happiness as that of the past twelve months in the welfare, prosperity and cause for thankfulness of this country.”
Christmas in 1865 was a joyous affair, to be sure, but for many it was a bittersweet joy.
Today, we commonly say, “The United States is going to Hell in a handbag” and not, “The United States are going to Hell in handbags” and think nothing of this grammatical absurdity.
It was Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, in summing up his 900 page history of the Late Unpleasantness, who famously observed that after the Civil War, the United States of America–which used to referred to in the plural in both popular writing and official texts–suddenly began to be referred to in the singular. McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom, also noted that after the war Americans now referred to our country as the Nation, no longer as the Union, except when referring to it in a historical sense—as in “Union forces won the war.”
In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln referred to the Union 23 times, but to the Nation not once. Yet, by 1863, in the very, very brief Gettysburg Address, Lincoln refers to the Nation five times and the Union not once. Lincoln is now talking about “a new birth of freedom,”–of ONE NATION–dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, which shall not perish from the earth.[i]
What makes this brief homily of Lincoln’s so timeless is that every phrase is fraught with meaning, every word carries some point to it. It is not just flowery prose. When Lincoln spoke those words, he had a specific political message to convey to the North, as well as the South.
This is why generations of school children (myself included) were required to memorize this text—and if teachers are doing their job these days, still should be. Kindle or Google won’t cut it; it is one of those fundamental texts that needs to be seared into the memory, as a branding iron does to the flesh.
While I sometimes disagree with Professor McPherson on some issues, on this score I believe his argument is cogent and his observation of the is vs are is quite right.
While McPherson’s point was made decades ago, I recently stumbled across a reference to the very same point by Ambrose Bierce, eveyone’s famous curmudgeon, but also a battle-hardened veteran of the Civil War, someone who not only fought but bled for that “new birth of freedom.”
As anyone who has delved into Bierce’s life and career will tell you, one of the major problems with researching Major Bierce is that almost all of his work was originally published in serial form in newspapers and magazines, during a career spanning over forty years.
While researching Bierce’s life and work is now getting better thanks to MessrsJoshi and Schultz and a handful of other scholars, traditionally most people have only accessed the corpus of Bierce’s work via the anthologies published during his lifetime or else through his “Collected Works” which he collated late in life. All the anthologies you may have read of Bierce since then have largely been rehashes of those old tomes. In recent years, however, a few brave souls have gone back into microfilm archives of old newspapers, looking at the original articles and essays. While much in these old journalistic pieces may only be of passing historical interest, here and there one finds occasional nuggets among the dust.
When the Spanish-American War broke out, for example, it stirred the old war dog within Bierce. In between pontificating about current events in his “War Topics” column, Bierce began to ruminate about his own experiences of war. Although the Jingoism promoted by his publisher, William Randolph Hearst, grated against his last nerve, Bierce too soon got caught up in the war fever of the day.
Always the contrarian, one would not suspect from these pieces written close to the turn of the century that once Bierce was a fierce idealist and a recklessly brave soldier—but I’ll leave that for another time. More to the point, in one of his ruminations, the Devil’s Lexicographer Bierce weighed in on the whole “is” vs “are” issue. Since “Almighty God” Bierce is, by far, a better writer than I, it is best to let him make his point in his own words:
“In the light of patriotism’s altar fires, newly kindled and splendoring the Land of the Comparatively Free, I note a revival of that disgusting solecism, “the United States is,” :the United States does” etc. Actually, there are persons—writers, too—who believe that the laws of syntax are affectible by political phenomena, and that the word “States” becomes singular in number if the things that it represents are for some purposes “united.” They would not thing of saying: “The herded cows is grazing,” or “The yoked oxen is tired”—there would be no patriotism in that; and these excellent persons are, before all else, lovers of their country. (The shrillest and most raucous of them—a teacher in the public schools!—is chief proponent of the simple plan of making little children good and loyal citizens by compelling them once a week to perform monkey-tricks before the flag.) Tell them that this is not a political matter, but a grammatical, and they will put you down with “E pluribus unum,” the only Latin that they know. They will affirm (and not care a cent if overheard by the effete dynasties and tottering despotisms of the Old World) that these United States is one nation—one nation, sir, and don’t you forget it! We shall not forget it, nor are we permitted to forget that they themselves are one nuisance; yet Heaven forbid that any of us should say “These united intolerable is in danger of everlasting fire!” God sees them, and that is enough.”[ii]