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.
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.
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]
While Flaggers, neo-Secessionists and other fringe groups continue to justify the Lost Cause, most thoughtful students of the Late Unpleasantness generally agree that preserving the Union was generally a good thing. A modern corollary to this is the dogma that the cause of the War was slavery and slavery alone; all else was just rhetoric or propaganda to justify the unjustifiable. I am simplifying here, but I think most intellectuals and academics would basically subscribe to that premise, albeit with a few ifs, ands and buts. Certainly preservation of slavery was a root cause of the War and among the Slavocracy that dominated the political and social fabric of the South–and much of the Federal government–that was certainly their main reason for Secession; but it was hardly the only cause of the war.
I have long felt that other factors paved the downward road to Secession as well and that in 1861 in both the North and the South there was a broad spectrum of motives for siding with one side or another. Quite a few Federal officers–including Ulysses S. Grant’s family–were slave owners for one thing. Moreover, a number of Confederate officers later claimed that they would not have gone to war solely to defend the Peculiar Institution, while I think it could fairly be argued that very few in the North would have volunteered to go to war had it been presented as a war to abolish slavery in 1861. Lincoln himself was on record on a number of occasions as saying he placed preservation of the Union over the destruction of slavery.
While slavery was an underlying factor, for some groups other motives lay behind their decision to cast their lot with the Confederacy. It is in this context that I reproduce below the declaration of war by the Cherokee Nation, dating to October of 1861. It is true that the Native American tribes in Oklahoma were slave-owners as well, but their economy and well being were hardly dependent on the institution. It is clear from their statement of purposes that their motives were far different than, say, the South Carolina plutocrats or the Cotton aristocracy of the Cotton Belt. Of course, behind all the Cherokee justifications looms the Trail of Tears and an innate distrust of the Federal government and its promises. Some Native Americans did side with the North; many did not; more than a few did not give a rat’s ass about the war. Following is the Cherokee Nations explanation of its “inexorable necessity” for siding with the South:
Declaration by the People of the Cherokee Nation of the Causes Which Have Impelled Them to Unite Their Fortunes With Those of the Confederate States of America.
When circumstances beyond their control compel one people to sever the ties which have long existed between them and another state or confederacy, and to contract new alliances and establish new relations for the security of their rights and liberties, it is fit that they should publicly declare the reasons by which their action is justified.
The Cherokee people had its origin in the South; its institutions are similar to those of the Southern States, and their interests identical with theirs. Long since it accepted the protection of the United States of America, contracted with them treaties of alliance and friendship, and allowed themselves to be to a great extent governed by their laws.
In peace and war they have been faithful to their engagements with the United States. With much of hardship and injustice to complain of, they resorted to no other means than solicitation and argument to obtain redress. Loyal and obedient to the laws and the stipulations of their treaties, they served under the flag of the United States, shared the common dangers, and were entitled to a share in the common glory, to gain which their blood was freely shed on the battlefield.
When the dissensions between the Southern and Northern States culminated in a separation of State after State from the Union they watched the progress of events with anxiety and consternation. While their institutions and the contiguity of their territory to the States of Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri made the cause of the seceding States necessarily their own cause, their treaties had been made with the United States, and they felt the utmost reluctance even in appearance to violate their engagements or set at naught the obligations of good faith.
Conscious that they were a people few in numbers compared with either of the contending parties, and that their country might with no considerable force be easily overrun and devastated and desolation and ruin be the result if they took up arms for either side, their authorities determined that no other course was consistent with the dictates of prudence or could secure the safety of their people and immunity from the horrors of a war waged by an invading enemy than a strict neutrality, and in this decision they were sustained by a majority of the nation.
That policy was accordingly adopted and faithfully adhered to. Early in the month of June of the present year the authorities of the nation declined to enter into negotiations for an alliance with the Confederate States, and protested against the occupation of the Cherokee country by their troops, or any other violation of their neutrality. No act was allowed that could be construed by the United States to be a violation of the faith of treaties.
But Providence rules the destinies of nations, and events, by inexorable necessity, overrule human resolutions. The number of the Confederate States has increased to eleven, and their Government is firmly established and consolidated. Maintaining in the field an army of 200,000 men, the war became for them but a succession of victories. Disclaiming any intention to invade the Northern States, they sought only to repel invaders from their own soil and to secure the right of governing themselves. They claimed only the privilege asserted by the Declaration of American Independence, and on which the right of the Northern States themselves to self-government is founded, of altering their form of government when it became no longer tolerable and establishing new forms for the security of their liberties.
Throughout the Confederate States we saw this great revolution effected without violence or the suspension of the laws or the closing of the courts. The military power was nowhere placed above the civil authorities. None were seized and imprisoned at the mandate of arbitrary power. All division among the people disappeared, and the determination became unanimous that there should never again be any union with the Northern States. Almost as one man all who were able to bear arms rushed to the defense of an invaded country, and nowhere has it been found necessary to compel men to serve or to enlist mercenaries by the offer of extraordinary bounties.
But in the Northern States the Cherokee people saw with alarm a violated Constitution, all civil liberty put in peril, and all the rules of civilized warfare and the dictates of common humanity and decency unhesitatingly disregarded. In States which still adhered to the Union a military despotism has displaced the civil power and the laws became silent amid arms. Free speech and almost free thought became a crime. The right to the writ of habeas corpus, guaranteed by the Constitution, disappeared at the nod of a Secretary of State or a general of the lowest grade. The mandate of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was set at naught by the military power, and this outrage on common right approved by a President sworn to support the Constitution. War on the largest scale was waged, and the immense bodies of troops called into the field in the absence of any law warranting it under the pretense of suppressing unlawful combination of men.
The humanities of war, which even barbarians respect, were no longer thought worthy to be observed. Foreign mercenaries and the scum of cities and the inmates of prisons were enlisted and organized into regiments and brigades and sent into Southern States to aid in subjugating a people struggling for freedom, to burn, to plunder, and to commit the basest of outrages on women; while the heels of armed tyranny trod upon the necks of Maryland and Missouri, and men of the highest character and position were incarcerated upon suspicion and without process of law in jails, in forts, and in prison-ships, and even women were imprisoned by the arbitrary order of a President and Cabinet ministers; while the press ceased to be free, the publication of newspapers was suspended and their issues seized and destroyed; the officers and men taken prisoners in battle were allowed to remain in captivity by the refusal of their Government to consent to an exchange of prisoners; as they had left their dead on more than one field of battle that had witnessed their defeat to be buried and their wounded to be cared for by Southern hands.
Whatever causes the Cherokee people may have had in the past, to complain of some of the Southern States, they cannot but feel that their interests and their destiny are inseparably connected with those of the South. The war now raging is a war of Northern cupidity and fanaticism against the institution of African servitude; against the commercial freedom of the South, and against the political freedom of the States, and its objects are to annihilate the sovereignty of those States and utterly change the nature of the General Government.
The Cherokee people and their neighbors were warned before the war commenced that the first object of the party which now holds the powers of government of the United States would be to annul the institution of slavery in the whole Indian country, and make it what they term free territory and after a time a free State; and they have been also warned by the fate which has befallen those of their race in Kansas, Nebraska, and Oregon that at no distant day they too would be compelled to surrender their country at the demand of Northern rapacity, and be content with an extinct nationality, and with reserves of limited extent for individuals, of which their people would soon be despoiled by speculators, if not plundered unscrupulously by the State.
Urged by these considerations, the Cherokees, long divided in opinion, became unanimous, and like their brethren, the Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, determined, by the undivided voice of a General Convention of all the people, held at Tahlequah, on the 21st day of August, in the present year, to make common cause with the South and share its fortunes.
In now carrying this resolution into effect and consummating a treaty of alliance and friendship with the Confederate States of America the Cherokee people declares that it has been faithful and loyal to is engagements with the United States until, by placing its safety and even its national existence in imminent peril, those States have released them from those engagements.
Menaced by a great danger, they exercise the inalienable right of self-defense, and declare themselves a free people, independent of the Northern States of America, and at war with them by their own act. Obeying the dictates of prudence and providing for the general safety and welfare, confident of the rectitude of their intentions and true to the obligations of duty and honor, they accept the issue thus forced upon them, unite their fortunes now and forever with those of the Confederate States, and take up arms for the common cause, and with entire confidence in the justice of that cause and with a firm reliance upon Divine Providence, will resolutely abide the consequences.
Tahlequah, C. N., October 28, 1861.
President National Committee.
Clerk National Committee.
Speaker of Council.
THOMAS B. WOLFE,
This text is reproduced from The Cherokee Nation official website: Cherokee Declaration of Causes 1861 , where you may learn more about their perspective on things. The document itself is in public domain.
ON THIS MEMORIAL DAY WE WILL TAKE A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT APPROACH TO THE LATE UNPLEASANTNESS. INSTEAD OF A NARRATIVE ESSAY WE WILL INSTEAD COMMEMORATE THE WAR DEAD IN PICTURES AND QUOTES. LET ME KNOW IF YOU FIND THIS OF ANY WORTH.
“From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —-Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address.
“War loses a great deal of romance after a soldier has seen his first battle. I have a more vivid recollection of the first than the last one I was in. It is a classical maxim that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country; but whoever has seen the horrors of a battle-field feels that it is far sweeter to live for it.” — Colonel John Singleton Mosby
“Is it not strange that the phantoms of a blood-stained period have so airy a grace and look with so tender eyes?—that I recall with difficulty the danger and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque?” —Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce
“Throughout the broad extent of country over which you have marched, by your respect for the rights and the property of citizens, you have shown that you were soldiers—not only to defend, but able and willing both to defend and protect.” —Stonewall Jackson’s farewell to the First Brigade
“They were honest and courageous foemen, having little in common with the political madmen who persuaded them to their doom and the literary bearers of false witness in the aftertime. They did not live through the period of honorable strife into the period of vilification—did not pass from the iron age to the brazen—from the era of the sword to that of the tongue and pen. Among them is no member of the Southern Historical Society. Their valor was not the fury of the non-combatant; they have no voice in the thunder of the civilians and the shouting. Not by them are impaired the dignity and infinite pathos of the Lost Cause. Give them, these blameless gentlemen, their rightful part in all the pomp that fills the circuit of the summer hills.”
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth; that much is not in dispute. Twelve days later, Booth was tracked down and fatally wounded in a burning barn on the Garrett farm in northern Virginia; that, at least, is the official version of this tragic finale to the Civil War.
Of all the conspiracy theories that continue to circulate, none is more fascinating—or more debated—than John Wilkes Booth’s successful plot to assassinate the President. Of course, the fact of the conspiracy itself has never been in debate: no one doubts that Booth conspired to murder Abraham Lincoln and some of his cabinet, and succeeded in that goal.
Unlike presidential assassinations since, Booth has never been characterized as a “lone assassin.” We know he had a large group in on the plot. Where the various alternative theories conflict with the official version of the assassination is exactly how wide the Booth Conspiracy really was. In this regard, the debate about the Booth Conspiracy has raged long and hard and remains hotly debated to this day.
What sparked this latest entry in the debate by yours truly is the publication of a recent book on the assassination and the mysteries which surround it: John Wilkes Booth: Beyond the Grave, by W. C. Jameson (Rowan & Littlefield, 2014). A recent book review in Civil War News, gives it generally positive reviews. However, the book lacks footnotes documenting its assertions (a big no-no among both scholars and Civil War enthusiasts) and given that the book’s assertions are fairly radical, that seems a curious omission. The book does apparently contain a substantial bibliography, though.
Apparently Jameson—allegedly a Booth descendent—gives first the “official” version of the assassination, then dissects all the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in government version. There is nothing new in that—researchers have long pointed out many holes in the accepted accounts of the assassination, Booth’s escape and his alleged death. Brad Meltzer produced an excellent television documentary delving into this issue on his History Channel’s History Decoded series and there are several other documentaries available which have also investigated this issue. But no matter how much the Federal government at the time, or modern historians today, assert the orthodox line about the limits of Booth’s conspiracy and of his death, there have always been dissenting voices that 1) the conspiracy was far wider and deeper than the succeeding administration was willing to concede, and 2) that, in fact, John Wilkes Booth did not die on the Garrett farm after being shot by Federal cavalry. I have gone into both these issues in previous articles on The Late Unpleasantness.
How soon after the murder of Lincoln did these alternate scenarios of his assassination take shape? Would you believe within days of Lincoln’s death? In Ghosts and Haunts of The Civil War, for example, in chronicling Mrs. Grant’s own premonitions about going to the theater that Good Friday, I cite her own words to the effect that she and her husband were being stalked by suspicious characters that afternoon and that the general’s wife always believed that a team of assassinations had been detailed to murder her husband who were never apprehended. You may read that chapter in GHCW for more details about the Grant’s very real dangers and premonitions; suffice it to say that, while I did not footnote it in that book, the chapter isbased on primary sources relating those events.
Even more telling than the facts surrounding the General and Mrs. Grant’s close brush with death on April 14, 1865, we have the testimony of the first person to make accusations of a wider conspiracy: Mrs. Lincoln herself. Bear in mind that the backstage personnel of Ford’s Theatre were all friends and close associates of John Wilkes Booth; while they all denied any complicity in the crime, it remains a moot point how involved they may have actually been in the plot, denials after the fact not withstanding.
More importantly, the body guard that had been detailed to stand watch just outside the door to the box seats where the Lincolns were watching the play that night was conveniently missing at the very moment when Booth entered the balcony box to murder Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln did not mince words and she directly accused the body-guard of being in on the plot. Mary went on to accuse Andrew Johnson of complicity in the plot to murder her husband. Much of this is detailed in the sections on the assassination in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, Mary Todd Lincoln has always been given a bad rap by historians: “crazy Mary” has always been the refrain when it comes to her actions and words. Yet Mary Todd Lincoln was a highly educated, cultured lady—far more so than many of her male contemporaries in Washington—a fact which only increased their resentment for the Kentucky blue blood who had relatives in the Confederate army and she neither crazy nor stupid and, moreover, well aware of the danger her husband was in. Granted, that after watching her husband being murdered before her very eyes, she was a mite upset and lashed out at all those she thought responsible; yet there is a strong ring of truth in her accusations.
Where was the body-guard that night and why was he not at his post? Certainly there were many others willing to die defending the President had they known he was not adequately protected.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s accusations aimed at Vice-President—now President—Johnson have a ring of truth about them.
Some seven hours before the murder, John Wilkes Booth paid a visit to the hotel where Johnson was staying and left a note for the President of Vice:
“Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth” read the note.
What business did the leader of the plot have with the prospective new President? How deeply was Johnson involved in the plot?
Although Andrew Johnson was considered a Loyalist Southerner, with political connections to Unionist East Tennessee, he was hardly a paragon of virtue and in fact had many suspicious connections. He was a man fond of strong drink and loose women—a fact not lost on the more straight-laced members of the Republican Party. When he was Military Governor of Tennessee, he was known to be a close associate of none other than John Wilkes Booth. In “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me” The Writings of John Wilkes Booth, edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper (1997), evidence is presented that Booth knew Johnson dating back at least to February of 1864, when Booth performed at the newly opened Wood’s Theatre in Nashville.
According to Hamilton Howard in Civil War Echoes (1907), whenever Booth visited Nashville in his guise as actor (although he probably was already in the employ of the Confederate Secret Service) he and Governor Johnson went boozing and wenching together, sharing the sexual favors of two sisters on more than one occasion.
How deep Andrew Johnson was in the Booth Conspiracy shall never be known—but clearly Mary Lincoln was neither hysterical nor “crazy” when she lashed out against him after her husband’s death:
“..that, that miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband’s death – Why, was that card of Booth’s, found in his box, some acquaintance certainly existed – I have been deeply impressed, with the harrowing thought, that he, had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man… As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this…” Mary Todd Lincoln to her friend, Sally Orne, in a letter dated March 15, 1866
We come to the person of Booth himself: actor, lover, spy, assassin; as Shakespeare once observed, a man may play many roles in his life and we know that Booth played more than a few. It has never been proven, but many believe that Booth was not the mastermind behind the plot to kill Lincoln; certainly he had connections to the Confederate spy ring operating in Canada and residing in Washington, DC, just across the Potomac from Richmond, he could not help but have been in easy contact with the Rebel spy masters in that capital.
Unfortunately, when Richmond fell to Union troops in April of 1865, most of the Confederate Secret Service’s records disappeared—whether by accident or to purpose remains a moot point. We shall never know exactly what secrets of the Booth Conspiracy disappeared with the loss of those files, but the suspicion remains that the loss was great.
One thing we know for sure: John Wilkes Booth was not on a suicide mission. He had escape routes clearly planned out for himself and his co-conspirators. What remains under debate is how successful Booth really was in making good his escape. The accepted consensus is that he ultimately paid the price for his treachery and treason; but there are dissenters, his descendent Mr. Jameson among them.
In the years following the war, various researchers have followed the convoluted trail of evidence indicating that booth did indeed live a long life after the assassination. Newspaper reports days after the assassination had Booth in various cities around the country—none of them seemingly true. In the years following however, there were various accounts of Booth sightings in foreign lands in newspapers, some of which may have had some credence. The reports placed Booth in India and Ceylon, in China, in Mexico, and even in the South Seas. Common to these all these accounts was the figure of Booth as an honorable gentleman with no remorse for his deed. Interestingly enough, most of the locations where he was sighted also coincide with locations where émigré Confederates actually did establish colonies during Reconstruction.
Some serious researchers believe Booth did make good his escape and, like Jameson, have presented their evidence; but positive proof remains elusive 150 years later.