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.
How far back does the history of Secessionism go? To the 1850’s? The 1830’s? 1820’s? As we saw in part II, there was a secessionist movement during the War of 1812, one which had nothing to do with slavery. But the earliest Secessionist movement goes farther back, back in fact to before the Constitution, to the early days of the Republic.
Historians of the early Republic are quite familiar with the so-called Western Conspiracy (sometimes referred to as The Spanish Conspiracy) but it is rarely, if ever, connected with the greater narrative of the road to secession and Civil War. In truth, there was more than one separatist movement in the years immediately after the end of the Revolution, some more serious than others.
In 1782, the Thirteen Colonies, united together as the Continental Congress, signed a peace treaty with the English Crown and the United States officially became a country—but not a nation. Wary of the way the King of England and his Parliament had tyrannized over the colonies, the newly independent states united in a loose union, called the Confederation. What had been the Continental Congress now became the Confederation Congress and while it had some powers, the thirteen states retained a great deal of autonomy and authority. On the other side of the Appalachians, the frontiersmen enjoyed a great deal of freedom, but they also felt abandoned by the states they were technically part of. Indian tribes, encouraged by both the English and the Spanish raided the settlements at will; more importantly, transporting their crops and other goods to sell at market back east across the mountains was difficult and costly. It was far easier to build flatboats from lumber, load them with crops, meat, whisky and other goods, float them downstream and sell them at Spanish New Orleans.
But the rub was that Spain claimed the same western territories that the United States did and after a few years began to tighten the screws on the frontiersmen, closing off the Mississippi to trade. Of course, depending on the custom official in charge at Natchez, a well placed bribe or two could grease the wheels of commerce and allow a flatboat pass downriver. In New Orleans, the Spanish governor was also eminently bribable. The goal of the Spanish government, however, was to wean the frontiersmen away from the new Republic and become subjects of the crown.
Frontier leaders were encouraged to pledge their allegiance the Spanish Crown; among their number we know were James Wilkinson of Kentucky, who later became the head of the US Army; another frontier leader was none other than Andrew Jackson in Tennessee; General James Robertson was also in contact with the Spanish. How many frontier leaders were in collusion with the Spanish is unknown; in later days, many of those who had been involved became prominent politicians and military leaders, and their dalliance with the Spanish an embarrassment, so much evidence regarding their collusion and secessionist activity was suppressed.
The weakness of the Confederation government extended far beyond the danger of the western territories below the Ohio being taken over by the Spanish; in the Northwest, the British had never abandoned their chain of forts, both to protect the fur trade with the Indians and also as bases of operation for the Indian tribes to raid the American settlements. The British had hopes of retaining the Northwest despite treaty obligations; when the Confederation fell apart, parts of the United States would be ripe for the plucking—or so His Majesty’s government hoped. While George Rogers Clark was not involved with the British, he did enter into a conspiracy with the French Revolutionaries in the 1790’s to invade British territory from the Northwest Territory, which President Washington took a dim view of.
On the northern frontier with Canada, Ethan Allen, the hero of the Revolution, also was part of the Republic of Vermont, organized in 1777, which had a running dispute with New York, which considered Vermont part of their state. In the 1780’s, Allen and others in Vermont undertook negotiations with the British governor of Quebec, with a view to establishing Vermont as a British province. During Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786, Daniel Shay offered to make Ethan Allen “King of Massachusetts” but Allen turned him down.
As with the western territories, the weakness of the central government under the Confederation had a lot do with Ethan Allen and his compatriot’s secessionist movement; unlike the Trans-Appalachian secession movements, the Vermont Republic and the successive independence movements in Vermont were less motivated by economics than political autonomy, ultimately satisfied by the admission of Vermont to the Union.
There were other, less extensive, western secession movements; Aaron Burr’s little expedition down the Mississippi in 1806 could also be counted as one, although it may have been more a filibustering expedition than secession attempt.
By one account, Burr was going to separate parts of the American South and Spanish Texas to form an independent country; by another, he was intending to grab Texas for the US; by still another, Burr, along with General Wilkinson, were to grab a large chunk of the American South and deliver it back to Spain—a newer variant of the original Western Conspiracy.
What the truth of the matter really was has never been settled. In any case, Burr and his co-conspirators were up to something nefarious, although not proven in a court of law.
The Western Conspiracies of the early Republic had nothing to do with the institution of slavery, but most of them had everything to do with regionalism and economic self-interest. Was the Civil War about slavery? Yes. Was it ALL about slavery? No!
On February 25, 1862, the city of Nashville fell to the Union Army of the Ohio. In the aftermath of Grant’s famous victory at Forts Donelson and Henry, the importance of this event has tended to be overlooked by history (and of course, historians), but the significance of the capture of the Confederate Capitol cannot be underestimated.
As James Lee McDonough noted in his 1977 book on Shiloh, when the Federals occupied Nashville, it was not simply the first Rebel state capitol to fall, it also meant the capture of a major Confederate industrial center and transportation hub. Much as they do today, a number of roads and pikes plus five railroads lines radiated out in all directions; moreover, in the 1860’s river transportation was far more important than now and the Cumberland linked Nashville and the Confederate heartland to the Ohio Valley in one direction and East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky in the other.
Just as importantly, Nashville and Middle Tennessee was an important manufacturing center which was now denied the Confederate war machine. The iron industry in Middle Tennessee dated back to frontier days and the steady flow of the Cumberland River powered any number of mills and factories. There were cannon foundries, small arms manufacturers, while the caves in the surrounding region supplied saltpeter for the manufacture of gunpowder and the fertile farmlands of the region provided food and livestock in quantities enough to supply an army. In addition, there was the Nashville Armory, located on College Hill, just south of the town, where large stands of arms and ammunition were stored; several steamboats were also in the process of being converted to gunboats to counter the Yankee war machines. All these strategic assets would now be denied the Confederacy for the duration of the war. From Nashville too, Union troops would sally forth in all directions to subdue the Rebellion over the next several years, with ample supplies to sustain them. No one realized it at the time, but the fall of Fort Donelson and the capture of Nashville spelled the doom of the western Confederacy—and ultimately of the Rebellion as a whole.
In the ten days following Grants victory at Land Between the Rivers (today Land Between the Lakes) the remnants of Confederate forces not caught in the surrender came reeling southward toward “Rock City” (as Nashville was nicknamed), the Secessionist state government made haste to high tail it out of town and a general panic ensued among the civilian population. This was the general situation on February 25, 1862, as exemplified by a diary entry at the time:
Today it seems settled that we met with a disastrous defeat in the end at Donelson by the enemys overpowering numbers surrounding our men, who fought bravely & well. Gens. Floyd & Pillow escaped with some of the troops__ but Buckner is a prisoner. It is now contradicted that Nashville surrendered, & sent a boat with a flag of truce down the Cumberland to meet the enemy & give up the city (!) as was at first reported__ but it is certain that our troops from Bowling Green have fallen back to Murfreesboro and they have burnt the bridges, steamboats etc. at Nashville and not a Yankee near them!Oh! it is disgraceful! Gov. Harris who rode round town alarming the citizens__ who said to Ewing__ Every man must now take care of himself; I am going to take care of myself__ fled. Lucy French Diary (courtesy TSLA)
Imagine, if you will, how the remaining citizens of the City felt when they awoke that morning to see an ominous looking tortoise-shaped gunboat sitting on the opposite bank with massive guns pointed directly at them. In fact, the mayor of Nashville the day before had already arranged for the peaceful occupation of the city with General Buell, the Union army commander. However, General “Bull” Nelson jumped the gun a bit and that Sunday morning began unloading his troops first thing, before the formal surrender. General William B. Hazen’s 19th Brigade was one of the first to debark marching along Lower Broadway for a few blocks before wheeling right to ascend the steep acclivity towards the state capitol.
Hazen halted in front of the St. Cloud Hotel, now an office building at the corner of Fifth and Church Streets, where he was met by the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Carter, who invited Hazen and his staff into his “scanty bar.” The innkeeper was solicitous of his new guests and Hazen, a teetotaler, tells us Carter tasted everything first, “to assure us.” Of the previous guests of the St. Cloud, Hazen tells us “we found in the hotel, fast asleep and very drunk, one Rebel soldier, the largest man I ever saw in uniform.” The bar on the ground floor of the hotel soon became a favorite watering hole of Union officers and the hotel became General Buell’s temporary headquarters.
Of those Nashville’s citizens who had not fled in the panic of the previous week, some had turned out to watch the arrival of the Yankees. But it was not a cheering or welcoming crowd, as the Union regiments had experienced when they had marched off to war. Rather, for those brave enough to venture onto the street, it was more a somber, perhaps even morbid, gathering; more like the sort of crowd which gathers to witness the aftermath of a terrible accident in the street: a sight terrible to behold, but too compelling to turn away from.
It was a somber Sunday for the denizens of the Rebel capital—except for one man. William Driver was a retired Yankee sea captain, who had moved to Nashville years before to enjoy the city’s Southern charm. A devoted patriot, loyal to the Union, when the city caught Secessionist fever, Captain Driver proved immune to the disease and instead flew the stars and stripes—the banner he had flown while at sea–proudly outside of his home, and which he had nicknamed “Old Glory.” As Driver later explained, “it has ever been my staunch companion and protection. Savages and heathens, lowly and oppressed, hailed and welcomed it at the far end of the wide world. Then, why should it not be called Old Glory?”
As the Southern states seceded one by one, his neighbors became progressively more hostile to the old sea captain. Some threatened to rip the flag down and burn it; others hinted more darkly that the Yankee captain should be hung by it. To prevent the beloed flag being desecrated, Captain Driver finally took down it down, folded Old Glory very carefully, and had it sewn into a quilt.
That Sunday morning, from his house on Rutledge Hill, Driver could see the Federals unloading from their armed transport. He hastened upstairs and retrieved the bed-quilt from its hiding place and made his way down to Lower Broad and then on up opposing hill all the way up to the state capitol building. In contrast to his fellow citizens, Captain Driver was in a jubilant mood as he mingled with the blue-clad troops.
Horace Fisher, General Nelson’s aide-de-camp, witnessed what happened next:
“A stout, middle-aged man, with hair well shot with gray, short in stature, broad in shoulder, and with a roll in his gait, came forward and asked, ‘Who is the General in command? I wish to see him.’” Driver briefly conferred with the six foot tall general—who himself had formerly been a Navy man—and, “when satisfied that Gen. Nelson was the officer in command, he pulled out his jack-knife and began to rip open the bedquilt without another word. We were puzzled to think what his conduct meant….the bedquilt was safely delivered of a large American flag, which he handed to Gen. Nelson, saying, ‘This is the flag I hope to see hoisted on that flagstaff in place of the damned Confederate flag set there by that damned rebel governor, Isham G. Harris. I have had hard work to save it; my house has been searched for it more than once.’ He spoke triumphantly, with tears in his eyes.”
Nelson accepted the flag and immediately ordered it run up on the Capitol flagstaff, accompanied by “frantic cheering and uproarious demonstrations.” The mission of climbing to the top of the state building was tasked to men of the 6th Ohio Infantry who double-timed it up the capitol steps, into the bowels of the abandoned building and up into the glass-framed cupola on top of the classical styled building.
According to local tradition, the erection of Old Glory from the flagstaff was not without incident. A former state legislator and fire-breathing Secessionist, who had not fled with the rest when Fort Donelson fell, stood on the narrow wrought iron spiral staircase with musket in hand, blocking their way.
“You’ll raise that rag over this building over my dead body!” the greybeard Rebel told the flag detail.
The officer in charge was about to issue the militant Secesh a warning, when a shot rang out from behind, hitting the Rebel in the breast. He died almost instantly, his limp body tumbling down the spiral staircase past them.
The men of the color guard continued their ascent and as the growing crowd of Federals outside witnessed the large banner unfurl, were met with resounding cheers as the flag ascended to the pinnacle of the highest spot in the city. For ever after, the 6th Ohio would be nicknamed the “Old Glory” regiment.
The sun went down that Sunday on the American flag once more flying over the capital of Tennessee and a growing army of blue spreading out through Nashville and its surrounding territory.
It was by no means the beginning of the end for the Rebellion, but to borrow a phrase from Sir Winston Churchill, it was very much the end of the beginning. From now on, the Confederacy would be fighting for its survival.
February 16, 1862 was perhaps the most important date in the Civil War, the day the Confederate Army besieged at Fort Donelson fell to the Union forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant.
Why was it the most important date, you may ask? Because, although both sides did not realize it, that was the day that the Union began to win the war. In one blow, the Ohio River Valley was secured for the North and the system of forts guarding the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers fell irrevocably into Federal hands, opening the way into the Confederate Heartland. Within weeks, the Rebel state capital of Nashville had fallen and with it all internal lines of communication west of the Appalachians, as well as substantial industrial resources.
Had Generals Grant and Halleck not bungled the advance on Corinth, Mississippi at Shiloh on April 6, by the end of the Spring, Mississippi and much of the deep South would also have fallen to the Federals. The Confederate government would have been in the position it found itself in the spring of 1865: confined to a three state rump on the east coast, blockaded by sea and with no escape. The intervening period between the fall of Donelson and the capture of Savannah was really just one of redeeming the mistakes made at Shiloh and Corinth. In a sense, the spectacular success of Grant’s forces in February of 1862 were to blame for not finishing the job; Grant, thinking the Confederates had no fight left in them, grew careless at Pittsburg Landing while awaiting Buell’s reinforcements and was grossly negligent by not constructing defenses around his bivouacs, as well as not being vigilant in patrolling his positions to warn of enemy advances. His boss, General Halleck deserves some blame as well, sending raw recruits to Grant who had not even undergone basic training. In truth, had Grant not been so careless, he would have had ample warning of the enemy’s moves and could easily have caught them in line of march as they advanced towards Shiloh and decimated the last organized Rebel forces between the mountains and the Mississippi.
But the blunders by both sides at Shiloh are best left for another time. Let us focus on the victory at Donelson. Originally, General Don Carlos Buell had urged his fellow department commander, General Halleck, to mount a joint operation against the Rebel forts holding the strategic junction called “The Land Between the Rivers”—that area where the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are only a few miles apart and where both empty into the Ohio. Here the Rebels concentrated most of the western forces to bar Union troops from invading the Confederate heartland.
Halleck, however, spurned Buell’s plan of action, but no sooner had he done so than he authorized his subordinate, Brigadier General Grant, to lead of expedition to undertake the very same operation that he had rejected. Grant to that date had not achieved any notable success as a field commander and “Old Brains” Halleck thought Grant too reckless. But with a powerful flotilla to blast the river forts, Halleck thought Grant up to the task of at least establishing a foothold—after which Halleck himself would come up with more troops and finish the task.
As it turned out, Fort Henry easily fell to the Union fleet’s bombardment—largely due to its riverside “water battery” being nearly submerged by winter rains. Another Rebel fort on the Ohio also fell with little fanfare. Grant landed his troops at Fort Henry and then, instead of waiting on the methodical but slow Halleck, marched his small force overland to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland River. It was a risky move, since Grant had fewer troops than the force holed up at Donelson. Fortunately, the Rebels had put all their heavy guns facing riverward, thinking the Yankees would only attack from than quarter. Even so, it was a very near thing for Grant as both Halleck and Buell scrambled to send him reinforcements and the Confederates made attempts to break the siege.
At one point, the Confederate counterattack was on the verge of succeeding; but due to the courage and leadership of the two Generals Wallace: William L. Wallace and Lew Wallace, the Rebel assault faltered and was driven back.
Inside Fort Donelson, despite their strength in numbers, the Confederates were in dire straits. The Rebel troops had not been properly equipped, nor were their clothes suited for the bitter winter weather they endured. Worse still, the Rebel force was led by officers who were better politicians than soldiers and when Grant proved too tenacious for them, asked for terms of surrender.
Grant, who was not only fond of hard drink, but also something of a poker player, responded to the overtures of surrender with the reply that made him famous: “no terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” Grant then drove home his demand by adding: “I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Ulysses Grant may never have made much money playing poker with his cronies before the war, but his great bluff worked on this occasion.
The Rebel commanders at Donelson succeeded one another trying avoiding responsibility for the surrender but in short order capitulated to the Yankees. That Confederate commanders may have just as easily broken out of Grant’s weak siege is demonstrated by the fact the Nathan Bedford Forrest, who refused surrender without a fight, broke out along with some 1500 men.
Grant was most successful as a field commander when conducting sieges: Vicksburg and Petersburg come to mind and perhaps are more famous than this siege; but the investment of Fort Donelson, begun on an impulse, was far and away his most spectacular victory and cost the least in blood. Even more importantly, this was the event that set in motion the inexorable road to Union victory.
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.
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.