The Civil War: Both Sides Were Wrong
More than 150 years after the Civil War, the nation is engulfed in controversy over statues of people who fought for the Confederacy. Many people want the statues taken down. The statues, they say, depict men who were slaveowners, slavery proponents, and traitors. Those who want the statues to stay in place are said to be racists. The feelings run so deep on both sides of the controversy that one would think that the Civil War ended just yesterday.
As a libertarian, I question why government should erect statues in the first place, to anyone. That’s simply not a legitimate role of government. Moreover, why should people be taxed to fund a statue of someone whose beliefs or behavior they dislike or oppose?
Private entities, of course, should be free to erect any statues they want, so long as they aren’t subsidized by the state and the statues are on privately owned property. In fact, in 2003 a group spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to establish the Confederate Memorial Park in Point Lookout, Maryland, which features a statue and battle flags that celebrate the Confederacy. It is privately funded and people are free to boycott it or even protest it. It is an example of how things operate in a private-property system.
The statue controversy exposes lies and hypocrisy that characterize the popular depiction of the Civil War.
The most popular lie is the one that says that Abraham Lincoln waged the war to free the slaves. That’s just a plain lie. Ending slavery was the result at the end of the war but it was clearly not Lincoln’s goal at the beginning of the war.
Lincoln had one reason and one reason alone for initiating war against the Confederacy: to keep the nation intact by suppressing the South’s secession. That was it. That was Lincoln’s sole aim. Prior to the war, he had made it clear that slavery was legal under the U.S. Constitution. Thus, he believed, the only way to end it legally would have been by constitutional amendment.
Indeed, further proof of Lincoln’s aim is seen in his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves only in certain areas. If he were waging the war to end slavery, wouldn’t he have proclaimed the freedom of all slaves, not just some of them?
Let’s assume that there was no slavery in the South and that the South had seceded for some other reason, say, tariffs, or simply because Southerners had decided that they no longer wanted to associate with the North. Even without slavery, there is no doubt that Lincoln would have initiated the war to prevent the South from seceding.
What if the Confederate States seceded today and declared their independence? Does anyone doubt that federal forces would be sent into the South again to suppress the secession? Obviously, their aim would not be to end slavery but to keep the nation intact, the same aim that Lincoln had when he ordered federal forces to invade the South.
So why the lie? Why not teach American children the truth — that the Civil War was waged to prevent secession and that ending slavery was simply a byproduct of the war?
I suggest that the reason for the lie is that proponents of the Civil War know that suppressing secession might not be considered by many to be a noble cause for a war that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed half the country, not to mention that it damaged the freedom and democratic processes of the country.
Not so with ending slavery. That’s something noble. That’s something that many people would say was worth the tremendous sacrifices in life, limb, freedom, and prosperity.
Thus, the lie comes into existence: The Civil War was waged to end slavery, it is said, which is a noble cause, one worth sacrificing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of half the country.
Why do some proponents of the Civil War consider the suppression of secession to be less than a noble cause?
With secession, people are simply saying, “We don’t want to be associated with you anymore. We wish to separate our states from this country and establish our own country.”
With the suppression of secession, people are essentially responding, “Tough luck. We don’t care whether you want to continue associating with us or not. We are going to initiate force against you to prevent you from going your way. We will force you to remain associated with us. We will kill and destroy you until you change your mind.”
It is fairly obvious that that position doesn’t have the nobility that ending slavery does. That’s undoubtedly why the lie began.
In fact, I believe that Lincoln himself began realizing that as the war progressed and the death and destruction mounted exponentially. When he provoked the incident at Fort Sumter, I think he figured that the war would be quickly brought to a conclusion and that the seceding states would be quickly defeated.
Lincoln’s mindset was much like the Washington, D.C., crowd of socialites and sightseers that gathered in Virginia to watch the first Battle of Bull Run at the inception of the war. They viewed the battle as sort of a big sports event, one that would be over rather quickly, with the federal team winning. Once it was clear that the Confederate forces were prevailing in the battle, the D.C. socialites and sightseers ran for their lives back to D.C. in fear that they would be captured or killed.
That’s essentially what many supporters of the Civil War have done. They have fled from the truth and convinced themselves that the Civil War was initiated principally to end slavery and only secondarily to suppress secession.
During the statue controversy, people have accused the secessionists of being traitors. They say that it was treason for Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, and others to secede from the Union.
But isn’t treason a legal concept? If the Constitution permitted secession, which many people believed, then how could it be treasonous to secede? Indeed, at the end of the war, federal officials took Davis into custody and threatened to prosecute him for treason. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, however, they dropped their prosecution. One reason might have been that they didn’t want to risk a Supreme Court ruling on the matter.
There is an important point about secession that needs to be made, one that exposes the hypocrisy of those who condemn the South for seceding. That point is: The United States itself was founded on secession. And most of the people who condemn the South for seceding nonetheless celebrate America’s secession from Great Britain in 1776.
We call it the American Revolution, but that’s really a misnomer. It wasn’t a revolution at all. A revolution is an attempt by rebels to oust the existing regime and take control of the central government. That’s not what the American colonists in 1776 were doing. They had no interest in taking control over the British government. They simply wanted to secede from it.
Keep in mind that the people who signed the Declaration of Independence were not Americans. They were British subjects, just as people in the Confederacy were American citizens. The British colonies were part of Great Britain, much as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands are part of the United States today.
So the men who signed the Declaration were simply saying, “We don’t want to be part of your country anymore. We don’t want to associate with you. We wish to establish our own country.” They didn’t want to take over the British government. They simply wanted to secede from Great Britain and establish their own country, just as Southerners wanted to do nearly 90 years later.
Today, some Americans celebrate George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry as patriots for seceding from their country while, at the same time, condemning Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson as traitors for seceding from theirs.
Of course, often it’s a question of who wins and who loses that determines whether a secessionist is a patriot or a traitor. Great Britain certainly did not consider its rebelling British colonists to be patriots. On the contrary, it considered them to be traitors and criminals, the same way that many Americans today view Davis, Lee, Jackson, and other Southerners who lost their war for secession.
People claim that Southerners were fighting to preserve slavery and, therefore, cannot under any circumstances be considered patriots.
They miss two important points, however. One is that the secessionists in 1776 intended to preserve slavery in their new country and, nonetheless, they are still considered to be patriots.
The other point is related: It’s possible to fight for two principles, one noble and the other ignoble. Lee provides a good example. When the war broke out, Lincoln offered him command over all Union forces. Lee turned down the offer and returned to Virginia, where he assumed command over the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia. At the time, his wife was also a slaveowner.
Critics today call Lee a traitor. They say that he betrayed his country by taking up arms against it (just as some people considered George Washington, who was also a slave-owner, to be a traitor for taking up arms against his country).
The problem is that such critics are looking at the situation from the standpoint of a 21st-century American, one who has been indoctrinated into viewing the federal government and the nation in a way that is entirely different from how 18th-century and 19th-century Americans viewed them.
Today’s Americans are taught to view the United States as one nation, consisting of states that are inferior and subordinate to the federal government.
That was not the mindset of our ancestors. They viewed the nation as a collection of sovereign and independent entities (i.e., states) that had simply confederated together to facilitate matters of common interest.
In the process, however, the states understood that they were not surrendering their separate, independent, and sovereign status. That was manifested in the type of political structure that they established. The charter by which they came together was called, appropriately, the Articles of Confederation. That’s because they came together simply as a confederation and without losing the independence and sovereignty of each state. Under the Articles the federal government was given very few powers. It wasn’t even given the power to tax.
Most people considered their home state to be their real country. That’s where their loyalties lay. That’s where their allegiance was — not to the United States but rather to Virginia or South Carolina. People didn’t see themselves as citizens of the United States. They saw themselves as citizens of their respective states.
That mindset was reflected by the way Americans prior to the Civil War referred grammatically to the United States. When doing so, they would use the plural form: “The United States are moving in a different direction.” Sometime after the Civil War and continuing through today, the country is referred to in the singular: “The United States is moving in a different direction.”
It was with that mindset that Lee turned down Lincoln’s request to command the Union forces. In his mind, to do so would constitute treason because it would entail waging war against his own country, which was Virginia. And that was the mindset of most Southerners. In their minds, they were fighting for their country against an illegal invader, notwithstanding the fact that their system was based on slavery. That is, they would have had the mindset with respect to patriotism even if there had been no slavery in the South.
Proponents of the Civil War ignore some other important points.
If the war was actually about slavery rather than secession, U.S. forces could have invaded the Confederacy, freed the slaves, and returned home, leaving the Confederacy as an independent nation. After all, doesn’t the U.S. government justify some of its foreign interventions in that way today? After the infamous WMDs failed to be immediately found in Iraq, U.S. officials said that they were actually invading and occupying Iraq to free the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. In the process, they didn’t absorb Iraq into the United States.
They could have done the same thing to the Confederacy — invade, free the slaves, and return home without forcibly re-absorbing the Confederacy. The reason they didn’t is clear: the war was about secession, not slavery.
Moreover, there was another way to bring an end to slavery without all the massive death and destruction that Lincoln’s war entailed. The North could have acceded to the secession and then declared itself to be a sanctuary for runaway slaves.
What about the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to return slaves to their owners? It would have been gone. Remember: with secession, there would now be two separate and independent countries — the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. There would be nothing the Confederacy could do to force the North to return runaway slaves.
That would have undoubtedly broken the back of the slave system in the South. After all, slavery was a dying institution anyway, not only in a moral sense but also in an efficiency sense. Operations based on slavery could not compete against enterprises based on consensual, paid employees. It was just a matter of time before the entire system collapsed. A sanctuary system in the North would have accelerated its demise.
Finally, in the matter of statues and the honoring and glorification of Union leaders, it’s important to keep in mind the grave war crimes ordered by Lincoln, and committed by Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman, especially in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and in Sherman’s March to the Sea.
Traditional rules of warfare precluded the waging of war against civilians, a principle that had been taught to Sheridan and Sherman at West Point. Yet, that is precisely what those two men and the troops under their command did. They intentionally targeted women, children, seniors, and other noncombatants by burning their homes, their crops, and their towns and villages, with the intent of killing them by starvation or exposure to the elements. The idea was that it would bring the war to an earlier conclusion, especially by demoralizing Confederate soldiers who would be losing their wives, children, siblings, and parents.
It’s a rather straight line from what was done in the South to the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. carpet bombing of North Korean towns and villages, the bombing of civilian targets in North Vietnam, the killing of civilians at My Lai and countless other villages in South Vietnam, and the several missile and drone attacks on wedding parties in Afghanistan. Every one of those war crimes is based on the notion that it’s okay as long as it saves American lives by ending the war sooner, especially by demoralizing the enemy. They all stretch back to the war crimes that Sheridan and Sherman committed in the South.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the extreme dictatorial actions committed by Lincoln. His arrest of the Maryland legislature. His jailing of critical journalists. His suspension of habeas corpus. His embrace of conscription. His enactment of the Legal Tender Laws. They were all illegal under our form of constitutional government. They are also characteristic of some of the most brutal dictatorships in history.
Indeed, let’s not forget that while Lincoln opposed slavery prior to being elected president, he was also a white separatist, believing at best that blacks and whites should be kept separate and that blacks should be forcibly deported to Africa.
Lincoln ended up winning and slavery was ended, which was the one good thing that came out of the war. But it’s not necessary to honor war criminals and white separatists simply because they won, especially when ending slavery wasn’t the reason they initiated the Civil War. Indeed, does winning mean that lies and hypocrisy have to be a major legacy of the Civil War?