Restricted The Mythical Civil War and the Historians' Civil War

donovan67

Cadet
Joined
May 12, 2020
I just left a very active Civil War group on Facebook. There are a lot of good folks there but it eventually dawned on me that a (extremely vocal) subset of the members is not interested in discussions based on evidence and current historiography. Rather, they feel a sincere passion for the Civil War as it exists in our collective memory. Which, unfortunately, tends to draw heavily on Lost Cause narratives and historiography that have been largely discredited in the last 60 years. The conversations were fun for awhile but eventually got tiresome. Finally, I came to see them as a waste of my time and I bailed.

I don't know if this is a question or a general comment. But it's got me thinking about the war as pictured in the stories we tell ourselves and the war as historians (particularly those in academia) describe it. Do the differences matter?

NOTE: I chose Restricted as the prefix because it and Book Review seemed to be the only choices. I assume that is because I am new to the forum and this topic can be controversial. Apologies if I messed that up somehow.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I have had similar experiences. There is a subset of individuals who only repeat Lost Cause tropes no matter what is being discussed. There are Civil War discussion groups where that kind of counter factual narrative is not tolerated. It is terribly sad that In the 21st Century where collections of original documents are online that folks do not avail themselves of them. The actual history is infinitely more interesting than any made up Lost Cause disinformation.
 

donovan67

Cadet
Joined
May 12, 2020
I think the issue is that the Lost Cause narrative doesn't exist in isolation--it informs and justifies a lot of behavior that is still creating problems and political debate today. So people invest a lot in (or against) those ideas and the resulting conversations get ugly. If it was just a myth with no relevance to our modern politics, it wouldn't be an issue. I admit that I don't have much patience with the myth.
 

Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Joined
Oct 22, 2014
I just left a very active Civil War group on Facebook. There are a lot of good folks there but it eventually dawned on me that a (extremely vocal) subset of the members is not interested in discussions based on evidence and current historiography. Rather, they feel a sincere passion for the Civil War as it exists in our collective memory. Which, unfortunately, tends to draw heavily on Lost Cause narratives and historiography that have been largely discredited in the last 60 years. The conversations were fun for awhile but eventually got tiresome. Finally, I came to see them as a waste of my time and I bailed.

I don't know if this is a question or a general comment. But it's got me thinking about the war as pictured in the stories we tell ourselves and the war as historians (particularly those in academia) describe it. Do the differences matter?

NOTE: I chose Restricted as the prefix because it and Book Review seemed to be the only choices. I assume that is because I am new to the forum and this topic can be controversial. Apologies if I messed that up somehow.
I know how you feel.

I've been in FaceBook groups where many participants equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for the Civil War without ever questioning the basic premise. When anyone suggests that slavery was not the only cause of the war they reply with remarks such as "How can you be so dense? Just look at the declaration of causes for the seven cotton states. Nearly all admitted that slavery was their chief reason for seceding." The worst of them will post tiresome excerpts from those declarations with abundant bold lettering. Such participants have been conditioned to emphasize the point by the academics that educated indoctrinated them during the past 35 years.

But they never consider why the North would not let the seven cotton states leave in peace. If they were to do so they'd realize that their secession-necessarily-equals-war argument collapses like a house of cards. Even Eric Foner shows his blind spot by admitting that he cannot explain why the North would not let the cotton states leave in peace, which was that the Yankees wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion. The reasons for secession and the reasons for war were not the same. To understand both it is necessary to consider the perspectives of both sides, not just why the South seceded.
 
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CowCavalry

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 17, 2017
I know how you feel.

I've been in FaceBook groups where many participants equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for the Civil War without ever questioning the basic premise. When anyone suggests that slavery was not the only cause of the war they reply with remarks such as "How can you be so dense? Just look at the declaration of causes for the seven cotton states. Nearly all admitted that slavery was their chief reason for seceding." The worst of them will post tiresome excerpts from those declarations with abundant bold lettering. Such participants have been conditioned to emphasize the point by the academics that educated indoctrinated them during the past 35 years.

But they never consider why the North would not let the seven cotton states leave in peace. If they were to do so they'd realize that their secession-necessarily-equals-war argument collapses like a house of cards. Even Eric Foner shows his blind spot by admitting that he cannot explain why the North would not let the cotton states leave in peace, which was that the Yankees wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion. The reasons for secession and the reasons for war were not the same.
Or some groups subscribe to the "treasury of virtue" and cast the reason for the Union going to war as a crusade to abolish slavery.
 
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unionblue

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Member of the Year
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
@donovan67 ,

Welcome to the forum and thank you for your post.

In my own view, it is the continual denial, the desperate need for myth to misguide and misinform the majority over the real cause of the Civil War and it's continuing influence even in our present times that causes my own frustration.

It is so plain, so obvious and so evident in our primary sources concerning the history of the time, slavery was THE major issue of contention and division prior to the Civil War and not the other so desperate ploys and excuses made by many today, such as the tariff excuse, the evil, greedy merchants of the North excuse, the loss of individual liberties excuse, etc., etc., and on and on.

The one issue that could not be compromised on, from the founding of this nation on, was slavery. The fear of this institution being interfered with, perhaps even abolished, caused Southern secession. Now, we can try to confuse this fact by pointing to state conventions, or the timing of a particular state's secession, or even bring up the number of actual slaveholders vs. non-slaveholders and claim 'hearth and home' as a reason for unilateral secession.

Problem is, it doesn't work. We are still left with original documents of the time, not present-day excuses, and they cannot be ignored or drowned in numerous papers and posts of denial. The people of the time said what they said and acted on what they said, which was they feared the institution of slavery, the basis of their economy, the foundation of their social order, would not be secure under Lincoln and a Republican administration.

"But the North did not go to war with the South over slavery!" is the oft-repeated cry, yet never when this cry is used to we ever see what the South went to war over. Why is that? Why is that part of the historical equation always left out in such pronouncements? Because it goes back to the obvious cause that the South seceded over slavery. The less said about that, the more we can cling to the myth that slavery was not the cause and even the fantastic theory that even black slaves in their thousands to fight with the Confederacy, ensuring that millions of their fellow slaves would remain in bondage.

Is it any wonder, that after years of this myth being around that it is finally being challenged, even denied by an ever increasingly aware public? That the unresolved issues of slavery, denial of civil rights and racism have yet to be fully addressed so that we may cling to the idea the Civil War was not about slavery? And we need not hold the South in individual blame, the North deserves it's share in abandoning the Reconstruction and blacks in order to facilitate a reconciliation with the South. The North turned it's backs on the plight of blacks and pretended all was well and could go back to it's quiet and nonissue life.

And here we are, some of us still in denial and still claiming the Civil War was fought for other reasons and it was so long ago it has nothing to do with our present troubles.

The one phrase that keeps whirling through my mind.

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

Unionblue
 
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BuckeyeWarrior

Sergeant
Joined
Jan 1, 2020
Location
Ohio
I know how you feel.

I've been in FaceBook groups where many participants equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for the Civil War without ever questioning the basic premise. When anyone suggests that slavery was not the only cause of the war they reply with remarks such as "How can you be so dense? Just look at the declaration of causes for the seven cotton states. Nearly all admitted that slavery was their chief reason for seceding." The worst of them will post tiresome excerpts from those declarations with abundant bold lettering. Such participants have been conditioned to emphasize the point by the academics that educated indoctrinated them during the past 35 years.

But they never consider why the North would not let the seven cotton states leave in peace. If they were to do so they'd realize that their secession-necessarily-equals-war argument collapses like a house of cards. Even Eric Foner shows his blind spot by admitting that he cannot explain why the North would not let the cotton states leave in peace, which was that the Yankees wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion. The reasons for secession and the reasons for war were not the same. To understand both it is necessary to consider the perspectives of both sides, not just why the South seceded.
I don't know why you keep saying it's such a mystery why the north didn't just let the rebels have the south. It would have gone against the constitution, decisions by the supreme court on the nature of the constitution, announcements and proclamations made by previous Presidents, and secession had no support from any law or legislation passed by the antebellum congress.

I think the Maine legislature said it best in their resolution against South Carolina's act of secession;
"Resolved, That in the present attempt to coerce the government of the United States, and the will of the majority of the people thereof, to the will of the minority, by treason most foul, and rebellion the most unjustifiable, it is the right and the duty of the state to proffer to the national government for its own maintenance and for the suppression of this treason and rebellion. all the means and resources which it can command.'

The bigger mystery to me is why the rebels in South Carolina, and the rest of the seceding states, believed they could just vote themselves out of a constitutional republic without the assent of all the people of that constitutional republic and expect the rest of America to just let them go. Just thirty years prior South Carolina had been warned by President Jackson what would happen if they seceded, either they forgot about that or didn't believe him.
 

Philip Leigh

formerly Harvey Johnson
Joined
Oct 22, 2014
I don't know why you keep saying it's such a mystery why the north didn't just let the rebels have the south.

That's because you fail to evaluate the economic consequences to the Northern states that would arrive from Northern secession. I've provided plenty of evidence documenting their fears of economic loss, which I presume you've read. So, we'll just have to agree to disagree.
 

unionblue

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Member of the Year
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
That's because you fail to evaluate the economic consequences to the Northern states that would arrive from Northern secession. I've provided plenty of evidence documenting their fears of economic loss, which I presume you've read. So, we'll just have to agree to disagree.

I think the primary failure to understand is not the so-called fear of economic consequences, but the determination of the tens of thousands of Northerners to preserve the Union, as Gary W. Gallagher writes in his book, The Union War:

"From the perspective of loyal Americans, their republic stood as the only hoped for democracy in a western world that had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s. Slaveholding aristocrats who established the Confederacy, believed untold unionists, posted a direct threat not only to the long-term success of the American republic but also to the broader future of democracy."

--Introduction, pg. 2.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I know how you feel.

I've been in FaceBook groups where many participants equate the reasons for secession with the reasons for the Civil War without ever questioning the basic premise. When anyone suggests that slavery was not the only cause of the war they reply with remarks such as "How can you be so dense? Just look at the declaration of causes for the seven cotton states. Nearly all admitted that slavery was their chief reason for seceding." The worst of them will post tiresome excerpts from those declarations with abundant bold lettering. Such participants have been conditioned to emphasize the point by the academics that educated indoctrinated them during the past 35 years.

But they never consider why the North would not let the seven cotton states leave in peace. If they were to do so they'd realize that their secession-necessarily-equals-war argument collapses like a house of cards. Even Eric Foner shows his blind spot by admitting that he cannot explain why the North would not let the cotton states leave in peace, which was that the Yankees wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion. The reasons for secession and the reasons for war were not the same. To understand both it is necessary to consider the perspectives of both sides, not just why the South seceded.
Gotta admit, as a Western Theater/War in Tennessee man, the cotton as king / New England spinning mills symbiosis means that it was the Yankees who perpetrated the war has always struck me as bootless. I have read more soldier letters & news papers from Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio & Tennessee in particular than I can count. Not a single one of them has a mention of the symbiotic nature of cotton production & causes of the war or why they were fighting. Almost to a man they joined up to preserve the union. On a pie chart everything else would be a sliver.

I find the "tiresome excerpts" quote to be very revealing. The declarations published by the seceding states & the Secession Commissioners that were appointed to induce other states to secede is the distilled essence of what secession mean to the men who voted for it. Pure & simple, they declared that the right of white men to hold black human beings as property was their god given right. The only way to preserve that holy institution was to break up the Union. Everything but that tiresome fact is just a sliver on the pie chart. In all candor, I can see where arguing otherwise would be a very tiresome exercise.
 
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Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
That's because you fail to evaluate the economic consequences to the Northern states that would arrive from Northern secession. I've provided plenty of evidence documenting their fears of economic loss, which I presume you've read. So, we'll just have to agree to disagree.
Equating the symbiotic relationship of cotton production & New England spinning mills with the South Carolinians who had been arguing for secession since Jackson's administration must be a lonely exercise, indeed.
 

Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
Gotta admit, as a Western Theater/War in Tennessee man, the cotton as king / New England spinning mills symbiosis means that it was the Yankees who perpetrated the war has always struck me as bootless. I have read more soldier letters & news papers from Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio & Tennessee in particular. Not a single one of them has a sing mention of the symbiotic nature of cotton production & causes of the war or why they were fighting. Almost to a man they joined up to preserve the union. On a pie chart everything else would be a sliver.

I find the "tiresome excerpts" quote to be very revealing. The declarations published by the seceding states & the Secession Commissioners that were appointed to induce other states to secede is the distilled essence of what secession mean to the men who voted for it. Pure & simple, they declared that the right of white men to hold black human beings as property was their god given right. The only way to preserve that holy institution was to break up the Union. Everything but that tiresome fact is just a sliver on the pie chart. In all candor, I can see where arguing otherwise would be a very tiresome exercise.
The "excerpts" (which predominate in the documents) are "tiresome" because they don't fit the agenda. As you indicate, the correspondents to the states not yet seceded were making what they viewed as the most persuasive argument to their audiences. The Mises Institute crowd ignores that because they have no good answer. We should also credit the commissioners for being honest about their own motivations.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The "excerpts" (which predominate in the documents) are "tiresome" because they don't fit the agenda. As you indicate, the correspondents to the states not yet seceded were making what they viewed as the most persuasive argument to their audiences. The Mises Institute crowd ignores that because they have no good answer. We should also credit the commissioners for being honest about their own motivations.
I have to ask for a clarification. The commissioners were dispatched as official representatives of the seceding states. The texts of their speeches & correspondence are explicit statements that slavery was the sole reason for secession, not some kind of sales pitch. I have links to all the original documents & have shared them quite a few times in threads on this forum. If you do not have them, I will be very happy to send them to you. It would be very helpful to read the "excerpts" that "predominate" & you can explain why they are "tiresome." Also, I have no idea what the "agenda" you refer to would be.
 
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Belfoured

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
I have to ask for a clarification. The commissioners were dispatched as official representatives of the seceding states. The texts of their speeches & correspondence are explicit statements that slavery was the sole reason for secession, not some kind of sales pitch. I have links to all the original documents & have shared them quite a few times in threads on this forum. If you do not have them, I will be very happy to send them to you. It would be very helpful to read the "excerpts" that "predominate" & you can explain why they are "tiresome." Also, I have no idea what the "agenda" you refer to would be.
We agree, except on the point that, in addition to being a forthright statement of why the seven states seceded (to preserve slavery), they also were a "sales pitch" to the states that had not seceded using what the Commissioners thought would be most persuasive to those states (again, the threat to slavery). I have Apostles of Disunion. The agenda I'm referring to is deliberate minimizing by some of these speeches and correspondence because they show exactly what motivated the commissioners and their states and what they believed would motivate their brethren who had not yet decided to secede - the threat to the institution of slavery. All of the deflection about state's rights, the Tariff, etc is just that. The Commissioners' speeches and correspondence prove it. I view the use of "tiresome" as the poster's only way of trying to minimize what the Commissioners reveal. When you can't deal with the facts, you use labels.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
We agree, except on the point that, in addition to being a forthright statement of why the seven states seceded (to preserve slavery), they also were a "sales pitch" to the states that had not seceded using what the Commissioners thought would be most persuasive to those states (again, the threat to slavery). I have Apostles of Disunion. The agenda I'm referring to is deliberate minimizing by some of these speeches and correspondence because they show exactly what motivated the commissioners and their states and what they believed would motivate their brethren who had not yet decided to secede - the threat to the institution of slavery. All of the deflection about state's rights, the Tariff, etc is just that. The Commissioners' speeches and correspondence prove it. I view the use of "tiresome" as the poster's only way of trying to minimize what the Commissioners reveal. When you can't deal with the facts, you use labels.
Thank you for your prompt reply. I see exactly what you are getting at & agree completely. However, gotta say that the "bits" are very confusing, might want to rethink that approach.
 

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
I just left a very active Civil War group on Facebook. There are a lot of good folks there but it eventually dawned on me that a (extremely vocal) subset of the members is not interested in discussions based on evidence and current historiography. Rather, they feel a sincere passion for the Civil War as it exists in our collective memory. Which, unfortunately, tends to draw heavily on Lost Cause narratives and historiography that have been largely discredited in the last 60 years. The conversations were fun for awhile but eventually got tiresome.

Welcome to CivilWarTalk -- very happy to have you here. I follow and occasionally participate in two large Civil War Facebook groups. Those groups do have members who want to have thoughtful discussions about the Civil War from a historical perspective. I prefer CivilWarTalk, partly because the moderation is better here. I also think there's a culture here that encourages serious discourse, and the out-of-control ideologues don't fit in so well, and their rants either get deleted by moderators or just ignored. There is a considerable diversity of opinion and ideology here, but the culture works against ranting and personal attacks.

I don't know if this is a question or a general comment. But it's got me thinking about the war as pictured in the stories we tell ourselves and the war as historians (particularly those in academia) describe it. Do the differences matter?

That is a very interesting question. I think for each of us it's worth thinking about the personal sources of "the war as pictured in the stories we tell ourselves." Those sources can be complicated and interwoven -- family, community, friends, school, mentors, reading, film and popular culture. I think it takes an effort of self-examination to recognize how we've been affected by those influences, and to try to separate myth from historical reality.

I've been using Facebook for many years now, and I think the Facebook groups in some ways inherit their culture from the larger Facebook culture, which doesn't always foster a thoughtful approach to discussions. For many people, that doesn't matter, but I appreciate being here, where it does matter.

Roy B.
 

CowCavalry

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 17, 2017
I have read more soldier letters & news papers from Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio & Tennessee in particular. Not a single one of them has a sing mention of the symbiotic nature of cotton production & causes of the war or why they were fighting. Almost to a man they joined up to preserve the union.
If you are going to consult soldier's letters to home as the reason and justification for why the Union went to war, do the same for the Confederate soldier. Lets see how many you come up with that state they went to war to protect slavery. I'm betting it would be a very small percentage.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
If you are going to consult soldier's letters to home as the reason and justification for why the Union went to war, do the same for the Confederate soldier. Lets see how many you come up with that state they went to war to protect slavery. I'm betting it would be a very small percentage.
You would win your bet about the paucity of support in the ranks for "the god given right to hold other human beings as property" that was the causes belli is well documented. That is an entirely different thread, of course. The absence of support for the stated reasons for secession is in equal proportion to the 3/4ths of the Confederate army that Jefferson Davis said was AWOL by 1863.

That is dramatic contrast to the change in attitude in the Western armies, that I am familiar with, after the Emancipation Proclamation. At first there was considerable upset, particularly among Kentucky troops. The vast majority of Western troops embraced that policy if for no other reason than it was obviously a direct blow against the Confederacy. Several books have been written on the subject of how the soldier's attitude toward emancipating the slaves changed over time. This all occurred while the the 20 slave rule & other policies that were tailored to the narrow interest of slave-holders did severe damage to Confederate soldier morale. The letters home document that one in no uncertain terms.
 

donovan67

Cadet
Joined
May 12, 2020
I think the primary failure to understand is not the so-called fear of economic consequences, but the determination of the tens of thousands of Northerners to preserve the Union, as Gary W. Gallagher writes in his book, The Union War:

"From the perspective of loyal Americans, their republic stood as the only hoped for democracy in a western world that had fallen more deeply into the stifling embrace of oligarchy since the failed European revolutions of the 1840s. Slaveholding aristocrats who established the Confederacy, believed untold unionists, posted a direct threat not only to the long-term success of the American republic but also to the broader future of democracy."

--Introduction, pg. 2.
I also found The Union War to be a good source. Another one is What this Cruel War was Over by Chandra Manning. Interestingly, I've read statements from Gallagher which sound like he saw his book as a refutation of Manning's. I read both and don't really see where they disagree. Seems like Gallagher didn't like her tone more than anything.
 

donovan67

Cadet
Joined
May 12, 2020
That is a very interesting question. I think for each of us it's worth thinking about the personal sources of "the war as pictured in the stories we tell ourselves." Those sources can be complicated and interwoven -- family, community, friends, school, mentors, reading, film and popular culture. I think it takes an effort of self-examination to recognize how we've been affected by those influences, and to try to separate myth from historical reality.
I think that is very insightful. So many civil war buffs seem to have some of their personal identity wrapped up in the war. I'm not sure that is true of those who study other American wars.
 
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